Disconnected Tales: Contrasting Ken Liu’s Original and Translated Works

While I was growing up, the Chinese realm of my life was wholly separate from the English one. The two only overlapped when I struggled to find the Chinese word for an object I knew in English. In one memorable instance in fifth grade, I pointed to a plug and struggled for ten minutes, failing to conjure up the proper Chinese noun.

Ken Liu’s original fiction shares some of that same disconnection.

As a Chinese person, I am used to reading about the Chinese experience in Chinese. When read in English, the natural experience turns into a cultural performance put on for the Western audience. Reading Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” feels as if the entire story was tinged with the sort of mysticism associated with the ‘Far East’. The fantasy elements seemed like unnatural, deliberate uses of ethnicity, intended to provoke a specific reaction from an audience that looks upon Chinese culture as if it were something to be gawked at in a zoo.

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Image from npr.org

The addition of Chinese words and sentences in the piece may make it seem more authentic, but to me, it was simply awkward. I would constantly try to switch to the convention and flow of the Chinese language, attempting to read the few parts written in Chinese the way I would read a typical Chinese sentence. The English context simply doesn’t afford the leisure of doing so, however, and the smattering of Romanized Chinese plopped starkly into the middle of a completely English piece is ineffective and jarring.

A much smoother and more entertaining read is Liu’s translation of “Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Since Chen had been writing in Chinese for a Chinese audience, the reading experience seems much more natural and lacks the discomfort of cultural performance. Despite this, the translation did bring me out of the story at times. Certain words and phrases stand out (“joss sticks”; “it was like discussing music theory with a cud-chewing cow”), as these nouns and expressions are idiosyncratic to the Chinese written language. At these points, I couldn’t help but re-translate the English text and imagine what the original Chinese would have sounded like.

Personal feelings regarding the mechanics of language and translation aside, Liu’s writing in his original fiction is plain and straightforward. Even at the most emotional moments in the story, his descriptions are precise statements of fact intended to provoke feeling as an afterthought. Emotions aren’t described by Liu; they manifest in the actions of the characters. While he is the director that sets everything in motion, the quality of experience depends entirely on the interpretation of the reader. We are given the reins to characterize each of his figures throughout his story.

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Image from twitter.com/ShimmerProgram

In contrast to Liu’s own directness, Chen’s fiction is descriptive to the point of scientific precision. In a sense, Chen’s words read as Chinese. I cannot say that I have read as many Chinese works as I have English, but in my limited scope I have found vivid descriptions of colour and other sensory details to be more common in Chinese writing. Liu’s translation therefore seems clinically faithful to Chen’s original writing, and he seems to have preserved a lot of Chen’s authorial voice.

Yet Liu’s presence as translator is acutely felt. The traces of his sentence style and spacing act like a gloss of varnish over the short story. He favours short sentences and statement-like descriptions, again leaving the reader to make independent judgments that are guided only by snapshots of the scene. Not having read Chen’s original text, I cannot tell if these choices are Liu’s own preferences coming out in his translation, or aspects already existent in the original.

Reading Ken Liu’s original and translated works has been a puzzling experience, as I reconcile my culture with my education. It has made me realize that many beloved genres, such as fantasy, can take on a completely other dimension when presented in a different language. While I do not anticipate reading more Ken Liu anytime soon, I will most definitely be looking into Chen Qiufan’s original works in Chinese.

-Contributed by Stephanie Gao

Blood-Suckers vs. Hoppers: Vampire Showdown

 

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Illustration by Lorna Antoniazzi

Vampires have captivated the Western imagination for centuries. From Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, Dracula, to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, to the ‘90s masterpiece that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to the current season of American Horror Story, the list goes on and on.

Because the figure of the vampire has become so solidified over time—with each vampire movie and novel reinscribing very specific stereotypes—there is little variance in their defining characteristics. (Twilight, as always, is irrelevant here.) Yet, what about the vampires who appear in cultures other than the Western popular imagination?

Today, East meets West in a cross-cultural showdown between the undead. Our contenders: the Goeng-Si (殭屍; aka “Chinese hopping vampire”) and the Generic Vampire (aka “the dangerous but sexy English-speaking vampire of vague European origin”).

Appearance

Goeng-Si:

Goeng-Si, which translates to “stiff corpse,” gets its name from the condition of rigor mortis—whereby the limbs stiffen after death. With their outstretched arms and taut joints, the Chinese vampires are the literal manifestation of this name. Because of their stiffness and inability to bend their knees, the goeng-si have to hop to move. And so, the hopping vampire was born. As you can see, the Chinese take their horror very seriously.

What I gather from all the Chinese vampire movies I grew up watching is that, apart from the common dominator of hopping, the Goeng-Si takes on one of two appearances. The first involves an incredibly pasty complexion and smudged black circles around the eyes, not unlike my appearance during exams. The second involves markedly more decay and rotting flesh. In this case, a family member has asked a Taoist priest to resurrect a long-deceased beloved one, and he does so successfully.

All Goeng-Si dress in super traditional dynastic attire and have a paper talisman, which resembles a long piece of toilet paper or a shopping receipt, attached to their forehead. In essence, they look like they’re permanently trapped in a poorly funded period piece.

