Ki Points: Manhua

manhua

Time to hit a few more ki points!

Manhua (Chinese comics) aren’t easy to find here in America. Local comic shops might, on occasion, carry a few old volumes mixed in with the manga stuff, but unless you’re looking for it, you could miss it entirely. I first stumbled upon manhua while browsing the bargain bin at one such comic shop- intrigued by the lovely painted cover, I picked it up and started pawing through. It turned out to be Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, an adaptation of the famous wuxia novel by Jin Yong, and what I found within was fantastic: full-color artwork with occasional painted inserts, dynamic fight scenes that span dozens of pages, and everything I loved about kung fu movies in comic format. Kung fu and comic books? It’s two great tastes that taste great together!

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Compared to manga, manhua can be pretty obscure over here, but it’s not like it’s never been published in English. Jademan Comics published a pretty good number of manhua series in America a few decades back, and ComicsOne also put out a multitude of titles in the early 2000s before vanishing into the ether. The english translations in these volumes are usually pretty bad- hey, I’m not judging, I couldn’t do better- but in most cases, the story’s easy enough to follow and half the text is just describing what’s happening in that panel anyway.

Over the years, I’ve collected a pretty large assortment of these manhua. Some of them I’ve collected deliberately, others I’ve grabbed odd-volume at a time as part of some timely discount. Let’s talk a little about what cool things you’ll find in manhua.

First point: The artwork can be pretty gorgeous. It’s nice enough that most manhua is full-color; and some panels are fully painted, a note usually reserved for the introduction of main characters or big splash pages.

Second point: The fight scenes. Manhua are packed full of action; even compared to Marvel and DC’s stuff, manhua often feel like a rollercoaster ride. A rollercoaster of kung fu! It’s pretty crazy. All the wonderful exaggeration inherent in wuxia fiction is illustrated beautifully here, and the sense of movement and power is done better in these comics than in most Western books.

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Third point: They’re totally insane. Chinese Hero: Tales of the Blood Sword, a landmark title by Ma Wing-Shing that pioneered the modern manhua style, features an early adventure in which Dracula appears as one of the henchmen of a crime lord. Dracula. And he uses kung fu. To be fair, he appears to be some ordinary (as far as kung fu masters go) bloke who calls himself Dracula and dresses like Bela Lugosi, but c’mon. One of his special techniques involves hanging upside down from a tree… like a bat. Again, this is a fighting move that he actually uses. In an actual fight.

So let’s say I’ve convinced you to take a peek inside your local comic shop and try one of these guys out. But what’s that you say? You’re not sure which one to start with? Then it sounds like it’s time for some recommendations!

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Story of the Tao (Written by Ding Kin Lau, art by Andy Seto): It was the gorgeous artwork that drew me to this one, and I immediately loved the character designs. The story involves a crack team of heroes- each representing a different religious sect- assembled to rescue the kidnapped Prince, who also happens to be sort of living Buddha… whose flesh, when eaten, grants one incredible powers. So yeah, they’re trying to prevent cannibalistic regicide. The characters are pretty cool- our hero, Datura, is a Buddhist priest but a total womanizer, and makes for a pretty cool team leader. The best character, however, is “Evil Taoist” Zhu (“evil” referring to “cold-hearted and ruthless”), who is one of the most badass action heroines I’ve ever seen, wuxia or not. I appreciate that the major heroes are kept on a pretty even level, too- even though Datura is the main hero, sometimes he can’t handle a foe and his comrades get to step up to the plate. The humor, while suffering from ComicsOne’s poor translation, still gets a few smirks thanks to some fun sight gags. It’s gorier and raunchier than any other manhua I’ve found, though, so keep that in mind.

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Weapons of the Gods (by Wong Yuk-long): I remember seeing the cover for the first volume of this series and thinking: this is the most heroic-looking character ever. Hero cape: check. Final Fantasy hair: check. Badass sword that appears to have grown out of some demon’s bone: check. It also has one of the coolest opening sequences ever seen: at a gathering of the world’s greatest fighters, a challenger and the host, Yi Nangong, end up drawing weapons so powerful (Heaven’s Crystal! Thunder Cudgel!) that they were never meant for human hands… ending up with a nuclear-level explosion that levels the entire area and wipes out everyone present! Fast forward a few decades, and we catch up with our hard-working hero Wen Tian, bastard son of Yi Nangong, who ends up fighting against the Hell Clan and collecting a ton of the namesake Weapons of the Gods. It’s pretty sweet stuff, with mutant animal-men and some awe-inspiring weaponry. Apparently, it was popular enough to spawn its own tabletop roleplaying game!

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (by Andy Seto): I picked this up, in spite of my dislike of the film, because I knew of Andy Seto from Story of the Tao and Saint Legend. The manhua, luckily, is pretty good. The art is as good as one might expect from Seto, and while it takes place years before the events of the movie, some of the characters you know (and some of you may love- I’m not judging!) are present and accounted for. If you were curious as to how Li Mu Bai first acquired the Green Destiny sword he wielded in the movie, you’ll find out here, and learn a lot about the early romance between him and Yu Shu Lien as well. It’s a little more subdued than most wuxia manhua, focusing more on the relationships between the characters, which works nicely, since you still get a healthy heaping of fight scenes to go with. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, and it seems to be easier to find than the rest of its manhua kin. ...Or, for that matter, the original novels the movie was inspired by. I hear those were less… weepy.

