Wuxia Novelist: A Writer's Blog

Wuxia Novelist: A Writer's Blog looks at the broad range of issues encountered by me as a novelist working in the Chinese wuxia (heroic fiction) genre. I have, however, a very broad background and this blog will not narrowly focus on one genre of literature, rather I will consider books, movies, and ideas that relate to my life as a writer. For more information about my background please visit my author's website: www.thedragongateinn.com or www.facebook.com/WuxiaNovelist

Location: United States

Check out my author's website: www.thedragongateinn.com for everything you could ever want to know about me.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Jianghu, The Writer, & The Globalization of Storytelling, part 4

Pursuing the definition of jianghu, I’d like to turn to the cinema, specifically the Hong Kong cinema which has given us so many great wuxiapian (heroic action films). I enjoy using the cinema for reference because it is truly a universal form for this genre. While wuxia novels written in Chinese are limited to Chinese readers, and while translations of those original Chinese novels don’t always catch the authors’ intent, movies speak the universal language of screen images which a global audience can more immediately share.

Further, my own style of writing, so I’ve been told repeatedly, tends toward the cinematic, which doesn’t surprise me as I write more from mental images than from a mental flow of words. For me, the words more often come after the images. But don’t take my word for it, read my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, and let me know what you think.

As a writer in the global world of wuxia cinema, there are two films that I greatly admire and that give me no end of inspiration: Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 七人の侍) and Ashes of Time (DongxieXidu, 东邪西毒) as the alpha and omega of this genre. Seven Samurai brings all of the ideals of the wuxia hero into keenly visible action.

Yes, I know it is a Japanese film and I know its “normal” classification is jidaigeki (period or historical costume film) and/or chambara (swordfight film) and that historically the samurai, while sharing in some aspects of the Chinese wandering swordsmen, have their own unique historical traditions. Yet, in this blog, I’ve also related cowboys, detectives, hobbits, and Jedi Knights to the wuxia tradition!

Remember! the title of this blog - Fish Traps & Rabbit Snares - and what our old friend Zhuangzi said about them. I’m not a film critic or even a literary critic, I’m a writer who tries not to be trapped or snared by words!

At the other end of the scale, Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, according to the book, Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time by Wimal Dissanayake with Dorothy Wong (ISBN: 9622095852, Hong Kong University Press, 2003), deconstructs the wuxiapian. Of course, Wong Kar-wai has stated that his movies are not involved with deconstruction. But again, let us not be trapped by words.

My point here is that like Seven Samurai, Ashes of Time provides me with great inspiration as a wuxia writer. In a future blog I’ll write about this, but here I’d like to use Dissanayake and Wong’s comments on Ashes to expand on the concept of jianghu from the perspective of Hong Kong cinema history. I think there is much here that compliments my emphasis on imagination as the key to the jianghu concept.

Dissanayake and Wong recognize the imaginative aspect of the jianghu idea and of its functioning at the heart of this genre. And they also understand that it is not a static concept, but that like with any dynamic genre its “definition” is constantly evolving:

…the idea of the sustaining cultural space and a distinct world of imagination or jianghu is central to this genre. Jianghu literally refers to three rivers and five lakes in mainland China. Its real significance lies in the fact that it indicates the self-contained and historically sanctioned world of martial arts. The concept of heroism, vital to the swordplay genre, is inseparably linked to this concept and one feeds off the other. Filmmakers such as Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wai, each in their own ways sought to reinterpret the idea of jianghu and its associated heroism in the light of modern sensibilities. (Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, p.94)

They go onto further refine their understanding of this concept:

…consider the concept of jianghu which is at the heart of this genre. In martial arts films the term jianghu indicates the world ‘out there’ as opposed to home. It refers to an imaginary world of signification that operates under the sign of swordplay films. The word “topos’, with its dual meanings of place and topic, it seems to us enables us to capture the essence of this concept well. (p.95)

Further, they lay out Lin Nien-tung’s three-phase evolution of the jianghu concept in Hong Kong cinema history:

In the first phase, beginning in the 1950s, this cultural thought-world was traversed by magical and supernatural forces, investing the characters with superhuman abilities. The late 60s marks the second phase with the advent of filmmakers such as King Hu and Zhang Che who invested the jianghu with the desires and ambitions of ordinary people living in a political world. The third stage, which began in the 70s, reached a high point in the late 80s and 90s when films began to question and challenge the traditionally grounded jianghu and its concomitant chivalry. (p.95)

They offer Lin’s view to understand the historical background for Wong Kar-wai’s film (as part of the third phase) and support their thesis that Wong is deconstructing the wuxiapian in order to more fully appreciate it. Regardless if whether or not Wong had this intention when he filmed Ashes, that movie and this book are very useful for us to further consider this genre.

