“I did not come to bury wuxia, but to praise it.”
March 4, 2023 11:18 AM   Subscribe

The History and Politics of Wuxia by Jeannette Ng [Tor] “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.” [Bonus: Wiki, 30 Essential Wuxia Films, An Introduction to Wuxia Novels]
posted by Fizz (24 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Really looking forward to reading this. I was thinking of starting reading Jin Yong but I heard the translation is indifferent. Playing Wo Long right now and I'm always excited at the possibilities of wuxia storytelling, but there are different sensibilities at play and my expectations don't match reality. But I am waiting for the book that lets me crack the code!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:13 PM on March 4

That was a beautifully framed essay — it has both the huge galloping sweep and the sense of ineluctable tragedy that I get from wuxia.
posted by clew at 12:18 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]

[edit as I mixed up threads]
I wonder how much of the issues with nationalism versus it rocking is parralel with those RRR has, then I wonder if RRR is wuxia.
posted by Artw at 1:33 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]

I've been on a Discworld kick recently and so I just finished reading The Thief of Time. Which is probably the closest that series gets to wuxia. But, like, a loving homage to wuxia through the eyes of a British author writing about Death's Granddaughter in a well-established absurdist universe and who is using these specific tropes because The Matrix is all the rage at the time of writing, so... not exactly an illustrative example of the genre.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:01 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]

That is a great essay--thanks for posting it. They're not as essential as the movies in the film link, but if we're listing wuxia or wuxia-adjacent films worth knowing about, there are a few highlights from the silent era that are pretty interesting. Cave of the Silken Web (1927) is an adaptation of chapters 72-73 of Journey to the West, and among other things, it has the Monkey King take on a demonic guy who's got a giant d20-ish mace. The villain of the story is a woman who can turn into a giant spider. In fact it has many women who've turned into giant spiders. Red Heroine (1929) is definitely a wuxia film, but right off the bat it does that thing common in German Expressionist silent films where text is written into the action to highlight some strong feeling or whatnot. Later, it has a great moment where the main character, having been out of the story for like 30 minutes, finally shows off her flying power. She invades a castle to eliminate the villains and finally disappears in a puff of smoke and flies away. FWIW these are clips I linked to friends a long time ago, and I remember at least one thing I didn't like in the latter film--but these moments in it were fun to revisit. I'd never watched Romance of the Western Chamber (1927) before, but just googling these other films a little, I see it has a long sequence where someone maybe turns an inkbrush into a magical spear and rides it in pursuit of someone else? That seems fun too.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:20 PM on March 4 [9 favorites]

(BTW I don't know what's up, but for me, Metafilter's inset video player isn't jumping to the right timestamp on all those links--the actual links to Youtube go to the right mark.)
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:39 PM on March 4

In what remains to this day the highest-grossing foreign language film in US box office history

I thought that was The Passion of the Christ.
posted by The Notorious SRD at 3:07 PM on March 4

This is very much my jam, so thanks! It’s important to remember that Wuxia is not “kung fu stories;” it is a particular kind of melodrama native to China (and maybe even limited to Hong Kong). The John Wick series is probably the closest thing to Wuxia the West has produced, and even that isn’t quite right. The new English translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes seems OK to me, based on reading a lot of fan translations over the last couple decades. I wish more of it would get published, because the best of it is very fun.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:31 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]

Also, I really don’t think Wuxia maps well to the Western, since the hero of the Western is traditionally aromantic while the Wuxia hero is almost always romantic. Also, it’s not unproblematic, but I love the relationship between Guo Jing and Huang Rong. He is a very slow and tentative thinker who has had to develop an unshakeable moral code, while she is ridiculously bright fond of pranks and would probably be a villain if her affection for Guo Jing didn’t reign her in a little. It’s reductionist as hell, but, when I’m feeling down, Guo Jing’s honest admiration for his eventual wife and her fondness for him feels like a breath of fresh air in a very pulpy world.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:47 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]

Great essay, thanks for sharing! Random thoughts:

Gu Long is only mentioned in the footnotes, but he's far and away the second most important wuxia author. In contrast to Jin Yong, Gu Long's works are heavy on style (some would say style over substance) and very, very cinematic. Some of the most successful film adaptations of Jin Yong's works kind of come across rather Gu Long-ish. For example: The Swordsman, and Swordsman II.

At one point, the four biggest wuxia authors were Jin Yong, Gu Rong, Wen Ruian, and Liang Yu Sheng (金古溫梁). Wen was infamous for copying Gu early in his career, while Liang's works were in the same vein as Jin's (no copying). But Wen and Liang were much further below Jin and Gu in terms of readership and influence.

