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

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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.

A Tribute to Jin Yong (1924-2018)

Imagine that J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, the founding editor-in-chief of one of the most important English-language newspapers, and George Lucas all died on the same day, at the same second, and how people in the English-speaking world would react. Because the equivalent of that happened in the Chinese-speaking world on October 30, 2018, when Louis Cha Leung-yung, known by the pen name ‘Jin Yong’, died.

One of the many illustrations which comes with Jin Yong’s stories.

But I’m not going to make this about Jin Yong’s impact on the culture of the Chinese-speaking world (and the cultures of much of Southeast Asia) because, if you are familiar with Chinese-speaking cultures or Southeast-Asian cultures, you already know, and if you aren’t familiar, you’ll think I’m exaggerating. Even the New York Times understates just how huge his cultural influence was (a couple of quibbles with the NYT article: I would actually credit Wang Dulu with raising wuxia to a literary level, and the new wave of wuxia stories which got started in the 1950s was launched by Liang Yusheng; both of these writers led the way for Jin Yong; however, I think Jin Yong was an excellent example of ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’). Instead, I’m going to talk about Jin Yong’s influence on me.

This pictures evoke a lot of nostalgia for me. They remind me of the experience of reading Jin Yong’s novels.

Most native Chinese speakers encounter the stories of Jin Yong at a young age, and, if they like reading, they start reading the novels as adolescents (or younger – I’ve seen 10-year-olds reading his novels). I was not exposed to his work until I was 22 years old, which feels really late. Furthermore, during that initial encounter, my Chinese was really, really bad, certainly not enough to follow the plot. And yet, even through that haze of bad Chinese (it was ~my~ Chinese which was bad, Jin Yong wrote better Chinese than the vast majority of educated native speakers), I could sense that there was a great story if only I could understand it.

There were two illustrators who made the in-book pictures for the official editions of the novels, but for some reason, only the work of this illustrator really stays with me and evokes the feelings of Jin Yong’s stories, the other illustrator’s pictures do nothing for me.

The very first book of solid prose I read in Chinese was Jin Yong’s Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn (Legend of the Eagle-Shooting Heroes), though it usually referred to in English as Legend of the Condor Heroes (yes, I wrote about the new English translation). I was living in a second-tier city in Taiwan which, aside from the sex trade, Hollywood movies, and Southeast Asian movies, offered very few entertainment options for people who were not fluent in Chinese, so I found lots of time to study. I first read the comic book adaptation (it is so much easier to figure out what the heck is going on when there are pictures), and then, once I knew the story, I dared to read the actual novel. Reading my first book in Chinese was like opening a door – before, I could not read Chinese, or I could only ‘read’ Chinese in a limited sense, but after I finished that book, I really felt like I could read Chinese.

Imaging staring at this picture ehn taking a break from plodding through dense Chinese prose you barely understand.

The first book of solid prose I read in Chinese *without* knowing what was going to happen was the sequel, Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, i.e. that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog. If Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn is where I opened the door, then Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ is where I walked through the door.

And wow, what a door. I figured there would be a big reward for learning Chinese (otherwise I would not have put so much effort into studying), but I was not sure what that reward would actually be. I had no idea, before I started studying Chinese, that novels like the novels of Jin Yong existed. It was mind-blowing.

Actually, the illustrations were a useful preview for what might happen in the following chapter as I was improving my Chinese.

One could even say that, in a sense, Jin Yong was my Chinese teacher. I learned a lot of Chinese by reading his stories. For example, I probably learned the phrase ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’ from his books. They also taught me a lot about Chinese culture.

His novels have occupied more of my headspace than any other writer – than any other artist – during my 20s. I never expected that any single storyteller would so capture my fancy. Thru Jin Yong, I discovered the wuxia genre, and yes, I came to love the works of other wuxia novelists, but it all started with Jin Yong.

When I wrote a fanfic novel a couple of years ago, even though it was based on something which was totally not Jin Yong, I felt a lot of Jin Yong coming through in my writing. In fact, I felt such a strong Jin Yong influence in my fanfic novel, that I sometimes had to pinch myself, and ask myself whether I was actually writing a Jin Yong fanfic in disguise. I suspect that, if I ever write another novel, fanfic or original, in any genre, there is going to be a heavy Jin Yong influence.