Most notably for this discussion, that the idea of the jianghu lays at the heart of this genre and that it is a dynamic concept which changes given the historical circumstances and individual inclinations of the directors, writers, or actors involved in the genre. Some of these same tendencies will be seen when we turn to that Chinese article that I referred to in the October 3rd blog.

From our globalize storytelling perspective, we can see similar evolutions in the history of fantasy, science fiction, westerns, detective fiction, and other action-adventure forms – we can also apply this to video games, anime, and manga!

In commenting on this blog, a friend and noted Asian action cinema critic recently wrote to me that, “…at some level adventure storytelling contains inherently universal themes that work in any culture or setting.” And I think that is what the globalization of storytelling is providing us, a recognition that in our adventure stories we share a common humanity – I think that’s great, I think that’s very exciting for writers in this genre, in this common jianghu that we share!!!


The Innkeeper

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Jianghu, The Writer, & The Globalization of Storytelling, part 3

Switching to the fiction writer’s point of view, jianghu is a place where the reader can just as easily run into the likes of Aragon, Robin Hood, Shane, Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, Batman, V, Rick Decker, Neo, and Luke Skywalker. As heroes, they are all xia fighting in their own local jianghu be that Middle Earth, Sherwood Forest, the Wild West, Casablanca, L.A., Gotham City, London, a future Earth, or Tatooine.

As a fantasy writer, as a wuxia novelist, my jianghu is located in 7-8th centuries China and my xia are poets, monks, court officials, shamans and shamanesses, swordsmen and women, and all those who populated that distant time and place, that distant jianghu, and sought justice.

But how does this help define the term? Jianghu, from this fantasy writer’s perspective, can be defined in one word: imagination.

As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote (http://www.ursulakleguin.com/PlausibilityRevisited.html) :

Fantasy is an exercise of what may be our most divine and certainly is our most human capacity, the imagination.

Jianghu is the imagination in its quest for a just world, a world where all the injustices – be that in ancient China or in “a galaxy far, far away” – are sought to be redressed; an exercise in “our most human capacity.”

And isn’t interesting that with this definition we come almost full circle to the Han shu or 2nd century A.D. Chinese use of the term as meaning “the world.”

There’s more when we look at Chinese cinema's attitude toward the jianghu, but in the meantime, what do you think?


The Innkeeper

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Jianghu, The Writer, & The Globalization of Storytelling, part 2

Time to turn to our English explanations/translations of the jianghu.

Professor James J.Y. Liu in his great book, The Chinese Knight-Errant, only refers to jianghu in passing when he translates the title of a book that uses the term, and there he translates it literally as “rivers and lakes.”

Of the other explanations I’ve seen in English, the Internet’s Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiang_Hu) probably sums them up when they write:

…the milieu, environment, or sub-community, often fictional, in which many Chinese classical wuxia stories are set. The term can be translated literally as "rivers and lakes". Metaphorically, however, it refers not to a physical place or geographic location but to the wild and romanticized domain of secret societies, gangs, fighters, entertainers, prostitutes, assassins, thieves, actors, beggars, and wanderers that is roughly the Chinese equivalent to the English terms "bohemian" and "the underworld".

And their definition continues with a brief look at the term in Chinese literature:

The term originally started in Chinese literature in the more literal sense of "rivers and lakes" to denote an unsettled geographic area. In medieval China, outlaws often fled to the frontiers, returning only to prey upon the law-abiding world. The roots of jianghu wuxia (frontier heroes) go back at least as far as the 12th century novel Water Margin (水浒传), in which a band of noble outlaws retreated to a swampy hideout and mounted sorties in an attempt to right the wrongs of the corrupt officials. Over time, especially in the wuxia novel tradition, the term eventually took on the more metaphoric meaning.

This sort of agrees with my look into the Chinese use of the term, but it should be noted that the great Water Margin is a mid-14th century work. What is useful, however, is the point that the term “eventually took on the more metaphoric meaning.” I really wonder if it ever held anything but a metaphoric meaning as a home for the xia.

