The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 1)

The copy of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils which I read in Taiwan looked exactly like this. You can see that this edition is 10 volumes long.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the book 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias claims that any story plot can be summarized by a single question. This is certainly true of many stories, perhaps most stories, but the very first counterexample which came to mind was Jin Yong’s novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Tiān Lóng Bā Bù, from now on abbreviated as TLBB). I cannot think of any question which can summarize the whole plot, except for vague questions such as ‘will the protagonists find their place in the world?’ or ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ which are so vague that they tell you little about the story (honestly, I think the latter question is the more informative one). Contrast that to a specific question like ‘will Othello believe that Iago is telling the truth about his wife?’ which is what Tobias claims is the central question of Othello. And forget about “>Tobias’ plot patterns. Even Way Of Choices can be classified as having an ‘Underdog’ plot with lots of plot arcs nested within it, including a huge ‘Quest’ plot – I don’t think it’s possible to claim that TLBB has a single dominant plot pattern.

[General spoiler warning: this post will contain some spoilers for Demi-gods and Semi-Devils. I’ve edited out the huge spoilers, but this ain’t going to be spoiler-free]

Jimmy Lin as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Every summary I’ve seen of TLBB is split into three parts, one part for each protagonist (Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu). That is because it is very difficult to come up with a coherent plot summary without treating each protagonist separately. In fact, by the guidelines set out by Tobias, TLBB actually has three different plots (Tobias does not recommend having multiple plots in a single work of fiction).

Can I come up with a single question to summarize each protagonist’s story? Maybe.

I’m still not sure I can come up with a better question to sum up Duan Yu’s story than ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ I mean, I suppose ‘who will Duan Yu marry and will he return home?’ covers most of his plot, but since that’s actually two questions I do not feel like that counts. And maybe instead of ‘who will Duan Yu marry?’ the question should be ‘will Duan Yu end up in an incestuous relationship with one of his sisters?’ because that is the point which is more interesting to many readers. Maybe the question is ‘will Duan Yu manage to come home without shaming his family by having incestuous relations with his sisters?’

Does Duan Yu’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? One could argue that it is an example of a ‘Maturation’ plot, but in my opinion it best fits the ‘Adventure’ pattern. Yes, Duan Yu does mature during the course of the story. He starts out as a happy-go-lucky, pacifist, naive, spoiled prince, and by the end he’s not even a prince anymore. But that is not the main focus of his plot. When I talk to people about TLBB, they don’t talk about how Duan Yu’s character changes, they talk about all of the wild shit that goes down during his travels. You can get a pretty good sense of what his travels are like just by looking at how his story begins – this is how it is portrayed in the TLBB 2003 (w/ Eng subs) (it’s much funnier in TLBB 1997 but there are no English subs).

Bryan Leung as Qiao Feng in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982.

I find it much easier to sum up Qiao Feng’s plot in a single question “Will Qiao Feng find his place among the Song Chinese people or among the Khitan people?” He considers himself to be Song Chinese and loyal to Song China, yet they exile him and try to kill him (partially because they believe he committed some murders). The Khitan people of the Liao empire accept him, but they are at war with Song China, and being loyal to Liao empire would mean hurting the [Song Chinese] people he swore to protect.

Does Qiao Feng’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? I think an argument could be made for ‘Quest’ or ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng seeks the truth about the past and present, and he seeks where he belongs (I lean towards ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng wants information more than he wants to change his life). He wants to know about his parents, and he also wants to find the real culprit behind the murders that he is accused of committing. (And no, even though Qiao Feng has some murders to ‘solve’, this is not a ‘Riddle’ plot because, when he learns who the real murderer is, it does not solve his problems at all).

Louis Fan as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997.

And then there is Xuzhu and his story. The basic question for his plot, I think is ‘will Xuzhu ever go back to living as a monk?’ Or rather ‘how will Xuzhu adjust to the end of his monastic life?’ since at some point the reader figures out that he is never going back. He wants to be a monk, but he keeps on being coerced to break his monastic vows (yes, that is a picture of Xuzhu in this old post of mine). Even though he does not break his vows of entirely of his own free will, other characters consider them just as broken as if he had willfully made those choices. I think his story has what Tobias would call a ‘Transformation’ plot.

Those of you who are familiar with the story may be wondering why I’m not classifying Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories as ‘Discovery’ plots. The answer is simple: Qiao Feng knows early on his story that he has some mysteries to solve. By contrast, Duan Yu and Xuzhu are completely oblivious to the skeletons in their families’ closets (well, Duan Yu isn’t completely oblivious, he just does not know enough to be concerned), so their plots aren’t about them seeking the truth. When they do learn The Horrible Truth, it hits them like anvils falling from the sky – they had no idea what was coming.

I think it is pretty clear that TLBB does not have a unified plot, at least not in a way that Tobias would recognize. It cannot be summed up by a single question (unless that question is uselessly vague), nor can it be said to fit any single dominant plot pattern. Heck, one could split up Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories, write them up as separate novels, and they would work at standalones (and come a lot closer to following Tobias’ guidelines for creating plots).

Yet does TLBB fail because of its disunited plot?

Every reader has their own opinion, but in terms of popularity, it is extremely successful. It is one of the most popular and widely read novels of the 20th century, and has been adapted for TV five times (and at least three of those adaptations were very popular), which is to say nothing of the other adaptations. I have also met quite a few people who say that TLBB is one of their favorite novels.

