While watching the Chinese animated film Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification, a thought struck me:
The Chinese language is uniquely suited for epic fantasy.
An epic is set in a time before living memory, celebrating the accomplishments of heroes, whose dealings with gods and demons and spirits profoundly shape the mortal world for succeeding generations. Marked by elevated language, sweeping scope, and characters larger than life, epics are the foundations of modern-day mythology and national culture.
Standard Chinese is also called Mandarin, for it originated from the mandarins of Ming and Qing China. By the late imperial period, the peoples of China spoke a wide variety of dialects, many of them mutually unintelligible. To facilitate coordination across the breadth of the empire, imperial administrations developed and imposed a common language. Drawn from dialects spoken around the Ming capital of Nanjing, in the mid-16th century, this language was known as guanhua: the speech of court officials.
In the mid-19th century, when the Qing moved the capital to Beijing, the common language was now based on the dialects spoken in the Beijing region. As the language of the imperial court, it became the prestige language of China. In 1909, the Qing called it guoyu: the national language.
Following the end of the Qing Dynasty, the new Republic needed a common language for the same reasons Emperors did. The Nationalist government chose the Beijing dialect as the basis of the standard language. After the Chinese Civil War, the People’s Republic of China continued the effort to forge a common tongue based on the Beijing dialect, creating what is now called Standard Chinese.
Standard Chinese has a lineage stretching across centuries. It was the language of emperors and officials, scholars and poets, sages and generals. It was the language of court, and from the court flowed an appreciation of arts, philosophy, religion, politics and war.
Elevated language, sweeping scope, larger-than-life characters, a time beyond living memory. Chinese fits the bill for the language of epics. With minimal adaptation, you hear it even today.
Jiang Ziya begins with a recount of a devastating war. The Nine-Tailed fox demon disguised herself as a human woman, becomes the consort of Emperor Zhou, and uses her position to create havoc in the Three Realms. Jiang Ziya defeats and captures her. For his reward, he is allowed to ascend the Stairway of Heaven, becoming a god. When he reaches the heavenly realm of Jinxu Hall, he is acclaimed to the position of leader of the gods. But first, he must carry out a final task: execute Nine-Tailed.
Upon hearing the order, he answers, “弟子遵命!”
In English, this is usually translated as “Understood!” or “I will obey!”. But in Chinese, spoken as dizi zunming, it carries huge connotations.
弟子 means ‘disciple’ or ‘follower’. By using this term to refer to himself in the third person, Jiang demonstrates humility, and acknowledges and reinforces his relationship with the elder gods. The word ‘弟’ means ‘younger brother’. More than just a student, he is considered part of the family. In classical Chinese etiquette, laid down by Confucius, everyone has duties to uphold to their social betters and inferiors. As the younger brother, he is expected to immediately and faithfully carry out all orders from his superiors. In turn, his elders are expected to nurture him, as if he were their younger brother.
遵命 is usually translated as ‘obey orders’ or ‘follow orders’. 遵 is to comply, to follow, to obey. It is also a homophone of 尊, to respect, honour and revere. 命 is an abbreviation of 命令, to ‘order’ and ‘command’. 命, by itself, means ‘life’.
These four words are spoken with literary meter and deep conviction. This line is not merely a soldier acknowledging an order. Terse and forceful, it is a warrior sage paying homage to his superiors, demonstrating humility, upholding the Chinese social contract, and speaking his convictions.
After receiving the order, Jiang readies himself to execute the fox demon. At the last moment, he discovers that there is an innocent soul bound within the demon. To slay one is to the slay the other. He cannot bring himself to follow through. This demonstrates respect for life: 尊重生命.
The masters of Jinxu Hall accuse him of being deceived by the demon’s illusions. He is sentenced to exile in Beihai, a former battlefield from the war, now a wintry wasteland. He obeys without question, for he is the subordinate and the younger brother, upbraided by the elders of the family for his impudence and his failure to respect the relationship with immediate obedience.
Four simple words, 弟子遵命, carry the weight of culture, relationships, emotions and drama. Such density and compactness defines the Chinese language, recalling instantly the elegant speech of emperors and heroes, sages and poets.
