Jet Li and The Meaning of Chinese Martial Arts


I saw Fearless (incorrectly promoted at the time as "Jet Li's final martial arts epic") and could not help but comment on it. I don’t mean in the sense of a movie review. Rather, I’d like to comment on the movie in terms of the material I’ve been covering in this website and in my Boston University writing class – the xia (traditional Chinese martial heroes) and their values. Jet Li’s movie character no doubt fits the historical description of a wandering blade that I’ve been presenting in my works. But what I found so interesting is that the story’s character arc carries us across several of the traditional wandering blade’s values – that is, from self-aggrandizement to selfless sacrifice for others.

It should be clear from what we’ve seen in the Chinese wandering blade tradition (wuxia genre) that revenge was a component of their “character profile.” If you remember from my blog post, on the xia in Chinese literary history, Professor Lai in her article about swordswomen contends:

…the principle of bao (reciprocation) is the most important ethical standard of the Chinese knight-errant. There are two aspects of bao in the Chinese context: bao en (repaying someone for mercy received) and bao chou (repaying someone as revenge). The codes of honor and justice upheld by the Chinese knights-errant are narrowly defined within these two contexts of bao. (Sophia Lai, "From Cross-Dressing Daughter to Lady Knight-Errant: The Origin and Evolution of Chinese Women Warriors")

While I feel this is too narrowly drawn, clearly, from the first part of the movie, Jet Li’s character is operating in that context. He claims to be seeking revenge for his father’s defeat, for which he blames his father for being too slow and too kind – clearly a case of bao chou. It is his ego that seeks bao chou against the martial arts world, as he desires to be the top martial artist of China.

The other half of the movie, however, shows the development of an altruistic motivation in our wandering blade. After an idyllic awakening, he returns home to realize that China is in trouble and he must help. His motivation is no longer revenge based. And in true wandering blade fashion he is willing to give his life for that cause.

What interests me, however, is the definition of wushu (martial arts) that Jet Li is offering; for that is what Fearless is really about. I’d like to consider his interpretation against the historical tradition I've been tracing in my blog. Jet Li is one of the most prominent Chinese martial artists. He is using this movie, a movie he claims to be his last in the martial arts genre, to present his definition of wushu.

At the beginning of Fearless, the young Huo Yuanjia gets into a fight over his father’s defeat and is himself defeated. His mother tries to explain to him that wushu is about self-restraint, that it helps you to be strong so that you can help others. That it is not for getting even (bao chou), it is for understanding, giving kindness, and treating all with respect. She ends by telling him that, “People fearing you and giving you honor are not the same thing.” The character arc of the movie will carry Jet Li’s character from a total lack of understanding of this advice to a complete embrace of his mother’s words – so much so that he gives his life for those principles.

If this is all not obvious in the movie, then you need only refer to the bonus features on the DVD, “A Fearless Journey,” where both the director and the star are interviewed. Jet Li tells us, “I threw all my beliefs into this film, this character is quite close to me.” Director Ronny Yu says that they wanted to make a movie about the true meaning of wushu; that wushu is actually about making peace, avoiding conflict. And that, “The better martial artist you are, you should be the better peacemaker.”

Jet Li’s emphasis in his definition of wushu is on the self-development, self-discovery aspect where dealing with the self and being respectful of others are the core values. Obviously, his Buddhist beliefs are a strong influence on his concept of wushu, but what of traditional wandering blade values? We see compassion when it came to the xia helping others to the point of giving their lives for strangers who had befriended them. As peacemakers, I suppose we could see that in the concept of yi or appropriate actions (frequently translated as righteousness or morality) given the particular circumstances.

In this context, it is also interesting to consider other recent Chinese martial arts film hits. I can’t help but feeling that there is something missing in the martial arts values presented in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. In Ang Lee’s understanding, we are presented with a rather formalized martial arts code. It is a code in which the protagonists are locked into a tradition that almost seems foreign to the image of the freewheeling wandering blade of the earlier tradition that we have been considering. Certainly, the swordsmen and women of the Tang had little fear of expressing their emotions even when it came to love.

