“The Fall of the Jade Sword” (2017) and the History of Asian Australians

by Lisa-Marie Richter, Adesua Atamah, Ben Königsfeld, Kathleen Reiswich

We have recently read the short story “The Fall of the Jade Sword” by Stephanie Lai and two of its central topics have caught our attention. The hero addressed in the short story is named Jade Sword and we were interested in the Jade Sword as a physical object rather than just as a superhero’s name. Furthermore we were wondering how Asian immigration is represented in the story and why as it is addressed several times. In fact, the author Stephanie Lai is Chinese Australian, which makes the inclusion of Asian immigration to Australia in her story an even more intriguing subject for analysis.

The Jade Sword

In ancient China, jade was considered the most precious stone due to its symbolism of purity and moral integrity. This stone was famous for its persistence and magical properties, and was engraved and polished into several objects from jewelry to desk ornaments. Jade was first used around 6000 BCE, and green was the preferred color for a long time. However, in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, there was a fashion for white jade with a brown tinge, and again in the 1st century BCE, when a pure white jade became available from Central Asia as a result of the Han Dynasty’s expansion in 206 BCE – 220 CE.

We think that the name of the hero fits very well because the hero carries “children to safety, […] [stops] robbers in their tracks, [… ] [and rescues] the crew of an airship as it tangled on one of the new Skyscrapers in Melbourne” (“The Fall of the Jade Sword” 125) and those action fit the characteristics of a Jade Stone. The hero can be considered as persistent and pure and is always there when somebody is in need.

Asian Immigration

“We are in a different country,” she says,”and there are always new advances to make. What kind of warrior would you be if you were to stop here, where you are? There is no room for us here if we cannot adapt.“

(“The Fall of the Jade Sword” 133)

The characters in the story are constantly trying to adapt to the Australian culture and we can conclude that immigration is a main topic in Jade Sword. They think that if they cannot adapt properly, they are in the wrong place. Asian-born people currently make up roughly 12% of the population, however this varies greatly across the country. Queensland and Tasmania have the greatest shares of Australian-born people, whereas Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s most cosmopolitan cities.

Depending on the migratory stream via which they came, Asia-origin migrants fell into two types, each with a very distinct settling experience.

They have primarily arrived from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and India. Humanitarian and family reunion migrants have generally been low-skilled and non-English speaking with the exception of nations such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and some have endured high and continuing rates of unemployment and welfare reliance. They have primarily migrated from Vietnam, the Philippines, and, in recent years, Mainland China.

The whole story is built around characters with Chinese roots. Starting with the names such as “Mok-Seung” or “Can Sin-Man”. What we considered very interesting were the different versions of the news. In the story there were two types of news addressed. On the one hand the Australian news and on the other hand the Chinese Broadsheet and they depicted the same topic but from different viewpoints. They show how differently the (early) Chinese Australian community is perceived by different groups.

Dichotomy in “The Fall of the Jade Sword” and the reflection of hybrid identity experiences

Introductory notes

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.