The Daughter of Turan

Khaidu was a ghostly apparition – a figure at the periphery of Khubilai Khan’s world that never left him alone. He would pick and poke at Khubilai’s defences for the rest of Khubilai’s life, occasionally seizing territory outside his fiefdom, occasionally retreating into the steppes. He darted towards Karakhorum itself, as if hoping to convene a rebel kurultai. He meddled in Tibetan affairs in an attempt to foster anti-Mongol feeling in the monasteries; he put out feelers to disaffected princelings on the other side of China, in the hope that together they might rise up against the sons of Tolui. Khaidu would even outlive Khubilai by a few years, but never quite got enough support to mount a true challenge. Had Khubilai and Khaidu been duelling over nothing more than Mongolia, perhaps Khaidu would have had the upper hand. Ironically, the very Mongol-based feud that Khaidu perpetrated served to drive Khubilai further towards a Chinese perspective. Without China, Khubilai might not have had the support he needed to shrug Khaidu off.

Marco Polo found the whole thing baffling, but far more interested in stories circulating about Khaidu’s daughter, a towering Amazon whose name he recorded as Aiyaruk (‘Bright Moon’).

Her father often desired to give her in marriage, but she would none of it. She vowed she would never marry till she found a man who could vanquish her in every trial; him she would wed and none else. And when her father saw how resolute she was, he gave a formal consent . . . that she should marry whom she wanted and when she wanted. The lady was so tall and muscular, so stout and shapely withal, that she was almost like a giantess.

Khaidu had set himself up as the protector of old-time Mongol values, in opposition to Khubilai the Sinophile. It was hence only to be expected that Khaidu’s daughter was set up in local legend as some sort of woman warrior, who boasted that she would only marry a man who could beat her at wrestling, and that anyone who failed in this would have to pay her 100 horses.

Aiyaruk supposedly successfully fought off 1,000 challengers over the course of the 1270s. Perhaps a little worried that his daughter might be getting long in the tooth, Khaidu is even reported as suggesting that she should try to let the next one win, but she refused, and won another hundred horses for the family herd. With a tacit admission that nobody was going to be good enough for her, she gave up on men entirely and accompanied Khaidu on his endless war against Khubilai’s warriors.

And ye must know that after this her father never went on a campaign but she went with him. And gladly he took her, for not a knight in all his train played such feats of arms as she did. Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.

Remarkably, most scholars suspect that there is an element of truth in the story of Aiyaruk, not least because while Polo in China is hearing of her exploits, his contemporary Rashid al-Din in Persia is writing down the same story, with the same names. Rashid, however, injects a disapproving note, that ‘people suspected there was some kind of relationship between [Khaidu] and his daughter.’

The story would grow with the telling, particularly in Persia, where legends arose about a king of ‘Turan’ (Persian: Central Asia), whose beautiful daughter insisted that any suitor should overcome a series of trials in order to win her hand in marriage. The story flourished in several variants as The Daughter of Turan, in Persian: ‘Turan-dokht’.

It is perhaps most familiar to the Western reader in a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, first performed in 1926, shortly after the death of the composer of the accompanying music, Giacomo Puccini:

This is the law: Turandot the Pure
Will be the bride of the man of royal blood
Who shall solve the riddles which she shall set.
But if he fail in this test
He must submit his proud head to the sword!

Puccini’s Turandot is a world away from Khaidu’s real-life resistance in western China. It retains garbled concepts of China and Tartary, and mixes elements of Mongol and Chinese culture. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see a strand of true history informing a strand of modern life. Khaidu would eventually die in 1301, from wounds received in a failed strike at Karakorum itself – but his daughter, or a phantom of her, would spring to life on the opera stage in Milan six centuries later.

From A Brief History of Khubilai Khan by Jonathan Clements.

La storia segreta dei samurai

Out now in Italian, my Brief History of the Samurai, although now it’s a “Secret” History.

