The Xia Image in Early Chinese Poetry


 Welcome back to the Inn and Happy - soon to be - Year of the Horse!.

Since I am approaching this genre writer’s notebook as a novelist and adopting the wuxia genre as my writing form, I’d like to continue my focus on the development of this genre in the Chinese literary tradition. I would like to trace some of the images of the xia as recorded by their literary contemporaries medieval Chinese poetry.

Once again, I’m enlisting Professor James Liu’s wonderful book, The Chinese Knight-Errant, since he focuses his research on the xia – I prefer the Chinese term, xia rather than the inaccurate translation “knights-errant,” which Liu also admits is not an accurate rendering of the Chinese term, xia. After a look at xia historical biographies scattered across the history of traditional China, Liu concludes:

The examples of knights-errant given above show clearly that they included men from all walks of life and social classes: professional soldiers and officials as well as poets, musicians, physicians, merchants, butchers, and vagabonds. This should be sufficient evidence that they were not a particular social class or professional group. (Liu, 54)

Liu goes to underscore his contrasting of the xia with the European knights and the Japanese samurai who did form identifiable social classes within their respective societies.

It is interesting that among the “xia occupations” listed by Liu is that of poet. Further, Li Bo (Li Po in Liu’s romanization and also known as Li Bai), the protagonist of my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, is listed by Liu as a xia turned poet. The xia are subject matter for Chinese poets, and it is interesting to consider their depictions in the poetic literature.

Professor Liu writes that, “there is a considerable amount of Chinese chivalric poetry.” It is the literary theme of “chivalry” that Liu finds associated with the xia, though I prefer to use the term “moral integrity” rather than “chivalry,” which is too “medieval European” for my tastes, to describe the basic characteristic of the xia. Liu writes:

The theme of chivalry first appeared in the poetry of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 206), became popular during the Six Dynasties (222-589), and remained a favourite with the T’ang poets (618-907). (55)

In summing up the characterization of the xia in this type of poetry Liu writes:

They vary in tone from slight disapproval to enthusiastic eulogy, the majority being sympathetic. The descriptions are more or less realistic, sometimes a little exaggerated but seldom fantastic or incredible. Some poets stress the bravery and altruism of the knights-errant; others mainly depict their free and gay way of life. Thus, in poetry, it is not always easy to distinguish knights-errant from patriotic warriors on the one hand, and from mere dandies on the other. Some poets show a genuine congeniality to the spirit of knight-errantry; others are merely conventional literary exercises. (55-56)

To give a representative sampling of this poetry, Liu says that he translated, “not only poems of real merit but also some purely conventional ones.” (56)

I will select from his selections and reproduce some samples below. I think it is interesting to give us a “first-hand” look at what literate contemporaries of the xia thought of them. We begin where Liu begins, “a few lines from The Western Capital by Chang Heng (A.D. 78-139)”:


            The knights-errant of the capital city,

            Men such a Chang and Chao,

            Equal the Prince of Wei for ambition,

            Rival the deeds of the Lord of Ch’i.

            They take death lightly, but esteem

            The spirit, and form cliques and gangs.

            Numerous indeed are their followers,

            Their attendants as thick as clouds.

            Yuan of Mao-ling, Chu of Yang-ling:

            Ferocious, fearless, fierce, and free,

            Like roaring tigers and wild cats.

            An angry glance, a ‘bone in the throat’,

            And a body falls by the corner of the road. (56)


After identify the names mentioned in the poem, Liu comments that:

The general tone of these lines is somewhat disapproving, especially in the last two lines, where the poet deplores the readiness with which the knights-errant wreak vengeance for slight offences. (57)

The reference “bone in the throat” means a trivial offense.

The next poem, by Ts’ao Chih (192-232 CE), is a much more flattering one:


            A white steed decked with a golden halter

            Galloped past towards the north-west.

            ‘May I enquire who the rider is?’

            ‘A knight-errant from Yu or Ping in the north.

            He left his native district in his youth

            And spread his fame across the distant desert.

            He always carries a find sturdy bow

            With jagged arrows made of bramble wood.

            Pulling the string, he hits the target to the left;

            Shooting from the right, he hits it again.

            Looking up, he shoots an ape in flight;

            Bending down, he hits the bull’s-eye once more.

            He is more agile than a monkey

            And as fierce as a leopard or dragon.

            When alarms came from the frontier

            That barbarian troops had made repeated raids,

            And when a call to arms came from the north,

            He mounted his steed and reached the frontier fort.

            He rode on right into the land of the Huns,

            Holding the Tartar tribes in high disdain.

            He threw himself before the pointed swords

            Without giving a thought to his own life.

            He did not even worry about his parents,

            Let alone his children and his wife.

            His name entered the register of heroes;

            His heart had no room for personal feelings.

            He risked his life at a time of national disaster,

            And regarded death merely as returning home. (57-58)


Liu remarks that, “this description is rather idealized.” Even so, we can see why the Confucians would take issue with some of the xia values when we read of this wandering blade's attitude toward his family. But this is a common conflict in Chinese society, or any society that advocates a hierarchical system of values – Which comes first? Duty to the state/society or personal relationships to the family?

It would seem that the xia had little problem here as their sense of “appropriate” behavior was very individualistic. Others, especially intellectuals, throughout Chinese history found these issues extremely vexing. And as such, they are of intense interest to fiction writers. Thus, the Li Bo character in my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, finds himself wrestling with a personal desire to regain his lost prestige at Court vs. the duty to his family given his death exile that forces him to leave them behind. And so to with his travel companion, Ah Wu, who has devoted himself to Li Bo’s protection since he can no longer protect his own family. Other characters in the story must deal with their own conflicts in sorting out their social relationships – and in the world of this novel, some of these relationships extend beyond the Yang world of the living.

Following up these conflicts that are inherit in the xia way of life, Liu gives us Chang Hua’s  (232-300 C.E.) picture of young men indulging in their martial arts skills:


            The brave lads indulge in heady chivalry,

            Their fame overwhelms unruly youths.

            They wreak vengeance on behalf of friends

            And kill people by the market-place.

            Curved knives clang in their hands,

            Or swords with edges sharp as autumn frost.

            From their waists jut white halberds,

            In their hands, white-headed spears.

            These they wield as fast as lightning flashes,

            Or whirl around as fleeting beams of light.

            A hand-to-hand fight decides the issue;

            One across another, corpses lie.

            They’d rather die and become heroic ghosts

            Than enter prison with its encircling walls.

            In life, they make friends with noble men;

            In death, their chivalrous bones smell sweet.

            Their bodies perish, their hearts do not repent;

            Their brave spirit spreads everywhere. (59)


This seems right out of a kungfu movie, but actually the opposite is true! I think you get the picture by now, the xia were a very colorful, controversial, and dangerous group of people. Yet, we haven’t touched upon the greatest of the “xia poets.” He was a Tang poet and claimed to be from the ranks of the xia – there is no evidence for this background other than Li Bo’s claim, and Li Bo claimed many things. There is, however, no doubt about his poetic skills. I’d like to quote one Li Bo poem in particular for it has a intriguing tie in with a story by the great Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi.

Professor Liu translates the first part of Li Bo’s "Song of the Knight-errant" as follows:


            The man from Chao wears a tasselled hat,

            And a curved knife as bright as frost or snow,

            His silver saddle shines on his white steed

            On which he rides as fast as a shooting star.

            He would kill a man every ten paces

            And go on for a thousand miles without stop.

            After the event, he dusts his clothes and leaves,

            To hide in secret his person and his name. (64)


Li Bo, as Chinese writers traditionally did, used allusions and bits of lines from past writers in his works. It was a way of adding depth to the poem or prose piece and of showing off one’s erudition. In this poem, Li Bo chose a couple of lines from the great Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi. Those lines are from a fascinating story in the Zhuangzi, the great work that bears the philosopher’s name. And interestingly enough, the story is titled, “Of Swords.” It is a story in which Zhuangzi also claims to be a master swordsman. It is worth relating to get a take on Zhuangzi’s view of the xia.

There are two translations of the story in my library: An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, edited and translated by Stephen Owen, pp.104-107; and Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, translated by Victor H. Mair, pp.312-316. I will paraphrase and quote from Professor Owen’s translation.


“Of Swords”

During the Warring State Period (403-221 B.C.E.), King Wen of Zhao [in Liu’s romanization of the Li Bo poem, “Chao”] enjoyed swordsmanship. Over three thousand men thronged his gates seeking patronage as swordsmen. Every year, more than a hundred died. This went on for three years and the kingdom’s fortunes declined.

The Crown Prince Kui, seeking to redress this appalling situation sought help to dissuade his father from this insanity. His advisors recommended Zhuangzi. The Crown Prince interviewed Zhuangzi and pointed out that the King would only see swordsmen.

Zhuangzi, “Understood. But I am rather good with the sword.”

Crown Prince, “Be that as it may, the swordsmen that our king sees all have messy hair with bristling lock and slouching caps [or in Liu’s translation of Li Bo’s poem, “tasselled hat”], plain rough cap-strings, robes hitched up in the back, bulging eyes, and stumbling speech. This is the sort the king prefers.”

The Crown Prince goes onto say that Zhuangzi will no doubt wear his scholar’s clothes and the whole thing will fail. Zhaungzi, however, asks for a set of swordsman’s clothes and shows up wearing them. The king receives him, sword drawn, but Zhuangzi doesn’t even bow. The king wants to know what Zhaungzi expects to do for him. Our philosopher responds, “I’ve heard the king enjoys swordplay, so I’ve come to see the king by way of swordplay.

The king responds, “How can that sword of yours defend you.” To which Zhuangzi replies, “If I had an opponent every ten paces, I could go a thousand leagues without pausing.” [Sound familiar!?]

The king likes the response and says there must be no match for Zhuangzi, to which our Taoist philosopher replies, “In swordplay one displays himself as vacant, initiates by advantage, is second to swing the blow, is the first to strike home.” [Mair’s translation of this very interesting statement reads: “One who wields a sword reveals his emptiness to his opponent, gives him an advantageous opening, makes his move after him, arrives before he does.”  And there, if I’m not mistaken, is a tenet of, at least, Taichi martial arts stated over 2000 years ago!]

The king was impressed and told Zhuangzi to go to his quarters. He would be invited to a “contest to the death.” Then the king tested his swordsmen against each other for seven days. Sixty men died and five or six swordsmen were picked. Zhuangzi was called.

The king asks Zhuangzi what type of sword will he use, long or short.

Zhuangzi, “For my own use, anything is fine. However, I have three swords that may be used only by a king. Let me tell about these first, and then we will have the trial.”

Naturally, the king is intrigued and allows Zhuangzi to explain. [Here I will quote Professor Owen’s translation at length]

Zhuanzi, “There is an Emperor’s sword, a sword of the great nobility, and the sword of an ordinary man.”

The king said, “What is the Emperor’s sword like?”

Zhuangzi said, “The sword of an Emperor:

has as its point Yan Valley and Mount Stonewall,

has as its blade Tai Mountain in Qi,

has its blunt edge in the kingdoms of Jin and Wei,

has as its guard the kingdoms of Zhou and Song…

[I am abridging here]

This sword, when held straight, has nothing before it,

pointed up, has nothing above it,

pressed downward, has nothing below it,

and swung, has nothing around it.

It slashes the clouds that drift above,

it cuts to Earth’s axis below.

Use this sword but once,

and the nobility will all be brought in line,

and the whole world will yield—

for this is the sword of an Emperor.

As if in a daze, King Wen was completely absorbed. He said, “What is the sword of the great nobility like?”

Zhuangzi said, “The sword of the great nobility:

has as its point shrewd and valiant gentlemen,

has as its blade honest and unassuming gentlemen,

has its blunt edge in good and worthy gentlemen,

has as its guard loyal and wise gentlemen,

has as its hilt daring and outstanding gentlemen…


It takes its model from the roundness of Heaven above,

whereby it moves with sun, moon, and stars.

It takes its model from the squareness of Earth below, 

whereby it moves with the four seasons.

From the center it knows the people’s will,

by which it brings peace to lands all around.

Use this sword but once,

and it is like a rumbling quake of thunder.

Within the boundaries all around,

there is no man but yields to it

and obeys the bidding of their lord.

This is a sword of the great nobility.”

The king then asked, “And what is the sword of the ordinary man like?”

Zhuangzi said, “The sword of the ordinary man belongs to one with messy hair, with bristling locks and slouched cap, plain, rough cap-strings, robes hitched up in the back, bulging eyes, and stumbling speech, men who hack at each other in front of you. A high hack will chop off a neck, and a low one cuts liver or lungs. This is the sword of the ordinary man, and it is no different from cockfighting, with a life cut off in a single morning. It has no use at all in the workings of a kingdom. We have here a king, to whom belongs the position of an Emperor, and yet who is in love with the sword of the ordinary man. And for this king’s sake I have taken the liberty of disparaging it.”

The king retired to his palace and didn’t leave it for three months. All his swordsmen “perished on their own swordpoints in their places.”


So what was Li Bo up to quoting from this Zhuangzi story in a pro-swordsmen poem? I don’t really know, but if I had to guess it would be that he was just being Li Bo and tweaking all our noses!

We’ve gotten a glimpse of the Chinese literati’s view of the xia. It is both complementary and derogatory. I find it interesting to read those poems and imagine scenes from my favorite kungfu movies – do the xia of the silver screen match up with the glimpses we’ve had here of their poetic images? And if you’ve never read Zhuangzi before, and even if you have, isn’t he (or the writings attributed to him) amazing!



Ghosts, Lovers, & Boundaries

Consider the ghost character in Chinese culture, specifically, my use of the ghost character in fiction and a look at the tradition from where this character comes. As I have written in a long lost/forgotten blog, my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, crosses the boundaries of several genres. One of those genres is the traditional Chinese ghost story - a type of story that is based on boundary crossing. In my short stories and novels, I make frequent reference to boundary crossings between the Yin realm of the spirits and the Yang realm of the visible human world. In early medieval Chinese literature there arose an influential genre of writings dealing with such border crossings known as zhiguai (records/accounts of anomalies). The later Tang chuanqi (tales of wonder) were, in part, based on the influence of the zhiguai as Tang writers used those sources to fashion into short stories to entertain their peers.

Robert Ford Campany in his comprehensive study of these early accounts (Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China, SUNY Press, Albany, 1996), has written:

During or perhaps even before the Han dynasty, a cosmographic genre – a genre of writing about anomalous phenomena – began to coalesce in China. Its growth accelerated rapidly in the centuries after the fall of the Han. (p.21)

Why did the Chinese collect these accounts of “strange” occurrences? Campany insightfully notes:

To rule the world was to collect the world. Governance entailed a cosmographic enterprise, a placing of the periphery, especially that which was anomalous in the periphery, into some systematic relationship with the center. There was a locative concern to have ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ Once things were collected, writing enabled them to be situated and depicted in a unified taxonomic field, a text, table, picture, or chart structured according to the proper moral principles and correlative categories. (p.125)

So, the Chinese sought to order their universe and even those things that didn’t fit that moral order had to be given a place, thus the lists and records of the “strange.” Seen from this perspective, Campany makes an interesting comment about Confucius’ position when he writes:

This same ambivalence toward the strange and the spirit-realm is expressed in the Analects list of things Confucius did not speak of, as well as in its admonition to ‘sacrifice to the spirits as if the spirits were present.’ Note, however, that the Confucian attitude is not one of indifference but rather of studied avoidance. Spirits and rites for them, shamans, and other such matters obviously formed the locus of a problem for the this-worldly, morality-centered Confucian approach to life. (p.127)

However, this “problem” did not exist for all of Confucius’ contemporaries:

In late Warring States thought, only a few voices – notably that of the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi – dissented clearly and strongly from a worldview that included, or at least was compatible with, this cosmographic structure. The Zhuangzi inner chapters argued the irrelevance of fixed taxonomies, the danger of clear hierarchies of value, the relativity of cultural judgment, and the limitations of language; they showed delight in the anomalous and the extraordinary as revealing aspects of reality not dreamt of in the received view of things, hence as uncollectible (or, rather, ‘collection’ lost its sense). (p.126)

So we have a tension here between the Confucian and, ultimately, Daoist views of the nature of the cosmos. My first novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, takes the latter viewpoint in presenting the world of 8th century China. Thus my author’s statement notes:

The adventure you are about to embark on is based upon an 8th century Chinese understanding of reality.

