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American vs. East Asian Storytelling December 17, 2015

My quest to find American fantasies set in Asia continues, with disappointing results. I've found a handful of titles that are close to what I'm looking for, but no bullseyes. The pool of options is too small.

1) Publishers believe Asian fiction "doesn't sell." It's not a sexy setting. All the sexy settings are in the United States and the British Isles. I rarely see popular fiction set in continents other than North America or Europe, and when I do they're exotic curiosities that highlight the horrors of living outside the "First World." If all I knew about Asia came from The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha, I'd think all the men are rape-happy Neanderthals and all the women are either prostitutes or child brides.

2) People don't write fiction set in Asia because people don't write fiction set in Asia. People write romances because they enjoy Nora Roberts, or they write fantasies because they admire Ursula Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander. Only people like me who enjoy Japanese comics and Korean dramas will even think to write in East Asian settings.

3) Cultural differences make it harder to identify with East Asian protagonists than we do with Western ones. This is the meat of today's post.

Differences in Philosophy

East Asian religions and philosophies are very diverse and complex, but for the purposes of this blog post, I'm going to represent them with the single icon below.

Yin and Yang symbol

This symbol represents yin (black) and yang (white). Yin represents passivity, negativity, darkness, femininity, water, etc. Yang represents activeness, positiveness, light, masculinity, fire, etc. The point of this symbol is that these seemingly opposing forces are all part of one whole. Yin and yang complement each other and work together in harmony.

Americans often misinterpret the yin yang symbol. We think white means "good" and black means "evil." I know I did as a child. I couldn't understand when my mother explained that yin and yang should be in balance. Shouldn't positive forces defeat negative forces? Shouldn't light banish darkness forever?

I think this illustrates the essential difference between our cultures: Western cultures are individualist and idealize victory. East Asian cultures are collectivist and idealize harmony.

American stories are typically about righteous heroes defeating sadistic psychopaths. We make movies about Superman vs. Lex Luther, Indiana Jones vs. the Nazis, Clarice Starling vs. Buffalo Bill. We don't like moral gray areas. Even in Star Wars, when characters give lip service to the "balance of the Force," we really expect the Jedi to kill the Sith and then everyone can live happily ever after.

In contrast, the villains in East Asian fiction tend to be essentially good people who make misguided choices, and they reform their ways after the heroes make heartfelt speeches about the importance of friendship. In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995), the villains are a group dedicated to ending war forever and uniting everyone in peace. In Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997), there are no villains. Princess Mononoke is about resolving the conflict between man and nature, not about how one is good and the other is bad.

Differences in Cognition

People in these different types of societies, individualist and collectivist, process information in slightly different ways.

"At the risk of oversimplification, Westerners tend to think more analytically and East Asians tend to think more holistically. Analytic thinking is a cognitive style characterized by logical reasoning, a narrow focus on conspicuous objects in the foreground, and a belief that events are the products of individuals and their attributes....Holistic thinking is characterized by dialectical reasoning, a focus on background elements in visual scenes, and a belief that events are the products of external forces and situations." (Psychology Today)

In other words, Westerners tend to think micro to macro, while East Asians tend to think macro to micro. Analytic thinkers consider a whole to be the mere sum of its parts, while holistic thinkers consider parts to be mere components of the whole.

You can see the difference illustrated in traditional art. Western art focuses on individual people or objects in the foreground, with the rest of the world in the background. Asian art focuses on the big wide world—mountains, trees, rivers—with insignificant humans in the mix.

Mona Lisa

This is "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci. I never noticed before now that there's a landscape behind her.

Along the River During the Qingming Festival

This is "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" by Zhang Zeduan, dubbed "China's Mona Lisa." Those itty bitty specks are people.

You can also see the difference in the way we tell stories. Modern American stories are usually told from a single person's point of view, and they're about heroes taking charge and changing lives. We expect—we demand—that protags protag. We get annoyed by reactive heroes who fail to drive their own stories.

In East Asian fiction, protagonists are often victims of fate, rather than shapers of it. Writers head-hop between many perspectives. They don't assume that a single hero can fix a troubled world. Characters suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more, and then they die.

