Wuxia Pian: Eternal Themes at the Light of Chinese Traditions

The Wuxia Pian is one of the most important genres in Chinese movie history. Since China has a long history compared to other countries, there are various traditions in Chinese movie production, such as music that is played on the traditional instrument. Moreover, Chinese people have very different ways of thinking compared to the Western world. All these elements contribute to the special characteristics of the Chinese film that this paper will examine. The paper will focus on personal heroism, the ideology between country and its people, the love affair, and the redemption of characters in Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and The Grandmaster (2013). It will show how traditional Chinese music is used in the films to build the atmosphere of the scenes, how Chinese martial action demonstrates Chinese rite within the society, and how full-shot is used to express the fundamental theme of moving and tragic.

The human life in all of its manifestations is the primary base for the majority of the artworks of all times and nations. Cinema is not an exception from this rule, and it is inextricably linked with the eternal general themes such as interpersonal relations, love, individual or collective heroism. As in the other types of art, depiction of these leading life issues in the film differs and is presented from numerous perspectives. The reason for this becomes evident if taking into account that each movie is a reflection of nation’s set of values based on the perception of the mentioned social priorities. In the other words, the film is the visual reproduction of traditions and national identity even if it is not aimed specifically at documenting them. It is an essential value of the cinema production, especially if speaking about the distinctive genre with a bright presentation of the unique cultures through the means of traditional instruments.


Thus, the Wuxia Pian is the brightest example of popularizing the original Chinese rites through the movie in the context of modern cinema. Wuxia’s emphasis on the performance of the martial art, which lays on the base of Chinese culture, as the central component of the story is a distinct Chinese cinema direction, which is considered to belong to the most contemporary genre of action . The impressive spectacles of the fights between the heroes, who have beautiful bodies and present extravagant skills, such as dancing and flying in the air, form the core of the Wuxia Pian films. Through such unreal bright performance, the Wuxia cinema creates the feeling of abstraction, escaping from the reality, which also is the feature of the action genre. Despite this fact, it also highlights the crucial aspects of social reality . Like any other action film, it integrates numerous ideological, historical and economic approaches in order to create the generic field . However, the feelings and emotions of the characters that are presented through the martial arts are accents in the Wuxia films, not the facts or events. It adds the element of drama. 

All of these features of Wuxia Pian in diverse variations are presented in the films, such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and The Grandmaster. The traditional component is the brightest among others, because each of films is a reflection of Chinese identity and is strongly saturated with numerous authentic elements. The martial art, also known as Wushu or Kung Fu, is the first and the primary among them. The ancient tradition to fight symbolizes not only physical strength and the agility of the Chinese but also their wisdom and pride in their history. In the historical context, it becomes the source of inner power to resist China's various defeats from the foreign imperialists at the turn of the twentieth century. Associating with Chinese nationalism, Kung Fu depicted in the martial arts films served as an instrument for constructing or maintaining national identity among the Chinese in the first half of the twentieth century. Facilitation of the Wushu development transformed it into a symbol of indigenous virtue and strength .

The plot lines of all three films confirm these statements and try to show the viewer the meaning of being Chinese. At first sight, it may seem that there is nothing meaningful in the bright, expressive scenes of the battles. However, if analyzing the complexity of art effects and characters’ verbal messages, the deep philosophy of life and ancient Chinese wisdom can be noticed in the characters’ actions and their practice of Kung Fu. If the films Hero, House of Flying Daggers allow the viewers to interpret the essence of the scenario with their individual efforts and through the personal vision, The Grandmaster (2013) opens the curtain of traditional knowledge on martial skill. 

Even Zhang Ziyi, who played a few main roles in the martial arts films of diverse directors, including the House of Flying Daggers and The Grandmaster, considered The Grandmaster to be different from other analogue films because “it goes deep into the realm of martial arts, exploring the meaning behind it all. It’s an altogether different kind of exploration” . Zhang admitted that she reassessed her individual way of living, and managed to change the life values and way of thinking, as she was working on this film. She gained a sense of tranquility that allowed her to think before taking action.

Thus, almost each phrase that comes from the heroes’ mouth is a revelation concerning the profound meaning of Chinese traditions related to Eastern wisdom. Explanation of the Kung Fu title given by Ip at the beginning of the film became the first hint about the existing deep philosophy in the skill of fighting. It consists of two words that mean “lay” and “stay.” If one makes a mistake, he will certainly lay, but is considered to win if he manages to stay on his feet. This title is the analogy to the human life that is the battle in its essence. Having understood this fact, viewers can easily capture in the further teaching of the Master the assonance between the Kung Fu skill and philosophy of Confucius, which also represent the essential part of Chinese identity. Thus, master mentioned the significance of self-control having said that just power of the knives is in their sheaths because they control the blades. As the confirmation to this philosophy of Kung Fu all of the heroes of Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and The Grandmaster films demonstrate the balance of emotions, and they could not be bowled over. Even the girls, Gong Er, and Mei, who used to be more emotional, feature with precision in their movements and equanimity.   

