Watch Mongolian — watch Chinese

It isn’t always easy, to catch up with films made in Mongolia or China or Kazakhstan, on the subject of Mongols. A few of them struggle into international distribution. Let’s support them.

They are different. In this quick post I won’t try to list or express how, why and where they are different, but from the bottom up, in a dozen ways, every second on screen, on a fundamental level, they are different.

Got that? You’ll see when you see them.

They struggle for popularity, too, because they don’t have Hollywood conventions of violence and action. They have to be retitled for international, to make them sound like the violent action we require, but that strategy can lead to reviewer disappointment. Still, if you enjoy more thought than gore in your films, you’re better off with Mongolian or Chinese made.

So maybe try what’s available in historicals, and encourage distribution.

An End to Killing 
China, 2012. Directed by Wang Ping.
North American title: Kingdom of Conquerors

An End to Killing - title on posterKoConqs

Genghis: The Legend of the Ten
Mongolia, 2012. Directed by D. Jolbayar and U. Shagdarsuren.

Legend of the Ten - better








Queen Ahno

Mongolia, 2014. Directed by Shuudertsetseg Baatarsuren
International title: Warrior Princess

Warrior Princess

Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe
Kazakhstan, 2012. Directed by Aqan Sataev. 

Myn Bala

Marco Polo: the women

Chabi with a sword at Mei Lin(thoughts on John Fusco’s Marco Polo, post 1)

This interview with Marco Polo actors Joan Chen and Zhu Zhu asks how they present the women — whom the interviewer finds ‘the most fascinating people we meet’ in the show, with surprising lives for the thirteenth century. As usual, people aren’t so acquainted with the Mongol thirteenth century when they say this; though as he goes on to say, truly, women remain underwritten in the history books.

Song empressI too thought the women were a strength, and interestingly treated. Late Song was notable for strong empresses, and our empress dowager is one of those, as she and Khubilai try to negotiate a peace against the war parties at each court. Khubilai’s empress Chabi (Joan Chen) had a strong political involvement, and that is also done justice to. The personal interactions of Khubilai and Chabi were a highlight, and the makers take the opportunity to explore their marriage situation, this well-loved wife alongside Khubilai’s total self-indulgence in concubines. Then the concubines: two whores, as they are frequently called and self-called, friends, at the Song court. These two, who live on sexuality, are heroic in their victimization; it’s them and the empress we see in Song, active against the chancellor. I thought their exploitation well-explored. Jing_FeiI can’t forget the scene when the Song chancellor paints on her rosebud lips and turns her into a doll-face, with tragic eyes. Having her wide mouth suddenly made toy-size by the brush, was telling. Then, when the chancellor breaks the child’s feet – footbinding – that was equal-horrific with the scene of atrocity in war. The sexualization of women is not just on-screen for your enjoyment, but is explored.

Chabi and the Blue Princess (Zhu Zhu) grew up with a Mongol lifestyle, and now live in a semi-Chinese environment; at unexpected moments such women can whip out a bow and remind you they still are Mongols. Qutulun – you know her; the wrestler – is everything you want (‘I love that girl,’ says Khubilai when she swaggers in in war gear), including a freedom of sexuality that isn’t unhistorical. The second season is nicely set up for more of her, with her father and Khubilai now in conflict. Khutulun









Research through enemy eyes

Attila ceiling _Delacroix_You cannot research through enemy eyes. Self-evident? I don’t know…

I’m resolved to name no names in this post. It isn’t fair to – the problem seems so common. Later I might single out one very famous author, since what I have to say can’t leave a scratch on him. I think I need one example.

What I have to say is self-explanatory, and self-evident too, and yet the urge to write this post has grown upon me, as I see what I think are examples of this one-sidedness in historical fiction. Books that are one-eyed on a conflict of the past.

You’re writing about a people in the past. When you come to write about that people’s enemies, you can’t take your people’s view of them as the truth. You have to understand your people’s impressions of them as the usual half-truths, lies and distortions in circulation about a foreign, hostile culture.

