Damsels in Distress vs. Distressed Dudes in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

There is a damsel in distress at the top of that tower, next to a villain. He’s threatening to burn her alive.

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

Miss Qu clearly has a cognitive disability, possibly what is now called Down Syndrome. She is also, as this picture shows, a capable martial artist.

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.

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

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.

Wanyan Honglie and Bao Xiruo in the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

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)

Sometimes, the boy can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by himself, and the girl can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by herself, so the boy and the girl have to work together to save them.

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.

Transcendence at the Summit of Pintianshan

This is the summit of Pintianshan, with the south side of Dabajianshan in the background. Most people see only the north side of Dabajianshan (which is also the face shown in most photos of Dabajianshan), so seeing the south side of Dabajianshan felt special to me.

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​).

Here is a picture of Pintianshan. Imagine trying to hike to the top (hint, even the safest approach requires scrambling up/down nearly vertical rock right over a very long drop).

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.

Snow Mountain, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Yes, Taiwan, a tropical island, has a place called ‘Snow Mountain’ (it snows on Pintianshan in winter too). Snow Mountain is the highest point of the Holy Ridge, and the second highest mountain in all of Taiwan. It is higher than Mt. Fuji in Japan.

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.

Nanhudashan and Zhongyangjinashan, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Some people say that Nanhudashan is the most beautiful mountain in Taiwan, but sadly I’ve never gotten close to it.

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.