A Comparative Study of the Gender Representations in
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Its Chinese Translation
Wing Bo Tso, PhD Candidate,
Department of English, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, United Kingdom.
Email: glasssolitaire@hotmail.com
1.3. Similarities between Pullman’s Works and Chinese Mythology
1.3.1. Lyra the New Eve and Nuwa
This is a comparative study of the representations of women in a popular children’s
fantasy series in two cultures – English and Chinese. The research will start by looking
into gender stereotypes, in particular the stereotypes of female characters in popular
children’s literature. Then, I will discuss the representations of female characters in
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995 - 2000). The research will concentrate on
three aspects: (1) the subversive re-inscription of Eve (with a particular focus on Lyra,
the female protagonist and her daemon); (2) the re-invention of the ‘femme fatale’ (the
characters of Mrs. Coulter and Dr Malone will be examined), and (3) Pullman’s
portrayals of marginalized women (gypsies and witches). The analysis will then be
followed by a comparison between the gender representations in the source text and that
in the target text, i.e. how and why the gender representations in the source text are
translated, transferred and / or transformed in its Chinese translation. By studying the
similarities and differences in the gender representations between the texts, light will be
shed on the gender ideologies of both English and Chinese cultures in the contemporary.
The Eve figure from which Lyra is portrayed uncannily resembles Nuwa, the
female creator of humans in Chinese mythology, who is well-known in Chinese
culture. Nuwa, like Eve, is the mother of all humans. The only difference is that
Nuwa is not created by God or from a rib of Adam. Instead, she is the one who
created heaven and earth, made humans from soil in the likeness of her own
1.1. Gender Stereotypes in Children’s Literature
Gender stereotypes are a shared set of beliefs about purported qualities of females and
like a snake or the tail of a dragon. In the eyes of the Chinese, Lyra is not just the
new Eve, but also Nuwa reincarnate.
The ever-changing forms of daemons may not sound new to most Chinese. Rather, it
reminds us of the popular Buddhist prophet Guan Yin, who has the wisdom of seeing
through the superficial surface of gender and form. Freed from the boundary of
gender, Guan Yin can take on any gender and forms to save beings from sufferings
and ignorance. The following is a description of the formlessness of Guan Yin by Li
Ao (2001), a renowned Chinese writer and scholar from Taiwan:
Common Examples of Gender Stereotypes
Feminine Traits
觀音是無形的,他要靠「現眾身」-- 在大眾身上顯現 – 來表示
化為青龍白虎、化為你和我。(2001: 97)
Masculine Traits
Masculine traits are generally regarded as more desirable than feminine traits (Eakins &
Eakins, 1978), and gender stereotypes are common in children’s literature. It is found
that among the prize winning children’s stories of the previous 40 years, majority of the
stories showed females in passive roles as caretakers: mothers, helpers in the kitchen,
and nurses. On the other hand, males led exciting lives as fighters, explorers, and
adventurers (Temple, 1993). Also, in a 1973 study (cited in Fox, 1993), 85% of the main
characters in storybooks for children were male.
Gender stereotypes
in the pretexts
Eve: the mate of Adam;
t h e f a i t h l e s s
seductress; the
cause of the Fall.
main protagonist
a male assistant;
follower of truth;
Christ-like saviour.
Lyra’s daemon: Pan, the form-changing animal
Femme fatale: the mischievous,
beautiful woman.
Mrs. Coulter: a beautiful, successful and
powerful woman; a evil-doer
but also a mother who is willing
to sacrifice her life and
everything for her daughter.
The serpent: Satan
Mary Malone: An ex-nun, a scientist, the
bestower of knowledge; the
wise instructor and adviser.
Witch: Dangerous, demonic
Gypsy woman: superstitious,
d i r t y, t h i e f
Guan Yin has no form of his / her own. Guan Yin has to be manifested
in the corporeal forms of everything and everybody. Hence, Guan Yin
is not male or female. Guan Yin is also both male and female. Guan Yin
can be male or female. When he wants to become a man, he’s a man.