And as for Zhang Yimou’s vision of the martial arts tradition, Hero might on the surface seem to present a rather stereotyped version – the hero dies for his beliefs. But at its core, its main character, Broken Sword, and later, Nameless (low and behold, Jet Li) are peacemakers. As Zhang Yimou says in a Time interview:

If you look at the history of Chinese martial-arts literature the plot always hinges on revenge: 'You killed my master, now you mist die.' It's the same for American Westerns. For years, this has been the only theme in Chinese martial-arts films, whether it's Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. I want to take the genre in a new direction. In my story the goal is the negation of violence. The characters are motivated by their desire to end the war. For real martial-arts master, true heroes, the heart is far more important than the sword.

And this is eventually the case for Jet Li’s Huo Yuanjia character. But in Fearless, we get to see how the hero reaches that point. In Zhang Yimou’s movie, Hero, the motives for Nameless' change are not as clear - and that can be good storytelling technique where the audience is that more invested in trying to understand the character's motives. It seems simply a more dramatic way of dealing with the character’s actions. As for House of Flying Daggers, well there isn’t much, if anything, to further illuminate the martial arts tradition.

And does illuminating the martial arts tradition make for a better movie experience? Judge for yourself, think back to the movies mentioned here. Which one of the various wandering blade characters involved you the most? For me it was Broken Sword in Hero. But Jet Li's Huo Yuanjia character was the most clearly drawn. We saw his character arc by being allowed to make the journey with him. It was a wandering blade’s journey through the martial arts tradition – from bao chou to selfless sacrifice. But I believe the key here is that Jet Li is a martial artist, unlike the directors Zhang and Lee, and as such he is uniquely experienced to take us on that journey; one that was clearly very personal. Further, I think we can also say that the motives of the wandering blades aren’t always based on bao (revenge), sometimes they have higher motives. After all, they are, if nothing else, individuals!

How "wuxia" is the Movie, Wu Xia (2011)?


Director Peter Chan’s movie, Wu Xia (2011), was invited to the Cannes Film Festival and has been touted by some reviewers as the revival of the wuxia film genre. Brad Brevet, in his “Cannes Movie Review,” however, is one of the few reviewers to question the genre of this genre titled movie:

Wuxia is actually a genre of Chinese fiction centered on martial arts with a hero at the center of its story that "fights for righteousness and seeks to remove an oppressor, redress wrongs, or to bring retribution for past misdeeds." You'd never guess that based on the detective story that makes up the first half of this film.

He goes on to point out that the, “The foundations of wuxia, however, are set in the early goings with references to such skills as Qinggong, Neijin and Dianxue…” But Brevet doesn’t look any deeper. And why should he, as he doesn’t have a background in the genre, citing Wikipedia as the source for his understanding. I would like to look at that issue in my consideration of Chan’s movie.

If you title your movie with the name of a film genre, then you would seem to be making a statement about the content of your movie. Does Wu Xia live up to its title (it has subsequently been retitled, Dragon)? Not really.

While Wikipedia’s definition is fine for causal browsing – I don’t allow Wikipedia for formal references in my university course on this genre – we can drill down a little further. Most of my readers know that the genre name wuxia is broken down into two Chinese characters: wu, which relates to martial activities and xia, which is generally recognized to represent “chivalry.” But let’s be more specific, as in the West, “chivalry” brings to mind medieval European knighthood, damsels in distress, Christianity, and “courtly love” – all of which are literally and figuratively "foreign" to the ancient Chinese concept of xia. A better translation for xia, as an ideal, would be moral integrity. 

