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

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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


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