For short paper, you may choose one of two topics:
1. Compare and contrast the function of the hero in American and Chinese cinema, according to what we have discussed. What does each reveal about Chinese v. American foundational myths? Are there any similarities that would support Campbell, Jung or Freud’s notions of the universality of myth?
2. Compare and contrast the female protagonists of Tarantino’s Kill Bill (both a parody of and an homage to the wuxia film) with the female warriors of either Zhang Yimou’s Hero or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger. What are the similarities and differences in the portrayal of women in the two films?
* It must be at least 750 words but no more than 1000
*Please check to make sure spelling and grammar are correct. If there are more than one or two errors it will negatively affect my grade.
*Be sure to state precisely in the introductory paragraph what the focus of your essay will be. Because the paper is short, you must be clear and concise
Lecture IV: Heroes of the Chinese Wuxia Tradition
The term “wuxia”, ironically, was originally coined by a Japanese writer in a series of adventure stories written at the turn of the 19th century. It is a combination of the word “wu”, referring to militaristic qualities, and “xia”, meaning “chivalry”, “gallantry” or “heroism”. The term first became popularized in China through a 1922 serial novel, Legend of the Strange Swordsman, but soon after developed into a Chinese film genre with a controversial history.
Though the combined term wuxia was not originally Chinese, the noun “xia” has a very long history in Chinese culture. The historian Han Fei Zi traces it back to historical warrior figures of the Warring States period (403 BCE ??” 221 BCE), similar to the English knights-errant. As they were reconstructed later in Chinese literature, their qualities began to take on a particular form. Usually members of the plebeian class, they included political assassins in the service of righteous politicians who were trying to rid the states of tyranny. Their motivating principle was “xiayi”, or the compulsion to perform good deeds and act from a sense of justice rather than self-profit. Upholding the principles of Confucianism, xia warriors of the Chinese literary tradition were loyal to their masters and helped the poor and oppressed. From the chuonqi stories of the Tang dynasty, there is also a tradition of female xia, a convention that has been resurrected in the wuxia cinema since the 1920s.
Two important aspects of the tradition that allowed the xia to move beyond legend and take on mythic qualities are the places they traditionally inhabit and the style of fighting they espouse. Most wuxia stories take place in the “jianghu”, a semi-mythical world that mirrors the real world and has been described as a “complex of inns, highways and waterways, deserted temples, bandits’ lairs and stretches of wilderness at the geographic and moral margins of settled society” (Teo 18). It is an illicit space where moral battles are fought and an alternative society can be imagined; over the centuries and in different contexts it has suggested both a secret society that exists in opposition to the government and a semi-utopia where the xia are free to defy authority, punish evil and promote goodness (18). The wuxia follow the “Wudong” School of martial arts, emphasizing “soft” skills such as the mastery of “qigong”, or the inner energy that enables the warrior to fly. This is opposed to the “Shaolin” School, associated with “hard”, outer physical skills and the kung fu style of fighting.
Though the xia are actual historical figures, they have also taken on the quality of myth through their engagement with basic Chinese values and the way they have reflected changing conceptions of the Chinese national narrative. Even the term “wuxia” was used to promote the combined qualities of military prowess and noble values, qualities the founders of the Republican government in the early 20th century felt were needed to build a new nation freed from dynastic tyrants. In the 1920s as the Chinese cinema began to develop, wuxia films were part of an effort to reinforce traditional Chinese moral values and family ethics and to ward off Westernizing influences. Because of their traditional association with “shenguai”, or magical ghost/fairy tales, wuxia stories were particularly suited for translation into cinematic form.
The “wuxia shenguai” genre reached its peak in 1927 as the new Guomindang government forcefully unified China and broke with its Communist (CCP) allies. Film critics had been calling for a cinema based on humanistic values and featuring a new type of Chinese hero, one that could lead China out of its weak state. Wuxia films fit this concept perfectly, offering an alternative to the soft, intellectual hero that had dominated most of Chinese literary history. Chinese warrior heroes could also serve as an answer to the popular swashbucklers and romantic heroes of Western film at the time (ie Errol Flynn and Douglass Fairbanks).