Note that I write “ancient,” for modern Chinese filmmakers have changed that – but that’s a rant for the blog pages. So what specific form of "moral integrity" would suit the ideal?  I would offer “altruism,” which I understand in this context to be the opposite of “selfishness,” in the sense of “thinking first of the self.” Thus, a possible translation of wuxia could be “martial altruism.” To some, who associate "marital" with mindless violence, it might sound like an oxymoron. But it is easy to understand in a global cultural context if we think of heroes like Robin Hood and, perhaps, today’s “superheroes”, like Chris Noland's Batman, who use their powers in defense of justice, etc. They are all altruistic heroes who “fight” for the “good” of humankind. With this little linguistic exercise in hand, let’s turn back to the movie Wu Xia.

There is little question that the hero, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen’s character), is “martial,” but is he altruistic? I would suggest that besides protecting his family (which we could understand as “selfish”) there are, at most, only two instances in the movie where he places himself in harm’s way for others: 1. In the paper shop robbery, and even here, some reviewers claim that Liu is only acting out of self-defense; 2. In the village square when it is being attacked by some of the “72 Demons” gang, which was brought on by his presence in the village. So the question for me is whether the Liu Jinxi character lives up to the appellation of xia – same character as in wuxia, but used as a proper noun to describe a “hero.” If he is not a xia, then where’s the wuxia in Wu Xia?

I’m not completely trying to be silly here, but am serious about how we define this genre. In the Chinese historical origins of this class of heroes, they were understood as personalities who “seeing an injustice on the road, pulls out his sword to help.” Further, early Confucian philosophers disdained them for valuing “personal freedom above family solidarity” (James Liu). In other words, in the early xia tradition altruism was an equal opportunity value – you would help anyone regardless of family ties, and sometimes, in spite of those ties. How far we’ve come story-wise where the xia are frequently involved in love affairs and family matters – sells more tickets, and keeps those Confucian values of social stability well entrenched. There was a time in the 20th century when both the Republican and Communist governments banded wuxia movies as being dangerous for the country’s morals – but in those days the film industry was partly to blame for introducing blatant sexuality into the wuxia genre – to sell more tickets.


Back to our movie. I don’t find much wuxia in Wu Xia. The character with the most appeal – storytelling-wise – is not the main character, Liu, who is rather flat, but Takeshi Kaneshiro’s intriguing constable/detective, Xu Baijiu. And he is not a xia in the sense that he uses martial techniques to help others. Rather, he uses his brains to solve crimes and sort out his own life. In this, he actually has a character arc – rare in most wuxia movies that tend to obsess with the martial aspect. Detective Xu, rightfully so, is the most interesting character in this noir mystery tale.

As for the plot, a number of reviewers have pointed to David Cronenberg’s brilliant, A History of Violence as the template for the Wu Xia screenwriters. I made the “mistake” of following that clue and watching the movies back to back. It is clear that Wu Xia has A History of Violence as a model, but it is equally clear that in terms of storytelling the former can’t hold a candle to the latter. Cronenberg gives us a man and his family torn apart and stitched back together by a terrible “history of violence.” Wu Xia attempts and fails to give us the same. It fails at the storytelling level because the main character has little character, he is easily upstaged by the supporting character (detective Xu), the Lu family only gives us a shallow sense of the horror they are going through (compared to the family in A History of Violence), and the plot is so poorly conceived as to end, as reviewer James Marsh writes, “in one of the most staggeringly unnecessary examples of deus ex machina in recent memory.” Usually, when a writer has to resort to the deus ex machina “device,” it signals a lack of imagination. And that is what is so sad about such a beautifully shot movie.

The camera work and genuine Yunnan settings are fresh, new, and vibrant. The idea of introducing traditional Chinese medical understandings via detective Xu (who is miles beyond Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee) is innovative, but not original – see Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), which is probably not the first to use this interior body view technique. Donnie Yen’s fight choreography is great, especially the amazing scene with Kara Hui! The use of Jimmy Wang Yu as the villain (here’s where Wu Xia has one up on A History of Violence) is brilliant – he’s also far beyond the “hero.” But once again, wuxia cinema is unable to sustain an overall coherent story – the villain seems to prove too much for the writer’s imagination. Wu Xia is not a wuxia genre movie. Rather, I see it as a stylish noir mystery.

