Author Interview: Kit Sun Cheah
We sit down with the author of the science fantasy cultivation novel Dawn of the Broken Sword.
Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award nominated writer. A blogger and martial artist, he is the Herald of the Pulp Revolution, combining the aesthetics and mindset of the pulp era with modern-day tastes and tradecraft.
Author of the Covenant Chronicles and Song of Karma series.
(Copied from Amazon.)
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We are well into the first month of our Summer Indie Spotlight featuring Dawn of the Broken Sword by Kit Sun Cheah. I hope everyone is enjoying the book, and will remember to comment on any of our related posts to enter our giveaway!
But the world of the rivers and lakes is fraught with peril. Deception and danger lurk in the shadows. Bloodthirsty beasts roam the wilds. Martial cultivators constantly battle for wealth, glory and status.
Armed with his ancestral swordbreaker, Li Ming enters the jianghu as a biaohang, eager to deliver justice with steel and magic—and to chase the dream of immortality.
But first, he must prove himself worthy.
Author’s Note: This series is not a power fantasy. There are no LitRPG / GameLit elements, no unconventional relationships, and no sexual content. It is, quite simply, a cultivation story—in the actual sense of the term.
Today, I get to share with you an interview with author Kit Sun Cheah.
What a treat to discuss the cultivation genre with someone who is not content with surface-level trimmings! Cheah knows his stuff, and I think you’ll find his approach and goals very interesting.
In your author’s note at the end of your book’s description, you specify that it is a cultivation story “in the actual sense of the term.” Can you expand upon that and what readers can expect?
The cultivation methods in Saga of the Swordbreaker are based on real-world cultivation methods from Daoism and Buddhism.
In other cultivation stories, cultivation is simply a method of pursuing power. There is no higher goal beyond gaining even more power over others. The story exists primarily to support and fulfil the power fantasy.
The Daoist grandmasters warned that the pursuit of power is a trap. Buddhism teaches that supernatural abilities arise not from pursuing power, but from gaining deeper insight into reality. Misusing powers and becoming obsessed with power leads the practitioner away from the mindset needed to understand and live in harmony with the universe, and so they will lose their power and fall into delusion.
What is called ‘cultivation’ in most cultivation fiction is not cultivation. Actual cultivation is not about pursuing power, but enlightenment. Powers emerge as a by-product of the quest for enlightenment. They are milestones, but they are not the Way. They should be seen merely as confirmation that the practitioner is on the right path, to be used wisely for the benefit of others, or not at all.
Saga of the Swordbreaker grapples with this essential conflict: the conflict between the original purpose of cultivation and established market conventions. This conflict is embodied in the setting, the characters, and even the core conflict that runs through the series.
In conventional ‘cultivation’ fiction, characters strive to become as gods. To this, my story asks two questions:
And at what cost?
Were there any stories from this genre that made an impact on you as a writer? What elements do you particularly enjoy?
Coiling Dragon, Against the Gods, Forty Millenniums of Cultivation, Swallowed Star—some of the more famous Chinese xianxia webnovels.
I appreciate the way the protagonists continue to persevere even in the face of overwhelming opposition. Be it monsters, bandits, or rivals, they maintain a spirit of optimism and dogged perseverance and carry on.
Forty Millenniums of Cultivation and Swallowed Star are science fantasy stories, blending high tech and magic. The aesthetic influenced my approach to worldbuilding.
You have said that you draw heavily on Chinese language and culture – can you talk about the Chinese elements in Dawn of the Broken Sword?
Chinese influences everything in the setting. I’ll just touch on the most critical aspects.
China is the longest living civilization in the world, spanning 3500 years of written history. The series is infused with this weight of history. The reader will be immersed in this atmosphere from the first word to the last.
The series is set in the land of Xiazhou, during the time of the Five States and Ten Corporations. This is an allusion to the era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. It was a period of immense turmoil and political upheaval. The era name Five States and Ten Corporations speaks to the divisions in the Xia civilization and to the power held by the Ten Corporations. This becomes an important concept in future books.
Chinese is the lingua franca of the setting. The entire series is written as though it were Chinese translated into English. The Chinese language lends itself readily to a majestic register, and this is reflected in description and dialogue. What is called Standard Mandarin today was the language of the Imperial Court, the language of ministers and artists, poets and emperors. I wanted to reflect the severe poetry of the language, and the weight of three thousand years.
The concept of Huaxia, the common cultural identity of the Chinese people, uses the characters for ‘flowery’ (i.e. ‘beautiful’) and ‘grand’ (in reference to the greatness of ceremonial etiquettes). I wanted to reflect this in all things, big and small, in the story. For the former, it is seen in clothing, architecture, and technology; the latter is revealed in the way the characters treat each other.
