Thursday, June 29, 2017

Railroad Pulp

 During my Geek Gab appearance, I brought up the existence of railroad pulps as part of the broad spectrum of topics covered by the pulps. But, until today, I had no idea of the importance of these pulps to the field:
When the speciality pulps did begin appearing, they were neither mainstream nor particularly successful. The publisher Frank A. Munsey, whose Argosy had begun the pulp era, brought out his third pulp, The Railroad Man’s Magazine (cover date October, 1906), followed by Woman a month later. Munsey was a successful businessman at this point– his magazine Munsey’s Magazine was selling very well, and he owned four newspapers– so the personal risk involved in bringing out two specialty pulps was comparatively small. Additionally, the choice of subject matter– the railroads, and women– was not random. There had been two railway-centered dime novels: New York Ten Cent Library (1896-1897), which lasted for 32 issues and Comrades (1900-1901), which lasted for 72 issues. While both only lasted for two years, Comrades’ run of issues was longer than the mean for dime novels, and Munsey correctly perceived a market for railway-centric fiction. Similarly, magazines like Women and The Woman at Home in the UK and the Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion in the U.S. were demonstrating that women were a powerful market for periodical fiction.  
Railroad Man’s Magazine proved to be a minor success, and lasted for 73 years and 692 issues before transforming into the non-fiction Railfan and Railroad, which continues to be published today. In its early years Railroad Man’s Magazine published a range of genres, from romance to hard-boiled detective fiction to eccentric inventor science fiction, although always with a orientation to railroads. Never a best seller, it served its audience faithfully and at times published mid-level talents, like Johnston McCulley (creator of Zorro) and Louis Vance (creator of several characters). There was no other railway pulp--the long-rumored Railroad Detective Stories in all probability never existed--so we can't say that there was a railroad pulp genre. But Railroad Man's Magazine certainly had longevity, and its stories varied hugely in content, and some were surprisingly imaginative and good. 
Nevins, Jess. The Pulps: A Yearly Guide (pp. 19-20).  . Kindle Edition. 
Not only was Railroad Man Magazine the first specialty pulp devoted to a single subject, it survived twenty years beyond the death of the pulps. It's success would pave the way for the wide variety of specialty pulps during the heyday of the format, including Weird Tales, Amazing, and Astounding.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

PulpFest 2015 - Weird Editing at "The Unique Magazine"

A look at the oddities and foibles of Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright--and the longsuffering authors who submitted to him.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Actions Speak

In Misha Burnett's Five Pillars of PulpRev, he examines the role of action in revealing character:
We know who people are by what they do. This does not mean that every scene has to involve a knife fight on the top of a speeding train. Ordinary every day actions can also inform—Raymond Chandler could describe a couple’s relationship by showing us the man lighting the woman’s cigarette. We don’t want the writer to tells us that a scientist is an unconventional genius, we want to see him tearing a rival’s paper to shreds and throwing the pieces out the window when asked to critique it.
But how can an action reveal or undermine a character? In the video below, HyperDrive explains how the misuse of a particular move in a fight, the "protagonist throw" by the neck, end up harming villains. For instance, if a villain has spent the entire story killing everyone he gets his hands on, would he really just pick up the hero by the neck and toss him away? In most cases, where this is used in a fight where the villain is demonstrating killing intent, the answer is no. But if the villain's motive is intimidation...?

This video serves as a reminder that a writer must be aware of what a character's actions say, and not just the dialogue.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Few Toys for Writers

Or perhaps gadgets instead.

On the amusing side, there are two gadgets that claim to tell you what famous writer your style most closely matches.

According to I Write Like, my trunk fiction style most closely resembles Agatha Christie's, although I have yet to see a #PulpRev writer who hasn't scored the same. Mark Allen Thornton, however, has used a wider array of authors from Project Gutenberg books to create his own version. His widget is more dependent of "stop words"/"sticky words" and punctuation marks in an attempt to peg certain writers on their lexical density. It is amusing, and perhaps these toys will connect more writers to the canon of the past.

Those looking for help with editing may find the next one more useful.

The Hemmingway App is a free editor designed to make your prose clearer. As you can tell from the name, it does have a stylistic bias that prefers the sharp bold directness of Anglo-Saxon root words as opposed to the languid elegance of the Romantic root words. It uses formulas to determine how easy a passage is to read. Generally, the longer the sentence and the more polysyllabic words, the harder it is to read. Note that this a contextless survey, as many clear and grammatically correct devices of rhetoric get flagged. Hemmingway also searches for adverbs and passive verbs. While it doesn't have the bells and whistles of the paid editing software services of AutoCrit, Grammarly, or Pro Writing Aid, I have found Hemmingway useful in aiding my own writing. Just keep its bias in mind.

If you are going to drop the coin, I recommend Pro Writing Aid as the most powerful and cheapest of the three services. I do like AutoCrit, but its new pricing model is prohibitive for a system that only checks 1000 words at a time. I remain unimpressed with Grammarly as a service, as it trips up on certain simple and complex grammars that the other two services do not. The free plug-in, however, is useful as a slightly more powerful spell-check.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Age of Despair

For some time now, the ideas of the Campbelline Age and the Golden Age of Science Fiction have been conflated, occupying a period of time from 1937 to 1971, ending with Campbell's death and the presumed rise of New Wave.* Yet during the Great Campbell War over at Castalia House, it became clear that the time period remembered as the height of the Golden Age was the 1950s and 1960s, not the height of the Campbelline Revolution in the 1940s. (This falls in line with Robert Silverberg's idea of when the Golden Age occurred.)  Campbell did remain influential during this time, burdening science fiction with psionics and other pseudoscientific concepts, but he was now one voice among many, and no longer the lead dog.

So where and why did Campbell's influence fade?

Let's start with a rexamination of Campbelline SF, a body of literature thought to be dominated by Men with Screwdrivers and the Happy Engineer.
The Happy Engineer is one of the great uninvestigated myths of contemporary science fiction. (Another is that Astounding/ Analog was/ is devoted to stories whose background is "hard science" requiring "heavy tech," but that is next Sunday's text.) The truth, as any fresh confrontation of the material would certainly make clear, is that the forties ASF is filled with darkness, that the majority of its most successful and reprinted stories dealt with the bleakest implications of technology and that "modern" science fiction (defined by Budrys as that which originated with Campbell's editorship of Astounding given him in October 1937) rather than being a problem-solving literature was a literature of despair. 
Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 1216-1221). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
Barry Malzberg's list of the works of despair published by Campbell shows that this tendency towards despair started at the beginning, with van Vogt in 1937. However, this natural tendency was accelerated in the mid 1940s, whether by atomic bomb or by world war. And fans began to notice, for:
[At] the world science fiction convention of 1947, at which [John Campbell] was guest of honor, he begged for the fans' indulgence at the profusion of despair, claiming that he could only publish what the writers were delivering . . . but he was sending out pleas to cease and desist. 
Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins (Kindle Locations 1243-1246). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.
And, indeed, Campbell did exercise his editorial power. Unfortunately for him, H. L. Gold and Anthony Boucher soon started Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, both with a more permissible editorial policy in line with the fashion of the writers of the time, including the indulgence of despair. So many writers jumped the Campbelline ship for Gold and Boucher's in 1950. 

