Hint: Who do you think came up with the genre?
Admittedly, I have not been exposed to a lot of Western media these days but things come to my attention on occasion.
Westerners making fantasy stuff based on Chinese martial arts, culture, and history is nothing new. It’s at least as old as Bruce Lee. But Westerners making those things and calling it wuxia? I have no idea how recent that is. There’s plenty to talk about how aspects of our culture gets appropriated carelessly, but for this article I want to talk about the appropriation of an entire genre. First, a little on what it is.
The term “wuxia” is a modern one (probably during the 1950s) and the stories described as such are typically about wandering heroes with martial arts righting wrongs in the land. The Western perception would be: “Chinese people flying around and shooting chi and waving swords.” Both would however be a gross simplification.
Let’s break the term down.
The “wu” in this case means “martial” while the word “xia” references to a concept exclusive to our culture. Many sources would compare it to the concept of chivalry, but that would be inaccurate. Chivalry developed in the Middle Ages and was meant to protect noble women from invading knights, until it got co-opted by men. Xia on the other hand has been in our culture for at least two thousand years and the fiction surrounding it is just as old. Nobody knows who the fuck invented but for as long as we know about it, it has been about fighting injustice. And the reason why someone decided it needs specifying that this time of xia is martial? Because not all xia use martial arts and violence to achieve their goals.
Knight-errants are also seen as a counterpart to the heroes in wuxia. A difference is that a xia can hail from any class and, even if it is an overwhelmingly male field, women are not uncommon. This is true even for those xia using martial arts.
You see, martial arts in China has not been the sole domain of warriors for a very very long time. Possibly never, but don’t go around quoting me on that. It is perfectly in line with the xia idea of heroes emerging from anyone. We even had periods of history when governments would restrict or outlaw martial arts based on fears of rebellion. But martial arts do not only serve the practical purposes of self defence and physical exercise. Many styles were also created with a philosophy in mind, turning activity into mnemonic device.
In the realm of wuxia fiction, they can also be tools of characterisation. In Legend of the Condor Heroes, Huang Rong’s mixture of the Peach Blossom Island skills with that of the Northern Beggar Hong Qigong’s compliments her qualities of learned grace and roguish cunning. In Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre, Zhang Wuji’s ability to perceive energy flow and adopt any martial arts mirrors his capacity of empathy and diplomacy between the various factions of the martial arts world.
You all regulars of this blog know what’s up, and you would no doubt see how wuxia so Chinese that you can’t even divorce its basic premise of its Chinese-ness.
Yet you have Westerners thinking that they can write wuxia just because they took Asian studies or just because they watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or something. When I say Westerners, I mostly do mean the pasty ones. They were our oppressors and still are. They started wars to get our stuff and divided our land like a pizza. They laughed at our martial arts and called it fancy dance but are now all over it. They wounded our pride enough to make us want to Westernise, which meant a few good things sure but it also meant that we started seeing homosexual acts as once normal into a mental illness. Now we’ve forgotten that part of our past and their descendants start saying we’re backward for a social wrong they created. And they use that and other things to continue degrading us Chinese all over the world.
Yet they feel entitled enough to take this one thing which not only entertains us but in its earlier incarnations, spurred us to rebel against oppression. This one thing which the CCCP banned for a while because they knew from history just what it can do. This one thing where because we’re all living in Amerika, even many of our own don’t see the value of.
They don’t even see the irony of the situation. Well, if one’s oppressor appropriating your anti-oppression art form can be seen as ironic. But I suspect they don’t even care. They feel so entitled to it that they will get all uppity when told it isn’t for them.
But it will always be something only we can make. We invite everyone to partake in it because it is cool stuff and we’re proud of it, just remember who belongs to. And yes, we do have our own fucked up shit and I for one hope that these new wuxia authors stop being worse about shit than their predecessors sixty years ago.
3 thoughts on “Who gets to write wuxia?”
I am someone currently writing a fantasy novel set in psudo Warring States China. I am white. Would this count as an act of oppression? If so, how can I avoid this while at the same time writing something different than the staple white-as-the-driven-snow fantasy world archetype?
Sorry for not replying earlier.
There is a difference between wuxia and fantasy based on China, and for me personally, it wouldn’t be oppressive if you write the latter. Bearing in mind that it is inapporpriate for white people to claim wuxia because it is a strong component of our history and culture, so the underlying issue is about respecting the that.
If you’re asking this, then I’m pretty sure you would know the basics of doing your research and avoiding exotification. And it’s always good if you can have someone Chinese to bounce things off with. I’ll be happy to help if you like.
Thank you! It may be a while because I have one book to finish first and a History MA to finish, but it would be great to have someone to confer with. I will be trying to avoid most of the more obvious Chinese tropes, but trying to make the plot recognisable for people who already know about Warring States China, in the same way people who know about the wars of the roses see connections with the Game of Thrones series.
Comments are closed.