Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Ah Zhu is possibly the most intelligent character in the story. It’s really lucky for Qiao Feng that she falls in love with him, because he really needs someone smart on his side. But Ah Zhu’s agenda seems to always being serving her master Murong Fu (male), helping Qiao Feng, or saving her father; she never seems to have an agenda which is about something other than helping a male character.

There is a rule which applies to pretty much every major female character in the fiction of Jin Yong: she must be beautiful and/or intelligent.

Most major female Jin Yong characters are both beautiful and intelligent, but some are beautiful without being intelligent, and a very few – such as Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) from The Young Flying Fox (飛狐外傳) are intelligent – without being beautiful.

This rule does not apply to major male characters – a few are described as being physically handsome, and some of them are intelligent, but many of them – even the protagonists – are neither handsome nor intelligent.

The physical appearance aspect is fairly straightforward – the female characters are meant to appealing to readers who are attracted to females, whereas Jin Yong most of the time did not offer much to readers who are attracted to males (the most notable exception is Yang Guo, the only male protagonist who is described as being handsome – in fact, he is so handsome that he wears a mask to stop women from getting crushes on him). Feminist critics generally – and in my opinion, correctly – would say this is an example of objectification of women without equivalent objectification of men.

The intelligence aspect is a little trickier. In the Anglophone world, most feminist critics say they want more intelligent women in fiction, particularly women in leadership roles. Jin Yong’s fiction is not only full of intelligent women, some of them also rise to significant leadership roles through their own merits – for example, Huang Rong becomes the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, Ren Yingying not only leads the Sun Moon Holy Cult, she also returns the Wulin back to a state of peace, and so forth.

The rub here is that, whereas intelligence is generally considered to be good in the Anglophone world, it is not associated with goodness in the fiction of Jin Yong. The most intelligent protagonists are Yang Guo and Wei Xiaobao – Yang Guo is mischievous and considers helping the Mongols in their mass murder of Chinese, though in the end he works for good. Wei Xiaobao is an obviously immoral antihero, and Jin Yong himself says that it is wrong to follow his example. By contrast, the Jin Yong protagonists who are most obviously good in a moral sense are not very smart – and often need smart women to get them out of the fire. And many of the smartest characters in Jin Yong’s fiction are either morally grey or outright antagonists. In Jin Yong fiction, intelligence tends to make characters think that they don’t have to follow the rules or care about consequences to others, and if they are not restrained in some manner (by being taught Confucian principles and/or Buddhist principles, falling in love with a person more moral than themselves) they are bound to do more harm than good.

This is how the female characters get objectified for their intelligence – they are there so that the good male characters can make use of their intelligence without being tainted by the immorality which comes with intelligence. Furthermore, the female characters ‘need’ their less intelligent male lovers to offer them a moral center so that they do not sink into immorality. One of the many examples of this is Zhao Min and Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min is a badass, conniving Mongol princess who is both ruthless and clever enough to both take over her own family and rule all of China – but that all ends when she falls in love with Zhang Wuji, who is a Super Nice Guy and she wants him to like her. An even more extreme example is Ah Zi and Qiao Feng (though, to be fair, Ah Zi is not especially intelligent – but she is very sadistic) – to quote TV Tropes:

Morality Pet: A rare example of an older, stronger man being a young girl’s morality pet can be found in Demi Gods and Semi Devils. Xiao Feng is the only person who can bring out any sort of redeeming qualities in Ah Zi. Any good deed that Ah Zi ever attempts has been in the effort to seek his approval.

Meanwhile, Qiao Feng also gets a ton of use out of Ah Zi’s very intelligent (and mischievous) sister Ah Zhu.

There are, at most, two counter examples. One is maybe, maybe Wei Xiaobao and Shuang’er – Shuang’er is very subservient to Wei Xiaobao (even though he does not deserve it), but with her obedient goodness, she occasionally persuades Wei Xiaobao to be a bit less blatantly immoral. But I think this is a very borderline example. The better example is Yang Guo and Xiaolongü – he helps ground him so he is less inclined to being implusive and mischievous (and this is the only major example in Jin Yong fiction – well, except for Wei Xiaobao and some of his wives – of an intelligent male character being lovers with a not-particularly-intelligent female character).

