Chapter eleven. They have finally reached a country that’s… a generic Western Europelandian thing, apparently. I’m not saying that just to be mean; Cindy Pon admits that she doesn’t base Jiang Dao on anywhere or time period in particular, which makes certain of her decisions particularly telling–but we’ll get to that later in the final analyses.
For now, though, we’re back on familiar ground!
A young woman glided down the winding staircase. She was wearing a dress Ai Ling could never have imagined. It was tight-fitting and a luminous green on top, with a full skirt in a deeper forest green that must have been created from many layers. The sleeves hugged her arms to the elbow, but ended in cascades of cream lace. Her eyes held Ai Ling’s for a brief moment.
Ah Na turned to Chen Yong and extended her arm, a smile playing at the corners of her rouged lips. He bowed awkwardly and took her hand. Jealousy so strong that her stomach cramped swept through Ai Ling.
Ah Na is a thoroughly, plainly, incredibly white girl. Ai Ling sees her, the first white woman she’s encountered in her life, and her immediate reaction is to break into jealousy hives. What is wrong with this picture, class? What do we call it when women of color are portrayed as automatically jealous of white girls? Exactly.
To be fair, Ai Ling is jealous and petty toward any woman she thinks is more attractive than she is, but seriously: Ah Na is the only (1) white woman she meets in the entire book. I’m serious. Apparently Master Deen’s mansion has no female staff of any sort and he chooses to surround himself entirely in sausages (ho ho ho).
(Spoilers: Ah Na turns out to be calculating, seductive, unfaithful and gold-digging. This is my shocked face.)
He seemed confused for a moment, then laughed. “No. My father and mother are not together. I haven’t seen him in three years. My mother took a new lover, a much younger lover.”
Ai Ling tried to wipe the shock from her face. A woman choosing a younger lover? Free of her husband? “Your ways are very different here,” she said.
He extended his long legs in front of him and rested the heels of his hands on the bench they had settled on. “Oh? How so? Tell me about Xia. Uncle has talked about it a few times, but not much. Now I understand why not.”
“I cannot say it well in Jiang.” She blushed.
“You’re speaking very well.”
“Women in Xia cannot choose lovers. They have one husband, and they stay with that husband.”
His light green eyes danced with amusement. “Really? That is different. So the man may choose his wife?”
“It is usually…done by the parents. But when men are older, they can choose other wives.”
He looked taken aback. “More than one wife?”
I can basically hear Cindy Pon chanting WEST IS BEST, WEST IS BEST in the background.
“But what will people think? I haven’t seen any women yet. Do they travel unchaperoned?”
Peng laughed. “Ai Ling, in Jiang Dao the women behave however they please.”
Basically China is the LAND OF OPPRESSION and WEST IS BEST WEST IS BEST ALL OF THE WEST IS A MAGICAL LA-LA LAND OF EQUALITY. Now would anyone like to name any time period where, in the west, women could behave “however they pleased”? Pre-Christian Germanic tribes? Decent–almost as progressive as feudal Thailand really, there there don’t feel bad, my primitive western friends–but not quite. What about medieval Europe? Uhhhm. How about Victorian England? Oh yeah, no chaperons there, guys. Women? Took lovers openly. Behaved however they pleased. Divorced their husbands at will. Could inherit and own lands/properties, no problemo, no sir. Which history books has Cindy Pon been reading? A White Supremacist’s Memoir: The Revisionist’s Encyclopedia Britannica? The White Man’s Burden: Educating Chinks on the Natural Superiority of the West? And, yes, everything I’ve mentioned applies magically to Pon’s generic westerneuropelandian country. All the court women who vied for kings’ attentions (and to have heirs) in, say, England? LIES. FILTHY LIES.
This “women in the west are soooo liberated” thing becomes the book’s leitmotif whenever Jiang Dao’s culture comes up and it’s just as insufferable as it sounds. I can’t imagine how much more awful it would be coming from a white writer, but it’s bad as it is. It’s especially problematic because Cindy Pon chooses to portray Chinese culture fairly precisely–even if she gets a lot of things and attitudes painfully wrong and I’ll address that later–but when it comes to Western Whitelandia she goes and makes up this impossible idyllic fantasy that bears no resemblance to anything on Earth historically, a land where women can “behave however they please”, openly fuck whoever they like, and suffer neither censure nor social stigma from it. This country? Never existed. Still doesn’t exist. Considering Jiang Dao seems to most closely resemble Victorian/Regency England (even though, inexplicably, Ai Ling has no trouble adjusting to the climate–indeed the climate doesn’t seem any different from fake!China; apparently they’re still in the same hemisphere), the concept becomes even more tenuous and ridiculous. “Do they travel unchaperoned?” indeed.
tl;dr Cindy Pon suffers from an acute case of White Fever. Super-gross. Last but not least, for someone who claims to “support my LGBT friends” it’s funny how heteronormative (and BAYBEEEEE-centric) her books are. Like, everyone’s so straight you can use them as rulers. This becomes doubly funny when you realize that male homosexuality (and bisexuality) in ancient China was regarded with varying attitudes but certainly documented, and during particular periods/in particular contexts was more or less considered a-okay, quite unlike the SUPER PROGRESSIVE WEST where thanks to the Church homosexuality was a no-no. OH YEAH THE WEST IS THE BEEEEST and most SEXUALLY LIBERATED woo.