Yesterday, when the DE queue was cleared and y’all didn’t notice, I started to work on this post that I’ve been planning to make for some time now. In short, for our non-Chinese readers, there are some basic terms about monsters and that we’ve translated in various ways that I thought it would be helpful for you to get a deeper understanding into; I think this will help you appreciate/understand these stories more! There are six terms that we are going to look at; the first four come in a set, and the latter two as well. They are: 妖魔鬼怪 (Yao, Mo, Gui, Guai) – Monsters/Demons, Devils, Ghosts, Freaks, and 神仙 – Gods, Immortals.
妖魔鬼怪 – this is actually a set term in Chinese, and when used by itself, it’s meant to refer to all sorts of monstrosities and supernatural creatures. There’s some overlap amongst the various categories, and when combined with compound words, they can mean other things, but in short, you can view supernatural creatures in China as being divided into four categories.
1 – 妖 – Yao. This is by far the widest category; this is sometimes translated as ‘monster’, such as in Desolate Era, or ‘demon’ such as in ‘Tales of Demons and Gods’ or in ‘I Shall Seal the Heavens’; the mc of the latter, Meng Hao, is a Yao-Sealer. Some old translations of ‘Journey to the West’ translates it as ‘goblins’. This is, for me, actually the hardest term to translate, and if I could start all over again, I’d probably leave it untranslated, because it appears often enough that I think readers would learn to memorize it.
In Chinese stories, especially Daoism-heavy stories, as you may have noticed, there is energy (aka ‘qi’) in all things, including animals, trees, mountains, etc. Sometimes, that energy takes on sentience and self-awareness, bringing great magical power to these creatures, who are often (but not always) evil. The Kyuubi of Naruto is considered a ‘Yao’, based on the so-called ‘Nine-Tailed Fox Yao’ from Chinese myths; the famous 1987 movie ‘A Chinese Ghost Story’ has a ten thousand year old ‘Tree Yao’ as the main antagonist, and all of the various talking/magical animals (mythical or otherwise) in almost all of the stories would be considered ‘Yao’. In stories like Coiling Dragon, the term isn’t explicitly used for the magical beasts, but that’s essentially what they are; ‘Yao’.
Dragons, due to their exalted statuses in Chinese mythology, are sometimes classified as Yao (such as in Stellar Transformations), but are often considered ‘separate’ and a stand-alone race of divine creatures.
2 – 魔 – Mo. This is the closest analogue to demons and devils in Western mythology, and is translated as ‘Fiend’ in Coiling Dragon and in Desolate Era, and as ‘Devil’ in Stellar Transformations. These are creatures and spirits that are of tremendous power and generally are quite violent and bloodthirsty. (Note – 魔 can also simply mean ‘magic’, and when used in that context, such as 魔兽, ‘magic beast’, they somewhat lose the evil connotation). There are definite, evil undertones to a 魔, and evil people will often be described as ‘Mo’. This is the word used in Chinese translations for ‘Satan’ or ‘demons’ of Christian scripture.
3 – 鬼 – Gui. This literally means ‘ghost’, and this is the character used for ‘Pill Demon’ (丹鬼), who could also be called ‘Pill Ghost’. This usually refers to exactly what the word ‘ghost’ refers to in English; supernatural spirits and souls of the deceased. Fun fact – When the Chinese first met Westerners, one common nickname for them was variations on 鬼子, ghost-man, because of how white they were ;). Fun fact 2 – Gui is also used as a perjorative, much like how you would use the word ‘damn’ or ‘freaking’ in English; one might talk about a wicked child’s ‘gui’ ideas, or how terrible this ‘gui’ weather has been, or what the heck this ‘gui’ thing is that you don’t recognize.
4 – 怪 – Guai. This literally means ‘weird’, and as a term, it can stand for any aberrations that don’t classify well into the above categories. There are very few standalone ‘Guai’; it’s usually used as an add-on to one of the above three categories, to add additional emphasis that the monster is bizarre or freakish.
For those who have played Fallout 3, the term ‘yao guai’ comes from the combination of ‘Yao’ and ‘Guai’ (and is a term used in Chinese as well).
5 – 仙 – Xian. This is translated as ‘Immortal’. This is a term that is used almost exclusively in Daoism-based stories, and is the ‘Xian’ in ‘Xianxia’, and in Renegade Immortal, 仙逆 (Xian Ni). This refers specifically to a person who has, through Daoist practices or powers or energy or enlightenment, been transformed into a being of great power and Immortality, who is untouched by time, who can fly about, etc. etc. In Chinese mythology, there are usually two types of ‘Xian’; Earthly Xian and Heavenly Xian. Earthly Xian are those who remain within the world, while Heavenly Xian are those who have surpassed it and transcended it. These are translated as ‘Earth Immortals’ and ‘Celestial Immortals’ in Desolate Era.
The character 仙 itself is composed of two different characters; one for ‘man’ and one for ‘mountain’, a reference to those old ascetics who live and train by themselves in seclusion in the mountains and eventually achieve Xian-dom. This is -strictly- a term used in Daoism; Coiling Dragon, for example, has no ‘Xian’ because there is no Daoism in it, and neither does Against the Gods (so far). Thus, to be strict about it, neither of these two novels are considered ‘Xianxia’; they would be Chinese fantasy novels.
6 – 神 – Shen. This literally means ‘God’, but it is more of a catch-all phrase to describe beings of tremendous power; it’s a much ‘looser’ term than ‘Xian’, and in fact can be combined with it and many others. Coiling Dragon has ‘Shen’, while Desolate Era has Fiendgods (神魔 Shen Mo), and Stellar Transformations has ‘Shen’ in some realms. Because there is not much of a ‘do not take the Lord’s name in vain’ thing in China, ‘Shen’ is often used as an adjective; for example, one might describe a master archer as a ‘Shen Jianshou/Godly Archer’.