I love the work of Jin Yong, and I love that it is full of so many complex and diverse female characters. But I cannot help but notice that the female characters are there to be used by the male characters – whether they are used for they physical appearance or used for their brains. And I am not sure that being objectified for one’s brains is much better than being objectified for one’s physical appearance.

And this raises the question: why do feminists often say they want more intelligent female characters? Do we really want more intelligent female characters, or are we really seeking something else and we just think having more intelligent female characters would be expedient to reaching that other goal?

We Are All Barbara Yung

A photo of Barbara Yung.

Recently, I read the article “Making Athens Great Again”. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve immersed myself in Ancient Greek literature, it is consistent with what I remember.

Meanwhile, I’ve taken up the study of Classical Chinese lately, which means I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately pouring over Chinese texts written over two thousand years ago (though, because I am not proficient in Classical Chinese yet, I read it slowly, and thus have not read a large volume yet). I can tell, based on what I have read so far, that the writers of the late Zhou dynasty through the Han dynasty were concerned with a lot of the same issues as the people of ancient Athens – the brevity of human life, how to make human life matter in spite of its brevity, the possibility of doing something that matters so much one is known even after death. The ancient Chinese did not always have the same answers as their Greek contemporaries, but they were grappling with some of the same philosophical issues.

Reading all of this stuff thousands of years after these people wrote down their thoughts adds a whole other dimension to this discussion of whether people can do something which matters so much that their names will be known long after their death, and whether this does any good. The fact that Socrates is still so well known thousands of years after his death is a statement in itself.

It also has a humbling effect on the way I think about my own times. On the time scale of thousands of years, the United States of America does not seem as significant as it does in my usual modes of thought (which is on the scale of minutes-thru-decades).

So, in the context of all that, where does Barbara Yung fit in?

A few of the people reading this blog recognize the name Barbara Yung (or recognize her Chinese name, 翁美玲). However, I am guessing that most of the people reading this do not have the foggiest idea who Barbara Yung was.

So who was Barbara Yung? She was a very popular Hong Kong actress – to this date, she has a large fanbase. Barbara Yung is so famous that it was reported in (Chinese-language) news when her mother died in January, 2017. Barbara Yung rose to fame due to being cast as Huang Rong in the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes, and even though she continued to star in other TV shows, she is still most strongly associated with the character Huang Rong, just as Emma Watson is most strongly associated with the character Hermione Granger. To this day, there are still many Barbara Yung fans out there, people who felt that she touched their lives in a good way (here is an example of a fan tribute music video). She is more famous than most people will ever be, and she has arguably had a positive impact on more people than most people ever will.

Barbara Yung in her most famous role as Huang Rong

I’ve seen some episodes of the 1983 adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes. Overall, I think it’s overrated, but Barbara Yung is one of the best things about the show. If I ever go back and watch more episodes, it will be mainly for her. She captured how vibrant and spontaneous Huang Rong is.

Though I am not attached to any of the TV adaptations of Legend of the Condor Heroes, I do have a personal attachment to the Condor Trilogy (which is obvious to anyone who has followed this blog for a long time). I remember that reading about Huang Rong’s death in third book in the trilogy made my tears come out – and most fictional character deaths do not bring out tears in me. In the novels, if my calculations are correct, Huang Rong is about 70 years old when she dies.

Barbara Yung died when she was twenty-six years old.

If we measure how ‘good’ a life was by its length, then Barbara Yung clearly got a short end of the stick. But if we measure how ‘good’ a life was by fame and positive impacts on others, then Barbara Yung did really well. She is known to hundreds of millions of people.

But there are still billions of people who have no idea who she is. And she is best known among people who have watched 1980s Hong Kong television, which is less popular among younger generations than among generations which were alive during the 1980s. Two hundred years from now, Barbara Yung may be so obscure that she will be hardly more famous than the average person who lived in the 20th century.

There are also many people who are more famous and/or had a much greater impact on the world than Barbara Yung: Yu Gwansun, Jeanne d’Arc, Anne Frank, Malalai of Maiwand, and Princess Zhao of Pingyang, among others. You know what all of those names I just mentioned have in common (aside from the fact that they are all female, which was actually unintentional on my part, and that they are all from Eurasia)? They all died before their 26th birthdays – i.e. their lives were even shorter than Barbara Yung’s. I think all of those people will be remembered even after Barbara Yung is forgotten, but for how much longer? I do not know.

