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The Chinoiserie Genre –

The Chinoiserie Genre

Thursday , 6, April 2017 28 Comments

The Chinese Garden, by François Boucher

Readers familiar with the Pulp Revolution have certainly by now heard that with the death of the pulps, many genres fell out of favor. Hero pulps, sword and sorcery, and planetary romance have all declined from the heyday of the 1930s, often replaced entirely by other expressions of fantasy and science fiction. Yet as we return to reading the pulps instead of what people say about the pulps, whispers of other genres appear. For instance, hidden among the three proud pillars of weird fiction – horror, science fiction, and fantasy – is a fourth genre, one as exotic as its name: chinoiserie.

Chinoiserie first started in the 18th century in the visual arts. European artists impressed by Chinese artistry began to imitate the Eastern designs, incorporating them into pottery, furniture, decor, gardening, and even music. The appetite for chinoiserie grew with the perception of China as a highly civilized culture, even beyond the European norms. The artistic movement continues to the present day, with many works of chinoiserie available online. As with many artistic movements, this fascination with exotic cultures made a jump into literature.

Literary chinoiserie began as an exploration of unfamiliar Oriental cultures as perceived by Western writers.  While the visual arts quickly distinguished between Chinese-influenced chinoiserie and Japanese-influenced japonisme, no such distinction was made in the literary world, with chinoiserie describing Persian, Byzantine, Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese stories. (Despite convention, I will be using chinoiserie and japonisme to differentiate the two flavors of literary chinoiserie.) However, the term quickly narrowed to Pacific Asian cultures, with the Chinese association dominating. Literary chinoiserie expresses itself in three major forms; the exploration of Chinese lands, the exploration of Western ideas of Chinese culture in both its homeland and its diaspora settlements, and the exploration of an idealized China that never was. Occasionally, Western culture would dress up in chinoiserie robes for the purpose of satire, as in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. But common to all expressions is the idea of the outsider looking into another culture not his own, and not always understanding what is seen. One does not write chinoiserie of their own culture. The Chinese author of the Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, writes Chinese science fiction, while Peter Grant writes chinoiserie science fiction dealing with Chinese triads in space in his Maxwell Saga.

Perhaps the most sensationalized version of chinoiserie, yellow peril is the tendency of pulp writers to use Chinese as villains, as popularized by the Lord of Strange Deaths himself, Fu Manchu. Hidden in every shadow were copycat secret societies led by cunning occult mentalists and sensuous deceitful dragon ladies. This was primarily a staple of weird menace, a sensationalist genre of lurid stories where a dreadful and mysterious terror, usually occult or supernatural, threatens to overtake the hero unless he acts. This Chinese threat was not the only staple of the genre, as fantastic, mythological, and scientific terrors would also loom in the pulps, however the trope was common enough to have its subversions and aversions, with the honorable and heroic detective Charlie Chan as the most famous antithesis to yellow peril villains.

Chinoiserie’s fascination with exotic China found a home in the pulps. The Shadow’s first adventure, The Living Shadow, found the Knight of Darkness playing master of disguise in Chinatown to root out a hidden killer. Counter to convention, this killer, Diamond Bert, only posed as a Chinese mastermind. Among the imitators of the Shadow, the Green Lama featured an American student of the Tibetan Lamas using Eastern secrets to defeat Western criminals. Sidney Herschel Small wrote adventures of Asia and American Chinatowns. E. Hoffman Price led the parade of writers of Weird Tales who would use chinoserie, many of which would claim that their stories had been discovered in the markets of China and Istanbul. Clark Aston Smith wrote a prose poem describing two lovers separated by centuries in his “Chinoiserie.” Manly Wade Wellman’s occult investigator, John Thunstone, would test his metal and that of a holy blade against a cursed Gurka honor sword in “The Dai Sword.”

As the pulp age faded, so did literary chinoiserie. But the fascination with China lived on. Robert van Gulik found a copy of The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee in a second-hand store and translated the fictional account of Tang dynasty judge Di Renjie into English. Van Gulik then wrote an entire series of new adventures for Judge Dee, starting with The Chinese Maze Murders. The adventures of the Sinanju master assassin Chuin and his worthless assistant Remo Williams filled book after book of the men’s adventure series The Destroyer. Andre Norton brought a taste of China to gothic romance in The White Jade Foxwhere an antebellum governess must keep her charge’s Chinese treasures safe from her stepmother. E. Hoffman Price would return to chinoiserie in The Devil Wives of Li Fong with the tale of the serpent Mei Ling as she protects her family from Taoist magic. Finally, in perhaps the brightest gem of the chinoiserie crown, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds chronicles the adventures of the sage Master Li and the villager Number Ten Ox as they face off against crooked peddlers, rabbity tax assessors, exalted lords, and the machinations of the gods themselves in search of a cure for the kuu poison affecting their village’s children.

Inspired by Bruce Lee’s fame and Hong Kong cinema, movies such as John Carpenter’s cult-classic Chinatown misadventure Big Trouble in Little China and Disney’s Mulan took the torch of chinoiserie from literature, created beloved classics of the silver screen in the process. Chinoiserie also moved to video games with the gory martial-arts fighting series Mortal Kombat and Bioware’s  Jade Empire, an RPG homage to the Shaw Brothers‘ kung-fu movieswhile the short-lived Firefly television series added a Chinese voice to the strange conversation between Japanese samurai films, American westerns, and science fiction as a whole. More recently, the martial arts cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender explored a fantasy version of China, mixing Western alchemical elements with Chinese martial arts. The tradition continues into this decade, with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA starring in The Man with the Iron Fists, a loving tribute to the grindhouse days of blacksploitation and the Shaw Brothers’ cinema.

As China moved from the written page into the theaters and small screens, Japan took over the written word. James Clavell’s Shogun and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s fantasy adventures of female samurai Tomoe Gozen are among the first novels reflecting the shift from chinoiserie to japonisme. As Japan rose again to become an economic power and a media giant in the 1980s, American fascination with the Land of the Rising Sun grew, spilling over into its stories. Perceptions of present day Japan are explored in thrillers like Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, lost-in-translation misadventures like Isaac Adamson’s Tokyo Suckerpunchand lost to reality gamer webcomics such as Megatokyo. Continuing the tradition created by Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan, the folklore and mythology of Japan are explored in novels such as Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman and Lian Hearn’s Tale of Shikanoko series. Japanese history from the Heian court to the Warring States forms the backdrop for I. J. Parker’s Akitada mysteries, the Yamada Monogatari series of Richard Parks, and the classic Tales of the Otori. Japanese elements flavor John Wright’s Daughter of Danger, Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman and American Gods, and indie works such as Rawle Nyanzi’s Sword & Flower and countless others. And the thirst for all things Japanese (and japonisme) has yet to be quenched.

(Incidentally, as of the date of writing, Castalia House’s concepts page still states that they are looking for a Heian era fantasy “set in the world of the Shining Prince as per Sei Shonagan and Shikibu. Complete with poems.”)

Perhaps the reason why chinoiserie and japonisme do not get the recognition that other genres do is because they combine so well with other genres. Chinoiserie rarely stands alone in a story, but crosses with action, with detective mystery, with noir, with fantasy, and even with science fiction to bring a exotic flavor to those genres. It has been easy to lose sight of the influence of chinoiserie as this weird fiction genre has drifted into the historical fiction and literature shelves. However, the influence of the East upon weird fiction is unmistakable, and chinoiserie is as much a founding genre as fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

  • deuce says:

    Well done! Obviously, you couldn’t list everything, but here’s a few more. Robert W. Chambers preceded even Rohmer with tales like “The Maker of Moons” and THE SLAYER OF SOULS. One of Burroughs’ earliest — and best — novels was THE MUCKER, which culminated on a Pacific island populated by exiled, cannibalistic samurai! Lovecraft’s “The Gardens of Yin” was a fine bit of chinoiserie. Robert E. Howard set numerous 1930s tales in China. Eric van Lustbader not only wrote THE NINJA, he also penned a trilogy of borderline sword & sorcery novels that combined fantasticated chinoiserie with japonisme. CJ Cherryh’s THE PALADIN is a worthy novel of fantasticated chinoiserie. As I said, there are bookshelves more, but those are a few to add to the list.

    • caleb says:

      I suppose that you, at least, will be familiar with Frank Owen, now utterly forgotten WT contributor who was very partial to Chinese-flavored fantasies. This was the first story of his that I’ve read some years ago, in that Betancourt WT anthology, but it stuck in my mind:

    • NARoberts says:

      Oh! Someone else has read The Mucker. I had forgotten all about him, and at one time I thought he was Burroughs’ most complex character.

  • Sensei says:

    Could William Gibson’s “Japan is the future”/sci-fi-yakuza cyberpunk fiction be included as a type of Japonisme?

    • Nathan says:

      Very much so. I had Idoru in my notes for inclusion, but I was starting to overwhelm with the number of entries on the list. Unfortunately, any short survey will leave out deserving examples.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Thank you for this, I’d come across that term several times in the last month or so, but it was never clear from the context what exactly it entailed.

  • caleb says:

    Ernest Bramah’s most excellent Kai Lung series certainly deserves a mention. I discovered it on random, by browsing some site or other wherein writer, while talking about Vance, mentioned Bramah as someone with a remarkably similar style. And they’re great indeed, humorous fables with lovely prose and imagery.

    Cordwainer Smith might be mentioned as someone whose fiction was wholly influenced by the Chinese culture and the style of their classic literature, even though his stories obviously weren’t set in China (with the partial exception of his gorgeous Buddhist fable, “The Fife of Bodidharma”).

  • icewater says:

    Julie of the Forgotten Classics podcast happens to have narrated the -entirety- of above mentioned “Bridge of Birds”, with author’s gracious permission.

