Fury of the Phoenix posits one country, fake!China, as the land of oppression and misogyny. Women are treated like cattle, objectified, made to marry at young ages and unwilling. They cannot become officials, have no place in the palace except as concubines and servants, and so on. Fair enough: this is a fairly accurate criticism of ancient China’s sexism even if it’s undermined by Silver Phoenix (and Fury for that matter) being chock-full of internalized misogyny.
Next, let’s acknowledge that even today in the twenty-first century women do not have total sexual freedom, are not free from slut-shaming, and are still not equal to men. Fury introduces a second country to Cindy Pon’s world. Due to its generic vagueness, I shall hereafter refer to as generic!Whitelandia. It’s the place where women are more sexually liberated than women in the twenty-first century.
Now examine what we know about gender politics in generic!Whitelandia.
“How many years are you?” Her curiosity overrode decorum.
Peng laughed again. “You’re quite forthright. You’ll fit right in in Jiang Dao. If I may ask, how many years are you?”
This is the first instance in the book where Whitelandian culture is discussed and it is immediately made out to be super-egalitarian. The speaker, Peng, is from fake!China so we could take it as him missing nuances and insidious misogyny, but this unsurprisingly turns out not to be the case. Peng further adds:
“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.”
She glanced toward the small village and could not fathom what he meant.
Next, sexual freedom:
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?”
Ai Ling laughed at his stunned expression. “Yes.”
Already we are running up against some very odd ideas: that a Whitelandian country, based on a Western European model, which exists in the same time period as ancient China, is built on a culture where women’s sexual freedom is greater than that of today. We’re talking about a post-feminist society, with ideals ripped out of the 21st century–ideals that are still far from realized today, even (despite what smug first-worlders would like to believe) in the whitest and westernest areas–and shoved into what appears to be, at a guess, based on 16-18th century England. It denies the fact that western men had mistresses. It suggests nothing bad ever happens to white women because that’s just how superior, civilized white people roll. What is wrong with this picture?
Finally, land and property ownership and inheritance:
“True. But I believe what you tell me, Chen Yong. And Deen is a good man.” Peng leaned forward. “As the current patriarch of the family he has the responsibility to choose an heir. And I believe he favors his sister’s daughter.”
“Daughter!” Ai Ling exclaimed.
Peng laughed. “It’s not unusual. The women have as much power and rights as the men in this kingdom. This is what was hinted at when last I visited. He believes she is a better fit than her twin brother.”
Bypassing a male heir in favor of a girl? Ai Ling was stunned. “How old is she?”
Yeah, I’m stunned too. Not at how amazingly liberated the women of generic!Whitelandia are, but at how ridiculous and unlikely it is. I’m not saying that an author can’t make up some idyllic fantasylands where everything is nice and cool and egalitarian. Certainly a great deal of speculative fiction indulges in that.
Imagine me writing fantasy set in a country full of brown and yellow people. Women have been able to own, inherit, and run properties/businesses since feudal times. Trans people can be trans more or less openly, if not embraced and treated with respect then at least not subjected to violence and lynch-mobs. Women can walk around bare-breasted without being slut-shamed or sexually harassed. Slavery was abolished without any civil war happening. The dominant religion does not promote oppression of any sort and faith is firmly separated from the state. Its monarchs have always been more or less decent. Set alongside it is a country full of white people where women are chaperoned when they travel, have no rights to own/manage properties and businesses, trans people stay in the closet and die in the closet, and women n bmdress conservatively lest they be called harlots. These white people follow a primitive religion that promotes oppression, misogyny, slavery, murder, and just about every single form of bigotry that exists. Many of its kings are murderous, cruel, and some like to behead women for shits and giggles. Whenever people of these two cultures meet, the superiority, progressiveness and liberty of the former is constantly celebrated over the latter: the white women are desperately jealous of the brown women for all the freedoms they enjoy. You’d be annoyed too, even though both countries would be rooted in actual honest-to-goodness real-world cultures. Oh, by the way, the one with the brown and yellow people? Is where women got the right to vote basically the minute the men do. Managed to abolish slavery without causing a civil war too. Awesome, eh?
