Writing the Gap Between East and West

Yin Yang, Harmony, Balance, Silhouette, Ying, Religion

Once I encountered a ‘cultivation’ story on Amazon. The title was a single word in romaji, cool-sounding in English but emotionally neutral in Japanese. The blurb was typical of a cultivation novel: MC is the Chosen One who will become the strongest being, like all the other Chosen Ones destined to become the strongest beings in their respective universes. The author was unmistakably American.

With growing trepidation, I cracked the cover open.

Two minutes later, I closed the tab.

The characters have Mandarin names. The setting is lifted from fantasy China. The level of technology speaks to the early half of the previous millennium.

The protagonist thinks, speaks and acts like a bratty twenty-first-century American teenager.

I shut the book in disgust. No Chinese boy of his age would ever act the way he did, especially in a historical setting. Such impudence would be severely punished. Simply speaking so irreverently to one’s elders is so far beyond Chinese customs that it would be literally unthinkable.

Later, I found another ‘wuxia’ story on Amazon. As before, the characters had Chinese names. The setting seemed vaguely Chinese. The author was undeniably Western, but through his glossary he showed that he bothered to do his research.

Or so I thought.

One minute later, I closed the book.

It was plainly evident that he had no understanding of Chinese and Chinese culture. Some of his translations were lifted from Google Translate, or otherwise completely wrong. The bandits of his setting used the generic Mandarin term for ‘robber’ as the name of their group, proudly carrying around banners scrawled with ‘robber’. It was cringey. Anyone who knows anything about Chinese bandits and secret societies would know that no self-respecting bandit would stoop to calling themselves mere ‘robbers’. They would give themselves some grandiose name, or claim that they were rebels fighting an oppressive government.

Over and over and over again, I encountered books with a Chinese aesthetic written by painfully ignorant writers. I encountered a story in which a prince had a female name. That same story referenced hanfu in a world without Han. Hanfu means ‘clothing of the Han people’, which cannot exist if the people that created them don’t exist. Yet another story casually mixed up Korean, Japanese and Chinese without caring for the differences in language, never mind history and culture. I even encountered a passage in which the writer believed that a dao—that is, a knife, sabre, or other blade—was written the same was as the Dao, just because they happen to share the same spelling when romanized. The words have different tones when spoken, and very different strokes when written in Chinese.

It was painful. It was infuriating. It was why I chose to write Saga of the Swordbreaker the way I did.

The series is written as though it were Chinese translated into English. The main characters are Chinese. They talk, think and act like Chinese. The places are all named in Chinese as well. Going beyond aesthetics, this has significant influences on the story.

The first thing you will notice is that there are no abbreviations. Abbreviations are a Western invention to shorten phrases, such as SWAT or ASAP. Chinese does not do this. In English, every word communicates a specific meaning. In Chinese, a word conveys a concept. Chinese does not normally use acronyms, because a single character conveys as meaning as an English word with multiple letters.

How, then, do you refer to organizations with long names such as ‘Special Military Police’ or ‘Ten Thousand Swords Society’ without using acronyms and slowing down the story?

I used the Chinese names. Tewujing for the former, Wanjianhui for the latter. Spoken out loud, they have the same abbreviating effect for an English speaker, while still maintaining the essential concepts for a Chinese speaker.

Where appropriate, the sentence structure of critical text mimics Chinese grammar. In English, we are familiar with subject-verb-object. Chinese grammar follows this, but with a twist: in Chinese, the head noun usually comes last, and all modifiers come in front of it. This can be seen in the use of titles.

In Chinese, a teacher named Wang will be called Wang Laoshi. Li Ming will likewise be referred to in his official capacity not as Biaohang Li but as Li Biaohang.

There is no gender-neutral term similar to the English ‘they’. Personal pronouns in Chinese are wo (‘I’), ni (‘you’) and ta—which can mean he, she, or it. ‘They’ in English would be translated as ‘ta men’, which makes no sense to a Chinese speaker referring to a single person. He will simply say ‘ta’. Where a gender-neutral term is required, a Chinese character will use the word ‘ta’, which is then translated into the original English language gender-neutral term: he.

Tenses in English can be readily seen. In Chinese, the existence of tenses is debatable. What is clear is that there are words that represent temporal references: yesterday, today, tomorrow, and so on.

Little things like this influence the way the prose in written, in ways great and small. The ideal was to ensure that the story made sense both in English and Chinese. Of course, literally translating Chinese to English word for word is impossible: the question of tense alone makes it difficult. Instead, whenever I had to choose between a literal translation and translating the spirit of the words, I chose the latter.

Or I chose to leave some words untranslated.

This is most obviously seen in dialogue. I rendered some terms or entire lines in hanyu pinyin. While some (not all!) the Chinese terms are translated into English, hanyu pinyin took primacy of place wherever I felt their presence would enhance the impact of the scene—or when I wanted to play with the language.

What we call Standard Chinese today draws its speech from guanhua, or ‘official speech’. It was the speech used in the Imperial Court, and the standard for communication across the empire. It was originally based on the Nanjing dialect, but this gradually shifted to the Beijing dialect when the capital was relocated to Beijing.

