As we near the release of The Burning God, my heart is breaking at the thought of one of my favorite trilogies ending. In the last 5 years, R.F. Kuang has solidified her place as one of the Science-Fiction Fantasy genre’s greatest writers with her debut trilogy, The Poppy War.
With the series coming to a close, there has been a lot more hype in the online reading community (looking at you, Twitter) to pick up the books, and while I’m usually the first to throw this book at everyone to read, it’s important to understand how The Poppy War draws from history and East Asian culture.
In my opinion, there are two ways to read TPW trilogy. The first is to read it as any other fantasy novel, and the second is through an analytical lens and understanding of the history it discusses. This is a series that has touched the hearts of many Asian readers, especially children of diaspora because it takes the stories we’ve listened to growing up and weaves them into an epic fantasy.
Kuang’s writing allows us to feel seen while respectfully exploring the darkest moments in our culture’s history. Today’s blog post is dedicated to condensing the history the series analyzes and spotlighting the small Easter eggs of our culture the book includes.
If you’re looking for a book with romance and a happy ending, this isn’t it. I would actually discourage you from reading this book because you’re better off picking up something else. At its core, The Poppy War trilogy is an unfiltered look at the brutality of violence war and how its aftermath leaves a lasting effect on generations.
Trigger/Content Warnings: war, drug use, substance addiction, self-harm, racism, misogyny, genocide, bullying, abandonment, abuse, animal death, animal cruelty, torture, murder of children and adults, rape, mutilation, human experimentation
The Poppy War is set in ancient China, but the plotline takes inspiration from history, specifically the Second-Sino Japanese War in Book 1 and the Chinese Civil War in Books 2 and 3.
The map in the book draws direct parallels from real life with the Nikara Empire being China, the Federation of Mugen being Japan, and Speer having the most similarities to Taiwan. The series further analyzes the impact of the West’s imperialism and colonialism through the Hesperians.
While it’d be impossible for me to type out 100 years worth of history into a single blog post, I wanted to highlight several important events that the series discusses:
The Opium Wars (1839–42), (1856–60)
I recently posted an interview with Chloe Gong, author of These Violent Delights, where she also gave a brief summary of The Opium Wars.
In the mid-19th century, China and the United Kingdom fought two wars over China’s attempt to suppress Britain’s opium trade. During the Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty in China, the British had wanted to import tea from China, but to put it bluntly, China didn’t really care for what Britain had to trade.
However, the British quickly realized that they could leverage the addictiveness of opium by selling the drug to the Chinese. When the Chinese government tried to stop the opium trade, British forces invaded, resulting in the Chinese’s loss where they had to pay reparations, cede Hong Kong island to Britain for 100 years, and open trade ports to foreign powers.
If you’ve ever wondered why Hong Kong has a different government system than mainland China, this is why. It’s also why you’ve probably been seeing news of Hong Kong protests because the Chinese Communist Party has been working to revert the HK political system. Personally, I believe that Kuang uses Speer as a commentary towards how individual territories are treated as chess pieces by larger government bureaucrats with HK in mind.
“Speer has been a pawn in the Empire’s geopolitical chess game. We were disposable. We were tools. Tell me that doesn’t make you furious.” (p. 484, TPW)*stares in Taiwanese*
Of course, it’s called The Opium War(S) for a reason so the second war was fought between China and Britain and France. Again, the Chinese lost this war, resulting in further concessions of territory. Shanghai, for example, was split between the English, French, etc.
The Second-Sino Japanese War (1937–1945)
The bulk of Book 1 follows the Second-Sino Japanese War between the Republic of China and Imperial Japan in what was essentially WW2 in East Asia. It’s important to note that while Kuang does not shy away from depicting the atrocities that imperial Japanese soldiers committed, she makes it a point to mention in interviews that the series is not meant to vilify any specific country or to glorify violence.
The two major events that the book highlights are the Rape of Nanking (Chapter 21) and Unit 731, and the most brutal scenes were in Kuang’s words “pulled directly out of history books.” The Rape of Nanking is often referred to as “The Forgotten Holocaust” because it was not talked about until the 1980s and ’90s. In a period of 6 weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were tortured, raped, and murdered in the city of Nanking.
Similar traumatic events occurred in other Chinese cities that were seized by Japanese soldiers, but the Rape of Nanking is the most well-documented. The Imperial Japanese’s brutality extended beyond murder into human experimentation of captured Chinese, and Unit 731 is responsible for the most notorious war crimes in history, engaging in biological and chemical warfare.
Chinese Civil War (1945–49)
Books 2 and 3 follow the Chinese Civil War so mild? spoilers ahead because plot-wise the books take inspiration from history, but I also find the series even more interesting to read when you understand the context.
