On a Sunday afternoon at Grassroots Book Room, there was a discussion on the topic of Wuxia. This event featured playwright Liu Xiaoyi of the Wuxia play Legends of the Southern Arch by The Theatre Practice, and veteran TV screenwriter Koh Teng Liang. The session covered questions such as: What is the relevance of Wuxia to us? How has Wuxia impacted upon our lives?
Mystical legends or fairy tales for adults?
Both of them started off by reading Wuxia novels. When Teng Liang was in primary five, there was a scarcity of fun things to do in his free time, and he was not allowed out to play. Hence he turned to reading as a hobby. His father was also an avid reader, and had a stack of books piled beside his pillow. His recommendations were of classics such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Romance of the States in Eastern Zhou Dynasty, as he did not deem Wuxia novels as worthy of reading. Unexpectedly, Teng Liang became a fervent Wuxia reader. At this point, Teng Liang takes out a tattered book with yellowing pages – Sword Stained with Royal Blood by Louis Cha, published in the 1960s, and retained some writing by his father. The book is circulated in the audience, much to the fascination of the younger people present.
Koh Teng Liang’s favourite line: A world of Wuxia lives within every man.
Born in the 1980s, Xiaoyi also encountered Wuxia from a young age. When he was small, there was a bookshelf with two racks and only one Wuxia book – The Young Flying Fox by Louis Cha. Xiaoyi read and re-read this novel multiple times, until the book practically fell apart. However, Xiaoyi had a strange reading habit as a child, which was to read random chapters in no particular order, so as to piece together the structure of the story on his own. For instance in the case of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he was unable to fully take it all in due to his young age, thus he would stick to his interests by reading familiar chapters such as To Borrow Arrows With Thatched Boats, and Seven Catches. He only started reading a large number of Wuxia novels when he was in secondary school. He finished all novels by Louis Cha, and even re-read some of them multiple times. He would imagine himself to be a Wuxia hero as well.
For Xiaoyi, Wuxia is fantasy and fable.
Violent aesthetics or Eastern philosophy?
Teng Liang takes out another book with a fighting scene on its cover, and introduces the style of martial arts as fashioning a rod out of a twisted piece of wet cloth, to be used as a weapon. As this proved to be mightily painful, he regularly put it to good use as a child. Inspired by the movie The Shadow Whip, his heavenly whip would be the iron’s cable, as he horsed around with his younger sister. Xiaoyi also mentions that as a child, he would often impersonate Wuxia characters with neighbouring kids, and use a tree branch as his sword.
Teng Liang says that every child would go through such a phase, and he does not agree that Wuxia would increase violent tendencies in kids – he is one such example. Xiaoyi echoes in agreement, and qualifies it by saying that “we are both very refined people”.
In preparation for his scriptwriting task, Xiaoyi delved deeply into understanding Wuxia. The individual characters of “Wu” and “Xia” are unique on their own. The principle of Wuxia has two basic constituents. First, the imaginative colours of “Wu”, which is grounded upon Chinese philosophies such as Qi, Yin and Yang, the Five Elements, etc. Without “Wu”, the Wuxia genre would not be fulfilled. However, Xiaoyi feels that “Xia” is even more important, as it symbolises a certain spirit that goes beyond the physical entity. Should a creative piece embody “Wu” without “Xia”, it would merely tap upon the use of brute strength and violence to solve problems. It is the inclusion of “Xia” that completes the essence of Wuxia.
“Xia” covers a wide range of things. Xiaoyi asks the audience to suggest what “Xia” might be? Responses were rich and varied. Some say it was to “kill the evil for the masses”, or to “rob the rich for the poor”, a young man suggests “to protect women”, and a lady immediately responds that females could also become “heroines”. Others feel that “a brotherhood loyalty” is important. Lastly, someone mentions that of being “highly skilled”, and Xiaoyi points out that in a Wuxia piece, the highest-skilled person might not necessarily be the epitome of “Xia”.
(Picture: Behind-the-Scene of Legends of the Southern Arch taken by Ric Liu )
History as Key; Culture as Foundation
Koh Teng Liang feels that Wuxia is important, and finds it a pity that such a world is slowly fading away. Those born in and after the 1990s are no longer enamoured of Wuxia. In view of popular stories such as Harry Potter, the world of Wuxia seems to be a distant memory. One of the reasons for this is that children nowadays no longer read about history. To read Wuxia without the historical context is to be missing the key. History provides the key to unlock the Wuxia universe. With the deteriorating standards of television, an emphasis on special effects and a lack of substance, there is little to motivate young people to read Wuxia novels. He feels that Wuxia is the spiritual legacy for all Chinese people, and should be treasured, lest it disappears for good in 20 years’ time.
