Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Indie Spotlight: The Tale of the Wuxia Hybrid

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and indie authors who have found success in the creative world of independent publishing.

In indie writing and publishing, wuxia is a hot and fast-growing genre. It is a genre that traditional publishers are reluctant to enter because it is far outside of the mainstream and lacks sales records. But indie writers, who can pivot much quicker, have discovered the global demand for this very popular genre from the East, and readers are hungry for more. To distinguish his books from the rest, author J.F. Lee has taken a very creative approach on how he writes his novels. Here’s his story.

Writing Wuxia in English

Wuxia is a genre firmly rooted in its tropes and heritage. With growing interest in Korean and Chinese dramas, the genre is also at a cultural intersection point ripe for hybridity. When I tell people I write wuxia, I often get a puzzled look. Sometimes I explain it’s “Asian fantasy,” and they seem to understand (though that invites lecherous grins and another problem for another time). I tell people that wuxia is the biggest fantasy genre they’ve never heard of, but that’s not entirely true. Many people interested in Asian culture are already familiar with the ingredients of wuxia fiction. 


They just didn’t have a name for it. 


There’s a lot to like for the uninitiated. Wuxia almost always features tales of sworn brotherhood and honor, as well as stories of freedom and duty punctuated by very violent conflicts and duels of fantastical martial arts skills. It’s also a “new” culture that hasn’t been mined to oblivion for Western audiences (this ain’t another story about Zeus). 


On the other end of the scale, when I tell Chinese people that I write wuxia in English, they’re confused that the genre isn’t popular in the West. And if I tell them that most North Americans have never heard of Jin Yong, they look appalled—as though I just told them their baby is hideous. 


I write wuxia to share my Chinese heritage. Like many Asian authors of the diaspora, I write to connect to my ancestry and share the things I love. And like many, it’s been hard to find my place. We’re the intersection of different cultures while searching for our own identities. In my case, I’m a Chinese Singaporean -who grew up in Canada. I write wuxia, watch hockey, and like Tim Hortons’ donuts. But I also spent most of my adult life in the USA. I watch football, enjoy fireworks on the 4th of July, and shop on Black Friday. These disparate threads weave a web of national pastimes that make no sense other than they just are.  


Drawing inspiration from hybrids

For this reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of hybrid cultures. Hybrids are considered a new species. In culture, they are not the mechanical sum of existing cultures—they are a remix, a mashup of music, art, fashion, design, and even food. 


A reviewer once described the first book in my Tales of the Swordsman series, Sword of Sorrow, Blade of Joyas “a Chinese version of Samurai Champloo.” That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. Samurai Champloo, to me, is the gold standard in cultural hybridity. The anime series tells the story of a young girl who rescues a ronin and a former pirate, and ropes them into helping her find a samurai that smells of sunflowers. Hijinx ensues. Fairly classic samurai story, right? 


What makes Champloo stand out is how it marries the ‘samurai’ story with hip-hop culture. The opening credits combine kanji and hip-hop vibes, music composed by the late Nujabes (whose influence helped create the lo-fi era of music we see everywhere today). Plotlines cover graffiti and rap battles led by agents of the Shogun. Katana-wielding B-boys who are as swift to slice as they are to headspin. It’s anachronistic and marvelous, the fusion of two disparate cultures to create an anime that’s a lot of fun to watch. 


Image Credit:  P.A. Works

Ya Boy Kong Ming is another example of blending cultures. Drawing on the popular isekai trope (second life), this manga-turned-anime uses Chinese history, hip hop and pop idol culture, and a Shibuya setting. There is nothing quite as thrilling/ridiculous as watching legendary Three Kingdoms tactician Zhuge Liang participate in a rap battle or using a stratagem to help the career of a burgeoning singer. 


These two shows both reveal how it’s possible to merge existing cultures to create a unique experience that’s both fun and engaging. Both emphasize the familiarity of different cultures, which in turn allows them to create something new. 

The Wuxia Hybrid

As audience tastes grow more diverse, so should the stories we tell. We’re all a mashup of competing fandoms and interests (you can like both Marvel and DC), and so for wuxia to survive, it needs to become more diverse. To that end, I started writing what I initially called the “Bao Western.” 


Essentially, a wuxia hybrid is how I appeal to my audience. I emphasize familiar tropes in the genre. The Tales of the Swordsman features an episodic style of interconnected stories that feel like watching episodes of a binge show. As my books progress, the stories turn more serialized as I draw in more classic wuxia tropes – training a new disciple, pursuing revenge for the death of a master, and the search for a lost martial arts manual. 


With the wuxia backdrop as the starting point, I start having fun. I add cultural footnotes that explain language nuances and break the fourth wall with jokes. I reference pop culture by paying homage to shows like Avatar, movies like Star Wars, and artists like BTS. Beyond the qinggong (the art of lightness) fights on rooftops, I marry humor to tragedy for a familiar and new experience. 


Stories were never meant to exist in a vacuum. They constantly interact with each other and are open to interpretation by audiences who want to bring their fandoms together. This is why we have things like steamy fanfic, LitRPG novels, cyberpunk samurai streetwear, and anime about rap-battling tacticians. Amid all these mashups, what’s the addition of a wuxia hybrid? It may not always be what the purists want, but this space is where I’ve found I can express my fondness for some of my interests and pay homage to my personal hybrid culture. 


JF Lee is a Cayman Islands based author that loves telling stories about wuxia heroes with swords. When he’s not working on his next novel, he can be found diving for green sea turtles and reef sharks to photograph. Check out what he’s up to at JFLee.co

Find or Follow him on: