Friday, 23 June 2017

The Language of the Fans: Ruby Fan Murder Harlots revisited

Zayasaikhan Sambuu (better known as Zaya), Mongolian artist, born in 1975

The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, oh my chevalier!

- Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'The Windhover'

'If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.' - Isadora Duncan.

On the face of it, it seems bizarre that a bunch of dancers with complicated fans should have risen to become major players in the criminal ecology of the Wicked City. Anyone with a gun or a dagger or a rope can be a murderer, and anyone with a body can be a prostitute, yet to become a Ruby Fan Murder Harlot requires exceptional natural athleticism and years of ruthlessly demanding training in a balletic art form that almost no-one even understands how to interpret any more, all so that they can graduate to a life of running brothels or cutting people up with bladed fans. It all seems so excessive. Wouldn't it be simpler just to recruit a bunch of ruthless kids with knives and forget about all the fancy dancing?

Such questions, while understandable, get the situation entirely backwards. Hard though it may be for their victims to believe, the arts of the Murder Harlots are not cultivated to assist them in the execution of their crimes. Instead, their criminal endeavours exist primarily so that they can safeguard the continuation of their art.

This is their secret: that for all their nihilistic bravado, the Murder Harlots really care about the art form of which they are the Wicked City's last remaining practitioners. No-one who wasn't genuinely in love with the expressive possibilities of dance and motion would ever put up with their gruelling training regimen, or the years of practise needed to mould a human body into something that makes the most extraordinary acrobatic feats look effortless, leaping and spinning through the air as though gravity was merely a suggestion. In their own slightly crazy way, the Murder Harlots are actually much more purely committed to their art than the Jewelled Fan Dancers from which they inherited their traditions. For the Jewelled Fan Dancers, their dances were valuable because they were understood to embody and communicate all kinds of high-minded philosophical and spiritual ideals about Order and Balance and Harmony and Self-Control. For the Murder Harlots, the dance is just the dance. It doesn't mean anything, or at least not anything so paltry that it can be put into words. It means itself. The clean and perfectly-executed snap of the body through space contains its own meanings and its own rewards. 

It says a very great deal about the cultural state of the Wicked City that the only way the Ruby Fan dancers have been able to survive as an institution is by reinventing themselves as high-class courtesans and contract killers; but then again, if their art didn't have the side-effect of making them potentially appealing as sexual partners and hired assassins, it probably wouldn't have survived at all, or at least not in anything resembling its original sophistication. The other fine arts within the city are in a sad condition: poetry has been censored into oblivion for all purposes other than propaganda, architecture is now used chiefly to create ever-more vulgar and ostentatious monuments for the rich and powerful, and aside from the bawdy folk-songs of the very poor, music is now chiefly heard accompanying the liturgy of the city's corrupt and oppressive state religion. Under such conditions, genuine creativity finds few outlets. On balance, the Ruby Fan gang have probably done better than most.

They perform for themselves, mostly. They'll take paid engagements if the price is right, but among the city's elite, the knowledge to truly appreciate their artistry was lost when the Wicked King purged the old aristocracy; when they're hired now, it's usually by some lecherous bureaucrat who wants them to 'send a bunch of good-looking boys to do one of those twirly dances', or something similarly crass. Or they will put on public shows for paying audiences, trading on some combination of the athleticisim, obscenity, and black humour for which they are famous; morbid pornographic farces which also happen to involve an awful lot of backflips. The audience usually thinks that the most important scene is the one where the main performer jumps up and down a lot and then pretends to have sex with a camel. Only the dancers are likely to recognise that the real heart of the show, the point of it, comes in some seemingly incidental fan-fluttering passage whose sheer virtuousic complexity will not even be noticed, let alone understood, by anyone other than themselves.

It takes seven years to master the Language of the Fans; a language which, they say, contains more subtlety of nuance and vigour of expression than any spoken tongue. You think they do that just so they can pass each other secret messages in crowded rooms?

Gackt-Shellfish Barrel Pattern Tomosode (formal kimono)

Among some of the Ruby Fan Murder Harlots, the nihilistic amorality for which the gang is famous verges on antinomian mysticism. Words are lies; categories are traps; moral judgements are laughable oversimplifications which should be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. The divisions between good and evil, sacred and profane, are meaningless: there is only action, and every action is purely and radiantly itself, and the only true meaning is that which inheres in the action perfectly executed, the curve of the arm through its arc, the smooth slice of hand or fan or blade through air or flesh. They wouldn't use those words, though. They'd say: 'The world's fucked, and you might as well laugh at it. But that's no excuse for not appreciating really good footwork.'

It would be easy, and dangerous, to romanticise the Murder Harlots. To focus on their outlaw glamour, and forget their causal cruelty: the weeping boys and girls exploited by their brothels, the innocent victims hacked down by their hired assassins, the unfortunate visitors to the city dragged off by the Secret Police after being tricked into making seditious statements for their amusement, the passers-by subjected to random bladed-fan-based mutilation just because a nearby Murder Harlot happened to be bored that afternoon. Many of them are very deeply damaged people, not least because of the gang's frankly abusive training methods; and their collective culture tolerates and encourages the expression of this damage in highly destructive ways, ensuring that they retain their reputation as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. They just also happen to encourage its expression through some rather wonderful fan-dancing. 

PCs whose first contact with the Murder Harlots comes through encounters with their victims are likely to write them off as depraved and irredeemable. A lot of them probably are. But any perceptive PC who gets a chance to witness one of their private performances, full of expressive motion and yearning gestures and eloquent, fluttering fans 'speaking' faster than the untrained eye can follow, may glimpse another part of the truth: that their violence and callousness exists mostly as a protective carapace, and that for at least some of them the things they dance aren't just the things they can't express in words, but the things that they don't dare to, even to each other. Even to themselves.

Help me.

Love me.

Fix me.

Forgive me.

So the question it comes down to is this: how well can you interpret the Language of the Fans?

Jeff Sun, Shen Yun lead dancer and silver medalist of this year's adult male division, portraying the loyal general from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


  1. This is a good post to sell the setting with, I think.

    1. I guess it does hit most of ATWC's major themes...