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Chaos Of Beauty
January 18, 2019
Status: Completed
This novel enraged me. Is it because of the thematic incoherence? Or was I disgusted by the self-indulgent narcissism on the part of the author, which bordered on delusion?

I read the novel in the original Chinese. On a surface level, this story is about four (yes, not one, but four! four!) power-hungry men fighting over one woman, exploiting the mechanisms of state and a nation's security as chips in a gamble. Whether the woman or power itself is the means to an end is blurred by the narrative, as the... more>> dudes all find themselves obsessively in love with the main character, who—no joke—is described as a near-goddess with peerless beauty bordering on divinity. But ladies and gents, this is obviously no War and Peace. I keep my expectations very, very low when reading Chinese light novels. But Chaos of Beauty is difficult to swallow even with lowered expectations.

The core problem is that this novel is ruled by a perversion of ethics, which is made further outrageous by willful romanticization. Several male characters are irredeemably despicable, their moves to consolidate power guided by small-minded moral bankruptcy, as they inflict harm micro (orchestrating the deaths of specific characters) and macro (causing the deaths of armies and innocent civilians). Look, I'm not so naive as to critique a novel on moralistic grounds. Gray characters are fascinating, and gritty hard-edged portrayals of war and politics are important. But subjects like murder and war ought to treated for what they are, and presented with unflinching honesty. Even Game of Thrones, which exploits dark undercurrents for commercial shock-value, is at least clear-sighted and incisive in its treatment of power struggles. But when the deaths of thousands become the vehicle in service of the author's melodramatic romantic fantasy (perfect, beautiful heroine! powerful men fighting over her like rabid dogs! because of looooove), it leaves an aftertaste of pure disgust.

The only way this novel could have worked is if it were a cynical satire, in the vein of Voltaire's Candide, about the futility of human ambition. Or as an entirely realistic portrayal of the collapse of political stability.
Spoiler

The two male characters driving the conflict, the emperor and his prime minister, would have been great as unapologetic villains rather than "romantic (anti) heroes". In a better novel, Prime Minister Lou could have been a hard-nosed Machiavellian character— a "power is my only mistress" Napoleon or Julius Caesar — whose greed for power is realistically consistent. This is a dude who supposedly grew up an orphan in the Crown Prince's household, a lowly foot-stool of a servant who claws his way into power by feverishly studying for the civil service examinations and becoming the top-scorer in his year; his political rise is then paved by the murder of his former master, followed by another murder and double-crossing of the dowager empress, his former conspirator, to shut her up and cover his tracks. His eventual conflict with the sitting emperor (who had replaced his dead brother by faking virtuousness) is probably modeled after prime minister Sima Yi's power struggle against the emperors of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period, an instance of weakened imperial authority flailing to reconsolidate power from unchecked ministers. But this is where historical associations stop and poor writing begins.

The novel relies heavily on "tell, not show" rather than show, not tell. The narrative repeatedly insists Prime Minister Lou is a political genius, but all his actual maneuvers are shortsighted, if not downright stupid. The historic Sima Yi had only moved to openly challenge the emperor after decades—decades!—of hard work had won him complete control of the army and state. Sima had clarity of vision and a concrete objective of seizing the throne; his son and grandson continued his work and eventually toppled the dynasty to establish a new regime. But in the novel, Lou Che has no hold over the military, which is firmly controlled by generals wholeheartedly loyal to the Emperor. Lou's power rests in the civil bureaucracy, where he has peppered the Six Ministries with allies and corrupt cronies. Based on this bit of clout, he decides to show his claws and openly challenge the Emperor. I mean, how stupid is this guy? Right after becoming prime minister, he rapidly accrues so much power, in so transparent a manner, that no sane ruler would not consider him a threat. Lou basically puts himself in a do-or-die position where the emperor cannot possibly tolerate him, and he has no choice but to rebel. But again, he's a young minister relatively new to his post, with no control of the army and no legitimate birthright to actually replace the emperor. Unable to raise the forces for a military coup, the best he can muster is rally the emperor's beleaguered brother, Prince Duan, and a rival vassal king along the southern border to force the capital into a political deadlock. When the emperor starts murdering and removing his government cronies one by one, he's backed into an even tighter corner. Oh, and did I mention he had greased his new alliance with Prince Duan by kidnapping and prostituting his love-interest from youth as a token offering? I'll wait right here while you shudder.

