Today.Az » Weird / Interesting » Deadlier than the male: Female warriors in Chinese wuxia
29 January 2016 [17:10] - Today.Az
Wuxia is a genre of Chinese storytelling which features
wandering warriors of ancient China,
who are often able to perform superhuman feats involving martial arts. We in
the West know it largely through films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon. Increasingly, women are taking over the role of warrior in these films.
The latest example of this is the sumptuous feature, The Assassin. But, as
BIDISHA discovers, novelist Wena Poon has a much less paternalistic take
on the role of the female warrior than movie makers.
The Assassin, directed by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien,
is an extraordinary addition to the Chinese wuxia or swordfighting genre.
Set in the dying days of the Tang Dinasty, it tells the
story of Yinniang, an assassin who kills corrupt politicians. When she is
unable to complete an assignment after seeing her target playing with his
children, she is sent back home to kill a beloved childhood friend, who now
leads a powerful military force.
Slow and meditative, richly staged and exquisitely styled,
the combat in The Assassin happens in the background or off to the
side, taking third place behind the tense yet largely unspoken social dynamics
and the beautiful landscapes of Inner Mongolia and Hubei Province.
It’s like a cross between Hilary Mantel'sWolf Hall and
Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider, with
Yinniang silently haunting the houses of the rich and powerful.
At its most basic form, wuxia is a genre of
Chinese fiction and cinema set in ancient China and centred around the heroic
deeds of legendary warriors. The release ofThe Assassin reminds us how
different artists can work within the wuxia tradition.
Over the last two decades, the Western mainstream has found
that bombastic ‘kung fu’ film treatments go down the easiest, such as Crouching
Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002) and House of Flying
The release of The Assassin heralds another peak – or flying
leap – in wuxia’s progress from Chinese legend to worldwide entertainment.
Netflix and the Weinstein Company will keep up the momentum
by releasing the sequel to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, called Sword
of Destiny, with an accompanying novel written by Justin Hill, working in part
from the 20th centurywuxia novelist Wang Dulu’s Iron Crane series.
However, while these films feature female characters
performing action stunts, they still come from a patriarchal tradition where
all-male creative teams hold all the power behind the scenes.
Although all the stories feature attractive ‘warrior women’
types, both the source material and modern adaptations are still written and
directed by men.
This tendency has found a challenger in Singaporean-American
novelist Wena Poon, the author of a trilogy of vivid and highly addictive wuxia
novels, , The Adventures of Snow Fox and Sword Girl (2014), Voyage
to the Dark Kirin (2015) and the just-released The Marquis of
Poon grew up in Singapore
speaking Mandarin, Cantonese and English before moving to America to
study at Harvard.
In between her day job as a lawyer, she has published eleven
genre-crossing books including a brilliant novel about bullfighting, Alex
y Robert, which was made into a ten-part Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 in
Speaking to me during a visit to London, Poon tells me, “Chinese people have
wondered for a long time about why we like wuxia and what it means.
Two of the great literary classics of China are wuxia narratives: Outlaws
of the Marsh [known to British audiences as The Water Margin due to the
Japanese TV series adaptation broadcast by the BBC in the 1970s] and Romance
of the Three Kingdoms.
"These types of stories are centuries old and have been
adapted for opera, stage, TV and film. The earliest Hong Kong TV adaptations of wuxia stories
used classical theatre actors who knew the fighting moves from performing the
same stories in operas onstage.”
Poon explains that wuxia is about much more than
thrilling fights, bloodthirsty gangs and midnight ambushes. She says:
have wu, the martial combat spirit, and it must have xia, which
usually translates as chivalry or righteousness, although I prefer to think of
it as moral certainty.
"Wuxia is a moral justice that functions outside,
or in the absence of, Imperial or governmental justice. The wuxia genre
cares about dashing outsiders who operate outside the State. They stand for
justice and ask for no compensation.
"The wuxia swordsman helps poor civilians,
works for the betterment of society and rights the wrongs that the normal
system cannot provide. He does this anonymously. The closest English wuxia hero
is not Sir Lancelot but Robin Hood, or even Batman.”
She points me to the work of poet Li Bai, who wrote during
the Tang Dynasty, whenThe Assassin is set. In a verse written in the voice
of the ideal swordsman, he remarks: “I cut down the enemy in ten steps, then
tip my straw hat, brush my sleeve, and press on.”
Poon wanted to confront as well as celebrate the conventions
of wuxia for her trilogy.
Watching a TV adaptation of the wuxianovels of Jin
Yong, a highly successful pulp novelist of the 1950s, she thought: “How can I
replicate the fever and delight of this for a contemporary audience, and also
as a woman? Because Jin Yong operated like Hemingway; it was the male gaze.
"There’s been a misunderstanding in the West that just
because the sword is in a woman’s hand, that’s a progressive thing, it gives
her power. I don’t see it that way. [The directors of films likeCrouching
Tiger…] picked the most beautiful actresses, just to please the eyes of the
"And isn’t there always a love story tagging along with
the girls’ characters? To quote the French director Agnes Varda, why must
a woman always be in love for there to be a story?”
Poon set about crafting a trilogy that would be “as
captivating as a video game, HBO’s Games of Thrones, or a superhero
But the ancient principles of wuxia needed to be
updated somewhat. “As a modern woman you’d feel the story needs to be redeemed
to rework the role of women. You know women existed then. But they weren’t
Perhaps the way forward for 21st century wuxia is
to follow Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Wena Poon and strengthen the action and pomp with
psychological rigour, gritty politics, nuanced adult emotions and complex women
characters who exercise a strength that is about more than mere acrobatics.
As Wena Poon notes, wuxia is a much-loved
tradition which continues to inspire: “Wuxia is action, it’s colour. You’re
tapping into a motherload of cultural memory. This is my woman-centric take on
it. I asked myself, What can I do, by myself, on paper, to participate in this
The Assassin is on general release at cinemas from
Friday 22 January 2016. Wena Poon's The Marquis of Disobedience is
out now, published by CreateSpace.