Rewriting the Tradition: Destiny and Diaspora in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun

Recently, we’ve been blessed by authors of the Asian diaspora producing and publishing incredible works of SF/F literature, but what many people don’t realize when reading English-language SF/F inspired by Asian history, literature, and culture, is that each book embodies a unique, diasporic reception of that so-called heritage.

Particularly in the Chinese tradition, there are three thousand years of thinkers, philosophers, essayists, poets, novelists, and satirists that contributed to the culture. There are schools of thought that metastasize and spill over into squabbling branches that snipe at each other for subsequent centuries; there are critics and scholars and libraries full of annotations buried in intertextual commentary. Faced with this unwieldy, ponderous inheritance, each author working with the Chinese tradition has to choose—how much of the tradition will they lay claim to, to reimagine and reinvent?

Language, history, and culture are so inextricably bound together in any culture or civilization that borrowing a single element from the Chinese tradition—worldbuilding, literary references, character names, genre tropes—necessarily involves translation both figurative and literal. On a linguistic level, how do you render terms that lack an English counterpart? On a cultural level, how do you do justice to the tiny details and customs that form the fabric of a familiar-unfamiliar world? For secondary-world silkpunk like Ken Liu’s epic trilogy The Dandelion Dynasty, Liu files off the serial numbers on ancient Chinese schools of thought, pitting Ruism, Daoism, and Legalism against each other under different names (cheekily, he renames the Confucius figure “Kon Fiji” and comments on his stuffy rigidity), while Chinese poems such as Liu Bang’s 《大风歌》 Da Feng Ge / Song of Great Wind cameo in his text as the lyrics of “mournful old Cocru folk tune[s].” Layered through translation and one degree removed from their original sources, Liu’s reception of the Chinese tradition takes the historical Chu-Han contention as a springboard into a secondary-world fantasy epic that veers sharply away from its historical analog by the second book.

In contrast, R.F. Kuang calls directly upon classical thinkers and characters by name in The Poppy War. Though likewise set in a fantastic secondary world, The Poppy War sees its protagonists studying recognizable Chinese classical thinkers like Zhuangzi and Sunzi in school, while legendary figures like Su Daji and Jiang Ziya from 《封神演义》 Feng Shen Yan Yi / Investiture of the Gods (a 16th century Ming Dynasty novel) walk the earth as unspeakably powerful shamans. In doing so, Kuang angles her trilogy towards an explosive confrontation between history and modernity, science and magic, the rigidity of a traditional past and the mutability of a devastating future.

Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel, She Who Became the Sun, reimagines the founding of the Ming Dynasty in an alternate fantasy China where the mandate of Heaven manifests as literal flames and a person’s destiny is determined by their allotted fate. Against all odds and her original destiny of nothingness, a nameless girl steals her brother’s name and fate to survive famine, disaster, warfare, and political intrigue, eventually becoming Zhu Yuanzhang—a name that history tells us will be owned by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Along the way, Zhu must lie, cheat, kill, and connive her way to command, while simultaneously deceiving Heaven itself about her theft and true identity. Meanwhile, the eunuch-general Ouyang has spent years planning an elaborate revenge against the Mongolian ruling class of the Yuan Dynasty that massacred his family. But on the eve of his success, with the forces of fate and expectation closing in on him, Ouyang finds himself unwilling to deal the final blow. Often opponents and occasionally reluctant allies, Zhu and Ouyang fight tooth and nail, to seize their respective victories, often in defiance of Heaven itself.

By virtue of its premise, She Who Became the Sun tackles questions of historical fidelity and diasporic reception head-on. Beyond simply engaging with the monumental body of the Chinese tradition on a conceptual level (“founding of the Ming Dynasty, but make it queer”), Parker-Chan pens both love letter and protest song into She Who Became the Sun on the levels of literary craft, narrative resonance, and metatextual exploration. The book simultaneously pays homage to the Chinese historical-literary tradition (and the wuxia genre in particular), while lovingly and gleefully subverting traditional narratives, expectations, and conventions.

LANGUAGE AND IDENTITY

While reading She Who Became the Sun, I was struck by the recurring thought: this book was written for bilingual readers. Already, much has been made of Parker-Chan’s command of prose, from C.S. Pascat’s praise (“Parker-Chan’s exquisitely wrought prose brings light and nuance to the novel[…]”) to Rowenna Miller’s review (“Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel is a sweeping epic rendered in elegant prose…”), but what Anglophone-only readers might not realize is that Parker-Chan’s language does not simply demonstrate their mastery of English-language craft, but also their easy familiarity with the Chinese language and literary tradition.

