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Interview with Kyle Fiske, author of ‘Dragons and Boxers’

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Kyle Fiske grew up on a farm near the Canadian border in rural northern New York State.

He studied history and English at St. Lawrence University and the University of Copenhagen, as well as museum studies at Tufts University. Kyle was a competitive fencer for several years and has been a practitioner of Chinese martial arts for more than two decades, with a special focus on swordsmanship. He is the author of the short story collection Even Closer Than the Sea, and he’s also a long-time guitar player and songwriter. Kyle now makes his home on scenic Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

BUY Dragons and Boxers: An American caught in the martial arts whirlwind of the Boxer Rebellion

How long did it take you to make this volume? How did you proceed to find information? Where did you start from?

It took me just under two years to write and revise the story to a point where I was ready to submit it to publishers. After I signed the publishing deal with Earnshaw Books, it was probably another nine or ten months of working with the publisher to edit and rewrite some scenes before it was finished.

This was my first historical novel, and when I started writing it, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. I was pretty comfortable with the structure of a novel, with dialogue, with martial arts scenes, and with character development, but I greatly underestimated how much research would be involved to reach even a baseline of historical authenticity. And I was not just writing of a time period that was far removed from the present, I was also writing about a culture that I had very limited first-hand experience with. It was a challenge. When writing a simple dinner scene in China in 1900, so many questions arise. What foods were common in that province, and at that time of year? What could a family of average means afford? How were the dishes prepared? Where did they get their water? What fuel was used to cook with? What was the etiquette of eating a meal? It’s a lot to consider. My primary source material was the published journal of Eva Jane Price, an American missionary in China with her family during this time period. I also read several major nonfiction accounts of the Boxer Rebellion to better understand the broader political, social, and cultural aspects of the conflict. I certainly also went online to search out a myriad of sources for historical details.

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Who is Wayland Cooper? Why is he in China?

Wayland cooper is 19 years old. He’s the son of American missionaries, and he spent his early childhood near Boston, Massachusetts. The story of Dragons and Boxers begins in the year 1899, and at that point Wayland has been in China with his family for five years. He’s learned the language and he’s reasonably happy in China, but he’s a bit unsettled. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story, as Wayland is at a transitional time in his life, trying to map out his future. Before he can come to any decisions, however, he’s swept up by wider historical events, and his path takes a tragic turn that he never could have imagined. He’s caught between the West and China, and while he as a deep affinity for both, he’s not completely at home in either.

Why did you choose this particular historical period?

I find the Boxer Rebellion setting to be incredibly fascinating from an historical perspective, as there was just so much going on. It was the tail-end of the centuries old Qing dynasty in China, with its ancient traditions and power being challenged and supplanted by the forces of Western modernity. But it was also the twilight of Old Europe and its imperialistic expansion. While the Western colonial powers held sway over China at this time, in all their hubris, they themselves were only fifteen years or so away from the horrors of the First World War and the complete dissolution of the old order of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian empire would fall, Germany would be defeated and humiliated, Tsarist Russia would fall to the Bolsheviks, and France, England, Italy and others would lose a generation of young men and see their empires fade. And this would all set the stage for the Second World War.

The Boxer Rebellion was the cultural conflict of East meeting West, and of Christianity meeting the Chinese traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. It was also a political, economic, and military conflict between China and all the major world powers, and for all sides there was the overarching issue of the old religious traditions giving way to secular, materialistic modernity. Many of these issues still resonate today.

What was the cultural atmosphere of the foreign community where Wayland arrived?

 

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For that part of the story I drew heavily on the actual journals of Western missionaries in China at the time. It’s been said that all eras overemphasize some virtues and under-emphasize others, and I think that’s true in this case. In the hyper-secular age that we in the West now inhabit, it’s often difficult for us to appreciate the religious motivations and courage of the missionaries of that era. While today we might place a higher value on mutual respect and cultural appreciation, the missionaries of that time cared more about truth. Quite simply, they believed that Christianity was uniquely true, and the most generous and selfless act possible for them was to give up their own earthly comforts for the sake of sharing this truth with the Chinese people–to save their souls.

A number of the missionary families in Shanxi province at that time (and particularly the family I based my story on) were quite isolated from other Westerners. They would occasionally visit or receive visits from other missionaries or Westerners for holidays or special events, but most of the time they were on their own in Chinese cities. When it came to food, clothing, furniture, art, leisure, and other things, it seems they adopted a mix of their own cultural traditions and elements of Chinese culture that they found more appealing or more readily available.

