On the sloping shoulder of Paradise Ridge, just south of Moscow, Idaho, my dad’s spinning kick drives him higher — one arm near his face, the other outstretched, soaring above the sunset-colored springtime boughs of the peach trees that he planted with those same two hands. His feet regain the ground. He’s not even practicing kung-fu in earnest, just egging on the family dog with acrobatic motions before sending a tennis ball flying deep into the pasture. The slope is steep on this little ridge outside the city, and the slightest gain in elevation lifts him above the loess-brown hills visible in the drainages beneath a fringe of wheat and timothy. I call it timothy as if this was still a pasture, though through the decades it has become a sea of bunchgrasses, knapweed, rogue pines and the ever-expanding Chinese vegetable garden that my father has cultivated ever since he and my mother bought the property in the early ’90s.

Over the past year, the conflict between China and Taiwan has escalated yet again, though it has been overshadowed by other violence. I’d debated flying to Taipei with my children, but, talking on the phone with my parents, I mentioned that it might not be too smart to fly straight into the possible threat of a missile attack. “You know, that’s why we bought the property,” my mother said. This was news to me. She then explained how, in the years leading up to the Third Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis in 1996, my dad’s parents and brothers and sisters quietly obtained green cards and contributed whatever money they could spare toward the purchase of our house on the ridge. My parents’ share of the down payment came from the savings bonds that my mother’s family had given them many years before; five fertile acres, privacy and a self-sustaining well were suddenly more enticing than the abstract security of slowly maturing money insured by any government. 

That’s why my father’s family visited so often. And then, when the crisis was past, everyone went home. As my mother and I talked, I realized I’d never questioned the surge, then ebb, of my father’s family in our lives, or my early childhood immersion in Chineseness, something that had all but disappeared by the time I started high school. This new understanding of my family’s history on the land as a martial history changed everything. 

In the Chinese genre of wuxia, martial artists vie for supremacy, honing their skills and wits in combat against the backdrop of centuries of political turmoil. In what feels to me like a hyperbolization of the genre, xianxia fiction nudges the ideal of the martial arts hero further, into fantasy. In xianxia stories, the martial arts adept pursues not merely fame nor martial arts ascendancy, but those elusive dreams around which fantasies seem to converge: superhuman knowledge, strength, skill and immortality. The heroes of these novels are known as “cultivators.” 

This new understanding of my family’s history on the land as a martial history changed everything. 

My family writes, we fight, and we grow things, a combination of activities, I know, that must seem, from the outside, to be very disparate endeavors, even if we sensed that they were all driven by the same yearning. When I started reading kung-fu fiction, these three worlds leaned into one — my father and I at the dining table poring over a Tang Dynasty translation; the tricky little wrist locks and grip breaks he taught me so that I would always know how to fight if I needed to get away; my hands, and his hands, and his father’s hands, all growing Chinese vegetables, like stories from the dirt. 

Credit: Sally Deng/High Country News Credit: Sally Deng/High Country News

THESE DAYS, it’s not just the threat of another missile crisis that prevents my parents from selling off land that has become increasingly difficult for them to maintain as they age. It’s climate change. It’s the vague hope that by growing their own food and coaxing water from the aquifer through their own well and mowing down the grasses that spurt up annually around their house, they can magically slow the sweep of history and the onslaught of catastrophic climate predictions. 

With his workout complete, my dad pauses to snip some leeks before walking back into the house to work on dinner.  My parents have converted all their landscaping to vegetables, like the leeks he’s serving now. As we eat, we talk about The Legend of the Condor Heroes, Louis Cha’s kung-fu saga, written under the pen name Jin Yong. Where the saga’s original Chinese-reading audience experienced the novels through the lurch and grind of newspaper serialization, the books’ American audience experienced them according to a different pattern — the commercially driven timing of translation. The four translated books of the Legend of the Condor Heroes series were published in rapid succession between 2018 and 2021. That series, set in the Song Dynasty, ends with the aftermath of a decisive battle between the Song army and the Mongol horde.