The marvel of She Who Became the Sun is that it reads like a novel in foreignized translation. Woven into the fabric of Parker-Chan’s narration, the twists and quirks of dialogue, the insults hurled by one character at another and the teasing endearments shared between lovers are the living, breathing rhythms of Chinese language, literature, and culture. As readers of fantasy and science fiction, we are often more tolerant of unusual turns of phrase, more open to having aspects of language, culture, and worldbuilding set spinning on subtly different axes from the ones we know. In She Who Became the Sun, what otherwise might pass as an elevated and unique literary style to the English-exclusive reader is actually a richly-textured tapestry, brocaded with idioms and embroidered with references.

Parker-Chan sprinkles in translated phrases liberally and casually, often not bothering to explain the references at all. For example, Zhu regularly introduces herself as a “clouds and water monk,” a literal translation of 云水和尚 yun shui he shang, a phrase used to describe monks who wander the countryside like travelling clouds, like flowing water (as opposed to staying put in a monastery). Ouyang, the eunuch-general of unearthly beauty, is described with “flesh of ice and bones of jade”—a literal rendition of the idiom玉骨冰肌 yu gu bing ji. Parker-Chan peppers in classical references to the literary tradition as well—Zhu coyly teases Ma with the allusion of “the business of rain and clouds,” or 云雨之事 yun yu zhi shi. Innocuous on the surface, “rain and clouds” is a long-standing metaphor in poetry for bedchamber affairs. Elsewhere, the merchant-queen of a rival political faction compares Ouyang to the Prince of Lanling—a legendarily beautiful man in the Chinese tradition who numbers among the 四大美男 si da mei nan (a ranking of the four most beautiful men in Chinese history). That characters can call upon these references works to illustrate the way Chinese history, literature, and tradition go beyond the mere ornament and aesthetic in this story—they are inextricably woven into the fabric of the narrative and the world the characters move through. Correspondingly, many of these references go unexplained in the text, giving an English-only reader the vague sense of unknowable dimensionality without providing the specific provenance of every turn of phrase. For the bilingual reader, the experience of reading She Who Became the Sun becomes both storytime and scavenger hunt as Parker-Chan cleverly incorporates both puns and poetry with fiendish delight.

Lest you think that She Who Became the Sun is one of those lofty epics, with prose in the clouds and characters more legend than human, Parker-Chan does not limit the loveliness of translation to poetic description or classical references. They also gleefully deploy insults that land somewhat oddly in English. One character will scoff that so-and-so is a “rice bucket,” while another spits venomously that their political rival is a “turtle egg.” In English, these insults lack the weight of more familiar curses and slurs, but translated back into Chinese, these insults become 饭桶 fan tong and 王八蛋 wang ba dan. Both insults can be, when deployed strategically, fight-starting offenses. Why is “rice bucket” an insult? Because it implies you’re good for nothing but eating rice. Why is “turtle egg an insult?” …well, that’s a longer story. In addition to utilizing Chinese turns of phrases in an elevated, literary register, Parker-Chan also incorporates in the earthy humor of Chinese slang and 骂人话—the illustrious, millennia-old tradition of cussing someone out.

Beyond granular, syntax-level craft, Parker-Chan also draws upon historical mores of Chinese linguistic etiquette to further narrative and character development. Much of pre-modern China employed elaborate social rituals surrounding names and self-referential phrasing in order to perform appropriate humility and deference in conversation. Speaking in self-referential third person demonstrated courtesy and respect; speaking in first person conveyed authority (and occasionally arrogance). Correspondingly, characters in She Who Became the Sun are appropriately deferential—or egotistical—in their speech. Zhu spends much of the book speaking in the third person, prefacing her sentences with “this monk thinks” or “this one wonders” to perform a deceptive humbleness to the powerful men around her. Later, as Zhu becomes closer with the idealistic Ma Xiuying, Zhu slips into the first-person to hint at her ambitions for the throne. Ma Xiuying is both surprised and unsettled to hear Zhu use the first-person pronoun I, like “reaching for someone’s cheek in the dark, but finding instead the intimate wetness of their open mouth.” In this moment, Zhu asserts a powerful personhood and subjectivity in privacy—both a confession of intimacy as well as a test of Ma’s potential loyalty.

