Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Oriental Fantasy

Any story set in the Far East and drawing upon indigenous beliefs, Myths, Magic or the supernatural is technically an OF, but a few more lines of definition can be drawn. Most OFs are set in a Land-of-Fable Orient. Stories set in the contemporary East can be OFs if their veneer of Reality is removed to reveal the fantastic, though this Chinoiserie must be central to the story – otherwise they are merely Oriental thrillers. Initially OF and Arabian Fantasy were ill distinguished in Western eyes, especially as many stories in the Arabian Nights were drawn from more extensive lands than Arabia, including as far east as India. Most OFs are written by Western writers drawing upon Oriental imagery, myths and Legends (> Ocean of Story). Oriental writers may draw upon the same myths, and such stories are also OFs – although contemporary Oriental fantasists would no more tend to think of their works as OFs than would Europeans regard their fiction as "Occidental Fantasies".

Chinese literature flourished during the Tang Dynasty (AD618-907); a representative English-language selection of Fairytales and Supernatural Fictions, most involving men or animals with Talents, is The Dragon King's Daughter (anth 1954) ed/trans Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. Japanese scribes assembled two massive collections of Creation Myths and hero tales in the 8th century as Koji-Ki and Nihon-Gi. The 9th-century Yu Yang Ts Tsu is a collection of Chinese Folktales which includes the earliest known version of Cinderella. The best-known early OF is the 16th-century Monkey (trans Arthur Waley 1942 UK), compiled from nearly 1000 years of tradition by Wu Chêng-ên (?1505-1580) (> Monkey). Other Chinese myths, including many Ghost Stories, were collected by P'u Sung-Ling in Liao-Chai chih i (1679; cut trans Herbert A Giles as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 1908 UK; cut Strange Stories from the Lodge of Leisures 1913 UK), and Lafcadio Hearn retold many Chinese and Japanese legends in Some Chinese Ghosts (1887 US), In Ghostly Japan (1899 US) and Kwaidan (1904 US), with a much wider Oriental selection in Stray Leaves from Strange Literature (1884 US). Hearn's work formed the basis for several Japanese and Chinese movies, using spectacular spfx; the best are Kwaidan (1964 Japan) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987 Hong Kong), though the most remarkable of all Chinese fantasy movies is ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1981).

OFs became fashionable in the West after the success of the Arabian Nights, originally translated and published in France as Les mille et une nuit (1704-17) by Antoine Galland (1646-1715). Among the many similar collections assembled in its wake were three compiled by Thomas-Simon Gueullette (1683-1766), which used the same frame device. The individual titles were: Les avantures merveilleuses du Mandarin Fum-Hoam; contes chinois (coll 1723; vt Contes chinois, ou Les avantures merveilleuses du Mandarin Fum-Hoam 1728; trans as Chinese Tales, or The Wonderful Adventures of the Mandarin Fum-Hoam 1725 UK; vt The Transmigrations of the Mandarin Fum-Hoam, Chinese Tales 1894 UK); Les mille et un Quart-d'heure: Contes Tartares (coll 1723; trans as One Thousand and One Quarters of Hours, being Tartarian Tales ?1726 UK; vt Tartarian Tales; or a Thousand and One Quarters of Hours 1759 UK); and Les Sultanes de Guzarate, ou Les songes des hommes éveillés (coll 1732; vt Les Mille et une soirées, Contes Mogols 1765; trans as Mogul Tales 1736 UK). These were particularly influential in the UK and France, and for a while Arabian and Oriental stories became the fashion. Horace Walpole included a Chinese Fairytale, "Mi Li", in Hieroglyphic Tales (coll 1785), while Henry William Weber (1783-1818) compiled Tales of the East (anth 1812), an immense three-decker set and the first fantasy Anthology.

OFs drifted out of fashion during the height of Gothic Fantasy and the Romantic movement (> Romanticism) – a rare example from the 19th century is "The Dragon-Fang Possessed by the Conjurer Piou-Lu" (1856 Harper's) by Fitz-James O'Brien (1828-1862) – but interest returned with the rise in popularity of the fairytale and the wider exploration of folklorists (> Folktales). By the turn of the century, with the success of The Mikado (1885) by W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan and Madam Butterfly (1904) by Giacomo Puccini, Orientalism returned into fashion. With The Wallet of Kai Lung (coll of linked stories 1900) Ernest Bramah launched the first of his long-running Kai Lung series set in a mythical China attuned more to Western minds than to Oriental tradition. The play The Darling of the Gods (1902) by David Belasco and John Luther Long created a quasi-mythic Japan that so ensnared Lord Dunsany that it turned him to writing his Fabulations, many with quasi-Oriental settings, starting with The Gods of Pegana (coll 1905). Authors strongly influenced by Dunsany found themselves creating Oriental lands – including Kenneth Morris with stories collected as The Secret Mountain (coll 1926) and more recently as The Dragon Path (coll 1995 US), H P Lovecraft in such tales as The Cats of Ulthar (1920 The Tryout; 1935 chap); Clark Ashton Smith in "The Willow Landscape" (1931 Philippine Magazine) and others; and Donald Corley in his collections The House of Lost Identity (coll 1927) and The Haunted Jester (coll 1931).

Most of these stories are set in a Land-of-Fable Orient. Other writers created fantasies set in the contemporary Orient, but peeling back the layers of Reality. Best-known is Sax Rohmer, who appealed to the sinophobic mood of the West prevalent around the turn of the century (after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898) and created a Chinese villain in Fu Manchu. Rohmer explored the medium further in Tales of Chinatown (coll 1922) and Tales of East and West (coll 1932; rev 1933 US). Stories showing the Chinese influence in London and other cities (especially San Francisco) are not necessarily OFs, but they can develop the elements of Chinoiserie to create an almost mythical Oriental Polder in the West. Like Rohmer, Thomas Burke (1886-1945) produced many such stories, collected as Limehouse Nights (coll 1916), Whispering Windows (coll 1920), East of Mansion House (coll 1926) and The Pleasantries of Old Quong (coll 1931). Stories of this type seldom age well, and it is only recently that a new generation of writers has been prepared to accept ethnic communities and explore the wealth of cultural diversity and knowledge they feature: a much-welcomed example was Tea With the Black Dragon (1983) by R A Macavoy. The movie Big Trouble in Little China (1986) harvested the same territory.

Unfortunately, much Oriental Fantasy of the first few decades of this century reflected the cultural stigmas and prejudices of the day (> Maggots), when Orientals were regarded as the "Yellow Peril", a viewpoint which M P Shiel had exploited, and it took work by writers with a closer affinity with the Orient to establish a balance. Their work began to emerge soon after WWI, and mostly in the US magazines. Leading the way was Achmed Abdullah, a Russian by birth but raised in India, who was able to infuse his fiction with authentic Oriental beliefs and create stories of mysticism and mystery for Western eyes. His best are collected as Wings (coll 1920) and Alien Souls (coll 1922). Starting with The Ninth Vibration, and Other Stories (coll 1922) and The Perfume of the Rainbow, and Other Stories (coll 1923), L Adams Beck produced more romantic tales, mixing Oriental and Theosophical beliefs (> Theosophy). Talbot Mundy took this a stage further, creating action-packed Rohmer-like thrillers but utilizing Oriental lost-world landscapes (> Lost Lands and Continents); the best of these was Om: The Secret of Abhor Valley (1924). Mundy imitators, whose work occasionally showed greater originality, include H Bedford-Jones, Harold Lamb and E Hoffmann Price. Norvell W Page, a highly prolific pulpster, wrote two OFs featuring Prester John in Flame Winds (1939 Unknown; 1969) and Sons of the Bear God (1939 Unknown; 1969). A contemporary of theirs, but producing stories more in the vein of Bramah, was Frank Owen, a popular contributor to Weird Tales, whose exotic, delicate and sometimes erotic work appeared steadily for over 30 years. Common to all of these authors was that their extensive travelling allowed them to bring experience and authenticity to their work. The same was true of Margaret Yourcenar, whose stories in Nouvelles Orientales (coll 1938; rev 1963; exp 1978; trans Alberto Manguel with the author as Oriental Tales 1985 UK/US) reflect an extensive knowledge of Oriental legends and culture. Similarly, Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), a Dutch ambassador to Japan, became fascinated with the traditional tales of the 7th-century Chinese magistrate Judge Dee. While on war duties, he translated an anonymous 18th-century volume, Dee Goong An, into English as Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases of Judge Dee (1949 Japan; vt Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee 1976 US). Van Gulik then wrote new novels and stories about the character, most of them nonfantastic (though beautifully evocative); The Haunted Monastery (1961 Malaya) comes closest to an OF.

Only a few of these authors continued to produce work into the 1950s – Price well into the 1980s, completing two excellent OFs towards the end of his life, The Devil Wives of Li Fong (1979) and The Jade Enchantress (1982) – but the interest in OFs faded after WWII and did not return in any strength until the revival of interest in fantasy had become established and settled down sufficiently to support more diversity. When it did return it displayed a greater richness and authenticity than before: not only were writers clearly in control of their subject matter but they were writing for a readership more widely attuned to the fantastic and generally educated beyond the perception of cultural stereotypes. As a result, the best OFs are those which have appeared since the end of the 1970s. These include: The Rainbow Annals (1980) and Moonbird (1986) by Grania Davis; the Tomoe Gozen series plus Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman (1985) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson; the Master Li series by Barry Hughart; the Chia series by Stephen Marley; and such singletons as The Fairy of Ku-She (1988) by M Lucie Chin, Silk Road (1989) by Jeanne Larsen, Imperial Lady (1989) by Susan Shwartz and Andre Norton, and The Mask of the Sorcerer (1995) by Darrell Schweitzer.

The OF has had an uneasy life, treading a fine line between the Western love of a mythical Orient and an inherent Western bigotry over a portion of the globe which existed almost entirely independent of the West for centuries. At its best it is exotic but unreal; at its worst it can serve only as a channel for a writer's or culture's prejudices. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.