Chinese Lore- A selection of Mythical Flora (1)

Shadow Wood

Physical Description:

A tree distinguishable because in the day-time, each of its leaves has one hundred of the Chinese character that means “shadow” on it while at night its flowers will shine like stars. This tree will only bear fruit every 10 000 years. Its fruits are as large as a melon, with a green skin and black seeds.

Special Properties:

Consuming the fruit of this tree will cause the body to become lighter (could also be interpreted as a bonus to speed and jumping abilities)

Lore:

Reputedly one of the fauna or flora that have taken on sentience (or at least become different in some way) from being ancient and/or having absorbed (or possibly developed on their own) a certain amount of “essence” of nature. In Chinese, such life forms are referred to as “Yao Jing” where Yao refers to anything and everything out of the common and Jing can be translated to “essence”.

Translation Quirk:

At first, I thought each leave of the Shadow Wood has 100 shadows rather than having 100 Chinese characters of the word “shadow” on it. In Chinese, usually a word is composed of at least 2 characters. For the term “shadow”, it is far more common for it to be represented by 2 Chinese characters, the first already meaning “shadow” on its own and the second one meaning “son” on its own but when used in combination with other characters is really more of a “space filler”. In addition, the character that means “son” and the character that means “word” in Chinese are quite similar in form. 

Golden Ivy Moss (aka Nightglow Moss)

Physical Description:

An egg-shaped moss of a golden colour

Special Properties:

It will glow when put in water.

Lore:

A gift from a foreign country to China during the Jin Dynasty (the Dynasty straight after the Period of the Three Kingdoms)

Ivy Bloom

Physical Description:

A spinach-like plant, whose flowers can take on five different colour depending on the time of the day. In particular, its flowers are purple in the morning, green at noon, yellow in the afternoons, indigo near sunset and red at night.

World Building: Constellation

I’ve previously listed constellations under Worldbuilding- Moonlake’s Favourite Elements. Today I want to show two snippets of my writing where constellations feature prominently. 

The New Moon shone pale against the backdrop of black velvet that was the sky. In contrast, various constellations competed intensely in a race to outshine each other. In the centre of the Celestial River, the Two Hares bounded ahead of the stalking Fox whilst continuously throwing furtive glances behind and inevitably faltering a little in their steps. At such times, the eerily lit eyes of the Fox would shine forth somewhat brighter, heralding the great leap it was about to make in order to close in with its preys. But then, the Two Hares would unerringly find their footing again and adeptly swerve to the side such that the Perpetual Chase would begin anew. Behind the Fox strode the Hunter, who spent the Steppe and Blood Moons hunting the Fallow Deer prancing merrily above the Fox while chasing after the Wilful Maiden for the other half of the year. Just now, the Maiden was tossing her hair and laughing, keeping most of her gaze on the Perpetual Chase above her but periodically teasing and enticing the Hunter to follow on her heels. She seemed like a wholly different person from the kneeling figure who spent most of the time with her entire face cupped within her hand and only occasionally looking up to show a tear-streaked face- the Weeping Maiden as she was at such times. Bortai did not care for her in either form. She much preferred her sister, the Silent Maiden who had all of her attention fixed on interacting with the Dying Rack. Although she was not as ethereally beautiful as her sister, the sense of absorption in her own realm that she showed stroke a chord deep within Bortai. 

~ Snippet from The Return of the White Deer [mentioned in Moonlake’s Work pile (3)]

