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Readers of wuxia stories often want happy endings for the protagonists, where they become the strongest and leave their ties to the Jiānghú behind to enjoy their lives. This style of ending is apparent in quite a few of Jin Yong’s works, from the ending of Return of the Condor Heroes where Yang Guo and Xiao Long Nü become some of the strongest swordsmen in their time, only to walk off to enjoy their lives together in the Living Person’s Tomb, to Di Yun of A Deadly Secret who, after a life of being wronged, leaves the Jiānghú to find someone waiting for him in the frozen cave they had spent so long together.

Of these examples, there are many patterns in the story that are largely similar, with both protagonists suffering some form of dismemberment. Yang Guo loses his right arm because of someone’s fit of anger, and Di Yun loses all the fingers of his right hand—and is tortured—because of a jealous rival. Both characters only attain their new levels of skill after these events. Yang Guo discovers the cave of Dugu Qiubai and learns his long lost sword skills, while Di Yun befriends an incredibly powerful martial artist to learn the Shenzhao Manual, and later also learns the Blood Sabre form from the Blood Sabre founder. Another commonality is that both of these stories are linked to a secret manual of skill. In Return of the Condor Heroes, we learn that the Book of Nine Yin is kept in seclusion in the Living Person’s Tomb; this book was the cause of the drama in the Jiānghú in the Condor Trilogy as it grants incredible power. In A Deadly Secret, Di Yun’s Shifu and others are all chasing after the secret behind their Tang Poetry-style sword form.

Their similarities are not just limited to specific events in their personal lives, but extend to their romantic relationships as a whole and to how the other members of the Jiānghú treat them. Di Yun ends up needing to defend another Jiānghú member, Shui Sheng, from being assaulted and is then accused of having improper relations with her. Their relationship went unspoken and was never acted upon in the story, even in the end, there was only the implication that they became a couple. However, during the course of their relationship, Di Yun did everything he could to protect Shui Sheng and take care of her, only to be accused by other members of the Jiānghú of having kidnapped and assaulted her. Yang Guo’s romantic relationship with Xiao Long Nü caused a schism between him and his father’s sworn brother, Guo Jing. Yang Guo was willing to die at the hand of Guo Jing for his love.

Taking these threads of commonality in how Jin Yong writes his protagonists, there is one who is an exception and they turn into an antagonist. Perhaps, with this character, Jin Yong may have inadvertently written about how society treats the marginalised in his work The Smiling, Proud Wanderer.

In the story, we are vaguely introduced to the mysterious, evil leader of the Sect of the Sun and Moon—Dongfang Bubai, whose name can be understood as “Undefeated”. Dongfang Bubai attained all the same things Yang Guo and Di Yun did—became nearly invincible, found someone they cared about, and then left the Jiānghú.

Much like the Condor Trilogy and A Deadly Secret, the story of The Smiling, Proud Wanderer starts by focusing on an immensely valuable skill—the Bixie Sword form—that can be attained: a sect who is desperate to find its secrets, and later decides to murder all seventeen people of the Lin family. The presence of violence, or the threat of violence for an item that promises power.

Our main protagonist, Linghu Chong, is a member of the Mount Hua Sect. His Shifu, Yue Buqun is the leader of Mount Hua Sect, and takes in the surviving member of the Lin family massacre, Lin Pingzhi.

Jin Yong sets up the reader to see the Jiānghú of Smiling, Proud Wanderer as a black-and-white, us-versus-them world. There is the Sect of the Sun and Moon, and The Five Mountain Sect Alliance. The Alliance members perceive the Sect of the Sun and Moon as the “evil cult” and believe so strongly that the Sect of the Sun and Moon is so evil that anyone not willing to kill on sight is a person that is also evil. Take, for example, a scene where Mount Heng Sect’s Liu Zhengfeng leaves the Jiānghú by washing their hands in the golden basin. The ceremony was interrupted by the members of Mount Song, the leading sect of the Alliance, because Liu Zhengfeng knew Qu Yang was a member of the Sect of the Sun and Moon, and they were still close friends. They wanted to leave so they could continue their friendship. Even though Liu Zhengfeng tried to hide the real reason for leaving the Jiānghú behind some fake reward from the government, it was later revealed that they had a close friend who was a part of the Sect of the Sun and Moon. In order to get Liu Zhengfeng to sell out his friend and kill him, the members of Mount Song started to threaten and, later, kill his family. Liu Zhengfeng never complied, and his friend tried to save him. Neither of them escaped alive in the end.

