My experiences with being ace in Vorkosiverse fandom

This is for the October 2017 Carnival of Aces: Asexuality in Fandom.

A few years back I wrote this, which is ironic, because about a year after that, I did actually develop an interest in fanfic, and two years later, I started writing fanfic.

There were a few stimuli, the most prominent being reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (GJatRQ). As a teenager, the Vorkosigan Saga was one of my most favorite series of books. GJatRQ was in some ways satisfying, and in some ways disappointing, and it was the latter which inspired me to write fanfic.

Another thing I wanted to play with was having an asexual character in the Vorkosiverse. As it so happens, I do not headcanon any of the canon Vorkosiverse characters as being ace (there are some potential ace headcanons there, it’s just that I don’t headcanon any of them that way), so that meant having original characters who were also ace.

For me, as a fan, the essence of the Vorkosigan Saga is that there is high levels of drama and chaos, and the characters have to grow and make a major change in themselves in order to earn their happy ending. The Vorkosigan Saga novels which best exemplify this, in my opinion, are Mirror Dance and A Civil Campaign, which are also my favorites in the series. Another trademark of the Vorkosgian Saga, IMNSHO, is mad cap adventure – mistaken identities, implausible plot twists which are too bold for the reader to reject, Miles spreading chaos, etc. GJatRQ went against all that, so I wanted to respond by writing fanfic in which there was tons of drama, chaos, plot twists, etc. On top of all that, I wanted the protagonist to be difficult to like (some readers ended up liking him anyway, but I did not make it easy for them to like him!) In fact, my favorite comment which I received was this was … I can’t find it write now, but this was the summary “this OC is so awful, he’s the opposite of a Gary Stu, I can’t keep reading this!”

(On that note: if you want to find these fanfics I wrote, you can, but I am warning you that a lot of readers find this particular series offputting. So if you find them, and come back to me and say “Sara, those fanfics are so horrible, I wish I had never read them” my response will be “I warned you.”)

So, I wanted to write fanfic which centered a particular type of antihero, and I wanted to throw in asexuality, so this antihero ended up being ace (and aromantic too).

It was interesting to see how the (mostly non-ace) readers reacted to this original character being an aro ace. Based on the comments, some of them seemed to find him more sympathetic after they found out he was aro ace since it helped explain some of his actions, especially since he helped another ace character. And yes, I put in a second original character who is ace because it’s a lot easier to bring asexual themes into a story if there is more than one ace character. And since the second ace character was much easier to like, readers generally had a favorable opinion of her (she was also more boring, which is why she was not the center of the series). However, while most readers thought that the antihero helping the other ace character was one of the most likeable things he did, there was one reader who felt that he was hurting her by telling her that it was okay for her to be ace.

A problem I had while writing was that I am a lot more interested in Asexuality 201 than Asexuality 101, so these fanfics had a lot of 201 and not much 101. This resulted in some readers being confused. When I read ace fiction, I’m sometimes frustrated by there being more Asexuality 101 than Asexuality 201, but having had this experience, I can understand why writers sometimes put in more Asexuality 101 and less Asexuality 201 than I would like.

There were a whole bunch of other problems with this series of fanfics, but they weren’t related to asexuality, so I’m not going to discuss them here.

Even after writing this set of original-character centric fanfics, I still had not worked GJatRQ out of my system, so I went on to write a point-of-departure AU of The Vor Game. I killed off one of the major characters in The Vor Game right at the beginning (that was the point of departure which separates the AU from canon), which, among other things, led to one of the key events of GJatRQ happening during the timeframe of The Vor Game (i.e. more than twenty years earlier). (By the way, if you insist on reading my fanfic, I would like you to read this one first because I feel better about how it turned out. I am proud of how many cliffhanger chapter endings I was able to think up. And the fact that I am more interesting in using fanfic for cliffhanging than for shipping may reflect my aro-aceness).

Though this AU fanfic did not have any explicit ace content whatsoever, I was aware of some subtle ways that ace discourse was affecting the way I wrote this fanfic. For example, there is a scene where a character is talking about how he has sexual agency and can consent to sex, which was definitely influenced by ace writing about how it is possible for aces to consent.

