1. Zykerion
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    Zykerion New Member

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    Fantasy Ideas at War: European vs. Asian

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Zykerion, Jul 10, 2014.

    As the title states, I've basically had two sort of competing ideas jostling around in my head, trying to escape and get put down on paper. Both seem interesting in their own ways, but neither is really winning.

    To explain, a few weeks ago I got bit by the worldbuilding bug pretty bad, and I tend to like to know what sort of thematic elements are present in the setting before I begin. Trouble is, I'm having a hard time deciding between the sort of inspirational background and overall aesthetic that the world should possess.

    The dilemma stems from choosing between a European-style aesthetic (which everyone even remotely familiar with fantasy knows is pretty much the standard most of the time) or an Asiatic-style one (similar perhaps to Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moribito).

    Part of the ongoing internal debate is that, while each 'style' is interesting in its own way, European-styled settings tend to be more open and 'freer' than ones that are inspired by Asiatic styles and themes. I have a hard time imagining a 'Lord of the Rings' style narrative happening in a world inspired by a melange of East Asian cultures. Obviously this is up to personal interpretation.

    In conclusion, this thread isn't simply about trying to help me pick one over the other (though any thoughts on the matter are greatly appreciated), it's about having a discussion on the topic as well.

    Do you feel that a fantasy world based on European aesthetics/elements is more open-ended to work with than an Asian one? If not, why not?

    Thanks for reading, and I look forward to seeing the responses.
     
  2. HelloThere
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    HelloThere Contributing Member

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    Freer and more open in what way? As William Faulkner put it: "The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself." At the end of the day you're still going to be writing about people, the setting is just a place for these people to exist in.

    As for Lord of the Rings, it's just a story of good vs evil, I see no reason why that couldn't take place in an Asian styled world.

    I feel like I may be missing your point, correct me if I am. :)
     
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  3. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    East Asian cultures are just as vibrant as their European counterparts. The mixture of folk religions such as Shinto with spiritual ones like Buddhism in Japan or traditionalist etiquette in the form of Confucianism with the crude, yet lively ancient superstitions of China have given way to some truly inspiring narratives like the famous Journey to the West or, in more modern times, Spirited Away in Japan.

    I implore you to consider exploring East Asian cultures, because they always have something wildly different to offer to any reader tired of dwarfs and elves. No offence, Tolkien.
     
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  4. Zykerion
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    Zykerion New Member

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    It's sort of difficult to put into words. The way I tend to think of it is that there seems to be more going on over a period of time in Europe than in an equivalent span in Asia. For instance, China has pretty much always been China. They don't have the crumbling stone edifices of some previous civilization sitting around the landscape, just previous periods in their history (which they tend to have pretty good records of) as Europe does (the most obvious example being Rome). These sorts of historical influences tend to make themselves present in a lot of fantasy worlds. Precursor civilizations, ruins dotting the landscape from a time long past, etc.

    In terms of themes present in the stories, European legends tend to feature more tales of mythical figures fighting against gods/ancient evils/monsters, whereas the stories you get out of Eastern Asia tend to be more political, full of intrigue and the like. As an example, compare Beowulf to something like Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Both are epic tales about heroes. Beowulf is fighting monsters and demons, whereas the characters in Three Kingdoms are fighting each other, with lots of political drama.

    In addition, there are some inherent 'problems' when dealing with an Asian-inspired world. For instance, maintaining the influence without losing it, without simply creating a faux-China, faux-Japan, etc. It can be somewhat difficult to add elements that define it as something that's different from its inspiration, without losing the 'feel' of that inspiration.

    I'm probably sounding like a madman at this point. XD

    Edit: The point I was trying to make with the Lord of the Rings example is it's difficult to imagine (for myself, anyway) those sorts of events (an epic battle of objective good vs. objective evil) in an Asiatic culture, because those cultures tend to feature those sorts of stories much less often than European ones, at least in my experience.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2014
  5. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    You couldn't be farther from the truth.
     
