Posted by Joel Martinsen on Thursday, June 29, 2006 at 3:30 AM
This month in the culture wars....
Capital Normal University professor Tao Dongfeng published an essay in China Reading Journal that criticized contemporary fantasy literature for straying from traditional morality, using as his examples three phenomenally popular novels that originally appeared online.
Here's an excerpt from his piece, titled "Has Chinese Literature Entered an Era of Playing Spirits and Demons?":
Many people have recognized the deep relationship between fantasy and traditional Chinese wuxia fiction, including Louis Cha's novels. However, I must point out one small fact: wuxia-like fantasy literature as represented by Execution differs in one major way from traditional wuxia novels — they purposefully play at spirits and demons. Their "fantasy world" is established on a hodgepodge of magic, enchantment, and perversion, like magic wands, magic rings, sorcery, manna, curses, and all types of weird and unbelievable beasts and magical creatures. These things can be unpredictable and limitless. Every adept in Execution has his own magic weapon, among these of course is the firebrand of the protagonist Zhang Xiaofan. Interactions between so-called "martial-arts experts" are contests not of martial arts, but rather of these treasures. In comparison, what mainstream traditional Chinese wuxia novels observe is the cultural tradition of Chinese Confucianism and Daoism, which does not throw around monsters, power, chaos, and gods. Even though Journey to the West has been called one of the forefathers of fantasy literature, the characters involved in the black arts or who mess with spirits and demons through magic are nearly all villains — monsters — whose skills for this reason are termed "witchcraft." In mainstream Chinese wuxia, people who have truly reached a deep cultivation do not rely on these black arts. This point is not insignificant: what lies behind is this: in the world of traditional wuxia fiction, the domain of values is stable; evil does not suppress good, so the occult ultimately does not become an important weapon.
This relates to a more fundamental question of the fate of fantasy literature: the value domain of fantasy literature is chaotic and upended. Whether in Chinese myths and legends like Journey to the West, Canonization of the Gods, or Tales from Liaozhai or western magical fantasy like Lord of the Rings or [duplicate deleted], the realm of values is fundamentally stable. The magic and witchcraft in these novels is exercised under the control of traditional ethical values, the authors' motives in depicting magic is not the occult. Execution and other fantasy literature, on the other hand, has moved entirely toward depicting the spirits just because they are spirits. The characters, regardless of whether they are good or evil, are to a man engaged in magic and witchcraft. The authors use this to cover the fact that apart from messing with the occult, they are bereft of any other artistic skill. You could say that using the spirits and ghosts as a trick to hide an exhausted artistic talent appears only in cases where imagination is impoverished or subject to strict control. My conclusion does not draw merely from Execution and other such fantasy literature; it comes out of other realms of the arts. For example, the movies The Myth, Hero, and The Promise are works steeped in the abstruse.
To give its presentation of the occult a more literary flavor, fantasy literature authors typically look for assistance from ancient literature with which they are superficially familiar. People have found that in fantasy literature, fact and fiction are mutually generative. On the one hand, some things are freely dreamed up, while on the other, large amounts of historical and archeological material are inserted into the text. Execution frequently cites the Daodejing, Book of Changes, and Classic of Mountains and Seas to explain all kinds of magic and witchcraft that appear in the book. But this traditional cultural information is at most just window-dressing; it isn't actually integrated with the text, and does not form a foundation for the works' values. These works are just fake scholarship dressed up in something enigmatic for occult aims.
Readers immediately raised several objections to Prof. Tao's article. In academia, "new wuxia" actually refers to the novels by Louis Cha and others, as distinct from older, traditional martial arts novels, not the new fiction by contemporary authors. Tao misidentifies the two Chinese titles for translations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as two separate works of western fantasy. He brings up How a bastard is made, which doesn't have much standing among fantasy fans unless they are heavily into entertainment industry gossip. And so forth — many even questioned whether he had actually read the books under discussion.
Xiao Ding, author of Execution of the Immortals, ran rings around Tao in his response, a fisking of Tao's essay paragraph for paragraph that he posted on his blog. Here's a taste:
First, the most important point in Prof. Tao's essay, and the target of his harsh criticism, is that fantasy as represented by Execution of the Immortals, in Prof. Tao's own words, "relates to a more fundamental question of the fate of fantasy literature: the values of fantasy literature are chaotic and upended."
