The Big Idea: Ken Liu

Myths and legends and ancient stories come down to us to be told and retold, but what needs to be done to keep those retellings fresh — and to avoid cliched narrative traps? Ken Liu gave this question very serious consideration for The Grace of Kings, and presents his own solution here.

KEN LIU:

At its heart, The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world fantasy setting. It is the tale of two unlikely friends, a prison-guard-turned-bandit and a disinherited heir of a duke, who lead a rebellion against tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry over how to make the world more just once the ancien régime is overthrown.

The aesthetic of the book is what I call “silkpunk”: filled with technologies inspired by predecessors from Classical Chinese antiquity: soaring battle kites, silk-draped airships, chemistry-enhanced tunnel-digging machines, prosthetic limbs powered by intricate mechanisms made of ox sinew and bamboo. There are also jealous gods and goddesses, magic books, wise princesses, heroes who follow a heroine with a greater share of honor, women and men who fight in the skies, and water beasts who bring soldiers safely to stormy shores.

These are things I’ve always wanted to see in fantasy fiction. I want my book to be fun.

But it all started because I wanted to find a fresh way to tell an old story that is at the foundation of my own transcultural literary upbringing.

When I decided that I wanted to write a novel, I examined a list of favorite stories I’d written and noticed a constant theme running throughout: the idea of crossing boundaries, of translating between languages, cultures, ways of thinking, of disassembling a literary artifact in one frame of reference and reassembling it in another—challenging viewing communities and artifact alike.

“You and I both grew up osmosing Chinese historical romances,” my wife, Lisa, said to me. “Echoes of these stories can be heard from time to time in your work. Why not embrace this aspect of your writing and give an old tale a new life?”

And a light came on in my mind. I had found my novel: I wanted to re-imagine the story of the Chu-Han Contention.

Two Narrative Traditions

Like many of my fellow writers in the Anglo-American tradition, my literary models are drawn from a long lineage that pays homage to Greek and Latin classics, starts with Anglo-Saxon epics and histories, runs through the great poets and novelists on both sides of the Atlantic whose names are found in various Norton anthologies, and ends with the increasingly diverse, contemporary literary marketplace that gives more room for the voices of the historically marginalized.

But at the same time, I’m also indebted to a parallel Chinese tradition that starts with classical Western Zhou poetry, traverses Spring and Autumn philosophies, Han Dynasty histories, Tang Dynasty lyrical verse, Ming and Qing Dynasty novels, oral pingshu performances, and ends with martial arts fantasies of the 20th century and contemporary web-based popular serials.

Just as readers in the US often absorb the stories of Achilles and Odysseus, of Aeneas and Beowulf, of Hamlet and Macbeth not by reading the original, but through simplified children’s versions, popular film adaptations, and re-tellings and re-imaginings, readers in China absorb the stories of great historical heroes like Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) in similar ways.

The Chu-Han Contention of the third century B.C., an interregnum between the Qin and Han Dynasties, is a historical period that has proved especially rich for fictional treatment. Many important ideas about Chinese politics, philosophy, and identity can trace their origin to stories from this era. Upon the foundation of the core events and biographies penned by the historian Sima Qian, countless mythical legends, folk operas, oral traditions, and poems have accumulated over the millennia. The literary re-imaginings continue to this day in new media like video games, TV miniseries, and scifi adaptations (see Qian Lifang’s Will of Heaven).

As I grew up, I absorbed tales of the friendship and rivalry between wily, gangster-like Liu Bang and noble, cruel, proud Xiang Yu along with lessons about Chinese characters (I share Liu Bang’s family name), with Chinese Chess (the board is modeled upon the standoff between the two factions), with references and allusions in popular entertainment and textbooks, and with schoolyard games.

This is a story that is at once deeply Chinese and personal; mythical, historical, political, and fantastic; I wanted to try my hand at re-creating it for a new audience and readership.

Re-imagining

There is, of course, a long Western tradition of literary creations based on re-interpreting and re-imagining the old: James Joyce’s Ulysses, John Gardner’s Grendel, countless contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s plays in new settings that the Bard never imagined, and even Milton’s Paradise Lost can be understood as a reworking of the tropes of classical Greek and Latin epics in the service of a new Christian epic.

But re-imaginations must be done with a purpose, and to be successful, they must appeal both to those who are familiar with the source material and those who are not.