Even when I was confident in my Chinese reading skills, I would still look ahead at the illustrations of future chapters for a taste of what lay ahead. For example, I was wondering quite a few chapters in advance what role a blond European woman was going to play in the story (she’s Princess Sophia Alekseyevna, the half-sister of Peter the Great of Russia).

If you’ve read my blog for a long time (of have gone on a binge-read of the archives), you can find plenty of evidence of how much my headspace the stories of Jin Yong have occupied. I even have tried to explain what makes his stories so wonderful, though that is, at best, a very incomplete explanation. When I started this blog, I did not think I would end up writing so many posts about his works, especially not 5+ years after I read them for the first time. In fact, before Jin Yong died, I had already been planning to write yet another blog post about one of his novels (that post will be posted in less than a week).

I don’t like all of Jin Yong’s stories, but his better novels are amazing.

I actually did not upload any of these illustrations specifically for this post, I simply looked through which of the illustrations I had already posted on this blog for other posts.

If you are not familiar with any of Jin Yong’s stories, but are interested in experiencing them, here are my suggestions. If you prefer reading, I will point you to the new English translation of Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn. If you prefer to watch TV shows, I will point you to the Sword Stained with Royal Blood 2007. It’s not one of Jin Yong’s better stories, but it’s one of the best TV adaptations available with English subtitles (you can get it on DVD with English subs; it’s also easy to find online versions with English subs).

I’m actually envious of the people who get to experience the works of Jin Yong for the first time. I benefited from not growing up in a culture where Jin Yong’s stories were super-popular because that meant the plot twists were not spoiled for me, I got to have my first encounter with the plots when I was reading the original novels directly.

I love to watch music videos of Jin Yong songs (no, he was not a song composer, but his works have inspired many, many, many songs). They are an easy and quick way to give me the feels of reading his stories without sitting down and re-reading them. Even when I see MVs based on TV adaptations I have not seen, I can usually recognize most of the scenes because his stories stick out so vividly in the mind. I’ve even written an entire blog post about one of these songsObviously, these songs/videos aren’t going to evoke that type of nostalgia in people who don’t know the stories, but maybe something comes across anyways. Thus, I will end this post with links to a bunch of songs inspired by Jin Yong stories that I like.

“Jianghu Xiao” (The Jianghu Laughs) (Return of the Condor Heroes 2006) – One of the best Jin Yong songs, and with English subs!

“Up and Down a Challenging Road” (Demi-gods and Semi-devils 1982) (content note: depiction of suicide in video) – as I have said before, I feel this is one of the songs which best captures the spirit of Jin Yong’s stories.

“Cold Feelings, Hot Feelings” (Sword Stained with Royal Blood 1985) – I think this is an underrated Jin Yong theme song.

“A Laugh from the Blue Sea” (Swordsman 1990) – In The Smiling Proud Wanderer, there is a song called “The Smiling Proud Wanderer” which a) plays a pivotal role in the plot (which is why the novel takes its title from the song) and b) is the most beautiful song the characters have ever heard. This puts no pressure at all on the composers who have to write music for the many movie and TV adaptations of novwl (I also find it amusing to watch TV actors proclaim whatever the composer came up with to be the most beautiful music ever). This is generally considered to be the best attempt to compose the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song (which is why it was recycled as the opening theme for the 2017 adaptation). I also like State of Divinity 1996’s version of the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song.

“Ode to Gallantry” (Ode to Gallantry 2016). I really like this song, and of the recent Jin Yong TV shows, this is the one I like best.

“On What Day Shall We Meet Again” (Return of the Condor Heroes 1983). Even though “Jianghu Xiao” is a better song, I feel this is the song which best captures the spirit of the story.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST….

“The Thousand Sorrows of Remembering Old Love” (song originally from Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983) – since this is a mourning song, it is the obvious choice for a tribute to the late Jin Yong (just as it is often used in tributes to Roman Tam and Barbara Yung). Indeed, this link goes to a video which was released days after Jin Yong’s death.

Though Jin Yong has died, this is not over. I am sure I will have many thoughts, and thus many things to say, about his stories for years to come.

