In the fourth part of Interesting Times, Rincewind makes it to the Counterweight Continent. Which is China. Or Japan. Or both. I don’t know. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For extended talk of racism, xenophobia, Orientalism, and slavery.
This made me incredibly uncomfortable, and if Pratchett were more clear about what he was satirizing, I might have less of a problem with it. Indeed, a white British writer attempting to poke fun at empires and imperialism is perhaps a disaster just from the start, but it’s pretty much guaranteed to be so when that same writer appears to ignore his own country’s monstrous imperialism in favor of criticizing both Japan and China. That is not to say that this criticism shouldn’t happen in the first place. Pratchett’s misstep isn’t there; it’s in the lack of nuance and definition.
“Heh! They think you’re some kind of demon,” cackled the old man.”
Right from the start of Rincewind’s arrival on the Counterweight Continent, Pratchett evokes an incredibly common trope: the native or indigenous folk see a white person, and they react with utter fear or with reverence. If you include Cohen in that equation, you’ve got both parts of this trope. They worship Cohen, going so far to call him “master,” which is an INCREDIBLY uncomfortable visual metaphor that is never truly acknowledged beyond the humor it is supposed to invoke. But okay, let’s assume that Pratchett is attempting to make a bit of a commentary about the treatment of prisoners in China. (Or Japan? Which one is it?) Is he completely unaware of the things his country did in terms of maintaining a slave empire? Why does the Counterweight Continent get this detail and not Ankh-Morpork?
Indeed, this is the first of many times where Pratchett’s real-world metaphors and reference involve projection. Things Britain‘s empire did are given to this fictional nation that is China. Or Japan. One of the two. Or both?
“Man came up to me, said my teeth were offensive to trolls. What about that, eh?”
“Well, they are made of–”
“I said they never complained to me.”
“Er, did you ever give them a cha–”
“I said, I see a troll up in the mountains with a necklace o’ human skulls, I say good luck to him. Silicon Anti-Defamation League, my bottom. It’s the same all over.”
Oh, lord. At whose expense is this joke made? Because this feels way more like Pratchett poking fun at groups like the NAACP or the Anti-Defamation League than Cohen’s literal cultural appropriation. What, does he imagine Cohen as some sort of reference to George Washington? That none of the slaves he stole teeth from ever complained about it, so therefore, it’s all bogus anyway? There is a satire in that, and there’s a clear way to say that Cohen is full of shit, but Pratchett moves on. He never says anything else. And I read this waiting for that. I kept waiting for the subversion, and it never came. And once Pratchett got to the Agatean Empire itself?
Lord Hong was watching the tea ceremony. It took three hours, but you couldn’t hurry a good cuppa.
So is this Japan? Or China? Is he referring to the Japanese ceremony? The informal one or the formal one? (I’ve forgotten the words for them, forgive me. My dad was Japanese, and I’ve witnessed many of them growing up, but I can’t remember what they were called.) Is there a multi-course meal being served, or is there just tea? Did Pratchett recognize the irony in referring to tea as a “cuppa” when the British got tea from the Chinese, not the other way around?
Lord Hong merely sighed again. Magic. It had fallen out of favor in the Empire, except for the most mundane purposes. It was uncultured. It put power in the hands of people who couldn’t write a decent poem to save their lives, and sometimes hadn’t.
Is Pratchett trying to satirize the focus on the poetic arts in Japan (or China??? Which???) when he comes from a country with some of the most ridiculous and terrible poetry of all time? Why does he focus on this detail over and over? Is it meant to highlight that Lord Hong is actually a terrible dictator-esque character who obsesses over the beauty of art while killing people? DO I NEED TO POINT TO MOST OF BRITISH HISTORY IN ORDER TO HIGHLIGHT THE EXACT SAME MOTIF?
(But hey, I do understand now that the tea girl had tried to poison him. Sometimes, it takes a second read for me to get things.)
Rincewind had always understood that the Agatean Empire was a peaceful place. It was civilized. They invented things.
So, is Interesting Times supposed to be a commentary on misconceptions of other nations? As if it’s a satire of xenophobia, but in reverse? Because I could honestly replace “Agatean” with “British” and that sentence would make exactly the same amount of sense. Look, I’m not going to sit here and say that Chinese governments or Japan’s empire didn’t do monstrous things to other people and nations, or especially not to their own people, either. But I find it appalling that this is being written all through the lens of a man who has benefited from living in a nation built by an empire! There’s such an unwillingness to turn the lens in the opposite direction, and it’s distracting.