After them, the biggest wuxia author with an outsized impact on the whole genre/industry is Huang Yi (黃易). His works almost served as a bridge from wuxia to xuanhuan(玄幻)and xianxia(仙俠), the fantasy genres that ultimately replaced/consumed wuxia. MeFi had a post about xuanhuan iirc.

it is a particular kind of melodrama native to China (and maybe even limited to Hong Kong)

As kid growing up in Taiwan, I read a ton of wuxia novels, and watched even more wuxia dramas/movies in Mandarin. Years later I got to watch those same media in their original Cantonese - it almost always felt more... authentic, or natural. Even the theme songs hit harder in Cantonese. My #1 wuxia theme is in Cantonese and probably impossible to translate to Mandarin, never mind English: 難念的經

吞風吻雨葬落日未曾徬徨 欺山趕海踐雪徑也未絕望
拈花把酒偏折煞世人情狂 憑這兩眼與百臂或千手不能防
天闊闊雪漫漫與誰同航 這沙滾滾水皺皺笑著浪蕩

Yes, wuxia is so very romantic.
posted by fatehunter at 7:46 PM on March 4 [9 favorites]

But this is also a genre that has been banned by multiple governments within living memory.

This is surprisingly similar to how Science Fiction was treated by the CCP for many years. There was a Neil Gaiman interview where he talked about being invited to an SF convention in China, and he got to talking to a Party member afterwards who described to him how the government's attitude towards SF had changed.

"SF was considered suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy."- Neil Gaiman

The change that came about was very pragmatic, as such things are from the CCP - they were concerned the West had leapfrogged the Chinese in technology - Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Google. They pored over interviews of top execs and even conducted interviews of their own and realised a lot of them said that they were inspired by SF stories they read as kids, which sparked a passion for STEM and led them onto the career they were in now - the very thing the CCP was discouraging! So they switched up the policy and started encouraging investment in SF, you're now seeing big budget Chinese SF films, Wandering Earth, Three-Body, etc.
posted by xdvesper at 7:47 PM on March 4 [7 favorites]

I love Jeannette's commentary (I also really enjoyed Under the Pendulum Sun which is a very weird (in a good way) book, and I recommend checking it out). she is always good at...writing about things which deserve love, but without excusing their flaws, but without coming across as condescending, self-flagellating, etc. I dunno she just nicely balances love and critique in a way that avoids the "twitter brain" that is common to writing about these sorts of things.

I grew up watching kung fu movies, but I didn't really know much about wuxia. then much much later I started learning mandarin, and I got quite into wuxia, and then sort of began to understand the connection between wuxia and the kung fu movies I grew up watching. it was a lot of fun! being able to engage with wuxia (and what I term "wuxia adjacent" media as classic wuxia isn't terribly popular anymore, but genres it influenced definitely are) in mandarin has been one of the great joys of my language study.

but her commentary definitely rings true. as I've engaged with a lot of classic stories there are definitely things that are...unfortunate. it doesn't ruin my enjoyment of the genre but...well, jeannette puts it all better than I ever could :)

I wish there were more/better translations of stuff to point people at

It’s important to remember that Wuxia is not “kung fu stories;” it is a particular kind of melodrama native to China (and maybe even limited to Hong Kong).

this is definitely not the case. while there were of course very important wuxia authors from HK, there were also plenty of authors very important to the genre in both China and Taiwan

The John Wick series is probably the closest thing to Wuxia the West has produced, and even that isn’t quite right.

I actually think westerns get very close to wuxia in a lot of interesting and meaningful ways
posted by wooh at 8:46 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]

I should also add that a lot of rather influential early wuxia movies were made in taiwan...though I think as far as adaptation goes, TV is a much better medium for wuxia melodrama than movies (imo), and the HK adaptations from the 80s/90s are widely loved with good reason

for anyone interested in influential wuxia cinema, this list isn't bad: https://theendofcinema.net/2016/02/11/30-essential-wuxia-films/

I've seen almost all of them, it was a fun ride, though it drove home that TV is a better medium for adaptation lol. some great movies on that list though
posted by wooh at 9:00 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]

This is a great post, and for me seeing it right now is an interesting coincidence. Over the past several years, I've undertaken several projects to investigate areas of culture that I'm interested in, but that I don't know much about. Because I'm a giant nerd, I generally start these projects by consulting books and websites about the subject, in order to get a sense of what, roughly, "the canon" consists of, for whatever is I'm investigating. So, for example, I'll look at as many lists as I can find of "best jazz recordings" (or whatever), compile a list of my own based on combining them, and then start working through the list in chronological order. Yes, this is probably something undiagnosed.

