‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction, Part 2

Read Part 1, where I mostly talk about my own name (and my father’s name). In this part, I mostly talk about fiction.

Last year I read Silappatikaram. I would have to invest quite an effort to remember that name, which is why I had to look it up on the internet instead of recalling it from memory. When I talk about it face-to-face, since I can’t remember the name, I instead use the English title Tale of the Anklet, which I remember easily. And it’s not just the title. Though I learned to recognize the names of the major characters, I also do not recall their names, and I was only able to keep track of the place names because of a very useful map which comes with the translation.

There is nothing objectively difficult about a title like Silappatikaram or the names of the characters, it’s only difficult for me because I am very ignorant of Tamil culture. I’m not used to the sounds of Tamil, and because I am so ignorant of that culture, I do not have many mental associations with Tamil names, thus I do not have enough mental glue to get those names to stick in my mind. By contrast, I can remember ‘Tale of the Anklet’ very easily because that is in English, and if the main characters had been called ‘Glen’ and ‘Patricia’ or ‘Tzvi’ and ‘Anat’ I could remember those names easily because I have a lot of mental associations which would help those names stick (for example, I have cousins with those names). Of course, when I am interacting with Tamil people, I try to remember their names and pronounce them correctly.

A statue of Kannagi, one of the protagonists of Silappatikaram, holding the anklet in her hand. Photo by Balamurugan Srinivasan – originally posted to Flickr as Statue of Kannagi, CC BY 2.0, Link

Now let’s talk about wuxia in English translation.

About two weeks ago, Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Is Born was officially published in English. You can read more about it in this surprisingly good article or in this article (I noticed that, even though the caption mentions Guo Jing, they use a picture that shows Mu Nianci and Yang Kang, not Guo Jing). One aspect of this translation which is controversial is that while some names, such as ‘Guo Jing’, are simply transliterated, other names, such as ‘Lotus Huang’, are translated (and have the name order flipped around).

Deathblade comments on this issue in this video. I recommend listening to the entire video, but if you can’t/don’t want to, here is a summary of his main points:

  • English speakers who are already familiar with wuxia already know the Chinese names of the characters, and assigning weird English names to the characters will alienate them and discourage them from buying the book
  • Translating Chinese names (such as Mao Zedong) into English goes against conventional translation standards; likewise names such as ‘George Bush’ and ‘Paul Newman’ are typically transliterated, not translated, into Chinese
  • This translation is inconsistent; some names are translated, some names are transliterated
  • Names are NAMES, not the sum of the meaning of the characters
  • Translating the names will not help draw any new readers

 

I agree with a lot of what Deathblade says in this video. I agree that ‘Lotus Huang’ specifically is a bad choice and that ‘Huang Rong’ would be much better. If I were working on an official translation of the Condor trilogy, I would translate Xiaolongnü’s name as ‘Dragon Maiden’ but use Mandarin transliterations for the names of all other major characters. (Why make an exception for Xiaolongnü? Because that is an unusual name in Chinese – it does not fit the typical Chinese naming pattern – and translating it into English as ‘Dragon Maiden’ would be a way to convey that her name is unusual). However, I disagree with his final point, that translating names does not help new readers.

A topic that sometimes comes up in English language discussions of wuxia is how to make it more accessible to English speakers who do not know much about Chinese culture. It is noted that many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names, so sometimes it is suggested that assigning the characters English names would make these stories more accessible.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that giving wuxia characters English names does help. I was one time describing the story of a Jin Yong novel, but instead of using the characters’ original Chinese names, I assigned the characters names from sources such as Harry Potter and Star Trek. This made it much easier for my audience to keep track of the characters and the plot, and overall improved communication (I also had a lot of fun giving the Jin Yong characters names from English-language pop culture). However, while this approach is good for informal purposes, it is obviously inappropriate for an official translation.

