My Thoughts on The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

Cover of The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

I read The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil.

I first became acquainted with The Black Trillium through Simon McNeil’s blog, specifically this post (he’s also written a follow-up post now that he’s watched Iron Fist).

Anyway, back to The Black Trillium.

It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve ever read in English – that is, unless one chooses to define the term ‘wuxia’ broadly (if you make the definition of wuxia broad enough, it includes Batman, and if you make it even broader than that, then a lot of American superhero stories would start qualifying – though come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero novel). It’s the first wuxia novel I’ve read which was ~written~ in English (unless, once again, one is using a very broad definition). For me, part of the appeal of the novel was seeing how Simon McNeil adapted wuxia jargon and tropes to the English language for an Anglo audience. Sometimes while I was reading the novel I found myself instantly translating what was written back into Chinese and thinking ‘ah ha, I know what that is’ (for example, ‘lightness skill’ obviously means 輕功).

It’s also the first wuxia novel I’ve read which is set in the future rather than the past (or an alternate universe).

Specifically, it is set in a post-industrial future. And one of the protagonists is a barbarian girl from a desert (which does not exist in our time) who learns how to use a sword and goes into scary mysterious tunnels from the industrial era. And there’s a protagonist who is a youth who must learn how to lead a group of rebels who are rebelling against a monarchy. And the current king had usurped the throne. And YET ANOTHER protagonist (antagonist?) is a disgraced son of the king, who knows that his father favors his incompetent brothers over him, and he is planning to prove that he is the most capable ruler and eventually take the throne from his father. And the king’s-son-protagonist/antagonist also has a very close friend who dies brutally and tragically in the course of the story. And there is a lot of sword fighting. And did I mention that there is a search for a mysterious old doctor who is the only one who can treat a particular aliment?

Wait a minute, is this an wuxia novel, or a girls’ comic book?

On the left is the desert-barbarian-girl protagonist, and on the right is the king’s-son-protagonist/antagonist.

No seriously, while that long paragraph accurately describes The Black Trillium, it also accurately describes Basara by Yumi Tamura, which is a shojo manga (shojo manga = girls’ comic book). It has also been adapted into an anime, though I’ve only seen on episode.

Obviously, there are some major differences, such as Basara being set in post-industrial Japan, whereas The Black Trillium is set in post-industrial Canada. With a very broad definition, I suppose one could label Basara as being wuxia, and it certainly uses many tropes which are also common in wuixa fiction, but it does not draw specifically on the Chinese wuxia tradition the way The Black Trillium does.

***

Who destroys the army’s food reserves? I don’t know. I mean, I know it was not the Black Trillium because the novel really rubs it in that THE BLACK TRILLIUM WAS NOT RESPONSIBLE, but who was? For a while I was suspecting it was Sophie of all characters. Was it Brutus? Was it Paul? I don’t feel it really made much sense for Brutus or Paul, to be honest.

Okay, maybe the novel does at some point say who burned down the military granary and I just missed it. If that is the case, then I wish the novel were written in a way which would make that plot detail more difficult to miss.

***

I do feel that The Black Trillium is missing some key things BUT it is pretty clear that the ending is meant to be the launching point for a sequel, and it is very possible that the elements which I feel are missing in this novel are intended for the sequel. After all, this novel is less than 400 pages long, whereas wuxia novels – ESPECIALLY wuxia novels with multiple protagonists/POV characters – tend to run 1000+ pages long. Complaining that a wuxia novel under 400 pages is missing some of the stuff which I would expect to see in a 1000+ page wuxia novel may be a bit unfair.

I am willing to suspend judgement on the things which I feel are missing in the novel as long as they appear in the sequel, if a sequel ever appears.

With one exception.

Before I try to find words for the one thing which I really wish the novel had regardless of any potential sequels, I am going to give an example.

In The Black Trillium, there is a character, the Wizard in Green, who is trying to find his daughter Sophie and bring her back home. Sophie does not want to go home and – this is the part which is relevant – seems to have no love for her father. Not that he displays much love for her either. Granted, he wants her to be alive and safe, but it feels like he is mechanically fulfilling a vow he made to her mother, not expressing his love for his daughter. And it’s not even clear whether he is trying to fulfil his vow to Sophie’s mother just on principle, or whether he has deep feelings on the line.

It’s pretty clear that the Wizard in Green was inspired by Huang Yaoshi in The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (射鵰英雄傳). Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi has a wilful daughter who runs away from home so she can pursue her own goals. Like the Wizard in Green, Huang Yaoshi goes looking for his daughter. Like the Wizard in Green, the mother of Huang Yaoshi’s daughter has been dead for quite a while.

The difference is that, whereas it’s not clear that either the Wizard in Green or Sophie have strong feelings for any other human being (as opposed to mechanically following principle), it is bloody obvious that Huang Yaoshi has very powerful feelings about both his dead wife and his daughter. When someone tells Huang Yaoshi that his daughter is dead, his reaction is *cough* quite something *cough cough*. And when he is reunited with his daughter who is alive after all, it’s such an emotional scene that I broke down in tears when I read it. And even though Huang Yaoshi’s daughter ran away from home, she still clearly has some strong feelings and attachments to her father, and when ~he~ goes missing, she spends months looking for him.

I’m not saying that the Wizard in Green and Sophie have to have a relationship exactly like Huang Yaoshi and his daughter, in fact I prefer that it be at least a little different. But I would have liked at least one of them demonstrate a strong attachment, negative or positive or a bit of both, to the other. Or if not them, then for other characters to demonstrate that.