Nesting Plots in Way of Choices

I recently read 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias. You can get an overview of the 20 master plots here. To some extent, he was trying to find universal storytelling patterns which work across cultures, but he also had some cultural biases (which he sometimes acknowledges). The rationale he gave (indirectly – I’m reading between some of the lines) for some of his cultural biases is that the book is written for Anglophone writers of the late 20th century, and they break the parameters of late 20th century Anglophone culture at their peril. Fair enough. But I’m interested in analyzing story plots, not developing story plots, and some of the plots I want to consider aren’t from 20th century Anglophone cultures.

For example, 20th century English language novels tend to be less than 600 pages long, and 20th century English language movies tend to less than three hours long. Some of the guidelines in the book are based on these restrictions in length, in particular the guideline that a story stick to one dominant plot pattern because there is usually not enough space to support multiple plot patterns. He also recommends that the cast of major characters be kept very small for similar reasons. However, he also admits that 19th century Russian novels did not always follow these particular guidelines because they had the space to be more expansive.

While I was reading this book, I was also reading Way of Choices by Mao Ni (I read it in Chinese; it has also been translated into English). It isn’t just over 600 pages long, according to my e-reader, it’s over 5000 pages long. That includes the commentaries, and my e-reader tends to exaggerate page count, so let’s say it’s just 4000 pages long. Since that was the novel I was reading at the time I was reading 20 Master Plots, I naturally tried to see how it fit with Tobias’ plot guidelines.

You know how I suggested that different cultures tend to produce novels of different lengths? Chinese language literature tends to produce much longer novels than 19th century Russia (though there are also short Chinese novels), so Way of Choices is in no way an anomaly. This list at Wikipedia used to be a total joke because it excluded Chinese novels, now I see it has been updated to include a few Chinese novels, though there are still glaring omissions – how the heck is Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan not on there? It’s about 7000 pages long – I know, because I read the whole thing – it was published in a very traditional manner on physical paper, it was one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 1990s so it is in no way obscure…

*Ahem*.

Tobias claims that any plot can be summed up by a single core question. I can think of some counterexamples, but the basic question of Way of Choices is obvious: will Chen Changsheng (the protagonist) survive his youth? In the prologue, we learn that Chen Changsheng has a disease which will kill him before he reaches the age of 20 – unless something else kills him first. If that weren’t bad enough, his blood has such an irresistible aroma that most animals (including most humans) will try to eat him if they get a whiff, so he has to be very careful about shedding his own blood. Generally, Chen Changsheng is obsessed with finding at way to not die young.

Does the whole novel follow a single dominant plot pattern? In my opinion, no.

The first 60% of the novel does have a dominant plot pattern – what Tobias called the ‘quest’ plot. The object of Chen Changsheng’s quest is to find out how to change fate. At the beginning of the novel, he is fated to die young, and in order to not die young, he has to change his fate. Only three people in all of history have changed their fate, and his quest is to find out how they did it so he can do it too. This has great personal meaning to him, if he attains his object (the means to change his fate), it would dramatically change his life (he might not die young). And he picks up a lot of wisdom along the way, particularly concerning the value of life, how to cope with the prospect of death, and whether or not fate is a real thing.

Yet within that dominant pattern, there are numerous plot arcs, and they generally take other patterns. They are essentially smaller plots nested within the dominant plot arc. Tobias says that this can generally only be done in a minor way, and if a novel is only 300 pages long, he’s probably right, but Way of Choices ain’t that short.

For example, the Zhou’s Park arc follows the ‘Adventure’ master plot. Chen Changsheng doesn’t expect to find much to help him in his quest (changing fate to save his own life), but if he figures that if he is going to die young anyway, he would like to do some more traveling and see more places, and he might find some cool treasure in Zhou’s Park. That is why he chooses to go there. The Zhou’s Park arc is about exploring an interesting place and having interesting events happen (and many people/creatures/things trying to kill Chen Changsheng), and not much about character development. And just as Tobias suggests that ‘Adventure’ plots tend to have a romance subplot, Zhou’s Park is where Chen Changsheng has his first seriously romantic experiences.

Another plot arc is the Su Li arc, which follows the ‘Pursuit’ pattern. For a change, everyone is trying to kill Su Li, not (necessarily) Chen Changsheng. However, Chen Changsheng is with Su Li, and does not want to leave him, so they flee together from everyone who is trying to kill them. There is constant tension with regards to whether they are going to be discovered, caught, and killed by their (many) pursuers.

