I do not mean for this piece to be unduly patronizing and/or condescending, but the recurring under-appreciation of The Ravages of Time among Anglophone readers of manga/manhwa/manhua makes me wonder: could it be that the series needs to ‘play dumb’ in order to gain more readers and followers?
Let me clarify a bit. I have already disavowed from a blind, uncritical praise of the virtues and merits of Ravages, and thus my semi-rhetorical ‘clickbait’ question in no way entails in the strict sense – though the insinuation remains dormant – that only prodigies and geniuses can appreciate and enjoy Ravages (I mean, it is after all published in a popular magazine whose demographic classification ‘resembles’ shonen). Moreover, I don’t think that the Chinese audience is generally smarter than netizens elsewhere. A further qualification would be that, insofar as it is a pop-culture (fetish) commodity devised to generate profit, Ravages isn’t exactly an exhaustive and rigorous dissertation on the topics that it handles. What then am I hinting at with that phrase ‘playing dumb’?
Now surprisingly enough (not really for me, since I planned the theme of this post in advance), the picture above, taken from a late chapter in Ravages, can provide some clues. There is first the suggestion that in times of conflict, having privileged access to enough vital information and connections can guarantee safety to the extent that one becomes indispensable (albeit untrustworthy) to those that one deals with. There is also the pragmatic advice of preferring improvable and wide-ranging findings to absolute but narrowly-defined results as far as intelligence-gathering is concerned. Lastly, there is the consideration of having to appear predictable so as to lull others into complacency. Of course to an extent Ravages as a whole has already followed these tips in that the series (1) does not reveal everything at the get go (thus generating demand for more chapters), (2) shifts perspectives and rotates focal characters from time to time (thus providing different entry-points for readers of various persuasions,) (3) does not feature absolutely flawless plans from one super-dominant person or faction (thus allowing for the story to unfold and the conflicts to go on), (4) has established an overall pattern of sorts in that the outcomes of big events broadly conform to historical records but with several twists in the details (thus giving a horizon of expectations and surprises to readers), and (5) has even tried in the past to suck people in with a more action-packed (though still intelligent) set of preliminary volumes before paving the way for the more cerebral (though still gimmicky) style once it gained a significant amount of dedicated followers.
And yet for all that Ravages is still not so popular among ‘Western’ audiences, or non-Chinese media consumers in general (heck, it is even arguable that Ravages has only won over a small – and not even exceptionally loud – segment of the virtual Sinosphere). I hasten to add that perhaps reaching out to an international audience is not even a priority for the publisher and the composer, and that those outliers (such as myself) who have been drawn into the allure of Ravages simply are not persuasive and ‘dumb’ enough to get more people on board. Plus there’s also the fact that Ravages concerns itself with a period that may be a longstanding favorite for those in ‘East Asia’ but whose appeal may not be as strong for other regions. But still, these alone do not suffice to explain the reluctance of many to try this masterful series out. This is where I bring up the issue of ‘playing dumb’ once again: briefly put, the commitment of Ravages to complexity and reinterpretation (plus the praises and criticisms coming from readers affected by the aforementioned commitment of the series) makes the series appear more ‘sophisticated’ (if not outright ‘pretentious’), which in turn makes many prospective readers wary (if not overwhelmed) rather than complacent; the source language, the sheer number of chapters, and the inconsistent quality of the scans serve to amplify the discouragement.
An interesting tension thus emerges between depictions of performances on the one hand, and performances of depictions on the other. The Ravages of Time does really well in showing and/or alluding to the ambiguous and multifaceted character of a conflict-ravaged, intrigue-filled era. However, if one construes the various strategy-themed media and texts as participants involved in a struggle for recognition (as well as sales), then it would seem that although Ravages is capable of staying on (at least in its Chinese-speaking home base), it is not as dominant as other, ‘simpler’ series such as Hara Yasuhisa’s Kingdom. To put it more starkly, the effectiveness of Ravages at conveying the fog and layers of war renders it ineffective as a rallying point and morale-booster for reading about war.
In what ways, then, can we say that Ravages has failed to ‘play dumb’? Well, for one thing (1) there’s the circumstantial, contextual, historically contingent detail that whereas many Anglophone readers are more or less used to Japanese 漫畫 (‘manga’), Ravages is a Chinese 漫畫 (‘manhua’). Ravages also (2) keeps on piling up direct and indirect references to old Chinese texts ranging from pre-Han classics to – in an anachronistically playful mode – post-Han literature, thus generating additional ‘insider’ layers of cleverness. Although Ravages follows some sort of ‘formula’ with regard to historiographical sub/perversion and does not introduce ‘extremely otherworldly’ elements into the narrative, (3) the extent of the twists and turns can still prove to be unsettling, especially if one does not pay enough attention to the details stretched across several chapters. Furthermore, (4) the overall ‘seriousness’ conveyed by the characters even in their lighter moments does not exactly help generate an easygoing atmosphere that could encourage readers to continue. In addition, (5) Ravages sparingly employs ‘cheap’ gimmicks designed to entice and incite such as exaggerated gore, extended fight sequences, titillating female ‘fanservice’, etc. Lastly, (6) there is simply a staggering amount of pop-cultural commodities available for consumption that Ravages would have a hard time establishing itself as an indispensable ‘canonical’ resource relative to some significant bundle of product categories.
At the end of the day, this I can say: Ravages is a bit erudite but not quite arcane; so, it is still quite readable and yet demands re-visitation.
Shall we supporters be the ones to ‘play dumb’ in our recommendations instead, if only to dupe people into following Ravages?