Campbell would never again hold the same prestige and power in science fiction.

To quote H.L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction, in 1952: 
“Over 90% of stories submitted to Galaxy Science Fiction still nag away at atomic, hydrogen and bacteriological war, the post atomic world, reversion to barbarism, mutant children killed because they have only ten toes and fingers instead of twelve….the temptation is strong to write, ‘look, fellers, the end isn’t here yet.’”
By the time "The Cold Equations" killed off the Campbelline Revolution in 1954, science fiction sales had plateaued and most of the Campbelline authors, to include Asimov, the Kuttners, and Heinlein, had either abandoned science fiction entirely or sought out more lucrative markets. Science fiction magazines became increasingly dominated by an ever-shrinking authorship, and despair clung to the stories well into the 1980s, when Bruce Sterling would complain about the same types of stories as Gold.

As the height of this plunge into darkness occurred from 1945-1954, I would redraw the history of science fiction as follows:

1937-1945 - The Campbelline Revolution
1945-1954 - The Age of Despair
1954-1967 - The Golden Age

And it is in this Age of Despair where the otaku-ization of science fiction and the Futurian revolt occurred.


*If one reads sources from the 1970s and early 1980s, it is clear that New Wave had peaked and was pretty much over before Campbell's death. However, this is right about when mainstream science fiction attempted to be edgier than the New Wave.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Well-Trained Esthetic Sense

Misha Burnett writes: 
To return to the analogy of scientific truth, if one happened to believe a particular theory–say that all planets in the solar system rotate on their axis in the same direction–and then encounters evidence that contradicts this theory–the axial rotation of Venus and Uranus–then suppressing the evidence in order to hold onto the theory is wrong. Either the evidence is bad, in which case further study will contradict it, or the theory is wrong, and to continue to cling to it in the face of evidence against it is an act of willful ignorance. 
However, the above analogy is also predicated on the assumption that you understand the science–the math involved, how to apply the theory, how to determine the proper frame of reference, knowing in what way the science is applicable as a model for the real world. 
In the same way, if a work of art is beautiful, if it moves you, then it is expressing a truth and if that contradicts an opinion that you hold, that may be evidence that your opinion is wrong. It may also be evidence that your esthetic sensibilities are unequal to the task of understanding the work in question. 
The way to avoid being taken in by junk science is to develop an understanding of real science. You don’t have to be an expert in a particular field to understand how to tell when a sample size is statistically significant or when a conclusion does not follow logically from a premise. 
In the same way the defense against propaganda is not suppression of bad art, but an understanding of esthetics sufficient to recognize it as bad art.  A good grasp of mathematics will inoculate one against pseudoscientific scams, and a good grasp of narrative and story will inoculate one against propaganda masquerading as fiction. 
A well-trained esthetic sense will also allow one to understand the applicability of the work to the real world. Just as a trained scientific intellect will understand what a scientific theory does and does not imply regarding reality, a trained esthetic sense will understand what art does and does not imply about reality, and to see the significant parallels while discarding the spurious ones.  The message of The Lord Of The Rings, for example, is not that short people are better than tall people.
I am loathe to add more, except that we are currently seeing this lack of a well-trained esthetic sense play out in the arts today.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Stage Magic, Writing, and Ricky Jay.

What does Ricky Jay have to do with pulp? He is perhaps the greatest disciple of Dai Vernon, one of the best card sharps of the century, and member of the Witch Doctor's Club, where Issac Asimov and Walter Gibson were members.

Enjoy this practical demonstration in misdirection and pacing. Listen to his stories and watch how he pulls your attention away from when he actually makes his moves. All the elements are right in front of your eyes, but not always when you're paying attention.

Now imagine doing this with words...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Geek Gab: On the Books and Stage Magic

Yesterday, I was privileged to join Brian Niemeier and Alfred from the Injustice Gamer on the Geek Gab On The Books livestream to talk about pulps, detective stories, and crime.

When the conversation turned to some of the more unique pulps, a connection was made between pulp writers and their hobby of stage magic, which both Brian and Jeffro Johnson of Castalia House found significant.

To support this connection, let me reprint the comments I left on the Castalia House article:

Will Murray pointed out the connection in his introduction to the reissues of the Diamondstone stories:
“FOR some unexplained reason, magic fascinated the pulp writers of the 1930s and ’40s.
“The king of them all was Walter B. Gibson, who created The Shadow out of a mesmerizing radio voice and his close association with Blackstone, Thurston, Houdini, Dunninger and other notable magicians. Gibson was as famous for his books on stage magic as he was for his prolific pulp output. He knew all the tricks, from Hypnotism to escape stunts, and employed them freely in spinning his Shadow stories.
“If being a denizen of the Pulp Jungle made a writer part of a special subculture, then there was a subset of that subculture where pulpsmithing and sleight of hand intersected. An amazing number of them were amateur or performing magicians.” 
Fleming-Roberts, G.T.. Diamondstone: Magician-Sleuth . Altus Press. Kindle Edition.
Here is a short list of stage magic-inspired pulpsters: Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, Norvell Page, Paul Ernst, “Curtis Steele”, Ken Crossen, Clayton Rawson, G. T. Fleming-Roberts, H. P. Lovecraft.
And the intersection between stage magic and mystery is natural, as Murray points out, “Misdirection is the stock-in-trade of the performing professional illusionist and escape artist. Mystery writers also employed it to keep their culprits before the eye of the reader, yet unsuspected until the climax.”
For the science fiction fans, add Issac Asimov to the list of magician-authors as well. He was part of a New York social circle known as the Witch Doctor’s Club, a collection of writers and magicians that included many of the names I previously mentioned as well as Orson Welles. Like a stage version of Fight Club, if it was your first night, you had to perform a stage magic routine…

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Audiobook Wednesday: A. J. Raffles in "The Ides of March"

Before Batman and The Shadow, before Arsene Lupin the First an the Third, there was Arthur J. Raffles, amateur safe-cracker.
I think I may claim that his famous character Raffles was a kind of inversion of Sherlock Holmes, Bunny playing Watson. He admits as much in his kindly dedication. I think there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these, though I confess I think they are rather dangerous in their suggestion. I told him so before he put pen to paper, and the result has, I fear, borne me out. You must not make the criminal a hero. 
— Arthur Conan Doyle

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Quick Thoughts: Inward and Outward Focus

Recording a few observations and quotes as I stumble towards an organized conclusion...


Because writing is removed in time and space from the audience, the sense of the writer as a performer is lost. An actor or a musician must tailor their performance based on the audience’s reactions–or to get the precise reaction from the audience that they want. A magician must manipulate an audience’s attention so his tricks appear “out of nowhere.” Yet writing and the industry are more concerned with Platonic ideals of what art should be instead of going out and busking for a living and getting that all important practical experience in front of an audience.
Pulp is outward focused writing (from the author's standpoint). While much has been written of the aesthetic, lost in the shuffle is the pulp editor's insistence that pulp writing evoke strong emotions. To do this, a writer needed to observe the world around him, observe people, and use that in their storytelling

Today's writing is often characterized by a search for the Platonic ideal of story, with the beats in the right place and the proper mix of characters and attitudes. It worries more about matters of craft than matters of audience reaction. It is inward focused.

