The speed with which Hearts of Wulin players have bought in and played deeply consistently surprises me. It hasn’t just been my sessions; several GMs mentioned the same experience. HoW offers a kind of play I love: romantic melodrama with an action pressure valve. It forms a trilogy with two of my other favorite games: World Wide Wrestling and Pasión de las Pasiones. New players have picked up on those themes and brought their own experience of Chinese cinema to bear.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is my go-to touchstone, a solid reference to set folks up. The beauty and clarity of that film helps convey the genre's tropes (even with the slightly saggy middle section). There are other great and well known films I could mention: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Storm Riders. But Crouching Tiger has it all in sharp focus: oblique conversations, thwarted passions, triangular entanglements, secrets, betrayals, and loss. Yet Crouching Tiger isn’t the original inspiration for Hearts of Wulin. That credit goes to Jin Yong.
CONDORS AND FLYING FOXES
If you already know who Jin Yong aka Louis Cha is, then you know where I’m going. If not, let me give you a sketchy, at a distance, introduction to one of the masters of Chinese fiction, a godfather of modern martial action storytelling. I say sketchy because for the longest time I had no idea these movies and series drew from written sources. It’s an aspect often left out in subtitles and translation. My very basic knowledge comes from internet reading, some translated articles, and Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel by John Christopher Hamm (Univ. of Hawai’I Press, 2005).
In the mid-1950s Jin Yong began to write serialized martial arts fiction for Hong Kong newspapers. Within a few years he founded his own paper and used that to publish his increasingly popular works. Like many Chinese creators of that era in Hong Kong, Yong mixed classic themes and adventure with social commentary. These artists stood outside events in mainland China but remained connected to it. Jin Yong’s later work especially considers questions of power, obedience and authority. All together he wrote 14 novels & novellas, the last of which came out in 1972.
Jin Yong’s work had massive popularity. While there had been a previous tradition of martial action fiction, this period firmly established the ideas and themes which later writers would use. In her video essay “So What is Jiang Hu? And Wu Xia and All That?” AvenueX explains that concepts like battling factions and lightness techniques have their roots in martial fiction of 1950s Hong Kong. It’s an inexact analogy, but it's not unlike how JRR Tolkien established modern fantasy conceptions of Elves and Dwarves or Robert E Howard created the template for swords & thews stories.
Two other authors are popularly associated with this movement, Gu Long and Liang Yusheng. Wikipedia notes that together they’re called "Three Legs of the Tripod of Wuxia." Gu Long wrote dozens of novels in several series. These have been adapted into many movies (The Sentimental Swordsman, Legend of the Bat, Sword Master) as well as TV series. His character of Lu Xiaofeng is one of my favorites, a martial artist detective with a host of awesome and interesting friends. Check out Duel of the Century and The Duel for two distinct but weirdly awesome versions of the same novel. Liang Yusheng has fewer novels, but they include the basis for Tsui Hark’s films Bride with White Hair and Seven Swords. Both have been adapted into multiple TV series.
In fact Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes from another of these great Wuxia authors, Wang Dulu. He wrote dozens of such works in the 1930 and 40s. Crouching Tiger is part of The Crane-Iron series of novels. His work likely influenced Jin Yong and others. Wang stopped writing in the 1949 to become a school teacher. During the Cultural Revolution the authorities sent him to the countryside.
Of course in the decades following Jin Yong's work, many authors followed and expanded this genre. Unfortunately few wuxia novels have received official translations. One recent exception has been MacLehose Press which has undertaken a full translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes. Translator Gigi Chang has done an excellent job and they’re highly readable. Jin Yong’s style is a little mannered and archaic—it reminds me of Lord Dunsany or E.E. Doc Smith. They’re novels of a particular time. You can find unofficial translations of Jin Yong, Gu Long, and Liang Yusheng at https://wuxiasociety.com/translations/. Another site, https://www.wuxiaworld.com/ has fan translations of more recent Xianxia, Qihuan, and Xuanhuan novels.
As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, my favorite wuxia TV series is Laughing in the Wind, based on Jin Yong’s novel Smiling, Proud Wanderer. In it we have a central character torn between his personal code and the duties of his clan. Multiple factions struggle for power openly and in secret. There’s tension and betrayal, with real questions about which groups are good and which evil. And there’s cool fights with clashing techniques. The Jianghu Hustle podcast has looked at this drama both for Personal Stakes and Serial Stories.
Smiling, Proud Wanderer has been remade multiple times. The Proud Youth from Shaw Brothers offers a highly compressed version of the story. The Swordsman, Swordsman II (with Jet Li), and The East is Red adapt portions of the story, with the last of these being an completely new tale based on Brigette Lin’s Donfeng Bai character from the earlier films. Smiling, Proud Wanderer has been made into longer TV versions eight times in multiple countries. Laughing in the Wind came out in 2001 and New Smiling, Proud Wanderer came out in 2018 from Youku in China. It’s also been done as comics, plays, and an MMORPG, Swordsman Online.
These kinds of stories and media made me want to play Hearts of Wulin, especially the long form TV adaptations of these novels. They contain drama, romance and pathos in equal measure. They take place across Chinese history from Tang to Song to Ming to Qing. That’s part of the reason we decided on a more ahistorical approach to the art for Hearts of Wulin. If you dig this genre at all, I highly recommend you check out a series or two.
So if you’re interested in these stories and series, where can you find them?
Amazon Prime has several “period piece” Chinese dramas like The Virtuous Queen of Han, Mu Guiying Takes Command, Oh My General, and Men With Sword 1 & 2. These lean into the historical aspects and specific time periods. But you can also find the following series there:
- Bloody Romance
- Fighter of the Destiny
- The Flame’s Daughter
- The Story of Furong
- The Vigilantes in Masks
- Treasure Raiders
Netflix has a few series, most with heavy supernatural elements. In particular Ice Fantasy has lots of CG and a wild mythology that echoes Avatar: The Last Airbender. You can also find Ashes of Love, Eternal Love, and The Rise of Phoenixes
With the closing of Dramafever, we’ve lost one of the best streaming options for these shows. A new free service, Hotpot TV recently opened. It has some of series mentioned above as well as,
- Ever Night
- Lost Love in Times
- Princess Agents
- Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms
- The King’s Woman
- The Legend of Fuyao
- The Legends
- Tribes and Empires: The Storm of Prophecy
If you have a region-free DVD player, then check out YesAsia. I’ve ordered from them, but you have to make sure the series has English subtitles. I found a solid and cheap player via ABC Warehouse called the Seiki U-Vision 4K. Alternately if you hunt around Amazon you can sometimes find boxed sets of older titles. That’s how I got my copy of Handsome Siblings and Fox Volant of Snowy Mountain.
Finally I’d suggest searching YouTube. You can find most of Laughing in the Wind there with English subtitles. There’s also Demi Gods and Semi Devils from 2003. If you’re looking for a good series to start I’d suggest Laughing in the Wind, Princess Agents, and Legend of Fuyao. If you can handle a little comedy in your melodrama and can find a copy, I highly recommend Handsome Siblings from 2005. Dicky Cheung and Nicholas Tse are both amazing and fun to watch in that series.
Have you seen any of these? Do you have recommendations?
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.