  • Jasyn Jones says:


    I’d toss the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot on the Japonisme pile—it concerns a small island in the South Pacific ruled by an SPOILER immortal Japanese goddess and her horrifying and immortal Samurai-armor-clad warriors. WWII Japanese soldiers built elaborate bunkers on the island as well, and many of the relics she recovers are likewise Japanese (among many other cultures).

    • keith says:

      I don’t know about that one, but there was Jade Empire, RPG (albeit a very simple one) from some years ago that was basically a collection of wuxia tropes. Nice, moody little game.

      • Andy says:

        I’ve been replaying Jade Empire recently. I want to like it more than I do but I feel that the setting has so much potential that isn’t fully unleashed because of Bioware’s storytelling and gameplay tics.

        • Andy says:

          Oh, and speaking of videogames, Origin back in the 80s released a couple of games inspired by Far East concepts: Moebius, the Orb of Celestial Harmony and its sequel Windwalker.

          Electronic Arts did an Ultima-like RPG with a Japanese flavor called Deathlord.

          And Jordan Mechner’s Karateka.

        • keith says:

          It’s a flawed game, but it was its themes and atmosphere that bought me. As I’ve said, it’s like a virtual collection of all those appealing “Chinoiserie” tropes: swamp filled with outlaws, haunted forests with revenants, fox spirits and cannibals (and there’s was this tragic touch to related quests that felt very Hearn-like, like the ghosts of siblings in that abandoned orphanage), pirate hideouts, bustling tea houses, supernatural assassins etc, etc… Not to mention that party members are all straight wuxia material. And it was just very well realized from the visually-aural standpoint. But it’s flawed alright, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of narrative. There were some nice ideas that pertained to both, like the clear good-evil dichotomy of KotOR being superseded by something akin to left hand – right hand path that exists separately from it (and then they just gave up on it, so that choices devolved into good or frothing evil).

          • Andy says:

            Yeah, that echoes my thoughts quite a bit. They clearly did their research on the genre (they lifted Henpecked Ho straight out of Bridge of Birds), but the combat just isn’t very interesting or martial arts-like and the morality system doesn’t feel sincere.

        • caleb says:

          Ya familiar with Cosmology of Kyoto, Andy? Weird-ass esoteric adventure steeped in Japanese history and folklore. It’s rather hard to describe, and I’m not sure if I’d call it good, but it has its striking style and one of a kind uncanny feel to it.
          If Kyoka Izumi was alive and making games today, I’d guess that the sort of thing we’d got.

  • Gaiseric says:

    The aesthetic was also reflected in the Saturday afternoon Hong Kong theater movies that played in the late 70s and early 80s on one of the three TV channels that we used to have back then. And then David Carradine’s Kung Fu made it briefly pretty mainstream. Gary Gygax and Co. brought it overtly into the world of Dungeons & Dragons in 1985 with Oriental Adventures and subsequent follow-ups and copycats, like Rokugan.

    By this time, the mystique of chinoiserie had migrated to japonisme, as you say, so those fantasy settings resemble in most cases the latter more than the former, but they sweep up elements of both.

    I think part of the reason it fell out of favor is the same reason that Orientalism fell out of favor. Guys like Edward Said wrote influential works that said it was “racist! bigot!” and people just wandered away.

  • Robert says:

    Seems like a good place to try and convince more people to read the Chung Kuo series by David Wingrove. The Middle Kingdom turned into 40 Billion people in a world blanketing city.

  • ScottatCastalia says:

    Damn, more books I want to read!

  • Jesse Lucas says:

    Shee-nwa-seh-ree, right?

    And I’m aware of the call for Heian fiction, don’t worry.

    • Nathan says:

      I’ve heard Duke Ellington pronounce it as shin-wa-seh-ree on a recording, but I’ll let French speakers decide which pronunciation is correct.

  • It also occurs to me that Ming The Merciless, while ostensibly an alien, was clearly modeled on a stereotypical Chinese Mandarin. And Buck Rogers fought against the Han empire.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    Traditional Chinese culture has a really gaudily awful sense of aesthetics.

  • keith says:

    There’s actually a huge community built around the English fan translations of popular modern wuxia novels. I cannot vouch for the quality of any of it, but it might be worth looking into if someone wants to scratch that particular itch. Translations of Jin Yong’s Condor novels are thought highly of, from what I gather.

    • Nathan says:

      Interesting you should mention that. I have a xianxia novel from some of those forums that I’ll be blogging about next month. (Xianxia is wu xia, but with Taoist magic.)

      I’ll have to check out the Condor ones as well.

  • deuce says:

    Damn, I can’t believe I forgot to mention that one of A. Merritt’s earliest tales was “Through the Dragon Glass”, which began with the sack of the Forbidden City. His novel, SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN starts off with the protagonist having smuggled “Yunnan jades” out of China after winning them from a bandit chief in a game of poker. Merritt’s unfinished story, “The Fox Woman”, was set entirely in China.

    Make A. Merritt Great Again!

  • john silence says:

    Something like Feist’s Empire trilogy would certainly classify for this, hm? Fantasy culture that is very much based on Ancient China (well, with a bit of Mesoamerica thrown in).

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