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Today, I am delighted to welcome R.F. Kuang to the blog! The Poppy War, her upcoming debut novel and the first book in a new trilogy, is epic military fantasy inspired by twentieth century Chinese history, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War. While waiting for The Poppy War to release in a couple of weeks—on May 1!—you can read the fantastic first chapter of the book on the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, as well as R.F. Kuang’s essay below.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach

There’s a Chinese legend about the Moon Lady so ubiquitous that you must have heard it in some shape or form. Here is how it goes. Chang’e is a beautiful girl whose husband, the archer Hou Yi, shoots down the nine suns scorching the earth dry (just roll with it) until only one sun remains. The gods in their gratitude gift Hou Yi a peach of immortality, but Chang’e, wicked girl, steals the peach when her husband is away and devours the whole thing.

Alas, the peach was not meant for one mortal to consume alone. Its potency burns the mortality out of Chang’e’s body. She becomes a celestial spirit, too light to stay on our world, and she floats away until she lands on the moon where she’s trapped forever.

Chang’e was selfish. Chang’e wanted too much. So Chang’e is sentenced to an eternity in the cold and dark, alone with her misery.

This is the lesson meant for little Chinese girls. Because even if we’re about a hundred years out and a thousand miles away from the land of foot-binding and customs dictating daughters are worth less than suckling pigs, we’re still raised within a culture that praises filial piety, docility, and submissiveness. Play by the rules until you get a husband. Keep quiet, keep your eyes down, do your work, and obey. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be greedy. Don’t want too much.

It’s hard not to internalize these lessons when the only Asian girls you see reflected in books and shows are bland, lifeless caricatures with no internal drives of their own (because, of course, why would white creators give them that?). Consider Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon—oversexualized, dainty Oriental flowers who live and die for their white men. Consider Cho Chang—grief-stricken, hysterical, a pale imitation of a real person whose only purpose was to give Harry some kissing practice before he moved on to the white girl of his dreams. If the Asian girls in movies didn’t toe the docile, love-struck archetype, then they were cast as deviant Dragon Ladies—prostitutes, over-sexualized kung fu masters, the filthy dirty whores of the east.

Then there was Azula.


Azula, princess of the Fire Nation, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai and Ursa, maniacal bitch, conqueror of the world, my heart. Azula, whose hair and eyebrow game is always on fucking point; whose Ember Island outfit is such bikini goals that I’ve been searching for anything similar in stores for years; who, in Ty Lee’s words, is without sarcasm “the most beautiful, smartest, perfect girl in the world.”

Where have you been my whole life?

Azula gives no shits. Azula doesn’t care if you think she’s pretty. Azula wants the world and she’ll burn it down to make it hers. Azula claws her way to everything she wants. Azula is pure, unadulterated rage and ambition; she knows she’s a monster and she owns that.

(And twelve-year-old me resonated so deeply with how Azula, the second child, the girl, had to fight so hard for recognition in Zuko’s shadow. She was the obvious prodigy and still she had to constantly prove that she was stronger, better, faster, smarter. Do you know what it’s like to be a Chinese girl with an older brother? Your entire culture is wired to tell you you’re redundant, irrelevant. Azula approached Zuko with a murderous, jealous rage and boy, I felt that.)

Azula doesn’t win, of course. The narrative punishes her—not because she’s ambitious, but because she would honestly make a terrible ruler no matter how good she was at leading troops. But still we got to watch her wild climb to power over several delicious seasons, and wow, was that shit affirming.

Please understand how ground-shattering it is to tell an Asian girl: what if you took what you wanted?
What if you were selfish?
What if you raged, and left ashes in your wake?

The women of The Poppy War—Rin, Venka, Jima, Daji, Tearza—are not “strong” women. (Strong is such a boring adjective, and it’s usually code for men who gave a bland female character some nominal fighting skills and now want their feminism brownie points.) They are not pretty, they are not docile, they do not flutter their lashes to gain salvation from white soldiers.

They want power, they kick down doors to get it, and they are more than occasionally assholes. Radical, isn’t it?

There is a different, lesser-known version of the Moon Lady myth where Chang’e doesn’t eat the peach out of selfishness, but sacrifice. Her husband is a tyrant, a murderer. She’s terrified of him. She wants to save the world from the threat of Hou Yi’s immortal presence and the only way she can do it is to doom herself. In this supposedly feminist version, Chang’e is the hero and the martyr.

Should we prefer that version? I suppose it’s marginally better. But already we are brought up inside this culture that teaches us that pain and sacrifice make a woman, that the way we prove our virtue is to spill our own blood. And I have had enough of hurting to save others.

Here is the version I like best. Chang’e didn’t make a mistake. She knew that the peach was meant to be shared, that a half portion would grant immortal life, but a full portion would strip away her humanity.

She wasn’t interested in humanity. She wanted to be a goddess.

Now she rules the sky, and look—we worship her beauty every night.

That’s the lesson that little Chinese girls should learn. Take the peach. Shove it in your mouth—the whole thing. Let the juice drip down your lips and laugh as the mortal weight falls away from your bones. But don’t settle for the moon. Take the stars. They’re right there in front of you, and my God, they will burn so bright.

Rebecca F Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University, and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in 2017. Her debut novel The Poppy War is about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century and comes out with Harper Voyager in May. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at www.rfkuang.com.