Feminist Benefits of Reading Beyond One’s Own Culture

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

According to Goethe, “wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen” which means “those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” In English, we speak of fish learning to see water. Though I think it is possible to know something of one’s own language without knowing others, learning a different language is certainly a very powerful tool for become conscious of many aspects of one’s native language.

Likewise, learning about another culture is a powerful tool for becoming more conscious of one’s own culture. By extension, observing patriarchy in another culture can be a very useful tool for better understanding patriarchy in one’s own culture.

I think one of the things which has become apparent in this Rambling Series is that the sexism and misogyny in Jin Yong stories are sometimes similar to Anglophone pop sexism/misogyny, and sometimes different. Comparing the two is a way to learn a lot about patriarchy as expressed in Jin Yong’s stories (and to some extent, Chinese fiction in general, though not all Chinese writers are Jin Yong). It is just as effective for learning about patriarchy as expressed in Anglophone pop fiction.

China, obviously, has been a patriarchal society for all of recorded history, though the nature of patriarchy has varied by region and over the course of the millennia. All large Anglophone societies are also patriarchal, and Anglophone patriarchy likewise varies by region and historical period.

I admit, I am usually suspicious when a native Anglophone deplores Chinese cultures for how it treats women and girls, especially when it comes with the subtext that Anglophone society isn’t nearly so patriarchal (I am saying ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘Sinophone’ since most Anglophone natives don’t make that distinction!) It is true that there are some horrific misogynist practices which have existed in Chinese society which have not existed in Anglophone society. However, when someone is trying to show how Chinese society is so much more horrible to women and girls than Anglophone society, they tend to cherrypick their examples, and ignore all of the bad stuff Anglophone society does which Chinese society does not do. When it seems the point of the analysis is to understand patriarchy in both Anglophone and Sinophone societies, rather than to simply prove that Chinese society is bad, I am more inclined to take it seriously.

There is another benefit to reading outside one’s culture. Since I grew up in the United States, my sore points when it comes to patriarchy have been shaped by American patriarchy. I’m not talking about when I’m doing feminism as an intellectual exercise – I’m talking about me trying to enjoy a story without necessarily examining it critically, and doing my best to ignore the sexism when each instance of that sexist trope YET AGAIN wears me out a little more.

The sore points in Sinophone pop fiction for female readers are sometimes different. For example, female characters are much less likely to be visually sexualized in Sinophone pop culture than Anglophone pop culture. Sinophone pop sexism creates its own sore points, but when they are not the same points where Anglophone pop sexism has ground down on me, I’m not quiet so sore yet.

Even though I’ve focused on comparative feminism and sexism, other aspects of culture can be compared, such as disability, or a zillion other things. However, to pull this off, one needs to expose oneself sufficiently to a culture other than one’s own.

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Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

The Columbia River, with the Bridge of the Gods in the background, as seen from Cascade Locks on July 24, 2017.

I started my 500 mile trek across the state of Washington in the town of Cascade Locks. The day before my hike, a certain wonderful person (you know who you are) gave me a ride from Portland through the Columbia River Gorge, visiting several of the famous waterfalls. On day one of my hike, I traversed the Bridge of the Gods on foot, crossing the threshold into Washington. At the time, I was thinking about the beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, and how nice it would be to see more of the waterfalls on another trip to Oregon.

One of the many fantastic waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge.

I had no idea that, less than two months later, the town of Cascade Locks would be evacuated, the Bridge of the Gods would be shut down, and the Columbia River Gorge would go up in flames. As that same wonderful friend said when I saw her again in Portland this week “I’m so glad I took you to see the Columbia River Gorge when I did. It will never look the same again in our lifetimes.”

My tent in Cascade Locks on July 24, 2017. I slept in a tent because I didn’t want to pay for a motel room, but now some residents of Cascade Locks are sleeping in tents because of the evacuation order.

