Hiking without Blisters Is Amazing – and Maybe This Is What I Did Right

One of the most common things which can ruin a hike is getting blisters on the feet. In the past, I’ve generally gotten blisters by my third day of a multi-day hike. But during my hike in San Diego, I went hiking for eight days in a row (even during my ‘rest’ day I did a couple of hours of hiking) without getting any blisters. Which was amazing. And many of the other hikers were getting blisters, some of them terrible blisters, so clearly it was the kind of hike which could promote blisters.

I cannot be 100% certain why I managed to avoid blisters during this recent hike when I’ve had blister problems before and other hikers were getting blisters. But I think there are three things which I had never used before which made the difference.

1) Trail runners

Trail-runners are a type of shoe which are designed for long-distance hiking which are lighter and dry quicker than hiking shoes/boots at the cost of offering less protection and durability. I had never used trail runners before because, well, trail-runners are freaking expensive. However, I went ahead and used Brooks Cascadia 11 GTX – and now I’m sold that trail runners really are the right kind of shoe for a Pacific Crest Trail hike (though, obviously, not the right kind of shoe for every kind of hike). I think switching from hiking shoes to trail runners made it a lot easier to avoid blisters (and the fact that they dry quickly was helpful when I had to ford a creek).

Now, a lot of people have complained that the toe box of the Brooks Cascadia 11 tends to cut into the toes and cause blisters. The thing is, it is so hard for me to find a shoe which fits my feet that I’ve spent my whole life making compromises when it comes to shoes, so if the worst thing about a shoe is that it has a toe box which cuts into my toes, that seems acceptable, especially since I did not get blisters on my toes after all. And I think I did not get blisters on my toes in spite of this flaw in the Brooks Cascadia 11 is…

2) Leukotape

As soon as I figured out that the toe box of the shoes was causing hot spots on my toes (hot spots precede blisters) I slapped Leukotape on my toes. This was the first hike where I ever used Leukotape, and given that I did not get blisters on my toes, I suspect it really works. It’s comfortable enough that I do not feel it on my feet when I’m hiking, and it does last a few days. It’s certainly better than the sports tape I had used before.

And finally…

3) Gaiters

Last year, when I was hiking through the Russian Wilderness and Trinity Alps Wilderness, my feet, shoes, and socks got incredibly dirty. My feet were washable, but I was never able to get those socks or the insides of those shoes completely clean again. I decided I did not want that to have that happen again, so I decided to buy some light gaiters.

The gaiters definitely work. My feet, socks, and the insides of my shoes came out of the 101 mile hike remarkably clean. While I do not think my most recent hike was quite as dusty as the Russian Wilderness, I am fairly certain that it would have been much harder to keep my feet/socks clean without the gaiters – especially since the gaiters themselves got pretty dirty.

What does this have to do with blisters? Well, during my hike, someone told me that one reason why people get such awful blisters on this particular trail is that there is lots of fine sand which easily gets into shoes/socks and irritates the skin of the feet, promoting blisters. I did not get the gaiters for blister prevention, but maybe they also helped prevent blisters.

This seems to work for me. I do not know if it will work for you, but if you are concerned about getting blisters during a hike, especially on the Pacific Crest Trail or a similar trail, these may be things to consider.

SPECIAL UPDATE: During my 2-day hike from Samuel P. Taylor Park to my home in San Francisco, I did wear trail runners, but I did not wear gaiters or bring Leukotape. Not bringing the gaiters was a mistake. I did, in fact, develop blisters on the first day, though the blisters did not cause any pain (which was weird, but painless blisters are way better than painful blisters). This implies that trail runners are not enough to prevent blisters, and that gaiters and Leukotape also play an important role.

Leading the Ace Walks

This is for the July 2017 Carnival of Aces: “Ace-ing It Up Offline”

For a few months I led a monthly ‘Ace Walks…’ event through my local ace meetup group.

Why?

Oh, there were various reasons. First of all, at that time, I wanted more frequent offline ace meetups. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the way the local meetup group has worked for a long time is that there is a three month cycle – one month in Berkeley, next month in San Francisco, following month in the South Bay, repeat. I go to most (though not all) of the San Francisco and Berkeley meetups, but I have never been to the South Bay meetup because it’s not worth it for me to take the train down there (this is ironic, because I was living in the South Bay for part of the period of time I was figuring out whether or not I was ace).

Furthermore, the Bay Area ace meetups tend to center around the East Bay. That’s because the main organizers live in the East Bay, and the East Bay has more than 3x the population of San Francisco (even if you combine San Francisco and San Mateo County, there are a lot more people in the East Bay), so it is very probable that there are more aces in the East Bay than in San Francisco. However, those of us in San Francisco would prefer to have more meetups over here. I knew that some of the aces living in the East Bay did not know parts of San Francisco away from the downtown BART stations very well, so I wanted to share my city with them.

Another reason is that the regular meetups tend to happen in cafés and casual eateries, where one is generally obligated to buy something from the business providing the meeting space. This is fine, but I wanted the option of meetups which did not require people to spend money at the venue (people still have to spend money on transit, but they have to spend money on transit anyway). And even aside from the (non)commercial aspect, I just wanted a wider variety of ace social activities.