I also put in three original characters in this fanfic who *I* think are ace, and I was debating whether or not to make that asexuality explicit. Eventually, I decided not to do so, and there is no hint in the fanfic that they are ace. Why did I not make it explicit? The in-universe reason was that they were not POV characters, and it did not make sense for them to come out as ace to the POV character. However, if I had wanted to make their asexuality explicit, I could have made up a reason why they would want to come out as ace. The real reasons were that a) I had just written some fanfics with very explicit asexual themes, and I wanted a break from that and b) I didn’t just want it to be a ‘by the way I’m ace’ thing but I also did not want to address asexuality in more depth in that fanfic because I did not want it to distract from the other stuff which was going on in the story. Thus, they aren’t even word of ace ace characters since I’ve never put out the word that those specific characters are ace.

***

Finally, a few comments on being ace in the Vorkosiverse fandom.

The biggest disadvantage is that the Vorkosiverse fandom is a heck of a lot smaller than, say, the Harry Potter / Supernatural / Sherlock / Marvel Cinematic Universe / Homestuck / etc. fandoms. It’s not even as big as the Miraculous Ladybug fandom. That means there are a lot fewer fanworks out there, and consequently, a lot fewer people making ace fanworks. In fact, as far as I know, I’m the only person who has made any ace fanwork for the Vorkosiverse fandom.

The big advantage of the Vorkosiverse fandom is that it is a lot less focused on erotica and shipping than many other fandoms. There is still plenty of erotic fanfic and shipping in the fandom, but there are also a lot of plotty fanfics, as well as fanfics which explore the setting of the series without focusing on sex or romance. For example, one of the most common tropes in Vorkosiverse fandom is Somebody Finding Out the Truth about the Escobar Invasion (in the past month alone, there have been two fanfics with this trope – “The King’s Quarrel” and “A Man of the Right”). There is a fanfic in which Gregor figures out most of it but thinks that Aral, not Ezar, was the mastermind, there’s a fanfic in which Komarran terrorists capture Aral, use truth serum on him, and then broadcast the interrogation on the vid network, and various other variations on the trope. And this trope almost never has much to do with sex or romance. As an aro-ace, this greater abundance of fanfics focused on something other than shipping makes Vorkosiverse fandom more appealing to me than many other fandoms.

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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.

There’s Nothing Stopping Writers from Having Female Protagonists in Wuxia

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

Some people might claim that Jin Yong wrote put sexism/misogyny into his stories because he was a product of his time (the 1950s – 1970s) and his society (China / Hong Kong).

On some level, this is true: China / Hong Kong is a patriarchal society, and if it were not, then there probably would have been a lot less sexism/misogyny in his stories.

However, I don’t think ‘Jin Yong is a product of his time and place’ is a sufficient explanation. Why not? One of the shortest answers is: Liang Yusheng.

Liang Yusheng was another popular wuxia writer from Hong Kong in the middle of the 20th century (in fact, he’s the one who encouraged Jin Yong to start writing wuxia in the first place). A lot of Liang Yusheng stories have a female character as the lead protagonist (whereas Jin Yong only wrote one novella with a female lead protagonist). Furthermore, many of the problems I’ve been describing with how Jin Yong treats his female characters don’t apply to Liang Yusheng’s stories, or don’t apply nearly as often.

Bridgette Lin as Lian Nichang in The Bride with White Hair

Liang Yusheng’s most famous story is The White-Haired Demoness, also known in English as Romance of the White-Haired Maiden and The Bride with White Hair. While much of the novel is mediocre, the lead character, Lian Nichang, is one of the most memorable characters is all of wuxia, and I think that’s the reason why they still make new adaptations of the novel to this day (I haven’t seen any of them, but the one I’d be most interested in giving a try is the one starring Ada Choi). She was raised by wolves, so she doesn’t understand why people do such silly things, such as claim that men and women can’t be friends without being lovers (she becomes friends with men, because why the heck not?) She is so iconic that it’s difficult to have a broad discussion of female characters in the the wuxia genre without mentioning her. Much of the story is about Lian Nichang’s romance with a male character – but unlike Jin Yong’s novels, she’s not there to stimulate his character development; he’s there to stimulate her character development. It’s not a problem that female character fall in love and have romances; it’s a problem that most wuxia stories use romance to subsume the female character into the male character’s story.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with have a lead male character. What I DO want is to have a roughly equal mix of stories with a lead male character and a lead female character – and that’s not how it is in wuxia (with the exception of Liang Yusheng’s stories).

This becomes even more starkly obvious when we talk specifically about trans female characters. In the stories of both Jin Yong and Gu Long (Gu Long is the third of the really famous mid-20th century wuxia writers, alongside Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng), all trans women are villains. Furthermore, their trans status is used as evidence of their evil. If you ever need an example of how NOT to write trans women into fiction, I suggest both The Smiling Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖) by Jin Yong and Two Peerless Heroes (絕代雙驕) by Gu Long. By contrast, in Seven Swords (七劍下天山) by Liang Yusheng, there is a trans woman who is not an antagonist. Sure, she’s just a minor character, but at least she’s not associated with evil.

Liang Yusheng was not as talented as Jin Yong, which is why his works are not as widely read today, or adapted into other media as frequently (except The White-Haired Demoness, which is adapted more often than Jin Yong’s less popular stories). This unfortunate, because it would be awesome to combine Liang Yusheng’s treatment of female characters with Jin Yong’s talent. However, to the extent that Liang Yusheng is still appreciated today, a lot of is because he handled female characters well. As one wuxia fan on the internet put it “read Liang Yusheng for the good female characters.”

Liang Yusheng came from the same social and cultural milieu as Jin Yong, and was writing wuxia during the same time period. This shows that Jin Yong could have chosen to be less sexist and non-misogynist, and have female lead protagonists. Instead, he chose to be more sexist and misogynist, and only put a lead female protagonist in a single novella. Thus, Jin Yong’s time and place is an insufficient explanation of why there is sexism and misogyny in his stories.

The Heart of the Matter: Is It the Male’s Journey or the Female’s Journey?

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

In the last two parts of this rambling series, I looked at damsels in distress and distressed dudes. It’s pretty clear that Jin Yong does not present female characters as being helpless or being unable to do anything useful, nor does he treat them as prizes for male heroes to win from the villains. If anything, it’s actually the opposite. However, the opposite of one sexist thing might be just another sexist thing.

In Jin Yong stories, rather than having a male character compete for the possession of female characters, there are a lot more instances of female characters competing for the affections of the male protagonist. Sometimes, the male protagonist chooses more than one female character to be his mate (polygyny), but usually he only picks one, and the others ‘lose’ and either live a life of celibacy or has a tragic death. The only exception I can think of right now is Cheng Yaojia (程瑤迦) – she falls in love with the male protagonist but later decides to marry a guy who will actually return her affections and she (presumably) lives happily ever after.

The problem with this is that it makes it seem like that the female characters are there to help the male protagonist on his journey rather than have character development journeys of their own.

An illustration of Zhao Min.

Let’s take Zhao Min as our first example. She is one of my favorite characters in The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre – I felt that the novel became a lot more interesting once she joins the story. She’s ruthless, she’s witty, she’s clever, she wears men’s clothes when she wants to and doesn’t care if everyone knows she’s a woman when she’s doing it, though she does some cruel things she is not a sadist (which makes her more likeable than some of the other villains) and while she is a liar she’s not a hypocrite (which is why even when she’s a ‘villain’ she is more likeable than some of the ‘good’ characters). You can get a better sense of what she’s like by watching the same scene as performed by several different actresses who each have their own interpretation of Zhao Min: 1984, 1994, 2003 and 2009 (only the last two have English subs, but since all of this clips show the same scene from the novel they all have similar dialogue).

