The Fell Gard Codices

A Thought, However Tentative

January 5th, 2013

So I’ve begun slowly reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a classic Chinese historical novel. It triggered a thought, which I expect I’ll be considering more as I read further. That thought is this: modern western fantasy frequently seems to imagine a setting in some ways much more like historical China (and Chinese fantasies thereof) than like the medieval west. It’s a tentative thought, because I don’t have a lot of knowledge of Chinese history — some, but not a lot — and less experience of Chinese fantasy: the little bit I’ve read of the Romance, some Chinese fantasy films, and the like. Still, this is a thought I want to bear in mind as I read on in the Romance.

It seems to me that most contemporary western fantasies set in what are ostensibly western medieval fantasylands feel less and less like the actual medieval west the more you learn about the medieval era.  That’s something that wasn’t the case when reading older fantasies: Morris, or Dunsany, or Eddison, or Tolkien. In the worlds imagined by those writers, habits of thought and social structures were, if not exactly like the medieval west, at least similar enough that the medieval feel was accurately captured. Things like a sense of a feudal hierarchy, manorialism, the omnipresence of Christianity and converse fear of hell and heresy — these things might not be explicitly part of the fabric of the fantasies (though they were pretty close in Morris), but you felt like they were somehow part of the same imaginary world.

Conversely, most historical Chinese societies, and the fantasies I’ve seen set therein, seem to have been pluralist in terms of religion, featured an extensive bureaucracy based on meritocratic examinations (in other words, a complex modern social structure), and had extensive rationalistic urban planning — with the result that from at least the Tang dynasty onward (so the 7th century AD and later) there were cities (Luoyang and Chang’an) with populations over a million. Like the metropoli of much modern fantasy, and unlike the smaller cities of the medieval west. All together, these points seem to have more to do with a lot of modern fantasylands than the points that define the Western Middle Ages.

So. Maybe something, maybe nothing. But a point to ponder as I read more and learn more.

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