The apocalypse in Feng Ce Chang An (凤策长安) presents an event involving destruction and change on a catastrophic scale. The 2021 novel, by the Chinese author, Feng Qing, presents heroism in a world overtaken and rampaged by enemies due to an incompetent emperor, resulting in the suppression of the Tianqi people. This notion of heroism is present in many Chinese texts. In the past, ancient texts
like the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) place males as the evident hero. Respect was accorded to women only for carrying out set roles established by society (Li). On the contrary, a popular Chinese novel in 1961, Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Sabre (倚天屠龙记), introduced Nü Xia, who are female heroes. However, they are still subjugated to the sidelines and their “altruism and related virtues (such as patriotism) made them acceptable and non-threatening to the then rigid patriarchal social order.” (Chen 3). As a modern novel, Feng Ce Chang An shows women stepping out of the normative roles they are given by traditional Chinese culture.
The novel begins when Chu Ling, the ‘Goddess Blood Fox’, is transported to another world, facing the aftereffects of the war between Tianqi and the Mo. She goes into a body of a 13-year-old child and takes on her memories and identity while retaining memories of her previous world where she was around her twenties, making her more quick-witted and wise. The child is the Tianqi princess but is born destitute due to the emperor’s family being captured by their enemies of the Mo Clan. The Mo Clan took over the capital, Shang Jing, displacing half the Tianqi population to their smaller state and the other half put into slavery or used as expendable soldiers. The Mo people wanted to use the captives as leverage to negotiate terms for their release. But their plan failed when they realised that Tianqi’s people did not hold women in equal regard to men. Hence, the women were left to die and abused in a dilapidated yard. Chu Ling regards herself as a bystander, having no attachments to this world. Her only goal was to survive and bring back her friend that could have also traversed through another dimension into this world. But as she journeys through, makes new friends, and finds her family, she slowly takes up her identity and responsibilities to protect those she holds dear to her.
In Chinese culture, the term Nü Xia is positively associated with female heroes. However, after the war, they are expected to return to their traditional roles or private lives (Chen 2-3). How did the apocalypse in Feng Ce Chang An lead to more positive perceptions of female heroes? As a modern novel, to what extent does the novel continue to confine its heroines similar to that of Nü Xia heroines?
I argue that even though women empowerment is present in Feng Ce Chang An, ingrained ideologies of women’s role in society remain strongly fixated. The apocalyptic war, in which people prioritise survival, reduces the emphasis on gendered roles. But there is still existing discrimination that women are less capable than men. While I disagree with these misogynistic views, I acknowledge that these ideas continued to exist in traditional Chinese history.
Seeing is believing: changed perspectives of women being heroes
society views women more positively after witnessing women breaking stereotypes and accomplishing impossible tasks. With the effect of World War II, that paved the way for women’s rights, heroes in the novel can be seen to be written to encompass the term ‘Women warrior’, which is not just fighting for their country but also withstanding “oppressive patriarchal social order” (Chen 3). This is especially relevant for the protagonist Chu Ling. First, the ministers in power were afraid of losing whatever they had left — their family, wealth and position if they tried to fight back against the Mo. Hence, they were adamantly against Chu Ling’s ambitions to wage war against the Mo. Second, the Emperor, not having the required skills to lead the country, resorted to yielding to requests by his ministers. Thus, the Emperor has almost no say in decisions made in court. Inter alia, with the strict Chinese beliefs restricting women’s roles, Chu Ling being made a war hero should have been considered a radical idea and condemned immediately. However, despite the odds, the ministers eventually acknowledged Chu Ling to be capable of leading an army and being on par with the world’s strongest warriors.
This acknowledgement was not easy to obtain. Throughout the novel, in many instances, heroines are judged first by their looks rather than their skills. According to Haslanger, the social relations present in this society are that women are solely “treated as objects for the satisfaction of men’s desire.”(3). Hence, women work twice as hard or even more to show their prowess. Zhu Yao Hong, a comrade of Chu Ling, was placed as a general under Chu Ling. While negotiating with a dispersed portion of the Mo army, the generals were noted to have been eyeing her figure, wanting to capture her and take her as a concubine. Only when one of the generals revealed her critical contribution as a spy to the uprising in the Mo clan that they see her in a new light. Their changed reactions towards Zhu Yao Hong were of fear. They now feel threatened by her as an equal and give her the respect she deserves. Whilst she was looked down upon previously for being a woman undeserving of the high military position.
I will not discount that these opportunities evinced that women are more capable than just being good mothers, obedient wives or filial daughters. Many heroines in Feng Ce Chang An demonstrated their intelligence, quick-wittedness and strength, made enormous contributions to the restoration of their country and defied the societal expectations of women. However, these are exceptions as such conditions do not always arise.
