The History and Politics of Wuxia

I first fell in love with wuxia when I was around eight or so. I remember running around swinging the bright yellow handle of my toy broom as a sword, calling a sprawling tiger stuffed toy my master and pretending the shower was a waterfall I could learn the secrets of the universe under. I ran on tiptoe because that was somehow more like flying—or “hing gung” 輕功, the art of lightness, as I would eventually become fond of translating it .

But even before then I was deeply familiar with the genre; its many conventions have become baked into the everyday language of the Hong Kong I grew up in. My relatives all played Mahjong and much like with sports, discussions around these games borrowed heavily from the language of sparring martial artists. I’d ask at the end of every Sunday, what are the results of the battles. When asking for a family recipe, someone would joke that they’d have to become the apprentice of this or that auntie. Later, there was the world of study guides and crib sheets, all calling themselves secret martial arts manuals. The conventions around martial artists going into seclusion to perfect their craft and going mad in the pursuit of it take on new meaning as slang around cramming for exams.

Which is all to say, I really love wuxia.

“Wuxia”, literally meaning “martial hero”, is a genre about martially powerful heroes existing in a world parallel to and in the shadows of the Chinese imperial history.

The archetypal wuxia hero is someone carving out his own path in the world of rivers and lakes, cleaving only to their own personal code of honour. These heroes are inevitably embroiled in personal vengeance and familial intrigue, even as they yearn for freedom and seek to better their own skills within the martial arts. What we remember of these stories are the tournaments, the bamboo grove duels and the forbidden love.

Parallels are often drawn to knights errant of medieval romances, with many older translations favouring a chivalric vocabulary. There are also obvious comparisons to be made with the American western, especially with the desperados stumbling into adventures in isolated towns in search for that ever-elusive freedom.

It is easy to think of wuxia in these universal terms with broad themes of freedom, loyalty and justice, but largely divorced from contemporary politics. These are stories, after all, that are about outlaws and outcasts, existing outside of the conventional hierarchies of power. And they certainly do have plenty to say about these big universal themes of freedom, loyalty and justice.

But this is also a genre that has been banned by multiple governments within living memory. Its development continues to happen in the shadows of fickle Chinese censorship and at the heart of it remains a certain defiant cultural and national pride intermingled with nostalgia and diasporic yearning. The vast majority of the most iconic wuxia texts are not written by Chinese authors living comfortably in China, but by a dreaming diaspora amid or in the aftermath of vast political turmoil.

Which is all to say that the world of wuxia is fundamentally bound up with those hierarchies of power it seeks to reject. Much like there is more to superheroes than dorky names, love triangles, and broad universal ideals of justice, wuxia is grounded in the specific time and place of its creation.

Biography of Old Dragon-beard (虯髯客傳) by Du Guangting (杜光庭, 850-933) is commonly cited as the first wuxia novel. It chronicles the adventures of the titular Old Dragon-beard, who along with the lovers, Hongfu 紅拂 and Li Jing 李靖, make up the Three Heroes of the Wind and Dust. But the story isn’t just supernatural adventures; they also help Li Shimin 李世民 found the Tang Dynasty (618–906). The martial prowess and the seemingly eccentric titles of the characters aside, the act of dynastic creation is unavoidably political. 虯髯客傳 pivots around Hongfu’s ability to discern the true worth a man, which leads her to abandon her prior loyalties and cleave her love to Li Jing and his vision for a better empire. Not to mention Du wrote this and many of his other works whilst in exile with the Tang imperial court in the south, after rebels sacked the capital and burnt his books. Knowing this, it is difficult not to see Du as mythologising the past into a parable of personal resonance, that perhaps he too was making decisions about loyalties and legacies, which court or emperor he should stay with, asking himself if the Tang would indeed rise again (as he himself, as a taoist has prophecised).

Other commonly cited antecedents to the modern wuxia genre are the 14th Century classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) and Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳), the former of which is all about the founding of dynasties and gives to Chinese the now ubiquitously cited The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been (话说天下大势.分久必合,合久必分).

 

Revolutionaries, Rebels and Race in the Qing Dynasty

No era of imperial China was in possession of a “free press”, but the literary inquisitions under the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) were particularly bloody and thorough. The Manchu elite suppressed any openly revolutionary sentiment in fiction, however metaphorical, and what is written instead is a literature that sublimates much of that discontent into historical fiction nostalgic for the eras of Han dominance. Wandering heroes of the past were refashioned into a pariah elite, both marginalised from mainstream society but also superior to it with their taoist-cultivated powers.

Whilst earlier quasi-historical epics and supernatural tales are replete with gods and ghosts, late Qing wuxia begins to shed these entities and instead grounds itself in a world where taoist self-cultivation grants immense personal powers but not divinity itself. In each of the successive reprintings of Three Heroes and Five Gallants (三俠五義), editors pruned the text of anachronisms and supernatural flourishes.

