, February 03, 2011
(view all comments by Tom Carter)
Growing up in a rural, slate-roofed village deep in the countryside of southeast China, the only English books my Chinese fiancée had to read back then were a brittle copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and a set of Harlequin novels.
Yes, Harlequin, those pulpy paperbacks found on revolving wire racks at supermarket checkout aisles across North America and the UK. Their enticing cover art - usually, nay, always featuring shirtless, square-jawed men hovering millimeters away from the glistening-red lips of a damsel in distress - and formulaic flirt/fight/fall-in-love storylines mercilessly targeted housewives and secretaries longing for a 200-page escape from the dirty diapers and pot-bellied husbands of their mid-life realities.
As it turns out, it was by reading books like "Stormy Voyage" by Sally Wentworth and Roberta Leigh's "Two-Timing Man" (purchased used for 7 RMB out of a sidewalk vendor's book cart), amongst other Harlequin classics, that my fiancée managed to teach herself English (which explains her tendency to throw her head back dramatically whenever we kiss).
Curious how Harlequin, the forbidden fruit of literature, could be found anywhere in a Communist republic that has the world's most strict state-sponsored vetting process for publications, I was surprised to learn that in 1995 (about when my fiancée found her copies) Harlequin received official, red star-stamped permission to place half a million copies of twenty titles in Mandarin and a quarter-million copies of ten English versions on the shelves of Xinhua. Harlequin's stated goal: "to bring romance to millions of Chinese Women."
A China.Org article on the increasing popularity of romance books in the P.R.C. concurred with Harlequin's audacious move: "Chinese women today have new demands for their Prince Charming: first, he must be powerful and distinguished...next, he must unlimited financial resources." Wosai! No wonder China has become home to the world's highest surplus of single men!
Harlequin, which puts out 1,500 new titles annually in over 100 international markets, has yet to think up a romance set in present-day China (possible storyline: wealthy, second-generation Beijing businessman seduces sexy xiaojie with his shiny black Audie, pleather man-purse and a thick stack of redbacks; he agrees to save her Anhui village from being bulldozed by corrupt cadres if she will become his kept woman.). Until that day, we will have to entertain ourselves with stories set in China's olden times starring princesses and concubines.
Enter Jeannie Lin, Harlequin's rising red-star of romance writing. She isn't the first author on Harlequin's roster to set her books in China (that honor goes to Jade Lee and her infinite "Tigress" series). But Lin's debut novel, Butterfly Swords, has been attracting a viral buzz louder than a summertime cicada not just for being the first Harlequin novel to NOT feature a man on the cover, but for using an Asian model as the cover girl, another Harlequin first.
The star of Butterfly Swords is a Chinese woman, yes. But to give American readers something that they can relate to, the male love interest of Lin's novel is not a Chinese but a wandering whiteboy from the west. Ryam is drifting around the Tang empire begging for food (this sounds exactly like my own travels across China!) when he spots a disguised female being attacked by a pack of marauding bandits. The swordsman, who evokes images of bare-chested, fur underwear-wearing Thundarr the Barbarian from the eponymous 80's cartoon, rescues her, then agrees to escort her home. Little does Ryam know that young Ai Li is really a princess on the run from an arranged marriage to a dastardly warlord. The two proceed on their journey together across the 7th-century frontier, getting in adventures and slowly but surely falling in love.
Pitting strength, courage and her fabulous butterfly swords against the forces of evil, Ai Li proves herself in the battlefield ("With Ai Li's swords and determined spirit it was easy to forget that she was innocent"). But where the book has significant cultural crossover appeal is in author Jeannie Lin's ability to keenly capture the multi-dimensional perspectives of both characters throughout their budding interracial relationship.
From Ryam's course communicative abilities ("Where did you learn how to speak Chinese" Ai Li asks him, laughing. "You sound like you were taught in a brothel") to his struggles with his inner-white demons as a big, bad bai gui ("It was so much easier to seduce a woman than talk to her"), the reader is introduced not to some empty-headed he-man but a complex male of the species who is genuinely torn between his biological needs and respecting Ai Li's virtue. "I don't understand what she's talking about half the time," Ryam grumbles to himself. "Everything is about honor and duty." Surely even expats living in present-day P.R.C. can relate to this dilemma.
Ai Li, meanwhile, finds herself attracted not only to Ryam's "musky scent" and "sleek muscles" (Harlequin prerequisites; don't blame the authoress), but his sincerity ("There was nothing barbaric about him. His manner was direct and honest. It was her own countrymen she needed to be worried about."). The protagonist does find herself frustrated with "this swordsman with blue eyes and the storm of emotions that came with him," but, true to life, Ai Li comes with her own personality flaws as well ("she was being irrational and she knew it").
Of course, it wouldn't be a Harlequin without passionate love scenes, something my fiancée missed out on in the heavily-censored Chinese versions. This Jeannie Lin does in the poetic prose of a Tang Dynasty-era pillow book yet with just enough creatively-provocative language to keep sex-numbed westerners interested ("Ryam slipped his fingers into her silken, heated flesh...her body went liquid and damp in welcome."). And thankfully without ever once resorting to the word "loin."
Ryam proves himself to be an ideal lover for nubile Ai Li, "rough enough to make her breath catch, gentle enough to have her opening her knees," though one can't help but wonder how these two nomadic warriors can go so long without bathing nor brushing their teeth yet still manage to say things like "her mouth tasted just as sweet as he remembered." If only real life were as hygienic as a Harlequin novel.
One of the reasons why Harlequin is able to sell over 100 million units per year (the most profitable publishing company in the industry) is because every book is part of a series. There are no individual Harlequin titles, which brilliantly leaves the reader yearning for more from the characters they have literally become so intimate with. In this respect, Butterfly Swords concludes with a wide opening that screams sequel, but thankfully lacks the typical Harlequin-happy ending of matrimonial bliss.
One familiar with Chinese culture can't help but wonder, then, what kind of future Ai Li and Ryam actually have together: in reality, Ai Li would put on weight, cut her hair short and become a shrill nag; her parents and grandparents would all move into their cramped apartment, and a frustrated Ryam, now with beer-belly, would spend more and more time at card games and with karaoke parlor hostesses than at home.
But before the infuriating realties of interracial marriage set in, we hope Jeannie Lin has at least a few more of her trade-mark sword fights and steamy sensuality in store.
Tom Carter is the author of CHINA: Portrait of a People