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Martial Arts Movies Don't Exist Without Wuxia Xiaoshuo

The Water Margin (1972)

First Half: Novels with Insane Fights, Weapon Delights and Crazy Plot Plights

It’s 1976, Cornell University, and I’ve had a first conversation with a new friend who becomes the best man at my wedding in Taiwan in 1981.

Topic? Martial arts and Bruce Lee. When he says words like

Jiang Hu, Wu Lin and Wu Xia, and has no English words to describe them, he tells me about a must-see movie sponsored by the Chinese Student Association that’s playing on campus, Shui Hu Zhuan

(1972; aka The Water Margin, All Men are Brothers, and Outlaws from the Marsh).

My first seen wuxia film is based on one of the most famous wuxia xiaoshuo novels in history that was completed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It blew my mind, man. After learning 1000 characters in two years in Taiwan, it was also the first wuxia novel written in simple Chinese that I could read. (Photos of Chinese and English versions are included below).

Every martial arts movie ever made in the world owes its existence to one thing, Chinese Wu Xia Xiao Shuo (commonly written today as WuxiaXiaoshuo (Wu (martial arts), Xia (chivalrous hero) Xiao (little), Shuo (story); Martial Art or Kung Fu novels). They’re epic tales of wuxia heroes that first appeared during the Zhou Dynasty’s Warring State Period (circa 481 BC–221 BC).

It was also during the Warring States period when Daoist sage Zhuangzi coined the term Jiang Hu (Rivers and Lakes; maybe the Yangtze river and Dongting Lake), free world rural areas where anyone can hide and do what they want without worrying about government intervention. Sounds like the puritans on the Mayflower coming to America seeking religious freedom. Zhuangzi also envisioned a place in the free world, Wu Lin (Martial Forest), where martial artists could train in peace so their martial families (not to be confused with birth families) could grow.

Yet wuxia pros reached heroic proportions over a thousand years later during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). Some folks may recall Jet Li’s film Shaolin Temple (1982) where he played one of the 13 Shaolin Heroes that helped Tang Dynasty co-founder Li Shi-min’s rise to power. Yet like many folding dynasties, near the end of Tang rule, China was in disarray, political upheaval and social chaos were on the rise, and the country needed a new brand of wuxia heroes.

My English version of All Men are Brothers Novel

Thus, wuxia prose gained prominence when stories began to romanticize wuxia heroes by combining altruism, exceptional martial arts skills and magical powers. Originally shared by song and oral presentations, wuxia hero stories hit the press, per se, during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), where stories appeared in what might be compared to written liner notes used by traditional Chinese storytellers during their presentations. By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), fleshed out wuxia fiction hit their written stride with the release of two major novels that became required reading in schools, The Water Margin and The Romance of the Three Kingdom.

The nature of wuxia literature can be gleaned from the meaning of its Chinese characters, 俠. It's important that Westerners understand that although Wu is translated as martial, it does not align with Western thought, which explains why many martial arts practitioners around the world refer and infer that martial arts are war and fighting arts.

Chinese Ge Battle Axe

The character Wu () is divided into two parts, Zhi (止), which means to stop or halt, and Ge (戈; note the axe-blade looking outline) refers to fight or spear, more specifically to stop the ancient Chinese dagger-axe (above photo). Philosophically, if you must fight, it implies that it takes fighting to stop fighting, it’s akin to Bruce Lee saying his martial art is the art of fighting without fighting, which aligns with the Shaolin tenet, training not to fight.

Though xia (俠) may loosely be translated as chivalrous hero, it’s more a concept than a title. Anyone with virtues such as righteousness, loyalty, generosity, faith, courage, truthfulness, honor, altruism, justice, and contempt for wealth can be described as xia. Therefore, wu with xia, explores virtuous people who accomplish good deeds via their fighting abilities and their codes of ethics, which are developed out of superior martial skills.

Yet something incredibly happened by 1901, wuxia novelists reimagined Jiang Hu and Wu Lin, into glamorous fantasy worlds. Jiang Hu became an alternative society made up of beggars, martial art heroes and villains, and outcasts who coexisted with normal society yet lived by their own laws, systems of brotherhood and a morality code of ethics. The Wu Lin world became a strict martial artists subdivision of the Jiang Hu underworld that adhered to their own unwritten and respected ethical codes of righteousness, loyalty, chivalry and gallantry.

My Chinese version of Water Margin Novel The rich literary tradition of wuxia became typically serialized novels that revolved around the adventures of wuxia heroes with exceptional martial art skills, often set in ancient or mythical China. They became known for their vivid descriptions of martial arts techniques, intricate plotlines, and themes of chivalry, honor, loyalty, love, revenge, and the pursuit of justice.

Protagonists with extraordinary abilities engaged in epic battles against formidable villains. These novels incorporated fantasy elements like supernatural powers, magical weapons, and mythical creatures. The stories often follow the hero’s journey as they navigate a complex web of relationships, encounter various challenges and adversaries, and strive to achieve their goals.

The novels are typically characterized by a distinct martial arts culture, depicting different kung fu styles, schools, and philosophies. Sometimes they’ll address social-politico issues of the time they’re set in and reflect the values, customs, and beliefs of Chinese society.

The Legend of the Condor (2020) novel cover Arguably the most popular and important wuxia author in modern history is Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha), most notably known for his Condor Trilogy, a serialized novel written and published between 1957 and 1959 split into three parts: The Legend of the Condor Heroes; The Return of the Condor Heroes and The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber.

Yet undoubtedly the biggest commercial boost for wuxia novels began in when the Chinese film industry opened their doors in 1905 and the first martial arts film in history was shot at the Fengtai Photography Studio in Beijing. By 1925, there were 175 movie companies in China’s major cities, 141 of them were in Shanghai. The three major films genre were martial arts, love stories and Confucian morality tales.

In the Second Half of the plight of wuxia entertainment, we’ll follow the historical dilemmas and victories of the highly successful wuxia pian (wuxia film) genre and why in the entertainment business, it is imperative that decision makers in the industry should show respect to writers, actors and filmmakers…because if not, regret is an understatement.

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