I waited expectantly on the appointed night, the same as I’ve waited for the past three years. There is a voice telling me to look up but I dare not. Niang had drilled into me that it isn’t right for us common people to gaze upon the transformation of the Shapeshifter. It does not like mortal eyes peeking at it while it is turning from a happy carp swimming within the Celestial River back to its true form. And we common people have to obey rather than tempting immortals to throw their wraths at us. An interminable time would pass while I fought with the itch within my heart that grew as Niang kept her stern scrutiny of me to ensure that I would keep my head down. When she gave me her verbal permission to look up again,  I never failed to gasp at the true form of the Shapeshifter. Which was daunting and yet eerily magnificent too. Yet, my heart would scream its dissatisfaction, at being cheated of the chance to watch the entire transformation as it progresses. In that first year, when I settled with the Old Man within the Imperial Palace, he said the words that I had dreamed of Niang saying in the past three years when I lowered my chin instinctively, “Look up, Xun Zhen, watch the splendour of the Transformation as it occurs.” And I did. First, the Carp shed some of the scales on its body as glittering pinpricks of starlight. Then it swished its tail and stretched and transformed itself all at the same time, unbelievably fast. It was every bit as breathtaking as I would imagine it to be and more.

~ Snippet from A Thread of Chance (navigate to Moonlake’s Writing to read it as a complete novella, it’s rough but a complete story nevertheless)

What Moves Me- Summary from My Latest Personal Reflection Spell

As promised, I will start off this year with a post summarising my take-away from the personal reflection spell I alluded to in my last blog post last year. 

But firstly, let me describe what happened that brought it on. Well, the main culprit was this mainland Chinese dating show that I stumbled upon that I could watch like TV drama (I’ve always like watching TV drama due to the fact that it’s something I can follow over a period of time, I like immersion in a story, same reason why I prefer series to a standalone book). I got a bit addicted to watching it to be honest. At the same time, my WIP has an anti-romance/romance plot that I was trying to figure out and I was majorly blocked because I had always been single. 

Then, I don’t know why but from some time in July I stopped being able to go back to sleep when I woke up in the middle of the night. Instead, my mind was somehow concocting mini-stories of how two particular guys on that dating show found their matches. And why these two men on the show stood out was because they made me feel I could potentially befriend them. This was special because:1) I am quite selective in who I want to befriend as a rule and 2) I had never wanted to befriend someone out of the blue in my 37 years of life (actually I was 36 when I had the personal reflection spell but I digress). I had known my best friend ever since we were both 14 but it was she who was perpetually taking the initiative in keeping in touch. From the start, she was the one pursuing my friendship and it was clear that she would be doing this and willing to do this for her whole life. 

Anyway, I had no idea how it happened but I was really into the love stories I was concocting in my sleepless brain, so much that I was crying in bed. The form of crying where I had to blow my nose as well as wiping away at tears. And I don’t usually cry- somewhere during my teenagerhood I decided I would never cry again, ever (I only relaxed this after I started visiting a psychologist to sort out my phD fiasco and he told me that I shouldn’t have created this rule because it’s not healthy, much better to let the negative emotions flow out with your tears. Still, you are not going to catch me crying in public or admitting to it, at least.). So this is just a bunch of strong emotions that suddenly got sprung on me. And it didn’t help that the female characters in these two stories were too much me, too close to my core personality and values. So essentially, my personal reflection was triggered. 

I suffered from a period of lack of concentration (due to sleep loss) and negative feelings as bad memories re-surfaced during the personal reflection phase. But the following are my overall takeaways from this experience:

