Of WuXias and Their JiangWu

I have not watched a thing on my tele or gadgets since Superbowl. 

I checked out an ep of Incarnation of Money out of my curiosity for the writer+PD team (and I take note of MrX’s mention this could be a promising potential drama for HBinnie, before KJH suddenly is back on).  It is…..Meh. Annoyingly mediocre.  So this team is just not my taste, I find their aesthetic soo dated and their storytelling a lot of piling on the cheese.  Then, I saw Robber on PD’s wiki, the drama that made me dump LDH and JH in the meh pile. A.R.G.H.

That is all.  And prior to the vacation I’m giving my electronics, I’ve rewatched a certain 130 min movie 4 times in a week.

[credit on pics; gifs fr 一代宗師 baidu bar]

But my head was buried in sth over last 2 days: ShiJi and DaoDeJing, I was never this studious for ‘fun’ all my life, tbh  it is too cryptic and laconic I mostly just stare at dozen or so characters at a time, each simple character I know  since grade’s school (or so I thought) quite frustrated and lost.  Then I lurked in the wuxia bar of baidu to check out an irking and to soak up on the massive smorgasbord of wuxia branches and sects, then bumped into wuxia artists/fanatics there absolutely crazy about one thing: Grandmaster.  My irking is spot on, EVERY single wuxia move and discipline making an appearance in the movie is as unbelievably accurate like never ever before in any wuxia movie (they mentioned EVERY wuxia classic I’ve seen and burst my bubble saying none of it is accurate, whatever wuxia skill they claimed to be using, it’s all basically some form of Southern school, often WingChun).  The wuxia buffs are calling the movie a historical and sociological treasure, if you are curious,  and it’s dazzlingly longggggg, this is a compilation of their spazzing:

My head is still bursting in fireworks, still drunk with the amazement of the depth WKW can delve into with the most erudite, reflective exposition of what was wuxia (a self-cultivation) and what was jianghu (the external, inescapable pushing and pulling forces and reasons), and how they converge in the making of a grandmaster.  We are given an all encompassing lush vision of the way of life when grandmasters (skillful martial art 功夫 master 師傅/師父.and as torch-bearing (Daoist) philosophers) were not extinct antiquities but a product of time and fate.  At the helm of WKW, his focus on a ‘wuxia movie’ is an rapturous poetry of the conception of the ideology of Dao in that era.  The movie can not be more aptly titled in Chinese: 一代(an era) 宗師(grandmaster), it takes a grandmaster  to establish the era, it takes an era to enact its grandmaster.  A thorough essaying with the utmost respect, an ardent lyrical elegy to wuxia.  What is most memorable, pulsating off the screen is I can feel in every frame how passionate WKW is, almost soul-pouring, enthusiastically in love with the subject and his own unique craftsmanship.   In so many ways, sternly being a masterful auteur himself in the stifling commercialized climate of HK cinema for decades now, this must be as close to a heart-to-heart with a grandmaster of yore.

This movie is not titled Yip Man, imposing confines on what WKW and TL should do with one’s preconceived notions is frankly your loss.  The Grandmaster put the brush strokes in a lavish revision of the milieu, the jianghu where men and women in their vocation, devoting their entire lives like generations prior honoring the doctrine/道 of wuxia, were immersed in.  The central theme of the movie can be summed by with one character:道/Dao.  And can be elaborated by the first lines, 12 characters, of Laozi’s Daodejing, laying out the Way and the path to self-cultivation: 道可道非恒道,名可名非恒名.  Dao, the way, can be spoken with words, can be experienced, but what can be taught and followed is not the eternal way.  True dao is ineffable.  The world we are living in and its dao is always evolving though omnipresent.  A name, a description, can be bestowed upon but the extraneous interpretation can never be truly what it is essentially.  The masters inhabiting the jianghu then, each have their own unique revered skill set, many have the wit, the temperament, the lineage, the philosophical cultivation, possessing almost all of the graspable building blocks for a grandmaster in making, but what is in the title of a grandmaster but a name and a fame?  The legacy of a grandmaster is not in the most formidable skill, nor a most lauded reputation,  these are ephemeral.  He is a product of what he’s made of himself but also the of fateful missteps of other masters before and beside him.    Yip Man’s legacy is his vision of breaking the glass ceiling of wuxia for the elite and adapted wuxia to the masses with the ideology for self-cultivation.  Achievement differs, to each his own, but following the enlightenment, it is still a betterment for all.  While none of the masters can avoid falling victim to time, his legacy lives on.   He has the wit to strike a balance both on his cultivation of skill, a philosophical clarity and a mental tenacity that kept him afloat, and also the foresight of what should be innovated and what should not be meddled with of an ever-evolving ideology of wuxia.

