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Xiran Jay Zhao on Bestselling Book: “I Wrote It for the Chinese Diaspora”

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This one’s for those who spend their lunch breaks with Xiran Jay Zhao, although not in the literal sense.

Serving exquisite hanfu looks and snippets about Chinese history and culture on YouTube, Zhao (who uses the pronouns they/them/their) joined the video-streaming platform on September 11, 2020, and has amassed a 437,000-strong following.

Avid fans need no telling that the charismatic YouTuber and influencer is also a successful author. Published last year, Zhao’s first novel Iron Widow — which provides a fresh take on China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian — debuted as a New York Times bestseller.

Following in the footsteps of the first book’s success is Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, which hit physical and digital bookshelves on May 10.

In Zhao’s latest book, titular character and 12-year-old Zachary Ying journeys across China while stealing magical artifacts and meeting famous figures from Chinese history. Keep an eye out for China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (or more like his ghost), who plays a pivotal part in the story.

Zhao, a devout fan of anime, derived inspiration from popular Japanese series Yu-Gi-Oh as well as American fantasy pentalogy Percy Jackson & the Olympians. In an email correspondence with RADII, Zhao said:

“Although magic and technology are often kept separate in their cozy niches, I really love it when fantasy and sci-fi collide.”

What sets Zachary Ying apart from its contemporaries is the inclusion of Chinese elements. It is the author’s hope that their novel will resonate with the Chinese diaspora.

At the start of the book, protagonist Ying has little knowledge about Chinese culture, seeing his mother is always too busy making ends meet. However, he is given a chance to explore China and Chinese culture after being summoned by a spirit.

His mission involves sealing the portal to the Chinese underworld, which has been compromised, and saving his mother. The bildungsroman ends with Ying discovering his roots.

xiran zhao zachary ying new book

Book cover for Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

As a first-generation Hui Chinese immigrant who moved from a small town in China to Vancouver, Canada, during their teenage years, Zhao previously struggled with their cultural identity and hopes that their book helps Chinese adolescent immigrants learn self-acceptance.

“First and foremost, I wrote it for the Chinese diaspora: Kids who feel caught between East and West.”

“But I hope this story reaches any kids who feel like they don’t fit into a neat box in society,” added Zhao.

A similar train of thought pervades recent films such as The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang and starring Awkwafina, Feng-I Fiona Roan’s American Girl, and Pixar hit Turning Red, directed by Chinese-born Canadian artist Domee Shi.

According to Zhao, Zachary Ying is more autobiographical than Iron Widow: “I got to show the fun side of my personality [with Zachary Ying].”

‘Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor’ is available for purchase on major ecommerce outlets. However, Zhao suggests supporting your local bookstores.

All images courtesy of Xiran Jay Zhao

Beatrice Tamagno
Beatrice is a graduate student in sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai. Her writings have appeared on SupChina and ChinaNauts, an online magazine she co-founded with fellow researchers from Fudan. When she is not researching gender in contemporary China, you will find her playing mahjong or binging Chinese TV shows.

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