  • I managed to clear some cobwebs to do with bad relationships. They were basically stuff about my biological father and cousin, both of whom I had decided to completely forget and remove from my world. But apparently my memory or heart was still harbouring something about them in a dark corner. So it was good that they got pulled out into the light again and I could examine them and truly lay them to rest or burn them out of my system. 
  • It made me realise how precious my friendship with my best friend really is. So much that I was moved to tears thinking about her (and she’s the only one out of people I actually know in real life who could do that to me other than Mum). In addition, it provided a point of contrast for me to put into my perspective the relationship I had with my cousin who I grew up with and used to love like a brother. We had lived together under the same roof for more than half of our lives at one point but ultimately he chose to let our relationship just go. In retrospect, that made my love for him feel like an attempt on my part to force him to love me (that was never my intent: I had never even wanted him to love me in return. What I really thirsted for was just him as a play-mate. Me and him were both an only child so I was lonely. I had not always loved him even though I was very close to. Then I was 14, I was learning about inner circles in health, I realised I was so close to loving my cousin- literally one step away. For multiple reasons, I decided to take the plunge into loving him). Meanwhile, my best friend had a great desire to be BFF with me from the get go and had already given me a friendship that had lasted for more than half of our lives up to now. 
  • I was forced into re-examining the role of romance in my life which I’m not sure I really appreciate but perhaps it’s just due. To be honest, this is one aspect that I’ve neglected for as long as I can remember. Like, ever since high school and until uni, I was of the attitude that I would never marry and never even date. Reason? My core personality contains being serious. That means if I ever allow romance into my life, I want to be serious about it, treat it with a serious attitude. Anyway, long story short is that I had convinced myself that if I never intend to marry, I should never date because that is not being serious enough about romance. Then I think I reconsidered and told one or two of my friends that I change my mind about romance that lasted maybe a couple years. But then I started doing a PhD and I’ve always had the attitude that I won’t date when I’m studying. So then things got back to square one. Then I had the career change crisis after the phD fallout, the rediscovery of fiction writing as my passion, the return to FT job, job change etc. As of currently, I’m juggling between a FT job and trying to write the first book of a debut set of 3 novels. So I’m feeling time constraints keenly and just don’t feel that I have the spare time for a boyfriend yet and truth be told, perhaps never. Or maybe after 50. Absolutely no idea to be honest. 

Writing Plan

I’m briefly back but I am not officially coming back to the blogging world until next year. Before I go into my writing plan, I thought I would briefly go back what’s been happening in my blogging absence. 

So long story short is that I’ve been caught up in a personal reflection spell in July- I am a bit of a philosophical person so personal reflections happen in short bursts for me quite frequently. But the July one is another beast altogether- it’s actually a prolonged period in which I’ve been staying up sleepless after I woke up in the middle of the night and I was remembering things from way back. Like childhood and teenagehood… I will blog about this first thing when I officially come back to blogging next year. Just know that it took up my attention from July until like September when I finally got back to my WIP. 

As for my writing plan, I’m going to aim for finishing a rough draft by the end of this year which means having all the material ready to cobble together a draft 0.6. I had ended up deciding to switch from third person point of view to first person in an attempt to get closer to my main characters. But I still intend to write in third person for the actual book so therefore I will need to do extra work: turn the first person writing back into third again for the parts of the books that I was able to progress with the switch of perspective. That will occur over February most likely since I will be taking the last of the University of British Columbia’s How to Write a Novel online courses on editing (I had previously completed their Outlining and First Draft courses, I think they are really good value). 

So that’s it for now. See you all in two months. 

Moonlake’s Serendipities (2)

Above is a slightly different definition of serendipity that I first came across and understood the term but let’s just say I think of it as life’s little surprises. I haven’t reported on any life surprises for a while and since one just happened recently, I thought I would blog about it. So I had been playing around with the idea of starting my author interview series again and it even went as far as me having decided the two author candidates that I was going to approach (both were my FB friends). And then voila, FB told me it’s the birthday of one of them, specifically an author that I discovered last year whose work I really appreciated, Scott Oden who wrote A Gathering of Ravens. So I said happy birthday to him and he replied, then I told him about the interview and he accepted. What luck is that! 

So yes, the interviews are coming back but I am switching the focus. The last set of interviews were very much for fellow writers or more like aspiring writers. The new author interview series, however, would target readers. To that end, I’ve asked around at FB groups and while I’ve only received a few responses, they were very insightful and really helped me to home in on what type of questions I would need to be asking. 

The interview will go up sometime this month so stay tuned for that if you are interested in historical fiction or fantasy. 

Moonlake’s Book Discoveries- June 2019

I tried to read Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series but because the book was so thick I ended up delaying it to July when I would get a one week break. As of the time this is published, I am reading book 1 of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn quartet- The Dragonbone Chair. I rather enjoy it- the ‘old school’ feel and everything. I am moving slowly through it though so I expect this quartet would probably occupy my next quarter.

