By Mark Pollard
Hong Kong's kung fu movie genre, kicked off by director Chang Cheh's The Chinese Boxer (1970), has remained popular in the West ever since Lo Lieh broke out in furious combat on grind house theater screens in Five Fingers of Death (1972). But it took another 28 years for a far older Chinese-language movie genre to gain similar popularity. It is called the wuxia pian (pronounced "oo-shyah pea-an") and worldwide audiences received an eye-opening introduction to this world of flying swordsmen and swordswomen when Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) stormed the box office in 2001. However, Chinese audiences were far less enamored with this movie than their Western counterparts. Quite understandable considering that, as entertaining as it was, the movie represents only the tip of an immense literary and filmic iceberg that the Chinese have been chipping away at for well over 500 years.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Definition & Literary Roots
Wuxia is a Mandarin-language term that literally means "martial arts chivalry" and pian simply means "movie." Wuxia itself represents a uniquely Chinese variety of storytelling that dates back long before the advent of filmmaking, at least as far as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is defined by stories that combine China's wushu (martial arts) tradition with deeds of heroic chivalry performed by men and women. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), these tales became epic novels such as Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Protagonists were often sword-bearing warriors of great virtue, who, like Robin Hood or King Arthur, would apply their fighting skills to vanquishing injustices with the edge of their blades.
Within these wuxia novels, a fictional realm developed that blended elements of fantasy with history. This became the jiang hu, or martial world, in which Chinese knight errants living by a code of honor could perform superhuman feats, channel chi energy into magical palm blasts and battle mythical beasts. This essentially became China's version of what Western culture defines as fantasy, where fighting sorcerers, elves, orcs, and halflings live.
Spurned in part by the desire for escapism in a politically-turbulent society, this storytelling tradition has continued to evolve and grow ever more popular in China. Despite the upheaval of China's Cultural Revolution in the 20th century, prolific wuxia novelists have breathed new life into the genre in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. These widely read novels have become the subject of comic books, television series, video games, and, of course, movies.
Early Wuxia Pian and Heroines
As the cultural and commercial center of China in the early part of the 20th century, Shanghai quickly became home to China's burgeoning film industry following its birth in 1913. During the 1920s, predominately fantasy-oriented wuxia pian became very popular. Over thirty film companies filled silent movie screens with purely populist martial arts features that experimented with animation, trick photography and wirework to create their fantastic action. One of these studios was the Tianyi Film Company, run by brothers Runme and Runrun Shaw. From the start, they were quick to plug into the commercial potential by proving to be genre innovators. It was their release of Heroine Li Feifei in 1925 that first introduced the stylized fighting and acrobatics of Chinese opera that, along with gaudy costuming, would become genre standards.
The most prominent example of fantasy wuxia from this period is undoubtedly director Zhang Sichuan's The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928), a 27-hour epic that was serialized into 18 feature-length movies. Like many Hollywood's Westerns and science fiction tales of the 1920s and '30s, wuxia pian were typically serialized. Unfortunately, very few examples of them exist today, apart from Red Heroine (1929) and The Swordswoman of Huangjiang (1930). This latter title stars Chen Zhi-gong, the world's first major martial arts movie star. She appeared in many wuxia pian throughout the decade and is known for having choreographed and performed most or all of her own action sequences. Women like Chen Zhi-gong were traditionally the leading stars in wuxia pian, up until Chang Cheh ushered in a new era of male-dominated martial arts movies in the late 1960s.
Swordswoman of Huangjiang
By the end of the 1920s, wuxia pian had reached a commercial peak, with over 250 movies released within two years alone. But the genre soon suffered a setback. Concerned with the effects that wuxia pian and other less-socially responsible movies were having on audiences, an increasingly hard line nationalistic Chinese government created the National Film Censorship Board in 1931 to ban works deemed inappropriate for public consumption. This began a migration by wuxia filmmakers to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong to carry in on their trade. Japan's invasion of Shanghai in 1937 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949 would drive more filmmaking talent out of mainland China.
The era of wuxia filmmaking in Shanghai was over, but in Hong Kong it was slowly gearing up for greater success. From roughly 1935 to 1960, Hong Kong put out a nearly steady stream of Cantonese-language wuxia movies like The Lady Protector (1947) and A Sword against Five Protectors (1952), where stunt work using trampolines, wires and fantasy special effects continued to evolve. But it wasn't until the mid-1960s that wuxia pian made its first real advancement since the advent of sound.
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