Does this story appeal to so many people in spite of its disunited plot… or because of its disunited plot? That is the question I will address in Part 2.

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A Tribute to Jin Yong (1924-2018)

Imagine that J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, the founding editor-in-chief of one of the most important English-language newspapers, and George Lucas all died on the same day, at the same second, and how people in the English-speaking world would react. Because the equivalent of that happened in the Chinese-speaking world on October 30, 2018, when Louis Cha Leung-yung, known by the pen name ‘Jin Yong’, died.

One of the many illustrations which comes with Jin Yong’s stories.

But I’m not going to make this about Jin Yong’s impact on the culture of the Chinese-speaking world (and the cultures of much of Southeast Asia) because, if you are familiar with Chinese-speaking cultures or Southeast-Asian cultures, you already know, and if you aren’t familiar, you’ll think I’m exaggerating. Even the New York Times understates just how huge his cultural influence was (a couple of quibbles with the NYT article: I would actually credit Wang Dulu with raising wuxia to a literary level, and the new wave of wuxia stories which got started in the 1950s was launched by Liang Yusheng; both of these writers led the way for Jin Yong; however, I think Jin Yong was an excellent example of ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’). Instead, I’m going to talk about Jin Yong’s influence on me.

This pictures evoke a lot of nostalgia for me. They remind me of the experience of reading Jin Yong’s novels.

Most native Chinese speakers encounter the stories of Jin Yong at a young age, and, if they like reading, they start reading the novels as adolescents (or younger – I’ve seen 10-year-olds reading his novels). I was not exposed to his work until I was 22 years old, which feels really late. Furthermore, during that initial encounter, my Chinese was really, really bad, certainly not enough to follow the plot. And yet, even through that haze of bad Chinese (it was ~my~ Chinese which was bad, Jin Yong wrote better Chinese than the vast majority of educated native speakers), I could sense that there was a great story if only I could understand it.

There were two illustrators who made the in-book pictures for the official editions of the novels, but for some reason, only the work of this illustrator really stays with me and evokes the feelings of Jin Yong’s stories, the other illustrator’s pictures do nothing for me.

The very first book of solid prose I read in Chinese was Jin Yong’s Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn (Legend of the Eagle-Shooting Heroes), though it usually referred to in English as Legend of the Condor Heroes (yes, I wrote about the new English translation). I was living in a second-tier city in Taiwan which, aside from the sex trade, Hollywood movies, and Southeast Asian movies, offered very few entertainment options for people who were not fluent in Chinese, so I found lots of time to study. I first read the comic book adaptation (it is so much easier to figure out what the heck is going on when there are pictures), and then, once I knew the story, I dared to read the actual novel. Reading my first book in Chinese was like opening a door – before, I could not read Chinese, or I could only ‘read’ Chinese in a limited sense, but after I finished that book, I really felt like I could read Chinese.

Imaging staring at this picture ehn taking a break from plodding through dense Chinese prose you barely understand.

The first book of solid prose I read in Chinese *without* knowing what was going to happen was the sequel, Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, i.e. that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog. If Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn is where I opened the door, then Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ is where I walked through the door.

And wow, what a door. I figured there would be a big reward for learning Chinese (otherwise I would not have put so much effort into studying), but I was not sure what that reward would actually be. I had no idea, before I started studying Chinese, that novels like the novels of Jin Yong existed. It was mind-blowing.

Actually, the illustrations were a useful preview for what might happen in the following chapter as I was improving my Chinese.

One could even say that, in a sense, Jin Yong was my Chinese teacher. I learned a lot of Chinese by reading his stories. For example, I probably learned the phrase ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’ from his books. They also taught me a lot about Chinese culture.

His novels have occupied more of my headspace than any other writer – than any other artist – during my 20s. I never expected that any single storyteller would so capture my fancy. Thru Jin Yong, I discovered the wuxia genre, and yes, I came to love the works of other wuxia novelists, but it all started with Jin Yong.

When I wrote a fanfic novel a couple of years ago, even though it was based on something which was totally not Jin Yong, I felt a lot of Jin Yong coming through in my writing. In fact, I felt such a strong Jin Yong influence in my fanfic novel, that I sometimes had to pinch myself, and ask myself whether I was actually writing a Jin Yong fanfic in disguise. I suspect that, if I ever write another novel, fanfic or original, in any genre, there is going to be a heavy Jin Yong influence.

Even when I was confident in my Chinese reading skills, I would still look ahead at the illustrations of future chapters for a taste of what lay ahead. For example, I was wondering quite a few chapters in advance what role a blond European woman was going to play in the story (she’s Princess Sophia Alekseyevna, the half-sister of Peter the Great of Russia).

If you’ve read my blog for a long time (of have gone on a binge-read of the archives), you can find plenty of evidence of how much my headspace the stories of Jin Yong have occupied. I even have tried to explain what makes his stories so wonderful, though that is, at best, a very incomplete explanation. When I started this blog, I did not think I would end up writing so many posts about his works, especially not 5+ years after I read them for the first time. In fact, before Jin Yong died, I had already been planning to write yet another blog post about one of his novels (that post will be posted in less than a week).