I mean, sometimes we are told that Character A is emotionally attached to Character B. For example, we are told repeatedly that Marc Antonelli are best friends, but we never see that. Their friendship is pretty much offpage until Kyle starts suspecting Marc Antonelli, and even then, the ‘friendship’ part of their relationship is only thinly evident. We are told that Kieran is very attached to his uncle, and he certainly tries very hard to save his uncle, but we see very little of them actually engaging in an uncle-and-nephew relationship. And I don’t want to spoil what happens to Kieran’s uncle so, uh, Kieran’s uncle survives-or-dies and – we see very little of Kieran celebrating-or-mourning that (I think a page or two of celebration-or-mourning would have been enough, but we don’t even get that). Savannah never seemed to have much emotional attachment to Boyd before he was in danger, and while she puts a lot of effort into helping him when he’s in trouble, it seems to be more a matter of principle than because Boyd himself is specifically important to Savannah.

And then there is the relationship between Savannah and Kieran. Okay, I’m going to do something I almost never do, I almost can’t believing I’m doing this, but … I criticize this novel for not having enough romance. I think I would have enjoyed the novel more if the romance between Savannah and Kieran had been a lot more serious and deeper. That’s right, the blogger who wrote this and this and this is complaining that a novel – an WUXIA novel no less – does not have enough romance.

Really, the thing which I felt was missing was passionate human connections. It would have been better the novel had put in a passionate human connection via a fullblown romance between Savannah and Kieran than for it to not be there at all. Okay, I would prefer it if it were expressed in nonromantic relationships, but having it in romantic relationships is WAY BETTER than not having it at all.

In fact, I think Savannah/Kyle is a fictional romantic relationship in the worst way. It has all of the amantonormativity of a typical fictional romance (yuck) without any of the rewards of a fictional romance (or at least, none of what I find rewarding, though I think many fans of fictional romance would find it just as unsatisfying as I do).

When trying to describe wuxia to people, it’s easy to say ‘oh, it’s Chinese and has lots of martial arts.’ That’s true, and I often describe it that way myself because it’s so easy. And I like martial arts and violence in my fiction. But what keeps me hooked on wuxia is not the martial arts or that it is Chinese – it’s the psychology of the characters and the passionate, deeply involved relationships. I don’t find the fights or martial arts in Wang Dulu’s novels particularly interesting, yet he is one of my favorite wuxia novelists because of the depth of character and the intensity of the relationships. What stays with me are scenes such as Han Tiefang desperately trying to explain to dying!Lo Xiaohu that he is his son, yet Lo Xiaohu doesn’t seem to hear a word he’s saying, and still (mistakenly) talks to Chun Xueping as if she were his daughter. And then he dies. (Not coincidently, Wang Dulu wrote 言情小說 – ‘sentimental novels’ – before he started writing wuxia).

I suppose this might be another roundabout way of saying ‘The Black Trillium is too short’ because most of the conceivable ways to add the passionate human connections which I feel are missing would increase the word count. However, as I said early, there is a reason why wuxia novels tend to be really long.

***

I read The Black Trillium in just two days. The first 3/4 of the novel flew by. I had to push myself to finish the last fourth of the novel, but I didn’t need to push myself too hard to get to the end.

***

The thought of writing an wuxia novel myself has occurred to me. More specifically, the idea of setting an wuxia novel in post-industrial California has occurred to me, so far in the future that the name ‘California’ is no longer in use. I’d imagine it would have many of the things I like about 大唐雙龍傳 without the things I don’t like (apparently I’d rather daydream about being the next Huang Yi than the next Jin Yong).

I have no intention of actually writing it. Writing a novel takes a ton of time and energy, an wuxia novel set in post-industrial California even more so. I want to dedicate my time and energy to other things.

But if I ever change my mind, I think having The Black Trillium as an example of an wuxia novel written in English set in post-industrial North America will be helpful.

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Sixth Year Anniversary Post

As of today, this blog is six years old. To quote the very first paragraph of my very first post on this blog:

I had been thinking about starting a blog for years. However, I never had ‘enough time’ to maintain a proper blog. Finally, I realized that I will never have ‘enough time’ to blog, so if I am going to blog, I have to do it now, when I don’t have ‘enough time’.

Six years later, not having ‘enough time’ still has not stopped this blog. Huzzah!

While I was writing and posting that very first blog post, I was reading the novel Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ for the very first time. Since it was only the second book I had ever read in Chinese, my reading speed was very slow, and since it is more than 1500 pages long, it took a lot of time to read. I spent about 2-3 hours per day reading, and it took me several weeks. On top of that, I was also spending about two hours a day studying Chinese in other ways, such as watching the classic Taiwanese TV show Meteor Garden, so that I would develop my listening and speaking skills, not just my reading skills.

The first time I read this novel, this was the edition I read. I preferred the editions which came in smaller sizes and only about 250 pages per volume rather than the editions with thicker books and fewer volumes because a) the smaller volumes were easier to carry around b) I was not confident in my Chinese reading skills at the time, so being able to complete a volume faster (because it was much shorter) gave me an extra motivation boost.

The fact that I was reading Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ and studying Chinese (as well as working at my job, sleeping, taking care of chores and errands, etc.) was one of the main reasons I did not have ‘enough time’ to start a blog. Somehow, I started this blog anyway.