This is the clearest, most eloquent essay of 武俠Wuxia and the 江湖Jianghu circa the 1930s Manguo to 1950s postwar HK. It is exactly the rippling of a transitioning era, an infantile New China not yet taking shape, where the rules of the Old is still stubbornly observed. It is at the dusk of lights out on hundreds of years of revered tradition as it is given its testiest hurdle, the one-two punch of soldiering through  the civil war and the J occupation/WWII, the jianghu/milieu in which a grandmaster the like of Ip Man, possessing his visionary set of ideology essential for dawning a new era of wuxia for all, for the world instead for the elite chosen ones per tradition.  He is a survivalist of the fittest with a kungfu mastery plus more crucially the tenacious acumen which can only be nurtured by significant supports in his life, instigated by experiencing the corrupted opulence, bought down to the cruel devastation of wartime.  WKW is being so warm and inviting in delivering a precious documentary of a piece of history, with such a formidable clarity in his presentation of what constitutes a grandmaster, or in a broader sense a man of that era.  Themes are presented in its physical form, an amuse-bouche of stylishly extravagant wuxia dance, every audience with a basic command of a wuxia movie is immediately familiar with.  It is then complimented, layers of depth painted by the breathtakingly painstakingly woven, flawless lines and delivery, I have not seen the indulgent of every word, every gesture, every nuance speaking so much volume and depth.  Often the content is allowed to flourish in a more stylized, artsy abstract exposition further down the line, like a complimentary sip of wine.  We are presented with the physical expression and the philosophy behind what constituent an essential makeup of a grandmaster in its visual direct form, made more impressible delving deeper with the character’s words and the thoughts behind.  It further crescendos to crucial wordless interactions between characters in which ideas are exchanged, ideology guiding the character’s journey to grandmastery or clinging on an existence in anonymity are fluidly locked in thought by thought.  Frame by frame I witnessed WKW could’ve spent the precious 8,10 years in pre-production immersing about everything on the subject, or used the time meticulously detailing every sect of flourishing kung fu mastery in 1930s, not unlike any ‘wuxia hero’ we read in novels sponging up the knowledge of his milieu, and thus distilled it into an essence that is spoken with a few passing frames, a pose and a few stroke. I would believe if he needed an extra 10 years sculpting this cinematic dissertation focusing on the philosophical question:  What is WuXia at the innermost intimate core?  What is JiangHu at its most expansive milieu? It is the denouement of thousands of years, hundreds of schools of thought, to a way of life converging and distilling teachings from LaoZi and ZhuangZi to Confucius.

武俠 ‘Wu-xia’ is simply, literally, martial art hero.  We usually instantaneously visualize the engaging in the physical dance of fighting as most often inoculated superficially in movies and dramas but the origin of the word itself is contrary.

The character  武(wu) is made up of the mnemonic root words: 止 and 戈.  Coined by 楚莊王 (King Zhuang of Chu circa 6thC BC): 夫武,定功戢兵。故止戈爲武。  (A man’s worth is measured by his ability to cease fire, thus ‘武’, the art of martial, is to halt the dire of using weapons.) 止(still, a man standing still); 戈(pictograph of a long spear) is 武.  It is actually the rational intent, the wisdom to stop fighting and make peace.  The clarity of WKW and TL’s interpretation of the Grandmaster in making, the then up and coming Yip Man capturing this essence to a tee, in an ethereal scene in the gilded mansion, how accurate the man, young at 40, can grasp the concept the previous reigning grandmaster is unable to, set the stage of  the character’s journey.

