Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
With Netflix’s no good, very bad, culturally appropriating “Iron Fist,” Hollywood is again dipping into the martial arts genre that comes out of China, known in Chinese as “wuxia.”
I assume that the makers of “Iron Fist” had no idea that the genre in which they were working arose from a 10th century short story. Indeed, I assume that hardly anyone knows this to be true. The wuxia genre, in its cinematic incarnation, especially in those old Hong Kong films with low budgets and visible wireworks and obvious fight choreography, can seem risibly silly. But the fact is that wuxia is a venerable literary tradition.
And just as, according to Dostoevsky, all of Russian fiction came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” all of wuxia derives from a single story of under 2,000 words written in the late-9th or early-10th century by a Taoist priest.
The years around 900 A.D. were the waning days of the Tang Dynasty, the glory days of which were the best of times in China’s two-thousand-year imperial history. So the author-priest set his story at the dawn of those glory days in the early 600s. The story, “The Man with the Dragon Beard,” in synopsis, goes like this:
In the final years of the reign of the tyrannical Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty, a brilliant and ambitious young man named Li Jing [a real historical figure], seeking his fortune, requests an audience with one of the Emperor’s ministers. But the duke looks down on him as a commoner and sends him away.
As Li is leaving, a beautiful young woman blocks his way. She works as a singer-entertainer in the duke’s household, and now she asks where he is staying. Later that night she comes to Li’s hotel and proposes marriage. “I have worked for the duke for a long time,” she says, “and I have seen all manners of men come through his house. But I have never seen a man like you.” Li accepts the offer but is afraid that the duke may pursue them, so they escape the capital in haste and head toward Li’s hometown of Taiyuan.
One day while on the road, a stranger “with a red beard like a dragon” barges into their hotel and starts staring at her. Li is quite angry at the stranger’s rudeness and is about to do something when his new wife stops him. She recognizes that the stranger is of an uncommon caliber and invites him to join them for a meal. They order alcohol, and to go with it the stranger produces from his luggage a human heart, which he explains belonged to his enemy, an evil man.
Li confesses that he is ambitious. The stranger asks whether any great man lives in Taiyuan whom Li could serve. Li names one man, also surnamed Li, who is but 20 years old and the son of the general of the provincial garrison. [At this point every Chinese reader knows that he is referring to Li Shimin, the future Emperor Taizong of the Tang, the greatest emperor in Chinese history, the man who ushered in the golden age.] The stranger says that he will also go to Taiyuan and will see them there.
Li Jing and his wife return to Taiyuan and meet up with the stranger again. Through connections, Li Jing introduces the Man with the Dragon Beard to Li Shimin. The Man with the Dragon Beard falls silent in Li Shimin’s presence and subsequently declares him a true king.
The Man with the Dragon Beard invites his friends to his house, which turns out to be a mansion, as he turns out to be very wealthy. He confesses that he had harbored ambitions to become emperor of China, but now he had met the destined once and future king and will seek his fortune elsewhere. Thus he bequeaths all of his property to his friend Li Jing so that he can aid Li Shimin in becoming the enlightened ruler that he is meant to be. In ten years or so, the Man with the Dragon Beard says, “You should hear news from thousands of miles away in the southeast; that will be when I succeed in my endeavors.” And then he leaves and is never seen again.
With his new wealth, Li Jing becomes a top advisor to Li Shimin, who indeed overthrows the current government and becomes emperor. A decade into the future, Li Jing hears news that an outsider with an invading army has conquered a certain Southeast Asian country and become king. Li Jing then knows that his old friend has accomplished what he set out to accomplish. He goes home to his wife, and they drink a toast in the stranger’s honor.
In under 2,000 words, the story establishes the central motivation of wuxia fiction: character, and a specific kind of it. Namely, the “heroic” character who knows and believes in his or her own greatness with full confidence, who is broadly on the side of right but capable of great violence, who is honorable in loyalty to friends and faithfulness to promises, who cares not for life’s little things like money, ready to give away an enormous fortune just like that for a good purpose, and who is able almost preternaturally to recognize other heroic characters.
And need I point out that most of the recognizing is done by the story’s sole woman? She recognizes Li Jing for the great man that he almost is, and then she recognizes the Man with the Dragon Beard, who then recognizes the future emperor. Indeed, she instigates the marriage and drives the plot for half the story, while the supposed protagonist, Li Jing, is mostly passive. She is a woman who does and gets precisely what she wants. Medieval patriarchy be damned. Wuxia has always shown us strong female characters, as both genders can display the striking “heroic” character that is the heart of this sort of fiction.
Indeed, the author-priest drew his characters so sharply that for the rest of history Chinese readers would remember the legend of this trio, known collectively as “The Three Knights of Wind and Dust.”
And there’s not a single fight scene in the great-grandfather of the wuxia genre. This is what the makers of “Iron Fist” failed to understand. It's not the kung fu that makes wuxia. It’s the characters. And no whiny American hipster like Danny Rand can hold up half a wuxia tale.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."