Early on, I rejected the idea of setting the story in a secondary world version of Classical China, in the same way that Middle-earth is a secondary world version of Medieval Europe. Faced with the long history of colonialism and Orientalism in Western literary representation of China dating back to Marco Polo, I felt that it was no longer possible to tell a story of “magical China” without having it be lost through the mediation of centuries of misunderstandings and stereotypes.

And so I went with a bolder plan. I decided to create a new fantasy archipelago—as different from continental China as possible—in which the peoples, cultural practices, and religious beliefs are only remotely inspired by their source material. This was a way to strip the source story to its bare bones and to give them new flesh that would better serve my vision.

But it is in narrative technique where I took the most risk. Melding traditions from the Greek and Latin epics, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Miltonic verse, wuxia fantasy, Ming Dynasty novels, and contemporary chuanyue stories, the novel is told in a voice and style that should be at once familiar and strange. Here you’ll find kennings and litotes, gods who speak like a chorus and Water Margin-style backstories, dead metaphors from another language given a new periphrastic sheen. The title is an allusion to Henry V while the core chrysanthemum-dandelion image is inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem. I tried to write something that reads at the same time as both old and new, and which interrogates its source material as well as our assumptions about what is West and what is East.

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The Grace of Kings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

30 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Ken Liu

  1. Early on, I rejected the idea of setting the story in a secondary world version of Classical China, in the same way that Middle-earth is a secondary world version of Medieval Europe.

    And when I heard you were writing this, without much detail, I thought that was precisely where you were going with this, Ken. But you came up with something much more interesting. Much more.

    Happy Release Day!

  2. If this sounds interesting, check out Ken’s translation of What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu. Really cool, and essentially a Chinese perspective on world history since pre World War Two, with a health dose of existentialism thrown in. And Vodo’s had specials on anthologies of world sf. Really neat stuff.

  3. I wasn’t sure about the excerpt I saw, which reminded me a bit of Smiler’s Fair in some way or other — which I know is probably a positive comparison for most people, but though I had no particular objections to its technical chops and so forth, I’m having a hell of a time trying to make myself finish the book. Right now. But I’m 60% sure that it’s a combination of everything constantly going wrong in the most dreary/dreadful way and most of the characters being dudes (which have nothing to do with the prose style), so it might be irrelevant associative bleed… though this is also mostly dudes, from the summaries, innit?

    In any case, I’ve petitioned my local library to buy a copy, and I might schlep myself to the nearest bookstore this week (which is, in my mind, nowhere near enough!).

  4. I must get me to the library; this is the third blog today I’ve read that has Ken talking about it (and he isn’t repeating himself in any of them!) and it sounds like something that will croggle my brain in a good way.

    @Luther M. Siler: I’m picturing you doing that, in exactly the same pose as your photo. And not moving, like the photo.

  5. Sigh. Will add to the watchlist then. Uhm, is this a standalone or is it part of a series – if the latter, I’m really sorry, but I’ll have to wait till the last book comes out :( , I’m reading about 6 unfinished series at the moment and thats my mental maximum

  6. It was on my list of books to consider sometime. Now it’s on my list of books I must read soon. As a classicist, I have to take anyone who can say “litotes” with a straight face seriously.

  7. I saw Saladin Ahmed’s blurb on the cover and stopped scrolling, started reading… got to ‘Han Dynasty and kept reading… hit ‘silkpunk’ and just shoved my money at B&N.

  8. ” the stories of great historical heroes like Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) in similar ways.”

    Wow. Seriously? You’re calling those three guys heroes?

    Zhang Fei was a rapist. When he found a 12- or 13-year old relative of Xiahou Yuan, he forced her to marry him and to have at least four children. That is rape. This was written in Yu Huan’s “A Brief History of Wei”, and was found to be credible enough by Pei Songzhi that he included it in his “Annotations to Records of the 3 Kingdoms”, widely considered to be among the most authoritative histories of the period. Zhang Fei was no hero, no matter his war accomplishments. He was a monster.