The tragedy of Save the Cat is that is was intended to train writers to better evoke emotions. Instead, it became yet another Platonic ideal.


"A good writer can watch a cat pad across the street and know what it is to be pounced upon by a Bengal tiger." - John le Carre


"If you don't spend time watching real people, you can't do this, because you've never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people ... It's produced by humans who can't stand looking at other humans. And that's why the industry is full of otaku!"

Hayao Miyazaki, television interview, January 2014

(Benjamin Cheah's dissection of why Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash does not work is almost a perfect illustration of this Miyazaki quote. The show's understanding of the world is based entirely upon RPG tropes and not on the real world. While this is best exhibited in its fighting scenes, it also affects how its characters act.)


"Did you ever come up against a book of writing technique that came right out and said: “Look, Joe, for Hell’s sake, forget all this guff about plot structure and be downright, just plain, ordinary entertaining.”? Well, that’s the main rule of fiction writing, for my money. That is the idea."

Turner, Robert. Pulp Fiction (Kindle Locations 274-276). Originally published by Quality House, 1948. Kindle Edition. 


"The trouble with most of the rules of writing technique is that these very rules can be—and sometimes should be--broken, in order to make a story salable. To be salable, a story must first be readable. To be readable, it must be entertaining. It’s really quite simple.
"But how in hell can your story be entertaining, if every moment that you spent creating it, you were constantly sweating and straining to make it technically perfect inasmuch as “the man in the book” said it should be?"

Turner, Robert. Pulp Fiction (Kindle Locations 264-268). Originally published by Quality House, 1948. Kindle Edition.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Warning: Lupin The Third Will Steal Again...

Anthony's recent Castle of Cagliostro review at Castalia House sparked an idea. (By the way, I need to go back and explain why it is A Big Deal that Lupin III squared off with the Cagliostro family. His ancestor Arsene Lupin would be proud...) With the 50th anniversary of Lupin III coming up--and "Blue Jacket" Lupin hitting American TV--there's time to do a bit of an in-depth look at Japan's gentleman thief.

I'm thinking:

Lupin III TV series 4 (2015)
Daigen Jigen's Gravestone (2014)
Green vs. Red (2008)
Dead or Alive (1996)
Fuma Conspiracy (1987)
Lupin III TV series 2 (1977)
Lupin III manga (1967)

So, working backwards from the present day to the beginning of the MAD Magazine-inspired gentleman thief's adventure. I might substitute Castle of Cagliostro for the second TV series. Anthony's review was from the perspective of a Miyazaki fan and not really Lupin-centric.

While I have an eye for putting a fair bit of this on the Castalia House blog (my regular posting day falls right on Lupin III's 50th anniversary), the thief will appear well. I've got far more Lupin III than appears on this list, and I also want to take a closer look at his grandpa, the French gentleman burglar Arsene Lupin. Without him, there would no Shadow, Batman, or Lupin II.

In the meantime, I hope you have a chance to catch Lupin III's return to American TV on Saturday on Cartoon Network

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Emotion and Entertainment

Robert Turner shares some well-earned advice to pulp writers in his 1948 booklet, Pulp Fiction.
I hope you know what emotions are, because they play a prominent part in this not so gentle art of fiction writing. You, as a writer, are going to play on emotions, with words, as a pianist tickles the ivory keys with his fingers. At least, you are if you intend to succeed as a fiction writer. 
We all have emotions. Prod any reader’s emotional reflexes and, Mr. and Mrs. Writer, you are going to entertain him. I am not a psychologist, so perhaps my definitions of these terms will not be technically correct. But they will serve the purpose to show you what I am getting at, I think. 
To me, the condition of being entertained is a comparative state. It is being aware, the opposite of being bored. If you needle a reader’s emotions, he cannot be bored. There are many ways to do this. The more of them that you learn, the more powerful and successful a writer you will become. That is why, forever after you have sold your first story, you will constantly study people and other writer’s work, to learn more and more of the tricks of getting at people’s emotions. 
Examples are sometimes good for clarification. Okay. Let’s say that you love dogs. You are walking along the street and you see some guy kicking the hell out of some skinny, half starved little pooch. Or some sadistic guttersnipe is tying tin cans onto a puppy’s tail. What do you feel? It can be anger, or sympathy, or both. Those are emotions. 
All right, there are two nice little emotions all lined up and dusted off for you. Use them in a story. Substitute the villain or one of his henchmen for the guy doing the kicking in the example used. Substitute your hero--or heroine--for the pooch. I’ve started many a story that’s sold, with the hero getting hell beat out of him--or just coming out of unconsciousness and pulling himself to his feet, after taking a shellacking. The reader feels sorry for the character, he feels sympathy toward him. You have aroused an emotion; therefore, you are entertaining the reader.  
To do this properly, of course, you have to build a scene that comes alive in the reader’s mind. That hinges on the subject of realism and we will deal with that in due time. In the street scene example, something is really happening and you damned well know that, because you can hear the dog squealing or whining and you can hear the guy cussing and the sound of his boot connecting with the animal’s ribs. In the story scene, you’ve got to kid the reader into thinking it is actually happening. We will cover that, later.  
Now, for Job’s sake, please don’t start every story from here on in, with some poor guy getting the bejabbers beat out of him. That is only one way to arouse one emotion in a reader. There are hundreds--perhaps thousands--of other ways.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Hidden Rules of English

Everyone has tun into one of those people online. The type of people who consider the rules of grammar not to be a free-flowing and ever-changing agreement in language, but a list of rules received on stone tablets from the nearest holy mountain. But there are hidden, fugitive rules of English not written down in the textbooks so beloved by the amateur grammarians:
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

English speakers love to learn this sort of thing for two reasons. First, it astonishes us that there are rules that we didn’t know that we knew. That’s rather peculiar, and rather exciting. We’re all quite a lot cleverer than we think we are. And there’s the shock of realising that there’s a reason there may be little green men on Mars, but there certainly aren’t green little men. Second, you can spend the next hour of your life trying to think of exceptions, which is useful as it keeps you from doing something foolish like working. 
Actually, there are a couple of small exceptions. Little Red Riding Hood may be perfectly ordered, but the Big Bad Wolf seems to be breaking all the laws of linguistics. Why does Bad Big Wolf sound so very, very wrong? What happened to the rules?
For the answer, and more of these invisible rules of grammar, check out Mark Forsyth's article at the BBC.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Quick Thought: Trading Stories

Lately, I've grown to enjoy listening to the podcasts from the old veteran wrestlers like Ric Flair and Steve Austin. Not only does it provide a look at storytelling from another medium, it gives me a view on how the pros look at their craft. The old guys are constantly recommending matches for fans and up-and-coming wrestlers to watch, not just from an enjoyment standpoint, but with an eye on specific storytelling technique and mechanics displayed in the match.

