“The Altethlon Chronicles” – China’s Answer to Harry Potter

Guest review by Tom Carter

China’s love affair with superstition, pseudoscience and the fantastical may be traced back over five millennia, whence some of history’s oldest myths and legends originated.

Journey to the West (Xi You Ji), published anonymously by scholar Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century Ming Dynasty, remains China’s most beloved fantasy story.  Considered one of the “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature, the 100 chapters of ‘Journey’ are replete with monkey kings, flesh-eating demons, immortal sages and celestial battles.

When science fiction became all the craze in 1950’s America, Red China followed suit by founding its first sci-fi periodical.

However, unlike the west, where rapid advances in the tech sector fueled science fiction, China promoted sci-fi to help inspire its own dormant technological progress.

Conversely, about the same time during the 70s when American director George Lucas was preparing to film a little space opera called Star Wars, the Cultural Revolution was banishing all China’s scientists to hard-labor communes.

Indeed, where the Chinese have categorically failed in speculative fiction (programming on the Communist-controlled CCTV is evidence enough that future perspective is held in little regard here: of China’s 19 official television channels, all feature serials set in olden times, some in the present, none about the future), they remain masters of mythology and purveyors of the past.

Present-day PRC is seeing a renaissance of the fantasy genre.  The wuxia-inspired Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a critical and commercial success, generations of young, Chinese cyber-punks are hopelessly addicted to the virtual sorcery of World of Warcraft, and Harry Potter remains China’s “most pirated novel ever”.

Even so, no Chinese author has ever been able to replicate the success of Journey to the West; as a result, publishing houses in the Middle Kingdom prefer to translate western best-sellers such as Lord of the Rings and Narnia rather than take their chances on local fantasy fiction writers.

Enter Zee Gorman (nee Yan Zi-hong) China’s response to J.K. Rowling.

Born in Guangdong province during the Cultural Revolution (both her parents were exiled to the countryside for being “intellectuals”), Zee was raised on a literary diet of propaganda and scar literature.

Rather than publish a clichéd daughter-of-the-Revolution memoir about her hardships, the aspiring author opted for the escapism of fantasy. Hence, her decades-in-the-making debut novel, The Altethlon Chronicles.

A high-fantasy fiction set in a parallel universe either far in China’s future or in its past, The Altethlon Chronicles is a complex blend of military, history, romance and sorcery.

Leading the rich cast of green-eyed, purple-skinned characters is the royal yet rebellious teen Ximia (“what kind of princess are you anyway, running around like a wildcat?”) and her forbidden lover, Nikolas, the leader of a rival tribe – a tumultuous relationship most likely inspired by Zee’s own experience with cultural clash when she immigrated to the U.S. and married an American.

Ximia is misled into believing that Nikolas has been killed during an escape attempt, whereby the princess is married off by her father to a dastardly lord.  The two young warriors go on to lead their respective armies until the day when destiny arranges for them to meet again in battle.

Lots of magic, weird names and epic battles of Tolkien proportions (note: this reviewer has never actually read a J. R. R. Tolkien book; I just thought it sounded cool to say that) ensue.

In creating this alternate world, Zee draws heavily on her Chinese heritage.

Kingdoms such as Manchuli, Dalong and Taklaman are each reminiscent of real regions in China.

Nonetheless, Zee, who is bi-lingual and holds dual degrees in English Literature, chose to write The Altethlon Chronicles in her second language and self-publish in America rather than risk having it pirated in China’s nascent fantasy market.

Some realities are worth escaping.

Discover Blond Lotus, another book review by Tom Carter.


Travel photographer Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, a 600-page book of photography from the 33 provinces of China, which may be found on Amazon.com.

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5 Responses to “The Altethlon Chronicles” – China’s Answer to Harry Potter

  1. Alessandro says:

    I have earned my full degree in Rome “La Sapienza” University (even though at the time my main field of study was japanese language, and chinese was only the second language). Unfortunately I have to agree with you that some of the “stories” that circulated in the East Asia department regarding China were based on those same stories and propaganda you mention. I think that that kind of studies (not only China but the complex of far east as a whole) only give you the basic knowledge and familiarity with the topic, but the real “study” comes later, and it has to be done personally and with open eyes and mind. When I finished my studies, I too had a kind of distorted idea of China, and only knowing her directly and personally I came to realize that much of what I had learnt was far from the truth. The first time I actually came to China was, so to speak, an eye-opener in many ways. I like to see things with my own eyes, reason on them, ponder them in the light of all the differencies and circumstances, trying to use my western mindset (I was born and grown in Europe, it’s part of me) as one tool among others to decipher the reality I see in front of me, not a the only “truth” on with which and against which to judge every other society and culture. And I have always despised that “sense of superiority” many westerners have when it comes to other cultures. I have also always been suspicious of our media, of the western mainstream way of thinking and so on, even before (I think it’s impossible not to be if you don’t only passively “listen” and “believe” what you are told,but also reason with your mind)..seeing and living China (much more than Japan, which is nowadays, with all its cultural differencies, strongly influenced and shaped by the west, especially after WWII) made me fully realize how much of what we read, hear and think is somewhat “false” or distorted at least (reasons are varied)

