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Eastern romance, Western romance

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Aug. 11th, 2013 | 09:09 pm

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?

This entry was originally posted at http://tevere.dreamwidth.org/69995.html. Number of comments on DW: comment count unavailable

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Comments {8}

suze2000

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from: suze2000
date: Aug. 11th, 2013 11:54 am (UTC)
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Hmmm... I've never read any Chinese romance, I haven't really read any Western romance for the last 15years or so.

But your musing have led me to remember why it is I refuse to watch Chinese movies on SBS any more. Because of the suffering. I can't stand it. To me, it's not a satisfying resolution if the protagonist resigns herself to living out her life as a sad widow, or loses her son in some terrible act of revenge by a former lover and then suffers beatifically without hope of relief.

A Western romance has no expectation of suffering after the HEA, because then it wouldn't be a HEA. (boy that's a stupid sentence)

Even Gone With the Wind, which ends with Scarlett being abandoned by Rhett, has hope at the ending, rather than resignation. Scarlett finally realises that she loves Rhett (too late of course), and resolves then and there to do everything in her power to get him back. And given the resilience and determination she has shown earlier (for example, when rebuilding after the War), the reader is left in no doubt that she will succeed.

From what you are saying there is none of this in a Chinese Romance. I can't imagine I would ever enjoy reading one. (Wild Swans almost killed me with suffering, even after I had studied Chinese history in school)

I don't know whether this adds anything to your musings.

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Ineke

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from: tevere
date: Aug. 11th, 2013 10:19 pm (UTC)
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Ha, oh, Wild Swans. My mother almost exclusively read the genre known as the Chinese Hardship Story, so our house was filled with them. I boycotted them entirely as a kid because of the ENDLESS MISERY, so it's funny that now one of my favourite things is to read a Tragic Chinese Romance where not only does everyone suffer at great length, but then sometimes even rocks fall and everyone dies.

Your comment about Gone with the Wind reminds me of the end of a romance I mentioned in this post, Bu Bu Jing Xin. Simplifying greatly, after all the tragedy and suffering the protagonist has one last chance encounter with the man she loved and left (who she thinks hates her, though he actually does still love her. But also by this point he's not actually the man she knew, and doesn't remember her... it's a long story). They make eye contact, she cries, he walks over and says, "Do I know you?", looks weirded out, and then walks away. And she watches him go, crying from heartbreak. The end. So when I saw this, I thought that it was, you know, tragic but kinda optimistic! They actually did meet again! There's a chance she could bump into him again in the future and they could make it work this time! And then I read a bunch of other people's reactions, and at least half of them read it completely differently: the chance encounter was fate telling her that their romance was truly over, regardless of whether she still loved him or not (and vice versa), and that she needed to let him walk away out of her life forever. I thought that was interesting-- was I reading the ending through a Western lens of optimistic hope for a HEA (a la Gone with the Wind), even though everything else in the narrative was telling me that a HEA was neither possible nor right? IDK.

Do you like Jane Eyre? I mean, the Chinese romances I like have a lot of suffering, but they don't always end up with everyone dead or separated permanently. The characters may end up together, it's just that their 'HEA' might be bittersweet and weighted by the memory of sad times and lost innocence and youth. But then, ain't that life? *g*

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suze2000

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from: suze2000
date: Aug. 17th, 2013 01:42 am (UTC)
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I have only seen the movie of Jane Eyre, or a mini-series. And I just realised that I told my husband the other day that it was my favourite of the Jane Austens, haha (I meant a different book, not a different author). Anyway, in that same way that you feel great relief when she finally gets together with Rochester because she a) gets the man and b) will no longer be poor (a bit like Sense and Sensibility, somewhat), life sometimes is like that.

That ending you describe to me sounds like an ending - a realisation that she should let go, because neither of them are the people they once were. And life is like that too. I still carry a torch for my first love, and I wouldn't be surprised to here he did about me too. But we married different people (though he is now divorced because he married a complete bitch, despite my warnings), and it was over between us for years before that happened anyway. Real life is like that, I don't really believe that there's only one person for everyone. It's a myth, and a harmful one at that. Generally speaking, a if a man isn't bad and doesn't abuse her, I think a woman can be contented with him even if he isn't The One. And most men are happy with their wives as long as they get semi-regular sex, and a decently run house (whether they help with that or not). You might be able to shed more light on this, given your cultural background (most people don't generally discuss their arranged marriages with middle aged white chicks), but are most content with their arrangements after the initial wearing in period? Anyway, I'm rambling.

