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 (www.dragon-tsunami.org), 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: faculty.vassar.edu/brvannor/bibliography.html.

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, (fl.ca. 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 (www.science.uva.nl/~seop/archives/spr2003), for Mohism, the entry by Chris Fraser (plato.stanford.edu/entries/mohism), 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 www.heroic-cinema.com/eric/yuehmaiden.html 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