HK Martial Arts Cinema
by David Bordwell

The "wuxia pian," or film of martial chivalry, is rooted in a mythical China, but it has always reinvented itself for each age. Like the American Western, the genre has been reworked to keep in touch with audiences' changing tastes and to take advantage of new filmmaking technology. Yet at the center it retains common themes and visceral appeals.

In Japan, only members of the samurai class could carry a sword, but in ancient China both aristocrats and commoners could become professional swordsmen. Since the land was ruled by rival warlords, an unattached fighter could become a killer for hire. This sordid reality became glamorized in the wuxia tales which became popular after the ninth century AD. Like the Arthurian legends of Europe, the wuxia promoted a conception of knightly virtue. The roaming hero was not only strong and skillful; he or she also had an obligation to right wrongs, especially when the situation seemed dire. The hero fought for yi, or righteousness - not for rights in the abstract, or for society as a whole, but for fairness in a particular situation - usually, seeking retribution for a past wrong. Here political history becomes crucial. China has had an unhappy history of corrupt and tyrannical regimes, dislodged only by court intrigue and assassination. Since civil society could not guarantee the rule of law, the wuxia knight-errant became the central hero of popular imagination. He or she was an outlaw who could deliver vengeance in a society where law held no sway. The revenge motive took on moral resonance through the Confucian scale of obligations: the child owes a duty to the father, the pupil to the teacher. The wuxia plot often presents a struggle between social loyalty and personal desires, as when in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" Li Mu-bai's final mission to avenge the death of his teacher prevents him from simply retiring from the Giang Hu world to live with Shu-lien.

Wuxia characters and plots entered Peking Opera in the nineteenth century, where dazzling acrobatics added to their impact. Wuxia novels, often serialized in newspapers and running to hundreds of pages, became mass literature in Shanghai shortly thereafter. As Chinese filmmaking emerged in the 1920s, screenwriters drew stories from martial arts plays and novels, building scripts around both male and female adventurers. (Most Westerners are surprised to find how central women warriors are the wuxia tradition.) The epic Shanghai film "Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery" (1928), released in eighteen parts, became a progenitor of the fantasy film. Using flying daggers and wirework, it employed over 300 martial artists. The genre grew during the interwar years, both on the mainland and among the emigré companies of Hong Kong. When Mao's 1949 revolution dictated new cinema policies, Hong Kong and Taiwan held a monopoly on wuxia filmmaking.

To serve Hong Kong's large Asian market, films were made in both Cantonese (the local Chinese dialect) and Mandarin (the more widely spoken dialect). Cantonese wuxia pian of the 1950s and early 1960s emphasized magic and fantasy. Warriors soared endlessly, swords and daggers turned to fire, and fighters' hands could emit jagged bolts of lightning to stun their opponents ("palm power"). The plots were sketchy and the special effects were crude (sometimes scratched directly on the film negative), but the supernatural films established some permanent techniques of the genre. Reverse-motion shooting created impossible stunts, like leaping onto a roof. Hidden trampolines launched fighters into the air, and strong wires kept them aloft. On the soundtrack, thunderous whooshes underscored leaps and blows.

In reaction to the Cantonese fantasy films there emerged the "new wuxia pian," a school of more realistic swordplay films influenced by Japanese movies and a younger generation of martial arts novelists. Filmed in Mandarin and produced by big studios like Shaw Brothers, these tales didn't shy away from giving their warriors astonishing abilities, but the supernatural aura vanished. Now feats were presented as things which could be executed by a very disciplined fighter. In "The Jade Bow" (1966), the hero and heroine pursue ninja-like assassins over rooftops with a fluidity that seems only a slight exaggeration of natural human grace. Women warriors remained central to the tradition, but now they were given opportunities to contrast their styles with men's. Cheng Pei-pei became famous and known as the "Queen of wuxia pian" for her roles in "Come Drink with Me" (1966) and "Golden Swallow" (1968). In "Fourteen Amazons "(1972), when an army's generals are massacred, their widows take up arms to avenge them in spectacular combat sequences.

