Fantastical Historicism: The Poppy War and Reclaiming History through Magic 

Kuang is very aware of her radical purpose: “I am a Western author writing to a Western audience in a Western literary tradition.”

Traditionally, mediaeval European settings and stories have dominated the fantasy genre. The influence of Lord of the Rings and other classics have created a sandbox method where, for decades, authors would rewrite the same tales based around knights and heroes, the only meaningful difference being the magic systems and creatures added in to make it a “fantasy” novel. 

As the publishing industry and readers have diversified, however, fantasy has been transformed into one of the most progressive and radical genres you can read. BIPOC authors have combined the historical settings, and the almost limitless creative potential that magic allows, to reclaim their own history and breath power into cultural traditions previously erased. 

Fantasy has allowed authors to create a world which initiates a process of truth telling around Australian colonisation, or similarly has allowed African authors to write in an African inspired setting completely devoid of a European presence.  

A brilliant example of this movement is The Poppy War trilogy, by Chinese-American historian and author Rebecca Kuang. Set in a world heavily based on Qing dynasty China, it retells the Opium Wars, Sino-Japanese War, and eventually WWII and the Chinese Civil War. Kuang sets out to highlight the experiences of the Chinese civilian population who are often ignored in military histories, and create a magic system that elevates Chinese culture as the primary mechanism of resistance. 

Unlike most fantasy series which often glorify war and battle, Kuang takes a hyper-realist and confronting approach. As the protagonist Rin—whose arc is loosely based on Mao— uses guerrilla tactics to fight the Japanese, whole towns and cities are destroyed, civilians are mutilated, and thousands become refugees. 

Kuang draws from her personal experience, recounting a visit to her family in China: “When I visited my father’s home village, you can see the bullet holes in the walls…that’s a history that has stayed with them.” The scars have not healed for much of China, and the fantasy genre allows Kuang to give a voice to those struggles that are absent in more sterile military histories, where maps and casualty charts are often all people ever get. She has complete control of the world and can draft a plot that elevates the aspects of history she values the most. 

Kuang’s use of magic is even more revolutionary. Shamanism and mythology are a syncretic mix of Daoism, Buddhism, and ancient Chinese divination methods. Characters use a combination of meditation and psychotropic drugs to enter a spiritual realm where they can act as a vessel for a god who gives them power in the physical world. Rin binds with the “Phoenix” god who is associated with fire magic. Many of the gods and spirits are taken loosely from classic Chinese literary works like Journey to the West, written during the Ming Dynasty. 

By tying Chinese folklore to magic, the victory of the Chinese people against Japanese and Western imperialists(who don’t have shamans) becomes a victory for Chinese culture as well. Their traditions become weapons that are the decisive force in battles, overcoming physical weapons and tactics; Kuang centres Han resistance on identity. 

This counteracts colonial histories which reduce their struggle to a footnote in a larger global conflict, and the supposedly “nationalist” narrative of the CCP who turned 20th century Chinese history into a linear ideological struggle. In order to justify the Maoist Cultural Revolution in the 1950s, where Chinese civilization was decimated, the CCP have ignored the cultural nature of resistance and instead made it entirely political. Kuang goes a long way to correct the record.    

When the Japanese torture and experiment on Rin and other shamans, mimicking the genuine crimes against humanity committed during the Second World War, they are tortured because the Japanese want to harness their magical abilities. Again, Chinese identity is equated with power, and when Rin survives the torture, it is another symbol of the Chinese people maintaining their culture in the face of what seems like impossible odds. 

The magic system also allows the representation of China’s ethnic minorities who were equally impacted by the conflict but are even missing from Chinese accounts written by Han historians. The Hinterlanders represent the people of Upper Mongolia and their magical abilities are based on traditional nomadic rituals involving horses and eagles. 

The Poppy War is one of the most ambitious projects in modern fantasy. Kuang is very aware of her radical purpose, telling a group of university students in 2020: “I am a Western author writing to a Western audience in a Western literary tradition.” She attempts to rewrite Chinese history, within a Western canon that desperately needs diversity. 

It’s a shame the series has not been translated into Chinese, and would likely be banned in mainland China; The Poppy War tells their story through magic and fantasy. Perhaps, hopefully, people like Kuang’s father should get the chance to read it one day.

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