The Valley of Life and Death: An Wuxia Novel with a Female Protagonist who May Be Aro-Ace

The cover of The Valley of Life and Death

I have found something amazing – an wuxia novel with a female protagonist who is not at all interested in romance. If you haven’t read as many wuxia novels as I have, you can’t appreciate just how amazing that is. It’s called The Valley of Life and Death (《生死谷》), by Zheng Feng (鄭丰). Did I mention that it’s amazing?

Anyway, before I continue, I’ll offer a brief overview of the story…

What Kind of Story Is This?

The story is set during the late Tang Dynasty (in the early 800s A.D.) when the imperial government of China is unstable.

Fei Ruoran is the daughter of a high-ranking minister. At the beginning of the story, she’s seven years old, and she’s friends with Wu Xiaohu, the bastard son of the prime minister. They are both captured, and thrust into a valley with about two hundred other children. They are trained in skills such as climbing and martial arts, and over the years, they have to pass the ‘three tests’. For example, the second test is that all of the surviving children are left in the valley for winter without food, and they will be kept there until only eight are still alive – and the most readily available source of food is each other’s bodies. Fei Ruoran and Wu Xiaohu just want to go home, but after years of being in that valley, will they be able to return?

If this sounds like The Hunger Games set in China in the Tang Dynasty, that’s because it sure feels like that (though, for what it’s worth, I think The Valley of Life and Death is better than The Hunger Games). in fact the preface specifically mentions that it’s like stories such as The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and The Drifting Classroom (and a few other examples which I don’t remember).

But Back to Talking about Fei Ruoran and Her Lack of Interest in Romance and Sex

The story starts when Fei Ruoran is seven years old, and (if one excludes the epilogue) ends when she is nineteen years old.

One would not expect a seven year old to be particularly interested in romance or sex, so at first, I had no idea that she would continue to be uninterested as a teenager, especially since this is an wuxia novel. As she grew older, I kept on expecting her to start showing interest in romance (though not necessarily sex because, again, this is wuxia), and it was not until the end that it turned out that, nope, she never becomes interested in romance at all in her entire life.

At the beginning of the novel, it seemed there would be two co-equal protagonists, Wu Xiaohu and Fei Ruoran, and that Wu Xiaohu (who is may) may even become the top protagonist. Thus, I was also surprised when Wu Xiaohu gradually became a less important character, and while he retained major character status all of the way to the end, the finale of the story is really about her, and not much about him. Though there are other wuxia novels centered on female protagonists (as well as Tiān​ Xiāng Piāo by Wolong Sheng in which the male protagonist dies halfway through the novel so the women who were in love with him are suddenly promoted to protagonist status)​​, this was still a pleasant surprise.

It is stated over and over again that Fei Ruoran only considers Wu Xiaohu to be a friend and a brother, and that she has no romantic feelings for him. At one point in the novel, (when she is about 15 years old IIRC) another character assumes she must have romantic feelings for Wu Xiaohu because she is so close to them, and she thinks that, not only is she certain that Wu Xiaohu feels like a brother to her, she does not even know what romance is. This is strongest evidence in the novel that Fei Ruoran may in fact be aromantic.

Zheng Feng’s afterword to the novel is very interesting, but I am just going to focus on the part where she talks about the lack of romance in the novel. She says in the afterword that she did try to work in a romance for Fei Ruoran, but it did not work, so it was taken out of the story. She also says, and this is a quote:

《生死谷》是我唯一一本沒有牽涉太多愛情的小說,大概因為我的人物都是整日在生死之間掙扎的殺手,愛情對他們來說,實在太過奢侈了吧?

The Valley of Life and Death is the only novel I’ve written which does not involve a lot of romance; that’s probably because the characters are all killers who spend the whole day struggling with matters of life and death; wouldn’t romance be too much of a luxury for them?

I am relieved that Zheng Feng put a question mark at the end of that sentence, indicating that she’s not really sure why there is not much romance. To me, and an aromantic, the explanation that they do not engage in romance because it’s a ‘luxury’ not make much sense. It could explain why they do not pursue romance, but it seems to me that alloromantic people will experience romantic feelings whether or not they can or want to pursue romance. Furthermore, since a lot of people compare this novel to The Hunger Games, I will say that the characters in The Hunger Games have even less opportunity to pursue romance, but that does not stop them.

For me, the most plausible explanation is that Fei Ruoran is simply aromantic. Especially since, unlike Katniss Everdeen, she never has anything to do with romance during her entire life.

At this point, I suppose I ought to say a few words about the major male characters, Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing. I don’t know what their sexual or romantic orientation is. They both develop strong feelings for a female character other than Fei Ruoran, and it is not clear whether or not these feelings ever become romantic or sexual. Furthermore, Tian Shaxing is never a viewpoint character, which makes this kind of thing harder to judge.

By the way, did I mention that this is a great novel, possibly my favorite novel that I’ve read in 2017 so far? I’d love it even if there was no sign of the protagonist being aro or ace.

Anyway, more about the implications of Fei Ruoran being aromantic.