The reason so many English speakers have trouble remembering Chinese names is the same reason I have trouble remembering Tamil names; lack of familiarity. I myself find it much harder to remember a Chinese name if I only know it from transliteration than if I know the Chinese characters. That is because Chinese characters can serve as mental glue to help a name stick in my mind.

It’s also worth point out that all Jin Yong characters have both a Mandarin name and a Cantonese name. For example, ‘Huang Rong’ (Mandarin) is also ‘Wong Yung’ (Cantonese), and there are many fans who feel that the Cantonese names are the ‘real’ names. They have even more names in other Chinese languages – for example, Huang Rong is ‘Oey Yong’ in Hokkien and ‘Waon Yon’ in Shanghainese.

Here is a chart showing the names of the characters in Mandarin, Cantonese (using a different romanization scheme), and Hokien. Even though more people speak Shanghainese than Catonenese or Hokkien, I have a pretty good idea of why Shanghainese names are not on that chart – but I don’t want to digress into Chinese linguistic politics.

One could research every character, guess their native language, and then transliterate their names based on that language. Huang Rong’s native language is most likely the Ningbo dialect, which is closely related to Shanghainese. I can’t find an online Ningbo dictionary, so I am guessing that her Shanghainese name ‘Waon Yon’ is closest to how someone from her native region would pronounce her name. Also, Shanghainese is Jin Yong’s native language, so that is an argument for using Shanghainese rather than Mandarin transliterations for the names of all of his characters – in fact, I think that would be very cool. And someone would argue that, since these novels were originally published in Hong Kong at a time when most Hong Kongers did not understand Mandarin, Jin Yong intentionally chose a publisher in Guangdong (as opposed to publishers in other regions of China) to publish the Chinese editions of his novels, and the original novels once in a while use Cantonese words which lack a Mandarin equivalent, the Cantonese names are most appropriate. Also, some of the existing English translations, including the only English-language dub of any TV adaptation of the trilogy, uses Cantonese names, not Mandarin names. Finally, English speakers tend to find Cantonese names easier to pronounce than Mandarin names, which may very well be why they chose the Cantonese names for that English-language dub. Or, you could reconstruct the pronunciation of Ancient Chinese or Middle Chinese and base the character names on that (actually, to be honest, Huang Rong’s native language might be closer to Middle Chinese than modern Ningbo-Chinese).

Additionally, in the Condor Trilogy, one protagonist is named 郭靖 and another is named 楊過. That isn’t a problem at all if one is reading in Chinese, since those are two obviously different names. However, the Mandarin pinyin of those names are Guō​ Jìng​ and Yáng​ Guò​ – which are also easy to tell apart if one notices that ‘Guō​’ and ‘Guò’ are pronounced with different tones. But without the tone markers, it does get confusing – and I’ve seen people get confused between ‘Guo Jing’ and ‘Yang Guo’. However, their Cantonese names – Kwok Ching and Yeung Kuo – are also easy to tell apart, so this is an advantage of using their Cantonese names in English translation.

You know how I said that, if I were doing an official translation, I would use the Mandarin names? I change my mind. Now that I’ve thought it through, I think there is a stronger case to be made for using Cantonese names, though I still consider Mandarin names to be an acceptable choice (and I will continue to use Mandarin names on this blog).

Likewise, the Japanese translations give all of the characters Japanese names – Huang Rong’s Japanese name is Kō​ Yō​. In Korean, her name is Hwang Yong. In Vietnamese, her name is Hoàng Dung. In Indonesian, her name is Oey Yong (same as Hokkien). In Persian, her name is Ryang Rong. In Burmese, her name is Hun Yôn. In fact, the only official translations which I could find which use the Mandarin names are the Thai translation and the (awful) French translation. I admit that I didn’t check every translation – for example, I could not find her Hindi name or her Khmer name, even though I know her name exists in those languages.

This photo from the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes shows the character (in alphabetical order) Hoàng Dung / Huang Rong / Hun Yôn / Hwang Yong / Kō​ Yō​ / Lotus Huang / Oey Yong / Ryang Rong / Waon Yon / Wong Yung

In short, the Mandarin names of Jin Yong characters are not their One True Names.