Thinking in terms of millennia – and if we are bringing Socrates-era Athens and Han dynasty China into this, then we are talking in terms of millennia – how much do any of these people matter? I think it’s safe to say that, even on the timescale of millennia, Princess Zhao of Pingyang matters because she’s already been dead for over a thousand years and she is still a famous person. Jeanne d’Arc will probably still be famous a thousand years after her death. For the others, it’s harder to predict.

What about in terms of tens of thousands of years? From the perspective of someone ten thousand years from now (assuming humanity is still around – I think there will probably still be humans ten thousand years from now, but extinction within the next ten thousand years is possible), I might as well have lived at the same time as Barbara Yung, even though there is no overlap between our chronological lifespans! Also, from the perspective of people ten thousand years from now, the difference between Barbara Yung’s level of fame and impact on the world and my level of fame and impact on the world will not matter at all.

Also, when we are talking in terms of tens of thousands of years, the different between a lifespan of 26 years and, say, 91 years (the lifespan of Barbara Yung’s mother) does not seem like much. It happens to matter to me personally a great deal whether my own lifespan will be, say, thirty years or a hundred years, but that is because I am living in terms of years and decades, not tens of thousands of years. I certainly do not feel, emotionally, that there is much difference between a human dying at the age of three weeks old and a human dying at the age of ten weeks old.

On a time scale of a million years, we (that is, myself and everyone who reads this blog) are all practically indistinguishable from Barbara Yung.

What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, the conclusion I draw is that trying to have one’s name known long after one’s death is a futile goal – no matter what I do, I will eventually be forgotten, and I do not particularly care whether I am forgotten just years after my death, or whether I am forgotten tens of thousands of years after my death. I do care about having a good impact on people, but one can have a good impact and still be totally anonymous. Furthermore, I think doing my best is a much better goal than trying to be extraordinary (maybe I might end up being extraordinary anyway, but that’s not the point).

I sometimes do get caught up in and upset by petty bullshit, because that’s how my psychology is set up. However, when I’m collected enough that I can pull out of that, reminding myself of the vastness of time helps me understand that petty bullshit ultimately does not matter.

I do not know how long I will live, though I probably will not live to be a hundred years old. However long or short my life ends up being, I’ll try to make the most of it.

Clearly, I have been recently reading parts of the Zhuangzi (one of the most influential works of ancient Chinese philosophy), since its logic seems to be slipping into my thoughts. To quote the Zhuangzi, 莫壽乎殤子,而彭祖為夭 – (Mandarin pronunciation) “Mò​ shòu​ hū​ shāng​ zǐ​, ér​ Péng​ Zǔ wéi​ yāo​​” – “There is no one more long-lived than a child which dies prematurely, and Peng Zu [who supposedly had a lifespan of 800 years] did not live out his time.”

“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” – Taking a Tour through Sinophone Pop Culture with “Dao​ Jian Ru Meng​”

There is a very popular Mandarin pop song called “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”, and I am going to use it as a theme for a little tour of Sinophone Pop Culture (why ‘Sinophone’ rather than ‘Chinese’? Because China is not the only place where Chinese is spoken, and some of the artists who are mentioned in this very post are not from China).

What does “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” mean? I’ve encountered the following English translations of the title:

“Sword Like a Dream”
“Dream of Swords and Blades”
“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream”
“Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”

The most ‘accurate’ translation is “Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”, but I prefer the translation “A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” because I feel it’s closest to the spirit of the song and the story which inspired this song.

So, for those of you who have never heard the song, or who just want to hear it again, here is Wakin Chau’s original music video. Wakin Chau both wrote the song and was the first singer to record it. (If you don’t understand Mandarin, don’t worry, I will later link to videos with English translations).

This song was originally one of the theme songs of the 1993 TV adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (HSDS).