In the backdrop of the Second-Sino Japanese War (so before, during and after), China was in a civil war between the Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong. The Nationalists championed turning the political system into a republic, or democracy, while the Communists, obviously, wanted communism.
Because I’m Taiwanese, I have a personal interest in how Taiwan was a parallel in this series. While Taiwan was annexed by the Chinese during the Qing dynasty, it became a Japanese colony until the end of WW2. When the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War, they retreated to Taiwan in hopes that they could one day regroup and take back the mainland.
If you were ever confused why China says “People’s Republic of China” and Taiwan says “Republic of China” on a map, this is why. Currently, Taiwan’s government which has a multi-party system is fully democratic with a President and legislature elected by its citizens and operates independently of the People’s Republic of China which has a one-party system.
Interestingly, the two major political parties in Taiwan are the KMT and DPP (Democratic Progressive Party). The KMT maintains that Mainland China should rejoin them while the DPP view themselves as never being part of the People’s Republic of China because Taiwan is an independent country.
In The Dragon Republic, Rin has a revelation that the Republic actually never was going to govern any differently from prior political powers. They just wanted to unseat the reigning Empress Su Daji. Similarly, while the KMT advocated for transforming the government into a Republic, they essentially ran a military dictatorship in China and in Taiwan after they lost the civil war.
The Great Chinese Famine (1959–1961)
While the Great Chinese Famine isn’t fully depicted in the series, it is hinted at in The Burning God. Here is where most of my personal knowledge ends so I’ll be pulling quotes from this Guardian article, “China’s Great Famine: The True Story.”
“A decade after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took power in 1949, promising to serve the people, the greatest man-made disaster in history stalks an already impoverished land. The Great Famine remains a taboo in China, where it is referred to euphemistically as the Three Years of Natural Disasters or the Three Years of Difficulties. The death toll is staggering [estimating at least 45 million]. It is equivalent to 450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki … and greater than the number of people killed in the first world war.”
Fang Runin = Mao Zedong
Now that you have a grasp of the history, let’s talk about our main character, Fang Runin. Fang Runin, or Rin, is a war orphan who, after acing the Keju—a nation-wide exam—is accepted to the most elite military academy in the nation, Sinegard. There, Rin discovers that she possesses an aptitude for shamanism and can call the power of the gods.
The first thing to understand is that Rin is intentionally written as an anti-hero. You’re not supposed to fully support all her actions because Rin is actually inspired by Mao Zedong, one of history’s most controversial figures. Mao Zedong was known to have a very ruthless approach with a notable quote being “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half the people die so that others can eat their fill.”
“The question the trilogy tries to answer is: how does somebody go from being an irrelevant, backwater, peasant nobody to being a megalomaniac dictator capable of killing millions of people? I’ve always been interested in how people become murderers or perpetrators of genocide.”– R.F. Kuang (BookRiot)
Yin Nezha = Chiang Ching-kuo
Your first instinct might have been to assume that Nezha was supposed to represent Chiang Kai-Shek because that certainly was mine. After receiving clarification from Rebecca Kuang, Vaisra is actually the more deliberate parallel to Chiang Kai-Shek, and Nezha resembles his son Chiang Ching-kuo, who oversaw the gradual opening up of Taiwan’s political sphere.
In The Dragon Republic, a lot of these pieces start to fall into place as we learn that Saikhara, Vaisra’s wife and Nezha’s mother, spent time in the West to establish friendly relations with the Hesperians, serving as a parallel to Chiang Kai-Shek’s wife who was a Christian and was educated in the U.S.
The 12 Provinces
The provinces in this book are named after the twelve Chinese Zodiacs: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. You can think of this as the Chinese equivalent of your horoscope but rather than being based on your birth month, your zodiac is determined by your birth year!
Oh My God(s)
Okay, so I didn’t know what to title this section, but throughout the book, you’ll find characters exclaiming “Great Tortoise!” or “Tiger’s Tits!” Put simply, these are stand-ins for “OMG” or “Oh my god.”
In Chinese Constellations, there are four mythological creatures, or cardinal mythological Gods, guarding the world in four directions: the White Tiger of the West 白虎 (bái hǔ), the Black Tortoise of the North 玄武 (xuán wǔ), the Azure Dragon of the East 青龍(qīng lóng), and the Vermilion Bird of the South 朱雀 (zhū què).