The well-known Chinese heroic film critic, Stephen Teo, in a fine article (www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/hu.html) about the great wuxiapian director, King Hu (Mandarin: Hu Jin-quan) refers to the use of the term in 20th century wuxia fiction:

In 20th century wuxia fiction, a historicist paradigm of the genre, suggested by Chen Pingyuan in his book The Literati’s Chivalric Dreams, Narrative Models of Chinese Knight-Errant Literature, encompasses the following: firstly, the world of the jianghu, secondly martial arts action, and thirdly, Buddhist concepts. Chen defines the jianghu (literally “rivers and lakes”) as a kind of Utopia where xia (the knights-errant) are free to defy authority and act on their conscience to punish evil and exalt goodness; without this imaginary world, there would be no xia.

So these descriptions are of the home of the “common people” or in Chinese, the laobaixing. It was not so much a “lawless” area, but, like most traditional societies, the area of daily life where relationships (guan-xi) and not the law held the most authority. And these patterns held sway in all societies whether it was China, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, or Hong Kong where the crime gangs like the Mafia, Yakuza, or Triads had their areas of influence. Or, even more interesting and closer in terms of analogy, the “Wild West” of the American frontier.

In a magazine article (Classical Fighting Arts, Issue #9, pp.31-37), Brian L. Kennedy, JD and Elizabeth Guo take this definition one step further when they write:

It is much like the American Old West of John Wayne movies and dime store cowboy novels. It was physically inhospitable; weapons were the norm; and for better or worse a “man could be free.” In a very real sense the jianghu was a “state of mind” as much as a physical place…

In the jianghu the official courts of law, in fact the normal state sanctioned law itself, is useless. They are useless either because of judicial corruption or because the laws themselves are skewed to favor the rich and the politically powerful. As a result, men have to “take the law into their own hands,” and differences can only be resolved by the sword, the spear, or the fist.

The authors’ points are well taken: that jianghu is both a “state of mind” and a “place” where institutional justice does not function. We can say that it is a fictional place where perceived injustices are dealt with. But in this age of globalization is this “place,” this jianghu limited only to the boundaries of China? Are our literary xia only Chinese characters?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Jianghu, The Writer, & The Globalization of Storytelling, part 1

The milieu of the action/adventure/historical fiction genre can range from a “galaxy far, far away” to Middle Earth, visit the 21st century urban terrain of a James Bond or Jason Bourne or travel across the “rivers and lakes” of a fictional Middle Kingdom. As fans of wuxia know, the jianghu (“rivers and lakes”) is the essential milieu of this genre. I should mention at the outset of this blog that much of the material presented here has appeared in my “Wandering Blades Blog” on my author’s website. However, this and subsequent blogs on this topic have been updated according to my latest thinking regarding the nature of the jianghu.

For today’s blog, I would like to begin by taking a brief look at the appearance of that two-character combination [jiang and hu, literally, “river(s)” and “lake(s)”] in Chinese literature over the centuries. For a quick look at the history of this term, I consulted the 10 volume, 17,244 page (!) Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Chinese Language (Zhongwen da cidian) – this work is sort of the Oxford English Dictionary for the Chinese language. There are five meanings given:

1. The first reference in Chinese literature seems to have been in the great Chinese historian, Sima Qian’s (ca. 145–90 B.C.E.) Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) where he cites a reference to the “three rivers and five lakes” that is abbreviated as the “rivers and lakes” or “jianghu.” Thus, this is a geographic reference.

2. The next reference comes from the History of the (Former) Han Dynasty (Hanshu), which was completed in the early 2nd century C.E. There the term refers to the “world” in general; as in “out in the world” things/people are such and such.

3. The third meaning does appear in some of the English explanations of the term that I found. In Chinese literature, the term jianghu came to mean the region(s) or area(s) where hermits chose to live away from the Imperial Court. We are getting closer to the wuxia genre usage.

4. The fourth meaning is a more specific geographic one where the term refers to the Yangtze River (Changjiang) and Lake Dongting (Dongtinghu).

5. With the fifth meaning we are closer to “home.” Jianghu refers to the places where street performers, wandering panhandlers, and entertainers ply their wares and trades. Someone who is long experienced in such activities is referred to as “an old (i.e., experienced) rivers and lakes person” (lao jianghu).

We can see that from this last definition it is not much of a jump to making this a reference to the regions were our wandering blades roam. Yet, how do we translate that into English? We’ll look at the English in part 2 of this blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Gollum!??? The Ring Made Me Do It!

I just caught a mistake in the title of the last blog. What was Gollum doing in that list of heroes!? I fixed it and realized that the Ring made me do it! I must have been under its spell as that cover picture of Gollum had the Ring in the foreground. That thing is really powerful! But it's all fixed, Aragorn's name is where it should be. And I'm working on that definition of the jianghu as promised for the next blog, just have to get over this Ring thing...