When she wants to become a woman, she’s a woman. Besides having the
ability to transform interchangeably as a male or a female anytime,
anyplace, Guan Yin can also take the form of birds, animals and beings
of any kind, including the form of a green dragon, a white tiger, even
you and me. (My English translation).
While some readers find the invention of daemons incredibly imaginative, Chinese
readers may somehow find it familiar.
Pullman’s subrversive re-version
Lyra the new Eve: the
Due to the similarity between the form-changing of daemons and the formlessness of Guan Yin, the
notion of free self-expression and fluid performativity manifested by the children’s daemons is
perceived with a positive light and happily embraced by the Chinese translator. In the following, I
shall examine how the Chinese translator manipulates the source text to make it carry the Buddhist
gender notions as manifested in Guan Yin.
3.2.1. Gender Identity ‘Hidden’ through Ellipsis of Pronouns
The Chinese translator seems to have the inclination to avoid and delay telling the readers explicitly
the true gender of Pan, Lyra’s daemon. Not infrequently, the masculine pronouns used to refer to Pan
are skillfully avoided by the ellipsis of pronouns in the target language:
Example 1
Example 2
The butterfly raised and lowered his
wings (1997: 23)
…dipping his paw in it (1997:
Target Text
蝴蝶緩緩舉翅又落下 (2002:39).
將掌子伸入 (2002: 40).
The butterfly raised and lowered
[ellipsis] wings slowly.
Dipping [ellipsis] paw in it.
3.2.2. Genderlessness Imported through Inconsistent Translation of the
Pronoun ‘it’
In the source text of the trilogy, Pullman uses pronouns such as ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’
to refer to Pan, Lyra’s daemon. When the daemon’s animal form is emphasized, the
pronoun ‘it’ is also used.
Interestingly, in the Chinese version, the translator translates the pronoun ‘it’
sometimes as 它 (‘It’ that refers to a lifeless object; gender unspecified) and
sometimes as 牠 (‘It’ that refers to an animal; gender unspecified):
Example 1
Example 2
Source Text
It leapt into her arms (1997: 21).
It’s you (1997:26).
Target Text
它就是你 (2002: 43).
The translator also unfaithfully translates the pronoun ‘he’ in the ST as 牠 (‘It’ that refers to an
animal; gender unspecified):
Serafina: a clever, helpful and kind-hearted
witch; a strong and decisive leader.
Ma Costa: a protective motherly figure; a tough
fighter with a strong character.
Having discussed the striking similarities between Eve and Nuwa, as well as the ever-changing forms
of daemons and that of Guan Yin, now the question is: How is Pullman’s work translated in the
Chinese Version? Has the gender subversion conveyed in the TT become stronger or weaker? Has
Huang Jing, the Taiwanese translator of Philip Pullman’s series, consciously or unconsciously blended
the influences of Chinese gender view(s) into the translated text (TT)?
However, in the Chinese version, instead of translating ‘daemons’ as 惡靈 (which means ‘demons’), it
is translated as 守護精靈 , meaning the ‘guardian spirits’. The notion of ‘guardians’ has been added
while the negative association with the evil, together with the subtle anti-Church message is lost. The
lexical shift and lost might be due the untranslatability between the two languages, but arguably it
could also be due to the different ideological implications in the two cultures – i.e. because of different
religious backgrounds, the Chinese translator might not be able to capture fully the anti-Christ notion
that is so strong in the ST.
Example 1
Example 2
Source Text
Lyra would be dressed up prettily
the ladies would include her in
their…talk (1995: 82)
Target Text
萊拉會打扮得漂漂亮亮 (2002:118).
其他女士…和她聊些…話題 (2002:
Lyra would dress up prettily.
other ladies will have… talks with her.
of the
altered TT
Lyra has the agency to choose
Lyra has an equal relationship with
other ladies. She is not begging to be
(1995: 82)
whether to dress herself up.
One possible reason for the alterations could be that in the Chinese culture, ‘ladies’ are
normally translated as 淑女 (su-nu), a noun originating from a Chinese classic called Shi
Jing (Book of Odes, written in approximately 1000 B.C.), which bears a similar meaning
to the idea of ‘ladies’ in English. However, 淑女 has more to do with the modesty, fidelity
and beauty of women. In this light, it is imaginable that when the Chinese translator came
across the word ‘ladies’ in the ST, s/he may not be sensitive enough to detect the
underlying associations with class, social status, sex-role stereotyping, power relations
a n d e v e n h y p o c r i s y, w h i c h a r e a l l h i g h l i g h t s i n P u l l m a n ’s t e x t .
Primary sources:
The Chinese text seems to have made use of the sophisticated system of third person singular
pronouns in the Chinese language. Skillfully and subtly, daemons in the translated text are provided
with a further freedom of formlessness and genderlessness similar to that of Guan Yin.
3.2.3. Daemons’ Form-fixing Interpreted and Translated as a Lamentable
In the last book of Pullman’s trilogy, there is a subtle description of sexual intercourse between Lyra
and Will. At about the same time, readers are told that the forms of the daemons of both Lyra and
Will will not change anymore. In the Chinese version, the lost of form-fluidity is magnified and
3.1. Anti-Church Notions Softened
In Pullman’s work, daemons refer to the visible and tangible counterparts of the human soul. During
childhood, a daemon can take on any form it likes. Symbolic of the gender of children, a daemon is
formless, ever-changing, and free from sex-roles and stereotypes. What is interesting is that Pullman
deliberately names this human counterpart as ‘daemons’, which has the same pronunciation as
‘demons’, the wicked or cruel spirits. This association between the idea of the inner soul and that of the
‘wicked spirits’ can be seen as a foreshadowing of how the free expression of human nature, multiple
gender possibilities, self-discovery and knowledge are repressed and banned by God and the Church in
Lyra’s world.
Not infrequently, passages written specifically with an anti-patriarchal tone are
translated with less strength. In chapter 5 of Northern Lights (1995), Pullman
describes how Lyra is trained and forced to become a lady of high society. Her feeling
of distress and discomfort towards the suppression of natural gender expression as
well as the sex-role stereotyping is written in detail. In the Chinese version, however,
these notions have been weakened, if not totally lost. For instance,
Source Text: He backed away (1997: 24).
Target Text : 牠就立刻退後 (2002: 40).
1.2. Gender Subversion in Pullman’s His Dark Materials
3.3. Anti-Patriarchal Notions Softened
image. More surprisingly, Nuwa is like Eve and the serpent in one, for it is said
that the upper part of her body is human-like, and the lower part of her body is
1.3.2. The Form-changing Daemons and Guan Yin, the Genderless,
Formless Buddhist Prophet
3.2. Pullman’s Daemons in the Chinese Version: Guan Yin Incarnate?
Example 1
Example 2
Source Text …neither daemon would change …they would want no other. (2000: 528)
Target Text 他們的精靈再也無法改變了(2002:
…their daemons can no longer
…they refuse to take on other forms.
change by any means.
Besides symbolizing the loss of virginity and innocence, daemon’s form-fixing in the Chinese version
also reflects the lamentable loss of freedom from the constraints of the
senses, form and shape, as manifested in Guan Yin.
Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. London: Scholastic Press, 2000, 2001.
----------. Northern Lights. London: Scholastic Press, 1995, 2001.
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------。譯者王晶。奧祕匕首(上下冊)(The Subtle Knife)。台灣:繆思出版社,2002。
------。譯者王晶。琥珀望遠鏡(上下冊)(The Amber Spyglass)。台灣:繆思出版社,
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A Comparative Study of the Gender Representations in