At first, Zhao Min is a badass Mongol princess who is determined to keep her family in power and the foil all of those pathetic Chinese people who are trying to end Mongol rule of China – and for her, the end justifies the means. However, during the story, she decides that she does not want to be a princess anymore, and she does not particularly want to be a Mongol either, and she no longer cares if the Chinese drive the Mongols out of China. This COULD have been a great character growth arc – a ruthless and power-hungry mastermind who figures out that some things in life are more important than having power. However, there is just this one little problem…

She gives up on being a badass princess because she fall in love with the male protagonist. After she falls in love with him, she just wants to do things to help him. Thus, it does not read so much like genuine character growth as her just transferring her loyalty from her father and brothers to her lover. For example, she stops doing evil stuff NOT because her moral values changed, but because her lover wouldn’t approve of her doing evil stuff.

Sigh.

I mean, even after she falls in love, she’s still a great character – she’s still wicked smart and sassy – she is just putting all of her talents in service of the male protagonist, rather than using them to pursue her own goals.

Zhao Min does interrupt the male protagonist when he’s about to marry another female character and uses her wits to get him to abandon his own wedding, but it turned out to be for his own good. (Zhao Min is the one in this picture with really long hair).

And there’s Huang Rong. She’s a great character … but her goal throughout BOTH of the novels in which she appears is to server his male love interest. Yes, she becomes leader of the Beggars’ Sect, but a) she originally became involved in the Beggars’ Sect to make her male love interest stronger (not to make herself stronger, to make HIM stronger) and b) she steps down as leader of the Beggars’ sect so she can be a better wife and mother. She often makes decisions which are not in her own best interests if it serves his interested. And what about her male love interest – does he ever make concessions to help her achieve her goals? No, though to be fair, that would not be easy since she does not seem to much in the way of goals independent of him. Instead, he pursues his own goals for his own reasons, and she’s there to help him.

Also, while *he* gets a major character growth arc, in which he becomes both physically more powerful and develops morally, Huang Rong does not grow much during the story.

Ren Yingying has more of a personal growth arc than Zhao Min and Huang Rong. She starts off as the leader of her own cult of loyal followers, and she is slightly evil, though not really a villain. Yes, she falls in love with the male protagonist, but she does at least have some change of heart which does not entirely revolve around him (she spends time as a prisoner in the Shaolin Temple where she read some Buddhist scriptures which helps her change her ways). Yet her story is still mainly about how she helps the male protagonist or presents him with a dilemma which makes him develop personally. Oh, she does end the civil war and restore peace to the martial arts world – ~entirely off page~.

Ren Yingying is, among other things, a good musician (and yes, that’s relevant to the plot).

Yilin – though I find the way she is sexualized to be creepy – actually does get a halfway decent personal growth arc, and that’s one of the reasons I am particularly fond of her. Yet all of her character growth is centered around helping the male protagonist. The Hengshan nuns in general are cool, since they are a rare example of a group of women in a Jin Yong story who are not totally focused on men, and in fact are more righteous than their male counterparts, though the male protagonist ends up being their leader (yes, the male protagonist becomes the leader of an order of nuns).

And Li Wenxiu, the ~only female Jin Yong protagonist~ (from “White Horse Neighs in the West Wind” – there is a summary on Wikipedia) does have goals which aren’t about serving her male love interest, though she non-romantic goals much less assiduously than most male Jin Yong protagonists, and she also does not have much character growth.

Of the major Jin Yong female characters, the one who comes closest to having a goal other than serving her male love interest (besides Ren Yingying, who really does have the goal of controlling/pacifying the martial arts world even if that is mostly is off-page) is Xiaolongnü. Her goal is to … have a very quiet life almost completely withdrawn from society. Hey, whatever you think of her goal, at least it’s a goal which isn’t related to serving or pleasing any man. Furthermore, she is the only one who asks her male love interest to at least partially set aside his goals to help her reach her goal. Yes, she also sometimes sets aside her goal to help with his goal, but the fact that he yields AT ALL to her at the expense of his own goal is rare in Jin Yong. And yes, it is an abusive relationship at times (for example, she tries to kill him at one point), but that does not change any of what I have said).

