Mongols have always been known as badasses, mostly because Genghis Khan and his descendants took over the ancient world, but also because throughout the history of China, the threat of barbarian invasions were a main theme in every dynasty. The Great Wall, built by the first emperor of China, was created to prevent the northerners from entering Chinese lands. Historical stories of war and heroism, of great battles and complex strategies, very frequently took place along the northern borders, against the northern barbarians.
My interest in martial arts began when I was very young. Perhaps it was the wuxia movies that I grew up with that attracted me to the world of sword wielding heroes. Perhaps it was the influence of those around me, by chance, whom I grew up with and who practiced martial arts. Perhaps, being Chinese, it was expected of me.
Warfare in ancient China is a pivotal study for the writing of my Wuxia novels. I finally finished the first draft of the next novel. Finished it off with a tense battle sequence where my main character and his two thousand men attacked the bad guy with fifty thousand men, and won. Of course it involved plenty of deceit and foresight, but most importantly, the scene is fundamentally Asian warfare. Battles in ancient China never made the history books if they simply involved more people or better gadgets. They were glorified for their use of strategy and deceit. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a book that I used to cut class in high school to read, was one of many great military classics from ancient China, and it was one of the less interesting ones.
So warfare in Wuxia novels has no choice but to involve complex strategies. Asian strategy and Western strategy is different in many ways. Western strategy often involves collecting information and making decisions based on the probability of something happening. Asian strategy almost always involves the use of deceit and manipulation. Not until Charles Martell did western generals retreat to lure his enemies into a trap, something that Asian generals have done as a general routine for thousands of years. When writing fiction, I find it much more fun writing about my main character suckering the enemy into doing something that he has already planned against, instead of winning out of sheer strength and courage. How many Hollywood films I’ve seen where the good guy beats an impossibly tough enemy at the end with sheer will and luck and because he tried harder, the film ruined for me perhaps because I myself never got to beat up a tough opponent just by trying extra hard. The opponent was also trying extra hard. So in fiction, I give my heroes courage and will to stack up with the villain’s courage and will, but victory must come from foresight and strategy. It made the fight scenes so much more enjoyable to write.
Weapons have traditionally been the device that defines the Wuxia hero- his signature tool, if you will. A while back, I was planning the weapons that my primary characters were going to be using, providing each with a unique and powerful item that more or less defines how the he or she looks and fights. I had a brief struggle with it. Spiderman has his web shooting. Batman has his batmobile and plenty of other gadgets. Superman has his lasers. What are my superheroes going to pack in the martial arts world of ancient China? Eventually, I settled on the three main characters using a thin black sword that is silent and hardly visible at night, a massive saber that cuts through other people’s weapons, and silver gloves that cannot be cut through, perfect for grabbing other people’s weapons.
And then I stumbled upon an interesting idea. Who cares? Weapons can be dropped and picked up by someone else, and instantly rendered meaningless. Wuxia heroes should be defined by specific martial arts techniques, their super powers cannot leave them unless they’re severely injured, much like superman, and their superhuman strength can be channeled through any object, not necessarily a special weapon. And so I had my characters trade their weapons with each other. Their style of kung fu is the defining characteristic that the rest of the martial arts world, and most importantly the reader, should recognize them for. But inventing those weapons was still pretty cool.
Wuxia vs. the Superhuman Genre: What’s the difference? The Wuxia hero is also normally a superhero, with few exceptions, but carries a code of honor and integrity like the comic book superheroes I grew up with. They all symbolize bravery and machismo, and they have physical powers that everyone reveres. The primary difference between the Wuxia hero and the American comic book hero is that the Wuxia hero rarely pack a secret identity, opting for worldwide fame instead, and their powers can be enhanced with hard work and a lot of luck. With the right secret training manual, martial arts skills can be developed to the point where physics and gravity are defied and the mysterious chi that master practitioners all possess can be strong enough to rival modern day hydraulics. Comic book superheroes start out with special powers, and although the powers can evolve, they can’t actively seek an upgrade.
The traditional Wuxia heroes do fight for justice, they protect the weak, they have unreal courage, and they often interfere in events that they originally had nothing to do with, just to impose their high moral values. As a result, they are also vulnerable to mistakes and poor judgment. But in the simplistic world of wuxia, the hero is a role model that cannot screw up in his judgment of good or bad. He is the judge, jury, and executioner, and when he finally draws his sword to help the weak, the bad guy is so obviously scum of the earth that there is no doubt his judgment is accurate.