Another term commonly used throughout the film is 三世 (sanshi). The subtitles translate this term as variants of ‘the world’. While it suits the needs of the scene, it leaves out valuable context.
三世 actually means ‘Three Realms’. In Daoism, this refers the realms of Heaven, Man and Earth. More than just a divine plane of existence, in Chinese philosophy, the will of Heaven is absolute and cannot be deceived or overruled. Virtue lies in carrying out the Will of Heaven. Heaven is one of two poles of existence. Earth, in turn, represents the other pole. Earth is the world of physical matter, of land and mountain and rivers and seas, and what lies beneath the ground. It produces food and treasures and raw material, creating and sustaining life. To achieve the Dao, man must live in harmony with Heaven and Earth.
The major theme of the movie is individuality. Jiang defies what is claimed to be the will of Heaven, represented by the Reverend Master and the elder gods of Jinxu Hall, in pursuit of virtue. He steps out of harmony with Heaven, and is punished by it. But in doing so, through his own effort, he becomes a god. More than just a literary term, 三世 speaks to the Daoist ideas and philosophy that permeates the film.
In 弟子遵命 and 三世, we see deep ideas that cannot be adequately conveyed in a single subtitled sentence. Relationships, state of mind, social expectations, philosophy, religion, all wrapped up in a handful of words.
I don’t know if the aborted execution was meant to be tied to respect to life and contrasted against 弟子遵命, or whether the use of 三世 was intended to be anything more than simply a literary term. But the use of such language, of words that have been transmitted across the centuries and retained in modern speech, enables depth of writing that few modern English writers even hope to approach.
The English language has evolved and mutated over the centuries. Colloquial speech changes the meanings of words. In the space of a man’s life, the common meaning of the word ‘gay’ changed from ‘happy’ to ‘homosexual’. Chinese, on the other hand, is natively resistant to such linguistic drift.
The Chinese language is composed of logographs. Each character is itself made up of multiple radicals. These radicals are the building blocks of the language. Almost every word in Standard Chinese consists of a combination of 214 radicals. Further, every word in Chinese carries not a discrete meaning, but a specific concept. This concept is synthesized from the combination of radicals, each of which hint at meaning, pronunciation, or both.
Chinese words do not exist in isolation. As Chinese is a tonal language, Chinese words are often paired or written as part of a longer phrase. It is the only way to identify each word when spoken. It is a high-context language, every word requiring interpretation of what comes before and after it to derive its meaning.
To write a Chinese character is to write its meaning on the page. To use that word to mean something it is not, the same way ‘gay’ transmuted from ‘happy’ to ‘homosexual’, is to automatically commit a grievous error. When used as part of a term, the term no longer makes sense; when used as part of a sentence, the meaning of the sentence becomes distorted. Between this and the Chinese emphasis on conformity, especially conformity with the way of doing things, the language becomes resistant to change.
This is not to say that there is no linguistic drift, only that it is far slower than in other alphabet-based languages like English. Usually it takes a concerted, centralized effort to reform the language, as with the imposition of a national language by Emperors and governments. Even so, it is still a long process. In 2014, sixty years since the creation of Putonghua, only seventy percent of China speaks Standard Chinese, and only a tenth of those can do so fluently and articulately.
The oldest common ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts is the oracle bone script of the Shang dynasty. While the Shang script was primarily pictographal, with words represented by pictures, a detailed study reveals how Shang-era words evolved into modern-day Chinese writing.
To speak in modern Chinese is to speak with the weight of three thousand years of unbroken history, of an ancient civilization built upon the bones of civilizations older still, and to carry it forward into the future. Even today, you can hear these brilliant echoes of the dim and distant past.
卧虎藏龙 (wohu canglong) is an idiom that literally translates into ‘crouching tiger (and) hidden dragon’. It refers to a place that has many hidden talents, akin to tigers and dragons. It is a favourite trope within the wuxia genre, a genre filled with martial arts masters battling for supremacy. This term was popularized in the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The term originates from a poem: 暗石疑藏虎，盤根似臥龍. Translated: The rock in the dark probably conceals a tiger, the coiling root resembles a crouching tiger. The author, Yu Xin, lives from 513 to 581. Nearly one and a half millennia after he composed his poem, his words still live on.