I don’t like all of Jin Yong’s stories, but his better novels are amazing.

I actually did not upload any of these illustrations specifically for this post, I simply looked through which of the illustrations I had already posted on this blog for other posts.

If you are not familiar with any of Jin Yong’s stories, but are interested in experiencing them, here are my suggestions. If you prefer reading, I will point you to the new English translation of Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn. If you prefer to watch TV shows, I will point you to the Sword Stained with Royal Blood 2007. It’s not one of Jin Yong’s better stories, but it’s one of the best TV adaptations available with English subtitles (you can get it on DVD with English subs; it’s also easy to find online versions with English subs).

I’m actually envious of the people who get to experience the works of Jin Yong for the first time. I benefited from not growing up in a culture where Jin Yong’s stories were super-popular because that meant the plot twists were not spoiled for me, I got to have my first encounter with the plots when I was reading the original novels directly.

I love to watch music videos of Jin Yong songs (no, he was not a song composer, but his works have inspired many, many, many songs). They are an easy and quick way to give me the feels of reading his stories without sitting down and re-reading them. Even when I see MVs based on TV adaptations I have not seen, I can usually recognize most of the scenes because his stories stick out so vividly in the mind. I’ve even written an entire blog post about one of these songsObviously, these songs/videos aren’t going to evoke that type of nostalgia in people who don’t know the stories, but maybe something comes across anyways. Thus, I will end this post with links to a bunch of songs inspired by Jin Yong stories that I like.

“Jianghu Xiao” (The Jianghu Laughs) (Return of the Condor Heroes 2006) – One of the best Jin Yong songs, and with English subs!

“Up and Down a Challenging Road” (Demi-gods and Semi-devils 1982) (content note: depiction of suicide in video) – as I have said before, I feel this is one of the songs which best captures the spirit of Jin Yong’s stories.

“Cold Feelings, Hot Feelings” (Sword Stained with Royal Blood 1985) – I think this is an underrated Jin Yong theme song.

“A Laugh from the Blue Sea” (Swordsman 1990) – In The Smiling Proud Wanderer, there is a song called “The Smiling Proud Wanderer” which a) plays a pivotal role in the plot (which is why the novel takes its title from the song) and b) is the most beautiful song the characters have ever heard. This puts no pressure at all on the composers who have to write music for the many movie and TV adaptations of novwl (I also find it amusing to watch TV actors proclaim whatever the composer came up with to be the most beautiful music ever). This is generally considered to be the best attempt to compose the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song (which is why it was recycled as the opening theme for the 2017 adaptation). I also like State of Divinity 1996’s version of the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song.

“Ode to Gallantry” (Ode to Gallantry 2016). I really like this song, and of the recent Jin Yong TV shows, this is the one I like best.

“On What Day Shall We Meet Again” (Return of the Condor Heroes 1983). Even though “Jianghu Xiao” is a better song, I feel this is the song which best captures the spirit of the story.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST….

“The Thousand Sorrows of Remembering Old Love” (song originally from Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983) – since this is a mourning song, it is the obvious choice for a tribute to the late Jin Yong (just as it is often used in tributes to Roman Tam and Barbara Yung). Indeed, this link goes to a video which was released days after Jin Yong’s death.

Though Jin Yong has died, this is not over. I am sure I will have many thoughts, and thus many things to say, about his stories for years to come.

Review: Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

The book cover of Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Sara, it’s been forever since you’ve written a review of an ace fiction book.

It took me a while to feel like writing one again. Also, I had to start reading ace fiction books again to write more reviews.

What is this novel about?

Alice, a nineteen year old college student, is dumped by her girlfriend/dorm-mate Margot because Margot feels that Alice does not want to have sex with her (which is true, Alice was only consenting to sex with Margot to preserve their relationship). Alice knows she is asexual, but stays in the closet, and the way Margot dumped her reinforces her conviction not to tell people she’s ace. Then she meets her new co-worker, Takumi, and Alice has very strong feelings about him as soon as he meet him. Might some of those feelings be sexual attraction? Since Alice has definitely never experienced sexual attraction before, she does not know what the hell sexual attraction is supposed to feel like, how would she know? Meanwhile, her best friends, Feenie and Ryan, are going to get married, and Alice fears that as they become more of a couple they are pushing her away. And on top of all that, Alice’s parents and sister are pressuring her to declare her major and prepare to go to law school as soon as she finishes undergrad, and Alice totally does not want to do that.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this novel?

There is no on-page sex. There is discussion of Alice’s sexual history, and later a bit of Takumi’s sexual history, as well as references to Feenie and Ryan’s (off-page) sex life. A stranger sexually harasses Alice. There is little in the way of physical violence, but quite a bit of emotional violence.

Tell me more about this novel.

The novel has a particular writing style/tone. I’m not sure how to describe it, so I’ll just spam you with quotes:

Alice had had her first creepy moment, crowning herself the creepiest Creepy McCreeperton in existence.

Was it really anyone’s business that Alice didn’t feel sexual attraction when the rest of the world did? It was Alice’s secret. She could guard it like Smaug hoarding gold if she wanted to.

Willy Wonka could wrap her in plastic, market her, and sell her as a limited edition fool-flavored candy.

