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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Greek tragedy in East Asia

In a previous post, I mentioned several East Asian works that are influenced by Greek tragedy, namely Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Oldboy’ (2003) and Jin Yong’s ‘Demi-gods and semi-devils’. There is a lot of literary influence from Greek tragedy in these two works. In this post, I propose to analyse the theme of incest and parental ancestry, which is a good place to start since not only is it a striking literary motif, it also illustrates the spirit of Greek tragedy.

One underlying characteristic of Greek tragedy is the notion that there are moral dilemmas that are unresolvable. This raises interesting questions on two levels: on an intellectual level, it is fascinating how certain problems cannot be solved. Academics and intellectuals hold the attitude that every problem has a solution, since it is their mission to solve the world’s hardest problems and expand our intellectual boundaries. Yet Greek tragedy provides us with numerous episodes of moral dilemmas that are not only difficult to solve but are actually impossible to solve. For this reason, Greek tragedy remains one of the most intellectually challenging literary genres of all time, since it is a genre that defies human reasoning. On an emotional level, such moral dilemmas bring out pathos and expressions both from the characters and from the audience on an unprecedented scale, since the fact that the characters find themselves in such moral dilemmas entails inevitable doom and suffering. On these two levels, ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Demi-gods and semi-devils’ (DGSD) have a succinctly Greek feel to them. One parallel is incest, which is a prominent theme in one of the best known Greek tragedies of all-time: Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Tyrannos’. Oedipus returns home to Thebes and unknowingly kills his father, the king of Thebes, and commits incest with his mother, the queen of Thebes. In a culture where incest is a cultural taboo (which also applies to the vast majority of modern cultures), Oedipus’ realisation of having committed incest comes as a cruel blow, and he reacts by blinding himself and spending the rest of his life in decrepitude. But that is not the end, as the House of Thebes continues to suffer and Oedipus’ children live out their lives fighting each other and sundering what is left of their city. Incest is therefore a curse to Oedipus and his family, and his realisation of his own ancestry (the fact that he is the son of the man that he murdered and the woman whom he slept with) marks his doom.

One of the most climactic scenes in ‘Oldboy’ is when the main character, Oh Dae-Su, realises that Mido, a girl whom he meets on his adventure and commits sexual relations with, is actually his long-lost daughter. Similarly, in DGSD the three main characters (Qiaofeng, Xuzhu, Duanyu) all realise that they are not who they think they are: Qiaofeng, the leader of the clan of beggars (the biggest and liveliest Han group at the time), realises that he is actually the son of a Qidan man, arch-rivals of the Han people; Xuzhu realises that he is actually the illegitimate son of the leader of the Shaolin clan; Duanyu, the prince of Dali and future heir to the throne, realises that he is the son of his family’s deadliest rival. It is intellectually puzzling (and deeply paradoxical) that these characters are confronted with problems that they cannot solve, especially when they are all so strong and intelligent. Yet at the same time it is very obvious: incest is not permitted, and ancestry is an immutable property of one’s genetic make-up. No matter how strong, powerful, virtuous you are, if you are not who you should be, you cannot possibly go on.

Emotionally, we can feel the suffering of these characters in what follows, since after their respective realisation of the truth about their lives, they all react in ways that are gut-wrenching and lamentable: Oh Dae-Su cuts off his tongue in recompense for his crime, namely the fact that he spilt out a terrible secret when he was at school (cf Oedipus’ self-blinding); Qiaofeng screams and cries, calling for justice when there is none to be offered to him. The paradox of their downfall (the fact that they are all very capable men trapped in dilemmas that not even they can solve) further brings out the tragic irony of their situation, namely the fact that they are suffering in ways that not even they can avoid. This is emotional threshold at its highest peak. What these scenes bring out, therefore, is exactly what Greek tragedy is about, namely the intellectual and the emotional. It is intellectually challenging as to how these characters got themselves into this tangled mess, yet it is also emotionally heart-breaking the way they suffer in these moral dilemmas. This is Greek tragedy in its purest form.

I hope to have shown that there are clear elements of Greek tragedy in these East Asian works of art. Incest and family ancestry serve as obvious literary motifs which recall famous works of Greek tragedy (e.g. Oedipus), and the intellectual and emotional aspects that these works offer are in many ways parallel to Greek tragedy. This is Greek tragedy set in East Asia.

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