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.
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.
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.
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 interests. 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~.
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 pursues her 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.
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 she 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.
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 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.
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).
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.
This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.
The basic feminist objection to the ‘damsel in distress’ trope is that it treats female characters as passive possessions for male protagonists to ‘win’ or ‘take back’. For a much more in-depth feminist critique, there is of course the Tropes vs. Women video series on Damsel in Distress (though this series focuses on video games, the critique can be extended to other media).
When a male character is in distress and needs rescue, it’s called Distressed Dude, though unlike the Damsel in Distress trope, it is not the default for a Distressed Dude to be rescued by a female character, and he is much less likely to be treated as a possession/prize.
Though perhaps I do not know Chinese mythology/classic literature well enough to make this claim, it seems to be that the damsel in distress trope is not nearly as engrained there as in European-derived cultures. That’s not to say that it’s unheard of in Sinophone stories/literature/etc. it’s merely less frequent
In Jin Yong stories, the vast majority of female characters are also capable martial artists. Old lady? Probably a capable martial artist. Princess who has been cloistered in the imperial palace for most of her life? Probably a capable martial artist. Girl who has a physical impairment, such as a lame foot? Probably a capable martial artist. It is so uncommon for a significant character of any gender to not be a martial artist in Jin Yong stories that, if a character is NOT a martial artist, that’s a notable feature.
Since the vast majority of female characters are martial artists, they often have some options other than wait for rescue if they end up in distress. If she does turn into a damsel in distress, it has to be explained usually by a) poison b) having her acupuncture points sealed and/or c) encountering superior force. These devices also often turn male characters into distressed dudes.
So yes, there are some damsels in distress in Jin Yong novels, and a female character who gets enough page space will probably need to be rescued at some point. But being a damsel in distress is rarely the defining feature of a female character, and male characters are just as likely to turn into distressed dudes.
One of the few straight-up examples of damsel in distress I can recall is, in fact, Qiao Feng and Ah Zhu. It is worth noting that, earlier in the story, Ah Zhu had rescued a different male protagonist, Duan Yu, and that she rescues yet another male character’s life later in the story (I will discuss that more in the next part). First, he treated her wounds so she would not die right away, and then gets into a badass fight so that a certain doctor will agree to cure her – in fact, this happens to be one of my favorite episodes from the 1997 TV adaptation (which I am astonished to learn is available with English subtitles – content warning for suicide). Ah Zhu falls in love with Qiao Feng while he’s taking care of her, and after she is cured, she tells him that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him.
One of these rare examples of a significant female character who isn’t a martial artist is Bao Xiruo, and yes, she is a damsel in distress as well – but with a twist. In her case, Wanyan Honglie decided to marry her, but she was already married, so he arranged for her husband to be murdered and set it up so that he could go in and ‘rescue’ her. Even though Bao Xiruo does not love her Wanyan Honglie she feels obliged to marry him because she believes he had saved her life (also, as a young widow who isn’t even a martial artst, her alternative options were bad). This is like the ‘Western’ damsel in distress in that a woman is treated like a possession to be taken. However, the difference is that this is done by a villain instead of a hero, and the guy doing this is not presented in a sympathetic way.
In fact, off the top of my head, most of the examples of damsel in distress in Jin Yong stories I can think of are one of the following:
– the ‘rescuer’ has ulterior motives (example: Wanyan Honglie & Bao Xiruo)
– the damsel assumes the rescuer has ulterior motives, and refuses to cooperate (example: Shui Sheng & Di Yun)
– rescuer turns out to be a jerk so the damsel eventually leaves him (example: Yang Kang & Mu Nianci)
– due to Stockholm Syndrome, damsel does not want to be rescued (Wen Yi – to be fair, her ‘rescuers’ were more morally reprehensible than her captor, so she was effectively choosing the lesser evil)
– even though the damsel likes her rescuer, she refuses to pursue a romance with him because it goes against her principles (example: Yilin & Linghu Chong)
– even though the rescuer likes the damsel, he refuses to pursue a romance with her because it goes against his principles (example: Duan Yu & Mu Wanqing)
– damsel in distress is rescued by a mixed-gender team (example: Zhong Ling)
– damsel does not need rescuing because she is already free (example: Ren Yingying)
– damsel has already rescued male protagonist when he was in distressed dude mode, and will probably rescue him again later in the story (example: Huang Rong & Guo Jing) (and yes, I have plenty more to say about this)
In short, there is usually some element which is at least partially ‘subverting’ the trope. I put ‘subverting’ in quotations marks because what I mean is that the trope is not working as it typically does in Anglophone cultures, but if Chinese stories aren’t working the way one would expect them to work in Anglophone media, that’s not necessarily a subversion.
Even in the example of Qiao Feng trying to save Ah Zhu’s life, she’s not being treated as a prize for him to win, he does not take possession of her when her life is saved, and most of the other characters are really suspicious of his motives.
