The Condor Trilogy is considered a martial arts epic because there is a heck of a lot of martial arts. Without understanding how martial arts work in wuxia, much of the story will fly over one’s head. I had to figure it out the hard way—reading a lot. I am writing this post so that others will not have to figure it out the hard way.
I am going to use one of my favorite fights—the big battle a the Quanzhen monastery as depicted in both Wee Tian Beng’s Return of the Condor Heroes and Tony Wong’s The Legendary Couple—as my example.
So, at the Quanzhen monastery, a delegation of Mongols/Tibetans are talking with the Daoist monks, asking them to accept the authority of the Mongol Empire. The Quanzhen monks want to remain loyal to Song China … but they also want to survive, and the Mongols have a “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude.
Then a certain woman enters the monastery.
suddenly all of the attention is on her. The Quanzhen monks suspect she has not come with good intentions.
The Quanzhen sect specializes in the art of the sword, and all of the monks are at least above-average fighters. And this woman is alone. Yet she is the one who is totally calm, while the Quanzhen monks panic.
Now that I have your attention, let’s review some nuts and bolts:
Almost all martial arts fighters have a shifu, which literally means “teacher-father.” Even female masters are referred to as shifu—a shimu is one’s shifu’s wife (I admit, I do not know what one would call one’s shifu’s husband). Shifu are responsible for the martial arts education of their apprentices (Mandarin: tuer). However, the relationship is much more than that. Accepting somebody as a shifu/apprentice is as serious a matter as adoption, and the bond between shifu and apprentice is considering as strong as parent and child. Also important are the relationships between shijiemei (teacher-sisters) and shixiongdi (teacher-brothers). A shijie/shige/shimei/shidi is somebody who has the same shifu as you, and these relationships also carry the same weight as the relationship between blood siblings. And these are the foundations for a whole set of relationships. For example, a shishu would be one’s shifu’s shimei/shidi, and a shibo would be one’s shifu’s shijie/shige, and a shizufu would the shifu of one’s shifu. Much drama is squeezed from all of these relationships.
There are certain social rules for dealing with these relationships. For example, apprentices are supposed to obey their shifu as long as their shifu is not telling them to do something unethical. Apprentices also need their shifu’s permission to make many major decisions, such as marriage. It is okay for shijiemei and shixiondi to marry each other—with the shifu’s permission of course. It is NOT OKAY for shifu to have romantic/sexual relationships with their apprentices. Of course, Ouyang Ke has sex with his apprentices anyway, but he’s a villain, and villains do things which are not okay. Learning martial arts from somebody who is not one’s shifu is alright, though a relationship with an outside teacher/student does not carry as much weight as the relationship with one’s own shifu/apprentice(s). Having more than one set of shifu is not okay, though there is a villain who has multiple sets of shifu anyway.
If you notice an elephant in this room, and feel compelled to discuss it, please use spoiler warnings.
Sometimes, these shifu/apprentice relationships form the foundation of a larger group. Since martial arts and religion are intertwined, many martial arts groups are Daoist or Buddhist sects, in which the monks/nuns are all “descended” from a single shifu or group of shifu. For example, the Quanzhen sect, featured in this battle, was founded by Wang Chongyang, who was considered the greatest martial artist of his time. There are also groups “descended” from a single shifu or group of shifu that are secular. And of course, these groups have complicated relationships with each other.
Back to the Battle
Now Xiaolongnü gets down to business – which, apparently, is to kill all of the Quanzhen monks.
And considering that she is fighting one against many, she’s doing a pretty well. How does she do it?
She knows the “Sword Technique of the Jade Maiden,” which was developed specifically to counter the Quanzhen fighting style. That alone would mean that any individual Quanzhen monk fighting her would be in trouble, but it’s not enough to put an entire group of Quanzhen monks in trouble.
She knows the Quanzhen fighting style too—and it so happens that when one person is using the Jade Maiden technique, and another person is using the Quanzhen technique, and the two are in harmony with each other, they can provide each other perfect protection—in other words, they are invincible.
But wait a minute—Xiaolongnü is all alone! How can she be simultaneously using the Jade Maiden and Quanzhen techniques? First of all, notice that she has two swords. And just before this battle, she learned the technique of “Two Fists Fighting Each Other”—in other words, each of her arms can act as independent agents. One arm represents herself and uses the Jade Maiden technique, and another arm represents somebody else and uses the Quanzhen technique. Oh snaps.