Teng Liang is especially fond of a phrase by the character of Guo Jing from The Legend of the Condor Heroes: “The greater hero is one who devotes himself to the country and people”. This is a sentence that has resonated with him from a young age. He feels that the nationalistic sense of giving need not be a direct teaching from schools; the heroic spirit also guides our love for the country. Koh Teng Liang mentions that Meteor, Butterfly, Sword has been influential for him, and the brotherhood loyalty left a deep impression upon him. He feels that the values of “loyalty, filial piety, etiquette, decorum, integrity and a sense of shame” in the Chinese culture are commendable, yet they seem to be losing favour together with the falling popularity of Wuxia.
Xiaoyi adds on that there are three building blocks of Chinese culture – Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. These three sects have been hugely influential upon the Chinese, and similarly upon Wuxia culture as well. The ethical principles of Confucianism and the benevolence of Buddhism are inherent in the Wuxia spirit. He personally favours the heroes embodying the spirit of Taoism, as they are carefree, without burdens, and in pursuit of a boundless lifestyle. The final chapter could very well see them abandoning the capricious world to live in peace incognito.
Text vs Drama, Realism vs Spontaneity
Xiaoyi says that for novels, a Wuxia narrative is carried along through text, and readers would use their imagination to fill in the gaps between the words. With the advent of film, the narrative became propelled by the visual screen rather than text, and for the playwright and director, this posed the challenge of shooting a storyline in motion.
Teng Liang shares that turning a Wuxia novel into a script is not as straightforward as extracting fruit juice; the different media makes it unexpectedly difficult for the adaptation to take place. For instance, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Louis Cha was first published as a regular column in the newspaper. Perhaps Louis Cha could have spontaneously written and published from column to column. The novel started off with the character of Lin Ping Zhi, and the main character Ling Hu Chong only came in late into the story. In the ending portion, a powerful personality Dong Fang Bu Bai appeared, but not much was written on him. A script requires a solid structure, and to gradually entice audiences with the desire to continue watching. Thus a script is different from a novel, and requires a different narrative structure. The adaptation from novel to script involves the addition of more action scenes, and fewer details in character and plot.
Teng Liang mentions that he has a friend who does not like Wuxia, as it seems to be unreal, such as flying across rooftops and walking on walls. He feels that it is not possible to use the measure of reality for things such as “Six Pulses, Heavenly Sword”, and “Approaching Wave, Micro Steps”. Hence, Xiaoyi brings up the concepts of “Spontaneity” versus “Realism”. Wuxia novels are forms of spontaneous expression, and the contrast in martial arts with that of ordinary street fighting is in terms of its artistic concept and inherent Eastern philosophy. It is a challenge for a film production to transform the beautiful text into screen language for the benefit of audiences. Teng Liang agrees on this, and says that the “Dejected Spirit Fist” created by the character Yang Guo could well have appeared comical if it had not been properly translated to fit the screen.
Xiaoyi says that when he was writing the script of Legends of the Southern Arch, he had many worries and concerns, as theatre is yet different from television and film. The novel relies on text, film uses the screen, and stage depends upon sharing a common space and duration with audiences. For instance, a martial arts sequence could be specially modified or slowed down in the film medium, but this is not possible on stage. Hence, he constantly reminded himself that he was writing specifically for theatre.
Lastly, Teng Liang is full of anticipation for Legends of the Southern Arch, and says that the theatrical effect might be even better than that of film and television. The latter no longer maintains a high quality standard, such as in the case of China churning out huge quantities of substandard films. He once came across a drama series that featured a palace lamp from a different era, which showed the flippant attitude of TV makers these days. He thus no longer has the interest to watch Wuxia shows on television. Xiaoyi says that there is no way for theatre to deceive audiences, as everything is presented starkly on stage. The only way is to have a longer time in preparation, and have no efforts spared to present the very best to audiences.
Continue reading on Issue 6 / March 2015:Living in the Present, Not Forgetting the Past