A good portion of the novel is about Fei Ruoran trying very hard to protect/help/keep alive her friends Tian Shaxing and Wu Xiaohu. I do not want to spoil the novel, so I’m going to have to find a very vague way to say this … you know how some aro people feel like there alloromantic friends accept the benefits of being their friend without investing as much in the friendship as the aro person because they do not value the friendship as much? That arguably happens in this novel, in that Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing do not always invest as much in Fei Ruoran as she invests in them (again, my point would be clearer if I were more specific, but I do not want to spoil. If you can’t read Chinese but really want to know what I’m talking about, you can ask me and I will respond in the comments).

Unfortunately, I don’t think this counts as aro ace fiction.

Even though Fei Ruoran being aro ace makes way more sense to me than any other interpretation, and I will hella recommend this novel to anybody looking for an aro-friendly wuxia novel, I would not go so far as to put this on a list of fiction with aro ace characters. I don’t think fiction necessarily explicitly state that a character is aro or ace, nor do I think Word of Ace is necessary, but I think that, short of an explicit statement that a character is ace or aro, the experience of being ace and aro needs to be described clearly enough that it is recognizable. I think this novel is one step short of that, but it is still short of that. Thus, I would not, say, use it as an example for the ace tropes series.

That said, I will still see if any of the ace tropes described so far apply to this novel and … none of them apply.

Nonetheless, I am still super happy with this novel. And I would like to point out that I’ve have previously written about another Zheng Feng novel in the post A Novel Featuring a Non-Sexual/Non-Romantic Intimate Relationship, which goes to show that even Zheng Feng protagonists who do not seem to be aro or ace can have intense nonromantic personal relationships with someone of a different gender.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Content note: this post contains a satirical drawing of hypersexualized women, and a picture depicting sexual harassment.

The Geek Feminism Wiki lists two common criticisms of strong female characters as being:

– she still has to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness

– she will wear skimpy or fetishistic gear to fight in, and her battles and acts of heroism will be presented to the audience as erotic spectacles.

There are also the Hark! A Vagrant comics about strong female characters one and two which satirize ‘strong female characters’, including how they are visually presented for erotic appeal.

This is from Hark! A Vagrant!. I think the ‘strong female character’ in the lower left needs to move further to the left so that the audience can see her butt (yes I am being snarky).

If you want to see what the Geek Feminism Wiki and the Hark! A Vagrant comics are critiquing, satirizing, I put in the internet search ‘female marvel characters’ and one of the first hits was this this of the 10 strongest Marvel female characters. I will let you judge the pictures of those strong Marvel female characters for yourself. And here is an explanation of why contorting bodies to show the butt is an issue.

I’ve established in Part 1 that the first criticism about conforming to gender-normative standards of attractiveness definitely applies to the stories of Jin Yong. To the second criticism, I would add that it’s not just female fighters – even (strong) female characters who do not engage in combat are a lot more likely to be visually presented for prettiness than male characters.

The second criticism mainly applies to visual media – whereas Jin Yong novels are prose, not directly visual. But all of his novels have illustrations. Let’s see if this criticism applies to the illustrations.

All of the characters in this picture, including the baby, are female. That baby is SO DAMN CUTE that every adult who meets her wants her to be their daughter, so martial artists – both male and female – keep on kidnapping her and fighting each other over custody. In fact, the two adult women in this picture are about to have a martial arts match over who gets to be the baby’s guardian.

In the above illustration, none of the female characters are drawn in a particularly sexually exploitive way. However, one of them is a baby (and it would be very disturbing if a baby were presented in an erotic way), and the other two are in their 30s, a demographic of women which is less likely to be presented erotically. Furthermore, this is not a fight scene. So let’s look at an illustration of a younger woman in a fight scene:

Here is ‘Iron Hand’ He, who has an iron hook on her left arm, in the middle of a fight scene.

So, here we have a young woman in a fight scene, and she is not being shown in a way which is sexier than her male opponent (well, we get a better view of her face and feet, but that’s mainly because we see her front and his back). In all of the illustrations I’ve seen of female characters in fight scenes published with Jin Yong’s novels, I do not recall any which depicts her in a way which is more erotic than the male characters.

Let us look at yet another illustration from a Jin Yong novel – an illustration depicting sexual harassment.

Zhao Min does not want Zhang Wuji to touch her foot.

Even in this illustration depicting sexual harassment, the female character is not drawn in a particularly sexual way. (To be clear, I am merely saying that the *drawing* depicting this scene is not problematic – the scene itself is very problematic).

There is still the questions of Jin Yong adaptations. Generally, I would say that they do not VISUALLY present female character in a sexier way than the male characters. There is a bit of a double standard in the comic book adaptations by Tony Wong, but even those are mild compared to what would find by browsing the display window of an American comic book shop.

First, let’s see an example from a Marvel blockbuster movie. I typed ‘black widow fight’ into Youtube, and then looked at the first hit which was less than five minutes long – it’s this one from Iron Man 2 (I wanted to pick the first clip under 5 minutes so that I would not cherrypick the example). On the one hand, it’s not that bad in terms of depicting Black Widow as an erotic figure. If I were not critically examining it, it probably not bother me (or at least, not bother me much in isolation – if I kept on seeing stuff like this over and over in movie after movie, there would probably have a cumulative effect). However, her dress emphasizes her breasts and ‘sex appeal’ in way which the male characters’ clothes do not emphasize their sex appeal (not to mention the first bit where we see her take off her shirt and her naked leg).