This effort, however, unleashed some unforeseen results. At showings of The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, a film featuring new special effects (like wires to suspend flying actors and animation to simulate laser swords), audience members became so intoxicated with the spectacle and the stars that they set up altars with incense outside the movie theaters. Critics began to denounce this phenomenon, claiming that the films were corrupting the youth by encouraging them to become enamored with supernatural characters and forsake their Confucian responsibility to parents and authority figures. In 1931, wuxia films were outlawed by the Guomindang, though they continued to be made until the mid-1930s.
During the war with Japan from 1937 to 1941, Chinese filmmaking moved to the unoccupied zones in Shanghai, and later, after the Communist victory, relocated to Hong Kong. It was here that the filmmakers Zhang Che and King Hu recreated the figures of the male and female xia in the 1960s as a reaction against the trend in 1950s Hong Kong cinema that favored the female star and the feminized romantic leading man (Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love  is an homage to this genre). Zhang developed a new “masculine” male hero, called the “yang gang” (the former term refers to the male sexual organ), whom his films preferred over the female knight-errant. (The actor Bruce Lee is an example of this type of hero, though Lee never worked with Zhang). The aesthetics of violence and spectacular death are a hallmark of his films, eclipsing the nationalist overtones of earlier wuxia cinema.
Zhang’s heroes are preoccupied with death and violence because they hold themselves to high moral standards, following wuxia tradition by being rebellious and non-conformist in nature and challenging Confucian ideals even as they act upon their precepts. Yvonne Tasker adds that the “hardness” of the yang gang hero’s body, emerging from a history of “soft” Chinese heroes, is an imposition upon this history; thus death is inevitable as a means to resolve the contradictions of yang (masculinity) against yin (femininity). As Teo notes, Zhang’s yang gang archetype drastically changed the image of the Hong Kong cinematic hero from a soft, scholarly type to one with “the body language for unconstrained violence”, producing the Chinese equivalent of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson ??” all popular Western stars in Hong Kong.
The director King Hu, working for another Hong Kong studio, could not compete with Zhang’s yang gang heroes, so he began to develop and feature the female knight-errant in his films. For his inspiration he turned to chuanqi tales that represented female knights-errant as magical figures. Yet King’s female heroes were also great sword fighters, and in contrast to the tradition were distinctly feminine, even when dressed as males. In particular, King translated the figure of the Thirteenth Sister, the hero of the Qing dynastynovel A Tale of Heroic Lovers. In the story, the sister is brought up as a boy to avenge the death of her father; however in the second half of the novel, she gets married and is transformed into a conventional woman. This story is part of a long tradition in China, in which women are cast in unconventional roles, but in the end are reincorporated into patriarchy. Their roles change in response to the breakdown of society, but once Confucian values have been restored, they return to their “proper” place. King’s version of the female knight-errant, feminized and reduced to human status, was later seen in films such as The House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou 2004), Hero (Zhang Yimou 2002) and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
II. Myth and the Wuxia Tradition
The mythic qualities of both the traditional stories of the xia and their later incarnation as wuxia cinema can be understood from structuralist, psychological and ideological perspectives. The female xia, in particular, served to reconcile the inviolable gender roles that characterized Confucian society. The heroism of the cross-dressing female warrior who nevertheless subscribed to the strict Confucian values of the xia moral code (ie loyalty to her master, devotion to training) confirmed the validity of these values by uniting both males and females under their strictures. Even in later reincarnations, for example, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the female xia Jen (played by Zhang Ziyi), initially rebels against the authority of her master yet ultimately returns to the Daoist path promoted by her Wudong School. In the following scene from the film, Jen fights with her master in the Bamboo Forest. Note that while both characters bend the bamboo with their weight, the master (Li Mubai/Chow Yun Fat) is able to remain upright upon the branch, signifying his devotion to the moral principles of the xia. It is Jen’s killing of Li Mubai that motivates her attempt to redeem herself by leaping off a cliff in a symbolic effort to rededicate herself to the Daoist path (Teo 175).