Yet another reason is that I was doing it at a time when I was immersing myself in San Francisco history and going on a lot of City Guides walks (BTW, if you visit San Francisco, and you enjoy exploring city streets, I recommend taking at least one City Guides walk – if you have trouble moving up and down slopes, I recommend the “Historic Market Street: Path Of Gold” tour because it’s one of the flattest of the regular tours). For example, I led a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge shortly after reading a book about the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, so I was able to pepper the group with trivia (such as the three times the Golden Gate Bridge was almost destroyed – the most ridiculous near-destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge was during the 50th anniversary celebration when so many people packed the bridge that they could not move and the bridge flattened out, and if the weight capacity had not been increased by retrofits in 1986, the weight of all of those people would have broken the bridge).

What happened?

I ended up leading about 5 walks (I don’t remember the exact number). Unsurprisingly, aces who live in San Francisco were more likely to show up than anyone else. Sometimes a lot of people showed up, and one time, only one other person showed up.

Incidently, my blog post “The Fake Ruin, the Real Ruin, and the Ruin in Waiting” was inspired by the Ace Walks (though it was inspired by the places we walked through, not by the aces themselves).

Looking back, I have really fond memories of the experience. I’m not sure how other participants felt.

Why did it stop?

Well, the proximate reason I stopped leading them is that I started travelling more, which meant that I was not necessarily in San Francisco every month, and planning my own travels made me less incline to plan walks (for example, this post is scheduled to go up almost exactly around the time I plan to depart for this trip). And nobody else proposed their own Ace Walks. And once I fell out of the habit…

Also, I am not as intensely interested in increasing the frequency of local ace meetups as I was before. I’m not sure why.

I think it’s be nice to have the Ace Walks continue, though at this point, I think I would prefer it if someone else led them. However, maybe I’ll get around to leading some more at some point (I’m more likely to do this if aces in the Bay Area nudge me to do it).

On (Not) Having Health Insurance and S.B. 562 in California (Warning: This Is a Rant, Not a Polished Essay)

I was there (though I don’t see myself in this specific photo).

Even under the American Affordable Care act, more than 25 million Americans do not have health insurance. About 3 million of them live in California.

I am one of them.

This definitely influences my views on health care policy in the United States, but I am uncomfortable about discussing it because, in my experience, when I bring up my own uninsured status in face-to-face conversations about politics, it leads to probing into my personal situation. I am concerned that the people who do this probing are trying to find some ‘gotcha’ which will allow them to discount my situation so they don’t have to change their own political views. I find this to be especially true among Obama supporters who only want to see the good parts of Obamacare and claim it is a ‘universal’ program which solves the problem of access/affordability of health care in the United States (how is it universal if it leaves out tens of millions of Americans?)

If your impulse is to probe me, to find out ‘why’ I am uninsured, whether I could get insurance by some means, whether I *deserve* to get insurance, here is my response: F******* YOU!!!!

Okay, I will be a little more specific than that. One of the most common responses I get (especially from Obama supporters) when I mention my situation is ‘oh, you’ll be okay because you can stay on your parents’ insurance until you’re 26. This response is terrible. Let me list the reasons:

1) I am over the age of 26. Thus, this is of no help to me whatsoever.
2) Even if I were under the age of 26, would these people expect me to remain under the age of 26? How could I stay under 26 forever?
3) This assumes that my parents have health insurance? How do these people know that my parents have health insurance?
4) As it so happens, my parents do have health insurance – due to a government program called Medicare. It is explicitly only for people at or over the age of 65 (with some exceptions). Though I am not 100% sure about this, I don’t think I would be eligible for Medicare even if I were under the age of 26 just because my parents are insured through Medicare.

I know that this policy of putting people on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26 has allowed people to get necessary health care which they otherwise would not have gotten, and for that I am grateful. However, you don’t get to use it as a rhetorical device to dismiss the concerns of people who the Affordable Care Act has failed to help.

Looking at what is going on in Washington D.C. right now, I know that if the Republicans’ plans to cut back the Medicaid expansion and cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their health insurance so that rich people pay less taxes become enacted, there will be a lot of needless suffering and death. I do not know how to describe how vile that is in words. However, I am not concerned about how it will impact my personal situation, since even the Republicans can’t cause me to lose health insurance if I don’t have it in the first place.

Now, I want to make a very important point clear: health insurance is not the same thing as having access to health care. Some health insurance plans are absolute shit. There are narrow networks – and often patients receive ‘out-of-network’ care without their consent and then have to pay for it (and when someone is PHYSICALLY SICK, do we really expect them to be able to keep on top of whether or not the nurse taking care of them is in-network or out-of-network?) There are health insurance plans with high deductibles/co-pays. And there are some very pernicious ways which health insurance companies mess with the well-being of patients for their own profit. I don’t want to share the individual stories of people I’ve met because I do not have permission, but if you want an example of a health insurance company’s policy recklessly putting someone’s life in danger, you can read the beginning of this article.

Even though I do not have health care insurance, I have better access to health care than some people with shitty health insurance plans. For example, earlier this year, I had a tooth fracture. I was able to get it treated reasonably quickly and within my neighborhood – for $600. Luckily, I was able to pay the $600 (also, that tooth is now covered with gold, which I think is cool). Some people can’t get that kind of treatment in their neighborhoods – they would have to go a far distance. A lot people can’t pay $600 for an emergency medical treatment without risking their access to housing or food. Some people can’t afford the copay for this type of treatment even if they have dental insurance. Some people who have health insurance don’t have dental insurance. Some people can’t reach dentists who will do this kind of treatment for only $600 (most dentists in California would have charged significantly more than $600 to treat a tooth fracture). Some people, even those who have dental insurance, would not have been able to get it treated as quickly as I did – and with tooth fractures, the longer treatment is delayed, the greater the risk of complications (which would require even more treatment, or if it got really bad, removal of the tooth).

