Top Recs to Bridge Into Fantasy and Historical Manhua
Taking the plunge from slice-of-life content into the fantasy and historical genres is always challenging. Both are characterized by vocabulary that is vast and specific to those domains, with a lot of antiquated or low-frequency, literary words, complicated grammatical structures, and even words entirely made up by the author. When it comes to manhua, the difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that Chinese lacks a phonetic writing system, and look-ups for unknown words is a tedious process that generally involves either attempting to OCR characters or hand draw them out in a dictionary software system like Pleco. And if you’re needing to look up unknown words every sentence, the experience is even more maddening.
So, I decided to compile a short list of my top manhua recommendations in these two genres that are short and approachable with easier vocabulary, less complicated grammar, and overall great starting points to bridge into the fantasy and historical scene.
Trees Have Branches 《木有枝》
An overworked company employee falls asleep on the metro while reading a webnovel on her way back home after an exhausting day at work, only to awaken in the body of the villainous female side character. Observe how our protagonist crosses into another world and survives hurdles as she attempts to avoid her character’s ugly end.
When making this list, Trees Have Branches was one of the first manhuas that came to mind — it’s fun, it’s short, and it has some of the easiest grammar and vocabulary that I’ve come across for a historical manhua. It’s very efficient in storytelling and free from unnecessary drama, misunderstandings, and fanfare typical of this setup, not to mention the artwork is simply lovely. And even though the manhua itself is targeted at a female audience, that doesn’t prevent it from being a great way for anyone to first dip their toes into the historical genre. It has just the right amount of words, formalities, and different grammatical structures characteristic of other, more advanced titles, yet not in such an amount and degree of complexity that you will feel completely overwhelmed.
Joker Danny 《小丑丹尼》
A sudden plague ravaged the earth, yet strangely a small town seems to have magically escaped from the plague. In this town, there is a boy named Danny, who’s an orphan born with birthmarks in the shape of ‘eyes with tears.’
Joker Danny is another short historical-fantasy manhua, but a must-read regardless of your Chinese level. As winner of the Shueisha Tezuka Award and Golden Dragon Award, it shot the manhua artist duo team Moss and Old Xian to fame and has continued to be listed among the best of Chinese manhua. The fact that it’s a perfect starting point for beginners getting into historical fantasy is only a bonus. Most of the manhua’s vocabulary stays relatively within the realm of slice-of-life language and only slowly progresses into more advanced words and thematic complexity, making it perfect feeding ground for sentence mining.
Records of the Southern Mist House 《南烟斋笔录》
In the mysterious Lu Mansheng’s spice shop occurs many unquestionably fantastical stories of the vicissitudes of life.
Similar to Joker Danny, Records of the Southern Mist House is another great title loved and recommended by natives. It’s structured episodically on the dealings between Lu Mansheng, the owner of a spice shop, and her customers, both living and dead, as each one tells their story and she fulfills their innermost desires and lingering wishes. While the first one or two stories were pretty average, the more I read, the more intriguing each one became, to the point where some of the later ones left me in no small degree of shock. The fact that it’s perfect beginner material is a side effect of its focus on the lives and stories of Lu Mansheng’s customers–the writing almost exclusively stays within the slice of life genre, albeit with some fantasy and supernatural overtones, and rarely troubles itself with complex grammar and archaic language.
Human Carpenter 《人匠》
Ren Jiang, or human carpenters, are able to extract bones, modify tissue, and remodel the body. They can heal illnesses or create chaos. Cheng Shan has this unique ability and leaves home at the age of 16 to venture into the city.
Human Carpenter is a personal favorite of mine and one that I had a hard time putting down while reading. Its gripping storyline contained just the right mix of fantasy and horror with a touch of romance, and the pacing felt neither too fast nor too slow. For a fantasy manhua, the language leans on the easier side, but the difficulty is raised a small notch from the titles listed above due to more domain specific vocabulary and some complex grammar. However, chengyu remains sparse and classical Chinese only briefly pops up for a grand total of two instances, making it a great stepping stone into the big juggernaut titles where both chengyu and classical Chinese thrive in galore.
Demand Killer 《这个杀手不改需求》
The killer Cong Zhong Feng has always despised those who fail to keep their word, especially those first parties who keep changing their requests. When he meets a young painter, Cong Zhong Feng agrees to avenge her for free, but who would have expected that along the way, they would meet “a set of Matryoshka,” which begs the question: who is the ultimate target?
As much as I love wuxia, I will admit wuxia in and of itself is not exactly beginner friendly, and neither is this title, for that matter. However, out of the wuxia manhuas I have read, I found Demand Killer to be quite approachable primarily for two reasons: 1) it’s short and 2) it’s pretty straightforward plotwise — Cong Zhong Feng meets a young painter, signs an assassination contract, and then keeps running into a little problem, namely tracking down the target. It’s a really solid manhua with a good story, intriguing characters, and even better artwork with its neo-noir inspiration. So if you’re anything like me who was itching to get into wuxia and don’t mind challenging yourself with harder material, Demand Killer is a good place to start.