  6. Zykerion
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    Zykerion New Member

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    Okay so...in what ways? Examples?
     
  7. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    I already gave you examples. Did you just ignore my post? Scroll up.

    PS: If you don't like Spirited Away, then there's always the Kojiki chronicle, which got a new translation published just this year.
     
  8. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Dean Stride

    Sorry Dude, but your examples don't refute his claims at all, which, I have to say, are rather convincing. I have no steak in this argument, as I think fantasy in general is silly. But @Zykerion's explanation does actually raise some interesting and potentially valid points. You need to do a better job of refuting them because he's totally beating you right now :S
     
  9. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    How? You're not presenting any arguments for why he's "beating" me, either.
     
  10. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    He explained why he felt East Asian setting might be more restricting for his story. You never explained why his reasons weren't legitimate.
     
  11. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    OK, let's examine those points, shall we?

    Point one: European vs Asian aesthetic designs

    What does "open" and "freer" mean? Open in what way; freer in what way? In terms of interpretation, in terms of playability, or did you mean something else? Perhaps freer in terms of the amount of politics involved, as you did state that afterwards? You don't need to limit yourself to the Chinese classics in order to judge East Asian cultures. Examine, for instance, the stories surrounding the Shiki Fukujin (Seven Gods of Fortune). You'll find that they paint a picture of heaven to be quite merry and festive, not unlike the Nordic warrior's heaven, but of course much different from it.

    Point two: China has always been China

    While that is somewhat but not really true, the fact of the matter is that East Asian culture is not Chinese culture. Heck, Chinese culture is as much Chinese as Hindu culture is Hindu. The Chinese peoples are a mixture of many ethnicities, much like India, and to suggest that their culture is somehow homogenous is ridiculous. How, for example, do you reconcile Tibetian Buddhism with the animism of the Manchu? Just because foreign civilizations didn't manage to settle there before them doesn't mean their culture is lacking. The Chinese have as much of a robust pantheon as the Romans did (which was pretty much borrowed from Greece).

    Why are you comparing Beowulf to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is not an epic tale but a novel? The story of Susanoo facing the eight-headed serpent Yamato no Orochi is much more viable for comparison.

    Point three: Losing the 'feel' of inspiration

    Not sure what you're trying to say here. If you're suggesting that you might lose the focus of their mythology, then you're probably right, because it's very difficult for outsiders like us to understand how these cultures feels. But you don't need to recreate a "genuine" Chine or Japan, or Korea, etc to still retain the spirit of East Asian cultures. What you need is basic understanding of the mythological narratives and decent knowledge of the folklore of some of the more major ethnicities. I particularly enjoy the folk myths around the Yookai.

    If we're broadening our horizons to any one Asiatic culture, then I suggest you take a look at the Mahabharata. It is quite "epic" in that regard.
     
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  12. Zykerion
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    Zykerion New Member

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    As I suspected, I don't think I'm articulating any of the points very well, but I'll try to see if I can't put them in some form that gets it across.

    Open and freer in terms of the sorts of worlds that can be built around those influences, is what I think I'm trying to say. Most of the time with European inspired fantasy settings, the results you get are more varied, and can pull from a larger grab-bag of cultures and ideologies. This is in no way meant to say that Asiatic cultures are less varied, but most East Asian cultures tend to be a bit more homogeneous, which I'll get into next. A lot of stories involving Asian-inspired fantasy tend to have a lot of things in common with each other. For instance, there tends to be some sort of Emperor figure (evoking China and Japan a bit), spiritual systems that are not unlike the various religions found in that part of the world. There is usually an elite warrior caste (Avatar: the Last Airbender did this; Benders seemed to often be viewed as 'higher up' by most, and I believe this was played with in Legend of Korra). The styles of clothing and fashions present tend to be pretty close to what you would see in their real-world equivalents. Europe feels as though it has a greater variety in terms of what people wore over a period of time than an equivalent amount of time in places like China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc.