He grinned, but was also wringing his hands. “But that’s not all it is, right? You like me as a person, too?”
It took everything Alice had not to laugh at the universe’s perverse sense of humor. Her Personal Living God of Confusing Attraction, Takumi, wanted to know if she, Asexual Alice, liked him as a person.

You might want to strap in for this ride I like to call Not Black Enough to Be the Black Sheep of Black Excellence.

I’m on that rapid weight-loss diet called Starvation Because I Spent My Last Six Dollars on Laundry.

Throughout the book, I was struck by how much Alice is unlike me. It was like being immersed in the head of someone who has a very different worldview. It meant I did not get the ‘this so represents me’ feeling, on the other hand it was interesting, and was a reminder that not everybody thinks like me. For example, Alice doesn’t like exercise and loves sitting on the couch and binge-watching TV shows. I love going on walks and hikes, and while I can enjoy watching TV for a hour to an hour-and-a-half, beyond that I will get restless (unless I am physically ill).

Sara, I think you are like Alice in that you like to write essays about TV shows.

That was years ago.

Oh really?

Okay, fine, I still write essays about TV shows once in a while.

And you also like to eat [vegan] ice cream in winter, and you also don’t like jogging.

Hey, I’m not saying I’m completely unlike Alice. After all, we’re both female aces living in California.

And the fact that I get such a clear sense of who Alice is so that it is so easy for me to compare her to myself demonstrates that she is a very vividly written character.

The main plot seemed to be about Alice’s developing relationship with Takumi. While I was interested in Alice sorting out her feelings and whether or not she was experiencing sexual attraction, that was only in focus in the first part of the novel, and I was not so terribly interested in Alice’s actual relationship with Takumi. There was a sub-plot about Alice’s relationship with Feenie and Ryan, which was potentially much more interesting to me, except it was not fully developed. I think I would have found this story much more interesting if Alice’s relationship with Feenie and Ryan had been the main plot, and her relationship with Takumi had been the sub-plot.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this as an 8.

Alice’s experience with asexuality is very different from mine. That means I did not read this and think ‘aha, this is exactly how I feel as an ace!’ on the other hand it gave me a glimpse of a different way of experiencing asexuality. One obvious difference is that I’m aromantic and Alice is very biromantic. She has also previously had sex (though early in the novel she has decided to stop having sex) largely due to social pressure, whereas I have never had sex nor experienced direct pressure to have sex (I have experienced indirect pressure to have sex – such as pressure to go get a boyfriend – but I’ve never experienced a direct pressure to have sex, such as the way Margot pressured Alice).

Furthermore, though I experience aesthetic attraction, I don’t experience it nearly as strongly as Alice, or maybe it’s just not as personally important to me as it is the Alice.

Does the book make it clear that not all aces are like Alice i.e. that aromantic aces exist, that not all aces experience aesthetic attraction, some aces don’t like kissing, etc.?

The book vaguely mentions that not all aces are like Alice, and IIRC it briefly mentions that not all aces experience aesthetic attraction (or was that kissing), but nowhere does it state that aromantic aces exist.

That sucks, it’s bad ace rep if the book does not mention that some aces are not as into romance as Alice is.

You know what, I disagree with you. No, this novel does not acknowledge aromanticism, but I don’t think it’s on Alice and her story to represent all aces.

I’m not saying Alice needs to represent all aces, that’s impossible, I’m just saying it’s harmful if the book does not make it clear that not all aces want romance like Alice does. How hard would it be for the writer to add JUST A COUPLE SENTENCES which acknowledge that some aces are very different from Alice when it comes to romance and kissing and aesthetic attraction?

*sigh* I don’t think this book is obligated to do that. If this book existed in an environment where aromanticism were a widely known phenomenon, would you be complaining?

No, but that’s a hypothetical situation, this book might be the first time a reader is exposed to human asexuality, what if an aro ace who dislikes kissing who never had contact with the ace community read this book, maybe they would conclude they were not really ace because Alice is really into romance and kissing and they are not?

Again, I don’t think it’s fair to put that type of educational burden on a single book. The solution is to get more aromanticism in fiction, not to force every novel with an ace protagonist to do a full Asexuality 101. Especially since that gets tiresome for ace readers who have been through a lot of Asexuality 101.

I don’t think we’re going to come to an agreement on this. Let’s move on.

I really liked the part where Alice was processing and analyzing and hair-splitting her feelings towards Takumi to figure out if maybe it was sexual attraction. That was a very ace experience. Here’s a little tidbit of that:

“So when I saw Tak- I mean, the person, I thought [it was sexual attraction] at first. They were just exceptionally cute, but then I got really hot and was having trouble thinking and there was action happening down there and I’m confused about stuff now.”

“Did you want to have sex with this person?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” She sighed. No point in holding back now. “I’m still figuring out how that’s supposed to feel.”

“Allow me to rephrase: Did you explicitly think of sexual activity in response to seeing this person?”

“No. I mean, it wasn’t like I wanted to take him to the supply closet for quickie or something.”

“What about now? Would you like to have sex with them?”

“I haven’t thought about it,” she said.

This story is definitely an example of the “When Do I Tell Them I’m Ace” trope, since much of the tension in Alice and Takumi’s relationship is driven by Alice’s hesitation to tell Takumi that she is ace. I this this bit sums up her attitude:

“Last we spoke,” he began, “you were experiencing some anxiety and uncertainty regarding your sexuality.”

