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?

Yang Guo As an Asexual and Disabled Character

Since I discussed Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ (神鵰俠侶) last week, and disability is still the theme of this month’s Carnival of Aces, it occurs to me … Yang Guo might is an example of a character who is both asexual and disabled.

I’ve already said a lot about why I read Yang Guo as being asexual, even though it is never explicitly said in canon. As far as disability … well, since I want to keep this post low-spoiler, I’ll just say that at the beginning of the novel Yang Guo is able-bodied, and at the end of the novel he’s not.

Encountering Prejudice

Yang Guo definitely encounters explicit ableism. Unfortunately, I cannot find any of Guo Fu’s ableist quotes, but I recall her saying something like ‘he must be a bad man because he is [diabled]’.

A young Chinese man is holding a sword.

This screenshot is from the 2005 TV series, starring Huang Xiaoming as Yang Guo. Here, Yang Guo is still able-bodied.

By contrast, Yang Guo does not encounter any anti-asexual prejudice which is anywhere close to being as clear-cut as Guo Fu’s commentary.

I think it is because the characters recognize that disability is a thing, and they can easily tell that Yang Guo has a disability, but I don’t think any of the characters (including Yang Guo himself) are aware that asexuality is a thing.

Of course, just because nobody makes pointed comments about Yang Guo’s asexuality does not mean there is not any predjudice directed towards asexuality. Some characters seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that Yang Guo is not having sex. This is one of the reasons people don’t understand him, and since they don’t understand him, they consider him to be dangerous.

How Yang Guo Breaks Asexual and Disability Sterotypes

Asexuals are sterotyped as being female, white, and middle class. Yang Guo is male, Chinese, and poor.

Disabled people are sterotyped as being bitter, wanting revenge on the world, or as being full of good cheer, or as objects of charitable pity. Well, Yang Guo sometimes does feel bitter, and he sometimes does want revenge, though he is much less motivated by vengence than Huang Rong assumes he is (and when he wants revenge, it has nothing to do with his disability). He is most definitely not constantly full of good cheer, and he wants opportunities, not pity. TvTropes claims that Yang Guo is an example of a ‘super crip’, but I disagree (I can’t explain why without spoilers).

Both asexual and disabled people are stereotyped as being not-so-social, introverted, aromantic, not physically attractive, etc. Well, Yang Guo is very social (when he can), is an extrovert, and is intensely romantic (though I would say he is demiromantic, not heteromantic). Oh, and he’s the most physically attractive male in the Jin Yong universe (though he might be tied with his father Yang Kang).

On the left, Yang Guo wears a metal mask, a big cape, and is holding a giant sword; on the right, there is an eagle that is even bigger than Yang Guo himself.

An illustration of the Giant Eagle with masked!Yang Guo by Tony Wong. My favorite Tony Wong illustration of Yang Guo makes his disability quite apparent, and I don’t want to spoil, so I picked this illustration, which conceals his disability, instead.

If anything, having a disability reinforces his image as a mysterious and dangerous ‘bad boy’, which some people say is why almost every maiden in the novel is strongly attracted to him. It’s worth noting that he starts wearing a mask to cover up his good looks (and thus stop having so maiden maidens feel attracted to him) *after* he becomes disabled. And the willingness of some of those maidens to get sexual makes it clear that his celibacy is entirely voluntary.

Speaking of stereotypes, one of those maidens is Lu Wushuang, who is also disabled. Apparently having a lame foot doesn’t stop her from experiencing romantic attraction [/snark].

And Lu Wushuang is the only person Yang Guo is depicted as feeling any sensual (and possibly sexual) attraction towards (I translated the relevant passage here). That’s another way he’s ‘doing it wrong’ – he should feel like kissing a ‘pretty’ girl like Guo Fu, not a disabled girl like Lu Wushuang [/snark].

Oh, and I should state the obvious – the fact that Yang Guo experiences a lack of sexual attraction, and is content with his celibacy, *before* he becomes disabled proves that that his asexuality is not caused by his disability.