Also, I have the option of leaving the United States for medical care, and medical care is much cheaper pretty much anywhere that isn’t the United States. I can afford the travel costs, and if I needed long term treatment, I have dual citizenship, as well as relatives who would take me into their homes if I had to leave the United States for medical reasons. Most Americans do not have that option.

But really, the health insurance system in the United States – both before and after the Affordable Care Act was enacted – is ridiculous. When I was born, I had health insurance – but only because my father had health insurance, and I was immediately recognized as his dependent. And he only had health insurance because he had just been hired – he had been laid off while I was in my mother’s womb, and if he hadn’t gotten a new job before my birth, he would have been uninsured (and me too). My mother, however, did not have health insurance when I was born, so I know my parents tried to get as many of the hospital bills billed to me (because I had health insurance) and not billed to my mother (who did not have health insurance). This is an absurd situation, and a bad way to allocate the costs of health care. Remember, my mother had JUST GIVEN BIRTH, so this was a bad time to impose the stress of bureaucratic hospital billing on her. Really, all the talk about how healthcare would be better if there was a more ‘competitive market’ or more ‘consumer choice’ is bullshit – in order for ‘consumer choice’ to be effective, the consumer needs to be in a good position to negotiate, and people who have medical emergencies are generally in a bad position to negotiate.

Another example of the absurdity of health insurance in the United States is that I will very soon have health insurance again … because I bought travel insurance for my trek, and it covers medical expenses. It’s significantly cheaper than any non-subsidized health insurance policy I know about, even though there are no deductibles or copays (though pre-existing conditions are excluded – that is legal because it is travel insurance). However, one can only use travel insurance when one is travelling (and they can probably only keep the premiums low because really sick people tend not to travel so much). Nonetheless, I find it ironic that health insurance for when I’m in roadless areas of rural Washington is much cheaper than health insurance than when I’m at home in a city with multiple hospitals. I’ve met a number of PCT hikers from abroad who also thought it was ridiculous that the travel insurance policies they bought to cover their medical expenses in the United States are cheaper than the health insurance policies available to U.S. residents.

Enter S.B. 562, the legislation to establish single payer health care in California. For those of you who don’t know what ‘single payer’ is, it basically means that a single entity (in this specific legislation, the government of California) would be responsible for paying most health care costs in California, and that single entity would collect money via taxes, premiums, or fees (S.B. 562 specifically would be funded via tax revenue, not premiums or fees). It’s like the way we fund fire departments – instead of paying for the service of firefighters via fire insurance, the government pays the firefighters, and gets the funding to pay the firefighters via taxes. If you want to know more about single payer, here is a good FAQ.

I have experienced single payer first hand in Taiwan, and I am 100% convinced it is a better way to run a health system. That’s not to say single payer is perfect – the Taiwanese health care system has many problems – but it works much better.

If you are following the politics of S.B. 562, you know that Speaker Rendon shelved it in the Assembly. He claims that he is for single payer, but that the bill is incomplete, is just a statement of principles, and that he needs to shelve it so that nobody can vote on it, amend it, or formally debate it, so that the bill can become more complete..

Huh?

Though Rendon claims that he’s not killing the bill, it’s obvious that this is a move that only someone who is oppposed to S.B. 562 would make. If he thinks the bill has problems, or is too incomplete, or something, then he would propose an amendment, not make it impossible to amend it. And if he’s in favor of single payer, but thinks S.B. 562 is so screwy that it can’t even be amended, then he’d write his own single payer legislation. The reason he’s making it impossible for S.B. 562 to proceed in the California Assembly without proposing alternative single-payer legislation, is that he is opposed to single payer. There is no other plausible explanation.

To be clear, S.B. 562 is incomplete, and it needs amendments. The incompleteness is on purpose, to make the legislation more flexible to political compromise. All of the advocates of S.B. 562 want amendments. But, as I just said, Speaker Rendon has made it impossible for the California Assembly to amend the bill.

And his statement that S.B. 562 is just a statement of principles. I have actually read S.B. 562, and you can too read it too. It is more than a statement of principles. However, even if it were just a statement of principles, I would still favor passing the legislation since it is better than nothing. Legislators pass legislation which is just statement of principles all of the time; it’s far from enough, but it’s not bad either.

And the classic appeal of ‘how are we going to pay for it’ coming not just from Speaker Rendon, but Jerry Brown, and a lot of politicians. Hey, did you know that there is a fiscal analysis which explains how California could pay for single payer. The proposal to fund S.B. 562 is not perfect, and I would welcome attempts to improve the funding mechanisms. If Rendon thinks that the proposed means to fund single payer are too awful to consider enacting, he may say so and explain why he thinks they are awful. However, he has not done that. Instead, he’s ignored the many people who have tried to bring the fiscal analysis to his attention. That shows that he wants CONTINUE to ‘not know’ how to pay for it. A public figure who was sincerely interested in knowing how California could pay for S.B. 562 would read the analysis and then state their opinion, even if their opinion is ‘this analysis is a piece of shit and here are the reasons why it is a piece of shit’.