Here is a fight scene from a TV adaptation which does not just feature any female character, but a female character who is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. The fight scene, however, is not an erotic display. (I do have problems with how this TV adaptation handles this fight scene, but they have nothing to do with sexism). I do not recall seeing any fight scenes from any TV adaptations of Jin Yong’s work which are any more erotic than this. Oh, and if you’re curious, yes the fight scene from that TV show clip is also depicted in an illustration from the original novel – the illustration of that fight scene looks like this:

There is the most beautiful woman in the world fighting a whole bunch of guys in a monastery. Even though she ultimately does not ‘win’ the fight, the fact that she holds out so long while she is badly outnumbered is very impressive.

If one really wants to know what this fight is like in the novel, here it is (note: I only took a quick look to make sure it’s the right scene, since I haven’t really read it I cannot tell whether or not this is a good translation).

Even in this scene (which pushes the sexy visuals envelope past what one would usually see in a Jin Yong TV show), there is a good look at the male character’s bare skin too.

Does this means that Jin Yong is not sexist after all? HECK NO! I think the lack of visual eroticism has less to do with respect for women, and more to do with Sinophone cultures’ general reluctance to put erotic visuals in mainstream media. Even in Taiwan – which, unlike some Sinophone societies, does not have government censorship of popular media – if one wants to see people shown in a visually erotic way (like the “Strong Female Characters” picture above), one has to turn to a) American media, b) Japanese media or c) go to the porn section. In Sinophone media, unlike American and Japanese media, there is not a continuum of mainstream-to-porn (or porn bleeding into mainstream, which is another way to look at it) – if it’s not explicitly intended to be porn, then it’s not going to be visually eroticized too much.

(Now I’m going to shift away from Jin Yong to Huang Yi. Just to be clear, Huang Yi is NOT Jin Yong)

I will say that in the works of Huang Yi, there is a discernible visual double standard between the illustrations of male and female characters (to see what I’m talking about, look at this, this, and this. Furthermore Wan Wan in the Cantonese language adaptation of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan has the most skin-exposing outfits of any major female character of an wuxia TV show I’ve seen. However, the other female character in that show seem to have clothing which is no more revealing than the clothes of their male counterparts. No Princess Leia in a slave outfit here!

Black Widow vs. Wan Wan: who has the more sexually -objectifying-aimed-at-male-gaze outfit?

(One can compare the dress of the male and female characters in this video of the theme song of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan, and yes, I like the theme song for the show quite a bit because it’s a very appropriate song for Kou Zhong, and it’s sung by the actor who plays Kou Zhong).

In short, Huang Yi is worse at this than Jin Yong, but Huang Yi is still mild compare to, say, Marvel Comics/Cinema.

There is something more going on here. Maybe you’ve noticed it already in all of these pictures and video clips. Namely, Jin Yong works (and even Huang Yi works) put relatively more emphasis on expressive parts of the female body, whereas Anglophone mainstream media puts relatively more emphasis on less expressive female body parts.

Here is a video which is just about the ‘beautiful women’ of just ONE Jin Yong TV adaptation, which then ranks six female characters from least to most beautiful. The fact that there is a lot more cataloguing of the beauty of Jin Yong’s female characters than the handsomeness of Jin Yong’s male characters says something. However, the body part which is most emphasized in catalogues is the FACE. In fact, we do not see much of the female characters’ other body parts.

If one goes back up to see the video showing Wan Wan, one also sees that it is mostly focused on her face. Even her dress – which shows a lot of skin for an wuxia outfit – is designed to emphasize her face, not her chest.

Yang Kang really likes Mu Nianci’s feet (this is from the 2008 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes).

In Sinophone cultures, generally when someone says a woman is beautiful, they mean that her face is beautiful. Besides the face, the parts of the body they are most likely to discuss are her hands and feet. One can see this in Jin Yong novels – for all that he emphasizes how beautiful his female characters are, he has very little to say about their breasts or butts.

Does it make a difference which body parts are emphasized for physical beauty? Yes, it does. Breasts and butts are not very expressive. One cannot learn much about how a person thinks or feels by looking at their breasts and butts. Thus, focusing on those areas ignores them as an agent. By contrast, faces give tons of information about a person’s feelings and state of mind. Hands can also be very expressive. Feet are not as expressive as hands, but more expressive than breasts and butts. Thus, when one is mostly looking at the face (and to lesser extent, hands and feet) it is much more apparent that these women are sentient beings and not mere pretty objects.

Even though I do not think wuxia’s restraint in displaying female characters in an erotic way, and the emphasis on the face/hands/feet vs. emphasis on breasts/butts/exposed skin comes from a greater respect of women, I welcome it nonetheless. This is not the main reason why I love wuxia, but for me, it is an extra reason to gravitate more towards wuxia than mainstream American geek pop media.

Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Last month I posted “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong”, and Siggy replied with a comment about Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’. This led to me thinking about whether or not Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’ applies to Jin Yong fiction. Since the answer is complex, I’m breaking this up into multiple posts. This post, obviously, is going to be about exploiting female characters for sexy looks.

