From Othered to Subverted: The Evolution of the Chinese Heroine in Modern Historical Romance
By Alice Zhou (2021)
Historical romances are defined as romances whose narratives are set within historical time periods. The term ‘historical romance’ often evokes an image of Regency era Europe, filled with dukes and duchesses, and balls and tea parties. One might think of the recent 2021 Netflix adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Regency romance series Bridgerton as an example of the “typical” historical romance. However, historical romance encompasses more than just this Eurocentric facet of history. This romance subgenre also includes romances set in the histories of other countries and regions, with growing representation of characters that hold diverse racial and ethnic identities.
This research project aims to understand the construction of the Chinese heroine within historical romance novels. Specifically, this paper focuses on the portrayal Chinese heroines within the modern historical romance genre within last two decades of publishing, from 1999 to 2019. In addition to analyzing the characters from best-selling and prominent novels, I will also be evaluating the reception of these Chinese heroines by the romance publishing industry and romance readers. The critical and popular reception illustrates how the construction of Chinese heroines in romance has evolved to reflect the broader perceptions of Chinese women in American culture. While exoticized and Orientalist narratives dominated the portrayal of Chinese heroines in the early 21st century, the increased scrutiny of Chinese representation in popular media in the late 2010’s lent momentum to emerging efforts by authors and publishers that actively subverted these stereotypes and highlighted cultural and historical authenticity.
A majority of the novels examined within this paper were selected on the basis of their inclusion in literature scholar Hsu-Ming Teo’s previous review of Asian women in romance literature (2019). Additional criteria included the presence of multiple in-depth reviews on a novel’s Goodreads page, and at least two other existing reviews on other websites or in print media. In addition to the selection from Teo, several other novels, and their related reviews and press, were sourced from the Amazon search page of ‘Chinese historical romance’ while sorting by popularity.
A Critical Lens: Removing the Chinese Heroine from China
A motif in Chinese heroine narratives is to distance the heroine from her native Chinese culture. This separation of the heroine from China was expressed through a variety of avenues, including the geographical setting of historical romances, character traits and the goals of the protagonists throughout novels. Ultimately, this frequency of removal from Chinese locations and culture contributed to the construction of the Chinese heroine as removed from China and its culture.
One way in which the Chinese heroine is pushed away from China is the use of a White male love interest as vehicle of transformation and redemption. In Jade Lee’s Cornered Tigress, Captain Jonah Storm is portrayed as Little Pearl’s solution to finding her missing master, Shi Po (Lee, 2007). In turn, Jonah, as the foil to the other Chinese men introduced in the novel, is seen as ‘saving’ Little Pearl, both romantically and in helping her to achieve her goals. Similarly, the Chinese heroine in The Heart of Blade duology is also rescued from danger in China by the European hero (Thomas, 2014). Like other historical Chinese romances, this separation utilizes a constructed tension between Chinese and Western values (Young, 2016), where embracing the western man and his values is ultimately the solution to all the conflict that results from the heroine’s Chinese culture and origins. As Young observes, Chinese community is written as old-fashioned and restricting, whereas Western culture is portrayed as offering more satisfaction to the heroine (2016, 206). When Chinese heroines end up in a romantic relationship with a White hero, the relationship also represents the greater desirability of Western culture over Chinese culture, and their romantic choice to love the hero is construed as movement away from China and towards the West.
Yet another way this distancing is achieved is through the racial identities of Chinese characters. Many Chinese heroines are written as biracial, or of Chinese descent with some form of non-Chinese parentage. An interesting manifestation of using mixed-race to partially remove the heroine from China is the description of physical features that reflect a woman of Caucasian-Chinese biracial descent. In particular, Katherine Lynn Davis’ 1999 romance novel Somewhere Lies the Moon is an interesting example of how a typically White-European trait is placed upon the body of a half-Chinese character. Although initial reception of Davis’ novel was positive, the 2019 RWA scandal (Romano, 2020) prompted half-Chinese author Courtney Milan to comment on the abnormal description of Lian’s, the Chinese heroine of the novel, eye color. Milan tweeted that Lian is “the obligatory blue-eyed half-Chinese woman” (Milan, 2019). Milan also notes the half-Chinese women having blue eyes “doesn’t really happen,” and that Lian’s appearance is an example of a “standard racist trope” (2019).
Another example is Leah Cameron in Smoke River Bride, who is revealed to be half-Chinese, much to the shock of the hero and his American community (Banning, 2013).This may be reflective of industry practices that often excluded the writing of Asian heroines (Carr, 2020) and reflect how the predominantly White and western romance publishing industry has shaped the portrayal of Chinese women. By insinuating that fully Chinese heroines are not as marketable, the systemic biases within the industry further encourage the practice of removing Chinese heroines from their cultural and historical contexts in favor of creating more ‘marketable’ biracial heroines of Chinese descent.