And yes, one way or another, in order for single payer to happen in California it will have to pass as a ballot initiative. That is true regardless of the effects of Proposition 98. We know that, and the activists are already making long-term preparations. We still would prefer to have the Assembly pass the bill, and for the governor to sign it, because that will improve the odds and speed the implementation of singly payer.

Oh, and then there’s that press release from the Assembly Democratic Caucus. It’s basically tone policing. No, I don’t condone death threats, and neither does the nurses’ association, but I think the accusation of ‘bullying’ and the comparison to schoolyard bullying is way out of line. It’s a very gross example of tone-policing. As one of the protesters who went to Sacramento and chanted ‘Rendon, Rendon, Shame on You, Action Now on S.B. 562′ and saw some of the “violent” imagery, I though the nurses’ unions tactics were entirely appropriate. Really, the nurses’ union has been far nicer in its tactics and rhetoric than many Californians are using to oppose Trump, yet has the Assembly Democratic Caucus come out to denounce “the Resistance” for bullying Trump? Nope, nor should they, since the Resistance totally has the right to say mean things about Trump and use provocative imagery to protest him and “bully” him.

There is nothing wrong with being a sensitive person, but a politician who is so sensitive that they cannot handle pissed off constituents using imagery like this to protest his decisions is not qualified for a high-profile office. If Rendon is too sensitive to cope with this, he needs to find a different career for his own well-being.

Though I don’t agree with every statement Jimmy Dore makes in this video, I generally agree with his analysis of the press release.

All that said, the press release is a good sign in that is shows that the California Assembly has been bothered by the protests. That is part of the point of protest – to bother public figures until they act differently. It would be worse if the California Assembly were completely indifferent to the protests.

I actually have my own qualms with some of the tactics that some advocates of S.B. 562 us, but a) those qualms aren’t related to anything the Assembly Democrat Caucus mentions in the press release and b) I would rather invest effort in passing S.B. 562, or any single payer legislation which might work, than to criticize the tactics of allies who are working even harder than I am to get single payer in California.

And I am really irritated by the title of this article in the San Francisco Chronicle = “Infighting among allies over state’s tabled health care bill” Excuse me, how is Rendon an ally? Okay, maybe they just mean that the nurses’ union has historically been an ally of the Democrat Party, but I think even the implication that Rendon is an ally of single-payer advocates is wrong. Is he an ally because he claims to support single payer? Well, you know who else has said that he supports single payer? Donald Trump. If Rendon is an ally of the single payer movement, then so is Trump. Of course, we know that, in spite of what he has said, that Trump is not ally, because if he were, he’s be pushing Medicare-for-all right now. Likewise, if Rendon were an ally of the single-payer movement, he would either be pushing S.B. 562 (possibly with amendments) or he would write his own single-payer legislation.

In May, single-payer advocates marched through the California Democrat Convention in Sacramento. I was there, marching with my “Make California a Healthcare Sanctuary” sign. At one point, one of the attendees of the convention, wearing a posh dress, pulled me aside to ask “Are we on the same side?” This was so unexpected that I did not know what to say, so rather than remain separated from the group, I just returned to the group without answering her question. However, in retrospect, the answer I would have liked to have given her is “If you want to make single payer happen, then we are on the same side. If you do not want single payer to happen, then we are not.”

My Upcoming 500 Mile Trek

At the end of my 101 mile (~ 160 km) trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I was in high spirits. In fact, I felt like I could have gone on hiking some more. Now, I did not do continue hiking for various practical reasons, but it gave me the confidence to attempt an even longer backpacking trip. Thus, I soon plan to attempt a 500 mile (~ 800 km) backpacking trip on the PCT. 500 miles is only five times longer than 100 miles, after all.

In some ways, my upcoming trip will be easier. Specifically, there will be a lot more water sources, there will be a lot more shade, and most of the time the midday temperatures will be lower than the midday temperatures during my San Diego backpacking trip. Also, the days will be longer, which means more daytime hours for hiking.

But in most ways, my upcoming trip will be harder. First of all, there will be a LOT more rain. I am guaranteed to encounter at least a little snow (at one point, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses a glacier), and though I am going during a season when there will be no snowstorms, lightning storms are still a real and frightening possibility. Also, there will be mosquitoes. There will also be bears, which are not much of a danger, but does mean I will have to be more careful about food storage than in San Diego (in other words, I will be taking my bear can – yes, it’s heavy and bulky, but it’s the only food storage method which does not require me to be clear-headed when I set up camp – and ursacks don’t give me peace of mind). Since I got started as a hiker in Taiwan, I know something about hiking through rain, mosquitoes, and bear country (yes, there are wild bears in Taiwan) but having to deal with those conditions for multiple days in a row while sleeping in a tent will take the challenge to a significantly higher level. The trail will also be steeper, with more ascents and descents.

However, I predict that the greatest challenge will not be physical, but psychological. One of the things which kept my spirits high during my San Diego trek was that I was running into dozens of people on the trail. That is probably not going to happen during my upcoming trip. I will be going with the traffic instead of counter traffic (going with traffic means fewer encounters with people), and there will be fewer people in general regardless of the direction of traffic. I will probably have to spend many nights camping alone, and it is conceivable that I might spend days without seeing another human being.