No doubt, my understanding of the genre is fairly idealistic as I feel that the fighting should express some sense of altruism, a sense of forgetting the self in the support of others – not just one’s family, which is natural to most people. And, no doubt, this is drawn from both my study and teaching in my Boston University Writing Program course, “Paradox of the Hero/Heroine in East Asian Cinema and Fiction.” Where’s the paradox? As I understand it, these wuxia heroes represent the values of selfless equality in cultures that place the family before a sense of social equality. Traditional xia values transcend the local and the familiar for the universal and the other. In this sense, the traditional xia are still relevant to our globalized world. Now all we need are writers who can give this ancient tradition a contemporary appeal – or at least, film companies that can properly title their films!


Storytelling, Imagination, and a Dash of Paprika


Up here at the Dragon Gate Inn there have been fine views of the winter woods glistening in their first coat of winter white - nothing like a pristine blue sky against a sparkling white landscape. Yet, perhaps these colors and their physical surroundings are only phantoms of my mind…that if I rushed outside, I would find sand and rolling green waves beaching themselves as palm trees gently sway in the trade winds – don’t I wish!

That reminds me of our old 4th century BCE friend Zhuangzi (莊子) and one of his most famous stories – Zhuangzi was also a storyteller. It is a fairly well known story that has something to do with the subject of this movie review, an anime review and a look at story outlining technique.

Here’s the story translated by the great Burton Watson (note: “Chuang Chou” is Zhuangzi’s full name using a different Romanization system):

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

paprika blue.jpg

Butterflies, especially blue butterflies, dreams and reality, and their transformations abound in the remarkable anime film, Paprika by Japanese director Satoshi Kon. I guess I first came across it through the New York Times movie review by Manohla Dargis (, who wrote:

In Paprika a gorgeous riot of future-shock ideas and brightly animated imagery, the doors of perception never close. A mind-twisting, eye-tickling wonder, this anime from the Japanese director Satoshi Kon bears little relation to the greasy, sticky kid stuff that Hollywood churns out, those fatuous fables with wisecracking woodland creatures selling lessons in how to be a good child so you can grow up to be a good citizen. Model behavior isn’t on the menu in Paprika, and neither are dinky songs and visuals. Here, when a woman sprouts a pair of wings, she doesn’t only flit about like Tinker Bell; she’s also pinned captive to a table, a man’s hand slithering under her skin.

I could sit back and try to tell you the plot and describe the characters, but you can get that from the Dargis review and Netflix has the movie. So I’ll leave all that to you. I’d like to first say that I love what Satoshi Kon was trying to do by exploring the boundaries between fantasy (dreams, if you will) and what we think of as reality (perhaps, our normal waking state – though for many, the “normal” waking state is anything but “normal”). I really admire what certain Japanese anime films are doing – they exhibit awe inspiring imaginations. Even more interesting is that Paprika the movie is based upon Paprika the novel! And that’s another interesting aspect of this movie, the relationship between film and literature in the expression of imagination.


Along with the film, the Paprika DVD also contains a lot of material about the making of the movie and the relationship between the written and filmed versions. There are interviews with Kon and the author of the novel, Yasutaka Tsutsui on the DVD, but most interesting to me were Kon’s comments on his creative process. Reviews and interviews make it clear that Kon was deeply interested in dreams and was using his work to explore ideas about dreams.

In one of the interviews, Kon refers to his interest in and influence from the science fiction novelist, Philip K. Dick and how much he admires Blade Runner; there is even a scene in Paprika that pays homage to that great sci-fi movie. Kon also refers to the great influence that another sci-fi movie had on him, Slaughterhouse 5, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same title. And in the commentary on his film, Kon acknowledges the influence of the great contemporary Japanese fiction writer, Haruki Murakami.

