Skip to content

Cultural Appropriation and the Children of ‘Shōgun’

The panic over cultural appropriation seeks to stigmatise many wonderful works of popular fiction.

· 10 min read
Cultural Appropriation and the Children of ‘Shōgun’
James Clavell

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the completion of James Clavell’s epic Asian Saga—six novels, totaling 6,240 pages in paperback, published between 1962 and 1993. The high point of the saga was the publication in 1975 of Shōgun. Set in the year 1600, it chronicles the exploits—nautical, martial, political, and erotic—of John Blackthorne, a British seaman who finds himself shipwrecked in feudal Japan along with a few other survivors of the Erasmus, a Dutch pirate ship he helped pilot. By order of publication, Shōgun is the third book of the series, but by internal chronology it is the first. It is also, far and away, the most commercially successful book in the series. By 1980, it had sold more than six million copies and become the source of one of the most successful TV miniseries in history. It was preceded by King Rat (1962) and Tai-Pan (1966). It was followed by Noble House (1981), Whirlwind (1986) and GaiJin (1993).

Grady Hendrix’s 2017 book Paperbacks From Hell admirably chronicles the way that a single novel—Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1967—created a boom in cheap paperback horror novels that flourished throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Shōgun was the Rosemary’s Baby of a somewhat similar publishing phenomenon. It triggered a boom in massive historical adventure novels set in Asia but generally featuring English-speaking protagonists, usually either Americans or Britons. I’ve long been a big fan of these books, which, for lack of a better term, I refer to collectively as ‘The Children of Shōgun.’

Alas, Shōgun didn’t produce nearly as many bastard offspring as Rosemary’s Baby did. It was fairly easy for any professional writer with imagination and a passion for horror stories to turn out a handful of 300-page supernatural thrillers over the course of a couple of decades. Producing a 900-page Shōgun-like epic is another matter entirely. The Children of Shōgun were written mostly by men and women with years of personal experience in Asia. They tended to be journalists or academics with a profound interest in the history and culture of the East. If you were a horror fan in the 1970s and ’80s (and I was), it was easy to find titles to feed your hunger for demonic children, seductive witches, and haunted houses. If you craved massive historical epics featuring singsong girls, opium pipes, rickshaws, treaty ports, forbidden cities, warlords, seppuku, pillow dictionaries, foot binding, and godowns filled with tea or silk or jade, feeding your hunger took a bit more initiative.

Nevertheless, quite a few such books got published between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, and I’ve read dozens of them. The phenomenon seems to have faded over the past 20 years, giving way to other literary booms: vampire novels, fantasy epics, young-adult dystopian series. It is unlikely the boom will ever be revived. In a critical review of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth posted on Goodreads, author Celeste Ng probably spoke for many of today’s progressive readers when she complained about “the weirdness that arises from a Westerner writing about a colonized country.” Apparently it’s all right when an Asian author like Haruki Murakami (whose work I love) writes novels inspired by the likes of Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, and Franz Kafka. But Westerners who write about the adventures of English-speaking protagonists in Asia are likely to be shouted down with accusations of cultural appropriation.

The heyday of the West-meets-East historical saga isn’t likely to return anytime soon, but while it lasted it produced some amazing pieces of fiction, at least a dozen of which surpassed Clavell’s masterpiece. What follow’s is a list of my favorites, many of which are out of print and available only online or upon the dusty shelves of those used-bookstores that still stock decades-old mass-market paperbacks.

If Robert Duncan is remembered at all these days it’s probably for having co-written (with his wife Wanda) scripts for some of the worst TV shows of the 1960s, including Land of the GiantsTime Tunnel, and The Immortal. He also cranked out about a dozen novels, many of which were derivative of much better-known works. China Dawn (1988), almost alone among his books, seems to have sprung from a well of deep, personal experience. Duncan was with the American Occupying Force that was stationed in Japan after World War II. In a foreword, he mentions this experience and says that he spent forty years writing China Dawn. It shows. The book is full of believable characters and well-drawn recreations of historical events. It must be conceded that the novel is marred by a framing story that takes place in the world of Parisian high fashion circa 1981 and that feels as though it was cribbed from a Judith Krantz novel. But the parts of the story that occur between 1931 and 1945 are riveting. Even though the action takes place mainly in China, the main characters are American and Japanese. Though not the best of Shōgun’s children, it contains the most horrifying depiction of the Rape of Nanking you are ever likely to find in a popular novel.