    I wasn't simply referencing China. For the most part, however, East Asian cultures tended to find something that worked and they would stick with it. Hence why the Imperial bloodline in Japan is the oldest continuous single-family rule in the world, at an apparent 2,000 years of age. As I mentioned above, this also applies to the way they did architecture, clothing, business, etc. Walk most anywhere in Japan, and you'd be hard-pressed to spot a great deal of differences which would set one part of the country from another in terms of culture. Yes, it exists, but it's a great deal more subtle than, say, just going from one end of the United Kingdom to the other. That tiny little island in the North Atlantic is the most linguistically diverse region on the planet.

    I would contend that RotTK is epic, simply due to its sheer massiveness. The number of characters alone is mind-boggling, not to mention the book covers about 300 years' worth of information. Most modern adaptations of this book are often split into two volumes, each about 1,500 pages big, if memory serves.

    As I mentioned above, there are certain things that, to most, are indelibly marked as being parts of Asian culture. And yes, these influences have a tendency of coming from/being inspired by things that exist within China, Japan, and Korea. That doesn't necessarily mean that they must be, but in order to get the message across to people who aren't a part of that culture, sometimes these things get used excessively. Samurai-like individuals are a fairly common one. Languages that sound and look and read a certain way. The style of architecture that's being used (pagodas, pagodas everywhere), the clothing, etc. These things tend to stick around, especially if you happen to have a setting that downplays the religious aspects of the narrative. This is why I was using LotR as an example. The narrative doesn't make a great deal of mention about the cosmology or supernatural forces at work (yes, the Silmarillion goes into all that, I know).

    I would also like to mention that I'm not trying to bash on Asian culture at all here. I enjoy it so much that that's pretty much why the debate's going on in my head. I'm simply trying to say that with European influences, it feels like you're able to come up with a lot more concepts and ideas for the world that will still feel very distinctly 'European', and is a lot more malleable than the sorts of things you can do with Asiatic culture, if that makes sense.

    Hopefully I've expressed it all better this time, but I apologize profusely if it still isn't reading the way it should. x.x
     
  13. Bryan Romer
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    Just as illustrations -

    War amongst the gods -


    Fighting monsters and demons -


    Both are based on Chinese legends.

    Another famous Taoist legend are the 8 Immortals

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight_Immortals

    Clothing too varied greatly over the centuries
    http://chinafashion.weebly.com/detailed-histories-of-dynasties.html

    Chinese Architecture varies a lot too. Not just pagodas. Just one example -
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakka_walled_village
     
  14. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I'm almost entirely ignorant of Asian history, European history, though, I happen to know a lot about. To say Tolkien's Middle Earth is 'European' is simplifying things way too much it leaves the sentence completely meaningless. Tolkien was almost entirely inspired by Nordic myth, and Viking Sagas, and Germanic fairy tales; like the Elder Edda mixed with some early medieval things that would have been somewhat familiar to Chaucer, and basically no one after that. This is a different 'Europe' to the one of the Greek and Roman world, which Tolkien completely ignored.

    Tolkien's writing is Northern Europe, and early Northern Europe at that. It was basically Beowulf but with some padding about orks and dark lords and whatever else. This is alien to every other era in European history. Kudos to Tolkien for being a good academic on this subject, but most people are still sort of discovering this side to Europe because the hold of Homer is still very strong.

    Not that that's a bad thing, exactly. Homer kicks all kinds of ass.
     
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2014
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  15. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Truth! Lemex, you rock for this clarification.
     
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  16. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Thanks. :) I always enjoy getting into the nit-and-grit of a problem when I see one.
     
