She Who Became The Sun – week three

She Who Became The Sun: The Fantasy Hive Read-along

In our third week of The Fantasy Hive’s read-along of She Who Became The Sun, political conflict within the Red Turbans is the most immediate threat to Zhu’s fate; while Ouyang struggles with inner turmoil as he begins prosecuting his revenge…

For this read-along we are reading and discussing set chapters each week, with some chatter on Discord, a shared GoogleDoc and of course some blog posts! Note that this is a discussion – not a review – so will include spoilers for the book so far. This week, we’re discussing Chapters 12 through 17; our hosts guiding the discussion each week are Nils and Beth at The Fantasy Hive.

The theme of identity is a driving one in this story: discuss.

Zhu’s story is is tightly wound around themes of identity: starting with the narrative point that she has assumed her brother’s identity to steal his fate, to the extent that she suppresses instincts and talents that she considers to be her own rather than natural to Zhu Chongba. She’s a double agent inside her own body, trying not to give herself away to Heaven itself.

The irony is that Zhu Chongba didn’t seem clever or ambitious enough to achieve his foretold greatness. He seemed selfish and grasping and perhaps a little cruel (or was he merely young and uneducated and very, very hungry? It’s easy to judge him harshly, but we barely knew him) – rather than his clever, sneaky little sister with her secret traps and her quiet compliance at home.

And for all Zhu constantly reviews her actions through the lens of would Zhu Chongba do that she never asks what would Zhu Chongba do because it probably wouldn’t help. So the result is an entirely manufactured identity: Zhu Chongba is Zhu.

There’s grand traditions around protagonists taking on the identity of the dead – to survive, to steal their stuff, to serve family honour or duty – or assuming it by mistake – but most I’ve read still centre the protagonist as themselves. Zhu puts a great deal of effort into changing the way she views the world to see it through (what she considers) Zhu Chongba’s eyes: that is to say, the lens of a male Chosen One. Which leads us neatly to the next question… but first I want to mention Ouyang.

Where Zhu remakes herself as Zhu Chongba, Ouyang is proudly himself, hiding in plain sight: the last remaining scion of a traitorous noble family, who embraced dishonour to survive to fight another day. His sense of identity is shaken by the physical changes imposed on him by castration and by the psychological impact of surviving in a society that despises every aspect of who he is: a traitor’s son, a coward, a eunuch, a slave. His prowess with a sword and victories as a general mean nothing because the Mongols do not see him as a man. This works to his advantage because they never consider that a boy who submitted to the knife rather than die might entertain notions of revenge – and cuts him to the core, because even Esen never sees him for who he truly is (my heart breaks for him as the pennies drop that Esen simply forgets what Ouyang’s been through, and is attracted to him because he is feminine).

Where Zhu’s public identity is an act, Ouyang’s public identity is the best kind of illusion: one that is exactly what it seems. He never pretends to be anything other than who he is; he merely keeps his ambitions quiet. Yet in spite of this – and for all her submerged identity – Zhu is far more self-aware than Ouyang!

Another important theme and one which has played a large part in this week’s section is fate. What were your thoughts on this?

One of the reasons I enjoy this book so much is the way it twists the trope of the Chosen One / grand destinies. Many tales revolve around reluctant heroes and mistaken identity, or a chosen one rising from obscurity – but here we get an arm wrestle: Zhu actively pursues a fate that isn’t hers. She is trying to make herself a Chosen One by sheer will.

And it seems to be working – she has survived, and risen. Which begs questions about whose destiny was foretold, don’t you think? Coming back to my doubts that Zhu Chongba could have done what Zhu has done – did the fortune teller saw the fate of Chongba’s soul or of Chongba’s name? Which is to say, does Zhu worry about Heaven too much? Or is there no fate but that which we make? Less destiny, more determination?

Where Zhu is making her own fate, she’s also become a catalyst for Ouyang, whose fate is dictated by family honour and Chaghan’s terrible acts. While he accepts it, it seems he’s also coming to resent it – and is focusing that resentment on Zhu, whose actions have pushed him into acting on it at last. It is arguably absurd to hate Zhu for ‘forcing’ him to do what he was always going to do (at some point): but it does make me wonder whether he would have kept putting it off forever…

What are our thoughts on the death of Chaghan? How calculated was Ouyang devising that plan?!

