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Thoughts on Writing Snow Wolf

The Martial Arts epic genre, known as wuxia, has been around for hundreds of years, yet, despite the success of films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero, the western audience has been reluctant to accept this genre. There are certainly similar stories in the West, like Robin Hood or Zorro, and the wuxia hero finds similarities with the samurai, or the medieval European knights, or the gunslingers in the Wild West. Perhaps the long history of wuxia in Chinese fiction has left many traditions assumed with many rules unspoken. The existence of fire breathing dragons, small dwarfs with long beards and magicians casting spells has been similarly assumed in Western fantasy literature. In parallel, sealing meridian points and blasting people with chi, often from a distance, has been understood and accepted among the Chinese audience.

When I first sat down to write a wuxia novel in English, I struggled with the many aspects of Chinese culture, fundamental to the everyday life of the Chinese audience, but completely foreign to the West. Forget the martial arts skills behind internal power and meridians and acupoints. Chinese culture is fundamentally different from the West, and telling a story without spending time to recreate the traditional Chinese world would leave readers lost and disinterested.

Traditional Chinese painting. The boats are but tiny specks in the painting, and viewed as a very small piece of the universe.
Traditional Chinese painting. The boats are but tiny specks in the painting, and viewed as a very small piece of the universe.

The problem is, Chinese storytelling is simply different. When you watch a film from China, where a guy is walking across a mountain, for example, you can expect to see a very long shot of the mountain, in all it’s fog and breadth and glory. Eventually, you see the guy, a tiny speck of a human character, moving his way across the massive mountain. But if we watch the same shot from a Western director, we would likely see a close-up of the character’s stumbling feet, then a close-up of his face, tired and hopeless, followed by a point of view shot of the mountain, and the great distance ahead of him. The shot is about the person, his condition, and how he feels. The Chinese shot, on the other hand, would portray the universe as so much bigger than man, and that man is but a tiny speck in nature. The mountain towers over him, and the question of whether he can conquer the mountain or whether the mountain will swallow him has already been answered.

The constructive and destructive cycles of the five elements.
The constructive and destructive cycles of the five elements.

Chinese medicine, hardly recognized in the West for various reasons, operates on a complex system of its own. If a person has stomach problems, the Chinese doctor would consider the constructive and destructive cycles of the five elements in the human body, where each organ and physical system is represented by a constructive and destructive relationship. It’s abstract yet all encompassing. Because the liver is on the preceding end of the destructive cycle against the stomach, a Chinese doctor would work to calm the liver so the stomach can be free to heal. Herbs to relieve the stomach symptoms may or may not be important, because the root cause is believed to be elsewhere in the complex network of interrelationships in the universe. The same situation in Western medicine would lead to a very different diagnosis. Not to pretend that I know what a Western doctor would do exactly, but we can all imagine a camera sent into the stomach, maybe involving nuclear chemicals, a biopsy, and hopefully, conclusive evidence behind the symptoms. The idea that a complex chain reaction between unrelated forces in the body, or the universe, as a cause of the symptoms, would not be initially entertained.

And so the task to create a world that is fundamentally ancient Chinese, yet easy to digest across other cultures, brought about a number of considerations. Confucianism, and its many rules and hierarchies would need to be introduced in the storyline. Chinese poetry, literary couplets and set phrases would have to be explained and justified. I decided to avoid both. I tried my best to avoid concepts of filial piety, obedience to elders in the family and the social hierarchy, the idea that the ends justify the means or that indirect proof is a means of proof, etc.

Huai Su, a famous calligrapher in ancient times.
Huai Su, a famous calligrapher in ancient times.

The Legend of Snow Wolf was certainly written in English and meant for the Western audience, but some elements of culture, the type that gets across the border and we all insist on having seen before, can be incorporated without alienating the reader. I avoided references to art and literature, history and important figures, and placed my focus on characteristics that everyone in the world understands, such as greed, hunger for power, hate, vengeance, loyalty, the desire for freedom, among others.

In working to reconstruct the world of the Martial Arts Society from scratch, I was forced to abandon various staples of the genre in favor of easy acceptance in the West. Using chi to heal and kill, and the sealing of acupoints were eliminated from the novel altogether. In traditional wuxia fiction, chi resembles supernatural powers similar to The Force in Star Wars, but without the telekinesis. (You can move distant objects with chi, but only by propelling it with a blast of energy discharged by the palm, rather than moving it with the mind.) In The Legend of Snow Wolf, speed, strength, and stamina is physical and not powered by the mystical force of chi.