Layers of Oppression

Though Yang Guo’s disability and asexuality (or more accurately, refusal to act like a heterosexual) play out in different ways, they both serve one common fuction – to make him an outcast.

They’re not the only reasons he’s a social outcast. Other reasons society pushes him to the margins at various points in the story include: he’s poor, his mother wasn’t married, he’s homeless, he’s an orphan, he refuses to conform to norms concerning romance, he cannot fight back. There’s also the fact that his father was a horrible person, and he looks just like his father, so his mere appearance stirs up certain characters’ bad memories.

The giant eagle, of course, does not care about any of this, so Yang Guo and the giant eagle become close friends. That’s why the official English title of the novel is The Giant Eagle and Its Companion.

On the left is an eagle who is bigger than a human being, in the center there is a beautiful woman with long hair wearing a white dress, and on the right is a man with both black and white hair.

This screenshot is from the 1995 TV series, starring Louis Koo as Yang Guo (right). His disability in not obvious in this screenshot.

The core conflict of the story is that Yang Guo craves to feel like he belongs to a group, yet society keeps on denying him for unfair reasons. This is an internal conflict – Yang Guo wants to be with people and help people and have people like him because it’s a need, but he also wants to avoid people and hurt people because he has a long history of people hurting him. It’s also an external conflict – when Yang Guo tries to meet his needs, others interfere.

As far as the maidens … well, they are one group who is interested in having close social contact with Yang Guo, and Yang Guo is also very interested in bringing (most of) them into his family. However, he wants to be their brother, and they want him in a romantic/sexual way … which is not a solid basis for mutually satisfying relationships.

Though introverts most certainly encounter loneliness and need companionship, the fact that Yang Guo is an extrovert makes these problems even more apparent.

In short, Yang Guo is the way he is because the story needs him to be that way.


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My Favorite Wedding Scene in All of Fiction

I bet that, when you think about ‘wedding scene’ and ‘fiction’, you assume that the wedding scene happens at the conclusion of the story. And indeed, a lot of wedding scenes do happen at the end of stories since so many stories follow the relationship escalator, as I discussed in “The Pirates at the Top of the Escalator”.

Of course, if you’ve read that post, you might have guessed that my favorite wedding scene is one of the rare fictional wedding scene which does *not* occur at the end of the story.

Indeed, my favorite wedding scene in all of fiction is the one in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, a novel I’ve written a lot about before.

I love the protagonists’ marriage partially because it is a very moving scene. It brought tears to my eyes.

I also love it because, for a change, the wedding is in the middle of the story, not at the end.

The very fact that the wedding is in the middle of the story demonstrates that getting married does not automatically create stability. Even after the protagonists get married, they still have to go through a lot of unstability before a new stasis is established.

Now, some people might say, since their marriage is not consummated (i.e. the protagonists don’t have sex with each other), the wedding does not really count, so of course there isn’t a new stasis. I would counter that by saying that it would be really easy to slip in a sex scene, and I’m sure some fanworks have already done that … and the sex would do absolutely nothing to stabilize the characters’ lives.

And if you suggest that their relationship wasn’t really ‘complete’ because they didn’t have a baby … well, they do have a baby, and the baby doesn’t do anything to make things more stable. Granted, the baby isn’t their biological child, but Yang Guo at least intends to raise the baby as his own child, and I don’t think the situation would be any more stable if the protagonists did have a biological child together.

The story only reaches a new stasis when the protagonists real problems reach a terminal point. Getting married is not a magic fix. Nor was it supposed to be. The protagonists understand quite well that getting married won’t make their lives any easier. That’s not why they get married.

They get married to express their love for each other.

It is because it’s clear that getting married won’t solve their problems, or make their lives any more stable, or confer any social status on them, yet they get married anyway, that the love feels so sincere and genuine.

And that is one of reasons why it is the most touching wedding scene I have ever found in fiction.


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Asexual Themes in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ (Part 7): Fullness and Passion

This is for the November 2012 Carnival of Aces. Here is the introduction.