Also, as a fun fact, 玄武 doesn’t actually translate to “black tortoise” — it means “black/mysterious warrior” — we call it the black tortoise but in myth it’s a tortoise entwined with a snake. (credits to skye from the quiet pond for the translations)
Mythology (Credits to Kevin)
“A lot of the world-building and the themes of the story are drawn from Chinese history and mythology, like The Investiture of the Gods. Everybody knows about Journey to the West, but I think Investiture of the Gods is cooler and trippier. And that forms the mythological backbone of the entire trilogy.”– R.F. Kuang (The Teeming Mass)
Investiture of the Gods is a fictionalized account of the fall of the Shang and establishment of the Zhou dynasties filled with stories of heroes, gods, and spirits. Su Daji is inspired by Daji, King Zhou of Shang’s concubine (secretly a fox spirit). After King Zhou offends the Goddess Nuwa by lusting after her, Nuwa sends Daji to bewitch the King and distract him from ruling, leading to his eventual downfall via a rebellion led by Ji Fa. Ji Fa’s advisor is the white-haired Jiang Ziya.
The Yin brothers Nezha, Jinzha, and Mingzha are also major characters in Investiture, and Nezha is perhaps best known for besting the Eastern sea dragon Ao Gang. Nezha commits suicide to outwit Ao Gang, whereas in TPW **SPOILER**, Nezha is mortally wounded by the Muganese general Seiryu, whose name means Azure Dragon of the East.
Investiture forms the mythological backbone, but TPW also draws from other classical novels, including Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Journey to the West follows the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang and his disciples/protectors on a pilgrimage to India to retrieve sacred texts. Two of these disciples, Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie, are the inspirations for Suni and Baji, members of the Cike in TPW.
Sun Wukong is a monkey born out of a rock with immense strength, fighting skill, and magical powers. Zhu Bajie is a gluttonous, lecherous pig-man who fights with a rake. Although Journey is ostensibly about Tang and his pilgrimage, Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are by far the most memorable and popular characters.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is an embellished account of the end of the Han dynasty, the Three Kingdoms period, and the establishment of the Western Jin dynasty. Chen Kitay seems inspired by the strategist Zhuge Liang, especially when he uses straw men on boats to steal arrows from the enemy, and the defense of Arlong echos the Battle of Red Cliffs, in which the southern warlords, advised by Zhuge Liang, defeat a numerically superior northern force that chains its ships together to avoid seasickness by lighting their fleet on fire.
Colorism, Regional Accents, & the Treatment of Ethnic Minorities
In my interview with Rebecca, I asked what was her rationale in making Rin dark-skinned when she herself was light-skinned, and we dove into a discussion of how pale-skin is revered in Asia and the mistreatment of those who are dark-skinned. For context, the skin-bleaching market in Asia is projected to be a $24 billion industry by 2027 (Vogue).
Part of this goes back to history where having pale skin meant you were of a wealthy class, signaling that you did not have to do manual or agricultural labor and spent most of your time indoors. This is a prejudice that Rin has to constantly work against throughout the books, being from a rural province.
Early on in The Poppy War, Rin points out how the Sinegardians’ accent has a hard -r sound at the end as a joke. (This was just something I found personally funny because I’m 99% sure Sinegard is a parallel to Beijing, and this is a characteristic of the Beijing accent.)
We also meet the Hinterlanders in The Dragon Republic who represent an ethnic minority in the Nikara Empire, but many characters’ treatment of them are overall dismissive and belittling. This treatment is overall fairly reflective of China’s treatment of those who are not Han Chinese.
Sinegard & the Keju
During Rebecca’s lecture “The Poppy Wars and Asian American Speculative Fiction” at Institute for the Humanities – University of Manitoba (UMIH), she mentions how “Sinegard” which is the elite military academy that Rin is accepted to actually doesn’t sound like a Nikara word. The reason for this is because most of the prestigious academies in China were named by westerners.
TPW begins with Rin studying for the Keju, a national entrance exam for the Empire’s military academies. In the book, Rin literally mutilates herself as motivation to keep studying because acceptance to Sinegard is the only way she can escape her abusive home. While you might find Rin’s studying to be extreme, Rebecca has mentioned that the Keju takes inspiration from the modern-day Gaokao and imperial exams during the Qing dynasty.
The Gaokao is China’s version of the American SAT and British A-level tests and is known as one of the hardest exams in the world. The gaokao is a national event equivalent to a public holiday…but much less fun. Construction work is halted near examination halls, so as not to disturb the students, and traffic is diverted. Ambulances are on call outside in case of nervous collapses, and police cars patrol to keep the streets quiet.
“A high or low mark determines life opportunities and earning potential. That score is the most important number of any Chinese child’s life, the culmination of years of schooling, memorisation and constant stress.”– Business Insider
Religion & Shamanism
The shamanism and mythology are a syncretic mix of Daoism, (a little bit of) Buddhism, ancient Chinese divination methods, and cultures like the Neolithic Hongshan culture. Meanwhile, the Hesperian’s Makerism is a direct parallel to Christianity. Similar to how the Hesperians arrived at the Nikara Empire in The Dragon Republic, to evangelize people they perceived to be “savages.” Thousands of Protestant missionaries traveled to China during the Second Great Awakening to evangelize.
