A fantasy novel in a serious literary magazine: Guo Jingming in Harvest


Illustration for Mark of the Cavalier by oneone

Guo Jingming (郭敬明), the magazine editor and writer of phenomenally-popular YA fiction, has a novel coming out in the summer supplement to Harvest (收获), one of China’s most respected literary magazines.

The news has been somewhat controversial, but then Guo is no stranger to controversy. He’s been held up as the representative of the over-commercialized generation of young writers born in the 1980s and criticized for publishing work that is heavily inspired by other writers. Most recently, a motivational group staged a book burning at the South China University of Technology on April 13, where the “spiritual garbage” they fed to the flames included Guo’s Never-Flowers in Never-Summer, the volume for which he lost a plagiarism lawsuit.

In Harvest‘s case, readers who see the magazine as a bastion of serious literature have accused it of betraying its standards to take advantage of Guo’s popularity. Making matters worse is the subject matter of Guo’s new book: Mark of the Cavalier (爵迹) is the first volume of a new epic fantasy series. Is Harvest repositioning itself to compete with the pulps?

To address these concerns, the following FAQ was posted to Harvest‘s blog:

Deputy Chief Editor Zhong Hongming answers reporters’ questions about Harvest: Novels Special (Spring/Summer issue)

1: Harvest will publish Guo Jingming’s new work of fantasy. Did you contact him first, or did he seek you out?

Zhong: When the editors were doing interviews in connection with Huang Yongyu’s autobiographical novel, he told an editor that he was almost finished with a novel, and asked whether we could publish it….and it ultimately ended up in the Spring/Summer 2010 Harvest: Novels Special, because with that issue, we launched an “extended reading” column.

2: Could you tell us your opinion of the work? What does it mainly deal with? How would you evaluate it?

Zhong: When I’d read the first chapter, I got a Japanese anime sort of feeling, and various scenes surfaces in my mind. The novel divides the world into four continents; this is only the first part. In the western Aslan Empire, whose element is water, the Silver Priests and the Cavaliers, who represent the highest levels of conjurers, together form the ruling class. The novel tells the story of the Cavaliers and their apostles. Qiling, a muddleheaded pageboy at a teahouse, has never been aware of the enormous power contained within his body. As an apostle of the seventh-rank Cavalier Silver Dust, he encounters one life-and-death battle after another. Silver Dust holds locked within himself the seal of a first-class Cavalier….however, there are two Corroded Ones among the seven Cavaliers, and they use their supreme authority to send signals and spread slaughter….I have not read much in the fantasy genre, and to me this novel feels a little like wuxia. But there is a bit too much “technical terminology.” Summoning is not merely about objects and skills; if it were put to more use in human emotions, perhaps it would be a better read.

3. Harvest has always been thought of as the best magazine of pure literature. Does your choice of Guo Jingming represent a change in direction?

Zhong: I should remind you that Harvest‘s mission of and standards have not changed. This novel is being published in our “Novels Special” issue, which has been around for many years. Each issue contains four long-form novels in diverse styles, with an emphasis on readability. Works of what has traditionally been called “serious literature,” by authors such as Jia Pingwa, Zong Pu, Hong Feng, Wei Wei, and Xu Xiaobin, have been published in the special issue, as have genre fiction like horror novels and mysteries. We have a clear direction in putting Guo Jingming’s novel into a new “extended reading” section. I personally feel that Harvest can accommodate all streams of literature. We have launched the “extended reading” section with the hope that it will inspire more discussion about text, content, and techniques of expression. It is not limited in scope to what is commonly called serious literature. It encompasses many forms including genre fiction. The section has only just begun, and at the same time we publish Guo Jingming’s novel, we also publish critiques by Gao Yuanbao and Fu Yuehui, whose opinions are rather different. This is a start. In the future we welcome readers to recommend worthy titles, including online fiction. Differences will exist, but discussion will always enhance the expression and understanding of literature. This section demonstrates that there are many possibilities for our attentions.

4: Are you able to tell us when the magazine will go on sale?

Zhong: It is expected to be released at the end of May.

5: Can you give an estimate of the market?

Zhong: It’s hard to predict. 30,000 copies were printed, less than the same issue last year.

6: Will Harvest print more of the same type of work?

Zhong: The “extended reading” section will continue in the future. Fantasy will be there, as will other genres. As in this issue, the four novels in each issue will be different. I recall that Professor Yan Feng of Fudan University once said that the distinction of Chinese literature lies in lowbrow fiction. Both pure literature and lowbrow literature are among the works in the novels special.

