When The Swordsman started airing on Hunan Satellite TV last month, criticism soon followed. The use of visual effects was excessive and the story line was weak and lacked originality, critics said.
But to me, the new adaptation of Louis Cha’s (Jin Yong) classic novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer may be a little too original. Without the unmistakable characters, you would think it’s just another historical series combining martial arts and romance.
Who wouldn’t find it ridiculous to see Dongfang Bubai — a woman in this version — fall for the protagonist Linghu Chong and try to steal him from Ren Yingying? With the plot so strangely twisted, the essence and spirit of the original story are lost.
So what is it that we look for in wuxia stories like The Smiling, Proud Wanderer? What’s in these stories that attracts the interest of tens of thousands of fans and makes them instant classics?
Typically, the heroes in wuxia stories don’t serve a lord or belong to the aristocracy. They often belong to a lower social class and are loners who have mastered the martial arts, often to a superhuman degree.
This combination of loners and superhuman powers is enough to appeal to many teenagers looking for their place in the world. But more importantly, these heroes are bound by a code of chivalry that requires them to right any wrongs — the philosophy of xia.
To understand the concept of xia from a Western perspective, consider the Robin Hood mythology: an honorable and generous individual who disobeys authority puts his excellent archery skills to use for the general good rather than personal ends.
This righteousness, loyalty, courage and disregard for wealth put a spotlight on wuxia heroes, making them superhero-like icons for many fans.
Some say the traditional concept of xia is less relevant in today’s society and wuxia stories need to change in order to attract new fans.
However, most of the characteristics of xia are similar to Confucian values, which have influenced China for thousands of years and form the foundation of Chinese culture — they will always be relevant.
Furthermore, from the 1970s, writers such as Cha and Liang Yusheng founded the new school of the modern wuxia genre. Alongside the code of xia they introduced themes of mystery and romance to their stories.
Romance, which frequently appears in Cha’s works, is a big reason we love the master’s stories. But an emphasis on romance doesn’t mean turning a classic wuxia story into a parodic melodrama like The Swordsman, nor is it an excuse to produce another adaptation to attract new audiences.