Over a hundred hikers had to be evacuated around Cascade Locks. Most were day hikers or weekend hikers, but some were long-distance Pacific Crest Trail hikers – and I’ve read that some PCT hikers from Germany who did not have anywhere to go in the United States stayed in the same evacuation shelter as the displaced locals. If my luck and timing were different, I might have been one of the hikers who needed evacuated.

This is a photo I took of the Bridge of the Gods on July 25, 2017.

The photos of Cascade Locks from the past week feel very surreal to me. You can see an example of such a photo here.

At this point, it is not known whether or not the town will be burned down. Right now the fire is slowing down and containment is increasing (as of the time of writing), but conditions could turn for the worse. The extent of the damage of the fire is also still unknown because it’s too dangerous to investigate, though one article says that firefighters need snow plows to get through the debris on the road.

Fire is a completely ordinary part of the ecosystem in much of Oregon – but fires of this scale are not an ordinary part of the ecosystem in the Columbia River Gorge. This fire was only able to grow so big and so fast because this has been an exceptionally warm and dry summer in the Pacific Northwest. These warmer and drier summers are most likely part of broader changes in the climate, some of which have been caused by putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And this is just the prelude of climate change. If this is the prelude, I don’t want to see the climax, but I also know it’s inevitable because we have failed to prevent climate change (it’s already here) and we refuse to take the actions which would slow it down. Therefore, we are going to have to take climate change as it comes, whether we like it or not. Here is a good essay about climate change and the Pacific Crest Trail.

Looking towards the Diamond Creek fire from Lakeview Ridge on August 28, 2017.

And there are much bigger fires raging across the Pacific Northwest right now. The fire around Cascade Locks is the highest priority because it is an immediate threat to a town, but out in the wildernesses of Oregon and Washington there are much bigger blazes. The Diamond Creek fire – which I had to pass – is about three times bigger. For weeks, I was wondering if the Diamond Creek fire would force me off trail, but the Pacific Crest Trail stayed open. The trail is still open as of the time of writing, but they just closed the Hart’s Pass road because of the fire. That’s a big deal, because the Hart’s Pass road is the only road access to the Pacific Crest Trail between Rainy Pass and Manning Park, and the best escape route beyond Rainy Pass if anything goes seriously wrong. There were a lot of people at Hart’s Pass when I passed through, and a lot of them needed that road. Furthermore, all of the escape routes east of the Pacific Crest Trail north of Rainy Pass are now closed because of the fire, and all of the escape routes to the west are long and difficult. On top of that, many hikers cannot legally enter Canada, so if they are forced off the trail because of the fire, they might have to hike over 50 miles (possibly over very difficult trail) to get out of the woods (or they could enter Canada illegally). Worst of all, the Diamond Creek fire is getting so big that the town of Mazama is under evacuation notice – the residents are not required to leave yet, but they may be required to leave at any time.

I did not go to Mazama, but I did camp next to the Methow River (the river is under the bridge in the photo) which eventually flows to Mazama.

Even though Diamond Creek fire was not a direct threat when I went through Paysaten, and the Hart’s Pass road was still open, I definitely inhaled some smoke from that fire. Coincidently, the Diamond Creek fire crossed the border into Canada on the same day I did, so it’s now burning in both Washington and British Columbia – and since it was already the worst fire season in British Columbia history, they really did not need to import a fire from the USA.

Look at all of that haze generated by the Diamond Creek fire (photo taken at Lakeview Ridge on August 28, 2017).

However, after the worst is over … there will be a recovery. It may not be a full recovery, and some things will be lost forever. Nonetheless, there will be some kind of recovery. My hometown, San Francisco, was notoriously destroyed by a fire and it recovered – eventually.

This was the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle AND San Francisco Examiner on April 19, 1906. It had to be printed in Oakland because all of the newspaper printing presses in San Francisco had been destroyed. You can read the article here.