(Though I tend to use Huang Rong’s Mandarin name because I encountered her Mandarin name before I encountered any of her other names, and when I read the books I was pronouncing them in Mandarin in my head).

However, one could argue (heck, I would argue) that using any of the Chinese names, even if they are not Mandarin, are better than creating an English name because the non-Mandarin Chinese names are also derived from Chinese culture. And while there are a lot of non-Chinese languages which have their own unique name for this character, they are for the most part modifications to make the name easier to pronounce rather than translations of the name’s meaning.

I think the very best argument against translating the names and using Chinese transliterations (whether from Mandarin or not) is an argument that Deathblade does not bring up at all. It’s the argument which is made in the essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. The heart of the argument is here:

As someone with a non-English name and made a conscious decision to not change my name, seeing these names mean a lot to me and gives me hope that, one day, an individual’s name will no longer be an ‘indicator’ of a person’s character, ability, or degree of belonging.

I want to see characters in books, especially young adult literature, with names like Vân Uoc and Agnieszka and Li Jing and Reshma and Kamala. We need to create spaces that are accepting of name diversity.

And there is a comment on that essay/blog post which goes like this:

When it comes to book, I always get incredibly excited every time I see an Asian or Muslim sounding name, even if it’s not Indonesian names. Just because they’re so rare, you know?hahaha I’m slightly annoyed sometimes that weird high fantasy names are more appreciated than the non Caucasian names because fantasy names aren’t real. Our names are real. Anyway, great post! 😀

In other words, name diversity – including names from real non-European cultures – is good because it helps readers who have non-European names, whether it helps them see themselves in fiction, or it teaches their peers to treat their names with more respect. In my opinion, this is more important than pleasing the existing English-language wuxia fanbase (though some of the people in the current English-language wuxia fanbase ALSO have non-European names), especially since this translation can be especially beneficial for readers in the Chinese diaspora who want more representation of themselves in novels but do not know enough Chinese to read the original books (there is some discussion of this on this comment thread).

There is not enough name diversity in English language popular fiction right now. And one of the most obvious opportunities for increasing name diversity is when one is translating a work of fiction where the characters ~already~ have non-European names. If some of the names are being translated rather than transliterated into English, what message does that send to people who are socially penalized for having non-European names?


Since I have more thoughts on ‘unusual’ names in life and fiction, I may write a Part 3 at some point, but not in the near future.

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Why I Find the Fight Scenes in Return of the Condor Heroes 1983 Disappointing

I recently saw the entire 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ (or rather San Diu Haap Leoi since it’s in Cantonese), a.k.a. Return of the Condor Heroes, starring Andy Lau as Yang Guo (or rather Yeung Kuo, since it’s in Cantonese – you know what, I’m not going to try to keep track of the Cantonese names, I’m sticking with Mandarin).

In the Hong Kong wuxia TV shows of the early 1980s, they clearly put a lot of effort into fight choreography, and make it really seem like the characters are making lots of physical contact with each other. Additionally, unlike 21st century wuxia TV shows, there was no CGI in the 1980s, which makes the fights look more ‘real’. A lot of people really like the early 1980s wuxia fights, and I can see why.

So what are my problems with the fight scenes?

The first problem is that it is monotonous. After a while, all of the fight scenes just seem to be the same. Though I have my own criticisms of the fight scenes in newer wuxia TV shows, at least they have more ~variety~ so I do not feel like I am watching the same fight over and over again. For example, in the 2006 TV adaptation of there is the fight scene with umbrellas (is there an umbrella fight in the original novel? No. Do I care? Not really).

My favorite fight scene in the 1983 adaptation specifically is when Guo Jing is taking Yang Guo to the Quanzhen monastery. One of the reasons it is my favorite is that it displays more creativity than most of the other fights.