I recently read The High Adventure of Eric Ryback, an account of what was supposedly the first PCT thru-hike in history. He had to hike through much more demanding physical/weather conditions than what I expect, and he was carrying about 80 lb (~ 36 kg) of supplies, yet for him, the loneliness was still the most difficult challenge. He speaks of ‘hunting’ people because he was desperate for companionship, and sometimes he hiked an extra 10+ miles just so he would not be alone at night.

One of my favorite passages from the books is:

I had had enough of nature’s cruel temperament and endless and destructive rites of initiation into her realm. I didn’t care to be alone with her, to retreat from humanity and civilization. I was on the side of people now – the many nice, intriguing people I had met along the trail. I had been disappointed in and frustrated with people from the many bad experiences I had had in high school and even before. I had cared only for my family and thought that only my family cared for me. I knew better now. Humanity was too kind and caring to give up on, and nature was too cold and brutal and fickle to endure as my only friend. I had gone in search of nature but instead discovered something I had never known before – strangers who cared and for whom I cared.

I am fairly certain I will encounter more people than Eric Ryback, but it will still be hard to deal with being alone with nature.

At this point, you may be wondering just which part of the PCT I intend to hike. First, I intend to hike about 70 miles (~ 110 km) from Seiad Valley, California, to Ashland, Oregon, which will take me over the California/Oregon border. That’s just the warm up hike. After that, I will hike from Cascade Locks, Oregon to Manning Park, British Columbia. Yes, I intend to cross the U.S./Canada border, which will be especially exciting since I’ve never been to Canada before.

I will have to stop at various cities/towns/ski resorts for transfer or resupply. Except for the towns in California and Ashland, Oregon, these are all places I have never, ever visited. If anyone is interested in meeting me in any of these places, you may drop a comment, and we’ll see if it will work out. Here is the list of places I intend to stop, in the order I intend to stop there:

Dunsmuir, California (transfer)
Yreka, California (transfer)
Seiad Valley, California (trailhead)
Ashland, Oregon (trailhead)
Portland, Oregon (transfer/resupply)
Cascade Locks, Oregon (trailhead)
Trout Lake, Washington (resupply)
White Pass, Washington (resupply)
Snoqualmie Pass, Washington (resupply)
Steven’s Pass, Washington (resupply)
Stehekin, Washington (resupply)
Manning Park, British Columbia (trailhead)
Vancouver, British Columbia (transfer)
Seattle, Washington (transfer)

I’m excited and nervous about this. It will probably be both awesome and awful. I will try my best to (em)brace the awful.

The Valley of Life and Death: An Wuxia Novel with a Female Protagonist who May Be Aro-Ace

The cover of The Valley of Life and Death

I have found something amazing – an wuxia novel with a female protagonist who is not at all interested in romance. If you haven’t read as many wuxia novels as I have, you can’t appreciate just how amazing that is. It’s called The Valley of Life and Death (《生死谷》), by Zheng Feng (鄭丰). Did I mention that it’s amazing?

Anyway, before I continue, I’ll offer a brief overview of the story…

What Kind of Story Is This?

The story is set during the late Tang Dynasty (in the early 800s A.D.) when the imperial government of China is unstable.

Fei Ruoran is the daughter of a high-ranking minister. At the beginning of the story, she’s seven years old, and she’s friends with Wu Xiaohu, the bastard son of the prime minister. They are both captured, and thrust into a valley with about two hundred other children. They are trained in skills such as climbing and martial arts, and over the years, they have to pass the ‘three tests’. For example, the second test is that all of the surviving children are left in the valley for winter without food, and they will be kept there until only eight are still alive – and the most readily available source of food is each other’s bodies. Fei Ruoran and Wu Xiaohu just want to go home, but after years of being in that valley, will they be able to return?

If this sounds like The Hunger Games set in China in the Tang Dynasty, that’s because it sure feels like that (though, for what it’s worth, I think The Valley of Life and Death is better than The Hunger Games). in fact the preface specifically mentions that it’s like stories such as The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and The Drifting Classroom (and a few other examples which I don’t remember).

But Back to Talking about Fei Ruoran and Her Lack of Interest in Romance and Sex

The story starts when Fei Ruoran is seven years old, and (if one excludes the epilogue) ends when she is nineteen years old.

One would not expect a seven year old to be particularly interested in romance or sex, so at first, I had no idea that she would continue to be uninterested as a teenager, especially since this is an wuxia novel. As she grew older, I kept on expecting her to start showing interest in romance (though not necessarily sex because, again, this is wuxia), and it was not until the end that it turned out that, nope, she never becomes interested in romance at all in her entire life.

At the beginning of the novel, it seemed there would be two co-equal protagonists, Wu Xiaohu and Fei Ruoran, and that Wu Xiaohu (who is may) may even become the top protagonist. Thus, I was also surprised when Wu Xiaohu gradually became a less important character, and while he retained major character status all of the way to the end, the finale of the story is really about her, and not much about him. Though there are other wuxia novels centered on female protagonists (as well as Tiān​ Xiāng Piāo by Wolong Sheng in which the male protagonist dies halfway through the novel so the women who were in love with him are suddenly promoted to protagonist status)​​, this was still a pleasant surprise.