And that is one the things I love about this battle. It takes a three techniques which had been gradually introduced during the course of the story—Quanzhen, Jade Maiden, and Two Fists Fighting Each Other—and combines them. And with these three combined techniques, Xiaolongnü has reached a new level of badass. As soon as I realized these three techniques could be combined this way, I really wanted to see the full extent of what Xiaolongnü could do with this, and this is the battle where she shows it.
Which brings us to the next topic.
Of course there are many weapons—bows and arrows, swords, clubs, fists, feet, as well as more unusual weapons such as jujube seeds. For example, Xiaolongnü can attack people with the sashes of her sleeves (and I claim—with my tongue bulging out of my cheek—that this is the main reason why Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is so popular). But there is a lot more to these techniques than the choice of weapon.
Fighting techniques often come with a set of words, or mnemonics, to help people execute them properly. One can of course know the words without knowing the moves, which is useless in a fight. What is more interesting is that sometimes, if one knows the moves but does not know the words, the technique might still be useless in a fight.
In order to become a great martial arts fighter, one must have a powerful neigong. “Neigong” means something like “inner force.” Without a powerful neigong, it is not possible to execute the really powerful fighting techniques. Thus, a hero-in-training’s first order of business is building up one’s neigong. A common way to build one’s neigong is to sleep in uncomfortable places—for example, on top of a rock on a snowy mountain. Neigong can sometimes be used directly in a fight—for example, shoving one’s neigong into somebody else can hurt them—but neigong is more often transferred between people for healing purposes. Since building neigong is a life-long endeavor, older fighters tend to have more powerful neigong, which is one reason why older martial artists are considered more dangerous than younger martial artists. However, Xiaolongnü has built up an unusually powerful neigong for somebody her age. Oh snaps.
In addition to neigong, there is qinggong—speed and lightness. It basically grants martial artists the ability to defy gravity. Since actors are really bad at qinggong, they need wires to fake it. But manhua characters have excellent qinggong, so no wirework is required. And the most powerful qinggong in the martial arts world happens to be the qinggong practiced by Xiaolongnü’s sect. Oh snaps.
Though acupuncture points are not being used in this battle, they are significant throughout the Condor Trilogy. Acupuncture points can be used in various ways in both fighting and healing, but the most common usage is to hit people’s acupuncture points in order to partially or completely immobilize them. Sometimes acupuncture points will re-open on their own after a while without intervention. Sometimes another character will re-open the acupuncture points of the afflicted. There are a few—very few characters—who can re-open their own acupuncture points without having to wait for the effects to wear off. Xiaolongnü is not one of those characters—if she were, the plot would have gone in a different direction, and this battle would not be happening.
There are two main ways techniques are transmitted, though sometimes they can be transferred by more unusual means. The most obvious way is from teacher to student, whether they are shifu/apprentice or not. The other way is by studying scriptures which describe various fighting/healing techniques—and much of the plot of the Condor Trilogy consists of searching and fighting over these scriptures. Of course, it is not enough to have the scripture. Training takes time, and somebody without a basic martial arts education would not be able to make use of the scripture at all. One of these scriptures, the Jade Maiden Heart Sutra, describes the Jade Maiden Sword Technique that Xiaolongnü is using. Of course, out of all the scriptures, the most coveted is the Nine Yin Manual, which describes the most powerful martial arts techniques in the world. Anyone who has mastered the techniques of the Nine Yin Manual can pretty much beat anybody who has not. The Quanzhen monks do not know any of the techniques of the Nine Yin Manual, but Xiaolongnü has a copy, and she’s had over a year to practice the techniques. Oh snaps.
Again, the Battle
There is an image in this battle so wonderful it was used as the illustration for this chapter in the original novel.
This is yet another technique introduced earlier in the story—the “Palm of Infinity Web.” Previously, it had only been shown as a training technique—a character has to use the Palm of Infinity Web to keep a flock of magpies in place in order to improve his qinggong. Before this battle, I hadn’t realized that it could be used in a fight. But here it is—except, instead of flock magpies, it’s a flock of swords. That. Is. Cool.
That’s a basic rundown of the mechanics of the battle, and while watching a woman mow down a bunch of men using cool sword work is fun in its own right, what makes this battle (and all of the memorable battles) really moving is what is going on with the characters. While I used pictures from Wee Tian Beng’s manhua for the this part of this post, for the next part I’m going to use pictures from Tony Wong’s manhua.
The Character Side
So, why is Xiaolongnü trying to kill all of the Quanzhen monks? She says that she is there for revenge. But the problem with this explanation is that she has had opportunities before to get revenge for all of the bad things the Quanzhen sect has done, and she never took advantage of any of them. She has even said that revenge is pointless because it cannot undo the bad things which have been done. So why is now different?