In this black-and-white world, the reader’s point of view is one of shades of gray, showing us that not everything is as it seems. From Linghu Chong’s first introduction, he is already viewed as a person who doesn’t follow what is considered to be the proper behaviour of a good sect member. He is accused of mingling with a serial rapist, Tian Boguang, and kidnapping a fellow sect member, Yi Lin. Over the course of his subsequent fights and encounters with Tian Boguang, they become friends as Tian Boguang changes his ways. Linghu Chong’s actions continue to blur the line between good and evil when he ends up drawing his own blood to save the daughter of a member of the Sect of the Sun and Moon.

After many such events, eventually, Linghu Chong is exiled from the Mount Hua Sect. However, he doesn’t seek revenge or retaliation. Rather, he disguises himself and protects Yi Lin and her sect members on one of their trips. Even when hunted by other “good” groups of the Jiānghú, Linghu Chong does his best to avoid conflict or to resolve the conflict with as little injury or loss of life as possible.

Linghu Chong walks the line between both sides of the Jiānghú; therefore, it is often difficult to fault his choices, as he doesn’t base his definitions of good and evil based on what the Jiānghú world has taught him, but rather on the people themselves.

Eventually our protagonist meets, and later falls in love with Ren Yingying, the daughter of the former leader of the Sect of Sun and Moon. We also get to meet the former leader and upper echelon members of this sect, Ren Woxing and Xiang Wentian. Ren Woxing’s name is a pun meant to say “I do what I want” and Xiang Wentian is “To ask the heavens”. Ren Woxing seeks to reclaim his position as the leader. The names of these two characters represent ways certain members of our society approach the problems they face. These two characters are both there to help Linghu Chong defeat the mysterious Dongfang Bubai.

By the time the reader actually meets Dongfang Bubai, it is revealed that Dongfang Bubai never handles any affairs of the Sect of the Sun and Moon anymore; everything is handed off to a person by the name of Yang Lianting. The heroes devise a plan to be able to meet Dongfang Bubai in person by capturing Yang Lianting.

In the first scene where the reader meets Dongfang Bubai, we are shown that the room is decorated with many flowers, and is more of a woman’s room than a man’s room. At first, the reader is led to believe that this is one of Dongfang Bubai’s lovers’ rooms. As the faceoff scene unfolds between the protagonist’s party and Dongfang Bubai, we first learn that Yang Lianting is more than just a random person: he is the lover of Dongfang Bubai. This is evident from the first time the reader hears Dongfang Bubai’s voice where they refer to Yang Lianting as “Lian di”, instead of their full name, and then quickly mention that the room they arrive in is one where only Yang Lianting is allowed to enter.

The conversation quickly turns hostile as Dongfang Bubai figures out that his lover is being held hostage. Yet during all of this hostility, Dongfang Bubai is working on embroidery and then taking care of Yang Lianting as society would expect a wife to take care of their husband. Before long, fighting begins between the two sides. Even when outnumbered and out-armed, with each member of the protagonist's party is using their own weapons, Dongfang Bubai fights with sewing needles. In the end, the only way the protagonists win is because one of the members decides not to join the fight, but instead to torture the already injured Yang Lianting, distracting Dongfang Bubai and eventually killing them. Dongfang Bubai dies because they wanted to save their lover, and not because they were not strong enough.