One reaction some people have to asexuality is that, if we don’t experience sexual attraction, then our lives must lack passion and meaning. I like Elizabeth’s post about this.

Yet another reason I like asexual!Yang Guo is that the novel makes it clear that he doesn’t need sexual feelings to have a full life.

Obviously, there is that whole passionate romance with Xiaolongnü, but aside from that, Yang Guo would have a full and passionate life (even though he claims that wouldn’t want to live anymore if Xiaolongnü died).

First, his relationship with Xiaolongnü is not purely romantic. There is also the shifu/tuer relationship – Xiaolongnü was Yang Guo’s guardian for years. And even after the romance starts, the shifu/tuer relationship continues, at least in my reckoning.

Putting aside Xiaolongnü, Yang Guo still has a set of complicated and potent relationships with other people. There is Ouyang Feng, Hong Qigong, and Huang Yaoshi. Even though these are all older men who taught Yang Guo some martial arts, each relationship is different – Ouyang Feng accepts Yang Guo as an adopted son, in spite of the age difference Huang Yaoshi accepts him as an equal and close friend, and Hong Qigong … well, I don’t know how to describe it briefly, but all three of these relationships are very important to Yang Guo.

There is Yang Guo’s relationship with Huang Rong, and its evolution over the years, tied up with Huang Rong’s history with Yang Guo’s father.

And there is Guo Jing. This is actually the most intriguing relationship to me. It’s so complex, contradictory, frustrating … just like most intense relationships. Though Guo Jing is Yang Guo’s ‘uncle’ … I don’t think there is really a word in the English language which describes this relationship.

There is Lu Wushuang and Cheng Ying, who Yang Guo eventually accepts as his sisters.

There is Yang Guo’s father. Even though he died before Yang Guo was born – no, because he died before Yang Guo was born – Yang Guo is deeply attached to him, or how he imagines him, and his evolving ‘relationship’ with his father is an important part of how Yang Guo matures.

There is the giant eagle, who becomes Yang Guo’s best friend and spends more time with him than any other character (including Xiaolongnü). Notice that the title is The Giant Eagle and its Companion/Divine Eagle, Gallant Companion. That’s right – it is this relationship, not the romance, which is put into the title.

Heck, most novels which aren’t romances don’t grant their main characters so many rich and intense non-romantic relationships.

And there is martial arts. Yang Guo spends years and years honing his martial arts full-time – by ‘full-time’ I mean ‘at least 10 hours a day’. He spends 7 years by the ocean, having cut off most contact with other people, to practice sword-fighting. That is dedication. Eventually, he becomes the greatest sword-fighter in China. With that his life, he doesn’t need sexual feelings.

Go to the conclusion.

Asexual Themes in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ (Part 6): What About Xiaolongnü?

This is for the November 2012 Carnival of Aces. Here is the introduction.

So I have been talking a lot about Yang Guo … what about the other main character, Xiaolongnü?

Well, at a very young age she was trained to kill her feelings. Now, it turns out that she didn’t actually kill them, she merely repressed them very deeply. Nonetheless, the process went so far that, when she’s introduced, she doesn’t care about her own death – it makes no difference to her whether she dies old or dies young.

Usually, I dismiss the ‘asexuals aren’t really asexual, just repressed’ trope. But Xiaolongnü’s feelings in general are so repressed that I have to seriously consider the possibility her sexual feelings might be included.

This, by the way, is the opposite of Yang Guo. Yang Guo wears his heart on his sleeve so much (except when he’s consciously trying to deceive someone) that the absence of sexual feelings is … noteworthy.

What evidence is there for Xiaolongnü?

In the novel, Xiaolongnü generally does think more about sex than Yang Guo … but thinking about sex is not the same thing as experiencing sexual attraction. When she mistakenly thinks that Yang Guo is pursuing sex with her, she’s happy – but it’s not clear to me that she’s happy because she’s sexually attracted or because it’s a sign that he likes her (actually, it could be both).

That’s not a lot of evidence for sexual attraction … but in the context of Xiaolongnü being repressed in general and the fact that she still manages to display more interest in sex than Yang Guo, I can’t really make a case for her being asexual.