I samurai sono l’incarnazione della tradizione marziale giapponese: eroi senza paura, che seguono il rigido codice del bushidō e preferiscono affrontare una terribile morte per harakiri piuttosto che conoscere il disonore della sconfitta. Eppure pochi sanno che in origine i samurai erano umili soldati di frontiera e guardie del corpo di ricchi signori, e solo nel corso dei secoli hanno acquisito sempre più potere, fino a diventare la classe dominante del Paese del Sol Levante, spesso più autorevole persino di shogun e imperatori. Un potere fondato sulla tattica militare, sull’estetica della guerra, sulla ferrea disciplina, su un’etica severa, ma anche su insospettabili intrighi di corte e su vendette sanguinose e spietate.

In questo libro, Jonathan Clements – basandosi sui resoconti dell’epoca e su famose opere della tradizione letteraria giapponese – descrive le battaglie più avvincenti, le armi segrete e i personaggi che hanno reso immortale, e famosa in tutto il mondo, la figura del samurai.

Chinese Whispers

Science fiction is not as easy to find in China as one might think. I never saw a massive “SCI-FI” section in Chinese bookshops, although there were often entire bays dedicated to internet novels and how-to-draw manga books; SF is more often than not still lumped in with children’s fiction. It’s a long story.

I pestered numerous newsstand vendors in four or five Chinese cities for the latest issue of Kehuan Shijie (“SF World”, pictured), but only struck gold outside the gates of the Beijing University of Astronautics and Aeronautics, where the passing traffic might be reasonably expected to be interested in all that Buck Rogers stuff. Otherwise, science fiction in China, with a readership in the tens of thousands, is still something of a minority interest in the People’s Republic.

Which makes it all the more ironic that I should get back to my office and find in my in-tray two publications that massively increase the footprint of Chinese science fiction abroad. A double-issue of Renditions, published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is packed with translations of Chinese SF, including stories by Liu Cixin, Han Song, La La, Zhao Haihong, Chi Hui and Xia Jia. There’s also some intriguing proto-sf such as a piece from 1912 by Xu Zhuodai, as well as an incredible exercise in academic recursion: a translation into English of Lu Xun’s translation into Chinese of a Japanese translation of a story by Anna Louise Strong, showing to what degree Chinese whispers might be reasonably said to have set in.

Fei Dao, another author in Renditions, also shows up in the latest issue of Science Fiction Studies under his real name of Jia Liyuan, with a different hat on as a doctoral candidate in Chinese literature. The new SFS is a China special issue, and includes articles about utopias in Chinese fiction, Chinese SF movies, alien contact and the role played by translation in the spread of the medium, as well as non-fiction essays by Liu Cixin, Han Song and Wu Yan. In my role as a contributing editor to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I was asked to be a peer reviewer on several of the papers in this issue, and I was very impressed with the level of achievement. It’s certainly very salutary, albeit rather odd, to see the amount of work on Chinese SF in English increasingly so exponentially, almost overnight.

New Podcast

Your vertically-enhanced host, Jeremy Graves, is joined by the newly-healed, disease-free Jerome Mazandarani, Andrew Hewson and Jonathan Clements for another rip-snorting, fan-baiting, Jerome-bashing podcast, featuring questions from you, yes you, answered by us, yes us.

00:00 JC on the costs of living in China, and the prospects of a Chinese middle class. Singing the praises of Western Phoenix booze. How on earth does that relate to anime? No worries, here’s a picture of Karen Allen impersonating Jonathan Clements.

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05:00 Pricing and quality in China.

09:00 parallel importing.

13:00 Why are people still asking about One Piece? The behind-the-scenes panic last month that led to our hasty previous podcast (thanks, Amazon!). JC sleeps like a baby while Andrew and Jeremy run around in ever-decreasing circles. Mark Smith and his human minions. The problems of coordinating announcements and products.

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16:00 On which note, announced on Amazon and exclusive to Amazon right now: Supernatural the Anime, about which we are instant experts, thanks to Wikipedia. Check out our article about Warner Brothers and the anime world.
28: 00 Recent releases – what’s out this week and coming soon. Including discussion of the unlikely connection between Oblivion Island and Skyfall.

