tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
[personal profile] tevere
The other day, a few Twitter friends were retweeting a blog post by Jeannie Lin, who writes Harlequin romances set in the Tang Dynasty period: A historical perspective: Are my happy endings realistic? Responding to the apparently frequent criticism that her happy endings are "unrealistic, clichéd, convenient", Lin posed an interesting set of questions:
  • Are my happy endings unrealistic because I have failed to execute?

  • Are my happy endings unrealistic because they are perceived to be anachronistic for the time period?

  • Are my happy endings unrealistic, but in line with the genre I write in? (In which case, unrealistic, but expected?)

  • Are my happy endings perceived as more unrealistic than other comparative works that are set in familiar Western settings because imperial China is perceived as more harsh, primitive, unyielding than Western culture?

  • Is it harder to envision a happy ending in an alien or “other” culture because HEA is tied intimately to ideas of comfort, safety and familiarity where the “other” is inherently not comfortable, safe or familiar?
This fascinated me, because Chinese historical romances unfailingly hit me square in the id in a way that Regency and other Western mainstream romances never do-- and the majority of my favourite Chinese romances are, you guessed it, epic tragedies. But why not a happy ending? As Lin points out, it's not like the concept of two lovers actually getting married, living harmoniously together, and having many successful progeny is unknown in Chinese literature.

So out of curiosity I bought Jeannie Lin's My Fair Concubine, which is a Tang Dynasty spin on My Fair Lady. In summary: a nobleman must teach a common teahouse serving girl to successfully impersonate a lady, so that she can take the nobleman's sister's place in an important political marriage. Nobleman and serving girl fall for each other, there's angst because he still needs her to marry someone else, situation is resolved, happily ever after etc. It sounds straightforward enough, but I found it a really... odd... reading experience. At a surface level, the 'Chineseness' was fine. I had some minor quibbles-- the rhythms and emphasis of the characters' speech was clearly English rather than Chinese; you don't shorten Chinese names by just taking the first or second character of a two-character name-- but it was better than, say, the Chineseness of Liz Williams' Inspector Chen series. Was the happy ending 'unrealistic'? I mean, we're talking about a romance-- it was in keeping with the premise and tone, although technically speaking it felt flippant and didn't address the main drivers of narrative tension (which unfortunately collapsed around the halfway mark, anyway). But my real issue with the book was a matter of taste, and it was this: it wasn't a Chinese romance.

But wait, you say. There are Chinese characters, in a Chinese setting-- doesn't that make it a Chinese romance by definition? Well, kinda. But not really. To me, My Fair Concubine read like a Regency that just happened to be set in imperial China. As many people before me have pointed out, Regency isn't a historical period that simply happens to be the setting of a great many romance novels; Regency is, in a sense, a shared universe descended from the works of Austen and Heyer-- a fandom, even-- with its own tropes, conventions, historicity, storytelling style, intertextual conversations. Chinese romances have their own tropes, conventions, historicity, storytelling style and intertextual conversations-- and they rest on a completely different cultural and literary bedrock.

In her recent book Tiger Writing (an unfortunate title; the book isn't bad), Asian-American novelist Gish Jen talks about the gap between the 'independent' Western narrative self and the 'interconnected' Eastern narrative self, but although a centering of the social and familial context is a key feature of almost all my favourite Chinese historical romances, I'm not sure it's the primary difference between Eastern and Western romances. I think a far bigger difference might be the depiction and narrative purpose of suffering and hardship. A long time ago I read a book by Dan McAdams called The Redemptive Self, which looks at the narratives that Americans create and tell themselves to explain their lives. As the title suggests, the American story is one of the redemptive self: suffering has an ultimate purpose; it's for something. Surviving cancer makes you realise how strong you are; financial ruin teaches you the value of things that really matter; misunderstandings between lovers brings them closer in the end. Hardships are a challenge you overcome, to prove yourself a better person. Suffering isn't a place you reside, it's brief state you pass through on your way to redemption and resolution.

Suffering and hardship in a lot of Chinese historical romances seems different to me. It has no inherent moral value; it doesn't necessarily teach you anything, or gain you anything. You suffer because to live is to suffer, to love is to suffer, and to be happy is to already have the seeds of suffering in that fleeting happiness. Suffering (while loving) is often the focus, whereas in Western romances the focus seems more on getting to that happy ending, which is where love can be realised in its purest (reciprocated, non-restricted) state.

So it interested me that when Lin gave an example of a classic Chinese tale with a 'happy ending' she chose the Tale of Li Wa, and summarised it as follows:
It tells the story of a gentleman, a scholar, who goes to the capital to take the imperial exams and make a name for himself, but is led into ruin by a crafty courtesan. But wait! After trials and tribulations, she helps him get back on his feet and supports him as he studies for the exams. In the end he passes, but when he wants to marry her, Li Wa refuses. She’s beneath him now. She’s wronged him... [eventually Zheng's family] comes out in favor of the marriage and urges Zheng to marry the girl who helped him turn his life around... They do indeed marry and their romance is celebrated by all. As a sign that Zheng made the right choice, there’s even an HEA epilogue! He goes on to be promoted to all sorts of exalted posts. They have four sons who all go on to do great things... It has a happy ending against all odds.
Lin emphasises the ending, which is understandable as she's arguing for her own happy endings, but I feel that in doing so she's missed the key element of the story (which is, tellingly, the same element that's completely missing from My Fair Concubine): the suffering. And I mean, Zheng suffers. His money is gone, his love has coldly made her escape with one last bout of trickery, his misery drives him to near death. He recovers, but is forced to make a living in shame as a low-level funeral mourner. He's actually quite good as a funeral mourner and wins a competition! A servant from his house recognises him, and takes him home! But his father is so shamed by the disgrace he brought upon the family that he strips Zheng naked and whips him until he thinks he's dead, then abandons him. Zheng survives, but his sores stink so badly that all his remaining friends leave him. He becomes a tattered, crippled beggar who hobbles through the snow, turned away from every door! And finally he begs at his former lover's door, and stricken by his condition, she takes him in.

That, my friends, is some quality suffering. That is the emotional porn of the story and its narrative crux, not the HEA. Which is why when I was reading My Fair Concubine, I kept expecting a different story. I was waiting for the familiar tropes and scenes that never came; I was waiting for the glorious emotional swoop of suffering and pain and despair-- and perhaps, as the result of a whim of Heaven rather than anyone actually earning or deserving it, a happy ending.

Perhaps another day I'll write about my current drama obsession, 步步惊心 (Bu Bu Jing Xin), which is a gloriously romantic trainwreck of a tragedy with an ending that is neither happy nor unhappy, but simply inevitable. The love and happiness and unhappiness were all contained in the process; it was never about the ending.

So, what do the rest of you think about Chinese period romances and happily-ever-afters? Is Jeannie Lin being judged fairly?

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