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Male culture

So I’m reading the Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan 水滸傳). Written in the 15th century, it’s the most famous vernacular novel in Chinese history, together with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Well, I’m not actually reading it (it’s long). I’m watching the 2011 TV show. Which is long too, but very neat. The Water Margin is the story of 108 men. Good men, strong, noble, virile men who are wrongly abused by the governmenet, and thus rescind their loyalty to the state, and run to the hills to form bands of bandits to fight for their manly honor. The story is based on the Song Dynasty, particularly the reign of the infamous Huizong (1082-1135), who was so fucking awful he deserves a post for himself. The novel is fiction, often very, very wild fiction; but it is loosely based in actual events on the era. There’s an earlier novel about evil bandits in the mountains doing evil things. The Water Margin tripled the characters, and made them into good, noble men. It also sold like crazy, becoming the second most famous novel in the world, while it’s more truthful predecessor was forgotten for 900 years.

The Song Dynasty gets a lot of good publicity for being wealthy, commercial and urbane. Indeed the Chinese economy boomed like it never would until well into the 19th century. The Song state also solved the problem of military warlords running petty kingdoms in their domains; the exam system became the only path into officialdom, and the strengthened mandarinate run a tight administration without obstruction by the army, the eunuchs or the palace women. Obviously the Confucian establishment, to this day sees the Song Dynasty as the golden age of sagely government and efficient bureaucracy.

But that’s, of course, bullshit. The Song state was plagued with bureaucrat factionalism, corruption and anarcho-tyranny. In fact the Water Margin is, if anything, a 960,000 word story of anarcho-tyranny, 850 years before Sam Francis had to coin the word for Western audiences. The Song bureaucrats who run the country were only concerned in grabbing taxes from the populace, and use them to bribe their superiors to strengthen their purses and factions; while wide swathes of the country were left to bandits to roam and rob all the caravans that passed close by. The law was enforced inasmuch as it the act may benefit a particular bureaucrat; else who the hell cares. And who is going to check? Everybody has their backs covered by powerful faction leaders at court. And so our 108 heroes were, oh so against their wishes, into lawless banditry.

There’s of course lots to talk about the Water Margin, and how it reflects the values of lower-middle class Chinese during the last 1,000 years. I’ll write about a couple of stories that reflect how they thought of women. Feminism of course is one of the biggest problems of modern Western culture, so it’s useful to see how another powerful culture thought of women and how they should be treated.

Now, Chinese literature is pretty good; but it has never done well abroad because Chinese names just don’t sound human in European languages. It’s very hard to relate to Zhao Gao grabbing a deer to Huhai. Hamlet killing Polonius on the other hand sounds great. And Leonidas fighting Xerxes is pure awesomeness. So I’m going to change the names of the characters to Homeric ones chosen at random, and will put an annex showing the real names for those interested.

One of the most famous stories on the Water Margin is the story of Cassandra. Cassandra was a servant in a wealthy household. She was also extremely beautiful, famous around all the province. The master of her household, not surprisingly, took a like at the girl, and tried to take advantage of her. She, surprisingly, wouldn’t have it, and went to the master’s wife to rat on her master.

Which was a very stupid thing to do; as the wife couldn’t really do much about it, and the master got real pissed at this uppity servant. So he decided to give her away on marriage to the ugliest guy of the province. He went all the way to find an ugly, hunchbacked, and dirt-poor street seller of steamed buns, and gave Cassandra to him for free (Traditionally Chinese girls were given in exchange of a hefty bride-price). The ugly street peddler, Ennomus, couldn’t believe his luck, and took this beautiful and smart lady with him.

This arrangement though just couldn’t work out. She was predictably miserable, hated her unfortunate fate, and wouldn’t let Ennomus touch her. All the town was rife with gossip about the ugly poor peddler with the hot wife, and all the cool youngsters on town routinely harassed him, and went to his house to try to grab her from his house. “Such a fine piece of mutton, how did it get into the dog’s mouth!”. Soon there were rumors that Cassandra was banging one of the cool kids, and Ennomus decided to move to a different county to avoid the dishonor.

So moved they did, and soon good fortune visited Ennomus. His younger brother, Amphimachus, came back home after years of absence. While Ennomus was short, ugly and just plain disgusting, Amphimachus was 6’5″ tall, handsome, strong, muscular, extremely virile and the best fighter in the whole province. He was also a prodigious drinker, and after drinking 30 jars of wine, he encountered a tiger in the forest, who he, pissed drunk though he was, killed with his bare knuckles. “Tiger-killer Amphimachus” was soon the sensation of the province, and the local governor hired him as chief of police. He was also a very filial brother, extremely happy to meet his brother Ennomus, who had raised him as a child, they being orphans. So Ennomus know had the coolest guy on earth living with him. Now let’s see who dares joke about him and his hot wife!

