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2019-01-11 05:14:39 Commentary

Every human is born with a finite amount of qi, or life force. As we age, this force slowly ebbs, until finally it — and us along with it — flickers out. So it is for everyone — everyone, that is, except for a select group of “outcasts,” whose ability to channel their qi allows them to wield magic-like powers.

Welcome to the world of “Hitori no Shita: Outcast” a wildly popular anime based on the Chinese webcomic of the same name. The show — a Sino-Japanese coproduction whose name literally translates to “Under One Person” — tells the story of Zhang Chulan, an ordinary young man whose equally ordinary college life is suddenly upended by a brief encounter with a mysterious girl.

At first glance, the story of “Outcast” calls to mind any number of shonen manga — a subcategory of Japanese comic books primarily targeted at young, male readers. The plot is not particularly complex: The young protagonist makes friends, explores a fantasy realm filled with magic and mystery, and battles evil. The series stands out, however, for the liberal way it draws from China’s cultural heritage. In particular, “Outcast” blurs many of the artificial lines drawn by prominent 20th century Chinese intellectuals meant to keep what they saw as the noble and worthwhile aspects of this heritage separate from so-called feudal superstitions.

To begin with, “Outcast” is heavily indebted to the Chinese literary canon: both its highbrow classics and its pulpy, martial-arts themed dime novels. The so-called outcasts Zhang meets on his journey belong to sects — each modeled on some part of traditional Chinese culture. The “Quanzhen Sect,” for example, is populated by kung fu masters and warriors capable of wielding mystical powers traditionally associated with Taoism. The cunning “Zhuge” family, meanwhile, is made up of descendants of the legendary Chinese general and statesman Zhuge Liang. Then there’s the “Quanxing Clique,” whose members’ attitudes toward life call to mind the ancient Chinese philosophy of Yangism. Each group preaches a different means of accessing one’s inner qi, and each wields a unique set of powers.

A promotional image for the second season of ‘Hitori no Shita: Outcast.’ From Weibo user @一人之下动画

A promotional image for the second season of ‘Hitori no Shita: Outcast.’ From Weibo user @一人之下动画

But the show also goes beyond the sanctified portions of the Chinese canon to include elements that have long been derided as “superstition.” To get an idea of why this matters, one must first understand that the term “superstition” carries a much more negative connotation in China than it currently does in the West. For the past hundred years, the word has been used in China to consign traditional beliefs and practices to a kind of spiritual scrapheap where few dare tread. While in recent decades, many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, such as qi and Taoism more broadly, have been officially rehabilitated — at least in part — other beliefs, such as those in ghosts and the supernatural, are still tainted by the “superstition” label.

“Outcast” subtly challenges this distinction between “treasured heritage” and “feudal superstition.” In addition to its above-mentioned, more mainstream inspirations, one of the show’s many factions is based on animist traditions found in the country’s frigid northeastern hinterlands. This group’s power is derived from their relationship with spirits known as “celestial beings,” which possess humans deemed worthy and grant them powers. To non-Chinese, shamans may seem to fit seamlessly into the show’s fantastical world building, but Chinese viewers would intuitively grasp the fundamental difference between them and the Quanxing or Quanzhen outcasts: Whereas the latter access their qi through traditional, culturally recognized means, the former carries a whiff of witchcraft.

This may not seem like a big deal in an era when witches and demons are a fixture on Western TV screens, but for much of the 20th century, the Chinese government criticized and occasionally even blocked depictions of superstitions like shamanism, claiming them to be unscientific and inimical to the modern society it was trying to build.

In essence, superstition became a catchall for 'things that should not be believed.'

These negative attitudes toward “superstition” were formed in the fires of the 1919 May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist political and cultural campaign that left an indelible mark on modern Chinese history. The movement’s intellectual leaders branded many long-standing Chinese superstitions irrational, unscientific, anti-Enlightenment, and anti-progress, and claimed they were holding China back. In essence, superstition became a catchall for “things that should not be believed.” 

Things have only just started to change. Select parts of China’s cultural legacy — largely drawn from art, poetry, philosophy, and classic novels — have been uplifted to form the basis of what the country’s culture officials refer to as its “national quintessence.” But many other traditions remain marginalized. Thus, Zhuge Liang’s mystical mastery of the Tao is considered a beautiful expression of Chinese culture and storytelling, even as other ancient but less palatable traditions like shamanism are shunned as mere superstition.

“Outcast” casts doubt onto this divvying up of China’s heritage by posing the question: Is the line between “quintessence” and “superstition” really as clear as it seems?

In lectures, the 19th century American philosopher and psychologist William James was fond of referencing what is known as the “corridor theory” of pragmatism. According to this theory, pragmatism is like an endless corridor with hundreds of doors and chambers on either side. Someone might be conducting a science experiment in one room, while, one door over, another person prays — but no one room is inherently superior to another.

Watching “Outcast,” I couldn’t help but think about how perfectly it aligns with James’ description of pragmatism. The corridor represents the path to controlling one’s qi, and each outcast may choose the room that best houses them. Behind one door lies Zhuge’s strategic mastery, behind another, the nature-derived powers of the shamans. No one room has a monopoly on truth or value, and Zhang is free to come and go as he pleases. The universe, as the pragmatists might say, is open.

A century ago, young Chinese rose up and protested the grip of outdated ideas on the country, calling for an embrace of science and a rejection of feudal traditions. They painted their vision of a new world with the brushstrokes of revolution. The new world should be clean, rational, and enlightened, they declared. In a sense, one could argue that the May Fourth Movement sought to expel spirits from the world. Almost exactly 100 years later, “Outcast” suggests a different approach to the supernatural: coexistence.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

(Header image: A screenshot from the second season of ‘Hitori no Shita: The Outcast.’ From Weibo user @一人之下动画)