Alternate Title: Love in Chinese Folklore, and Tales of The Thread
This guest post was written by Michelle Kan in honor of Aromantic Awareness Week 2020.
Give me folklore and I will devour it.
Myths, legends, fairytales, let me at it. The more obscure the better. Give me the variations, the regional differences that confuse when shared for the first time. Show me the books, the storytellers, the keepers of tradition. I will listen to myths to explain the stars in the night sky a dozen times over and never tire of them. East or West, Northern Hemisphere or Southern, I love them and will take them all.
I will, however, express a bias for Chinese mythology.
The Sinosphere is the home of countless hundreds of myths and legends. I pride myself on knowing many of them, but in truth probably know but a fraction. These are stories that were shared over thousands of years by word of mouth and belong to no single storyteller, with regional variations that I haven’t even begun to imagine.
I learned these through the reading and rereading of withdrawn library books and VHS tapes of questionable authenticity, brought back by relatives on trips to Hong Kong. Tales of warriors and scholars and Heavenly Maidens. Tales that frequently feature gods, spirits and immortals of Buddhist or Taoist lore as main or secondary characters, where explicitly supernatural narratives are more common than not.
Like many other cultures, Traditional Chinese folklore has its fair share of tales about Romantic Love as a powerful force. However, as opposed to the seemingly dominant Western narrative where True Love often leads to a Happily Ever After, the endings to their Chinese counterparts are often bittersweet. The Herd Boy and the Weaving Girl is one such example, as is Lady Meng Jiang, Butterfly Lovers and The Legend of the White Snake – the Four Great Chinese Folktales, where the couples are either separated by forces outside their control, or eternally reunited only in death.
There’s an undeniable theme of amanormativity in European fairytales – that is, the idea that romantic relationships are inevitable and the be all and end all to a story. Romantic Love is touted as the ultimate kind, the thing that breaks curses and saves kingdoms. Even in fairytales where Strength of Character saves the day (or even rarer, Familial Love), the protagonist is still commonly rewarded with a romantic relationship, typically to a character of some royal standing.
Setting aside the issue of heteronormativity in these tales and the need for explicitly queer representation in these Happily Ever After fairytale romance narratives, Western True Love stories tell us, broadly, that a romantic relationship is life’s single valuable end goal, that Romantic Love is the most important force, and what exactly that Love is meant to look like.
For Western audiences who have internalised the notion of Romantic Love as the most passionate or persuading force, Eastern Asian presentations of love can then be perplexing or unfamiliar.
Chinese fairytales present a slightly different set of priorities, with a strong focus on non-romantic relationships, especially familial bonds and filial piety (the love and sense of duty to one’s elders and ancestors, including gods). These themes are influenced by traditional Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian values and make up a tremendous portion of traditional Chinese fairytales, maybe even moreso than stories of Romantic Love.
Familial Love is predominantly valued as the most important in Chinese culture, something tied up in our festivals and traditions, especially the Lunar New Year. Platonic and Familial Love frequently cross over, such as in the addressing of similarly aged peers as siblings or cousins. Filial Piety, a highly-regarded virtue born of Confucian values, can sometimes be seen as overly submissive or even antiquated. And the Chinese tradition of Sworn Brotherhood – that is, the kinship between two individuals who have sworn an oath to each other due to “shared interests, ambitions or responsibilities”  – falls somewhere between Platonic, Filial and Familial, but may come across as romantic for its passion and intensity.
These perceptions of ‘strangeness’ are, of course, coloured by Eurocentrism, amanormativity, and sometimes straight up xenophobia. When every significant, curse-breaking, non-familial relationship you see is romantic, doesn’t that make all curse-breaking, non-familial relationships across all cultures romantic?
Obviously, we know this isn’t the case. Familial or Filial, Platonic or Romantic, all four of these have the potential to break curses and save kingdoms, both in fiction and reality, even if mainstream narratives will try to convince us otherwise. Platonic Love especially is frequently passed over, portrayed as less significant across both European and Chinese folklore, even with Sworn Brotherhood’s crossover into its realm.
Which brings me to Tales of The Thread.
The ‘Thread’ here, of course, is a reference to the Red Thread of Fate, a Chinese and East Asian concept where those destined to meet are connected by an invisible red thread, woven by the God of Love and Marriage. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break, and those bound by it are fated to be soulmates.
Typically, this generally refers to romantic soulmates, but for the purposes of Tales I’ve reclaimed it to mean platonic soulmates and other non-romantic relationships. While the aim of the anthology isn’t exactly to break curses or save kingdoms, ultimately what I’m looking to tell are stories where the strength of a non-romantic bond sees characters through difficult trials and hard times.
This is influenced partly by the many non-romantic fairytales of Chinese folklore and their focus on familial or filial bonds. But maybe even more than bonds of blood, I want to highlight bonds of friendship. I want to write tales of companionship and found family, of people we are bound to through shared communities and common interests. Connections we find both through common ambitions and dedicated effort.
Even before I understood I was aromantic, I had an interest in writing stories featuring male-female relationships whose bond remained solely and fiercely platonic. My urban fantasy novel No More Heroes (2015) was my first published foray into exploring the variations that could be had in those platonic cross-gender relationships, and was written just before I learned about aromanticism and asexuality. Now I take my conscious knowledge of my identities, and the spirits, immortals and Heavenly Realms of Chinese mythology, and write my own stories of kinship and camaraderie, where True Love can take many forms.
Stories about the relationship between a Dragon and a Phoenix, for instance, with a kinship so deep and ancient that it can no longer be described by words. Or the strange bond between the Imperial Guard and a troublesome Ox Spirit, inexplicably connected by a Heavenly Peach Grove. Or the companionship between a homesick Weaving Girl and a young Fox Spirit, bound by a shared destination and similar goals.
Stories about love for our companions, our kin, our craft and our selves, steeped in the rich folklore of my cultural heritage.
Note: While queerplatonic representation in fiction is also much needed, this is not my intention with the relationships I portray in Tales of The Thread, especially Come Drink With Me. ‘Queerplatonic’ is very much a modern, Western term and doesn’t fit as a framework for the relationships I write in these fairytales, partly in the fact that it denotes a conscious commitment to a relationship. Sworn Brotherhood comes closest as a cross-cultural comparison, but is still different in that it’s a pledge of loyalty rather than a commitment born of affection. At this stage, I’m much more likely to write a story featuring a bond of Sworn Brotherhood, which is culturally more significant to the settings of Tales.
REFERENCES Chen, Daowen, “Sworn Siblings in Sanyan Stories” (2011). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 758. https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/etd/758