Marriage by Time Skip

This post contains major spoilers for Way of Choices (擇天記) by Mao Ni. I’m serious, the spoilers are major.

Content note: brief reference to murder-suicide

In the novel Way of Choices by Mao Ni, the protagonist, Chen Changsheng, and another major character, Xu Yourong, develop a romantic relationship. This is a total non-surprise since the reader learns in the prologue that they have been designated as each other’s fiancé since a young age. In many ways, their romance unfolds in a very typical way, though there are enough surprises to prevent it from feeling too clichéd. Though they break off their engagement for a while (because of misunderstandings and not wanting to get married to someone their elders arranged for them to get married), they reach a point where they have obviously decided to get together romantically after all.

Then there is a ten year time skip. I was actually a bit surprised by this time skip because I expected them to have the ‘obligatory’ wedding scene before a decade-long time skip. As both Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong appeared on the scene after the time skip, I expected to find references to their wedding, or to hear the story of why they were not married ten years later. I found it odd that, chapter after chapter, there were no such references, or even a clarification of Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong’s official relationship. Since Chen Changshen and Xu Yourong are depicted interacting with each other, the reader can interpret how they feel about each other after the time skip, but that does not answer the question of whether or not they are married.

Quite a few chapters later, Chen Changsheng has a conversation with another character which strongly implies that Chen Changsheng is already married to Xu Yourong, though this is not explicitly confirmed. Of course, Chen Changsheng and this other character would already know whether or not he is already married to Xu Yourong, so they don’t need to say it out loud. Continue reading

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Some thoughts on Shanghai Dream

While I was looking for videos for A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear, I discovered Shanghai Dream, a sitcom in Mandarin/English/Shanghainese/Russian about two European and two American young women in Shanghai. I got in the habit of watching an episode when I had a 15-minute block of time on the computer when I wanted to be distracted. By now, I’ve seen all twelve episodes.

I’ve never been to Shanghai, but I’ve been a young American woman learning Mandarin and living in a Mandarin-speaking society, so I feel like I know at least a bit about the reality of this type of situation. And some things in this show feel very untrue.

Such as the fact that these four women get to live rent-free in an upscale part of Shanghai?

Nah, that just seems consistently ridiculous. What does feel false to me is that there are often two characters who are native English speakers and not native Mandarin speakers speak to each other Mandarin. That. Does. Not. Happen. Native English speakers would only do that when they are specifically trying to practice Mandarin, and even then, they would probably slip into speaking English. And these people are in Shanghai, they don’t lack opportunities to practice with Mandarin native speakers. It’s unrealistic that their default language amongst themselves in Mandarin, not English. Continue reading

A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear: Answers & Commentary

Two weeks ago I posted a guide to distinguishing Sinitic languages by ear. Here are the answers to the exercises where one guesses which language(s) are being used. But just giving the answers would be boring, so I’m adding my own commentary. Continue reading

A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear

There are many forms of Chinese, and many of them are not mutually intelligible. For many years (basically until I started studying Mandarin) I wasn’t good at distinguishing the sounds of the various forms of Chinese. It was only through exposure that I learned how to identify forms of Chinese just by hearing it, and I’m still far from perfect. In particular, because I’ve had very little exposure to Shanghainese, I’m still not good at identifying it by sound alone.

Why do I think it is good to be able to distinguish these languages? Because it is one thing to read something like ‘Hakka culture is primarily found in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia’ or ‘Cantonese is the language of the Punti people‘, and another thing to be able to recognize the languages. Though merely being able to recognize the languages doesn’t make one an expert, I think it is enough to imprint on the mind that these cultures/peoples/languages exist in a way that just reading/hearing the statement ‘these cultures/peoples/languages exist’ cannot.

(Personally, I am embarrassed that, in spite of growing up in a neighborhood with plenty of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, I learned how to distinguish Cantonese and Mandarin at a much later age than when I learned to distinguish French/Spanish/Italian).

This blog post is a guide to learning what these five Sinitic languages sound like. This blog post is not about trying to understand these languages (which is why I ignore tones).

To start, this helpful video teaches common phrases in each of these five languages. In that video, it’s obvious that these languages are related, yet not mutually intelligible. (That video also refers to Mandarin as “guān​huà​“, which is interesting). Continue reading

Bedsharing, without Sex or Romance : Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu in Way of Choices

Mo Yu and Chen Changsheng in Fighter of the Destiny, which is the live action TV adaptation of Way of Choices

There are many things I love in the novel Way of Choices (it’s my favorite novel that I read in 2018). One of them is the relationship between Chen Changsheng and Mo Yu. And one of the things I love about the relationship is that they are a young man and a young woman who are not genetically related yet share a bed – without ever having sex or even being interested in having sex with each other.

What genre is this novel?

Xuanhuan.

Whatever the heck that is.

If you want a clue, you could watch the opening theme song to the live action adaptation (even though it’s not faithful to the novel).

Chen Changsheng is a naive, idealist, honest, wholesome, bookwormish, and gentle teenager with a terminal illness, and Mo Yu is a conniving, cynical, physically strong, and ruthless government official who is primarily concerned with maintaining her (high) level of political power. Nobody would expect these two to become friends – and this is before we get to the fact that Mo Yu wants Chen Changsheng to die (or at least be imprisoned or exiled).