What Cindy Pon has done inverts this, except her version has nothing to do with reality, real-world history or nuances. Let’s take a look at her disclaimer:
The Kingdom of Xia is inspired by ancient China, but my \o not take place in an actual place or time in Chinese history. Jiang Dao is completely fabricated and not based on any particular countries in Europe.
So, on one hand we’ve got her writing a fantasyland based on China which–barring some rather embarrassing cultural cock-ups, factual errors and a lack of specificity (i.e. which dynasty?)–does a fair job of examining misogyny in the culture of ancient China. Then on the other, we’ve got this vaguely Regency/Victorian country inhabited by white people (and nothing but!), which she admits to making up out of unicorn vomit and dragon piss, where for some reason women are treated as equals to men and have total sexual liberty. In fact, even supposing I’m wrong about the Regency/Victorian resemblances (hard to tell because Pon’s world-building is phoned-in, long distance), Jiang Dao is distinctly Western European, dated anywhere from 16-18thcentury. It’s not Italy or Spain because the food doesn’t resemble either and there is nobody with even faintly brown skin around, and it’s not Greece. It’s so thinly sketched that all I can tell about it is the rough century due to an approximation of its tech level.
But I am certain about one thing: in no part of Western Europe, during these centuries, were women across all classes/social standings (and certainly not women from rich-landowning/trading families) able to fuck whoever they liked, divorce whenever they wanted to, have equal legal standings with men, and all the magical things the narrative apparently believes western women have been enjoying since times immemorial. That she made the decisions she did in portraying these countries–during a time in history where both their real-world analogues were pretty shitty to women–is disturbing and intellectually dishonest. The contrast they provide is not nuanced: nothing about Jiang Dao is portrayed negatively. Nobody is racist to the fake!Chinese people, nobody makes an issue of Chen Yong being mixed, there is no poverty, there’s no demonic attacks (except during the voyage from Xia), the government oppresses no one, everything smells wonderful and everyone dresses gorgeously. In contrast back in fake!China Chen Yong has been subjected to racism due to being mixed, Ai Ling and her mother were in danger of sinking into poverty, the emperor oppresses women and treats his courtiers cruelly, and there are demons ambushing travelers everywhere. Xia and Jiang Dao are very black and white, and it’s not hard to see just which one the narrative posits as black, and which one white, deserving of celebration as the closest analogue to today’s liberal ideals.
Ai Ling brushed stray wisps of hair from her face. “How does it feel?” she asked Chen Yong.
“It feels a little like coming home,” he said. “Almost as if I’ve seen these mountains before.”
Consider this: Chen Yong has never been to Jiang Dao. He’s never even seen it. I don’t know if he’s even read about, or seen paintings of the place.
And yet he instantly feels at home. What the fuck is this? Does whiteness convey genetic memory? “I AM PRE-BORN, FATHER”?
Throughout the books, there are–that I can tell–three instances of white people being described as the other:
#1: Yokan glanced up. His eyebrows were so light it appeared he had none. The effect was disconcerting.
Zhong Ye would never become used to the pale blue color of the foreigner’s eyes.
#2: Nik laughed. He was dressed in a sleeveless dark gray tunic that he wore over a cream shirt with wide sleeves. His gray trousers were tight, tapered to his legs, and [Ai Ling] could tell that the clothing was of fine craftsmanship. She sneaked brief glances at his face. His eyes were large and deep-set, his nose pointed and sharp; he was peculiar and foreign.
#3: Was this what Chen Yong’s father looked like? The men were tall, with pale yellow and light brown hair. Their brows were high; their noses, narrow and pointed. They dressed simply, in form-fitting tunics and trousers in muted earth tones.
That’s it. Keep in mind that Ai Ling has, prior to her arrival in Whitelandia, never seen a white person. Never ever. So it’s expected she would find them weird. But what I didn’t expect was how quickly she can adjust. Their skin color isn’t odd to her (despite the fact that, to someone who’s all vbnmfvbcfvcffher life seen only East Asian complexions, wouldn’t be used to the peculiar ruddiness Caucasoid skin can acquire–and freckles, too), their hair colors don’t strike her as anything unusual. About the only thing that throws her is… their noses, which admittedly would look pretty funny-shaped to someone who’s never run into Caucasians before. Zhong Ye is the only one who finds a white person’s coloring strange and truly other, and then only just the once. Tellingly, neither Ai Ling nor Chen Yong misses Xia once they are in generic!Whitelandia.