An illustration of Xiaolongnü.

Xiaolongnü also has more personal growth/change than just about any female Jin Yong character – she goes from being an emotionless girl indifferent to the prospect of her own death to being a very sensitive person full of feelings. And what caused this character change? Loving the male protagonist (I know, it’s such a surprise). However, at least after she’s in love since still pursues her original goal.

I suspect it’s not a coincidence that Xiaolongnü/Yang Guo is in some ways a gender reversal of the typical Jin Yong romance – he’s smarter than her, she’s older than him, he’s amazingly handsome (unlike the typically plain-looking male protagonist), she’s much more honest than him, etc. And yet, STILL, it’s really Yang Guo’s story more than Xiaolongnü’s story since his personal struggles, not hers, take center place.

The best single feminist essay I’ve read about ‘strong female characters’ is “Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women” by Shana Mlawski. Here’s a quote:

They don’t have to be physically strong, although they can be — The Bride, the women from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Ripley, Sarah Connor, and even the half-naked Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop are strong Strong female characters. Strong just means they have their own goals that move beyond “I want to do whatever the male hero wants to do” or “I want to marry the male hero.” “I want to have a baby” is moderately better – moderately. Let’s try to be a little more creative, huh?

(minor aside: yes I noticed that the character from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon the essayist used as an example of good ‘female’ character is arguable a trans male character, but I assume that she can’t read Chinese and thus has never read Iron Rider Silver Vase where that character is depicted as identifying as male.)

I think this really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with how Jin Yong uses his female characters (I mean, there are other sexist and misogynist things in his books which I haven’t addressed in this series, but I’m not trying to address everything). They are generally not treated as characters who grow and pursue whatever aspirations they develop – instead, they mainly function in the story to serve as accessories to the male protagonist and his character growth arc / storyline. She is beautiful to please him (and the presumed straight male readers), her intelligence is there to help him with his quest rather than a quest of her own.

So am I basically just asking for more female protagonists? Actually, I do want more female protagonists, but that’s not the point, or rather, it’s only part of the point. Plenty of male supporting characters in Jin Yong stories have goals which have nothing to do with female love interests, and while the protagonists tend to experience the most character growth, supporting male characters sometimes change and grow too (more often than supporting female characters, I may add).

It’s not about whether the male characters are competing over possession of a female, or the female characters are competing over possession of a male. It’s not about who is ‘weak’ or who is ‘strong’. It’s about who gets to be deemed worthy in their own right, and gets to have their own journey rather than just be part of someone else’s journey.

Damsels in Distress vs. Distressed Dudes in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

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

Content note: this post discusses violence against females

In the previous part, I talked about damsels in distress in Jin Yong stories. In this part, I’ll discuss female Jin Yong characters who rescue distressed dudes. I will start with an example from The Smiling Proud Wanderer.

Qu Feiyan in the 1996 TV adaptation of The Smiliing Proud Wanderer, also known as State of Divinity

Qu Feiyan is about ten years old. This does not stop her from being one of the cleverest characters in the entire story (her entry in Baidu Baike, which is China’s equivalent of Wikipedia, claims that she is one of the most intelligent characters in the Jin Yong canon). She watches the male protagonist, get severely injured, and it is pretty clear that, without medical treatment, he is going to die. Qu Feiyan first arranges for him to be moved to a safe location where his enemies won’t find him easily, she finds and persuades a nun to bring the medicine that he needs, and she manipulates a villain into serving as his bodyguard while he is unconscious. Thus, she saves his life. This is a clear example of a female character rescuing a distressed dude (actually, two female characters, since Yilin also deserves some credit).