The summary Zhong provides in his answer to #2 contains so much “technical terminology” as to be practically unreadable to someone who knows nothing of the novel. The translation above was assisted by summaries and glossaries found online, illustrations by Oneone (王浣), and the complete text of chapters 1-16.

These resources are available because of a fact that goes unmentioned in most media reports on the upcoming issue of Harvest: Guo Jingming began serializing the story in his Top Ink (最映刻) magazine in early 2009, as Ages Below Critical (临界纪年之爵迹). A standalone edition will be released this summer, so Harvest‘s publication does not seem to be targeted at Guo’s own fans (beyond the completists). Something similar happened when Guo’s Tiny Times 2.0 (小时代 2.0) was published in People’s Literaure in 2009.

Harvest does accompany Guo’s novel with two critical essays for the benefit of readers utterly perplexed by the magical vocabulary, and both critics are probably representative of the readership in that neither has read much fantasy.

Shanghai Literature editor Fu Yuehui, who writes approvingly of the novel as a coming-of-age story, identifies Lord of the Rings as a major influence on Mark of the Cavalier‘s world-building, magic, and quests. Certainly, Tolkien’s influence on contemporary fantasy is almost undeniable, but these days it is mostly indirect; the examples Fu mentions have been the basic building-blocks of fantasy novels, games, and movies for decades.

Mark of the Cavalier appears to add Mesopotamian mythology into the mix of traditional Chinese martial arts and Japanese anime Guo used for Ice Fantasy (幻城, 2003). The former first-class Cavalier, for example, is named Gilgamesh, and he was overthrown by the current first-class Cavalier, who remains in seclusion with his three chief apostles, Uriel, Michael, and Lucifer. Combined with the way in which the Cavaliers summon spirits who manifest as animals to do battle for them, it would seem that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a far likelier western influence than Lord of the Rings.

Fudan University professor Gao Yuanbao is similarly unacquainted with the tropes of fantasy: Guo’s eclectic invented vocabulary of geographical locations, personal names and titles, and magical terms is insufficiently Chinese.

Guo’s Chineseness is an issue for both writers. Gao suggests that the authorship of the Classic of Mountains and Seas was lost because the peculiar names it uses to describe its mountains and monsters led later writers to imagine it was written elsewhere; he asks the same about Guo’s book: “I worry that several thousand years from now, even given the existence of major events and the author’s real name, that the technique of using fantasy names will cause the true identity of the author of Mark of the Cavalier to vanish into the clouds.” Fu has a similar problem:

Mark of the Cavalier is hard for me to classify. Listing it as a western novel is inappropriate, because it is clearly written by someone born and raised in China. But classifying it as a Chinese novel does not seem right either, because if you did not tell me the author’s name beforehand, I would quite likely think it was a western novel – in its characters, geographic names, and world building, Mark of the Cavalier is an extremely westernized novel.

Gao makes two other arguments that are better-founded. He starts off his essay by going through the opening of the novel, paragraph by paragraph, and eviscerating Guo’s overwrought prose:

In short, the overstuffed, jumbled, imprecise, equivocal, carelessly throwaway descriptions that attempt to show off a richly poetic language do not accomplish their goal, but rather reveal a concerned with lists instead of planning, flashiness devoid of meaning, and accumulation ignorant of selection that mark the tastes of the upstart author.

And it all does seem a little out of character for Harvest, but a balance between so-called pure literature and readable stories with broad appeal must be hard to maintain. Coincidentally, the last major dissatisfaction over a Harvest story involved the autobiographical novel by Huang Yongyu that Zhong Hongming mentioned in his answers above. When that work was serialized at the end of 2009, it was criticized for being the scribblings of an amateur (Huang is better known for his painting), and for moving at a glacial pace. “I suggest that Huang Yongyu’s little dog grow up fast. Don’t keep going on about the dog this and the dog that for issue after issue. It’s pathetic!” wrote one online critic.

Best-selling writers of serious fiction like Wang Anyi and Ye Zhaoyan stood up to defend Huang’s right to write and Harvest‘s right to publish fiction that might not have the fast-paced, cliffhanger-packed storylines that a contemporary audience raised on TV dramas might desire. And Zhang Yesong, professor of literature at Fudan University, appealed to the magazine’s reputation:

[Zhang believes] that the controversy demonstrates the open environment of literature today and is really a good thing. He says that all cultural products have been deeply influenced by commercial and consumerist culture, but Harvest is a well-known periodical, an established brand, and naturally has its own position and direction.

If that direction includes the second-run publication of excerpts of the first volume of a new fantasy series by one of China’s richest authors, who’s to argue?

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