Generic Vampire:

Translucent white skin, cold to the touch. Inhuman eyes. No rotting skin (probably no pimple problems). Perpetual streak of blood meandering down side of mouth. Generally brooding. Often sexy.

Winner: Goeng-Si

I made this decision solely based on the fact that the Goeng-Si hops and belongs to the Chinese equivalent of a Jane Austen film. That is all.

Creation

Goeng-Si and Generic Vampire:

How someone becomes a Goeng-Si is surprisingly quite similar to how the generic vampire is created. The various ways for someone to turn into a vampire include being infected by another vampire, absorbing someone’s energy or spirit, using black magic, and being improperly buried.

Winner: Tie

Abilities

Goeng-Si:

The major difference between our two vampires is that Goeng-Si don’t actually suck blood. Instead, they suck the qi, or life force, from their victims. Envision Dementors, but instead of absorbing your happiness, they just go straight for the good stuff.

Generic Vampire:

They live off drinking human blood (duh), but can subsist on animal blood if necessary. Unlike the Goeng-Si who, to the best of my knowledge, have no other supernatural powers, the Generic Vampire has super speed, super strength, mind control, can climb super high walls (à la Dracula), can shape-shift, and… is looking attractive an ability?

Winner: Generic Vampire

For sheer quantity of skills alone.

Killing Them/Countermeasures

Goeng-Si:

According to many reputable sources (my mother and my stash of 80s Chinese vampire movies), Goeng-Si can’t die because they’re already dead. Garlic won’t stop them. Holy water won’t stop them. Sunlight is a mere annoyance. And a stab to the heart is just a flesh wound! The only way to impede their attack is to stop their hopping. And this is where the paper talisman comes in. The strip of paper must have some kind of binding spell on it, written by a Taoist priest with blood. Attaching this paper onto the Goeng-Si’s forehead renders it indefinitely paralyzed, unless the talisman is removed.

A very legitimate scholarly search on Wikipedia tells me that there are actually a myriad of ways to prevent Goeng-Si from sucking the living qi out of you. Most of them involve some variation of throwing rice and eggs. Call it nostalgia, but I’d like to think the only way to stop those suckers is to smack yellow receipts on their foreheads to stop their hopping, and your impending death.

Generic Vampires:

One thing that I will never understand is why vampires of vague European origin are so delicate. Nearly everything kills them. In a way, they’re almost as fragile as humans are; perhaps even more so, because garlic is amazing and delicious and the vampiric race is missing out on a whole lot of Italian cuisine—human or otherwise.

Winner: Goeng-Si

Imagining me stop a Goeng-Si by smacking a shoddy piece of paper on its forehead, thereby stopping it mid-hop, makes me so happy.

ULTIMATE WINNER: You decide!

 

 

-Contributed by Janice To

 

 

 

 

 

Tales about Nine Tails: an Overview of Eastern Fox Spirits

“狐狸尾巴藏不住.” “A fox’s tail is not easily hidden.” – Chinese proverb

Though usually levelled at scheming individuals when their plots are unravelled, this saying alludes specifically to the idea of the fox spirit, a common mythological figure in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. Foxes can be found in folklore all over the world, but Eastern fox spirits often exhibit more specific traits that render them particularly fascinating. With its sly grin and cunning ways, the fox occupies a trickster role in many mythologies. However, in East Asia the fox is also associated with supernatural metamorphic powers and with dangerously seductive women. Although some have compared the fox spirit to English fairies with their whimsical ways, the comparison doesn’t do justice to the diversity of foxes in Eastern mythology.

Within Chinese mythology, the fox occupies a special spot as one of five spiritual animal species. The fox is in good company, sharing this honour with the weasel, the porcupine, the snake, and the mouse. Their nocturnal natures give them plenty of yin energy  in the yin-yang dichotomy, allowing them to have special powers that increase with time and discipline. All five of these animals are said to be capable of training their bodies and hearts to become spirits (仙 xian), in an elevated state beyond mortality. However, the process is long and arduous: a huli jing’s (狐狸精 fox spirit) strength is measured by the number of its tails, and every additional tail up to a maximum of nine (九尾狐 jiuweihu) takes five hundred years of disciplined meditation and training. This includes energy from the moon (阴 yin energy) and energy from humans—which is where the spirit gets its seductive reputation.

In many stories, the huli jing or hu xian (狐仙 fox immortal) takes on the guise of a beautiful woman in order to interact with the human world. At times, this is a convenient way for the spirit to collect energy from human men for the purpose of strengthening herself. However, huli jing also have other relationships to people. As neutral familiar spirits, huli jing are not deified or worshipped in a sacred manner, but are nevertheless accorded respect. One good turn begets another, and if a human does a huli jing a favour, it may repay the good will by imparting knowledge and wisdom, by passing on supernatural powers to foresee the future, or by cleansing the household of evils. Huli jing have even been known to marry good men and to act as ideal wives.