It is stated over and over again that Fei Ruoran only considers Wu Xiaohu to be a friend and a brother, and that she has no romantic feelings for him. At one point in the novel, (when she is about 15 years old IIRC) another character assumes she must have romantic feelings for Wu Xiaohu because she is so close to them, and she thinks that, not only is she certain that Wu Xiaohu feels like a brother to her, she does not even know what romance is. This is strongest evidence in the novel that Fei Ruoran may in fact be aromantic.

Zheng Feng’s afterword to the novel is very interesting, but I am just going to focus on the part where she talks about the lack of romance in the novel. She says in the afterword that she did try to work in a romance for Fei Ruoran, but it did not work, so it was taken out of the story. She also says, and this is a quote:

《生死谷》是我唯一一本沒有牽涉太多愛情的小說,大概因為我的人物都是整日在生死之間掙扎的殺手,愛情對他們來說,實在太過奢侈了吧?

The Valley of Life and Death is the only novel I’ve written which does not involve a lot of romance; that’s probably because the characters are all killers who spend the whole day struggling with matters of life and death; wouldn’t romance be too much of a luxury for them?

I am relieved that Zheng Feng put a question mark at the end of that sentence, indicating that she’s not really sure why there is not much romance. To me, and an aromantic, the explanation that they do not engage in romance because it’s a ‘luxury’ not make much sense. It could explain why they do not pursue romance, but it seems to me that alloromantic people will experience romantic feelings whether or not they can or want to pursue romance. Furthermore, since a lot of people compare this novel to The Hunger Games, I will say that the characters in The Hunger Games have even less opportunity to pursue romance, but that does not stop them.

For me, the most plausible explanation is that Fei Ruoran is simply aromantic. Especially since, unlike Katniss Everdeen, she never has anything to do with romance during her entire life.

At this point, I suppose I ought to say a few words about the major male characters, Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing. I don’t know what their sexual or romantic orientation is. They both develop strong feelings for a female character other than Fei Ruoran, and it is not clear whether or not these feelings ever become romantic or sexual. Furthermore, Tian Shaxing is never a viewpoint character, which makes this kind of thing harder to judge.

By the way, did I mention that this is a great novel, possibly my favorite novel that I’ve read in 2017 so far? I’d love it even if there was no sign of the protagonist being aro or ace.

Anyway, more about the implications of Fei Ruoran being aromantic.

A good portion of the novel is about Fei Ruoran trying very hard to protect/help/keep alive her friends Tian Shaxing and Wu Xiaohu. I do not want to spoil the novel, so I’m going to have to find a very vague way to say this … you know how some aro people feel like there alloromantic friends accept the benefits of being their friend without investing as much in the friendship as the aro person because they do not value the friendship as much? That arguably happens in this novel, in that Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing do not always invest as much in Fei Ruoran as she invests in them (again, my point would be clearer if I were more specific, but I do not want to spoil. If you can’t read Chinese but really want to know what I’m talking about, you can ask me and I will respond in the comments).

Unfortunately, I don’t think this counts as aro ace fiction.

Even though Fei Ruoran being aro ace makes way more sense to me than any other interpretation, and I will hella recommend this novel to anybody looking for an aro-friendly wuxia novel, I would not go so far as to put this on a list of fiction with aro ace characters. I don’t think fiction necessarily explicitly state that a character is aro or ace, nor do I think Word of Ace is necessary, but I think that, short of an explicit statement that a character is ace or aro, the experience of being ace and aro needs to be described clearly enough that it is recognizable. I think this novel is one step short of that, but it is still short of that. Thus, I would not, say, use it as an example for the ace tropes series.

That said, I will still see if any of the ace tropes described so far apply to this novel and … none of them apply.

Nonetheless, I am still super happy with this novel. And I would like to point out that I’ve have previously written about another Zheng Feng novel in the post A Novel Featuring a Non-Sexual/Non-Romantic Intimate Relationship, which goes to show that even Zheng Feng protagonists who do not seem to be aro or ace can have intense nonromantic personal relationships with someone of a different gender.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Content note: this post contains a satirical drawing of hypersexualized women, and a picture depicting sexual harassment.

The Geek Feminism Wiki lists two common criticisms of strong female characters as being:

– she still has to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness

– she will wear skimpy or fetishistic gear to fight in, and her battles and acts of heroism will be presented to the audience as erotic spectacles.

There are also the Hark! A Vagrant comics about strong female characters one and two which satirize ‘strong female characters’, including how they are visually presented for erotic appeal.

This is from Hark! A Vagrant!. I think the ‘strong female character’ in the lower left needs to move further to the left so that the audience can see her butt (yes I am being snarky).

If you want to see what the Geek Feminism Wiki and the Hark! A Vagrant comics are critiquing, satirizing, I put in the internet search ‘female marvel characters’ and one of the first hits was this this of the 10 strongest Marvel female characters. I will let you judge the pictures of those strong Marvel female characters for yourself. And here is an explanation of why contorting bodies to show the butt is an issue.

I’ve established in Part 1 that the first criticism about conforming to gender-normative standards of attractiveness definitely applies to the stories of Jin Yong. To the second criticism, I would add that it’s not just female fighters – even (strong) female characters who do not engage in combat are a lot more likely to be visually presented for prettiness than male characters.

The second criticism mainly applies to visual media – whereas Jin Yong novels are prose, not directly visual. But all of his novels have illustrations. Let’s see if this criticism applies to the illustrations.