This got me to thinking. It is common advice for a writer to read widely in their genres. However, I don't often see recommendations driven by technique. "Look at this book by this author and watch how he does this." Writing instruction on the web tends to be heavy on technique and formula, but sparse on execution and example.

So, if you're trying to help a fellow writer, what books would you recommend as examples of technique?

For example:

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comics for framing stories and how to use story-in-a-story.

C. L. Moore, "Shambleau" for how to create characters using contrast.

I have seen Toni Weisskopf over at Baen recommend Georgette Meyer to anyone thinking of writing a romance. You can see this influence in Bujold's Vorkosigan saga.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Dictionary of Chinese Fantasy Terms

Another repost, this time of common terms and tropes of wuxia, xiannxia, and xuanhuan. Originally created by the webmaster of the Immortal Mountain blog, this glossary will help ease the daunting hurdle that the many new names and concepts of Chiinese fantasy might pose.

The original can be found here, along with any updates since the time of posting

* * * * *

Novel Categories

Wuxia (武俠 wǔxiá) – literally means “Martial Heroes”. Fictional stories about regular humans who can achieve supernatural fighting ability through Chinese martial arts training and internal energy cultivation. Themes of chivalry, tragedy, revenge & romance are common.
Xianxia (仙侠 xiānxiá) – literally means “Immortal Heroes”. Fictional stories featuring magic, demons, ghosts, immortals, and a great deal of Chinese folklore/mythology. Protagonists (usually) attempt to cultivate to Immortality, seeking eternal life and the pinnacle of strength. Heavily inspired by Daoism.
  • Comparison: If Wuxia is “low fantasy”, then Xianxia is “high fantasy”.
Xuanhuan (玄幻 xuánhuàn) – literally means “Mysterious Fantasy”. A broad genre of fictional stories which remixes Chinese folklore/mythology with foreign elements & settings.
  • Xuanhuan and Xianxia novels may sometimes seem similar on the surface. Look for the presence of Daoist elements (the Dao, Yin and Yang, Immortals, etc…) in the novel to easily distinguish the two – if they aren’t present, then it’s probably a Xuanhuan novel.
Other Chinese novel categories not discussed in this glossary can be found here and here.


The Three Realms (三界 sānjiè) – the universe is divided into the Heaven Realm and the Earth Realm, with the Mortal Realm in between. The term is ultimately derived from the Three Realms of Hinduism & Buddhism, but these novels use it to refer to…
  • The Heavens (天 tiān) – where the Jade Emperor rules at the head of the Celestial Court. Thought to be divided into 9 layers, hence the “Nine Heavens” (九天) which are occasionally mentioned in these novels. Characters in several novels rebel against the Heavens to change their fate or to seek vengeance for perceived wrongs. Immortal cultivation is often (though not always) said to go against the Will of Heaven.
  • The Mortal Realm (人界 rénjiè) (人间 rénjiān) – also called the human world. The setting of most of these novels, although some later branch out to explore the other realms.
  • The Earth (地 dì) – contains the Underworld (地狱 dìyù) in its depths. The Underworld is also commonly called the Netherworld (冥界 míngjiè) or the Yellow Springs (黄泉 huángquán).
Six Paths of Reincarnation (六道轮回 liùdào lúnhuí) – in the cycle of reincarnation, it is possible to be reborn as either a [1] Deva, [2] Asura, [3] Human, [4] Animal, [5] Hungry Ghost or [6] a Tormented Being in Hell.
  • Note: Devas & Asuras are reborn in the Heaven Realm, Humans & Animals are reborn in the Mortal Realm, and Hungry Ghosts & Hell-beings are reborn in the Earth Realm.
Karma (业 yè) (缘 yuán) (因果 yīnguǒ) (功德 gōngdé) – cosmic merit or demerit accumulated throughout one’s life based on one’s deeds. Determines which type of reincarnation (out of the Six Paths) they will experience in their next life. Some novels expand on this concept and have Karma affect even the daily lives of the characters or bind certain characters together through karmic ties/relationships.

Dao (道 dào) – the origin and source of all things. It can be translated in many different ways, including The Way / Road / Path / Method. According to Daoism, it is the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of Yin and Yang and signifying the way, or code of behavior, that is in harmony with the natural order. In these novels, characters often try to gain insights into the Dao, which can give them supernatural powers or even control over aspects of the natural world.
Yin & Yang (阴阳 yīnyáng) – the duality present in all aspects of the universe. For instance: Yin is Female / Soft / Death / Dark / the Moon, while Yang is Male / Hard / Life / Light / the Sun – the comparisons are endless. Yin & Yang describe how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they mutually give rise to each other.
Five Elements (五行 wǔxíng) – Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), & Water (水 shuǐ). The fundamental elements which compose everything in the universe. They have a detailed cyclic relationship, and each of them have several symbolic meanings. Somewhat analogous to the Western Four Elements.
Qi (气 qì) – the vital energy which exists in all things. The cultivation of Qi is a major theme in Wuxia, Xianxia & Xuanhuan novels.
  • Qi is sometimes written as “Ki” or “Chi”. It can be translated in many different ways, including Breath / Vital Breath / Pneuma / Vital Energy / Spiritual Energy. (etc…)
  • Spiritual Energy of Heaven and Earth (天地之气 tiāndì zhī qì) – the natural energy of the world.

Beings & Creatures

Gods (神 shén) – supernatural beings of tremendous power. In Xuanhuan novels, it’s often possible to attain some form of godhood through cultivation.
Immortals (仙 xiān) – beings who ascended to Immortality through Daoist cultivation practices. They have magical powers, can fly freely through the air, and have a close connection to the Dao and the natural world. There are several types of Daoist Immortals, such as the Celestial Immortals (天仙) and Earth Immortals (地仙).
  • More information here.
Saints (圣 shèng) – similar to, but distinct from Immortals. They don’t have a strong relation to Daoism, and they may not necessarily have eternal life. But other than that, they typically also have a close connection to the natural world and similar magical powers achieved through cultivation. Very generally speaking, Saints appear more often in Xuanhuan novels while Immortals appear more often in Xianxia novels.
  • Note: Unless explicitly stated otherwise, these are not the Christian Saints.
Magical Beasts (魔兽 móshòu) – animals capable of cultivation. Some are innately magical and simply grow stronger over time, while others must actively practice a cultivation method. They tend to be much more intelligent than mundane animals, and some are capable of speaking in human languages. Magical Beasts which have reached a high stage of cultivation may even be able to take on a human form.
  • These Beasts often possess a Core (魔核 / 妖核) within their bodies which contains their essence and/or cultivation base. Cultivators highly prize them. The Cores are generally either consumed by cultivators (to grow stronger) or used in the production of magical items. More information here.
  • Beast Cores are also sometimes called Neidan (內丹), which can be translated more literally as “Internal Pellet”.
  • Some novels give the Beasts slightly varying names such as Demonic Beasts (妖兽) or Spirit Beasts (灵兽), but they’re all essentially the same sort of creature. The names of the Cores vary similarly.
Demons (妖 yāo) – sometimes left untranslated as “Yao” or alternatively translated as Monsters. Born when an animal, plant, or even an inanimate object absorbs spiritual energy over a long period of time and then gains spiritual awareness. Not inherently evil, although many have antagonistic relationships with humans.
Devils (魔 mó) – sometimes left untranslated as “Mo” or alternatively translated as Fiends. Evil spirits/creatures of remarkable power and cruelty. Similar to the demons and devils of Western mythology. In some novels, evil cultivators emulate them by practicing devilish cultivation methods and committing atrocities in their pursuit of power.
  • Some novels consider Demons and Devils to be a single species (妖魔 Yaomo),  others as distinct species (妖族 Yao race / 魔族 Mo race).
  • 魔 is sometimes translated as “Demon”, which can be confusing at times (particularly when 妖 is also used in the novel). The difference between the two is explained here.
Ghosts (鬼 guǐ) – evil spirits or the spirits of the deceased.