Indeed nobody dared joke about the wife of the Tiger-killer’s brother. Poor Cassandra was also very happy. What a handsome brother-in-law! Seems fate hasn’t abandoned me. Sheesh, why wasn’t I given to him and not his hunchback brother. But hey, he is living here, right? If, you know, something were to just happen between us, what could Ennomus do about it? He certainly wouldn’t dare fight his brother. And with a little bit of luck ew could even sign some transfer contract or something.

Alas Amphimachus is, as all the Water Margin heroes, a Good, Noble, Virile man. In the original, literally a hero-good-man. 英雄好漢. And hero-goodmen just don’t care about women; certainly not about filthy sluts. There is nothing more dishonorable than touching one’s brother’s woman. And so Amphimachus told Cassandra, after pushing her to the ground. “Either you stop being such a slut, or the next time I see you, my eyes may recognize you, but my fists will certainly not!”.

Oh poor Cassandra. The hot brother-in-law wouldn’t take her, so she was back to daily life with her poor, disgustingly ugly husband. And I mean very ugly. The TV show makes a good impression of how miserable it must be to live with such a man, what a waste of beauty it was for her to be there. Fortunately she wasn’t the only one to notice. Mecisteus, a scion of the wealthiest family on town, and a notorious womanizer, soon took notice of the beautiful Cassandra. And he just couldn’t let it pass for such a beauty to be the wife of an ugly hunchbacked peddler. Oh no, that wouldn’t do. As a lover of beauty, he had to do something.

Mecisteus used his wealth to bribe the governor into sending Amphimachus away on official mission. Then he got a local tavern owner to sneak Cassandra out of home with some womanly excuse, and he proceeded to bang Cassandra with abandon. Damn, she’s hot. Mecisteus was happy. Ecstatic. He, with 5 wives, and a notch count in the 3 figures, just couldn’t get enough of Cassandra. It might have been that she was also especially enthusiastic. Mecisteus, after all, was rich and handsome. And she really craved for a way out. Mecisteus promised to find a way to marry her. Cassandra wept with happiness. At last! Fate hasn’t cursed me!

Problem is Cassandra was, well, married. And the hunchback wasn’t going to divorce. Not even after the affair was found out, and he was made the laughing-stock of the whole county. Yes, being cuckolded was pretty much social death in ancient China. But… Cassandra was hot. Very hot. No way in hell he was going to find a finer woman if he let her go. Hell, no chance in hell he’d ever be able to buy himself a wife if she let her go. So no divorce for her.

That left only one option left. Kill the damn hunchback. Amphimachus is still away. Just poison the fucker and let’s be done with this quick. And so Cassandra poisoned Ennomus. She then cremated the body, put on her mourning clothes and faked the whole ritual as good as she could. And then the feared Amphimachus came back. Came back to see his dear brother, who raised him as a kid, his only family, was dead. And there wasn’t even a body to give offerings to. This evil bitch must be responsible. He soon found out the whole story, the rich Mecisteus, the affair at the tavern, the poison. Everything.

Tiger-killer Amphimachus, bursting with righteous rage, made all the neighbours gather at his brother’s tomb, and in front of them grabbed his sword and killed the beautiful Cassandra. He then cut her head, and took it out with him. He headed to Mecisteus compound, which he burst into, and threw Cassandra’s severed head into Mecisteus dining table. Fighting ensued, and Amphimachus also slayed Mecisteus, also severing his head. He then took the heads of the evil couple to his brothers tomb, and proudly told him, “brother, I have avenged you.” He then went to the governor’s office to give himself in.

This is one of the most famous pieces of the Water Margin, itself a classic in Chinese literature. It even served as the basis of a spin-off, the Jin Ping Mei, a classic novel in its own right, which tells the story of what would have happened if Cassandra and Mecisteus survived the endeavor, and actually married. My view of this story was that Amphimachus is an evil asshole. Yes, adultery is bad. But his brother had it coming. Cassandra and Mecisteus deserved each other. They were the perfect match. The pretty womanizer rich boy with the vain pretty girl. They loved each other, and looked great together. Ennomus only got Cassandra because her master was an evil bastard who gave her away as punishment. The marriage was so unbalanced that it was unhappy from the start, forcing him to move from his hometown. It was unnatural. It just couldn’t work.