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven't seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven’t seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

I have not seen more than twenty minutes of any TV adaptation of HSDS, but I have read the original novel. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel (actually, it is one of the most memorable scenes I have read in any work of fiction) is as follows (violent melodrama alert): many people hate and want to kill a certain man because he has killed their loved ones. Two of the very few people who know this hated man’s whereabouts are a husband and wife. However they refuse to reveal the hated man’s whereabouts because they consider him to be their sworn brother, and they are forced to commit suicide. Their nine-year old son watches this happen. Right after his mother plunges the dagger in herself, she tells him that must remember all the people present so that, when he is grown up and strong, he can avenge her and his father. The boy says no, he does not want revenge, revenge will not bring his father back, all he wants is for his father to come back to life (he does not quite understand yet that his mother is also dying). That scene illustrates one of the key themes of the novel – people get incredibly wrapped up in cycles of avenging the wrongs done to their loved ones, but in the big picture, what is the point of all that violence inspired by love and hate?

Why did I share those bits of plot from HSDS? Because I think that background helps the song make more sense. To see how this song goes with footage from the TV show, here is here is the song with footage from the TV show.

[aside/rant: if you look at the above music video, you’ll notice that female characters have a large presence in HSDS, which is typical of wuxia fiction. In fact, one of the reasons I am so fond of wuxia is that it the wide array of compelling female characters. Yes, there is plenty of sexism in wuxia – HSDS itself has some misogynist content – but even sexist wuxia male writers tend to have more female characters who have more interesting roles in the story than some female ‘feminist’ writers of speculative fiction in English, let alone male writers of speculative fiction in English.]

A picture of Dong Zhen

A picture of Dong Zhen

Recently, a lot of singers have been covering this song. One singer who has become well-known for performing this song is Dong Zhen. She mostly does singing for video game songs. She has built a fanbase by developing her public persona as being like the mysterious maidens one often finds in Chinese fiction. I’ve read that the ‘mysterious maiden’ stock character has been around in Chinese fiction since the Tang Dynasty (over a thousand years ago), but I know little of Chinese literature which is more than a hundred years old. I can say that the mysterious maiden continues to be a very popular stock character. She generally was raised in isolation from society (for example, Lian Nichang, one of the most famous examples of this archetype, was raised by wolves), is generally an amazing sword fighter or has some other fantastic skill, is gorgeous, and seems like someone from out of this world. Ironically, the only character in HSDS who fits the ‘mysterious maiden’ archetype, the Yellow Dress Maiden (she’s so mysterious that nobody knows her given name!), is just a minor character.

Anyway, here is Dong Zhen singing “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” (and yes, this version has an English translation).

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game 'World of Sword'

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game ‘World of Sword’

In the past few years, Kris Wu has become one of the most popular celebrities in China. I admit that I have not seen any of his movies, but in terms of singing and looks … I don’t get it (China has way better singers – Dong Zhen for example – as well as actors who, IMO, are much more aesthetically/visually appealing than Kris Wu). Interestingly, even though Kris Wu is Chinese-Canadian, he first got into show business in South Korea, and started his rise to fame as a member of a popular K-pop band, EXO. And he definitely continues to have a strong K-Pop vibe … which might be why I don’t care for him. I don’t like K-Pop music, and no, it’s not because I don’t understand Korean, since I don’t like K-Pop even when it’s sung in a language I understand (English or Mandarin). I like Mandopop, Cantopop, and even J-Pop more than K-Pop.

In any case, Kris Wu recorded his own version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” to be the theme song for a mobile game called “World of Sword” (the lyrics are the same as Dong Zhen’s recording, it’s just a different English translation).

The Kris Wu version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is my least favorite because … I feel that it misses the point of the song. To me it seems like ‘hey, I am a guy with a sword, cool!’ and yes, I admit that it is cool when he’s wearing that costume at the end of the music video and swinging that sword around, but the song is about something more.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Anyway, in addition to being the theme song for ‘World of Sword’, “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is also the theme song for a new Taiwanese mobile game adapted from HSDS. Or, rather, the theme song is “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​ 2.0”. It’s performed by a Taiwanese band whose English name is The Last Day of Summer / 831. I know very little about this specific band, but the music video of their version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” feels Taiwanese too me. First of all, there are the traces of Japanese culture (the kimono the little boy is wearing, the tatami mats in the room) which are casually thrown into the video. Taiwan has been more heavily influenced by Japanese culture than any other place where Chinese is the dominant language, and the heavy Japanese influence is one of the things which distinguishes Taiwanese culture from other Chinese-speaking cultures. There is also something about the hairstyles and the way the singers dress … I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels Taiwanese to me. It’s certainly more the way Taiwanese ‘idols’ dress than the way Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese ‘idols’ would dress. The music video, of course, has footage from the mobile game. 831 also added some new lyrics/melodies to the song, which are about chaos and fighting one’s opponents with a little bit about love and hate, which makes sense for a mobile game which is combat-heavy.

