wuxia 101: cultural salience & intertexuality (esp. re: shl)-- thread!

born out of trying to write a wuxia politics thread and realizing i was doing a lot of qualifying about shared audience understandings and why 100% accuracy isn't always as important as grasping the ~vibes 1/
so i don't write these threads from a super academic pov, because part of what i want to do is provide a small glimpse into some of the cultural understandings that inform the viewing experiences of Chinese audiences in ways that foreign audiences may miss out on 2/
i think about my dad, my uncles. if they were watching, what would they pick up on? what connections would they make? as i rewatch shl w/ the 五彩哥哥 reactions, i've realized they're a good proxy for what i'm trying to illustrate so i'll be treating their vids as anchor texts 3/
shl 山河令 draws upon not only gen wuxia tropes but makes use of intertexuality w/ classic works to establish itself as a legitimate addition to the genre. this also helps capture viewers beyond danmei fandom. shl is "more wuxia" than source tyk largely b/c of these additions 4/
as scriptwriter xiao chu said in this excellent interview, "the roots of China’s classical culture and romance are in wuxia." the genre has really infused the broader cultural consciousness, primarily through the 4 "greats": the famous Jin Gu Liang Wen 5/

dramapotatoe.com/interview-with…
Jin Yong, Gu Long, Liang Yu Sheng & Wen Rui’an, the literary giants of the modern wuxia novel, which many consider to be born in the mid-50s, starting w/ Jin Yong's works. i'm most familiar w/ jin yong, and as far as i can gather, he's the most prominent among gen cn audiences 6/
by general, i mean people who don't necessarily seek out wuxia, but are casual watchers (disclaimer: the origins of wuxia go way further back to the Ming dynasty and beyond, but as it's colloquially used today, it often refers to these modern wuxia works from the 20th century) 7/
jin yong's characters, techniques, and famous scenes are well-known, well-loved. popular variety show ace vs. ace did a whole ep around jin yong's works, inviting actors to dress up as their iconic roles and played games that depended on wuxia knowledge 8/
the charades-like game at the 5 min mark demonstrates how embedded jin yong's work is in common cultural knowledge. the participants have to guess not only characters but specific techniques, as specific as one particular form of the 降龙十八掌 Eighteen Dragon Subduing Palms 9/
the assumption is that these adaptations are so classic that audiences have encountered the terms in some form, even if they haven't read the original novels. on the same show, when zzh & gj guested, they played a game where given a character, you respond w/ their other half 10/
@ the ~13:20 mark, zzh & gj are given "guo jing" and gj IMMEDIATELY yells out "huang rong" (from LoCH). earlier in the game, a diff group is given "jack" and ofc they answer "rose" and that's a decent parallel. people just kind of /know/ these things. 11/

