The transcript below is from the video “Why People Fly in Kung Fu Movies: The Evolution of Wuxia” by StoryDive.

StoryDive (Videos that delve into stories of all kinds. We dive under the surface of stories to find out what makes them tick.):

Have you ever wondered why people fly in Wuxia (Fantasy Kung-Fu) Movies? In this video I break down just that, beginning with the origins of Wuxia in Chinese Mythology, then moving up to current Wuxia hits like Eternal Love (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms), Nirvana in Fire, Wuxia video games like Dynasty Warriors 9, as well as classics in the genre like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Hero (2002).

Let me know what your favorite Wuxia or XianXia stories or characters are in the comments below.

StoryDive:

“I remember when ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ first hit cinemas back in 2000. Mainstream audiences in the West had never seen anything like it. And to this day, it remains the highest grossing foreign language film in North America. However, in spite of its great success, it also confused a lot of people for one unavoidable reason. Its characters defy gravity. At the time of its release, I had already been a fan of Chinese cinema for years. And specifically, the wuxia or martial heroes film genre. Kung-fu masters gliding through the air, as if in a zero-gravity environment, seemed perfectly natural to me. But apparently not everyone shared this view. Before ‘Crouching Tiger’, most audiences in North America were only familiar with kung-fu films by the likes of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, that consistently used a realistic style of fight choreography. So, the sight of Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi flying from treetop to treetop, garnered the accusation from many fans, that this type of film was and I’m quoting here, ‘unrealistic’.”

[Scene from “The Simpsons” (1989-)]

StoryDive:

“In the 17 years since ‘Crouching Tiger’, a number of Chinese wuxia films, have had somewhat wide releases in Western theaters. And while none of them ever recaptured the success of ‘Crouching Tiger’ overseas, the concept of superhuman kung fu fantasy has slowly but surely become more accepted in the West. But believe it or not, there is still some confusion. In this video, I will finally set the record straight and explain why people fly in wuxia or fantasy kung fu movies.”

“Accusing a wuxia film of being unrealistic is like accusing a ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie of the same thing. Like look how Saruman makes Gandalf fly around with his staff. That would never happen in real life because you can’t make people fly with a piece of wood. It is so fake.”

[Scene from “Extras” (2005-2007)]

StoryDive:

“You never hear people complaining about the lack of realism in the ‘Lord of the Rings’, because the fantasy elements in those stories come from a European oral storytelling tradition that goes back thousands of years. At this point, those story elements are simply in the ether of Western culture. The same can be said of the fantasy elements in the wuxia genre, regarding Chinese culture, including that whole flying around thing. To fully illustrate this, let’s start at the beginning, with ancient Chinese mythology and the origins of wuxia.”

“The theology of Taoism includes a massive pantheon of gods. Aside from the three main gods called the ‘Three Pure Ones’ and the highest among these called, the Jade Emperor, there are also many, many lesser deities that typically control or govern over a specific phenomenon in nature. Each of these gods has their own specific powers and abilities. But flying is fairly common among them. The Taoist gods will often fly atop a mythical creature like a dragon, a divine cloud or simply by using a mastery of chi, the life force. You may think, well of course the gods can fly. They’re gods. How does this apply to martial arts masters? And this question brings us to a key difference between Chinese or Eastern mythology and most Western mythology.”

StoryDive:

“Unlike in Western mythology, in Chinese mythology it is possible for a mortal creature to attain the power of a god, purely through their own merit. For example, the Eight Immortals of Chinese mythology were once all mortal men or women. But by practicing the Taoist arts, they became immortals or xian. And attained many superhuman powers and abilities. In Western mythology, mortals can be apotheosis or achieve divine status. But this almost exclusively occurs when the mortal is blessed or chosen by a god. In Chinese mythology, however, mortals can achieve the status of a god, simply through the fastidious study of the correct arts. This difference in mythology also applies to the traditional Chinese view of the martial arts. In the same way that a mortal can become a xian through practice of the Taoist arts, or a bodhisattva through the practice of Buddhism, those who study the correct martial arts may also attain superhuman power. Qi Gong is the practice of cultivating Chi, the life force that flows through the human body and the universe.”

[Scene from “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)]

StoryDive:

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure George Lucas was familiar with the concept when he wrote ‘Star Wars’. It is thought that chi is harnessed by balancing yin and yang, the opposing energies that manifest in the natural world. Many Chinese martial arts and kung-fu styles include Qi Gong techniques that are still practiced today. The modern practice of Qi Gong is most often used to promote health, as it is thought to boost the immune system and slow the aging process. However, in Chinese folklore, martial Qigong techniques allow for a wide variety of superhuman abilities. These include a number of powerful chi projectiles, chi body armor and immunity, and the one you’ve been waiting for like body skill or Qing Gong. Granted, Qing Gong is a real kung fu technique that is practiced in various kung-fu styles today. But the IRL version of Qing Gong looks a lot like parkour. In folklore and later wuxia fiction, practitioners of this technique could go far beyond this. Qing Gong was thought to manipulate the practitioner’s chi, in order to achieve apparent weightlessness and allow them to glide through the air as if unhindered by gravity.”

