There are many things I love in the novel Way of Choices (it’s my favorite novel that I read in 2018). One of them is the relationship between Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu. And one of the things I love about the relationship is that they are a young man and a young woman who are not genetically related yet share a bed – without ever having sex or even being interested in having sex with each other.
What genre is this novel?
Whatever the heck that is.
If you want a clue, you could watch the opening theme song to the live action adaptation (even though it’s not faithful to the novel).
Chen Changsheng is a naive, idealist, honest, wholesome, bookwormish, and gentle teenager with a terminal illness, and Mo Yu is a conniving, cynical, physically strong, and ruthless government official who is primarily concerned with maintaining her (high) level of political power. Nobody would expect these two to become friends – and this is before we get to the fact that Mo Yu wants Chen Changsheng to die (or at least be imprisoned or exiled).
And yet, in spite of the above, they come to share a bed.
It starts when Chen Changsheng finds Mo Yu sleeping in his bed. His first reaction ‘is there an assassin in my bed?’ his second reaction is ‘WTF why is she in my bed?’ and his third reaction is (and I’m quoting from the English translation) “this beautiful woman with the heart of a snake actually has this sort of innocent and exhausted side.” You can read more about this in Chapter 93 “Blame it on the Autumn Rain” or watch the equivalent scene in the animated adaptation (w/ English subs) (I can’t find this scene in the live action adaptation – does Mo Yu never sleep in Chan Chengsheng’s bed in the live action TV show??!! I’ve only seen a few episodes of the live action TV show, but that was enough to figure out that it makes a lot of changes from the novel.)
I find it telling that he thinks ‘is there an assassin in my bed?’ before ‘WTF why is she in my bed?’
There ARE a lot of people who try to kill him in this novel.
And you say he’s ‘naive’?
Even though he knows someone wants to kill him, he is still recklessly innocent in ways which a more experienced person would not be.
Anyway, The first time could be dismissed as a weird fluke, but then Chen Changsheng finds Mo Yu in his bed again in Chapter 103 – “Falling in Love with Your Bed”, and Mo Yu expresses her interest in sleeping in Chen Changsheng’s bed again in the future. It turns out that Mo Yu is suffering from severe insomnia, and the scent of Chen Changsheng’s body is the only thing which can get her to fall asleep (Chen Changsheng’s actual body works best, but bedding with his body odor also work until the odor fades away). This is when Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu become something other than enemies.
So Chen Changsheng’s sweat is a treatment for insomnia?
Considering that a small quantity of his blood can rapidly heal someone on the brink of death, it’s not surprising that some of his other body fluids also have therapeutic qualities.
As I’ve noted before on this blog, Mandarin, like English, has a problem with stating that two sleep together in a non-sexual way, and that comes up in this novel, specifically in Chapter 508 – “The Bamboo Dragonfly on the Bookshelf”.
For clarity, how does this society regard non-marital sex, in case, y’know, people suspect that Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu have a sexual relationship?
Non-marital sex is very taboo. The consequences are worse for women, but the consequences for males are bad enough that they wouldn’t want to publicly admit it, at least if they are in Chen Changsheng’s social position.
An extra risk factor is that Mo Yu is considered to be an extremely attractive woman, so most people assume that a presumably heterosexual teenage boy would be unable to resist lusting after her if they got too physically close in a private place. And indeed, in chapter 490, when Tang Thirty-Six sees that Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu seem too familiar, he says (and this quote is in fact my own translation, not the official translation):
“… And now, with the woman every man in Great Zhou desires, Lady Mo Yu, you have an unclear-”
“Let me make it clear,” Chen Changsheng said earnestly. “I haven’t even touched her hand.”
Tang Thirty-Six’s expression showed that he did not believe it, but then he became solemn, and then said seriously “Distance yourself from her.”
It is actually a running theme in the novel that Chen Changsheng will be with some beautiful young woman (not just Mo Yu) in a situation where a heterosexual teenage boy would be expected to react sexually, yet he does not think about anything sexual, or only thinks about it in ‘if someone saw us, they might mistakenly think we’re doing something sexual’ kind of way. And indeed, just as Tang Thirty-Six did in the above quote, observers often do assume that Chen Changsheng has sexual feelings towards whoever the beautiful young woman is. And there are also characters who think that Chen Changsheng is remarkably disinterested in sexual stuff for a teenage boy (or they think he is remarkably good at hiding it, but actually he’s not trying to hide any such feelings).
Wait, is Chen Changsheng ace?
FWIW, I think there are a few instances in the novel where he experiences sexual attraction, and my headcanon is that he is grey-A. I think some readers would peg him as demisexual or single-target sexual. I’m sure most of the people who read this novel think he is heterosexual-by-default, and there may even be readers who think he is asexual, but IMO, interpreting him as being somewhere in the grey-A / demisexual / single-target sexual zone makes the most sense. It certainly explains how he can spend so much time hanging out with and touching very beautiful young women and very handsome young men without having sexual feelings for them.
