The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 2)

Zhong Ling (He Meitian) and Duan Yu (Benny Chan) are buried alive in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997

In Part 1, I described the disunity of the plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (TLBB). This has not stopped it from being one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 20th century. So does the disunity of the plot help or hinder readers from liking the story?

First of all, even though the story lacks plot unity, it does have thematic unity. To quote Wikipedia:

The main thematic element of the novel concerns the complex, troubled relationships between the great multitude of characters from various empires and martial arts sects, and the inherent bond that underlies the struggles of each. The novel examines the cause and effect that forms and breaks these bonds on five uniquely corresponding levels: self, family, society, ethnic group, and country (dominion).

A lot of Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories are about forming and breaking various sorts of bonds (one could say that Duan Yu’s romantic entanglements with his sisters form and break bonds simultaneously). Perhaps plot unity does not matter as long as there is thematic unity.

Gao Hu as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

That description from Wikipedia seems to characterize TLBB as being a literary novel. And sure, it’s totally possible to interpret TLBB in a literary way. It’s also possible to interpret TLBB as a lurid pulp novel full of violence and sadism, all designed to shock yet entice the reader. A lot of it reads like a tabloid. Perhaps when there is enough titillating content to sustain interest (assuming that the reader hasn’t dropped the book in horror), readers care less about plot unity.

It is also possible to interpret TLBB as a comedy, which is how I personally view it (yes, there is a sick streak in my sense of humor). (I would rather not watch the TV adaptations of TLBB with other people because I don’t want them to see me laugh at, say, a woman who kidnaps children and kills them). (There is so much gratuitous horribleness in TLBB that if I didn’t laugh at it, I might be the one to drop the book in horror).

However, those are all possibilities for how TLBB might succeed in spite of plot disunity. Does the plot disunity increase the appeal of the story in any way? Maybe.

Liu Yifei as Wang Yuyan in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Tobias recommends limiting the number of main characters. Jin Yong totally ignores this guideline; someone tried to count the number of characters in TLBB and found there were over 200. Most of those are minor characters, but there are still plenty of main characters other than Duan Yu / Qiao Feng / Xuzhu, as well as many supporting characters who play a pivotal role at some point. In fact, those of you who understand Chinese know that the number ‘eight’ appears in the Chinese title of the story. That refers to the eight main characters, who each supposedly represent a type of Deva or Naga, just as each of the seven main characters in Seven Ways We Lie represents one of the seven deadly sins of Catholicism. Tobias says that too many main characters is bad because it’s not possible to develop enough of the connections between them. Well, maybe a 200-page novel can’t forge enough connections between eight main characters (though honestly, Seven Ways We Lie is about 300 pages long yet did a decent job with seven main characters), but TLBB is more than two thousand pages long.

There is a lot of overlap in the cast of characters between the three stories (for example, Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu are all supporting characters in each others’ stories). Thus, by having three stories in the same novel, the novel can use a large cast of characters more effectively than if it were split into three novels. When, say, supporting characters from Duan Yu’s story appears in Qiao Feng’s story, there is no need to establish who they are, the readers already know them.

Sharon Yeung as Mu Wanqing and Kent Tong as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It is satisfying to see how the seemingly separate stories of the three protagonists connect with each other. The family trees get pretty convoluted, not to mention all of the love polygons, or the student-teacher relationships, or the … friendship polygons? Is that a thing? Each time I revisit the story, I uncover some interesting relationship which escaped my notice before, which increases the re-readability/re-watchability of the story.

The disunity also makes it much easier to stash Chekhov’s Guns. A Chekhov’s Gun which is displayed in Xuzhu’s story might end up firing in Duan Yu’s story.

And the three stories help balance each other out.

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are… I hesitate to use the word ‘light’ considering some of the things which happen, but they are… ‘amusing’? For example, Duan Yu’s potentially incestuous relationships are generally treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner, not as something unspeakably horrible. If Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories were separated out into separate stories, they would be among Jin Yong’s ‘lighter’ novels, like Ode to Gallantry.

Felix Wong as Qiao Feng in one of the few parts of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997 where Qiao Feng is actually happy.

