Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes fantasy, science fiction, and has a strong appreciation for beautiful bugs. Her short fiction can be found in Tor.com, Clarkesworld,various Mammoth Books and best of the year collections. She is a 2014 finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her debut novella Scale-Bright is out now from Immersion Press.
[Note: I loved Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Scale-Bright, and talked to her about the myths and legends that inspired it. Indeed, in contrast to references to King Arthur, Roland, Robin Hood or William Tell, Scale-Bright’s mythological matter comes from a completely different tradition. Here, she reveals the secret references and allusions in the novella. You may want to read Scale-Bright before reading this. You should read Scale-Bright in any event. – Paul Weimer]
Scale-Bright is an urban-mythic fantasy novella, about demon women, mortality, interstitial cities and warrior goddesses trying to be aunties. It is written by me and, more importantly, introduced by Aliette de Bodard.
When I completed the manuscript one of the first things I thought was ‘this entire story is full of invisible ink!’ That is to say I’d stuffed it to the gills with mythical and folklore references – it’s code for readers who would recognize them, a communal, shared love letter to pieces of legend that we have both known and adored. These characters come mostly from legends and epics; this being a fantasy in Hong Kong, they are naturally Chinese sources. But I mentioned that I would put together a self-indulgent ‘crib sheet’ of all the mythological references, just for myself, and as it turned out there was some interest in the inspirations and mythological background. So here it is! All the myths!
Broadly, the novella is grounded Daoist tradition where humans can ascend to immortality through great deeds and purity, and animals (as well as some objects!) can become shapeshifting spirits or demons. There’s some syncretic blend with Buddhist beliefs, and the idea of animals or objects becoming shapeshifting demons is fairly common throughout the region.
Chang’e and Houyi are part of a fairly organic tradition – there are many permutations to their story. Some have both as originally immortals of heaven, while others have them as mortals. Houyi inevitably shoots down the nine suns, which are also crows, children of the sun goddess Xihe. The general endpoint is the same: that Chang’e floats up to the moon after ingesting a pill of immortality, and is separated from Houyi. In Vietnamese their names are transliterated as H?u Ngh? and H?ng Nga. The lunar rabbit, companion to Chang’e, has a counterpart in Japanese legend (the Chinese one makes medicine; the Japanese ones make mochi) and Kaguya-hime has some resemblances to Chang’e. Cross pollination!
Houyi and Chang’e also, occasionally, signify the yin and yang – masculine and feminine – so it made sense to me that Houyi would be a woman. She arose in heaven fully formed with a bow in hand, dressed in men’s clothes, and took delight in the hunt. Much like in the source, she’s also an architect. In modern times she’s most often seen wearing what you might call casual business wear, the butch version, though she doesn’t identify as such. Chang’e began as a mortal girl serving in heaven; in Scale-Bright she has mostly won free of her lunar imprisonment, and travels a lot to make up for all the time she was trapped up there, unable to experience the mortal world as it transmuted from feudal empire to skyscrapers. (She has another reason to travel often, but that’s another story!) One of the novella’s leads, Julienne, is her many-times-removed grandniece.
The Legend of the White Snake is a popular love story, having been adapted into movies, operas, and TV shows over the years – about countless of those, really! It concerns Bai Suzhen, the white snake, and her sworn sister Xiaoqing, the green snake. Bai Suzhen falls in love with a human man called Xuxian, but is plagued by the monk Fahai who bears an irrational hatred of all demons; he exposes her for what she is, Xuxian runs, and there’s a considerable amount of demon-monk combat. Through all of it Xuxian tends to faint a lot and do very little of impact or interest. The story ends in tragedy – Bai Suzhen is locked away in a pagoda.
In Scale-Bright this doesn’t change much. My Bai Suzhen is mostly true to the original while Xiaoqing (also known by her alias Olivia) has a reputation for leaving a trail of mortal girls with broken hearts. Olivia also enjoys nice laptops.
These are the looser of the lot, and the most central to Scale-Bright. The other two are more formal epics as well as fictionalized accounts of actual historical events.
Fengshen Yanyi is this wonderful convoluted epic; think ancient Chinese Game of Thrones (which I haven’t watched or read, but cultural saturation!), but with more magic and gods and celestial sages. It’s also a fictionalized account of the overthrow of the Shang dynasty, and is motivated by a non-trivial amount of agenda – namely that it depicts Zhou of the Shang dynasty as a corrupt, lecherous tyrant. One of the primary characters is a military genius, so predictably I gravitated to that. But it also has a central antagonist in the nine-tailed fox demon Daji, who seduces the emperor and encourages his despotism. In the epic proper, she – along with her two sworn sisters – is defeated by the strategist Jiang Ziya. While Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing tend to be written sympathetically, Daji and her sisters tend to be portrayed as totally evil, sadistic, and irredeemable. Daji, again, has counterparts in Japanese and Korean folklore: respectively Tamamo-no-mae (whose role closely resembles Daji’s – different dynasty, different empire; some versions conflate them as the same entity having fled from one country to the next) and the kumiho.
In my version of things (and drawing a little from the Japanese Tamamo-no-mae), Daji faked her death and survived to our time in modern Hong Kong, where she now governs the entrance to banbuduo, the interstice between the realms of mortals and demons. She continues to serve Nuwa, the creator goddess who originally tasked her with destroying the Shang dynasty. Daji has a thing for baiting Houyi, who annoys her by being immune to her foxy charms. Her sworn sisters Pipa Jing and Jiutou Zhiji Jing don’t make an appearance in Scale-Bright. If I do a sequel, though? They will totally show up. As you may guess, I love writing demonic sworn sisters. Eee! One of them is a musical instrument! The potential of writing that as a fleshed-out character is endless.
Marshal Tianpeng, or Zhu Bajie, is of course from Journey to the West. He’s often crudely called in translation as ‘Pig’, which I can’t approve – the character is comedic, but I find that sort of translation very silly. In Journey to the West, he sexually harasses the lunar goddess Chang’e. For this, he’s punished by being transformed into a pig demon and sent to earth to assist the monk Xuanzang, where he has to repent in order to regain his form.
In Scale-Bright he’s back in the form of Marshal Tianpeng, but he’s still a huge lech and Houyi – understandably – has very little patience for him. (He also tried to court her in ‘Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon’, to amusing results).