It’s hard to describe wuxia to Westerners without feeling like you’re from another world. Martial arts stories as a literary genre exploring the politics and philosophies of the current world? That feels like something a kid would write.
Be either serious or comedic. Don’t do it like it’s campy.
But wuxia, campy as it might be, is a genre that has inspired many writers in East Asia to look beyond the typical “literary novel” structure and let the historical fiction fans and young readers realize how contemporary martial arts can be.
鬼哭街 (Kikokugai) by Gen Urobuchi (Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Fate/zero) is a wuxia visual novel published by Nitroplus and translated by Makoto from JAST USA. It is a swooping story about a guy in a cyberpunk Shanghai beating up the leaders in a triad organization in order to get his sister, raped and her soul separated into different dolls, back. Even with such a crazy premise, you can see elements of wuxia going into play here.
Wuxia as a genre — or shall I say tradition — has some rather strict conventions. Readers expect a Confucian society gone awry. In 鬼哭街, Shanghai has been outgunned by drug cartels and scientists experimenting on cadavers. For people to tolerate the city’s dark side, they need peace. A vigilante sort of organization, triad, or community. They can respect the Confucian values through martial arts and belief in justice. This tradition of triads is real and can still be found in Hong Kong and various Chinatowns all over the world. San Francisco’s Chinatown is famously built under the supervision of several triads operating from China to make sure the Chinese immigrants are protected there when the cops aren’t. Loyalty to the family and clan is expected out of anyone living under such an organization.
Wuxia also needs to be very technical in martial arts. It is not unusual for martial artists to practice qigong, a holistic view of the body. Contemporary wuxia often plays with science fiction to make them feel more real. 鬼哭街 is no exception: qigong has been absorbed into the cyberpunk world and we see qi turn into something like the Force from Star Wars to explain how characters fight. Technology has advanced the martial artists’ understanding of qi, but it also has corrupted the qi. Qi is a natural power granted by Mother Nature and is not meant to be exploited forever. That will deplete one’s life.
Martial arts practitioners stress balance. Work, family life, and the exercise you do must always be in harmony. Disrupting in favor of one of them will ruin one’s life. So this is a theme wuxia writers always revisit. Wuxia stories have never been about being badass or about justice but a desire to return to a simpler harmony.
Which is why the stories often have a political bent to it as well. Lately, the trend is to see the Chinese succeed against the foreign devils. The Ip Man film franchise has always pitted the protagonist and teacher of Bruce Lee against the Japanese and American. But the third film goes for something else: it becomes a story about an internal conflict between two schools of martial artists and the relationship of a husband and a wife. Even in a one-dimensional political film franchise, Ip Man remembers that it is still a wuxia story.
鬼哭街 is about the internal affairs as well. The protagonist believes that eradicating the triad will save Shanghai. The ways his sister is treated and how he feels betrayed are enough to justify his belief.
Which is why 鬼哭街 is one of those revenge stories dismantling the triads. The protagonist believes the leaders are corrupt in letting Shanghai be this fucked up.
There is a concept in wuxia called Jianghu (江湖): it literally means rivers and lakes. Rivers and lakes are independent of the ocean, so they can do whatever they wish. But rivers and lakes can also be chaotic and retaliate against human civilization — the constant flooding of the Yellow River comes to mind. This is a metaphor to describe the order and balance of triad organizations. Rivers and lakes flow into each other to create a state of equilibrium of power. If one river goes down, the rest must go down quickly or the people will suffer.
That’s why you will never read a story where the protagonist just takes one leader out. They have to take everyone out or the power balance will go crazy. You can see this in 鬼哭街 as the villains plan for the future to control Shanghai after hearing some of them die. This can be seen in fantasy novels too: A Song of Ice and Flames call the jianghu as it is in English — a “game of thrones”.
Our search to have a place in the “game of thrones” set in our own world can have impact in the way we see the world. If our life is focused one thing and one thing only, we lose our footing on the ground just because we want to reach the skies.
I’ve always find wuxia stories to be Taoist as a result. There is a famous subject matter in Chinese paintings called the “vinegar tasters” (三酸圖). It depicts the three major Chinese philosophies Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism tasting vinegar. What their faces evoke represent their core beliefs and attitudes toward life. The Buddhist finds vinegar bitter, much like how it sees life as a thing to tolerate, because there’s other metaphysical things to understand better. The Confucian believes vinegar is sour and thinks that it needs to be sweeten up by their own hand. And the Taoist thinks vinegar is the sweetest thing possible because it is already harmonious.
One can imagine a story of a Taoist practitioner being the most boring thing possible because there won’t be any conflict. They will be too happy with their lives and letting the rivers and lakes flow as it is. But martial arts stories — and stories in general — have structures that look for an ending to find stability and harmony once more. A disruption to the river or qi is the conflict in a narrative. Stories are all about ironing out those disruptions to the flow.
It thus brings into question whether our hero’s journeys are meaningless when there is usually little reason to embark on one. There is no call to greatness or justice if one wants harmony in the end. Maybe a newer harmony but that’s not guaranteed it’s the one you want.
Wuxia is aware of this. That’s why their stories are richly textured and often campy as a result. It indulges in the fact journeys looking for a new harmony are over the top and sometimes meaningless. In order to gain one thing they really want, the protagonists lose many things.
The ending of 鬼哭街 shows this clearly well when everything is revealed. It puts him into a huge degree of suffering and all he can do is cry. Cry in the crying demon city of a cruel cyberpunk city of Shanghai.