Differences in Expectations

There's an unspoken rule in Western storytelling that protagonists can't die. We kill off villains, we kill off minor characters, and we especially like to kill off mentor figures (RIP Obi Wan, Mufasa, and Spiderman's Uncle Ben), but we don't kill off major characters. Americans get very upset when writers kill heroes. We want to believe we can control the universe with enough courage and savvy, and that only weak, stupid, unlikable and unimportant people are mortal.

But in Asian stories, nobody is safe. Nobody. Fierce warriors, beautiful princesses, comic sidekicks, adorable young kids, puppies and kittens...they're all potential victims. Don't be fooled into thinking everyone will be happy because you're watching a lighthearted Chinese comedy or a cheerful Japanese anime. The characters you love are going to die.

And unlike over here, children aren't zealously sheltered from tears. In Kroryu Sentai Zyuranger, the Japanese show adapted for the US as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the original Green Ranger dies in the arms of his younger brother, the Red Ranger. In Candy Candy, a classic anime for girls, the sparkly-eyed, pig-tailed heroine's first love dies in a hunting accident. Then her great romance with a handsome bad boy, built up over two years' worth of episodes, ends when he's honor-bound to marry another girl.

East Asian love stories are often bittersweet, full of wistful sorrow, longing, and regret. Japanese romance movies typically feature two people who dance on the edge of a relationship without overtly expressing their feelings, and then one of them dies. In wuxia, a hero and his/her love interest almost always part forever in the end. They might be separated by death, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Prince of Lan Ling (2013). Or they might separate by choice when the hero decides to become a monk, like in the TV series Chinese Paladin 3 (2009) and in Jet Li's debut movie Shaolin Temple (1982).

To Americans, these are dark and disappointing endings. We want love to conquer all. We want impassioned kisses in the rain and promises of forever.

Differences in Codes of Behavior

Because collectivist societies prioritize the stability of the family over the happiness of the individual, in traditional East Asian cultures, the name of the game is filial piety.

When Western writers want to portray characters as good, we'll show how brave and generous they are. The hero will rescue an abandoned puppy, help an elderly lady across the street, or defend a helpless victim against some unattractive thugs.

When East Asian writers want to portray characters as good, they'll show how devoted and respectful they are to their elders. TV writers especially love to make their protagonists bow their heads to abusive older siblings, parents, grandparents, and other social superiors.

For example, in the Korean family drama Life is Beautiful (2010), a mother bursts into the home of her gay son, Kyung-soo, to scream that he's a disgusting pervert who ruined his family's lives by selfishly coming out. Kyung-soo snaps and declares he's no longer her son. His boyfriend is appalled that Kyung-soo treated his mother so disrespectfully. He lectures that they're also in the wrong for causing pain to their parents, and he promptly puts Kyung-soo on a plane home to mend fences.

Or in the hit Chinese comedy We Get Married (2013), the mothers of the hero and heroine wail hysterically because their children won't date the marriage partners they've picked for them. The characters swallow their frustrations and reply calmly or not at all. The few times they slip and show how upset they are, other characters are quick to remind them to try to understand a mother's heart.

Behavior like this infuriates Westerners. They'll watch Korean dramas about sweet heroines living under the thumbs of evil mothers-in-law and rant, "Why doesn't this girl stand up for herself? Why doesn't she tell her husband how nasty his mother is? Why is the husband so reluctant to defy his parents and move out of their house? He's flipping 35, for God's sake!!!"

This is a classic example of cultural dissonance (or what TV Tropes calls Values Dissonance). What American viewers see as evidence of weakness and childishness, Asian viewers see as evidence of strength and maturity. A woman forbearing her mother-in-law's insults with a smile shows that she has good moral fiber. She has the strength to remain humble and courteous even under provocation.