The one I'm working on right now started out as "kung fu movies". Because that genre was so strongly dominated by a couple of specific movie studios, it was pretty easy to put together a list of candidates by just starting with everything put out by the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest studios, and then marking off the ones that various experts said were worth watching. As my "experts", I used Bey Logan, consulting his book "Hong Kong Action Cinema:", and the Wu Tang Clan, who have answered many questions in interviews about which of the movies they liked best when watching the films on TV while growing up.

Now, kung fu movies aren't wuxia movies, but the "chronological" approach that I take means that in the early stages of exploring something, I'm generally exploring works that aren't yet exactly the thing I'm exploring, i.e. I'm seeing works where a new genre emerges from (or in reaction to) another, older genre. In this instance...the earliest stuff that people tend to recommend among kung fu movies are actually wuxia. I saw this post, checked the "30 essential Wuxia Films" list that Fizz included, and discovered that I'd already seen the first three on the list, and was in the midst of watching the fourth, "Golden Swallow", when I found the post!

Thanks for posting this, fizz! I'm adding the movies from that article that weren't already on my watchlist to it, and I appreciated the article's insights into the political overtones of these films, which I am absolutely not equipped to see myself. I'm contemplating adding the novels to the project, although I don't always have great luck reading translated material.

If anyone's interested in a combined wuxia/kung fu list, my working document is here. The ones that somebody has vetted as worth checking out are marked by an asterix in the "Priority" column.
posted by Ipsifendus at 7:18 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]

Oooh, so many thoughts upon reading this essay:

* "its many conventions have become baked into the everyday language... Later, there was the world of study guides and crib sheets, all calling themselves secret martial arts manuals. "

So true. Wuxia vocabulary is like a beloved secret language, and I can still recall the delight of reading a forum post ranking achievements of eminent physicists by casting them as swordsmen vying supremacy upon the Hua mountain peak.

* "taoist-cultivated powers"

Interestingly, in Wuxia books, there are plenty of Buddhist and Toaist adherents who are experts in martial arts, but I'm not recalling any heroes with Confucianist background.

* The essay traces origins of Wuxia novels back to the Tang dynasty, and I just want to add that the idea of a 'wondering hero' (游侠) came from even earlier periods -- from the Qin and Han dynasties. Sima Qian's "Records of the Grand Historian" (史记), written around 91BC contains a section on famous wondering heroes in history.

* "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."

I remember the time when Jin Yong books became widely available in mainland China very well. It was the mid 80s, and I stole pocket change from my parents and pooled money with two other classmates to buy the three volume set of "Condor Heroes". Back then all popular novels were suspect, and frowned upon by parents and teachers alike.

* "a fifty episode epic about two pretty men eyefucking each other that also has a happy ending, but I will always have The Untamed.""

I really burst out laughing at this line, but to be pedantic, "The Untamed" belongs more in the Xianxia genre.

* "That this genre is somehow wholly “unproblematic” because I am reconnecting with my cultural roots"

Viewed from a feminist standpoint, many Wuxia classics are unsurprisingly quite problematic. The nice thing for the modern reader is that newer Wuxia novels are more palatable in that regard, especially novels written by female authors. (I'm thinking of Priest's "有匪", adapted into a TV series called 'Legend Of Fei').

* "Jin Yong... Not to mention his sprawling, meandering structure with multiple narrative tangents recalls classic Ming and Qing novels rather than the more focused contemporary “western” styles."

I believe Jin Yong himself admitted being influenced by Alexandre Dumas's "The Three Musketeers" and other western adventure novels.

* About the "30 Essential Wuxia Films" list, 18. A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung, 1987) is excellent but really has little to do with Wuxia. In its place I'd put Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle" (2004).

GenjiandProust, have you read "Return of the Condor Hero" by any chance? I chiefly remember this novel by the defiant love story between Yang Guo and the Dragon Maiden therein.
posted by of strange foe at 2:19 PM on March 5 [5 favorites]

this is definitely not the case. while there were of course very important wuxia authors from HK, there were also plenty of authors very important to the genre in both China and Taiwan

Thanks for correcting me. My reading/watching was been extremely curtailed because of the very small number of works that have been translated into English.

I actually think westerns get very close to wuxia in a lot of interesting and meaningful ways

I would be very interested in seeing this developed further. I read a fair number of "classic westerns" (and watched various movies, and I get why people would see parallels, but I think there are some really vital differences (the romanticism I mention above, but also the lack of societal concerns (Wuxia characters, even the rebels, seem very constrained by society's expectations) and a sense of a "passing away" -- the cowboy character knows that he is doomed by history). Anyway, I'd love to hear what similarities you see, if you have the time.