The Mandarin wuxia pian also intensified realism by focusing not on aristocrats but on commoners, tormented heroes and heroines driven by ambition or revenge or devotion to justice and undergoing extreme physical suffering. Zhang Che quickly built a reputation for his sadomasochistic swordplay dramas, emblematized in his "One-Armed Swordsman" (1967) and "New One-Armed Swordsman" (1971). In contrast were the delicate, lyrical masterworks of King Hu. Hu brought the energy and finesse of classical Chinese theater and painting to the new swordplay movie. His films lingered on breathtaking landscapes, treated swordfights as airborne ballets, and created a gallery of reserved, preternaturally calm warriors who fought not for prestige or vengeance but to preserve humane values. Perhaps the most famous scene in all the new wuxia pian comes midway through Hu's "A Touch of Zen" (1971), where a combat unfolds in a quiet bamboo grove. Although fighters clash in midair, hurling themselves from spindly branches high above the ground or dive-bombing one another in a flurry of fast cuts, the overall impression is of poise - the sheer serenity of perfectly judged physical movement.

Swordplay films fell out of favor in the mid-1970s as kung-fu swept the world and gave the Hong Kong film industry a cheaper genre to exploit. Still, there were efforts to revive the wuxia pian. Patrick Tam's brooding "The Sword" (1980) reflected Japanese influence. Action choreographer Ching Siu-tung turned to directing, and created a supple, modern flying swordplay style in "Duel to the Death" (1982). At a less spectacular level, the great Shaws kung-fu director Lau Kar-leung turned to wuxia swordplay in his comedy "Shaolin vs. Ninja" (1978) and especially in "Legendary Weapons of China" (1982), a virtual anthology of wuxia devices, both magical (a magician controls a fighter from a distance by manipulating a doll) and historical (the final fight scene displays over a dozen weapons and fighting techniques).

Above all, it was producer-director Tsui Hark who spearheaded the revival of all manner of wuxia. Tsui's first film, "The Butterfly Murders" (1979), enhanced swordplay with futuristic weaponry, and he went on to revive fantasy swordplay in his dazzling, flamboyant "Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain" (1983), for which he imported Hollywood special-effects experts. He went on to team with Ching siu-tung for the trailblazing "Chinese Ghost Story" (1987), which melded supernatural swordplay, horror, comedy, and romance. With its bisexual ghost and animated skeletons, "A Chinese Ghost Story" triggered a fashion for flamboyant, almost campy swordplay fantasies. Tsui knew a good thing when he saw it. His productions "The Swordsman I" (1990) and "Swordsman II: The East Is Red" (1992), "Green Snake" (1993), and other hits relied on gender-bending transformations, outrageous aerobatics, thundering music, and stunning set designs. They also showcased Brigitte Lin, Jet Li, Joey Wang, Maggie Cheung, and other popular stars of the period.

Brigitte Lin Qingxia


Like all Hong Kong cycles, the updated fantasy wuxia wound down, and a new trend surfaced. Under Tsui's auspices Yuen Wo-ping, one of the great kung-fu choreographers and directors, made "Iron Monkey" (1993), a mixture of kung-fu and swordplay that was also grounded in the reality of traditional techniques. Daniel Lee's fascinating "What Price Survival?" (1994) featured classic wuxia performers in an enigmatic tale pitting Japanese and Chinese swordsmen against one another. Tsui himself revisited the 1960s grittier wuxia pian tradition in "The Blade" (1995), a savage and tumultuous tale in which a one-armed swordsman avenges his wounding and his father's death. Most important was Wong Kar-wai's "Ashes of Time" (1994), told in laconic dialogues over wine, splintered flashbacks, and strobe-pulsed fight scenes, all awash in a melancholic score. Ashes offers a poetic meditation on the wuxia tradition itself, as old fighters brood over their wasted lives, mourning the youth and loves they have lost.