One of the most celebrated figures in Chinese history is Emperor Shun. According to legend, young Shun's family forced him to do menial labor and gave him the worst food and clothing. Still he treated his parents with respect and never once complained. When Emperor Yao gave Shun a government position and two princesses for wives, Shun's jealous stepmother and half brother tried to kill him multiple times. Shun cleverly thwarted their attempts, forgave them wholeheartedly, and rewarded his murderous brother with a position in office. Emperor Yao, impressed by Shun's humility and filial piety, named him his successor.

Western audiences would find this story ridiculous. We value independence. We idolize rebellion. Our fictional heroes are the likes of Robin Hood. We admire charismatic rogues who shake things up and defy authority.

So even the most avid fans of Korean dramas and Japanese anime are often confused and frustrated by the depiction of obedience as heroic. We want our protagonists to be smart-mouthed revolutionaries, not dutiful daughters and sons.

Dealing with Cultural Dissonance

Writers who portray East Asian characters for a Western audience can take four different approaches.

1. Write Asian characters with American values.

Until very recent years, Western writers didn't even try to depict East Asian protagonists with Confucian values. They wrote books in 17th-century Asia filled with characters who acted like 21st-century Americans.

For example, when Donna Jo Napoli retold an ancient Chinese fairy tale in Bound (2006), she made her heroine's character arc decidedly modern. Thirteen-year-old Xing Xing initially acts like her 9th-century inspiration, Ye Xian. She treats her cruel stepmother and stepsister with compassion even when they insult her and use her like a slave. But then she strikes out on adventures, starts to question the biases of Ming society, and eventually stands up to her stepmother and refuses to take her abuse any longer.

"Xing Xing had changed gradually in the weeks since her fish mother was killed. She was determined to be no one's fool anymore. She felt strong. A strong woman in a world that tried to deny the very existence of such a thing. But she wouldn't be denied. She felt she could leap into fire like the mystics and not burn up." (p. 176-177)

Emperor Shun she is not.

This approach is understandable, though dated. After all, books like Bound and movies like Disney's Mulan were made to entertain a modern American audience with modern American tastes and ethics. Audiences today want headstrong, independent heroines. They want princes to value princesses for their wit and impertinence, not for their obedience and humility. So in YA fantasies, the handsome hundred-year-old vampires and warlocks often speak suspiciously like children of the 1990s. And in today's historical romances, the men are egalitarian and the women are educated, outspoken, and confident in their sexuality.

2. Mitigate cultural dissonance through exposition.

Within the story, a writer can explain to American audiences why the characters are acting the way they do. When providing rationale for a person's choices, you can emphasize the importance of tradition, family, and honor.

The danger with this approach is that it can come across as patronizing, like you're generalizing about how the Orientals think.

It can also be awkward and artificial to explain cultural norms that real people take for granted. Imagine reading a novel in which the author takes care to explain that to modern Americans, the idea of an adult sleeping with a minor is abhorrent. Of course it's abhorrent. When movies and shows depict grown men seducing teenage girls, our gut reaction is revulsion. It just feels wrong.

Similarly, when Asian viewers see a character on TV talk back to an elder or cut off family ties, their gut reaction is shock and indignation. Of course it's shocking for a man to say he'll never speak to his mother again, even if she is a bigoted harpy. It just feels wrong.

So if you want to explain, you have to be careful to make the information feel organic. For example, in Butterfly Swords, Jeannie Lin made her hero a European, an outsider only vaguely familiar with Han culture. That way, the heroine can explain her family's customs and ethics to both him and the reader through dialog.

3. Write Asian characters with Asian values.

Readers aren't stupid. They can figure out that Asian characters will act like Asian people.

If they couldn't, the wall of the Teen section of my public library wouldn't be covered with shelves of Japanese manga. Jeannie Lin's Tang Dynasty romances wouldn't hit the bestseller lists. My coworkers wouldn't gossip happily about She Was Pretty and The Moon Embracing the Sun. People can certainly understand and enjoy stories from and about different cultures.

Understanding won't prevent them from getting annoyed, of course. Even though I'm genetically half Asian, I'm cognitively American, so there are times I want to scream at the TV, "Dang it, people! Stop acting so Chinese!" (Freaking Liu Bei.)

But the disparity between cultures isn't that great, really, and the gap grows smaller every year. There are plenty of people here who think holistically and put family before themselves, just as there are plenty of people in Asia who think analytically and thumb their noses at Confucius. We all consider selflessness, humility, intelligence, and courage to be virtues; we just prioritize them differently.

4. Dodge the issue.

Cultural differences are really only problematic for protagonists. Readers get annoyed if they can't identify with the hero or heroine, but they don't need to identify with or even like anyone else.

Therefore, many writers have dodged the issue by sticking a modern American hero on a plane to foreign lands. Many a Californian sleuth has ended up in Shanghai, and many an Midwestern archaeology professor has braved high-flying adventures in Europe, South America, and the Middle East.

Some writers neatly sidestep values dissonance by employing time travel. Then they can put relateable protagonists with Millennial mindsets in cool historical settings. In Outlander (2014), a nurse touches a magical stone during a trip to Scotland and is transported to 1743, where she enjoys a passionate romance with a handsome Highlander. In Faith (2012), a surgeon in Seoul is spirited back to the 1350s by an ancient warrior. I've lost track of the number of fictional teenagers I've seen touch mysteriously glowing amulets and suddenly find themselves in 1960s America, medieval Britain, or feudal Japan.

You can also make the main character unusual in a way that explains their individualist way of thinking. A feudal Japanese hero raised by an eccentric hermit in the mountains would naturally have different opinions than the socialized people in the cities. A heroine who's a Taoist, Shamanic, or Shinto priestess wouldn't be bound by the same social rules as the average Ming, Joseon, or Edo girl.

Another method of dodging values dissonance is to write a fantasy. Then you can build a world that suits your needs. For example, many steampunk novels take place in an alternative 19th century, in which fantastical advances in technology have sped up advances in society. On the decks of dirigibles, young men and women shake off their Victorian mores and become inventors, sky pirates, vampire hunters, etc. Et voila, you have characters with modern thoughts in period costumes.

Values Dissonance Is Everywhere

In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says, "The mark of the hero is that she represents the values of the community. She is representing the moral vision shared by most people and is someone we root for as a result."

The problem is, there's no conveniently homogeneous "moral vision" shared by everyone in the world, or even by everyone in America. Values dissonance isn't unique to stories that take place in foreign settings. Every protagonist will represent the values of some people but not other people.

Wallflower Bella Swan from the Twilight trilogy appeals to people who share the worldview of Stephanie Meyer, a conservative Mormon, but she annoys the heck out of people who want their heroines to be Katniss Everdeens. But the stoic Katniss annoys people who want their heroines to be passionate Anne Shirleys, and Anne Shirley annoys people who want their heroines to be sensible Jane Eyres, and so on.

So even though I've spent considerable time thinking and writing about these cultural differences, I've decided not to worry about them too much when I write my trilogy. I'm choosing a combination of options three and four above. I'm going to create my own world based vaguely on China during the Qing dynasty, but with extensive modifications to make it fun and modern. Some people will hate it, but hopefully the people who like it will outnumber them.


Conan De Moe (January 24, 2018 6:32 am)

Thanks for this great article. I recently watched, From up on Poppy Hill. It was delightful and refreshing compared to the typical heroes journey.

Achiru (June 4, 2018 10:11 am)

These are my frustrations and firsthand experiences as a first generation Chinese-Canadian navigating both Chinese and Western values. When I create comics with a clear Asian aesthetic, it does't appeal to publishers in Canada.

Solusandra (August 28, 2019 1:53 am)

This was fascinating, Thank you for writing. It explained a lot.

If you wouldn't mind though, could you do a piece or email response, about the Hero Cycle? I came across you wondering how core boiled down to its roots asian story differed from the European one. I've been told to look at the "Journey to the West" but it'd be nice to have a convenient map like the literary wheel. Jesus in pergatory vs...Sun Wukong in the Buddha's palm?

Amara Prasithrathsint (January 4, 2022 6:42 am)

This is great. Thank you very much for the detailed analysis with plenty of examples. This well-presented article makes me understand more when watching American and non-American films.

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