Kingdoms of Folk
Growing up I used to watch period dramas on VHS with my mum. I never properly understood the intricacies of the storylines as my grasp of Cantonese wasn’t the best and I was more interested in the hair and costumes than the politics. When I recently went back to Hong Kong on holiday however, I decided it was about time I rectified this.
I have previously read the first volume of Journey to the West. I found it really difficult to get into perhaps because it wasn’t as fun as the visuals of Monkey Magic and other adaptations. Also because my limited understanding and interest in Buddhism meant much of the philosophy of the book was lost on me.
This time round I picked up two more seminal works of Chinese literature: Romance of the Three Kingdoms and A Dream of Red Mansions (in translation). Three Kingdoms spans 100 years and hundred of characters as the Han empire collapses and China falls to infighting between various factions. It is part history and part fantasy. Despite the unwieldy nature of the translated names making for easily confusing characters (Liu Bei, Liu Biao, Liu oh I don’t give a damn any more), it’s a fairly fun read of politicking and warmongering. What I learnt from volume one was:
1. Heads will roll 2. Armies of tens of thousands of people can be raised in an instant 3. Underlings are easily bribed/ intimidated 4. Everyone loves a man of honour 5. Legitimacy of warmongering is in the eyes of the winner.
The translation is not bad but it is stifled by the old language that is apparent from the original work. It made me wonder why more people haven’t tried their hand at updating these popular old stories. Considering how popular period drama TV series are in the far east, there is definitely a current interest in it. Add to that the Western world being made aware through Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers, Warlords and Red Cliff recently and I would say the English-speaking world is ready for it too.
Ditto with Japanese folklore and mythology. I mean they have a monster which is an umbrella with one eye and its tongue sticking out and another which is a long strip of cloth. If that isn’t surreal and immense then I don’t know what is. And whilst Tales of the Genji, The Pillow Book and more modern writers have been widely translated, I would love a slice of the Japanese speculative fiction mind that brings us the visual mind-boggling extravaganza that is animes such as Akira, Paprika and Spirited Away.
I cannot even begin to touch on the underrepresented SE Asian countries as I don’t know much about them myself. Whenever I travel I try to buy a book of local folklore or mythology. It’s normally an easily obtainable thing from an airport bookshop. I was saddened however in my sojourn in Thailand to find Bangkok International Airport bookshops only had translated books about ladyboys and the red light district. It disappoints me to think such a rich culture and history is truncated to a niche area mainly populated by oogling tourists.