All of the characters in this picture, including the baby, are female. That baby is SO DAMN CUTE that every adult who meets her wants her to be their daughter, so martial artists – both male and female – keep on kidnapping her and fighting each other over custody. In fact, the two adult women in this picture are about to have a martial arts match over who gets to be the baby’s guardian.

In the above illustration, none of the female characters are drawn in a particularly sexually exploitive way. However, one of them is a baby (and it would be very disturbing if a baby were presented in an erotic way), and the other two are in their 30s, a demographic of women which is less likely to be presented erotically. Furthermore, this is not a fight scene. So let’s look at an illustration of a younger woman in a fight scene:

Here is ‘Iron Hand’ He, who has an iron hook on her left arm, in the middle of a fight scene.

So, here we have a young woman in a fight scene, and she is not being shown in a way which is sexier than her male opponent (well, we get a better view of her face and feet, but that’s mainly because we see her front and his back). In all of the illustrations I’ve seen of female characters in fight scenes published with Jin Yong’s novels, I do not recall any which depicts her in a way which is more erotic than the male characters.

Let us look at yet another illustration from a Jin Yong novel – an illustration depicting sexual harassment.

Zhao Min does not want Zhang Wuji to touch her foot.

Even in this illustration depicting sexual harassment, the female character is not drawn in a particularly sexual way. (To be clear, I am merely saying that the *drawing* depicting this scene is not problematic – the scene itself is very problematic).

There is still the questions of Jin Yong adaptations. Generally, I would say that they do not VISUALLY present female character in a sexier way than the male characters. There is a bit of a double standard in the comic book adaptations by Tony Wong, but even those are mild compared to what would find by browsing the display window of an American comic book shop.

First, let’s see an example from a Marvel blockbuster movie. I typed ‘black widow fight’ into Youtube, and then looked at the first hit which was less than five minutes long – it’s this one from Iron Man 2 (I wanted to pick the first clip under 5 minutes so that I would not cherrypick the example). On the one hand, it’s not that bad in terms of depicting Black Widow as an erotic figure. If I were not critically examining it, it probably not bother me (or at least, not bother me much in isolation – if I kept on seeing stuff like this over and over in movie after movie, there would probably have a cumulative effect). However, her dress emphasizes her breasts and ‘sex appeal’ in way which the male characters’ clothes do not emphasize their sex appeal (not to mention the first bit where we see her take off her shirt and her naked leg).

Here is a fight scene from a TV adaptation which does not just feature any female character, but a female character who is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. The fight scene, however, is not an erotic display. (I do have problems with how this TV adaptation handles this fight scene, but they have nothing to do with sexism). I do not recall seeing any fight scenes from any TV adaptations of Jin Yong’s work which are any more erotic than this. Oh, and if you’re curious, yes the fight scene from that TV show clip is also depicted in an illustration from the original novel – the illustration of that fight scene looks like this:

There is the most beautiful woman in the world fighting a whole bunch of guys in a monastery. Even though she ultimately does not ‘win’ the fight, the fact that she holds out so long while she is badly outnumbered is very impressive.

If one really wants to know what this fight is like in the novel, here it is (note: I only took a quick look to make sure it’s the right scene, since I haven’t really read it I cannot tell whether or not this is a good translation).

Even in this scene (which pushes the sexy visuals envelope past what one would usually see in a Jin Yong TV show), there is a good look at the male character’s bare skin too.

Does this means that Jin Yong is not sexist after all? HECK NO! I think the lack of visual eroticism has less to do with respect for women, and more to do with Sinophone cultures’ general reluctance to put erotic visuals in mainstream media. Even in Taiwan – which, unlike some Sinophone societies, does not have government censorship of popular media – if one wants to see people shown in a visually erotic way (like the “Strong Female Characters” picture above), one has to turn to a) American media, b) Japanese media or c) go to the porn section. In Sinophone media, unlike American and Japanese media, there is not a continuum of mainstream-to-porn (or porn bleeding into mainstream, which is another way to look at it) – if it’s not explicitly intended to be porn, then it’s not going to be visually eroticized too much.

(Now I’m going to shift away from Jin Yong to Huang Yi. Just to be clear, Huang Yi is NOT Jin Yong)

I will say that in the works of Huang Yi, there is a discernible visual double standard between the illustrations of male and female characters (to see what I’m talking about, look at this, this, and this. Furthermore Wan Wan in the Cantonese language adaptation of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan has the most skin-exposing outfits of any major female character of an wuxia TV show I’ve seen. However, the other female character in that show seem to have clothing which is no more revealing than the clothes of their male counterparts. No Princess Leia in a slave outfit here!

Black Widow vs. Wan Wan: who has the more sexually -objectifying-aimed-at-male-gaze outfit?

(One can compare the dress of the male and female characters in this video of the theme song of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan, and yes, I like the theme song for the show quite a bit because it’s a very appropriate song for Kou Zhong, and it’s sung by the actor who plays Kou Zhong).

In short, Huang Yi is worse at this than Jin Yong, but Huang Yi is still mild compare to, say, Marvel Comics/Cinema.

There is something more going on here. Maybe you’ve noticed it already in all of these pictures and video clips. Namely, Jin Yong works (and even Huang Yi works) put relatively more emphasis on expressive parts of the female body, whereas Anglophone mainstream media puts relatively more emphasis on less expressive female body parts.