33:00 Disney’s announcement (or lack thereof) of no new 2D animated films coming, and what people feel about that. Is it really the end of an era, or did “the era” really end some time ago? The controversy over Rhythm & Hues filing for bankruptcy despite Oscar attention.

40:00 Outsourcing in the film business, and the devious actions of accountants who can chase the money around the world. Bob the Builder is now made in Poland… make your own jokes. How can a film about Space Nazis, shot in Germany and Australia be called “Finnish”? And Revolver Entertainment gets shown the revolving door.

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47:00 The history of the PlayStation, and what effect it’s had on modern media.

50:00 It’s brand spanking new news. Manga UK new release announcements: Deadman Wonderland and Steins; Gate.

57: 00 The MCM Expo is now the MCM Comicon.

60: 00 The death of Toren Smith and matters arising, including the top five Toren accomplishments. And in his memory, a rehash of the old Oh! My Goddess argument, just for old time’s sake.

75:00 Ask Manga UK. Almost an hour of your questions, yes yours, answered, dodged or otherwise belittled. The fate of Lupin III; the possible return of UK-based dubs and a tangent about looking for work as voice_over.jpga voice actor. What links Naruto to Hawaii Five-0, at least next week? A plug for the book Voice-Over Voice-Actor by Yuri Lowenthal and Tara Platt, and for the scheme to raise money for Peter Doyle.

87:00 Happy memories of Saiko Exciting, and the likelihood of there ever being anything like it again. The recent ratings for Summer Wars on Sky, and how those ratings are reflected in Japan.

94:00 The return of fifteening? A release date for Aria: The Scarlet Ammo? Would you rather have the Japanese market or the UK market? The possibilities for the Macross franchise in the UK.

101:00 Possibilities for Blu-ray releases of things thus far only released on DVD. The possibilities of UK Blu-ray only release. The mechanics of an Irish release, and why we don’t do many. The nature of the subtitles currently used.

110:00 Fate/Zero’s dub; what’s wrong with lending DVDs to friends (nothing). Chihayafuru’s chances of getting licensed. The perils of letting people know when a licence is about to run out. And the plans to have a live recording of the *next* podcast at the Birmingham Comicon. And we’re out!

The Podcast is available to download now HERE, or find it and an archive of previous shows at our iTunes page. For a detailed contents listing of previous podcasts, check out our Podcasts page.

Hot Dam

In 2009, the Chinese government decided it was time to protect its netizens from the dangers of the internet, by bundling a new piece of software with all new PCs. Green Dam Youth Escort was designed to keep life harmonious (and “green”) by filtering out any images with too many pink pixels (including pictures of pigs), and blocking a list of proscribed sites. It was notoriously buggy, and, well, annoying.

The Chinese internet community was swift to protest in an oddly creative way, knocking up images of a manga-style heroine called Lu Ba Niang (the Green Dam Girl). Clad in a quasi-military uniform with an ironically short skirt, Lu Ba Niang patrolled the interwebs with a paintbrush for censoring, and a red armband that read “Discipline.” Her perky little hat was sometimes depicted with a little crab insignia, since a “river crab” in Chinese is hexie, a homonym for “harmonisation”.

What’s interesting about the Lu Ba Niang protests is what they reveal about Japanese pop culture among the Chinese. The amateur artists and satirists co-opted the modes of Japanese artwork with apparent ease. It’s not just the moe look of Lu Ba Niang, but a dozen little touches, including Vocaloid censorship anthems and hentai spin-offs in which she inspects the bottoms of embarrassed anime girls. The tone and content of much of the protests seemed very much informed by hentai fandom, with some images even in imitation of erotic visual novels, with text that includes Japanese characters. One even calls the character Lubako, as if she were a Japanese girl.

Download statistics and piracy complaints suggest that Japanese works have an “informal” following in China. The size and scope of the Green Dam protests suggest that there is a sizeable community of Chinese “otaku”, even today when Japanese material has supposedly fallen out of favour in the wake of ongoing territorial spats over the Senkaku Islands. Meanwhile, Green Dam never really took off; it became “voluntary”, and then lost its government funding when it was found to contain programming code plagiarised from an American software company. Oops.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #107, 2013.