    Liu Bei wasn’t a rapist, but he was a coward and a terrible person all around. He abandoned his family at least 3 times in the recorded histories–when Lu Bu drove him out of Pei and he fled rather than find them, when Cao Cao drove him out of Pei and he did the same, and of course the famous incident at Changban. He promised to help his kinsman Liu Zhang defend Yi province, then betrayed and ultimately deposed him. He ordered his adopted son Liu Feng to commit suicide, even though Feng had committed no crime, just so that people wouldn’t find his less-talented biological son, Liu Shan, lacking. Liu Bei was also a monster. He was certainly no hero.

    Guan Yu wasn’t as bad of a person as the other two, but he was certainly no hero. His military record was abysmal, with major losses in Xiapi in 200, eastern Jing in 215, and of course his disastrous siege of Fan, during which he was unable to take a city despite the presence of a flood which wiped out a huge portion of the Wei army and also began to crumble the walls of Fan itself. He was also such an arrogant jackass that Lu Meng was able to win the loyalty of the people in Jiangling–and consequently destroy Guan Yu’s entire position–just by being nicer to them than Guan Yu was.

    The best of these people was an obnoxious asshole, and of the other two, one was a rapist and the other murdered his adopted son for no reason. And even though that alone should serve to condemn them, it’s also worth noting that they were mediocre at best as generals and warriors, especially compared to others of the time. The “5 Elite Generals” (Zhang Liao, Zhang He, Yu Jin, Yue Jin, Xu Huang) of Wei, Sima Yi, Guo Huai, and Chen Tai of Jin, Ding Feng, Lu Kang, and Zhou Yu of Wu, and even Shu elite generals like Wei Yan, Wang Ping, and Huang Zhong were far better–both from a moral and a military perspective–than Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, or Liu Bei.

    These people are not. Fucking. Heroes.

  9. The “perspective of cultural myth making” is how we get Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder and rapist of Sally Hennings, valorized. It’s how we get General Custer, who tried to wipe out groups of Native Americans, hailed as a courageous hero. It’s how Christopher Columbus became known as a famous explorer and not a literal slaver. It’s how we got the cult of Reagan.

    These things matter. When people talk about how heroic Zhang Fei is, what they’re saying is that we should ignore his moral depravity because of his martial deeds. We should forget that he was a rapist, that he beat and abused his soldiers so badly that they eventually mutinied and murdered him, that he committed all manner of crimes, because he was allegedly a really awesome general. Never mind that it isn’t true. It isn’t fucking relevant.

  10. Achilles and Odysseus are not real people. Zhang Fei and Liu Bei are real people who are lauded despite their moral bankruptcy.

  11. The “perspective of cultural myth making” is how we get Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder and rapist of Sally Hennings, valorized. It’s how we get General Custer, who tried to wipe out groups of Native Americans, hailed as a courageous hero. It’s how Christopher Columbus became known as a famous explorer and not a literal slaver. It’s how we got the cult of Reagan.

    Or Robert E. Lee as hero, for that matter. Good point.

  12. Just as readers in the US often absorb the stories of Achilles and Odysseus, of Aeneas and Beowulf, of Hamlet and Macbeth not by reading the original, but through simplified children’s versions, popular film adaptations, and re-tellings and re-imaginings, readers in China absorb the stories of great historical heroes like Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) in similar ways.

    I mean, that’s the parallel that was being drawn.

  13. To clarify, I read it as — and I’m sure it was meant to be — “hero” in the literary sense.

  14. “When people talk about how heroic Zhang Fei is, what they’re saying is that we should ignore his moral depravity because of his martial deeds.”

    Or maybe they aren’t using “heroic” in the sense that arose during the period of chivalry and courtly love in medieval Europe. The heroes of the Greek myths weren’t particularly heroic in that sense, nor are all the heroes of other traditions. A hero doesn’t have to be a morally pure individual unless you insist on that the terms of that particular strand of Western culture are the only ones that can apply and that the heroic attributes of the protagonists of legends and chansons de geste must apply to real-life human beings.

  15. A hero doesn’t have to be a morally pure individual

    Whatever the tradition, I think I’d prefer my heroes not to be rapists, slaveholders, or to attempt genocide. It’s a tic, I know.

  16. Well, so would I, David. Humans being what they are, the same people who have done great good may also have done great evil. You don’t have to consider them heroes, though. I personally don’t use the term “hero” for anyone outside fiction–and for precious few within fiction, since I prefer protagonists to be complex mixtures.

  17. I have been looking forward to this novel! I love Ken Liu’s shorter works, and am curious to see what he does in a bigger playground.

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