Guanhua is the speech of emperors, officials, sages and poets. Every line, every phrase, had to withstand the passage of a thousand years without misinterpretation. Even today, in everyday Chinese, you can hear traces of this high speech. It is in the use of chengyu, four-character phrases that reference significant cultural elements from the deeps of history. It is in the concise phrases strung together to form lengthy sentences. Such speech cannot be easily translated into English while still retaining the original oratorical power.

Not only that, but Mandarin is also a tonal language. Many words are pronounced exactly the same. This in turn makes Mandarin a high-context language as well. To understand one spoken word, you must hear all the other words around it. Only then can you make sense of the entire sentence. This quality lends itself to interesting wordplay, which in turn forms the basis of Chinese songs, poetry and humor.

These subtleties will be lost in translation. Therefore, for those who know Chinese, I have left hanyu pinyin as a bilingual bonus.

The same philosophy even extends to the cover art. You will notice that the books have two titles: one in English, the other in Chinese. The Chinese title is not a translation of the English title; it is an elaboration. There are layers of meaning tied into each seemingly-short phrase, waiting for the patient reader to unearth.

Days of Fire, the opening story in the series, has the Chinese subtitle 火焰大侠. It translates to ‘Blazing Hero’. The references to fire should be obvious, but ‘hero’? Its true meaning will be explored in the story.

Of course, the heart of the story lies not in the language, but in the characters. The characters in this series do not think, talk or act like Westerners with yellow skin. It’s a common sin in so-called ‘wuxia’ and ‘xianxia’ stories from Western writers, and I do not care to repeat that.

Westerners talk, think and act the way they do because their cultural context—a context that is markedly different from Asia. Members of the Chinese diaspora who grew up in the West will also talk, think and act much more differently than Chinese who grew up in China. Even Chinese who come from different parts of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan will talk, think and act differently from each other.

I aim to bring these subtle differences out in the characters. Li Ming is a farm boy who finds himself in the big city, and is disoriented by the clash between rural simplicity and urban sophistication. The heroine is a city girl, but she’s not from the big city, and she is cognizant of the burdens that come from being the descendent of an honored lineage. One character is from the South and speaks with a strong Southern accent, and occasionally in his native dialect. Another character is a rookie from the North, and his speech patterns are also different from others. Yet another character is a foreigner, and has the unfortunate habit of mangling his pronunciation at the worst of times.

Despite all that, with the exception of the foreigner, they share the same cultural touchpoints. A culture that stretches thousands of years into the past, shaped by sages, priests, warriors and immortals. Their characters are shaped and bounded by this culture. This contrasts sharply with other characters, who come from a different culture: a culture of nomads, horseback warriors, and imperial conquest.

The characters are not displaced Westerners who speak English. They come from their own countries and cultures, speaking their own interpretation of the common tongue, with different degrees of fluency. When they drop cultural references, they are not referencing the pop culture of the modern West in our world, but the timeless cultural cornerstones of their own civilizations that have endured the passing of ages.

Modern ‘cultivation’ and isekai fiction drop Earthly pop cultural references as a matter of course. It’s annoying. It’s plainly obvious that the writer is simply trying to induce an instant emotional connection in the reader by referring to something familiar, even and especially when it makes no sense to make such a reference in the scene. Not just that, five years from now, those references will be dated, even forgotten. The references my characters make will stand the test of time.

Beyond language, beyond characters, we must now touch on the most important element of the series: metaphysics.

Saga of the Swordbreaker draws from Chinese cultivation, from Buddhist and Daoist scripture. ‘Cultivation’ is not merely a practice. It is but one aspect of a wider metaphysical framework.

Western metaphysics is primarily theocentric. Christians believe that God created the universe. The Norse believed that the Earth was shaped by the gods from the flesh of the primordial giant Ymir. The Theogony describes the origins and genealogy of the Greek gods.

Chinese metaphysics is different. Instead of concerning itself with the affairs of gods, Daoism seeks to understand the macro and the micro. By aligning the micro with macro forces, one can attain harmony with universal forces. In harmony, one attains enlightenment and immortality.

Internal martial arts is one such aspect. The art of baguazhang is inspired by the Eight Trigrams from the Book of Changes, and has correspondences between the major joints and organs with the Eight Trigrams. Spirituality does not come from simply worshipping an external being, but is embodied through practice, meditation and internal awareness. Gods and higher beings may influence your life, but your destiny is squarely in your hands.

People who organize their lives by Chinese metaphysics have a unique way of thinking. They use fengshui to organize their homes and to design buildings. They choose auspicious dates and times for certain activities and avoid carrying out significant events on inauspicious dates. They orient themselves towards favourable directions on certain days and times when carrying out certain activities. Through divination, they uncover the cosmic influences in their lives, then execute certain actions to align themselves with these universal forces. Details like these show up in Saga of the Swordbreaker, for those who want to see them.

Saga of the Swordbreaker draws deep inspiration from Chinese culture. Language, etiquette, metaphysics, and more have a significant influence on the characters and the setting. It is not a Western power fantasy with Eastern dress. It is a continuation of the grand tradition first began with the wuxia epics of the early 20th century, themselves the scions of the Four Classic Chinese Novels, just written as though it were Chinese translated into English.

I can’t say it’s perfect. But you can see how well I did it by backing the series on IndieGoGo here.

Writing the Gap Between East and West

One thought on “Writing the Gap Between East and West

  1. This is why I recommend large doses of primary source to all would be worldbuilders. So you don’t just assume that what you are familiar with is universal.

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