I think this page is rather beautiful.
There is Chi Shuang, standing over the pool where her twin sister, Chi Xue, is wading. Meanwhile, Chuyi is bringing Xing Ling to see what is happening with Chi Xue and Chi Shuang. Previously, Xing Ling and Chi Xue were in a nasty fight. Xing Ling’s wounds have already been treated, but Chi Xue was so badly injured that Chuyi did not think she would make it. When Xing Ling said that Chi Shuang had some special method to cure Chi Xue, Chuyi decided an intervention was urgently needed.
Chuyi and Xing Ling approach the chamber where Chi Shuang prepares to heal Chi Xue.
And they see Chi Xue. I should note that Chi Xue is usually veiled and vicious, so to see her exposed and vulnerable is quite a contrast.
This is another lovely page.
Chi Xue is reluctant to be healed by this special method. Perhaps, like Chuyi, she know this healing method’s terrible secret.
And the healing process begins.
Terrible secret or not, it’s quite lovely.
Maybe I Should Start at the Beginning of the Story…
Xing Ling is the finest sword fighter wandering around jianghu. When she’s up against 10+ rogues, it’s bad news—I mean bad news for the rogues. She uses her exceptional skills to bully the bullies and provide relief to the common people.
One day she encounters an opponent who she can’t cream within minutes. In fact, the fight is actually a struggle for her. She doesn’t understand why her opponent is not being reduced to a pulp. The thing is, all of her previous opponents were human, whereas this opponent is … not.
By exhausting all of her strength—and sacrificing her hair—Xing Ling manages to take down this non-human opponent. Then his non-human friends show up.
Just when Xing Ling appreciates the deep shit that she is in, two young men show up—one who mows down the non-human friends in minutes.
It turns out that the non-humans—as well as these two young men—come from the celestial zone, where people and creatures develop spiritual powers than ordinary mortals can barely imagine. She is the first ordinary person they ever saw beat a denizen of the celestial zone and … they notice that she is a bit like a certain special person.
Eventually, Xing Ling enters the Celestial Zone herself, cultivates her own spiritual powers, and joins the war between the Righteous Way and the Evil Way.
This manhua is by Wee Tian Beng, who is the most commercially successful manhua artist in Singapore. To the best of my knowledge, no other Singaporean manhua artist has been published in Taiwan (which means it would me much more difficult for me to acquire copies). I have previously discussed Wee Tian Beng’s adaptation of the Jing Yong novel Return of the Condor Heroes.
The Celestial Zone is his signature work. It has attracted fans in many countries and its success has led to two sequels so far.
In a world where gender justice was the default, it would not be remarkable if a fighting/action oriented comic book featured many female characters and consistently gave them as much substance as the male characters, where they feel like they are there for their own sake, not to accompany the male characters. We do not live in a world where gender justice is the default. Therefore it is remarkable that The Celestial Zone is a fighting/action oriented comic book with many female characters who feel like they are there for their own sake and not to accompany the male characters.
This manhua passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. There are lots of female characters, they talk to each all the time, and they talk to each other about spiritual powers, demons, medicine, friendship, battle … in fact, they rarely talk to each other about men.
The one criticism I can make—and this a fairly minor criticism—is that Wee Tian Beng sometimes sexualizes the female characters in ways he does not sexualize the male characters. Nonetheless, even in this he is a mild offender, as he never goes farther in sexualizing the characters than he does in this illustration:
It’s partially because men like Wee Tian Beng get female characters (mostly) right that I do not give male creators slack for getting female characters wrong. If Wee Tian Beng can get this right, all other male creators can get female characters right too. The question is, do they want to get female characters right?
As I read this manhua, I kept on wondering if Wee Tian Beng would run out of his bag of artistic tricks, and the art which I found so fresh and exciting would be reduced to tired visual tropes.
That did not happen. Right to the last volume, Wee Tian Beng kept on drawing things in new and exciting ways which titilated my visual senses. He does all this while staying true to his own distinct style.
I have found few comic book artists who can so consistently delight my imagination with their artwork.
Can I break this down a bit? Maybe.
First of all, Wee Tian Beng often juxaposes detail with simplicity, such as in the page below. It provides a rest for the eyes, and makes the page more dynamic than if there were merely detailed linework or merely simplicity.
Also, Wee Tian Beng plays a lot with shadows, in different ways. Look at the following pages.
And then there is the way that Wee Tian Beng draws movement. It it utterly graceful. I don’t know how he does it (perhaps that’s why I’m not a visual artist myself). Look at the movement in the following pictures:
He also juxtaposes the action with natural scenery. The way he draws and incorporates nature is very much in the tradition of millennia of Chinese art. See how he uses images of nature in these pages:
As I’ve noted before, he uses panels in a very cinematic way. I love this following page where you can see how the characters expressions change on the beat.
