Heroes and Villains in Ken Liu’s “The Wall of Storms”
By Andrew YangMay 25, 2017
The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
By “Chineseness,” I do not refer to the nation or governments of China so much as to elements from that territory: its people’s philosophies, traditions, and histories. Liu grounds the narrative history of Storms in the aftermath of the Chu-Han period of imperial China. The novel centers upon the Ano, a peaceful people who struggle against the Lyucu, a materialistic, reductive, and shortsighted people who threaten to destroy the Ano through perpetual violence. Both Ano and Chu-Han society contain common elements: silk and silk robes; a classical, logographic language; and ancient, revered philosophers (the most revered one, “Kon Fiji,” sounds strikingly like “Confucius”). Yet The Wall of Storms also borrows heavily from traditions of Western literature: Storms is a romance narrative. It has clearly delineated heroes who are responsible for properly husbanding the world and villains who pervert the land through their exotic savagery. According to John Clute and John Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy, villains reduce the world’s capacity for wonder and magic; they spoil the land by violating its internally consistent laws. It becomes the heroes’ duty, then, to restore the fantasy world to a wondrous state. Liu claims epic adventure stories such as Beowulf, the wuxia novel, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost as inspirations. Near the climax of Storms, one character observes that the world has “evil” to be confronted and “demands a man or a woman to step forward to embody the will of the many” and become a hero. In this context, Chineseness, grounded in Western narrative traditions, itself becomes heroic.
The plot of Storms revolves around tensions concerning conquest, bureaucracy, and war. Dara, the empire of the Ano people, has settled into peace under Emperor Kuni Garu. As Kuni and his court systematize this empire’s bureaucracy for long-lasting peace, the savage Lyucu arrive. They conquer Dara’s northern territories and threaten to enslave the rest of the empire. To drive the Lyucu away, the Ano overcome their internal conflicts and create a unified front that delays the Lyucu and affords the Ano several years for a more comprehensive response.
The text frequently describes the Lyucu as “savage,” and their savagery arises from their perception of the world and its life forms as mere resources for consumption. As they conquer Dara, they replace fields, plantations, and orchards with “pastureland for their cattle,” and dismiss the Ano as mere obstacles. The Lyucu mounts, the flying, impregnable, and fire-breathing garinafins, are not only weapons, but also tools and slaves. Lyucu clothing, weapons, and even houses are made from garinafin and cattle hides and bones, or, as one Ano observes, “the deaths of animals.” By contrast, the Ano attempt to observe and understand the world and themselves in symbiosis. As the scholar Luan Zya embarks on an expedition beyond Dara territory, he quips, “The universe is knowable. Patterns could be discerned and made useful.” Ano characters frequently quote literature and philosophy from ages past. Kuni’s daughter, Princess Théra, interprets waves in a pool as “a metaphor about friendship.” From careful habits of observation, the Ano discover that “even monsters [are] knowable,” and they employ locust swarms, flammable manure, and battery-charged explosives to counter the superior strength of the garinafins. The Ano’s proclivity toward learning and growth allows them to sustainably employ resources for specific ends without wasteful exhaustion.
The Lyucu are also savage in their authoritarian worldview, which regards people as mere objects or instruments of their commander’s will. Pékyu Tenryo, leader of the Lyucu, holds unquestionable authority over all his subjects. As he roars “Absolute obedience!” Lyucu troops execute Tenryo’s father and his mount along with all soldiers who hesitate or fail to obey his orders. When Tenryo gives the command to attack Ano troops and airships, his soldiers follow as mere extensions of their leader, similar to “[leaf] cutter ants” and their formations. The perpetual impulse to form into caste-bound hierarchies indicates the Lyucu’s will to regard Tenryo as a synecdoche for all Lyucu. Indeed, aside from his daughter Tanvanaki, the text features almost no dialogue from any other member of the tribe. Just as the Lyucu objectify themselves, they also objectify the lives and bodies of others. After overthrowing another tribe, the Agon, the Lyucu slaughter their entire elite caste, along with Agon men and women they had married and even their own half-Agon children. As the Lyucu force Ano locals to marry them, the “cursed blood of Dara” condemns the Ano-Lyucu children to slavery at birth.