Throughout the series, the characters refer to the classics, and explore the deeper meaning of certain Chinese cultural ideas. More than just inserting idioms whenever appropriate, I tried to explore the mindset of people who hold to these ideas.
The most critical aspect I want to highlight throughout the series is mindset. In the West, people hold to the idea of separation between Church and State, heart and mind, physical and spiritual. There is no such hard distinction in Chinese culture.
You can see it in the use of feng shui and references to auspicious dates and times in the book. The characters treat the elemental magics in the story as a visible manifestation of cosmic forces, forces which are inherent in all things. Characters build their worldviews on esoteric principles, attempting to align their inner world with outer reality. There is no clear delineation between different schools of metaphysics; each freely borrow concepts from every other school. Thus you can have the five elements showing up in martial arts and medicine and feng shui and astrology, with different applications but the same essence.
Cultivation practice seeks to explore inner energy, harmonize with external forces, unify mind and body and spirit, and bridge man, heaven and earth, allowing the practitioner to grasp concepts that cannot be easily articulated by the logical brain.
This final element is missing from ‘cultivation’ stories. Yet it is the quintessence of cultivation itself. In my cultivation stories, I try to communicate this.
How does Dawn of the Broken Sword compare with the other books you have written?
Dawn of the Broken Sword is highly character-driven. My other books tend to be plot-driven, with external events driving the story. This series is Li Ming’s journey for self-discovery, so characterisation took the driver’s seat.
There is also much greater integration of technology and magic. There are far fewer restrictions on the use of magic in this series versus other settings like Dungeon Samurai, which gives more scope for high-intensity action and dramatic storytelling.
How does Dawn of the Broken Sword fit into the PulpRev movement?
PulpRev is about learning from the grandmasters of the pulp era and applying their lessons to the present. I studied the writing craft of the American pulp masters, blended the wisdom of the ancients and the wondrous tech of the science fiction field, and applied them to the current market environment.
Pulp stories also have a moral core. In the context of Saga of the Swordbreaker, this is seen in the conflicts between the characters, the conflicts between the larger organisations (which you’ll see in future books), as well as the meta-conflict over the definition of cultivation itself. It is an element missing from most modern-day cultivation fiction.
It’s not strictly pulp. It’s much longer and less event-driven than American pulp. But it is most certainly influenced by it.
I found your blending of historical, mythical, and futuristic elements compelling. How did you accomplish this successfully?
Western xianxia authors tend to copy random Asian elements and paste it into their setting, creating the illusion of an exotic location. It is shallow. It may reflect the lived reality of globalization in the modern-day West, but in any other setting, these elements are profoundly out of place. They are disconnected from the rest of the story universe. You can see straight away that the authors do this just to hit the right tropes and trigger a dopamine hit. This is infuriating, for it betrays a lack of respect and appreciation of the culture they are borrowing from. They treat it as set dressing, no more.
I wanted to avoid this. I wanted to create a living, breathing world. A world that demonstrates unity of Man, Heaven and Earth—the unity of characters, the setting, and higher ideas. In other words, a world where every single element is fully integrated, with a history and purpose. This, too, reflects the purpose of real-world cultivation.
To create this world, I needed to create a society rooted in its past. Civilizations do not appear out of nothing. All peoples and all societies have origins. Humans have an innate desire to be connected to their ancestors. It is a way of remembering where you came from, to be a part of something greater than yourself, to draw strength from the achievements of your ancestors, and carry it forward into the future. This is reflected in the Chinese idiom, to remember the source while drinking water.
A culture that captures this sentiment in a popular saying is a culture that honours the past. Thus, it makes sense for historical and archaic elements to appear in a setting dominated by a culture respectful of its traditions. This is why architects in the story universe still obey feng shui principles, why people wear traditional clothing, why the culture respects long lineages. They keep the past alive—and in so doing, it makes sense to have all the tropes you see in other cultivation fiction.
As I worked on the worldbuilding elements, I sought to maintain that connection to the past. It is in the references to distant historical events, the fashion and architectural choices, the way people speak to each other, even in the martial arts. As the series progresses, you’ll see some archaic martial movements that may not make intuitive sense to a modern reader, but are grounded in the logic of a different time and place. In forging this historical connection, the reader can see clearly how the past influences the present.
The mythical elements were drawn from Chinese metaphysics, in keeping with the historical aesthetics of the setting. Hence the use of the five elements and the eight trigrams, and how they intermix with each other. Some of the monsters are drawn from Chinese mythology, while others are of my own invention—but designed with an eye towards preserving that sense of historical depth.
The futuristic elements needed the least amount of thought. I simply borrowed the technology of today and speculative technologies of tomorrow, then dropped them into the setting whenever I pleased. But wherever I could, I sought to highlight links to the history of the setting. In so doing, the story unites the past, present and future.