The parallel world of secret societies, foreign cults, bickering merchants and righteous martial clans came to be known as jianghu, literally “rivers and lakes”. As a metaphor, it was first coined by taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi 莊子, to describe a utopian space outside of cutthroat court politics, career ambitions and even human attachments. This inspires subsequent generations of literati in their pursuits of aesthetic hermitism, but the jianghu we know today comes also from the waterways that form the key trade routes during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). To the growing mercantile classes, jianghu referred to the actual rivers and canals traversed by barges heavy with goods and tribute, a byname for the prosperous Yangtze delta.

These potent lineages of thought intermingle into what jianghu is within martial arts fiction today, that quasi historical dream time of adventure. But there is also another edge to it. In Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts History and Postcolonial History, Petrus Liu translates jianghu as “stateless”, which further emphasizes that the hero’s rejection of and by the machineries of government. Jianghu is thus a world that rejects the dictates of the state in favor of divine virtue and reason, but also of a sense of self created through clan and community.

The name of the genre, wuxia (“武俠“) comes from Japanese, where a genre of martially-focused bushido-inspired fiction called bukyō (“武侠”) was flourishing. It was brought into Chinese by Liang Qichao 梁启超, a pamphleteer writing in political exile in Japan, seeking to reawaken what he saw as Han China’s slumbering and forgotten martial spirit. In his political work, he holds up the industrialisation and militarisation of Meiji Japan (and its subsequent victory against Russia) as inspiration and seeks a similar restoration of racial and cultural pride for the Han people to be the “master of the Continent” above the hundred of different races who have settled in Asia.

Wuxia is fundamentally rooted in these fantasies of racial and cultural pride. Liang Qichao’s visions of Han exceptionalism were a response to subjugation under Manchu rule and Western colonialism, a martial rebuttal to the racist rhetoric of China being the “Sick Man of Asia”. But it is still undeniably ethno-nationalism built around the descendants of the Yellow Emperor conquering again the continent that is their birthright. Just as modern western fantasy has as its bones the nostalgia for a pastoral, premodern Europe, wuxia can be seen as a dramatisation of Sinocentric hegemony, where taoist cultivation grants power and stalwart heroes fight against an ever-barbaric, ever-invading Other.

 

Dreams of the Diaspora

Jin Yong 金庸 remains synonymous with the genre of wuxia in Chinese and his foundational mark on it cannot be overstated. His Condor Trilogy (射鵰三部曲) was serialised between 1957-63 and concerns three generations of heroes during the turbulent 12th-13th centuries. The first concerns a pair of sworn brothers, one loyal and righteous, the other clever and treacherous. Their friendship deteriorates as the latter falls into villainy, scheming with the Jin Empire (1115–1234) to conquer his native land. The second in the trilogy follows their respective children repeating and atoning for the mistakes of their parents whilst the Mongols conquer the south. The last charts the internal rivalries within the martial artists fighting over two peerless weapons whilst its hero leads his secret society to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).

It’s around here that English articles about him start comparing him to Tolkien, and it’s not wholly unjustified, given how both created immensely popular and influential legendaria that draw heavily upon ancient literary forms. Entire genres of work have sprung up around them and even subversions of their work have become themselves iconic. Jin Yong laid down what would become the modern conventions of the genre, from the way fights are imagined with discrete moves, to the secret martial arts manuals and trap-filled tombs.

Unlike Tolkien, however, Jin Yong’s work is still regularly (even aggressively) adapted. There are in existence nine tv adaptations of each instalment of the Condor Trilogy, for example, as well as a video game and a mobile game. And at time of writing, eight feature films and nine tv series based on his work are in production.

But Jin Yong’s work was not always so beloved by mainland Chinese audiences. For a long time he, along with the rest of wuxia, were banned and the epicentre of the genre was in colonial Hong Kong. It is a detail often overlooked in the grand history of wuxia, so thoroughly has the genre been folded into contemporary Chinese identity. It is hard at times to remember how much of the genre was created by these artists in exile. Or perhaps that is the point, as Hong Kong’s own unique political and cultural identity is being subsumed into that of the People’s Republic, so too is its literary legacy. Literalist readings of his work as being primarily about historical martial artists defang the political metaphors and pointed allegories.

