The Poppy War: A Review

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.


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The Boss Behind the Cowherd and Weaver Myth

This time last year, I launched my book “From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities” in the UK. Vivian Ni, the wonderful manager of Guanghwa in London, my bookshop of choice for the launch, wrote a lovely article for the occasion of Qi Xi, which she published on WeChat. I liked it so much that this year, I have translated it into English to share with my English-language readers on the same occasion of Qi Xi. The article contains a brief interview with me, I hope you enjoy it.


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Tu Er Shen: Patron of Homosexual Love

This week sees many gay and lesbian couples proudly walking up the isle as Taiwan becomes the first region in Asia to legalise same-sex marriages. Whilst my book “From Kuan Yin to Chairman: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities”, aims to show the depth and breath of native Chinese beliefs and their cultural significance, it’s by no means a definitive guide. One deity I didn’t get to write about in the book, is 兔兒神Tu Er Shen, the rabbit god, patron of homosexual love. This weekend is the perfect time to tell you a little bit about him.


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Crazy Rich Asians: There’s A Lot to Chu Over

“Crazy Rich Asians”, has made a huge impact in the short time since its release, not only because it’s based on an international bestseller by an East-Asian author, Kevin Kwan, but because it features an almost entirely Asian cast, (with only five white guys even getting a speaking part). In a U.S.-originated movie, it’s a rare thing for East-Asians to take centre-stage.

With screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, this is the story of quintessentially American Chinese Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who embarks on a trip with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to visit his home, Singapore. It turns out to be the trip of a lifetime. Rachel discovers that her laid-back, low-profile boyfriend is a billionaire whose family built half of Singapore. Between head-on cultural clashes, and the brutal matrimonial realities within Asian family clans, Rachel is way out of her depth, and must sink or swim.


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Manuscript of a Century: an Extract

From the father of Pinyin, Zhou Youguang. Because I liked his introduction.


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12 Christmas Gift Ideas for the Sinophile

My English partner once told me, that China should re-Christen themselves the East Pole, claim Father Christmas as one of their own, and tell the children of the world, that he’s just moved closer to where the toys are made.

As we hear sleigh bells on the horizon, I know a lot of you will be facing Christmas with a mixture of excitement and dread, with many of you still hunting for exactly the right gift to spoil your loved ones and friends. Interest in Chinese culture have grown in recent years, and I hope this gift guide may help inspire anyone shopping for a sinophile!


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The Man in the High Castle (and competition time!)

When I heard that Philip K. Dick ‘s “The Man in the High Castle” was coming to TV, I was trepidatious. Film versions of PKD’s work have been hit and miss, from the rather hammy “Total Recall” with Arnie, to the seminal scifi-noir “Bladerunner”. When I heard that Ridley Scott, Bladerunner’s helmsman would be in the director’s seat, I was very pleased. “Bladerunner” had a profound influence on my sense my sci-fi aesthetics, and no doubt on the works of many subsequent sci-fi directors and artists. As a writer on Chinese culture, I can’t help but also highlight the technical expertise and style that Chinese Cinema’s Godfather, Run Run Shaw, brought to the project.


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We, Who Don’t Belong – A Translated Sample

Homeless Love is the English title given to this novel by Li Qian, published in 2013, by Zui Books, Shanghai. I would have preferred “We, Who Don’t Belong” as it reflects the Chinese title more closely. At a glance it seems to be purely a romance. The heroine, Ruan Cong, who grew up in the town of Nancheng in the south-western province of Yunnan, arrives in Shanghai, the city of dreams, to begin her university education. With a large permanent scar on her hand, Ruan Cong thinks little of her own appearance. She runs into the boy she secretly loves, Yao Lin Kai, only to find him courting the belle of the university, Chen Min Wen. Meanwhile she rejects the advances of Shi Sheng, who falls deeply for her.
There is of course, much more to the story, and ideas of home and belonging, or lack of, feature strongly. I don’t believe I am the only Chinese who has had to think long and hard about where I belong. Even before I came to Britain, the idea of inherited identity, and personal sense of belonging are a tricky one, especially as China struggles with its evaporating patriachy.

The historical upheaval in the past two hundred years has not only resulted in a Chinese diaspora that is still growing, but also frequent movement of most of the domestic population. It is not unusual for a Chinese person to be born somewhere, to grow up somewhere else, and to live thence in yet another place.


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The Fat Years: China’s Sinister Near Future

Up til very recently, China is not known for its science fiction, its authors preferring the safety of traditional settings, despite their neophillia in almost every other area. There are a few examples though, including Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years.


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The Corpse Flower – A GBTL Sample

Chunk and Hu, ex-military and diehard, are accompanying an archaeological expedition near the Kunlun Mountains to discover the lost ancient city of Jingjue. With their aid, Professor Chen, his students, and their overseas sponsor, Shirley Yang, have managed to make her way into the secret city of the Taklamakan. In the final resting chamber of the Queen, they have found her coffin. A magnificently carved Kunlun Wood casket, but growing from the lid, is a large, scarlet, sickly smelling blossom.


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