R. F. Kuang on the Dark History Behind The Poppy War

The costs of war are at the forefront of this China-inspired new epic fantasy. When Rin is accepted into the most prestigious military academy in the empire, it’s a means of escaping a forced marriage. But she soon discovers powers beyond her dreams—and horrors beyond her worst nightmares.

The first of a trilogy, The Poppy War, recently named to this blog’s list of the best fantasy books of 2018 so far, is a compelling blend of shamanistic magic, political intrigue, and atrocities that are recognizably and therefore tragically based on historical events. Though a great deal happens in this first volume, by the end it’s clear that the true war is just beginning.

I caught up with the author to talk about shamanism, Chinese history, the difference between dark and grimdark, and more.

I’m fascinated by the elements of shamanism and mythology in The Poppy War. Can you talk a bit about your inspirations?
The use of psychoactive substances as a method to commune with the gods is actually so old, and so universal, I’m really surprised that it’s not more common in fantasy fiction. The shamanism and mythology are a syncretic mix of Daoism, (a little bit of) Buddhism, ancient Chinese divination methods, and cultures like the Neolithic Hongshan culture. I also consulted texts and ethnographic studies of more modern Tibetan and Mongolian shamanic traditions, but I tried to root everything in China proper as much as possible. A ton of the theological theory comes from the Yijing, or the Book of Changes, which is an ancient Chinese divination text that’s still used widely today.

Are there particular American misconceptions and stereotypes about Chinese society, history, and culture that your book seeks to address?
That there’s more to China than fried rice and the Great Wall?

Just kidding. I don’t know that I set out to refute any particular stereotypes–because you need base knowledge of a history to form misconceptions about it, and I don’t think that many Western readers even have that. A lot of readers have written me about how they’d never heard of the Nanjing Massacre until they read the book, which is saddening but not surprising. American education is terribly Americentric and Eurocentric. We learn about Normandy but not Shanghai.

The horrors of war as depicted in this book hit especially hard because they are based on real events. In most fantasy, including of the “grimdark” variety, we can tell ourselves that at least it’s fiction. Here, the impact is more intense because we know such things happened. Do you think this makes sense? What were your thoughts and feelings when tackling this material?
The reason why I haven’t been calling it grimdark is because I tend to see grimdark as employing violence and death as aesthetic, while The Poppy War employs violence for historical accuracy. There’s also this element of fetishism and gratuitous gore in (some, not all) grimdark that I don’t love. I think violence should serve a purpose other than making the book seem “edgy.” As an aside, a few people have mentioned that the violence and darkness in TPW is more harrowing precisely because we know that all of this actually happened. I didn’t exaggerate anything. Everything on the page–everything about the Rape of Nanjing or the atrocities committed by Unit 731–was pulled directly out of history books.

Since you are a historian, I would love to hear about the sources that were most influential on this book. Additionally, what are some books that might give Americans a perspective on China that they are often missing?
A ton of people have asked me for recommendations, so I’m going to put together an annotated nonfiction reading list soon to accompany The Poppy War. For now I’ll recommend three:

 It would be an understatement to say that a LOT happens in The Poppy War. It feels like a standalone novel, and yet it is only the beginning! Can you reveal any hints of what’s to come?
It only gets worse from here. No one is safe.

The Poppy War is available now.

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