Different readers may interpret this differently, but I think Xiaolongnü is fighting the Quanzhen sect because she does not know what to do. The past few months of her life have been rather awful—more awful than anything she has experienced before. And Xiaolongnü currently does not have a social network—no friends or family—and there are reasons why she will not contact any of the remaining members of her sect. That is one of the things which makes this battle so exciting. Not only is Xiaolongnü more potent than ever before, she is also psychologically less stable than ever before.
So she falls back on what she knows—martial arts—and practicing martial arts, to a large extent, means fighting people. Given that the Quanzhen sect is partially responsible for the awfulness in her life, they are the obvious target of her aggression. And as a reader, I find it satisfying to see the Quanzhen sect finally getting some payback for the uncool things they have done.
She really is targeting the Quanzhen sect rather than looking for any suitable opponent, because she tells the Mongols/Tibetans that she is not interested in fighting them. Unfortunately, the Tibetans are interested in fighting her.
Fortunately, Xiaolongnü is currently invincible.
And in the course of the battle, they manage to disturb the Quanzhen elders. They had secluded themselves so they could learn how to counter Xiaolongnü; they knew she was really dangerous and figured it was only a matter of time before she attacked. Little did they know that she would attack so soon. They also see the Mongols/Tibetans, who are also bad news. Then they notice that Xiaolongnü and the Tibetans are fighting each other, which is not such bad news.
Then Xiaolongnü thinks about a certain somebody and gets distracted. She had resolved never to see this special person ever again, but in the midst of battle, she suddenly realizes that she wants to see this person again, at least once, before she dies. Ironically, while her life is not at risk as she perfectly executes the Jade Maiden / Quanzhen sword techniques, thinking about how much she wants to live makes her stop, putting her life in danger. This, to me, is more evidence that she is fighting because she lost herself, not because she wants to punish the Quanzhen monks. If she were hellbent on revenge, I do not think she would be distracted so easily.
A Tibetan takes advantage of this opportunity to strike her.
Then one of the Quanzhen monks sacrifices himself to protect Xiaolongnü. Why? Hasn’t she been trying to kill them? Let’s just say that he is obsessed with Xiaolongnü and is personally responsible for some of the awfulness in her life.
He asks her if she can forgive him. She answers “You ruined my life, how can I forgive you?” And she pulls out her sword. Ouch.
A Quanzhen elder aims for a Tibetan … but the Tibetan pulls himself out of the way, and puts Xiaolongnü in the way. OUCH OUCH OUCH!
So, one of the world’s more powerful martial artists has just pulverized, albeit unintentionally, Xiaolongnü’s guts. I’ll stop here, because even somebody as powerful as Xiaolongnü cannot continue to fight in this condition.
The consequences of Xiaolongnü getting trashed like this are major. In the original novel, what happens after this battle is one of most heartbreaking scenes in the entire trilogy (alas, neither of the manhua adaptations get that scene right).
Often the manhua artists draw fantastic elements—such as dragons—in the midst of battles. Rest assured, there are no actual dragons in the Condor Trilogy. Those are all visual metaphors. The visual metaphors help keep track of which techniques are being used, since the same technique will probably have the same visual metaphor associated with it when it is performed. They should not be taken literally. Reading a bit of the manhua should be enough to get a hang of what is metaphor and what is literally happening. The fantastic elements are beautiful and make the artwork that much more wonderful.
I think the battles are one aspect of the story which I prefer experiencing through manhua over prose. Sure, I thought the battle at the Quanzhen monastery was superb when I read it in the novel, but having to keep track of the techniques and visually map it out in my head is work. Following the fights is much easier in the manhua where it is all laid out for the reader, with all of the techniques conveniently labeled. And the manhua artists make the battles look far more fantastic than what I see in my head as I read the novels. That is why they are professional visual artists, and I am not.
Hopefully, this can make readers’ first contact with wuxia manhua more enjoyable—and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask. Speaking of questions, I have some discussion questions for you:
How is the battle system in the Condor Trilogy / wuxia like the battle systems used in manga, particularly, but not exclusively, shonen manga? How is it different?
Sara K. has previously written for Manga Bookshelf: Why You Should Read Evyione Part 1 & Part 2, Mary Stayed Out All Night, and The Geeky Heart of Taipei. Her personal blog is The Notes Which Do Not Fit, though there is not much about comics or East Asian pop culture over there. She has been studying Chinese since the fall of 2009, and is dangerously close to becoming a wuxia fan.