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. It’s really lucky for Qiao Feng that she falls in love with him, because he really needs someone smart on his side. But Ah Zhu’s agenda seems to always being serving her master Murong Fu (male), helping Qiao Feng, or saving her father; she never seems to have an agenda which is about something other than helping a male character.

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.

While I’m Trying to Write a Blog Post, This Cantonese Song Is Stuck in My Head

Fine, Cantonese song. YOU WIN.

Since this Cantonese song getting in the way of me writing a blog post, I am going to translate it into English. TAKE THAT, YOU CANTONESE SONG!!!

I don’t even speak Cantonese. Therefore, this is really a Cantonese -> Mandarin -> English translation rather than a Cantonese -> English translation.

The song is called “Dong Ngo Ngaan Chin Ji Yau Nei” which means “When Before My Eyes Is Only You”. You can find the melody here on YouTube.

Some words which appear multiple times in the lyrics are:

yuk – want/wish
naan – difficult/hard
nei – you/your
fung – wind
yau yu – just as / just like / as if
ngo – I/me/my
yi – easy
ngaan – eye(s)
chin – before / in front of
yan – person
mik – seek/search for
cheung – long
dyun – short
lou – road/path


The Lyrics

yuk bin naan bin nei yat lim fung chan
I want to see, it’s hard to see your face through the windblown dust

yau yu yuk bin naan bin ngo meng wan
Just as I want to see, it’s hard to see my fate

yi jaak naan jaak na tin jai fung wan
It’s easy, it’s hard to take that horizon’s storm

yau yu yi gan naan gan ngaan chin yan
Just as it’s easy, it’s hard to get near the person before your eyes

waan naan cheung lou jung
On the long road of trials and tribulations

go ji chyun bou naan haang
No one can move a single step

yu gwo je si ngoi
If this is love

jaap mo bei pou yung ang jan
Then what is truer than an embrace

yuk man naan man nei ho yau ho nang
I want to ask, it’s hard to ask, do you have, can you

yau yu yi mik naan mik gwo lou yan
Just as it’s easy, it’s hard to seek the passer-by

lou yeuk cheung yeuk dyun
Whether the road is long or short

jyu ding gai juk tung haang
We are destined to continue travelling together

naan dak nei gung ngo
It’s hard for you to be with me

chung gwo dou cham mik wing hang
From crossing over to seeking eternity

dong ngo ngaan chin ji yau nei
When before my eyes is only you

dong nei bui hau jung yau ngo
When behind your back is always me

joi lou tou seung yat seung yat deui
On the road is a couple, a pair

daan bui ying seung cha syun do bat syun do
But difference in our rear views is much, is not much

dong ngo ngaan chin ji yau nei
When before my eyes is only you

dong nei bui hau jung yau ngo
When behind your back is always me

maan maan tou seung fung seung gaau cho
On the endless route, the sounds of the wind intertwine

jeung cheung cheut bei chi mei cheung di go
As if they sang the song we have not sung for each other


I’m not even sure I can even say ‘jeung cheung cheut bei chi mei cheung di go’ without having my tongue trip over myself. I suppose I would get the hang of it if I practiced enough.

Taking a 2+ Year Vacation from English Language Fiction

I recently discovered the Tempest Challenge, which is to stop reading fiction by straight white cis men who write in English for an entire year.

Before the ‘Tempest Challenge’ existed, I had actually done this myself. In fact I took it a few steps further – for a period of 2+ years, I only read fiction written in Chinese (with the exception of webcomics). The vast majority of that fiction was originally in Chinese, but I also read some Japanese-to-Chinese and Korean-to-Chinese translations. All of this fiction was by East Asians, which meant that I also happened to stop reading fiction by white people during this period.

Why did I do this? Mainly because I wanted to improve my Chinese, and to get good at reading Chinese, one has to get a lot of practice. And I didn’t want to read English-to-Chinese translations since I can read the originals in English.

This immersion experience definitely changed the way I think and perceive the world. Some of the changes were obvious at the time, whereas I am only gradually noticing some of the other changes years later.