At the time, I would not have predicted that I would be referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so often in this blog, even six years later. Heck, the post which was published yesterday mentions Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. Meanwhile, I rarely (or even never?) reference Meteor Garden in this blog, even though that was the TV show I was watching when this blog started.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because of the Jin Yong Jolt? Partially, perhaps, but if that were the case, I would probably be referencing The Deer and the Cauldron, which is without question the most WTF???!!!! of Jin Yong’s novels, even more often. Yet I rarely mention The Deer and the Cauldron in this blog.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because I headcanon the protagonist as ace? That definitely has a lot to do with it, but I also have brought up Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in a lot of posts which aren’t about asexuality.

Something about this specific novel really stays with me in a way that few novels do, and it’s been reflected in this blog for six years.

Oh, and I recently watched the 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. That means there are going to be even more blog posts referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in the near future.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 2

The simplest of all beds is the ground. But what is ‘the ground’? That depends on where you are. ‘The ground’ could be soil covered with dry grass, a sandy beach, a slab of flat rock, etc.

While there is no doubt that ‘the ground’ is the cheapest, simplest, and lowest tech bed of them all, there are three main problems. The first problem is cleanliness, though that is going to depend on what ‘ground’ we are talking about, as well as how much one cares about ‘cleanliness’. The second problem is that the ground may be hard and apply a lot of pressure to certain points of the body, which can especially be a problem for side sleepers (and even ground which is initially soft may compact over time). The third problem – and this is the doozy – is that the ‘ground’ is a heat sink. In warm temperatures, that’s not a problem. In cooler temperatures, it’s very uncomfortable, and in cold temperatures, lying directly on the ground can cause hypothermia and death.

This is a photo of the corner of the bedroom where I roll out my goza mats and mattress right before I cleaned the walls (the walls look whiter now than they do in this picture)

The floor of my bedroom is not exactly the ground. It is made of hardwood, is above a basement room full of (unheated) air, which is on top of the foundation, which is on the ground. However, even though it’s removed from the ground, the floor of my bedroom is still enough of a heat sink that sleeping directly on it in cool/cold weather is not going to happen.

Unless one lives in a climate where it is always warm at night, one has to sleep on a surface which is not a heat sink. There are basically only two ways to do this: heating, and insulation.

There are of course multiple ways to heat a sleeping surface. One could heat the air around the sleeping surface. However, it is generally most efficient just to directly heat the sleeping surface, such as in the traditional kang bed-stoves of Northern China and Manchuria (which are typically made of brick or clay) or traditional ondol floors in Korea. When the sleeping surface is heated, one wants a surface which can retain heat for an entire night, hence the preference for brick/clay/stone/etc.

Yang Guo lies on the cold jade bed, and Xiaolongnü prepares to sleep on a rope.

In a novel I sometimes mention in this blog, there is a ‘cold jade bed’ which, though very uncomfortable, will develop one’s nèigōng (inner power). I’m no expert of traditional Chinese medicine or martial arts, but my guess is that the body is learning to resist the heat sink effect of sleeping on a cold stone bed and thus building nèigōng. This is, of course, fiction; in real life this is a recipe for hypothermia.

Jade beds are real. I’ve lain on a jade bed in Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul, though that was in a heated bathhouse. There are also heated kang beds made of jade (which I am sure are extremely expensive).

So that’s heated surfaces. What about insulation instead of (or complemented with) heating?

I know that some people who camp in forests create ‘beds’ out of duff (fallen leaves, pine needles, cones, etc.) which is a very low-tech type of insulation. A higher-tech type of insulation commonly used in camping are portable sleeping pads, which may be made of foam, or inflatable air pockets (essential a small air mattress), or polyester, or any other lightweight insulating material which will insulate even under the weight of human being. If one does not need great portability, and has a wider choice of materials than forest duff, then there are a lot more possibilities for insulating material.

This is the only place I’ve ever done ‘cowboy camping’ (so far). ‘Cowboy camping’ is sleeping outside without a shelter. The white thing in the center-left is my groundsheet, and the silver-yellow thing in the center of the picture is my foam sleeping pad. The sleeping pad was the main insulation I had from the ground this night.

Another thing one can do is to lift the bed up so that there is air between the sleeping surface and the floor. Air is an insulator, so this helps, but if the air flows it’s also going carry heat away as it flows. Thus one either needs to trap the air (this is what an air mattress does, and foam with air pockets does this too) or use an insulator which is not going to flow away.

My new mattress is an excellent insulator. It provides all of the insulation I need to avoid losing my body heat to the floor of my bedroom, and it also does not flow away and take my body heat with it.

That leaves the problems of hardness and cleanliness. And a bed needs to provide something else – support. Most types of ground provide excellent support, but if one is not sleeping directly on the ground, then support may become an issue. While the rope which Xiaolongnü in the picture up there sleeps on is an extremely simple bed, it does not provide nearly enough support, unless one has superhuman qīnggōng like Xiaolongnü (wuxia fiction is not known for having realistic depictions of sleeping technology, okay? Pity, I’d be curious to try out the addictively comfortable bed in Happy Heroes, though it’s probably a good thing that best does not exist since I might never want to leave.)

Generally, firmer surfaces provide better support, and softer surfaces provide worse support. Furthermore, a surface which contours to the body provides more even (and thus better) support, and a surface which does not contour to the body provides less even (and thus worse) support. Ideally, one would sleep on a firm surface which contours to the body.

