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Modern Chinese Cinderella in Jiang Hu

Du Yan (National University of Singapore)

Adeline Yen Mah, Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society, London: Puffin Books, 2004, 280 pp., ISBN: 0-14-131496-6 Adeline Yen Mah, a well-known Chinese American children's writer, published Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society in 2004. This is another interesting novel for children in the wake of her Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter, which was published in 1998. Unlike the first autobiographical novel, Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society is a fantasy based on a true incident that happened in 1940s Shanghai when it was still under the rule of the imperial powers: Japan, France, and Britain. On 18 April 1942, sixteen American airmen bombed four Japanese cities. Two planes, one of them called the Ruptured Duck, crashed into the sea near China's Nan Tian Island. All airmen survived the crash. However, eight soldiers from two other US planes were captured by the Japanese a fter their planes crashed on territory occupied by Japan. Mah's story is set against this historical background. Mah also draws inspiration from the legend of Chinese Cinderella in You Yang Za Zu recorded by Duan Cheng-shi (AD 800-863) during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906) of ancient China. This Chinese Cinderella is named Ye Xian. Her stepmother mistreats her, but with the help of a golden fish she goes to a great `cave-festival' and loses one of her golden shoes there. The king of the T'o-han empire, who buys this shoe from the `cave-host', finally finds and marries Ye Xian after conducting the `shoe test'. The protagonist in Mah's novel is also named Ye Xian. Driven away from home by her stepmother, Ye Xian embarks on a quest for self-worth by

SOAS Literary Review Issue 4 (Spring 2005)

joining the Secret Dragon Society of Wandering Knights, a martial arts academy where she meets mixed-race children with different nationalities and religions. With intelligence and martial arts skills, Ye Xian and other unwanted children finally prove their worth by successfully rescuing the crew of the Ruptured Duck and assisting four captured US airmen to escape from the Japanese torture chamber. This heroic Chinese Cinderella contrasts sharply with her ancient counterpart. In Duan's version, Ye Xian is saved by a king with the help of the golden shoe. In Freudian psychoanalysis the shoe may signify the female genitals. It is therefore not surprising that the king is infatuated with Ye Xian's shoe even before he meets her in person. Ye Xian is found by the king simply because only she can wear that extremely tiny shoe. Since the footbinding tradition of Chinese women can be traced back to the late Tang Dynasty, it is not impossible to assume that in Duan's time people began to appreciate (and fetishise) women's small feet. The tiny feet, later in history they are called the three-inch golden lotus, are especially renowned for their erotic connotations. Ku Hung-ming (1856-1928), a famous Chinese intellectual who had many tiny-footed concubines, explained in t e Shanghai press, `[...] the smaller the h woman's foot, the more wondrous become the folds of the vagina. [There was the saying: the smaller the feet, the more intense the sex urge.]' (Levy 1966: 141). No wonder the king is determined to possess Ye Xian, the woman with the smallest feet in the world. Furthermore, a pair of tiny feet could confine a woman to the domestic space and thus ensure a chaste wife: `Why must the foot be bound? To prevent barbarous running around' (ibid: 41). In Duan's Cinderella story, Ye Xian's domesticity is also appreciated by the king, as well as her tiny feet. It is the shoe that plays the key role in deciding her destiny and all of her self-worth, therefore, resides in it. Like her golden shoe that is fondled by the fetishist king, Ye Xian herself is also objectified by the male gaze.


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While she wears the shoe, she is by no means the owner of the shoe: the king proves to be the real possessor of her sexuality and subjectivity. In contrast to the ancient Chinese Cinderella who is objectified by the owner of the gaze, the modern Cinderella in Mah's novel proves her self-worth by mastering the martial arts, a realm traditionally belonging to men. Jiang hu (literally `rivers and lakes' and metaphorically the world of martial arts masters) is actually a patriarchal realm ruled by the sword, the symbol of assertive masculinity. As a convention of jiang hu, martial arts masters would not teach girls. In Mah's novel, however, the leader of the martial arts academy is a female martial artist who takes on Ye Xian as her apprentice. Ye Xian not only

develops her physical skills, but also acquires knowledge by having access to Yi Jing and other canonical books usually denied to girls in ancient China. After the completion of the mission, Ye Xian becomes more confident and finally proves her worth. It is interesting to note that historically the footbinding tradition began in the time of the ancient Chinese Cinderella legend (late Tang Dynasty) and ended in the time of the modern Cinderella' (around the 1940s). Having outgrown the tiny shoe that had confined Chinese women in their shoe-like boudoir for about a thousand years, modern Chinese Cinderella runs wild in jiang hu with her sword. Even more significantly, the ancient Chinese Cinderella story is told from a male perspective while the modern one employs a female point of view. The ancient Chinese Cinderella is merely a character petrified in someone else's story, whereas the modern one articulates her own authentic story. Mah even directly identifies with this figure in her autobiographic Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter. Unlike Duan's third person narration that further objectifies Chinese Cinderella, Mah's first person narration reinforces the identification of the character of Ye Xian with the author. It can be said that Ye Xian is Mah's own projection. From Duan to Mah, the motif of Chinese Cinderella stories shifts from the shoe to the sword, signifying the changed