The scene of the House of Flying Dragger, where the Echo Game was presented, was one more manifestation of the skill and extreme concentration of the attention during the fighting. The governor was throwing the bombs that were falling with sounds creating a music rhythm. All tones the heroine that was considered to be blind produced touching the same places where bombs bumped prior with her long sleeves of the dress. This spectacular dance presented not only the essence of the martial art, but also was the bright demonstration of the unique Chinese culture related to the clothing, distinctive style of Chinese women, the character of the music, and dancing. Moreover, it was impossible to ignore the Chinese interior design characterized by the bright paintings and deep saturated colors.    

Another postulate of the virtue that was pronounced in The Grandmaster as advice about not renouncing the skill in order to lighten the road to the others sounded like the message about the significance of Chinese rites, culture and philosophy on the international scale. It is confirmed with the words of Ip who has said that the Southern art goes far beyond the borders of the country. This moment of the mental battle between Wing Chun and Ip also represents the elements of Chinese nationalism that addressed to the unity of China. 

The Wuxia Pian appeared in a time of social and political crisis that is why it tended to reflect a nationalist nostalgia and fantasies for a China that never was. Thus, its political and historical context is presented in all three analyzed films. Starting from The Grandmaster (2013) where aspiration to have a single union between South and North art was shown, to the Hero where the governor’s rulers were killed and ending with the House of Flying Draggers where the members of the opposite organization struggled against the corrupted government. Thus, there is one element uniting the Wuxia and Chinese tradition, and it is personal heroism. Placing the character in the center of the plot line belongs to the latest tendency, which is connected to the historical and political challenges, since prior Wuxia primarily has concentrated on the martial art performance. A typical Wuxia Pian depicts a hero, strong man or woman, who obeys represented above moral code in daily life to fight and defend others from the corrupt officials and tyranny leaders. There is no surprise in such tendency since the title of the genre means knight-errant. Thus, the redemption of the characters is observed in analyzed films. All they are characterized by strong internal strength and feel moral duty to their contemporaries who suffers from the unjust ruling of the country by dishonorable people. Thus, the Wuxia code of conduct or recognition of worth can be observed in each protagonist.

Another redemption of the characters relates to the female heroes, who appear on the film stage. If men were dominating figures in the Hero film, The Grandmaster and the House of Flying Daggers involved women as the warriors. It is important to admit that such tendency is a part of the Revolution’s aftermaths, which has happened after the seventies. The traditional perception of the women’s role who prior obeyed only to the fathers, husbands or sons had been changed, starting the battle for the equal gender rights started in China. Most likely, this situation was reflected in the Wuxia cinema. Thus, the houses of the entertainments or brothels, the Peony Pavilion in the House of Flying Daggers and Gold Pavilion in The Grandmaster, where the crucial scenes representing were the field for gender confrontation. 

As the image of women as warriors is rather widespread in the modern world cinema, female heroism in Wuxia films is consonant with the international tendencies. Thus, Dominique Mainon and James Ursini formed the women as warriors’ checklist on the base of the most popular films involving women as the leading characters and warriors . According to this checklist, each heroine must have at least three characteristics. In the case of Mei from House of Flying Draggers and Gong Er from The Grandmaster, one may notice the following. Firstly, both of the girls fight in an aggressive manner, secondly warrior woman is independent and thirdly they does not need the help from men . Besides, Mei belonged to the female-run organization named the House of Flying Daggers that was also the distinguished feature from the Dominique Mainon and James Ursini’s list. 

The heroism of these women does not concede to the men’s courage and skills. Moreover, the directors of the films bring them together in the battles that may seem to be unequal and unjust. Indeed, the women often gain the success. Thus, the perfect craft of Mei from the House of Flying Daggers is expressed in the scene where she is fighting against an army of men riding the horses. Even the fact that they were professionals (policemen) did not save them from the heroine who overcame the enemy alone operating only with the knives set. Such gender aspect used in Wuxia pian serves as the “symbolic negotiation emerging “Local Identity” appeared in the response to the challenges of capitalist society regarding traditional Chinese patriarchal order” .

It is important to mention that the sword is a traditional weapon of the heroes in all analyzed films according to the Wuxia mythology. There two types of the instruments for fighting such as the double-bladed sword that Chinese call proper or single-bladed that is usually called the knife regardless of its size and design. In the House of Flying Daggers one can meet the draggers that are used by the secret opposite organization. Moreover, the main character of the film Mei appreciates her set of daggers and considers it the most precious thing in her life. Thus, the scene where her companion, as she considered at that moment, is stuck in the forest under the threat of exposing to their persecutors underlines the crucial meaning of the Chinese martial weapon. 

