Nationalism in Chinese Martial Arts Films

Martial arts can be dated back thousands of years in Chinese literary history. As early as the West Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), Sima Qian had depicted a number of wandering knights in the ‘Records of Grand History’ (written between 104 and 91 BC; see Teo 2009, p. 17; Hamm 2005, p. 12). He expressed his admiration for the principles and values held by the knights, including traditional Chinese values such as trustworthiness, humility, sense of righteousness, etc. Sima Qian is the earliest scholar to have recorded martial arts in Chinese literature, laying the foundation for martial arts in the Chinese literary tradition. Since then, martial arts have been a recurrent theme in the literature. For example, in the Tang-era poem Xiake Xing (Ш^Т, Ode to Gallantry), written by one of the greatest Chinese poets of the Tang Dynasty

(AD 618-907), Li Bai describes a knight skilled in martial arts and advocating Chinese virtues and ethics. Martial arts can also be found in the chuanqi - Tang Dynasty short stories (e.g., Nie Yingniang ШВШ by Pei Xing) - and in chivalric court-case fiction of the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1912), such as Qixia Wuyi (Ж|^ЖЖ) by Shi Yukun. Of all these literary works, the novel Water Margin (7КЖЖ by Shi Nai’an), written during the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), marks the peak of martial arts in Chinese literature (Hamm 2005, p. 17; Lee 2003). The rich history of literary works on martial arts influenced the adaptation of these stories in a large number of martial arts films and TV series later on.

The film industry was first drawn to pay attention to martial arts in the early part of the 20th century. Since then, there have been two main types of martial arts film (Wang 2008, p. 51; Li 2001). The first is those films set in a historical period/dynasty era. These films are also called ‘period costume martial arts’ or ‘swordplay’ films. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) is one such film. This type of film is usually adapted from martial arts fiction, as mentioned earlier. They demonstrate the continuous shift of martial arts from wushu (ЖЖ, martial arts) into other art forms, such as fiction and films. Usually, these films focus on the exploration of Chinese traditional values and social norms, and the reflection of philosophy and religion, including Confucianism, Taoism or/and Buddhism. The other type of film usually tells the stories of martial arts masters in a particular historical period and is based on real-life events in the lives of these masters, for example, Wong Fei Hong, Yip Man and Chen Zhen. It is also called ‘Kung Fu’ or ‘action’ films (Wang 2008, p. 51).

Alongside print-languages, which were of central importance in laying the foundation for the spread of “national consciousnesses” (Anderson 2003, p. 44), cinema has played a principal role in the ‘maintenance and reinvention of nationhood [...] since the beginning of the twentieth century’ (Lu and Yeh 2005, p. 2). Martial arts films, which represent Chinese traditions such as wuxia (meaning ‘knight’)[1] literature and Chinese opera in a semiotic system, demonstrate the nationalistic theme (Wallis 2011). The following sections will draw examples from martial arts films in order to reflect on their contribution to the construction of Chinese National Cinema.

  • [1] The social and historical connotation of wuxia is beyond the scope of this study. For a fulldiscussion, please see Teo 2009, pp. 1-4; Wu and Chan 2007, p. 206.
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