Of course, there are more plot arcs which follow other patterns described by Tobias, but I think these examples are enough to explain what I mean by ‘nesting’ plot arcs.

However, I said only the first 60% of the novel has the ‘Quest’ plot as a dominant narrative. What about the rest of the novel? The basic question (will Chen Changsheng survive) remains the same, but about 3/5 of the way through the novel there is a plot twist which twists the plot so dramatically that it completely changes the dominant plot pattern. After the super plot twist, the dominant pattern is what Tobias calls an ‘Underdog’ plot. Perhaps one could say that the whole plot has ‘Underdog’ as its dominant pattern, it’s just that Chen Changsheng and the reader did not know that for the first 60%.

This part of the novel also has plots nested within the overarching ‘Underdog’ plot. For example, Chen Changsheng’s close friend, Tang Thirty-Six, is practically being kept as a captive/prisoner, and his captor is waiting for favorable circumstances to outright kill him. Naturally, Chen Changsheng wants to set Tang Thirty-Six free. This plot arc follows what Tobias calls the ‘Rescue’ plot pattern.

And then there is the final plot arc which, frankly, was rushed. I think it would have been better if the novel had an extra thousand pages or two to fully flesh out the final arc, but perhaps Mao Ni was tired of writing this novel and wanted to wrap it up. It feels like an epilogue in the sense that it seems to be more about tying up dangling plot threads than letting them play out. It’s also the only plot arc in which the question ‘will Chen Changsheng survive’ is not an ever-present backdrop. That’s not to say that Chen Changsheng isn’t threatened with death in the final arc – he is very much is threatened with death – it’s just that not woven into the story the same way (it is hard to get specific without getting into spoilers). This final arc is most similar to what Tobias calls the ‘Discovery’ plot pattern, in that it is about Chen Changsheng finally learning the answers to various questions.

Based on all of the long novels I’ve read, it seems that, to form a plot for a very long story, nesting plots is not strictly necessary, but it tends to be a very common way to form plots which can run for thousands of pages (or many episodes of a TV show, or whatever the medium is). And I think this may be part of why I feel that novels which exceed 1000 pages are distinct from novels under 600 pages in the same way that novellas/novelets are distinct from novels. If a work of fiction is too short, using nesting plots is impractical, if a work of fiction is long enough, nesting plots is the most practical way to spin a plot.

Some Thoughts on Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born

The book cover of Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born

I did in fact get around to reading the new English translation of Jin Yong’s extremely famous novel Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn. It is the first novel I ever read in Chinese, and that would be reason enough for it to be a very special book to me.

In particular, I strongly associate this book with downtown Taoyuan after dark. Since I had never read a novel in Chinese before, and my Chinese was much worse back then than it is now, I had to focus hard to read this book. However, I had trouble focusing when I was in my tào​fáng​ (studio apartment) because I was easily distracted, especially by my computer. Thus, I had to physically separate myself from my tào​fáng​ (especially my computer) to pay more attention to reading. Over time, I figured out where the best places for me to read books in downtown Taoyuan were, but at this point I was still exploring and figuring it out, so I ended up going to various places to see whether or not they were conductive to reading. If you are not familiar with downtown Taoyuan, you may watch this video and try to imagine finding a place to read a book so that you can find out what happens to characters (hint: those shopping malls have food courts, and food courts have quiet corners). And after I finished my reading session, I would walk in the streets of Taoyuan again to return to my tào​fáng​, thinking about what I had just read. I finally figured out that the best place to read was in the parks or park-like areas, but only in daylight hours, and that evening hours were better spent on the computer, so I did not read so much of other novels in the evening. This is how I came to associate this novel with wandering around downtown Taoyuan, especially in the evening.

By the way, I associate the second book in the trilogy with Taipei because I read some key scenes while I was in Taipei, and the third book in the trilogy with Kaohsiung, because I was reading it during my very first trip to Kaohsiung, and I recall looking into the streets and alleys of Kaohsiung when I needed a break after reading some very emotional scenes.