For a bilingual reader, Parker-Chan’s writing resonates with a dual frequency, such that the rhythms of elegant English phrasing harmonize with the tones of Chinese references. The poetic, literary style of the novel deftly interweaves both writing and translation, and Parker-Chan’s use of Chinese references and turns of phrase moves beyond mere stylistic ornamentation in a manner that is profoundly receptive and diasporic.

FATE AND DESTINY

Beyond an astounding command of bilingual craft, Parker-Chan continues their diasporic intervention in the reception of the Chinese tradition on narrative and thematic levels. All stories that situate themselves in recognizable periods of history must eventually face this choice: do you adhere to the familiar, expected story that we know from history textbooks, or do you spin the wheel and take a sharp left, sending your story careening into the unmapped wilderness of alternate timelines? Does your time traveler kill Hitler, or does our version of history continue marching onwards, inevitable, implacable, unstoppable?

She Who Became the Sun is a book about the destiny given to you by Heaven and what it means to embrace it, refuse it, resist it, reclaim it. But fate does more than simply drive the narrative forward; fate, in this book, is also the arc of history, leading its characters towards the founding of the Ming Dynasty. As a result, the mechanism of fate in the She Who Became the Sun becomes both the magnetic allure of destiny and the metatextual weight of history.

In the very first chapter, our protagonist defies the fate of nothingness given to her at birth and instead lays claim to the fate of greatness that her brother, the original Zhu Chongba, forfeits. The girl, who now forcibly claims the surname Zhu, is keenly aware that the fate she clings to by bloodied fingernails is not her own. Any time she strays from the ordained path—any time she does something that the original Zhu Chongba would never have done—reality shivers around her as if Heaven itself is threatening to desert her for her duplicity. While masquerading as a boy in the monastery, Zhu comes treacherously close to exposure:

“ ‘Why?’ Zhu asked. She glanced at the fiber she was holding, wondering if she’d missed something, but it was the same as it had been: unraveled hemp that would braid back into rope with only a few moments’ effort.

He gave her an odd look. ‘Who else would be able to fix it?’

Zhu felt a sickening lurch, as of the world reorienting itself. She’d assumed that everyone could braid, because to her it was as natural as breathing. It was something she’d done her whole life. But it was a female skill. In a flash of insight so painful she knew it must be true, she realized: she couldn’t do anything Chongba wouldn’t have done. She didn’t have to hide her anomalous skills from the watching novice, but from the eyes of Heaven itself…

…If I want to keep Chongba’s life, I have to be him. In thoughts, in words, in actions—” (Parker-Chan, 38).

For most of the book, Zhu strives to occupy the historical-narrative space of Zhu Chongba. The annals of history tell us that Zhu Chongba was the illiterate son of farmers who became a monk, who became a general, who became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. But at the same time, our protagonist is not the historical Zhu Chongba. Much of the book revolves around this tension—can Zhu pull off this deception successfully enough to fool not just the men around her, but Heaven itself? Can Zhu functionally rewrite the Chinese tradition to make room for herself?

Here is where Parker-Chan’s narrative genius comes into play, because the premise of She Who Became the Sun is not quite as simple as genderbending a prominent historical figure. At the end of the day, Zhu fails to become Zhu Chongba. She fails to fool Heaven forever: she faces the eunuch-general Ouyang in single combat, and she loses. Heaven sees her for what she truly is—an imposter and a thief, a girl with a fate of nothingness—and Heaven deserts her as Ouyang unceremoniously runs her through with his sword. In this moment, the guiderails of history vanish, and nothingness looms before Zhu. If she cannot follow the footsteps of the historical Zhu Chongba, then what path forward is there for her?

Zhu will not succeed in claiming her brother’s great destiny under a stolen name, the narrative declares, because if Zhu is to become the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, she must do it under her own name. In fact, Zhu survives a near-fatal blow precisely because she is not her brother. Zhu’s defeat at the hands of Ouyang tears down the scaffolding of deception she had built for her life—the need to masquerade as her brother in order to fool Heaven itself—and allows her to reclaim her own identity and remake her own destiny.