My new mattress provides a lot of support (which ultimately comes from my bedroom floor) while contouring to my body better than the floor would. However, while I think it strikes a good balance, it’s not perfect.

And as I mentioned in the previous post, because it’s easy to roll up and only about 30 lb (14 kg), it is a very portable mattress.

Why is portability an important feature to me? What disgusting discoveries did I make when I removed the five mattresses which formed my old ‘bed’? What will I do to keep my new mattress usable for years? The answers to these questions will be in Part 3.

Life-Alienating Communication in Two Fictional Dialogues

Right now, I’m going through the Nonviolent Communication Companion Workbook by Lucy Leu because I am trying to better understand the ideas of ‘Nonviolent Communication’ and try them out in my own life to see if they are beneficial. One of the exercises is:

Write down a dialogue (of about 6-8 lines) between two people that isn’t going well … After you have completed writing down the lines, re-read them and determine if either person has communicated using on of the Four D’s

What are the ‘Four D’s’? According to the, workbook, they are:

Think of the forms of life-alienating communication as the “Four D’s of Disconnection”

1. Diagnosis, judgement, analysis, criticism, comparison
2. Denial of responsibility
3. Demand
4. “Deserve”-oriented language

There is more detailed description of these concepts in the books Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I think one of the key ideas from this chapter is:

[When using life-alienating communication] Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others are needing and not getting.

Nothing in the workbook suggests that only dialogues taken from real life are beneficial for this exercise, so I decided to take a dialogue from fiction for fun. And I picked one of the most famous scenes from Shén Diāo ​Xiá​ Lǚ​ for this exercise. First, the original dialogue in Chinese (pulled from the novel):

小龍女: 你怎麼仍是叫我姑姑?難道你沒真心待我麼?你到底當我是什麼人?
楊過: 你是我師父,你憐我教我,我發過誓,要一生一世敬你重你,聽你的話。
小龍女: 難道你不當我是你妻子?
楊過: 不,不!你不能是我妻子,我怎麼配?你是我師父,是我姑姑。
小龍女: 哇
楊過: 姑姑,姑姑!
小龍女: 既是這樣,以後你別再見我。

This is a screenshot from this scene in the 1995 TV adaptation.

And here is my translation into English (I think translating the dialogues from Chinese to English helps me by making me more conscious of the nuances in the language):

Xiaolongnü: How are you still calling me ‘auntie’? Does that mean you weren’t sincere in the way you treated me? Who do you think I am?
Yang Guo: You are my teacher, you love me, you teach me, I’ve taken a vow, I will respect you for the rest of my life, and obey you.
Xiaolongnü: Does that mean you do not consider me to be your wife?
Yang Guo: No, no! You can’t be my wife, how could I be worthy? You are my teacher, my auntie.
Xiaolongnü: Agh!
Yang Guo: Auntie, auntie!
Xiaolongnü: If that’s how it is, never see me again.

One can see how the actors performed this scene in the 2006 adaptation here, the 1983 TV adaptation here, and in the English dub of the anime adaptation here (note: if one chooses to watch the full episode rather than just this specific scene, be aware that this episode contains a sexual assault scene).

So, are there any of the D’s of Disconnection in there?

1. Diagnosis, judgement, analysis, criticism, comparison: Xiaolongnü judges Yang Guo for possibly not being sincere. Yang Guo also compares himself to the ideal of who he imagines may be worthy of marrying Xiaolongnü, and judges that he himself is not worthy.

2. Denial of responsibility: Yang Guo does not say ‘I do not want to be your husband’ or ‘I choose not to be your husband’ instead he just says its not possible. Thus he is denying his responsibility for his choice not to marry Xiaolongnü (for the record, I think it is always okay for someone to choose not to marry anyone they do not want to marry, and if Yang Guo does not want to marry Xiaolongnü I would highly recommend that he choose not to marry her, I am just pointing out that he is framing it as something which is beyond his control rather than a choice he is making).

3. Demand: Xiaolongnü is demanding Yang Guo to stop calling her ‘auntie’ (she demands this repeatedly, I just cut out the earlier part of this dialogue where she makes this demand again and again). In the end, Xiaolongnü also demands Yang Guo to never see her again.

4. “Deserve”-oriented language: I’m not sure this is present in this dialogue. At most, Yang Guo’s claim that he is not worthy of being Xiaolongnü’s husband is ‘deserve’ language in the sense that he claims that he does not deserve a wife like Xiaolongnü (though I translated the word 配 as ‘be worthy’, an alternative translation is ‘deserve’).

The scene where Xiaolongnü threatens to kill Yang Guo with her sword, as shown in the 1995 TV adaptation.

The workbook suggests taking this a step further and guessing what the speakers’ unmet need are. Here are my guesses (of course I am using the context in the story, not just this specific slice of dialogue, to make my guesses).