And that “reality” is influenced by the point of view of the Zhuangzi. Anymore than that would put me in danger of trying to tell you, dear readers, what the novel is about – “impose no cosmographical structures, not even that one!”

What is the nature of these “anomalies”? Campany provides us with further insight when he writes:

In the strictest sense, anomalies do not simply happen. Events happen, various people and objects exist, and they are judged and called odd, extraordinary, even contranatural by human agents within communities, who judge and call them so with reference to some reigning worldview, system, ideology into which they do not readily fit. This judging and call are the stuff of cosmography. (p.3)

In other words, people decide what is strange and what is not. As we can see today, some people accept ghosts and some consider the idea complete nonsense. In ancient China, Campany found that:

Most (but not all) anomalies represented in the anomaly accounts occur at or across boundaries.

In short, anomaly accounts portray a world in which boundaries between kinds and realms are less like walls in a building than like cell membranes in an organism.  (p.266)

I dare say we can see that today among those who believe in the supernatural.

This idea of boundaries is of great interest to me. In Dream of the Dragon Pool, I look at a number of “border crossings.” Our protagonist, the poet Li Bo is trying to cross back into the “realm of inspiration” from which he feels locked out. His immediate solution is to seek a dream state from which he hopes that he can cross over from consciousness into dream and find a solution. But in 8th century China, not only can the imagination cross over from wakeful consciousness to dream awareness, so can physical objects. As Li Bo’s faithful companion, Ah Wu, warns him, dreams can turn into nightmares. And the Albino Assassin is a character who, through esoteric arts, has mastered the crossing from wakeful reality into the realm of nightmare.

Another border runner is the green-eyed blond ghost from Sogdiana (present day Uzbekistan), Chen Shao-lin. Her character has several sources of inspiration for me. Let’s begin with a favorite topic, the Tang tales of wonder (chuanqi). Pasted on my computer monitor is this comment about ghosts in reference to their significance in the Tang tales of wonder:

Ghosts are metaphors, not necessarily reality – they are eloquent manifestations of underlying human passions.

I don’t know where I got that, but when I write about ghosts this idea is very much in my mind. Perhaps because of this I see “Chinese” ghosts as very human. But I am not alone in this view. Anthony C. Yu (“‘Rest, Rest, Perturbed Spirit!’ Ghosts in Traditional Chinese Prose Fiction,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 47, 1987, pp.397-434) quotes J.J. M. DeGroot’s multivolume study of the Chinese religion, The Religious System of China, regarding the continuing visits by ghosts in the Chinese tradition:

Visits are paid by the dead to the living to bid them farewell and discourse with them about their domestic concerns; to enjoy the sexual pleasures of married life; to satiate the curiosity of their kinfolk by telling them about their adventures, fate and prospects in the other world; to tell them what measures they ought to take to alleviate their misery and improve their conditions there. Not seldom they appear just when sacrifices are set out for them, attracting them by their flavor to the ancestral home.

From this Yu points out:

Of the countless tales of this genre, a large number have thus taken up the theme of the ghost lover. Indeed, this theme apparently enjoys such enormous popularity that storytellers seem eager to explore and exploit every possible nuance of its development: not only do the dead take living spouses, but they may even arrange marriages for friends. Humans and their ghost mates may enjoy all the delights of the living, including the bearing and rearing of children. (p.423)

This then is the “amorous ghost” or ghost lover genre in traditional Chinese fiction and, later, in Chinese cinema. And from that tradition, another immediate source for my Miss Chen was the character Nie Xiao-qian from Tsui Hark’s movie, A Chinese Ghost Story. Which, in turn, was taken from a short story bearing that name authored by the great Pu Songling (1640-1715) and collected in his Strange Tales from the Leisure Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi).

Nie Xiao-qian (Joey Wang’s character in the movie) is a classic Chinese female ghost – a mistreated beauty with a kind heart who’s trying to make the best out of a bad situation. Forced to be subservient to a demonic power, she falls in love with a naive young scholar. Just as in Pu Songling’s story, my Miss Chen is able to freely cross that porous boundary between the Yin and Yang realms. And also controlled by a demon, she falls in love. What interests me the most about Chinese ghosts is their humanity. Thus, even as a ghost, my Miss Chen, like Pu Songling’s Miss Nie, seeks to retain her humanity and help others.

I also found the same tradition in Japanese fiction when I had the opportunity to see the great Japanese movie, Ugetsu (1953) by world-renowned director, Mizoguchi Kenji, as taken from the world of Japanese literature. That movie is one of the most elegant cinematic statements of the porousness of the boundary between the human and the ghost world and of the emotions that bind the two realms. The female ghost who seduces one of the main male leads expresses the full range of humanity in her need for love and her fierceness in being denied that fulfillment. Ugetsu is a classic in this genre of the enchanted ghost lover. I use both A Chinese Ghost Story and Ugetsu in my Boston University writing seminar: "Paradox of the Strange in East Asian Cinema and Fiction."

As for my latest novel, Listening to Rainwe still find ourselves in a medieval Chinese world. So our protagonists, the Shaolin monk, Tanzong, and his cohort, the Imperial Commissioner, Li Wei frequently make these “border crossings” into the realm of the Strange where the Yin and Yang realms bleed into each other. These “border crossings” are especially frequent with Tanzong who seems to have inherited some of his father’s shamanistic skills.

Further, in this volume, Tanzong and Li Wei travel into the regions of the Tang dynasty's far South. During medieval China, the northerners considered these lands to be fraught with the Strange. The geography and inhabitants of the topical South were considered mysterious and dangerous. These were regions reserved for exile and death. In Listening to Rain and the subsequent volumes of this adventure series, the Strange looms much larger and more profoundly than in my previous work.

Within the Chinese literary tradition, the genre I have chosen to emulate is known as wuxia shenguaiWuxia of course is martial or heroic fiction. The term shenguai (literally: spirits and the strange) relates to the Strange, to that realm where “reality” and “illusion” bleed into each other. Some deem it to mean, “fantasy.” From the fiction short story origins of the wuxia genre in the Tang dynasty, the shenguai aspect was a strong presence. This presence remained right up through the early 20th century era of Chinese cinema. In summing up the developments in Chinese cinema by the end of the 1920s, Stephen Teo remarks:

Henceforth, I will refer to the genre generally as wuxia shenguai to signify its existence as a single genre containing both elements of fantasy and swordplay. In time, the word shenguai was dropped, as the fantasy element became such an inherent part of the wuxia genre that there was no need to qualify it. (Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2009. p.29)

Since Teo focuses on the wuxia cinema tradition, he has no need to refer back to the earliest literary stages of this genre as I have above. Thus we can see that the modern Chinese cinema tradition carries on the Tang dynasty fascination with the shenguai aspects of this genre. It is from this Tang tradition that I draw my wuxia storytelling inspiration. In the wuxia genre, the boundaries between the Yin and Yang realms continue to be crossed in both modern East Asian cinema and in my fiction.

Yet, it is Pu Songling, the great 18th century Chinese master of Strange fiction, who contended that our understanding of the world originates from within us and not from the world that surrounds us. Hopefully, my fiction will reflect this point of view with which I firmly agree.

The Innkeeper


A Brief Outline of the Xia (swordsman/woman hero) in Chinese Literature up to the 9th Century C.E.

Rise of the Xia

Contemporary Chinese wuxia novelists tend to focus on the last three Chinese imperial dynasties, Yuan (1280-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911). My interest, however, is on an earlier period – ancient through medieval China – specifically, the great Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.). And even there, I’m most passionate about the first century and a half of the Tang – the “golden age” of a “golden age.”

Chronologically, it is a narrow focus. Li Shi-min (599-649 C.E.; reign title, Tang Taizong; reign: 626-649 C.E.) , the greatest emperor of the last two thousand years plus of East Asian history, played a major role in establishing his family’s rule over the Chinese empire. The rise of the Tang is the background of my novel, Listening to Rain and its series The Adventures of the Shaolin Blade Tanzong. While the life of Li Bo/Li Bai (701-762 C.E.), the main character in my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, spanned the first half of the 8th century.

It was an incredible period in world history, and as such has diverted most of my attention. It was also a different China from that of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing world, the so-called “modern” era. The only “value judgment” here is simply that I like the former period and am not as interested in the latter. It is the wuxia ethic of that early period of Chinese civilization that I have set out to write about. And I aim to write about it as a historical fiction/fantasy writer. That involves a different perspective than the one used by a historian.

At the top of all English language reading lists for studying the rise of the xia in Chinese history is Professor James J.Y. Liu’s wonderful, little book, The Chinese Knight-Errant, first published by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. London, 1967, and now, unfortunately, out of print.

Professor Liu’s book sums up most of the information available in the late 60s regarding the xia. I will be primarily relying on this work to present my survey. The book does a nice job of tracing the xia tradition from its ancient roots through the poetry and literature of China to the contemporary period. It is, in fact, the “rest of the story” that all those wuxia cinema “histories” tend to leave out when they are recounting the rise of this cinema genre.

Next on my list would be the female side of xia history. In the very scholarly Presence and Pesentation: Women in the Chinese Literary Tradition, edited by Sherry J. Mou, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1999 (ISBN: 031221054X), there is a wonderful article by Professor Sufen Sophia Lai, “From Cross-Dressing Daughter to Lady Knight-Errant: The Origin and Evolution of Chinese Women Warriors,” pp.77-107. Professor Lai traces the history of the woman warrior in Chinese history and looks at her literary place vis-à-vis the patriarchal Confucian tradition. She also relies on Professor Liu’s thin volume for the early history of the xia.

On a more recent note, less expensive and, perhaps, easier to find, is a recent article in the martial arts magazine, Classical Fighting Arts (, Issue #9, “Art Imitates Life, Life Imitates Art,” by Brian L. Kennedy, JD and Elizabeth Guo, BA, pp.31-37. This has a brief review of xia history, once again à la Professor Liu’s work, and looks at the wuxia code, the jianghu concept (the special realm where all this action takes place), and traces the tradition into the modern period from literature cinema. There are other sources, but those are focused on my period of interest, the Tang. I will discuss them in a later installment of this blog.

According to Professor Liu, the xia make their appearance during the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.E.) in ancient China. As the period name denotes, this was an era of weak central government when the center broke down, and states, arising from the lords once beholding to the central royal house of Zhou, contended for domination of the Chinese world – it was a period of civil war – a Game of Thrones era!

Professor Liu notes that:

Socially, the old aristocracy had declined, so that many impoverished nobles, as well as men of special talent and skill (ritualists, musicians, astrologers, etc.) formerly retained by the aristocracy, now become socially displaced persons who roamed from one state to another, offering their services to the feudal lords. Intellectually, it was a time of unprecedented and unsurpassed florescence, which saw the emergence of various schools of thought, such as Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, and Mohism, each offering a different remedy for the prevailing chaotic conditions.

Understandably, in such conditions opportunities abounded for those not adverse to act. Liu continues:

While the thinkers were busy arguing with one another and trying to convert the feudal lords to their respective ways of thinking, the knights-errant simply took justice into their own hands and did what they thought necessary to redress wrongs and help the poor and the distressed. They did not hesitate to use force, nor did they have much regard for the law. On the other hand, they usually acted on altruistic motives and were ready to die for their principles. Such was the beginning of knights-errantry in China.

So far as we know, the term xia is first referenced in the writings of Han Fei-zi (ca. 280-233 B.C.E.), the eminent Legalist philosopher, under the heading of the “Five Vermin.” This would not seem to be an auspicious start. As Professor Lai notes, in her Chinese woman warrior article, Han Fei-zi considered the Confucians and the xia as dangerous to the state. She quotes Han Fei-zi, “the Confucians with their learning bring confusion to the law, the knights with their military prowess violate the prohibitions.” Further, that Han points to the social contradictions regarding the xia when he writes, “men who wield swords, attack, and assassinate are violent and extreme people, but society regards them as upright and courageous men; bandits and men who conceal traitors should be condemned to death, but society regards them as men of honor.”

The greatest influence on later wuxia fiction, however, was the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) by the grand historian, Sima Qian (145-86 B.C.E.) He was China’s greatest historian, and perhaps a man that shared some of that wuxia ethic in his determination to carry out his father’s vision of a grand history of China. Sima Qian honorably defended the reputation of a defeated general against the unfair accusations of the emperor. For this, the emperor condemned him to death.

The law at that time was that death sentences could be commuted through a cash payment or through suffering mutilation. Sima Qian didn’t have the money and underwent the humiliation and pain of castration. He did this so that he could live to carry out his father’s dream for their family to compose a history of China. Sima Qian lived to finish Records of the Grand Historian. It set the standards for not only all the subsequent histories written in China – over a 2000-year period, but was also influential in the rise and composition of fiction during the Tang dynasty. His writing not only provided the form that Tang fiction would take (the use of character development and narrative line), but also provided a fertile background for those early short stories – the adventures of the xia.

In his Records, Sima Qian initiated the biographical form as a historical genre. As Professor Lai picks up the story, “Among these biographies, the chapter entitled ‘Biographies of Wandering Knights’ (Youxia liezhuan) probably had the most influence on later knight-errant fiction.” What was Sima Qian’s opinion of the xia?

Unlike the Legalist philosopher, Han Fei-zi, who gives us the first mention of the xia in writing, Sima Qian has a different take on their actions when he writes:

Now, as for the knights-errant, though their actions were not in accordance with the rule of propriety, they always meant what they said, always accomplished what they set out to do, and always fulfilled their promises. They rushed to the aid of other men in distress without giving a thought to their own safety. And when they had saved someone from disaster at the risk of their own lives, they did not boast of their ability and would have been ashamed to brag of their benevolence. Indeed, there is much to be said for them. Besides, distress is something that anyone may encounter from time to time.

So writes the historian who suffered castration for his integrity!

But there is something else very interesting here. Read the quote that follows, see if you notice any parallels with Sima Qian’s description of the xia. Then fill in the BLANKs where I have replaced the name of the occupation being described – if you can do that, then you can probably guess the author; though I’ve given you a big clue in the quote itself:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The BLANK in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in this world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a BLANK at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

So my questions to you are do you see any parallels between this last quote and Sima Qian’s descriptions of the xia? Can you guess what occupation fills in the BLANKs? Do you know who wrote the above quote?

The occupation in the BLANKs is “detective.” And the author of the above quote is Raymond Chandler (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Glass Key, The Long Goodbye among others) in his article, “The Simple Art of Murder.” I’d almost say that Tyrion in The Game of Thrones fits some of those qualities!

To close out here, let’s turn to Professor Liu’s considerations of the xia’s social origins. He considers three scholarly opinions regarding their social origins:

1. They were unemployed peasants and artisans, commoners who became professional warriors.

2. They were men without property, but not exclusively of lower social origin, and some could have been nobles who lost their status.