Death on Demand by Jim Kelley

To be honest, I should say that I am completely neutral about this book i.e. I neither like nor dislike it. That is not to say that I’m meh about this book, as is usually the case when I say that. Rather, I think it’s solidly written but somehow it just didn’t elicit a response from me, whether that’s on an intellectual, personal or emotional level.

It’s my first time reading a police procedural unless you count Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series but I think that was before the sub-genre of police procedural ever arose (or maybe I’m just ignorant). So perhaps my reaction is shaded by this. But overall, I think the plot is solid- the author had two main plots and they were woven together successfully in the end. There are also moments where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, a feature I always look to for the mystery genre (although I did guess one of the culprits early on). Perhaps it’s the characters who did not quite catch on for me or the pace (I mean, it’s not like a cozy mystery which I felt to be too slow but it’s not fast-paced either. It’s kinda like a light reading with shortish chapters where you can put down and pick up anytime. And well, I was looking for something to ease me back into reading after my long holiday when I picked it up but perhaps I was looking for something a little more fast-paced, something more similar to my own conventional conception of a murder mystery than this).

Merry Chirstmas, Alex Cross by James Patterson

In general, I think this book lives up to the JP formula of a fast-paced, light reading. Alex Cross continues to endear himself to me in the way he shows himself to be a man of high morality. However, this book also has mild doses of what I came to call ‘cheap dramatics’ that I came to expect of JP’s work. Nothing intolerable but I just personally never like books where I felt like the author was deliberately trying to ‘game’ reader reactions in a certain way.

Moonlake’s Writing Updates (8)

I am someone who is always more cautious about sharing bad news but the truth is that I’ve been a bit lost over these 2 months for my novel. Technically I’m not that lost but I haven’t been adding word counts on a daily basis and I haven’t been doing work for the novel on a day-to-day basis. Part of it is a change of routine- I just started a new job in May. Part of it is disconnection from the WIP in the form of not knowing enough about character and the underlying world. Then a major part is I think attributable to lethargy/procrastination combined with a lack of accountability- I brought back a decoder from overseas and suddenly TV is worth watching again. Then there are days where I can work on my novel but because I had not set goals as consistently as when I was working on a draft, I would put things off until it was sleep time and then I just went to sleep without having anything for the novel. This also coincided with a period where I skipped out on doing my daily achievements. And in fact, this lethargy is the reason why there was no blog post last week- I was composing a post for 2 weeks and then I just ‘forgot’ about it amidst continuously putting it off. And no, it’s not this current post, you will see that other one at a future time.

Anyway, I have ‘emerged from the dark’ now and I have a new deadline- to finish draft 0.6 by the end of this year. By the way, I did finish my draft 0.5, even way before the deadline. But it was more of a ‘let it go’ as opposed to achievement since I really had only half of the scenes fully written. Still, I had learnt to appreciate smallness so I just accepted it and moved forward albeit being disappointed. And now I am moving forward to yet another goal.

Persistence is the key. Till next time.

Tales of Inspiration (1)

“Where do you get your inspiration from?” That seems to be a FAQ for writers. So I thought I would answer it here by describing how each of my story ideas came to me. It would also be a good way for me and my future readers to acquaint ourselves so they get a glimpse of what they will be getting into.

But first of all, let me briefly recap my personal answer to where do I get inspiration from. Actually, it’s not actually my personal answer, more like an answer I read that I felt personally clicked with me. Essentially, it has 2 components: 1) external impetus: information and ideas you gather from books, TV, personal experience etc.; 2) the internal processing of your mind where you modify and/or combine the ideas you gather from outside sources

I think I’ve mentioned this before but my first recent attempt at novelling was actually this mock fan-fic based on an online novel that was abandoned half way and therefore I never got to see its ending. The writing wasn’t great (in fact it was quite amateurish) but I was quite into the story – it was novel in how it introduced an ‘ethnically Chinese’ protagonist into a fantasy setting based on Islam society in a desert. Also, I can see some deep themes and was rather overcome by emotion in certain bits of the story. So when I first decided to dip my toes into novel writing, I thought why not start with this story because then I could save a fair amount of time with the planning by keeping everything the same as the online novel. Now that plan quickly unravelled as I started to want to fix plot inconsistencies etc.