Another problem is, well, notice that my favorite fight scene in is Episode 3. Out of 50 episodes. Having the most satisfying fight so early in a TV show is not so great.

Take a look at this fight scene in the final episode where they are trying to rescue Guo Xiang. Aside from the weird lighting, there is nothing special about this fight scene. It’s just a bunch of characters using standard fight moves that the viewer has already seen a zillion times by this point. It is as if the fight choreographer was tired at this point and was just phoning it in.

Yet another problem with the fight scenes is that the emphasis placed on them is sometimes out of proportion to how important they are to the story. For example, while I really liked Guo Jing fighting the Quanzhen monks in Episode 3, that is a fight with relatively low plot value. So it is jarring when key fights which have very high plot value are cut short. For example, when Xiaolongnü fights Golden Wheel Monk the first time, it’s a big deal. There has been a lot of plot build-up to this specific fight, and the outcome changes the direction of the story. In the original novel, this fight scene is about 10 pages long. Yet in this TV adaptation, the fight is only about a minute long. It was a let down for me.

I also do not like the 2014 version of this fight. I definitely prefer the 2006 version of this fight over both the 1983 and 2014 versions because at least if feels epic. I also prefer the 1995 version because a) Gordon Liu is the best Golden Wheel Monk and b) it feels like Xiaolongnü is in greater peril in this version than in other versions, which makes the fight feel more exciting.

An additional problem is that sometimes a character is totally beating everyone up in one scene, and then in the next scene they are concerned that their fighting skills aren’t good enough. Or the reverse, in which a character is totally losing against a relatively weak opponent, and then in the very same episode they are winning against a stronger opponent. For example, just before Xiaolongnü gets into that fight with Golden Wheel Monk (which she wins), she gets into a fight with Huo Du, which she loses (by the way, this Xiaolongnü vs. Huo Du fight does not happen in the novel – the 1983 TV show made it up). She has no improvement in her skills between the fight with Huo Du and the fight with Golden Wheel Monk, and it is clear that Huo Duo < Golden Wheel Monk, so this makes no sense. The novel does not have this kind of inconsistency – if a character beats an opponent they were previously unable to beat, it explains how that happened.

Speaking of which, not explaining how the characters get better at fighting is another problem. Okay, there is ~some~ explanation in the TV series, but not enough for the viewer to appreciate the logic of how the characters are developing their fighting skills. In the novel, there is enough explanation that it is interesting for the reader. In the TV show, the explanation is so minimal that it fails to be interesting.

But what I miss most about the fight scenes in the novel which do not come through in the 1983 TV adaptation is the metaphorical meaning and how it is woven into the overall story.

For example, Lin Chaoying and Wang Chongyang were in love with each other, however their romance did not work out, so Wang Chongyang founded the Quanzhen sect created the Quanzhen swordplay, while Lin Chaoying founded the Ancient Tomb sect and created the Jade Maiden Swordplay. The Quanzhen sect and the Ancient Tomb sect continue to have a love-hate relationship with each other, and the relationship gets even worse when Yang Guo leaves the Quanzhen sect and joins the Ancient Tomb sect. There is a whole subplot around Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü studying the Jade Maiden Heart Sutra so they can learn the Jade Maiden Swordplay. It seems at first that the Jade Maiden Swordplay was designed specifically to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, and they believe that Lin Chaoying did it in order to spite her ex-lover Wang Chongyang.

Then there is this fight scene:

Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü fight Golden Wheel Monk to rescue Huang Rong, Guo Fu, and the Wu brothers.

In this fight, Yang Guo uses the Quanzhen swordplay, and Xiaolongnü uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay. This is how they discover that the Jade Maiden Swordplay is not meant to counter the Quanzhen swordplay, it is meant to complement it by covering all of the weak points of the Quanzhen swordplay. Thus, when one person is using the Quanzhen swordplay, and another person uses the Jade Maiden Swordplay, and they love each other (just as Wang Chongyang and Lin Chaoying loved each other), they are invincible. I think the metaphor here is really obvious, and I think it adds depth to this scene. It also helps develop the relationship between Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü.

