Wuxia with Western Literature

December 28, 2010

I was looking for Christmas presents for my father, the Shakespeare professor, when I stumbled upon “Chinese Shakespeares” by Alexander C. Y. Huang, which looks at the history of Shakespeare being performed in China. That got my subconcious working.

Weeks later, once I found out how little money I had after holiday spending, I was frantically thinking about small publishing projects, though, as my brother helpfully pointed out one time: getting involved in publishing is no way to make a quick buck. Nevertheless, I thought about the tentative plans I made with Shreyas and Elizabeth to help revise or develop playsets for Mist-Robed Gate.

I messaged Elizabeth, saying: “I have a fantastic idea for a wuxia playset: Hamlet!” To which her response was: “That IS fantastic! Have you seen The Banquet / Curse of the Black Scorpion?” Duh, *faceslap* Feng Xiaogang beat me to it.

Well, really, Kurosawa beat us both, with Ran, Throne of Blood, and Bad Sleep Well.

Which brought me to a third thought: something often feels missing from sessions of Mist-Robed Gate and other wuxia games that I’ve played and I’m beginning to think part of it is the sense of adapting and reworking literary and/or historical tradition. Honestly, I often feel the loss when I watch period Chinese dramas — including wuxia films — as well.

To explain: when somebody raised and educated in China watches Red Cliff, the character of Zhuge Liang is not just some cool Chinese dude but ZHUGE LIANG!!! They’ve grown up hearing bedtime stories and reading children’s books and watching tv shows and playing video games and seeing music videos and taking history classes and repeating jokes and using idioms about the Three Kingdoms period.

Ben Lehman got it right, when talking about Dynasty Warriors, that most of the context is lost on Western audiences, even among us China dorks. It’s harder for folks not raised in Asia to get that “in real life, I was a failed general; here, I kill people with a giant yo-yo” aspect. Josh Roby was really smart to head in that direction with Sons of Liberty, where US history though I kinda wish that game took itself more seriously, like Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is set in France during the same period and may be the best Western wuxia movie aside from The Matrix.

I would argue that perhaps the best way for those raised in the West to experience something analogous to wuxia is for them to adapt great works of Western literature as Feng Xiaogang and Kurosawa have done. It’s not as if we don’t already do this: check out King of Texas or The Lion King.  But that would add resonance and history to the roles, even if you were adapting a work that the players only knew in passing and even if you were responsible for playing bit parts like Rosencranz and Guildenstern.

Take, for example:

A revenge-mad ronin leads a group of fellow misfits in a doomed hunt for the mythical mountain-dwelling, albino mercenary who chopped off his leg and, even worse, left him alive to live in shame and dishonor. One member of the party is a tattoo-covered spear-fisherman Ainu warrior from farthest Hokkaido.

Boom! Now you’re playing with power. Though that actually sounds more like The Mountain Witch than Mist-Robed Gate to me.  I’m not sure why I never saw the Moby Dick parallel before.  Or the parallel between Melville and Conrad, since John was telling me about an Apocalypse Now-themed Mountain Witch game that he played in. Guess I know one of the things I’m running at GoPlay.

In any event, hopefully you get my point.  In addition to what Milan Kundera calls “litost” and what I’ve called “trainwreck heartbreak,” wuxia typically build resonance with its audience partially by drawing on familiar stories and characters. That’s part of what often makes pure fantasy movies like The Promise so mediocre.

We have 5,000 years of human literature to draw from, so surely we can find a few thing to base “Western wuxia” on. Personally, I can’t wait to see Claudius battle it out with his brother’s ghost.

One Response to “Wuxia with Western Literature”

  1. Allen Varney Says:

    You may enjoy this RPG.net forum thread from July 2008, “Kung Fu Anti-Popes”:


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