Further, you can’t read only the history books focused on your people – in order to research that enemy people. Why can’t you do this? Let me quote Thomas Barfield on the case of China:

“Scholars who devoted their lives to exploring the history of imperial China, for example, so immersed themselves in the classical literature of that culture that they often unconsciously absorbed and accepted its values and worldview. Careful and critical about interpretations within the Chinese cultural sphere, when they wrote of those other people, ‘barbarians’, who threatened their civilization, it was usually from the Chinese perspective, with all the sympathy of a report by court scholars recounting the reception of a smelly envoy from the steppe come to insult the empire with an outrageous demand.”
[The Perilous Frontier, p. 4]

This is an acknowledged problem in Chinese scholarship – Barfield puts nicely what I’ve seen said a number of times. My interests are with China’s northern neighbours, where the problem – one-sided history, one-sided historical fiction – I’m convinced, is encountered at its worst. I think other histories haven’t had the problem as acutely as the China case (or else I just feel sorry for myself and my area of history). It’s an inevitable problem. These societies were so alien to one another they were in hostilities for thousands of years – nobody’s likely to have an equal interest in them both. China aficionados won’t love the steppe, which is so different. Steppe freaks – like me – won’t feel at home in China.

I face this problem, right now, as my guy goes to China, so I’m aware of it. It’s a big problem, because through my whole life I’ve been drawn to steppe-type cultures, but have not had that innate sympathy for all the societies Chinggis fights. Can I write about China fairly?

It is more usual for me to see the opposite: China fiction that has a visit from the steppes. And you might imagine that I’m hyper-aware of the unfairness I see. Yes I am. I try to shut up most of the time. I’m letting off steam in this general post of complaint.

Now I’ll drag in my example. It’s Guy Gavriel Kay. In fact he’s safe from criticism because his Under Heaven is historical fantasy. However, what he does, I pretty much see in historical fiction – so he’ll do for my example, and I’m not even bagging him out – because he has the fantasy clause and he’s allowed. How’s that for tact in these matters?

He’s obviously in love with Tang history, to which he pays scrupulous attention, even if he changes names. That’s why it’s a shock to travel beyond the Wall and meet – troglodytes. Troglodytes on the steppe, whom he uses for a Heart-of-Darkness journey into the primitive evils. Like I say, he’s allowed, it’s fantasy. But his Tang China is almost what it was, while at this time on the steppe stood the In which he happens not to have an interest. That’s fine.

It might irritate me… More irritating of course is the syndrome in historical fiction. Wherever you are in the world. You can’t take at face value what your people thought of their enemy. You can’t even trust the historians – not the old-fashioned ones – you can’t have uncritical faith in them, you have to subject the history to discrimination and scepticism, too. It helps if you go to books written about that enemy. Because it’s hard to get away from the skew: have you absorbed skewed history, in your research concentrated on – the enemy of your enemy? You need to learn to recognise the Schafers.

Let’s blame the historian, since novelists depend on historians. Edward H. Schafer is a perfect case of what Barfield described, above: he himself, as an historian, is entirely uncritical as he transmits Chinese views of the Uighurs. The Chinese records insult and scoff at Uighurs – so does he. His book is offensive. It’s also a classic on Tang, and cited by Guy Gavriel Kay. Whereas if Kay were to write historical fiction on Tang – which he isn’t, so never mind – he’d want to read several books upon the Uighurs that give you very different ideas.

Even if they are bit players – your people’s enemies – I believe it’s our duty, as the unprejudiced lot we aspire to be these days, to research them on their own terms, in their own right, and never perpetuate an old prejudice. Amen.

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Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757, Blackwell, 1989

Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics, University of California, 1963

Image: Stereotype by Delacroix. Oops, I think he called this ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’. Sorry, Delacroix, I used your steppe art on my 1st book.



about me and my novels on the Mongols –

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William Napier’s Attila trilogy

Attila ceiling _Delacroix_I was interested enough to read these three books in a month, and they deserve a spot here as steppe fiction. On my blog I can be more personal than I am on Goodreads.

To start off: I mostly avoid the more commercial fiction on steppe topics. I come with an inbuilt distrust of bestsellers, and when the subject is dear to me, I expect to be dismayed and upset. Right, that’s honest.

But I read William Napier. I’ll be terribly honest about him: I thought his trilogy an opportunity lost.

He’s an uneasy cross between action/adventure bestseller-style, and a fiction that I see as more ambitious, and that takes artistic licence such as removes him from the mainstream. He does weird things. Beyond what I’d do, although I defend him in my reviews (the ‘right to write’). He’s an old Yeats PhD and he can’t keep Yeats out of his fiction – or other 19thC poets, or Shakespeare. I understand this. It’s the language he talks in. If he excised that – the phrases spontaneous to his lips – then what’s he doing? Writing from a front, a censored front. Not from his self. – I just thought up that argument, on his behalf. I’m wary of fiction that… is self-limited, is from a part of the writer. “I can’t do this because action/adventure doesn’t let me. Maybe I’ll write another book freestyle.” In his trilogy William Napier oscillates between freestyle and conventional. Guess which I liked. I’ll live with him giving Attila quotes from William Blake, if that’s what the author needs to do to say what he has to say, spontaneously. If that’s how the words come to him, and sound to his ear true.