The rest of descriptions concerning white people are normative, written as if white is the default even though it’s from the perspective of someone to whom East Asian is the default and the ethnic majority.
#1: Her wheat-colored hair was in two braids, draped over her ample bosom. Her face was ruddy, and her round eyes were a clear light blue. She wore a loose dark green dress with a white tunic tied over it.
#2: 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 wore her honey-colored hair loose, and it fell in waves over her shoulders, perfectly framing her ivory face. Her eyes were a light green, like Nik’s.
#3: Something about Master Deen’s profile seemed familiar. He was the same age as her father, perhaps a few years older. His silver hair was cut close to his head, and he had a tall nose and a boldness in his features, even at his older age.
In the meantime, Asian features are repeatedly pointed out, as if they weren’t the default: I’m not going to quote exact passages because there are so very many. Suffice to say that Cindy Pon never stops pointing out that her fake!Chinese characters have dark eyes, dark hair, raven hair, obsidian eyes, ebony hair ad nauseum. With a quick text search of Fury I counted: 2 instances of raven hair, 1 of obsidian eyes, 1 of ebony hair, and endless “dark hair/dark brow/dark eyes.” When you live in a place where everyone’s hair and eyes are dark, would you go on about it constantly? After a certain point it’s like pointing out that every person has a nose. It’s absurd.
There’s this feeling I always got from Silver Phoenix that it’s not really written for people like me; it’s tailored to the white gaze. It doesn’t click. The setting and its culture don’t feel real or convincing or anything but flimsy and shiny and cheap. Jhameia put it best here:
I’m personally not crazy about Silver Phoenix for several reasons beyond the veiled misogyny, but I was refraining from saying anything until I re-read it because I was wonder if I hated on it for its presentation of Chinese culture for an obviously white gaze, and I don’t want to hate on American-diasporic Chinese just because they express their Chineseness differently than I do.
Also, I remember being VERY turned off by the impression I got in that the main love interest seemed to be a dude who was half-white? I remember feeling really betrayed by the idea that the Asian hero can only be desirable if he has some whiteness in him. I need to re-read the book to find out where I got this idea from, though. But I got the distinct feeling he was half-white, and I couldn’t understand why this was necessary.
Setting aside the concern over different ways to express Chineseness, Silver Phoenix and Fury don’t read, to me, like a China-based fantasy. It reads like cheap exoticism leveraged to secure a gullible white audience’s ohhhh-ahhhh. Admittedly my sample is very tiny, but I’ve yet to talk to anyone of a Chinese heritage born and bred in Asia (as opposed to American/British-born Chinese, whom I don’t meet in real life) who thinks Pon’s “Kingdom of Xia” is anything special. It achieves less verisimilitude than the lowest-budget wuxia shoot, and far less charm. Current-gen wuxia titles are less terrible about women, too. Hell, old-school wuxia was less terrible about women than these fucking books. Honest to god.
Cultural Cock-Ups & Missing Pieces
I’d really like someone to explain to me why, in books where people get names like Ai Ling, Chen Yong, Zhong Ye, Mei Gui, Li Rong and so on… why is there a “Silver Phoenix” instead of Yin Fenghuang? Again, referring to the white gaze thing, it reminds me of how many western writers like to translate Chinese names literally, or give their faux-Chinese characters names made of common nouns they believe are like Chinese names, usually to do with jade, lotuses, dragons or, come to think of it, phoenixes.
Plunging on, and believe me wading through unicorn vomit and dragon shit is no fun, I find Silver Phoenix’s instant horror at Zhong Ye’s claim of having found the means to immortality mystifying.
It was hard for him to meet her eyes. “I believe I’ve discovered a way to extend my life. To extend yours.”
She stiffened and leaned away. “It’s that alchemist. He’s put strange ideas in your head.”
“Not strange, love. Think of the possibilities. The Emperor is a drunkard, a slave to his libido. He couldn’t make the right choice for a banquet menu if he had to.”
Silver Phoenix didn’t speak, would not look at him.