There is an edge here, namely, that the rescuers of the damsel in distress are often suspect. On one side of the edge, one could say that Jin Yong is implying that the guys who rescue damsels in distress in order to claim ownership over them are not much – or any – better than the guys who put them in distress in the first place (and in the case of Wanyan Honglie, it’s the very same guy); real heroes do not expect rewards from damsels they rescue beyond the satisfaction of seeing the damsel set free. This is my preferred interpretation, not only because it is the more female-friendly interpretation, but it actually more consistent with what is in the novels than the other side of the edge. And what is that other side of the edge? That if trying to rescue females is a suspicious act – what does that imply about the value of female lives?
Generally, I am satisfied with the way Jin Yong uses the damsel in distress trope, and do NOT consider it to be evidence of sexism or misogyny. I do not want female characters to be invincible, and it seems to me that he does not use the damsel in distress trope in a way which depicts females as being less capable than males, or which treats females as prizes. In particular, females do not seem to be more likely than male characters to need rescue, and to the extent it is treated as a way to claim possession of damsels, it is usually depicted as a bad thing.
So, if I do not think Jin Yong expresses sexism or misogyny in his use of damsels in distress, where do I think he expresses sexism and misogyny? Well, one of the places it comes out is where the female characters are saving the distressed dudes. I will explain how that works in Part 2.
As you may know, I am in the middle of a really long hike through the state of Washington.
Right now, I am at Snoqualmie Pass, and have hiked 246 miles through Washington.
That is all for now.
I recently read A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism by Rabbi Mike Comins. In chapter four, “Finding God in Nature”, he says:
It’s so difficult to talk about the who and what of God. Often the same words mean different things to different people, and our conversations get bogged down in contradictions and misunderstandings. But when I say that I have “God-moments” in wilderness, people know exactly what I mean.
I’m an atheist, and I knew exactly what he meant, even though I would not use the word ‘God’ to describe it.
Specifically, what came to mind when I read that was my memory of being at the summit of Pintianshan in Taiwan. It’s called ‘Pintianshan’ because the boxy shapes of the rocks look like the Chinese characters 品 (pǐn) and 田 (tián).
Pintianshan is, without a doubt, the most difficult mountain I have ever successfully summited. I have met hikers who are much more experienced than I am who, when they saw what they would have to do to reach the summit, decided to turn around and give up. I almost gave up too. It’s dangerous and scary (I did not take a photo of the scary part because I did not want my parents to see how scary it was). And of course, once I pressed on to the summit, I committed myself to going through the scary section a second time during the return hike.
But it was worth it! The view from the summit of Pintianshan is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. Pintianshan is right in the middle of the ‘Holy Ridge’ (聖陵線), which was named by a Japanese mountaineer who was completely convinced that he was in a sacred place. The indigenous people also believe that these mountains are sacred – Dabajianshan is possibly the most sacred of all mountains in traditional Atayal culture. Furthermore, one section of the Holy Ridge is known as ‘the four beauties of Wuling’ (武陵四秀). Pintianshan is one of those four beauties (the other three beauties are Chiyoushan, Taoshan, and Kelayeshan).
One of the things I thought to myself while I was at the summit of Pintianshan was ‘I can die now because I have seen this.’ This was not a suicidal thought – I had no intention of dying. Instead, I felt that there was no such thing as intention. I was so overwhelmed with the magnificence of the world that I felt myself completely submit to it, including submission to my inevitable death.
Looking back, I think the scary experience of reaching the summit of Pintianshan put me in an emotional state which made me especially receptive to being awestruck by the beauty of the landscape. As Rabbi Mike Comins says in A Wild Faith:
Statistically, I am much more likely to die from a car accident than a grizzly attack, but I’m constantly aware of potential hazards when I’m far from a hospital. Outside the human comfort zone called civilization, I am less prone to falling into routine. The risks prod me to greater awareness.
In the city, I employ a different strategy. I avoid anxiety by “forgetting” what I know about accidents. When I drive, I’m rarely thinking about driving. Neither wilderness nor the freeways are forgiving, but in the city, I deceive myself and act otherwise.
In nature, the awareness of mortality is constant. Unlike the sanitized world of the supermarket, birth and death are encountered together in the natural world. Yet most of us see beauty, not terror.
By the way, the #1 cause of death on the Pacific Crest trail is being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing a road. There is no recorded instance of a human being killed by a bear on the Pacific Crest Trail. This implies that motor vehicles are actually much more dangerous than bears.
Hopefully, at the time this post is being published, I am hiking through Washington on the PCT and all is going well with me. I’m not expecting experiences like I had on Pintianshan on this backpacking trip because I think it would be a self-defeating prophecy. But I’m sure I’m having other kinds of interesting experiences.