“Then if they ever give trouble you just have to say ‘Remember Nangnang?’ or whatever, and they say ‘Where’s Nangnang?’ and you say, ‘My point exactly.'”
Two things here: Is Pratchett satirizing a country (Japan? China?) for their hellish economic policies while living in the country that gave us Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill? And let’s say that he’s actually making reference to those individuals! Why are you giving those characteristics to the first “Asian” nation within the Discworld? And I put “Asian” in quotes because there’s a homogenous treatment of these actual nations and peoples and cultures. I find it hideously racist for anyone to make fun of these languages and these names. From naming the capital city HungHung, to Nangnang, to this atrocious fucking line:
Some said it was One Tzu Sung, some claimed it was Three Sun Sung.
Y’all, no. Do you realize that there’s a long and terrible history of puns made out of names of people who are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and I don’t need to keep going here? Does anyone remember when this happened a few years ago? There is no possible context that I can find where this isn’t a disgusting racist act, and Pratchett doesn’t get to be exempt from this. If Latinxs or Mexicanxs ever show up in the Discworld, can I expect Pratchett to make that awful Juan/one pun? Is that seriously the low-hanging fruit he’s going after?
Damn calligraphy! There would be changes! A written language of seven thousand letters and it took all day to write a thirteen-syllable poem about a white pony trotting through wild hyacinths. And that was fine and beautiful, he had to concede, and no one did it better than Lord Hong. But Ankh-Morpork had an alphabet of twenty-six unexpressive, ugly, crude letters, suitable only for peasants and artisans… and had produced poems and plays that left white-hot trails across the soul. And you could also use it to write the blood minutes of a five-minute meeting in less than a day.
ARE YOU SERIOUS. Where in this diatribe is there any subversion? The whole bit where he calls the English alphabet “unexpressive, ugly, crude,” perhaps? This is barely any different from any white nationalist spouting xenophobic nonsense about the perfection of the English language and how superior it is because other languages and alphabets and dialects are too long and too confusing and too weird and HOW DID THIS JOKE GET PAST ANYONE AT ALL.
“This city of Ank… More… Pork is an abomination! Mere anarchy! There appear to be no nobles of consequence and the society is that of a termite nest! It would be better for us, my lords, if it was wiped from the face of the world!”
I can’t hate this more. I really can’t. You are putting words in the mouths of these characters – who are meant to be Chinese? Japanese? – when the real-world references are more in tune with British imperialism. Please consult the history of Winston Churchill and his thoughts on India. Please! Remind us all of his disgusting opinions of the Indian people, and report as to whether or not it sounds exactly like this. Again, I am not trying to ignore the imperialist history of both countries, and there is plenty to be criticized within both countries’ history. Yet if you’re going to invoke them in this context? It feels deeply unfair.
If you’re going to make real-world parallels in an attempt to decry colonization, imperialism, xenophobia, and the like, you must be aware of the power dynamics at hand. Recasting the entire thing as a struggle between Japanese/Chinese people and white British citizens, where the non-white characters appear to be the aggressors, is irresponsible, lazy, and disrespectful.
All I can imagine reading this is what this experience must feel like for a reader. If you’re Chinese or Japanese or even Pratchett’s homogenous “Asian,” you’ve only truly had one character who resembled you. (Even then, he acted out a stereotype found in fantasy narratives until the end of that book, when he revealed it was all a joke, and he still never got his own story.) Now, you have an entire nation you might finally get to relate to! Every character is named after a racist perception of your culture’s names, everyone is either a vicious savage leader or a thoughtless ex-slave who can only follow around two white people, and your culture is now being used as a way to criticize what is, ostensibly, the very same imperialism that probably irrevocably damaged your own culture’s history.
What an experience.
Mark Links Stuff
– I am now on Patreon!!! MANY SURPRISES ARE IN STORE FOR YOU IF YOU SUPPORT ME.
– I will be at numerous conventions in 2016! Check the full list of events on my Tour Dates / Appearances page.
– My Master Schedule is updated for the near and distant future for most projects, so please check it often. My next Double Features for Mark Watches will be Death Note and Neon Genesis Evangelion. On Mark Reads, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series will replace the Emelan books.
– Mark Does Stuff is on Facebook! I’ve got a community page up that I’m running. Guaranteed shenanigans!