Popular Reception: The ‘Exotic’ and ‘Oriental’ Chinese Heroine
The controversy between Milan and Davis also sparked further discussion on the exoticization of Chinese women in romance novels. The words ‘oriental’ and ‘exotic’ are used in reviews of books with both Chinese biracial and Chinese women. However, further investigation into these terms reveals how they often perpetuate negative and harmful stereotypes of Chinese women.
In reviews of books set in historical China with Chinese heroines, we also see how the more realistic and gritty elements of Chinese history are often shunned or seen as detrimental to the book’s quality. In a review of Jade Lee’s Desperate Tigress, one reader writes that they “didn’t appreciate the all the detailed scenes and descriptions of women’s bound feet” (“Desperate Tigress by Jade Lee”). Another reviewer of the same novel commented that “the historical accuracy” of the romance was something they “struggled” with during their reading experience, ultimately leading to their lower scoring of the novel overall. While the foreign, ‘exotic,’ novelty of the Chinese heroine and setting is praised and emphasized, it seems that historical accuracies reflecting cultural practices and norms of the time were not desired. These readers’ reactions to Chinese heroines and narratives are an extension of the previously mentioned separation between the heroine and Chinese culture. By deeming the historical details of the Chinese heroine’s experience unlikeable in a novel, popular reception of Chinese heroines fueled industry demand for Chinese heroines that are distanced or liberated from their Chinese culture.
Another review of Lee’s Tigress novel series called the books a “rare Oriental PNR [paranormal romance]” (“Cornered Tigress by Jade Lee”). Why is it so important to note the words “oriental” and “exotic” in the context of these book reviews? This becomes more evident when we begin to understand how these terms are coded in relation to Asian American stereotypes in American media. Firstly, Chinese heroines are exoticized. Their non-Western origins are highlighted as novel and desirable, but at the same time this emphasis portrays them as othered and foreign. Secondly, Chinese heroines are often portrayed in Orientalist terms. Chinese heroines and their culture are often written as inferior or needing to be ‘fixed’ by Western culture. This colonialist rhetoric once again ties back to the critical analysis done by Young on the use of White male protagonists to drive the character arc of Chinese heroines. The rejection of historical accuracy based on its deviation from Western aesthetics and standards of romance, paired with praise for the uniqueness of the Chinese heroine and non-Western setting, illustrates how some romance readers have historically valued Chinese heroines that adhere to an exoticized and Orientalist image of the Chinese woman.
The intersection between exoticism and Orientalism creates two archetypes of Chinese women that are often expressed in historical romance, and in other popular media. The China Doll archetype is an “infantilized and hyper sexualized” version of the Chinese woman; this infantilization, combined with diminutive and submissive character traits, is often used to imply need for a non-Chinese protagonist to act as a savior for a Chinese heroine (Lee, 2018). There are several previously discussed heroines that align with this trope, including Little Peony (Lee, 2007), and Leah Cameron (Banning, 2013). The other commonly utilized stereotype is the Dragon Lady, whose bold assertion of her Chinese culture is portrayed as dangerous and undesirable (Lee, 2018). This archetype still hypersexualizes the body of Chinese heroine, and she is portrayed as a savage and barbaric seductress who is a danger to the Western protagonists. Similarly, we see how Ying Ying, the heroine of The Heart of Blade duology (Thomas, 2014), shares many character traits and narrative arcs with the Dragon Lady archetype. The popularity of these two stereotypes, both in historical romances and Hollywood film reflects on the broader popular demand for Chinese heroines that are coded as Oriental and exotic.
The Late 2010’s: Research and Subverting Stereotype
Beginning in the late 2010’s, growing Asian representation in popular media acted catalyst for the evolution of the Chinese heroine. With the emergence of an increasing number of authors of Chinese descent in the romance genre, as well as growing awareness of how Chinese women are stereotyped by romance novels and other popular media, Chinese heroines in historical romances were put under increasing scrutiny (Teo, 2019). In response to this growing awareness, the marketing and portrayal of Chinese women changed to focus on subversion of historical stereotypes and heightened historical accuracy within novels.
The marketing materials of several romance novels seem to reflect the new direction of the romance publishing industry. Historical romances with Chinese heroines from this time period were often marketed as thoughtful and sensitive to Chinese culture. There are several examples of publishing companies intentionally promoting the research behind the novel. Amanda Roberts’ 2016 novel Threads of Silk is described as “richly descriptive and painstakingly researched” (“Threads of Silk by Amanda Roberts,” Goodreads). Nicole Mones’ Night in Shanghai received similar marketing as a “stunningly researched novel” when it was published in 2014 (“Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones,” Goodreads). Readers’ comments have also shifted from praising “oriental” and “exotic” narratives to praising authors for introducing them to rich histories through romance novels. Weina Dai Randel’s 2016 Empress of Bright Moon series has multiple Goodreads reviews praising her “research” of ancient Chinese texts, and the novel includes an author Q&A where she discusses the research that went into her writing process (“Empress of Brightmoon by Weina Dai Randel,” Goodreads). These blurbs and reviews suggest an increased demand for novels that are perceived as ‘researched’ with a degree of historical accuracy and cultural authenticity. This shift in attitude and expectations for Chinese historical romances is the result of a complex interplay between readers, authors and publishing houses.
