Hybrid identities often live in worlds full of dualities, worlds full of contrasts and opposites. Stephanie Lai’s short story The Fall of the Jade Sword (2017) tells the story of young Mok- Seung who spent her childhood in China but who has moved to a colonial Melbourne with her family. Her aunt and mother teach her at home, but Mok-Seung wants to explore; in the night, she sneaks out onto the rooftops and roams about the city. Meanwhile the tabloids follow the adventures of a new local superhero who they call the Jade Sword and report of the progress of colonization and its side effects. One day, Mok-Seung receives a visit from a family friend who reveals herself as the real Jade Sword and asks Mok-Seung to become her apprentice.
Relevant aspects of dichotomy
One aspect that quickly comes to mind when thinking about dichotomy in the story are the newspaper headlines recited throughout it. The Chinese broadsheets hung all over the teahouses and readers’ homes follow the good deeds of the Jade Sword, proudly claim them as one of their own, and as a master of wushu (for example p.125), while also reporting of the general good and the bad happening in the community. The Times, however, portrays the Jade Sword as a Western magical hero, a tall white man that assists the ‘civilized’ people of Melbourne (p.125). It twists things to paint a bad picture of the Chinese and Indigenous and describes them as wild and dangerous (p.130, 131). Moreover, it actively neglects to report of fates like those of the Chinese settlers attempting to return their loved ones’ bodies to their homeland but are being denied permission for transport (p.130); instead, it focuses on white deaths and white tragedies.
The overall theme of migration in Lai’s story brings more contrasting aspects into play: Mok-Seung sometimes thinks of her memories from “back home” (p.127), already implying that Melbourne does not feel like home in comparison. She also admits that she hopes something good will come out of their stay, since she does not quite understand why they moved in the first place (p.130). At home, she is taught in classical and traditional arts connected to her culture, including cultural knowledge and etiquette (p.132), and her family friends and relatives who moved to Australia as well seem firmly rooted in the culture they left behind (“Can Sin-Man is austere and serious, uninterested in what Australia has to offer […]”, p.127). Melbourne is portrayed as a fast-paced progressive city with flourishing steampunk-esque innovations like augmented bicycles, carriages fueled by steam, and airships (p.125), but it also contradicts its progressive reputation with its regressive thinking: deep-seated racism and discrimination issues. Public establishments are free and normalized to ban who they please from entering (“[…] pokes her head in every restaurant, every sporting club, every place that doesn’t have a sign over the door banning her entry.”, p.130) and Chinese settlers and indigenous people are deliberately blamed for setbacks of the white colonizers (p.125, 126). Still, the young girl is fascinated by the new technologies and wants to utilize them to explore the unknown (p.127).
Connected to that, Australia itself is also described as a dichotomous continent, being a mix of the colonized modern cityscapes that Mok-Seung knows and the ‘wild’ desert that she reads about in the news and wants to see for herself (p.131). This also flows over in Mok-Seung possessing a hybrid identity: she combines two heavily different cultural influences in herself due to having moved in some of her most formative years. Can Sin-Man notices how she not only knows the ‘old styles’, she is also able to adapt to new ones more easily and therefore has an advantage (p.132) since a warrior ought to be adaptable (p.133), which makes Mok-Seung a more than suitable apprentice for the Jade Sword.
Mok-Seung as a young first-generation settler to Australia experiences two contrasting cultures at once and unlike her older relatives, represents a transitional generation, being connected to her heritage while also open to and influenced by her new surroundings. She is not only influenced by her traditional upbringing and childhood in China, but also by the new impressions from Australia. This is clearly reflected in her surroundings in The Fall of the Jade Sword, with Melbourne representing technological progress and regressive way of thinking at the same time, as well as colonial civilization in contrast to the ‘wilderness’ outside the cities. Mok-Seung’s two worlds are mirrored and literally represented in two competing newspapers that respectively focus on mostly their own communities, instead of one newspaper reporting neutrally about Melbourne’s citizens as a whole.