But you know what? It’s also hard to make a case for her being heterosexual.

Okay, I know we live in a hetero-normative society. Without evidence to the contrary, everybody is heterosexual. I get that.

But let’s remove the heterosexual assumption for a minute.

I can’t find any evidence that Xiaolongnü is heterosexual either.

Sure, there are very, very light hints, but without the heterosexual assumption, I wouldn’t build a house of cards on that. And I don’t necessarily want the heterosexual assumption in my foundation either.

So my conclusion is that, I don’t know what Xiaolongnü’s sexual orientation is. And that’s okay, I don’t have to know.

I also think that you don’t know either.

Go to part 7.

Asexual Themes in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ (Part 5): A Frighteningly Familiar Scene

Rather than discussing asexuality specifically in this post, I am going a look at a scene which, in my opinion, reflects on GSM relationships in general.

TRIGGER WARNING: Receiving death threats due to non-normative bonding

Note: This has been abridged for brevity (and this translation is merely mediocre)

Guo Jing’s tone became warmer as he said “Guo’er, everybody has gone too far at some time. People can know and fix their mistakes. Not respecting seniority … that would be a big mistake, so think a little bit.”

Yang Guo said “If I’ve done anything wrong, of course I’ll make up for it. But my relationship with gūgu is completely pure. I respect and love her, is that a mistake?

Guo Jing’s words could not counter Yang Guo’s, what could he say? But his heart knew that Yang Guo was making a great error, and didn’t know how to make him understand. He just said “This … this … you’re wrong…”

Huang Rong said “You want a clear answer? She is your shifu, and your senior. Romance and carnal activity between seniors and juniors is absolutely forbidden.”

Neither Yang Guo nor Xiaolongnü knew about this rule. And he couldn’t accept it. Just because gūgu had taught him martial arts, she couldn’t be his wife? Why couldn’t even Uncle Guo Jing believe that they had done nothing illicit? This made his chest burst with anger. He was a fiery and forthright person, and now that he had been falsely blamed, he could control himself even less. He shouted “What have I done to hinder you? Who have I hurt? Gūgu taught me martial arts, but I want her to be my wife. Even if you cut me with a thousand knives, ten thousand knives, I would still want to marry her.”

These shocking words startled all present. To hear such defiance of the ways of the Song Chinese hurt the ears. Guo Jing had respected the title of shifu all his life, and just hearing this made him boil with anger. He stepped forward and grabbed Yang Guo’s chest.

He yelled “you monster, you dare utter something so outrageous?”

Yang Guo under his grasp lost all of his physical strength, but his heart was still steadfast, and said with a full voice “Gūgu loves me with all her heart, and I the same towards her. Uncle Guo Jing, if you want to kill me, then strike. I will never change my mind.”

Guo Jing said “To me, you are just like my own son. I cannot let you do something so wrong.”

Resolutely, Yang Guo replied “I have done no wrong. I have done no evil. I have hurt no one.”

This chilled everybody. They felt that these heartfelt words had reason. If these two had said nothing, and went to a far corner of the world, or settled in a remote village as husband and wife, without anybody the wiser, then this would have harmed nobody. But to so publicly commit such an outrageous act, it was against human decency.

Guo Jing raised his hand, and furiously said “Guo’er, I cherish you, care for you, love you, do you understand? I would rather have you die, than let you do such evil, you understand?” He was already choking down his tears.

Hearing this, Yang Guo knew that he could not take back his words, and that Uncle Guo Jing was going to kill him. Though he was often so clever, at this moment he did not yield, and clearly said “I know that I have done no wrong. If you don’t believe me, then go ahead and kill me.”

Guo Jing’s left hand was raised high, ready to crash down on Yang Guo’s pressure points. Everybody’s breath was stopped, and hundreds of eyes were fixed on that hand.