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How do the protagonists react to the changes and revolts taking place in China?

For the missionaries in China in 1900, particularly in the smaller cities and countryside, news traveled slowly and intermittently. In a nation as big and complex as China, there were always threats of uprisings, war, unrest, and government reactions, and it was often very difficult for the missionaries to distinguish between rumor and fact.

While they certainly had all the normal human fears, worries, and anxieties, I think the religious faith of the missionaries gave them a strength and resignation to better cope with the volatile situation. They knew that their vocation came with inherent dangers and uncertain outcomes, and they were probably as prepared as could be expected for the circumstances they faced.

How were foreigners perceived by the local population? And from the elites?

There were many different perceptions of the foreigners from the local population. I think they were primarily seen as a curiosity or oddity, as they were ethnically and culturally so different from the Chinese. And I’m not sure too many average Chinese people really saw the logic as to just why a foreigner would travel to the other side of the world to preach his religion. And in the big picture, the missionaries in China at this time were largely unsuccessful in converting large numbers of Chinese to Christianity.

On an individual level, the missionaries were mostly seen as trustworthy in regards to business dealings, and as many of the missionaries also ran clinics, their medical treatments and drugs were popular and respected for their efficacy. The schools that the missionaries ran had some degree of appeal among certain elements of Chinese society.

More broadly, though, the missionaries were inextricably linked to the political, economic, and military forces of the Western powers. The Western countries put heavy pressure on the Qing court and government officials to act favorably towards the missionaries, sometimes at the expense of local Chinese groups and individuals, and this caused resentment. The Qing government was walking a tightrope–if they were too conciliatory with the Western nations, they might face open rebellion from their own people, and if they came down too hard on the foreigners, they might face a war with the Western countries which they had little chance of winning.

As one might expect, with social and military unrest rising throughout the country, and with a terrible drought in Northern China in 1900, legitimate grievances mixed with wild rumors and xenophobia, and foreigners came to be viewed with increasing hostility and distrust. Terrible violence ensued.

How did you approach the martial arts aspect of the story?

I’ve been a big fan of martial arts films (especially those made by Shaw Brothers studios) since I was a teenager, and I’ve studied Chinese martial arts as a hobby for more than twenty years. I really love a lot of the tropes and standard plot devices of those movies, and I incorporated a number of those into my story. But while I enjoy some of the more exaggerated elements of many of those films, I was more drawn to the real history and details of Chinese martial arts that they showcased, and that’s what I really tried to focus on in my story.

The term “kung fu” is often translated as “skill acquired through time and effort.” The protagonist in my story, Wayland Cooper, has trained in kung fu for less time than any of the other main characters, so I made it a point that he is always the least skilled martial artist throughout the whole arc of the story (although he does progress as he goes along.)

I tried to incorporate some of the lessons I’ve learned in my own training, both in regards to the detailed physical techniques as well as the larger philosophical concepts. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned from my teachers originally came from the Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing, which formed in the 1920s and was a high-water mark of Chinese martial arts, I would say. There were a lot of incredibly talented and accomplished masters of martial arts involved in that project. I think it’s important to honor the efforts and accomplishments of past generations, and I hope I made some small contribution to that with my story.

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What is your next project?

I feel so close to the characters I created for Dragons and Boxers, and the setting is just so rich, I think there’s an almost unlimited number of stories to be told in this world. In Dragons and Boxers I was able to explore and opine upon a number of subjects that interest me, from historical perspectives and political and social issues, to deeper religious, moral, and philosophical themes, to cross-cultural interaction and human relationships, and down to the intricacies of martial arts. And I presented them within a somewhat cinematic and orthodox dramatic framework. I suppose it’s a slightly odd mix, but it’s a lot of fun and very satisfying for me, just stuff I really enjoy.

I’m working on a direct sequel to this novel, and I certainly have more tales to tell after that. I recently came upon an article about Sun Yat-Sen having visited Boston’s Chinatown in 1910 to set up a secret society to support the Chinese revolution, and that struck me as a potentially intriguing setting for my characters. Short stories were always my first love, and I think I’ll also have a few of those involving the Dragons and Boxers characters in the future. Overall, I hope my stories might have some positive impact on readers and give them a window into a rich world that’s ripe for discovery.

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