And yet when reality reasserted itself, the blockhead tiger-killer drunkard bro, who had seen too many Bruce Lee movies, rejected the hot girl’s advances, and threw her away to the hunchback’s arms. Of course she run away. And she wouldn’t have killed Ennomus had he accepted the divorce. The greedy hunchback deserved the poison. Of course it sucks that your dear brother and only family gets killed. But as his brother he should have counseled him to divorce the slut and make a new life together. He could earn money to get her a new wife who suited him better. But no, the bro had to defend the “family honor”. As a result 3 people died. Bad. Very bad.

But that’s not the way that the Chinese see it. In the novel, the whole county is awed by Amphimachus show of prowess and his filial piety towards his brother. Instead of being executed, as the law demands for murder, he gets cipei, a tatoo in the face saying “prisoner”, and a sentence of forced conscription in the frontier army for some years. The whole exile is a charade, as his former comrades are commissioned to send him off, and he has VIP treatment wherever he goes.

Cassandra on the other hand became the archetype of the evil slut, who can’t control her lustful impulses and brings havoc to herself and her lover. Poor girl. Now this may be just me finding the actress on the show too pretty, and feeling undue compassion. But I still think her marriage was wrong to begin with, and she had a right to run away with whoever wanted to pay for her, without being beheaded by a drunk bro. But in China, the bro is in the right, and the unanimous opinion is that she deserved being brutally killed in public. Bros before hoes.

The obvious reason is that the lower-middle class Chinese who read and loved the Water Margin tales of brave bros fighting the government, were, well, lower-middle class bros with little access to women at all, while they lived surrounded by their menfolk. Large groups of young men hanging out often tend to produce very typical signaling dynamics: bros before hoes, binge drinking, martial arts, loud claims of unconditional loyalty. This works alright until there’s real money or women involved; then everybody stops drinking and fighting, and starts betraying everyone else. Biology always wins.

Names:
Cassandra: 潘金蓮 Pan Jinlian
Ennomus: 武大郎 Wu Dalang
Amphimachus:武松 Wu Song
Mecisteus: 西門慶 Ximen Qing

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27 responses to “Male culture

  1. Pingback: Male culture | Neoreactive

  2. Candide III September 30, 2015 at 18:51

    And this is why strict monogamy is essential for a vigorous civilization. Better harness the energy of the young men to families than let them fritter it away in fighting and binge drinking. Or playing video games.

    • spandrell October 1, 2015 at 04:11

      Well one can hardly say Chinese or Islamic civilization hasn’t been “vigorous”.

      And monogamous Russians have plenty of bros signaling each other into early death.

      • Candide III October 1, 2015 at 07:00

        Okay, I chose the wrong word. The important thing is to give the mass of young men a stake in upholding civilization rather than become bandits (or ‘activists’). The Islamic civilization got around this problem by exporting them through conquests; once this safety valve ran out, they got Syria. I don’t really know how widespread was polygyny in China, I.e. what was the percentage of excess young men. About Russia, hasn’t been monogamous much for most of the past century and now it’s at full Fishtown level.

        • spandrell October 1, 2015 at 07:48

          I do wonder the percentage of excess young men in Europe too. In Western Europe, widespread late marriage meant that under some definition, 100% of young men were single, i.e. “excess young men”. Of course the vague hope of landing a wife some day might have changed incentives, while in China a large percentage of men were certain they had no chance whatsoever so they could calculate they had better odds going bandit.

          • Candide III October 1, 2015 at 10:46

            That’s just it. And the hope wasn’t vague, it was everyday reality that one saw around every day for almost every man up to the sixties. Now, though, there is a real danger of an excess building up if beta guys stop marrying girls getting off the carousel.

            • spandrell October 1, 2015 at 11:01

              Modern states are very good at avoiding mountain bandits though.

              • Candide III October 1, 2015 at 17:00

                I was thinking about this today. Life in a modern state has enough attractions, perhaps, to compensate for the lack of family — not enough for a fulfilling life, but enough to prevent action. At least at this stage, young men’s perception of their stake in the modern system is large enough.