I will end this with a picture from the Mt. Adams wilderness. The area around Mt. Adams burned in 2015. It’s still an obviously scorched area. And now that all of the tall trees are dead, there in an abundance of sunlight which is allowing the wild flowers to explode with growth and color. Meanwhile, there are many saplings which will, in time, restore the forest. Since the Columbia River Gorge has a very different environment from Mt. Adams, the fire there is not going to have the same effect. Still, even though something wonderful and special is being lost, and no doubt some people’s lives are going to be ruined, perhaps there will be a silver lining.

Wildflowers growing in a forest which burned in 2015.

At Canada’s Mercy

So, I wrote a short post called I AM IN CANADA!!!! on a smartphone I borrowed from someone else … and somehow WordPress ate the post and only put the link. I could try to re-write the post and have it be as I originally intended, but you know what? The way that post got eaten totally reflects my first week in Canada.

I hiked into Canada, over 25 miles from the nearest road on the US side of the border (more than 40 miles to the nearest US highway) and more than 5 miles from the nearest ATV road in Canada, with further miles to the first *highway* in Canada. I crossed the border on August 29. I entered Canada with no phone, computer, or other electronic device which can be used for communication (except my beacon, which can only send distress signals, not connect to the internet or phone network).

Canada is hot and smoky, especially near that border crossing. To be fair, though the Canada side of the border was hotter (yes, it’s hotter on the Canada side than the USA side) the air seemed to be cleaner, probably because I was just a little further from the Diamond Creek wildfire.

I arrived in Canada midweek (Tuesday, to be specific), so it would be okay to do reservations at the last minute, right?

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

First of all, the public computer at Manning Park wasn’t working, so it was more than 24 hours before I could access the Greyhound website … only to find out that the Greyhound bus was sold out (if I had gotten internet access JUST A FEW HOURS EARLIER, I would have been able to buy a ticket). But that’s just as well, because the Greyhound only serves Manning Park at 2 am … except it’s usually a few hours late. And then it got booked solid for a few days in a row, which is a problem for hikers who can’t arranged to be picked up in Manning Park and also cannot reserve bus tickets in advance because they are not sure what day they will be in Manning Park. The staff at Manning Park were very surprised that the Greyhound bus was sold out – they said it sometimes sells out on weekends, but almost never midweek.

Oh, and Labor Day weekend was coming up. Apparently, Canada has the same Labor Day as the USA, rather than celebrating Labor Day on May 1st. Who knew? (Okay, I suppose Canadians knew that). ALL THE HOSTELS IN VANCOUVER WERE BOOKED SOLID!!!!! ALL OF THEM!!!!! ALL THE HOSTELS ON VANCOUVER ISLAND WERE BOOKED SOLID TOO!!!!

While Manning Park is a nice place, I did not want to get stuck there. So I booked the one hostel in the Vancouver region which had space that weekend – on Denman Island. Then I had to get to Denman Island, and since Greyhound was not an option, that left … hitchhiking.

This is where my luck turned around.

I spent a few hours begging for a ride at Manning Park, only to learn that 95% of the traffic was going east, not west to Vancouver. Finally, a guy stopped for a cup of coffee, had room in his truck for a passenger and … his destination was Denman Island, because he lives there (BTW, Denman Island has a population of about 1000 people, give or take a few hundred). THIS WAS SUPER LUCKY!!!!! That’s how I got from Manning Park to Denman Island. That guy was a true trail angel.

Anyway, I loved spending the long weekend on Denman Island. It was totally chill, and I probably enjoyed it more than I would have enjoyed the city.

Now, I am finally in downtown Vancouver. While Denman Island was definitely a more gradual way to transition away from life on the Pacific Crest Trail, I am a city native. I think that even if, as soon as I got off the Pacific Crest Trail, someone had given me a ride straight to the heart of Vancouver, I would have still taken to it like a duck to water. Whereas I have to adjust to life on the Pacific Crest Trail, I don’t have to do much to psychologically adjust to a city on the western coast of North America. That said, I would not have wanted to get from Manning Park straight back home to San Francisco without a cool-down period.