I explored this theme in my previous book, making it a non-traditional martial arts novel where the superhero is flawed in judging who is the bad guy. By the end of the book, he was no longer sure whether he’s fighting for the good guys or the bad guys, and ultimately learns that justice in that world depends on point of view.
Women Warriors in the World of Wuxia: Strong female characters in the genre of wuxia has been a long tradition, and it’s one of the really exciting ones that I plan to continue in my writing for a long time. The powerful woman warrior is almost unique to this genre. In the martial arts fantasy world, social status, gender conflicts, class struggles, all assume a background role behind the most valued asset-the superior martial arts skills. People were respected based on how well they could fight, and the primary struggle or source of conflict is the acquisition of the superior martial arts skills. As a result, the damsel in distress has no role in this world, and promptly deleted from the plot. I also like to write about woman fighters because they provide an important texture to the violence in my stories. Women and men have different motives when they use physical violence. In Wuxia fiction, women would never brawl to show off, or use violence in the heat of the moment, or to find out whose skills are better. Although it is customary to portray women as emotional creatures, in my view a gender myth, in Wuxia, women use violence in a cold, calculated manner. In Legend of Snow Wolf, the main villain is a woman, but not a backstabbing lowlife who killed to get the man she wanted. The villain is a true visionary with the power to destroy not just her enemies, but their children that are yet to be born. I always thought, when planning this book, that it’s less believable if a man were to pull off a scheme of this caliber.
The super-villain had to be a woman.
Finally, Book 2 of Snow Wolf is out and about, completing the intricacies of the entire story and shedding light on the machinations of the mysterious going ons…
The original version of my first Wuxia novel, The Legend of Snow Wolf, was not meant to be young adult fiction. I’ve never thought of myself as a YA author, never explored teenage problems or coming of age stories, and certainly never created my characters around the rebelliousness and awakenings of early adulthood. Yet, China Books wanted to target the younger audience. They systematically edited the sex and violence in my story, and replaced some of the language with PG-13 material. At first, I was horrified. A Wuxia novel without graphic violence is like Sichuan food without the spices. Yet, I quickly realized that my story worked just fine without the blood and guts spelled out in large caps, and that the love story does work without the descriptive sex scenes. No spice, but still works.
I just have this ridiculous itch to include a poison user in every novel. There’s something about the use of poison as a primary weapon. It’s not very honorable, certainly not glorious, but it does require planning, foresight, and the complex use of deceit.
I think poison is fundamental to Wuxia fiction. When the power of a character is gauged by his martial arts skills, where one character is clearly more invincible than the next, the one and only threat to a superior martial artist would be poison.
It is the kryptonite against the more powerful characters in the book. But if poison is a common weapon in their world, then various safeguards would already be in place to defend against this weapon. This would give my poison users innovative new ways to use deceit, and fun new ways to reveal human weaknesses.
Poison can enter the bloodstream from ingestion, skin puncture, and inhalation. I’ve seen people use variations of skin exposures as an entry point, including a whiff of poison smoke to the eyes, but the extent of this method is always limited to skin damage, and not death. Inhalation, of course, can be lethal, but it gets boring after awhile. Great martial artists can avoid flying weapons tainted with poison, so it leaves ingestion as the most interesting approach.
I have yet to decide whether the great poison users of the book will be friend or foe to the main character. But at the very least, his love interest should be a poison user. I find nothing more intriguing than a beautiful woman with a deadly poison hidden between her fingers.
I’ve decided that my main character Mu Feng is going to specialize in the long spear. When the story begins, he carries a sword, but he’s not very good at it. Eventually, he will learn tremendous skills so he can be relevant in the story, and capable against the all-powerful enemies. I thought about turning him into a poison user, but that’s not a very honorable weapon, and certainly not suitable for a character destined for greatness. The weapon needs to be lean and easy to carry, and not too unorthodox. I decided that the spear (a special one of course) would be a good fit, even though I don’t know how to use it myself.
I’ve actually pondered this for a while, but hesitated because I wasn’t confident writing about a weapon I have no idea how to use. It’s one of those very common weapons that I never got around to learning, probably because I never had the chance to ride a horse into battle and place myself in a situation where a spear would be useful. Besides, the NYPD would notice me carrying one from a mile away. Nevertheless, it’s no excuse. I should bite the bullet and try to learn this weapon.
The idea of Mu Feng being a spear user is actually exciting. He would need it on the battlefield, and it could still be a “special” weapon in one-on-one fights. But it’s cumbersome to carry and not very sleek, nor innovative. I will need to invent a special spear for him, something he will come across and acquire later in the story. This is at risk of sounding too much like a video game.