Basically, Chen Changsheng is more interested in books and swords than sex.
I’m not sure that I would-
How many books has he memorized?
A few thousand books.
How many swords does he collect in the story?
About ten thousand swords.
How many sword techniques/manuals has he learned?
I don’t remember, but I do know that, in spite of being a teenager in a world where some people live for more than 500 years, he knows more sword techniques/manuals than anybody else alive.
So he is an extreme bookworm / sword geek. How many times does he have sex?
The novel never says that he has sex, but-
I rest my case. What about Mo Yu’s sexuality?
That is much harder to say, since she’s not the protagonist and appears on page a lot less often than Chen Changsheng. She’s not depicted as experiencing sexual attraction or having sexual feelings, but that may be because her sexuality is mostly not relevant to the story. What we do know is that she gets pregnant.
WHOA, ISN’T THAT A HUGE SPOILER???!!!
No, it’s not, because it’s a minor detail that is only mentioned once. To the extent that the readers learn anything about Mo Yu’s romantic/sex/etc life, it’s only mentioned because it has something to do with her, her importance as a character is not based on that. For example, when she gets married, it’s relevant primarily because Chen Changsheng has to travel in order to be at the wedding.
So what does Mo Yu’s fiancé/husband – I’m assuming that she marries a man –
Actually, 1) at one point gossipers imply that Mo Yu has a sexual relationship with another female character. IIRC, the novel never confirms nor denies that this is true and 2) it is stated at one point that a man can marry another man as a ‘wife’ so some form of same-sex marriage seems to exist in this society (though maybe this is only an option for men). That said, Mo Yu does in fact marry a man.
Huh. So what does he think of her sharing a bed with Chen Changsheng?
He doesn’t know about it. But, IIRC, he feels uncomfortable when he sees Mo Yu and Chen Changsheng together because he thinks they are too familiar with each other.
And I think Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu’s enemies-to-friends relationship is so convincing because they both have something the other needs. They are originally thrust together because of Mo Yu’s chronic insomnia, but they end up helping each other grow as people. Chen Changsheng really, really needs much better political savvy and understanding of underhanded scheming – even if he does not want to create his own devious plots, he needs to understand devious plots which target him. Or use him as a disposable pawn. Mo Yu helps him with that. Meanwhile, Mo Yu needs to take a step back from all of the political scheming, look at the big picture, and ask herself what kind of life she wants to have. Chen Changsheng helps her with that.
Does Chen Changsheng ever share his bed in a nonsexual way with any other conventionally attractive female character?
Is is a female character who appears in the first half of the novel?
Can you whisper her name to me?
*whispers her name*
OMG, she shares a bed with him??!! She is the last female character in the novel who I would expect to find in Chen Chengshang’s bed, unless she were trying to ambush and attack him.
I think the writer created a situation where they would nonviolently sleep together precisely because he wanted to shock readers. For that matter, I think the writer creates so many situations which would usually be coded as sexual but HA HA NOPE NOT SEXUAL AFTER ALL because he wants to surprise readers (and it’s often funny).
Generally, the writer likes to subvert relationship expectations. For example, there is the expectation that mothers will try to do what they can for their children’s well-being, even sacrifice themselves, yet the mothers who are most prominent in Way of Choices are not like that; one of them intends to let her son die, or even kill him herself, and another one consciously abuses and exploits her daughter and does not care if it ruins her daughter’s life. (There are also mothers who treat their children well, but they are minor characters who get little page space, probably because they are too predictable).
Bringing this back to Mo Yu, one of my favorite chapter titles is “世上最了解你的那个人来了” – “The Person Who Understands You Better Than Anyone Else in the World Has Come” (it sounds better in Chinese). The ‘person’ in the title is Mo Yu. In the chapter, the argument is made that it is NOT one’s own family and friends who understands one the best.
But I thought you said that Mo Yu and Chen Changsheng become friends?
Ah, but that chapter is NOT about Chen Changsheng. It’s about *cough* someone who Mo Yu understands better than his closest friends/family/loved ones understand him. It is also said much later that Chen Changsheng’s friends are not the ones who understand him the best, so this is another running theme in the novel.
Do you have any final words for this post?
It’s generally cool to see cross-gender friendships which are explicitly nonsexual and nonromantic, and it is even cooler when they incorporate activities which are usually sexually coded (in this case, bedsharing) but in a nonsexual way.
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This novel is now on my ever growing pile of novels to read. That trailer/theme song was quite fascinating to watch, and I’m always on the lookout for not-so-eurocentric fantasy. Thanks!
This novel is an extremely non-eurocentric. Though I do not like the animation style, I do like the theme songs of the animated adaptation (season 1, season 2, season 3, and season 4).
If you want to read this novel, I suggest starting it right now, read as many chapters as you feel like, and then set it aside until you feel like reading it again. It was serialized for several years, and I think it is best to read it in chunks and then pause for days/weeks/months between chunks.