Friday, November 11, 2016

Bai Fa Mo Nu Zhuan (The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden) by Liang Yusheng

China. A country famous for being enormous, having a really difficult language, and for being ruled throughout its history by a series of oppressive totalitarian-style governments of which Mao's Communism was only one of the more recent manifestations.

Not, therefore, a place to which Western readers, including myself, would tend to look for entertaining reading matter. But recently, I discovered just how wrong I was.

China may be famous for being oppressed by monolithic states, but neither its history, its people, nor its culture are monolithic. And the world's little people have always gone on being themselves: dreaming of freedom, adventure, and influence, even when the odds are stacked against them. Over the years, these dreams collected, in China, into a genre of tales dealing with adventurers, swordsmen, assassins, and heroes who dared to take justice into their own hands. It was a literature of the little people against the faceless bureaucracies that ruled them. The Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912) discouraged and suppressed this genre of stories for obvious reasons, but only succeeded in entrenching the genre further into the lower classes. With the twentieth century came a new wave of anti-imperial, nationalist sentiment, as well as more opportunities to tell these stories that everyone loved. Authors such as Gu Long, Jin Yong, and Liang Yusheng spearheaded a renaissance of the genre in the middle of the century, and a new name was developed to describe it: wuxia, or "martial hero", fiction.

Probably the wuxia genre is best known in the West via film. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers are all arthouse-style homages to the genre, representing the wuxia attitude with varying levels of faithfulness. Hero, for instance, backs away from the traditional anti-authoritarian streak in wuxia (which was influenced partly by a cultural revolt against Confucianism), and ends on a depressingly statist theme of the kind which traditional wuxia abominated.

Western homages to the genre also exist. Dreamworks's animated Kung Fu Panda films, which I haven't seen, are said to be a homage to the genre. The Forbidden Kingdom, a relatively family-friendly film whose main attraction is Jet Li and Jackie Chan's epic duel, blends wuxia with Chinese folklore. The movie also features its kung-fu fanboy protagonist geeking out over a DVD titled The Bride With White Hair. Which leads us into today's review: the classic 1958 wuxia novel Bai Fa Mo Nu Zhuan, The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden, by Liang Yusheng.

The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden

It is the final years of the Ming Dynasty. Barbarians from beyond the Great Wall, the feared Manchus, are attempting to conquer China from the north, held back only by a few brave generals (Historical spoilers: eventually they fail and the Manchus take over, setting up the Qing Dynasty). In Beijing, the last Ming Emperors decline into weakness, falling into the influence of the wicked Minister, Wei Zhongxian, a eunuch, and the new emperor's wet-nurse, his former lover Madam Ke.

In the border provinces, the young female bandit Lian Nicheng, aka Yu Luocha, "The Jade Demoness", has developed an unparalleled sword skill as she battles the injustices committed by wealthy officials and Manchu spies. This, together with her buoyant personality, leads to her making a number of enemies in the martial arts world, not least, the tradition-bound Wudang Sect.

For centuries the prestigious Wudang Sect has dominated the martial arts world. Young Zhuo Yihang, a first-generation disciple, is poised to take over from his master Taoist Priest Purple Sun as Sect Leader when he meets Yu Luocha and the two fall in love. Irretrievably torn between his love for the plucky bandit and his loyalty to the sect elders who believe her to be unorthodox and malicious, Zhuo Yihang is about to become wuxia's least-liked protagonist.

Meanwhile, a young military attache from the Manchurian frontlines undertakes a dangerous mission in search of Manchu agents in the capital. A formidable swordsman from the new Mount Heaven sect, Yue Mingke quickly realises after duelling Yu Luocha that their respective masters used to be married before their rivalry in martial arts split them apart. Realising that they are the sole inheritors of two peerless martial arts schools, Yue Mingke and Yu Luocha agree to meet ten years in the future to settle, once and for all, their masters' rivalry.

Now add: Manchu spies, imperial guards, rival bandits, snaky bureaucrats, stuffy priests, a cast of hundreds, a truly amazing number of cliffhangers, three or four MacGuffins, constant epic fight scenes, approximately fifteen years' worth of plot, and settings that roam across the length and breadth of China, and you have The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden.