Not to mention these cinematic pages:
Notice how the above page not only demonstrates his cinematic style, it also shows a) shadow play b) the way he draws human movement and c) images of nature.
And … he manages to infuse a solemnity into his compositions. Observe these pages.
And the composition in these following pages makes me squee. Especially the second page—instead of simply have a center panel with the two opponents squaring off in the distance and the side panels showing their faces, Wee Tian Beng combines the three panels together by having the opponents stand like chess pieces on their respective close-ups. Not to mention that a) the diagonal line between the opponents is dynamic and b) the long panels set up a nice set of parallel lines.
While the characters are rarely warm and bubbly (it’s not that kind of story) when warmth and bubbles are called for, he can draw that too.
But, more than anything else, Wee Tian Beng chooses compelling subjects to draw. Such as a dragon’s head suddenly emerging from the water:
Or this special healing technique with candles:
Or one of the baddies suddenly deciding to kiss one of the goodies in mid-fight:
This comic is steeped in traditional Chinese culture, especially Taoism (note: I actually do not know much about Taoism). I’ve already mentioned the influence from traditional Chinese paintings. I also learned why the word for “thing” in Mandarin literally is “east-west” (and I am a little curious how they would try to explain that in English, since it would be very difficult to explain to somebody who doesn’t know some Chinese). It does not feel didactic; on the other hand, I can tell Wee Tian Beng cares a lot about this and wants to pass it on to the readers.
More on the Characters
It should be apparent by now that the story has a lot in common with shounen battle manga.
I rather liked the twist on training the newbie hero(ine), in which Xing Ling, who is used to pwning her enemies, has to go back to square one once she enters the Celestial Zone and trains her spirit powers. However, once she got used to the Celestial Zone, I found her character less compelling. Wee Tian Beng sensed this too, as he shifted the story away from her to Chi Xue.
While I generally support using transliterations instead of translations of Chinese names, I almost wish the English language edition had made an exception for Chi Xue since her name, which means “Scarlet Snow,” is even more beautiful in English than in Chinese. “Xue” can also mean “blood”…
Even though Chi Xue is officially with the Righteous Way, she hunts demons so ruthlessly that, on the surface, she doesn’t feel like a good guy. Of course, it turns out that she is extremely tender-hearted, and that she fights so coldly partially because she is heartbroken (her heartbreak, by the way, has nothing to do with a man).
And … Xing Ling and Chi Xue make for a good friendship. Their relationship is opposites-attract, but in a non-romantic way. Xing Ling is generally cheerful while Chi Xue is generally moody, Xing Ling is inexperienced, while Chi Xue has experienced a bit too much … and so forth.
Good stories are generally about characters suffering and growing (or not) from it. Suffering doesn’t stick very well to the upbeat Xing Ling, which is why Chi Xue ultimately ended up being a much more interesting character. Other people must have agreed, because there is a spin-off manhua called The Adventures of Chi Xue.
This entire comic has been published in English—in fact the original edition was simultaneously published in English and Chinese. Many volumes of the English-language edition are available at Mile High Comics—unfortunately they don’t have all volumes, but the volumes they do have in stock are reasonably priced.
In Chinese, this comic book has been published in both simplified and traditional characters.
European readers might find it easier to acquire the French edition than the English-language edition.
I would have loved this manhua to pieces as a little girl. I enjoyed action/fighting stories, doubly so if they featured main characters, triply so if it was pretty (it’s worth noting that my gateway to anime was Sailor Moon, and my gateway to manga was Inuyasha).
And, obviously, I do love the artwork in this manhua. And, darn it, artwork is important. Liking comics for the artwork is not superficial, silly, or otherwise to be looked down upon. I didn’t actually become truly visually literate until my college years, but to the extent I was visually literate before then, I can partially thank my father—he would often remark on the artwork in the comic books we read together (or anything else that caught his eye). In the modern world, where people are constantly bombarded with images, visual literacy is important, and visual literacy also makes life more fun. One of the advantages that comic books have over certain other storytelling media is that it can nuture one’s visual literacy. This manhua, in my opinion, is excellent for that.
I am okay with the story. I am not in love with the story. I cannot pick out any major flaws. I was interested in the arcs of some of the characters, and was occasionally moved. Nonetheless, the story did not grab me. I could speculate on why it didn’t grab me … but to be honest, I don’t know why it didn’t grab me.
I do recommend this manhua to people who like fighting comics, particularly if they want fighting comics with good female characters.
Next Time: Fated to Love You (idol drama)
While the topics of Sara K.’s personal blog are mostly not related to Asian culture, Mangabookshelf readers might be interested in reading her latest post: “Language Learning and Perpetual Childhood”.