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It Came from the Sinosphere: Datang Shuanglong Zhuan

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The best English translation of the title I recall encountering is Tang Dynasty Dragon Duo, but it just sounds better is Chinese, which is why many people use the Chinese title even when discussing the book in English.

The Story

The story is set at the end of the Sui dynasty, which is on the verge of collapse. Everybody sees this as an opportunity to grab power.

Xu Ziling

Xu Ziling

Enter two orphans living on the street, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling. They only have their wits and each other. They just happen to get the precious martial arts manual Changsheng Jue, which makes them targets. They are rescued by Fu Junzhuo, a martial artist from Koguryo (Korea), and they accept her as their mother … then she dies.

Kou Zhong

Kou Zhong

Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling study the Changsheng Jue, and become martial artists themselves – but more dangerous than their martial arts are their cleverness and capacity for strategic thinking. Xu Ziling ambition is to merely get revenge for their mother (Fu Junzhuo), take care of their sister Susu, and have fun wandering around. Kou Zhong, on the other hand, wants to … how can I say it in English … “take over the world”?

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And therein lies conflict. Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, closer than brothers, are the most important people to each other in the world. Xu Ziling wants to do what’s right for the common people of China, and deep down, he suspects that Kou Zhong’s ambitions are not in the common people’s best interests. In the medium term, they are united by their desire to get revenge for Fu Junzhuo and care for Susu. Yet Kou Zhong does not want to give up his dream of demonstrating his might to the world, Xu Ziling does not want to let Kou Zhong cause suffering to the common people, and neither wants to destroy their relationship. In the long run … something has to give.

Background

This is Huang Yi’s longest and most popular novel, in fact, it’s probably the most popular wuxia novel of the 1990s. Right around the time that wuxia was ‘dying’, Huang Yi’s fiction appeared, and became very popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan. For an interesting take on Huang Yi, go to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

Datang Shuanglong Zhuan has been adapted into two TV shows, Twin of Brothers (2004/Cantonese) and Twin of Brothers (2011/Mandarin), and there are more planned. There is also a manhua adaptation by Tony Wong.

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This novel is so popular that, when I mention that I’ve read it to Taiwanese men, the most common reaction is ‘oh, that’s a good book, I’ve read it too’. The fact that almost every general bookstore in Taiwan has a copy on hand speaks literally volumes – (the Taiwanese revised edition contains twenty volumes, which takes quite a bit of shelf space).

Female Characters

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First, look at the illustrations of the Dramatis Personae throughout this post. Do you notice a pattern?

I do. The female characters are all showing off skin and/or their figures, in other words, there is an emphasis on their sex appeal. None of the male characters are showing off their skin or figures, so while they are not unattractive, they are not primarily being shown as sex objects.

I find it particularly implausible that Li Xiuning, who as a princess has to follow lots of rules about social propriety, would ever been found in a pose like this (except maybe in the private company of her husband)

I find it particularly implausible that Li Xiuning, who as a princess has to follow lots of rules about social propriety, would ever been found in a pose like this (except maybe in the private company of her husband)

To some extent, this reflects how the novel depicts the characters. Female characters are frequently noted for their beauty, so much so that I sometimes had trouble distinguishing Super-Beautiful-Woman 1 from Super-Beautiful-Woman 2. Meanwhile, there is little to no comment on male beauty. Yes, I know this is typical in wuxia, but this novel takes it further than most.

That said, women aren’t just considered romance/sex objects. Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling want to get revenge for their mother because she cared for them, not because of her romance/sex appeal. Then their is their sister, Susu, who they value simply for being herself (and she is one of the few young women who is not described as being super-beautiful).

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The female characters, of course, to the greatest extent they can, are active agents, organizing attacks and manipulating the situation to further their own goals … but that goes without saying. While wuxia fiction has plenty of sexism, at least it’s taken for granted that female characters will set their own agendas, and do what they can to make their agendas happen, and that if they have tools, they can do a lot. The same is, alas, not a given in English-language speculative fiction.

Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s Relationship

90% of what kept me flipping the pages is the relationship between Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, in other words, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In particular, watching Kou Zhong was fascinating. He wishes he were light Light Yagami in Death Note so he could pursue his ambitions without his feelings getting in the way … but unfortunately (fortunately?) for him, he’s got a big, squishy, sentimental heart.

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To Kou Zhong’s credit, when he falls in love, instead of trying to kill his feelings, he makes himself vulnerable and makes a sincere effort to be a good lover. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when he fails, and concludes that he must redouble his efforts to take over China since he cannot find any other meaning in his life.