What is your favorite monster or battle in this book?
From a technical perspective, the climax is my favourite battle. I wanted to avoid falling into the old American trope of characters fighting superior numbers with superior firepower. That gets boring and predictable. I wanted to pit two forces against each other that are well-trained, disciplined, and intelligent. This forces the heroes to outsmart the enemy and find a way to turn the tables.
However, from an artistic standpoint, the sparring sequences and two-man set training scenes are my favourite. These aren’t ‘battles’, but they aren’t meant to be. I wanted to reveal the essence of the characters through movement and how each character perceives the other. This is drawn from gongfu films, an element which I think is sorely lacking in most Western storytelling. These sequences are the opening act to the meta-story of the series.
What kind of martial arts do you practice? Are the fighting styles and sequences in the book based on any specific real-world examples?
These days I practice xingyiquan and baguazhang. In fact, I learned xingyiquan specifically for this series. Li Ming’s main martial art is derived from an obscure lineage of xingyiquan, with a fancier name imbued with a hidden meaning.
Baguazhang also shows up in the series, under the name Yizhang. The latter name uses the characters for ‘change’ and ‘palm’, which reflects the nature of the art.
Ghazan’s martial art is drawn from the Li Shuwen lineage of gongfu, which married bajiquan and piguazhang as complementary arts. I should stress that the fantastic elements that show up later are not part of Li Shuwen’s teachings.
All the other martial arts in the series are likewise inspired by real world martial arts. In future works, you’ll get to see interpretations of Praying Mantis, taijiquan, mixed martial arts, wushu, and Xinyi Liuhe Quan—for starters. As far as possible, I tried to keep the martial arts in the series grounded in real life.
The Chinese internal martial arts—most famously, xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan—are extremely well-suited for cultivation stories. The act of practicing these arts is itself cultivation. You cultivate qi, martial ability, and unity of mind, body and spirit. It is something I hope to express in the series.
This story has some elements of YA fiction, such as the main character’s thematic struggle with finding his place in the world. Can you comment on your plan for Li Ming’s development over the course of the saga?
Li Ming wants to be an immortal, but he also wants to be a good man. He lives in a world that celebrates immortals, but has lost sight of the true purpose of cultivation. It is a world of red dust, a world obsessed with material pursuits. He needs to see through the red dust and decide for himself what he really wants.
Such an approach deliberately goes against the grain of cultivation fiction conventions, but it is an approach that honours the teachings of those who laid down the foundations of what we now call cultivation.
Dawn of the Broken Sword has ranked #1 in Teen & Young Adult Buddhism Books, New Release in Taoism, and New Release in Teen & Young Adult Other Religious Fiction. That seems unique for a fantasy novel. How important would you say the religious elements are?
(It was also ranked #1 New Release in Chinese Literature, and is now a #1 Best Seller in Teen & Young Adult Other Religious Fiction)
Cultivation tropes are inspired by religious cultivation methods. For this series, I went to the source material. Daoist cultivation texts explicitly state that the goal of cultivation is long life and immortality, while Buddhist cultivation methods are meant to support the quest for enlightenment. To fully understand the main characters’ cultivation practices and the motives behind them—especially when contrasted against those of other characters—you would need to recognize the religious elements inherent in cultivation.
With that said, outside of the context of cultivation, I tried to keep religious elements in the background. I wrote the story in such a way that non-Buddhists and non-Daoists can appreciate the story without having to slog through reams of theological discussion. The overarching themes of self-discovery, cultivating virtue and the purpose of power are universal to the human experience.
Dawn of the Broken Sword is the first in a 6-book saga, the first three of which have been funded through IndieGoGo. How solidified is your vision for the rest of the series? Will we see any new monsters or cultivation techniques?
The rest of the series is already written. All it needs is enough funding for publication, and the vision will become reality.
There will definitely be more monsters. The phrase ‘loaded for dragon’ in this series is not simply the Chinese equivalent to the term ‘loaded for bear’. There are far more dangerous monsters than the ones seen in the first book. The characters will also have to deal with demons in future books, and those present another layer of challenge.
And, of course, there will be more cultivation techniques too. These are combined with martial arts methods. You won’t see the cultivator sitting down and gazing at his navel for a long time; you’ll see him putting these methods to use in the real world.
What do you hope readers come away with from the Saga of the Swordbreaker and Dawn of the Broken Sword in particular?
Cultivation fiction has immense potential. It can be more than just the quest for power, wealth, pleasure and glory. It can be more than just Hollywood-esque fight scenes, all flash and no substance. It can be more than just Asian aesthetics copied over from chop-socky films and pasted into a setting with neither context nor understanding.
It can be so much more than just red dust.