The Shu Han in 'Shadow and Bone,' Explained

Here's why Alina being half-Shu is so important.

While fantasy shows are great for providing an escape into intricate worlds, it can take a while to get used to the new vocabulary. Netflix's new fantasy hit, Shadow and Bone, takes place in the fictional country of Ravka, which is at war both with its neighbors and a monster-infested region of darkness that splits the country in two called the Shadow Fold. The show follows Alina Starkov, a cartographer who discovers she has a rare sun-summoning power that can destroy the Fold.

Shadow and Bone is based off the first book in author Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse, and takes inspiration from the rest of the series. That means the show has eight episodes to familiarize the audience with at least nine books' worth of world-building. One important detail that the show introduces at the start of the series is that its heroine Alina is half-Shu, and has facial features common in neighboring country of Shu Han. Alina's race is a large part of her character, as it influences how people treat her throughout the show (a parallel to real life). For anyone who remains confused about the Shu, here's what we know about the fictional country and Alina's heritage.

Shu Han, the country south of Ravka, is influenced by China and Mongolia.

The Grishaverse is a world populated with six countries: Ravka, Shu Han, Fjerda, Kerch, Novyi Zem and the Wandering Isle. The first season of Shadow and Bone takes place in three of these countries: Ravka, Kerch (specifically its main city Ketterdam), and Fjerda (when soldiers fight enemies, they're usually Fjerdan soldiers). Each of the countries are influenced by historical cultures; Ravka was inspired by Imperial Russia. Bardugo explained in a 2013 Tumblr post that Fjerda is inspired by Scandinavia and Kerch is influenced by the Netherlands and Germany. Shu Han, Ravka's neighbor to the south, is influenced by Ancient China and Mongolia.

The books include plenty of detail on Shu Han. It's a matrilineal monarchy ruled by the Taban family, and they value the color green and falcon imagery. Their central capital is called Ahmrat Jen, and there is a large mountain range on the country's northern border, called the Sikurzoi, which keeps the Ravkan armies from invading from the north. Also, the country exists in a perpetual summer, where it stays warm and sunny even during Ravka's winter. The people of Shu Han, known as the Shu, are described as having golden eyes and straight black hair.

Shu Han and Ravka have been at war for centuries. To Ravka's government, the Shu, are known for their scientific advancement and their inhumane treatment of people with powers, known as Grisha. To discover the source of Grishas' power, the Shu created human-weapons called khergud that capture and experiment on Grisha.

In the Netflix show, Alina Starkov's mother was Shu, and her father was Ravkan.

As Shadow and Bone goes on, the audience learns more about Alina's parents. In the first episode, Alina says, "I live in East Ravka, but I've never been welcomed here because I looked like my mother, and she looked like the enemy." According to the books, Alina was born in a settlement along the southern border Ravka shares with Shu Han, and the show implies that her mother was Shu.

Later in the show, Alina repeatedly says that she was orphaned because the Shadow Fold killed her parents. Though it isn't explained more in the show, Alina's parents were mostly likely killed in the Border Wars, the centuries-long border disputes with Fjerda and Shu Han that are still ongoing. Alina's childhood friend Mal's parents also presumably died due to the Border Wars.

Making Alina half-Shu is a change unique to the show.

While the Grishaverse Alina was presumed to be a fair-skinned Ravkan, Shadow and Bone made a concrete choice to have Alina to be half-Shu. A diverse cast of characters was one of the goals for the series' writers. In an interview with Polygon, Bardugo said that she wanted the show to have more diversity than her initial Shadow and Bone trilogy, which had mostly white characters. Her later Grishaverse books, including the duology Six of Crows, had more diversity, and even defined the ethnicities of some previous characters. Bardugo told Polygon, "As I wrote, as I gained more confidence, I started to write a world that looked a lot more like the world around me."

Both Bardugo and showrunner Eric Heisserer said in interviews that making Alina half-Shu made a lot of sense for them, with Bardugo pointing out that the books' Alina was born on the border between Ravka and Shu Han. Heisserer also hired Christina Strain, a half-Korean writer, to write on the show, and he told Entertainment Weekly that she became the "go-to person when talking about Alina." Last week Strain tweeted that some of the prejudiced treatment Alina receives in the show was inspired by her own life. "Shadow and Bone was the 1st show I've been on where I've been able to incorporate SO MANY of my own personal experiences as a biracial Asian across multiple episodes," she said.

Jessie Mei Li, who plays Alina, also told Entertainment Weekly that Alina's race in the show added a new layer to their interpretation of the character. "In the books, she's an outsider. She doesn't really believe that she's important, and she has this drive to prove herself. And she's quite patriotic. I feel like what happened with translating that to the screen and then adding this layer of her history and background, it gave new meaning to all of these things that were already there," they said.

Contributing Culture Editor

Quinci is a Contributing Culture Editor who writes pieces and helps to strategize editorial content across TV, movies, music, theater, and pop culture. She contributes interviews with talent, as well as SEO content, features, and trend stories. She fell in love with storytelling at a young age, and eventually discovered her love for cultural criticism and amplifying awareness for underrepresented storytellers across the arts. She previously served as a weekend editor for Harper’s Bazaar, where she covered breaking news and live events for the brand’s website, and helped run the brand’s social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Her freelance writing has also appeared in outlets including HuffPost, The A.V. Club, Elle, Vulture, Salon, Teen Vogue, and others. Quinci earned her degree in English and Psychology from The University of New Mexico. She was a 2021 Eugene O’Neill Critics Institute fellow, and she is a member of the Television Critics Association. She is currently based in her hometown of Los Angeles. When she isn't writing or checking Twitter way too often, you can find her studying Korean while watching the latest K-drama, recommending her favorite shows and films to family and friends, or giving a concert performance while sitting in L.A. traffic.