as xiao chu mentions in the interview, the 80s and 90s were perhaps the peak of wuxia popularity. in recent years, among gen z and later, wuxia's popularity has been waning (which xiao chu attributes to a lack of fresh material and overreliance on stale adaptations) 12/
but for the generations born b/w the 60s and the 90s, wuxia was a HUGE cultural influence. (all of the 5color bros are either 80后 or 90后 -- cn terms for being born in those decades--which explains a lot of the connections they make while watching shl!) 13/
for my parents' gen, in their 20s during the 80s, the novels themselves were huge. my parents always attribute their ability to read traditional chinese to hk wuxia novels. over time, even for folks who haven't read the novels, there's been tv adaptation after tv adaptation 14/
most of the iconic wuxia adaptations come from the 80s & 90s, starting w/ hong kong tvb productions. to this day, my mom only recognizes the '83 legend of the condor heroes (LoCH) w/ barbara yeung as huang rong. the 80s tvb versions are still upheld as some of the most 经典 15/
everyone has their fav adaptation. for my cousins, around 10 yrs older than me, the 90s versions are what they recognize as classic. '94 LoCH, '95 Return of the Condor Heroes, '94 Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, '97 Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, etc. 16/
for me, the early 00s adaptations are /my/ versions. notably, director zhang jizhong produced CCTV adaptations of all of jin yong's major works during this time. CCTV as in China Central Television, as in the central-state broadcasting network. so these were watched WIDELY 17/
the stream of adaptations has never really stopped. the late 00s, early '10s & recent years have produced several and i can't even keep up. tl;dr these neverending adaptations keep them salient, which means people remain at least passingly familiar w/ these works 18/
but back to word of honor! one of the things i picked up on immediately was that aside from the central sects in the plot-- the Five Lakes Alliance, Gentle Breeze Sword Sect-- & some smaller sects, the drama populates its jianghu w/ well-known sects borrowed from other works 19/
most notably, it leans heavily on the presence of the 丐帮 Beggars' Sect. when Elder Huang shows up in ep3, the 5color bros immediately recognize them by their clothing. as the ep goes on, they comment that /this/ Beggars' Sect seems kind of different... 20/
this is an example of shl playing off intertextuality and subverting expectations in a really cool way. green bro comments that 丐帮 is pretty powerful, and that they should be able to trust them because they are 光明磊磊 straightforward and upright. 21/
i can't speak for gu long et al. but in jin yong's works, the beggar's sect is almost always a righteous, orthodox sect. as the other bros comment that this doesn't seem to be the case in shl, green bro acknowledges that ah yes, "不像我 洪七公洪老爷子的这个笑容“ 22/
"this is not Hong Qigong's, Old Man Hong's smile" Hong Qigong is a famous lovable character from legend of the condor heroes, the 丐帮帮主, sect leader of the beggars' sect. he's really fun and skilled and takes the protag as his disciple. shl riffs off those expectations 23/
w/ the beggars' sect, shl can quickly/deftly a) establish plot points. it's plausible that 丐帮 can find zcl so quickly because it's well-known that their strength is in numbers and networks as the #1 biggest sect in jianghu; b) place itself in dialogue w/ previous works 24/
early on, for audiences who don't usually watch danmei but know wuxia, this is a shortcut for saying "hey yes we are in wuxia world now." and then in twisting the narrative to frame 丐帮 as one of the more antagonistic groups in the show, it's also saying "this is new wuxia" 25/
w/in ep3, we're also introduced to gao chong for the first time as he addresses a group of sects w/in the 5 Lakes Alliance and says it's time to call a Heroes' Meeting and get rid of Ghost Valley once and for all. 5color bros comment: this feels like the Siege of Bright Peak 26/
感觉这是要攻打光明顶-- this is a reference to jin yong's The Heavenly Sword & Dragon Sabre, when the 6 prominent orthodox sects banded together to lay siege to the "unorthodox" Ming Sect. it's a REALLY famous scene! 27/
(fun fact: zzh referenced this scene specifically in an interview when he said he wanted to play zhang wuji, protag of hsds). this scene sets up that classic wuxia conflict b/w the orthodox and unorthodox sides of the jianghu, and primes the audience to withhold judgment 28/
after all, in classic wuxia fashion, those who claim to be righteous and orthodox are often the most despicable. in HSDS, the protag actually becomes the Ming Sect leader, & many of the "good characters" are from this sect while the orthodox show themselves to be hypocrites 29/
other sects that will be familiar to wuxia watchers: 华山派 Hua Shan Sect (Yu Qiufeng's aka Liu Qianqiao's worthless man's sect), 泰山派 Tai Shan Sect (old man protecting the "baby Lans" lol who gets offed early), and 铁掌帮 Iron Palm Sect, mentioned once, ref. to LoCH 30/
then the big ones, 少林寺 Shaolin, and 峨嵋派 Emei Sect, the all-female sect in wuxia lore, notably featuring in HSDS 倚天屠龙记. these don't show up til later, when Zhao Jing calls another Heroes' Meeting. (note: in the novel, this is not the case! Shaolin shows up early). 31/
i actually find this to be an extremely interesting change b/w drama and novel! zhao jing discusses it explicitly w/ xie'er as an example of how he will be the one to expand and glorify the 5 Lakes Alliance. 32/
he cites the fact that Shaolin and Emei didn't show up to gao chong's meeting as proof that the "big, important sects" didn't respect the 5 Lakes Alliance. after he's slaughtered the 仙霞派 and framed ghost valley, he's delighted to see that Shaolin is reaching out to HIM now 33/