Exceptionalism: Women and War
Circumstances of the war make these women empowerment exceptions. War is not something that always arises, hence women breaking social norms is solely based on opportunities and is temporary. I argue that women’s empowerment in the novel is limited to specific types of individuals. The apocalypse gave some women opportunities to break gender norms in this society. Chu Ling has obtained cultural capital due to the unique circumstances of the setting of the world she is in. The strife between Tianqi and the Mo Clan allowed Chu Ling to step up to lead an army, proving herself through her military success as the “Little General”. As a female, Chu Ling took on a male role of a general, to lead an army. It is a significant achievement not just because she is the “weaker” gender, but also because the army consists of a merger of soldiers from different backgrounds. This made it harder to integrate the different groups of soldiers due to conflicting interests and identities among the groups, but she made it happen. Chu Ling disguises herself in one of her missions in enemy territory. This coincidentally catches the attention of the general, Tuo Ba Xing Ye, who saw her potential in fighting and takes her as his student whilst not knowing her true identity. Her status as the only student of the most highly regarded general made her more qualified as a leader and ranking as one of the top few in the wuxia world. The aftereffects of war and strife still exist, making these achievements possible and critical for Chu Ling to prove her abilities and defy her gender role in society. She also has social capital as the princess of Tianqi, a sworn sibling of a gang of vigilantes and friends that hold a lot of power. All these allowed her to gather enough manpower to fight against the Mo. This can be seen in terms of life chances. Even Max Weber, a German sociologist, summarises life chances to be the socioeconomic status and social location positively correlating to the opportunities and quality of those opportunities that one has. Just being at the right place at the right time gives people a chance to change their lives.
This women’s empowerment is also temporary. In reality, historical wars with substantial differences in women’s roles and participation tend to be short-term. Other than American women in World War II being an exception, ideologies of women’s roles do not change on the cardinal level (Greenwald 124–126). Concomitantly, in Feng Ce Chang An, after they win the war, most of the women go back to their lives, getting married, and living the remainder of their lives ‘peacefully’. The outliers are women who were not part of aristocratic families, since they had to earn their living. But that was no different for women before the war since poorer families had women help work to support the family. The war definitely created some changes in society’s view of women but the conservative stronghold remains unchanged.
Furthermore, while there are women in high-ranking positions in the military, it is only a small proportion. Naysayers may argue that the heroines in Feng Ce Chang An defied gendered norms and used their feminity to their advantage to contribute to their ultimate goal of getting back their capital city and freeing their people from slavery. But from Turpin’s point of view, most women during a war are relegated to traditionally feminine roles in the military like secretaries, nurses and technicians (9-10). This is evident in the opportunities given to the heroines in Feng Ce Chang An. For instance, Zhu Yao Hong was placed as a spy only because she was a woman and could infiltrate the harem, which was only for women of the Emperor. Furthermore, Xiao Yan Er, a poison doctor and Ah Duo, a businesswoman in charge of the finances of the military, all fall into the stereotype of women being pacifists. There are exceptions to Turpin’s view, such as Wan Feng, who played a crucial role in winning that battle at the sea border. Yet, this opportunity would not have been given at that time if not for Chu Ling, who came from a dimension with more modern views on gendered roles and lesser qualms about using women in critical tasks. Therefore, there was no overall change to society’s ideals on women’s roles in society.
Feng Ce Chang An exemplifies short-lived women empowerment in an apocalypse. Even though Feng Ce Chang An tries to depict women as having equal capabilities to men, it ironically tells readers that men do not need to prove themselves since they are assumed to be capable, while women have to show that they are capable and work harder to gain recognition. But I have to credit the author for covertly challenging the gender norms of traditional Chinese society.
The juxtaposition of Tianqi and the Mo Clan
The author shows how gender discrimination against women is double standard. What the Tianqi perceive of women to be lacking compared to men is ironically how the Mo people see the Tianqi men to be lacking. The Mo people in the novel are depicted with strong, muscular and tanned features with dominating and crude dispositions. While the Tianqi people are slender, fair and more civilised and educated compared to the Mo. Even though Tianqi people are more educated, they somehow are more conservative in their approach to gender roles than the Mo. In contrast to Tianqi women being kept in homes, remaining unseen and unheard, the Mo clan women are allowed to be given the same education as men and learn how to fight. This can be reasoned by the Mo people having a smaller population hence using women to maximise their manpower. However, by letting them have the same life chances as men, the Mo people believe that women can be independent and take care of themselves.
In addition, the Mo people have commented that Tianqi men are nearly as “fragile as women”. This is ironic as Tianqi men regard themselves as of higher status than women but yet their physiques are nearly similar to stereotypical representations of women. It questions the hegemonic ideologies of traditional Chinese placing men above women. According to Ebrey, in actual Chinese culture, they differentiate gender in terms of yin and yang, where women represent yin and men yang. Ebrey contrasts Yang to be “hard, assertive and dominating” while yin was “soft, yielding, and passive”. The Mo Clan people were more representative of yang than the men of Tianqi. It then contradicts their notion of men’s superiority since Mo clan women could embody yang characteristics while Tianqi men could embody the characteristics of yin. In this aspect, the novel proves that traditional hegemonic ideologies are accepted as the truth. But in reality, it is just a social construct decided by the dominant group. The representation of gender equality in the Mo clan subtly depicts how society villainises non-hegemonic views on gender roles just as the Mo clan acts as the antagonists in the novel. Therefore, I propose that gender is not a determinant of abilities.
In conclusion, Feng Ce Chang An stays true to the traditional and conservative ideals of that time while trying to instil feminist ideals in that conservative setting. Feng Ce Chang An counters the hegemonic ideologies of the traditional patriarchal Chinese society by empowering women by allowing them to be a heroine in an apocalyptic world, enunciating how modern views differ from the past, even if it falls short of the equal rights women deserve as well as short-lived.
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Greenwald, Maurine Weiner. Review of Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939–1945, by Leila J. Rupp. Business History Review 55.1 (1981): 124–126.
Haslanger, Sally. A Mind of One’s Own: On Being Objective and Being Objectified. Routledge, 2002.
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Turpin, Jennifer. “Many Faces: Women Confronting War.” The Women and War Reader. Ed. Lois Ann Lorentzen and Jennifer Turpin. New York University Press, 1998. 3-18.
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