Some count classical novels like The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants as examples of wuxia, and these at least have readily available English translations. But they hardly count in my book, as the term “wuxia” came into the Chinese lexicon only recently, through unusual circumstances as recounted by Stephen Teo in his book on the history of the cinematic portion of the genre, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. I want to read the genres earliest exponents from the early Republican period, written by authors who knew that their tales were “wuxia,” rather than books grand-fathered under the label. And only one such example exists for the enjoyment of those of us unfortunately illiterate in the Chinese language. Thankfully, it comes from a capable translator and an author whose other works inspired, however loosely, Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.
Huanzhulouzhu wrote prolifically throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, and Blades from the Willows (Liu Hu Xia Yin) is the first in a long series of interlocking volumes, and thus the first to be translated. It tells the story of three martial artists from a secluded village in the middle of a wilderness, founded by Song dynasty loyalists fleeing from the pursuit of the Mongolians who would eventually form the Yuan dynasty. These three men, Zhao Lin, Zhu Man-Tiger, and Wang Jin, serve missions outside of the village, The Willow Lake haven, usually gathering resources unavailable in the pristine environment of their settlement. On one such mission, they encounter a powerful martial artist dressed in green, who invites them to visit him at the Mountain of Verdant Spots.
When they arrive, they find themselves caught between a battle of poison breathing, flying monsters, and under the care of powerful Daoist scholars who cultivate inner strength in search of immortality. Zhu Man-Tiger, a pernicious man of more-than-healthy libido, also attracts the unwanted attentions of a couple of Miao sorceresses, the nominal friends of the Daoists living on the mountain.
In certain ways, the conflicts between the differing social customs of the Chinese characters and the Miao provide the novel’s actual plot. The Miao women, Moon-Maid and Cunning-Maid, also come from a secluded clan that studies esoteric knowledge -- in their case, the control of vicious, mutant animals that do their often violent biddings. Their clan, the Dragon Clan, expects that when men marry their women, they should retreat to the Dragon Mountain villa to live there forever. Zhu, slightly addled after an encounter with the venomous Emerald Distentor, makes some lewd suggestions to the Miao girls, which they take at face value. They expect that Zhu will make good on his suggestions post-marriage.
Zhu already has a wife, however, as well as a child and an important political position at Willow Lake, and Zhao and Wang want to cultivate the Dao and learn the powerful martial arts and magic of the Wanderer in Green and their other benefactors at the Mountain of Verdant Spots. So they try to escape from the Miao ladies, which leads to a great deal of situational comedy that would seem not out of place in the works of Li Yu.
While the conflict between Cunning-Maid and Moon-Maid and the three adventurers from Willow Lake is the main of the narrative thrust, Blades from the Willows packs so many digressions, so many characters, and so many dangling plot threads that it the reader can only hope to keep up. The amount of content rivals that of any door-stopping, shelf-filling fantasy series out there, typical of fiction written for serial publication.
In fact, Blades from the Willows' greatest problems come from its author’s overly fertile imagination. The situation caused by Zhu with the Miao women would make for a tight, funny narrative by itself, but the Daoists have all sorts of odd interpersonal drama and what seems to be the main villain, the Barbarian Monk in Red, is mentioned in the second chapter but does not figure into the story until the very end of the first volume. All of this never fails to interest, but it also never completely gels. And the protagonists, except for Zhu, seem rather lacking in personality compared to the freaks that surround them.
We see most of the action from Zhao Lin’s perspective, and his character sometimes contradicts itself. When dealing with Moon-Maid, who takes a creepy interest in him and tries to win his affection often and unsuccessfully, the author tells us that Zhao lacks any interest in relations with the opposite sex. But earlier in the novel, Zhao has this amusing exchange with Soaring Cloud, the beautiful young lady who saves Zhao and his companions from the Emerald Distentor:
“Perhaps I could go visit your Willow Lake sometime, do you suppose?”
Zhao Lin’s response was automatic: “Yes indeed!” The girl, seeing that his thoughts were elsewhere, did not press him further.
Aside from the gently humorous narration in this section (shortly after his meeting with Soaring Cloud, Zhao bumbles and accidently drinks a powerful elixir) Zhao’s character never ceases to be impossibly virtuous and heroic, which, particularly in scenes where Moon-Maid throws herself at him, rings very, very false.
Another odd facet of Blades from the Willows is its obsessive detail. Again, its origin as a serial written for newspapers makes itself evident. The first chapter starts out:
A large lake feeds the lower reaches of the coiling river in souther Yunnan Province. One end is enfolded in the plunging gorges of the Grief-at-Toil Mountains, forming fjords fed by mountain streams, and the other drains into the Coiling river far away. In between spreads a wide sheet of water, where endless waves lap over crystal depths. Because of the live current flowing from one end to the other, the lake bed is deep, and the water level steady…
And blah, blah, blah. The second paragraph:
The climate of the region is mild. Amid a perpetual spring, flowers bloom over wide forests and green meadows throughout the year. Blossoming plums, peaches, willows, and cinnamon thrive everywhere about the lake, and among them grow a profusion of rare herbs and wildflowers. During the spring and autumn…
Is when you’ll finish reading the descriptions should you start in winter or summer, respectively. Translator Robert Chard notes in his introduction that the financial interests of both writer and publisher account for the deficiencies in style. He actually planned to make a particularly long digression the second volume in his English translation; I could only thank him, but for it never seeing publication.
But do not mistake my ambivalence about the first chapter as representative of my opinion of the work as a whole. When things actually happen (second chapter) the writing hooks the reader like a flying claw. Fans of classic martial arts movies might not expect mutant beasts like the Linked Culmen or the Emerald Distentor, their appearance in the films imported into the west rare and unusual(War of the Wizards is one of the few dubbed films of this type that comes to mind). But this sort of fiction provided inspiration for the oldest wuxia films, and for the Cantonese language productions also long due for reappraisal and attention from genre fans.
If its status as the only translated work of its genre and vintage were its only point of recommendation, if its relationship to a particular brand of cult cinema were its only distinguishing factor, it would be enough to make it worth reading. But boy is it genuinely fun, filled with bizarre, well-realized characters (not Zhao Lin) and humorous situations.
Sadly, the second volume never saw publication. In fact, I know of no other books from publisher Wellsweep press, with their website perpetually under construction. (Their printing is a bit strange as well, as it includes some ugly digital illustrations packed in an odd place that fits neither the tone nor the structure of the book) Robert Chard deserves no small praise for giving us this enormously enjoyable glimpse into the real beginnings of an underappreciated genre. I’d rather read more Huanzhulouzhu than anything by Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind. Neither do ersatz-Chinese fictions written by western authors compare to the unfettered imagination contained in this dangling volume.
Although I have to wonder what Chinese word translates to “verdant.” It seems to be a favorite of Chinese authors.