Xiaolongnü’s unmet needs: appreciation (this does not think Yang Guo appreciates the sacrifice she has made), consideration (she does not think Yang Guo is considering her needs/preferences), harmony and order (she thinks that, due to a prior event, it would no longer fit her sense of harmony and order for her and Yang Guo to continue their relationship as teacher and student; she thinks harmony can be restored by changing to a wife-and-husband relationship), interpersonal security (she does not trust that Yang Guo will continue to fulfil her needs for connection, closeness, and intimacy)
Yang Guo’s unmet need: physical security (up until this point in the story, everyone – with the exception of his mother and Granny Sun, who are both dead – ends up threatening to physically hurt him or actually physically hurts him, so he does not feel secure, and he tried to protect himself by professing humility – i.e. ‘how can I be worthy?’), interpersonal security (he is afraid that, if he is not sufficiently obedient, Xiaolongnü will stop meeting his emotional needs)

There’s another famous scene in Shén Diāo ​Xiá​ Lǚ​ where two people have a dialogue which isn’t going well. I’m using it for this exercise too. Here is the Chinese dialogue pulled from the novel:

楊過: 我做了什麼事礙著你們了?我又害了誰啦?姑姑教過我武功,可是我偏要她做我妻子。你們斬我一千刀、一萬刀,我還是要她做妻子。
郭靖: 小畜生,你膽敢出此大逆不道之言?
楊過: 姑姑全心全意的愛我,我對她也是這般。郭伯伯,你要殺我便下手,我這主意是永生永世不改的。
郭靖: 我當你是我親生兒子一般,決不許你做了錯事,卻不悔改。
楊過: 我沒錯!我沒做壞事!我沒害人!
郭靖: 過兒,我心裡好疼,你明白麼?我寧可你死了,也不願你做壞事,你明白麼?
楊過: 我知道自己沒錯,你不信就打死我好啦。
郭靖: 你好好的想想去罷。

My translation:

Yang Guo: What have I done which has hindered you? Who have I harmed? Auntie taught me marital arts, but I want her to be my wife. If you cut me with a thousand knives, ten thousand knives, I will still want her to be my wife.
Guo Jing: Beast, you dare say something so disrespectful?
Yang Guo: Auntie loves me with all of her heart, and I feel the same way towards her. Uncle Guo, if you want to kill me, just do it, I will never change my mind.
Guo Jing: I consider you to be just like a son, I will never let you do wrong without repentance.
Yang Guo: I am not wrong! I haven’t done anything bad! I haven’t harmed anybody!
Guo Jing: My heart is in pain, do you understand? I would rather have you die than have you do anything bad, do you understand?
Yang Guo: I know that I have done no wrong, if you don’t believe that then kill me.
Guo Jing: [almost kills Yang Guo, then pulls back at the last moment, sparing Yang Guo] Reflect carefully on this.

Guo Jing yells at Yang Guo in the 1995 TV adaptation.

One can see how the actors performed this scene in the 2006 TV adaptation here, the 1983 TV adaptation here, and the English dub of the anime adaptation here.

Hmmm, I wonder if there is any ‘life-alienating communication’ in that dialogue?

1. Diagnosis, judgement, analysis, criticism, comparison: Guo Jing diagnoses Yang Guo as being a ‘beast’ and criticizes him for being ‘disrespectful’. He is also makes a moralistic judgement of Yang Guo wanting to marry Xiaolongnü. Yang Guo also says that he is ‘not wrong’ (it mirrors Guo Jing’s language, and is also a measurement/classification of degree of wrongness).

2. Denial of responsibility: I don’t think either of them are denying responsibility for anything in this specific dialogue.

3. Demand: Guo Jing is demanding Yang Guo to stop saying he wants to marry Xiaolongnü, or as Guo Jing phrases it, to never do anything which is ‘wrong’. He also demands that Yang Guo reflect carefully on. Does Yang Guo saying ‘if you don’t believe that then kill me’ count as a demand? I’m not sure, but my inclination is to say that it is not a demand.

4. “Deserve”-oriented language: Though ‘deserve’ language does not directly appear, Guo Jing is obviously threatening to punish Yang Guo with death if Yang Guo does not submit to Guo Jing’s demands, which may be a way of communicating that Yang Guo would ‘deserve’ death if he chooses to marry Xiaolongnü.

Here are my guesses about their unmet needs…

Yang Guo: physical security (Guo Jing is literally threatening to kill him right now)
Guo Jing: Hoo boy. Where to begin?
– interpseronal security (he is worried that Yang Guo might damange his reputation, which may mean that his needs for appreciation, inclusion, and respect may not be met in the future if Yang Guo does not repent wanting to marry Xiaolongnü)
– harmony and order (from Guo Jing’s perspective, Yang Guo’s actions are not harmonious with his values)
– integrity (according to Guo Jing’s Confucian values, because Yang Kang was his sworn brother, and Yang Kang is dead, he is responsible for Yang Kang’s son i.e. Yang Guo. In particular, Guo Jing feels guilty because Yang Kang did so much harm to so many people, and Guo Jing believes that if Yang Guo grows up with good Confucian moral characters, it will help amend for Yang Kang’s moral failings and Guo Jing’s failure to prevent Yang Kang’s moral failings.)

***

I remember the first time I read the novel, I thought that Guo Jing’s actions in this particular scene were SO WRONG. And when I look at it through the lens of measuring degrees of wrongness, it still reads as ‘SO WRONG’ to me. Trying to think about this scene from a totally non-judgemental point of view, without measuring rightness or wrongness, feels weird. I’ve also done this exercise with a YouTube video where people were engaged in a dialogue that was not going well (but I’m not going to write in detail about that on this blog because, unlike these fictional characters, the people in that video are real), and it also felt very weird to watch that video from a non-judgemental perspective.