  2. Alessandro says:

    Indirectly stating that it is cause it would be “communist-controlled” that on CCTV there’re no future related fiction is very shortsighted for Mr. Carter. It is a typical anglo-american vice to trace every difference in China (or elsewhere also sometimes) to the “evil” (and fantastic) communists, ignoring history. Mr Carter should know the difference between sci-fi and fantasy or fantastic. Xi-you-ji is a fantasy/fantastic novel (similar in some respect to Homer Odissey or Iliad, not at all a “sci-fi” novel), not at all a sci-fi one.
    What Mr. Carter ignores, or seems to ignore, is that literature and its genres, are not the same wherever in the world. anglo-american literature is historically more bent to sci-fi and the like, other literatures are not. There’s no need to go till China, even in democratic, european Italy (I’m Italian, have some knowledge of it), sci-fi has never been a literary genre, fantasy, on the other hand, has. There are some writers of sci-fi right now, but they are an absolute minority, and historically it has always been so. And also in TV there are none italian produced “sci-fi” serials to talk about. China is similar (even if there have been attempt in the cinema industry to create sci-fi movies), chinese literature has never ventured into sci-fi, it’s a very evident chinese (but also japanese, until the very last years) literature characteristic.
    That’s for sci-fi (that, it’s good to keep in mind is a very different genre from fantasy/fantastic)..For fantasy, nowadays, Mr. Carter also seems to ignore the vastness of contemporary chinese popular literature (especially starting on the internet, and then finding it’s way to paper literature) fantasy/fantastic production (the series of gui-chui-deng among many others). And I’m sure he could also find some sci-fi ones in that vast literary sea.
    So, culturally and historically sci-fi has never been part of Chinese, east-asian and other countries literary genres, that’s true. Playing “political” on this issue is rather baseless.

    • Alessandro,

      Thank you for saying, “Indirectly stating that it is cause it would be “communist-controlled” that on CCTV there’re no future related fiction is very shortsighted for Mr. Carter. It is a typical anglo-american vice to trace every difference in China (or elsewhere also sometimes) to the “evil” (and fantastic) communists, ignoring history.”

      I have mentioned more than once in this Blog (in other posts) that much of what goes on in China today has little to do with Communism and more to do with being Chinese and being linked to China’s history and culture. It is nice to hear someone else saying the same thing.

      • Alessandro says:

        My pleasure Mr. Lofthouse. Being european with a Degree in East Asian Studies and living in China with a chinese wife, I too understand all too well this problem. Unfortunately, on second thought, I have to recognize that it is no longer only an anglo-american vice, but it’s always more a Western vice, the product of years of western propaganda against China (and every other country they have some grudge against). The more China grows, the more the world become full of self-proclaimed “China (fake) experts”, that think that a trip or less is enough to see, understand and tell (without even understanding one word of the language, or study on page of history or culture)….And the worst thing is that the vast majority doesn’t even try to put aside for a second what they have learned home, and put themselves for a brief moment in the shoes of an ancient, complex and vast civilization on many issues so radically different from our own (and I use the simple word different on purpose), that has all the reasons not to trust the West.

      • Where did you earn your degree in East Asian Studies? I’ve discovered that “some” of these degrees are based on the same Western propaganda you mention, which is still considered valid even though authors such as Sterling Seagrave have revealed how much of that so-called scholorship comes from lies, deception and fabrications.

        Of course, it helps to be married to a Chinese wife that may offer a different view than most in the West hold. Living in China and getting to know the Chinese also helps put a different spin on things as I have discovered.

        There is a Blog I leave comments at where a US Businessman working in China often writes posts that are often critical and biased from a Western point of view. I find it disconcerting that there are so much bogus opinions of China that have nothing to do with the reality of China’s culture. It is as if these people are incapable of seeing how the cultures differ or that China’s culture has survived where Western cultures have collapsed and reinvented themselves only to collapse again.

        From historical evidence, we may conclude that a collective culture, which focuses on the virtue and value of the family, has a better chance at surviving than one based on the individual being the center of all things.

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