[Scene from “The Other Guys” (2010)]

StoryDive:

“This brings us to the next stage in the evolution of wuxia. The origin of the Chinese novel. Stories that previously existed in theological texts, short form written narratives called Chuang Chi and oral folklore, eventually found their way into the first Chinese novels, which began to appear in the 14th century. This is when the first two of the four classic Chinese novels were written; ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’ and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’. Both are loosely based on real historical events. However, take many fictional liberties that draw from Chinese folklore. While there are no explicit references to Qing Gong style flying in either novel, both are full of superhuman feats as well as Taoist sorcery. For instance, during one scene in the ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, the character Lu Zhishen, uproots a tree with his bare hands and while drunk, no less. In another scene, several characters float through the air on magical clouds that manifest from handkerchiefs. The third of the four classic Chinese novels, ‘Journey to the West’, follows the exploits of the mischievous Monkey King or Sun Wukong, as he escorts the monk Sanzang, on a pilgrimage to retrieve sacred Buddhist scriptures from India. Unlike the previous two novels, ‘Journey to the West’ does contain many references to characters flying through the air. And not just on magical clouds, although Sun Wukong does that as well. Through his training in the Taoist arts, Sun Wukong learns how to somersault 60,000 miles through the air. And attains many other magical abilities like the 72 transformations.”

[Scene from “A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella” (1995)]

StoryDive:

“Classic novels like the ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’ and ‘Journey to the West’, influence the modern wuxia novel genre, which began to rise in popularity in the early 20th century. During this era, writers like [inaudible], wrote serialized tales of martial heroes set in a romanticized mythical version of China’s past. This is also when a sub-genre of wuxia developed, that was later called [inaudible] which is very similar to wuxia but delves more into the supernatural elements of Chinese mythology, like gods, demons and mythical creatures. The first novels of this sub-genre are thought to be the ‘Swordsman of the Zhu Mountain’ series by Huan Zhu Lou Zhu. In the 1950s, a new school of wuxia authors emerged, like the highly influential Jin Yong, Gu Long and Liang Yusheng, their novels established many conventions that are considered standard in the wuxia genre today. Like frequent references to aerial feats and speed made possible by Qing Gong.”

StoryDive:

“As the modern wuxia novel developed, so did wuxia cinema. The earliest wuxia film is thought to be the 1928 silent film, ‘The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple’, which is the first in a series, adapting [inaudible] novels, ‘The Peculiar Knights-Errant of the Jianghu’. In spite of the production limitations of the time, the film series included scenes with Taoist magic and even the first flying wuxia swordsman on film, or swordswoman, whatever. Wuxia cinema evolved in the decades following this, but didn’t make a huge impact until the Shaw Brothers Studio began releasing wuxia films in the 1960s. Like the ‘One-Armed Swordsman’ series, ‘Dragon Inn’ and ‘Come Drink with Me’. The director of the latter two films, King Hu, was instrumental in translating the mythical atmosphere of wuxia novels onto the big screen. He made use of this arrows rudimentary special effects, to portray his characters supernatural power. But all scenes involving aerial acrobatics or lightness kung fu were created with trampolines rather than wires. While there are some examples of wire work in this era, what would later be called wire fu, in the West, didn’t truly take off until the early 80s. With popular wuxia, or [inaudible] films like ‘Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain’ and ‘Duel to the Death’. Once Chinese moviegoers got a taste for wire work, there was no turning back as the effect seemed to perfectly portray the weightlessness of heroes in wuxia novels.”

StoryDive:

“Many consider the late 1980s through the 90s to be the Golden Era of Wuxia Cinema. As well, as Hong Kong cinema in particular. 90s era wuxia films like the Wong Fei-hung series, ‘Fong Sai-yuk’ series, ‘Swordsman’ series, ‘Ashes of Time’ and ‘The Bride with White Hair’ captured and fully realized the supernatural excitement of wuxia novels. And epitomized the wuxia and Shen Shu film genres to this day. This era also included many of the greatest aerial kung fu fight sequences ever created. Thanks to masterful fight choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping. The wuxia genre finally gained some recognition in the West at the end of the 90s. Firstly when the Wachowski brothers adopted some ideas from wuxia and reimagined them for their 1999 film, ‘The Matrix’. Not to mention, they hired Yuen Woo-ping for the fight sequences.”

[Scene from “The Matrix”]

StoryDive:

“The next year saw the first real success of wuxia films internationally, with ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. There were a number of attempts to create a wuxia hit in the West after ‘Crouching Tiger’ most notably Zhang Yimou’s hero and ‘House of Flying Daggers’. And while both of these are great examples of the genre, they weren’t able to translate quite as well as ‘Crouching Tiger’ in the West, nor has any Chinese film since.”

[Scene from “Dragon Blade” (2015)]

StoryDive:

“However, back in China, wuxia has continued to thrive as it always has, with massive film hits like ‘Journey to the West: The Demon Strike Back’ and ‘Monster Hunt’. Although you could technically call those films [inaudible] if you want it to be a total nerd about it. Chinese TV series like ‘Nirvana in Fire’ and ‘Eternal Love’, have made the genre more popular on the small screen than ever before. And I can’t forget wuxia video games like ‘Dynasty Warriors’, have grown in popularity since the mid 90s.”

[Scene from “Moonlight Blade”]

StoryDive:

“So, to come full circle, why do people fly in wuxia films? The short answer is that it’s just how China does stories and it always has been. Personally, what I love about the genre is the way it depicts heroes. The heroes in wuxia attain awesome superhuman powers. But they do so, through their own skill and merit. Spider-man was bitten by a radioactive spider. Wolverine was born with a healing factor. Thor was born a god. But a wuxia hero attains superhuman power through study, skill and hard work. For me, that is a far more empowering idea of a superhero that anything Marvel, or DC has produced. Okay you comic nerds. I know you’re typing, what about Doctor Strange in the comments right now. But he was loosely based on Chinese mythology anyway. I meant most Marvel and DC characters. If you have any insights into wuxia or [inaudible] that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments below. And let me know what your favorite wuxia movie, book, game or character is.”




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