“I just think that novels are really cool,” says 22-year-old R.F. Kuang (the R is for Rebecca, the F remains a mystery). She has just released a very cool first novel of her own, The Poppy War (Harper Voyager), which kick-starts a trilogy boldly mixing 20th-century Chinese history with the country’s ancient past.
Think sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem crossed with Game of Throneswith a touch of Star Wars, and you’re not far off. As Kuang puts it, “The most interesting parts of books two and three have been working out the philosophical and ideological differences between the protagonists, but making it make sense in a Song-dynasty fantasy setting.”
It is a remarkable achievement, all the more so because Kuang, who was born in Guangzhou and raised in America, wrote this extensively researched epic while studying at Georgetown University, in Washington. In the autumn, she will begin a master’s degree at Britain’s Cambridge University and plans to write her thesis on an as yet undecided aspect of Chinese military history. Kuang agrees when I say there do not seem to be many female war historians. “I’m not sure why. It’s not like war is an inherently masculine thing.”
We speak during Kuang’s lunch break from her day job, in Colorado. “I am teaching debate camp,” she says. “This year it is ‘Violent revolution is a just response to political oppression’.” The proposition seems tailor-made for Kuang, given that The Poppy War can be read as tracing the roots of China’s own communist revolution.
“The problem is violent revolutions don’t always set up peaceful, democratic governments afterwards. But it’s a two-part question, right? A violent revolution can be justified even if the government that results is not democratic.” This includes China, she adds, “because a lot of things went wrong after 1949”.
The thought of Kuang fighting it out intellectually in such a hothouse environment suggests parallels with The Poppy War’s central protagonist, Fang Runin (“Rin”). Like Kuang – who grew up in Dallas, Texas – Rin is a young Chinese woman raised in the south of her fictional homeland, enduring her share of discrimination. While Kuang has sought elevation through education, at debate camp, Georgetown and Cambridge, Rin does so at Sinegard (read Beijing) military academy. There, after passing the stringent keju examinations, Rin competes in martial-arts tournaments and trials of political and military strategy.
“I have much better control over my anger,” Kuang says of the comparison. “Rin often pushes herself to extremes, representing some of my worst impulses, but I’m far more moderate. Rin’s story is what happens when you start out at the very bottom of society, when you have been discriminated against for almost every facet of your existence. Who better to represent that than a young woman living in old China?”
In the story’s ambitious leader-in-waiting, the reader can begin to detect echoes of the real-life Mao Zedong. “He was looked down upon,” Kuang says of Mao. “Couldn’t speak Mandarin very well. Never really learned to speak English properly. Made fun of when he went to university. It is easy to see how this spirals into something worse.”
His life inspires one of the novel’s central questions, she says. “It is [...] interesting to ask why an ordinary person, who genuinely cares for people, has the capacity to love, is compassionate and wants to do right, instigates the Great Famine or the Cultural Revolution.”
A similar complex character progression sees Rin sidestep stereotypes of the fantasy heroine. Instead of falling for handsome boys, she craves acceptance, praise and power.
“From the start, she is power-hungry and ambitious. She wants to write a page for herself in history that she wasn’t supposed to have. Rin makes choices she thinks are correct to save the people she loves. It just goes terribly wrong,” Kuang says.
There are other personal dimensions to The Poppy War. “If I were going to write a family autobiography, it would have required a lot of painful hours of forcing my family to dredge up things they don’t want to think about again. I wasn’t going to put them, or myself, through that.”
Kuang is referring to her father’s childhood in Leiyang, in Hunan province; her mother grew up on Hainan Island. “My maternal grandfather fought for Chiang Kai-shek. My father’s family bore the full brunt of the Japanese army sweeping through Hunan.”
In 2016, Kuang visited her father’s village for the Ching Ming tomb-sweeping festival. “They showed me bullet holes from the Japanese army in the old mud-brick family house that’s been in the family for generations,” she recalls. “It’s really difficult for them to talk about. I didn’t get many details out of them. The lingering effect has been this virulent hatred of Japan.”
The Poppy War gives voice to this enduring rage in its moving but disturbing third section, when Rin arrives at Golyn Niis, a “city of corpses” and a dead ringer for Nanjing.
“I went through a whole cycle while writing The Poppy War. When I started digging, I got angrier and angrier. I wrote the climax shortly after reading Iris Chang’s The Forgotten Holocaust . The whole trilogy is an instinctive, gut reaction: pure rage and retribution. It’s been described as a revenge fantasy, and I think that’s right.”
Kuang has moved beyond her fury. “That mentality is exactly what the text is criticising. I think there has to be an official apology. But I also think it is unnecessarily provocative and inflammatory to accuse Japan now of being the militaristic Japan of 1937.”
Her decision to place a fictional Nanjing in the foreground was partly a rejoinder to myopic Western accounts of the second world war. “We learn about Normandy, right? We don’t learn about the battle of Shanghai. We forget China participated in the war. There were great casualties and great sacrifices. People don’t find out about the rape of Nanjing until college, if ever.”
With her lunch hour almost over – and no lunch yet – Kuang is ready to hit the cafeteria. Her next few weeks look equally busy. Before swapping the US for Britain, she has to finish the final 10 per cent of The Poppy War’s third book. Part two, which is all but complete, dramatises the Chinese civil war with an appearance from a character based on Chiang Kai-shek.
While she clearly loves writing fiction – she plans to attempt a novel loosely inspired by her time in Cambridge – Kuang insists her academic career comes first. “The only reason I can come up with ideas for novels is I am doing all this historical research. I don’t think you can acquire the necessary perspective unless you are doing things other than sitting in a room coming up with stories,” she says.
Just in case she hasn’t made herself clear, Kuang adds a conclusion worthy of her no-nonsense fictional alter ego, Rin. “That’s why a lot of novels read as vacuous and boring to me. They are fine as romps – people enjoy them. I don’t like them because I don’t feel I am being taught anything new. If I want to learn things through my fiction that means leading a complex life. And never writing full-time.”