Ahem, this does not have anything to do with the English translation, my mind is clearly wandering. It did give me a warm feeling when I discovered that the translator, Anna Holmwood, first came to know the Condor Trilogy books in Taipei. Taipei is close to Taoyuan, and I bought my (Chinese language) copy of Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn in Taipei.

I thought it might be weird to read this book in English instead of Chinese, but I got used to everything being in English very fast.

I’ve mentioned this translation before in this post. I still think it was a mistake to translate personal names into English, and at first I would mentally groan at names such as ‘Skyfury Guo’. However, I became adept at translating the characters’ names back into Chinese (his name is Guō Xiàotiān, thank you) so the weird English names stopped grating on me.

The translator says in the notes that she made Huang Rong’s name ‘Lotus’ because “at this point in the story we the readers are let in on a secret that Guo Jing is not party to. As soon as we see her name written down, we known at once that this “beggar boy” is, in fact, a girl – the cahracter for “lotus”, “rong” 蓉 is far too girly to be used for a boy’s name.” I think this is a bad reason. When I first read Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn, because my Chinese skill level was barely good enough to read this book, I had no idea that 蓉 is a girly name, but I still figured out that Huang Rong is probably a girl because of the other hints (and if even a reader who is struggling to understand Chinese can figure out that Huang Rong is a girl, that indicates that Guo Jing is really, really bad at picking up clues). Furthermore, I don’t think ‘Lotus’ is necessarily a girly name in English, and I would especially not assume that ‘Lotus’ is a female name if I knew little of Chinese culture – how would I know that Chinese culture associates flowers with femininity? I can think of various other ways the translator could have handled this particular passage while keeping the name Huang Rong (or Wong Yung, if the translator had chosen to use Cantonese names).

Anyway, enough of that. Aside from the issue with the characters names, I was generally pleased with this translation. It is very good, or at least better than any translation I could produce. It does not convey all nuances of the original, probably because that is impossible, and I do not blame the translator. In particular, Holmwood’s prose is not nearly as good as Jin Yong’s prose, but there are very few people who can write prose as well as Jin Yong.

I do not think I will read further volumes of this English translation, but that is only because I can continue (re-)reading in Chinese instead, which is better.

But most of all – it is a pleasure to read this novel again, whatever the language. There were details I had never noticed before (though that is partially because this translation is based on the third edition, which I have not read before), and some of those details were delightful as someone returning to this story once again. For example, I never noticed before that Qu San’s daughter appears in the first chapter. She seems like a throwaway character, and most first-time readers probably won’t pay much attention to her, but ~I~ know what she does later in the story, heh heh. She is definitely a Chekhov’s Gunman (and a Chekhov’s Boomerang).

Reading this again leads me to feel that most of the fiction I read these days is trash of lower quality. I honestly think the novels of Jin Yong are more likely to be widely read classics 500 years in the future than any English language novels from the 20th century – yes, ANY of them. When I was reading the novel, I generally was not thinking ‘so this is the novel in English’ because I was swept up in the story all over again.

I’m not going to say ‘EVERYBODY, READ THIS NOVEL ALREADY!!!’ because some people aren’t interested in reading novels, and some people have specific issues (for example, someone who wants to avoid reading fiction with lots of violence will not want to read this book). However, if you generally like reading novels, and you do not have a particular reason to stay away from this novel, I highly recommend you take advantage of this English translation and read it (if you can read Chinese you’ve already read it of course, right, RIGHT?) After all, it is a novel which has been read by hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion people. Aren’t you curious why this novel is so popular? (Caveat: this is only the first fourth of the novel, and does not showcase the novel at its best – it gets better deeper into the story. If I had read only this part of the novel, and not the full thing, I don’t know that the story would have left much of an impression on me).

Unfortunately, this English translation is not currently available through USA book distributors. That means that people in the USA have to get it by a) buying from Amazon or b) buying from the UK (and paying international shipping) or c) buying from one of the very few bookstores in the USA which deals with UK book distributors (and paying domestic shipping). I went with option (c) (via the website Abebooks) because I try to avoid buying books from Amazon, but I have to admit that for readers in the USA, Amazon is by far the most practical option. It is also possible to suggest that libraries in the USA pick up this title, though since it is not available through USA book distributors, libraries in the USA may be reluctant to acquire it.