World of Martial Arts

Jianghu (江湖 jiānghú) – literally translates as “Rivers and Lakes”, but figuratively refers to the “Martial World” or the “underground world of martial arts”. A section of society consisting of martial artists, gangsters, thieves, beggars, prostitutes, merchants, entertainers, and anyone else wanting to operate outside of mainstream society or in the grey area of the law.
  • Wulin (武林 wǔlín) – literally “Martial Forest”, figuratively refers to the “community of martial artists” within the Jianghu. The Wulin is typically controlled by an alliance formed by the Righteous/Orthodox sects in order to uphold justice.
  • The martial sects of the Jianghu are often divided into two main factions – commonly called the Orthodox & Unorthodox (黑白) factions or the Righteous & Evil (正邪) factions.
Xia (侠 xiá) – a Hero of the martial world. Righteous, skilled martial artists who follow their own moral code. They often come into conflict with the law, especially in novels where society or the government is depicted as corrupt.
  • Wandering Xia (游侠 yóuxiá) – vagrant martial artists who protect the innocent and use their strength to correct injustices. Seen as champions of the common people. Similar to the romanticized European Knights-errant, but without any of the feudal overtones.
Cultivation World (修真界 xiūzhēn jiè) – not literally a separate world, but rather refers to the broad community of cultivators and their sects/schools/clans/etc… Analogous to the Wulin of martial artists.
Cultivator (修者 xiūzhě) (修士 xiūshì) (修仙者 xiūxiānzhě) – a person who trains in martial & mystical arts, generally in order to become powerful and increase their longevity. Meditation and the cultivation of Qi are common practices among cultivators.
  • Rogue Cultivators (散修 sǎnxiū) – literally translates as “Loose Cultivators”. Independent cultivators unaffiliated with any sect, clan, or other martial organizations.
  • Devil Cultivators (修魔者 xiūmózhě) – also translated as Demon Cultivators. Wicked cultivators who emulate Devils (魔) and seek power by any means necessary. They are often said to follow the Devil Path / Devil Dao (魔道), in opposition to the orthodox Immortal Cultivators (修仙者 xiūxiānzhě).

Sect (宗 zōng) (派 pài) – an organization dedicated to the practice of cultivation and/or martial arts. Typically led by a Sect Leader (掌门) or Patriarch (老祖). With the help of Sect Elders (老), they instruct Disciples (弟子) in the proper methods of cultivation or training in the martial arts styles of the Sect. The Disciples live in the Sect, which provides for their daily needs. There is practically always a strict hierarchy amongst members of a Sect, and respect for the elder generations is demanded.
  • In some novels, the common Disciples are divided into another hierarchy of Core Disciples (核心弟子), Inner Disciples (内门弟子), and Outer Disciples (外围弟子) – based on their level of talent and meritorious service to the Sect. Disciples higher on the hierarchy have greater status and receive more resources from the Sect.
  • Religious Sect (教 jiào) – a sect with a strong religious background. If the religion being practiced is evil, then this term is translated as a Cult. Commonly seen in Wuxia novels.
School (门 mén) – a school of cultivation or martial arts. Doesn’t differ much from a Sect.
Clan (家 jiā) – an extended family related by blood, sharing a surname. They often pass down heirlooms from generation to generation along with secret cultivation methods & martial arts styles which were developed by the clan’s ancestors. They tend to guard these jealously from outsiders.
Association (帮 bāng) – also translated as a GangClan, or Brotherhood. A loose organization of people. The members may have something in common, like sharing a particular way of life, or they may simply be working together towards a mutually beneficial goal. Not religious in nature.
Society (會 huì) – a secret society. Similar to Associations for the most part, but cloaked in secrecy and entangled in rituals/traditions. Sometimes religious or cult-like in nature.
Escort Agency (镖局 biāojú) – a protection agency for hire. The Armed Escorts (镖人 / 镖师 / 镖客) of these Agencies typically work as bodyguards for travelers and merchant caravans. Commonly seen in Wuxia novels.

Martial Arts Terms

Martial Arts (武功 wǔgōng) – fighting styles & techniques. Also includes physical exercises, methods of mental discipline, and more. Chinese martial arts are commonly referred to as Kung Fu (功夫) or Wushu (武术).
  • External Martial Arts (外家 wàijiā) – martial arts styles characterized by fast and explosive movements. They focus on the cultivation of physical strength and agility.
  • Internal Martial Arts (内家 nèijiā) – martial arts styles characterized by soft and flowing movements. They focus on the cultivation of the mind, spirit and Qi.
  • Hard & Soft (硬 yìng / 柔 róu) – terms used to describe how a martial artist counters the attacks of an opponent. Practitioners of “Hard” styles meet force with force, directly countering the opponent and seeking to overwhelm them with sheer power. Practitioners of “Soft” styles counter the opponent indirectly, by deflecting the attacks and seeking to take advantage of openings.
Internal Energy (内力 nèilì) (內劲 nèijìn) – also called Internal Strength / Internal Power / Internal Force. The cultivated energy within a martial artist’s body. Utilizing it, a martial artist can accomplish superhuman feats of speed, agility, strength, endurance, etc… It can even be used to heal wounds and nullify poisons.
Lightness Skill (轻功 qīnggōng) – often left untranslated as “Qinggong”. The ability to lighten the body and move with great agility & swiftness. At high proficiency, practitioners of this skill can run across water, leap to the top of trees, or even glide through the air.
Striking the Meridians / Acupoints (点脉 diǎnmài) (点穴 diǎnxué) – often left untranslated as “Dianmai” and “Dianxue”. Also known as “the Touch of Death” or “Hitting Pressure Points“. Fighting techniques which target the opponent’s meridians and acupoints in order to kill, cripple, immobilize, or control the opponent.