and we do see both shaolin and emei show up at the second meeting, when it all comes to a head and wkx gets to carry out his revenge! 34/
including these details further fleshes out the wuxia world of shl and really makes it /feel right/. these familiar names among the sects further ground the show among preexisting wuxia canon and situates the audience to more comfortably consume the content before them 35/
in ep16, when gao chong dies, green bro comments that "this is a hero's death." and that "heroes always leave sitting(?)" black bro adds on "like Qiao Feng"-- this is a reference to the main protag of jin yong's Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, and to the tragic death of the hero 36/
qiao feng kills himself in order to prevent war b/w Song and Liao. the parallel here, whether deliberate on the scriptwriter's part or not, is not lost on cn audiences. like qiao feng, gao chong sacrifices himself in hopes of achieving peace, and is meant to be seen as a hero 37/
if we, the audience, previously doubted gao chong, then this is meant to unequivocally absolve him. despite his flaws, he was righteous if unbending, a classic wuxia 英雄, hero. (of course, this also shatters wkx's worldview for a bit-- he got it wrong?) 38/
a couple more connections that are less substantial but that i caught and thought were fun: when ye baiyi shows up, every time he trolls wkx or is just generally being y'know yby, the bros call him 老顽童 which i'm not exactly sure how to translate-- Old Mischievous Child(?) 39/
wiki uses "Old Imp." basically, someone who is old but still acts as playful and immature as a child. but this is a /title/-- specifically, it refers to Zhou Botong from jin yong's Legend of the Condor Heroes/Return of the Condor Heroes. he's super powerful but SUPER childish 40/
he counts as a martial elder, and ends up sworn brothers w/ guo jing; he also teaches him cool techniques. in RoCH, he teaches xiaolongnu this pretty dope ambidextrous technique which means she can wield a 2-person technique alone. BUT. he just honestly mostly fucks around. 41/
while yby is actually much more responsible (zhou botong had an affair w/ an emperor's concubine, got her pregnant, the emperor had the kid killed, and when zhou botong finds out? he runs away to avoid dealing w/ his problems) it's not an unreasonable comparison to make. 42/
it seems that by leaning into the troll-y aspects of yby, shl is also tapping into a classic wuxia archetype: the powerful aged martial arts master who is nevertheless eccentric and unpredictable. but again, there's subversion b/c we get to see yby's human, vulnerable side 43/
my last thought is about zhang chengling. fans joke that in a classic wuxia, chengling would be the protag-- the orphan who by accident amasses a ton of high-powered techniques and leadership positions by folks just passing them on to him-- see guo jing, yang guo, zhang wuji 44/
5color bros keep a running tally of every time he gains another sect's membership: during ep20, even tho it's very emotional, when Long Que chooses to pass on the techniques of Longyuan Pavilion to zcl, they start laughing and counting 'em up: 45/
at that point in time: 2 sects, 镜湖派 & 岳阳派-- his own and Yueyang Sect by ~marriage~ to Gao Xiaolian, Four Seasons Manor, and Longyuan Pavilion-- that's four. they joke that if yby passes him the legendary technique, he'll have really gained them all. 46/
again, this is both a very obvious callback to the wuxia protags of the previous era: guo jing starts out w/ 7 masters, gains the 18 Dragon Subduing Palms from Hong Qigong, stumbles upon the Nine Yin Manual and Book of Wumu and levels up further in martial arts + strategy 47/
yang guo becomes the most powerful martial artist of his age by just accumulating skills at random. one of the greatest masters of the previous era (who is insane) just up and decides to take him on as godson and pass him 蛤蟆功/Toad Skill 48/
he joins the Ancient Tomb Sect, which was previously female only, he accumulates too many manuals, he comes across a death match b/w 2 greats and as they die they each pass him their signature skills, he learns from a FUCKING CONDOR it's too much protag halo 49/
i will refrain from regaling you w/ zhang wuji's skill chart because it's also insane-- just picking up some medicine & toxicology here, finding multiple godtier martial arts manuals by chance. chengling fits right in and i had the same thought as the 5color bros 50/
aside from the running list of sects zcl will command however, the orphan-who-sees-his-family slaughtered connection is a really interesting & fruitful one. i see the strongest link to zhang wuji, who watched the "righteous" sects kill his parents in front of him. 51/
part of zwj's narrative is about whether to pursue revenge or not, about how to end the cycle of hatred and bloodshed. chengling faces a similar dilemma, but w/ the twist that he actually gets very close to the one who is responsible for the massacre of his family & sect 52/
rather than a large collective of sects w/ whom he has little personal connection, chengling's dilemma is given an intimately familiar face, an otherwise tender and warm connection, and he has to weigh what he knowns about wkx as a /person/ with the pain that he's caused 53/
you can tell i think the writing in shl/word of honor is really masterful and really smart. it deliberately places the work within this well-established, well-loved, culturally salient genre, building upon the canon to draw in new viewers and enrich how it tells its story 54/54
and we're done! thanks for following along with my meandering thoughts. this was a fun way to conclude my rest day before i plunge into finals week proper ;;;;;;;;

hopefully, post-finals, i can find some time to write that politics thread! ✌️

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