For much of the novel, I thought it was a bit like Death Note, but with casting Light Yagami and L as brothers who are closer to each other than anyone else in the world. Both stories focus a lot on tactics and strategies for outsmarting one another (though Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling usually work together, not against each other). Towards the end, though, I realized that this story is actually more in the spirit of Basara than Death Note. Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling have a brotherly, not romantic, relationship, and they know each others’ identities, but their fundamental struggle is similar to Sarasa and Shuri’s.

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It is a beautiful, deep relationship, and though Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling make friends, lovers, and even gain a mother and sister, it’s clear that nothing can replace the experience of relying on each other for survival as children in the street when everybody else ignored or abused them. That’s why the possibility of the relationship being shattered is so … dramatic.

One of the most moving parts of the story is when Kou Zhong says something to Xu Ziling. I don’t remember what Kou Zhong literally says, but I remember how Xu Ziling understands what Kou Zhong means: Kou Zhong’s love for Xu Ziling is so deep that, even if Xu Ziling betrays him, Kou Zhong would still love him.

The Length of the Novel

After I told someone how long this novel he, he replied ‘it’s like War and Peace‘. I replied ‘No, it’s not like War and Peace. War and Peace is less than 2000 pages long. The Taiwanese revised edition of Datang Shuanglong Zhuan is about 7000 pages long.’

Yes, this is the longest novel I have ever read.

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I don’t think I could have marathoned it. Instead, I would read a few hundred pages, then read something else, then pick this up again and read another few hundred pages. I did, however, marathon the last 1500 pages or so.

Most readers know that a story which is only 7 pages long feels very different from a story which is 70 pages long. While they may have the same plot structure, a 70 page story can pack in a lot more detail and nuance. Furthermore, a 700 page story feels very different from a 70 page story.

Now, I can say, that the difference between a 700 and 7000 page story is just as great at between a 70 and 700 page story. I am not even sure the label ‘novel’ still applies to a 7000 page story. There is simply much more richness, depth, and subtlety possible with those extra pages.

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As such, I feel like I’m misrepresenting this novel. Even though I’m focusing on Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, who are the core of the novel, I still feel that I’m oversimplifying them because they evolve so much and show so many different facets of themselves during the course of the story.

And this feels woefully incomplete without saying more about the complex web of relationships that Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling are in (they sure don’t live in a vacuum). For example, I’ve managed to get this far in this post without mentioning Li Shimin, one of the most important characters.

Li Shimin

Li Shimin

However … the whole point of writing something 7000 pages long is that the story does not lend itself to brevity.

This work feels very different from anything else I’ve read, and I think I’d either need to read another super-long novel, or read a series of novels with the same characters which was as long as a super-long novel, to have this kind of experience again.

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My Take on the Ending (spoiler-free version)

First of all, it was not the ending I expected. Okay, even I know enough about Chinese history that I knew who was going to end up emperor of China, but otherwise … not what I was expecting.

And I was disappointed.

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After reflecting on it, it’s not the ending itself which disappointed me. It actually could have been a great ending. What let me down was the execution of the ending. And that’s about as much as I can say without spoilers.

Availability in English

The novel: ha Ha ha hA HA HA HA Ha ha ha HA!

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The TV shows: The 2004 TV show is available on region-free DVD with English subtitles (for sale at YesAsia.com). The 2011 TV show, as far as I know, is not available anywhere with English subtitles. I haven’t seen either show, so I cannot comment on the quality.

The manhua: As far as I know, it’s also completely unavailable in English..

Conclusion

Well, though the ending was a let-down for me, this novel was still worth it for the journey. I’d like to read another super-long novel some day, though finding the time to do so is a challenge…

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For me, at least, this was a novel about how to set one’s priorities for life. Do you just try to have fun? Do you try to make the world a better place? Should you dream big? Who should be the important people in your life, and how important should they be? Should you abandon your ambition for the sake of personal relationships, and just how much wrong would the important people in your life have to commit before you would turn your back on them?

The novel makes the point that, if you have to ruin your relationships with the people closest to you to make your grand dream come true, your dream will become a nightmare.

Next Time: Hear Me (movie)


Last week, Sara K. hiked up Syueshan Main Peak, which is the second highest mountain in East Asia (aside from the Kamchatka peninsula).

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Ace Admiral’s recent discussion about the ‘nakama’ spirit, and how it’s different from the kind of close relationship he’s looking for right now, made me think about the relationship between Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling in Datang Shuanglong Zhuan. […]



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