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  4. Azn October 1, 2015 at 06:51

    Dude this is the most hilarious description of pan jinlian Ive seen yet.
    Full disclosure: I thot pan was like this slut too. The story as its usually told gets embellished a bit. So pan is this total ho who shacks up with this depraved cad, and they poison the husband who’s this patient, long suffering, virtuous dude who happens to be a bit, I dunno, beta? lol.
    The bits about pan being screwed by her boss, offer of divorce plus hubs being a total ug + pan & ximen = brangelina whoa like so perfect match dude! kinda get left out. All in the details. I gotta say I sympathize with her position now. ‘sides, bish in the vid is a fine piece of ass. Righteous, even. Hard to fault her. Foe anything. Woops pedestalization haha
    But its all bout where you stand. See we could prolly find aot chix easy if she wanted to go. U wanna walk? Its ur loss bish.
    But if ure in China, sex ratio of 1:1.x in the cities, 1:1x in the sticks, you get a bish, any bish, THAT BISH IS MINE WE MARRIED YO MUTHAFUCKA I WILL KILL YO ASS and Im if Im too weak to kill her adulterous ass and her liver’s philandering ass then the dude who does it is a Righteous Bro.
    So yeah most Chinese dudes, details or no, see her as a bish and Wu Song as a hero rather thansome boneheaded murdering bastard. Chix dig him too, cos jealousy + hybristophilia, and he’s moral! Whats not to like.
    Anyway rockin blog. Glad I found my way here.

  5. Azn October 1, 2015 at 06:52

    Goddamn phone keyboards sux.

  6. Erebus October 1, 2015 at 07:39

    Have you seen the Chinese Wikipedia page for Wu Song?
    https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%AD%A6%E6%9D%BE

    Interestingly, the highlighted bit at the bottom says that glorifying him promotes violence against women, and that he’s a poor role model. But it is far too late to turn this folk-hero into a villain — he has practically been deified.

    Besides, what was Wu Song supposed to do? If he had accepted the advances of his brother’s wife, he’d be no hero. If, with a shrug of his shoulders, he had failed to avenge his brother’s foul murder by poison — which is the most dishonorable and feminine way to murder a man — he’d be despicable. It is difficult to fault his behavior. In fact, it’s rather difficult to see how anybody involved, save “Mecisteus”, could have acted any differently.
    …I suppose you could say that they were destined for tragedy.

    • spandrell October 1, 2015 at 07:46

      I was saying he should’ve told his brother to dump the bitch and get a new one. But yeah, his reputation as a hero-bro was on the line too. Bad incentives all around.

      I do doubt he would’ve been so quick to avenge his brother if he was certain he’d be executed like a common criminal. What doesn’t make any sense is the provincial governor giving him a pass and just sending him to comfy exile. In real life, the governor would’ve been a close associate of the Ximen family, and they’d make sure that the murderer of their son was executed by one thousand slices.

      • Azn October 1, 2015 at 08:15

        Its like this. Women are dangerous. Brotherhood is important. End of sermon.

      • Erebus October 1, 2015 at 11:09

        If the two brothers had acted any differently — if Wu Song had said “sell that bitch and use the proceeds to expand your dumpling business”, and if Wu Dalang had heeded this advice — then there’d be no legend for us to discuss. Besides, unsolicited relationship advice from family members doesn’t tend to go over very well, so even if Wu Song had said something to that effect, it doesn’t follow that the issue would have been resolved then and there.

        >”I do doubt he would’ve been so quick to avenge his brother if he was certain he’d be executed like a common criminal”

        I’m not sure. I realize that Japan is not China, but “Bushido is realised in the presence of death. In the case of having to choose between life and death you should always choose death.” A primary feature of the heroic character, across cultures, is the willingness to fight against unfavorable odds, and to even throw one’s life away over trivialities if honor demands it.

        Wu Song’s only brother, who was like a father to him, was murdered in the most underhanded and cowardly fashion possible. Poison is lower than a stab in the back. Any person of sufficiently heroic character must feel that vengeance is worth more than his own life, and would avenge his brother’s murder at any cost to himself. Honor demands it and will accept nothing less.
        …Sure, it’s irrational, but it’s what we expect of our folk-heroes. Sir Gawain — who was also tempted by married women, and also rebuffed their advances — would doubtless do the same thing, as would any number of characters out of Japanese legend.

        • spandrell October 1, 2015 at 11:31

          Bushido and the Hagakure were hyped out of all proportion in the early Meiji period. The actual Samurais weren’t at all that hardcore. It was the Edo period bureaucrat-samurais overcompensating for their sense of inadequacy after centuries without real fighting.

          Now of course Wu Song is the archetype of the mindless peasant noble hero. But note that he didn’t fight unsurmountable odds. He was left unpunished by the establishment, and led (for a while) a VIP life as a cool hero after his vengeance. Which makes no sense at all. I wonder why they didn’t write how he evaded the efforts of the Ximen clan and the provincial government trying to cut him down.

          Then again the whole novel is based on the late Yuan uprisings, so maybe the author was constrained by some actual warlords he was fawning to.