Cultivation Terms

Cultivation (修炼 xiūliàn) (修真 xiūzhēn) (修行 xiūxíng) (修仙 xiūxiān) – the process of improving health, increasing longevity, and growing powerful. This is accomplished by cultivating Qi and training in martial & mystical arts. In many of these novels, the ultimate goal of cultivation is to become an Immortal or attain godhood.
Cultivation Method (功法 gōngfǎ) (心法 xīnfǎ) – a mystical art or collection of techniques which cultivators practice in order to cultivate.  Related: Qigong (气功)
Cultivation Base (修为 xiūwéi) – the amount or capacity of refined Qi possessed by a cultivator.
Manual (秘笈 mìjí) – a book containing detailed instructions on training in a cultivation method or martial arts style. Usually regarded as extremely valuable and thus kept secret (or at least, not made publicly available).
  • Sutras & Scriptures (经 jīng) – sacred writings. In the context of these novels, they typically pertain to cultivation or martial arts. Used more or less interchangeably with “Manual”.
Spiritual Roots (灵根 línggēn) – figuratively, the very foundation (roots) of one’s body and soul. Associated with a person’s innate talent and elemental affinities.
  • Cultivation usually requires some minimum level of innate talent, and many people find it impossible to even take the first step. In some novels, the quality of a person’s Spiritual Roots can be tested to determine if they have the talent necessary to cultivate. Rare individuals may even have special Spiritual Roots which allow them to cultivate quickly or grant them other benefits. For example, someone with “fire spiritual roots” might learn fire spells more easily than their peers.
Dantian (丹田 dāntián) – literally translates as “Cinnabar Field” or “Elixir Field”. Refers to the region in the body where a person’s Qi is concentrated. There are technically three dantians, but these novels simplify the concept and only use the lower dantian (located three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel).
Meridians (经脉 jīngmài) – the network of vessels/channels in the body through which Qi flows. Like blood vessels, but for Qi instead of blood.
  • Eight Extraordinary Meridians (奇经八脉 qí jīng bā mài) – act as reservoirs or pathways for the circulation of Qi. Of the Eight Extraordinary Meridians, the Governing Vessel (督脈) and Conception Vessel (任脈) are mentioned in these novels most frequently. The Governing Vessel runs from the dantian (in the lower abdomen) up along the spine to the head. The Conception Vessel runs from the dantian up the front of the body to the head, where it connects with the Governing Vessel to form a complete circuit.
  • Twelve Principal Meridians (正经十二脉 zhèngjīng shí’èr mài) – meridians associated with the internal organs.
  • Acupoints (穴 xué) – “acupuncture points”, related to pressure points. There are several hundred of them on the body, mostly located along the meridians. Knowledge of acupoints can be used in healing (through acupuncture or similar practices) or in combat by deliberately striking them to achieve certain effects.
Qi Circulation (行气 xíngqì) – the act of controlling Qi to flow from the dantian, through the meridians, and back into the dantian in a cycle. The purpose of this varies between novels, but usually it helps replenish stamina, purify the Qi, or strengthen the meridians.
Breathing Exercises (吐纳 tùnà) – also known as Tu Na Breathing. A special way of breathing which expels the turbid Qi within the body and draws in the Qi of the natural world. An essential part of cultivation.
  • Embryonic Breathing (胎息 tāixī) – also known as Taixi or Fetal Breathing. A form of breathing without using one’s nose and mouth. Instead, the practitioner might breathe through their pores or dantian (for example). This is generally considered to be a highly-advanced Breathing Exercise which grants mystical benefits and brings the practitioner closer to nature. Often compared to how babies breathe in the womb (through the umbilical cord).
Meditation (冥想 míngxiǎng) – a practice for training or calming the mind and spirit. Cultivators spend a great deal of time in meditation, as both the cultivation of Qi and contemplation of Insights generally require it.
  • Lotus Position (盘膝 pánxī) – sitting in a cross-legged meditative position.
  • Closed Door Training (闭关 bìguān) – also called Closed Door Meditation or Closed Door Cultivation. Training done in seclusion, usually to focus on breaking through a bottleneck or to avoid becoming distracted at a crucial moment and suffering a backlash as a result.
Insight (参悟 cānwù) (顿悟 dùnwù) – related to enlightenment. Cultivators usually gain insights by meditating, engaging in life-or-death battles, or going out into the world to experience new things. These insights are often needed in order to master techniques or advance to higher stages of cultivation.
Internal Demons (心魔 xīnmó) – literally translates as “Heart Devils”. Rather than standard demons or devils, these are a practitioner’s negative emotions and other mental barriers which hinder their training/cultivation. Internal Demons, in some cases, can even attack the practitioner from the inside, and failure to adequately resist them may result in Qi Deviation.
Qi Deviation (走火入魔 zǒuhuǒ rùmó) – also known as Qigong Deviation. Literally translates as “to catch fire and be entered [possessed] by devils”. A state wherein the cultivation base becomes dangerously unstable, causing internal damage to the body and symptoms of psychosis. People who succumb to their Internal Demons, who practice cultivation/martial arts incorrectly, or who rashly use forbidden arts are all at risk of falling into this state.
Bottleneck (瓶颈 píngjǐng) – the term for when cultivators figuratively hit a wall in their training and it suddenly becomes incredibly difficult to proceed. When they reach a bottleneck, cultivators may require new Insights, the aid of medicinal pills, or even harsher training in order to make a Breakthrough (突破 tūpò) and successfully bypass the bottleneck.
Impurities (杂质 zázhì) – usually described as a smelly, black substance which is secreted from a cultivator’s skin when they reach new cultivation stages or consume special medicinal pills. The result of the body purifying itself and expelling the waste.

