There’s a section of Legend of the Condor Heroes / Eagle Shooting Heroes where most of the major characters are travelling across the East China Sea and in the process destroy several boats, lifeboats and rafts.
This section operates largely in broad-stroke morality, juxtaposing the murderous Ouyang Feng and his obsessively rapey
nephewson Ouyang Ke against the stolid but dutiful Guo Jing, Huang Rong, who mostly just wants to be left alone to grieve and who wants to not have to avoid Ouyang Ke’s increasingly horrific advances on her, and their highly principled mentor Hong Qigong.
How many ships does it take to cross one sea?
The sequence begins when, following his engagement to Huang Rong, Guo Jing prepares to depart for the mainland from Peach Blossom Island, along with Hong Qigong and Zhou Botong.
Zhou Botong, who likes Guo Jing a lot but who likes causing trouble more, stirs up trouble between Guo Jing and his future father in law, Huang Yaoshi: a polymath who suffers from a host of psychological issues including an inability to handle anger in the slightest, and suicidal ideation.
As a result of this they aren’t sufficiently warned that the boat they’re on is an intricate death trap, designed by Huang Yaoshi as the instrument of his eventual suicide. It gets out to open sea and then begins collapsing.
Ship 1 down.
Ouyang Feng and Ouyang Ke had also come to Peach Blossom Island. Ouyang Ke wanted to take Huang Rong as his wife – this is creepy as all hell since he’s literally twice her age (he’s about 30 while she’s maybe 16) and since he’s previously made several aggressive advances toward her, all of which were quite thoroughly rebuffed. Seriously man, NO MEANS NO.
Anyway, having failed to convince Huang Rong’s father to give him her, the Ouyang family have decided to slink back off to their homes in some snake infested corner of the western hinterland.
However they see Guo Jing, Zhou Botong and Hong Qigong struggling against a sharknado (seriously) on the ruins of their sunken ship, and Zhou Botong and Guo Jing have something Ouyang Feng wants – so he rescues them.
It becomes clear that Zhou Botong won’t give Ouyang Feng what he wants so he manipulates the pranksterish old man into jumping back into the ocean, expecting him to be claimed by the waves. He then concentrates on extorting Guo Jing into giving him what he wants.
Guo Jing resists attempted poisonings, nighttime assaults, and a mass of snakes that would make Indiana Jones very unsettled.
And eventually it seems like Guo Jing is going to relent. So, of course Ouyang Feng immediately plots to murder everybody not named Ouyang basically immediately. And he does so by burning down the ship…
That he’s on…
This ends up with Hong Qigong fighting him on the burning deck of his ship, while Guo Jing and Huang Rong (who arrives during the chaos and whose own ship becomes unavailable because her crew are shits) manage to secure the lifeboat.
A burning sail drops on Ouyang Feng and Hong Qigong does something inexplicable.
He saves the bastard.
Of course Ouyang Feng immediately stabs him in the back.
One boat, one island shipwreck and one raft later…
Everybody ends up shipwrecked on the same island. Hong Qigong is seriously injured from his fight with Ouyang Feng and Guo Jing and Ouyang Feng are nowhere to be found – believed at the time to be drowned.
Ouyang Ke begins trying to rape Huang Rong immediately. And she does a GOOD job of fighting him off. His first attempt, she stabs him in the leg, giving him a huge gushing gash.
The second time, she manages to use a set of armour that’s like mithril covered in needles to rebuff him.
The third time (you think he’d have got the message by now) she almost drowns him.
The fourth time (seriously, I said this guy was a creep) she drops a ten-ton boulder on his legs, pinning him where the inevitable tide WILL drown him, but only after half a day of excruciating agony.
So of course that’s when his dad turns up.
The long and short of it is that the good guys manage to survive Ouyang Feng’s visit to the island, and Guo Jing and Huang Rong are reunited, but the Ouyangs steal their raft off and disappear into the sea.
Of course not before Huang Rong sabotages the raft so that it’ll collapse the same way as ship #1.
They build a second raft and leave the island, heading back toward the mainland, when they hear the sounds of people screaming for help. It’s the Ouyangs, of course.
Huang Rong wants to leave the two villains to drown. Hong Qigong says no. They have to rescue the Ouyangs. Even though they’re both psychotics. Even though they almost certainly (and in fact do) try to murder everybody as soon as they’re on the new raft. And although I disagree with him on the action he chose, I think Huang Rong was totally right here, I actually feel there’s something very important in the reasoning he uses as to why.
Because, of course, Huang Rong challenges him.