A "xia" is a knight-errant, who might come from any class, and wuxia involves knightly chivalry. The Chinese concept of the knight-errant originates the fourth century BC, but chivalric stories as we know them today go back to the T'ang dynasty, around the ninth century AD. Some were literary efforts composed by men of learning, others were oral tales and ballads in colloquial prose or simple verse. By the seventeenth century, these forms had become a flourishing fictional genre concentrating on vagabond warriors who display outstanding courage, honor, and fighting skills. Magical elements had also entered the mix, so knights were often given superhuman powers  - flying, hurling balls of fire, becoming invisible. Many stories played on the boundary between pure fantasy and what might be barely possible for a supremely trained and gifted warrior -  not really flying but the "weightless leap"; not being invulnerable but being able, through control of breathing, to make one's body as hard as iron. To enjoy the wuxia tale we must grant that supreme skill in martial arts could give a fighter extraordinary powers.

The Chinese martial tradition, a bit like Chinese cuisine, presents astonishing variety. The country is so vast, and its local fighting traditions so diverse, that a well-stocked armory indicates a frightening range of ways to inflict damage on other humans.

Central to the wuxia mythology is the sword. Chinese distinguish between double-bladed ones, calling them swords proper, and single-bladed ones, which regardless of size and design are usually called knives. There are broadswords like the Green Destiny Sword in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and lighter sabre-like swords, as well as heavy cutlass-like blades (often pierced with rings to snag the opponent's weapon and to distract the opponent with their clanging). Shorter swords are often used in pairs, such as the so-called "butterfly swords," and the emei, or blades with arrow-like points at each end.

Western fans often assume that the exotic weaponry on display in wuxia films is an invention of moviemakers, but very often it comes from tradition. The simple staff, which may be as long as seven feet, can also have one or two joints (making it useful for delivering a hard, swinging blow or for enclosing an opponent's arm). Bruce Lee popularized the short jointed staff, best known by its Japanese name, nunchaku. Whips may be sectional as well. Spears come in a dazzling variety of shapes, including the jagged-edged "snakehead" spear and the hook-spear. Spears often have colorful tassels or feathers which distract the opponent from the blade's maneuvers. There are hand axes, hammers with heavy spherical heads, and heavy cudgels with bulbous, gourd-shaped heads. For throwing there are darts and arrows, razor-edged stars and boomerang-style blades, and the infamous "flying guillotine," a rattan basket with an opening lined with knives. During the 1960s and 1970s, many wuxia pian built their plots around the sheer variety of Chinese arms. Zhang Che's "New One-Armed Swordsman," for instance, gave the villain a two-jointed staff, the secondary protagonist a pair of heavy butterfly swords, and the main protagonist a single light broadsword, so the combat was not only among fighters but among weapons and techniques.

DAVID BORDWELL is a Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and his many books include On the History of Film Style and the recently published, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment.


Ang Lee: The Wuxia is a particularly Chinese type of hero (or heroine). Wu means martial, and a rough equivalent for xia in Western culture would be knight-errant. Unlike the knight-errant, however, the Wuxia is a free spirit, not belonging to any class. In the world of the Wuxia, the most important values are honor, loyalty and individual justice.

These qualities became ideals, and the Wuxia became a mythical, larger than life hero in the Chinese imagination. By the Ching Dynasty, in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Wuxia fiction was very popular. The story of the Wuxia became a fantasy of power, romance and moral duty ­ embodied by Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien in "Crouching Tiger."

As the genre developed, the Wuxia character became a more independent figure, often serving the basic principles of honor and justice themselves, rather than a particular master. In this respect, the Wuxia is not unlike the familiar Western hero ­ the lone cowboy riding into town to exact justice and right wrongs. The world of the Wuxia is different from that of society. The Wuxia  operates in a realm under the surface of society and the rule of law, called Giang Hu. A world made up of individuals and their relationships, rather than the collective and the government. These relationships can exist entirely outside of the law. For example, the Wuxia can be a member of an underground, Mafia-type organization, but loyalty and honor are still the main values. In serving a master, the Wuxia keeps his or her word, even to the point of death. (Today, the term Giang Hu has a broader meaning, referring to the entanglements of life and relationships in a society).

Wuxia directors King Hu and Zhang Che

Chinese Wuxia Knight Errants

Hanwu sword

Kouming sword

Zu Warrior

New Dragon Inn trailer

Bride with White Hair trailer

Wuxia from TV series "Judge Bao Qingtian"

Warriors and Heroes



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