It’s clear that all of these literary and movie influences and Mr. Kon’s own work are concerned with probing the boundaries between dreams/fantasy and reality, as was Zhuangzi. And what further amazed me in working on this piece was that AFTER I had written the introduction, I found more interviews with Mr. Kon. In the one by Bill Aguiar for TokyoPop there is this very relevant exchange:

Aguiar: At the Smithsonian there is a famous picture of a philosopher looking at a butterfly after he awakes after dreaming of a butterfly, wondering if he was dreaming of the butterfly or was the butterfly dreaming of him. Considering that there are many butterflies in the film, was it an influence?

Kon: I like the meaning of that art. It is that wondering about the self that influences my work.

Of course, the painting is of Zhuangzi’s story. But besides the obvious connection across the millenniums between our Chinese philosopher friend and Paprika, the other aspect that I found worthy of commenting was something Mr. Kon said in the DVD interviews that relates to the writer’s use of imagination in probing imagination. Kon described his plotting process for the screen writing and plotting the film version. Of course, he had the novel as a basic guideline, but as he and the author, Mr. Tsutsui, agree there are aspects of the novel that don’t transfer into the film medium and vise versa.

So Mr. Kon had to do his own version of the story, the movie version. In plotting that out, he said that he never knew what the ending would be until he got there. That he worked in such a way that each step was a surprise to him, that he didn’t want to be bound to a set ending for he felt that would make the movie too predictable for the audience and thus not compelling. Interestingly enough, the film's music composer, Mr. Susumu Hirasawa, seems to work the same way. He noted in the movie commentary that he saw this project as a way to watch his subconscious work. No wonder the movie turned out to be such a wonderful combination of sight and sound!

But what I find so fascinating is their way of working, their creative approach. In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby advocates exactly the opposite approach: set your ending FIRST and then work your story toward it. The author here is advocating the safe way of creating a story. He denies that this approach kills the spontaneity that Kon and Hirasawa so cherish. Truby argues that when you know your ending, you can do whatever you want in the story on the way to it and if you happen to take a wrong turn, a dead-end, you can easily get back on track because you know where you are going.

I find this all very interesting because in creative writing there seems to be two basic opposing approaches to plotting: outline or no outline. Writers seem inevitably to fall on either side and just as inevitably give the same pro and con arguments for doing so. Basically, they are similar to Truby and Kon’s positions. Even more remarkable is the fact that Truby is the screenplay writer for Shrek. I’m not getting into a comparison between that movie and Paprika – it wouldn’t be fair, as it should be clear where my “prejudices” fall. Rather, I’d like to comment on how I do it.

I take a middle path approach to plotting, as one writer described it, like a car driving along a country road at night. The headlights of the car can only shine so far ahead, but as you move forward new sections of the road are revealed. So the headlights are my outlining. I outline my plot up to a point, say the next chapter, then write and see how things go. After completing the chapter, a new field of vision is revealed. If I’m not where I expected to be, then I make compensations for that in the next outline. I use my gut feeling as to where I should go next and have some idea of what’s ahead. So I don’t create an ironclad outline, yet, I do have an idea of what the ending will be – at least, the general area that I’m heading toward. This way, I like to think, I’m combining the best of these two basic approaches, preserving the “safety net” of the outline, yet allowing for the spontaneity of the explorer.

However, I always taught my creative writing students to choose for themselves. It is most important that the writer feel comfortable with the methods they use to write. Try both methods; see which one makes the writing flow. If neither works, then try combining them. There’s that famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” “Do what works,” I said that. And if you get a chance see Paprika, when you watch it take the director’s advice, just sit back and let the images wash over you, let go and let your subconscious take you away. Then the next time you watch it you can try and figure it out, logically. In the end, just enjoy it! The same for your writing. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to the point where you’re not sure who’s writing the story - you or your characters! Let me know what you think.