For example, when I made up stories in my head to amuse myself, the characters tended to be white people. Since I’m a white person myself, that was not surprising. However, after a year or two of my immersion in Chinese fiction, the characters who appeared in my head-stories tended to be Asian, not white, by default. It wasn’t any conscious process or decision on my part, it’s just what seemed most natural to my imagination at the time. Now that I’m back in the United States and taking in a lot of fiction by white people, the characters in my head-stories are now mostly white people again, but … I am impressed that all it took for my imagination to shift that way was to just limit myself to Chinese-language fiction for a couple years (okay, the fact that I was living in a city with very few white people, where I could go weeks without seeing another white person, might have had something to do with it too).

As far as the subtler effects which I am only noticing later … a lot of that comes up when I am reading English-language fiction. English speakers tend to think in a way which is a bit different than the way Chinese speakers think (a lot of this is cultural), and things which I would have never noticed before now leap out at me as being a specifically English-speaker kind of thing. It’s hard to describe some of this stuff, because a lot it is me getting a feeling but not knowing how to explain it in words.

All and all, I think this was very good for me. This experience definitely expanded my imagination and perceptiveness (not to mention that a lot of Chinese language fiction is fun to read). And I think that I went really hardcore – as in, I refused to read English-language fiction (except webcomics) or even fiction which originated in English for years – made the experience much deeper than if I had simply stopped reading fiction by cis-het-white-males for a year.

I don’t think I’ll do anything like this again in my life, or even do the Tempest Challenge, but I think I would benefit by reading more fiction by a) people who are neither white nor East Asian b) queer people and c) disabled people.

The Protagonists from Chinese-Language Pop Fiction That Grab You and Make You Scream in Frustration

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that there is a type of protagonist – and type of cast of characters – that I run into way more often in popular Chinese-language fiction than popular English language fiction. Namely, the kind of protagonist who a lot of readers end up hating because they do bad things, yet their motivations are so understandable that they are not villains, and sometimes have enough saving graces that the reader can’t help loving AND hating them at the same time. And an entire cast of characters who are mostly unlikeable, yet also have understandable motivations, and end up creating a trainwreck so compelling that readers can’t put the book down.

An example is the novel Love in the Rain (煙雨濛濛). For those who aren’t familiar with it, one can get at least the flavor of the story from the theme songs of the 1986 TV adaptation (take particular note of how, er, courteous the characters are towards each other in the clips). The only characters in the novel I find likeable are a) the protagonist’s mother and b) the protagonist’s best friend. Pretty much every other character of any significance manages to do something thoroughly awful at some point in the novel. Even though it’s a ‘romance’ novel, it’s really about the relationship between the protagonist and her father. One of my favorite moments is when he says ‘You should have been born as a son when I was in my prime, then you would have become the second me,’ and she replies ‘I don’t want to be the second you,” and he replies ‘I also wouldn’t want you to be the second me.’ She gets to see him at his worst, and the irony is that a) it inspires her to be herself at her worst, which is much like her father as his worst and b) she eventually discovers (when it is too late) that the qualities she has at her best, are also qualities her father has. Anyway, I found the novel incredibly frustrating to read because I constantly felt angry at the characters, but at the same time, I kept turning the pages, and it has stayed with me a long time.

Another example, which is (mostly) available in English translation, is Crane Startles Kunlun.

Another example is (long-time readers of this blog ought to know who I’m going to mention) Yang Guo from Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ. I personally love him, but a lot of readers hate him, and I can understand that. He does some really shitty things in the story (as do most of the major characters at some point).

One of the things I appreciate about Chinese-language pop fiction compared to English-language pop fiction is that it is much easier to find stories about characters who are a mix of good and bad in a way which is psychologically compelling, and do not fit the hero/villain dichotomy as clearly. By comparison, pretty much all of the main characters in Harry Potter, with the very significant exception of Snape, and possibly Malfoy, have straightforward motivations. Ditto Lord of the Rings (with significant exception of Gollum). Ditto The Hunger Games (caveat: I’ve only read the first book). I could go on.

