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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Greek tragedy in East Asia: tragic irony in JinYong’s ‘Demi-god and semi-devils’ (

I once asserted that JinYong’s ‘Demi-gods and semi-devils’ (DGSD) (天龍八部) was a Chinese martial arts novel embedded with elements from Greek tragedy. In my previousblog, I mentioned incest as a literary motif borrowed from Greek tragedy. In this blog, I would like to propose another literary motif which is likewise borrowed from Greek tragedy, namely ‘tragic irony’. ‘Tragic irony’ is a technical term in classical literary studies and is one of the diagnostic characteristics which defines the spirit of Greek tragedy. It typically occurs when the character had the chance for something better, the opportunity to save him/herself from his/her eventual doom, if he/she had known better, if he/she had made a different choice that was once available to him. Yet certain factors (which may be very justifiable) impede his/her reasoning, and he/she is left to rue what could have been. A very famous example is Achilles’ dilemma in Homer’s Iliad. In book 1 of the Iliad, Achilles is offended by Agamemnon’s arrogance and vows to retreat from battle. As he is by far the most powerful hero in the Greek camp, his absence leads to problems in the Greeks’ campaign in the Trojan War. In book 8 the Greeks suffer a horrendous setback at the hands of the Trojans led by Hector, and in book 9 Achilles receives a visit from three prominent Greeks, who beg him to return to battle. However, Achilles remains firm in his resolve and decides to abstain from battle for as long as possible. He eventually pays the price for his stubbornness, since when his dear friend, Patroclus, having been dispatched by him in book 16 in a secret bid to save the Greeks without participating in the fighting himself, comes back dead in book 18, Achilles howls in grief. Furthermore, this seals his doom, since not only has he lost his best friend in battle, he now also has to enter battle to avenge him, which practically spells the end of his life as it is prophesised that if Achilles ever enters war, he will die young.

There are various scenes in this narrative that are gut-wrenching, namely the opening scene of book 18 when Achilles sees the corpse of Patroclus and grieves in pain, the scene at the beginning of book 16 when Achilles bids farewell to Patroclus under the premonition that his best friend might die at the hands of Hector, the scene in book 17 where Patroclus’ two horses weep at the sight of their dead master etc, all of which go down history as some of the most powerful scenes in world literature. However, there is one aspect of the narrative of the Iliad that I would like to emphasise, namely the end of book 9 when Achilles refuses the envoys’ repeated plea to re-enter battle. Throughout book 9 Achilles receives three different types of persuasion: calculated reasoning (Odysseus), emotional blackmail (Phoenix), and angry retort (Ajax), yet none of these has any effect on him, though he does show progressive softening as he says that he will stay behind for the time being. Achilles is therefore a stubborn hero, whose heroic temper (i.e. self-regard) is so strong that no plea can possibly alter or heal his dented pride. He would have died in battle if he had entered war, but at least he would not have suffered the grievances of the death of his best friend, Patroclus. If he had known better, all this pain and suffering would not have happened. This is ‘tragic irony’.

The parallels between Qiaofeng, the protagonist of DGSD, and the various characters of Greek tragedy, have already been proposed in previous blogs (see above). In this blog, I would like to point out one particular scene in DGSD in which Qiaofeng similarly has the chance to avoid his eventual doom, namely the scene in which he and his lover, A Zhu, decide to retire from all the ugly infighting in the martial arts world and settle anonymously in the countryside (a common theme in JinYong’s novels). They have just paid a visit to Zhiguang, the monk who knows the background and history of Qiaofeng’s genetic lineage, namely the fact that he is a Qidan, the deadliest enemies of the Han people, when he has been brought up in the world of the Han believing that he is a Han and has ascended to become their hero and leader (see my previous blog for details). Yet both and his lover envisage an idyllic existence in which there is no racial tension, no hatred or conflict between the Han and the Qidan, where they can settle happily thereafter. This is a beautiful scene, one in which we witness the full extent of their love, and the irony is Qiaofeng has a chance to leave this dark and ugly world and live happily for the rest of his life. This is ‘tragic irony’ in ancient China, which is beautifully blended into the historical setting of the Chinese martial arts world. Unfortunately, this idyllic prospective is taken away from them, as they face an unresolvable dilemma in their next encounter with Duan Zhengchun, A Zhu’s long-lost biological father. This spells the doom for both characters, as they are left to rue what could have been a perfect ending. Another blog on this.

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