Ranks / Levels / Layers (级 jí) (层 céng) – a common way to quantify martial power or the progress made in cultivation. In many cases (although not all) where these are used, there are 9 ranks/levels/layers to each stage of cultivation, with rank 1 being the start and rank 9 being the peak. After breaking through to the next stage, the practitioner starts at rank 1 of that new stage. The “9” levels are a parallel to the Nine Heavens, and there’s other symbolism as well.
  • Another set of commonly used terms are Early-stage (初期), Middle-stage (中期), Late-stage (后期) & Peak (巅峰). For example, someone might be a “late-stage Core Formation expert” or they could be at “the peak of the Nascent Soul stage”.
  • A half step to __ (半步__境) – refers to someone who’s infinitely close to breaking through to the next stage of cultivation, but hasn’t achieved it yet. For example, someone who’s “a half step to Foundation Establishment” is still technically at the Qi Condensation stage, but they’re only a hair’s breadth away from Foundation Establishment.
Houtian & Xiantian (后天 hòutiān / 先天 xiāntiān) – the names of two cultivation stages which appear in several novels, with the Houtian stage preceding the Xiantian stage. Houtian can mean Posterior Heaven / Postcelestial / Acquired. Xiantian can mean Anterior Heaven / Precelestial / Innate. Very roughly, the idea is that something “Xiantian” is primordial and thus close to the Dao, while something “Houtian” is degraded or further away from the Dao.
  • “Houtian & Xiantian” are derived from Daoism and Internal Alchemy. There’s a belief that people are born with a small amount of Xiantian treasures (Essence, Qi and Spirit). By practicing Daoist cultivation and internal alchemy, they can absorb and refine the Houtian Qi of the natural world to steadily increase their supply of Xiantian treasures (which grant health and longevity benefits).
  • Read more about it here (pages 19-20) and here.
Qi Condensation (凝气 níngqì) – also known as Qi Refining (炼气 liànqì) or Qi Gathering (聚气 jùqì). An initial stage of cultivation which involves absorbing Qi from the natural world and refining it inside the body.
Foundation Establishment (筑基 zhùjī) – also translated as Foundation Building. The stage after Qi Condensation. Once a cultivator’s Qi crosses a certain threshold (in the volume and/or density of the Qi), they’ll be able to breakthrough to this stage.
  • This term is derived from Internal Alchemy. Read more about it here. (page 25- onward)
Core Formation (结丹 jiēdān) – sometimes left untranslated as “Jiedan”. The stage after Foundation Establishment. It involves forming a Gold Core (金丹 jīndān) by using the Dantian as a crucible and the Cultivation Base as raw material.
  • The Gold Core is sometimes left untranslated as “Jindan” or is more literally translated as Golden Pellet. In scholarly articles on Chinese internal alchemy, it is translated as the “Golden Elixir“. It is somewhat analogous to the Philosopher’s Stone of Western alchemy, although there are many differences between the two.
  • More information here.
Nascent Soul (元婴 yuányīng) – sometimes left untranslated as “Yuanying”. Literally translates as “Origin Infant”. The stage after Core Formation (in some novels). The Nascent Soul resembles an infant or miniature person and resides in the Dantian, typically sitting in a meditative position. In some novels, the Nascent Soul can travel outside the body and is like a second life for cultivators – if their main body dies, their consciousness can continue to exist in the Nascent Soul.
Immortal Ascension (成仙 chéngxiān) – the stage wherein the cultivator becomes a Daoist Immortal. There are many differences between novels, but usually the cultivation/maturation of the Gold Core or Nascent Soul plays a key role in ascending to Immortality.

Alchemy Terms

Alchemy (丹道 dāndào) (外丹 wàidān) – the refining of plants, minerals, and other substances into medicinal pills & elixirs. In these novels, Alchemists (丹师) are essentially pharmacists who work with magical materials and make miracle drugs.
Cauldrons & Pill Furnaces (鼎 dǐng) (丹炉 dānlú) – the tools alchemists use to produce medicinal pills & elixirs.
Medicinal Pills & Elixirs (丹药 dānyào) – miracle drugs which can have all sorts of effects. Often taken to boost cultivation, heal wounds, cure poisons, purify or strengthen the body, and much much more.
Medicinal Plants / Herbs (药草 yàocǎo) – a generic term for any kind of plant which can be used by alchemists to make poisons or medicinal pills & elixirs. Older medicinal plants (100-year, 1000-year, etc…) are generally considered to be more potent.
  • Ginseng (参) & Lingzhi Mushrooms (灵芝) appear quite often in these novels, where they’re claimed to have great medicinal qualities.
Spiritual Plants / Herbs (灵草 língcǎo) – also called Spirit Grass. A magic plant which has absorbed spiritual energy from the natural world and is highly sought after by both cultivators and alchemists alike. Usually either eaten to absorb the spiritual energy it contains or refined into spirit medicines.

Items & Weapons

Magic Treasures (法宝 fǎbǎo) – also translated as Magical Items. A generic term which encompasses all of the magic weapons/clothing/trinkets/talismans/etc… which cultivators make and use.
  • Magic Tools (法器 fǎqì) & Spirit Tools (灵器 língqì) – terms which are almost interchangeable with “Magic Treasures”.
Spirit Stones (灵石 língshí) – translucent crystals with spiritual energy trapped within. Mainly used as currency amongst cultivators. They can also be used to cultivate (by absorbing the spiritual energy), create magical items, or power spell formations.
Flying Sword (飞剑 fēijiàn) – a magic sword which can fly through the air and can be directed to engage in long-range attacks. Perhaps the most iconic cultivator weapon. In some novels, cultivators stand atop their flying swords and ride them as a form of transportation.
Interspatial Ring (空间戒指 kōngjiān jièzhi) – a magic ring with a pocket dimension inside it. With a mere thought, the owner can store items inside it and retrieve them at will. Depending on the novel, there may be some restrictions – for example, the size of the storage space might be limited or the ring might only be capable of storing certain types of items.
  • Storage Treasures (储物法宝 chǔwù fǎbǎo) – a generic term for items similar in function to Interspatial Rings. Some novels, for example, may have Bags, Belts, Gourds, and other objects which also have magical storage spaces inside them.
Talisman (符 fú) – sometimes translated as a Seal. A strip of paper with mystical diagrams & calligraphy drawn on it. In these novels, they’re essentially consumable spells. (When activated, they cast a spell and will disintegrate once their magic is depleted.)
Jade Slip (玉简 yùjiǎn) – a long, narrow strip of jade used as a magical item. A cultivator can magically store information inside it, and other cultivators can then use that Jade Slip to directly transmit the stored information into their minds. Based on the Bamboo Slips used in ancient China.

The Four Major Weapons:
  • Sword (剑 jiàn) – a double-edged, straight sword. The weapon of choice for many, many characters in these novels.
  • Saber (刀 dāo) – a single-edged, curved saber. Heavier and considered somewhat brutish in comparison to the elegant Sword.
  • Spear (枪 qiāng) – a spear, often with a leaf-shaped spearhead and a tassel lashed just beneath it.
  • Staff (棍 gùn) – a staff made from wood or iron.
Hidden Weapons (暗器 ànqì) – weapons that are concealed in some way (often hidden in the owner’s clothing). Their use and effectiveness relies heavily on the element of surprise. Poisoned projectiles (darts/needles/etc) are an especially popular type of hidden weapon. But in the hands of a hidden weapons expert, almost anything can be lethal – in Wuxia novels, even things like abaci, coins, chopsticks, and musical instruments are used as hidden weapons.
A partial list of weapons which may be unfamiliar to new readers:
Duster / Fly Whisk / Horsetail Whisk (拂尘)Fan (扇)Ribbon (丝带)
Ruyi Scepter (如意)Loom Shuttle (梭)Wheels (轮)
Ruler (尺)Seal (印)Awl (锥)
Butterfly Knives (蝴蝶双刀)Judge’s Brush (判官笔)Crutches (柺)
Flying Guillotine (血滴子)Flying Claw (飞爪)Flying Daggers (飞刀)
Emei Piercers (峨嵋刺)Rope Dart (绳镖)Sleeve Arrow (袖箭)
Three Section Staff (三节棍)Monk’s Spade (月牙铲)Hoop / Ring (环)
Nine Section Whip (九节鞭)Snake Lance (蛇矛)Hook Swords (钩)
Meteor Hammer (流星錘)Wolf-tooth Club (狼牙棒)