“Yeah, that’s still happening. Sort of. But not really … It’s like, my problem is everyone else. I’m not ashamed or uncertain or whatever. I’m ace. It’s cool. I just don’t want to be anybody’s poster child. I’m not made for the front lines. I’ll wither and cry under pressure, so it’s better if I keep it to myself for now.”

There is so much ace content in this novel that I cannot address all of it in this review, but I think I have succeeded in giving a general sense of how asexuality is depicted in this story.

Was this written by an ace?

I don’t know.

Sara, do you like this novel?

I guess? I enjoyed reading it. I appreciate that it explores some ace experiences, and it was good for me in the sense that it is not the kind of thing I would choose to read often, so it breaks up my reading habits. However, if it were not for my interest is seeing how asexuality is presented in fiction, this would not have been my cup of tea.

LOL, Sara, we all know that your cup of tea is a really long sword opera written in Chinese, like that one you mentioned in last week’s post.

Hey, I don’t like all long sword operas written in Chinese, and there are other types of novels which are my cup of tea, such as Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. And that novel was not just about swords, in fact swords didn’t become a major element in the story until more than a thousand pages into the book.

*rolls eyes* Sure, Sara.

A Carnival of Aces November 2018: the Carnival of Aces; Call for Submissions

This month I am hosting A Carnival of Aces, the monthly asexuality blog festival.

So, what’s the theme for this month’s Carnival of Aces?

The Carnival of Aces.

I know that this is a Carnival of Aces thing, but what’s the theme?

The Carnival of Aces.

Wait, the Carnival of Aces itself is the theme? Seriously?

Yep.

That is so meta.

It is very meta.

A Carnival of Aces has been running, with one hiatus, since May 2011. That’s quite a bit of history, and A Carnival of Aces has evolved over that time. This seems like a good time to look back, reflect, and then look forward.

Here are some prompts for inspiration:

– How has Carnival of Aces affected your writing?
– How has Carnival of Aces influenced the way you think about asexuality?
– How have the themes changed over time?
– What are other ways Carnival of Aces has changed over time?
– What types of themes do you think work better? What types of themes do you think work less well?
– Is it good to choose themes that (theoretically) any ace could respond to? Is it good to sometimes choose themes which focus on a specific group of aces, even if that means some aces will not be able to respond, in order to give that specific group more space?
– What ways has the Carnival of Aces ever disappointed you?
– What role does the Carnival of Aces play in the ace blogging community? In the online ace community? In the entire ace community?
– What is the experience of hosting Carnival of Aces like?
– What advice would you give prospective hosts of Carnival of Aces?
– Are there any changes you think may improve Carnival of Aces?
– What is it like to binge-read previous Carnival of Aces?

It is okay to submit something which is not a specific response to the above prompts, as long as it is about A Carnival of Aces.

You keep on switching between ‘A Carnival of Aces’, ‘The Carnival of Aces’, and ‘Carnival of Aces’. What’s up with that?

Maybe I don’t feel like being consistent.

How can we submit?

– Leave a comment here with a link
– I do not want to make my personal email public, but since I am now a contributor to the Asexual Agenda, submissions sent to the Asexual Agenda email address will reach me.
– I can host guest submissions on this blog.
– If I do not respond within 3 days, assume I did not get the submission, and re-submit.
– I will put out the round-up post on December 1st. I will continue to accept submissions until December 5th, and add them to the round-up post retroactively.

I look forward to your submissions!

Nesting Plots in Way of Choices

I recently read 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias. You can get an overview of the 20 master plots here. To some extent, he was trying to find universal storytelling patterns which work across cultures, but he also had some cultural biases (which he sometimes acknowledges). The rationale he gave (indirectly – I’m reading between some of the lines) for some of his cultural biases is that the book is written for Anglophone writers of the late 20th century, and they break the parameters of late 20th century Anglophone culture at their peril. Fair enough. But I’m interested in analyzing story plots, not developing story plots, and some of the plots I want to consider aren’t from 20th century Anglophone cultures.

For example, 20th century English language novels tend to be less than 600 pages long, and 20th century English language movies tend to less than three hours long. Some of the guidelines in the book are based on these restrictions in length, in particular the guideline that a story stick to one dominant plot pattern because there is usually not enough space to support multiple plot patterns. He also recommends that the cast of major characters be kept very small for similar reasons. However, he also admits that 19th century Russian novels did not always follow these particular guidelines because they had the space to be more expansive.

While I was reading this book, I was also reading Way of Choices by Mao Ni (I read it in Chinese; it has also been translated into English). It isn’t just over 600 pages long, according to my e-reader, it’s over 5000 pages long. That includes the commentaries, and my e-reader tends to exaggerate page length, so let’s say it’s just 4000 pages long. Since that was the novel I was reading at the time I was reading 20 Master Plots, I naturally tried to see how it fit with Tobias’ plot guidelines.

You know how I suggested that different cultures tend to produce novels of different lengths? Chinese language literature tends to produce much longer novels that 19th century Russia (though there are also short Chinese novels), so Way of Choices is in no way an anomaly. This list at Wikipedia used to be a total joke because it excluded Chinese novels, now I see it has been updated to include a few Chinese novels, though there are still glaring omissions – how the heck is Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan not on there? It’s about 7000 pages long – I know, because I read the whole thing – it was published in a very traditional manner, it was one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 1990s so it is in no way obscure…

*Ahem*.