I feel there is something true about these characters who do such horrible things, yet do not necessarily do them because they are horrible people. And there is something strangely reassuring about people who do horrible things, yet sometimes also do wonderful things. It’s also just refreshing to read a style of fiction which is relatively less common in English.

I Didn’t Love Mandarin Until I Learned It

Language learning has been one of my major lifetime hobbies. There are many languages which I find beautiful without knowing much about them. By ‘beautiful’, I may mean that they sound beautiful, or that I find the grammar elegant, or that a combination of features of the language simply please me, even if I only can understand a few phrases in the language.

The first time I started dipping my toes into Mandarin, I did not like the language. Since at that point I was just doing it for fun – seeing which languages suited my fancy – I did not see much point in pursuing it much further.

Then I decided to move to Taiwan. And the most useful language in Taiwan – and the only one which is practical to study in the United States – is Mandarin. So, I chose to seriously learn Mandarin because of Taiwan.

Studying beginner level Mandarin was not much fun for me. I did not like the writing system, I did not like the sound of the language, I did not like the grammar, etc. My strong motivation to be able to get around Taiwan without English is what carried me through.

However, as I grew more proficient in Mandarin, I found more and more beauty in the language. For example, while I do not find the shapes of Chinese characters to be beautiful (yes, calligraphy can be beautiful, but that’s thanks to the calligraphers, not the basic shapes) as I got to know the Chinese characters better, I found quite a bit of beauty in the relationships between radicals, components, readings, and meanings. For those of you who have not studied Chinese characters, let me put it this way: Chinese characters represent multiple levels of information. The level of information which is apparent to people who are illiterate in Chinese characters – the visual shapes of the characters – is not aesthetically pleasing to me, but as I could understand more levels of information within the characters, I found levels which I find beautiful.

Another thing I came to appreciate about Mandarin – once my Mandarin vocabulary was sufficiently large – is that there are very few words of Indo-European origin. Once I got over the difficulty of learning a language without the aid of cognates, it dramatically increased the novelty value, and using an almost entirely new vocabulary base stretched my mind in ways that learning languages like French or even Japanese did not. I have written an entire blog post about this.

Speaking of novelty value … if something is phrased in English, and is also phrased in non-English which I understand, unless the English phrasing is particularly aesthetic, or the non-English phrasing particularly not, I’m going to find the non-English phrasing more beautiful. It will feel fresher to me. English is by far the language I’ve used the most in my life – thus it’s harder for something phrased in English to feel fresh to me. On the other hand, the lower my level of comprehension, the less opportunity there is for me to find beauty.

Mandarin is now in the sweet spot where I can understand lots of it at a high level, yet it still feels much fresher than English.

For example, I think rupan na prithak shunyata sunyataya na prithag rupan (a phrase I only understand through translation) has prettier sounds than 色不異空,空不異色 / (sè bù yì​ kòng​, kòng bù yì​ ​sè). However, given that I actually understand 色不異空,空不異色 without translation, I find it overall to be more beautiful. I also think that 色不異空,空不異色 is a much more beautiful phrase than “emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness” because … well, I think in this case the Chinese phrasing really is more elegant, but even if it weren’t, it would still feel fresher to me than the English version.

I have also reached a level in Mandarin where I can tell that some phrases are more beautiful than others. For example, “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs, make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes, write sorrow on the bosom of the earth” is more beautiful than any sentence I’ve composed in this post (note: anybody who can figure out which Shakespeare play I’m quoting without the use of a search engine / search function wins bonus points). I can also now tell that 曲曲折折的荷塘上面,彌望的是田田的葉子 is more beautiful than, say, 我看見很多荷塘上的葉子 even though they both (roughly) mean “there’s a view of many leaves on the lotus pond” (note: anybody who can figure out where this quote is from without a search engine also wins bonus points).

Finally, finding books and other media which I love in Mandarin (especially the wuxia genre)has done much to improve my esteem of the language.

I doubt I will ever become as proficient in another language as I have in Mandarin (though who knows – life can be surprising). I am glad that I have come to love the language I spent so much effort studying.