Wuxia at Boston University – An Assessment
Happy New Year!
For my first 2010 blog, I want to relate my teaching experience at Boston University (BU). I mentioned in the previous blog that I taught a wuxia (Chinese heroic fiction) class in the BU Writing Program, in addition to an ESL writing course in that same program. The BU catalog description of the course was:
Paradox of the Hero/Heroine in East Asian Cinema and Fiction
Using the Chinese wuxia (“heroic”) fiction genre, we will explore individualism in a cultural region where none was assumed to exist, non-conformity where conformity was assumed to rule, and a sense of equality where Confucian hierarchy was assumed the norm. Tracing the genre’s development across a 2,000-year arc, we will read primary source materials in translation as we consider how heroes reflect their cultures. Secondary readings will help us understand how a culture creates and views its heroes. For the modern era, our primary source materials include selections from Chinese and Japanese martial arts films and Japanese Anime. In our writing, we will examine these “wandering heroes” and address the question of why after 2,000 years they attract a global following.
I selected seven films for the course:
Battle of the Warriors (formerly, Battle of Wits)
Bride with White Hair
Swordsman (with Sam Hui)
Zatoichi, Festival of Fire
Ashes of Time
I had originally picked ten films, but since the course was essentially a writing course and not a film course, I had to cut back on the film showings to allow for more emphasis on the writing instruction. The Writing Program courses allow the instructors to use topics that they are familiar with as the materials to teaching college writing – essentially, academic research paper writing.
My students were great. They were very enthusiastic and very open minded – admittedly, a number of them were already fans of this genre, but few had any idea about the long held cultural traditions behind these films and its literary genre. Yet, once my students began to gain insight into the genre, they brought to it fresh thinking and an enthusiasm to learn more that would gladden the heart of any teacher. The primary and secondary written source materials that I supplied came from my background as an academic and as a historical fiction writer.
I had been initially hired to teach an ESL writing course because of my extensive overseas teaching experience in East Asia. However, twelve days before classes were to begin, I got a call from the program’s assistant director asking if I would be interested in also teaching the wuxia course that I had proposed in my initial application. While that “course” was outlined on paper, it had never been taught or even fleshed out with movies and reading materials. Nonetheless, realizing the opportunity this presented – to get wuxia into the curriculum of a major world-class university – I said yes. The rest, I guess, is history.
My students looked at the role of women in the East Asian heroic tradition, the role of the individual, the idea of heroism, the role of romantic love, the East Asian hero as a tragic hero, and other fascinating aspects of this heroic tradition. Most of the writing was very good and some of it was truly innovative and insightful. As a result, both teacher and student broadened their perspectives on the genre.
At the final class meeting, we held an “academy awards” ceremony in which the students voted a “best picture” award. And the best picture of the course went to…Princess Mononoke – a marvelous Hayao Miyazaki anime film that can easily put to shame James Cameron’s Avatar, which shares the same basic theme of humanity vs. nature, but which will, regrettably, never get the viewership of that corporate behemoth.
However, due to historically low enrollments at BU for the spring semester, none of the part time instructors were continued for the next semester. And while I will truly miss the interaction with students, I can now turn back to my own writing with renewed vigor and fresh perspectives. While many publishers in the West have yet to realize the interest and attractiveness of this genre, my interaction with both the students and faculty at BU have further confirmed my belief that there is a large, untapped audience for an English language wuxia genre.
I’m thinking of designing an anime course, but since this film genre has grown into such a broad field, I’ll have wrestle with which films to show. That was also a problem with designing the heroes course. The East Asian heroic tradition has a very broad range and although my seven films worked well in the course, I had constantly to remind my students and myself that we were being exposed to a very limited range of material. But we have to start somewhere and hopefully we will all continue enjoying and exploring this exciting realm of cinema and fiction.