I am becoming more aware of how much of my interpretation of the world is based on measuring the level of ‘wrongness’ in others and myself. I am not going to completely forswear that way of understanding the world – at times, it might be the most useful approach – but if I am going to use the lens of measuring degrees of wrongness, I want to do it on purpose, not out of habit. I am hoping that going through the Nonviolent Communication Workbook will help me learn how put NVC into practice so that I will have the choice of using NVC.

AAWFC 2017: Musings on Headcanon Ace Characters in Wuxia Novels

This is for Asexual Awareness Week Fandom Challenge 2017 (even though I am not on Tumblr – if you are on Tumblr, feel free to share a link to this post under the #AAWFC tag).

Sun 22nd, Day 1: Post about canon and headcanoned asexual/spectrum characters in books and comics.

In the past year – since a I read a bunch of ace fiction for Asexual Awareness Week last year in fact – I’ve written plenty about canon ace characters in books. So I’m going to talk about headcanon ace characters instead.

Yes, you guessed it (if you read my blog in a regular basis). I’m going to write about Yang Guo and Guo Jing from the Condor Trilogy (or more accurately, the Eagle-Shooting Trilogy, but whatever).

There is Yang Guo with Xiaolongnü, the most beautiful woman in the world. He is naked, she is naked, they sit together like this for a long time, yet he never thinks about sex at all (according to the novel – I don’t know how they would convey this in the TV adaptation).

I’ve already written plenty about these headcanons – in fact, my very first submission to the Carnival of Aces was a series about how I headcanon Yang Guo as being ace, and years later I wrote about how I headcanon Guo Jing as demisexual.

Actually, while I am talking about headcanons and wuxia, I might as well mention that I headcanon Fei Ruoran in The Valley of Life and Death as being an *aromantic ace* (finding a female protagonist from wuxia who I can headcanon as aromantic is incredible). And yes, even though I have read a lot of novels in 2017, so far, The Valley of Life and Death is still my favorite.

So, what more do I have to say about these headcanons that I have not already said in previous posts? Let’s see…

If Yang Guo were explicitly a canon ace, then he would be the best example of the kind of ace character I want in fiction. Of course, he’s not a canon ace character, and I have to deduct a heck of a lot of points for that. However, while I have found much goodness during this past year as I’ve binged on fiction with canon ace characters, I still feel like I have not quite found what am I looking for. If I found a canon ace character who has all of the qualities which makes me like Yang Guo so much as a headcanon!ace character, would I then finally be satisfied? Probably not, because I would still want more aromantic representation, and Yang Guo very much is not aromantic.

Or is he? Okay, obviously, he’s not aromantic aromantic, but a case could be made that he is demiromantic. He only falls in love once in his life, and only after he had a close relationship with that person for years. That seems pretty demiromantic, and while Jin Yong rarely has characters fall in love with each other at first sight (unless they are supporting/minor characters, especially female characters), it generally takes something significantly less than living with a particular person for years to get a Jin Yong character to fall in love.

And there is Guo Jing who, at this point, feels to me that he is at the border between headcanon and canon demisexual. The way he is described in the novel fits the dictionary definition (or at least the wiktionary definition) perfectly. Is that enough to make him a canon demisexual, without writer confirmation or explicitly saying that he demisexual? How explicit is explicit enough? I feel that he is just one notch shy of being the kind of representation I could call ‘canon’ rather than ‘headcanon’.

And then there is Fei Ruoran, who is not from the Condor Trilogy at all, or even a Jin Yong novel. There is actually even less substantial evidence in the text that she is ace than for Yang Guo or Guo Jing. It’s mostly the total absence of any sign that she has sexual feelings. There is actually a tiny bit of evidence that she is aromantic – namely, the scene where she says that she does not even know what romance is. However, the mere fact that she is a female protagonist in a wuxia novel who doesn’t fall in love with anybody is enough to suggest aromanticism to me.

If you got this far, thank you for bearing with my meandering thoughts, and happy Ace Awareness Week!

The Jin Yong Jolt

In my experience, reading a Jin Yong novel often involves dropping the book and blubbering “what – what – what was THAT???!!!”

WHAT IS THIS??? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE???

Recently, I watched Zhang Jizhong’s adaptation of Ode to Gallantry. Even though that is the Jin Yong novel I have the least memory of, I could tell that the adaptation had a bunch of stuff which was not from the novel, but that was okay – anyway, since it’s on my mind, I’m taking my first example from this story.

There are these two martial artists from the Isle of Gallantry who, to put it mildly, scare the shit out of everybody, even the leaders of the most powerful martial arts sects. That’s because they travel around China every ten years, invite sect leaders to their island. Nobody who goes to the island has ever returned, and if the sect leader refuses, then the martial artist from Isle of Gallantry kills the entire sect, and nobody can stop them,

The story builds up the suspense by explaining that these two martial artists come from the Isle of Gallantry every year, oh and it’s been ten years since they last came around, and many martial artists are desperately scrambling with various strategies to avoid being taken to the Isle of Gallantry and/or killed, and so forth. There is even an alliance being formed to create a united front against the martial artists from the Isle of Gallantry.

The guys from the Isle of Gallantry encounter the protagonist.

Naturally, the martial artists from the Isle of Gallantry eventually appear, and just as naturally, the protagonist – who of course is going to be mistaken for the leader of a major sect because plot – runs into them. What do you think happens next?