On the other hand, there are occasionally legends of dangerous fox spirits such as the one that possessed Da Ji (妲己). She was the wife of the cruel King Zhou (紂辛) who offended the goddess Nüwa (女娲). Her malevolent influence supposedly drove him to ruin, and ended the Shang (商) dynasty (around 1600-1046 BCE). Though Da Ji is perhaps the most infamous huli jing in Chinese mythology, the figure can be found even earlier in folk stories. Tushan-shi (塗山氏), whose husband was the hero Yu the Great (大禹) and who is known to be the mother of China’s first dynastic ruler (the Xia 夏 dynasty 2070-1600 BCE), is sometimes said to have been a huli jing, or else to have had the nine-tailed fox as a symbol of her clan. Many other stories about huli jing can be found within Chinese mythology, particularly in Pu Songling’s (蒲松龄) 1740 collection of supernatural folktales Liaozhai Zhiyi (聊斋志异 Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio). Though by no means a religious figure, the mythological fox spirit has a sizeable presence in Chinese culture that has persisted to the present. In modern Chinese vernacular, the term huli jing is often derogatory when applied to a woman, implying that she is a homewrecker or otherwise seductively dangerous to men.

In Japan, the kitsune (狐) carries more Zenko (善狐), the white-furred benevolent foxes who often act as Inari’s messengers, are only one half of the story in Japanese mythology, which also categorizes some foxes as yako (野狐), who tend to be mischievous or malicious. The long-lived Japanese nine-tailed foxes,  kyubi no kitsune (九尾の狐), supposedly gain the power to see and hear anything, or to have infinite wisdom. Like the huli jing, kitsune are known to transform into beautiful young women, often through rituals that involve placing reeds or a skull on its head. The metamorphosis can sometimes be uncovered by searching for ill-concealed foxlike attributes, such as a fox’s shadow or a fox’s tail.

The supernatural powers of kitsune are many, including the power to generate fire or lightning (kitsunebi 狐火), the power to create intense illusions, and the power to possess people. Often kitsune are depicted with their hoshi no tama (ほしのたま star balls—white balls or jewels glowing with kitsunebi), which are said to hold the fox’s magical power or even its soul. These mystical attributes often lend themselves to stories of foxes bewitching powerful people or causing mischief to travellers or within households. In this sense, the kitsune has a more prominent trickster character in Japanese mythology. Nevertheless, they also repay favours and keep promises to humans; they are capable of bringing supernatural good or supernatural evil to the people they interact with.

Given its dual sacred and secular presence within Japanese folklore, the kitsune can be spotted in many modern-day Japanese works that have since gained followings in the West. Popular fantastical manga/anime series such as Naruto or Inuyasha feature characters like the Kyubi/Naruto and Shippo who reference the kitsune figure, as do video game character designs like those of Ninetales from the Pokémon series. The ubiquity of kitsune in Japanese media and its popularity overseas has resulted in this figure becoming the most familiar to outside audiences amongst the three Eastern fox spirits.

While Chinese and Japanese foxes can be positive, negative, or ambiguous forces, Korean kumiho (구미호) tend to be portrayed exclusively as malevolent creatures. These long-lived foxes also have nine tails and some powers, but often strive to become human rather than remaining the spirits that they are. The methods for this permanent transformation differ, but usually require some consumption of human flesh and blood. As such, kumiho are usually depicted as bloodthirsty spirits that can transform into beautiful women to lure their human victims. Rather than possessing young women like some Chinese or Japanese fox spirits, the kumiho often eats and replaces the female victim in order to feast upon her family. Like other fox spirits, the kumiho’s true nature may be perceived because the transformation is incomplete and it still carries fox-like characteristics, such as a tail or whiskers.

One such fairy tale called The Fox Sister tells of a man with three sons who wants a daughter so much that when praying for one, he doesn’t even care if she is a kumiho. After he has a daughter, the family finds that a cow dies mysteriously every night. When two of his sons report seeing their sister enter the barn to eat the cows’ livers, their father throws them out of the home. Years later, the two men return armed with three magical potions from a Buddhist monk. They find their sister living alone, claiming that their parents and youngest brother have all died, and offers them a feast and to stay the night. The oldest brother awakens to find his sister eating his dead younger brother, and flees by defending himself with the potions. As a fox, she fights her way through the first potion’s thicket of thorns, and swims across the second potion’s magical river. However, she is trapped by the last potion of bottled fire and burns to death.

The kumiho also continues to influence modern works. The fairy tale recounted above inspired a webcomic of the same name  by Christina Strain and Jayd Aït-Kaci. Kumiho also feature in a number of fantasy-based Korean dramas, including most notably the 2010 romantic comedy My Girlfriend is a Nine-tailed Fox. Even Western media have used the kumiho as inspiration, as can be seen with the popular character Ahri from Riot Games’ popular MOBA League of Legends.

Although all East Asian fox spirits stem from ancient Chinese culture, they have since acquired unique characteristics in the folklore of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traditions. With such rich histories and diverse depictions, the fox spirit continues to hold sway over modern imaginations and to appear in Eastern and Western speculative works as an enigmatic supernatural figure. It is almost as though the bewitching nature of the creature has infused its myth and captured the attention of people all over the world.

– Contributed by Victoria Liao