俠 conceptualizes the more abstract philosophical and spiritual ideology of manhood, chivalry is the closest word in translation, but of course the ethos stems from Confucius and it evolves according to the ideology in vogue through the ages. I remember as a kid giving my dad a headache the size of Texas what 俠 means nonstop, daily, during my obsession with a TVB drama as a kindergartener, the kickass 女黑俠木蘭花 (lit.  Lady Dark Knight: MuLan Flower) with Angie Chiu.  She is my very first superhero I flailed, I know the character 女 (woman) and 黑(black/dark), and kindergarten then was a strange place where 4 year olds were successfully taught to recite archaic poems like 木蘭辭, 300+ character long from North and South dynasty by an Anon, the earliest mention of the quintessential CN girlpower icon Hua MuLan.  Yup, as a child of the 70s in HK (we are lucky bastards worth every wrinkle we are proudly donning atm, take that!hahaha), we grew up snacking on LIVE Candy Candy cartoon everyday and reciting poems of Mulan and YueFei.  Our first impression of the heroine is not of a whitewashed disney-fied mehness and we obsessed over a drama every night where it’s frankly a Batman+Robin as smarter girls in way better outfits.   They are cute and witty and well-adjusted, socially apt and are kung fu masters who do cool heroine-ic deeds in shadow to help the poor and solve cases to assist their cop Dad in secret.  I mean if you worshiped your daddy as a toddler, how kickass is that?!  This is my first visual and concept of heroes or 俠, and in these killer black outfits:

You do not understand a weird child like me, who was dragged to ballet classes every wkend along with my ugliest tantrums because I hate whitetights and pink tutus on me and do not care for painful, boring, grueling, inhumane bending and holding still of limbs, how much this was the dreamiest visual of unicorns and puppies of WANT!  And BTW this is adapted fr a fantasy series from 倪匡/NiKuang  ie writer fking big deal responsible for creating the genre of CN science fiction and the fusion of scififantasywuxia.

I’m also salivating at the black number ZZY’s master Gong dons.  She is breathtakingly AWESOME every second in the movie.  A revelation.

I remember my dad broke 俠 entirely down to its semantic elements. ⺅is the root word, this noun is about a human being. 夾 is made up of 大 + 人 + 人: simply to hold/ be wedged.  it looks as though a big guy, a pillar of strength is wedged, balancing between 2 smaller figures.  And 俠 is exactly the ideology of a man professing a skill, selflessly using one’s power and prowess to help those in need, always withstanding the challenges of human constraints.   The big person may be wedged in the jianghu 江湖, ‘rivers and lakes’, the non-confining fluid ever-changing, transitioning world stripped of bureaucracy and stifling laws; the interconnected, intertwining sustenance of life and society where an individual’s action can ripple its effect far and wide.  This is why the classic of 108 folk-heroes of outcasts has a name of Water Margin Legend. 

To quote the definition of 俠 from 史記·遊俠列傳(司馬遷) Shiji : Youxia/Biographies of Knight-errants by Sima Qian: 其行雖不軌於正義 Although their action may not be adhering to the law,然其言必信they are a man of their word,其行必果 their action speaks of resolute ,已諾必誠 their promises will substantiate,不愛其軀 willing to sacrifice the vessel of his body,赴士之戹困 helping anyone in need,既已存亡死生矣 having experienced the trial and tribulation of life and death,而不矜其能 but never boastful of one’s prowess,羞伐其德 processing the humility for his accomplishments ,蓋亦有足多者焉 all qualities worthy of praises.

In short, 言必信,行必果,輕生重義.  俠 is a man honoring his words, acting upon his promises, selfless in sacrifice, prioritizing in honor.  This ‘honor’ of 俠, stems from the gaining of faith and trust of the hero from the public accumulated through time, stemming from the basis of the society’s rule of right and wrong.  However, quoting one of the most famous quotes of wuxia novelist GuLong: 人在江湖,身不由己 A man in jianghu (entrapped by society’s entanglement), can not be the true master of own’s domain.  With great power comes great responsibilities. Time and tide, wax and wane , the ennui in jianghu is especially unkind to a master who wants to be a human first.

相濡以沫,不如相忘于江湖. From Zhuangzi, it is a parable of two fishes, 相濡以沫, too late to escape a drying pond, in order to survive, they have to keep moist by the spit and breath of each other, yet the proximity will trap their bodies rubbing against each other in a stinging unforgettable painthe heightened loathe at the brink of death. Yet they have never felt more bliss of being alive in their own contained world of dereliction.  It is one of the most vivid metaphor for love. 不如相忘于江湖: As they are sustaining the survival of the other, they are acutely aware, reality is they must get back in the streams and rivers (江湖) to survive, helplessly swept away to possibly separate paths by the currents of fate, leaving behind this prior bittersweet mutual dependency.

ZZY’s ladymaster Gong met TL’s Ip Man at her prime, she says in devastating frankness, to him, much later.   He has a place in her heart since then, a married man.  She lingers and indulges in the pain, refusing to let go, like the fish out of its pond, he breathes her breath of lure, they exchanged letters of subtle poems, drenched with shades of their hint of romance.  A mink coat, the evidence of the leap to writhe in the ignominy, he has promised he’ll meet her again in the North.  Fate (and conscience) intervened.  Gong made her choice of an ascetic existence, to adhere by the honor code yet stubbornly clinging onto her heart.  There was the chance of a stream, of an arranged marriage, but she’s chosen to wither in drought.  Yip OTOH has a devoted, dutiful wife, whom he’s shared a complimentary conventional marriage through thick and thin.  She is the homemaker who would light a gas lamp in the foyer every night for his homecoming.  He is of rich birth, providing him the luxury of devoting in wuxia without the care of earning his keep, providing for a family before the war, it is possibly this pride that pulled him through wartime desolation, his children starved, his girls did not make it, he kept his integrity, paving the way for his later ascension to grandmaster.

宗師, a grandmaster the likes of Ip Man is not the product of an individual but by his time and fate. 宗 is made up of 宀,示.  示 is 神祇 (a celestial convergence),宀 is the pictograph for 房屋(the roof, a shelter). 宗 is not only a mastery in skills, but possessing the integrity and honor revered.  The word is parsed by a passage by Laozi on self cultivation of integrity 内涵 (内inner 涵 a soaking, abundance body of water): 道沖,用之或不盈.淵兮似萬物之宗.塞其兌,閉其門, 挫其銳,解其分,和其光,同其塵.湛兮似若存.

道(Dao: the way, the reason, the law of life and nature, the flow of universe) 冲(a middling/humble stream of water, because it’s not furiously roaring, it has a perpetual understated flow, purging of stagnant, containing the vital), 而用之或不盈 operates within reason, the wisdom lies in modesty and a constant inner yearning to improve。Like 渊 (deep pools, origin of water bodies from mountains afar)兮似萬物之宗, the reverence of wisdom is bottomless in depth, streams of knowledge are gathered, converged and cultivated from all walks.挫其锐By dulling the edginess (modesty),解其纷diverging scattering flares,和其光 fusing of brilliance,同其塵 merging all points of view,湛(an azure crystal clear body of water) 兮似或存, distilled into a crystal clarity that looks not existing but presenting the wisdom and the way of existence.

Trust me, WKW conceptualizes every word of this esoteric (to me) philosophy, vital in the making of Grandmaster, with a direct, astute beauty only he can.

The loveliest constraint and control WKW shows especially in the action choreography is still dripping with the poignant WKW dazzle yet it is not a confining glorification of what makes Ip Man a grandmaster.  Every single one of them can be a Grandmaster, there are talents who cave into the time and tide, a calculated ‘brilliant’ move one moment will lead to a downfall the very next. Ip Man can not get to the top without all his cards aligned right, a kind hand dealt by fate and the perfect timing, the superficiality of the physical mastery in kung fu is succinctly coined by the master himself, it is  the simplest strokes of horizontal and vertical, all that matters is if you are laid down to rest or the last man standing.

Have the Grandmaster trailer dubbed in French!  WKW, Tony and ZiYi were in Paris yesterday for its pre-screening.  The official release is April 17th in France.  I bet they are now hopping to Berlin for Berlinale.  I’m quite nervous, for once, how this (imho the best of WKW to date)  will be received by the International audience.

9 thoughts on “Of WuXias and Their JiangWu

  1. This was really interesting to read. I hadn’t heard of this movie, but now I need to see it.

    When I first saw 俠 I thought the right side was 來.

    1. Thank you for reading! haha I realize it’s 3000+ words and it took me literally days when I’m not sure myself it makes much sense other than a lump of fangirly jumbo.

      oh 來 is interesting, it is the case where the simplified chinese 来 is actually closer to the root word (it has nothing to do two little guys and a tree). It is actually a pictograph of wheat. the two little 人is the peaks of wheat ears.


  2. Oh dear, I didn’t get a single thing! Because I know nothing about Wu Xia, and the way you write, it’s so out of the world poetic and deep I’m happy just to understand a portion of it. You make me curious abt your day job now LOL are you a writer? XD

    Anyway, I will not watch TGM until I’ve seen and finished the rest of WKW’s stuff. Will prob do Ashes of Time tonight, which I’ve heard some ppl comparing to TGM (maybe cos of the genre)?