By contrast, Qiao Feng’s story is a real downer. One bad thing happens to him, then something worse happens to him, usually something he neither deserves nor has much control over. There are a few points where things seem to get better for him, and he starts feeling hopeful – which means his hopes can totally be dashed again. Even though he shares the novel with Duan Yu and Xuzhu, TLBB is still the most tragic (or tragicomic) of Jin Yong’s novels because Qiao Feng is in it, and if his story was placed in a separate novel, it would be too much. I wouldn’t want to read that novel.

(Actually, I don’t think I would like Xuzhu’s story as a separate novel either, but that’s mainly because I don’t care for stories about celibate vegetarian teetotalers being coerced into drinking alcohol, eating meat, and having sex).

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are lacking in gravitas, while Qiao Feng has too much, so it evens out. One can see this in the casting decisions for the TV adaptations. Generally, the directors/producers will choose actors with pretty faces to play Duan Yu and Xuzhu, whereas an actor who has prestige for his acting ability will be cast as Qiao Feng. The classic example of this is Felix Wong – in 1982, when he was mainly seen as a young actor with a cute face, he was cast as Xuzhu. In 1997, when he was known as one of Hong Kong’s most respected actors, he was cast as Qiao Feng.

Felix Wong as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It looks like my view is ‘disunity helps rather than hinders the plot of TLBB’. But this may be more of an exception to Tobias’ guidelines rather than a refutation. After all, even in really long novels (which I am familiar with), this type of plot disunity is not the norm, and it’s usually spit in two rather than three parallel storylines (Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with the dual protagonists Prince Andrei Bolkonsky / Pierre Bezukhov, and Anna Karenina, with Anna Karenina / Kostya Lëvin, come to mind). I think that, even in a really long novel, a disunited plot is probably more difficult to use successfully than a united plot.

Advertisements

The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 1)

The copy of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils which I read in Taiwan looked exactly like this. You can see that this edition is 10 volumes long.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the book 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias claims that any story plot can be summarized by a single question. This is certainly true of many stories, perhaps most stories, but the very first counterexample which came to mind was Jin Yong’s novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Tiān Lóng Bā Bù, from now on abbreviated as TLBB). I cannot think of any question which can summarize the whole plot, except for vague questions such as ‘will the protagonists find their place in the world?’ or ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ which are so vague that they tell you little about the story (honestly, I think the latter question is the more informative one). Contrast that to a specific question like ‘will Othello believe that Iago is telling the truth about his wife?’ which is what Tobias claims is the central question of Othello. And forget about “>Tobias’ plot patterns. Even Way Of Choices can be classified as having an ‘Underdog’ plot with lots of plot arcs nested within it, including a huge ‘Quest’ plot – I don’t think it’s possible to claim that TLBB has a single dominant plot pattern.

[General spoiler warning: this post will contain some spoilers for Demi-gods and Semi-Devils. I’ve edited out the huge spoilers, but this ain’t going to be spoiler-free]

Jimmy Lin as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Every summary I’ve seen of TLBB is split into three parts, one part for each protagonist (Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu). That is because it is very difficult to come up with a coherent plot summary without treating each protagonist separately. In fact, by the guidelines set out by Tobias, TLBB actually has three different plots (Tobias does not recommend having multiple plots in a single work of fiction).

Can I come up with a single question to summarize each protagonist’s story? Maybe.

I’m still not sure I can come up with a better question to sum up Duan Yu’s story than ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ I mean, I suppose ‘who will Duan Yu marry and will he return home?’ covers most of his plot, but since that’s actually two questions I do not feel like that counts. And maybe instead of ‘who will Duan Yu marry?’ the question should be ‘will Duan Yu end up in an incestuous relationship with one of his sisters?’ because that is the point which is more interesting to many readers. Maybe the question is ‘will Duan Yu manage to come home without shaming his family by having incestuous relations with his sisters?’

Does Duan Yu’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? One could argue that it is an example of a ‘Maturation’ plot, but in my opinion it best fits the ‘Adventure’ pattern. Yes, Duan Yu does mature during the course of the story. He starts out as a happy-go-lucky, pacifist, naive, spoiled prince, and by the end he’s not even a prince anymore. But that is not the main focus of his plot. When I talk to people about TLBB, they don’t talk about how Duan Yu’s character changes, they talk about all of the wild shit that goes down during his travels. You can get a pretty good sense of what his travels are like just by looking at how his story begins – this is how it is portrayed in the TLBB 2003 (w/ Eng subs) (it’s much funnier in TLBB 1997 but there are no English subs).

Bryan Leung as Qiao Feng in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982.

I find it much easier to sum up Qiao Feng’s plot in a single question “Will Qiao Feng find his place among the Song Chinese people or among the Khitan people?” He considers himself to be Song Chinese and loyal to Song China, yet they exile him and try to kill him (partially because they believe he committed some murders). The Khitan people of the Liao empire accept him, but they are at war with Song China, and being loyal to Liao empire would mean hurting the [Song Chinese] people he swore to protect.

Does Qiao Feng’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? I think an argument could be made for ‘Quest’ or ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng seeks the truth about the past and present, and he seeks where he belongs (I lean towards ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng wants information more than he wants to change his life). He wants to know about his parents, and he also wants to find the real culprit behind the murders that he is accused of committing. (And no, even though Qiao Feng has some murders to ‘solve’, this is not a ‘Riddle’ plot because, when he learns who the real murderer is, it does not solve his problems at all).

Louis Fan as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997.

And then there is Xuzhu and his story. The basic question for his plot, I think is ‘will Xuzhu ever go back to living as a monk?’ Or rather ‘how will Xuzhu adjust to the end of his monastic life?’ since at some point the reader figures out that he is never going back. He wants to be a monk, but he keeps on being coerced to break his monastic vows (yes, that is a picture of Xuzhu in this old post of mine). Even though he does not break his vows of entirely of his own free will, other characters consider them just as broken as if he had willfully made those choices. I think his story has what Tobias would call a ‘Transformation’ plot.

Those of you who are familiar with the story may be wondering why I’m not classifying Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories as ‘Discovery’ plots. The answer is simple: Qiao Feng knows early on his story that he has some mysteries to solve. By contrast, Duan Yu and Xuzhu are completely oblivious to the skeletons in their families’ closets (well, Duan Yu isn’t completely oblivious, he just does not know enough to be concerned), so their plots aren’t about them seeking the truth. When they do learn The Horrible Truth, it hits them like anvils falling from the sky – they had no idea what was coming.

I think it is pretty clear that TLBB does not have a unified plot, at least not in a way that Tobias would recognize. It cannot be summed up by a single question (unless that question is uselessly vague), nor can it be said to fit any single dominant plot pattern. Heck, one could split up Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories, write them up as separate novels, and they would work at standalones (and come a lot closer to following Tobias’ guidelines for creating plots).

Yet does TLBB fail because of its disunited plot?

Every reader has their own opinion, but in terms of popularity, it is extremely successful. It is one of the most popular and widely read novels of the 20th century, and has been adapted for TV five times (and at least three of those adaptations were very popular), which is to say nothing of the other adaptations. I have also met quite a few people who say that TLBB is one of their favorite novels.

Does this story appeal to so many people in spite of its disunited plot… or because of its disunited plot? That is the question I will address in Part 2.

A Tribute to Jin Yong (1924-2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST….

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

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

The Meaning of ‘Hóng​chén​’ (and How It Relates to ‘Siusa’)

While I was working on this post, I found four different Mandarin songs which use both the words xiāosǎ​ (siusa) and the word hóng​chén​. I found that odd since I had never associated those two words before, but finding four different songs which use BOTH of these words is a strong hint that native Chinese speakers tend to use both of these words in the same context.

The literal meaning of hóng​chén​ is ‘red dust’, but that’s like saying that the word ‘understand’ means ‘to stand under something’. Accoding to the c-dict dictionary, the definition of hóng​chén​ is “the world of mortals (Buddhism) / human society / worldly affairs”. This is a better dictionary definition than I have been able to find for the word ‘xiāosǎ​/siusa’.

Even though that definition works, I think it still helps to have an example. Thus I present the Jay Chou song “Hóng​chén​ Kè​zhàn​” a.k.a. “Worldly Tavern”, where the word hóng​chén​ is right there in the title. If you look at the lyrics, you notice that the word ‘xiāosǎ/siusa’ (or rather ‘xiao1 sa3’) also appears.

