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!