And yet, all was not wasted since I later came up with a prequel that was quite distinct from the original- it has completely different characters because it’s set generations back and the overall society also had a large difference. However, I became and am still uncertain over the ethical and legal considerations over actually publishing the prequel since I was still borrowing elements of the world from the original work and plus I was also rather stuck when I wrote up the outline for it so I decided to not to pursue the project. Still, I think it’s a good illustration of how inspiration works under the external impetus+internal processing system. In this case, the external impetus was clearly that abandoned online novel that I read while my internal processing came up with another related but totally different story idea.

That’s it for today. Let me know if you have thoughts on what I’ve shared before. I’m not sure what to blog about for next week yet but I’m trying to keep the content of my blog balanced so the next post of this series would be sometime next month.

Meta Fiction: Shuang Gu Sword (Double Branched Sword)

Author’s notes: this sub borrows heavily from actual Chinese history and folklore (at least, so far as the legend section goes but a fair bit was just the author adapting real history to her own use).

Appearance:

It is a set of two short swords (housed within the same scabbard) that weigh approximately the same but one (the female sword) is shorter than the other (the male sword) by a few Chinese inches*. Neither of these swords are ornately decorated but to a trained eye they show superb craftsmanship.

*The male sword is about 0.9m long in modern terms while the female one is about 0.8m in length

Legends:

Crafting

The Shuang Gu Jian is well-known as the weapon of Liu Bei, lord of the Shu Kingdom during the Period of the Three Kingdoms. The story of its crafting is not really known except for the speculation that it was crafted by a local smith as a special gift to Liu Bei for freeing the region Han Zhong from the rule of the villainous Cao Cao, lord of the Wei Kingdom. It was recently put forth as a theory that this set of weapons was actually the long lost set of swords Gan Jiang and Mo Xie crafted by and named after the famous swordsmith couple in the era of the Spring and Autumn Warring States and somehow recovered by Liu Bei. Neither version could be proved (or for that matter disproved) since this legendary set of swords had long been lost.

Ownership History

After Liu Bei passed away, the Shuang Gu Sword went to his eldest son and successor Liu Shan. Later when Liu Shan surrendered to the Wei court, he gifted the weapon to Cao Cao as a tribute. It was said that this greatly pleased Cao Cao, who subsequently kept the weapon of his strongest opponent lovingly among his personal collection of trophies.

Upon his succession, Cao Pi- surviving eldest son of Cao Cao, attempted to kill his younger brother Cao Zhi, who had been his chief rival in terms of contending to be the crown prince. The sequence of events from this attempt that culminated in the forming of the Seven-steps Verse is already well-known. In addition, one text recorded (via oblique references) that after this unsuccessful attempt, Cao Pi gifted the Shuang Gu Sword to Cao Zhi. It was conjectured that such an action was done in mockery on the part of Cao Pi, using their father and his chief rival as analogies for himself and his younger brother respectively.

And from this point on, the whereabouts of the Shuang Gu Sword passed out of official records but periodically, rumours would surface of an extraordinary pair of swords that is similar to the Shuang Gu Sword. In each of these tales, this pair of swords confers a totally different yet similarly spectacular ability to its owner.

Amongst them, the most dramatic relates to that of the legendary Xue Cheng Yue in the era known as the Northern Song period, the leader of the rebels in the Northern part of the Dragon Empire that was held by the Jurchen invaders at that time (who adopted this particular name to declare his intentions of taking over the mantle of responsibility for repelling the Jurchen invaders from the patriotic general Yue Fei). However, it is hard to ascertain whether Xue Cheng Yue was an actual person that existed or merely a mythical figure that came about from the populace’s laments over the demise of the tragic hero Yue Fei at the hands of the villain Qin Hui. Consequently, there are two schools of thoughts divided on their belief regarding the authenticity of the ‘subsequent sightings’ of the Shuang Gu Sword. One firmly believes that the Shuang Gu Sword did surface from time to time and moreover that it is one of the remarkable weapons made from wishsteel that allowed it to adapt its properties to its owner. Meanwhile, the other stream maintains that these other weapons were in all probability simply replicas. As for the reported special properties, it was thought that they were merely embellishments that were wont to occur in these local legend/folklore type stories.