3. They were not a special social group, but simply men of chivalrous temperament.

After considering these opinions, Professor Liu writes that he is inclined to this last view and concludes:

I suggest it is best to regard the knights-errant not as a social class or a professional group but simply as men of strongly individualistic temperament, who behaved in a certain way based on certain ideals.


Ideals of the Early Xia

Professor Liu lists and explains eight basic early (B.C.E., pre-current era, better known as B.C.) xia values: 1. altruism; 2. justice; 3. individual freedom; 4. personal loyalty; 5. courage; 6. truthfulness and mutual faith; 7. honor and fame; and 8. generosity and contempt for wealth. I will follow Professor Liu’s discussion, since his book his hard to find, and add to it where I might.

1. “Altruism” is Professor Liu’s translation of the Chinese character yi. This was also a main concept in the teachings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.), who lived in the Warring States Period, which we are discussing. He was one of those wandering scholars seeking to impress the warring states with their solutions, along with “our” wandering blades – whose “solutions” tended to be more direct. The early Confucian yi is frequently translated as “righteousness.”

Liu points out that the modern Chinese philosopher, Feng Yu-lan, believed that yi, as understood by the xia, “means doing more than what is required by common standards of morality.” And he quotes this example, “to bestow a kindness and not expect a reward is moral; to bestow a kindness and to reject any reward is supermoral.” So yi in this context is understood as a type of “supermorality.”

However, there are other understandings of yi. An interesting interpretation is that given by an old friend from the University of Hawaii, Roger T. Ames in his translation with Henry Rosemont, Jr. of The Analects, that ancient collection of Confucius’ teachings: The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, ISBN: 0-345-43407-2. These two scholars look at the variants of this character recorded from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1766 – ca. 1050 B.C.E.) and conclude that “morality” is not quite the correct sense of the character.

OK, I know. I’m descending into academic hairsplitting, when I claimed to be taking the “higher” road of the novelist (I can hear the novelists, and academics, falling out of their seats with laughter), but this is an interesting digression, honestly!

Ames and Rosemont, Jr. argue that “appropriate” or “fitting” are closer English equivalents to yi in this historical/intellectual context. They explain:

Yi, then, is one’s sense of appropriateness that enables one to act in a proper and fitting manner, given the specific situation…It is because yi is the sense of appropriateness that makes relationships truly meaningful in a community of mutual trust, that Confucius says, “making good on one’s word (xin) gets one close to appropriateness.” (pp.54-55)

I think that this interpretation, while directed at the early Confucian use of the term, might find significant resonance with the xia ethic.

If you remember in last week’s blog, I quoted Liu’s translation of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian’s observation of the xia that:

Now, as for the knights-errant, though their actions were not in accordance with the rule of propriety, they always meant what they said, always accomplished what they set out to do, and always fulfilled their promises.

Can we say then that their actions, while possibly contrary to contemporary rules of propriety, were “appropriate” to the situation at hand – as they understood it? In other words, their sense of yi was relative, situational? Then how does this fit with the position of Ames and Rosemont, Jr. that “appropriate” defines a Confucian value? Did the Confucian’s approve of the xia? We will look at the relationship between the wandering blades and their contemporaries in ancient China as we continue our look at the other values on Professor Liu’s list.

2. Justice – Liu believes that the xia’s sense of “appropriateness” (using the Ames/Rosemont, Jr. interpretation) springs from their sense of justice, which (and this is significant in a Confucian society) “they placed above family loyalty.” He gives moving examples from this period in the story of the wandering blade, Kuo Hsieh (ca. 127 B.C.E.). I will summarize Liu’s translation, which is from Sima Qian’s historical record.

Kuo Hsieh was from Honan province. His father was a wandering blade who was executed by Emperor Wen (reigned, 179-157 B.C.E.). As a young man, Kuo was spiteful and killed many who offended him. “He avenged the private wrongs of his friends at the risk of his own life, concealed those on the run from the law, robbed people and even tombs, and illegally coined money. All of these crimes he committed countless times, but he either managed to escape or was pardoned because of an amnesty.” As he grew older, he reformed, but remained revengeful. Yet, when he would save someone’s life, he didn’t boast about it. Many times he would act as an objective arbitrator in various types of disputes. Government authorities, however, tired of disturbances centering around Kuo or his retainers, brought charges against him arguing that, “Kuo Hsieh is a commoner who indulges in knight-errantry and wields great power. He would kill for a slight offence...he deserves the penalty for high treason.” Kuo and his entire family were executed.

There is one incident from his life that is worth recounting here from Liu in full detail:

Once, Kuo Hsieh’s sister’s son, relying on Kuo’s influence, forced another man to drink beyond his capacity. The latter grew angry, killed the young man, and ran away. Kuo’s sister, angry that the killer had escaped, said, “My brother is known for his altruism [or “appropriateness” of behavior], yet now he can’t even find the murderer of my son!” So she left her son’s body in the road and refused to bury it, so as to shame Kuo Hsieh. Eventually Kuo found out who the killer was, and the latter, in desperation, came to see him voluntarily and told him the whole truth. Kuo said, “It was my nephew’s fault; you were quite right to kill him.” So he let the killer go and quietly buried his nephew. All those who heard about this admired him for putting fairness above family loyalty, and more and more men came to follow him. (Liu, pp.37-40)

Kuo’s behavior would not qualify him for a “model citizen’s award” in any “normal” society. At best, he might be characterized as an outlaw/minor gangster with a conscience, of sorts – a Tony Soprano? It is interesting, however, that Liu cites Kuo’s dealing with the murder of his nephew as an example of the xia sense of justice; that it is from this sense of justice that their “altruism” springs.

What interests me, as a novelist, is that Kuo’s behavior regarding “justice” for his nephew seems to fit well with the “appropriateness” definition that I cited for the term yi (“altruism” in Liu’s translation). Kuo dealt with his nephew’s murderer in what he felt was the “appropriate” manner, or to quote Sima Qian, again, “not in accordance with the rule of propriety,” that is, not in accordance with common social norms.

3. Individual Freedom – It seems to me that the key to xia behavior is the ideal that seems most antithetical to the Chinese social/cultural norm as it came to be defined by Confucianism – individual freedom, or individualism. While this is the third ideal in Liu’s list, I would put it at the top. As Liu explains it:

Not only did the knights manifest their rebellious nature in openly defying the law while attempting to see justice done, but they also showed their non-conformity in daily life by living in what would nowadays bee called a Bohemian manner and paying little attention to social conventions.

Could this be why wandering blades tales are so attractive to their Western fans? Possibly, but don’t forget that this genre is also the most popular genre in East Asia, too! These men, and women, were very individualistic. But this is not new. We have seen this same characteristic in countless martial arts movies.

Further, the various martial arts forms are the very expression of individualism, as are many of the arts in East Asia. Those of you who practice martial arts know from your own experience that your teachers are very individualistic and that although we are all trained with a sense of community in our movements and in our interactions with our fellow students and teachers, that these skills breed a certain sense of self-confidence. And those who practice with paint or calligraphy brushes share in this same experience – the discipline makes us strong enough as individuals to control our egos (hopefully), yet also strong enough to know how to express ourselves when necessary – or dare I say, when “appropriate”! And this can be in social situations or on rice paper; Zhang Yimou’s Broken Sword character in Hero is a good example of this use of the various art forms.

Thus, on a certain level, we can understand the xia values as expressions of individualism. This is not to say that the followers of Confucius and the other schools at the time were not individuals, rather that their expressions of individualism were different. Traditionally, a follower of Confucius would rather wield a calligraphy brush than a sword to redress grievances. But like the xia, they would not hesitate addressing a grievance. The First Emperor of China, Qin-shi huang-di (259-210 B.C.E.), buried Confucian scholars alive and executed xia who attempted to assassinate him (the movies The Emperor and The Assassin and Hero, in a more general way, are based on incidents recorded by Sima Qian) – both groups were threatening enough to his oppressive rule that he felt it necessary to kill them.

4. Personal Loyalty – Liu believes that the xia’s sense of personal loyalty transcended their loyalty to their ruler/state or their parents/family. This particular aspect of xia values was in sharp conflict with Confucian tradition which taught that the five social relationships (ruler-subject; father-son; husband-wife; elder brother- younger brother; between friends) were the basis of civilized society.

Xia culture placed the emphasis on zhi-ji, a sense of “loyalty,” which short-circuits the five relationships. John Christopher Hamm in his Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel, (p.13) gives the sense of this value when he quotes Yu Rang, noted in Sima Qian’s record of the assassin:

A man will die for one who understands him, as a woman will make herself beautiful for one who delights in her.

A variation on this type of loyalty is the famous story of Bo Ya, a musician from this ancient period, who destroyed his lute when Zhong Ziqi died. According to Bo, Zhong was the only person who could understand his music, who could intuit the musician’s heart. This sense of loyalty is known as zhi-yin, which a modern Chinese dictionary would translate as “intimate friend.”

This special sense of friendship or appreciation was the basis of social relationships for the xia. Such relationships, from a Confucian perspective and that of the state, could threaten the very foundation of society. Thus we find xia like Kuo Hsieh helping escaped criminals and avenging wrongs done to his friends or going against his family in letting his nephew’s killer go unpunished. Xia friendship could be seen to undermine the orthodox Chinese social order.

4. Courage – This should be obvious and needs no further comment except to pass on Liu’s remark that the xia’s cavalier attitude toward death “almost suggests they did not much care for life.” I think that’s a bit extreme. My reading of their biographies suggests they had a larger than life enjoyment of being alive, but that they were not attached to it.

5. Truthfulness and mutual faith – To quote Sima Qian, again, “They always meant what they said, always accomplished what they set out to do, and always fulfilled their promises.” Liu says that they would even go as far as committing suicide to show their sincerity.

6. Honor and fame – Liu says that this value is connected to the previous one. He quotes our Grand Historian, “they disciplined their action and cherished their honour so that their fame spread all over the empire.” Liu feels that if they were not entirely motivated by “altruism,” “then their only selfish motive was their desire for fame.”

7. Generosity and contempt for wealth – Liu argues that the xia had no problems with accepting or refusing money from friends, because they didn’t have a strong sense of ownership. They could live lavishly and share with their friends or live modestly and share with the poor.

If you see parallel values in the Western tradition with Robin Hood and our comic book superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, I would not be surprised. But we are talking 2200 years ago! Where were our “action heroes!?”

I’ve gotten pretty well carried away, so I’ll save the contrasts for the next blog, when we’ll look at some other aspects of the early xia.


The Early Xia Intellectual Environment

To complete our picture of early xia ideals, I would like to briefly sketch the “intellectual neighborhood” of this period.

The Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.E.) was an era of extensive civil war within China with a number of independent states fighting each other for control of what would form the core territorial region of modern China. It was a period as rich in intellectual and cultural developments as it was violent. This was a time when the various schools of Chinese philosophy and religion rose into the historical record. Much ink, both from books, many books, and articles has been spilt over this era – check out, the “Essential Readings on Chinese Philosophy” complied by Professor Bryan W. Van Norden at:

In order to remain focused on our area of interest here, the xia, I will continue to follow Professor Liu’s narrative in his wonderful, but sadly out of print, book, The Chinese Knight-Errant. And at the end of this brief overview, I would like to contrast the xia with the European knight-errant and the Japanese samurai to fully round out our picture of them.

Early Confucian Tradition

Professor Liu points out that the behavior of the xia reflected areas of difference and similarity with the teachings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.). Liu’s conclusion makes a good starting point for a comparison:

It would be an oversimplification to say that Confucianism represented the morality of the gentlemen and knight-errantry that of the commoner. Rather, we might say that the former represented a type of men naturally inclined towards conservatism, moderation, and conformity, and the latter, a type of men naturally inclined toward individualism, revolt, and extravagance.

While those are differences, Professor Liu also sees “certain similarities”:

…both were faithful to the tasks entrusted them, even to death, and both showed personal loyalty based on a principle of reciprocity. To these may be added that both cherished honour and belittled wealth. We have already seen the knights’ concern for honour and fame. The Confucian gentleman, too, thought it a cause for worry if he should end his days without achieving fame.

Yet, on the question of fame, it should be pointed out that the Confucian interest in fame was marked by their desire to prevail as a moral influence upon the governing class. Liu further refines his point by quoting the greatest refiner of the Confucian legacy, Mencius (ca. 372-289 B.C.E.):

Indeed, Mencius’s definition of a great man as one ‘whom wealth and rank cannot corrupt, poverty and humble position cannot change, and authority and power cannot bend’ would apply to the ideal Confucian scholar as well as the ideal knight-errant.

We can certainly see that human nature, whether in China or in the West, has hardly advanced from this period – that social and political reformers of those days were struggling against the same issues we face today.

While there were similarities between the Confucians and the xia, their basic difference was in emphasis: moderation vs. extremism. Liu mentions several areas where this is clear:

1. “The Confucians held up a ‘golden mean’ as the ideal of human conduct, while the knights-errant often went to extremes in their feeling and action.”

2. “…the Confucians taught ‘forgiveness’ (shu) and ‘yielding’ and ‘deferring’ (jang), whereas the knights-errant made revengefulness a virtue and were usually too proud to yield to anyone.”

3. “Furthermore, the knights-errant had an absolute conception of truthfulness, while the Confucians had a relative one.” Perhaps, as best befitting those in political power.

4. “Next, whereas the Confucians aimed at order and stressed the need for the individual to conform to a rigid pattern of behaviour and to subjugate himself to the family, the knight-errant valued personal freedom above family solidarity.”

5. “Finally, the Confucians were against the use of force, while the knight-errant often resorted to violence in their attempts to achieve justice.”

And it is on this last point that Professor Liu makes a welcomed cautionary point about the character of the Confucians when he writes:

…though the Confucians were against violence, they were not physical cowards. The ‘Six Liberal Arts’ (Liu-yi) pursued by the ancient Confucian gentleman included archery and charioteering as well as ritual, music, writing, and arithmetic. The popular image of a Confucian scholar as an over-refined and effeminate bookworm came into being centuries later, and is in any case not true of all Confucian scholars even in later periods.


It was the Legalist thinker, Han Fei-zi (ca. 280-233 B.C.E.), who lumped the Confucians and the xia together as social elements that were detrimental to maintaining the “proper” social order: the Confucians for their “learning” which brings confusion to the law and the xia for their reliance on violence which is disruptive. This attitude supports Professor Liu’s contention that if the xia contrast with the Confucians was substantial in some areas, then they were in greater contrast with the Legalists:

The Legalists advocated the supremacy of the state and the suppression of the individual, while the knights-errant valued personal freedom above social security.

Further, that the Legalist advocated the strict force of law applied equally to all, thus leaving “little room for human sympathy and understanding…” This was in great contrast to the xia:

The knight-errant, on the other hand, judged each case from a personal angle, not a legal one. Their sense of justice was based on human sympathy, not on an abstract concept of law.

Consider last week’s blog, the example of the wandering blade Kuo Hsieh and his handling of the man who killed his nephew. Neither the Confucians nor the Legalists would have approved – and in the end it was the Legalist-influenced Han dynasty government that executed him and his family. It was this more “humanistic” approach to justice that both the Confucians and the xia advocated and it is partially this “humanism” that caused the Legalists to list them together as groups that were socially disruptive.

And, a movie note here, it is that very Legalist ruler, Qin Shi Huang-di, the first emperor of China, in Zhang Yimou’s movie Hero that those xia assassins, Jet Li and company, had set out to eliminate.