Does any of this come through in the 1983 TV adaptation? No, it does not. The TV show takes one of the most memorable fights from the novel, and makes it seem like it is no more consequential than a couple dozen other fights in the series.

And this metaphor continues to build. Zhou Botong teaches Xiaolongnü how to have one hand fight the other (a technique which Yang Guo could never learn because he is too smart. Intelligent people can never master the technique, and the stupider one is, the faster one can learn. Xiaolongnü has an average level of intelligence, which is apparently low enough to learn the technique). Once Xiaolongnü has mastered the technique of one hand fighting the other, she is able to have one her hands represent Yang Guo and use the Quanzhen Swordplay, and have her other hand represent herself and use the Jade Maiden Swordplay, so she is an invincible fighter even if Yang Guo is not there. This explains how she can hold out in a fight in which she is badly outnumbered.

Xiaolongnü fights using a combination of One Hand Fighting the Other, Quanzhen Sworplay, and Jade Maiden Swordplay.

It also has a very rich metaphorical meaning, especially in the context that Xiaolongnü believes that she will never see Yang Guo again and is suicidal. She is growing further apart from him in that she is pursuing a way of fighting he could never join, yet the very way she is fighting is a testament to her love for him. She is also becoming emotionally more self-sufficient in the sense that she can experience his love without his physical presence.

The 1983 TV adaptation explains parts of this, but not enough for the viewer to put the pieces together (unless the viewer has already read the novel).

If you’re curious what this fight is like in the novel but cannot read Chinese, you can read this fight scene here (note: I’ve only skimmed a little bit of this translation, so I cannot tell you how good/bad it is).

Is this the kind of thing which is better suited for novels than TV shows? Maybe. Or maybe not. Most TV adaptations of Jin Yong novels don’t delve into the narrative meaning of the fighting techniques. The exception is State of Divinity (笑傲江湖) 1996, which most people who watch wuxia TV shows agree was the best wuxia TV show of the 1990s. During the fights which are key to story development, there is narration of what is happening in the fight, and what that means (sadly, I could not find a clip online to show this). The scriptwriters made sure that, when it is important, the audience would understand what is going in the fight and the intended meaning. The fight choreography in State of Divinity 1996 is nothing special, and it does not need to be special because the script takes care of the most important points.

Am I saying ‘tell not show’? No, I’m not. The 1983 version of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ neither shows nor tells the logic of the fighting techniques and their metaphorical/narrative meaning. Telling would have been an improvement.

Even though it was stripped of its metaphors, the 1983 version of the big fight at the Quanzhen monastery was not bad. In fact, it is one of the best fight scenes in the series. It takes up much of episode 38, which is appropriate, since it is IMO the most important fight scene in the entire novel. It breaks up the fights with little scenes which are meant to GIVE THE FEELS. I think this is good, since non-stop fighting devoid of logic, creativity, or metaphorical meaning would be boring. I dislike some of the mini-scenes the TV show made up (which were not in the novel) to flesh out the fight, and I like some of them. For example, I like this moment. I also like this part of the fight because it was slow enough that the viewer could actually follow the moves and understand the logic of how they were happening.

Still, without the metaphors, I don’t feel the 1983 version lives up to the novel. I do think it is at least better than the 2006 version of this fight. The 2006 version is more faithful to the novel in that it does not add a bunch of new material and follows the novel’s sequence of events more closely, it still lacks the metaphors, and it also fails to have the feeling of the 1983 adaptation.

All in all, while the fights in the 1983 TV adaptation have some good points, they were overall a disappointment for me. They lack many of the things which make the fight scenes so compelling in the original novel.

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 artists from Isle of Gallantry kill 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 decade, 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 2 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) from the 1982 adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. 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.

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 interests. 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 pursues her 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 she 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.