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Back from Exile: How the Martial Arts Genre Made a Triumphant Return to China’s Mainstream

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It’s been twenty years since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took the world by storm with its breathtaking landscapes and flying swords(wo)men. Directed by Taiwanese American Ang Lee, and written by a group of English and Chinese writers and produced across countries, Crouching Tiger was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (the most ever for a non-English language film at the time) and won four of them, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. 

It brought a new wave of interest in the Chinese martial arts genre, including both costume pieces set in (un)specified pre-modern times and or kung fu films typically set in modern-contemporary periods, a mode of storytelling that comes from a long tradition in Chinese literary and cultural history. 

Yet interestingly, at the time of Crouching Tiger‘s release, the genre had only recently “returned” to its homeland after an exile of almost half a century. 

crouching tiger hidden dragon

Early Kung Fu Fiction: Women to the Front

The contemporary landscape of the martial arts genre largely took shape during the modern era, but its origins can be traced back to the tradition of historical writing.

More specifically, Sima Qian’s biographies of wandering knight-errants in Records of the Grand Historian from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). This set of biographies portrayed men who traveled freely and lived on the fringes of the law. As James Liu explained, knight-errants should not be regarded as a social class or a profession, but as “men of strongly individualistic temperament, who behaved in a certain way based on certain ideals.” Some of these ideals include justice, freedom, loyalty and courage. These colorful figures captured the imaginations of later writers, especially those of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), when Chinese fiction was in its early stages of formation and when female characters were at the forefront of popular stories. 

Tang writers reinterpreted and weaved knight-errants into their fanciful tales of magic, romance and adventures, with female knight-errants taking the spotlight. One well-known example is “Nie Yinniang” by Pei Xing. Nie Yinniang is both a powerful magician and martial artist, completing her missions with special weapons and potions. Roland Altenburger discusses how Pei’s independent female character subverts the patriarchy by choosing her own husband, and being self-reliant by working as a warlord’s retainer. 

On the other hand, Tang male knight-errants tended to play supporting roles, like Bailiff Gu from “Wushuang the Peerless” by Xue Tiao. These supporting male characters were never involved in romantic relationships, but only served as guardians to the young scholar and beauty archetypes. 

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During the Yuan-Ming period (1271-1644 CE), knight-errantry took the form of outlaws, as portrayed in Water Margin by Shi Nai’an. In contrast, during the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912 CE), knight errants were police-like figures framed within court case fiction. Most notable is Zhan Zhao from Judge Bao’s entourage in wuxia classic The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants

1900s: Serialization and a Sudden Fall from Grace

The arrival of European-style newspapers in the 1900s brought about the greatest change in the modern era’s martial arts scene. Chinese newspapers flourished in port (semi)colonized cities like Tianjin and Shanghai. Serialized in newspapers as daily or weekly installments, innovative martial arts stories garnered huge readership in urban areas. Subgenres like magical flying swordsmen and more realistic technical martial arts were the forerunners of popular contemporary works such as online novel Modao Zushi (the basis for TV show The Untamedand Bruce Lee’s kung fu films. 

This popularity, however, earned martial arts fiction the reputation of being lowbrow and inappropriate for the times. The literary elite deemed the genre as overly commercialized and having little literary value. Yet like all genres of writing, there were writers with varying levels of skill and artistic achievements. Some stories often commented on social issues, with many martial arts tales operating as allegories of real life problems in the young Republic of China. For example, Gu Mingdao’s Female Knight-Errant of Huangjiang (荒江女侠) addresses issues of feminism, and Xu Zhuodai’s Female Knight-Errant in Red Pants (女侠红裤子) relocates knight-errantry in an urban setting with a modern girl protagonist. 

The genre completely disappeared from China after 1949, with both written and visual forms of martial arts exiled to and replanted in the Sinophone centers of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Conditions were especially favorable in Hong Kong, where the British colonial government was lax in regulating Chinese materials. 