That’ll get you started. So train hard with your sifu, then jog down to the comic shop and see if they’ve got any of these on the shelves!

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Ki Points: Wuxia

When I was in middle school, my friend Daniel and I were wandering around in Blockbuster (remember video stores?) and stumbled upon an odd little shelf in the Action section. We picked out a movie with a charming title and hilarious box art and rented the tape (remember VHS?). We headed back to my house to give it a watch. A few hours later, my life would be forever changed.

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The title of that movie was “The Buddhist Fist,” and it was my gateway drug into the wild and woolly world of Kung Fu Cinema. The bizarre and colorful characters, the elaborate and operatic fight scenes and the esoteric martial arts styles contained within, the costumes, the underlying mythological themes and high drama… I was hooked. For weeks, we were doodling characters from the movie and quoting some of the more memorable dialogue verbatim; even today, I’m sure I could rattle off more than a few passages from that dusty old VHS.

Kung Fu movies are just one highly visible part of a tradition of martial arts fiction that dates back centuries and crosses more than a few genre lines. Here in the Western world, most of it is considered obscure at best- aside from Bruce Lee, a few “Crouching Tiger” references, and that massively overused “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting” song from the ‘70s, the average American doesn’t know an awful lot about this wonderful part of pop culture. The purpose of this article is to try and give some of you out there a little insight into what it’s all about, why it’s special to me, and why it matters.

Art from Swordsman

Art from Swordsman

All those wacky ‘70s movies are just one type of extrapolation from the Chinese literary tradition known as “wuxia.” Wuxia, a genre that centers around the adventures of heroic martial artists, has been around since the Ming dynasty, when the epic tale The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh) first appeared, often attributed to Shi Nai’an, though this is a matter of some debate (hey, it’s really, really old). This story, chronicling the adventures of a group of 108 outlaws, became a landmark work of Chinese fiction thanks to its rebellious themes, plucky folk heroes, and a fair helping of dick jokes. This, and many other pieces of early wuxia fiction, were banned at various points in history for their anti-government themes, but luckily the Outlaws survived to inspire future stories.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that wuxia really took off, eventually leading to the popular and influential works of authors like Jin Yong and Gu Long. These stories continued the sentiments of martial arts chivalry, scrappy rebelliousness, and high adventure from the Water Margin days, but pepped things up a bit with themes of romance and mystery. Many of these stories feature a sub-culture known as the jianghu (“river-lake”), a sort of secret society for fighters and outlaws, and the assorted clans and cults that operate within it. These stories are often operatic, melodramatic perhaps, but written with the same sort of beauty and fluidity that one might expect from a skilled practitioner of Chinese martial arts.

Wuxia fiction is a pretty good comparison to Western heroic fantasy; although many wuxia tales take place within a historical context, the themes are comparable, especially since wuxia often contains magic, demons, and spirits, and the fighting abilities of the xia- the martial heroes- are exaggerated far beyond anything resembling realism. English translations of these wuxia stories aren’t impossible to find, but you’re not going to just stumble across them in your local bookstore. You’re a little more likely to bump into a manhua (Chinese comics) adaptation of one, such as The Legendary Couple (adapted from the second book in Jin Yong’s “Condor Trilogy,” one of the biggest wuxia epics out there) or Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (adapted from the third book in the aforementioned trilogy). While the quality of English translations available for the manhua versions are iffy at best, the artwork and the fight scenes are excellent.

Immortal by Guangjian Huang

Immortal by Guangjian Huang

Not all martial arts fiction qualifies as wuxia- there’s a specific kind of feel one has to get right to make that distinction- but there are a number of common elements that tie just about every major example of the genre together: heroes seeking revenge for slain family members or masters, name lists of rebels, ancient or forbidden weapons or scrolls, a gritty determination to grow ever stronger… every great martial arts story contains at least one of these token elements. While wuxia films may have more wirework and special effects than a gritty, relatively-realistic street fighting movie, they’re often a great deal more similar than one would think. This type of storytelling has spilled over into the realm of video games as well- fighting series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have taken a great deal of inspiration from wuxia and its brethren, from the exaggerated chi powers of the fighters to the universal story threads.

So what makes this sort of fiction appeal to me so much? The exotic (to a Westerner) nature of the setting? The high drama and intrigue? The silliness inherent in some of the more colorful characters or more ridiculous fighting styles? Is it the kung fu? Because, y’know, kung fu counts for a lot.

It’s that simple joy we, as the audience, get from watching a conflict between good and evil resolved in the most dramatic fashion of all: a balletic duel between two powerful forces, with everything on the line. But in this genre, the big fight at the end isn’t just the resolution to a conflict; fighting and martial arts are a big part of the theme of the story itself, as much setting as set piece.