To start, allow me to translate an excerpt:
Lian Nichang crumpled a wildflower, and threw it down the mountain valley. Zhuo Yihang, stunned, watched the flower pieces float down in the wind, and suddenly said “Sister Lian, your looks should be like an everlasting flower.”
Lian Nichang laughed. “What a silly daydream! Where under the sun is there a place with everlasting spring? I say, if the old man of heaven were just like a human, having done so much thinking, even he would be old! We see each other here, bicker with each other there, the next time you see me, I fear I’ll already be an old woman with a head full of white hair!”
What she said made Zhuo Yihang’s feelings surge, and he thought “Lian Nichang really is very insightful. She hasn’t read many books, can’t compose poetry, nor fit lyrics to a song, but when she says what she thinks, aside from not having a proper meter, is simply wonderfully poetic. [Zhuo Yihang quotes poetry in Classical Chinese, which I can’t translate.] Doesn’t what she just said have the same meaning as all that classical poetry? However what she says is much easier to understand, and thus is more moving.”
Lian Ninchang laughed, and said “I just fear that when my head if full of white hair you won’t want to see me.”
Zhuo Yihang knew that she was just trying to get him to pour out his true feelings, but he found it very hard to answer her, so he tried to make light of it, and answered “when your hair turns white, I find an elixir to restore your youth.”
Lian Nichang sighed, and said “when someone else is trying to have a serious conversation,you make a joke of it.” Her mind soured, and said no more.
The foreshadowing is tickling me.
“The Bride with White Hair” is the most iconic female character in all of wuxia. She is one of the most iconic characters of all of wuxia period.
This novel has been adapted for TV five times, the most recent one being the 2012 TV drama. Additionally, there are four film adaptations, of which the best-known is the 1993 movie adaptation starring Brigette Lin as Lian Nichang. In other words, it’s one of the most-adapted wuxia stories ever.
The Ming dynasty is in decline, and the Manchus are ready to take some power. Meanwhile, there is a fierce sword fighter, known as “Jade Rakshasi” who is kicking everybody’s ass.
Zhuo Yihang, of the Wudang sect, gets involved in some of the intrigues happening around the throne. During his adventures, he encounters a beautiful maiden called Lian Nichang who was raised by wolves. Later, he enters a duel with the “Jade Rakshasi” … only to discover that she is none other than Lian Nichang!
Anyway, Zhuo Yihang and Lian Nichang work together for a while to deal with intrigues, during which they meet Yue Mingke. While Lian Nichang and Yue Mingke are comparing notes, Lian Nichang’s sword-fighting manual gets stolen, which leads to set of adventures in which Lian Nichang becomes Tie Feilong’s adopted daughter, and Yue Mingke gets acquainted with Tie Feilong’s biological daughter Tie Shanhu. Heck, Lian Nichang and Zhuo Yihang get pretty sweet on each other. Then Zhuo Yihang becomes the leader of the Wudang sect and, well, Lian Nichang is officially their enemy…
About Liang Yusheng
If you want to know about Liang Yusheng, the writer, read the Wikipedia entry and this webpage.
It’s worth noting that one of his innovations was infusing real history into his stories, and this story is no exception – many of the characters are based on actual historical figures. I have previously mentioned another Liang Yusheng novel, Pingzong Xiaying Lu
One thing which really makes Liang Yusheng stand out from other wuxia writers is how he handles female characters. He treats them pretty much the same way he treats the male characters. In many wuxia stories, it seems that the female characters’ primary purpose is to offer romantic options to the male protagonist. This is definitely not the case in Liang Yusheng stories.
The female characters are also sometimes, you know, the main character. It’s not just this novel, it’s a trend in Liang Yusheng novels.
Let me state the obvious. Women are judged based on their looks far more and far more narrowly than men. They are expected to look pretty, sexy, and youthful. Actually, both mainstream Chinese and mainstream American culture have trouble imagining a woman who is pretty and sexy without looking youthful. I once heard a guy once asked a professional makeup artist why old men look dignified, but old women don’t. The professional makeup artist said this was 100% cultural, and has nothing to do with physical appearances.