While one may be curious about the actions of Yang Lianting when he was handling the affairs of the Sect of the Sun and Moon, the one thing that is clear is that Dongfang Bubai did care for Yang Lianting, and it’s very possible Yang Lianting felt the same way. So within these short pages, it’s been established that Dongfang Bubai has two commonalities with the protagonists of other stories: One, be the strongest—Dongfang Bubai fought a one-versus-many fight using only a sewing needle and was still on the verge of victory before sacrificing themself to save their lover. Two, leave the Jiānghú and enjoy their life—Dongfang Bubai, after becoming the most powerful person in the Sect of Sun and Moon, decided they didn’t want to lead the sect anymore, thus handing over the management of affairs to their lover, Yang Lianting.

In the aftermath, we discover the underlying secret behind Dongfang Bubai: the Sunflower Manual. The Sunflower Manual is the origin for why the story started in the first place, because it is the source of the Bixie Sword form. It is revealed that the Sunflower Manual was actually written by an eunuch. The first page’s instruction is “to learn this skill, you must self-castrate”. Ren Woxing, when he first became the Leader of the Sect of the Sun and Moon, laughed at the thought and refused to practice it. However, Dongfang Bubai did not shy away from it.

Thus, the first two commonalities between Yang Guo and Di Yun’s stories are linked here to Dongfang Bubai. Dongfang Bubai’s self-castration was still a form of dismemberment, even though theirs was voluntary. Their story also revolved around a book that promised great power if discovered, much like the Book of Nine Yin or the secret of the Tang Poems.

We also see from the beginning of the scene that Dongfang Bubai had actually successfully left the Jiānghú, and only wanted to embroider and take care of their lover. This is much like in the end of Return of the Condor Heroes where Yang Guo and Xiao Long Nü return to live out their lives in the Living Person Tomb, or in A Deadly Secret where all the treasure was found to be poisoned and Di Yun returned to live with Shui Sheng. The other characters in the scene where Dongfang Bubai is taking on the expected role of a woman react with repulsion and surprise, feeling “confused and disgusted”, and even Linghu Chong calls Dongfang Bubai “老妖怪" or “old monster”. Yang Guo’s determination to be with Xiaolong Nü broke the rules of the Jiānghú at the time because Xiaolong Nü was also his Shifu, and many considered that to be an unacceptable relationship. Di Yun was framed again, this time by Shui Sheng’s father’s sworn brother as an evildoer that deserved to die.

The Bixie Sword form also had the same requirement as the Sunflower Manual, which is why, when others learned it without the self-castration, they could not channel the proper neigong to make the sword form as powerful as it once was. Yet, the self-castration is not enough to define the difference between Dongfang Bubai and the other characters who later on learned the Bixie Sword form, such as Yue Buqun and Lin Pingzhi.

The difference is that Dongfang Bubai is transgender. In the first exchanges between Dongfang Bubai and the others, they even mention that if they could exchange places with Ren Yingying, Ren Woxing’s daughter, they could “give up their position as the head of the Sect of Sun and Moon, and wouldn’t even care to be the Emperor.” As Dongfang Bubai is dying, they say “If I was born a woman, that would have been better…” This sets Dongfang Bubai apart from the other characters who are self-castrated because Dongfang Bubai has accepted themself for who they are. And because Dongfang Bubai is transgender, the entire story of The Smiling, Proud Wanderer can be seen as a tragedy for our antagonist who walked the protagonist path. They did everything the same way our other heroes such as Yang Guo and Di Yun have, and yet they didn’t get the same happy ending as those characters. Dongfang Bubai is simply less of an antagonist and more of a character who was painted as one.

Neither Yue Buqun nor Lin Pingzhi were able to accept themselves after learning the Bixie Sword skill. Both of them eventually met their own end, because of the requirement of self-castration as neither of them were the same person as before they started learning the Bixie Sword form. Both started making decisions that were at odds with their original character. However, Dongfang Bubai did not seem incapable of making sound decisions. Rather, they made the decision any other protagonist would have made after attaining the pinnacle of their Jiānghú achievement and finding someone they cared about: leaving the Jiānghú to live their lives.

One could argue that, in the fight scene where Dongfang Bubai does kill one of their dear friends, Tong Baixiong, they are also making an irrational decision. We should remember that the relationship between Yang Lianting and Dongfang Bubai seems to be genuine, and that, in a world where Dongfang Bubai presents as a woman, when everyone who knew him as before as a man, Yang Lianting was the only one to accept them for who they are. So Dongfang Bubai’s decision to protect the one person who they care about and who cares about them does not seem so far-fetched.