Now, in the Jin Yong universe (which is where this novel takes place), sexual or romantic relationships between shifu (teachers/masters) and tuer (students/apprentices) are even more strongly taboo than homosexual/romantic relationships. If Yang Guo had said that he wanted to marry a man, Guo Jing would have been upset, but probably not so much that he would have threatened to kill him. In this context, Yang Guo saying that he wants to marry his shifu is about as taboo as saying that he wants to marry his aunt, in fact, gūgu DOES mean ‘paternal aunt’ (in the context of Chinese culture, sexual relations with paternal relatives are considered more incestuous than those with maternal relatives).

That said, most Chinese-speakers nowadays would say that Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü’s relationship is okay. This specific novel influenced many people’s opinions about this issue, and probably encouraged them to rethink certain traditional Chinese values.

Now, while US culture does not approve of sexual/romantic relationships between teachers and students, they are not targeted with anything near the same level of hate as, say, lesbian relationships. I have a hard time imagining somebody receiving a death threat specifically because they want to marry their teacher. Unfortunately, I have no trouble imagining somebody receiving a death threat because they want to marry someone of the same gender.

When I first read this scene, I immediately thought that this scene could play out almost exactly the same for many other kinds of non-normative relationships. Threatening somebody with death just because they want to marry their teacher or someone of the same gender is both ridiculous and wrong, for reasons that I think Yang Guo explains pretty well. And the fact that Yang Guo’s arguments could work just as well for same-gender couples, or genderqueer people, or a whole array of non-normative relationships, demonstrates part of the value of intersectionality.

Go to part 6.

Asexual Themes in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ (Part 4): The Asexy Bad Boy

This is for the November 2012 Carnival of Aces. Here is the introduction.

‘Bad boys’ come in flavors, including these two:

Flavor 1: Rough, violent, rude, nasty, physically dangerous
Flavor 2: Rebellious, free, passionate, maverick, mischievous

Yang Guo falls neatly into Flavor 2. Most of the time he’s considerate, even generous. Though he can be violent, he almost never initiates the violence.

From now on, when I say ‘bad boy’ I mean Flavor 2.

Bay boys are appealing partially because they are sincere and open. They have the courage to embrace their feelings. If society tells him to repress himself, he tells society to shove off. This makes him ‘bad’.

Many of the feelings ‘classic’ bay boys openly express are sexual. They might ignore taboos and have sex with any consenting partner they please. Even if they don’t take that route, they are not inclined to submit to social norms which deny the truth about their sexual feelings.

I love how Yang Guo tweaks this dynamic!

There are multiple instances in the novel of various characters assuming that he is having/has had sex … when in fact, he is/has not. When they make these assumptions, that makes him ‘bad’ in their eyes … but the revelation that is is/has not doesn’t change his ‘bad’ status. Maybe he does so many other ‘bad’ things that he doesn’t need sex to maintain his ‘bad boy’ credentials … but I wonder if that fact that he is repeatedly *not* having sex also factors in his ‘badness’.

Yang Guo is socially marginalized. Not by choice – he seems by nature to be a very social. Yet he seems on a different page from his peers, and generally they eventually reject them, or he rejects him. There is more than one cause. As a child, Yang Guo bears the stigma of being fatherless. Then he gets ostracized because of his relationship with Xiaolongnü. And then he loses able-bodied privilege. But I think asexuality might be in play too.

Many asexuals attest that feel different from everybody else in a significant way, and that this difference makes them feel invisible, or at least makes it feel like there is a gulf between them and their sexual peers. Now, Yang Guo never identifies as asexual – but some asexuals take decades to come to the conclusion that they are asexual, so even without identifying as one he might experience life as one. And I think asexuality might be yet another wedge which pushes him into abandoning social norms and being ‘bad’.

I’ve read comments about this story in which people say it’s unrealistic that Yang Guo would ignore various sexual opportunities that, according to these commentators, very few heterosexual men would ignore. Assuming that these commentators understand heterosexual men from the Chinese-speaking world better than I do, to me this a) is even more evidence Yang Guo may not be heterosexual and b) he might feel, perhaps not consciously, society marginalizing his (a)sexuality, and that it contributes to his ultimate rejection of society.

Go to part 5.