Monday, April 02, 2012

From Betsy Braddock to Whoopi Goldberg in Seven Geeky Paragraphs

If I told you that I was trying to connect X-Men and Star Trek: The Next Generation using only etymology, you’d probably say, “Oh god, get away from me, you, dork!” And I’d have deserved that. However, I’d still continue with this line of conversation, punches to the face notwithstanding, because I researched this one through. In the end? It didn’t pan out. My hunch turned out to be wrong and the connection I thought seemed obvious just didn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t educational.

Having grown up in an environment where everyone I knew was Catholic, I’m always interested to learn that my childhood religion into the histories of places where I assume Christianity wasn’t ever a driving force. For example, Christianity plays a surprising role in the history of Japan. Prior to 1637, a segment of the Japanese people openly practiced a brand of Christianity that we now refer to as the Japanese Catholic Church, but the Shimbara Revolution of 1637 forced these Japanese for Jesus to worship a lot more quietly. Consequently, these people are known as Kakure Christians, from the Japanese word for “hidden.” And one of the ways they could practice their chosen religion was to do so under the guise of it being a more accepted one. That’s why this statue is so interesting:

the virgin mary in her best party costume, basically
It’s the Virgin Mary disguised as a figure from East Asian Buddhism: Guanyin, an incarnation representing compassion and mercy usually styled as female. In fact, Guanyin is abbreviated Chinese for Guanshiyin, or “observing the cries of the world,” so the link between this Buddhist figure and the Virgin Mary is apt. What is Mary, after all, aside from an embodiment of femininity and a magnet for the sorrows of the world? Anyway, being a significant figure in Buddhism, Guanyin’s name was translated from Chinese into other Asian languages, and this is where we get out pop cultural connection. In Japanese, Guanyin becomes something that can render in English as Kannon, Kan’on, Kanzeon or Kwannon, the last of which should be familiar to X-Men diehards. Kwannon, in the Marvel comics continuity, is the supervillainess who swaps bodies with Betsy Braddock, a.k.a. Psylocke. Long story short, the two get their all-of-them mixed up —abilities, memories and even looks, which is why Betsy, Captain Britain’s twin sister, looks Japanese for a significant period of her comic book existence.

psylocke on the left, kwannon on the right... i think...
Knowing that Kwannon’s name wasn’t simply plucked out of the ether, I thought for sure that this character, an empath, was named for a reason, and that the same reason might explain why Star Trek: The Next Generation featured Whoopi Goldberg as a this wise bartender character saddled with the odd name Guinan. (And yeah — I get how it’s funny to talk about unusual names for characters played by an actress whose stage name was inspired by her flatulence.) There’s a certain empathetic quality to Guinan, and I would have put money down on the fact that she, like Kwannon, got her name from one of the many ways that Guanyin could be transliterated into the English alphabet.

Nope. But I still learned something.

While an X-Men-Star Trek connection would span geeky universes, Guinan actually gets her name from a real-life saloon owner, Texas Guinan, who served drinks in Prohibition-era New York and entertained patrons with her Waco-bred manner. She’s a thoroughly cool lady, and if her existence comes as news to you, I strongly encourage you to read up on this kickass dame of yore.

On one hand, oh well. It would have been cool to put two and two together and make four. In this case, two and two are just two and two. On the other hand, however, I pulled up enough cool bits of history — like, history history and pop culture history — that I couldn’t just toss it all aside. From covert Catholics in Japan to a Texas-to-the-core saloon mistress yet still manages to ding two nerdish pegs from my youth? That’s a trip worth taking.

Thanks, internet!

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