DECEMBER 17, 2020
“CHILDREN CEASED to be children when you put a sword in their hands,” protagonist Rin muses after she’s placed in her country’s top military academy, where she’s taught to discard her sense of self and join the war machine. Yet Rin is unwilling to become a mindless tool for Nikan, the recently unified empire of 12 provinces. (There are clear parallels with 20th-century China.) Instead, as a dark-skinned orphan from a backwater province, she is fueled by a deep-rooted sense of injustice, an instinctive understanding of the imbalance in the world. Her drive to accumulate power is motivated, above all else, by a growing thirst for vengeance.
The Poppy War trilogy is a grimdark fantasy series by R. F. Kuang, with the first installment published in 2018 and the final installment, The Burning God, published this November. The first book, The Poppy War, opens with 14-year-old Rin in Tikany, an antiquated village where an unmarried girl is “worth less than a gay rooster.” In order to escape an odious arranged marriage, Rin studies for the Keju, a kind of standardized test that closely resembles the civil service examinations of China’s Song dynasty. Despite having little formal education, Rin is aiming to enroll in Sinegard, the most prestigious military academy in the empire and the only one with free tuition. Determined to cram a decade of missed schooling into two years, Rin employs tactics such as dripping hot wax onto her skin to force herself to study. The themes of economic anxiety paired with looming standardized tests that determine one’s fate will likely resonate with young readers today.
After months of self-mutilation, sleep deprivation, and the exercise of sheer willpower, Rin places at the top of her province. She is going to Sinegard. But her troubles don’t end there. War is on the horizon, with the Federation of Mugen, a crescent-shaped island nation to the east of Nikan, encroaching on her borders, despite a Non-Aggression Pact signed at the end of the Second Poppy War. Politics and strategy play a major role in this military fantasy series, with characters often quoting Sunzi, a lionized writer and tactician who serves as a stand-in for Sun Tzu, the real-life Chinese general and military strategist of the late sixth century BC. “Amateurs obsess over strategy,” Rin’s professor tells the class. “Professionals obsess over logistics.”
Reading The Poppy War feels almost like reading two books at once. There is a definite before and after, with war being the dividing line. If part one is a typical boarding school romp, with petty rivalries, tedious lectures, and a rousing tournament, then part two is what happens when boarding school ceases to exist and all the teachers are dead. Petty rivalries become obsolete; Rin and her classmates are all just fighting to survive. And as the risks are raised, so are the stakes and the consequent moral ambiguities.
Rin, for her part, turns the war into an outlet for mounting power as the series progresses. She has been bred as a tool of destruction, and now her masters intend to use her. But only up to a point. While Rin’s power can be controlled, she herself is no puppet. Her sense of good and evil is highly personal, dictated by her own subjective experiences and relationships. Yet this naïveté is precisely what makes her so relatable: she absorbs new information about the world around her with speed and efficiency, focusing what she learns immediately and directly toward her goals.
In book two, The Dragon Republic (2019), Rin trades interstate war for civil war, as the newly formed Republic of Nikara moves to overthrow the ruling empire. Rin once again finds herself in the throes of hero worship — now not with her teacher or commander, but with the charismatic Dragon Warlord, Yin Vaisra. But Rin soon learns that blind faith in heroes often leads to regret. Betrayed again and again, she comes to the conclusion, in book three, that she alone can lead the empire and save its people.
And so, The Burning God starts the bloody cycle anew. Rin, now leading the Southern Coalition, has declared war on Vaisra and his failed republic, in order to reclaim Nikara for the South. Her few friends have narrowed to fewer. Her power is stronger than ever, and yet she has never been more unstable, more traumatized. “Once I was your screaming victim, begging for your mercy,” Rin says, as she prepares to kill in cold blood. “And now you cower before me.”
From this surface-level summary, Rin’s character may seem unsympathetic. Yet she is developed in such a way that the reader identifies with her, roots for her, believes that, although she is misguided and makes repeated mistakes, she is driving toward the good. Rin was the reason I felt compelled to keep reading, despite the trilogy’s sometimes gratuitous violence. I wanted Rin to come out, if not fully healed, then at least whole, despite the author’s clear message that no one wins in war.