Jin Yong’s work is deeply political. Even in the most superficial sense, his heroes intersect with the politics of their time, joining revolutionary secret societies, negotiating treaties with Russia and fighting against barbarian invaders. They are bound up in the temporal world of hierarchy and power. Legend of the Condor Hero (射鵰英雄傳)’s Guo Jing 郭靖 becomes the sworn brother to Genghis Khan’s son, Tolui, and joins the Mongol campaign against the Khwarezmid Empire. Book and Sword (書劍恩仇錄)’s Chen Jialuo 陳家洛 is secretly the Qianlong Emperor’s half brother. The Deer and the Cauldron (鹿鼎記)’s Wei Xiaobao 韋小寶 is both best friends with the Kangxi Emperor and also heavily involved in a secret society dedicated to overthrowing the aforementioned emperor. Even Return of the Condor Hero (神鵰俠侶)‘s Yang Guo 楊過 ends up fighting to defend the remains of the Song Empire against the Mongols.

But it goes deeper than that. Jin Yong was a vocal critic of the Cultural Revolution, penning polemics against Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four during the late 60s. Beyond the immediate newspaper coverage, Jin Yong edited and published many more works both documenting and dissecting the Cultural Revolution.

Jin Yong described himself as writing every day one novel instalment and one editorial against the Gang of Four. Thus did they bleed together, the villains of Laughing in the Wind (笑傲江湖) becoming recognisable caricatures as it too rejected senseless personality cults.

In this light, his novels seem almost an encyclopaedia of traditional Chinese culture, its values and virtues, a record of it to stand bulwark against the many forces that would consign it all to oblivion. It is a resounding rebuttal to principles of the May Fourth Movement, that modernisation and westernisation are equivalents. To Jin Yong the old and the traditional were valuable, and it is from this we must build our new literature .

Taken together, Jin Yong’s corpus offers an alternate history of the Han people spanning over two thousand years from the Eastern Zhou (771–256 B.C.) to the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). He fills in the intriguing gaps left in official records with folk heroes, court gossip and conspiracy theories. His text is dense with literary allusions and quotations from old Chinese poems.

His stories are almost all set during times of turmoil when what can be termed “China”, or at least, the Han people are threatened by barbarian invasion and internal corruption; pivotal moments in history that makes heroes and patriots out of ordinary men and women. All this Jin Yong immortalises with a deep yearning for a place and past that never quite was; nostalgia in the oldest sense of the word, with all the pain and pining and illusion that it implies.

It is arguably this very yearning, this conjuring of a real and relevant past from dry history books that makes Jin Yong’s work so endlessly appealing to the Chinese diaspora, as well as the mainland Chinese emerging from the Cultural Revolution. This alternate history dramatises the complexities of Han identity, all the times it has been threatened, disrupted and diluted in history, but at the same time it gave hope and heroics. These were stories as simple or as complex as the reader wanted it to be.

 

Chinese Imperialism and Han Hegemony

It is sometimes hard to remember that Jin Yong and all the rest of wuxia was once banned in the People’s Republic of China, so thoroughly have they now embraced his work. As late as the 1990s was Jin Yong decried as one of the “Four Great Vulgarities of Our Time” (alongside the four heavenly kings of cantopop, Jackie Chan and sappy Qiong Yao romances).

In recent decades, the CCP has rather dramatically changed its relationship with the past. The censorship machine is still very active, but it does not have in its crosshairs the decadent and feudal genre of wuxia (though there have been exceptions, especially during the run up to the Republic’s 70th anniversary when all frivolous dramas were put on pause; it is important to remember that the censors are not always singular or consistent in their opinions). But more importantly, the Party no longer draws power from a radical rejection of the past, instead it is embraces utterly, celebrated at every turn. Traditionalism now forms a core pillar of their legitimacy, with all five thousand years of that history validating their rule. The State now actively promotes all those superstitions and feudal philosophies it once held in contempt.

Along with the shifting use of history to inspire nationalism has Jin Yong been rehabilitated and canonised. It’s arguably that revolutionary traditionalism —that he was preserving history in a time of its destruction—that makes him so easy to rehabilitate. Jin Yong’s work appeals both to the conservative mind with its love of tradition and patriotic themes, but also to rebels in its love of outlaw heroes.

It isn’t that these stories have nothing to say on themes of a more abstract or universal sense of freedom or justice, but that they are also very much about the specifics of Han identity and nationalism. Jin Yong’s heroes often find themselves called to patriotism, even as they navigate their complex or divided loyalties, they must defend “China” in whatever form it exists in at the time against barbaric, alien invaders. Even as they function as straightforward stories of nationalistic defence, they are also dramatising disruptions of a simplistic or pure Chinese identity, foregrounding characters from marginalised (if also often exoticised) ethnicities and religions.

Jin Yong’s hero Guo Jing is Han by birth and Mongol by adoption. He ultimately renounces his loyalty to Genghis Khan and returns to his Han homeland to defend it from Mongol conquest. Whilst one can read Jin Yong’s sympathy and admiration for the Mongols as an attempt to construct an inclusive nationalism for modern China, Guo Jing’s participation as a Han hero in the conquest of Central Asia also functions as a justification of modern Han China’s political claim on that imperial and colonial legacy.