“Please don’t do it again, Zhong,” she whispered. “It’s wrong, unnatural.”
Okay. So I’ll give that Pon isn’t basing fake!China on real China (if she did Xia would be much more interesting and true than this mess of generic D&D-esque shit), but… this is off. Take a look at some Chinese epics and wuxia titles, and you’re going to find fucktons of immortal sages walking around. They’re dime a dozen. The idea of humans obtaining immortality through training and enlightenment is not strange or unnatural, even among Buddhists. That SP automatically assumes it’s some dark magic, when in fact Rapeman might have been about to say “hay baybee, I found this sage who’s gonna take me on and train me in the path to enlightenment + immortality, wanna come with? :D :D,” is peculiar.
Pon’s prioritization of the west may be insufferable, but it doesn’t seem to have enhanced her research or her understanding of facts. Jiang Dao has orange trees, suggesting its climate may be tropical or sub-tropical and, therefore, not at all Western European. Even though all the trappings are very much W. European and the women wear fur trimmings:
Ai Ling continued to stare out the carriage window as they jounced over the cobblestones. She saw elegant women shopping along the main street, trailed by servants carrying bags and boxes. The women’s dresses were trimmed in furs and velvet and were as revealing and luxurious as Ah Na’s. They wore elaborate hats, oval or triangular, decorated with colorful flouncing feathers and jewels.
…which would suggest cold weather. Not tropical/sub-tropical. Maybe the orange trees don’t bear fruit or something, we’re just told they’re orange trees. Did I mention how sketchy the world-building is?
“The Deen family crest,” he said.
Chen Yong tilted his head back, his eyes narrowed slightly against the morning sunshine. “The oak tree for strength?” he asked.
Deen clasped Chen Yong’s shoulder; his face lifted up, as if he could see it as well. “And longevity. The pomegranate symbolizes abundance, prosperity.”
Okay so, yeah, Pon insists Whitelandia isn’t based on anything historical but what the fuck kind of heraldic device is this? It’s not just nonsensical, it’s obviously cobbled together from the non-imagination of an unimaginative writer whose familiarity with Europe ends at bad JRPGs. None of the Whitelandian characters has a last name. They are just Nik, Ah Na, and Deen. Again, what? Their religion is some weird polytheistic pagan thing that bears no relation to anything in the real world and, like polytheistic pagan faiths that show up in bad RPGs, isn’t particularly well-thought out. Which is to say it doesn’t influence anyone’s way of thought or has an effect on… eh, pretty much anything.
#1: She loved the sweet bread, however, stuffed with nuts and dried fruit. She helped herself to three thick slices accompanied by two cups of warm goat’s milk.
#2: Dinner had consisted of creamy squash and potato soup, braised lamb, and stewed plums drizzled in honey and cream.
As with Caucasian features, none of this weirds Ai Ling out. This is in spite of the fact that both goat’s milk and lamb have strong taste and smells, which can be quite off-putting for someone who’s never tried either before. Ai Ling also doesn’t find potato soup strange. It’s like the narrative is working double-time to make sure white people never get offended.
This is also a good place to note that the harbor in which the ship carrying Ai Ling drops anchor is pristine. No mention of garbage, bad smells, anything. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any peasant or laborers in Whitelandia. There’s no child labor, no prostitution, no lice in beds, no suggestion of an extant political structure beyond references to Whitelandia being a “kingdom” (whose monarch goes entirely unmentioned by the white characters), no crimes, no sense of religion or folklore, no sense of society and what its etiquette might be like. Ai Ling only meets two women there, one a baker and the other Ah Na, which further serves to undermine Pon’s attempt at post-feminism–it’s a bit hard to examine what the gender politics is like when women are vanishingly few and interactions between them are fleetingly rare. Beyond the women thing, Ai Ling experiences no culture shock. In fact, the whole thing comes off as a flimsy fantasyland conceived by a dense writer who doesn’t have any idea about history, sociology, anthropology or anything much… which is essentially what it is.
Next up: on familiar grounds–more internalized sexism! Can’t believe the amount of words and time I’m devoting to a couple of mediocre YA books? NEITHER CAN I, HAHA. ia ia cthulhu ftagn