Miscellaneous Terms

Heavenly Tribulation (天劫 tiānjié) (重劫 zhòngjié) – in some novels, a trial encountered by cultivators at key points in their cultivation, which they must resist and ultimately transcend. Because immortal cultivation (generally) goes against the Will of Heaven, the Heavens will send down tribulations to oppress high-level cultivators who make progress towards Immortality, often right when they enter a new cultivation stage. This typically takes the form of a lightning storm, with extraordinarily powerful bolts of lightning raining down from the Heavens to strike at the cultivator.
Eight Trigrams (八卦 bāguà) – often left untranslated as the “Bagua”. Thought to represent the fundamental principles of reality. In real life, it’s used in fortune-telling. In these novels, it’s mainly only mentioned in passing. For example, a battle formation or martial arts move might have the “Eight Trigrams” in its name
Feng Shui (风水 fēngshuǐ) – literally translates as “Wind Water”. A form of traditional Chinese divination/fortune-telling, often performed using the Eight Trigrams and a Feng Shui compass (罗盘 luópán). In these novels, it’s mainly only mentioned in passing.
Formations (阵 zhèn) (阵法 zhènfǎ) – divided into battle formations and spell formations, although they are often just called “formations”. Battle formations are “fantasy-fied” tactical formations used by several cultivators or martial artists attacking in concert. Spell formations are also called Arrays. They’re essentially magic circles which cast a continuous area-of-effect spell on the location the formation encompasses.
  • Formation Flags (阵旗 zhènqí) – magical flags set up at key points in order to activate a spell formation (usually around the perimeter).
  • Restrictions (禁制 jìnzhì) (禁法 jìnfǎ) – also translated as Seals, Restrictive Spells, or Spell Restrictions. Somewhat similar to formations. They are spells which form a barrier around a location or act to seal/suppress a person or object.
Spiritual Sense (灵识 língshí) – also known as Divine Sense (神识 shénshí). An ability possessed by cultivators to scan their surroundings (far beyond the limits of their ordinary 5 senses) with their spirit. The distance/total area they can scan corresponds to the strength of their spirit. Also used in some novels to remotely control magical items such as Flying Swords.
Essence (精 jīng) – basically “lifeblood”. Some secret/forbidden techniques require cultivators to expend their Essence, shortening their lifespan as a result.
Robes (袍 páo) – the characters in these novels usually wear robes, as was the norm in ancient China. Cultivators and martial artists are often said to wear Tang suits (唐装) or Scholar / Daoist robes (道袍).
Face (面子 miànzi) – a person’s reputation in society and amongst their peers. If someone “has face” (有面子), they have a good reputation. If they “have no face” (没面子), then they have a bad reputation. “Giving face” (给面子) to someone means to defer to or pay homage to them. “Losing face” (丢脸) means that a person has hurt their reputation. “Not wanting face” (不要脸) means that a person is acting shamelessly, in a way that suggests they don’t care about hurting their reputation.
Kowtow (叩头 kòutóu) – an act of deep respect shown by prostration. The highest sign of reverence in Chinese culture. It involves kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground. The person kowtowing may also knock their head repeatedly against the ground (to the point of injury), especially when they’re desperately pleading for something or wish to show their utmost sincerity.
Clasped Hands (抱拳 bàoquán) (拱手 gǒngshǒu) – also translated as Cupped Fist or Cupped Hands. A respectful salute or greeting.
  • The Baoquan (抱拳) is a salute which originated among martial artists. The Gongshou (拱手) is a salute commonly used by Chinese people in general.
Pavilion (阁 gé) (亭 tíng) – a type of building. The pavilions in these novels probably look more like this, rather than this.
Pagoda (塔 tǎ) – a tiered tower with multiple, prominent eaves. Often has a religious function or is considered sacred.
Immortal’s Cave (洞府 dòngfǔ) – also translated as Cave Estate or Immortal Estate. The abode of a cultivator. Often high up in the mountains in a cave where spiritual energy is abundant. Similar to a Grotto (洞天).
Fairy (仙女 xiānnǚ) (仙子 xiānzǐ) – a term used to describe a woman of otherworldly beauty.
  • Note: Not to be confused with the Western concept of Fairies.
Lotus Flower (莲花 liánhuā) – symbolizes purity & enlightenment in Chinese culture. Appears quite often in these novels.
Jade (玉 yù) – a type of gemstone that was more valuable than gold in Ancient China. It was even thought to have mystical powers/properties and to be associated with the soul and immortality. In cultivation novels, magical items are often made from jade. And anything beautiful, refined, or lustrous is commonly described as being “Jade-like”.
  • Jade comes in two types: Jadeite and Nephrite. Jadeite is usually a vivid green color, and this is what Westerners are more familiar with. Nephrite comes in many colors, one of which is a creamy white. This white jade is called “mutton-fat jade” (羊脂玉) by the Chinese, and they consider it to be the most valuable kind of jade.
Incense (香 xiāng) – aromatic material which releases fragrant smoke when burned. Used in religious ceremonies, to aid in meditation, and in many other cultural activities. Incense Sticks (or Joss Sticks) are frequently mentioned in these novels.
  • “The time it takes an incense stick to burn” is a common phrase which refers to a short time period – generally around either 5 or 30 minutes. Other ancient Chinese time measurements can be found here.
Hand-seals (掐诀 qiājué) – also translated as Incantation Gestures. Daoist hand and finger gestures performed to cast spells.
Sword-light (剑光 jiànguāng) – also translated as a Sword Ray. A dazzling, powerful energy attack released from the edge of a blade. Forming Swordlight generally requires a profound cultivation base and a deep mastery of swordsmanship.
  • Sword Energy (剑气 jianqi) is basically the same as Swordlight.
Refining (炼 liàn) – a term which appears extremely frequently. Cultivators sometimes seem obsessed with refining just about everything – pills, treasures, Qi, and even themselves! This stems from Chinese alchemy, where it was believed that materials which underwent multiple refinements would gain spiritual value and slowly grow closer to the Dao and perfection.
Killing Intent (煞气 shàqì) – a murderous aura which emits from a person when they desire to harm someone. People who have experienced bloody battles and/or have already killed others tend to have much stronger Killing Intent than an ordinary person. Experts may be able to disguise their Killing Intent, as well as intentionally release it as a form of mental attack.
Sword Intent (剑意 jiànyì) – somewhat similar to Killing Intent. A dangerous aura emitted from a sword or master swordsman which causes others to feel as if they’re about to be cut by a sword. In some novels, experts can even create physical manifestations (consisting of energy and their knowledge of sword-arts) with their Sword Intent, and this can be used to attack their foes.

Units of Measurement

Shi Chen時辰Time2 hoursDouble-hour“, aka “Chinese hour”
WenMoney0.001 taels of silveraka “Copper-cash“, (see below)
LiangMass31.25 gramsTael
JinMass500 gramsCatty“, = 16 Taels
Cun市寸Length3 ⅓ cmaka “Chinese inch
Chi市尺Length33 ⅓ cmaka “Chinese foot“, = 10 Cun
Zhang市丈Length3 ⅓ meters= 10 Chi
Li市里Length500 metersaka “Chinese mile“, = 1500 Chi
MuArea666 ⅔ meters²aka “Chinese acre”, = 60 Zhang²
  • Note: The coins could be strung together into “strings of cash” (一贯钱) for convenience. A string of 1000 Wen was equal in value to one Tael of Silver (a silver ingot).