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.
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.
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.