Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to the wuxia film

Wuxia is sub-genre of the martial arts film and is defined by specific features. The word translates literally as “martial chivalry” or “martial hero”; and the main elements that make up the wuxia film are the warrior, xia, whose actions (and swordsmanship) are governed by specific codes and the world which they inhabit, known as jianghu (‘rivers and lakes’). Xia warriors often embody what is known as the wen-wu dyad. Wu represents physical strength and martial power, while wen represents mental, civic and literary accomplishment. Similar in form to the yin-yang, the two opposing masculinities work in harmony to create the masculine ideal. Although the martial arts of wuxia film share some ground with the more recognized subgenre of the kung fu film, there are significant differences that separate the two. The wuxia film features fantastic elements and has a basis in mythology, with the films often described as ‘epics’. This is particularly evident when considering the xia warrior, whose abilities and skill range far beyond the human boundaries that limit the kung fu protagonist; the xia warrior is often able to fly or run on water, for example. As Stephen Teo argues “[t]he essential marker of difference distinguishing the kung fu film from the wuxia film was the emphasis on ‘real fighting’” (58).

Wuxia has a longstanding heritage in East Asia and particularly in China, with the tales of Chinese knight-errantry being “passed down through historical records and fiction” (Teo 57). Indeed, “[t]he literary and philosophical antecedents from whence the character of xia was derived may be traced back as far as the Warring States period (403-221BCE) and perhaps as early as the Spring and Autumn period (722-481)” (Teo 57). Such a deeply rooted cultural form was quickly adapted for the screen, with numerous films informed by the wuxia tradition produced by the famous Shaw Brothers Studio from the 1920s.

Political conflict is often associated with the wuxia film. For example, during the Ming and Qing dynasties a number of wuxia literary works were banned because they were deemed responsible for encouraging anti-government sentiment that led to rebellions. The popularity of the wuxia film genre in the 1920s coincided with a “critical moment in modern Chinese history – during the Guomindang (GMD)’s forceful unification of the country in 1926-1927 and the coup against its communist allies known as the April 12th Incident of 1927” (Teo 27). In this context, and despite (or perhaps because of) its long history in Chinese tradition and culture, the genre was derided by intellectuals, particularly the May Fourth literati: “to the critics, the genre betrayed a basic inconsistency between modernity and tradition, between the outlaw-rebel status of its heroes and the conformist tendencies of the old world Confucianist societies they were meant to protect” (Teo 10). Viewers were encouraged to celebrate and adopt tradition in preference to modernisation and these sympathies were seen to pose a threat to the agendas of nationalization and industrialization adopted by both the right and the left. This tension resulting in the banning of the genre in 1931 (following a GMD Film Censorship Law passed in 1930); the ban was extended when the Chinese Communist Party came to power. Despite this, a number of small-scale film companies in Shanghai managed to produce low-budget wuxia films, benefitting from the teething problems of the Film Censorship Society.

Many filmmakers fled to Hong Kong to escape the repressive regime in China. As Teo explains, “the ban on the wuxia genre led to its transplantation in the Hong Kong cinema where it regenerated itself all over again as a popular form of entertainment” (Teo 52). Now situated in Hong Kong, and aligned in complex but compatible ways with the kung fu film, the wuxia film entered a so-called ‘golden age’ between 1960-1980, and titles such as the Shaw Brother’s One-Armed Swordsman (1967) remain a key reference point for contemporary filmmakers is sometimes regarded as the ‘golden age’ of wuxia cinema, and Teo argues that “since the 1980s, the wuxia movie has moved closer to its original base in China” (Teo 180). This can be seen in the success of a number of Chinese-originated projects, including Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000 and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House Of Flying Daggers (2004). These films have been distributed internationally, garnering success in the international market and particularly in the US, and leading to observations that the genre has become Westernised.

Despite dealing with a mythology that is considered Chinese, it would be misguided to consider Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a ‘Chinese’ film. Lee himself is Taiwanese, and the film was a co-production involving Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and the US. Hero is said to be China’s answer to Crouching Tiger, building on its success, and both Hero and House of Flying Daggers were “backed by private investment” (Xu 3). This shows how the success of Crouching Tiger, and the subsequent success of Hero and House of Flying Daggers did much to benefit the Chinese film industry: “the increasing importance of cinema to the overall Chinese economy is evident in the big-budget filmmaking represented by Hero and House of Flying Daggers and in Zhang Yimou’s being designated as the director of the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics” (Xu 3).

Lee’s international reputation was already established by the time of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s release. His previous films, including Sense and Sensibility (1995), had established Lee as a capable director recognizable to international audiences. This reputation as a safe pair of hands and a ‘bankable’ filmmaker helped secure the necessary financing for his epic wuxia film. Zhang Yimou, a Fifth Generation Chinese director, had a similarly established reputation with Western art-house audiences before the subsequent release of his wuxia films; with his film Hong gao liang/Red Sorghum (1987) having won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Therefore when Hero and House of Flying Daggers were released, Western ‘art house’ audiences who were familiar with his work expected stylistically exciting visuals. More general audiences anticipated the films on the back of their experience (and the success) of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Hero is a historicized and highly stylized depiction of an important period of Chinese history (246-221BCE), when the Emperor of Qin united China. It tells the tale of an assassin who, having succeeded in getting close enough to the Emperor to kill him, decides not to – even though this means he will be immediately executed. The film’s plot has been read as a nationalist allegory: a tale of the individual sacrificing himself for the greater good of the nation. However, a more ambiguous anti-nationalist message can also be glimpsed. Yimou uses characteristically strong visuals to produce a ‘force of surfaces’, a distinct and richly varied film form that conveys uncertainty and confusion and resists a clear-cut reading. Hence, the film’s ulterior meaning is juxtaposed with the surface message in order to get past strict Chinese censorship. As Teo explains, “Hero perfectly illustrates this perceived crisis of the nation-state which China embodies. The film tells the story of the Qin Emperor before he has actually founded the unitary state, and the trope of tianxia for the nation-state is basically a Utopian dream […]. Thus the idea of the unified nation state in Hero is essentially still a dream, its perceived nationalistic stance an illusion disguised as history” (Teo 191).