The Bad

I have to admit, it took me a long time to like this book. I wanted to read it, so I persisted with it, but in a lot of ways it wasn't kind to the reader. To begin with, it was a really, really long book featuring many, many characters who, being named in Chinese, were a little difficult to keep track of. The fight scenes could sometimes be a little tedious (though overall I thought Liang did a great job of making them interesting - there were just a lot of them). The plot was extremely loose and unstructured, while the romance at the centre of the plot was infuriating because of the extreme gormlessness of the male lead. (Mild spoilers!) I wanted Zhuo Yihang to man up. I wanted Yu Luocha to stop eating her heart out over a complete dweeb. I wanted Yue Mingke to sweep her off her feet. Alas. None of this happened. (End spoilers).

Nevertheless, something happened about a quarter of the way through this book. I got interested. I began to like the characters. It was a sort of literary Stockholm syndrome - after sticking to the book so long, I began liking it despite myself. Partly this was our heroine Yu Luocha, who was huge fun to read about. Partly it was getting invested in the relationships in the story that did work: Yu Luocha's loving relationship with the crusty old bandit she adopts as her foster-father, Yue Mingke's star-crossed romance...goodness, even Zhuo Yihang's friendship with Yue Mingke was more convincing than the central romance.

But I think what I liked most about this story was the fascinating glimpse it gave me into one aspect of Chinese culture I never knew existed.

Jianghu Heroes
Long Xiaoyun coldly said, “Why do you talk reason with them? If they were reasonable, they wouldn’t be government officials!”
The concept of the "jianghu" (literally "rivers and lakes") is central to twentieth-century wuxia. I'm going to quote Wikipedia:
Novelists started creating a fantasy world in "jianghu" in which characters are martial artists and in which the characters' enforcement of righteousness is symbolised by conflicts between different martial artists or martial arts sects and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Martial arts became a tool used by characters in a "jianghu" story to enforce their moral beliefs. On the other hand, there are characters who become corrupted by power derived from their formidable prowess in martial arts and end up abandoning their morality in their pursuit of power. Around this time, the term "jianghu" became closely related to a similar term, "wulin" (武林; lit. "martial forest"), which referred exclusively to a community of martial artists. This fantasy world of "jianghu" remains as the mainstream definition of "jianghu" in modern Chinese popular culture, particularly wuxia culture.


A common aspect of the jianghu is that the courts of law are dysfunctional and that all disputes and differences (within the community) can only be resolved by members of the community, through the use of mediation, negotiation or force, predicating the need for the code of xia and acts of chivalry. Law and order within the jianghu are maintained by the various orthodox and righteous sects and heroes.
In Legend of the White-Haired Maiden, the jianghu attitude is represented most strongly by Yu Luocha and her bandit friends. On the other hand, the many sympathetic characters working for the imperial court represent the (most likely Confucian) values of the rest of society. Zhuo Yihang especially, who is from a well-regarded family of bureaucrats and a member of the highly-respected Wudang Sect, is incapable of understanding or appreciating the jianghu code of conduct, and it's this that complicates his relationship with Yu Luocha.

The jianghu code of conduct is explained in the book like this: "People of noble heroism should really be holding the act of helping out each other as their personal mission." While the jianghu code isn't without a certain sense of larrikin irresponsibility, it definitely comes with an insistence on personal relationships and individual responsibility. In the words of Tie Shanhu (Yue Mingke's rather adorable love interest):
“Only silly goofs like you would take upon the matters of the world as your own personal mission and then go to support such a degenerate dynasty. For me, a life wandering through the Jianghu world, standing up for justice and performing acts of heroism, living an existence comparable to the wild cranes and carefree clouds would be a much more gratifying and worthwhile experience. [...] I know, I know. You have your whole philosophy of how you must facilitate the Emperor in order to defend the country against the intrusion of foreign invaders – right? But the thing is, we don’t necessarily need an Emperor in order to defend our country against the Tartars!”
I couldn't help contrasting this with the attitude shown by Zhuo Yihang, or other characters, like the noble general Xiong Tingbi. With the Emperor's court heavily infiltrated by Manchu spies and ambitious officials, our heroes are often liable to be arrested on outrageously false charges. Those without the jianghu code see themselves as obligated to submit meekly to the Emperor's "justice", even when that "justice" is being corrupted by traitors. And when the jianghu heroes merrily break into jail to rescue them, they nobly refuse to leave, unable to face the shame of breaking any command issued by the Holy Lord Emperor, even when those commands are obviously wrong.

And this is the difference between those in the jianghu and those outside it: for those in the jianghu, justice can be done apart from the Emperor. Being loyal to one's country doesn't always mean being loyal to the Emperor. Which is, I think, an absolutely vital concept for any patriot of any country to understand.