And yet, in spite of the above, they come to share a bed. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the three stories help balance each other out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 1)

The copy of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils which I read in Taiwan looked exactly like this. You can see that this edition is 10 volumes long.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the book 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias claims that any story plot can be summarized by a single question. This is certainly true of many stories, perhaps most stories, but the very first counterexample which came to mind was Jin Yong’s novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Tiān Lóng Bā Bù, from now on abbreviated as TLBB). I cannot think of any question which can summarize the whole plot, except for vague questions such as ‘will the protagonists find their place in the world?’ or ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ which are so vague that they tell you little about the story (honestly, I think the latter question is the more informative one). Contrast that to a specific question like ‘will Othello believe that Iago is telling the truth about his wife?’ which is what Tobias claims is the central question of Othello. And forget about “>Tobias’ plot patterns. Even Way Of Choices can be classified as having an ‘Underdog’ plot with lots of plot arcs nested within it, including a huge ‘Quest’ plot – I don’t think it’s possible to claim that TLBB has a single dominant plot pattern.

[General spoiler warning: this post will contain some spoilers for Demi-gods and Semi-Devils. I’ve edited out the huge spoilers, but this ain’t going to be spoiler-free]

Jimmy Lin as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Every summary I’ve seen of TLBB is split into three parts, one part for each protagonist (Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu). That is because it is very difficult to come up with a coherent plot summary without treating each protagonist separately. In fact, by the guidelines set out by Tobias, TLBB actually has three different plots (Tobias does not recommend having multiple plots in a single work of fiction).

Can I come up with a single question to summarize each protagonist’s story? Maybe.

I’m still not sure I can come up with a better question to sum up Duan Yu’s story than ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ I mean, I suppose ‘who will Duan Yu marry and will he return home?’ covers most of his plot, but since that’s actually two questions I do not feel like that counts. And maybe instead of ‘who will Duan Yu marry?’ the question should be ‘will Duan Yu end up in an incestuous relationship with one of his sisters?’ because that is the point which is more interesting to many readers. Maybe the question is ‘will Duan Yu manage to come home without shaming his family by having incestuous relations with his sisters?’

Does Duan Yu’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? One could argue that it is an example of a ‘Maturation’ plot, but in my opinion it best fits the ‘Adventure’ pattern. Yes, Duan Yu does mature during the course of the story. He starts out as a happy-go-lucky, pacifist, naive, spoiled prince, and by the end he’s not even a prince anymore. But that is not the main focus of his plot. When I talk to people about TLBB, they don’t talk about how Duan Yu’s character changes, they talk about all of the wild shit that goes down during his travels. You can get a pretty good sense of what his travels are like just by looking at how his story begins – this is how it is portrayed in the TLBB 2003 (w/ Eng subs) (it’s much funnier in TLBB 1997 but there are no English subs).

Bryan Leung as Qiao Feng in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982.

I find it much easier to sum up Qiao Feng’s plot in a single question “Will Qiao Feng find his place among the Song Chinese people or among the Khitan people?” He considers himself to be Song Chinese and loyal to Song China, yet they exile him and try to kill him (partially because they believe he committed some murders). The Khitan people of the Liao empire accept him, but they are at war with Song China, and being loyal to Liao empire would mean hurting the [Song Chinese] people he swore to protect.

Does Qiao Feng’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? I think an argument could be made for ‘Quest’ or ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng seeks the truth about the past and present, and he seeks where he belongs (I lean towards ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng wants information more than he wants to change his life). He wants to know about his parents, and he also wants to find the real culprit behind the murders that he is accused of committing. (And no, even though Qiao Feng has some murders to ‘solve’, this is not a ‘Riddle’ plot because, when he learns who the real murderer is, it does not solve his problems at all).

Louis Fan as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997.

And then there is Xuzhu and his story. The basic question for his plot, I think is ‘will Xuzhu ever go back to living as a monk?’ Or rather ‘how will Xuzhu adjust to the end of his monastic life?’ since at some point the reader figures out that he is never going back. He wants to be a monk, but he keeps on being coerced to break his monastic vows (yes, that is a picture of Xuzhu in this old post of mine). Even though he does not break his vows of entirely of his own free will, other characters consider them just as broken as if he had willfully made those choices. I think his story has what Tobias would call a ‘Transformation’ plot.

Those of you who are familiar with the story may be wondering why I’m not classifying Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories as ‘Discovery’ plots. The answer is simple: Qiao Feng knows early on his story that he has some mysteries to solve. By contrast, Duan Yu and Xuzhu are completely oblivious to the skeletons in their families’ closets (well, Duan Yu isn’t completely oblivious, he just does not know enough to be concerned), so their plots aren’t about them seeking the truth. When they do learn The Horrible Truth, it hits them like anvils falling from the sky – they had no idea what was coming.

I think it is pretty clear that TLBB does not have a unified plot, at least not in a way that Tobias would recognize. It cannot be summed up by a single question (unless that question is uselessly vague), nor can it be said to fit any single dominant plot pattern. Heck, one could split up Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories, write them up as separate novels, and they would work at standalones (and come a lot closer to following Tobias’ guidelines for creating plots).

Yet does TLBB fail because of its disunited plot?

Every reader has their own opinion, but in terms of popularity, it is extremely successful. It is one of the most popular and widely read novels of the 20th century, and has been adapted for TV five times (and at least three of those adaptations were very popular), which is to say nothing of the other adaptations. I have also met quite a few people who say that TLBB is one of their favorite novels.

Does this story appeal to so many people in spite of its disunited plot… or because of its disunited plot? That is the question I will address in Part 2.