  17. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    For every emperor, there's a king, and for every samurai, there's a knight, so to suggest that monarchy and elitism are lacking in European fantasy stories is untrue to say the least. Although I'm a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, it would be wrong not to state the obvious - this is a kid's show. Granted, it is a rich and immersing animation that challenges children, instead of demeaning them. However, it's very 'Europeanised', particularly with its interjection of European ideals such as individualism and opposition to tradition. It also barely touches upon East Asian culture, with just an overlay of architecture and clothing so as to establish the atmosphere. Anything beyond that has little to do with said cultures. One example I can give is the four elements, which are, to anyone who's even casually familiar with Greek philosophy, European ideas (i.e. water, fire, earth and air). The elements in Chinese culture (which permeate throughout other East Asian cultures) are five, and they include wood and metal. If something that sits at the core is based on European philosophies, don't expect the rest to be any different. Avatar is not a case for East Asian cultures; what little it has is superficial.

    If you want to see a glimpse of Asian culture, watch Hiyao Miyazaki's Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, or if you want something with a more modern take, you can even see Stephen Chow's movies; although they're mostly satires made to poke fun at said cultures, they're surprisingly accurate with their portrayals.

    However, you are correct when you imply that there was stagnation in the fashion department. Even though not everyone wore a kimono or a yukata in Japan, for example, there was little variation among the commoners. That being said, people in East Asia wore pants and blouses as well, so you can't really say they lacked variety that much.

    The world's oldest pants were found in China! They're not too shabby, if I may say so myself.
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/06/oldest-trousers-found-in-china-mummies

    Of course. Confucianism is all about tradition, and the values espoused by Confucius were held long before him. I would dare to say that East Asia itself is all about tradition, but that's not bad, it's just different. If you're afraid that your world would seem homogenous and hence not interesting, then you should fault yourself before you fault the cultures. The differences between a mountainous settlement and a marshland village are big enough to warrant notice, you just need the desire to research them.

    Well, it is correctly classified as a novel, precisely due to its sheer massiveness, both in the number of characters and in the number of plots. Epic tales are usually devised with rhythm in mind, while novels are not; Their focus is on the complexity of the narrative. None of this is very important, though.

    You can say the same about European fantasy stories: Knight-like individuals, Germanic-sounding languages, Gothic architecture for the royalty (castles, castles everywhere!) and the religious institution and Central or Northern European style for the cities and villages; as for clothing - dresses for the ladies and suits for the gents (unless you're a wizard or part of the clergy, in which case a robe is a must).

    As far as LotR goes, you can surely make an Asian equivalent of it; there is more than enough folklore to fill a 1200-something-pages-long trilogy.

    I'm not sure about that. So far there has been no fantasy story I've read that hasn't felt Western, let alone European.
     
  18. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    I think the OP acknowledges this difference.
     
  19. Zykerion
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    Zykerion New Member

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    I would hardly call it superficial. There are the classical elements present, that much is true, but even so, these elements are present in certain Buddhist and Hindu traditions as well. There's also a :ton: of culture on display throughout the show. For instance, each bending style is modeled after a real-world martial art form. T'ai chi for waterbending, Hung Gar for earthbending, Northern Shaolin for firebending, and Ba Gua for airbending.

    In addition, there's the whole concept of the Avatar reincarnating to continue the cycle of balance. There's the two fish swimming in the pond in the Southern Water Tribe's city that represent the dual forces of Yin and Yang. The spirit realm, full of its bizarre monsters and creatures, most notably Koh, the ancient face-stealing spirit, are very East Asian in design. Princess Yue sacrificing her mortal existence to become the Moon Spirit. All of these elements come straight from Asiatic culture, and are richly expressed throughout the show.

    I have seen both Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, as well as Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer.

    It's not so much that it's homogeneous, more that it's difficult to innovate and create something new with the elements provided, while still retaining something recognizable as being inspired by the various cultures. I'll explain this a little more down the line.