It’s radical, and again I’ll mention, my Tchingis doesn’t express himself in Percy Bysshe Shelley, much as I like the old poets. My narrator has been known to, because I do zoom out to an ‘I’ that’s me, now and then. But I’m not here to talk about my techniques, that’ll only get me into trouble.

I didn’t grow up on historical fiction. I grew up on speculative fiction and great books of the past. If that’s left me with a pref for the unconventional in hf, or an attitude of ‘rules? what rules?’ then, fine. Neither sf nor the greats are known for rules. Mine is, whatever works.

Napier’s other sin is against history and occurs in book Two. Two is the steppiest book, by far, thus guaranteed my fave. I defend his historical stretches, too:

“It draws on history before and after. I think he has drawn on Attila’s later distant cousin, Genghis – both for Attila’s life story, and for this grand conception of conquest east and west. These Huns can sing the Mongols’ origin legends, and the Turkic epic Manas. Of this I’m going to say, Napier widens history. He fits more history in. He has a time period, but he draws into that strands from before and after, because he wants to talk about historical issues – large ones. He wants to talk about the settled and the steppe, and to that end Attila, steppe spokesman, knows things he can’t have known, travels further than in any likelihood he did. As I say, this is fine by me, and makes for a fiction that comments on history.”

In Three he abandons both poets and ahistoricism. I hated Three. It was so average.

Even his style, I felt, lurched from cliché to originality, from ordinary to art. These books had the potential to cut loose from action/adventure, to contemplate history, with a prose he might have learnt from Yeats – and sell atrociously, no doubt. I regret them.

# # #

Painting of Attila by Delacroix

My reviews on Goodreads:

One Attila

Two Attila: The Gathering of the Storm

Three Attila: The Judgement


I like
about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

A batch of fiction

A batch of fiction with a foot, or both feet or heart on the steppe. Links are to my reviews on Goodreads. My reviews can go on a bit, and I don’t like to post content twice.

The Blue Sky

by Galsan Tschinag

Boyhood in the Altai Mountains

“A little tragedy, a child’s tragedy.”
My review


The Gray Earth
by Galsan Tschinag

2nd of three on his youth, between nomad life and Communist indoctrination

“The boy, at 8 and 9 years, knows he wants to be a shaman. Shamans are persecuted and liable to be sent to prison…”
My review


Last of the Amazons
by Steven Pressfield

Speculative historical fiction: Amazons and Greeks

“I had no idea Steven Pressfield had written such a serious contribution to savage/civil arguments.”
My review


The Golden Lynx
by C. P. Lesley

Adventure in Russia, 1534: the infancy of Ivan the Terrible

“…our girl hero whose heart is on the steppe though she’s plunked into Moscow to patch up a feud with a marriage…”
My review

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years

by Chingiz Aitmatov

A spaceport on the steppes of Kazakhstan

“A fable.”
My review


Now we’ll go north of the steppe, but stick with shamans.

The Chukchi Bible
by Yuri Rytkheu

Native cultures of Siberia under siege

“The author’s grandfather, whose story is two-thirds of the book, was ‘the last shaman of Uelen’.”
My review


And I’ll throw this in. Far from the steppe, but about the messy intersection of cultures.

Fathers and Crows
by William T. Vollmann

Jesuits in Canada, 1600s. One of his ‘Seven Dreams’ set of novels on the clash of Indians and Europeans in the New World

“In spite of the culture clashes, the Black Crows and the Savages are often strikingly alike.”
My review

Sergei Bodrov’s film Mongol

I walked into a cinema for this. I’m not a cinema-goer; in ‘recent’ years I’ve made the trip for Lord of the Rings, for The Weeping Camel, and for Mongol.

Perhaps that’s why – although I was thrilled to see Temudgin splattered on posters, although I enthused over the results – now I watch again, after a few years’ interval, I see I managed to underrate this film. I don’t have eyes for film.

Jamukha’s tremendous and steals the stage. I remember that’s what reviews said: Jamukha’s a scene-stealer and almost hauls the film out from under Temudgin. Which, of course, is just what he does in the Secret History: almost takes over the story, almost takes over the steppe. I can’t tear my eyes off him when he’s on screen, and that’s only right. Go Jamukha. He wears such a different face to my Jamuqa that at first I was thrown. But that’s the beauty of him: he’s a gift to any fictionalist, a great anti-hero, and what you do with that potential is up to you. I only hate to see that potential wasted and him narrowed into a villain.