In some cases, authors have driven this change by publishing historical romances with Chinese heroines that actively subvert Oriental and exoticized stereotypes of Chinese women. Authors Jeannie Lin and Courtney Milan have both been active critics of the oriental and exotic stereotypes used to portray Chinese women in romance novels. In a 2015 blog post, Lin writes about her experience portraying Chinese narratives in a historical setting, and how she felt that she was still searching for a space where she “might not feel so ‘other’” (Lin, 2015). Similarly, Milan emphasizes the importance of what she calls “responsible representation” of Chinese women in an NBC Asian America article (Ghandi, 2020). In her case, she believed this practice involves “subvert[ing] the common tropes about demure Asian women while also grounding her stories in Chinese culture.” Lin took a slightly different approach, and intentionally utilized the well-known archetype of the sword-wielding Chinese heroine to “get her foot in the door” for Butterfly Swords (Ghandi, 2020). In doing this, Lin hoped to expand conversations about Orientalism and exoticism in romance fiction to a broader audience.
The contemporary history of the Chinese heroine is rooted in deeply Oriental and exoticized stereotypes. Efforts of romance authors of Chinese descent to write subversive Chinese heroines, a shift in audience understanding and perception, and changes in how the industry markets Chinese historical romance altered the portrayal of Chinese heroines. These changes created an emerging paradigm that pushes readers to embrace, rather than shun Chinese culture. Overall, the evolution of the Chinese heroine in the 21st century is the result of the interactions between shifting attitudes of the romance publishing industry and its readers.
Other related reads on Unsuitable:
Banning, Lyanna. Smoke River Bride. Toronto, Canada: Harlequin Historical, 2013.
Carr, Susanna, “Asian heroes & Heroines in Romance.” Posted February 12, 2020. http://susannacarr.com/asian-heroes-heroines-in-romance/
Courtney Milan (@courtneymilan). “Okay, so you know how Glenfinnan publishing has two editors listed on this page?” Thread, Twitter, August 25, 2019. https://twitter.com/courtneymilan/status/1165780613577621505
Ghandi, Lakshmi. “Romance novels have long clung to the submissive Asian woman trope. These authors are changing that.” NBC News, January 9, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/romance-novels-have-long-clung-submissive-asian-woman-trope-these-n1112906.
Goodreads. “Desperate Tigress by Jade Lee.” Accessed April 14, 2021, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1592420.Desperate_Tigress
Goodreads. “Empress of Bright Moon by Weina Dai Randel.” Accessed April 14, 2021, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26145762-the-empress-of-bright-moon
Goodreads. “Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones.” Accessed April 14, 2021, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18222672-night-in-shanghai
Goodreads. “Threads of Silk by Amanda Roberts.” Accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31816192-threads-of-silk.
Lee, Jade. Cornered Tigress. New York City: Leisure Books, 2007.
Lee, Joey. “East Asian ‘China Doll’ or ‘Dragon Lady’?” Bridges: An Undergraduate Journal of Contemporary Connections 3, no. 1 (2018): 1-6.
Lin, Jeannie. “On Core Themes, Genre Writing, Romance…” Posted March 12, 2015. http://www.jeannielin.com/on-core-themes-genre-writing-romance/
Romano, Aja, and Constance Grady. “Romance is publishing’s most lucrative genre. Its biggest community of writers is imploding.” Vox, January 10, 2020. https://www.vox.com/2020/1/10/21055125/rwa-what-happened-resignations-courtney-milan-damon-suede-backstory-2020-ritas-conference
Teo, Hsu-Ming. “Cultural Authenticity, the Family, and East Asian American Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 9 (March 2020): 1-21, https://www.jprstudies.org/2020/03/cultural-authenticity-the-family-and-east-asian-american-romance-novels/.
Thomas, Sherry. My Beautiful Enemy. New York City: Berkley, 2014.
Wong, Sau-Ling C., and Jeffrey J. Santa Ana. “Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature.” Signs, Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25, no. 1 (Autumn 1999): 171-226.
Young, Erin S. “Saving China: The Transformative Power of Whiteness in Elizabeth Lowell’s Jade Island and Katherine Stone’s Pearl Moon.” In Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as a Practice of Freedom, edited by William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, 206-221. Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2016.