Here is a video which is just about the ‘beautiful women’ of just ONE Jin Yong TV adaptation, which then ranks six female characters from least to most beautiful. The fact that there is a lot more cataloguing of the beauty of Jin Yong’s female characters than the handsomeness of Jin Yong’s male characters says something. However, the body part which is most emphasized in catalogues is the FACE. In fact, we do not see much of the female characters’ other body parts.

If one goes back up to see the video showing Wan Wan, one also sees that it is mostly focused on her face. Even her dress – which shows a lot of skin for an wuxia outfit – is designed to emphasize her face, not her chest.

Yang Kang really likes Mu Nianci’s feet (this is from the 2008 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes).

In Sinophone cultures, generally when someone says a woman is beautiful, they mean that her face is beautiful. Besides the face, the parts of the body they are most likely to discuss are her hands and feet. One can see this in Jin Yong novels – for all that he emphasizes how beautiful his female characters are, he has very little to say about their breasts or butts.

Does it make a difference which body parts are emphasized for physical beauty? Yes, it does. Breasts and butts are not very expressive. One cannot learn much about how a person thinks or feels by looking at their breasts and butts. Thus, focusing on those areas ignores them as an agent. By contrast, faces give tons of information about a person’s feelings and state of mind. Hands can also be very expressive. Feet are not as expressive as hands, but more expressive than breasts and butts. Thus, when one is mostly looking at the face (and to lesser extent, hands and feet) it is much more apparent that these women are sentient beings and not mere pretty objects.

Even though I do not think wuxia’s restraint in displaying female characters in an erotic way, and the emphasis on the face/hands/feet vs. emphasis on breasts/butts/exposed skin comes from a greater respect of women, I welcome it nonetheless. This is not the main reason why I love wuxia, but for me, it is an extra reason to gravitate more towards wuxia than mainstream American geek pop media.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Last month I posted “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong”, and Siggy replied with a comment about Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’. This led to me thinking about whether or not Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’ applies to Jin Yong fiction. Since the answer is complex, I’m breaking this up into multiple posts. This post, obviously, is going to be about exploiting female characters for sexy looks.

As I said in the first post of what seems to becoming a series, most Jin Yong non-elderly female characters are described as being physically beautiful. If they are too young to be sexually mature, then they are phenomenally cute (which, to be fair, is not being exploited for sexy looks). In fact, it is remarkable when a non-elderly female character is not pretty because that is uncommon in Jin Yong stories. Off the top of my head, I think Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) is the most prominent non-pretty young female character in the Jin Yong stories.

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

By contrast, most young men in Jin Yong stories are described as being plain looking, and if they are described as being handsome, they are probably a villain. IIRC, the only male Jin Yong protagonist who is described as being handsome is Yang Guo (he is so handsome that he starts wearing a mask so that girls will stop falling in love with him as soon as they see his face).

Yang Guo is hiding his handsome face.

So … tons of pretty young women with few plain-looking women, and tons of plain-looking young men with a few handsome young men, mostly villains. I hope that the double standard here is so obvious that I do not have to explain it.

Did I mention that the plain-looking male protagonists of most Jin Yong stories have three or more pretty young women pining after him? (okay, to be fair, a few of them have only TWO pretty young women pining after him – for example, the male protagonist that Cheng Lingsu falls in love with has only two pretty women in love with him) (but hey that means that all Jin Yong stories have at least two female characters, which means they are automatically one third of the way to passing the very low bar set by the Bechdel test)

This is also a common problem in Anglophone geek pop culture. It can even be a problem in ‘feminist’ geek media. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is often described as being ‘feminist’, yet some readers have critiqued it because most of the prominent female characters are gorgeous while most of the prominent male characters do not have handsome looks (the notable exceptions are Cordelia Naismith, Ivan Vorpatril, and in the most recent novel, Oliver Jole).

So far, I have only been talking about Jin Yong novels. When his stories are adapted to screen, his male protagonists experience a bout of adaptational attractiveness. The most notorious example of this is casting Hu Ge to play Guo Jing, a male protagonist who is repeatedly described in the novel as being plain looking.

In case you don’t know what Hu Ge looks like, here is a picture of him playing the allegedly non-handsome Guo Jing.

This, however, is also not particularly different from Anglophone media. I will say this in defence of the Jin Yong adaptations – in the only adaptation I saw with Cheng Lingsu, they did not cast a particularly pretty actress to play her (though, looking at photos of other adaptations, it seems that Cheng Lingsu can suffer from adaptational attractiveness).

What do I want? First of all, unless there is a good and specific reason not to have it, I want there to be gender parity for the level of physical attractiveness of male and female characters (i.e. I want it to be just as likely for a dude to be handsome as a lady to be beautiful).

Second, I want characters to have a diversity of appearances, including those which are not conventionally attractive. I like eye candy too, and I do not mind at all having *some* conventionally attractive characters, but I do not want it to go so far as to exclude everyone else. Only telling stories about conventionally attractive characters (and making all of your major female characters conventionally attractive) sends the message that people who are not conventionally attractive (including women who are not conventionally attractive) do not matter, and that’s not cool.

***

So far, I’ve been saying that Jin Yong stories are just like Anglophone geek pop media. This was the point at which I was going to start talking about how Jin Yong stories (and wuxia in general) are DIFFERENT from Anglophone geek pop media, until I decided to split this post into two parts. So, that will be discussed in Part 2!