Borte. When I’m not transfixed by her face – and I am, so I miss what else is going on – she was a hit with the public too. Poor Temudgin, in between these two. He does great. That the film-maker spins his plot around the three of them is the strength, and exactly why the Secret History enchants a story-teller.

This film is the one fiction on Genghis that I like with a whole heart.

Onto Temudgin. Truth to tell, back then, his portrayal was why I was thrilled with the film. Now… I haven’t written for a year, perhaps I have objective eyes for these my characters with different faces. Now I see more and more Genghis in him. It isn’t just that Bodrov stitches his film together from phrases out of the Secret History and elsewhere (game with the subtitles: how infrequently the talk is mere invention). His Temudgin, to me, is a true portrait, exudes the right scent – I can believe in him. What I saw back then is how his sufferings and his simple fortitude under them – his child’s face in the plank-contraption, his man’s face in the cage – lends him a little of the saint. I think he needs an air of saintliness. Call to mind what a ferocious creature a saint is, before you get me wrong. Bodrov ends his childhood on a miracle: his imprisonment-planks falls off, in the open temple to Tengri, under the eye of the blue-grey wolf. The Secret History tells of miracles at this point, that the man himself believed in.

Captivity in Tangut? It’s one theory, and it’s film shorthand for the manner of wrongs the Mongols feel have been done them. It says well, in that expressive shorthand, what you might write a lot of pages on. I’d bet Bodrov has read his fellow Russian Lev Gumilev, who has a passionate page on these affronts, on the causes of war. He quotes a Chinese witness, Meng Hong, who wrote in 1221:

The head of the Jin exclaimed with alarm, ‘The Tatars will unfailingly be a cause of disturbance to our kingdom!’ Therefore, he gave orders for an immediate attack to be mounted against their remote and desert country. Every three years troops were sent to the north to exterminate and plunder; this was called ‘the reduction of slaves and extermination of people’. Even now they remember in China that for twenty years before this, in Shandong and Hebei, what home had not bought Tatar boys and girls into slavery? These had all been captured by the troops. Those who at the present time are grandees among the Tatars were then for the most part led off into captivity… the Tatars fled into the desert and vengeance entered their blood and brain.

Gumilev comments on this account: “It were better unsaid! What the Chinese scholar described recalls the hunt for Indian scalps organised by the Puritans of New England and the Baptists of Massachusetts, the slave trade of the French and English merchant venturers, the slaughter of the Patagonians undertaken by the Argentine government, i.e. pages of history branded as those most shameful for mankind.”

My guess is, Bodrov draws his history from this page. I thought Temudgin’s dialogue with Tangut, with that governor, with the monk, efficiently sums up much that you can say about his interactions with the settled states.

Bodrov’s only large invention is Borte’s rescue of him from Tangut, and I have excuses to make. It isn’t such a large invention: there were rescues from Tangut – Jaqa Gambu and/or Jaqa Gambu’s daughter. She can be a hero: women were very active participants in Tangut history for a century or two, with the nomad background and the example set by Liao. That she has a daughter unfathered by him, along with Jochi? Why not? He adopted several children from the enemy, a Tangut boy among them. Novelists, none of whom I’ll name, tend to decide it’s a better story if Genghis rejects Jochi. Maybe Bodrov felt the urge to state twice, ‘except he didn’t’.

By now, I know our luck to have this film. Think Genghis cinema, think what you’d expect. Instead we have this.

Mongol, a film by Sergei Bodrov, 2007

Lev Gumilev, Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John, English translation by R.E.F. Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1987

The Demon’s Door Bolt by A.J. Campbell

mehmed+siyah+kalemLeft: more Mehmet Black Pencil (the guy who did my banner) – he liked to draw monster-demons, often in daily human affairs, sitting about chatting, whacking a donkey. What’s Mehmet telling us? I’ve heard they called him Black Pencil for his mordant sense of humour.

But onto the book: The Demon’s Door Bolt by A.J. Campbell. Here’s my comments at Goodreads. Science fiction on the fifth-century steppe, with humour.

800px-Siyah_Qalem._Conversation._XV_cent_TopkapiIt’s my idea of an indie book: straight out of the writer’s brain to you; cherished in his hands for years; written with commitment, since he tries to squeeze into a book his heart, his soul and what he’s learnt in life.

Right, that’s my definition of an indie. Toss those that don’t fit aside. While you’re at it, toss aside the output of career novelists. Find a writer.

I’m strident today. I get like that. Sorry. Back to subject.

It’s those unique books I am on the lookout for, above the herd of others. This one may not be your cup of black milk, folks; besides, it’s his comedy and I believe he has another up his sleeve. But I’m excited by it, as you’ll see if you follow that link.