Rethinking Romeo & Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, the iconic ‘love story’ in our culture. But now I think it’s appeal comes from something other than passionate love…

Meanwhile, Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is the most popular Chinese-language novel primarily about a romantic relationship.

When I first saw someone suggest that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is to the Chinese-speaking world what Romeo and Juliet is to the English-speaking world, I disagreed because the stories are so different. Sure, both are about a passionately romantic relationship, are melodramatic, and have noteworthy sword fights. But the characters and storylines are quite different.

However, after seeing that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ gets referenced in Chinese-language media the same way that Romeo and Juliet gets referenced in English-language media, I am starting to think that the people who compare them have a point.

And that made me wonder … why Romeo and Juliet? Why Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ? Why not one of the zillion other stories of passionate love out there?

I’m starting to think it’s not so much because the characters are so passionately in love with each other. I’m starting to think it’s because of the characters’ relationship with their societies.

In Romeo and Juliet, the main characters are going against Verona’s social norms. In Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, the main characters are going against Chinese social norms. Presumably, the characters are resisting their societies’ values because their love for each other is that strong (though the main character in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, having previously been homeless, also seems to think that since society failed him him, he doesn’t need to listen to society).

Every society I’m familiar with has a set of rules and taboos about what kinds of relationships are acceptable. Many of these rules and taboos are irrational, and make a lot of people suffer. Yet many people still feel obliged to comply. I think Romeo and Juliet and Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ are so iconic not because the characters are so passionately in love with each other, but because they are brave enough to resist arbitrary social rules and pursue their own personal happiness.

Of course, while Romeo and Juliet are breaking their society’s rules, they aren’t breaking our society’s rules, so it’s okay. While some socially conservative people don’t approve of what the characters in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ do, most people in the Chinese-speaking world think it’s okay (at least, the young people think it’s okay). If the characters were breaking the rules in a more radical way, they would be too dangerous to go mainstream.

Since Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ has never been published in any European language, the only way to read the novel in English is this fan translation. There are actually some interesting asexual themes in the story. I might write some posts analyzing the asexual content, if I think people would actually read them.

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