The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Gallant Maid (1879)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Gallant Maid (original: Ernü ying xiong zhuan) was written by “Yanbei Xianren,” the pseudonym of Wen K’ang (1798-1872), a local official in Anhui who came from a prominent Manchu family and was appointed imperial agent to Lhasa. The Gallant Maid is little-known outside of China but is popular inside it, having inspired sixteen sequels.
The Gallant Maid is about He Yufeng (“Jade Phoenix”) and An Ji. An Ji is the son of the righteous official and Manchu bannerman An Xuehai. An Xuehai is in charge of the repair of a dam, but a flood destroys the dam and An Xuehai is made the scapegoat for its destruction. An Xuehai is imprisoned and ordered to pay a large fine. An Ji travels a long way to help his father, carrying a large load of silver to ransom him, but he repeatedly runs into misfortune, with his donkey drivers and later some evil monks both trying to rob him. Both times he is rescued by He Yufeng, who also frees an old farmer whose wife and daughter, Chinfeng (“Golden Phoenix”), had been captured by the monks. He Yufeng explains herself to the farmer. Years ago her father, General Ho, had been killed by sorcery. General Ho had been a high official of the Solid Yellow Banner, but his superior had ordered him to marry He Yufeng to the official’s son. The son was crude and barbaric and was unworthy of He Yufeng, who is beautiful and educated. General Ho refused to countenance the wedding, so his superior had him jailed on false charges and then killed him via sorcery. He Yufeng, loyal to her father in the proper Confucian way, retreats to a rustic village with her mother and then goes to the underworld and trains herself as a nüxia, or female knight-errant, to avenge her father. While her mother is alive, however, He Yufeng cannot carry our her revenge, and instead makes a good living robbing corrupt and evil government officials. He Yufeng is so strong and such a good fighter that all the other outlaws greatly respect and fear her. In the underworld she is known as Shisan Mei, “the Thirteenth Sister.”
He Yufeng wants to protect both An Ji and the farmer and his daughter (who He Yufeng is a double for), but they are going separate ways, so He arranges for An Ji to marry Chinfeng, so that they will travel together. An Ji pays the ransom for his father, who is restored to his position. But An Xuehai is no longer interested in serving the government. An Xuehai figures out, from various clues, that He Yufeng is General Ho’s daughter. An Xuehai was friends of old with General Ho, so, to pay off his debt of gratitude to her as well as the obligation he owes his now dead friend, An Xuehai resigns and goes in search of He Yufeng, accompanied by An Ji. He Yufeng’s mother dies, and she prepares to avenge her father, but Xuehai tells her that the man responsible for her father’s death had been executed by the Emperor and there is no longer any need for revenge. Feeling that her life’s ambition is complete, He Yufeng tries to commit suicide, but she is eventually convinced by An Xuehai that she can best honor her parents by tending their graves and continuing their line. He Yufeng spends a year mourning her parents, as is proper, and then prepares to become a nun. But An Xuehai persuades her that the daughter of a general should not become a nun but should marry, so she marries An Ji. She immediately abandons her adventurous ways and becomes a properly demure and modest wife.
The Gallant Maid is similar in plot to The Pleasing History (original: Haoqiu zhuan, 1683). The anonymously-written The Pleasing History was a popular and influential “scholar-beauty” story, a genre of fiction which became popular reading in China and Southeast Asia in the seventeenth century and still retains its popularity. The typical scholar-beauty story involves a male scholar and a female beauty meeting, falling in love, overcoming obstacles, passing official examinations, marrying, and living happily ever after. The male scholar embodies traditional masculine virtues, with an emphasis on courage and physical strength, while the female beauty embodies traditional female virtues, with an emphasis on charm and modesty. Both the scholar and the beauty have traditional Confucian morals, including physical and intellectual chastity; they value purity over sensuality, fidelity over individual desires, and arranged marriages over free choice.1 One non-Chinese version of the scholar-beauty story is Nguyên Du’s Kim Vân Kiêu.
While the story structure and plot of The Gallant Maid is similar to that of The Pleasing History, the Gallant Maid’s story differs from its predecessor’s. The author of The Gallant Maid added elements of the wüxia genre, so that He Yufeng becomes the active member of the scholar-beauty pair. In most scholar-beauty stories the scholar is the heroic member of the duo, but The Gallant Maid actively inverts gender stereotypes. He Yufeng is stereotypically masculine and aggressive, and An Ji, timid and weak, is stereotypically feminine. He Yufeng completely overshadows An Ji and was correspondingly far more popular with the reading audience, so that all but three of the sequels to The Gallant Maid focus on the events of He Yufeng’s life before she married An Ji.
He Yufeng is one of the quintessential nüxia. She is brave, an excellent fighter, superhumanly strong, and can fly, but is also romantic, obedient, highly educated, feminine, and embodies all of the best Confucian principles, including piety, loyalty and a stern chivalry. She is not delicate, and gobbles her food. She speaks in an aggressive way and is willing to kill even when she is not threatened. While on her quest to avenge her father she disguises herself as a young man. In this guise she is harassed by a gang of thugs, and she uses her powers to thoroughly defeat them, destroying an inn in the process. This combination of unwomanly behavior and adherence to Confucian principles has led to some scholarly confusion, as the contradiction between what He Yufeng does and what she believes in has puzzled a number of academics and critics, as has the abrupt transformation of He Yufeng from cold, aggressive swordswoman to loving demure wife. In truth, Wen K’ang only seems to play to audience expectations in domesticating He Yufeng:
The trouble with the transformation from the self of Thirteenth Sister, her hero’s epithet in the first half of the novel, back to the self of He Yufeng, her original name, is that the story of martial heroes and heroines is not supposed to transform into the story of daily married life, training for the imperial exams, and then the future of offspring and career. The transition from the riveting narration of heroic deeds to the placidity of domestic life creates anticlimax. Wen Kang nevertheless defies narrative custom by joyfully portraying that transition, which he accomplishes by retaining the gender inversion he began with after all. In other words, He Yufeng’s domestication is not complete. An Ji’s utter lack of wits nerve in critical situations¼prevails throughout the novel, allowing He Yufeng to continue playing the dominant role as guardian of the moral and physical stability of the household. She remains cool and decisive even after her supposed conversion, always ready for valiant action after all, “even in peace never forgetting the possibility of danger,” as the idiom puts it (an buwang wei, 30.670). She is such a figure because of the experience of risking her life to stand up for justice. Women like her emerge when men have declined to a point that they no longer know how to assume the role of the bearer of mandate, that is, the one who maintains the eye for the good of family and empire. Even the Confucian patriarch is one in name only, as An Xuehai, who is happiest in the role of modest and periodically laughable pedant, repeatedly demonstrates.2
Wen K’ang’s approach to hybridizing the scholar-beauty and martial arts genres is successful, and the ending is surprisingly subversive. The Gallant Maid has never been translated into English, which is a shame, since modern readers would enjoy it.
Print: Wen K’ang, Er nu ying xiong zhuan. Beijing: Beijing shao nian er tong chu ban she, 2002. (The novel has never been translated into English).
For Further Research
Maram Epstein, Competing Discourses: Orthodoxy, Authenticity, and Engendered Meanings in Late Imperial Chinese Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001.
1 Maram Esptein, Competing Discourses: Orthodoxy, Authenticity, and Engendered Meanings in Late Imperial Chinese Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 229-237.
2 Keith McMahon, Polygamy and Sublime Passion: Sexuality in China on the Verge of Modernity (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2010), 94.