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.
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.
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.
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.