The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 2)

Zhong Ling (He Meitian) and Duan Yu (Benny Chan) are buried alive in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997

In Part 1, I described the disunity of the plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (TLBB). This has not stopped it from being one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 20th century. So does the disunity of the plot help or hinder readers from liking the story?

First of all, even though the story lacks plot unity, it does have thematic unity. To quote Wikipedia:

The main thematic element of the novel concerns the complex, troubled relationships between the great multitude of characters from various empires and martial arts sects, and the inherent bond that underlies the struggles of each. The novel examines the cause and effect that forms and breaks these bonds on five uniquely corresponding levels: self, family, society, ethnic group, and country (dominion).

A lot of Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories are about forming and breaking various sorts of bonds (one could say that Duan Yu’s romantic entanglements with his sisters form and break bonds simultaneously). Perhaps plot unity does not matter as long as there is thematic unity.

Gao Hu as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

That description from Wikipedia seems to characterize TLBB as being a literary novel. And sure, it’s totally possible to interpret TLBB in a literary way. It’s also possible to interpret TLBB as a lurid pulp novel full of violence and sadism, all designed to shock yet entice the reader. A lot of it reads like a tabloid. Perhaps when there is enough titillating content to sustain interest (assuming that the reader hasn’t dropped the book in horror), readers care less about plot unity.

It is also possible to interpret TLBB as a comedy, which is how I personally view it (yes, there is a sick streak in my sense of humor). (I would rather not watch the TV adaptations of TLBB with other people because I don’t want them to see me laugh at, say, a woman who kidnaps children and kills them). (There is so much gratuitous horribleness in TLBB that if I didn’t laugh at it, I might be the one to drop the book in horror).

However, those are all possibilities for how TLBB might succeed in spite of plot disunity. Does the plot disunity increase the appeal of the story in any way? Maybe.

Liu Yifei as Wang Yuyan in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Tobias recommends limiting the number of main characters. Jin Yong totally ignores this guideline; someone tried to count the number of characters in TLBB and found there were over 200. Most of those are minor characters, but there are still plenty of main characters other than Duan Yu / Qiao Feng / Xuzhu, as well as many supporting characters who play a pivotal role at some point. In fact, those of you who understand Chinese know that the number ‘eight’ appears in the Chinese title of the story. That refers to the eight main characters, who each supposedly represent a type of Deva or Naga, just as each of the seven main characters in Seven Ways We Lie represents one of the seven deadly sins of Catholicism. Tobias says that too many main characters is bad because it’s not possible to develop enough of the connections between them. Well, maybe a 200-page novel can’t forge enough connections between eight main characters (though honestly, Seven Ways We Lie is about 300 pages long yet did a decent job with seven main characters), but TLBB is more than two thousand pages long.

There is a lot of overlap in the cast of characters between the three stories (for example, Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu are all supporting characters in each others’ stories). Thus, by having three stories in the same novel, the novel can use a large cast of characters more effectively than if it were split into three novels. When, say, supporting characters from Duan Yu’s story appears in Qiao Feng’s story, there is no need to establish who they are, the readers already know them.

Sharon Yeung as Mu Wanqing and Kent Tong as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It is satisfying to see how the seemingly separate stories of the three protagonists connect with each other. The family trees get pretty convoluted, not to mention all of the love polygons, or the student-teacher relationships, or the … friendship polygons? Is that a thing? Each time I revisit the story, I uncover some interesting relationship which escaped my notice before, which increases the re-readability/re-watchability of the story.

The disunity also makes it much easier to stash Chekhov’s Guns. A Chekhov’s Gun which is displayed in Xuzhu’s story might end up firing in Duan Yu’s story.

And the three stories help balance each other out.

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are… I hesitate to use the word ‘light’ considering some of the things which happen, but they are… ‘amusing’? For example, Duan Yu’s potentially incestuous relationships are generally treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner, not as something unspeakably horrible. If Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories were separated out into separate stories, they would be among Jin Yong’s ‘lighter’ novels, like Ode to Gallantry.

Felix Wong as Qiao Feng in one of the few parts of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997 where Qiao Feng is actually happy.

