February 29, 2012

Sword and Silk?

I was musing on the budding Sword and Soul movement, pioneered by Charles Saunders the creator of Imaro, and this got me to thinking about what I do.


If Sword and Soul is, to paraphrase the definition given by Saunders’ associate Milton Davis, sword and sorcery fiction based on African culture and mythology; that features African characters as protagonists, and as of now, is mainly contributed to by African-American writers; then what is its Asian equivalent, if any?

My irascible right brain immediately responded with Sword and Siopao.  Hmmm, much as I love siopao, I don’t think that’s it.  Let’s try again … (and ask wifey to buy siopao)

What is Sword and Sorcery Anyway?
Before delving into cultural distinctions, let’s dissect the roots of the genre itself.  Sword and sorcery was definitely born in the typewriter of Robert E. Howard (accept no substitutes, by Crom!), so it is to him – not Tolkien – that we should look for the genre’s defining tropes.  Among these tropes are:

  • Active, violent, larger-than-life, outsider or rebel heroes, often amoral, yet possessed of their own code of honor;

  • A dystopic* fantasy milieu removed from the real world by location, time period or both, where supernatural beings are real and magic works;

  • Magic is very rare, inherently dehumanizing, often grisly in its methods and effects, its practitioners tending to inhuman urges or madness; rarely is magic ever on the hero’s side;

  • The power of human will: sorcery, monstrous foes, and the challenges of a primeval environment are all there to showcase the grit and determination of the hero.

Taking all these tropes, we could say that sword and sorcery fiction is action-adventure stories with exotic settings and a touch of horror, where the hero’s human will is pitted against monstrous beings and sinister supernatural forces.

*While Tolkien-style epic fantasy or high fantasy often idealizes the ‘back to nature’ vibe of the fantasy milieu, sword and sorcery explores the seamy side: slavery, exploitation, repression, and the gritty, grisly horrors of war, among others.

Proposal: Sword and Silk
I propose the term Sword and Silk for sword and sorcery fiction that explores Asian characters, settings and themes, the Silk alluding to the Silk Road, which to my mind can be used as a literary device stringing the very diverse cultures of Asia together. 

There were actually two Silk Roads in history, the overland one threading from China through Central Asia to Persia and thence to Europe either via the Russian steppe, the Levant, or Egypt (there was once a canal from the Red Sea to the Nile, connecting the Arabian ports to Alexandria). 

The other is the Maritime Silk Road, which connects China to Western Asia and East Africa via Indochina, the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian Archipelago, through the Malacca Strait to Burma and India and thence to Arabia and the Persian Gulf. 

So taking the Silk Road idea as the jumping off point, we can cover a heck of a lot of Asian cultures and landscapes.  Enough that we can end this frustrating ‘Asia ends at China and Japan’ vibe I keep seeing in published products.  I am almost as tired of samurai and ninja and pugilistic monks as I am of knights and elves and orcs and hobbits. 

Not that I want to exclude Chinese and Japanese inspirations, of course, but I want to bring in more variety.  Indian sources. Malay sources.  Mongol and Turkic sources.

Does Sword and Silk Exist Already?
Good question!  I’m trying to find out as I write this.  If you can suggest any examples or sources, friend, please let me know in the comments!  Personally, I suspect it already does, but in a sort of neonatal stage just waiting for more authors to jump in and mature it, just as Leiber, Moorcock, and lately Gemmell did with the seeds planted by Howard.

I would like to think that my Snow Leopard, Datu Buhawi, and Pandara stories are Sword and Silk, but I’d hesitate to claim they’re the first.  (Happily my first Snow Leopard story, Lord of the Brass Host, was bought by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and I plan to self-publish an anthology including these sometime later this year). 

Some points of departure:

  • Eric van Lustbader’s Sunset Warrior series (Sunset Warrior, Shallows of Night, Dai-San) may be considered Sword and Silk; I personally found it too focused, though, on Japanese swordplay techniques to the detriment of the story – parts of it sound like gushing Japanese-sword-mystique-fanboy raving; points, though, for Lustbader’s extensive knowledge of Asian culture and atmosphere showcased in the books;

  • Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts’ world of Kelewan, apparently inspired by M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel and by Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Meso-american culture (my friends and I used to call it the Empire of Tamale-Sushi!) is still high-fantasy, being part of a high-fantasy work, but I do like the way the authors made the culture an integral part of the story, and in a balanced way.  The character Mara of the Acoma’s struggles with tradition and society are particularly interesting;

  • Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series looks interesting, using Japan’s Age of War as an inspiration, but adding in a secret society whose members possess magical powers; I’ve yet to read them, but descriptions and reviews are interesting;

  • Lafcadio Hearns’ Kwaidan collects a wealth of chilling Japanese ghost stories and folktales of the supernatural that can be used as basis for Sword and Silk tales;

  • Some Thai fantasy films also present interesting inspirations and themes: were-crocodiles, supernatural snakes, Buddhist themes of sin, karma and reincarnation, and the Thai martial arts; the Ong Bak series of films has spectacular fight scenes, particularly in the second and third installments; Queens of Langkasuka is a fantasy set in an ancient Malay kingdom in the south of Thailand, and is a real visual treat;

  • Ashok Banker’s Prince of Ayodhya and its sequels present a modernized version of the Ramayana as a series of fantasy novels; Speaking of Indian mythology, there are many characters and side stories mentioned in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata that can serve as good inspirations for Sword and  Silk stories, and many elements from Indian history – specially the tales of the Rajputs – make great departure points; (I’m currently polishing up a Snow Leopard story inspired by the jauhar in Chittor, the Masada of Rajasthan)

  • Indian supernatural themes can also be interesting, such as the notion of cobras as protector-spirits (having the villain die by cobra bite is a recurring theme in Bollywood movies), and there are darker aspects as well, of human sacrifice still occurring among some obscure cults;

  • Another interesting takeoff for horrific sorcery elements is a recent serial murder case from Indonesia, where a self-proclaimed bomoh, or shaman, murdered a number of women purportedly to absorb their spiritual power. There was also a similar case in Singapore in the 80’s;

  • Some Filipino comic artists have been coming up with fantasy sagas based on pre-Hispanic Filipino myths and history, under the Alamat comics line;

  • Is the Amaya telenovela series Sword and Silk?  I’d say it’s on the fringe.  The central protagonist, Amaya, fits the mold of an s&s heroine about halfway – she’s dispossessed and a rebel – but other elements point this interesting effort in other directions. 

    First, Amaya’s got some magic on her side, through her serpent twin; second, there’s a lot  more focus on romance and relationships in the whole thing, where an S&S heroine would focus on bashing in her enemies’ skulls. 

    Nevertheless, I’d consider this good thematic and visual reference, and not just for Marian Rivera …

  • How much of a part should martial arts play in a Sword and Silk story?  Personally I think there should be moderation here; martial arts stories are a genre in themselves, and it rather stereotypes Asian cultures to keep focusing on martial arts. what do you think?

A Personal Perspective
From Saunders’ writings, it seems one of the central issues that Sword and Soul writers are trying to address is the legacy of African-American origins in slavery, and their resulting cultural dislocation.  Sword and Soul writers want to link back to a body of myth that they can call their own. 

So what are the issues for Sword and Silk writers?  Personally, one of the issues that drive my writing is what I call The Tragedy of Asia: Western colonialism, and the home-grown rivalries and disorder that allowed it to happen. To me the Spanish occupation of my own country (300 years!) is a dark veil thrown over what was still in the process of maturing, denying me a fully developed, home-grown cultural identity such as the Thais or the Japanese have. 

If sword and sorcery is literary form of rebellion, then my rebellion is against the veneer of Latin civilization, digging for an identity I can accept as my own.  So in my writings I try to probe beyond this veil, into the past before Magellan, or outward, tracing back links to other parts and peoples of Asia. 

I look for the cracks, the fault lines where things went wrong and chaos reigned as a result.   This is why over-ambitious warlords and treacherous courtiers and servants appear often in my stories; it was people like those who created the disorders and made the betraying deals that would set the stage for the West’s carving up of Asia. And I won’t confine these character types to villains, either: rather than have it so clear-cut, I’ve made Orhan Timur, the Snow Leopard, one of those warlords.

In terms of geography, I’m shying away from Japan and China as setting inspirations, and instead turning to Central and Southeast Asia, as well as the Himalayas and India.  These constitute what I consider as ‘Forgotten Asia,’ since I see so few stories (or even FRPG material) based on them as compared to material based on Japan and China.

For characters, I’m  becoming more and more enamored of the redemption themes used by Gemmell.  Redemption or the quest for inner peace makes for a good core motivation, specially if it can be made to clash with more immediate goals.

Let’s see how this goes.  Will I get any further than just ‘Conan in a Kimono/ Conan in a Dhoti/ Conan in Bahag’? What excites readers about Asia?  What are the pitfalls of using Asian backgrounds?