          • Erebus October 2, 2015 at 13:59

            Yeah, that’s certainly true about the Hagakure. The late-Tokugawa samurai were bureaucrats and tax-collectors more than they were warriors. (And when they were not civic administrators, they were often swaggering freeloaders on a free-rice welfare stipend, who had a habit of abusing peasants and merchants they came into contact with.)
            …But they yearned after a warrior ideal, and the Hagakure, in its way, depicts a lofty ideal that’s roughly analogous to the code of chivalric knighthood in Europe. These ideals of unwavering loyalty, extreme bravery, and devotion to social and religious duties were very infrequently — possibly never — adhered to in the real world; the only ones who live up to such ideals are heroic legends like Gawain and Roland. (Though the latter was a bit of a fop.)

            Wu Song is China’s answer to such characters. In him are combined the typically Chinese ideals of filial loyalty, fraternal loyalty, and martial prowess, along with the courage to value vengeance and honor more than his own life. We can’t really expect him to act as a rational human would, and it’s reasonable that they’d come up with a happy ending for him. The central message of the story is, after all, “Wu Song is a heroic character that you should admire. Be loyal to your family, resist temptation, and shun dishonor.”

            • spandrell October 2, 2015 at 16:52

              For the story to end well he should’ve been executed by an evil mandarin. Not send away easy as a cool bro on a cool adventure.

              My non-bro morality says: don’t marry a woman you can’t effectively own. Prevention is better than vengeance, even if it doesn’t look cool nor enhance your reputation as a fierce warrior. Which is all that bros care about, of course.

              Note that the Chinese do have the concept of avoiding receiving things they don’t deserve; excessive fortune was regarded as shortening your life, “折寿” or “折煞”. It’s still a frequently used idiom.

              • Candide III October 3, 2015 at 10:49

                説園 relates an anecdote about 曾子: 曾子衣弊衣以耕。魯君使人往致邑焉、曰:「請以此修衣。」曾子不受。反、復往、又不受。使者曰:「先生非求於人、人則献之。奚為不受?」曾子曰:「臣聞之:『受人者畏人、予人者驕人。』縱君有賜、不我驕也、我能勿畏乎?」終不受。孔子聞之曰:「參之言、足以全其節也。」

  7. Azn October 1, 2015 at 08:13

    So yeah watched the video, Wu Dalang ain’t no Quasimodo. He’s the very picture of the provider beta. Earnest, hardworking, trusting, puts wife 100% while his wife sluts it up, hypergamy personified (gotta say her sluttery aint convincing tho, gimme Miley any day). Aint nobody gonna sympathize with her here.
    Ximen Qing is scheming bad guy. Looks vaguely Japanese. Wu Song is hunkalicious asexual Rambo, kinda like the CCP I guess. Which makes Pan Jinlian capitalism – nice, but gotta keep her under control or else – and Wu Dalang your laobaixing.
    Sheeet! We got us a morality play right there!!! Lulz

    • spandrell October 1, 2015 at 08:18

      He ain’t no Quasimodo? He’s the ugliest actor I’ve seen in my life. The bed scene made even me cringe. Yeah he’s a good and earnest man, but he’s just too lousy a man. I’m sure plenty of modern Chinese women sympathized with Pan Jinlian here. Provider my ass, she works as hard as he does.

      Ximen Qing isn’t scheming, he’s actually pretty dumb, just rich, handsome, and in love with Pan. He’s the wet dream of any Chinese girl today. And he can even fight!

  8. Ivan .M October 1, 2015 at 10:23

    I was expecting a far more hideous creature, but . . . yeah, still a mismatch.

  9. Azn October 1, 2015 at 10:41

    What I mean is the story is structured, and even the video is spun, in such a manner that wu song and wu dalang are seen as sympathetic figures and pjl is a vixen. Most dudes watching would identify with wdl/ws and think, “eh, bish got what she deserved” rather than, “damn, she got a rough deal, what a waste of fine ass.” Chinese dudes anyway, obviously you dont agree lol. Maybe asn/eur brains just parse the contextual or cultural cues in the story differently. I could go on bout the hardworking and quasimodo bits but dun wanna obssess.
    I honestly have no idea what china chix will think – most likely xmq is hot and ws is hotter and pjl is such a bitch. unlike me. wdl who?

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  13. Etjon Basha January 3, 2017 at 10:46

    I suppose this story serves the same purpose in a culture that values family above all as the so-called lifeboat-scenarios do for libertarians today: it cooks up the most improbable set of circumstances under which one could be excused from breaking the usual policy (family first/the non-aggression principle) and still insists that the hero should not do so even under said circumstances. The point is not that, if anyone found himself under such circumstances, he really should follow our hero’s steps (people would understand), but simply to show how strong belief in the norm is and the extent to which one should (in theory) go to uphold it.

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