And the Vancouver hostel has a computer with internet access, which is how I am able to write this blog post.

MEANWHILE… three sections of the Pacific Crest Trail which I hiked during this very trip – a total of about 130 miles – are currently closed due to wildfires. Furthermore, I’ve read that Cascade Locks, the town where I started the 500 mile trek, has been evacuated. I am grateful that I never had to deal with fire closures – or deal with a wildfire up close.

There’s Nothing Stopping Writers from Having Female Protagonists in Wuxia

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

Some people might claim that Jin Yong wrote put sexism/misogyny into his stories because he was a product of his time (the 1950s – 1970s) and his society (China / Hong Kong).

On some level, this is true: China / Hong Kong is a patriarchal society, and if it were not, then there probably would have been a lot less sexism/misogyny in his stories.

However, I don’t think ‘Jin Yong is a product of his time and place’ is a sufficient explanation. Why not? One of the shortest answers is: Liang Yusheng.

Liang Yusheng was another popular wuxia writer from Hong Kong in the middle of the 20th century (in fact, he’s the one who encouraged Jin Yong to start writing wuxia in the first place). A lot of Liang Yusheng stories have a female character as the lead protagonist (whereas Jin Yong only wrote one novella with a female lead protagonist). Furthermore, many of the problems I’ve been describing with how Jin Yong treats his female characters don’t apply to Liang Yusheng’s stories, or don’t apply nearly as often.

Bridgette Lin as Lian Nichang in The Bride with White Hair

Liang Yusheng’s most famous story is The White-Haired Demoness, also known in English as Romance of the White-Haired Maiden and The Bride with White Hair. While much of the novel is mediocre, the lead character, Lian Nichang, is one of the most memorable characters is all of wuxia, and I think that’s the reason why they still make new adaptations of the novel to this day (I haven’t seen any of them, but the one I’d be most interested in giving a try is the one starring Ada Choi). She was raised by wolves, so she doesn’t understand why people do such silly things, such as claim that men and women can’t be friends without being lovers (she becomes friends with men, because why the heck not?) She is so iconic that it’s difficult to have a broad discussion of female characters in the the wuxia genre without mentioning her. Much of the story is about Lian Nichang’s romance with a male character – but unlike Jin Yong’s novels, she’s not there to stimulate his character development; he’s there to stimulate her character development. It’s not a problem that female character fall in love and have romances; it’s a problem that most wuxia stories use romance to subsume the female character into the male character’s story.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with have a lead male character. What I DO want is to have a roughly equal mix of stories with a lead male character and a lead female character – and that’s not how it is in wuxia (with the exception of Liang Yusheng’s stories).

This becomes even more starkly obvious when we talk specifically about trans female characters. In the stories of both Jin Yong and Gu Long (Gu Long is the third of the really famous mid-20th century wuxia writers, alongside Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng), all trans women are villains. Furthermore, their trans status is used as evidence of their evil. If you ever need an example of how NOT to write trans women into fiction, I suggest both The Smiling Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖) by Jin Yong and Two Peerless Heroes (絕代雙驕) by Gu Long. By contrast, in Seven Swords (七劍下天山) by Liang Yusheng, there is a trans woman who is not an antagonist. Sure, she’s just a minor character, but at least she’s not associated with evil.

Liang Yusheng was not as talented as Jin Yong, which is why his works are not as widely read today, or adapted into other media as frequently (except The White-Haired Demoness, which is adapted more often than Jin Yong’s less popular stories). This unfortunate, because it would be awesome to combine Liang Yusheng’s treatment of female characters with Jin Yong’s talent. However, to the extent that Liang Yusheng is still appreciated today, a lot of is because he handled female characters well. As one wuxia fan on the internet put it “read Liang Yusheng for the good female characters.”