I totally agree that TV is a way better medium, even though I groan at 40+ hour serials. The novels are so expansive, trying to fit that into a movie is... impossible. I remember the shock at realizing that Swordsman I&II were adaptions of a very small part of one novel....
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:21 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

GenjiandProust, have you read "Return of the Condor Hero" by any chance? I chiefly remember this novel by the defiant love story between Yang Guo and the Dragon Maiden therein.

I have read about 3/4 of it in fan translations (sadly, the novels are so long that people tend to graduate and slowly stop posting), an fairly long comic adaption from Singapore, and a number of TV adaptions (which take some annoying liberties). I hope that the recent Legend of the Condor Heroes translation does well enough to encourage other translations. (It doesn't help that my vision is deteriorating and audiobooks are kind of a necessity for long enjoyment reading these days).
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:26 PM on March 5

GenjiandProust, another vital difference between westerns and Wuxia that I can think of is that a gunslinger usually develops his shooting skills independently, but in Wuxia there's a really big emphasis on lineage -- who one learns martial arts from and what sect (宗派) one belongs to. In this way a hero is still very much tied to a web of social obligations.
(Also I feel you about deteriorating eyesight; I'm heavily reliant on audiobooks nowadays.)
posted by of strange foe at 6:28 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]

Really interesting article, thanks.

I have never quite figured out why I don't like wuxia that much, when I love some things that are adjacent to it. I feel like I should like it! It's an ongoing question in my life. I'll give the Condor saga a shot.. I've seen about 10 of the 30 wuxia movies list (plus some not quite on it, like Eagle Shooting Heroes) but I'll try some more.
posted by fleacircus at 12:58 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]

I hope that the recent Legend of the Condor Heroes translation does well enough to encourage other translations.

I was impulsive enough to give it a go, even if the cover I have had blurbs like, "Asia's Lord of the Rings!" which is like, lol no. I did like it retained some illustrations I've seen before (but I'm not sure where, my best memories of the story is from the tv/movie adaptations), interspersed throughout. The text itself wasn't clunky - it moves well enough, though reading the tropes written out in English did make me take lol breaks.

I wonder how much of the issues with nationalism versus it rocking is parralel with those RRR has, then I wonder if RRR is wuxia.

RRR is definitely not wuxia - if anything MAYBE xinxia, but that's still just grasping for analogies. RRR leans on indian epic and mythic imagery, not for nothing there's a reason why one of the leads spends the last third of the movie literally looking like Krishna in his archer avatar. There is more Indian influence in Chinese cultural products than the other way around I would argue: for example Journey to the West is all about the travels of a Tang dynasty monk into the indic realms towards India, and all the cultural influences that he brings back via each episodic adventures.

but oh yes, if there's anything RRR shares with wuxia is the nationalism, except it feels more unnerving to have RRR so celebrated in the midst of its national politics right now, than wuxia which I would argue, for obvious reasons due to its centres of cultural production, is a lot more internally contentious and discursive, about this whole idea of Han nationalism. But maybe this is also why I personally don't engage with mainland renditions of the genre.
posted by cendawanita at 3:16 AM on March 6 [6 favorites]

Me, doubling down: “Robin Hood is Wuxia!”
posted by Artw at 7:22 AM on March 7

* fictionalized version of questionably historical figure
* nationalism adjacent, often invoked by questionable figures
* hyper-real exaggerated martial prowess
* something to do with communism??? This one not too solid
* basically less good The Water Margin
posted by Artw at 7:25 AM on March 7

The thing is, unless there's a director's cut of RRR or a version of Robin Hood that involves an extensive montage/monologue/mise-en-scene detailing the lineage of that martial prowess, e.g. which school etc etc.... Then even Harry Potter has a stronger claim to being wuxia-lite than either those two. To me, that's what makes it wuxia. There's something very scholarly/administrative to this element, about showing your credentials, while balancing courtly intrigue ie politics. RRR's western genre analogue is those early 20th Century biblical Old Testament epics from MGM. But if you're really looking for a Cantonese/Hong Kong series that might be its sister, then it's probably the Once Upon A Time In China movies, which are iconic, stars a fictionalized version of a folk martial arts hero during a time of European colonization, Wong Fei Hung, pretty much popularized this song, and pretty crucially is definitely a kung fu movie, but not a wuxia one (at least, it's a good topic for a lively coffee session).

Not sure about Robin Hood though.
posted by cendawanita at 8:21 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

It’s in the Fong Sai Yuk/Wong Fei Hung area, for sure.
posted by Artw at 9:07 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

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