It is hard to understand why Prof. Tao makes such an absurd judgment. I do not dare suggest that Execution is any sort of outstanding representative of fantasy literature, but I cannot by any means accept Prof. Tao's assertion. I would like to ask Prof. Tao, what proof does your eminence offer for the upended, chaotic values in Execution? What is it that I have done to turn black to white? Where does Execution transgress traditional Chinese values?
I have to be frank to my readers about this one point: the enchantments and magic in Execution, including the Vast Divine Land that makes up the world, are indeed my own creation — a shame that I didn't come up with anything better ^_^. But I have another question for Prof. Tao: the professor believes that the enchantment and witchcraft are invented, and on this point the difference between Execution and traditional wuxia is a simple fact. Please instruct me: in traditional wuxia works, does Prof. Tao believe that those wildly fantastic techniques actually exist? That the legendary "18 Dragon Subduing Palms" and the "Dog-beating Staff Technique" are not just flights of fancy from my childhood but are actually present in the world? Could it be....Prof. Tao is in possession of this arcane knowledge!!! Please notify me by letter, your disciple will immediately leave this earthly world and fly to Beijing, where even if I must be a beggar without a bowl, I will kneel and beg master to instruct me in this peerless skill!!!
Reading between the lines, we can see that Prof. Tao's idea is that traditional Chinese Confucian and Daoist culture occupies a leading position. Forgive me for pointing out that even if this is the case, Prof. Tao's examples in his essay seem to exceed objectivity, and even display a bit of bias. Take as an example Prof. Tao's case of Journey to the West: in this classic "literary" work, Prof. Tao believes that those practicing magic are all villains and monsters. Please, the great Sun Wukong, and his most famous technique of "72 transformations" — is that harnessing the occult? Bajie, Sha Seng, and the White Dragon Horse that is between Tang Seng's legs — in Prof. Tao's opinion, are these all monsters? Of course, perhaps Prof. Tao will say, naturally they are monsters, but they've learned well!
O.K. Let's switch perspectives. Why does Prof. Tao think that these people are monsters? Because from a traditional standpoint, Sun Wukong, Bajie, Sha Seng are fearsome to look at, ugly in the extreme, and they misbehave. Monkey is obstinate and doesn't obey instruction — a monkey who won't deign to look after the horses and who steals the heavenly peaches — an abomination! Zhu Bajie, using a bit of something he got from who knows where, stole the lady of the Gao household for a wife, who unexpectedly felt feelings for him and had to wait for him to come back from retrieving the scriptures — all the way to the west what Bajie had constantly in mind was the Gao manor (of course, when he later became a buddha and won recognition, this fat pig forgot about Ms. Gao — truly terrible — in my youth, I had strong feelings about this). It's probably because of this that the Jade Emperor called them monsters, and the Buddha also called them monsters. But what seems to be forgotten is that the skills that Sun Wukong practiced were taught to him by the Daoist patriarch Subhuti....apparently patriarch Subhuti is the biggest monster in Journey to the West. This is something we all must remember.
The entire article is worth reading as a satisfying take-down of out-of-touch academics who pontificate on things they really don't understand. There is valid criticism out there of fantasy literature, but Tao Dongfeng isn't the one doing it.
Xiao Ding is also the latest author to fall victim to a name-manipulation knock-off scheme. Earlier season, Execution of the Demons (诛魔), published by that literary powerhouse Mongolian People's Press, appeared on shelves. The byline read 萧鼎新著, which can be parsed as either "The new work by Xiao Ding" or "By Xiao Dingxin." Xiao is in good company — Louis Cha has been spoofed as Jin Yongxin (金庸新), and Gu Long as Gu Longming (古龙名).
Note: In the excerpt from Prof. Tao's article, I've translated the Chinese phrase 装神弄鬼 in various ways - the author occasionally uses its metaphoric meaning of "abstruse" or "mysterious," but more often uses it literally to mean "playing at ghosts and spirits."
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