After the protagonist is no longer at imminent risk of dying from his injuries, this is what happens in the next scene where Qu Feiyan appears (this is highly summarized and thus leaves out a lot of details and context):

Minor Character: Her grandfather is evil, therefore she is evil too, and you must kill her!
Protagonist: No, I’m not going to kill a child!
Minor Character: If you refuse to kill her, then you’re evil too.
[Minor Character kills Qu Feiyan]
Minor Character: Since you’re still heavily injured, you can’t defend yourself, so now I’m going to kill you too.
[A martial arts master comes out of nowhere and kills Minor Character]

To summarize the summary, the deus ex machina comes in the nick of time to save the male protagonist’s life, but not in time to save the life of Qu Feiyan.

In fact, Qu Feiyan herself is mainly a deux ex machina to save the protagonist’s life, albeit one who is well disguised by having a clever, cheerful, and mischievous personality. Once she’s served that purpose, she’s disposable.

Now, at this point a lot of Jin Yong fans would point out that this novel was written during the Cultural Revolution and Hong Kong riots of 1967, and that the murder of Qu Feiyan is clearly part of the political allegory. I agree that this scene sends a clear and deliberate political message, and if this were an isolated incident, I would not necessarily consider it an example of sexism or misogyny.

The thing is, it’s not an isolated incident in Jin Yong’s fiction. In fact, in the very same novel, The Smiling Proud Wanderer, a different female character saves a male character’s life, and later, that very same male character kills her, and after he has already delivered the killing blow, she decides to save his life one last time right before she dies. That is, unless one considers that ‘male’ character to be a transwoman (which is a possible interpretation of the novel – at the very least, that particular character is queer-coded) which would mean that, on top of everything else, this part of the plot would be transmisogynist.

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils

You may remember that I mentioned Ah Zhu in the was probably the most intelligent character in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, and also mentioned her in the previous post as one of the most clearcut examples of a damsel in distress. If you don’t already know her story, you can find it at Wikipedia under ‘Azhu’.

Major Spoiler warning for the next two paragraphs.

She lets her fiancé kill her so she can save her father. This is in spite of the fact that she has had very little contact with her father because he was a deadbeat dad. But, really, she lets her fiancé kill her so she can save her father. I had a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around that when I first read the novel.

But there’s more. She becomes a Lost Lenore / Gwen Stacy, and to top that all off, her sister, Ah Zi, is so moved by Qiao Feng’s feelings when he buries her that Ah Zi falls in love with him. That’s right, Ah Zi falls in love with the guy who killed her sister while he is burying her sister. You can see it for yourself (and you don’t need to understand Chinese because there isn’t much dialogue in that scene).

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

I’ve mentioned Cheng Lingsu a couple times in this series already. Like Qu Feiyan and Ah Zhu, she is hype-intelligent, possibly the most intelligent character in the novel where she appears. You can also get a summary of her story from Wikipedia, though I think the fact that I am putting her in the same category as Qu Feiyan and Ah Zhu is a huge hint.

I could cite more examples, but at this point, I think you get the idea (this does not always the most intelligent character in the story, but the more intelligent female character are at greater risk of falling into this pattern). Basically, the female character is first exploited to save a male character (usually, though not necessarily, the protagonist), and then dies to cause the male protagonist emotional anguish.

I am trying to think of an example of a male Jin Yong character successfully rescuing a female character and then tragically dying and … the only examples I can think of are where his eventual tragic death was a MUCH later and completely unrelated event, unlike these examples I cited in which the female character dies while saving a male character. There are certainly plenty of moments where male characters volunteer to sacrifice their lives to save a female character, but those male characters end up … not dying (I am surprised to learn that TVTropes does not have a page for ‘Averted Heroic Sacrifice’ – but maybe the trope simply has a different name).

One could look at this and say ‘hey, the female characters are good at rescuing male characters, this shows that female characters can be competent at something other than being a sex object / love interest!’ However, even if a female character is not being exploited for sex or romance, it is still exploitation.

What I see is that female life is not being valued as much as male life. And that’s a problem.

That is not to say that all female Jin Yong characters who rescue distressed dudes die during the story. Some of them marry him after they save him from distressed dude status. Once in a while, a female character will even save a distressed dude, NOT marry him, yet still be alive at the end of the story (amazing, but true, and probably means she is a nun or will become a nun).