By contrast, Qiao Feng’s story is a real downer. One bad thing happens to him, then something worse happens to him, usually something he neither deserves nor has much control over. There are a few points where things seem to get better for him, and he starts feeling hopeful – which means his hopes can totally be dashed again. Even though he shares the novel with Duan Yu and Xuzhu, TLBB is still the most tragic (or tragicomic) of Jin Yong’s novels because Qiao Feng is in it, and if his story was placed in a separate novel, it would be too much. I wouldn’t want to read that novel.

(Actually, I don’t think I would like Xuzhu’s story as a separate novel either, but that’s mainly because I don’t care for stories about celibate vegetarian teetotalers being coerced into drinking alcohol, eating meat, and having sex).

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are lacking in gravitas, while Qiao Feng has too much, so it evens out. One can see this in the casting decisions for the TV adaptations. Generally, the directors/producers will choose actors with pretty faces to play Duan Yu and Xuzhu, whereas an actor who has prestige for his acting ability will be cast as Qiao Feng. The classic example of this is Felix Wong – in 1982, when he was mainly seen as a young actor with a cute face, he was cast as Xuzhu. In 1997, when he was known as one of Hong Kong’s most respected actors, he was cast as Qiao Feng.

Felix Wong as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It looks like my view is ‘disunity helps rather than hinders the plot of TLBB’. But this may be more of an exception to Tobias’ guidelines rather than a refutation. After all, even in really long novels (which I am familiar with), this type of plot disunity is not the norm, and it’s usually spit in two rather than three parallel storylines (Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with the dual protagonists Prince Andrei Bolkonsky / Pierre Bezukhov, and Anna Karenina, with Anna Karenina / Kostya Lëvin, come to mind). I think that, even in a really long novel, a disunited plot is probably more difficult to use successfully than a united plot.

4 thoughts on “The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 2)

    • Thanks for the long response.

      It was not my intention to ‘gripe’ about the plot disunity in TLBB. It was my intention to criticize 20 Master Plots by Tobias, which claims that good stories need plot unity. The best way I could think of to test that claim was to look at a story which did NOT have plot unity, and check out whether it was as dysfunctional as Tobias’ claims that such stories are. My conclusion was that no, the plot disunity of TLBB does NOT cause it to be dysfunctional as a story. (The reason I did not go into detail about thematic unity is that was not the topic I wanted to address; also, I don’t feel like I know enough about Buddhist cosmology to offer a useful analysis of that aspect of TLBB).

      Another post in which I push against Tobias’ claims about how to create a story plot is this one: https://thenoteswhichdonotfit.wordpress.com/2018/11/02/nesting-plots-in-way-of-choices/

      • Sorry for not reading your earlier post and mistaking your intention. But your title was a bit misleading. 🙂

        I feel that Tobias’s concept of “plot unity” is nebulous and also quite impractical for modern novels, as is the concept of classical unities for modern drama. After all, nobody complains about plot disunity in Shakespeare nowadays… Henry James also called Tolstoy’s novels “loose, baggy monsters” and that was because he totally ignored the thematic and aesthetic coherence within their narratives.

        I’m not suggesting Jin Yong is on the level of Tolstoy but there is definitely a lot of thematic unity within TLBB the way I see it.

        I have not read Tobias’s book, but he might have taken his cue from the classical
        unity of action, i.e. a play should have one action that it follows, with minimal subplots.

      • He does mention the classical unities, though he clearly does not adhere to them (he’s a big fan of Shakespeare and often takes examples from his plays). His concepts are a lot clearer when you actually read the book rather than just deduce what he says from a blog post that is reacting to his book 😉 He is actually more humble about admitting his limitations than many others who have produced ‘this is how you make a plot for a work of fiction’ books.

        I find that Jin Yong’s stories are very useful for testing out whether these ‘universal guidelines for crafting stories’ books actually hold up. If the books are written in English, then whoever wrote the book probably isn’t familiar with Jin Yong and did not account for him, yet Jin Yong’s works are so ridiculously popular that it is impossible to deny his success as a storyteller.

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