Though the story’s parallels to modern China are obvious, it was not until after I finished the series that I realized Rin was meant to be a stand-in for Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China and the leader of the Communist Party. Growing up in a family deeply impacted by the Cultural Revolution, I’d heard horror stories about Mao from a young age. During the Cultural Revolution, my grandmother was sent to a northern labor camp, and my grandfather was held in interrogation cells. My uncle, as a young boy, was sentenced to perform hard labor in a reeducation camp, and my mother, then a baby, was left alone in Shanghai, where she was found by a neighbor crying in an empty apartment.
In contemporary China, the legend of Mao, who died in 1976, takes a number of forms: he is at once the benevolent father, the austere teacher, and the deranged dictator. The true Mao may be unknowable; we will never fully understand his motivations or goals. And yet, what if we did grasp the psyche of an infamous leader? This is the question at the heart of the series: not to absolve, but to understand. Like Mao, Rin is power-hungry and motivated by revenge, and yet she remains largely sympathetic. Her wants are human ones, and her suffering and misguided beliefs only serve to emphasize her humanity. What is at once tragic and yet compelling about the trilogy is that Rin’s path to destruction is not due to some inherent wickedness. Instead, she could be any one of us.
Mao, like Rin, grew up in a backwater province, the child of a stern and abusive father. Through education, he began to shape a distinct moral and political viewpoint, and then, like Rin, was interrupted in his studies by impending war. His rise to power was not an unswerving line. Early on, people recalled him as kind, idealistic, even heroic. By the end of his reign, he was widely seen, at least by dissidents, as bloodthirsty, ruthless, and uncompromising. The lure of power changed him, just as it changes Rin. “I have become something wonderful,” she thinks at the end of her first war. “I have become something terrible.”
As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult for Rin to justify her actions and come to terms with the destruction she has wrought. And yet, she forges ahead, because the alternative is worse: to admit that she is misguided, to realize that she is on the wrong side of history.
A wide chasm of guilt, her ever-faithful friend, yawned in the back of her mind. She pushed it away. She’d done such a good job of burying her memories; that was the only way she could keep herself sane. Children can be murderers, she reminded herself, Little boys can be monsters.
In his rise to power, Mao, too, could not relent. Once, he had dreamed a dream of peace and abundance, of a country that could raise its head high among other behemoths, no longer the shameful, sickly creature ruined by infighting and corruption. Mao loved his country and wanted more for it. But when the scales tipped, he made a choice, sacrificing his vision of justice in favor of individual power. And he believed the consequences would not fall on his own house.
Similarly, Rin believes that she can have her cake and eat it, too. She believes in aiding the bullied child, the abused woman, the downtrodden peasant. She intends to stand for what is right, to hold on to some definite morality, yet she also hopes to hurt those who hurt her, to pay back tenfold what she was once made to suffer, long ago. Her yearning for power is never reconciled with her inherent understanding that power is limited, that, when she gains it, she has only taken it from those she had once sought so hard to protect.
There are no easy answers here, neither in history nor in fiction. There comes a time in The Poppy War trilogy when Rin commits an indisputably atrocious act. The reader is left reeling. I’ve heard some readers say they felt heartbroken, felt it was a breach of trust with her character. For my part, I felt a kind of kinship with Rin. There was something familiar about her instinctive compulsion to rationalize her behavior, to root it in anger, because at least anger, in its sheer ferocity, can be mind-numbing. I understood that her rage was born from a sense of betrayal, from being lied to all your life, from realizing that the system you had tried so hard to master was in fact against you.
Who are we, R. F. Kuang asks, after we have fought all our lives to succeed in a system of alluring wealth and power, a system as appealing as it is repulsive, which we know is unjust and corrupt? And still we hope to be the lucky ones. When we finally realize that those in power will not save us, what do we do then? Like Rin, we are left to fend for ourselves.
Krystal Song is a first-generation Chinese American immigrant with roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Much of her work touches on themes of the Sino diaspora experience, as well as the shifting nature of memory and history. She recently moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco and misses the tacos.