This school originates in the teachings of Mo Di, or Mozi, ( 430 B.C.E.). Mohism and Confucianism are traditionally paired together as schools that emphasize morality where yi, traditionally translated at “righteousness” or, as we pointed out last week, “appropriateness” was a basic value. The Mohists, however, went further than then the Confucians in criticizing contemporary standards of yi, but we don’t want to get into a philosophical discussion here – yet, if you do, and for all the schools discussed in today’s blog, please check out the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (, for Mohism, the entry by Chris Fraser (, which is much more extensive than what’s found in Professor Liu’s book.

The Mohists were similar to the xia in their sense of altruism and justice, but quite different in their opposition to warfare. This led to them developing groups of defensive fighters who would rush to a state under attack and assist in their defense. Needless to say, the xia would seldom limit themselves to only a defensive role in a dispute. Nor would the xia be involved in such “national-level” politics, as they tended to focus on local or more immediate issues involving their sense of justice.

Moreover, the Mohists, like the other schools, were focused on government/national politics. The xia, with their strong sense of individualism, disdained politics and government. Further, the Mohists organized themselves into well-disciplined groups that followed their leaders into battle or wherever. The xia were far too independent for any concerted group action – they would be more likely to fight among themselves!


Professor Liu begins his section writing that:

It may seem at first sight rather far-fetched to link the quick-tempered, swashbuckling knights-errant with the otherworldly, contemplative Taoists…

We need stop here, however, and correct Professor Liu’s rather monolithic view of this school. Even at this early phase of Taoist development, there is more than one form of Taoism evidenced in the writings available to us. While some claim that the Lao-zi is a political text, Sima Qian thought so, and the Zhuang-zi a more philosophical work, both writings are interwoven with multiple strands of different and, possibly, contradictory intellectual traditions.

A professor, who taught Marxism, once remarked that Marx was like the Bible, you could prove anything based on what he wrote - so too with either the Lao-zi or the Zhuang-zi. Within them we can find elements of later “Taoist” emphasis on attaining immortality, alchemy, drug culture, exercise culture (from which both our internal and external martial arts traditions can trace influences), Nature “worship” philosophy, political advice, military tactics, and religious/intellectual mysticism – have I missed anything!?

Liu, continuing on, points out that the xia “did have certain things in common” with the Taoists. Several xia are recorded by Sima Qian and another Han historian as having studied Taoism (it is not clear from these references, however, which form or aspect of Taoism). He suggests that there are elements of Taoism that might appeal to the xia sense of “chivalry.”

For example, “Taoism is individualistic and against conformity to social conventions.” Liu cites the Taoist advocacy of “following Nature,” but insightfully points out that:

The knights-errant were actually practicing this principle of following one’s natural inclinations whether they fully realized its Taoist implications or not.

But even here, where it might seem a “natural” for the xia – Taoism convergence, Liu, in an endnote, points out:

In saying that the knights-errant practiced the Taoist principle of following Nature, I do not mean that they necessarily shared the Taoist view of human nature. In fact, the knights’ conception of human nature seems to have been more Confucian than Taoist: their actions suggest that they believed the essentially moral character of human nature.

And, Liu finds other aspects of Taoism that don’t seem to fit the xia “mentality”: the Taoist concept of “unintentional action” (wu-wei) seems counter to the xia eagerness for action; the Taoist sought for “a kind of absolute, spiritual freedom,” while the xia sought only for “social freedom” and the xia lack of interest in Taoist “metaphysics.”

I have problems with Liu’s rather monolithic approach to the Taoism of this period, as most contemporary scholars find it anything from “monolithic.” Thus, for this discussion regarding the xia, I would feel more comfortable in stating that we’d have to look on a case by case basis from the records we have of the xia to see what their relationship to Taoism was in this formative period.

Later on in Chinese history, when the various lines of Taoist thought and practice separate out more, we can probably draw connections between some xia and Taoism. Certainly, by the time we have the various martial arts schools clearly emerging, like in the Ming or later, we can see the Wu Dang Taoist school influences on the martial arts, etc. But the pre-contemporary era in China is still too early, given the lack of historical sources, for such judgments. I would again send you to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to check out in greater detail their good work on the early nature of Taoism.

That being said, however, I do agree with Professor Liu’s summary of the early xia relationship to their contemporary intellectual climate:

The knights-errant had certain affinities with various schools of thinkers, but no actual affiliations with any. They were neither intellectuals nor politicians, but men of strong will and simple faith, who lived and died the way they wanted.

Outside of the Chinese Tradition

There are two other aspects of this attempt to present as clear picture as possible of China’s xia at the time of their rise into the historical record: their relationship to the European knights-errant and the Japanese samurai.

The Japanese samurai are the easiest to deal with. They were a formal military and social class. As such, they were quite unlike the xia, who for the most part didn’t belong to a government military organization. Such organizations would be an anathema to the xia spirit of individualism.

Later on in Japanese history, when the samurai are in decline and become ronin (masterless warriors, thus free from military service), they still form a distinct social class – something that was never the case in the Chinese experience.

As for the European knight-errant, there are closer similarities with the Japanese samurai in the sense that both groups were professional warriors who held a definite social status. In China, if you could fight well, even if you couldn’t, and had the courage of your convictions, you could make a name for yourself as a xia or “wandering blade/fist.” Social status or warrior training was not required. Probably a closer fit to the xia, outside of China, would be the American cowboy and the classic crime detective. For these reasons, I strongly object to the use of the term “knight-errant” as a translation of the Chinese xia.

Although Professor Liu is constantly referring to the xia as “knights-errant,” he writes of their two basic differences, social class and religion:

The Western knights were the backbone of the feudal system; the Chinese ones [sic] represented a disruptive force in feudal society. The former extended courtesy only to their social equals and a strong sense of class solidarity; the latter made a point of breaking down social barriers and were entirely free from class consciousness and social snobbery…

Another basic difference between the European and Chinese knights [sic] is that the former had religious sanction and the latter had no religious affiliation.

While Liu’s statement regarding the xia’s religious affiliation is too absolute, neglecting the appearance in China of the Buddhist fighting monks, he does shed light on the religious differences when he continues:

Being a social class, the former [European knights] naturally confined chivalry to members of their own class and applied strict rules for admission. When Christian moral standards were superimposed on these, they formed the rule of the various orders of knighthood.

Even when we have the rise of martial arts schools in China with some xia organizing into groups of particular fighting styles – and this was probably post-Sung dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) China – these weren’t social classes defending “Church and State.”

Obviously, traditional Europe and China were two very different cultures. To expect that the term “knight-errant,” which arose out of a specifically European cultural matrix, could be comfortably applied to the China historical experience of the xia is misleading. I think Professor Liu, who articulates the differences here, was just following the path of “convention” in his use of that term. Not a very xia way of doing things!

This completes my brief overview of the initial rise of xia in China.


Pre-Tang Swordswomen and the Xia Prose Tradition

Most chronicles of Chinese woman warriors start with Fu Hao, the wife of the Shang dynasty King Wuding (1324-1265 B.C.E.). She commanded the king’s armies and led many campaigns against the non-Han Chinese tribes at the edges of the Shang kingdom. There are records of her in the Shang oracle bones, which isn’t too surprising considering that she also served as a high priestess and held the office of oracle-reader. In 1976, her tomb was discovered untouched in Anyang, Henan province. There were thousands of artifacts and many weapons, including four bronze battle-axes – a symbol of military authority. In Professor Sufen Sophia Lai’s interesting article, “From Cross-Dressing Daughter to Lady Knight-Errant: The Origin and Evolution of Chinese Women Warriors,” p.80 [in Presence and Presentation: Women in the Chinese Literary Tradition, edited by Sherry J. Mou, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1999 (ISBN: 031221054X)] she writes that of the more than 250 Shang inscriptions that bear Fu Hao’s name:

One oracle inscription – ‘Fuhao’s three thousand gathered, and ten thousand, a great expedition’ – refers to the campaign launched against the state of Qiang, in which Fuhao commanded a regular army of three thousand, with an additional force of ten thousand.

Chronologically, the next significant reference to female warriors seems to come from our old friend, the Grand Historian, Sima Qian. He records the story of Sunzi (496-453 B.C.E.), author of the Art of War, training the King of Wu’s concubines into soldiers to demonstrate the effect of discipline. In order to succeed, Sunzi had to execute the two captains of the court ladies troop. After that, they quickly formed into an effective fighting force, though there is no record of them actually engaging in warfare. As Professor Lai remarks:

Sun Zi’s deployment of court ladies to demonstrate his military talents suggests the strategist’s belief that not gender, but training, is relevant to the creation of an excellent troop.

Of course, this all flies in the face of the dominant Confucian standard. After noting a string of Confucian texts regarding a woman’s role in society, Professor Lai writes:

Within this Confucian tradition, Chinese women were expected to develop strong moral character and submissiveness; the valiant spirit and eccentric behavior of Chinese woman warriors are antithetical to such Confucian expectations.

In considering the Chinese literary tradition regarding women warriors, Professor Lai moves onto the Mulan story/legend – yes, the same character that is the basis of the Disney cartoon, Mulan. The earliest version of the story comes from, “an anonymous poet of the Northern Dynasties (386-581 C.E.).” And guess what, this earliest version was not the Disney version – not surprised, eh.

Mulan, Professor Lai points out, “is for many Chinese a synonym for jinguo yingxiong (literally “headdressed-hero, or hero with a woman’s headdress).” At the time of the earliest rendition of the Mulan legend, China was divided between non-Han tribes (commonly referred to by the Han Chinese and foreigners as “barbarians”) in the north and the Han Chinese in the south, with the Yangtze River as the general dividing line. Yet, the northern tribes, from whom the earliest version of the Mulan ballad arose, were adopting Han Chinese culture, as it was the most “successful” in the East Asian region.

Professor Lai believes that this historical background could, “account for the creation of a woman warrior such as Mulan, who is a synthesis of northern and southern qualities.” Lai sees this early Mulan ballad as a reflection of, “the northern landscape and nomadic spirit,” that also conveys, “the Confucian expectation of womanhood.” Further, that:

On the surface, it is a very straightforward folk ballad that celebrates a daughter’s filial piety and bravery; analyzed closely, however, each section reveals a tension between the expected Confucian womanly virtues and the masculine world of warrior valor.

There was always a tension in traditional Chinese society among the various hierarchical levels of responsibility. Women, as men, had their various responsibilities clearly laid out in the Confucian value system. And, as mentioned previously, xia values were not completely in accord with Confucian values.

Probably, the greatest source of tension in this relationship was the different senses of individualism that were at the core of both systems. While the xia sought free expression of their individualism, the Confucian system saw such unrestraint as a threat to the very foundations of their social system. The Mulan legend, under the pressure of the Confucian social system, “has come to symbolize the Chinese warrior heroine.” And, I should add, this Confucian symbolism was not unopposed by other examples of the warrior heroine.

There has been a succession of Mulan ballads in Chinese literature where the Mulan character is used as a paradigm for whatever values the writer is emphasizing. Gradually, the ballad became fully Sinicized within Chinese literature to the point where the Disney version picks it up, and we have a Han Chinese woman fighting against the non-Han tribes of the north. Sort of a Pocahontas turned white woman fighting the Native Americans! Oh, I probably just gave someone in Hollywood a movie idea – sorry!

The next major leap for the literature of swordswomen in China is the Tang where they break out from the Confucian mold. But a leap, even for a wandering blade, must have a foundation (except, perhaps, when made from the surface of a lake with the tip of a sword!), and we can find the launching pad for such a move around the same time, if not earlier, that the Mulan legend is being formed.

According to Professor Liu, that ground would be in the rise of, “legends, which exaggerated their wandering blades exploits and sometimes credited them with supernatural powers.” He calls these stories, “chivalric tales” and says that they flourished during the Tang. For now, however, I’d like to turn to one of the two pre-Tang prototypes of this “chivalric” literature, for one of these early tales deals with another famous legendary swordswoman, the Yueh Maiden.

The story is found in the Spring and Autumn Annuals of the Kingdoms of Wu and Yueh, attributed to Chao Yeh, but which most scholars seem to doubt its claim of first century C.E. authorship. Wu and Yueh were two rival kingdoms (roughly, present day Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces). The former had defeated the latter, and thus the King of Yueh sought revenge. When queried about the art of war, the king’s minister told him to seek advice from a maiden famous for her swordsmanship. The king sent for the young woman and questioned her about the way of the sword. I’ll let Professor Liu continue:

She replied, ‘I grew up in a deep forest, in the wilderness away from men. I have not studied properly and I am unknown to the feudal lords. However, I am fond of swordsmanship and I have practiced incessantly. I did not receive it from anyone; I just suddenly got it.’ When the King pressed her further, she replied that the way of swordsmanship was very subtle yet easy, its meaning very obscure and profound; that it involved the principles of yin and yang…; and that a good swordsman should appear perfectly calm like a fine lady, but capable of quick action like a surprised tiger. The King then gave her the title, ‘The Maiden of Yueh’, and asked her to instruct his troops. No one could surpass her in swordsmanship at that time.

A few comments. Note where the Yueh Maiden says, “I just suddenly got it.” Professor Liu has an interesting footnote, “It is interesting to note that this last remark was quoted by a literary critic as an analogy to poetic inspiration…” Could it be that “inspiration” in studying the martial arts is similar to the inspiration that a poet or writer experiences in practicing their arts? Zhang Yimou certainly would agree if we judge by emphasis he placed on the relationship among the various Chinese cultural arts and swordsmanship in his epic wuxia movie, Hero.

And to continue the thought on a writer’s inspiration, check out if you’d like to see how this story inspired the great Chinese wuxia novelist, Jin Yong; it’s a great short story.

And the final comment on that passage. Note the Yueh Maiden’s advice on swordsmanship. How many contemporary martial arts practitioners have heard comments like these before? The tradition lives on!

From our Grand Historian’s records of wandering blades and assassins, different types of literature evolved from the inspiration of the historic xia. Professor Liu makes a nice distinction among these types of literature involving martial arts when he points out that these “tales of chivalry” or, wandering blades adventures, as I like to call them, should not be confused with “popularizations of history, such as the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San-kuo-chih Yen-yi).” He explains:

Although the two kinds of fiction may overlap in subject matter, certain differences between them exist. In chivalric tales the knights-errant act as individuals and usually fight single handed; in historical romances the heroes are professional warriors who lead armies into battle. In the former our attention is focused on the personal courage and loyalty of the knights; in the latter the main interest lies in battles and stratagems.

So for Liu, the difference in the types of literature lay in the difference in emphasis. Once again, the focus on the individual is the key to the xia ethic. He makes another interesting set of distinctions regarding literature involving martial arts when he writes:

Chivalric tales also differ from tales of purely supernatural events such as Pilgrimage to the West (Hsi-yu Chi, known to English-speaking readers as Monkey) and Investiture of the Gods (Feng-shen Yen-yi). The former [chivalric tales] may contain an element of the supernatural, but most of them do not strain credulousness too far; the latter [“supernatural” tales”] make no pretence at credibility. Also, the former are concerned with justice or revenge, the latter generally not.

And in summing up the distinctions among these various prose forms that involve the martial arts, Liu writes:

In short, chivalric tales occupy an intermediate position between popularizations of history on the one hand and tales of the miraculous on the other. They dwell in a region where fact mingles with fancy and the commonplace with the marvellous. A writer may describe the superhuman powers of a knight in the same matter-of-fact way that he describes, say, the interior of a house, without any apparent feeling of incongruity.