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ideological position of modern Chinese women who, although not exactly liberated, still assert their subjectivity. In Mah's novel, the issue of female subjectivity is intertwined with post-colonial concerns. Drawing on Marx, Edward Said has famously pointed out that the East cannot represent itself; it must be represented. The East is always represented as feminine and uncivilized in contrast with a masculine and civilized West. In this representation, the East is always silent; a kind of aphasia in univocal colonial discourse. However, this colonial authority is challenged by hybridity, which ` [...] reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal, so that other `denied' knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority' (Young 1995: 23). It is not difficult to understand why the white world has always had anxieties over hybridity, an attitude that can be traced back to Shakespeare's Othello. Parallel to this anxiety is the tradition of regarding hybridity as a corruption of the original, as degenerate, degraded, and even non-productive, threatening the vitality and virtue of the pure white races. This view reverberates through Mah's novel in which the children with mixed blood are regarded as bastards and `the lowest of the low' (Mah 2004: 154). These children finally rise from `the cinders' and prove their worth by participating in the making of history together with the white American airmen. Confident in themselves, the children proudly reiterate their conviction at the end of the novel, `We are children of destiny who will unite East and West and change the world' (ibid: 261). Interestingly, Mah shares the dreams of these children. In an interview with her publishers she says, `I would like to play a small role in bringing East and West together'. Mah's hybridity is cultural rather than racial. Like Ye Xian, who is thrown out by her stepmother and finds refuge in the secret Dragon Society, Mah was expelled by her Chinese parents and she then immigrated to the United States. Because of this acquired cultural hybridity, Mah's writing is


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characterized by a double voice in that her English is interwoven with Chinese and a `western' way of thinking mixes with traditional Chinese wisdom. Robert Young explains that `while hybridity denotes a fusion, it also describes a dialectical articulation...this doubled hybridity has been distinguished as a model that can be used to account for the form of syncretism that characterizes all postcolonial literatures and cultures' (Young 1995: 23). Like Ye Xian's sword that challenges the monolithic patriarchy of ancient China, hybridity, be it racial (like the children in the novel) or cultural (like Mah herself), is also subversive in that it makes the discourse of colonial authority lose its univocal grip on meaning and find itself open to the trace of the language of the other (Young 1995: 22). The Dragon Society in Mah's novel also merits attention. It is a `melting pot' in the sense that most of its members are hybrids. It is also a `salad bowl' with different nations and religions co-existing in harmony. This Dragon Society, therefore, suggests both fusion and separation. Since it is a shelter for the unwanted, it may be a metaphor for America. However, it is secret, and for all its perfections can only be a utopian vision of an America that is still being torn apart by racial and religious clashes. Like the modern Chinese Cinderella who challenges patriarchal authority by elevating herself from the position of a `shoe-like' object to become the master of the sword, Adeline Yen Mah challenges univocal colonial discourse with her hybrid articulations. Both Ye Xian and Mah are modern Chinese Cinderellas. Unlike the ancient Cinderella who is confined to the boudoir, these two are women warriors running wild in jiang hu with sword and pen as their respective weapons. They may inspire those eastern `Cinderella' countries to rise from the cinders and find their own voice in post-colonial discourse. Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society is worth reading. It introduces young readers to the marvels of Chinese culture. The martial arts, the Tao of Buddha, the Chinese Zodiac, the giant panda, the Chinese sayings, are


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too fascinating to be missed. This is also a good book for adults interested in Chinese culture. The book might be placed on the bookstore shelves for popular fiction, but from a different point of view, it is a serious literary text well deserving of academic interpretations.

Works Cited Levy, Howard S. (1966) Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom, New York: Walton Rawls Publishers. Mah, Adeline Yen (2004) Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society, London: Puffin Books. Young, Robert J. C. (1995) Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, London and New York: Routledge. "An Interview with Adeline Yen Mah." June 23, 2005 ( 6575&interviewID=1701



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