And he says it’s not about the quality of the Ouyangs. The Beggar’s Sect (the organization that Hong Qigong and Huang Rong are members of, the organization, in fact that he’s grooming her to become the new leader of) doesn’t leave people to drown or die.
Of course, Ouyang Feng immediately attacks (Huang Rong has efectively eliminated the threat that Ouyang Ke poses to anybody pretty much ever again, he’s just along for the ride at this point) and, just as with every other boat-oriented fight up to this point he ends up destroying the raft and dropping everybody back into the sea.
Now for all its absurdity (and it’s an incredibly absurd piece of fantasy, which will eventually end with Zhou Botong riding a shark like a horse) there are two things I love about this. And those things are in conflict.
First, I love that Huang Rong neutralizes Ouyang Ke all on her own. It’s a handling of rape that a lot of western books haven’t managed, even though this novel is over half a century old.
Ouyang Ke is a monster. And he gets his comeuppance repeatedly. Everytime he tries to abuse Huang Rong, he fails. And every time he fails he’s punished, by her, worse than the time before. By the time she’s done with him, he’s literally half the man he once was, his legs pulverized by ten tonnes of rock.
But I also love Hong Qigong’s unwillingness to let his enemies define him. He knows, by the time he rescues Ouyang Feng a second time, that his enemy won’t relent, won’t behave humanely. But for all of Ouyang’s monstrosity, he’s a person drowning on a ruined boat. And Hong Qigong follows a set of cultural norms that say “you don’t let people drown on ruined boats. Ever.” And he sticks to that.
Justice sometimes means being true to your ideals even when it might be a bad idea
But I said that there was a lesson here for the 21st century. And it’s not Huang Rong’s lesson – that it’s good to allow your fictional heroines to rescue themselves – though that’s a darn good lesson that a lot of authors should take to heart.
In fact it’s not a lesson for writers at all.
It’s a lesson for leaders and politicians.
In the early days of the 21st century we entered into a war in Afghanistan. The people our armies attacked there certainly acted inhumanely. They bullied civilians. They treated women as property to be used as they saw fit. They attacked indiscriminately at times, even when doing so might be as harmful to them as it was to their targets. The Taliban are, and were then, bad people.
But that doesn’t justify what we did.
Canadian culture in the second half of the 21st century is predicated on certain ideals: that war is cruel and that when our soldiers go abroad it should be as peacekeepers, not war makers; that torture is wrong; that child soldiers are victims; that people deserve due process under the law, that they are innocent until proven guilty.
In the first two decades of this century we’ve violated every one of those principles. Canadians have waged aggressive war. Canadians have sent child soldiers, knowingly to be tortured. Several people have been detained without due process. Declared guilty on a name and a skin colour.
Maher Arar – an innocent man, denied due process, detained and tortured.
Omar Khadr – a child soldier, a victim of the very same people who we called “enemy,” denied due process, detained and tortured.
And many others. They have been wronged. And we have wronged ourselves by allowing it. In the aftermath of something horrible, we decided we cared more about our loyalty to our neighbors to the south, to their anger and grief, than we did to the principles that define us.
In so doing we acted against a pretty awful group of people. But those actions caused us to betray our principles. We violated many of the better ideals that define us. And in so doing we acted with the same casual cruelty that we claimed to be fighting, harming victims and innocent people in our haste for imagined justice.
I’m all for villains getting their just desserts. When Huang Rong crushed Ouyang Ke under that boulder I cheered.
But I also see Hong Qigong’s point, not even so much in the particular, but in the abstract. If we want to be good people, if we want to be upright, it is important that we adhere to what is right.
And doing the right thing, being just, sometimes means the bad guys get away. And sometimes it means more trouble for us down the road when those same bad guys come around again and stir up more trouble.
That can happen. And that sucks.
But when the alternative is becoming the villains of our own story?
You know what? I can’t even really make a pretense of tying this back to the story from here on out. The torture report in the US is being back-paged by bullshit about Sony playing marketing games with a turkey of a movie because the opportunity to do so was handed to them by North Korea.
It’s cyinicism on all sides. The media reporting on the hacks: cynically driving clicks. Sony: cynically playing up patriotism and fear of the other to sell tickets. North Korea: cynically playing up the role of the crazy person to keep their enemies cautious and to feed their own propaganda machine. And the power brokers who own the media over here, cynically back-paging the relevant story, the one about the bad stuff happening in the States, bad stuff that we Canadans were fully complicit in, because they don’t necessarily hold the ideals of justice or uprightness in high regard. Not when there’s profit to be made.
Fuck North Korea.
Here’s the torture report. Spread the word.