Jin Yong is very good at building the suspense, but so are a zillion other competent writers. This is not what sets Jin Yong apart – it is the way he delivers on the buildup which is special. If you haven’t guessed already what the protagonist – who often gets mistaken for a sect leader – does when he meets the Guys from the Isle of Gallantry, guess now.

You win if you guessed … that he becomes friends with them and sworn brothers, and drinks wine with them. Wait – what the heck??!!!

Becoming friends with the men from the Isle of Gallantry means that the protagonist is possibly safe from them, but once it gets known that he’s their sworn brother, well, that alliance against the Isle of Gallantry is going to target him.

Yes, Jin Yong will build up the suspense, getting the readers to anticipate whether A or B will happen, and finally, it’s neither A or B – it’s C. And option C is frequently ridiculous, but Jin Yong is talented at getting the reader to accept C without breaking the suspension of disbelief.

In my Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories, I mention the example of the protagonist killing his sweetheart as being misogynist. I am fairly certain that is intentionally there to shock readers. Generally, a sympathetic and righteous protagonist is not supposed to kill his sweet and loving romantic interest. However, though it is a shocking (and misogynist) plot twist, I bought into it as a reader – in other words, my suspension of disbelief remained intact.

Here are more examples of suspenseful buildups leading to surprising plot twists from various Jin Yong novels (I’m not citing the specific novels because these are very spoilery)

Example 1:

Buildup: To make a very, very, very long story short, there is a group which wants an order of Buddhist nuns to submit to them. The abbesses refuse on principle. Therefore, this group attacks the nuns to force them to submit. Out of all of the nuns’ “allies” the only one who helps them is the male and non-Buddhist protagonist with a reputation for being a lowlife (i.e. he loves drinking alcohol, which is forbidden by strict Buddhists, he enjoys having lustful thoughts about women, etc.)

Question: Will a) the abbesses, with the protagonist’s help, be able to survive and protect their order of nuns, or b) will they all be murdered, leaving the younger nuns without effective leadership and thus defenceless?

Answer: C. The last abbesses are murdered, and with their dying breath declare the male, lowlife, non-Buddhist protagonist as the leader of their order. The plot twist is actually more complicated than this, but I don’t think I can describe it succinctly. Suffice to say, having a lowlife male protagonist suddenly become the leader of a sect of nuns is a very WTF plot twist even without the extra details.

Example 2: (warning for sexual violence)

Buildup: Heroine secretly overhears Villain 1 giving Villain 2 a date rape drug so that he can rape her, and Villain 2 happily accepts it. When Villain 1 leaves, Heroine ambushes him, and then goes to the room where Villain 1 is to confront him. (And in an earlier scene in the novel, Villain 2 had beat Heroine in combat, so he is clearly a better martial artist)

Question: Will a) the Heroine succeed in confronting Villain 2 or b) will Villain 2 overpower her?

Answer: C. Villain 2 told Heroine that Villain 1 had given him the drug so that he could rape her, but that he would never use it that way. He lets Heroine throw the drug out the window, and she decides to trust him. (The reader knows that this guy is not trustworthy).

Example 3:

Buildup: Character 1 wants to kill Character 2.

Question: Will a) Character 1 succeed or b) fail, and possibly be killed by Character 2?

Answer: C
Character 1: I am going to kill you because you are [X].
Character 2: No, I’m not [X].
Character 1: You’re lying.
Character 2: No, I kidnapped [X], and I’ve been impersonating her for years.
Character 1: You’re a really bad liar.
Character 2: No, I’ll prove it to you.
[Character 2 shows Character 1 where she is keeping X in captivity]
Character 1: Wow, you weren’t lying. I’m not going to kill you.

(Coincidently, since all of the characters in this scene are female, it passes the Bechdel test.)

I actually began this post with a particularly elaborate and constructed technique Jin Yong uses to give readers their shocks. He also uses simpler techniques.

One technique is to simply have striking imagery, without any buildup. A villain demonstrates the potency of his poison by poisoning a shark and releasing it to the sea. The shark writes with pain before it finally dies. Other sharks come in and eat the dead shark, and then die of poison, and the sharks which eat those sharks get poisoned too, until the sea is filled with the floating corpses of dead sharks. Of course, though this image did not come with much build up, it is used as buildup for a later scene: when a character falls victim to this same poison, the reader knows just how much trouble he is in. His death is extremely painful. And when the crows descend to eat they flesh of his corpse, they all die too, thus he is reduced to being a skeleton amidst a flock of dead crows. (I think this is one of the most gruesomely spectacular death scenes I have found in fiction).

There is HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! (in Chinese) written across the sky.

Not that all of the bold imagery is violent. Someone prepares a birthday gift for a teenage girl – he arranges a series of fireworks to go up to write across the sky “Happy Birthday [name of teenager]!” And those fireworks also destroyed some of the fortifications of the birthday girl’s enemies – okay, a lot of the imagery is violent.

Of course, Jin Yong steals borrows a lot of this imagery from other sources. For example, the image of a man whose face is so handsome that he goes around wearing a mask to hide his handsomeness is clearly taken from the story of the Prince of Lanling.

As you can see, a theme in this striking imagery is hyperbole. It works.

However, it’s often not purely striking imagery – the context adds to the vividness of the scene. For example, one of the most famous moments in all of Jin Yong’s novel is when a woman plunges a sword into a man’s chest. While that is an interesting image in itself, what makes it memorable is that the man is the protagonist, and that he is in love with the woman and had not tried to defend himself because he had trusted her not to hurt him.