[aside #2: I never thought about it before, but looking at the footage from the mobile game, I notice that none of the characters have any particular ethnic markings, even though they are all Chinese or Mongol. Yes, even the blond guy is ethnic Chinese according to the novel. Though the novel also says that his eyes were impaled by darts causing permanent blindness, whereas his eyes look just fine in the mobile game. By contrast, the the 1994 DOS game adapted from HSDS shows that the blond guy does not have functioning eyes. What was I saying? Oh yeah, you can tell that this game was made by Asians, in this case Taiwanese, because they don’t put ethnic markings on Chinese characters. It’s like what this blog post discusses.]

And now, for the final version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”…

Riceboy Liu appearing in The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu appearing on The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu is a Los Angeles rapper who specializes in multilingual rap songs. I’m not into rap music, but I have a thing for polyglots, so I happen to like like some of his songs. He was also a contestant on Season 4 of The Voice of China.

I have never seen an entire episode of The Voice, just clips. That includes The Voice of China. As it so happens, Dong Zhen appeared in the first season of Voice of China, and sang “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” in the blind auditions, but none of the judges picked her for their team. The song came back in Season 4, when it was used for the battle round between Riceboy Liu and Queen T, which you can watch here.

Queen T won the battle and stayed on the show (she eventually was the runner-up in the entire competition), which isn’t surprising since she’s the better singer, but I feel that I enjoy this version of the song so much thanks to Riceboy Liu’s creative contribution. I never imagined that I would enjoy a hip-hop version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” but I really like this one.

Of all of the versions of this song I’ve heard, this is the one with the strongest American influence (which is what one would expect when one of the performers is American). It’s not just that it adds a bunch of English lyrics (which don’t have much to do with the original song, but at least it’s different) and that it’s done in hip hop style – Queen T sounds like she also has an R&B influence on her singing style. Now I’m wondering what it would sound like if Aretha Franklin sang this song.

Anyway, if you contrast the Riceboy Liu / Queen T version of this song with Dong Zhen’s version, you can tell that they represent two different trends in Sinophone pop culture. Dong Zhen represents the trend of drawing upon a distinctly Chinese cultural history, whereas Riceboy Liu / Queen T represent taking popular styles from somewhere outside of Asia and making it their own. Wakin Chau, the songwriter, embodies the fusion of both of these trends, since he both draws from traditional Chinese culture and absorbs lots of influences from outside of Asia (especially rock music). Of course, influences from non-Chinese parts of Asia are also significant, as evidenced by the Korean influence on Kris Wu and the Japanese influence on Last Day of Summer / 831.

So that’s the conclusion of this little tour through Sinophone pop culture centered around a single song. I don’t know who will read this, but I enjoyed putting this post together, and if you got this far, I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Round-up: The Condor Trilogy in Manhua

In case you missed it, here’s a roundup of the complete ‘Condor Trilogy in Manhua’ blog post series I wrote for Manga Bookshelf:

The Condor Trilogy in Manhua: Introduction
The Condor Trilogy in Manhua: Fighting
Tony Wong’s The Eagle Shooting Heroes
The Legendary Couple
The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre
Return of the Condor Heroes
Lee Chi-Ching’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes

Guest Blogging Elsewhere – Wuxia Fighting

You could read my various thinky-thoughts here at this blog … or you could read about a single woman fighting a bunch of Daoist monks. If you think the woman fighting a bunch of Daoist monks is more exciting, head over to my new guest post at Manga Bookshelf, The Condor Trilogy in Manhua – Fighting.

Guest Blogging Elsewhere – The Condor Trilogy in Manhua (Part One)

Why would you want to read my thoughts about life when you can read about kung-fu fighters in fantasy-medieval China instead?

Even I would pick the kung-fu fighters over my thoughts about life since I spend a LOT more time reading wuxia than ace blogs.

So, since everybody is more interested in the kung-fu fighters than this blog, check out my guest post at Manga Bookshelf The Condor Trilogy in Manhua: Introduction.