Xia stories also function as mechanisms for displacement and wish fulfillment in traditional Chinese society. The setting of these stories, the jianghu, is a mirror of the real world but emptied of its rules and restrictions. The vacant temples, fields, forests and caves that make up the jianghu allow for the imagination of an alternative society in which one can escape tyranny and oppression, and where magical heroes exist who are devoted to social justice (note the setting in the clip above). Under the dynastic rulers (and, many would argue, the current Chinese government), such freedom from autocracy could only exist in a dream world. Finally, the xia/wuxia narrative has also been used to reinforce various definitions of China promoted by both Chinese governments and their opponents. As outlined above, the development of wuxia cinema was originally supported by the Republican government so that heroes could be created that incorporated the new Chinese values of physical strength and revolutionary thinking. Later, when admiration for these heroes threatened to disrupt rather than reinforce the power of the authorities, wuxia stories were banned from the cinema. In modern China, these stories have functioned in a similarly ambivalent way. The films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee 2000) and Hero (Zhang Yimou 2002) illustrate the often contradictory manner in which the wuxia genre has been used and interpreted since mainland China’s re-entry into the global community of nations.
Ang Lee’s film, the first wuxia film widely distributed and seen in the West, is in part an effort to represent Chinese culture positively in a global context. Based upon a mid-20th century novel by Wang Dulu, its focus on the character of Jen in particular was designed to appeal to Western audiences unfamiliar with the tradition of the female xia and inclined to stereotype Chinese attitudes towards women as reactionary and repressive. Jen’s attempt to obtain her master’s sword, Green Destiny, is a clear illustration of her desire to usurp male power, a theme popular in post-feminist Western culture. In Lee’s film, the Chinese tradition of the xia, according to Stephen Teo, was somewhat modified to fit Western sensibilities. For example, a suppressed erotic desire between Jen and her master, a notion anathema to the principles of xia regarding the master/pupil relationship, is suggested throughout the film (including the scene above [Teo 175]). Also, the name Jen, used in the subtitled version of the film, has no connection to the character’s name in the original novel, Yu Jiaolang (meaning “pretty dragon” ??” thus the “hidden dragon” of the title). The alteration of this name, with its masculine connotations, feminizes the character and detracts from her original ambiguity. The end result of what Teo terms this “self-orientalism” (or the [mis]representation of one’s own culture in a way that reinforces an unequal power relationship) is that it becomes a form of cultural nationalism that is abstracted and reinterpreted for the Western gaze (178).
Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (2002) is more overtly political, directed by a Chinese filmmaker whose visually stunning work has been both attacked and admired for its representation of Chinese culture. The film’s topic, based on the true story of the attempted assassination of China’s first emperor Chin (or Qin), is particularly appropriate to analyze as an expression of the foundational myths of the Chinese nation-state. After its release, it received a storm of criticism for its ending, which appeared to some to validate China’s authoritarian form of government. Without giving away the plot (you will watch the film next), Hero can be read, according to Teo, as an allegory of the truth of official history and official nationalism that stands in opposition to the cultural and civic nationalism of the social sphere (187). As you watch the film, consider how its version of the origins of modern China articulates contradictory understandings of what it means to be “Chinese”, and how (or whether) these contradictions are resolved.
After viewing the film, read the article uploaded into doc sharing under Week 4 (“Zhang Yimou’s Hero: Dismantling the Myth of Cultural Power” by Wendy Larsen). Then post your response to the thread. You will also find your second short paper assignment on the left menu, due Thursday 8/2 at midnight.
Teo, Stephen Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).
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