Liang Yusheng came from the same social and cultural milieu as Jin Yong, and was writing wuxia during the same time period. This shows that Jin Yong could have chosen to be less sexist and non-misogynist, and have female lead protagonists. Instead, he chose to be more sexist and misogynist, and only put a lead female protagonist in a single novella. Thus, Jin Yong’s time and place is an insufficient explanation of why there is sexism and misogyny in his stories.

The Heart of the Matter: Is It the Male’s Journey or the Female’s Journey?

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

In the last two parts of this rambling series, I looked at damsels in distress and distressed dudes. It’s pretty clear that Jin Yong does not present female characters as being helpless or being unable to do anything useful, nor does he treat them as prizes for male heroes to win from the villains. If anything, it’s actually the opposite. However, the opposite of one sexist thing might be just another sexist thing.

In Jin Yong stories, rather than having a male character compete for the possession of female characters, there are a lot more instances of female characters competing for the affections of the male protagonist. Sometimes, the male protagonist chooses more than one female character to be his mate (polygyny), but usually he only picks one, and the others ‘lose’ and either live a life of celibacy or has a tragic death. The only exception I can think of right now is Cheng Yaojia (程瑤迦) – she falls in love with the male protagonist but later decides to marry a guy who will actually return her affections and she (presumably) lives happily ever after.

The problem with this is that it makes it seem like that the female characters are there to help the male protagonist on his journey rather than have character development journeys of their own.

An illustration of Zhao Min.

Let’s take Zhao Min as our first example. She is one of my favorite characters in The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre – I felt that the novel became a lot more interesting once she joins the story. She’s ruthless, she’s witty, she’s clever, she wears men’s clothes when she wants to and doesn’t care if everyone knows she’s a woman when she’s doing it, though she does some cruel things she is not a sadist (which makes her more likeable than some of the other villains) and while she is a liar she’s not a hypocrite (which is why even when she’s a ‘villain’ she is more likeable than some of the ‘good’ characters). You can get a better sense of what she’s like by watching the same scene as performed by several different actresses who each have their own interpretation of Zhao Min: 1984, 1994, 2003 and 2009 (only the last two have English subs, but since all of this clips show the same scene from the novel they all have similar dialogue).

At first, Zhao Min is a badass Mongol princess who is determined to keep her family in power and the foil all of those pathetic Chinese people who are trying to end Mongol rule of China – and for her, the end justifies the means. However, during the story, she decides that she does not want to be a princess anymore, and she does not particularly want to be a Mongol either, and she no longer cares if the Chinese drive the Mongols out of China. This COULD have been a great character growth arc – a ruthless and power-hungry mastermind who figures out that some things in life are more important than having power. However, there is just this one little problem…

She gives up on being a badass princess because she fall in love with the male protagonist. After she falls in love with him, she just wants to do things to help him. Thus, it does not read so much like genuine character growth as her just transferring her loyalty from her father and brothers to her lover. For example, she stops doing evil stuff NOT because her moral values changed, but because her lover wouldn’t approve of her doing evil stuff.

Sigh.

I mean, even after she falls in love, she’s still a great character – she’s still wicked smart and sassy – she is just putting all of her talents in service of the male protagonist, rather than using them to pursue her own goals.

Zhao Min does interrupt the male protagonist when he’s about to marry another female character and uses her wits to get him to abandon his own wedding, but it turned out to be for his own good. (Zhao Min is the one in this picture with really long hair).

And there’s Huang Rong. She’s a great character … but her goal throughout BOTH of the novels in which she appears is to server his male love interest. Yes, she becomes leader of the Beggars’ Sect, but a) she originally became involved in the Beggars’ Sect to make her male love interest stronger (not to make herself stronger, to make HIM stronger) and b) she steps down as leader of the Beggars’ sect so she can be a better wife and mother. She often makes decisions which are not in her own best interests if it serves his interested. And what about her male love interest – does he ever make concessions to help her achieve her goals? No, though to be fair, that would not be easy since she does not seem to much in the way of goals independent of him. Instead, he pursues his own goals for his own reasons, and she’s there to help him.