The main purpose of this type of ‘female beauty’ is to please men.
One of the villains, Ke Shi, is a middle-aged woman who has managed to maintain her youthful appearance. She considers her looks as a tool to manipulate males and, thus, take their power. Likewise, she considers her young and pretty daughter to be an asset that she can trade with a man to acquire more power. Ironically, in her quest for power, she is submitting to the idea that a woman’s place is to be youthful and pretty to satisfy men’s desires.
By contrast, Lian Nichang likes youth and beauty for its own sake, not as a bait for males. Having been raised by wolves, she didn’t grow up with patriarchy. She doesn’t hate men; she loves her adopted father Tie Feilong, and becomes good friends with Yue Mingke, not to mention that she falls in love with Zhuo Yihang. She simply treats men as she would anyone else.
People’s hair turning white while they are still young is a common trope in wuxia – in the Condor Trilogy alone there is not just one, but two characters under the age of 25 whose hair turns white. However, The Bride with White Hair explores this much more deeply.
I think white hair looks beautiful, and is a great way for a woman to look pretty while countering the male gaze. So at first I thought it was strange that Lian Nichang was so upset about the white hair. But it is an involuntary change, and she does value her youth, not to mention that the circumstances which cause her hair to turn white are extremely distressing.
Nonetheless, she at one point puts on a mask which makes her look like an old woman (aside from the hair, she still looks young). This was clearly a move to reject the male gaze.
Meanwhile, Zhuo Yihang is much more preoccupied with Lian Nichang’s looks than, well, her feelings. When he meets Lian Nichang disguised as an old woman, his response is “in my heart you look just the same as when I met you” (as in, he wouldn’t value her if she looked like an old woman in his heart) and “I will find an elixir which will restore your youth” (this time, he’s serious).
Since this is a society-wide problem, the female characters either have to take it, or sacrifice their social life (particularly the prospect of romance). Tie Feilong had made Mu Jiuniang his concubine because he wanted a pretty young female to satisfy his desires, and he doesn’t think about her feelings until it is too late (he deeply regrets that). Mu Jiuniang happily leaves him … but the man she marries ends up being even worse. Meanwhile, the Red Flower Devil Woman (a badass swordswoman) had left her husband because he didn’t respect her … but her own son Gongsun Lei is like his father, and considers women to be mere sex objects. Eventually, he is murdered out of revenge for a rape he had committed. “Find a lover who respects gender equality” is not helpful advice when a) you’re looking for a male lover and b) males who respect gender equality are in very short supply.
Even Lian Nichang doesn’t escape from this unscathed.
A Surprise that Made Me Think
While reading the novel, I expected this story to have a very predictable ending. Then actual ending turns out to be quite different from the “predictable” ending I imagined.
This made me think hard about the story, and helped me appreciate the novel in a much deeper way. Lian Nichang grew up among wolves, who didn’t teach her how a woman should act. She doesn’t do what a woman “should” do, she does what she wants to do. And that’s less predictable.
Availability in English
Naturally, this novel has not been published in English.
As far as I know, the only version of this story which is available legally in English is the 1993 movie. Speaking of the movie, I find Albert A. Dalia’s comparison of Lian Nichang and Mulan intriguing.
Now that I’ve read this novel, I now get why it’s difficult to have a serious conversation about gender and feminism in the wuxia genre without discussing this story. Even compared to wuxia novels written by women, or the other Liang Yusheng novels I’ve read, it is shockingly feminist. Heck, compared to most novels by women I’ve read in English, it is shockingly feminist. And it’s hard to shock me with feminism.
That said, this novel has plenty of flaws … much of it is totally non-memorable. But the memorable parts are enough to make this a must-read for anybody who can read Chinese and has an interest in wuxia and/or gender roles.
Next time: The Flying Guillotine (movie)
Sara K. is also shocked that she stayed up past her bed time to working on this post.