Although Dongfang Bubai’s written story unfolds within pages, and the reader does not get first-hand experience of their story prior to moments before their end. The beginning had already set the world as a “good vs evil” situation, where the Sect of the Sun and Moon is the evil side, and Dongfang Bubai is the leader of this great evil organisation. We see how the members of the organisation act, how they treat each other and other members of the Jiānghú, but we never actually see Dongfang Bubai. The revelation that Yang Lianting is the person handling all the affairs and using the name of Dongfang Bubai challenges the thought that Dongfang Bubai is evil, since they had already stopped managing the affairs of the Sect. The relationship between Yang Lianting and Dongfang Bubai can be genuine and the fact that Yang Lianting has ruthless ambition and cruelty can also be true. The actual revelation of who Dongfang Bubai is unfolds within a few pages of the entire story. Dongfang Bubai walked the path that every protagonist has walked. Before Dongfang Bubai kills Baixiong, they and Baixong recount all the hardships and difficulties they faced together, from being surrounded by enemies to killing fellow sect members who opposed Dongfang Bubai’s rise to the head of the sect. These are all very close to scenarios that other Jin Yong protagonists have faced.

Yang Guo and Di Yun are both cisgender males who existed in similar storylines, experienced the same trials, and lived the same paths. Yet when the same path is walked by a transgender character, that character is now the antagonist: Dongfang Bubai. That difference was the only difference between a happy ending and a tragic ending for our protagonist that wasn’t.

Perhaps Jin Yong didn’t set out to write Dongfang Bubai as a tragic protagonist turned antagonist, but in my multiple readings of The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, I couldn’t help but see this as a scenario that is reflected in our society today. The Smiling, Proud Wanderer is considered to be one of Jin Yong’s more political works. It was written in 1967, at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Scholars[1] have discussed the representation of the characters and organisations in the story compared from the political climate. From the satire of depicting the many sects and major characters as political factions and politicians to the commentary of the treatment on the arts during the Cultural Revolution. Jin Yong’s writing also included the struggle of trans people. But much like our society today, what the characters see and discuss touches upon topics surrounding trans people but hardly ever focuses on them. We can even recognise that they go through the same struggles as the people who are praised as heroes.

Dongfang Bubai is not that different from Yang Guo or Di Yun. The Smiling, Proud Wanderer may read like a heroic epic, but if read from the viewpoint of Dongfang Bubai, it is a tragedy. Perhaps Linghu Chong serves as a tale of caution—to not blindly believe what others tell you. Dongfang Bubai did not personally commit any crimes in the story, but Tian Boguang did. Linghu Chong’s relationship with Tian Boguang was untainted by outside viewpoints and they eventually became friends. But Linghu Chong’s viewpoint of Dongfang Bubai was fed only through the lens of the Jiānghú and Ren Woxing. Linghu Chong, in so many ways, is another reflection of society, of the fact that we are willing to forgive misogyny before we accept trans people. And because of this, our misunderstanding and misguided beliefs are fed by those with ulterior motives.

Many trans and marginalised people in our world can do the exact same things that everyone else has done to overcome challenges and find happiness, only for others to come in and do what they want as Ren Woxing did, and probably, when asked why, they would simply say Xiang Wentian: to ask the heavens. And perhaps we the readers, who are told this story from Linghu Chong’s point of view, should do more to question the actions of people before blindly following along to cause harm.

 

 

[1] The Political Parable of The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, and The Reformation of Ming Pao Daily (1962-1969), Chan, So-man, Fung Chi-wang, 2007. Link: https://www.airitilibrary.com/Publication/alDetailedMesh?docid=19914822-200712-x-22-97-123-a



Johnny is a Taiwanese American game developer with a passion for wuxia, xianxia, and other sino-inspired sci-fi fantasy works. He hopes to introduce more people to these genres through all types of media with a focus on games. You can find him on twitter @Orangepeelpanda.
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