What it boils down to is that, generally, when a female character rescues a distressed dude, she is either in love with him, will fall in love with him, or she wants to make the dude she is in love with happy by rescuing the distressed dude. And, as TVTropes put it, because this time TVTropes is right:

Fans have also noted a common trend to the fate of female characters in Jin Yong’s novels. Most of the female characters that do fall in love with the protagonist but doesn’t end up with him (or knows that there’s no way he can reciprocate the love) either remains celibate or encounters a tragic end.

I generally don’t have a problem with celibacy, or a character choosing to abstain from sex for life, but when there is a PATTERN of female characters choosing that path after not ‘winning’ the male protagonist with whom they fell in love, there is a problem. And a lot of those ‘tragic ends’ for the female characters who don’t ‘win’ the male protagonist is martyring herself for him.

And when a prominent male character experiences a tragic end, then pretty much all of the women in love with him who are not already dead will join him in that tragic ending (UNLESS they are pregnant with his son, in which case they will get a reprieve – but only temporarily, since they will die tragically when their sons are capable of fending for themselves).

Whether it’s male characters saving damsels in distress, or female characters saving distressed dudes, it can all be done in a sexist way or a non-sexist way. That’s because damsels in distress vs. distressed dude does not get to heart of the matter. What is the heart of the matter? The heart of the matter is whether or not it’s about the male character’s character journey or the female character’s journey (or both). That is the topic of the next post.

Damsels in Distress vs. Distressed Dudes in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

There is a damsel in distress at the top of that tower, next to a villain. He’s threatening to burn her alive.

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

The basic feminist objection to the ‘damsel in distress’ trope is that it treats female characters as passive possessions for male protagonists to ‘win’ or ‘take back’. For a much more in-depth feminist critique, there is of course the Tropes vs. Women video series on Damsel in Distress (though this series focuses on video games, the critique can be extended to other media).

When a male character is in distress and needs rescue, it’s called Distressed Dude, though unlike the Damsel in Distress trope, it is not the default for a Distressed Dude to be rescued by a female character, and he is much less likely to be treated as a possession/prize.

Though perhaps I do not know Chinese mythology/classic literature well enough to make this claim, it seems to be that the damsel in distress trope is not nearly as engrained there as in European-derived cultures. That’s not to say that it’s unheard of in Sinophone stories/literature/etc. it’s merely less frequent

Miss Qu clearly has a cognitive disability, possibly what is now called Down Syndrome. She is also, as this picture shows, a capable martial artist.

In Jin Yong stories, the vast majority of female characters are also capable martial artists. Old lady? Probably a capable martial artist. Princess who has been cloistered in the imperial palace for most of her life? Probably a capable martial artist. Girl who has a physical impairment, such as a lame foot? Probably a capable martial artist. It is so uncommon for a significant character of any gender to not be a martial artist in Jin Yong stories that, if a character is NOT a martial artist, that’s a notable feature.

Since the vast majority of female characters are martial artists, they often have some options other than wait for rescue if they end up in distress. If she does turn into a damsel in distress, it has to be explained usually by a) poison b) having her acupuncture points sealed and/or c) encountering superior force. These devices also often turn male characters into distressed dudes.

So yes, there are some damsels in distress in Jin Yong novels, and a female character who gets enough page space will probably need to be rescued at some point. But being a damsel in distress is rarely the defining feature of a female character, and male characters are just as likely to turn into distressed dudes.

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Again.

One of the few straight-up examples of damsel in distress I can recall is, in fact, Qiao Feng and Ah Zhu. It is worth noting that, earlier in the story, Ah Zhu had rescued a different male protagonist, Duan Yu, and that she rescues yet another male character’s life later in the story (I will discuss that more in the next part). First, he treated her wounds so she would not die right away, and then gets into a badass fight so that a certain doctor will agree to cure her – in fact, this happens to be one of my favorite episodes from the 1997 TV adaptation (which I am astonished to learn is available with English subtitles – content warning for suicide). Ah Zhu falls in love with Qiao Feng while he’s taking care of her, and after she is cured, she tells him that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him.