Smoke is still snaking from the edges of the battlefield, where the grass of the unburnt steppe meets burning bodies. Two martial heroes, Guo Jing and Lotus Huang, stride through the field, surveying the destruction. Guo Jing helped the Mongols win, seeing his alliance with them as the only way to defend the Song Empire against Jin incursions. His own homeland will be the next to fall when the Chinese civil war is overshadowed by the Mongol horde. But The Legends of the Condor Heroes ends before that happens, during a period of contingency and hope. Lotus and Guo Jing have been reunited after an arduous separation. They’ve recovered from nearly mortal wounds and from strained but not quite severed relationships with warring kin. Ghengis Khan has just died, but the Mongol invasions are not over yet. 

Cha wrote about the conflict between China’s Jin and Song empires and their eventual subjugation by the Mongol horde in the 1950s, as China careened towards the Cultural Revolution. In a period of intense polarization, his stories are remarkable for their lack of political polemic; siding with neither the Communist or the Nationalist party lines, they seek to help the Chinese people navigate the culture-shattering onslaught of inevitable civil war. Now, in the 21st century, as the world floods and burns, and NASA announces the summer of 2023 as the hottest summer on record, I find myself turning to these stories to guide and console myself as we all await a climate catastrophe, the casualties of which will dwarf the dead of history’s battlefields. 

Just now, after a two-year pause, The Past Unearthed, the first book of the next series, Return of the Condor Heroes, was published. I tell my dad that I’m surprised to learn that Guo Jing and Lotus Huang, the heroes of the last four books, are, in The Past Unearthed, cast as villains. Meanwhile, the son of the last series’ traitor, Yang Guo, appears to be the new hero. “Just wait,” he says. “That’s not how it goes for long.” He knows the whole story by heart. “This is only the beginning.”  

I find myself turning to these stories to guide and console myself as we all await a climate catastrophe.

In 2016, the renowned Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, in a book entitled The Great Derangement, described the collective failure of “serious” literary fiction to grapple with climate catastrophe. Ghosh called for writers and artists to engage with apocalyptic thinking that might be able to delay climate catastrophe by spurring the global culture into action. Ghosh laments that, for the most part, these conversations were relegated to genre writing. The only part of his account that I contest is his dismissal of genre writing as unimportant or unserious. I make no highbrow claims as to what I read in an attempt to forestall the inevitable or seek out consolation; I read kung-fu stories, and Louis Cha’s in particular. This isn’t just a guilty pleasure; it’s an intentional alignment with a certain kind of underground resistance, a riptide wilding the tranquil surface of institutional prose.  

When Mao Zedong rose to power in the 1940s, he developed and enforced a blueprint for a national Chinese literature that featured idealized heroes and formulaic plots. Louis Cha’s stories defy those formulas. The martial arts literary historian John Christopher Hamm describes Cha’s novels as “strategies for responding to the altered world.” Of course, Hamm is referring not to a world altered by climate catastrophe, but rather to one altered by the ascension of the Chinese Communist Party.  I’ve discovered that much of his approach is transferable to our 21st-century problems. In his book Paper Swordsman, Hamm points out that because mid-20th-century martial arts fiction did not “hew to overarching ideological dicta” or “serve the immediate needs of particular political campaigns,” it was “relegated to the category of ‘poisonous weeds,’ banned from the gardens of culture.” The way Hamm phrases this judgment makes the reader yearn to be a poisonous weed, to read and champion the minor genres.  Where Ghosh grieved the lack of serious works of fiction grappling with the newly altered world, Hamm makes the case that it is the marginalized literary genres that are best suited for exploring the plight of humanity in such newly altered worlds.  

Ghosh is far from the first literary scholar to tell us that the stories we tell ourselves about nature are broken. Back in 1999, American author William Kittredge published a collection titled Taking Care: Thoughts on Storytelling and Belief.  In that book, Kittredge mourns what he calls “narrative dysfunction,” describing the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves about nature, both individually and collectively, are broken. In the absence of stories that bind us to nature, holding us accountable to nature and to each other, Kittredge argues, we hasten nature’s destruction and our own.  