Though incredibly depressing, Hero is one of the prettiest films you'll ever see.

Taoism, Buddhism, and Worldview

As I mentioned above, the Zhang Yimou film Hero abandons this theme, instead opting for something which, even in my most charitable mood, I can only call blatant statism. However, partway through The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden, I decided to read Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching in an attempt to better understand the Taoist underpinnings of the story. After I'd done so, it became much clearer to me that the statist worldview of Hero draws directly on Taoist philosophy.

Interestingly enough, it's quite clear throughout The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden that the characters' fantastic martial arts skill is based on Taoism and Buddhism as well. Through the practice of meditation, the characters are able to access qi or chi energy, which might best be described as something like the Force in Star Wars. Qi is then used to add force to blows, whether the blows are made with hand, foot, sword, or even fabric (this is why people whap each other with their sleeves in martial arts movies - and now you know). Weapons gain their own qi, and it can also be used to help the characters levitate (which is why wuxia films have all that fancy wirework). At one stage, Yue Mingke is fighting his way through the Shaolin monastery when he pauses to have a lesson from one of the Buddhist monks:
The teachings of Buddhism posits that one must abolish all of one’s ignorance and abandon all forms of obstinacies before one can be awakened to enlightened intelligence and enter into the state of eternity. From these Ch’an teachings, Yue Ming Ke was suddenly enlightened to the principle of inner energy cultivation, causing an inspiring revelation to flood into his mind and illuminate his heart. 
Obviously, The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden and the whole wuxia genre is thus inseparable at some level from the Eastern mysticism that gives its characters their impossible abilities. From my limited experience, it seems to be axiomatic in Eastern martial arts that beating people up is, contrary to Western expectations, not the ultimate goal of training in martial arts. Rather, it is the attainment of enlightenment, and I think Hero expresses this quite well:
In the first stage [of swordsmanship], man and sword become one and each other. Here, even a blade of grass can be used as a lethal weapon. In the next stage, the sword resides not in the hand but in the heart. Even without a weapon, the warrior can slay his enemy from a hundred paces. But the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains.
Given this, I think it's safe to say that Hero is much more epistemologically self-conscious, much more internally consistent with its worldview than Legend of the White-Haired Maiden is. To prove, this, I only have to quote a line from the book that's kept me chuckling for days:
The Lama in red harshly shouted, "Don't tell a lie in front of a holy man, don't think that you can escape by becoming a Buddhist monk. Quickly hand over Xiong Manzi's book on military strategy, otherwise the Buddha will release you from suffering today!" 
This is a villainous character speaking, but I laughed because it's a perfect picture of how Legend of the White-Haired Maiden subverts the Eastern philosophy of detachment and nonresistance on which it's built. Buddhists should not, strictly speaking, toss off snappy pre-fight one-liners. The internally consistent Taoist hopes to bring peace and justice to the world by refusing to fight evil, not by swashbuckling around the jianghu fighting oppressors.

But swashbuckling around the jianghu fighting oppressors is exactly what Legend of the White-Haired Maiden is all about. Despite the shortcomings in its plot and characterisation, this book was a valuable look inside the classic wuxia genre. I did end up enjoying it quite a bit.

I read The Legend of the White-Haired Maiden in a sketchy internet translation, which you can also read here.

The book has been adapted into a number of TV shows and movies, none of which I've seen, and none of which apparently stick very close to the book.

All of them, for instance, man up Zhuo Yihang considerably.


Jamie W said...

Wow, that is a delightfully sketchy internet translation!

Suzannah said...

Haha! Yes! I had a really good Chinese friend (she's now back in her homeland) and she used very similar grammar, so it was like old times really.

Joseph J said...

Brave of you to tackle eastern literature. Contrary to what maps tell us, East Asia is actually another planet. I have a brilliant acquaintance who devoted a few years of her life to studying the Japanese. She gave it up and declared them an impenetrable riddle.

I love the aesthetics of Hero despite its tragic pagan statist message. It gives me hope that legitimate cultural diversity may yet outlast this global drive to imitate modern western materialism. Long live strange new beauties.

Suzannah said...

"Strange new beauties" - sounds like a terrific name for an ezine or something ;). Yes, HERO is gorgeous to look at, despite the Taoist message. I'm glad that it does come across as depressing, though. It reminds me of something Ang Lee says in the CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON commentary about how difficult it was to make the message of Taoist liberation from the material world at the end of that film come across as hopeful instead of depressing!

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