mjj (flemmings) wrote,

I wish paleaswater would blog more- even as much as she used to do on pitas. Have just been reading through past entries to find her perfectly worded summation of what I don't like about Barry Hughes.
It is amusing in its own way, but it's so... chinoiserie. There's no denying that this author did tons and tons of research. Left no popular tale unturned in fact -- I can identify a lot of his references, from the blood-thirsty duchess to the proper method of cooking porcupine. But taken altogether the effect is rather grotesque -- reminds of me of these chinoiserie rooms in European palaces where the owner never saw a piece of porcelain or jade that couldn't be improved by a gold chased cover. And it wouldn't be so objectionable if the author wasn't thinking that he was doing such a clever job. Erghhh...
Add that to her remarks about Snake Agent and I think we're left with the dispiriting conclusion that round-eyes shouldn't try to write Chinese stuff unless they've lived there. Or are actually referencing the western tradition of getting it wrong, Fu Manchu and Terry and the Pirates のよう.

It's not that I think Chinese culture isn't fair game for cultural appropriation, even utterly wrong-headed cultural appropriation. Anything that old isn't going to be affected by the idiocies of anything this young. (For slightly similar reasons mainstream fiction about Japan that gets it wrong, and howlingly wrong, never struck me as something most Japanese would take offence at. I think they'd rather approve of it, since it bolsters their basic conviction that outsiders just don't get it. Foreigners (shrug). What do they know? What *can* they know?)

I also think some of our constructions of China are charming-- Anderson's Nightingale or Puccini's Turandot (though any production of Turandot I've seen that references a real China just seems wrong wrong wrong. We're in Mythland, not the real Beijing.) But those works belong to a time when China was a very far away and generally unknown place, when imagination had to supply the deficiencies of fact. (Well, not Puccini, actually.) We've lost that innocence. The information is there now and can't be ignored.

So, OK, why do I get twitchy when people do their research and then use it for their own wrong-headed ends? It's not as if Japanese mangaka do anything different. Kou Josei gets its period costumes and architecture just right, and uses them as backdrop for its occasionally very Japanese characters. But the Kou Josei mangaka doesn't congratulate herself on the authenticity of her historical research. The feeling I get from her detailed drawings and atogaki is that she just loves this stuff for its own sake. Robert van Gulik loved the stuff for its own sake: I mean, he was basically writing fan fiction of Ming detective stories. How much more enthusiastic do you need to be than that? He didn't do research: he just knew the genre that he loved. I'm told he got most of it right to a Chinese way of thinking, but I don't know if it would matter if he'd got it as wrong as he gets the sexuality. (Basic rule: do not write your kinks in too obviously if you're going to publish your fanfic as fiction.) One can forgive humble admiration a lot.

Maybe it's the current attitude to research that I don't like. You must get the facts right because getting your facts right is a virtue in the west. It's a duty: and the author who approaches it as duty tends to give away the fact that she feels virtuous and a bit smug about having done her research in such depth. Look, see, did you notice how I incorporated this folk tale in here, and referenced that chronicle there? I wonder. Maybe Robert Graves is to blame for all this, pastiching Suetonius like that. By contrast Renault digested her sources and then made a seamless fictional whole of them. And got some things wrong, immensely wrong: Athens was not an enlightened philosophical paradise even among its philosophers. But that doesn't matter. The gestalt is right: this is the Athens that a lot of Athenians believed in, going by their speeches and writing. It's when the facts are right and the gestalt is wrong that I start muttering Write what you know, twit.
Tags: aesthe, chinese, wank, writing
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