The Innkeeper

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Aragorn, Shane, Decker, Aubrey, & Li Bo ???

The most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly (Oct.12, 2007) has a striking picture of Gollum with the title "Return of the Ring?" Inside is an interesting article about the possible settlement of a rift between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema, the film company that brought us the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

What was most interesting for me, however, was thinking about the definition I left you for the wuxia genre. What does Tolkien's epic tale have in common with that genre? I see it as a Western wuxia story. Then I wondered, what else can fit into this "commodious vessel" of the wuxia genre?

The American Western, for example, is an obvious choice. Characters like Shane, many of John Wayne's cowboy characters, Gary Cooper's High Noon character, and the lineage is brought up to date with Unforgiven and possibly 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James (I say possibly because I haven't seen them yet, only read about them) are all heroic characters. As a heroic fiction genre writer, the Western is an American wuxia form, with the gunslinger paralleling my "swordslinger" wandering blades (youxia - labeling the swordsmen and women of Chinese wuxia as "knights-errant" is a misnomer and I never use that term in referring to the Chinese tradition).

Further, I understand some science fiction movies such as Blade Runner as wuxia, and I'm sure you can name others. And at the far end of a wuxia spectrum, I place one of my favorite action/adventure/historical fiction authors, Patrick O'Brian with his Aubrey-Maturin epic series of historical fiction set in a very historically accurate Napoleonic naval war era; the movie Master and Commander:The Far Side of the World was based on two novels from that series.

On my wuxia spectrum, I move from "sheer fantasy" with Tolkien and the Science Fiction folks to "sheer history" with O'Brian. The Westerns are somewhere in the middle dealing in an idealized "wild West," though probably less so with Unforgiven. And the middle is where my work goes, as my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, is set in a historical Tang dynasty, but overlaid with a "fantasy" story about a real historical character, Li Bo, the great Chinese poet-adventurer.

For me as a writer what these stories obviously have in common is their emphasis on the hero and heroic action. And perhaps less obviously, the setting or place where these actions take place. Across this spectrum of "heroic fiction" there is a common setting - the world of the hero. For Tolkien it is Middle Earth, for the Western the "wild West," for me the early Tang dynasty, for O'Brian the geography, technology, and culture of early 19th century European naval warfare.

In a sense, each of us have our "special worlds." And for traditional wuxia that special world is known as the jianghu, literally "rivers and lakes," but figuratively, it is the setting for wuxia adventure.

In the next blog, I will give you my definition of the jianghu, and we can see how it compares to the settings of these other forms of heroic fiction.


Thursday, October 4, 2007

Defining Wuxia as a Genre

Let's start this consideration of the nature of the wuxia genre with a definition. Since I'm the writer involved here, I'll start with my definition, my writer's definition as opposed to say a historical or literary definition. For those types of definitions do visit "The Wandering Blades Blog" my website www.thedragongateinn.com where I've written about the historical aspect of wuxia tracing it from its beginnings in China's pre-current era up through the Tang dynasty (7th-10th century CE).

My "writer's definition" is aimed at providing some guidelines for writing in this genre. Yet, I should point out right away, that I believe guidelines are there to mark the places where the writer has broken out of those structures to develop something new, to push the envelope, so to speak, on the genre. Nowadays, cross genre literature is very popular, but my old friend, Zhuangzi understood that a couple of thousand years ago when he wrote about "fish traps and rabbit snares"!

And another note on that point. Recently, I was reading David Chute's introduction to that wonderful film series out of UCLA, "Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film;" I found it here: www.geocities.com/tokyo/island/3102/heroic-intro.htm?200728 In that he writes:

Like all the great film genres the martial arts movie is a commodious vessel into which any number of personal styles, attitudes and philosophies can be poured. In fact, the genre's almost limitless flexibility is what has kept it current and enduringly popular for over 50 years, adapting effortlessly to sweeping changes in its demographic.

Naturally, I believe this also applies to wuxia as a literary genre. That being said, here's my definition of the genre:

Wuxiaxiaoshuo – The Heroic Fiction Genre

The wuxia genre is a traditional Chinese storytelling form defined by two basic elements: wu and xia. Wu pertains to all things martial such as weapons (especially the sword as a symbol of nobility and valor), fighting techniques, and martial culture. Xia is usually translated as “chivalric hero.” Xia refers to those men and women who acted in a subjective, heroic manner to right injustice. Their sense/code/ethic of chivalry involved the following values: altruism, justice/appropriateness, individual freedom, personal loyalty, honor & fame, generosity & contempt for wealth, and reciprocity.