A display of <em>Qing Gong</em> in Chinese cinema.
A display of Qing Gong in Chinese cinema.

Qing Gong, the ability to run across tree branches and jump incredible distances, (resembles flying in modern movies with bad CGI), is portrayed by a heavily explained martial arts system known as the Flame Cutter, which one of the main characters inherits. The Flame Cutter enables the character to develop an extreme sensitivity to balance and momentum, while developing superior running and climbing abilities. This skill is least similar to martial arts as we know it today.

Then there’s the issue of portraying ancient strategy for the modern audience. Strategy and the I ching come hand in hand in ancient China. It’s almost assumed, and certainly accepted in Chinese fiction, that strategists are esoteric Taoists capable of predicting events, forecasting the weather or other earthly elements, while able to read omens to predict the future. Divination of this sort is hardly acknowledged, much less worshipped in the West today, and inclusion of this system means inclusion of magical powers into the story. Snow Wolf would resemble Merlin the magician. I wanted to avoid that. In the end, the strategy used in this book is limited to deceit and preparation. Rather than being able to divine the future, characters in the book are able to foresee the future because they’ve manipulated others to behave a certain way, or they have prepared various traps or chain reactions that can only lead events down a certain path.

Meanwhile, I did my best to echo classical Chinese strategy in this book. I had a particular story in mind when I came up with the following section Snow Wolf wrote:

War is but a brawl of brutes without the subtle changes between attack and retreat. Varying the use of attack and retreat: retreating for the purpose of attacking, attacking for the purpose of retreating, attacking to develop continuous attacks, retreating to lay grounds for further retreats—all give rise to infinite possibilities and variations. By using this system of change to the point where the enemy cannot fathom one’s intentions, one has employed the way of deceit.

The classical story that inspired this paragraph, taken from historical records or historical fiction, is immensely popular and used widely in fiction, and goes something like this:

A general is outnumbered and forced into inferior terrain, and was facing imminent defeat. But he decided to use his desperate position in his favor. That morning, he engaged the enemy with a large portion of his men. The men quickly took a beating and turned tail to flee the battle. The enemy chased, and the general’s men, executing clear instructions, began dropping their weapons and their belongings. The enemy soldiers stopped to pick up the loot and they didn’t notice the ambush waiting for them on both sides. The fleeing army also turned around to charge them. The enemy was crushed.

In later stories, this same strategy was used against a suspicious enemy general in an additional layer of deceit:

The general needed to flee and regroup elsewhere, knowing they were out of provisions and were severely outnumbered. But if they ran, the enemy would pursue and eventually catch up to them. So he engaged the enemy, took a beating and sent his men retreating. His men began to drop their loot. The enemy general suspected a trap and refused to chase, and the fleeing army retreated safely.

In classical Chinese use of deceit, there are so many possible variations behind something as simple as attacking or retreating, that I pointed it out in the beginning of Snow Wolf’s strategies.

I had yet another story in mind when I wrote the part about Snow Wolf coming home to a crisis.

“They told me that when they approached the cliff, Snow Wolf noticed the same number of guards watching the Grand Stairway, and she prepared for the worst…. If there was an actual threat from such a strong enemy, Fei Long would either decrease the number of guards every hour, and show that his men were deserting, and make the enemy suspect a trap, or increase the number of men to show a robust front, and make the enemy hesitate. Snow Wolf knew her husband. If he were in charge, the defense would look very different. Something was very wrong.”

The classical story was about a general laying siege to a city, but could not breach the heavily fortified defenses, and was unable to entice the enemy general into the open. He endured a beating and morale was low. So he decided to use the low morale to his benefit. Every night, he ordered a decrease in the number of cooking fires in his army, and he refrained from attacking the city for days. Eventually, the enemy general noticed that only half the invading army remained, and thought that the rest had deserted. So he ordered his men out of the gates to charge the remaining troops and wipe out his adversary for good. They walked into a trap and were annihilated.

Yet, to make this a real Chinese story written in English, the underlying currents of the story had to be fundamentally Chinese. The Heaven cycle, a basic concept in Chinese tradition, outlined by the first hexagram of the I ching, refers to the growth, the flourishing, decline, and reincarnation of every living creature, every natural phenomenon, every new or existing idea. The cyclical nature of the world, and the acceptance of a dormancy stage in every cycle are fundamental to Chinese belief and way of life. The idea of Snow Wolf having been dead for fifty years, and the subsequent “reincarnation” of her ideas and philosophies and skills, is one of the inherently Eastern concepts that propel this story.