As I said in the first post of what seems to becoming a series, most Jin Yong non-elderly female characters are described as being physically beautiful. If they are too young to be sexually mature, then they are phenomenally cute (which, to be fair, is not being exploited for sexy looks). In fact, it is remarkable when a non-elderly female character is not pretty because that is uncommon in Jin Yong stories. Off the top of my head, I think Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) is the most prominent non-pretty young female character in the Jin Yong stories.

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

By contrast, most young men in Jin Yong stories are described as being plain looking, and if they are described as being handsome, they are probably a villain. IIRC, the only male Jin Yong protagonist who is described as being handsome is Yang Guo (he is so handsome that he starts wearing a mask so that girls will stop falling in love with him as soon as they see his face).

Yang Guo is hiding his handsome face.

So … tons of pretty young women with few plain-looking women, and tons of plain-looking young men with a few handsome young men, mostly villains. I hope that the double standard here is so obvious that I do not have to explain it.

Did I mention that the plain-looking male protagonists of most Jin Yong stories have three or more pretty young women pining after him? (okay, to be fair, a few of them have only TWO pretty young women pining after him – for example, the male protagonist that Cheng Lingsu falls in love with has only two pretty women in love with him) (but hey that means that all Jin Yong stories have at least two female characters, which means they are automatically one third of the way to passing the very low bar set by the Bechdel test)

This is also a common problem in Anglophone geek pop culture. It can even be a problem in ‘feminist’ geek media. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is often described as being ‘feminist’, yet some readers have critiqued it because most of the prominent female characters are gorgeous while most of the prominent male characters do not have handsome looks (the notable exceptions are Cordelia Naismith, Ivan Vorpatril, and in the most recent novel, Oliver Jole).

So far, I have only been talking about Jin Yong novels. When his stories are adapted to screen, his male protagonists experience a bout of adaptational attractiveness. The most notorious example of this is casting Hu Ge to play Guo Jing, a male protagonist who is repeatedly described in the novel as being plain looking.

In case you don’t know what Hu Ge looks like, here is a picture of him playing the allegedly non-handsome Guo Jing.

This, however, is also not particularly different from Anglophone media. I will say this in defence of the Jin Yong adaptations – in the only adaptation I saw with Cheng Lingsu, they did not cast a particularly pretty actress to play her (though, looking at photos of other adaptations, it seems that Cheng Lingsu can suffer from adaptational attractiveness).

What do I want? First of all, unless there is a good and specific reason not to have it, I want there to be gender parity for the level of physical attractiveness of male and female characters (i.e. I want it to be just as likely for a dude to be handsome as a lady to be beautiful).

Second, I want characters to have a diversity of appearances, including those which are not conventionally attractive. I like eye candy too, and I do not mind at all having *some* conventionally attractive characters, but I do not want it to go so far as to exclude everyone else. Only telling stories about conventionally attractive characters (and making all of your major female characters conventionally attractive) sends the message that people who are not conventionally attractive (including women who are not conventionally attractive) do not matter, and that’s not cool.

***

So far, I’ve been saying that Jin Yong stories are just like Anglophone geek pop media. This was the point at which I was going to start talking about how Jin Yong stories (and wuxia in general) are DIFFERENT from Anglophone geek pop media, until I decided to split this post into two parts. So, that will be discussed in Part 2!

Confusing Intelligence with Goodness

Content Note: This post discusses ableism, thus there are a few ableist slurs used as examples

The post I published couple weeks ago, “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong” was originally going to part of a much bigger post, but since it felt too ambitious to me at the time, I decided to break it down and focus on just a couple of ideas. However, by coincidence, I read this essay which is about one of the other points I had originally planned to discuss – namely, mistaking intelligence for goodness.

That article, like my blog post, used American political discourse as examples of how Americans tend to associate intelligence with (moral) good, even though there is no reason whatsoever to expect a ‘smart’ person to be have more moral/ethical behavior than a ‘stupid’ person. For example, there is the term ‘libtard’, and I hear/read a lot about how anyone who is Republican must be ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ (the main reason I hear a lot more about Republicans being ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ than Democrats being such is that I live in a city where the Republican party is so unpopular that they do not even bother to have candidates running in most local elections – I am sure that if I lived somewhere else I would hear a lot more about how ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ Democrats are).

I have also had experiences which are a bit like Rick Perlstein’s childhood experiences. In high school I had a reputation for being ‘smart’ – in fact, in the yearbook polls, I was voted ‘smartest girl’ for four years in a row. Mind you, at the time, I was not convinced that I really was the ‘smartest’ person in my year, but I was very good at making myself seem smart. I was so confident in my ability to impress my peers with my ‘intelligence’ that I did not mind at all telling them that I had been in special education in elementary school, because I knew even that fact would not dislodge their impressions that I was ‘smart’. And no, they did not believe me, even though it’s true.

Even today, I am still very good at persuading others that I am smart. However, once in a while, for whatever reason, I impress myself on people as being ‘stupid’ rather than ‘smart’, and I notice that it leads to me being treated in a significantly worse manner. When people who think I am ‘smart’ and people who think I am ‘stupid’ watch me do the exact same thing, the people who label me as ‘smart’ judge it much more favourably than the people who label me as ‘stupid’, even though, in theory, they ought to judge my action based on what actually happened rather than what kind of person I am.