Another example is the song “Xiāo​sǎ​ Zǒu​ Yī​ Huí​” which is known in English as “Live a Dashing Life”. It is the theme song of a TV show I’ve never heard of. I’m going to translate the part of the lyrics which contains both the words hóng​chén​ and xiāosǎ​:

hóng​chén​ ā​ gǔn​gǔn​ chī​chī​ ā qíng ​shēn​
Ah! The world is in chaos! Ah! Foolish passion!

jù​sàn​ zhōng​ yǒu​shí​
So many reunions and separations.

liú​ yī​ bàn​ qīng​xǐng​ liú​ yī​ bàn​ zuì​
Half-sober and half-drunk

zhì​shǎo​ mèng​ lǐ​ yǒu​ nǐ​ zhuī​suí​
At least you are in my dreams.

wǒ​ ná​ qīng​chūn​ dǔ​ míng​tiān​
I use my youth to gamble for tomorrow,

nǐ​ yòng​ zhēn​qíng​ huàn​ cǐ​ shēng​
You trade truth for life,

suì​yuè​ bù ​zhī​ rén​jiān​ duō​shao​ de​ yōu​shāng​
Who knows how many troubles time will bring?

hé​bù​ xiāo​sǎ​ zǒu​ yī​ huí​
Why not live a siusa life?

I could not find a full English translation of the song on Youtube, but I at least found the song with pinyin transcription so you can try to follow along with some understanding of the lyrics.

Another example is from the song “Dāng” (which VERY ROUGHLY means “when” in Mandarin) which is the theme song for the first season of My Fair Princess. In the post I wrote about ‘siusa’ I linked to a terrible translation of the song into English, this time I will try to translate the portion of the lyrics which contains the words hóng​chén​ and xiāosǎ​:

ràng​ wǒ​men​ hóng​chén​ zuò​bàn,​ huó​ de xiāoxiāo​sǎ​​sǎ​
Let us participate in the world, and live a siusa life,

[note: Chinese sometimes reduplicates words for emphasis, or at least to improve the rhythm of song lyrics; ‘xiāoxiāo​sǎ​​sǎ​’ is a reduplication of ‘xiāo​sǎ​’]

cè​mǎ​ bēn​téng​, gòng​yòng​ rén​shì​ fán​huá​
Urge the horses to gallop, share humanity’s prosperity

duì​ jiǔ​ dāng​ gē,​ chàng​ chū​ xīn​ zhōng​ xǐ​yuè​
Enjoy life while we can, sing the joy in our hearts

hōng​hōng​liè​liè​ bǎ​wò​ qīng​chūn​ nián​huá​
Vigorously make use of our youth!

(okay, I’m no great translator myself, though I think I did a better job than this translation).

(if you noticed both of these songs also use the word ‘qīng​chūn​’ and deduced what that word means based on my translations, you have earned bonus points!)

This still leaves the question of why these two words are used in the same song lyrics so often. After pondering it, I think I’ve made the connection.

People who are siusa also tend to be ‘worldly’. They tend to be a lot more interested in ‘the mortal world’ than any kind of afterlife world because they are alive now, they can worry about the whatever afterlife there is after the are dead. And this might be part of why Sinophone cultures appreciate siusa personalities more than Anglophone cultures – Anglophone cultures are heavily influenced by Christianity, and most sects of Christianity strongly encourage people to care a lot about the afterlife. And siusa people are also genuinely interested in what this world has to offer.

It is of course entirely possible to be siusa in a world that it at peace and full of unicorns and rainbows. However, I tend to see the word used most often in contexts where society is in turmoil and bad shit is happening everywhere, or at least the siusa person comes from a bad situation (think Sirius Black). A siusa person may care deeply about the world’s problems and be grieved by the loss of the good – yet in spite of all of the bad shit going down, still be able to stay true to themself, and possibly pursue happiness.