Think for a moment of all those wuxia movies you’ve seen and grown to love. Don’t they fit perfectly within that “region where fact mingles with fancy and the commonplace with the marvellous”?

It should be clear that there is a line of “transmission” from ancient China’s xia ethic to our living rooms. I never cease to be amazed by this – that these tales not only continued to inspire their native culture for thousands of years, but that they have now come to be enjoyed throughout the world. Further, that this influence has even gone to the extent of being imitated by the Western film industry – whether the “new” Batman undergoes training as a ninja or that the world of the future, the world of the Matrix, is one in which Chinese martial arts play a primary role.

With the tale of the Yueh Maiden, we set the stage for the wandering blades adventures of the Tang dynasty. I will devote another blog to introduce the Tang and its amazing literature. For the remainder of this blog, then, I would like to bring up another aspect of the xia ethic – the role of revenge.

Professor Lai, in her excellent study of Chinese swordswomen, has relied upon Professor Liu’s history of the xia to introduce their backgrounds to her readers. In summing up the fundamentals of the xia ethic, however, she emphasizes an aspect that is not on Liu’s list of xia values – revenge; though he does recognize that the “chivalric” tales, “are concerned with justice or revenge.”

It is useful to allow Professor Lai to elaborate on this aspect, as we are already familiar with it in the wuxia cinema, but it will also be interesting to look for its appearance in the Tang tales of wandering blades. She sums up her take on the xia as follows:

Within his own narrow and personal code, a Chinese knight-errant might serve someone not so much for the purpose of defending justice, but rather for the sake of repaying favors he received from someone who appreciated him. Whether it is in Sima Qian’s ‘Biographies of Wandering Knights’ or in later collections of fantastic knight-errant stories, 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 boa [sic] 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.

I believe, however, that Professor Lai is being too narrow when she claims that “the principle of bao (reciprocation) is the most important ethical standard of the Chinese knight-errant” and that the xia code of honor and justice is “defined within these two contexts of bao.”

From my point of view, the xia ethical code was grounded in their sense of individualism and, as such, their ethics depended on their individual sense of honor and justice; that narrowing it down to some sense of bao tends too much toward “one size fits all.” Certainly, from many of the Chinese martial arts movies, we can see those “two contexts of bao” actively at work. Are there no other contexts for the xia code of honor?

We’ll take this up next week when we look at some examples of Tang wandering blade adventure stories.


The Wonderful Tang Dynasty - Introduction

With this installment of the Wandering Blades Blog, we have reached the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) in our pursuit of wuxia literature in China. In this blog and in my fiction writing, I will seldom stray past the Tang – I’m home! And even in the Tang, I will seldom venture past the 7th and 8th centuries. Most, but not all, of my academic work was focused on those centuries. I guess I should explain that my research interests were always with the history of Chinese Buddhism, and within Buddhism, my interests were with the Chan (Japanese: Zen; Korean: Seon; Vietnamese: Thien) school of Buddhism.

I can see that pursuing this line of thought will send this blog on a big tangent. Hey, why not, this is my blog and not some academic exercise in Chinese literature, right! So here we go, how I fell in love with the Tang dynasty – or, at least, the early part of that period.

With the study of Chan Buddhist thought, I became interested in the people who developed these ideas. These were very unusual men, what were they like? And to answer that question as a young “scholar” it seemed that I needed to look into medieval Chinese social history – except, there weren’t many places to look. Certainly, nothing in English at that time (late 1960s). Later, as I learned to read Chinese, not much there either at that time. I had to go onto Japanese to find a few insights into the “social” nature of Chan masters, and even there, no one was really looking at Chan from that perspective.

To make a very long, and probably very boring, story short, I ended up studying how social historians looked at religion in the European Renaissance and Reformation era (talk about tangents!) because the most advanced historical research was being done on those periods – there were a lot of resources available, like church and town records, etc. And that came to be a big problem in studying the Tang – the availability of primary sources. My own interest was sidetracked because of this. In the end, there wasn’t much I could say about those early Tang Chan masters.

My doctoral dissertation was an attempt to peel back the layers of legend surrounding a Chan patriarch in a southern Chinese (Ox Head Chan tradition) offshoot of the Bodhidharma Chan tradition. I resorted to a local history approach and studied the social and intellectual environment around “my” patriarch’s home region of Nanjing during the 6-7th centuries. There were many layers to peel back and, I guess, in the process of doing that I got a firsthand look at how time alters human perceptions. And further, that this process in some way or another led me to conclude that fiction could be as “truthful” as fact or the study of history. Since “historical facts” alter for each generation, the historian must figure out how to make some sense of all the “facts” and the “altered perceptions.” I came to find it more rewarding for me to dig within myself for the “primary source materials.” Looks like I took another tangent.

Okay, course correction as I try to steer back to my introduction of the Tang dynasty. So on the path of all that research to find out who these Chan masters were, I covered a lot of ground in the 6th and 7th centuries. And I really liked what I saw – local religious ideas, legends, customs, incredible locations, amazing stories, heroes, spirits, gods, demons, etc. all the things that made up life in those days and in those places.

At the same time, I was watching wuxia movies and studying with Chinese martial arts masters and Buddhist masters – a number of whom were Chan masters. It was an amazing experience, especially with the latter group. They had held onto their traditions so well that when I visited them in their monasteries it was like entering a time tunnel and literally floating back to the Tang! I remember my graduate student days in Taiwan, thinking that of all the folks studying traditional China, my fellow Buddhist researchers and I had to be the luckiest – we were studying a LIVING tradition! I’ll tell you one story from that period.

One of my teachers, the venerable Chan master, Ling-yuan, had moved from being a Taoist monk in his late teenage years to being ordained as a Buddhist monk. He had learned most of the Buddhist cannon – which is huge – by heart. One day, in his monastery quarters, I asked him about a two-character Chinese combination (some Buddhist technical term) that I couldn’t figure out. He stood up, went to his Buddhist cannon collection and pulled out one volume. He paged through it for a moment and then pointed to where that combination was used in a text passage and proceeded to explain it to me. Later on, I met two Chinese philosophy students and urged them to meet this monk as his knowledge was quite incredible. They told me that monks didn’t know anything. They just sit around and make money doing funeral rites, or something to that effect. Awhile later, I ran into them again. They had become curious about my impressions of this monk and visited him. I think they realized that their philosophy professor was really a rank amateur when it came to this monk’s understanding of the traditional teachings. Of course, each person has their field of expertise and there is no absolute better or lesser being advocated here. Rather my point is that this monk and the other members of the Buddhist clergy that I met allowed me to have a little more insight into the mind of the traditional Chinese – it was a culture where the mind was a very powerful instrument – and I liked what I saw. Looking back on all that it now makes “perfect” sense that I would become a fiction writer!

So all of that led me to become very fond of the early Tang, when these new ideas were taking form and this new empire was being created. It was an exciting time in Chinese history, and an exciting time in world history – the other great world cultural center at the time was, can you guess? Baghdad! Further, by the middle of the 8th century, the Tang would undergo a rebellion that almost destroyed it. It managed to carry on for another two centuries and there were many more brilliant achievements. Yet, it is those first two centuries that hold my attention.

In the history of China, the Sui dynasty (581-618 C.E.) had managed to unite the empire after almost three hundred years of division. My short story, “The Screen,” (collected in Strange Tales from the Dragon Gate Inn) is set at the moment of unification and reflects some of the problems this unification presented.

If you didn’t know that I originally wrote the story in 1995, you might think I was commenting on some of the present political issues. Rather, I think it is an example of how “current” medieval history can be. The relationship between conquerors and their subjects is universal – it spans both time and geography. One can legitimately wonder if we really do learn anything from history. I remember reading the great American historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., commenting that history doesn’t teach anything, because people are not seriously interested in learning anything from it! Right on! Perhaps, fiction can provide more of a lasting impact?

The Sui unification fell apart after only twenty-nine years (they united China in 589 C.E.). But the Li royal house, as the Tang dynasty, managed to not only put things back together for roughly three hundred years, but also expand China to almost its present size. And that unification was quite amazing, for as “The Screen” accurately portrays, the two Chinas (north and south) had grown quite apart, so much so that the southern ruler of China had to have an interpreter to speak with his northern conquerors. The northern Chinese culture had been conquered and ruled by non-Han Chinese tribes. In the south, the Han Chinese refugees from the northern conquest mixed with the southern non-Han aborigine tribes. It is not often recognized that China has always been a “melting pot” of diverse cultures, races, and traditions. That’s one of the reasons why we wuxia writers have so much fun with our genre - there is so much material to work with!

The Tang rulers were able to meld all of this into a brilliant culture, one that some schools of historical thought claim to have set the foundations for early modern East Asian culture. One aspect of this great cultural amalgam was literature. The Tang has long been noted for the rise of short story fiction. I always can’t help smiling when I hear Western claims to the “first” detective fiction or the “first” short story fiction form. There were several forms of literary fiction before the Tang with the historical form being mainstream. From that source there were attempts at writing stories that were grounded in history but “played” with events and characters – like my example for the wuxia tradition in the previous blog of the “Yueh Maiden” – set against a historical background and involving historical figures, the “Yueh Maiden” represents some local legend brought to life in a writer’s imagination.

The most famous form of Tang fiction was the chuan-qi (ch’uan-ch’i) story. It is from this genre that genuine wuxia fiction develops. But first, let’s find a workable translation for chuan-qi. Some very “scholarly scholars” (they tend toward very literal translations of Chinese terms; translations that have little “literary” appeal) have translated chuan-qi as “transmitted marvels” or, even more long-winded, “transmitting accounts of remarkable things.” More recently, Professor Sophia Lai, referred to in previous blogs for her article on Chinese swordswomen, gives the translation, “fantastic tales,” which is much more literary. I like that translation. My own translation is influenced by my fascination with the science fiction genre and the importance of “wonder,” at least, in the early years of that genre’s development. So I would offer, “tales of wonder” as a translation of chuan-qi. And I think the Tang literati – make no mistake these tales were written by the literate classes for the literate classes – also picked up ideas from the oral storytelling tradition and local legends.

There are extant collections of these Tang “tales of wonder” in Chinese, and there are good English translations of some. Let’s start with a characterization of these tales. We can find both translations and characterizations in Traditional Chinese StoriesThemes and Variations, edited by Y.W. Ma and Joseph S.M. Lau, Cheng & Tsui, 1986 (ISBN: 0-88727-071-9). There are fourteen Tang “tales of wonder” translated in this collection along with a number of stories from other dynasties.

Here’s how Ma and Lau (p.xxi) characterize the Tang “tales of wonder”:

These T’ang stories have been divided into four major thematic groups by modern scholars – love stories, historical stories, knight-errantry, and the supernatural…

Some of the most easily identifiable features of T’ang ch’uan-ch’i stories can be listed: (1) the liberal use of incidental poems; (2) the occurrence of the national capital [Chang’an, present day, Xian] in the setting; (3) a the presence of didactic commentaries which conclude the stories; and (4) the use of a narrator who is also a witness to the event…

For their painstaking attention to details and conscious effort at characterization, T’ang ch’uan-ch’i have been most instrumental in the development of realism in Chinese fiction during later periods.

Another view of these “tales of wonder” comes from the wonderful little book, The Literature of China 3: Tales of the Supernatural, by H.C. Chang, Edinburgh University Press, 1983 (ISBN: 0-85224-454-1); this will be a little bit harder to find, but it’s around. There are twelve stories translated, but not all are Tang. Professor Chang’s forty-page introduction to traditional Chinese literature has some very interesting comments on Tang “tales of wonder.” For example (p.14), regarding the origins of this genre:

Whereas earlier writers had been concerned merely to record miracles and wonders, the T’ang writers were intent on telling a tale, on enlivening it with characters in a setting with some semblance of actuality, on adorning it with ingenious and elegant phrases, and on projecting their own ideals into the course of the action, thereby identifying themselves with hero and heroine and their adventures and exploits. Although the writers of the Ch’uan-ch’i tale inherited four centuries of burning curiosity about spiritual manifestations and a large body of supernatural lore, their interest in the world of spirits was really more literary than pious…And, indeed, for the telling of a tale, there is no better subject than the marvelous and supernatural, which constitute the theme of half of the Ch’uan-ch’i tales, the other favourite subject being love, which is sometimes combined with the supernatural in treatment.

Professor Chang also writes that the Tang authors had a “flamboyant and naive outlook.” He explains:

The flamboyance manifests itself in the ostentatious tone, the zestful narrative, the rich descriptions, the florid style and the luxuriant language. As regards naivety, the world is seen through the starry eyes of youth and innocence, which enables the writers to enter readily into scenes of enchantment, mundane or supernatural. The supernatural is indeed accepted as part of the wonders of existence without question or explanation. Resulting from a fusion of this flamboyance and naivety, the T’ang imagination may be likened to the spectrum of a rainbow lending colour and magic to even the plain and ordinary.

My traditional China grounded fiction writing is deeply influenced by this “tales of wonder” style. So much so, that in the front matter of Dream of the Dragon Pool – A Daoist Quest, the “Author’s Statement” reads:

The adventure you are about to embark on is based upon an 8th century Chinese understanding of reality. In addition, while many of the characters, incidents, and locations in the story appear in Chinese historical records, some are yet to be discovered, and others may never be. It is up to the reader to decide if any of this matters.

So when I write, “an 8th century Chinese understanding of reality,” I am, in general, referring to the same “flamboyance and naivety” that Professor Chang mentions in his characterization of those Tang “tales of wonder” writers. A similar "Author's Statement" appears in my new Listening to Rain novel.

I should also add that another great influence on my writing has been the Latin American magical realist writers, like Gabriel García Márquez. Magical Realism, however, is a bit more involved than simply accepting the supernatural, “as part of the wonders of existence without question or explanation.” Too involved to get into here, and it would take us too far from my focus here on my writer’s relationship to the Tang “tales of wonder.”

To wrap up my comments in today’s blog, I would offer a wonderful quote from Professor Chang’s work regarding the nature of the characters in this genre, and the nature of the Tang period:

The characters portrayed in the Ch’uan-ch’i tales are equally flamboyant and naive. The T’ang was an era in which scholars were not yet weak and helpless, nor ladies, stilted patterns of virtue. In the tales, the men are full-blooded and manly, abounding with energy and gusto, and extravagant in speech and behaviour. The tales, too, depict a world in which men and women engage spontaneously in social activity, far more readily than in later time and with far fewer scruples and inhibitions: they play music and dance, they ride and hunt, they exchange verses extempore, they flirt and love, all without the least trace of self-consciousness. Every man is a hero out to conquer, every woman a goddess, every residence a charmed place. And the supernatural is but an extension of this enchantment for the artless hero, who is not so much credulous as easily wonder-struck.

No doubt, Professor Chang seems to have imbibed deeply from the Tang wine of flamboyance and, perhaps, some would also say naiveté. Yet, hopefully, so have I in rendering my Tang tales – to quote myself, “It is up to the reader to decide if any of this matters.”


Tang Swordswomen

Our narration of the xia literary tradition has arrived at the Tang dynasty, and I will use the previously cited article by Professor Sophia Lai, “From Cross-Dressing Daughter to Lady Knight-Errant: The Origin and Evolution of Chinese Women Warriors,” as the platform for our introduction into Tang literary characterization of female wandering blades.