It can also be argued that the historical settings and narratives of Crouching Tiger, Hero and House of Flying Daggers represent a nostalgia apparent in contemporary China that reveals a dissatisfaction with the current regime. Hence, seemingly safe, nationalist films are also registering dissatisfaction and uncertainty. This combines with the contemporary wuxia film’s transnational appeal and journeying into foreign markets, leading Berry and Farquar to note that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon borrows a mythic sense of the Chinese national to originate a new form of transnational and diasporic identity, while Hero (2002) borrows the same generic form to promote a vision of the territorial and expanding Chinese nation-state back in the mists of time” (Berry and Farquhar 11).

The positioning of the films in a global marketplace also loosened their position as lynchpins of contemporary Chinese nationalism. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remained in the top ten ranking for films shown in US cinemas for fifteen weeks, while Hero became the first Chinese language film to hold the number one position in US theatres. However, though the films succeeded in garnering interest and rewriting expectations of Chinese cinema, their appeal to Western audiences was not unintentional. The filmmakers (of the three main films) admit to having had Western audiences in mind when they made their films (Dong 174). The makers of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon believe that it was the film’s narrative in particular that appealed so globally. Zhang Yimou’s films resemble Hollywood productions in more ways than one: The enriched scenes, luxurious film settings, business-orientated choice of actors/actresses and play design, make his films look like expensive commercial Hollywood films. The marketing of each film is also similar to Hollywood movies” (Dong 176).

As a result of this the films were severely criticized in China for their “melodramatic expressions; artificiality; implausibility; lack of immediate cultural concerns; and an ambivalence towards violence” (Xu 26). Interestingly, with regards specifically to Yimou’s films, the Chinese media and public were “overwhelmingly negative about the films despite cheering for Zhang’s victory in the American market” (Xu 26). These opposing reactions provide a fascinating perspective on the differences between the US and Asian markets. Gary Xu summarises Zhang Yimou’s own view of the discrepancies: “both sides need to be educated […] the Chinese audience needs to appreciate Chinese blockbusters in the same way it worships imports from Hollywood. No one would complain about Hollywood films’ shallowness because the audience’s focus is only on the visual spectacle, and the American audience needs to become accustomed to subtitled Chinese films in order to absorb authentic Chinese culture” (Xu 27).

It is ironic that the films that brought East Asian film so much to the attention of Western audiences were not similarly appreciated by the culture they originated in; and similarly that wuxia films – with such a traditional, historical context – should reveal so much about the contemporary Chinese film industry. The fact that Chinese audiences applauded Yimou’s success in the West is equally significant. Xu writes “Chinese blockbusters are created by copying the Hollywood formula”, and he also indicates “the importance of cultural authenticity to the cross-cultural spectatorship and to successful imitation of and competition with Hollywood big-budget filmmaking” (Xu 28). It is this ‘cross-cultural spectatorship’ that grants these films – namely Crouching Tiger, Hero and House of Flying Daggers – their transnational appeal. An embracing of the Hollywood model provided the films with international success while boosting the East Asian film industry, and even though the films were not critically celebrated in East Asia, perhaps because of their ambivalent relation to contemporary Chinese nationalism, this success was recognized as significant. At the same time, the profile of East Asian filmmaking (albeit somewhat Westernized) was raised in the West.

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is credited with paving the way for Hero and House of Flying Daggers, bolstering the idea of the ‘transnational’ in East Asian film by initiating both a ‘westernization’ in Asian cinema and aiding an ‘Asianisation’ of cinema and ‘Asiaphilia’ in the West: “Chinese cinema is increasingly Hollywoodized and Hollywood has been penetrated by Chinese cinema” (Xu 4). This is something particularly embraced by Quentin Tarantino, who “has acted as a ‘patron’ to Asian cinema – distributing Asian films, lending his name to the Western promotion of Hero” (Hunt and Wing-Fai 220), and paying homage to wuxia in Kill Bill (2003). The resonance of the wuxia genre is in this way profound and symbolic: as Teo writes: “Is wuxia after all a kind of perpetual movement towards a state of transcendence that goes beyond the nation-state, as symbolized by the Emperor Qin’s revelation of the unity of the mind and sword?” (192).


Berry, Chris, and Mary Farquhar. China On Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

Carter, David. East Asian Cinema. UK: Kamera Books, 2007. Print.

Dong, Lan. Transnationalism and the Asian American Heroine: Essays on Literature, Film, Myth and Media. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.

Fung, Anthony Y. H. . Global Capital, Local Culture: Localization of Transnational Media Corporations in China. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2008. Print.

Hunt, Leon, and Leung Wing-Fai. East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational . London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2008. Print.

Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Print.

Xu, Gary G. Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2007. Print.

Written by Abi Stevens (2012); Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2012 Abi Stevens/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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