Also, while *he* gets a major character growth arc, in which he becomes both physically more powerful and develops morally, Huang Rong does not grow much during the story.

Ren Yingying has more of a personal growth arc than Zhao Min and Huang Rong. She starts off as the leader of her own cult of loyal followers, and she is slightly evil, though not really a villain. Yes, she falls in love with the male protagonist, but she does at least have some change of heart which does not entirely revolve around him (she spends time as a prisoner in the Shaolin Temple where she read some Buddhist scriptures which helps her change her ways). Yet her story is still mainly about how she helps the male protagonist or presents him with a dilemma which makes him develop personally. Oh, she does end the civil war and restore peace to the martial arts world – ~entirely off page~.

Ren Yingying is, among other things, a good musician (and yes, that’s relevant to the plot).

Yilin – though I find the way she is sexualized to be creepy – actually does get a halfway decent personal growth arc, and that’s one of the reasons I am particularly fond of her. Yet all of her character growth is centered around helping the male protagonist. The Hengshan nuns in general are cool, since they are a rare example of a group of women in a Jin Yong story who are not totally focused on men, and in fact are more righteous than their male counterparts, though the male protagonist ends up being their leader (yes, the male protagonist becomes the leader of an order of nuns).

And Li Wenxiu, the ~only female Jin Yong protagonist~ (from “White Horse Neighs in the West Wind” – there is a summary on Wikipedia) does have goals which aren’t about serving her male love interest, though she non-romantic goals much less assiduously than most male Jin Yong protagonists, and she also does not have much character growth.

Of the major Jin Yong female characters, the one who comes closest to having a goal other than serving her male love interest (besides Ren Yingying, who really does have the goal of controlling/pacifying the martial arts world even if that is mostly is off-page) is Xiaolongnü. Her goal is to … have a very quiet life almost completely withdrawn from society. Hey, whatever you think of her goal, at least it’s a goal which isn’t related to serving or pleasing any man. Furthermore, she is the only one who asks her male love interest to at least partially set aside his goals to help her reach her goal. Yes, she also sometimes sets aside her goal to help with his goal, but the fact that he yields AT ALL to her at the expense of his own goal is rare in Jin Yong. And yes, it is an abusive relationship at times (for example, she tries to kill him at one point), but that does not change any of what I have said).

An illustration of Xiaolongnü.

Xiaolongnü also has more personal growth/change than just about any female Jin Yong character – she goes from being an emotionless girl indifferent to the prospect of her own death to being a very sensitive person full of feelings. And what caused this character change? Loving the male protagonist (I know, it’s such a surprise). However, at least after she’s in love since still pursues her original goal.

I suspect it’s not a coincidence that Xiaolongnü/Yang Guo is in some ways a gender reversal of the typical Jin Yong romance – he’s smarter than her, she’s older than him, he’s amazingly handsome (unlike the typically plain-looking male protagonist), she’s much more honest than him, etc. And yet, STILL, it’s really Yang Guo’s story more than Xiaolongnü’s story since his personal struggles, not hers, take center place.

The best single feminist essay I’ve read about ‘strong female characters’ is “Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women” by Shana Mlawski. Here’s a quote:

They don’t have to be physically strong, although they can be — The Bride, the women from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Ripley, Sarah Connor, and even the half-naked Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop are strong Strong female characters. Strong just means they have their own goals that move beyond “I want to do whatever the male hero wants to do” or “I want to marry the male hero.” “I want to have a baby” is moderately better – moderately. Let’s try to be a little more creative, huh?

(minor aside: yes I noticed that the character from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon the essayist used as an example of good ‘female’ character is arguable a trans male character, but I assume that she can’t read Chinese and thus has never read Iron Rider Silver Vase where that character is depicted as identifying as male.)

