Why Wuxia?

I admit, there is a lot of talk about wuxia on this site: wuxia dramas, wuxia films, wuxia literature. I guess I never explained the appeal of wuxia for me. Well, here goes.

It is about more than the swords (although the swords are nice!).  First of all, let’s see what we’re talking about. Here is how the Almighty Wikipedia defines wuxia:

Wuxia (simplified Chinese: 武侠; traditional Chinese: 武俠; pinyinwǔxiá[ùɕjǎ]) is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to different art forms like Chinese operamanhua (Chinese comics), films, television series, and video games. Wuxia is a component of popular culture for many Chinese-speaking communities worldwide.

The word “wuxia” is a compound word composed from the words wu (武), which means “martial”, “military”, or “armed” and xia (俠), meaning “honorable”, “chivalrous”, or “hero”. A martial artist (or pugilist) who follows the code of Xia is often referred to as a xiake(俠客, lit: “follower of xia”, “hiệp khách”) or youxia (游俠, “wandering xia”, “du hiệp”). In some translated works of wuxia, the pugilist is sometimes termed as a “swordsman” although he may not necessarily wield a sword.

So when you say Chinese and swords, most people think of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; Source: http://www.fanpop.com/spots/crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon/images/2264791/title

Or Hero.

Hero; Source: http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800020969/photo/520515

Or House of the Flying Daggers.

House of the Flying Daggers; Source: http://caines.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/house-of-flying-daggers-zhang-yimou/

Now, I’m not mad at Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou. I’m always up for seeing them do their thing on the big screen. But I found there is a big difference between wuxia on the big screen and wuxia on the small screen, and I think that’s where a lot of my interest falls. The television series, by their nature, allows for the development of a convoluted plot, especially with series that are based on wuxia fiction. And a result, the action is less important than the development of characters and narrative. Now, if you’ve seen those wuxia series from the 1980s, you could say that the wuxia series has too much time on its hands. 30, 40, 50 episodes require a certain amount of commitment. And there is a lot of wistful monologues where characters wax poetic about what they should or shouldn’t do. But I still love them.

My first wuxia series was Return of the Condor Heroes (1983) . While it stars a young Andy Lau, what really captured my attention was not the couple that flouts the rules, but Huang Rong. I was astounded that her claim to fame was her cleverness. To me, she stole the show. I was intrigued that she was allowed to have so many talents AND never lose her femininity. And she’s not a bad swordsperson in her own right. The only person rivalling her in the series was her FATHER!!! Dude only appears a handful of times, but his surliness is just delicious. Whatever you might think of Huang Yaoshi, he does what you want EVERY father who happens to be a martial arts master to do: teach. his. daughter. martial arts. If you are going to send her out into the world, at least makes sure she can defend herself! I was so focused on these two, I practically forgot about that other love story.

This got me thinking about masculinity and femininity in wuxia.  A lot of what people focus on, especially if we take the Wikipedia tact, is that the hero is a MAN. I love the fact that there are so many women running around wuxia. And they aren’t falling down;  helpless, hapless women either. They run the gamut on both sides of good and evil. They carry swords with their well-manicured hands and well-coiffed hairstyles. They are WOMEN with swords, not women pretending to be men (which is different from disguising oneself as a man for a purpose). But they are not always carrying swords, yet they figure significantly into the plots and not just as the love interest.  And there are different kinds of women too! I’m trying explore what I call a female heroic tradition. Does it exist? If so, what does it look like? Is heroism itself a concept only applied to men? What defines heroism for ladies? Sure, they can be the philosophical light, but ladies can effect the beatdown too! And even without a sword, they can cause trouble as members of royalty. I’m interested because a lot of other women I know are interested. I think it is limiting to think that women can’t be heroic and bring something different to heroism.

Laughing In The Wind

I’m also interested in the men, or as like to call them, SWP: Swordsmen With Problems. These are a crazy lot: alcoholics, womanizers, depressed souls who suffer from low self-esteem, rejected by the women they love, can’t communicate with the women they love, can’t get rid of women who love them, unable to assume the obligations laid at their feet, guys who have unresolved father issues. Oh, but they are talented martial artists. So it’s an interesting combination. But not all men in wuxia wield a sword. Everyone knows that the scholars, monks, tricksters, and guys who can bring a good plan to the table are indispensable. So heroism, once again, takes on a different flavor.  I’m also interested in the relationships between men, the lengths and limits of brotherhood and something I like to call male emotionality. These dudes cry. All. The. Time. And it doesn’t take away from their masculinity. What’s up with that?

The Handsome Siblings

Put them together, and you get my third interest: men and women. I’ve seen some really equitable relationships between men and women in wuxia dramas. I’ve seen both men and women deviate from their “expected’ societal roles. Of course, I’ve seen some relationships that are a hot mess, but hey, they keep in interesting. Put this against the backdrop of some Chinese history, and it is very interesting to me.

Ok, and then there are the swords, the battles, the clothes. (I couldn’t resist).

Young Warriors of the Yang Clan

So that’s why there is so much wuxia on the site. I’m working on a book that explores this, and will occaisionally use the blog to work through my ideas.

Eagle Shooting Heroes (2008)

It’s quite a statement to say, but I’m going to put it out there:  this is my favorite wuxia story EVER! This is the second version I’ve seen (the first was the 59 episode, 1983 version, Legend of the Condor Heroes).  Whether its crazy 80s special effects or the more sophisticated fare, what stays relatively the same is the story:  dimwitted boy and clever girl. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I revel in seeing Guo Jing act like a moron (but it is fun), but I’m always amazed at how strong Huang Rong is. She is not only smart, she’s clever (it’s not the same thing).  Yeah, she’s got problems playing well with others, but wouldn’t you if your father was Huang Yaoshi (more on him later).  This the fascinating thing for me and what tends to at least challenge what we think about warrior women in the west (thanks, Maxine Hong Kingston), namely that Rong is in a lot of ways a teenage girl with skills of her own who helps others (namely, Jing!).  She’s girly, and she’ll beat you down.  

So, yes, giddy to see Rong, but was ECSTATIC to see my boo, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, as Huang Yaoshi.  He does indifference like no on else!  He comes in and out of the story, but it’s always fun when he shows up.  Wong does the character justice, and I just find it fascinating that he has enough sense to teach his daughter kung fu before she goes out in the world (unlike other series–yes I’m talking about you, Men and Legends).  I mean, look at the expression on the faces of people when they find out that Rong is the daughter of “Evil East.”  On the more intellectual side, however, this father-daughter relationship is rare and brings up interesting questions that, dare I say, may challenge some feminist assumptions?  For example, she learns from her father, and yes, the mother is out of the picture, but isn’t his parentage what she eventually needs in the big, bad world?  

Still thinking (translation: I reserve the right to wax poetic on ESH in a later post!)