But when I read Louis Cha, I feel as if the stories that connect me to my family’s past and to the earth remain alive. “The wind hard-hearted, the moon cruel,” a beautiful but suffering woman sings in the opening pages of The Past Unearthed. These words were penned by the lyrical Song Dynasty historian Ouyang Xiu; Cha’s novel begins by yoking one character’s personal suffering to collective cultural grief. As I read, I imagine my father as a child in a brand-new country, the tatters of one installment of these stories clutched tightly in his fist. I imagine stories as sinuous and armored as a dragon’s flank, and I remember the editor’s introduction to Cha’s first novel, the description of it as “a living dragon appearing in the flesh.” That phrase is a reference to the myth of Zhang Sengyou, who painted realistic dragons but didn’t paint their eyes in order to deny them the realism that would bring them to life. “The living dragon appearing in the flesh” refers to what happens next in the story: Someone paints the eyes onto the dragons, and they come alive — not as a marginalized genre, but as the embodied force of counterculture storytelling.  

Louis Cha’s novels are popular in China, occupying a privileged place in the Chinese imagination that is perhaps similar to the position occupied by the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the English-speaking world. Globally, over 300 million copies of The Legends of the Condor Heroes have been sold, and, in recent years, Cha’s popularity in the United States has surged as well. I’ve chanced upon Cha’s books on other people’s shelves, and my personal consolation is beginning to feel collective. 

Credit: Sally Deng/High Country News Credit: Sally Deng/High Country News

I THINK I’ve come to understand something about the environmental narrative dysfunction that William Kittredge pointed out over 20 years ago. Kittredge and Ghosh both seem to believe that the stories that sustain us emerge out of some sort of elevated literary imagination. They fail to see the tendrils of popular, subversive, “low-brow” stories blooming all around them like weeds, like the good kind of poisonous weeds.

The tomatoes and peppers my father grows are unruly; they pour out of their garden beds and onto the driveway and porch. They’re members of the belladona family, which is full of poisons. Last night was the first hard frost, and my father didn’t bring the harvest in before it hit. Instead, perhaps deliberately, he left tomatoes and hot peppers on the stem, eggplants purpling the shadows, in defiance of the forecast. He was not thinking about waste, or plant cells rupturing from frost, or about running out of time. From what I can gather, he was imagining that maybe, against the odds, the forecast was wrong. Maybe the plants would magically survive, continuing to ripen.

In the absence of stories that bind us to nature, holding us accountable to nature and to each other, we hasten nature’s destruction and our own.  

As he explains his reasoning, something in his tone reminds me that he escaped from Communist China, whisked across the grasslands in a basket, and that he survived the hardships of Taiwan, even after his family separated from the Nationalist forces; he survived the solitude of the blood oath his father made him swear — to never contact his cousins, whose parents stayed and fought for Communist China — my father, who lost four of his six younger siblings to untimely deaths. I wonder what the climate crisis feels like from the vantage of an immigrant who has somehow steered himself through what surely felt like the end of the world. Can the kung-fu legends that sustained him through that altered world sustain me and my generation through the age of climate collapse?

As I ponder, here I am, the gleaner, picking through the destruction of my parents’ garden.  My dad searches for the ripest tomatoes abandoned on the vine, thinking he’ll use them in a stir-fry. I’m gathering the green ones by the fistful with no particular recipe in mind. It’s just that I can’t bear to see them go to waste, these stories not done with their telling.   

Jenny Liou is an English professor at Pierce College and a retired professional cage fighter who lives and writes in Covington, Washington. Her debut poetry collection, Muscle Memory, was published by Kaya Press in 2022.

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This article appeared in the print edition of the magazine with the headline The wind hard-hearted, the moon cruel.

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