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Creative film directors such as Chang Cheh (Zhang Che) and King Hu (Hu Jinquan), along with popular New School Martial Arts writers like Jin Yong (Louis Cha) and Liang Yusheng, made Hong Kong the martial arts capital of the Sinophone world. In addition to costume pieces, kung fu films also came into full blossom during the 1970s in Hong Kong and across the globe — but not in mainland China. As the world experienced the kung fu craze brought about by Hong Kong cinema and its action stars, China was only nearing the end of the Cultural Revolution.  

A Hero Arrives: A Highly Visible Cultural Export

Fast-forward to the early 2000s, and Crouching Tiger was soon followed by Hero in 2002, directed by renowned Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou.

There are many similarities between Crouching Tiger and Hero, from the diverse Sinophone A-listers to the hiring of Tan Dun to compose the soundtracks. However, the most important difference, as Gary and Ming-Yeh Rawnsley point out in their book Global Chinese Cinema, is that Hero was the first global blockbuster out of Mainland China.

Released to great fanfare in China and around the world, the project was supported by the PRC because martial arts cinema, thanks to Crouching Tiger, had once again become a highly visible cultural export as well as a way to reconstruct and re-present Chinese national identity. Although none of the many martial arts productions that followed Crouching Tiger and Hero ever achieved quite the same level of international success, these films did successfully revive a genre that had gone out of fashion in the early 1990s. 

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How many of these films can you name? 👀 Kung fu movies, as a genre and against all odds, have become one of the most iconic forces in film worldwide. 🙏We say “against all odds”, because we don’t think anyone in the genre’s early days would have predicted global success for such a culturally-specific style of storytelling. Martial arts, Chinese opera, “crosstalk” and comedy performances were blended together into something completely new. 🙌But in retrospect, the rise of kung fu may have been unavoidable – these films are just another vehicle for the same age-old stories people have always told; dressed up differently, and distilled into easy-to-recognize archetypes. Good versus evil, revenge, justice, and the journey to manhood are themes that transcend cultural boundaries. 📽RADII’s @this.is.adan explores some of the heroes who built the genre – actors, directors, and studios. Link in our bio.

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While both films exploded on the international stage, the domestic changes were more significant and permanent. Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Hong Kong and Taiwanese television studios began collaborating with mainland Chinese production companies and actors on making a string of martial arts television series. Being able to shoot in China gave the films a sense of authenticity that wasn’t achievable in productions from previous decades. 

Around the same time, China’s national broadcaster CCTV worked with local producer Zhang Jizhong in adapting Louis Cha’s martial arts fiction into television series for the first time in mainland China. Writing from Hong Kong between the 1950s and ’70s, Cha’s stories had been banned on the mainland, and although that ban was lifted in the 1980s, legal consumption of the novels and their adaptations was limited to works imported from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore. CCTV’s involvement in the projects at the turn of the millennium signified that martial arts productions were welcome and approved by the PRC. Zhang’s efforts opened up a new era in the Chinese martial arts mediascape, and successfully “brought home” a genre and author that had been exiled for almost 50 years.

The PRC’s green light for martial arts productions brought about sweeping changes to the industry. As more Sinophone cinematic and television productions relocated to shoot in the mainland, the number of co-productions increased as local productions fell away. Low budget and local-oriented works that cannot afford to shoot in China, or who haven’t been able to put together a co-production deal, are now rare to come by.

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Most tellingly of all, adaptations of Jin Yong’s fiction are now exclusively produced by Chinese TV stations. Kung fu productions, from biopics of Bruce Lee to the widely popular works based on the life of Ip Man (Ye Wen), have also been adapted for a Chinese audience. The Chinese market for kung fu fiction and film has also grown enormously. 

Today, martial arts seamlessly blend together with a multitude of other genres in Chinese media. Looking at the landscape now, it is as if the genre had never been away.

Gladys Mac
    Gladys Mac received her Ph.D. from USC. She wrote her dissertation on Jin Yong’s fiction and their visual adaptations. Her research interests range from Asian popular culture to ancient history, and everything in between. She is currently teaching at Pepperdine University.