Literary ‘kung fu pandas’: the Chinese wuxia genre and why Westerners don’t know it (Part II)

This is the second article in a series that introduces the Chinese genre of historical-martial fiction and analyses the obstacles to its translation and dissemination. Part I, which mainly gives the background information and begins on the issue of names/proper nouns, can be found here

Juggling a demonstration of cultural awareness with the brevity of their translations, some wuxia translators have opted to translate proper nouns into their corresponding English terms while embedding as much cultural meaning within them as possible. This approach (see Part I for my own translation of 降龍十八掌 into the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’) is an alternative to transliteration, where Chinese characters are directly anglicised using a phonetic system (e.g. 黃蓉, pronounced huáng róng → Huang Rong). However, while this translation strategy perhaps minimises footnote usage, it also sacrifices equally significant features of Chinese names that are best preserved in the original characters and their transliterated pronunciations. Certain martial sects, such as the Shaolin Monastery, adopt a generation-hierarchical naming system—that is to say, disciples of the same generation have one common character and one unique character in their names or titles. In English, however, the sonic unity of such titles as 空智 (Kong Zhi), 空聞 (Kong Wen) and 空見 (Kong Jian) is comically rendered as ‘Empty Intelligence’, ‘Empty Hearing’ and ‘Empty Sight’. Literally translated, the names 郭靖 and 楊康 —the two key characters in The Legend of the Condor Heroes—become ‘Pacify Guo’ and ‘Prosperous Yang’; the utterly horrendous nature of these English translations aside, they also elide Jin’s intentional naming of the two warriors after the 靖康事變 (Jingkang Incident) in Chinese history, where invaders from the Jin Empire abducted the then-Chinese Emperor and much of the imperial family. ‘Prosperous Yang’ goes on to sell his country to the Jin Empire, while ‘Pacify Guo’, by contrast, eventually sacrifices himself to defend China against the conquering Mongol army. The rooting of their Chinese names in this historical moment and its relevant nationalistic sentiments is therefore symbolically significant—a feature that cannot be reflected when translators opt for translation over transliteration.  

While the above examples show the nuances that slip past when we rely exclusively on translation, transliteration clearly also has its own pitfall of requiring countless footnotes and explanations. As neither strategy has proved infallible, certain translators such as Gigi Chang have tried using them in combination—yet the results are even more unwieldy and anachronistic, with the transliterated names Guo Jing and Yang Kang (i.e. the aforementioned ‘Pacify’ and ‘Prosperous’) existing in the same text as ridiculous titles like ‘Blithe Li, the Red Serpent Celestial’. With no simple solution to this matter, pages upon pages of unfamiliar names and proper nouns plague both translators and English readers of wuxia alike, making for very confusing and overcomplicated narratives.

One small comfort is that the significances of particular names and proper nouns are often elaborated within the content of wuxia novels themselves, or are so obscure that even the regular Chinese reader wouldn’t recognise them immediately. However, a sufficiently deep understanding of Chinese culture, philosophy and history is still key to the reading of wuxia literature, and is what ultimately eases the Chinese (or even Asian) reading experience compared to a Western one. Beyond simple textual references, Chinese culture greatly shapes wuxia narratives: from setting the overarching ideological backdrops, to driving characters’ psychological developments, to providing the impetus for certain conflicts. Without a corresponding cultural background, non-Chinese readers might find all of these hard to grasp or relate to. Therefore, ironically, the driving force behind wuxia’s popularity within Chinese communities—its deep roots in Chinese culture—is also the biggest obstacle to its dissemination in Western society.

The 江湖 jianghu, for instance, constitutes the foundational concept of wuxia literature, but is also notoriously difficult to define and describe—even for Chinese readers such as myself. While the term literally means ‘rivers and lakes’, it extends far beyond a geographical region, encompassing the sections of Chinese society that reside outside conventional central governance. Without government authorities to impose order, the jianghu was governed by principles and frameworks implicitly agreed upon by both the martial sects and the common people. As these frameworks are never explicitly addressed or defined, then, we may only derive them from observing relevant portrayals in wuxia novels, or, for Chinese readers, from a deeply-embedded cultural consciousness. The notion of 俠義, or ‘gallantry and righteousness’, one of the jianghu’s central values, could perhaps be extrapolated by Western readers from the tendency of protagonists to bear a sense of social responsibility and execute justice in complex situations. Moreover, this ideal actually bears surprising similarities to romance and chivalric traditions in English literature—readers familiar with the gallant deeds performed by the Knights of the Round Table might find echos of Camelot in the Seven Masters of the Quanzhen School, or in the sworn brotherhood of Xiao Feng, Duan Yu and Xu Zhu from The Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils.    