It’s not clear to me how much of Chaghan’s death was specifically planned rather than coolly ad libbed: Ouyang seizing an opportunity as it presented itself. Ouyang certainly had A Plan for the day – hence splitting off from the rest of the hunt – but his improvisation here is terrifyingly impressive. Consider the number of times Wang Baoxiang unwittingly gets in Ouyang’s way, only to become the perfect patsy (ironically, given we’ve seen that he too is a clever schemer).

It’s a satisfying turn of events for the way it moves Ouyang out of the unconflicted position of seeking revenge against the man who murdered his family and into the far more difficult position of being the man who has inflicted pain on his best friend; and who must now decide how far to push his own revenge…

How do we feel about Zhu and Ma Xiuying getting married?

There’s not many things in She Who Became The Sun that make me warm and fuzzy – it’s not that sort of story – but Zhu’s relationship with Yingzi and Xu Da most certainly do. Zhu challenges Yingzi’s with the idea that a woman might desire and pursue her desires; Yingzi forces Zhu to acknowledge the human cost of her desires. We’ve seen Zhu become increasingly ruthless, doing whatever was necessary to secure her fate; Yingzi tempers that trait. Yingzi is as idealistic and compassionate as Zhu is pragmatic; they balance one another – to a point, anyway.

So I ship them for the way their relationship creates space for each of them to be more than they were alone. Ma Xiuying gains possibly the only husband who can truly see her and who will listen to her; Zhu gains a wife who will help shield her identity and who will at least try to stop her becoming a monster.

It’s crucial to me that at no point in their interactions do we see Zhu pause to wonder whether this is what Zhu Chongba would feel or do in relation to Ma. Her affection and protectiveness for Ma are entirely her own, and one of the rare aspects of herself that she doesn’t reject to protect her identity. She loves. Perhaps Zhu Chongba would too – Ma is very pretty – but not for the same reasons, or in the same way you can be sure.

There’s also the usual little nugget of joy in centering a queer marriage. Obviously notions of gender are muddled when it comes to Zhu (although the narrative continues to use she/her pronouns); but for Ma Zhu transcends gender.

What are our thoughts on Zhu believing she had entered the spirit world and the ghosts asking “who are you?”

Back in week one, I wondered whether Zhu could see the ghosts because there is a sense in which she (her original identity) is dead. This week, the ghosts see her. It’s a fascinating moment: she feels laid bare, exposed, revealed – but at no point do the ghosts recognise her; although they don’t see her as Zhu Chongba either.

Does the ghosts’ inability to recognise her reflect that she was fated to become nothing, and so they see nobody? Or is it that Zhu Chongba is dead and a ghost himself, so who is this Zhu Chongba that stands before them? The Zhu Chongba she has so carefully crafted isn’t real – he’s an illusion of her making – is there simply no deceiving the dead? Or is the whole thing a symptom of her guilt and self-doubt? Can the ghosts ever do more than reflect back her fears? (I’ve been watching Nine Perfect Strangers and I rather enjoyed the scene in which a hallucination tartly tells a character that he can’t tell her anything she doesn’t already know)

There’s a question of whether the ghosts ever recognise the living. Our only evidence for that is the way they cluster around Ouyang; but every other ghost Zhu has encountered has been entirely oblivious to the living. So perhaps the other question is: what does it mean to be seen?

We need to talk about that duel with Zhu and Ouyang! How awesome was that?!

There’s been discussion about the narrative’s tendency to shy away from action in favour of build-up, but I’ve always found She Who Becomes The Sun intensely cinematic after the Chinese epic historical tradition: wide shots of landscape and armies, banners, robes – hell, long hair -snapping in the wind, lingering shots of facial expressions betraying internal conflict intensifying. This week once again skips most of the battle, but – briefly – gives us a duel, although the main action is a personal conflict rather than fancy footwork or an extended fight sequence. In time-honoured tradition, Zhu puts herself at risk to try and save the day; and narrows a conflict between armies down to a conflict between two generals.

And – for the first time – we see her completely misread her situation. It’s no surprise to us, because we already know Ouyang’s motivations. He was never going to abandon the chance to punish her in order to save Bianliang. The surprise for me on first reading was that he doesn’t kill her, although it makes so much sense in retrospect. His entire life has been filled with pain and shame. Death would be too easy; he wants his enemy to suffer and he believes that a disfiguring loss of limb will destroy her self-esteem and status. But he’s misreading the situation too…

Eowyn smiles at the camera

It’s also hilariously, unintentionally arrogant. After all, it didn’t stop him, did it?

That’s it for this week – on next week, we’re discussing Chapters 18 through to the end.