Fact, Fiction, and Beyond in the Chinese Martial Underworld

          “We are unique, gentlemen, in that we create ourselves. Through long years of rigorous training, sacrifice, denial, pain, we forge our bodies in the fire of our will.”
                            -the steel clawed Mr. Han, Enter the Dragon

          When we think of China, many of us instantly think of the martial arts, arguably China’s most popular international export, second only, perhaps, to their delicious cuisine. Yet what we here in America have all come to know and love as “Chinese food” is in fact a largely American phenomenon, not, as many people may believe, a genuine representation of that country’s actual dietary fare. Ironically, our popular conceptions of the martial arts are similarly distorted. Yet, at least in the case of the Chinese martial arts, the distortion itself proves to be an authentic Chinese export, one that has its roots deep in a literary tradition that is known as Wuxia (woo-shy) fiction. Furthermore, as with almost all genres of fiction, we will soon see that there is a surprising element of truth to be found at the heart of these illusions as well.

          The Wuxia genre so easily blurs the line between the mythical and the historical that it has come to serve as both in the popular consciousness of American, and perhaps even Chinese, youth, particularly those involved in the martial arts. Although most Americans have never read a single work of Chinese literature, much less a Wuxia fantasy novel, this genre has had an enormous impact on our ideas about China and the martial arts because the Wuxia world is directly responsible for the Kung Fu movies which have become so popular in the U.S., bringing a new nation to witness the mysterious wonders of the Water Margin, and the fantastic possibilities that pervade the entirety of these Wuxia “fictions.”

          The term “Wuxia” is a combination of two Chinese characters. The first is “Wu,” which refers to martial things, and “Xia” which is the word that is used for the heroes of Wuxia fiction, a word which is often translated as a synonym for chivalry. So Wuxia fiction could be literally translated as martial-chivalric fiction, and it is a literary theme that shows up in Chinese history arguably as far back as the warring states period of 481-221 B.C., although it can clearly be seen in the Chanqi tales of the much later Tang Dynasty. These stories all focused on supernatural and fantastic feats preformed by both heroes and villains, and were set in a world that has today come to be the standard back drop of the Wuxia tradition, the world that is know as the Jiang Hu.

          The term literally means the River-lakes, but it has a much greater significance than one could possibly capture with such a crude rendering as this. The term itself actually refers to a shadowy underworld realm, a frontier that exists beyond the reach of the civil law, a place where criminals and beggars gather together among even stranger outcasts from the commonly experienced realm of polite society. As the title of one of Wuxia’s most popular novels it was translated as “the Water Margin,” and today this may just be the most common rendition of the term that one will encounter in the English language. So it is in this so-called Water Margin that we will find the heroes and villains of Wuxia fiction, and it is also where we will find our first glimpses of the historical reality that lies at the heart of this popular fantasy genre as well.

          The Water Margin is a place of both secret societies and fantastic martial arts accomplishments, yet these were also very real things that one could once only find at the margin of actual Chinese society as well. Due to the heavy influence of scholarly Confucian values, the overly physical culture of the martial arts was, for many years, looked down upon throughout polite Chinese society, and was considered something that was only taken up by those at the lower end of society, who needed it as a practical means of self defense, and, of course, by the police and military as well. Yet due to the deep fear and distain that the Confucians harbored for all things violent, there were institutional barriers put in place to ensure that no one in the military could rise up to influence politics, and therefore society at large. However, although there was little place in high Chinese society for what today we would call a “martial arts master,” a phrase which to the Confucian ear would sound as strange as the term “belching virtuoso,” that was not the case within the ranks of countless secret societies that existed all over China.

          This brings us to another common feature of the Wuxia novel, which is the intricate web of secret societies and the many alliances and wars that would erupt between these ubiquitous invisible factions from time to time. This, however, was not a purely fictitious creation of the Wuxia novelist but rather a fact of Chinese history. Many such secret societies developed all across China, often to defend the local people from marauding bandits, as well as to protect them from the more vicious abuses of unwelcome though inescapable governmental abuses. Such secret societies existed in many forms and for a diverse array of purposes, from the merely charitable, to the mystical, as well as the purely political. Many of these quite naturally also became the fertile ground from which malcontents would carry out their long-term subversive activity against the ruling powers.

          For example, the modern day Triad society, which is the Chinese organized crime equivalent to the Mafia, claims to have had their origin in a revolutionary conspiratorial group which waged a secret war against the Ching Dynasty for centuries. The martial arts played a central role in such conspiracies as these, and it is not surprising that the Triads claim that their underground war began with the Ching’s infamous burning of Shaolin Temple, a popular episode within the realm of Wuxia fantasy as well.

          Beyond the obvious, that one has happened and the other probably has not, what is the difference between a history that we have no living connections to and a fantasy world born whole cloth from the mind of its author? The point I wish to make is that both of these, facts and fictions, have become to the present moment merely stories, but for mere actions that are now all but lost to time, and each can hereafter affect us only so far as we give either of these two things the power to do so. One may claim that only history is credible enough to make it the wise choice when trying to decide which of these two voices we should heed, yet I would argue that there is a wisdom that goes beyond mere happenstance, which one can easily find in any well written story, and this sort of wisdom is something that I feel is palpable throughout the rich Wuxia world.

          It is here that we are introduced to the psychic prowess of the Buddhist monk, the mysterious promises of immortality put forward by the Taoist sage, and even the Japanese Ninja, with all of the magic tricks of the Shinobi mystics, eventually finds his or her way into China's Water Margin as well. The magic of forest dwelling hermits is revealed, forest spirits, gods and monsters of all types abound, and secret martial techniques are explored that can make men impervious to all conventional harm or allow them to kill will but a touch (or even just a thought). Should we disregard these tales as nothing more than absolute fantasy, or are they perhaps merely lies by degree, containing truths that can only be approached by such careful half-measures as these because this is precisely how well most of us will ever really be able to grasp them?

          Of course it should be pointed out that such mystification has perhaps lead many men to a sure and violent death, like those doomed members of the mystical secret societies who fought in the Boxer Rebellion, cut down by bullets that they falsely believed could no longer harm them. Of course, given the blunt and primitive nature of firearms in that day, who’s to say that there were not or could not have been human beings who could accomplish such an “impossible” feats as that. Whether you choose to accept it or not, the most pervasive message of Wuxia fiction is one of limitless possibilities and enormous individual potential, the idea that absolutely nothing is beyond the reach of the fully mobilized human will. Did the revolutionaries of the failed Boxer uprising get shot because of a lie, or did they instead die, like all revolutionaries, for this one eternal truth.

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