Another fable-like tale, this one. This time it’s more in the style of Japanese folklore (and I presume folklore from other Asian countries as well, but I’m only familiar with Japanese folklore). It focuses on a sort of arms race between two neighboring towns as they build their walls over and over again in the shapes of things that will oppose and triumph over each other. So if one builds the walls as a sword, the other will build a sheath, and so on. Our narration follows the Mandarin of one of these towns (“mandarin,” according to Wikipedia, “originally meant an official of the Ming and Qing empires.”). The Mandarin receives his instruction from his daughter, hidden behind a silk screen; she, truly, is the strategic genius behind his plans.
While the fable-like quality of the story is enjoyable, there is one thing that, as a modern reader, really took away from the story for me. There’s a lot of casual sexism here. Now, I know, I know, given the time and place in which it’s set, it makes sense. I’m not going to argue that you shouldn’t accurately depict cultures because it’s sexist. But as someone living and learning in the 21st Century, and a self-identifying feminist, it is a bit disconcerting, regardless of context, to see this kind of sexism.
Take for example, the way the Mandarin praises his daughter (in private, of course): “…Daughter-who-thinks-like-a-son.” Because only sons are capable of brilliant thought, so she must think like a son. When she is finally acknowledged as the one who came up with the plans: “[they] called the Mandarin’s daughter a boy, a man, a stone pillar, a warrior, and a true and unforgettable son.” Her identity as a daughter and woman has been completely ignored, erased, even, because only a man could have thought of the things she did. It’s hard, honestly, to read this and not be a bit put off, even knowing that it’s an artifact of the setting.
Ultimately, the story isn’t bad. It’s a little uncomfortable at times, but it’s not bad. It’s actually pretty fun, just as long as you can look past the discrediting of women.