And one of the reasons why life is more difficult for those who are perceived as being ‘dumb’ is that, in current American culture, ‘smart’ is associated with moral goodness, and ‘dumb’ is associated with moral badness. And this is so much easier to notice when compared to a milieu where intelligence is NOT associated with good morals.

In Jin Yong’s fiction, intelligent characters, though not necessarily evil, have a strong tendency to be amoral (Huang Rong and her father Huang Yaoshi are excellent examples, but there are plenty of others), whereas the people with good moral sense tend to be not so smart. In my earlier post on this topic, I tried to make the point that, since Jin Yong’s female protagonists tend to be more intelligent than his male protagonists, and intelligence is associated with amorality, this means that femininity is *also* associated with amorality and this has a misogynist scent. However, setting aside gender, immersing oneself in the stories of Jin Yong is a really good way to experience a mindset where the actions of intelligent characters are suspect, whereas the not-so-smart characters are more inclined to do what’s right for the world and not just themselves/closest loved ones.

Many cultures (including American culture) associate bad health and disability with immorality. This is ableist. And I think this extends to cognitive ability (or lack thereof). ‘Stupid’ people lack the level of cognitive abilities of ‘smart’ people, therefore they tend to be perceived as less moral. On the flipside, people with greater cognitive abilities are more likely to being perceived as morally good.

I strongly disagree with this view. I do not think there is much connection between one’s cognitive abilities and whether one acts in a moral/ethical manner. They are, it seems to be, independent variables. Thus, I actually also disagree with the way Jin Yong presents intelligent characters as being more likely to be amoral or immoral (unless they’ve submitted themselves to someone more moral than themselves), and not-so-intelligent characters as more likely to be moral. However, his fiction does offer the service of running counter to the prejudices of my culture, and thus makes it easier for fish to see water.

Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Ah Zhu is possibly the most intelligent character in the story, yet her entire agenda seems to be serving or helping male characters.

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

There is a rule which applies to pretty much every major female character in the fiction of Jin Yong: she must be beautiful and/or intelligent.

Most major female Jin Yong characters are both beautiful and intelligent, but some are beautiful without being intelligent, and a very few – such as Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) from The Young Flying Fox (飛狐外傳) are intelligent – without being beautiful.

This rule does not apply to major male characters – a few are described as being physically handsome, and some of them are intelligent, but many of them – even the protagonists – are neither handsome nor intelligent.

The physical appearance aspect is fairly straightforward – the female characters are meant to appealing to readers who are attracted to females, whereas Jin Yong most of the time did not offer much to readers who are attracted to males (the most notable exception is Yang Guo, the only male protagonist who is described as being handsome – in fact, he is so handsome that he wears a mask to stop women from getting crushes on him). Feminist critics generally – and in my opinion, correctly – would say this is an example of objectification of women without equivalent objectification of men.

The intelligence aspect is a little trickier. In the Anglophone world, most feminist critics say they want more intelligent women in fiction, particularly women in leadership roles. Jin Yong’s fiction is not only full of intelligent women, some of them also rise to significant leadership roles through their own merits – for example, Huang Rong becomes the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, Ren Yingying not only leads the Sun Moon Holy Cult, she also returns the Wulin back to a state of peace, and so forth.

The rub here is that, whereas intelligence is generally considered to be good in the Anglophone world, it is not associated with goodness in the fiction of Jin Yong. The most intelligent protagonists are Yang Guo and Wei Xiaobao – Yang Guo is mischievous and considers helping the Mongols in their mass murder of Chinese, though in the end he works for good. Wei Xiaobao is an obviously immoral antihero, and Jin Yong himself says that it is wrong to follow his example. By contrast, the Jin Yong protagonists who are most obviously good in a moral sense are not very smart – and often need smart women to get them out of the fire. And many of the smartest characters in Jin Yong’s fiction are either morally grey or outright antagonists. In Jin Yong fiction, intelligence tends to make characters think that they don’t have to follow the rules or care about consequences to others, and if they are not restrained in some manner (by being taught Confucian principles and/or Buddhist principles, falling in love with a person more moral than themselves) they are bound to do more harm than good.

This is how the female characters get objectified for their intelligence – they are there so that the good male characters can make use of their intelligence without being tainted by the immorality which comes with intelligence. Furthermore, the female characters ‘need’ their less intelligent male lovers to offer them a moral center so that they do not sink into immorality. One of the many examples of this is Zhao Min and Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min is a badass, conniving Mongol princess who is both ruthless and clever enough to both take over her own family and rule all of China – but that all ends when she falls in love with Zhang Wuji, who is a Super Nice Guy and she wants him to like her. An even more extreme example is Ah Zi and Qiao Feng (though, to be fair, Ah Zi is not especially intelligent – but she is very sadistic) – to quote TV Tropes:

Morality Pet: A rare example of an older, stronger man being a young girl’s morality pet can be found in Demi Gods and Semi Devils. Xiao Feng is the only person who can bring out any sort of redeeming qualities in Ah Zi. Any good deed that Ah Zi ever attempts has been in the effort to seek his approval.