By stepping out of her brother’s shadow, Zhu begins to metatextually create a new historical canon of her own. “I’ve been reborn as myself,” she marvels at her coronation, and lays claim not to the birth name of her historical counterpart (Zhu Chongba), but to his chosen name (Zhu Yuanzhang). With this deft twist of narrative, Parker-Chan informs the reader that the Radiant Emperor duology will not simply be a re-telling of the founding of the Ming Dynasty with some genderbending. This is, instead, a profound reclamation of Chinese history that recasts the tradition through a lens both queer and diasporic.

However, fate in Parker-Chan’s novel is not just the inevitable arc of history, but also the expectations imposed by tradition and narrative tropes. While Zhu embodies the positive reclamation of history and tradition through the deployment of radical agency, another character walks the narrative as her shadow archetype, a figure bound to the strictures of expectation and tradition: Ouyang, the eunuch-general.

She Who Became the Sun responds to not just Chinese history and literary tradition, but also modern Chinese literature—specifically that of 武侠 wuxia fiction. Parker-Chan calls this out in their author bio specifically, noting that She Who Became the Sun was the product of “a failed search to find English-language book versions” of “epic East Asian historical dramas” (and if that isn’t a diaspora mood). Wuxia is a genre of martial arts fiction vaguely analogous to Western fantasy in its fondness for historical settings, pre-firearm weaponry, and preoccupation with the themes of justice and revenge. Intrigue, betrayal, trust, and loyalty weave a complicated web of relationships between characters in the 江湖 jianghu, where the most basic law is 报 bao / repayment: kindnesses and favors must be repaid with loyalty and gratitude; slights and injury must be repaid with fists and blades. In the turbulent chaos of the jianghu, the code is usually an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye, all the way down.

In the mold of a classic wuxia archetype, Ouyang is defined by his crusade of revenge: years ago, his entire family had been executed for treason against the Yuan Dynasty. Ouyang lives on as the sole survivor due to a precedent in dynastic law: capital punishment could be commuted to castration. Forced to choose between death and eternal humiliation, Ouyang makes the sacrifice required of him to survive, and eventually becomes the sole Nanren general serving the ruling Mongol dynasty. To be childless and end one’s family line is the greatest of the three unfilial acts under Confucian morality; nevertheless, Ouyang bears the shame and the judgment, nursing his grievance for sixteen long years at the heart of the Mongol military machine.

In doing so, Ouyang embodies the mantra, first recorded in the Han Dynasty text 《史记》Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, of 君子报仇 jun zi zhi chou 十年不晚 shi nian bu wan / when the noble man seeks revenge, even ten years is not tardy. But sixteen years is a long time to grow up among the dominant regime; Mongolian comes more easily to Ouyang’s tongue than his supposedly native language of Han’er, and he spends as much time loathing his self-perceived Nanren weaknesses as he does scheming the downfall of those who exterminated his family. Most damningly, Ouyang is desperately, furiously, silently in love with Lord Esen—the son of the very man who executed Ouyang’s family. Esen chooses to trust Ouyang when no one else does; Esen defends Ouyang when others would mock and scorn him. Brittle and bitter with the knowledge of what he must do to avenge his family and himself, Ouyang spends much of the book trying to delay the inevitable march of his fate, the weighty expectations of genre and narrative—embodied by the will of Heaven—forcing his hand towards betrayal and bloodshed.

This time, the walls of fate closing in on Ouyang are not those of history (unlike Zhu, Ouyang does not have an obvious historical analog), but those of wuxia narrative tropes and the rigidity of Confucian morality. The honorable thing to do, as multiple characters contemptuously remind Ouyang throughout the book, would have been to die with the rest of his family all those years ago rather than suffer such crippling humiliation. Ouyang intends for his eventual revenge to justify the cowardice of his continued survival, but, as he comes to discover, vengeance is no guarantee of happiness. In a world that demands blood for blood, there is no room for the foolish dream of something as small and frivolous as private joy, or personal love.

Unlike Zhu, who fights and claws and bleeds her way to a fate of greatness, Ouyang succumbs to his fate of vengeance and loneliness. Zhu shucks off a name that did not belong to her and chooses her own. Ouyang, from beginning to end, does not even get a personal name beyond his surname—he is eternally defined by the shame, loss, and vengeful pride of his family name. And by the end of the book, Ouyang kills the man who loves him, and whom he had loved. He stands, sleeves soaked with Esen’s blood, and surveys his hollow victory with nothing but pain and numbness in his heart.