Wanyan Honglie and Bao Xiruo in the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of these rare examples of a significant female character who isn’t a martial artist is Bao Xiruo, and yes, she is a damsel in distress as well – but with a twist. In her case, Wanyan Honglie decided to marry her, but she was already married, so he arranged for her husband to be murdered and set it up so that he could go in and ‘rescue’ her. Even though Bao Xiruo does not love her Wanyan Honglie she feels obliged to marry him because she believes he had saved her life (also, as a young widow who isn’t even a martial artst, her alternative options were bad). This is like the ‘Western’ damsel in distress in that a woman is treated like a possession to be taken. However, the difference is that this is done by a villain instead of a hero, and the guy doing this is not presented in a sympathetic way.

In fact, off the top of my head, most of the examples of damsel in distress in Jin Yong stories I can think of are one of the following:

– the ‘rescuer’ has ulterior motives (example: Wanyan Honglie & Bao Xiruo)
– the damsel assumes the rescuer has ulterior motives, and refuses to cooperate (example: Shui Sheng & Di Yun)
– rescuer turns out to be a jerk so the damsel eventually leaves him (example: Yang Kang & Mu Nianci)
– due to Stockholm Syndrome, damsel does not want to be rescued (Wen Yi – to be fair, her ‘rescuers’ were more morally reprehensible than her captor, so she was effectively choosing the lesser evil)
– even though the damsel likes her rescuer, she refuses to pursue a romance with him because it goes against her principles (example: Yilin & Linghu Chong)
– even though the rescuer likes the damsel, he refuses to pursue a romance with her because it goes against his principles (example: Duan Yu & Mu Wanqing)
– damsel in distress is rescued by a mixed-gender team (example: Zhong Ling)
– damsel does not need rescuing because she is already free (example: Ren Yingying)
– damsel has already rescued male protagonist when he was in distressed dude mode, and will probably rescue him again later in the story (example: Huang Rong & Guo Jing) (and yes, I have plenty more to say about this)

Sometimes, the boy can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by himself, and the girl can’t save the damsel-in-distress/pregnant woman/distressed dudes by herself, so the boy and the girl have to work together to save them.

In short, there is usually some element which is at least partially ‘subverting’ the trope. I put ‘subverting’ in quotations marks because what I mean is that the trope is not working as it typically does in Anglophone cultures, but if Chinese stories aren’t working the way one would expect them to work in Anglophone media, that’s not necessarily a subversion.

Even in the example of Qiao Feng trying to save Ah Zhu’s life, she’s not being treated as a prize for him to win, he does not take possession of her when her life is saved, and most of the other characters are really suspicious of his motives.

There is an edge here, namely, that the rescuers of the damsel in distress are often suspect. On one side of the edge, one could say that Jin Yong is implying that the guys who rescue damsels in distress in order to claim ownership over them are not much – or any – better than the guys who put them in distress in the first place (and in the case of Wanyan Honglie, it’s the very same guy); real heroes do not expect rewards from damsels they rescue beyond the satisfaction of seeing the damsel set free. This is my preferred interpretation, not only because it is the more female-friendly interpretation, but it actually more consistent with what is in the novels than the other side of the edge. And what is that other side of the edge? That if trying to rescue females is a suspicious act – what does that imply about the value of female lives?

Generally, I am satisfied with the way Jin Yong uses the damsel in distress trope, and do NOT consider it to be evidence of sexism or misogyny. I do not want female characters to be invincible, and it seems to me that he does not use the damsel in distress trope in a way which depicts females as being less capable than males, or which treats females as prizes. In particular, females do not seem to be more likely than male characters to need rescue, and to the extent it is treated as a way to claim possession of damsels, it is usually depicted as a bad thing.

So, if I do not think Jin Yong expresses sexism or misogyny in his use of damsels in distress, where do I think he expresses sexism and misogyny? Well, one of the places it comes out is where the female characters are saving the distressed dudes. I will explain how that works in Part 2.