Review -- Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition by Stephen Teo

When I first started this blog, it was to fulfill a requirement of a media studies class that I was mildly excited over. The class centered around a paper that would examine a cultural trend or artifact of the student's choosing. I chose kung fu movies, and the paper I wrote (the name of which I don't recall) attempted to reconcile the seemingly nationalistic impulse of martial arts films with their popularity among western viewers, particularly urban, African-American audiences. The professor graded my paper an "A-" which means it was good enough for an undergrad media studies course, but I was thoroughly frustrated with finding basic data on ticket sales and distribution records for many of the films I wished to talk about. I don't plan to write academically about my favorite much-maligned film genre ever gain (unless I get paid); learning how little of the basic information about the films that saw release in my own country had been recorded for posterity discouraged me greatly.

It is with that knowledge that I say Stephen Teo's monograph of the Wuxia genre, from the conception of the term to the present trends among Mainland Chinese film makers, is an excellent resource for the history of the genre, as well as topical and retroactive critical appraisal. Exhaustively researched, filled with anecdotal information about the earliest Shanghai produced films and their reception by audiences and the intelligentsia, often painfully academic, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition is not bathroom reading.

Given the general lack of academic writing on the genre as a whole, and partly because of the constraints placed on the author (which he discusses in the epilogue) this book is a bit dry and to the point. If you're not one for scholarly reading, you might want to have Wikipedia open and ready to look up such concepts as "self-fashioning," "historicist," "orientalist," as well as more common terms for film criticism (auteur, mise en scene, etc). Teo does not write a journalistic survey of the genre, he writes a narrative of its evolving relations between nationalism and transnationalism, masculine and feminine emphasis within the genre, and (to a lesser degree) auteur film making as opposed to generic film making. Covering eighty years worth of genre movies as they were produced over periods of war and economic upheaval, a goodly portion of work is evaluated for a single book, with only a single chapter on the kung fu genre deviating from the central, specific history of the wuxia film "to suggest a less than smooth development of the martial arts cinema..." (p.81) That suggestion is a very wise one that justifies the inclusion of a chapter that breaks the chronology built by each previous chapter.

In spite of his excellent scholarship, exemplary conveying of oft forgotten or simply uncommonly known historical facts, and consistent explanations of the wuxia genre, I must qualify my recommendation of Mr. Teo's book with more than a general warning to those who wouldn't want to read such an academic text in the first place. Firstly, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition is not a comprehensive study. I recall very well approaching the end of the chapter 4 "Rise of New School Wuxia," waiting for a bit of analysis on the films of Joseph Kuo and Tien Peng and other Taiwanese films, and finishing the chapter only to find that there wasn't any. I quickly finished the following chapter on King Hu, thinking that his relationship with Union film company might segue to a discussion, however brief it might need to be. Once again, I was a tad disappointed. I also hoped for a bit more information if not critical discussion of the Cantonese language serials (although there is a great review of Ling Yun's 1964 Buddha's Palm series) and some of the more notable wuxia shenguai films, like Monkey Goes West (Ho Meng Hua, 1966) or even The Eight Immortals (Chan Hung-Man, 1971). The author explains in the epilogue that he wished to include more of Taiwan's Mandarin language cinema, but could not due to considerations for space. He also makes mention of the unavailability of extant film texts in some of the genre's more distant corners, which many a collector can relate to.

Also for those looking for observations or reviews of specific films, directors, or stars, this book is probably not what you're looking for. Stephen Teo explicates even directors like Chang Cheh and Chu Yuan in generic terms, and only King Hu receives treatment as an auteur. (In one amusing paragraph, however, Teo reviews most of Chang Cheh's more noteworthy films in short sentence fragments, which usually do convey the best aspects of each) And while many films are discussed, this is not a book of reviews.

There are other minor quibbles. I disagree with Teo's assessment of Zhang Yimou's Hero. I think he over-interprets symbolism in King Hu's films (see his King Hu's A Touch of Zen). I also think that the kung fu film is more important for American audiences and don't feel like the chapter he includes is necessary, although Teo has just reason to include it.

All that said, this is an unprecedented English language resource for those interested in the history of the genre, particularly its roots in literature and the lost films that can only be researched obliquely through reviews and articles written by people who have seen them. I'd recommend it to those who are willing to read an academic, scholarly text, and even to those who aren't interested in scholarly reading but wish to know more about this unappreciated and misunderstood genre of film.


  1. "Often painfully academic". That pretty much summarizes how I felt about this book. I really love Stephen Teo's first book, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, but his subsequent books have been increasingly disappointing to me. Whereas his first book was written in a clear and engaging style, accessible to a wide audience, he has since then chosen to adopt a more academic discourse.

    I found the first two chapters of his book (on the history of wuxia literature and the birth of the film genre in 1920s Shanghai) interesting and a valuable resource to which I will definitely return. However, the rest of the book was a bit of a letdown.

    Like you, I especially noticed the gaps in his history of the genre. Personally, I think the fact that he didn't even once mention Connie Chan Po Chu, one of the leading stars of Cantonese wuxia films in the 60s, is a huge omission.

    His disclaimer about the inevitable incompleteness of his study is telling: "There are areas and periods I have omitted out of necessity because either the films are lost or that there is simply no critical impetus to study them due to long-held perceptions that they are too minor..."

    Sadly, Teo does nothing to change these perceptions and instead takes the predictable route of elevating the genre by focusing on -- and, in my opinion, overestimating -- its auteurs, particularly King Hu.

    Teo has clearly written this book not for fans of wuxia films but for his fellow academics. There is nothing wrong with that. But unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool academic, it is best to approach this book with lowered expectations.

  2. Yeah, I was rather disappointed with lack of information, or even mention of so many aspects of the genre. Not only does he miss Chan Po-Chu, but Josephine Siao and Walter Tso and a great deal of important Cantonese actors and film makers whose work would very much inform the "new wuxia" films from Shaw Bros.

    The strange part of his focus on auteurs is that he doesn't write about them as if they were auteurs. Teo emphasizes the generic qualities of the wuxia genre and how they relate to self-fashioning, identity and nationalism, but he chooses to write mostly about the least generic films by the most discussed and distinguished directors.

    Still, the research he's done for the first two chapters is invaluable. Teo does hint that he might be working on a volume covering the 80's era martial arts films of Mainland China, which would be fascinating if only because nobody seems to know how many of these exist nor who was involved in their making outside of those co-produced with Hong Kong studios. I only hope that if he does so, he might write a book that's more accessible than this one.