One of Jin Yong’s most siusa protagonists is Linghu Chong, from the novel The Smiling Proud Wanderer, in my opinion (I really must stress that it is my opinion, since as I discovered when I was doing online research about the concept of ‘siusa’, native Chinese speakers have some spirited debates about which Jin Yong characters are the most siusa – for example, this essay (in Chinese) declares that Yang Guo is the most siusa Jin Yong protagonist, and that Linghu Chong was only siusa on the outside, not on the inside – for what it’s worth, I think Yang Guo is also very siusa). The Smiling Proud Wanderer could be described as an wuxia-style dystopia tale. Yet even though Linghu Chong lives among a set of oppressive martial arts sects which suppress freedom and kill innocent people in their quest for power, not to mention all of the physical punishment (he spends about half the story gravely injured in some way) he still manages to be a relatively easygoing and upbeat guy with a sense of (not always black) humor. And he stays true to his values, not unlike Sirius Black. Even when Linghu Chong is in prison and suffering from a potentially fatal injury, he is still free in his heart, and pursues what pleasure he can (for example, he tricks the guard into delivering wine and tasty food) (also, Sirius Black manages to stay true to himself even in Azkaban).

It is very fitting that the name of the theme song of the 1996 (Cantonese language) TV adaptation of The Smiling Proud Wanderer is “Wut dak Siusa” which means “Live a Siusa Life”. You may listen to it here. It’s not a particularly good song – but the lyrics can help one understand what ‘siusa’ means, so I will try to translate them (since this is a Cantonese -> Mandarin -> English translation it’s going to be flawed, but I think my translation conveys the main ideas even if I am messing up some of the nuances):

chunglai mou kwagau je yatsaang jeoigan ngo sam leoi mei mung
I have never been ashamed of spending my entire life pursuing my heart’s dream
cheonggei yu jindau jung bat se jung bat hei bat gun jung pokhung
In this long time of struggle, I’ve never given up, not caring that my efforts are always in vain,
jiksai fungyu pok dat hungyung, jeongun tinyi yamyi joklung
Even when storms surge, despite Heaven’s arbitrary games,
yatsaang jekgun jeoijung sam noi yau mung
My whole life is nothing more than following the dream in my heart.

seoi yan nang hontau je yatsaang ho baaityut sam leoi yukau
Whoever can look beyond and shake off their own greed,
seoi yan nang hontau liu daksat seoi dakdou jung bat ho winggau
Whoever can look beyond success and failure, knowing that success cannot last forever,
paauhoi jangdau waanhei yijau,
Will pull back from their quarrels and turn the other cheek,
bat hin bat gwaa si jeoi jiyau
Those who are the least worried are the most free,
siusiusasa dik jau batman yihau
Behaving in a siusa way, letting go of the future.

minglei yat sik gaan yaaheoi siusai
Fame and fortune can vanish in an instant,
kyunlik bat hoyi yam nei jyujoi
Power will not turn you into a master,
seoi yan nang jinsing liu sam mo chiucheot yi’ngoi
Whoever can overcome their inner demons will exceed expectations,
seoi joudou yatsaang mut yau so kau
Whoever lives without making demands,
mo yuk fong hoyi wut dak siusa
Without greed, can live a siusa life,
ngousi joi juksai soeng
Look down on the material world,
wut dak jingchoi
And have a splendid life.

If you know anything about the history of China, or of the Chinese-speaking communities in Southeast Asia, in the 20th century, or the 19th century, then you know that a ton of awful shit went down. The Chinese imperial system of government, which existed in some form for about two thousand years, ceased to exist in 1911. And lots of society-wide terrible things kept happening for decades, both in China and the other Asian countries with large Chinese populations. According to some theories of history, this was nothing less than the collapse of a civilization (though if the biosphere continues to be capable of supporting human civilization, I have no doubt that Sinophone people will be able to establish a new Sinophone civilization).

This is just speculation on my part – but maybe the fact that the Sinophone world has so recently experienced such powerful negative shocks may be why Sinophone cultures value someone who can rise above the societal collapse all around them, stay true to their values, and pursue happiness anyway?

What Makes a Story Wuxia? The Grace of Kings vs. The Black Trillium

Cover of The Grace of Kings

I recently read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. I enjoyed it.