I think this really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with how Jin Yong uses his female characters (I mean, there are other sexist and misogynist things in his books which I haven’t addressed in this series, but I’m not trying to address everything). They are generally not treated as characters who grow and pursue whatever aspirations they develop – instead, they mainly function in the story to serve as accessories to the male protagonist and his character growth arc / storyline. She is beautiful to please him (and the presumed straight male readers), her intelligence is there to help him with his quest rather than a quest of her own.

So am I basically just asking for more female protagonists? Actually, I do want more female protagonists, but that’s not the point, or rather, it’s only part of the point. Plenty of male supporting characters in Jin Yong stories have goals which have nothing to do with female love interests, and while the protagonists tend to experience the most character growth, supporting male characters sometimes change and grow too (more often than supporting female characters, I may add).

It’s not about whether the male characters are competing over possession of a female, or the female characters are competing over possession of a male. It’s not about who is ‘weak’ or who is ‘strong’. It’s about who gets to be deemed worthy in their own right, and gets to have their own journey rather than just be part of someone else’s journey.

Damsels in Distress vs. Distressed Dudes in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

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

Content note: this post discusses violence against females

In the previous part, I talked about damsels in distress in Jin Yong stories. In this part, I’ll discuss female Jin Yong characters who rescue distressed dudes. I will start with an example from The Smiling Proud Wanderer.

Qu Feiyan in the 1996 TV adaptation of The Smiliing Proud Wanderer, also known as State of Divinity

Qu Feiyan is about ten years old. This does not stop her from being one of the cleverest characters in the entire story (her entry in Baidu Baike, which is China’s equivalent of Wikipedia, claims that she is one of the most intelligent characters in the Jin Yong canon). She watches the male protagonist, get severely injured, and it is pretty clear that, without medical treatment, he is going to die. Qu Feiyan first arranges for him to be moved to a safe location where his enemies won’t find him easily, she finds and persuades a nun to bring the medicine that he needs, and she manipulates a villain into serving as his bodyguard while he is unconscious. Thus, she saves his life. This is a clear example of a female character rescuing a distressed dude (actually, two female characters, since Yilin also deserves some credit).

After the protagonist is no longer at imminent risk of dying from his injuries, this is what happens in the next scene where Qu Feiyan appears (this is highly summarized and thus leaves out a lot of details and context):

Minor Character: Her grandfather is evil, therefore she is evil too, and you must kill her!
Protagonist: No, I’m not going to kill a child!
Minor Character: If you refuse to kill her, then you’re evil too.
[Minor Character kills Qu Feiyan]
Minor Character: Since you’re still heavily injured, you can’t defend yourself, so now I’m going to kill you too.
[A martial arts master comes out of nowhere and kills Minor Character]

To summarize the summary, the deus ex machina comes in the nick of time to save the male protagonist’s life, but not in time to save the life of Qu Feiyan.

In fact, Qu Feiyan herself is mainly a deux ex machina to save the protagonist’s life, albeit one who is well disguised by having a clever, cheerful, and mischievous personality. Once she’s served that purpose, she’s disposable.

Now, at this point a lot of Jin Yong fans would point out that this novel was written during the Cultural Revolution and Hong Kong riots of 1967, and that the murder of Qu Feiyan is clearly part of the political allegory. I agree that this scene sends a clear and deliberate political message, and if this were an isolated incident, I would not necessarily consider it an example of sexism or misogyny.

The thing is, it’s not an isolated incident in Jin Yong’s fiction. In fact, in the very same novel, The Smiling Proud Wanderer, a different female character saves a male character’s life, and later, that very same male character kills her, and after he has already delivered the killing blow, she decides to save his life one last time right before she dies. That is, unless one considers that ‘male’ character to be a transwoman (which is a possible interpretation of the novel – at the very least, that particular character is queer-coded) which would mean that, on top of everything else, this part of the plot would be transmisogynist.