    I think you meant 'has' there, instead of hasn't, but I don't want to assume. Running with what I think you meant though, this sounds like it's making my point for me a bit better than how I was going about it. The elements that compose a lot of the stories derived from European example are open-ended enough that you can come up with something that, while inspired by it quite a bit, doesn't necessarily feel like it's being constrained by the association, whereas with stories inspired by more Asian locales, the influences are more evident and 'obvious' to whoever's looking at it, and it's somewhat difficult to reimagine an Asiatic culture as something other than what it already is in the real world, simply due to the well-established idea of what makes those cultures like what they are to most readers. This is in no way meant to say that it's impossible, simply that it's a much more difficult task, as well as being more difficult to sort of work out in one's head.

    It is indeed true that Tolkien drew a large portion of his inspiration from Northern Europe (and pretty much every fantasy author afterwards trying to mimic him), it can be argued that there was a much larger scope in his mythos than simply northern Europe. As an example, the civilization of Numenor was, according to Tolkien's legendarium, the greatest civilization of Men. It was apparently based quite a bit on Atlantis, which is something typically associated with Plato and Greek Classical literature. It could also be argued that the various precursor civilizations that sprang up around Middle-Earth and then declined, leaving ruins behind, are parallels of Rome.
     
  20. Dean Stride
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    Dean Stride Contributing Member

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    It is pretty superficial, despite what you say. In Hinduism, the elements are also five, with the inclusion of the ever important 'emptiness', while in Buddhism, the classical elements are just representative of the four Buddhist realities of solidity, cohesion, warmth and motion, and are far from the classical context of the elements; some Buddhist traditions (e.g. Tibetian; Japanese Buddhism) also include the element of 'emptiness' or 'void'. It's not so simple to say that the Ancient Greek fundamentals are the same as their Hindu or Buddhist counterparts, just because they share the same translation. As for the martial arts, it goes without saying that they would use real life techniques, but so does every 'kung fu' movie.

    Now about reincarnation, you don't reincarnate to "keep balance", you reincarnate, because you've failed to escape the cycle of birth and death (samsara). The reincarnation present in the show was specially crafted for the narrative and works brilliantly, however it was a superficial use of the Asian concept of reincarnation. The deal with the koi fish was somewhat gimmicky. The myth behind the koi is good enough not to use them as a symbol for Yin and Yang, but I think this is trivial. Yes, the spirit realm was pretty folkloric, no doubt about that. If there's one thing you can always count on to be engaging, it's East Asian (particularly Japanese) folklore, but it's not richly expressed in the show. However, there were too many animals and none (bar the face stealer) inspired by the bizarre creatures that it can offer. For example, the owl spirit, which was even presented from a European perspective (i.e. as a guardian of knowledge). There is no such symbolism for owls in East Asia. Also, when I talk about by bizarre, I don't mean hybrids, I mean yookai-like bizarre (e.g. a rokurokubi). Frankly, it seemed more like a Native American than an East Asian spirit realm.

    Good, then you know what an East Asian spirit realm would actually look like.

    I meant exactly what I said. All fantasy stories I've read that had their basis on European mythologies carried over the feeling of the regions that they sprang from, and they failed to detach themselves from said mythologies and create something that I would perceive as different. It could be that I haven't read enough of them, which is true, because I prefer my native literature, or that I haven't read the right ones. I don't know. I've never felt this 'open-endedness' that you talk about, but it could be just me failing to disassociate myself from a given mythology whenever I encounter one of its elements.

    I still don't agree, though. There is enough lore in East Asian cultures that most casual readers would never expect; just like the Inquisition, no one expects a Shirime! It depends on the writer to be able to remold it into a new world and make it work for him.
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2014
  21. Domino355
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    Domino355 Contributing Member

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    One thing I'd like to point out, when people say European vs. Asian fantasy my head automatically translates it to Lotr, Dragonlance ect vs anime. and I'd just like to point out, from all the anime shows I watched, anime pretty much covers any type of fiction you can find, in its own anime characteristics
     

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