Tobias claims that any plot can be summed up by a single core question. I can think of some counterexamples, but the basic question of Way of Choices is obvious: will Chen Changsheng (the protagonist) survive his youth? In the prologue, we learn that Chen Changsheng has a disease which will kill him before he reaches the age of 20 – unless something else kills him first. If that weren’t bad enough, his blood has such an irresistible aroma that most animals (including most humans) will try to eat him if they get a whiff, so he has to be very careful about shedding his own blood. Generally, Chen Changsheng is obsessed with finding at way to not die young.

However, does the whole novel follow a single dominant plot pattern. In my opinion, no.

The first 60% of the novel does have a dominant plot pattern – what Tobias called the ‘quest’ plot. The object of Chen Changsheng’s quest is to find out how to change fate. At the beginning of the novel, he is fated to die young, and in order to not die young, he has to change his fate. Only three people in all of history have changed their fate, and his quest is to find out how they did it so he can do it too. This has great personal meaning to him, if he attains his object (the means to change his fate), it would dramatically change his life (he might not die young). And he picks up a lot of wisdom along the way, particularly concerning the value of life, how to cope with the prospect of death, and whether or not fate is a real thing.

Yet within that dominant pattern, there are numerous plot arcs, and they generally take other patterns. They are essentially smaller plots nested within the dominant plot arc. Tobias says that this can generally only be done in a minor way, and if a novel is only 300 pages long, he’s probably right, but Way of Choices ain’t that short.

For example, the Zhou’s Park arc follows the ‘Adventure’ master plot. Chen Changsheng doesn’t expect to find much to help him in his quest (changing fate to save his own life), but if he figures that if he is going to die young anyway, he would like to do some more traveling and see more places, and he might find some cool treasure in Zhou’s Park. That is why he chooses to go there. The Zhou’s Park arc is about exploring an interesting place and having interesting events happen (and many people/creatures/things trying to kill Chen Changsheng), and not much about character development. And just as Tobias suggests that ‘Adventure’ plots tend to have a romance subplot, Zhou’s Park is where Chen Changsheng has his first seriously romantic experiences.

Another plot arc is the Su Li arc, which follows the ‘Pursuit’ pattern. For a change, everyone is trying to kill Su Li, not (necessarily) Chen Changsheng. However, Chen Changsheng is with Su Li, and does not want to leave him, so they flee together from everyone who is trying to kill them. There is constant tension with regards to whether they are going to be discovered, caught, and killed by their (many) pursuers.

Of course, there are more plot arcs which follow other patterns described by Tobias, but I think these examples are enough to explain what I mean by ‘nesting’ plot arcs.

However, I said only the first 60% of the novel has the ‘Quest’ plot as a dominant narrative. What about the rest of the novel? The basic question (will Chen Changsheng survive) remains the same, but about 3/5 of the way through the novel there is a plot twist which twists the plot so dramatically that it completely changes the dominant plot pattern. After the super plot twist, the dominant pattern is what Tobias calls an ‘Underdog’ plot. Perhaps one could say that the whole plot has ‘Underdog’ as its dominant pattern, it’s just that Chen Changsheng and the reader did not know that for the first 60%.

This part of the novel also has plots nested within the overarching ‘Underdog’ plot. For example, Chen Changsheng’s close friend, Tang Thirty-Six, is practically being kept as a captive/prisoner, and his captor is waiting for favorable circumstances to outright kill him. Naturally, Chen Changsheng wants to set Tang Thirty-Six free. This plot arc follows what Tobias calls the ‘Rescue’ plot pattern.

And then there is the final plot arc which, frankly, was rushed. I think it would have been better if the novel had an extra thousand pages or two to fully flesh out the final arc, but perhaps Mao Ni was tired of writing this novel and wanted to wrap it up. It feels like an epilogue in the sense that it seems to be more about tying up dangling plot threads than letting them play out. It’s also the only plot arc in which the question ‘will Chen Changsheng survive’ is not an ever-present backdrop. That’s not to say that Chen Changsheng isn’t threatened with death in the final arc – he is very much is threatened with death – it’s just that not woven into the story the same way (it is hard to get specific without getting into spoilers). This final arc is most similar to what Tobias calls the ‘Discovery’ plot pattern, in that it is about Chen Changsheng finally learns the answers to various questions.

Based on all of the long novels I’ve read, it seems that, to form a plot for a very long story, nesting plots is not strictly necessary, but it tends to be a very common way to form plots which can run for thousands of pages (or many episodes of a TV show, or whatever the medium is). And I think this may be part of why I feel that novels which exceed 1000 pages are distinct from novels under 600 pages in the same way that novellas/novelets are distinct from novels. If a work of fiction is too short, using nesting plots is impractical, if a work of fiction is long enough, nesting plots is the most practical way to spin a plot.

Nobody Needs to Change Their Name When They Marry

The essay “Why Don’t More Men Take Their Wives’ Last Names?” at The Atlantic opens like this:

In the run-up to marriage, many couples, particularly those of a more progressive bent, will encounter a problem: What is to be done about the last name?