At Sinegard, one of the military tactics textbooks is named Principles of War written by Sunzi. This is named after Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Rebecca pulls from many historical battles to craft the events that occur in TPW. One notable event from history is the 1938 Yellow River flood which has been called the “largest act of environmental warfare in history.”
During the Second Sino Japanese War, the Nationalist Government in central China intentionally destroyed a major dam in an attempt to halt the rapid advance of Japanese forces. The morality and strategic value of the flood has been heavily criticized as it resulted in 800,000 casualties and 3 million refugees.
The End of the Series & Its Significance
‼️ This section will contain spoilers for The Burning God which is the 3rd book in the series‼️
In subtle asian book club’s live show discussion with Rebecca, she explains why the ending of the series diverges from what happens in actual history. In the final book, Rin who acts as a parallel to Mao Zedong dies and sacrifices herself as she becomes aware of her thirst for power, and in the end, Nezha is the last one left standing to cooperate with the Hesperian in hopes for a better world.
Rebecca writes this ending to begin a discussion of what the world would look like if China’s current Communist regime were not the ruling party today. At the 48:42 timestamp in the interview, she shares her perspective on the multiple layers of Asian diaspora identity, including rejecting your Asian heritage, becoming comfortable with it, and understanding the nuance of loving a culture whose government your family may have opposed.
I recommend watching the full interview with Rebecca to understand the complexity of the series and the messages she is trying to send. (P.S. you should also check out the book club!)
If you follow me on any of my social media, you’d know that The Poppy War trilogy has been a transformative series for me, and it even inspired me to talk to my grandma about her life in Taiwan since it had been heavily influenced by Japanese colonization and the retreat of the Kuomintang.
Several of my friends asked me why I wanted to write this post, and I have two answers. The first is that after reading this series, I felt so proud to be Asian. I felt so proud to be seen and represented in the books. Growing up in the States, I’ve never fully learned about my culture’s history until this past summer when I marathoned the series and conducted my own research.
The second reason is that I also think there’s a larger conversation that needs to be had about how to read BIPOC stories. I’ve seen too many “hot takes” on Twitter where people dismiss stories for “not being what they expected” because they wanted romance or were expecting something fun and exciting.
It’s not the responsibility of BIPOC to educate readers. However, as the series gets more and more popular, I want to help those who are excited and want to learn at least have a condensed understanding. This post has gone on long enough, but thank you so much for reading. I hope you’ve learned a lot and will fall in love with The Poppy War trilogy the same way that I did.
Contributing Writer & Editor
I’m Kevin Kaichuang Yang, a Taiwanese American who grew up in central Ohio, moved to Los Angeles after college, and to Boston in 2019. Between reading books, I’m a researcher, chase my toddler around, and now spend an inordinate amount of time learning to make Taiwanese and Chinese foods that I can’t find in Boston. You can find me on Twitter, where I mostly talk about machine learning, biology, and Chinese food, on Goodreads, or on Instagram if you just want to see what I cook.
Check out Kevin’s recent guest post, “What The Poppy War Means To Me”.
If you enjoyed this post, consider checking out…
My author interview with R.F. Kuang:
My “the poppy wars as vines to prepare for the burning god” compilation:
These pronunciations are based on the audiobook. I know there are formal fancy pronunciation symbols and guides, but this blog post is for us plebeians out there who need a simple explanation:
Rebecca’s website links to a Google Translate link for the pronunciation of her last name. When I (Tiffany not Rebecca) sound out this character for non-Chinese speakers, I break it down to “kuh + oo (like boo) + aww + ng”.
Fang Runin (Rin)
Fang can be broken down to “Fah-ng” or “F + aww + ng” rhymes with “Song” and “Roo-nin” . Please do not say Fang like Rin’s a vampire or something.
Yin rhymes with “bin”, and Nezha is “N + eh (the sound you make when you shrug) + zh + uh”.
Chen rhymes with “yen” like the Japanese currency. Kitay is broken down to “Kih + tie (like a business suit tie)”.
There’s actually a discrepancy between The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic audiobooks because TPW pronounces “Sin + eh + guard” but TDR says “Sign + eh+ guard”. After listening to Rebecca pronounce the word a few times during livestreams and interviews, the first version is the correct one.
Jiang is pronounced “Gee + aww + ng”. It has the same “aww + ng” sound as Fang and Kuang.
The audiobook pronounces Cike as “psych” like “Hahaha psych, you just got punked, l00ser”, but Rebecca has mentioned that the proper Chinese pronunciation is “S (like snake) + k + uh”.
Buy the Books!
- The Poppy War: https://bookshop.org/books/the-poppy-war/9780062662583
- The Dragon Republic: https://bookshop.org/books/the-dragon-republic/9780062662606
- The Burning God: https://bookshop.org/books/the-burning-god-9781799945222/9780062662620