 However, there are more facets of the jianghu that do not have such straightforward Western counterparts: a central concern of wuxia novels is often the characters’ lack of agency within the complex webs of loyalties and debts in their communities. Arguably, this idea of people being strongly beholden to one another arises from the collectivist governing principles of Chinese society, which in turn are shaped by thousands of years of Confucian teaching. In The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, the protagonist Linghu Chong maintains an unwavering, almost fatal loyalty towards his teacher Yue Buqun despite the latter’s multifold mistreatment and betrayal of him. As Linghu Chong prostrates himself repeatedly, in tears, before a cold-countenanced Yue, one cannot help but feel their heart wrench in sympathy and boiling anger against such injustice. To Western readers who grew up in more individualistic cultures (more on Western individualism VS Eastern collectivism may be found here), then, this level of dedication might be simply incomprehensible—anyone could see that Linghu Chong is needlessly enforcing his own self-flagellation—he should just cut his abuser off! For Chinese audiences, however, while sad to watch, his behaviour makes sense: having grown up with similar conventions of filial piety and conceiving of others’ benevolence as debts to be repaid, we can easily understand how he would be almost forced, by the weight of his cultural upbringing, to feel such loyalty towards the master who raised and taught him from an orphaned childhood. 

Similarly, when Linghu Chong finally rises above the jianghu’s tangled struggles for martial supremacy and dominance later on in the novel, and chooses to retire from society with his wife, Chinese readers would easily recognise in him the precedents of such figures as Tao Yuanming—a great poet who resigned from government service and returned to the field—and the backing Daoist ideologies of 逍遙遊 (‘Carefree Travel’). Such connections and understanding would be almost intuitive. Because the cultural frameworks required to understand wuxia novels are so ingrained within the day-to-day language and thinking of native speakers, not only are they difficult to capture in translation, it is also understandably impossible for non-Chinese readers to go, ‘Ah yes, how Carefree in a Daoist sense he must be!’ in the exact same way when they encounter representative episodes within the narrative. 

Simply put, wuxia novels present a nostalgia for a certain, idealised Chinese historical past and its accompanying set of values—which are not equally embedded in the cultural consciousness of Westerners. As these values lurk beneath the surface of almost narrative interaction or turn, reading wuxia without an understanding of them would be like trying to wade through the South China Sea. And even if readers were willing to take on this herculean task, it is still difficult to say if they would not be put off by the many translational and linguistic issues—I could go on for another 1000 words on the inherent differences between Chinese as a character-based language and English as a phonetic one, and how this makes for very lengthy, Bleak House-level translations. With this unfortunate combination of cultural barriers and unresolved translational difficulties, it is no surprise that wuxia novels are simply unable to attract more attention in the anglophone world. Yet, considering the increasing emphasis on cultural plurality within today’s globalised world, it seems like a shame that the audiences of this seminal Chinese genre—and, I’m sure, many similar genres and art-forms from other cultures—should be confined only to their existing cultural communities. The obstacles to and possibilities for dissemination of translated world literatures perhaps bear further thought, particularly in monolingual and therefore restrictive anglophone spaces.

In recent years, the wuxia genre has begun to garner more attention through the rise of certain danmei (Chinese boys’ love) novels and their adaptations. For instance, dramas such as The Untamed, which belongs to a sister-genre of wuxia that includes supernatural elements, and Word of Honor have gained explosive traction among global consumers of queer media. With this increased interest in Chinese source material, the Internet is witnessing a new era of translations: that of the fan-translation, created by fans for fans. The unparalleled willingness of fan-translators to devote time and energy to their favourite media, as well as their general inhabitation of an online medium unaffected by print restrictions, often allow for the creation of more culturally accurate translations with highly detailed footnotes. At the same time, as the audiences for these translations are established fanbases whose interests in Chinese culture are already aroused, they are both more forgiving of translational difficulties and more willing to learn about cultural nuances, value systems and hopefully the wuxia genre. 

However, such expanded international audiences have also given rise to discourses of appropriation, fetishisation, and—due to the amateur nature of fan-translations—cultural inaccuracies. The rise of fan-translations creates as many problems as it solves—and it certainly seems like this trend, as well as its problems, will be here to stay for a while. 

What, then, is the future of wuxia? When can we expect its widespread and culturally accurate dissemination? To answer this question, we might turn inwards to the genre itself: as the second master of the Hengshan School, Liu Zhengfeng, prepares to retire from the martial world in The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, he famously states ‘無風浪不成江湖,無恩怨不出豪傑’. I loosely translate his words here as ‘without the trials and travails of stormy waves, no jianghu can be formed; without the complex webs of debts and grudges, no hero would arise’. Perhaps hosting all these obstacles is apt for the wuxia genre—it wouldn’t be the much-revered genre it is now without such distinctive cultural eccentricities to unpack and scale. And perhaps, in true jianghu fashion, we can only take a step back and surrender our attempts to control the genre’s trajectory, trusting that it will eventually wander its way into the wider Western world. 


Featured image: Jade Lee on Unsplash

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