Friday, October 3, 2014

A Tale of Two Cultures: Genre in Chinese Literature

Our former editorial intern Wendy Lu wrote this series on the reading culture in China.

A Tale of Two Cultures II: Genre in Chinese Literature by Wendy Lu:

The Chinese love lisi, or history.* More often than not, you will see that the books people hold in their hands while ambling down the street or wandering between shelves at the library are biographies of late rulers and other important figures, chronicles written about this dynasty or that era, or perhaps a photo journal of old relics and precious antiques that once belonged to families of lost names. Even children’s popular books are filled with stories about mighty emperors and their royal families living in the Forbidden Palace. In a country whose past dates back to over centuries ago, history is what grounds people and fuses that connection to their ancestry as well as to China herself.

That isn’t to say Chinese people don’t enjoy fiction as well. But while many television shows and novels are fictitious, they rely heavily on the setting and historical background of the era that the characters have been placed in. The back story of the characters and of the setting is a chief determinant of what goes on—the conflict—in those 28 episodes or 489 pages. Even as people are enjoying beautiful tales of family betrayal and war and incestuous romance and magic and rogue princesses in imaginative worlds, those imaginative worlds are based on the real world, either as it is or what it used to be.

Magic. In America today, we associate the word magic with glittering vampires, witches named Glinda, thin wands that shoot out colorful spells, dragons and other mythical creatures, green and gooey potions whose properties are either deadly or unknown, and Albus Dumbledore with his half-moon spectacles. While in China people definitely acknowledge those representations of magic, what first comes to mind is almost always wu da pian, another genre all its own that essentially means “kung fu” and is a major characteristic of Chinese culture.

Stories based on wu da pian are popular amongst all age groups, including youth. While numerous stories include martial arts and only martial arts, the kung fu that dominates the majority of wu da pian sagas incorporates elements of magic—that is, spells and enchantments activated through a link between the mind and body that are compelled by li, or energy. Flying, weaponry, and kung fu moves supplement this magic to create the genre wu da pian.

I remember babysitting two elementary school kids a couple weeks ago and taking part as the wounded victim in their wu da pian roleplay. They laid me, supposedly unconscious with fatal lacerations, on the ground and began yelling out a series of hypnotizing incantations and waving their hands—flat and positioned accordingly—in fixed patterns around my head. During one of the few moments in which I wasn’t fearing for my life in the hands of two kids who’d gone Kung Fu Panda on me, I realized they must be replicating a certain wu da pian series they’d read in a book or seen on television. Oh dear, I thought, I hope the victim in the actual series lives in the end.

In addition to wu da pian—and perhaps within the very genre itself, talking animals with human-like features, tall-tale legends, and fighting faeries that fly and travel via giant chess pieces (makes the magic carpet sound so obsolete, so ‘90’s, doesn’t it?) are also relatively popular in literature, especially children’s books. Stories that take place within the Forbidden Palace and feature princes and princesses and other members related to the Emperor are classic. And, of course, internationally acclaimed books such as Twilight and Harry Potter have also earned accolade and a capacious readership in China, and have played a large role in western globalization in China. However, Chinese literature is and always has been delineated by lisi and wu da pian and everything that ultimately defines China.

*Note: Getting to know the many locals here and learning what sort of literature attracts and resonates with them has been an enlightening journey and joy. When I say “the Chinese,” I am referring to many of the native citizens who live here, especially those I have come to know and befriend, but it is not to be assumed that my comments on “the Chinese” may not relate to “all Chinese.”

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