The term 黃粱一夢 (huangliang yimeng) literally means a dream of yellow millet, but it carries a deeper connotation. Lü Dongbin, leader of the legendary Eight Immortals, was once a scholar and poet in his mortal life. Legend held that one evening, in the city of Chang’an or Handan, he dozed off in his inn while yellow millet was being cooked for supper. Lü dreamt that he has passed the imperial examinations and steadily climbed the ranks. He married well, becoming father to a son and daughter, and became prime minister. But his success attracted the jealousy of others, who accused him of crimes. His wife left him, his children were murdered, he lost his wealth, and he was himself slain on the street. He awoke just as the millet finished cooking. After this dream, Lü set aside temporal ambitions and sought to cultivate the Dao. 黃粱一夢 thus means a vain dream of wealth and splendour.
This story, Dream of the Yellow Millet, originates from the Yuan Dynasty, extent from 1271 to 1368. An earlier version of the tale was written in the Song Dynasty, which reigned from 960 to 1279, the key changes being only the characters involved. Handan was continually inhabited since 1080 BC, Chang’An (now modern-day Xi’an) since 1100 BC. For a millennium, the phrase 黃粱一夢 retained the core meaning of the Dream of the Yellow Millet. The writing style may have changed, but not the underlying concept, that of a vain dream of wealth and splendour, doomed to failure. The story itself makes references to cities that have stood for almost three thousand years. Walk the streets of Handan and Xi’An, and you may yet see for yourself the dream of the yellow millet.
The Chinese language lends itself to epic tales. It carries within itself the elegance of the imperial court, the richness of poetry, the subtlety of sages, the deepness of history. It speaks to the legacy of great deeds by great men in long-distant times. It preserves the collected wisdom and cultural treasures of the world’s oldest civilization for generations to come.
Small wonder that the wuxia and xianxia genres are so popular within China. Stories of legendary heroes and immortal feats, of gods and demons and those in between, of extraordinary individuals who overturn heaven and earth and leave their mark forever.
Many modern English writers commit the sin of writing of heroic deeds in distant times with modern language. Especially modern informal colloquial English, the English of the 21st century. It is a snapshot of Current Year; it does not carry the weight of millennia, nor does it contain within itself beauty that must be preserved for future generations. To use modern everyday English to write a tale of heroes in the distant past is to look back upon an idealized time from the modern day, whereas an epic tale carries the weight of hundreds and thousands of years forward into the present.
Standard Chinese is nothing like ancient Chinese, and to write in ancient Chinese would be to render a tale unreadable to all but scholars. Even so, Standard Chinese holds within itself the legacy of the ancients, waiting to be cultivated and brought to fruition. Wielded wisely, it lends gravitas and power to fiction, elevating them from mere fantasy to epics.
And yet, many modern Chinese stories, and translations of those stories, lack that power. They are written to be consumed quickly and lightly, leaving little impression behind. Language becomes merely a vehicle to communicate ideas, instead of the cornerstone of the text. So much could be done with the language, yet the stories I have seen lack the high art of the ancestral tongue.
Here I am, the English-speaking scion of an ancient culture, long removed from the land and language of my ancestors, my grasp of their tongue still akin to a child’s, attempting to write stories inspired by those who have come before me.
Who am I to try to write in this venerable language and continue the great task of bringing civilization into the future? How fortunate I must be to begin to understand this ancient and ancestral language — and how terrifying, to know so little of it. If I were to summon the shades of my long-vanished forefathers, what would they think of me and my scribblings? Would they smile at my clumsy attempts to synthesize East and West? Would they be disappointed at my dribbles? Enraged at what I have done with the language? Amused at my journey to discover my roots through my art?
I know not. I know only this, that when I look upon what the market has to offer, and what ideas bubble in the cauldron of my mind, I see stories only I can tell. Stories I dare not hand off to other men, men who may be more famous and skilled as I, yet lack an understanding of a culture that rings in my ears and flows in my veins. Thus, there is only option left to me.
I must take up my pen and write.
Superheroes aren’t exactly martial heroes, but they’re close enough. If you’d like to see the influence of Chinese language and customs on my writing, check out HOLLOW CITY!