A half-way decent novelist would have had Gui Wan, the "heroine", leave Lou Che after learning he had taken Yao Ying and pimped her out to Prince Duan. After all, throughout the novel, Gui Wan and Yao Ying are presented as mirror images: both are equally beautiful, both drew the same divination stick, both were pursued by the emperor, and both love the same man. If Lou has the capacity to betray and sell one, who is to say he will never do the same to the other? Any woman with a shred of insight and self-preserving dignity should know that, essentially, you can't change a zebra's stripes; that a bad man cannot be permanently "reformed" through romance. That and beauty is fleeting: Gui Wan enjoys the blush of youth at 19; Lou is mesmerized and professes his love; but what happens when she is 30, 40, 50? If Yao Ying's misfortune wasn't enough, then Lou Che ordering his men to kill Lin Yiran should have been a final straw. And if that isn't enough, realizing Lou's deadlock with the emperor had given a third-party the opportunity to orchestrate General Lin's impending death should have been the final nail on the coffin. Instead of having Lou Che exile Gui Wan to the northern frontier (again, how stupid is this guy? Why would you send your supposedly precious wife to the frontier, where war is threatening to break, and where you hold no influence, instead of to the safer south, where your power base is concentrated??) while he "dukes it out" with the emperor, a better story would allow the girl some agency (and a sense of responsibility!) by her choosing to leave Lou, no matter how difficult, and to either escape the deadly capital, or travel north to warn General Lin of the treacherous Shu clan. And then, during that bitterly cold winter, she succumbs to suffering and frostbite, and her beauty is ruined (because, beyond death and politics, the giant unanswered question throughout is this: without peerless beauty, would any of these men love her half as much?). Lou Che, finding her no longer beautiful, stops his pursuit and lets her go, remaining true to his roots as an ambitious power-broker. General Lin survives the ambush and fends off the Nu tribe; the emperor consolidates power in the capital. Lou Che, ever the glib politician, escapes to the south, where he joins Prince Duan as rivals at the vassal king's court. The story ends with Gui Wan running an inn with San Niang during peacetime and tending her own garden, closing the narrative with a single smile. (Or, if you need a more romantic ending, she settles down with General Lin far away from the capital, and the story ends with him teaching their children martial arts in their humble yard).

But of course the above is just wishful thinking. The novel's actual plot makes me furious because, in an attempt to infuse the heroine's romance with histrionic drama, the one and only decent character in the entire story is killed off as a plot device. Poor General Lin was barely a character, an underdeveloped "tsundere" cliche who shows up in the story a handful of times. But the author inadvertently made him the only moral center of the story, when, during a conversation with Gui Wan, he wisely points out that power struggles lead to political unrest, and political unrest leads to suffering for the common people. The question then becomes one of should rather than could: a crouching tiger could paw after power; but whether he should do so is a different question. While everyone else is busy sidelining the real responsibilities of governance in favor of backstabbing and political intrigue, Lin Rui En is the one person who actually does his job, knowing full well he can't forsake the defense of the country. But of course he gets killed because the emperor and his prime minister are locked in a government shutdown, and an outside third party uses this opening to incite a prolonged war as an entry into power. Thanks to the irresponsible, callous incompetence of the emperor and Lou, the country loses their best general, gets locked into a long costly war, countless innocent people die, and the drained emperor dies early, leaving a weak empress with a toddler heir, which, if the collapse of the Han dynasty is any indication, is always the recipe for further disaster.

This is why I'm mad. My disgust has nothing to do with "shipping". General Lin was so underdeveloped as a character that he was never a credible love interest. But within the fictional cosmology of the novel, he was the people's last great hope, a beloved and respected defender against encroaching dangers, and a stabilizing counterweight against Lou Che and the Emperor. His death, paired with the long war and subsequent political unrest, means the people are thrown naked into senseless conflict. It's this senselessness that's so perverse— that two unworthy men should have the power to unravel an entire country. It's like Operation Barbarossa and the Siege of Leningrad; even without getting into the general morality of WWII, so much senseless suffering could have been avoided if Hitler and Stalin listened to their military advisors and fought more efficient battles, but instead both dictators dragged their civilians through blood and bone thanks to incompetent decision making. The mere thought fills one with anger and contempt.

One year before his death, General Lin had tried to gently persuade Gui Wan to do something about the Emperor and Lou Che's power struggle, explaining that her influence could save the lives of many. But what does Gui Wan do? Sleep with Lou Che a few times, tries to "distract" and "soften" his ambitious with romance. When that doesn't work, she stops trying altogether, literally taking naps and sitting around while turning a blind eye to Lou Che's scheming. Because of loooove.

I admire forthright narratives of how dynasties end, why authority collapses, how power is won and lost, and how ordinary men become corrupt. But a romance??? Get outta here! Lou Che may be "handsome", but he is a slimy bastard and there's nothing romantic about his actions. The "heroine" is essentially an empty vessel with a few idealistic traits (beautiful, charming, composed, intelligent) in whom the author/readers can project themselves. She becomes utterly passive and inert during the last stretch of the novel, doing nothing and simply waiting for Lou Che to shape their fates. Events and consequences are mostly shaped for her by men in the novel. The story had opened with her search for purpose, identity, and a true home. By the end, she has neither identity nor home.

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I may be overreaching, but I think many Chinese romance novels manifest fundamental problems with identity and ideology in contemporary Chinese society. In every social stratum and field, modern-day China is so competitive and oppressive that, outside of objective success and overcoming the ordinary, people are locked in a mist. Most women, dictated by the rules of probability, are average looking with average jobs and average positions within society. And yet, you know what they say— "Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable." So many of these popular romance novels seem to be written by and for people with narcissistic personality disorders. Like we're not just talking about Mary Sues here. These heroines literally need to be the most beautiful and clever creature of the seven seas, chased after by every emperor, king, prince, duke, and minister within sight, and always positioned at the center of power. It's always about male attention and power. The "heroes" in these novels are cruel and power-hungry douchebags, but that's apparently okay because 1). they are hot; 2). they have power and status; and 3). they loooove the heroine. This general trend sadly reminds me of a Chinese saying, made popular in the early 2010s, "宁在宝马车里哭,也不在自行车上笑" (I'd rather cry in a BMW, than laugh riding a bicycle), a phrase which reflects the deep sacrifices Chinese women are willing to make—often at the expense of personal happiness—to date or marry someone with money and status. Well... I guess between an emperor, a barbarian king, a prime minister, a general, and another government minister, Gui Wan got her share of metaphoric BMWs, but she sure paid with tears too. <<less
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