Book and Sword has this even more starkly as it feeds the popular Han fantasy that the Kangxi Emperor is not ethnically Manchu but instead, a Han changeling. He is forced by the hero of the novel Chen Jialuo to swear an oath to acknowledge his Han identity and overthrow the Manchus, but of course, he then betrays them and subjugates not only the Han but also the “Land of Wei” (now known as Xin Jiang, where the genocide is happening). Still there is something to be said about how this secret parentage plot attributes the martial victories of the Qing to Han superiority and justifies the Han inheritance of former Qing colonies.

The Uyghur tribes are portrayed with sympathy in Book and Sword. They are noble and defiant and devout. Instead of savages who need to be brought to heel, they are fellow resistance fighters. It alludes to an inclusive national identity, one in which Han and Uyghur are united by their shared suffering under Manchu rule. It can also be argued that their prominence disrupts the ideal of a pure Han-centric Chineseness. But what good is inclusion and unity to those who do not want to be part of that nation? Uyghurs, being a people suffering occupation, actively reject the label of “Chinese Muslims”.

Furthermore, the character of Kasili in Book and Sword, based on the legend of the Fragrant Concubine, is drenched in orientalist stereotype. Chen first stumbles upon her bathing naked in a river, her erotic and romantic availability uncomfortably paralleling that of her homeland. When the land of Wei falls to the emperor’s sword and Kasili is taken as a concubine, she remains loyal to the Han hero she fell in love with, ultimately killing herself to warn Chen of the emperor’s duplicity. Conquest and imperial legacy is thus dramatised as a love triangle between a Uyghur princess, a Han rebel and a Manchu emperor.

Chen, it should be noted, falls in love and marries a different Uyghur princess for his happy ending.

Amid other far more brutal policies meant to forcibly assimilate and eradicate Uyghur identity, the PRC government encouraged Han men to take Uyghur women as wives. Deeply unpleasant adverts still available online extolled the beauty and availability of Uyghur women, as something and somewhere to be conquered. It is impossible not to be reminded of this when reading about the beautiful and besotted Kasili.

There is no small amount of political allegory to be read between the lines of Jin Yong, something he became increasingly frank about towards the end of his life. Condor Trilogy with its successive waves of northern invaders can be seen as echoing at the Communist takeover of China. The success of Wei Xiaobao’s affable cunning can be a satire on the hollowness materialistic 70s modernity. But Jin Yong himself proved to be far less radical than his books as he sided with the conservative anti-democracy factions within Hong Kong during the Handover.

In an 1994 interview, Jin Yong argues against the idea that China was ever under “foreign rule”, instead proposing that the many ethnic groups within China are simply taking turns on who happens to be in ascendance. All wars are thus civil wars and he neatly aligns his novels with the current Chinese policies that oppress in the name of unity, harmony and assimilation, of “inclusive” nationalism.

The legacy of Jin Yong is a complex one. His work, like all art, contains multitudes and can sustain any number of seemingly contradictory interpretations. It is what is beautiful about art. But I cannot but feel that his rapid canonisation over the last decades in mainland China is a stark demonstration of how easily those yearning dreams of the diaspora can become nationalistic fodder.

 

In Closing

I did not come to bury wuxia, but to praise it. I wanted to show you a little bit of its complexities and history, as well as the ideals and ideologies that simmer under its surface.

For me, I just think it is too easy to see wuxia as a form of salvation. Something to sustain and inspire me in a media landscape hostile to people who look like me. To give me the piece of me that I have felt missing, to heal a deep cultural wound. After all, Hollywood or broader Anglophone media might be reluctant to make stories with Asian protagonists, but I can turn to literally all of wuxia. American TV series won’t make me a fifty episode epic about two pretty men eyefucking each other that also has a happy ending, but I will always have The Untamed.

It’s this insidious feeling of hope. That this genre is somehow wholly “unproblematic” because I am reconnecting with my cultural roots, that it can nourish me. That it can be safe that way. It is, after all, untouched by all the problematic elements in Anglophone mainstream that I have analysed to death and back. That it is some sort of oasis, untouched by colonialism and western imperialism. That it therefore won’t or can’t have that taint of white supremacy; it’s not even made by white people.

Perhaps it is just naive of me to have ever thought these things, however subconsciously. Articulating it now, it’s ridiculous. Han supremacy is a poisonous ideology that is destroying culture, hollowing out communities and actively killing people. In the face of its all-consuming genocide-perpetuating ubiquity, the least I can do is recognise its presence in a silly little genre I love. It just doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog. Jeannette has been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Sydney J Bounds Award (Best Newcomer) in the British Fantasy Awards 2018.

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