  1. Thank you for writing an extended essay on this subject. It probably goes without saying - or does it, I could be completely wrong about this - but I imagine Sword and Silk negotiates a different set of political obstacles than Asian steampunk does. I think the latter has the potential to be much more imbricated within Western progress narratives than the former.

    As far as Feist goes, here in Minnesota, Tekumel's adoptive homeland, I think he is largely looked upon as someone who took Professor Barkers carefully created setting and produced a cheap simulacrum for personal gain. Another spin on cultural appropriation. As a Tekumel gamer, I can tell you there are very strong South Asian and Malay influences on this setting, including the weapons, which would look right at home in the Philippines.

  2. @Tallgeese: Thanks! I agree that a steampunk setting can address different historical issues than Sword and Silk. First thought in my mind when you said steampunk was gunboat diplomacy.

    As for the Empire of Tamale-Sushi (wink): When I first read Feist, I wasn't familiar yet with Tekumel. The first time I read Tekumel material, I stopped and said to myself, 'whoa, isn't this like Kelewan?' And then I noticed when Tekumel was published. Always wondered how Professor Barker thought of Feist's borrowings. :-)

    And yup, I agree about the weapons of Tekumel -- those blade forms would look right at home where I am :-)

  3. I remember being with my partner and his family in a colonial style restaurant in Manila and seeing a street seller walk towards the restaurant with krysknives, and then being on a road in Batangas when a "gypsy" merchant with a fully loaded carabao came up the road. My first thought was "Chlen cart"! Not surprising since Barker was a specialist on South Asia.

    1. I wouldn't be surprised if the water buffalo was the inspiration for the chlen. It's got a really thick skin.

  4. I have a sourcebook somewhere on running a Sword & Silk campaign. Well, primarily Silk road related, but you can throw in swords easily!

    Good post!

    On the proposed Sword & Silk genre itself -- is violence as much a part of it? Is magic inherently corrupting?

    From the local view, it seems that there's a sort of utilitarian view of magic and mysticism, as seen by the syncretic approach to religion and pamahiins. Not that there isn't any danger, but there is an acceptance of using it when necessary.

    As for martial arts, there is much less of the feeling of the 'spiritual warrior' vibe in local martial arts. It seems to have more in line with 1st being a good fighter and 2nd becoming something nobler. More from the Chinese 'challenge the best fighter in town' approach than the Japanese 'noble samurai fights another noble samurai' type thing.

    1. Hi Alex! Thanks for the reply!

      Is violence necessarily a part of Sword and Silk? If we're to regard it as a branch of Sword and Sorcery, yes.

      As for the question of beneficial magic, what if it exists, but is simply not available to our hero for plausible reasons? For example in a local setting, Da Panday may not take the village arbolaryo with him to help slay a monster, because the guy's the only one the village has, and they need him more, and he's 80 years old ...

      I'll agree with you though that the Asian view of the supernatural tends to be more pragmatic. It's also more, hm, what's the word - embracing of its possibility? Part of the reason Howard's approach worked so well, I think, was that his primary audience had been brought up in a tradition of denying the supernatural (save for the Bible). I'd say there's a unique opportunity in the Philippine audience because of this: predominantly Christian, so brought up to deny the supernatural, but with memories of a pagan folk heritage that's still lying just beneath the surface ...

      Maybe one element we can play on is the constant temptation to cross the thin line from 'I do this because I have to, for the greater good' to 'I'll do whatever it takes so I can achieve what I want'.

  5. Love this essay. Great manifesto and inspiration to write in this vein. This needs to happen!

    I hope to write S&S based on an analogue to East Asia--specifically Korea and Manchuria--with clashes between the Korean-types, the Mongol-Jurchen-Xiongnu types, the Chinese types, and the Japanese.
    I think there are two main problems: one, lots of research for Asian-Americans raised as white such as myself, two, lack of marketability. Fantasy audiences seem to strongly prefer European, Caucasian characters.

  6. @Michael Cho: Thanks for posting, Michael! Yes, it can be challenging to write and market Sword and Silk, but for me it's a quest that's definitely worth it. When I was writing the Swords of the Four Winds stories they seemed to write themselves, as if their characters were standing behind me dictating their lives.

    I'd encourage you to pursue your ideas as thoroughly as you can. If you're living in the USA then you've got a great advantage, in that you have a good library system there. Use it! :-) I'm specially intrigued by your idea of exploring the story ideas from frontier peoples of Korea and China.


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