I was thrown off by this blurb from Wes Chu “Ken Liu wrote the Wuxia version of Game of Thrones.” As far as I could tell, The Grace of Kings is not wuxia at all. Wes Chu is entitled to his opinion, but because I read the blurb before I read the novel, I was looking forward to some wuxia elements, and was disappointed when I did not find them. That is unfair to the novel, because it is very good on its own terms.

To me, The Grace of Kings is a Western epic fantasy which is heavily influenced by ancient Chinese history. And it seems that Ken Liu himself agrees with me. In interviews, he says that The Grace of Kings is ‘Western epic fantasy’ with a ‘silkpunk’ aesthetic, which I think is accurate, and would have given me a better idea of what to expect.

I did not know the premise of the novel before I read it, but I figured out pretty quickly that Emperor Mapidéré = Qin Huangdi, Kuni Garu = Liu Bang, etc. – it is obvious to any reader who has the slightest clue about that era in ancient Chinese history. My classmates in my middle school would have made at least some of the connections, and most of them were not history buffs. (By the way, if you do not already know the history of the early Han dynasty and plan to read this novel, FINISH THE NOVEL BEFORE YOU DO ANY HISTORICAL RESEARCH, because the historical research will spoil the plot of the novel for you).

This was the textbook we used in the middle school history class where we covered the Qin and Han dynasties – though our teacher taught us a bunch of extra stuff about Qin Huangdi, I guess she was really interested in him.

But being influenced by Chinese history does not make a story wuxia, just as the fact that George R.R. Martin was influenced by the War of the Roses does not mean that Game of Thrones is an Elizabethan history play.

To be sure, wuxia is one of the creative influences on The Grace of Kings, but so is Homer’s epics. In my opinion, it would make just as much sense to say that The Grace of Kings is the ‘Homeric’ version of Game of Thrones.

In wuxia, things which stretch or even break the limits of nature as currently understood are quite common – such as a character with superhuman skill – but blatantly magical/supernatural/divine stuff is off-limits. For example, in The Romance of the White-Haired Maiden, the protagonist was raised by wolves, she is so shocked by her lover’s betrayal that her hair turns white overnight, and the only way to restore her original hair color is a flower which only blooms once every hundred years (or was it sixty years – it’s been years since I read the book). Improbable, but it does not require a magical/supernatural/divine explanation. There is just barely enough fantastical elements to separate wuxia from historical fiction, but no more than that (Simon McNeil discusses this in greater length).

In The Grace of Kings, there are gods who are bickering with each other and manipulating mortals. This does not happen in wuxia. As soon as gods are active characters in a story, it is no longer wuxia, it is xianxia or xuanhuan or some other genre. The bickering gods act like they came out of the Iliad, so that is an example of Homeric influence.

This is a scene from a famous wuxia story which takes place in Russia.

Another thing which makes The Grace of Kings ~not wuxia~ is the fact that it is a secondary fantasy. Wuxia (theoretically) takes place in our world, usually in China between the Tang and Qing dynasties, but it can also be set in Vietnam, Russia, Joseon-dynasty Korea, Kazakhstan, 1930s Chicago, 1980s Changhua, etc. Honestly, I am slightly surprised that I have not found an wuxia story set in California, though I am sure it exists somewhere. However, if it is secondary fantasy i.e. set in a world other than ours, it is xianxia or xuanhuan or some other genre.

Cover of The Black Trillium by Simon McNeil

Let’s talk more about that wuxia story set in Toronto, The Black Trillium which I blogged about. The characters are all thoroughly Canadian (except the characters from Seattle). Yet it is a story I recognize as wuxia. Aside from the fact that The Black Trillium is set in our world and refrains from blatantly magical/supernatural/divine stuff, what makes it wuxia?

There is a mounty and a hockey player in the Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. Mouty: You are a threat to the Wulin. Young martial artists watch so much ice hockey they no longer train. I must stop your corruption of our tradition by force, sorry. Hockey Player: I will beat you with my Star-Thwacking-Hockey-Stick Skill, sorry.

This is Canadian wuxia (actually, The Black Trillium is nothing like this, I just wanted to have fun with stereotypes).