Tanamera (1981), by Noel Barber, has as much in common with Gone With the Wind as it does with Shōgun. The title refers to the name of a grand family estate, and if you remove the word ‘name’ from the title, you are left with ‘Tara,’ Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation in Margaret Mitchel’s earlier novel. Set almost entirely in Singapore and Malaysia, Barber’s novel is a towering tale of love and war. The love, as is usually the case in this genre, is interracial. Julie Soong is an admirably courageous, smart, and fairly liberated Chinese woman, although she can sometimes come across as too good to be true. Johnny Dexter, her soul mate, is the heir to a great British trading company located on Singapore. The fathers of Julie and Johnny are friendly business associates but both of them are dead set against any sort of romantic alliance between their offspring. The book does a fine job of delineating the racism of the British occupants of Singapore. Even the wealthy and educated Asians of Singapore are not allowed to play tennis at the British athletic clubs or join British social clubs or dine at British restaurants. To get anything done, Asian businessmen are pretty much forced to partner with a Brit. Punctuated by harrowing action sequences and torrid sex scenes, Tanamera is both deliciously pulpy and rich in historical detail.

Shanghai (1985) by Christopher New is among the best written and most intelligent of the Children of Shōgun. The author was educated at Oxford and Princeton and was a long-time professor of philosophy at Hong Kong University. His familiarity with the culture and people of China informs every page of this long novel, which charts the fortunes of James Denton, a Brit who arrives in Shanghai in 1903 to take a job as a customs inspector. Eventually he becomes an important member of the British business community in China, as well as a leading member of the local governing body in Shanghai. Like nearly every protagonist in novels of this genre, he finds himself embroiled in a decades-long love affair with an Asian native. Reading this novel (which stands alone but is also the first in a loosely connected three-book series) is almost certainly the most entertaining way possible to learn about the rise and fall of the British concession in Shanghai.

Pat Barr’s 1982 novel Jade (I prefer the British title of this novel: Chinese Alice) follows the exploits of Alice Greenwood, who is born in China in 1858 to British missionary parents. It focuses on her rise from childhood rape victim/concubine to proto-feminist firebrand who fights against the practice of foot binding and translates the liberal writings of John Stuart Mill into Chinese. The book has at least as much action, sex, and adventure as Shōgun but, probably because it was written by a woman, the publisher seems to have marketed it as a romance novel rather than a gripping historical novel, thus stranding it between two cultures in much the same way that Alice herself is stranded. The politically correct will be offended by the fact that Alice gradually develops something like love for a man who raped her as a child.

Zemindar (1981) by Valerie Fitzgerald has suffered the same fate as Pat Barr’s Jade. It has always been marketed as a romance novel. It does indeed satisfy many of the conventions of that genre but it is every bit as rigorous in its historical detail as Shōgun. The author was born and raised in British India. Her grandmother lived through the Sepoy uprising and passed along tales of those times to her granddaughter. Fitzgerald lived a long time but never produced another novel.

Omamori (1987) by Richard McGill, is my favorite illegitimate child of Shōgun. Like Fitzgerald, McGill appears to have been a one-book wonder. His author’s bio says very little about him other than that he lives in California and spent seven years researching the novel. The research paid off. The book covers numerous well-known historical events—Kristallnacht, the Rape of Nanking, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki—without ever losing its focus on the small, ordinary lives that were most affected by those catastrophes. And it features not one, but two incredibly moving interracial romances.

Other notable entries in this sub-genre include War Lord (1983) by Malcolm Bosse, which follows—among other things—the fortunes of a young American missionary who is captured by bandits upon his arrival in China; Dynasty (1977) by Robert Elegant, an adventurous tale that follows the fortunes of a Eurasian family in China during the 19th and 20th centuries; and Saigon (1982) by Anthony Grey. Saigon is the angriest child of Shōgun. Nearly every page of Grey’s epic burns with the author’s fury over what was done to the Vietnamese by the French, the U.S., and even the British. Sometimes anger can be the enemy of art, but it works well here.