Most scholars agree that it was during the Tang that the fiction short story form arose in Chinese literary history, as well as the heroic fiction (wuxia) tradition. Further, within that tradition we find the rise of the swordswoman hero. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that this is not the first appearance of armed women in Chinese literature – most notably, we had the female general, Fu Hao of the Shang dynasty, Sun Zi’s story about training the concubines of the Wu king for combat, the story of the Yueh Maiden swordswoman, and the well-known story of Mulan.

Professor Lai points us to the great Taiping guangji (Extensive Gleanings of the Reign of Great Tranquility) edited by Li Fang (925-996 C.E.) where twenty-four tales of wandering blades are collected. Of those accounts, seven are about swordswomen:

“The Curly-Bearded Stranger” (“Qiuren ke”), “The Woman Inside a Carriage” (“Chezhong nüzi”), “Cui Shensi[’s Wife],” (“Cui Shensi”), “The Mysterious Girl of the Nie Family” (“Nie Yinniang”), “Red Thread” (“Hong-xian”), “The Merchant’s Wife” (“Guren qi”), and “Lady Jing the Thirteenth” (“Jing shisan niang”). (p.91)

According to Cao Zhengwen in The History of the Wandering Blades Culture (Zhongguo xia wen hua shi) there are five categories of xia: wandering blades (youxia), assassins (cike), princely wandering blades (qingxiang zi xia), righteous wandering blades (yixia), and bandits (dao). Professor Lai believes that James J.Y. Liu’s list of xia ideals, that I referenced in an earlier issue of this blog, only partially applies to certain types of xia. (p.90)

She also points out that our Tang female wandering blades, as recorded in the Taiping guangji, “represent various social classes and embody all five categories of xia

Red Wisk (Hongfu) in “The Curly-Bearded Stranger” is a courtesan who acts like a wandering knight; Cui Shensi’s wife and the merchant’s wife are avengers and assassins; Nei Yinniang, a general’s daughter and a governor’s protector, may be seen both as an assassin and a princely knight; Hongxian, a maid, and Lady Jing the Thirteenth, a widowed merchant, may be seen as righteous knights; and the woman inside a carriage is the first female bandit in Chinese literature. (p.92)

These examples are interesting as they point us back to our old friend the great Chinese historian, Sima Qian, who was the first Chinese historian to write of the xia and note some of the same points about their crossing social class lines and having diverse motives for their actions. Further, these examples of women warriors from the Tang also point to the differences with traditional warriors from the West (knights) and further East (the samurai) where xia association in the Chinese tradition is not restricted to a specific social-political class membership.

Regarding these Tang female xia, Professor Lai further points out:

 These seven chivalrous ladies are unique characters in Chinese literature. Some of them can jump many feet high and walk on the walls like flying birds: some wield swords and daggers and are equipped with martial skills that allow them to come and go without being noticed. They are also physically stronger than ordinary men and financially independent and they are free to determine their own marriages. They work furtively at night, and they are described as enigmatic warriors who operate alone according to their own rules of justice. (p.92)

Professor Lai then asks how these women compare to the previous literary characterizations of heroic women by comparing them to the Mulan tradition that successfully weaves the “strong, independent woman” with the Confucian ideals of loyalty and duty:

These extraordinary female knights-errant are not only loyal and dutiful, like Mulan, but also characterized by intriguing beauty, spectacular physical strength, and even supernatural ability. This Tang genre not only cultivates a new range for Chinese fiction, but also establishes a new idealized, although somewhat eccentric, image of Chinese women warriors. (p.92)

In trying to understand why these “unique characters in Chinese literature,” these “somewhat eccentric, image of Chinese woman warriors” appear in the new Tang chuanqi (tales of wonder) literary genre, Professor Lai believes that it is due to the Tang “authors’ inability to reconcile an ideological paradox: female Confucian virtues and knight-errant temperament.” It is worth quoting Professor Lai’s argument in full as it is both an interesting interpretation, but also one that misses what is so unique about the Tang and its chuanqi literature:

Unlike Mulan, whose filial virtue and heroic deeds require her to disguise her gender, the lady knights-errant in the Tang chuanqi retain their gender identity on the one hand, while on the other they abide by the bao code of xia, which is not necessarily compatible with Confucian expectations of womanhood. As women, they are expected to fulfill their Confucian role; as knights-errant, they are allowed to transgress the Confucian code. It is within this paradox that these dehumanized women warriors are created. Therefore, we see these chivalrous ladies as inhuman creatures that lack human emotions, femininity, and maternal qualities. In a way, we can say that the Tang storytellers created intriguing women warriors by stripping them of their womanhood. (p.95)

It is hard to know where to begin with this, but let’s plunge in on the “inhumanity” aspect. If we accept, which I do not, that the xia code was based entirely on bao (reciprocation: either for a kindness or for revenge), then repaying a kindness with a kindness or an injury with an injury is certainly not “inhuman,” rather it is all too human.

If anything, these female characters, like their male xia counterparts, were very emotional in their social behavior. That their emotional expressions might lack “femininity” or “maternal qualities” seems to me to imply a specific definition of womanhood that nowadays might not be so universally supported, and that in the Tang dynasty was obviously not supported by a number of chuanqi writers.

Professor Lai’s interpretation of these Tang female fiction characters rests heavily upon the use of “Confucian expectations of womanhood” as a standard. Was the Tang using such a standard? The Confucian standard had been out of favor among a majority of Chinese intellectuals since the fall of the Han dynasty, since 220 C.E. It was the collapse of the Han “standard” that opened the way for the rise of both Daoism and Buddhism. By the Tang dynasty those two new “standards” were in full bloom.

Further, it was the Tang dynasty, as with the preceding Han, that the Chinese, to an unprecedented extent, embraced foreign cultures. And with the Tang, though not unique to the Tang, we have an imperial family that is racially integrated with the Turkish culture that surrounded the ethnic Chinese in the northern and western reaches of their empire. This foreign/Turkish influence that also established a much more open standard for the definition of “womanhood.” If you have a chance, watch the movie Mongol to get a sense of the northern nomadic "womanhood" in action - while the subject is not the Turkish nomadic tribes of the Tang period, the traditions are similar.

Thus we find in the Tang capital at Chang’an (present day, Xian) records of Tang princesses parading in the streets on horseback with their retinues of maidservants all dressed in male military attire. Horseback riding and polo were popular with women along with the latest in Indian sari fashions. These were heady times in China, times of unprecedented openness to foreign/international cultures; cultures that the great Silk Road brought from the farthest Western regions to the doorstep of the Chinese imperial capital.

And Chinese writers, like artists everywhere, were influenced by these culturally broadened horizons. It wasn’t Confucian standards that they were trying, and supposedly failing, to reconcile. They were setting new standards. To compare these new values to those of previous dynasties is to lose focus on the nature of the chuanqi literature.

Further, even if Confucian standards were on the mind of the Tang short story writers, it is a well-known fiction technique to use conflict to build reader interest. What better way than to construct characters that conflict with the old Confucian ways of interpreting “womanhood”!

Remember what Professor H.C. Chang (The Literature of China 3: Tales of the Supernatural) wrote about the chuanqi characters:

The characters portrayed in the Ch’uan-ch’i tales are equally flamboyant and naive. The T’ang was an era in which scholars were not yet weak and helpless, nor ladies, stilted patterns of virtue. In the tales, the men are full-blooded and manly, abounding with energy and gusto, and extravagant in speech and behaviour. The tales, too, depict a world in which men and women engage spontaneously in social activity, far more readily than in later time and with far fewer scruples and inhibitions: they play music and dance, they ride and hunt, they exchange verses extempore, they flirt and love, all without the least trace of self-consciousness. Every man is a hero out to conquer, every woman a goddess, every residence a charmed place. And the supernatural is but an extension of this enchantment for the artless hero, who is not so much credulous as easily wonder-struck.

The Tang tales of wonder writers were certainly conflicted regarding Confucian standards of womanhood. NOT!

If you find these Tang female xia familiar figures in the wuxia movies you enjoy, then now you know where it all started – the wonderful Tang dynasty! And they will continue in my fiction!

The wuxia tradition grew out of the historical circumstances of Warring States China and firmly manifested itself in Chinese fiction by the Tang dynasty. It continued on through the following dynasties and in the twentieth century made the transition to film. In the twenty-first century, with the globalization of practically everything, wuxia has continued both in its homelands of East Asia and spilled across borders now made invisible by the very media that you are reading this on! Wuxia Lives!


The Innkeeper



Sailing with Li Bo and Tanzong

Since my novel Dream of the Dragon Pool is a “river story,” with Li Bo sailing up the Yangtze River on his quest with the Dragon Pool Sword, and my forthcoming novel, Listening to Rain, spends time sailing in the South China Sea, I thought to discuss ancient/medieval Chinese ships. In Dragon Pool, Li Bo uses three river conveyances: an Imperial salt hauler – basically, a freighter;  a gorge runner – a lighter, faster ship to pass through the famed Three Gorges; and a third highly unconventional water “craft,” which you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is! In Listening to Rain, Tanzong and Li Wei sail on a mysterious “shaman’s craft,” an ocean going pirate junk, the Dragonfly, and are chased by swift sailing Sea Hawk patrol craft. Overall, traditional Chinese ship design was far in advance of the West till at least the 17th or 18th centuries C.E. As a matter of fact, the West borrowed much from the Chinese in further developing their modern ship designs. And, one could speculate that it was all due to bamboo and the Chinese sensitivity to Nature – the Tao of bamboo?

Ship Architecture

The basic advance of the Chinese shipbuilders that seems to have literally laid the foundations for all future developments was the use of watertight bulkheads – just like the bamboo when split open, the joints form natural partitions inside the bamboo. They add strength and allow for flexibility. Thus, bamboo is one of the most popular materials used in Asia for almost every conceivable construction – from kitchen utensils to skyscraper scaffolding; and, most likely, to the earliest rafts (still in use in the rivers and their fast-flowing tributaries in Asia). Scholars now believe that the early Chinese got their ideas for ship construction from the simple bamboo.

Most traditional Chinese ships were built without keels. The shipwright lays out the frame based on the bulkhead placement and builds from there. The sides and bottom of the ship are formed by planking nailed to the bulkheads and reinforced by very solid “wales” (strakes, thicker planking) along the sides from bow to stern. Not only does this lead to a very strong, watertight interior hull (probably in use by the second century C.E. The West doesn’t figure this out till the end of the 18th century. This innovation also results in flat bottoms and blunted bows and sterns, which, in turn lead to further nautical advances. Meanwhile, the West doesn’t go to flat bottoms for larger ships till the 19th century when steel comes into use for ship hulls.

The flat stern sets the stage for another Chinese advance, the axial balanced rudder. While the rest of the ancient and not so ancient world was sailing around with various forms of steering oars/paddles, the Chinese were using a stern slung rudder that through an ingenious pulley system could be raised or lowered depending upon the sailing conditions (at least by the 2nd century C.E.; the first evidence of a stern rudder in the West appears in 1180 C.E.). Thus the rudder could be used to both steer and stabilize the ship, while also allowing it to sail in shallower waters without fear of hanging up the rudder – the pirate captain, Byung Nhak will use this nautical design to her advantage in Listening to Rain. During the Sung dynasty (10-13th centuries) the Chinese developed balanced rudders, where there was a portion of the rudder in front of the rudder post allowing the flowing water to assist in the steering. A further development was the fenestration of the rudder: holes were cut into the lower sections of the rudder to allow water to pass through it to reduce the water resistance to a turning rudder. Here's a drawing of such a rudder setup:

Chinese Rudder

Chinese ships and boats were built according to the conditions of use and the conditions of the environment in which they would sail.

China has one of the longest histories of shipbuilding in the world. Wooden junks alone as described in historical records varied greatly in type, being estimated at about 1,000 by the mid-20th century. For coastal fishing alone, 200 to 300 types were noted. (Ancient China’s Technology and Science, Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, “Shipbuilding,” Zhou Shide, p.479, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China, 1983)

Professor Zhou continues on to point out the skill of the ancient Chinese in adapting form to function:

The ancient shipwrights were remarkable for their ability to develop a great variety of models and types to suit different marine conditions…The Chinese shipwrights were good at devising new types of ships by combining the good points of various kinds of vessels. The Song Dynasty ship used in both inland and sea-going navigation combined the bottom of a lake-boat, the deck of a warship and the bow and stern of a sea-going vessel. Again, in the reign of the Emperor Kang Xi in the early Qing, a type of freighter build in Fuzhou for timber shipping and know as the “Three Unlikes” was not like the sand ship, bird ship or egg ship but was a new model combining the advantages of all three. (Ibid., pp.482-483)

The flat bottomed or “sand ships” were a basic design an initially built for use mostly in northern coastal waters (from the delta of the Yangtze River and north) where sand shoals abound, but were also used as river freighters. The shallow draft, flat bottoms, and retractable rudders helped these ships avoid beaching on the numerous sand shoals in those regions; and thus the name “sand ships.” While to the south, around the great open sea sailing ports in Fujian and Guangdong provinces, their deep-sea sailing ships had rounded bottoms for swifter more stable sailing:

North of the Hangchow [Hangzhou] Bay the coastal and sea-going craft are flat-bottomed and have a pronounced ridge with relatively large, heavy and square rudders which can be lowered well below the ship’s bottom or raised up high. They are thus fitted for frequent beaching in the shallow harbours or muddy estuaries of the north, where the tidal effects are most noticeable, while at sea the rudder acts as an efficient ‘drop-keel.’ South of Hangchow Bay the coastal waters are deeper, the inlets fjord-like, and the islands more numerous. Here the underwater lines of the vessels become progressively more curved, with the sharper entry, less pronounced ridge and rounder stern; at the same time the rudders, often supplemented by centre-boards, become sometimes narrower and deeper, sometimes drilled with holes and shaped like a rhomboid. (The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, ed., Colin A. Ronan, vol.3, pp.93-4, ISBN: 0521252725)

Looking further into the hull designs of Chinese ships, we find another interesting reading of Nature by the Chinese. When the Europeans thought about hull design, they thought about fish. Seems natural, fish and water are “made for each other.” So European hulls were designed with a fish-shape in mind:

Broadly speaking, the European tendency has always been to set the greater fullness of the ship forward, towards the bow… (Ibid., pp.85-86)

Fish-shaped. But the Chinese insight differed. When they looked at a ship, they saw a duck. Fish swim in the water, ducks swim on top of the water – like a ship:

…while the Chinese tendency was to set it [the greater fullness of the ship] towards the stern. (Ibid.)

This Chinese insight was proven correct when ship design was scientifically tested by the Europeans.


In terms of the means of propulsion the Chinese were also far ahead of the rest of the world. Earlier in European history, with the Greeks and Romans there had been large ships with multiple masts, but these did not survive the fall of theRoman Empire. The Chinese, however, were sailing large ships with as many as five masts. The great European traveler Marco Polo confirms the Chinese advances in sail technology:

He gives evidence for the great mat-and-batten square sails, much greater in number than were carried by any European or Arab ship of the time, and their ability to make use of the wind coming from almost any quarter. (Ibid., p.118)

From at least the 3rd century C.E., Chinese ships were equipped with multiple masts. Most likely, this was due to their bulkhead construction methods, which provided strong anchoring positions for the masts. Further:

The Chinese also staggered their masts across the width of the ship in order to avoid the becalming of one sail by another. This is approved by modern sailing ship designers, but not adopted by Europeans during the period of importance of the sailing ship. Nor did the Chinese practice of radiating the rakes (tilts) of the masts like spines of a fan win acceptance in other parts of the world. (Ibid., p.268)

A Chinese seventeenth century description of classic mat and batten lug sail that was common on Chinese ships explains:

The sail is made by weaving together thin and narrow strips of the outer parts of the stems of bamboo, and (this matting is) divided into sections grasped by (parallel) bamboo battens. Thus the sail folds in tiers, ready to be (bent to yard and boom and) hoisted. A large mainsail in a grainship needs ten men to hoist it, but for the foresail two suffice…When the wind is favourable the sail is hoisted to its full height and the boat moves at a good speed like a racing horse, but if the wind freshens the sail is reefed (coming down by its own weight) in due order (section by section one after another)…In a gale only one or two sections of the sail are hoisted. (The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, ed., Colin A. Ronan, vol.3, pp.195-196)

The Chinese mat and batten lug sail, (for example, the ones seen most frequently on the junks in Hong Kong harbor), are raised and lowered from the deck. Not only are they more efficient than the traditional early modern Western square-riggers, the crew doesn’t have to climb the mast and hang off the spars sheeting the great canvass sails as the ship is being tossed around.