Some have attempted work-arounds: the Smiths and Taylors who have become Smith-Taylors, Taylor-Smiths, or—more creative—Smilors. But there just isn’t always a good, fair option. (While many straight couples fall back on the option of a woman taking her husband’s last name, same-sex couples have no analogous default.)

Notice the option not mentioned? Nobody changing their surname upon marriage. And nowhere does the essay mention the possibility (except in the most indirect way). I suppose there may a situation where each spouse keeping their original surname is not a “good, fair option” but I cannot think of any such situation.

(I have since learned that both the essay writer and her fiancé intend to keep their original surnames when they marry, so she obviously knows that it is an option. The only reason I can think of that she did not bring it up in the essay is because she was trying to keep the word count low.)

I’ve spent several years in Taiwan, where (except for some indigenous people and foreigners) practically nobody changes their surname when they marry. And quite a bit of the fiction I’ve read in the past decade has been in Chinese and set in societies where, not only do people not change their surnames when they marry, they don’t even think about changing their surnames when they marry.

And some of Taiwan’s indigenous groups have very distinct naming traditions, such as the Tao people, who change their name, not when they marry, but when they have their first child (the parents take the child’s name), and then they change their name again when they have their first grandchild. Basically, in traditional Tao society, children aren’t named after their parents, parents/grandparents are named after their eldest child/grandchild.

And there is this interesting essay by an American woman in Taiwan who decided to change her surname to her husband’s name, even though it goes against Taiwanese conventions. Though I don’t know why she says this: “I’m not sure why name-changing never caught on in Taiwan” – why would she expect wives-taking-their-husband’s names to ever catch on in Taiwan? What reason would the Taiwanese have had to change? (Okay, yes, Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire for about 50 years, but apparently the Japanese were uninterested in changing this aspect of Taiwanese culture).

In Sinophone societies, if a mother and child have the same surname, it tends to mean one of the following things 1) the mother is in a ruzhui marriage, 2) the father is unknown or 2) the father and mother have the same surname, (which carries the connotation of incest, even though many Chinese people who have the same surname aren’t related at all, marrying someone with the same surname is still a bit taboo). Even if the parents are not married, if the father is known, the child will take the father’s surname 99% of the time. For example, in The Condor Trilogy (which includes that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog), Mu Nianci is adopted by a man whose surname is Mu, so she take his surname, not the surname of her biological father. She gets a crush on Yang Kang. It then turns out that her adopted father’s real surname is Yang, not Mu, but Mu Nianci chooses to keep the surname ‘Mu’ because, if she has the same surname as Yang Kang, then marrying him would be taboo. It turns out that they never marry (at least in the original novel, they get married in some of the TV adaptations), but she does have a child with him, and their child takes the surname Yang because, even though his parents were not married, it is obvious that Yang Kang is his father.

A few years ago I wrote a post culture countershock in Japan. I can add another example of culture countershock to the list I wrote in that post. I met a woman in Hokkaido and learned her full name. I later met her daughter. Then I stumbled across a package which was to be delivered to the daughter, and I saw the daughter’s full name. I was shocked to learn that she had the exact same surname as her mother. You would think this would not be surprising at all, especially since I myself have the same surname as my mother. However, after having been in Taiwan for years, and for years 99% percent of the fiction I read was set in Sinophone societies, I had internalized the idea that mothers and daughters having the same surname is weird.

A few minutes after seeing the daughter’s name, I figured out that in Japanese society women probably take their husbands’ surnames, just like in the traditional/conventional United States. I don’t know why I assumed the Japanese, like the Chinese, almost never change their surnames upon marriage, I guess because Japan is also a traditionally ‘Confucian’ society? But most probably because I had so fully internalized the Sinophone tradition of not even thinking about changing a surname upon marriage, let alone actually changing a surname upon marriage, that I just … did not think about it.

In the letters responding to that essay in The Atlantic, it is pointed out that it is very common for women in India to keep their original surnames after marriage, and that in Quebec, the government requires women to keep their original surnames and they have to petition the courts if they want to take their husband’s surname. Considering the population of India and China, it is very possible that a majority of the world’s people take it for granted that a wife will probably keep her original surname after she marries, and the people who live in societies where women are expected to take their husband’s surnames are actually a minority.

I’ll be honest, I think not changing a surname at marriage is the most sensible choice. I can respect that some people think it is good/important for everyone in a [nuclear] family to have the same surname, but I do not see how that is good or important. My parents don’t have the same surname, and that’s fine. I’ve lived in an entire society (Taiwan) where people don’t change their surnames except for adoption and some exceptional circumstances (unless they belong to certain cultural minorities), and it works just fine. It’s egalitarian. In fact, I think the idea of someone changing their name when the marry makes about as much sense as the Tao tradition of changing their name when they have their first child/grandchild (by that I meant that they are both traditions which can work, but requires people to change their name just because they formed a new relationship with another person, and having people change their names can be confusing). Barring some really unusual circumstance, I am never going to change my surname, whether I marry or not (if I do marry, I’ll let my spouse do whatever they want with their surname).

That said, I also support people having the choice to change their own surname for whatever reason. I may think their reason is silly, but I want people to feel free to do what they want with their surnames even if I think it’s silly. If one wants to change one’s surname because of marriage, fine, if one wants to change one’s surname to ‘Potter’ to express one’s love of the Harry Potter franchise, that’s also fine. I do not judge people who change their surname when they marry, regardless of gender.

Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 2

Yes, I think the parents described in the editorial are hypocrites, at least in a general way. I would probably have a more nuanced view if I got to know them.

I have some relatives who could be described as affluent white progressive parents, and I think, for the most part, they are not hypocrites with regards to social justice. But they do not behave like the parents described in the editorial. They do send their kids to race-and-class diverse public schools, some of them used to live with their kids in a neighborhood with plenty of non-affluent African-American neighbors (which, um, gentrification, but that’s different from the issues raised in the editorial) and I’ve seen that their kids’ peer groups is also diverse, and based on listening to their kids talk about social justice issues, I think they’ve done as much to pass on social justice values as is possible for affluent white people.

I believe the parents described in the editorial are sincerely in favor of progressive changes which do not threaten their privilege, but when their is a conflict between preserve their privilege and pursuing social justice, they clearly choose to preserve their privilege. If they actually cared about racial and class diversity, they would send their children to public schools and get involved in school politics to improve those school. As a public school parent, my mother was able to make a few very small improvements to San Francisco’s public school system. If she had been a private school parent she would have been too far outside the public school system to do anything meaningful.

And I do not think that social justice values is the only way they are hypocrites. They claim that they want their children to have the best education possible. Yet, based on what I read between the lines in that editorial, that’s not what they are doing. They are trying to improve their children’s social standing, not their intellectual or personal development.

First of all, I think there is an educational benefit to being around students of diverse backgrounds. That includes, but is not limited to race and class diversity. As a teenager, I attended a summer boarding school which had an admission policy of having student body which represented all of the regions of California, with a slight tilt in favor of students from rural regions which offered fewer summer education options. It was the first time in my life I got spend a lot of time with peers who weren’t from San Francisco. Exposure to that geographical diversity expanded my horizons.

I think the greater benefit of diverse schools is not the passing on social justice values, but the fact that people from different backgrounds tend to have different points of view, and being exposed to many points of view is good for developing independent thinking skills. By not sending their children to diverse schools or putting them in diverse environments, they are denying their children that benefit.

Beyond that, it seems that these parents are choosing their private schools for prestige and exclusivity, not because they have verified that these private schools actually offer better education. It is very difficult to compare the education quality at public and private schools, but the studies with the largest sample sizes find that, when you control for socio-economic background, private schools do not offer better educational outcomes than public schools.

That is not to say that all private schools are primarily for entrenching/advancing elite privilege. There are many kinds of private schools. Yes, I think there are situations where attending a private school may be the better choice for intellectual/personal development, as well as situations where, even if the private school does not provide a better education than public schools, it has some other advantage which justifies the cost.

Though if it is one of those high schools which charge $40,000/yr for tuition – and San Francisco has some of those – I cannot imagine any advantage which justifies that cost; even if it were the best high school in the world AND the only high school in all of San Francisco AND I had that money on hand, at that price I would choose homeschooling, and if I were so wealthy that $40,000/yr was pocket change, I would rather hire a bunch of really good tutors than send my kid to high school. Okay, I can imagine ONE situation where paying more than $40,000/yr for high school tuition would be worth it; my child has special needs due to disability which I absolutely cannot meet with homeschooling and that super-expensive high school is the only way to meet those needs.

However, the real tell for me is this line from the editorial: “One boy said proudly, ‘My school is not for everyone’ — a statement that reflected how thoroughly he’d absorbed his position in the world in relation to others.” Okay, yes, it is impossible for a school to be right for absolutely everyone, therefore no school is for everyone, but clearly that was not the boy’s point. It’s seems that these parents are choosing schools for their exclusivity, to signal that heir children have the means to enter schools which less privileged kids cannot. I cannot find the essay, but I recall reading a piece by Alfie Kohn which argued that, if a private school really wants to prove that they offer superior education, they need to do admissions by lottery, and then produce better education outcomes than other schools. If a private school gets to cherry-pick students, it’s not proving that it provides a better education, it is just proving that it knows how to choose better students.

I think for some private school parents – including the ones described in the editorial, the point is not to actually provide a better education, but to have those schools mark their child as being ‘superior’ by admitting them while rejecting ‘lesser’ children. It is also why some people prefer to attend colleges with lower admission rates – admission rate does not say much about educational quality, but being able to say ‘nyah nyah, I was one of the 5% who was able to get into this famous exclusive college where most of the lower division classes are taught by underpaid graduate students with little teaching experience’ is a much more prestigious social marker than ‘I got into this college with wonderful experienced teachers which has a 100% admission rate’.

(And obviously, private schools select heavily for income/wealth, especially the ones which charge higher tuition and/or offer less financial aid).

You remember that summer boarding school I mentioned? Not only did my parents not help me get in, they were opposed to me attending it, it was harder to convince them to let me go than in was to get admitted to that school, and I had to pay for the tuition myself (as a 15-year-old, when I was not eligible for financial aid because of my family’s income). But in the end, I’m glad that summer school experience was something that I made happen rather than something that my parents handed to me on a platter. My parents almost did me a favor by being an obstacle (though that is not how I interpreted the situation at the time).

If the parents described in the editorial really are doing things like arranging ‘coveted summer internships’ for their children, than means that their children are not learning how to go out on their own and seek their own opportunities. And that disturbs me for than their social justice hypocrisy.