I have briefly mentioned the gender neutrality in ancient Chinese text as evident in the story of the Green Snake Spirit before, but I thought I would dedicate this post to this topic in greater detail.
When Sailor Uranus first came about in the Sailormoon series, she was a suave, dashing racecar driver and she actually appeared as the masked tuxedo guy (cross-dressing). Her superpower is in the wind and the sky. As such, her colour is that of a blue so intense that it looks like our idea of the sky. Perhaps the point on the horizon where the sky meets the sea. And that is perhaps why Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were so connected as one represents the power of the sky, and another the power of the sea.
So Sailor Uranus went on to flirt with many of the sailormoon characters, and established a romantic relationship with Sailor Neptune. This was censored away in the animation but not the manga, and when it aired in the US, they changed quite a lot of reference to gender neutrality in Sailormoon and the two consequently turned from lovers to cousins in a somewhat desperate attempt to cover up their relationship.
Sailor Uranus could run as fast as the wind, and could tell the future by reading the sky. This is again linked to the Greek god Uranus which is the personification of the sky. And her weapon of choice–the Space Sword. She was intelligent and aggressive, very much like the Green Snake Spirit.
The Green Snake spirit in the very original text was actually a male spirit (if one has to assign a gender to spirits, that is). I’m sure most of us took for granted that it would be a girl, based on the many shows and most famous movie version Green Snake by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark. Many remember Maggie Cheung in her very sexualized form of Green Snake spirit and how she tried to seduce the powerful monk (and succeeded!). Her femininity was absolutely beyond doubt.
For the fun of it, I actually did a tribute version of the shoot in 2017 based on the Green Snake movie. I probably should do a post on that shoot… another time!
So yes, traditionally we always assumed that both snake spirits represented different types of femininity–wife material, and the lover material. But undoubtedly, femininity.
Or so we thought.
However, the origin of the Green Snake spirit would’ve been a total deal breaker for men lusting after Maggie Cheung in the movie. Green Snake was actually a male spirit.
This was suggested in other versions of the story, be it in Peking Opera or another earlier TV drama on this story. The original relationship between Green Snake and White Snake are also not that of sisters (yes, white-washed like Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune’s lover-to-cousin storyline).
The male green snake spirit had wanted to forcefully take the white snake spirit as his wife, because of her great beauty. White Snake challenged him to a duel, and whoever wins gets his/her way. The White Snake had 1000 years of meditation and accumulation of powers, while the Green Snake only had 500 years of it. So naturally, The Green Snake didn’t get his way. He was a good sport though (saving grace), and submitted himself to the White Snake as a loyal servant and follower, changing his gender to a female so it would be more socially acceptable (you don’t say, even spirits have to abide by human-imposed morality/propriety I guess!).
For the creator of Sailormoon to incorporate homosexuality and gender neutrality in her content so long ago was really something. But I do also feel that this concept of femininity vs masculinity was never that much of a polar opposite in Asian societies. For a start, if we look at dresses, the male and female dressed very much similarly very long ago (i.e. 2000 years ago for the Han, and as recent as 500 years ago for the Manchurians). Men wore skirts/robes, and women were also known to cross-dress as men openly, not to be disguised as a man (unlike in many shows we watch), but just because it’s fashionable to wear the ‘power suit’. And yes, the power suit is making a come back this year I heard. So I am going to wear my Tang dynasty male robe as my form of power suit for this year!
But what I also want to talk about is the fierce loyalty that Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune shared, which is very much similar to that bond between Green and White Snake spirits.
Long story short, in order to fight the evil mastermind, Sailormoon would need to gather 3 talismans. And the evil mastermind would also gain power by having the 3 talismans (similar to how one need to gather all the infinity stones to gain power). They found out that 2 of the talismans were the heart of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune respectively, so the evil mastermind extracted Sailor Neptune’s heart and obtained her mirror which is the talisman. When Sailormoon arrived, Sailor Uranus turned the heart extracting gun on her own heart and handed her talisman which is her Space Sword to Sailormoon so she has a chance to fight against the evil mastermind.
The death of Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus in the same episode was said to be one of the most dramatic death scenes of the lot. You can watch that moment HERE.
I did a lot of couple shot for Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune because that was the highlight for Jiaye when she grew up watching this series. She said because of this show, she respected homosexuality growing up. And I think if we look at the context of the original story of Green Snake and White Snake, and how Green Snake was fiercely loyal to White Snake, and fought the powerful monk to her death (one of the versions).
In many ways, there are so many parallels between these two couples whose relationship straddles between the grey line between friendship and romantic love.
What I find fascinating about Asian culture is the immense gray areas which everyone seems to be perfectly comfortable with. I have to admit growing up in a more westernized environment, I’m not entirely comfortable with it–I needed certainty. But as I age, I am starting to appreciate the subtleties and nuances, and I also witnessed how as societies we are also engaging in more civil discourses and open discussions about these grey areas. That is a sign of maturity I believe, and a type of maturity which the Chinese society once witnessed and understood.