Meanwhile, Qiao Feng also gets a ton of use out of Ah Zi’s very intelligent (and mischievous) sister Ah Zhu.

There are, at most, two counter examples. One is maybe, maybe Wei Xiaobao and Shuang’er – Shuang’er is very subservient to Wei Xiaobao (even though he does not deserve it), but with her obedient goodness, she occasionally persuades Wei Xiaobao to be a bit less blatantly immoral. But I think this is a very borderline example. The better example is Yang Guo and Xiaolongü – he helps ground him so he is less inclined to being implusive and mischievous (and this is the only major example in Jin Yong fiction – well, except for Wei Xiaobao and some of his wives – of an intelligent male character being lovers with a not-particularly-intelligent female character).

I love the work of Jin Yong, and I love that it is full of so many complex and diverse female characters. But I cannot help but notice that the female characters are there to be used by the male characters – whether they are used for they physical appearance or used for their brains. And I am not sure that being objectified for one’s brains is much better than being objectified for one’s physical appearance.

And this raises the question: why do feminists often say they want more intelligent female characters? Do we really want more intelligent female characters, or are we really seeking something else and we just think having more intelligent female characters would be expedient to reaching that other goal?

The Soundtrack of My Recent Pacific Crest Trail Section Hike

I recently returned from my trip to San Diego county. The main thing I did there was hike the southermost 101 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) (for the PCT geeks out there, I did most of Section A, but I did not hike the 8 or so miles between Barrel Spring and Warner Springs, and if you’re wondering why not, it’s because there is no public transit to Warner Springs, even though it’s actual community with a fire station, a post office, an elementary school, and a small shop, whereas Barrel Spring, which is just a water source next to a road, has public transit).

This is Barrel Spring. When I told the hikers there that a bus had dropped me off, they were astonished, because this is not at all the type of place one would expect to be accessible by public transit.

Anyway, one aspect of hiking the PCT is: playing music. A lot of hikers take music players with them, and listen while they hike. If they are really obnoxious, they play the music so loudly that other people hear them. If they are only mildly obnoxious, then they simply become dangerously unaware of their surroundings. There was one hiker listening to music who was so oblivious that he did not see that I was right in front of him until he was inches away from me and I said ‘boo’ in his ear. That turned out to be okay because I saw him and stepped out of his way, but if he could not notice a full-grown human blocking his path, I don’t know how he spots more hazardous obstacles.

That said I am fine with hikers choosing to listen to music as long as they are not obnoxious, and most are not obnoxious. However, personally, I fail to understand the point. Then again, I’ve never carried walkmans, iPods, or any other portable music playing device. I am quite capable of playing music in my head at will, and sometimes I have music playing in my head when I don’t want it. Why bother with the hassle of carrying a music player?

That said, here is the music which played in my head the most during my 101 mile hike through eastern San Diego County:

The “Raseir” theme from Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire – of all of the computer games I’ve ever played, with all of their theme music, why this theme? It’s certainly not a particularly good music theme. On the other hand, Raseir is a (fictional) city in the desert mountains, and I was hiking through desert mountains, so I suppose it might have been appropriate, but I think that this was just random.

The Anza-Borrego Desert, as seen from Mount Laguna (specifically from the Storm Canyon lookout point)

“You’re the Best in the World,” both the original Cantonese version and the new Mandarin version – yes, the Cantonese version is better, but I also like the Mandarin version, and both versions played in my head during my hike. The lyrics about the comparative heights of mountains were especially appropriate.

This is the peak which looms above Hauser Canyon. During this trip, hikers were actually comparing canyons more than mountains. Getting out of Hauser Canyon is the tough climb for northbound hikers, especially those who try to hike out of there in the afternoon when it’s hot and there is no shade (if you plan to do this hike northbound, here is my advice: DO NOT CLIMB THIS IN THE AFTERNOON! Do it in the cool, shady morning, in the late evening, or even at night, but not in the afternoon!). However, for southbounders, like myself, getting out of Hauser Canyon isn’t such a big deal – getting out of Chariot Canyon is the big uphill challenge for us. Meanwhile, none of the northbound hikers I met felt that hiking out of Chariot Canyon was notable (except that Chariot Canyon is the only place sheltered from the wind on that segment, but that’s more important for camping than hiking).

“Walker,” a Cantonese song (here is music video with graphic violence, and audio only) – sure, it’s a song which glorifies violence and dishonesty, but it’s also about being fearless and doing what it takes to reach one’s goals. Most importantly, it’s catchy, at least for me (bonus: it’s obviously not a romance song). And even the title “Walker” is fitting – I did a heck of a lot of walking!

I walked through a few burns during my hike. I don’t know what caused this specific burn, but most wildfires are started by humans.

“Roar” – you all already know about this song, right? I suppose it’s thematically appropriate, and more importantly, it’s catchy, so yes, it got stuck in my head.

I did not see any mountain lions during my trip, or any other animal which can roar (except humans), but I saw a lot of bunnies on the trail.

“Dao Jian Ru Meng” specifically the version by Dong Zhen – since I’ve already written a blog post about this song, I feel no need to say any more.

