You could call me a third culture kid. I’m not a complete banana — I speak, (mediocrely) read, and (poorly) write Chinese.
But culturally, I’m a banana. Meaning, I’m more influenced by western pop culture, have generally westernised values, and have mostly bananas as close friends.
Yet, I am sort of Chinese, and I don’t just mean ethnically. Knowing the Chinese language entails more than being able to converse in it; it means submerging in the culture and its values.
There’s a reason behind the Italian expression, Traduttore, traditore, which translates to ‘The translator is a traitor’. Every linguistic expression has a subtext that will not perfectly carry over into another language — knowing a language is having a slice of that culture in your psyche.
This amalgamation of values meant a state of limbo that took years to unpack. I recognised that I did not really understand what being Chinese meant, even if I had snippets of Chinese in me that made me think that I did.
But I’ve come to understand it a little better lately.
Recently, I’ve been reading many many many Chinese web novels
It’s not my first time reading novels in Chinese. But the novels in Chinese I’ve read in the past were not Chinese novels.
They were English novels that were translated to Chinese — Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, the first few Harry Potter books, some Enid Blyton if I remember correctly, etc.
So this is the first time I’m properly reading products of people from within the Chinese culture.
That I never bothered to read these before the age of 30 is a failure on my side.
But my lack of exposure also means that I now read it with somewhat fresh eyes. And reading it has completely shocked me, while also enlightening me.
And today, I’m going to tell you all the reasons why.
1. The normalisation of abusive relationships, romanticised even
I’m going to start with the most disgusting of them all. Violence against women is normalised. Very often, it is even romanticised.
Check out the following excerpts from two different novels. Do not be mistaken: they are supposed to be romantic.
Dorothy nearly cried from the pain. The violent man had yanked off the towel. He covered her mouth with his thin lips, biting aggre
“Natalie, if you try to escape like you did yesterday, I might misunderstand and assume that you want me to be rougher with you.”
“I’ll rape you,” Tobias threatened.
Causing the girl physical harm, threatening her with physical harm, and actual rape. These are all norms of Chinese web novels.
These scenes are not meant to be disturbing. They are supposed to make you swoon and think, Oh, how sweet!
Scenes like these usually happen after the male lead has his male ego hurt. Perhaps his love interest was with another man. Maybe his business deal didn’t go through.
Nonetheless, it is ALWAYS justified with his ego — his ego was hurt, hence he HAD no choice but to act violently against the woman. C’mon, let’s be understanding.
2. There is no regard for consent
How do you know if there is consent? When a girl says no, is her ‘no’ heard? That’s how you tell if there is consent.
In Chinese web novels, there is no such thing as consent.
According to them, men are entitled to women’s bodies.
He looked at her calmly. “Until the divorce is finalised, you have no right to say no to me!”
She was about to leave when a strong arm suddenly wrapped around her waist, hugging her. He pushed her onto the sofa, the pressed his lips on her’s.
Again, this is portrayed as romantic.
A man who comes and takes what he wants is ‘macho’, and women are supposed to dig ‘macho men’. A man who can’t take control of his dick is manly, we’re told.
The women are supposed to accommodate the man’s sexual appetite, no matter what. Doesn’t matter if she is injured, sick, or screams, “No! No!”
The best a woman can do in a situation like this is look pitiful and pray to God that he would take pity on her.
3. Definition of sexy: A man who is cruel, selfish and mean
Somehow, we are told to desire domineering (霸道) men. The less shit he gives about other people, the better.
We are supposed to love it when men are cruel, selfish, mean, and give everybody around them emotional trauma.
He screams at his butler, treats women like shit, then fires an employee for looking at him wrong. This is sexy, you guys!
(Provided he has money. See No. 4)
Theodore did not reply him. Instead, he had a heavy expression o his face as he stared at Everleigh’s name on the name list. His eyes slowly lit up and he ordered in a low voice, “Moses, lock down the airport tomorrow and wait for my orders.”
Walao. Suka-suka shut down the airport just so he can keep a girl from leaving him. You dunwan her to fly oso other people need to fly la. See how he doesn’t give a fuck about other people? Take note girls, this is sexy.
4. The glorification of the rich
The rich are glorified — that is a fact of this world.
Nonetheless, there is a difference between acknowledging that the rich are glorified, and perpetuating the notion that the rich should be glorified.
With Chinese web novels, the rich can never do wrong, unless there is somebody richer than him.
Morality is measured in terms of might, and might is measured with wealth. This is also tied to ‘backing’, which basically means having a powerful rich person watch your back.
“Can’t be. Does Rowen have powerful backing?”