By contrast, the Ano follow a cosmopolitan principle of “many friends,” slowly bringing together people from different classes and states. Kuni Garu changes the tax system, improves local civic infrastructure, and develops legal systems for the benefit of his peasantry. His changes help replenish Dara’s population in the aftermath of civil war. He also leaves border territories alone and protects them against cultural intrusion. Marshal Gin Mazoti brings together a diverse team to create a strategy to battle the garinafins, and she earns loyalty from her soldiers by “rewarding initiative,” “providing useful training,” and showing care for their families. Princess Théra advises Zomi to never relinquish her love of “the common people,” the one value the entire imperial court shares. Unlike the Lyucu, the Ano demonstrate empathy toward the many peoples of Dara. In Storms, the immense size and diversity of Dara itself is magical; to preserve Dara’s national and cultural diversity itself is to preserve wonder in the text.
Finally, the Lyucu appear savage because of their reductive morals, which justify atrocities against the Lyucu’s enemies. Pékyu Tenryo holds a grossly simple philosophy throughout the text: “If I am mighty, I am good. If I am weak, I am evil. That is all.” This contrasts sharply with the Ano’s emphasis on equity and “the long view” in their political projects. An emphasis on “might” informs Tenryo’s remorseless violence toward his victims; his purpose is to defeat them so severely that they have no power for future retaliation. He lines up surrendered Agon nobles and their children and “smash[es] their skulls one after another.” He burns out the eyes of Luan Zya, breaks his legs, and cuts out his tongue in order to learn how to pass the wall of storms and reach Dara. Most horrifically, he commands the Lyucu to collectively rape and impregnate Ano women to “break the spirit of the native population” and “affirm the Lyucu claim” to the land. Not only do his troops violate Ano bodies at the most basic level, but they are also deliberate with the damage they cause to Ano psyche and society. As the Lyucu classify themselves as “mighty” and “good,” they in turn classify others as “evil” and “weak.”
In contrast to these hateful and reductive binaries, the Ano believe that the “good” relies upon voluntary collaboration rather than force. The political technologies of the Ano seek to create advancement opportunities for those without power. In return, the Dara state asks newly empowered individuals for civic support. Empress Jia develops an elaborate system of rules, “recorded in books and reified by repetition,” to encourage the Ano to live together under a peaceful bureaucracy. The Grand Examinations, a “continuation and refinement” of previous educational practices, encourages scholars from impoverished backgrounds to compete for imperial court positions. Dara’s complex, generations-long, and statewide projects aim to decentralize power rather than concentrate it. Also unlike the Lyucu, numerous Ano willingly sacrifice their own lives for dreams of future peace. Emperor Kuni wounds and then drowns himself to avoid being reduced to a hostage and bargaining chip for the Lyucu. Princess Théra leaves her partner and enters a political marriage to invade the Lyucu homeland and raise a garinafin army of her own. Marshal Gin Mazoti and her captain call themselves mere “cüpa stone[s]” in a strategic game, and they kill themselves to defeat Pékyu Tenryo in battle. While the Lyucu mindlessly slay under a murderous objectifying ideology, the Ano value diversity, collaboration, and choice above all else.
Although there are subtle nuances to both Ano and Lyucu behavior (such as the Lyucu’s adoption of Ano customs and language), the Lyucu nevertheless remain an obvious foil for the Ano. The Lyucu instrumentalize themselves, others around them, and the world they inhabit. Their tendency toward authoritarian objectification gives rise to an ethnic nationalism of unfolding violence. As villains, the Lyucu highlight the Ano’s contrasting heroic values of adaptability, collaboration, and tenacity. If the Ano function as loosely veiled signifiers of Chineseness, then the Lyucu represent something else. Interviews with Liu suggest the Lyucu’s imaginative roots in Mongolian and Viking cultural traditions. Their initial physical appearance, “generally light-skinned,” with hair color ranging “from pure white to a light brown,” suggest disturbingly stereotypical depictions of Nordic whiteness. Such references may suggest that, for all of Liu’s efforts to de-essentialize the Chinese, even he cannot escape the Orientalist binaries of East-West opposition so replete in Western narrative tradition. Nevertheless, The Wall of Storms remains a breakthrough text in Chinese-American and fantasy literature. It resists contemporary impulses to write or read Chinese-American literature as autobiography, and it provides a complex portrait of Chineseness that eschews simplistic representational stereotypes.
Andrew Yang is a Lecturer at University of Michigan–Shanghai JiaoTong University Joint Institute, Shanghai.
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