I don't actually read many romances any more, in fact I read a lot on the internet, News, FB, and very little prose. I keep telling myself I will, but I'm hopeless. I've spent three days thinking about this, for example, and I'm caught up in a long discussion on Blogger about politics and the effect of various policies on the economy (with an election coming up that's hardly surprising). But a lot of women's novels include some form of romance and HEA.

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Ineke

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from: tevere
date: Aug. 20th, 2013 03:40 am (UTC)
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I think a woman can be contented with him even if he isn't The One.

You know, I vaguely remember a really interesting Georgette Heyer in which an indebted lord is forced to marry the (very plain, housewifely) daughter of a rich merchant in order to become solvent. IIRC, he never feels passionate, 'romantic' love for her (I think he feels this for someone else?), but after she bears his child he realises that her steadfast support is essential to his life. I can't remember, but I think her love for him is also affectionately pragmatic, rather than True Love Pining Away. It's a HEA, but not a romantic one. I remember at the time thinking it was an odd departure from the usual: an unromantic romance.

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suze2000

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from: suze2000
date: Aug. 20th, 2013 05:13 am (UTC)
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But that's one of the outcomes in Sense and Sensibility. The older sister, having resigned herself to spinsterhood, falls in love with the local clergyman anyway, but he's unavailable (for some reason that eludes me). Eventually, he's freed up and to much joy, asks her to marry him.

The other sister fell in love with a handsome stranger who rescued her after a fall. He courted her, but alas has to marry for money. Meanwhile a much older, much richer man is waiting in the wings - he is in love with her, but she has no eyes for him. In her grief at the loss of her passionate lover, she lets herself stay out in the freezing rain, catches a fever and almost dies. It's during her convalescence that she re-realises that the rich man is devoted to her and allows him to woo her properly. I'm sure you're familiar with the story, but in this case the HEA is on the man's part as he gets his dream girl and she, well she saves her family from genteel poverty and learns to love a very good man. In a society where there's no real way out of poverty for a woman except marrying money, that's the best a girl can want for.

Perhaps these HEAs are more PHEAs - Practical HEAs? (or pragmatic) I don't see anything wrong with them though,

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Dale

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from: viggorlijah
date: Aug. 12th, 2013 05:33 am (UTC)
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I just placed a bunch of library reservations because CHINESE HISTORICAL ROMANCES EXIST! How did I not even think of the possibility?? I love without embarrassment romance novels as a genre, and I love asian historicals, although not the depressing parts of Wild Swans etc. Tang Dynasty Harlequins, brilliant!

HEA is like figuring out the killer in mystery novels, it's fundamental to the genre. You can play with it for effect, but even then you're still acknowledging the conventions of the genre.

Who else can you recommend?

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Dale

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from: viggorlijah
date: Aug. 12th, 2013 05:37 am (UTC)
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Seriously, I'm making dolphin-noises of squee here. Tang Dynasty Harlequins! Thank you so MUCH

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Ineke

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from: tevere
date: Aug. 12th, 2013 09:41 am (UTC)
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Cindy Pon also writes Chinese historical romances (fantasy rather than strictly historical), but they're more YA in tone. I read the first of her series and quite liked it, even though I'm not super into YA.

Ohhhh, but the impermanence of happiness makes romantic scenes so swooningly, heart-achingly wonderful! You know it's transient, so every moment on the page or screen with the two lovers together is precious. But each to her own taste, I guess *g*.

If you end up reading Jeannie Lin, I'd love to know what you think. For me, the one I read had a paint-by-numbers feel and was really lacking chemistry and narrative drive, but I wonder if I'm biased because I just don't like the Harlequin house style, so to speak. I do really appreciate the fact that she's writing Chinese characters, though-- there are so few in the romance mainstream!

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