This genre normally focuses on action (especially the action of the human form) and adventure and takes place in an imaginary world of these heroes known as the jiang-hu (literally, “rivers and lakes” also “cultural-imaginary world”) which has been defined as, “the self-contained and historically sanctioned world of martial arts.” It is a world that accepts the fantastic as normal at certain levels of skillful physical and mental attainment.

An important motif of this genre is a sense of nostalgia for a lost home in a mythical past that lacked any confusion about moral values – good and evil were simple and clear.

This genre can further be developed as a subgenre of historical fiction. When treated as such, it should, “polish the past into a mirror of the present.”

So what do you all think? Any additions, subtractions, questions, further comments?


The Innkeeper

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Random Thoughts on a Foggy Day

Sometime this week, I'll begin writing about defining the wuxia genre that I've identified as "heroic fiction", but commonly is referred to as "martial arts" fiction. If you're interested in an advanced view of my point of view, then check out "The Wandering Blades Blog" on my author's website: www.thedragongateinn.com

As I've mentioned on that website, "The Wandering Blades Blog" will lay fallow for awhile as I develop this new blog as I'm hoping that a blog on Blogger will be easier to find and more open to developing a community of readers of wuxia genre materials, which includes movies, and those with related interests.

I'd also like to mention here that I've just heard from two readers who joined up when my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, was first published. They are both in Mainland China now and it would be great to hear from them and learn how they're finding life in China nowadays.

My life in China happened back in the mid-80s when I spend six months in Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese government. In those days, China was offering positions to foreigners as "foreign experts" and I was hired to help in their book publishing industry as an adviser to a English language publisher in Beijing.

I haven't been back to the Mainland, spending most of my subsequent time in Taiwan, since then and I know there have been tremendous changes. So it would be interesting to hear from my reader-friends on how they are finding life in the "new" China. And it would be great to hear from others in China and elsewhere who are interested in fiction writing, wuxia, and related interests. Everyone is welcomed here.

In the coming weeks, I will be referencing a very interesting article by a former Harvard professor and friend regarding the nature of wuxia literature. If your Chinese is REALLY good, you can get a jump on this by checking out: www.bostonchinesenews.com. Go to the Sept. 7th issue and check out pp. A1 & A2. Starting from the front page of the newspaper and going over on the complete second page is my friend's very learned article on wuxia. He has also included the email correspondence between us attempting to create a definition of this genre. I will be writing about the seven points he puts forth in that article to define wuxia.

In tomorrow's blog, I will post my definition of wuxia that appears in that email and tell you its backstory.

FYI - When I was trying to find a publisher for Dream of the Dragon Pool, the most frequent reason for the many rejections I got was, "There is no audience of readers for English language wuxia fiction." What do you think?


The Innkeeper

Monday, October 1, 2007

What's in this Blog?


I've picked the title and subtitle of this blog to indicate my blogging interests: things Chinese and fiction writing. On the "things Chinese" side, I'm being identified as an American wuxia novelist. And I have taken several months of blogging on my former blog to discuss the meaning and traditions of wuxia literature. You can see these on my writer's website: www.thedragongateinn.com, where The Wandering Blades Blog is devoted to discussing the evolution of the wuxia genre of Chinese traditional fiction.

Simply stated, as a literary genre wuxia is usually translated as "martial arts" fiction, but I find that too limiting and translate the genre as "Chinese heroic fiction" - it deals with heroes and heroic action. And these heroes include male and female. So I write about swordsmen and swordswomen, though they don't necessary just swing swords, some prefer other weapons. But the reason I translate wuxia as "heroic" and not "martial" is that my emphasis as a writer is on the heroic not on the weapon or fighting technique, though given my own martial arts background (see my website) these are not neglected.

You can see this first hand in my first wuxia novel just published in April by a New York literary press (Pleasure Boat Studio). The novel is Dream of the Dragon Pool - A Daoist Quest. It is receiving rave reviews - my website, naturally has all of those. I will be writing about that novel, how I wrote it, and its themes - or as far as that quote from Zhuangzi allows! Have you figured out that one, yet?

I will also write about writing since I've been a creative writing teacher for a number of years and like writing. And I will review books on writing and aspects of traditional China, and discuss some movies that pertain to the wuxia genre.

So there is a lot to write about here. I hope you'll let me know your thoughts and interests. More later.


The Innkeeper