Another essential element of wuxia is the development of the characters’ specific skills, or at least how they use their specific skills. Usually this means their martial arts skills, though it could be something else, such as making/deploying poison (I read an wuxia novel where the protagonist has to become a master poisoner and then win a tournament where the various poisoners engage in duels where they try to out-poison each other). We see this in spades in The Black Trillium. We do not see much of this in The Grace of Kings. Yes, the characters get wiser, but we do not see them perfecting their techniques. (In great wuxia, the techniques are used as metaphors to give the story a deeper meaning).

For me, one of the most essential parts of wuxia is the opera. A lot of wuxia stories, if you strip away the swords and the kung-fu and the training, are practically soap operas, i.e. ‘someone murdered my dad, and I fell in love with this girl/boy, but her/his dad is the dude who murdered my dad, and if I kill her/his dad for vengeance I won’t be able to marry her/him, oh woe is me’. The personal relationships of the characters come first in the story, even in the wuxia stories which have an obvious political message. While I had some complaints about how The Black Trillium did this, I do recognize that it was at least trying to do this. By contrast, The Grace of Kings puts more focus on the course of history than on the personal relations of the characters.

The Grace of Kings does have a lot of themes in common with Datang Shuanglong Zhuan by Huang Yi. Just as The Grace of Kings is about taking down the Qin dynasty Emperor Mapidéré’s empire and establishing the Han dynasty the Dandelion dynasty, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan is about taking down the Sui dynasty and establishing the Tang dynasty. Just as The Grace of Kings has a protagonist of low-class birth who aspires to become the emperor of China Dara, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan has a protagonist of low-class birth who aspires to become the emperor of China. Just as The Grace of Kings features two sworn brothers who eventually find themselves in bitter conflict because they have different visions for the future of China Dara, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan features two sworn brothers who eventually find themselves in bitter conflict because they have different visions for the future of China, and so forth.

Book cover for Datang Shuanglong Zhuan.

Why is Datang Shuanglong Zhuan wuxia even though The Grace of Kings is not? Pretty much everything I explained above. Datang Shuanglong Zhuan is set in our world (specifically Sui/Tang dynasty China), there is a lot about how the protagonists develop their martial arts techniques, the absence of divine/supernatural beings, etc.

Most of all, in The Grace of Kings, the political upheavals take center stage, and the relationship between the protagonists feels like an incidental part of the story, almost forced. The protagonists consider their brotherhood disposable, so when they have to choose between their relationship and their ideals/dreams, the choice is easy. You could take away the brotherhood in The Grace of Kings, and though the protagonists would have a bit of a change in their motivations, the story would still be basically the same.

In Datang Shuanglong Zhuan, the relationship between the brothers is the heart and soul of the story. Unlike the protagonists in The Grace of Kings, the protagonists in Datang Shuanglong Zhuan do NOT consider their brotherhood disposable, so when they are forced to choose between their relationship and their ideals/dreams, they are really between a rock and a hard place, which is the most compelling part of the novel (if they treated their relationship as disposable, one would simply kill the other, and the novel would be about 4000 pages shorter). Taking the political/historical content out of Datang Shuanglong Zhuan would be a HUGE change, but taking away the relationship between the male protagonists would totally and utterly gut the novel.

This reflects a broad difference between wuxia and Western epic fantasy. Yes, the conditions of the world / the tides of history can be important in wuxia, and personal relationships can be important in Western epic fantasy, but in general, an wuxia story is going to emphasize dealing with intense personal problems, and a Western epic fantasy is going to emphasize saving the world, or at least the nation.

To me, just about everything in The Grace of Kings feels like Western epic fantasy. Even the use of inspiration from non-Western cultures feels like Western epic fantasy; there are plenty of other Western epic fantasies (the works of N.K. Jemisin or Ursula K. LeGuin for example) which do that too.

In spite of being written by a white dude in English and set in Canada, The Black Trillium feels way more like wuxia than Western epic fantasy.

Of course, I’m not the official arbitrator of what is real wuxia and what is not real wuxia. After all, I disagree with some parts of the TVTropes descriptions/definition, and you have no reason to trust me more than TVTropes. The post reflects my very subjective idea of what wuxia is. An wuxia fan who does not care so much about whether there is a limit on magical/supernatural/divine elements, whether there is skill-building, or whether there is an emphasis on personal relations, but DOES care about whether there are allusions to classical Chinese history/literature, might recognize The Grace of Kings, and not The Black Trillium, as wuxia.