This is a *different* famous scene with a young woman menacing the protagonist with a sword. In this case, the protagonist does think the woman might actually hurt him because she is clearly super angry at him. Jin Yong ends this scene on a cliffhanger, so the reader does not find out what the young woman does with the sword until a later chapter.

Another example is when a protagonist is hidden under a layer of frost, so he looks like a snowman. Other sets of characters come in and say things they would not want the protagonist to here, unaware that he is right there. Finally, when a fight scene happens, he finally bursts out of the frost, so those characters realize that he was there the whole time *and* he overheard them.

Jin Yong is also extremely fond of relationship/identity-based reveals. He uses “Luke, I Am Your Father” many times, as well as ‘this person is actually the incognito emperor of China’ ‘this person is actually your sibling’ ‘this person is actually the incognito emperor of China AND your sibling’ (yes, Jin Yong has used that last trope).

There are some shock tropes which Jin Yong overuses – for example, I think there are too many mothers who commit suicide in front of their sons (quite a few fathers do it too, but the mother is more likely to do it because, in the Jin Yong universe, female life is not as valuable as male life). However, considering how long his novels are, the variety is still impressive.

This is one of the most famous scenes in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (w/ Eng subs) (rated R for violence) because it stacks an unusually high number of shock tropes, even by Jin Yong standards. When I was reading the novel, I felt that this scene was so over the top that I was laughing out loud. Nonetheless, because it packs in so many shock tropes, it is a good example of many of the things I discuss in this post.

Last year, I wrote this crossover fanfic about Emperor Kangxi (Jin Yong) and Emperor Gregor (Vorkosigan Saga). Even though the Vorkosigan Saga has plenty of shock tropes itself, one thing I noticed while writing the fic that it was easier for Kangxi to shock Gregor than vice versa because Kangxi is from a fictional universe with a higher level of what-the-f**kery going on.

To wrap things up, Jin Yong’s shock tropes push the readers closer to the edge of suspension of disbelief without (usually) pushing them over the edge (the characters go in a boat all the way to the Arctic Circle, and land at Fire-Ice Island, and stay there for ten years without any contact with the outside world, etc.) Because it is a region of the imagination which most storytellers will not send the readers, full of surprises, it feels fresh and new. And there are all the feels. And because it is so fresh, and surprising, and there are so many feels, it helps the reader feel more alive.

One of my favorite Jin Yong TV theme songs is “Up and Down a Challenging Road” (no, it’s not the most literal translation of the song title). Out of all the Jin Yong theme songs, I thing it best captures the spirit of the Jin Yong universe as a whole – reading a Jin Yong novel puts me on a ride full of jolts.

Feminist Benefits of Reading Beyond One’s Own Culture

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

According to Goethe, “wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen” which means “those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” In English, we speak of fish learning to see water. Though I think it is possible to know something of one’s own language without knowing others, learning a different language is certainly a very powerful tool for become conscious of many aspects of one’s native language.

Likewise, learning about another culture is a powerful tool for becoming more conscious of one’s own culture. By extension, observing patriarchy in another culture can be a very useful tool for better understanding patriarchy in one’s own culture.

I think one of the things which has become apparent in this Rambling Series is that the sexism and misogyny in Jin Yong stories are sometimes similar to Anglophone pop sexism/misogyny, and sometimes different. Comparing the two is a way to learn a lot about patriarchy as expressed in Jin Yong’s stories (and to some extent, Chinese fiction in general, though not all Chinese writers are Jin Yong). It is just as effective for learning about patriarchy as expressed in Anglophone pop fiction.

China, obviously, has been a patriarchal society for all of recorded history, though the nature of patriarchy has varied by region and over the course of the millennia. All large Anglophone societies are also patriarchal, and Anglophone patriarchy likewise varies by region and historical period.

I admit, I am usually suspicious when a native Anglophone deplores Chinese cultures for how it treats women and girls, especially when it comes with the subtext that Anglophone society isn’t nearly so patriarchal (I am saying ‘Chinese’ rather than ‘Sinophone’ since most Anglophone natives don’t make that distinction!) It is true that there are some horrific misogynist practices which have existed in Chinese society which have not existed in Anglophone society. However, when someone is trying to show how Chinese society is so much more horrible to women and girls than Anglophone society, they tend to cherrypick their examples, and ignore all of the bad stuff Anglophone society does which Chinese society does not do. When it seems the point of the analysis is to understand patriarchy in both Anglophone and Sinophone societies, rather than to simply prove that Chinese society is bad, I am more inclined to take it seriously.

There is another benefit to reading outside one’s culture. Since I grew up in the United States, my sore points when it comes to patriarchy have been shaped by American patriarchy. I’m not talking about when I’m doing feminism as an intellectual exercise – I’m talking about me trying to enjoy a story without necessarily examining it critically, and doing my best to ignore the sexism when each instance of that sexist trope YET AGAIN wears me out a little more.

The sore points in Sinophone pop fiction for female readers are sometimes different. For example, female characters are much less likely to be visually sexualized in Sinophone pop culture than Anglophone pop culture. Sinophone pop sexism creates its own sore points, but when they are not the same points where Anglophone pop sexism has ground down on me, I’m not quiet so sore yet.

Even though I’ve focused on comparative feminism and sexism, other aspects of culture can be compared, such as disability, or a zillion other things. However, to pull this off, one needs to expose oneself sufficiently to a culture other than one’s own.