The Protagonists from Chinese-Language Pop Fiction That Grab You and Make You Scream in Frustration

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that there is a type of protagonist – and type of cast of characters – that I run into way more often in popular Chinese-language fiction than popular English language fiction. Namely, the kind of protagonist who a lot of readers end up hating because they do bad things, yet their motivations are so understandable that they are not villains, and sometimes have enough saving graces that the reader can’t help loving AND hating them at the same time. And an entire cast of characters who are mostly unlikeable, yet also have understandable motivations, and end up creating a trainwreck so compelling that readers can’t put the book down.

An example is the novel Love in the Rain (煙雨濛濛). For those who aren’t familiar with it, one can get at least the flavor of the story from the theme songs of the 1986 TV adaptation (take particular note of how, er, courteous the characters are towards each other in the clips). The only characters in the novel I find likeable are a) the protagonist’s mother and b) the protagonist’s best friend. Pretty much every other character of any significance manages to do something thoroughly awful at some point in the novel. Even though it’s a ‘romance’ novel, it’s really about the relationship between the protagonist and her father. One of my favorite moments is when he says ‘You should have been born as a son when I was in my prime, then you would have become the second me,’ and she replies ‘I don’t want to be the second you,” and he replies ‘I also wouldn’t want you to be the second me.’ She gets to see him at his worst, and the irony is that a) it inspires her to be herself at her worst, which is much like her father as his worst and b) she eventually discovers (when it is too late) that the qualities she has at her best, are also qualities her father has. Anyway, I found the novel incredibly frustrating to read because I constantly felt angry at the characters, but at the same time, I kept turning the pages, and it has stayed with me a long time.

Another example, which is (mostly) available in English translation, is Crane Startles Kunlun.

Another example is (long-time readers of this blog ought to know who I’m going to mention) Yang Guo from Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ. I personally love him, but a lot of readers hate him, and I can understand that. He does some really shitty things in the story (as do most of the major characters at some point).

One of the things I appreciate about Chinese-language pop fiction compared to English-language pop fiction is that it is much easier to find stories about characters who are a mix of good and bad in a way which is psychologically compelling, and do not fit the hero/villain dichotomy as clearly. By comparison, pretty much all of the main characters in Harry Potter, with the very significant exception of Snape, and possibly Malfoy, have straightforward motivations. Ditto Lord of the Rings (with significant exception of Gollum). Ditto The Hunger Games (caveat: I’ve only read the first book). I could go on.

I feel there is something true about these characters who do such horrible things, yet do not necessarily do them because they are horrible people. And there is something strangely reassuring about people who do horrible things, yet sometimes also do wonderful things. It’s also just refreshing to read a style of fiction which is relatively less common in English.

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I Was a Walker Who Put the Temples First

I recently read Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku by Ian Reader, which is about Buddhist pilgrimage (specifically the 88-Temples pilgrimage) on the island of Shikoku. One of the observations he makes is that pilgrims who travel by motor vehicle (buses, cars, etc.) generally focus on the temples, whereas pilgrims who travel by foot generally focus on the journey.

I doubt I am ever going to return to Shikoku in my life, but the mode of pilgrimage which I am much more interested in is the walking kind, not the bus kind. However, as I said in one of my posts about my mini-pilgrimage, if I had lots of time to explore a rural area, I would probably choose a rural area other than the 88 Temples pilgrimage. Based on what little I saw, most of the 88 Temples pilgrimage consists of areas which have been built-up so much that, on the surface, they are indistinguishable from much of rural Japan (and as a pilgrim, I doubt I would get enough below the surface to learn about, say, local village traditions) and is not particularly scenic. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning And Practice in Shikoku also claims that, even though much of the media about the pilgrimage focuses on a serene trek through “nature”, only about 10% of the route could be considered scenic nowadays.

And before I went to Shikoku, I figured the pilgrimage would be more about the journey than the temples. It’s pretty clear from my own travel style that I care a lot about the ‘journey’ aspect of travel.

Then, on my own mini-pilgrimage, even though I insisted on walking the entire (short) route so because I felt that would be a more meaningful experience for myself, I ended up focusing on the temples. It certainly helped that I was not exhausted and the temples were close to each other.

Really, without the cultural/folk/religious traditions of the pilgrimage which, nowadays, are most readily accessed at the temples, what would be the point of walking in a circle around Shikoku instead of, say, Taiwan? Walking in a circle around Taiwan, I suspect, would have much better scenery. (And yes, walking by foot around Taiwan in a circle is becoming increasingly popular, though it is a pilgrimage inspired by patriotism rather than religion – though Ian Reader notes that some pilgrims on the 88 Temples circuit may also be motivated by patriotism rather than religion). And considering my own life history, walking in a circuit around Taiwan would probably also be more meaningful to me personally than walking in a circuit around Shikoku.

I was also struck by the comment from a temple priest, reported by Ian Reader, that doing the pilgrimage by bus was preferable to doing it on foot, since the bus pilgrims focus more on prayer and understanding the spiritual aspects, rather than always being in a hurry to walk to the next temple.

My point is that, due to my own circumstances, I was atypical of walking pilgrims in that the temples were the greatest point of interest to me, and I was atypical of the pilgrims who would focus on the temples in that I travelled between them on foot. Of course, the fact that I only did it for one day and only visited five temples also makes me atypical as well.

Living in the ‘Ugliness’ of Taiwan

I recently read the essay “Formosa the Ugly?” which is about how, in spite of Taiwan being a ‘developed’ country, there is still an abundance of cheaply constructed buildings which makes it look ‘ugly’ compared to many other ‘developed’ regions of the world. In the comments, there is a spirited discussion about whether it is actually bad that Taiwan is this way or not.

I’ve seen plenty of photos of urban Vietnam on travel blogs, and if weren’t for the fact that the street signs use Vietnamese instead of Chinese, I could have believed that those photos were taken in Taiwanese cities. This is in spite of the fact that Taiwan is materially wealthier than Vietnam.

Ultimately, it’s because the Taiwanese have chosen not to invest as many resources into their buildings and streets as many other societies with comparable wealth (though, as some of the comments point out, new buildings in Taiwan do tend to be nicer).

Well, there is the distorting factor of Taiwan’s terrain – it takes more resources to make infrastructure functional in Taiwan than in many other parts of the world, so even when the Taiwanese do put in more resources than other societies, the results may look equally humble. For example, a well-travelled engineer I knew said he had never seen any place on earth which uses as much stainless steel in its street infrastructure as Taiwan. Most places would not use so much stainless steel because it is so expensive, but in Taiwan’s case, the maintenance costs would be amazingly high without the wide use of stainless steel. Yet to the casual eye, stainless steel does not make the infrastructure look any more aesthetic, or even more like part of the ‘developed’ world.

Like the writer of the essay, I have learned how to mentally crop out the sight of such buildings, so that seeing shack built out of corrugated steel does not interrupt my appreciation of, say, a natural landscape.

And to be honest … I like the rough and unvarnished look of Taiwanese settlements. I liked that, with few exceptions, there is little appealing about the architecture and streetscapes of Taoyuan City. I found something refreshingly unpretentious about it. Function, not form. I even came to almost like the tacky faux-bamboo which the article lampoons (if nothing else, that photo brings out quite a bit of nostalgia from me).

I also remember another comment I heard from a foreigner living in Taiwan. There was a TV in the room, and said foreigner commented – “That [place being shown on TV] looks like a Taiwanese home!” What he meant is that Taiwanese homes often look ugly on the outside – but the interiors are immaculate and pretty and reflect the aesthetic investment of the occupants (they also often are not – it depends on who lives there). Taiwanese generally would prefer a beautiful interior over a beautiful exterior for their homes – and that appeals to me.

I also cannot help but notice that one can have a relatively high quality of life (okay, it depends on how you define ‘quality of life’ – I’m using my own subjective definition) at a relatively low cost in Taiwan. Certainly the quality-of-life/cost ratio is better in Taiwan than anywhere else I’ve been to in Asia – Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea (and even after factoring in the incomes of those respective places, Taiwan still comes out ahead).

So, yes, the unaesthetic nature of Taiwanese cities and towns is noted. But if Taiwan had been filled instead with beautiful buildings all over the place, I don’t think I would have been much happier there.

Passive vs. Active Femininity: Does Asexuality Affect It?

This is for the March 2016 Carnival of Aces: Gender Norms.

I’ve previously talked about acting femme, but in this post I am going to focus on how I express femaleness in a general way, not when I consciously amplify the femme factor for a specific purpose.

Once upon a time, I took a sociology course, and one of the exercises was to give an example of how each of us was performing gender at that very moment. I went first, and pointed out my long hair as an example of how I was performing a female gender norm. It was fortunate that I went first, because I could not think of another example of how I was performing a female gender norm. All of the examples pointed out by other female students in that class were things I wasn’t doing.

However, the long hair thing is a passive choice. I suppose, if I really had to choose between long hair and short hair, I would choose long hair, if only because that is how I am used to seeing myself. But if my hair spontaneously cut itself in a way which was not hideous, I probably would not bother to do anything to make it grow long again. It’s not so much that I choose to have long hair to conform with a female gender norm (and in some cultures long hair is not associated with femaleness!) as that, by being female, it is culturally acceptable for me to grow my hair long without standing out.

I suspect that, if I started growing facial hair (technically, I already do, but it can only be noticed upon close inspection), I would be inclined to let it grow until it became physically uncomfortable and/or it caused social problems which motivated me to shave it.

Aside from situations where I have a specific purpose (discussed in those posts I linked to above), I generally conform to female norms passively, rather than actively. I do what I was going to do anyway, and sometimes what I want to do conforms with female gender norms.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with my asexuality?

My gut feeling is that this is not tied to my asexuality – I was aware of my ‘tomboyish’ nature long before I suspected I was asexual – and I feel that, in the alternate universe where I am not asexual, I would still have similar feelings about my gender presentation.

But…

Maybe if I were not asexual, or more accurately, if I wanted to pursue sexual relationships (yeah, I know asexuals can want to pursue sexual relationships too, but I strongly doubt it’s a coincidence that I am asexual AND I don’t want to pursue sexual relationships), I would take an active approach to conforming to feminine norms more often. And maybe I would do it so often that an active compliance with some set of female gender norms would start to feel like a part of my self-image, rather than something I put on for a particular purpose.