Summary: If you have the most money, even if you murder a village full of children and drown puppies in a bathtub, you are right. (Not just treated as if you are right, but actually portrayed as being right.)
5. The nauseating battle of the might
Nearly every Chinese web novel has this scene:
Everybody doubts the main character. They look down their nose at him. The situation escalates, but the main character remains as calm as a cucumber.
Then, bam! Just at the right moment, he reveals how rich/powerful/well-connected he is!
大家都呆了！(Everybody is stunned!)
Then they drop to their knees and beg for his forgiveness.
Because, remember, might is right.
This is why the characters don’t ask who’s right, or who’s wrong. They ask, “Who can we not afford to offend?”
“Y-you…” The man was pale with fright. He took a few involuntary steps back, then said through gritted teeth, “Don’t be too please with yourself yet. Don’t think you can do anything you want just because you have some means. There are some people you can’t afford to offend.”
Did Zabrina have a powerful man backing her? At this moment, everybody in the room could not help but turn to look at Jacob. They resolved to remember this man, so as to be sure to never offend him in the future.
6. The non-rich do not have a voice
In the western pop culture that I’m used to, the narrative may revolve anybody, rich or otherwise.
In fact, it’s those who are down on their luck that make the best stories. They struggle, strive, hit rock bottom, then rise again. Their wealth is secondary, unless it’s directly related to the narrative.
On the other hand, in Chinese web novels, a character’s value is only in his wealth. Even if he is smart, kind, hardworking, and handsome, he is not complete if he is not rich. (Applies to males only)
Even if he isn’t rich in the beginning, he will definitely be rich by the end of the story.
Basically, anybody who is not insanely rich is not allowed to have their own story. The best they get is a supporting role, in the peripheral.
7. A woman’s worth is in her looks. And purity. And her ability to be a doormat
While the men must be rich to be considered whole, a woman must be pretty.
So if she is rich, smart, kind, hardworking, and has a successful career, she is not complete if she is not pretty.
“Wifey, it’s better if you dress more modestly. You’re growing old. Face it! But no matter how you look, I will not abandon you,” Norman said as he pulled his wife’s hand and walked towards the beach.
She must also be reserved, gentle, soft-spoken, and a doormat.
Xandra was upset. “Don’t give your daughter ideas. She’s fine the way she is. If you send her to the military, she’ll become masculine, then who would marry her?”
Eleven hurriedly said, “Just like the naughty boy who sits behind us in class. He likes to pull you hair during lessons because he likes you. He’s just trying to get your attention.”
Little girl, it’s easier for you to put up with him (and be a doormat) than for us to educate him. Because boys will be boys!
To complete the trifecta is her purity (chastity). Her worth is directly defined by this. Doesn’t matter if she lost that purity because she was raped (see No. 2).
The man enunciated, “Alice, if I push further and hurt you, you will no longer be pure. Would you still be able to return to Jensen’s side then? Can you live with yourself?”
The closest I’ve seen of a woman I would like to emulate is the editor of a newspaper who is divorced and has her own bachelorette pad. She is matured and has seen how ugly humanity is.
But even she has toxic ideas about gender roles.
8. There is no character growth
The only characters that grow are those who dare oppose the main character. They grow in their understanding that they should never doubt/offend the main character anymore.
Once again, western pop culture characters are always flawed, no matter how heroic they might be. This flaw would be their downfall, and that’s how they grow.
But noooo. Not with Chinese web novels, where the main character is ALWAYS OP (over powered). Even if they have obvious flaws (say, SOCIOPATHIC BEHAVIOUR), the message you get is that those flaws are not considered flaws on them, because they rich (see No. 3).
The only thing about the main character that grows is his bank account.
I’m getting angry writing this, so I’ll stop here for now. There might be a Part 2, if I need to vent some more.
Of everything I’ve mentioned, there is a spectrum, but so far, I’ve not come across a book without these elements, even if only mildly.
Pop culture is a reflection of society, in the same way that society is influenced by pop culture.
Reading these books helped me realise why the Chinese-speaking guys I’ve dated behaved the way they did. So this is the Chinese psyche. And no wonder I could never stay in a relationship with a Chinese-speaking guy. Our values are just too different.
(Of course, I’ve met Chinese-speaking people who do not subscribe to the above. I’ve come to realise that there is a distinction among the Chinese-speaking crowd: those who support Hong Kong and those who support China. I’ll let you harbour a guess as to which is which)
I do hope that not all Chinese web novels are this way. If you know of any Chinese novel that do not glorify assholes with money and recognise women as actual human beings, please do recommend it to me. I would love to read it.