Even more interesting is the possibility that Chinese ships might have indirectly made the European “Age of Discovery” possible; G.S. Clowes, the historian of navel architecture, points out:

It was the introduction of the three-masted ship with its improved ability to contend with adverse winds, which made possible the great voyages of discovery of the end of the fifteenth century, of Columbus to the West Indies, of Vasco da Gama to India, and of the Cabots to Newfoundland; and it is a curious thought that this great development may really have been due to the introduction into Europe of accounts of the multiple-masted Chinese junks which traded so effectively in the Indian Ocean…(Ibid., p.119)

There is much more technical information in the Ronan volume about the construction of Chinese sails, but it is both beyond what is necessary here to convey a sense of the Chinese advances in naval technology, and also beyond my knowledge of sailing!

Besides wind propulsion, the Chinese, not later than the 1st century C.E., invented the self-feathering sculling oar, and “the treadmill-operated paddle wheel in the eighth if not the fifth century C.E., and its great development in the Sung [Song] (twelfth century) for warships with multiple paddle-wheels and catapult artillery.” (Ibid., p.268)


The ancient Chinese used two basic systems of navigation: celestial and magnetic. The Chinese scholar, Yan Dunjie sums it up when he writes:

Chinese sailors in ancient times learned to orient themselves on the sea by observing celestial bodies. It is mentioned in the Huai Nan Zi (The Book of the Prince of Huai Nan) that traveling aboard ship at see, one could tell east from west by locating the polar star. A similar remark is found in Bao Pu Zi (Book of Master Baopu) by Ge Hong in 284-364) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Ge Hong states that travelers on land who lost their way were guided by the south-pointing chariot, and if they lost their way on the sea they looked at the polar star. Fa Xian, a monk of the Eastern Jin  Dynasty (317-420) who returned from India by sea, said that on board ship, “we found ourselves in the midst of boundless waters, at a loss in telling east from west. We advanced by observing the sun, the moon and the stars.” This “dependence on stars at night and the sun in the daytime” continued till the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), when Chinese mariners learned to “look at the compass on a cloudy day.” (Ancient China’s Technology and Science, Yan Dunjie, p.494)

Though the exact date of the Chinese invention of the south pointing compass is unclear, it did come into use during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E.). However, it is only in the 12th century that we have clear confirmation of its use on Chinese ships. The actual use of the compass for nautical navigation probably happened a few centuries before the 12th century written source. And the Chinese record of astronomical observation is both ancient and remarkable.

This is only a meager attempt to outline the Chinese naval experience, for theirs was a long and brilliant history that far surpassed the rest of the world until recent times. In Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain you’ll make the acquaintance of a few of these remarkable water crafts.

I’ve also added some ship images to show you my inspirations for the various ships in my novels. While there aren’t any definitive images of Tang dynasty ships, I used ships of later dynasties as my imaginary models for the ships in Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain.

In the former novel, Li Bo and Ma Ssu-ming’s skiffs were based this image of a contemporary Wuhu-Hankow region skiff (NOTE: Move your cursor over the ship names to click on images).

Li Bo & Ma Ssu-ming's Skiff type

For their Long River Gorge Runner, my inspiration was another contemporary ship that probably still runs those rapids.

Yangtze Gorge Runner

Turning to Tanzong and his waterborne adventures in Listening to Rain, my inspiration for the Sea Hawks was this Qing dynasty patrol ship.

Sea Hawk Model

And for the pirate Byung’s Dragonfly, my inspiration came from another modern period ship.

Dragonfly Model

While admittedly this merchant ship looks a bit dowdy, when I see Byung racing over the South China Sea, the following image is more to my liking.

Dragonfly Under Sail! 

(The above images were all from G.R.G. Worcester's wonderful, The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze [ISBN-13: 978-0870213359)

However, someday in the future – I intend to write a volume devoted solely to her adventures, Byung will have the opportunity to build her own ship, the Dragonfly II. And my inspiration for that ship comes from this wonderful image of a 13th century Mongol (yes, they had ships – built by the Chinese) warship! Imagine the adventures!!!



Drinking with Li Bo: Tang Dynasty Wine

Welcome back to the Inn. I thought it might be interesting to look at one of the most famous traits of the poet Li Bo, who is the protagonist in my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool. Li Bo’s acquaintance (the “other” greatest Chinese poet), Du Fu (712-770 CE) wrote in reference to Li Bo, “Give him one dou (2.6 gallons) of wine and he will spout forth a hundred poems.” Du Fu also claimed that from his friend, “a thousand poems float from one cup of wine.” I would first like to take a brief look at the role of wine in Li Bo’s poetry and then broaden the subject to the nature of “wine” in the Tang dynasty.

Facing Wine

I urge you not to refuse a cup, For the spring wind has come to laugh at us. Peach and plum trees are like old friends, Tipping forth their blossoms to open toward me. Swirling warblers call from emerald trees, Bright moon peers into the golden wine cup. The rose-cheeked lad of yesterday. Today, the white hairs grow apace. Brambles grew beneath Shi Hu’s halls, Deer wandered on Gu Su Pavilion. The dwellings of emperors since times of old, Their walls and gates shut in yellow dust. If you do not drink the wine, Then where are the men of yesteryear?

Li Bo

Translation by Paula M. Varsano, Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception,University of Hawaii Press,Honolulu, 2003. p.283.

Li Bo’s use of wine was not simply as an imbiber. His legendary drinking prowess might well have been just that, “legendary,” a persona carefully crafted to achieve the sought after effect on his readers and his posterity. Professor Varsano writes of the relationship of wine and poetry in Chinese culture:

Wine-drinking, as a practice as well as a poetic gesture, is closely related to the values of immediacy and authentic expression, and it is a gesture well entrenched in the Chinese poetic tradition. In the work of Li Bo, who is so adept at marshaling a wide array of traditionally familiar tropes and motifs to establish an authentic latter-day poet’s immediacy, the “stuff of the goblet” proves a pliable and expressive medium; in the hands of critics and biographers, it became the stuff of his legend. (p.282)

In Dream of the Dragon Pool, it is the stuff of legend that I am pursuing. Yet, it is interesting to understand how Li Bo used wine drinking in his poetry. Varsano points out:

In writing about wine as a way of sustaining the past, and in choosing terms that, except for their allusive quality, verge on being non sequiturs, Li Bo expresses both the obligation to the past and its intrinsic absurdity. One drinks and, guided in part by tradition, uses the desire to forget as a pretext; but, actually, one is obliged to drink and, in the very action, to acknowledge the tradition. (p.284)

And if this weren’t enough, there is even more involved in the “simple” act of tipping a wine cup in the culture of Chinese poetry:

 It dismantles the boundaries between allusion and illusion, between what is remembered and what is seen, and between what is imagined and what is perceived. In a gesture that is as much challenge as an invitation, Li Bo enjoins his readers to share in this vision. (p.285)

As Varsano writes, “Wine combines easily with a view from on high, blurring the lines separating perception, imagination, and memory.” (p.279) That Li Bo was a master at “blurring” the lines “from on high” has been verified by over a thousand years of critical acclaim. And while Varsano and other scholars point out that Li Bo was also very much aware of the usefulness of “self-marketing,” and in that sense a “modern” literary figure, it is also interesting to look at one of his most potent “marketing tools,” wine.

Alcoholic beverages have a very long history in China. Chemical analysis made on the residues in pottery jars from the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province, northern China revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit was being produced as early as 9,000 years ago. Further discoveries have uncovered lidded bronze vessels dating from the Shang and Western Zhou periods (ca. 1250-1000 BCE) that contained rice and millet “wines.”

By Li Bo’s Tang dynasty, beverages had become much more sophisticated. But first we have to quickly deal with the technical definitions. In the West, “wines” are defined as fermented fruit juices, while beers and ales are brewed from cereals. According to these definitions, the ancient Chinese were drinking a lot of beers/ales since they used rice, millet, and wheat to create their jiu – mostly translated as “wine,” but some scholars are following the Western definition and translating jiu as “beer” or “ale.” I prefer to translate jiu as “wine.”

Dr. H.T. Huang, the former Director of the Needham Research Institute, and author of Volume 6: Biology and Biological Technology, Part V: Fermentations and Food Science of Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China series (ISBN: 0521652707, Cambridge University Press) writes:

 In fact, chiu actually resembles wine more than beer in terms of its alcohol content (greater than 10 per cent) and its overall organoleptic character. (p.149)

Dr. Huang acknowledges the translation issue, but decides in favor of “wine” as the translation for the Chinese “alcoholic drink” known as jiu/chiu. He points out three reasons:

The first is gastronomic. Chiu is used widely in Chinese cooking and dining in a manner analogous to wine in European cuisines. While beer or ale may also be served at meals, it is rarely seen at formal dinners and banquets.

The second is religious and ceremonial. Chiu was the drink presented to the gods and ancestors at ritual offerings that we read about so often in the Shih Ching (Book of Odes), the Chou I (Rites of the Chou) and the Li Chi (Record of Rites). Wine played a similar role in ancient Greece and Rome…And for toasts on formal occasions chiu is the preferred drink inChina, just as wine is in the West.

The last is aesthetic and sensual. Chiu or rather the drinking of it had become so embedded into the aesthetic and sensual experiences of the Chinese that it was often noted in their arts and literature, particularly in their poetry. (pp.149-150)

And this brings us back to Li Bo and the Tang dynasty. One of the best accounts of Tang alcoholic beverages appears in the chapter on Tang food by the late, great Edward H. Schafer in Food in Chinese Culture, ed. K.C. Chang, Yale University Press,New Haven, 1977. In his section on Tang beverages Schafer discusses the basics of the Chinese grain based wines which:

…came from a cereal mash altered by the vigorous working of ferment cakes, which provided mold and yeasts for the mixture. They in turn created the essential alcohol for the final product. (p.119)

Schafer points out that the millet based wines were a product of the north, while the rice based wines (usually glutinous millet or glutinous rice) were from the south; the latter would be similar to Japanese sake. The ferments were usually started in the sixth or seventh lunar month and the wine itself in the ninth month; this was called “winter” wine. Schafer continues:

But in T’ang times a more popular wine, celebrated in poetry, was “spring” wine, which was fully mature and most palatable when the first flowers of the cherry and peach trees were appearing. This wine played an important part in the many festivities – some solemn some casual – that signalized the beginning of the life cycle in the new year – that is, usually late in January or early in February.  (p.120)


Wine-making techniques were not exclusively concerned with the manipulation of materials. Not only did the herbs added to Chinese wines sometimes have magical purpose (hardly to be distinguished from a medical one), but the process of preparing the ferment – a delicate and critical matter – was accompanied by the recitation of spells and the employment of other modes of obtaining supernatural aid. (p.120)

There were many subvarieties of wine:

An example was the amber-colored unfiltered wine (p’ei), frequently identifiable by the bits of husk floating in it. These enjoyed the popular name of “floating ants” (fou i). They are frequently alluded to in the poetry of the whole period from Han to T’ang. (p.120)

In a note to my readers, see what Li Bo and company are drinking in Dream of the Dragon Pool when they are aboard the gorge-runner traveling up the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.

And while millet and rice were the standard wines:

 …the T’ang bon vivant had many other types of wine to choose from. There were wines flavored with pepper or fagara, chrysanthemum wine, pomegranate wine, ginger wine, “Persian” myrobalan wine (available in the taverns of Changan), and bamboo leaf wine (so named for its color)…There was even a highly favored wine brewed in a liquid taken from limestone caves. This grotto water could certainly have a high alkaline content and, in addition, would offer the magical advantages that accrued from long association with mysterious places – the underground residences of supernatural beings. (pp.120-121)

Then there were the exotic wines from south of the Tropic of Cancer, the palm toddies and fruit extracts - and here check out Listening to Rain to see what Li Wei is drinking! And into the west, there was grape wine, western grapes produced in Central Asia. One of the most famous grape wines during the Tang was “mare teat” wine from the grapes of the elongated, purple variety grown in the Turfan region conquered by the Tang in 640 CE. In the northern pastoral regions, there was also koumiss, a fermented mare’s milk drink that was also popular in the capital, Chang’an (Xian).

If this wasn’t enough, there was also shao jiu or “burnt wine” which is believed to be distilled liquor. Recent archaeological discoveries have uncovered ancient Chinese distilling equipment that still works! These wines were probably similar to the fiery maotai wines that were made famous in the West with Mao’s toasts to Nixon in 1972.

And, of course, a Dragon Gate Inn specialty, tea; it was during the Tang that tea became a popular Chinese drink. Speaking of tea, I need a drink!

Conjuring the Other: Writing Fiction about a Foreign Culture

After seventeen years of graduate historical study and research, I guess I wanted a change. Perhaps what I really wanted was the freedom to discover my own truths. To do so, I turned from the study of history to the writing of fiction. And since I had been studying medieval Chinese history, I turned to writing medieval Chinese historical fiction; specifically, the period of the early Tang dynasty (7th & 8th centuries C.E.). Yet, in making this transition, I faced an unforeseen problem: how does a Western fiction writer deal with a non-Western culture so far removed in both time and space? Dealing with non-Western culture as an academic, I could resort to “academese” - where footnote after footnote and citation after citation can be employed to explain the author’s meaning. But there are two immediate problems with this form of culture bridging: 1. the reader has to wade through the scholar’s “academese,” and 2. the reader immediately forgets it all after the test. As I used to tell my creative writing students:

A fiction writer doesn’t have the luxury of academic authors where their readers in the same field of study are required to read what’s written, no matter how badly written. Not so for the poor fiction writer, that audience can toss the book as soon as it gets boring – no tests here!

As a novelist writing about medieval China, I can’t stop the story and give you a lecture on the status of poetry in Tang culture pointing out that it could literally make or break a person’s career at Court. And here is where that old, clichéd writer’s rule remains true: show, don’t tell.

The non-fiction writer might spend a few pages on telling you the role of poetry in Tang culture and the importance of the written character in Chinese history and culture, how it was the very glue that held China and its empire together for thousands of  years – and, as an acacdemic, I can just keep on going and going.

Switch back into fiction: but what’s happened to my protagonist, Li Bo, in my first novel (Dream of the Dragon Pool), as we leave him reading an inscription on some strange tomb, on some strange mountain, with all that strange mist swirling around him. You would have closed the book at that point if I had launched into exposition on the role of poetry in his world.

The novelist can’t linger and expect the story to keep flowing for the reader. So how do we write that? After my graduate studies in the mid-80s, I took up a long, slow, and painful path away from explaining everything. Exposition is the main illness of academically trained fiction writers. As academics, we are taught the use of “code” or technical words – academese – to embody ideas and explanations for other ideas and concepts. Inside the ivory tower, they “tell” and don’t “show.”

