I have been incredibly vocal on my social media accounts about the importance of involving Asian creators in the writing, artistic, and editorial processes behind Asian campaign settings. While hiring sensitivity readers like Clio Yun-Su Davis, James Mendez Hodes, and myself is an important step in ensuring an equitable portrayal of Asian people, cultures, and themes, not everyone can afford our services or will seek them out. Furthermore, those producing campaign settings for their home games (with no production aspirations) won’t need our services, but may still want our insight.
In a series of blog posts for the Stew, I will outline an author who’s work can elevate your fantasy Asian campaign settings and cultural depictions to a more respectable level. For this post, I’m going to start with China – my own culture – and a story about my connection to this featured author.
From 2010 – 2018 (plus a year of medical leave until 2019), I worked as an academic archaeologist. I conducted field research in Jordan, Greece, and China, and wrote my Masters thesis on prehistorical Jomon material from northern Japan. I know a bit about Asia. Much of what I learned about China, can be traced back to one man – Kwang-Chih (K. C.) Chang (1931 – 2001). K. C. was in many ways, the godfather of modern Chinese archaeology and the general study of East Asia. Chinese archaeology is primarily a historical discipline, contrasting the scientific approach employed in the West. Scholars in China actively seek to validate historical texts USING archaeological finds (Lothar von Falkenhausen explains it well HERE). K.C. was one of the first Chinese scholars to hold prestigious teaching positions at Ivy League institutions like Yale and Harvard and helped bring multidisciplinary anthropological archaeological research methods to East Asia. He was also a proponent for viewing East Asian prehistory from a pluralistic perspective – where China, Japan, and Korea co-existed in a state unbound by modern geopolitical boundaries. This last fact is of particular significance to you, my gamer friend.
One of the greatest pitfalls of Asian campaign settings is how they reduce Asian cultures into a problematic, reductive amorphous blob. Cultures blend, yet never engage in dynamic exchanges. Reading K.C’s work is one of the solutions to avoiding this. While academic in nature, his book – The Formation of Chinese Civilization – is the perfect entry-level guide to China’s archaeological past. From extraordinary works of jade and clay to the fantastic palatial complexes and tombs of the Shang lords. This book, if taken completely out of context, reads exactly like a campaign setting. Chang weaves a story of kings and queens but contextualizes everything within times of great cultural exchange. China is not home to a single culture. Since the earliest dynasties, it’s home to a rich tapestry of regional cultures that Chang introduces to readers.
This is why archaeological literature, particularly of the academic variety, is so important. They’re written with the intention of making a culture feel real. They’re written with the intention of telling a story based on bone, bronze, jade, and ceramic. These are real ancient stories come to life and if we want our fantasy worlds to feel the same, we should strive for this level of detail, structure, understanding of regional interaction.
So, if you’re out there writing a homebrew campaign setting for your friends and family inspired by ancient China, look no further than K.C. Chang’s work. If you’re looking to publish a campaign setting, take a look at his academic legacy. Look to how this pioneer of East Asian archaeology breathes life into cultures that are thousands of years old, and consider how you can do that for the ideas in your head.
Oh, and maybe hire a Chinese sensitivity reader like myself. I kid, but only partially. Check it at danielhkwan.com