Fate in the world of She Who Became the Sun is both inheritance and burden, simultaneously coveted and abhorred. Fate can be the site of profound agency, as Zhu seizes control of her life, her fate, and the dragon throne itself through the strength of her will and desire. And yet, fate can trap someone, force them into established progressions of narrative, as Ouyang struggles against a vengeance of his own engineering. In the text of She Who Became the Sun, fate is a word in the present tense—something that can be fought, grasped, stolen, changed. Metatextually, the fate they face is history and tradition, narrative and legacy. By remixing and reimagining them in this novel, Parker-Chan asserts ownership over Chinese history and tradition, literature and culture, in a manner both receptive and innovative.

DIASPORA AND NARRATIVE

For the past decade, a steady groundswell of diasporic Asian SF/F has been on the rise. From Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series to R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War trilogy, from Neon Yang’s gender-/mind-/reality-bending Tensorate series to Yoon Ha Lee’s axiomatically devastating Machineries of Empire trilogy, East Asia-inspired fantasy and science fiction has been gaining momentum. At the heart of each intricate, puzzle-box novel lies an ongoing negotiation: what does it mean to borrow aspects of East Asian literature, history, tradition, and culture to create English-language speculative fiction? How do we do justice to centuries of complexity and millennia of culture, and how can we innovate upon them?

Ken Liu’s first novel, The Grace of Kings, transports the historical Chu-Han contention into the island archipelago of Dara in a reimagining that features both gods and battle kites. In The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang smashes the Opium Wars straight into the Second Sino-Japanese War to create a bleak, ravaged hellscape in the aging empire of Nikan. Both Liu and Kuang borrow knowledgeably and extensively from Chinese history to populate their immensely complex political landscapes, but it seems that the move has been to borrow elements of Chinese history and literature to inform the fabric of a distinct secondary world.

In contrast, Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun takes place identifiably in Ming Dynasty China. This time, the world is not a fantasy version of China with the serial numbers filed off. The serial numbers are still there—the names are names we can recognize, the language identifiably the same language we muddle through on the phone with our parents. She Who Became the Sun is a profoundly diasporic text, one that engages directly with the monumental body of the Chinese literary tradition while retaining a perspective of contemporary, international reception.

Being a member of the Chinese diaspora often means being caught between the two adjectives on either side of the hyphen. Not Chinese enough to be Chinese, nor American (or Australian, or Canadian, or Brazilian, or—) enough to be American, diasporic identity often results in its members being more fluent in translation than in heritage. In the nations on our passports, we are forever latecomers, eternal aliens, chronic interlopers; and yet, the so-called cultural heritage we are supposed to inherit is often a weight on our shoulders rather than a feather in our caps. Especially faced with the daunting prospect of three thousand years of literary history, all interfaced through an intimidating logosyllabic writing system, we can’t help but doubt: is all this heritage really something I can claim ownership over?

Through their command of linguistic elements and deft incorporation of cultural references, Parker-Chan demonstrates their deep knowledge and understanding of the Chinese literary tradition—in English. In a remarkable feat of linguistic legerdemain, Parker-Chan mixes and matches language and phrasing to create a work nearly bilingual in nature despite its monolingual status. But more than simply reproduce Chinese language, history, or culture, Parker-Chan innovates upon it, refusing to play by the rules of history or settle for mere mimicry.

The Chinese literary tradition is overwhelmingly male, and yet in fierce defiance of that, the protagonists of She Who Became the Sun embody various forms of subalternity—both Zhu and Ouyang flout binary conceptions of gender and gendered expectation while seizing power for themselves in direct challenge and open rebellion against a heteropatriachal system. By positioning the novel from the primary perspectives of a eunuch-general and a strategist-monk (two identities that are often excluded from traditional concepts of acceptable Chinese masculinity), Parker-Chan advances their agenda: to reclaim the vastness of the Chinese tradition for the subaltern, who are all too often voiceless or vilified in history.

After all, if even Zhu, who begins the book without even a name, can ascend to the position of greatest glory in the Chinese tradition and lay claim to all under heaven, then what great potential does the rest of the diaspora—perhaps never Chinese enough, but ferociously vibrant in its hybridity—have in store?

墨客hunxi once conned an accredited institution of higher education into giving her a degree for writing a thesis about assassins in ancient China, which really tells you all you need to know about her as a person.

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