What I am learning in fiction writing, every time I return to Tang China, is that I have to embody these concepts, these bits and pieces of Tang culture, thought, and attitude, and express them in a language that resonates clearly within the culture of English. So, hopefully, I show you what Li Bo was able to do with his poetry and how devastated he is once he loses that power – and there it is, poetry and power, political power, life-giving power equated. Once you see that, you understand how powerful the poetic voice was in Tang society – you don’t need a lecture.

I guess what it comes down to is that Chan (Japanese: Zen) saying that understanding enlightenment is like sipping tea: as much as I explain how hot and how fragrant the tea is, you will only truly understand once you taste it – in essence, that Reality is beyond words, it can only be experienced. Guess that puts us writers out of business. But I’m not worried for in fact the Chan school was one of the most prolific producers of written texts that aimed to point beyond written texts and logical explanations to the essence of experience!

What helped in my case was that I had the good fortune to live in the lands once occupied by the Tang dynasty and especially among the people who were their cultural descendents. By being exposed to their language, their ways of thought, and participating in their social interactions, my fiction writer’s education was helped immeasurably. Yet, with all of that education and living experience, there was still the necessity to express all those experiences in English.

A number of years ago, I joined my first writers group. I was mixed in with short story writers and poets – and none of them was deeply acquainted with the Chinese tradition. At first, I was a curiosity: a history scholar writing fantasies about swordsmen/women in China, ancient China! There were a lot of things that I had taken for granted in my writing, things I figured “everyone knew.” Ha! How naïve!

Just one basic example will serve - character names. I discovered that Western readers easily get lost in all the Wu’s, Wang’s, Hu’s, and Li’s that populate aChinabased story. Some Western writers will translate the names. For example, my Chinese given name (An-bo), a transliteration of the sound of “Albert,” when translated means, “Peaceful Uncle.” So rather than writing:

An-bo said, “This is very ridiculous.”

We’d end up with:

Peaceful Uncle said, “This is even more ridiculous.”

I don’t like translated names. It reminds me of translating Albert into its Anglo-Saxon meaning: “All Bright.” Too weird for these ears, just like “Peaceful Uncle.” The solution? Pick a name in the foreign culture that is not too difficult to pronounce, like Li Bo – but then his parents did that for me – and attach that name to a fully developed character, one that the reader recognizes the second that the character appears in the scene. Then it doesn’t matter what you name them.

Further, I give my characters an epithet or title. For example, in Dream of the Dragon Pool, my character, Luo Jhu-yun; the emperor’s grand shamaness. I think I only refer to her once by her full name – a name that admittedly most Westerner’s might find difficult to remember – the rest of the time she is known as “shamaness Luo,” or just “the shamaness.” And, another character, the “Albino Assassin” is only referred to by that epithet.

As for describing the physical environment, as you can see by the bicycling part of my website, I loved riding around Taiwan, especially in the mountains. I have deep feelings about Chinese landscapes and, hopefully, there is a sense of authenticity in my descriptions. And places that I haven’t been to in China, I research so I know the weather, the earth, the flora and fauna of the region that my characters travel through. For the trip through the Three Gorges that Li Bo takes, I had a 12th century travel diary of a Chinese official who took the same trip. There are no 8th century travel diaries of that route in existence. But a 12th century description is much more accurate to Li Bo’s time than what you’ll find if you make that trip today.

And accuracy is another aspect of my fiction. My stories are set in a medieval China that is as accurate as my skill and knowledge permit me to make it. These settings are not “a China that might have been” or a China that I completely dreamed up. Further, the historical situations that are the starting point of the story are those that arose in the course of Chinese history. As far as, we know, Li Bo was sentenced to a death exile up the Yangtze River toward Burma for treason. This was after his initial sentence of death was commuted through the intervention of his high ranking friends. And by the time he reached the Mount Wu region, the exile sentence was commuted. It’s said his trip involved visiting and drinking with old friends – I, perhaps, have changed the nature of those “friends.”

My most recent novel, Listening to Rain, deals with a main protagonist, the Shaolin monk Tanzong, who, while historical, is even less well documented – we have a medieval Shaolin stone stele referring to him in the context of his assistance to the Tang emperor Li Shihmin. We don’t even know what he specifically did to earn that bit of note. Of course, that presents an opportunity for the historical fiction writer!

It has been my experience that when conjuring the “other,” as a fiction writer of a foreign culture, the author needs to combine the skills of both nonfiction and fiction writing - know the culture and know the writer’s craft.


Note: I must thank Octavia Randolph who, in 2007, asked me to first record my thoughts on this subject for her website (Anglo-Saxons and Vikings). This is an updated version of that original piece. 

A Writing Career: The Opportunity of Defeat

What it is that sustains me as a writer? First of all, you have to be crazy to expect to sustain yourself financially as a fiction writer. What’s that about “not giving up your day job?” It’s not a joke. Everyone seems to think they can write and everyone seems to think that their writing should be sent to literary agents and publishers. This turns into a permanent rush hour around the e-mail addresses and phones of those literary agents and publishers. Best bet here is to get that day job and then go onto to “just do it” when it comes to your writing.

When I was a creative writing teacher, I used to read a lot on the teaching of writing. Most experienced writing teachers seem to agree that becoming a successful writer is 10% talent and 90% perspiration/hard work. Many times the most talented writers don’t have the patience for the long haul that it takes to weave oneself through the nonsense of the publishing industry. They get their stories right the first few times through and then lose patience with all the waiting that it takes to get through the publishing door. While those of us less talented writers are working away at getting the story right and pass the time in endless rewrites before we might get noticed. But nothing that I’m writing here is new, there are endless articles and books on writing that will tell you the same thing. I’d rather write about my path, because that’s what I know best.

It is a cliché in writing that there are two basics to becoming a writer: writing and reading. And both are equally important. It’s obvious that a writer must write, but perhaps not so obvious that a writer must read. And read not only what’s in the field you’re most interested in but read eclectically, read everything that you’re remotely curious about – and some things that you thought you could care less about. When you’re reading in your field of fiction interest, read for the story and then read for how the author did it, or didn’t do it – read both the successes and failures. Learn how they were done, how they were constructed and by doing so learn what works and what doesn’t work – and WHY! This is how reading teaches writing. But of course, if you don’t apply yourself, all the reading and writing in the world doesn’t teach a damn thing.

Let’s look at my reading list. In the category of reading for sustenance, probably the number one lesson in the writing field that I’ve learned was taught to me by Joseph Campbell when he wrote:

Any life career that you choose in following your bliss should be chosen with that sense that nobody can frighten me off from this thing. And no matter what happens, this is the validation of my life and action.  (The Power of Myth)

Yes, “following your bliss.” Campbell was of that 60s generation, and “bliss” was a big deal. And as you can see in the above quote, he is equating “bliss” with “the validation” of your “life and action.” This is serious stuff. He’s saying that what most profoundly moves you is the purpose of your life, your reason for being alive. Further, Campbell has said that if you follow your “bliss,” you are not only validating your meaning as a human being, but by following this path, this dao, doors will open, connections will be made for you. He notes that although these doors will open and connections will be made, you will not necessarily become rich or famous, but you will have a fulfilling life.

My writing career has been this way. Lot of hard work, lot of persistence, but also a lot of satisfaction with the stuff I write and its reception - certainly, no riches and no fame, but great enjoyment out of exploring medieval China in my own way. And here too, Campbell’s work has helped define the way for me. In preparing to write my first wuxia novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, I read his Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is in this book that Campbell puts forth a detailed concept of the “monomyth” – the story of the heroic archetype that appears in most literate civilizations throughout time and geography. The hero’s path is now so well known that Hollywood screenplay writers can probably recite it in their sleep. It was, after all, George Lucas teaming up with Joseph Campbell in scripting out the “myth for our time” – Star Wars.

Campbell’s position made a lot of sense to me, that those stories that touch most deeply on our common shared humanity are the myths that explain what this world is all about; perhaps, the original purpose of storytelling. So I sought to make this part of my storytelling when I set about to write Li Bo’s adventures in Dream of the Dragon Pool. Although, Li Bo lived a long time ago, in a “galaxy” far, far away, his story, hopefully, is one that we can all recognize and share. If that happens, then to no small extent, Joseph Campbell had a hand in it.

As for my literary guides, two or three stand out. At the top of my list for sheer inspiration and imagination rests the great Latin American writer, Gabriel García Márquez. I can still remember riding in a Taipei taxi heading to my class and finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude with a gasp – “He brought the whole story full circle!” I remember my feeling of profound admiration for his literary talent and the power of his imagination. I was deeply awed by Garciz Márquez and read more of his works and those of his fellow “magical realists.” I went on to use them in my creative writing classes to illustrate the leading edge of literary imagination. In some ways, I saw the Chinese wuxia genre as a form of China’s “magical realism.”

But it wasn’t García Márquez, who inspired me to write my first wuxia novel. Rather, that inspiration came from the Italian writer, Umberto Eco, and his renowned, The Name of the Rose. Like many, I bought the novel, but never managed to finish it. I came away thinking, “I can do this and I can do it with a much more interesting culture and historical period.” Of course, I was thinking of the Tang dynasty. Li Bo’s tale was born from that “inspiration” – an historical fiction novel with “Chinese characteristics.”

As I continued to write and read, another author profoundly influenced me. A friend once remarked that there are “popular” writers who are actually better writers than the so-called “literary” writers. As an example, he mentioned Patrick O’Brian, a historical fiction novelist who wrote a series of novels about the British navel experience during the era of Napoleonic sea warfare. What came to be known after the two main protagonists as the Aubrey-Maturin series has been declared the best historical fiction series ever written. After I got by the early 19th century British English, I was hooked and read all 20 volumes one after another. O’Brian writes so well and knows how to do it all: plot, draw characters, do dialogue, go off on fantastically interesting tangents, and create riveting action and suspense. My forthcoming series, The Adventures of the Shaolin Blade Tanzong is a direct influence of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series right down to the dual main protagonists!

There are other writers who informed my imagination, but those mentioned are the main influences. The next influence would be the cinema that includes mostly Chinese wuxia pian and Japanese samurai and anime films.

So we come back to the basics for a writer: writing, reading, and persistence. The motto that I most abided by over these long years was, “Every defeat is an opportunity.” Each time I got a rejection, whether it was for a job application or a literary submission, I saw it as an opportunity to make something better. Best wishes in your writing careers - and remember to be kind to yourselves, writing takes patience!

Writing Historical Fiction: Traveling in the Tang Dynasty

 Reading the Authors Guild’s Bulletin, Fall 2006, I came across this notice:

Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian, wrote: “Treasure Island made me think of travel as pure excitement.” Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water made her “love the element of imagination in travel; Stevenson imagined adventure, but Fermor walking across the map, imagined history.”

This notice made me reflect on my travels through medieval China with the characters I’ve created. I began my travels as a historian, believing this was the most “objective” way of finding out what happened. Took me years of study, research, and the exposure to some interesting Buddhist teachers – okay, I’m a bit dense – to figure out that “objective” is just that, a “theory.” Nice idea, but only a theory. A historian, like a novelist, attaches their sensibilities, their subjectiveness to whatever interpretation they are setting forth either as “fact” or as “fiction.”

So my first journeys in writing were as a historian, a nonfiction writer. In those travels, medieval China looked like thousands of ancient Chinese characters, interpreted by thousands of Japanese characters, further interpreted by thousands of English words. Referring back to Kostova’s comments above, my travels through historical texts were both exciting and imaginative. I’ve always loved history and its study has always been like travel for me. When I read history, especially historical documents or see objects created in some historical period, I become a time traveler. Perhaps, what I didn’t realize when I was reading as a historian was that imagination played a much larger role than I recognized. But that realization was forthcoming.

When I added travel over the earth to my travels over the page and arrived in East Asia, my journeys through medieval China began to add the elements of sensual recognition. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of China began to influence my travel perspective. With these additions, my historical travel became more exciting, more imaginative, and more adventurous. Researching the social and intellectual history of the medieval Chinese Buddhist clergy, I was now able to go out and meet them – or at least, their lineal descendants. A doorway, or, perhaps a rabbit hole, had opened. I could not only learn their point of view on their own history, but could also begin to see first hand their perspective on the world around us. As I became better at spoken Chinese, I learned more and more about these different perspectives. As a result of living in a Chinese Buddhist monastery for a year, I not only got to see how it functioned internally, within itself, but also how it functioned within its society.

Perhaps it was the accumulation of all these factors – sights, smells, tastes, sounds, tactile sensations, and new acquaintances – that moved me from traveling through medieval China as a historian, thinking I was seeing the “reality” of that time and place, to discovering a deeper form of travel – that of the fiction writer.

I’m still not certain what it was that made me turn from historical travel to travel via the imagination. When you stop to think of what I just wrote, it sounds funny. The student of any event that they haven’t witnessed is also traveling via their imagination; and there are those who would argue that even events witnessed are heavily influenced by the imagination. Perhaps what turned me toward fiction was the combination of my East Asian experience and the “rules” that govern historical travel – that, strictly speaking, “knowledge” must have as its basis “objective” evidence.

I do know that up to the point when I received my doctorate in history, I had little use for fiction; that after that point, I wanted to read and write nothing else but fiction. Well, not exactly, I still found it meaningful to base my fictions on historical ground, so I continue to read history. Perhaps, the compromise that facilitates my travel is historical fiction.

So what are my travels in historical fiction like? They combine pure excitement with adventure in historical imagination. But like the historian, the novelist also has rules. So I’ve not escaped rules. Likewise, the historian understands that rules help focus our intellectual energies and provide us with deeper insight and greater breadth of understanding. The use of rules, of limits, also functions in other endeavors, like martial arts for example. In my art of taichi, all those hours of slow focused movements function as a pathway (dao) to levels that transcend many of those restraints.

Which brings me to the path I’ve chosen for my writing, that of the wuxia genre. Why this genre, one that seems on the surface foreign to English language literature? But what is a genre but a collection of conventions. And who determines those conventions? The audience, the readers; they have expectations based on their experiences of various genres. To write in the wuxia genre the author should have some idea of its conventions. And now the historian side of me kicks in – since this genre is at least a thousand years old, at what point in its development do we freeze time and identify those conventions that define the wuxia genre?

As you might know by now, I’ve chosen the Tang dynasty to “freeze time” and use some of its conventions in my definition of the wuxia genre. But each author adds themselves to the mix of conventions when writing – even historians do that!

It comes down to how your definition of the genre plays to your readers. I’m not saying that a writer has to be accepted by the readers to validate their work. Financially, it is certainly “helpful,” but artistically, that’s up to the writer’s sensibilities. Writers, in my view, have to first satisfy themselves with their work. Following popular fancies usually doesn’t make for literature of any lasting quality, but then there are those who could care less. I’m not here to pontificate.

We see a lot of Westerners being attracted to East Asian storytelling forms nowadays – from wuxia to anime; the attraction is very strong. Maybe the grass is greener on the other side or just the seeming freshness in the storytelling. Or, maybe we are learning that there are many ways of gaining insight into “reality.” That traveling these paths of insight involves what Elizabeth Kostova recognized – “the element of imagination.”

And I think that is what will make the wuxia literary genre attractive to a Western audience – that element of imagination evoked by the sights, scents, tastes, sounds, and touch of the East Asian experience. It is my hope that my fiction will be able to do this for my readers.