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils

You may remember that I mentioned Ah Zhu in the was probably the most intelligent character in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, and also mentioned her in the previous post as one of the most clearcut examples of a damsel in distress. If you don’t already know her story, you can find it at Wikipedia under ‘Azhu’.

Major Spoiler warning for the next two paragraphs.

She lets her fiancé kill her so she can save her father. This is in spite of the fact that she has had very little contact with her father because he was a deadbeat dad. But, really, she lets her fiancé kill her so she can save her father. I had a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around that when I first read the novel.

But there’s more. She becomes a Lost Lenore / Gwen Stacy, and to top that all off, her sister, Ah Zi, is so moved by Qiao Feng’s feelings when he buries her that Ah Zi falls in love with him. That’s right, Ah Zi falls in love with the guy who killed her sister while he is burying her sister. You can see it for yourself (and you don’t need to understand Chinese because there isn’t much dialogue in that scene).

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

I’ve mentioned Cheng Lingsu a couple times in this series already. Like Qu Feiyan and Ah Zhu, she is hype-intelligent, possibly the most intelligent character in the novel where she appears. You can also get a summary of her story from Wikipedia, though I think the fact that I am putting her in the same category as Qu Feiyan and Ah Zhu is a huge hint.

I could cite more examples, but at this point, I think you get the idea (this does not always the most intelligent character in the story, but the more intelligent female character are at greater risk of falling into this pattern). Basically, the female character is first exploited to save a male character (usually, though not necessarily, the protagonist), and then dies to cause the male protagonist emotional anguish.

I am trying to think of an example of a male Jin Yong character successfully rescuing a female character and then tragically dying and … the only examples I can think of are where his eventual tragic death was a MUCH later and completely unrelated event, unlike these examples I cited in which the female character dies while saving a male character. There are certainly plenty of moments where male characters volunteer to sacrifice their lives to save a female character, but those male characters end up … not dying (I am surprised to learn that TVTropes does not have a page for ‘Averted Heroic Sacrifice’ – but maybe the trope simply has a different name).

One could look at this and say ‘hey, the female characters are good at rescuing male characters, this shows that female characters can be competent at something other than being a sex object / love interest!’ However, even if a female character is not being exploited for sex or romance, it is still exploitation.

What I see is that female life is not being valued as much as male life. And that’s a problem.

That is not to say that all female Jin Yong characters who rescue distressed dudes die during the story. Some of them marry him after they save him from distressed dude status. Once in a while, a female character will even save a distressed dude, NOT marry him, yet still be alive at the end of the story (amazing, but true, and probably means she is a nun or will become a nun).

What it boils down to is that, generally, when a female character rescues a distressed dude, she is either in love with him, will fall in love with him, or she wants to make the dude she is in love with happy by rescuing the distressed dude. And, as TVTropes put it, because this time TVTropes is right:

Fans have also noted a common trend to the fate of female characters in Jin Yong’s novels. Most of the female characters that do fall in love with the protagonist but doesn’t end up with him (or knows that there’s no way he can reciprocate the love) either remains celibate or encounters a tragic end.

I generally don’t have a problem with celibacy, or a character choosing to abstain from sex for life, but when there is a PATTERN of female characters choosing that path after not ‘winning’ the male protagonist with whom they fell in love, there is a problem. And a lot of those ‘tragic ends’ for the female characters who don’t ‘win’ the male protagonist is martyring herself for him.

And when a prominent male character experiences a tragic end, then pretty much all of the women in love with him who are not already dead will join him in that tragic ending (UNLESS they are pregnant with his son, in which case they will get a reprieve – but only temporarily, since they will die tragically when their sons are capable of fending for themselves).

Whether it’s male characters saving damsels in distress, or female characters saving distressed dudes, it can all be done in a sexist way or a non-sexist way. That’s because damsels in distress vs. distressed dude does not get to heart of the matter. What is the heart of the matter? The heart of the matter is whether or not it’s about the male character’s character journey or the female character’s journey (or both). That is the topic of the next post.