A New Appreciation for Guo Fu

Annie Liu as Guo Fu in Return of the Condor Heroes 1983

Guo Fu is the Hate Sink in Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. She’s not a villain – she’s loyal to her country and her family, she never actually murders anybody innocent (though she tries), and she never sexually assaults anybody. However, she is just about the most unlikeable character who is not a villain. She’s a spoiled brat, she has no humility, and she’s a bully.

Even though I’ve written a lot of other posts about Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, I think I have hardly written anything about Guo Fu before (have I even mentioned her before on this blog?) That’s because I never had much to say. She’s not a total two-dimensional character in the original novel – there are nuances which suggest that Guo Fu is a complex human being (more so than, for example, Dolores Umbridge) – but there are so many other things going on in the novel which are so much more interesting that my attention never centered on Guo Fu’s character.

This is the most famous scene in the novel featuring Guo Fu (yes, she is the young woman with the sword). If you are okay with watching violence and spoiling the outcome of this scene, you can watch how the 1983 TV adaptation handles this scene.

The 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ helped me see Guo Fu in a new light.

First of all, the scriptwriters gave Guo Fu a lot more screentime than she has pagetime (?) in the novel. They even added a whole new subplot to further develop her character. She actually grows and become less of a self-centered brat. Of course, just as in almost every other case where a female Jin Yong character experiences character growth, she does it so she can impress a man she has romantic feelings for, but it still makes her a more complex character.

And that brings me to another point – the scriptwriters make her a little more likeable than in the novel. She’s still spoiled, she’s still a bully, she still does all of the bad things which makes her a Hate Sink character, but she also has more in the way of redeeming qualities. In the novel, it makes sense that multiple men want to marry her because she’s beautiful and comes from a prestigious family, but in the TV show, it seems plausible that men may also want to marry her because they sincerely like her as a person. She even comes off as more charming than her sister Guo Xiang (partially because the Guo Xiang in this TV adaptation is lacking in warmth), which is the total opposite of the novel.

Guo Fu is on the left and her sister, Guo Xiang, is on the right.

There is one instance where, instead of adding to what is in the novel, the scriptwriters made an outright change. That is with regards to Guo Fu and Yang Guo’s relationship. In the novel, Guo Fu and Yang Guo were always in 100% agreement that they did not want to marry each other. When her father offers her hand in marriage, her reaction is much like her reaction in the 2006 TV adaptation, which you can see here.

Compare that to how Guo Fu reacts to Yang Guo refusal of the marriage proposal in the 1983 TV adaptation. She’s really upset. The scriptwriters built up to this moment by showing Guo Fu and Yang Guo having fun together, and showing Guo Fu really warm up to him. Here is an example of such a scene.

Though I like both the way this is done in the original novel and the way it’s done in the 1983 adaptation, I think I prefer the change made by the 1983 adaptation because a) it makes Yang Guo’s refusing Guo Fu’s hand in marriage more dramatic and b) it adds complexity to Guo Fu’s character and c) in some ways in makes more sense (though it other ways the novel makes more sense).

Guo Fu as seen in the opening theme song.

I think the scriptwriters did a lot to flesh out Guo Fu’s character – and then Annie Liu, the actress, took it and ran. She was a live wire. I’m surprised some reviewers consider Annie Liu to be a disappointing Guo Fu, since her performance is one of my favorite performances in the show. Apparently, some people do not like her because she’s not pretty enough. True, she’s not as physically beautiful as some of the other actresses who have played Guo Fu, and based on what’s I’ve seen of the 1995 adaptation, Gigi Fu also did a great job playing Guo Fu, but a) Annie Liu is pretty enough and b) beauty is far from the most important aspect of Guo Fu’s character and c) Annie Liu really brought Guo Fu to life, at least for me.

I never imagined that Guo Fu would be one of the highlights of a TV adaptation Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, but it is so. And this is one of the reasons I watch adaptations instead of simply re-reading the novel – a good adaptations bring out aspects of the story I had not appreciated before.

‘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.