Taking into account the deep philosophy of the martial art and significant place it occupies in the Chinese society there is no surprise that the love affairs are depicted in the Wuxia through the fighting. Both of the heroines Mei from the House of Flying Draggers and Gong Er from The Grandmaster should come together in the battle with the men who they love. In spite of the consistency in depicting the martial art such battles are not deprived of the elements of romantic and erotic inherent to the intimate relations between the women and men . Women’s shoulders that may be barred in the case of occasion movements during the fighting, the proximity of positions between men and women and numerous of the touches may be considered as the manifestation of romantic feelings. 

Mentioned elements are the most brightly presented in the House of Flying Draggers. There many scenes, accenting the attention on the Mei’s beauty and men’s admiration of it, including the first dance in the brothels the Peony Pavilion and further battles. Moreover, such cinema art elements represent the restraint and passion that coexists in the Chinese culture, as well as the culture of love and seduction, which is one of the distinctive Chinese culture parts. 

Besides, such way of disclosing the theme of love affairs emphasizes the saving of traditional gender role of the women in spite of their rights expansion. It is important because the presence of a fighting woman in a martial arts film upsets the balance of power between the sexes and points at some deficiency in the male protagonist. Moreover, directors try to emphasize the reversing traditional gender role in final scenes of the film when the women end up saving the beloved men, as Mei has done in the Houses of Flying Daggers (2004), or viciously killing them.  

All three films raise the issues of gender and nationalism and open them through the traditional martial art. They represent the historical context, but it is not the central element of the movies but only a decoration, which strengthens the main characters and their individual heroism. Acts of the characters serve to create the best conditions for revealing the Chinese tradition in correspondence with gender and national issues. 

More importantly, the results are not as important as the performative nature of the events, which is bright and impressive. Such effects mostly reached by the means of the extravagant skill, such as flying in the air, or saturated colors that prevail everywhere, starting with the dresses and interior design and ending with the colored nature mood, including trees’ leaves and shades of the clouds. 

Nature plays a leading role in the Chinese symbolism. The unity should exist between the things, internal world of the person and nature. Thus, this significant element of Chinese tradition may be distinguished in all of the analyzed films and the first scenes often forecast the mood of the story. Thus, the heavy rain at the beginning of The Grandmaster seems to be the symbol of the deep philosophical content of the film and underline its crucial life-giving essence because the water is the symbol of life and refreshing. The landscapes in the House of Flying Daggers like the emotions of the heroes are changing and become the harbingers of plot’s aggravation. Movie predictably ended on the winters that means the end of the year and brought the tragic final to the Mei and her love. Heaven is the leading nature element in the Hero. 

The Wuxia is distinguished with the full-shot approaches that the directors use to show the whole picture of the action demonstrating the character from head to toe, without showing much of his surroundings. Among the cinema critiques the idea of the failure in the applying of such instrument in drama exists because it does not allow showing the heroes’ emotions. However, it does not seem to be an actual for the Wuxia pian. It usually holds one-shot perspective on fight sequences to represent the unique capabilities of the actors. Emotional appeal directors compensated by the means of other elements, such as fascinating nature, impressive movements and also the magic of traditional Chinese music.

In spite of being a part of an action genre, Wuxia is characterized by incredibly slow pace that is a gesture to authenticity. The pre-modern life of Chinese could hardly be compared with the fast, compartmentalized, discontinuous modern life

The sounds accompanying the slow-motion directors used in the martial arts films to make them more expressive. Music is also a prominent and strategic element in all of Wuxia Pian films. Music supports an enigmatic philosophical and mystical contemplation of the film’s scenes. Martial art has much in common with the music because “they both wrestle with complex chords of rare melodies” says Nameless before killing Sky in the Hero. Musical repetition is often employed to articulate what is unsaid or what cannot be expressed via words and dialogue. It strengthens the tension during the fight or creates the romantic mood attracting the viewer attention to the heroes’ emotions.

After all, the martial art that is at the core of the analyzed films the Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and The Grandmaster and widely represents the essence of Chinese rites. It can be said that Kung Fu skill is the tradition in action, revealing the identity peculiarities of all spheres of the social life. Being strengthened with traditional Chinese symbolism, music and the cinema instrument, such as full-shot, the genre brightly reflects the Chinese culture heritage and helps to understand what it means to be Chinese. Moreover, through the deep philosophical context, the martial art films disclose the significant role of Chinese traditions in the international global scale.

May 15, 2019 in Research
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