Special Properties

According to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Shuang Gu Sword is a loyal weapon, much as its master Liu Bei. Allegedly, it would fly out of the grasp of Cao Cao of its own accord whenever he attempted to hold either of the blades in his hands. Nothing so dramatic was mentioned when this weapon was in possession of either Liu Shan or Cao Zhi. This was taken to be a sign that the Shuang Gu Sword did not find either worthwhile masters for itself even though they were not as repellent to the sword as the most heated foe of its rightful master.

Of the ‘subsequent sightings’ of the Shuang Gu Sword, most accounts did not delve into exactly what the special boons this legendary weapon gave to their owners. Where a property was mentioned, different versions arose. For example, in the Northern part of the Dragon Empire, it was passed down in legends that Xue Chen Yue held a set of blades that were bloodthirsty- it was said that the more blood they were fed, the more voracious their appetites grew, such that they would seek out bodies to cut down of their own accords. In the Southern, though, most believe that either he wielded a pair of swords that gave him the ability to make his troops invisible or move like the wind in combat.

Remarkable Women in Ancient China (3)- Ban Zhao

Who is she:

  • The first female historian in Chinese history, a renowned politician and poet
  • Author of the influential text “Lessons for Women” that is inextricably linked to female suppression

Notable life events:

  • Born into the prestigious Ban family (which was reputedly the descendants of a famous philosopher in the Warring State Period) as the daughter of Ban Biao, one of the most influential scholar of his time. She had two elder brothers: the eldest Ban Gu who was also a historian and the renowned Ban Zhao who turned from a scholar into a general and was instrumental in securing China’s western border. Note that the Zhaos in the two siblings’ names were actually different Chinese characters- the Zhao in her brother’s name meant surpass whereas hers meant bright
  • Married at the age of 14 to Cao Shi Shou from the same province, widowed early and chose to remain widowed throughout her life
  • Instrumental in getting permission from the Emperor to allow Ban Zhao to retire from his post at the western border and return to their homeland. Unfortunately, he died soon after arrival such that the two of them never got to see each other again
  • Invited by the Emperor to finish the historical text that her father started and her eldest brother Ban Gu left unfinished due to his untimely demise due to politics
  • Viewed as an instructor by the Empress and concubines of the Emperor and coming to be known as Cao Da Gu (roughly meaning Big Aunt Cao). In particular, only elderly women of high prestige and virtue at that time would be referred to as Da Gu
  • Authored the text “Lessons for Women” in her old age so that her female descendants would know how to properly behave when they were married

Why is she remarkable:

  • There were many renowned female poets and politicians throughout Chinese history. In comparison, female historians were much rarer. In fact, I couldn’t find any other mention of other female historians (that might be just the limit of Google but I also think even if there are others, female historians would still be less numerous compared to poets and politicians)
  • While she herself was a highly influential female figure outside the home, her “Lessons for Women” became one of the texts that later propagated the main tenets of female repression and led to a more subdued role of women in society

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I found it hard to conceptualise her as a person and so I can’t really hold an opinion about her. I’ve previously discussed a little my attitude on gender roles but in the case of Ban Zhao, I don’t think you can really fault her for the outcome that her book led to greater repression. Sure, it basically espoused the view that women should be obedient and weak but I think we need to put it into the context that she was happily married (note that she chose to remain widowed) in a society where marriages were predominantly arranged by parents and sometimes without any consultation with the one who was about to get married! So of course she could afford to be obedient and weak if her husband was treating her well and given that she wrote the book for her direct descendants, I think she probably assumed that all women could be happily married if they behaved like her.