I didn’t see any swords or sabres during my trek, though I did see a few knives (I even had my own knife). There were a lot of yucca plants on the trail, and I learned through first-hand experience that the leaves are sharp enough to draw blood (thankfully, I was not seriously hurt).

The theme of the TV show Kung Fu – contrary to what the title suggests, this song is from a Hollywood Western, not an Asian martial arts drama. And I feel this was the most appropriate of all of the bits of music I frequently had playing in my head during my hike. I was, after all, trekking through the American West. Once one goes east of the San Diego metropolitan area, things get rural very fast. A local explained that it is because ‘East County’ (that is, the eastern part of San Diego county) does not have enough water to sustain a high human population density, therefore, the population density is permanently low. Historically, East County had mining booms, mining busts, bandits, gunfights, vigilantes, stagecoaches, and there still is cattle ranching (though not much, due to limited water) and the desert mountain landscape today.

You know why this building (from the late 19th century) is built like a stone fortress? It’s because the first Gaskill Store was attacked by bandits and had multiple holes left by bullets in the walls, so the owners wanted their store to have better protection. Some of the bandits escaped, but the ones which did not were hung by cowboys passing through town from a tree which was RIGHT ON THE PRESENT-DAY PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (though the tree died in 1975 and is no longer there). That is one of the more gruesome bits of PCT lore I’ve encountered.

So, now you know what songs were getting stuck in my head as I walked a hundred and one miles through arid hills and mountains. It seems the connecting themes, aside from a vague association with arid mountains, is that most of these songs are about exerting oneself and overcoming obstacles while remembering what’s important in life. When one is carrying water (which is heavy) through heat and/or wind, either going uphill or downhill (downhill puts a different strain on the body), possibly with little shade, it’s good to have a song about overcoming obstacles and appreciating the wonders of life in one’s head.

“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” – Taking a Tour through Sinophone Pop Culture with “Dao​ Jian Ru Meng​”

There is a very popular Mandarin pop song called “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”, and I am going to use it as a theme for a little tour of Sinophone Pop Culture (why ‘Sinophone’ rather than ‘Chinese’? Because China is not the only place where Chinese is spoken, and some of the artists who are mentioned in this very post are not from China).

What does “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” mean? I’ve encountered the following English translations of the title:

“Sword Like a Dream”
“Dream of Swords and Blades”
“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream”
“Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”

The most ‘accurate’ translation is “Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”, but I prefer the translation “A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” because I feel it’s closest to the spirit of the song and the story which inspired this song.

So, for those of you who have never heard the song, or who just want to hear it again, here is Wakin Chau’s original music video. Wakin Chau both wrote the song and was the first singer to record it. (If you don’t understand Mandarin, don’t worry, I will later link to videos with English translations).

This song was originally one of the theme songs of the 1993 TV adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (HSDS).

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven't seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven’t seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

I have not seen more than twenty minutes of any TV adaptation of HSDS, but I have read the original novel. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel (actually, it is one of the most memorable scenes I have read in any work of fiction) is as follows (violent melodrama alert): many people hate and want to kill a certain man because he has killed their loved ones. Two of the very few people who know this hated man’s whereabouts are a husband and wife. However they refuse to reveal the hated man’s whereabouts because they consider him to be their sworn brother, and they are forced to commit suicide. Their nine-year old son watches this happen. Right after his mother plunges the dagger in herself, she tells him that must remember all the people present so that, when he is grown up and strong, he can avenge her and his father. The boy says no, he does not want revenge, revenge will not bring his father back, all he wants is for his father to come back to life (he does not quite understand yet that his mother is also dying). That scene illustrates one of the key themes of the novel – people get incredibly wrapped up in cycles of avenging the wrongs done to their loved ones, but in the big picture, what is the point of all that violence inspired by love and hate?

Why did I share those bits of plot from HSDS? Because I think that background helps the song make more sense. To see how this song goes with footage from the TV show, here is here is the song with footage from the TV show.

[aside/rant: if you look at the above music video, you’ll notice that female characters have a large presence in HSDS, which is typical of wuxia fiction. In fact, one of the reasons I am so fond of wuxia is that it the wide array of compelling female characters. Yes, there is plenty of sexism in wuxia – HSDS itself has some misogynist content – but even sexist wuxia male writers tend to have more female characters who have more interesting roles in the story than some female ‘feminist’ writers of speculative fiction in English, let alone male writers of speculative fiction in English.]

A picture of Dong Zhen

A picture of Dong Zhen

Recently, a lot of singers have been covering this song. One singer who has become well-known for performing this song is Dong Zhen. She mostly does singing for video game songs. She has built a fanbase by developing her public persona as being like the mysterious maidens one often finds in Chinese fiction. I’ve read that the ‘mysterious maiden’ stock character has been around in Chinese fiction since the Tang Dynasty (over a thousand years ago), but I know little of Chinese literature which is more than a hundred years old. I can say that the mysterious maiden continues to be a very popular stock character. She generally was raised in isolation from society (for example, Lian Nichang, one of the most famous examples of this archetype, was raised by wolves), is generally an amazing sword fighter or has some other fantastic skill, is gorgeous, and seems like someone from out of this world. Ironically, the only character in HSDS who fits the ‘mysterious maiden’ archetype, the Yellow Dress Maiden (she’s so mysterious that nobody knows her given name!), is just a minor character.