One thing that stands out about these authors is that many of them led lives nearly as adventurous as their protagonists. Anthony Grey spent 27 months in a Chinese prison. During his long career in journalism, Noel Barber was stabbed five times and shot in the head once. James Clavell was a prisoner of war during WWII. Robert Elegant covered both the Korean and Vietnam wars as a journalist and Richard Nixon once called him “my favorite China expert.” If books in this genre seem somewhat more convincing than horror novels of the same era, perhaps it’s because no horror novelists of the era were ever actually possessed by Satan, bitten by vampires, or capable of starting fires with their minds. But, while horror novels are still being churned out in large numbers, almost no one is writing Shōgun-like sagas any longer. Soon the genre may cease to exist entirely. If you don’t believe me, consider the decline of the American Indian novel written by white authors.

During much of the 20th century, white American authors produced some excellent novels featuring Native American characters. The list includes masterpieces such as Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Laughing Boy (1929) and Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). Other prominent titles in the genre include Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man (subsequently adapted into a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway directed by Arthur Penn), Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967), and Douglas C. Jones’s A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978).

But the production of such novels has dwindled markedly over the last 40 years or so. This probably has something to do with what happened to Ruth Beebe Hill after the publication of her 1978 novel Hanta Yo. The early reviews of the book were positive. A reviewer for the Harvard Crimson called Hanta Yo “the best researched novel yet written about an American Indian tribe.” Native American author N. Scott Momaday, author of House Made of Dawn, admired the book. David Wolper, the producer of the landmark TV miniseries Roots purchased the film rights to Hanta Yo and planned to give it the same treatment as Roots. Alas, before Wolper could put his plan into action, the book began drawing criticism from Native American groups contending that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Sioux. A 1980 article in People magazine summarized the controversy like this:

A $2 million class-action suit, filed on behalf of the Sioux people, claims that Hill’s sweeping novel set at the turn of the eighteenth century is demeaning to the Plains Indians. The litigation seeks further to block production of any TV show based on Hanta Yo. Sioux activists have also tried to force the work out of bookstores and libraries and have picketed the author on the lecture circuit, waving signs like HILL HAS A TONTO COMPLEX.

Hill strongly defended her book against the attacks. The article in People points out that she spent nearly 30 years researching the novel and consulted more 700 Indians during that period. Nonetheless, the damage was done. The TV miniseries was never made and the book soon drifted out of print. Although Hill lived to be 102, she would never write another novel. No other white novelist has published a novel about American Indian life anywhere near as ambitious as Hanta Yo in the years since. No doubt the fear of being publicly shamed for ‘cultural appropriation’ has had something to do with it.

More recently, author Laura Moriarty triggered a firestorm when she included an American Muslim character in her young-adult novel American Heart (2018). Because the book’s main character was a white girl, Moriarty was accused of exploiting a ‘white savior’ narrative. According to Ruth Graham of Slate magazine, even before the book was published, it had…

…already attracted the ire of the fierce group of online YA readers that journalist Kat Rosenfield has referred to as ‘culture cops.’ To them, it was an irredeemable problem that Moriarty’s novel, which was inspired in part by Huckleberry Finn, centers on a white teenager who gradually—too gradually—comes to terms with the racism around her. On Goodreads, the book’s top ‘community review,’ posted in September, begins, “fuck your white savior narratives”; other early commenters on Goodreads accused Moriarty of “profiting off people’s pain” and said “a white writer should not have tackled this story, and neither should a white character be the center of it.”

The outcry surrounding Moriarty’s book was so intense that Kirkus took the unprecedented step of removing a positive review of American Heart from its website, even though the review had been written by a Muslim woman who is an authority on young-adult literature.

In the midst of such a cultural moment, few white writers are likely to undertake the tremendous amount of research required to produce a book like Shōgun or Shanghai or Jade knowing that a hostile reception will almost certainly be awaiting them and their novel when (and if) it finally sees the light of day. If you haven’t yet experienced the joys of exploring ‘The Children of Shogun,’ a great literary pleasure still awaits you. But read slowly and linger over each book. No more than a few dozen excellent examples were ever published. And no new titles are likely to appear in the foreseeable future, if Celeste Ng and her ilk have their way.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette