Care to come with me on a wonderful reality escape? One where we can learn some valuable life lessons? Sharpen your sword, get out your best Wuxia outfit, one which clearly shows which clan you are from, practice your best secret martial arts skills and get your poisoned gold needles ready. Don’t forget to bring some rope, in case we need to tie up our sliced stomach and put our intestines back in so we can keep fighting …
LET’S ENTER JIANGHU !!
The world of rivers and lakes is an extraordinary universe, one that is truly special. Full of superheros and villains yes, but also demonstrating a remarkable insight into the human value systems and their tendency to practice double standards. It is all of course hyped and flamboyant, for centuries in Asia, it has been a way to highlight and teach valuable morals and life lessons. But let us not get ahead of ourselves, why are we talking about Jianghu? The best translation is “rivers and lakes”, but it’s best referred to as the mystical Martial Arts world. The world we have come to love through our Martial Arts movies, displaying outstanding Martial Artists, secret skills and weapons, and clans or schools. One where your honor and loyalty comes before all else. Sometimes where the death of many is necessary to save the life of one person, or even just to save the integrity of a clan or school.
So perhaps it’s similar to the Knights of ancient West world, as someone that is well versed in the early history of European Kings and courts, I do feel these tales pale in comparison. But the role play in modern Western society’s involving knighthoods may hint at the attraction to this fantasy world. Not being an expert on the Western gunslinger fiction by any means, I still doubt the genre could match the Jianghu world. The intricate richness and ancient practices behind the weapon skills and martial arts in Asia may be the reason for some of this superiority. The swords and martial techniques used are based on long traditions.
What is a unusual factor concerning “Jianghu”, is its widespread influence through the whole genre of Kung Fu movies. We have the very obvious aspects shown very clearly in examples like Shaw Sword/Clan movies, based directly and credited on Wuxia novels. Often written buy Gu Lung and Louis Cha (Jin Young), but its influence is far deeper. Covering most action movies from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, even in Korean films. It shows up in comedies and modern action flicks. I would be hard pressed to name an Asian action film with out any of the Jianghu elements (in some form). At the very least you will find it in the moral/conduct of the protagonist or the core of the movie itself. The Triad films are certainly drenched in its influence. So as storytellers through the years highlighted and weaved in their moral messages in their writings, I wonder if they could foresee the widespread influence they would have on it reaching to the West world? This may be the greatest testament to the everlasting Wuxia spirit.
Like in any good fantasy world you have your classic ingredients; the ultimate fight between good and evil, maybe with a stronger emphasis on good clans vs. evil cults than usual. The acquiring of precious secret skills or manuals, and the willingness to sacrifice everything to reach your goal. The undying loyalty to a Master/Sifu, sometime in the form of a Emperor, Dynasty, or Princess. The desire to be (or be a supporter of the) “right” leader. The ultimate title in the world must be THE LEADER OF THE MARTIAL WORLD! This must beat any heavyweight world champion title, hands down I think. But in all, these aspects we can find the focus on hypocrisy and double standards entwined. The “true hero” walks away from it all to seek enlightenment instead. This defines a valuable angle, the influence of a Buddhist/Taoist perspective to Jianghu. Often a lingering question is “Was it worth dying for, Or was the hero the true winner?” Another unique aspect of the Asian Wuxia stories is the often successful mixing of styles: the moral, violent, comedic, romantic, blending with the historic and dramatic action. This creates a rich and full fantasy environment which still draws parallels to our real world with valuable lessons. Regardless of education and age, this is always a much more successful way to learn a life lesson.
No discussion on Jianghu would be complete without at least special mention of all the skills of our antagonists and protagonist. This is perhaps where our fantasy lines may blur. Since many, if not all the Martial Arts Skills and are real life ones. They may be taken to the ultra point of possibility and beyond, but should not be dismissed as easy as we may think. Keep in mind that the version presented in the movies must fit this format and are designed to entertain, sometime presented by craftsmen, sometimes not. One example will may be suffice to illustrate this reality/fantasy blur.
“How come they are flying ?? …I don’t get it..” I think we have all heard others say this, or thought it ourself while watching intricate wire-fu. Now obviously it is with the use of wires but when this stories originated way back they were written down or told verbally. So were they just making it up to fit the story? Like Superman? In my opinion, NO! Remember most of the other martial skills in Jianghu is based on actual systems, many still practiced world wide today. Some of the hardest internal martial arts are becoming very rare with just a few living old masters left. Remember the Shaolin “One Zen Finger” Monk? Standing on one index finger only, for long periods of time, no one has mastered it since he died. So what about “Lightness Skills ” or ” Lightness Kung Fu”, what is that? There is very little available documentation on this, but after research, I have found a remarkable secret Tibetan Meditation skill. Without going in depth it is basically a very rare leaping skill practice requiring unbelievable dedication. Participants would heave chains, stay in cellars high up the Tibetan mountains, be on specialized diets, never practice outside in daylight for more than 5 years, etc. So there may be more to some of the magic than just fantasy. But who on earth is going to practice skills in that manner for their whole life nowadays? It is similar to the former USSR athletes change of environments. We live in different times, each day that goes by we are getting further away from a Jianghu styled world…
The Jianghu we have come to know through our Martial Arts Films is a wonderful world, a place full of action entertainment suited for an adult audience. It has history, chivalry, heroes and heroines against evil villains and villainesses. Treachery, poisons, and perfection of the ultimate skills to beat all other skills. Clans and brotherhood, messenger pigeons with secret messages. Allies and eternal enemies, masters and sifus, hand to hand combat, swords, darts, spears and axes. The 14th Prince, 3rd uncle and 4th sister. Evil Asia and evil Emperors. Beautiful maidens and plenty of brothels. The ultimate deadly destructive tea house fights. Ming and Ching Dynasties. The Sun & the Moon sect. The Red Flower society. Shaolin and Wu Dang with a touch of E-Mei. Eagle Claw vs Snake Fist. Endless buckets of blood and dismembered appendages …
Evil Athena feels right at home!
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