    1. My day job is a silly fangirl?! XD gosh…this is too huge a compliment I can’t take. I bet it’s mostly I just keep writing but it’s not making too much sense?! I actually was exploding with so much to yelp about the movie I wrote it out, pen and paper in chinese and tried to translate my own thoughts into english, but I just cant. I’m almost too exhausted/embarrassed to reread the booboos and the truckloads of grammatical mistakes.

      Curiously enough, I thought of Ashes of Time, but it’s oddly the other way around, suddenly all these bits and pieces so out of my scope is adding up to lyrical sense AFTER Grandmaster. It’s almost like Ashes of Time is a trial run, of indulgent focused still of wuxia heroes as head portraits, as stripped away fr the jianghu they are trying to wipe their hands clean of (yet emotional human attachments…Love…inescapable) and GM is adding that whole dimension of milieu, all the foreground and background of the masterpiece.

  3. o my gosh… thank you for this awesome post~ loved the explanation of the texts and etymology of the words– an understanding gives so much more understanding to the culture and ideological context of this film. =D and boy… your Chinese is so, so much better than mine hahaha

    1. Babe, this is a must see!!! I know you are quite fascinated by the culture, I’ve not seen anything so rich and monumental on that part of history. I’m not sure if WKW’s movies speak most effectively to HKers, I have a feeling it’s almost instantaneously easier for those of us (who’ve experienced pre and post 1997) to get to the the core of what he’s trying to reflect on emotionally… It’s always some indirect ode to HK, where we are now facing another brink of identity crisis, where our sacred uniqueness, a resting point of Chinese from all over the country, of the most varied ethnic cultures to get along and forge together an identity that can only be the lovechild of the past and present, and it is eroding away by the march of time once again.

  4. Haha. PD Yoo In-shik is definitely not for everyone, definitely no aesthetics. He is pretty much definitive Korean machismo and sadism rebranded and made palatable,with some solid (underlying) fundamentals and lots (and lots) of heart.
    And then there’s writer Jang Yeong-cheol with his penchant for profanity and dark humour, and general use of darker hues. Together you get a combustible, weighty product that won’t hold mass appeal yet is entertaining all the same — to those who do actually get it.

    Incarnation of Money, however… has its small glimmers of promise but otherwise it’s not looking all that great. I’m trying not to say disap..poi..n… Y’know, that D word. It’s too early to use that term yet. I’m still trying to digest what I saw, I’m conflicted. It’s not as good as I’d expected but it’s not disastrous yet either. I’m in love with the premise and the idea of the show, but I have NO idea which direction it will take once the setup’s done.
    I had initially read KJH would play a warped corrupt lawyer, which would have suited him fine because I can’t imagine playing a straight up hard done-by hero??
    Maybe it’s not that simple a character and he’ll be able to pull it off?

    I absolutely love Park Sang-min, (again, another acquired taste) but that was an awkward opening for him and that horrible hair is thankfully temporary. But once he gets warmed up – I can’t WAIT! He will hopefully end up anchoring this show, I have faith in him! The rest of the show, I can handle every other thing about it, other than Oh Yoon-ah’s sleaze. Seriously, show? Please have a reason for this?
    Or… maybe that’s the least of their worries with live shoot looking imminent. EEP.
    See? Conficted.

    Sorry for going off on one there.

    Ohhh. Zhang Zhiyi looks phenomenal! Can’t wait for GM. Watching that trailer on loop. xD

    1. I honestly can’t cut IoM any slacks because I truly felt every scene, every plotpoint talking down on me as if I’m in kindergarten. There is sth very…obvious and pronounced in every turn and the acting fr everyone that I bet is exactly what the PD wants but everything is screechy for me. so just not my taste. I didn’t get far with Giant but that one it’s more I have lost interest in its grandiose epicness and life intervened and no drive to pick it up again.. HoSM….somehow my excitement fizzled near the end, it happens with me though… shorter attention span than a goldfish unless I’ve flailed.

      Never a fan of KJH :X (yes I know, I am always in my notty corner, always) he can get pompous/too aware for me.

      1. Haha, I definitely agree on KJH. I’m not a fan either, have been forcing myself to warm up to him for weeks! xD

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