Anyway, here is Dong Zhen singing “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” (and yes, this version has an English translation).

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game 'World of Sword'

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game ‘World of Sword’

In the past few years, Kris Wu has become one of the most popular celebrities in China. I admit that I have not seen any of his movies, but in terms of singing and looks … I don’t get it (China has way better singers – Dong Zhen for example – as well as actors who, IMO, are much more aesthetically/visually appealing than Kris Wu). Interestingly, even though Kris Wu is Chinese-Canadian, he first got into show business in South Korea, and started his rise to fame as a member of a popular K-pop band, EXO. And he definitely continues to have a strong K-Pop vibe … which might be why I don’t care for him. I don’t like K-Pop music, and no, it’s not because I don’t understand Korean, since I don’t like K-Pop even when it’s sung in a language I understand (English or Mandarin). I like Mandopop, Cantopop, and even J-Pop more than K-Pop.

In any case, Kris Wu recorded his own version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” to be the theme song for a mobile game called “World of Sword” (the lyrics are the same as Dong Zhen’s recording, it’s just a different English translation).

The Kris Wu version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is my least favorite because … I feel that it misses the point of the song. To me it seems like ‘hey, I am a guy with a sword, cool!’ and yes, I admit that it is cool when he’s wearing that costume at the end of the music video and swinging that sword around, but the song is about something more.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Anyway, in addition to being the theme song for ‘World of Sword’, “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is also the theme song for a new Taiwanese mobile game adapted from HSDS. Or, rather, the theme song is “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​ 2.0”. It’s performed by a Taiwanese band whose English name is The Last Day of Summer / 831. I know very little about this specific band, but the music video of their version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” feels Taiwanese too me. First of all, there are the traces of Japanese culture (the kimono the little boy is wearing, the tatami mats in the room) which are casually thrown into the video. Taiwan has been more heavily influenced by Japanese culture than any other place where Chinese is the dominant language, and the heavy Japanese influence is one of the things which distinguishes Taiwanese culture from other Chinese-speaking cultures. There is also something about the hairstyles and the way the singers dress … I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels Taiwanese to me. It’s certainly more the way Taiwanese ‘idols’ dress than the way Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese ‘idols’ would dress. The music video, of course, has footage from the mobile game. 831 also added some new lyrics/melodies to the song, which are about chaos and fighting one’s opponents with a little bit about love and hate, which makes sense for a mobile game which is combat-heavy.

[aside #2: I never thought about it before, but looking at the footage from the mobile game, I notice that none of the characters have any particular ethnic markings, even though they are all Chinese or Mongol. Yes, even the blond guy is ethnic Chinese according to the novel. Though the novel also says that his eyes were impaled by darts causing permanent blindness, whereas his eyes look just fine in the mobile game. By contrast, the the 1994 DOS game adapted from HSDS shows that the blond guy does not have functioning eyes. What was I saying? Oh yeah, you can tell that this game was made by Asians, in this case Taiwanese, because they don’t put ethnic markings on Chinese characters. It’s like what this blog post discusses.]

And now, for the final version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”…

Riceboy Liu appearing in The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu appearing on The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu is a Los Angeles rapper who specializes in multilingual rap songs. I’m not into rap music, but I have a thing for polyglots, so I happen to like like some of his songs. He was also a contestant on Season 4 of The Voice of China.

I have never seen an entire episode of The Voice, just clips. That includes The Voice of China. As it so happens, Dong Zhen appeared in the first season of Voice of China, and sang “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” in the blind auditions, but none of the judges picked her for their team. The song came back in Season 4, when it was used for the battle round between Riceboy Liu and Queen T, which you can watch here.

Queen T won the battle and stayed on the show (she eventually was the runner-up in the entire competition), which isn’t surprising since she’s the better singer, but I feel that I enjoy this version of the song so much thanks to Riceboy Liu’s creative contribution. I never imagined that I would enjoy a hip-hop version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” but I really like this one.

Of all of the versions of this song I’ve heard, this is the one with the strongest American influence (which is what one would expect when one of the performers is American). It’s not just that it adds a bunch of English lyrics (which don’t have much to do with the original song, but at least it’s different) and that it’s done in hip hop style – Queen T sounds like she also has an R&B influence on her singing style. Now I’m wondering what it would sound like if Aretha Franklin sang this song.

Anyway, if you contrast the Riceboy Liu / Queen T version of this song with Dong Zhen’s version, you can tell that they represent two different trends in Sinophone pop culture. Dong Zhen represents the trend of drawing upon a distinctly Chinese cultural history, whereas Riceboy Liu / Queen T represent taking popular styles from somewhere outside of Asia and making it their own. Wakin Chau, the songwriter, embodies the fusion of both of these trends, since he both draws from traditional Chinese culture and absorbs lots of influences from outside of Asia (especially rock music). Of course, influences from non-Chinese parts of Asia are also significant, as evidenced by the Korean influence on Kris Wu and the Japanese influence on Last Day of Summer / 831.

So that’s the conclusion of this little tour through Sinophone pop culture centered around a single song. I don’t know who will read this, but I enjoyed putting this post together, and if you got this far, I hope you enjoyed reading it.