武林身体观 – Martial arts conceptions of the body – English

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Generally speaking, you won’t hear of any hero from a martial art novel described as muscular. This is no accident, because the mental state shaped by Chinese culture does not allow readers of Chinese literature to accept such a character as the protagonist.

Upon reflection, this point is puzzling indeed: in boxing, wrestling and other modern competitive sports, participants typically have a body rugged with the bumps and dents of muscles. However, if such a character appears in a novel, it is usually as a foil who gets beaten up to highlight the main character’s magical and martial prowess, and his own martial arts are unlikely to be strong.

This is very obvious in Jin Yong’s books: in his first Wuxia novel, “the Book and the Sword”, Zhang Jin, Yang Chengxie and Jiang Sigen from the ‘Red Flower Meeting’ chapter are all characterised by their great strength, but they do not rise to the top of the rank: their leader, Chen Jialuo, is described as a frail-looking scholar. In the 14th Chapter there is a scene where four giants (“The Four Tigers of Hulun”) from the Qing camp go to battle, each of them “with big and strong physiques, astonishing magical powers, but appearing slightly oafish”. In comparison, Chen Jialuo looks “frail like a scholar, with a face as delicate as a painting”, but the result is, naturally, that Chen Jialuo beats all four.

This plot device is undoubtedly a rehash of the “David vs. Goliath” trope, common in mythical tales and legends, but it is worth noting that in Jin Yong’s story, athletically built characters with superhuman strength generally only play supporting roles. Sometimes it is even the case that they are unavoidably thought to be “physically strong but simple-minded” – here, “the Four Tigers of Hulun” are described as “clumsy and slow-witted”. In Jin Yong’s “The Deer and the Cauldron, the Imperial Guard Dolong also possesses superhuman strength, “both arms capable of exerting a force of a thousand pounds”, and when displaying his martial arts, “the muscles on his arm and the back of his hand would protrude”. However, he only practises a form of martial arts based on brute strength and was clearly not a first-class expert. His image in the book is also one of a simpleton (or to put it more nicely, that of a naïve person). In Gu Long’s novels, this type of muscular giants feature in an even more tragic manner: they often appear as slaves. Gu Long loves mentioning giant Persian slaves and Kunlun slaves (often “topless” to bare their muscles), who are often called about and dismissed by their masters and would not even disobey orders to die. In “The Legend of the Banner Heroes”, the “Barefoot Man” also has a “bared upper torso”, “metal muscles and steel bones”, unlimited strength, but is finally reduced to Feng Jiuyou’s slave.

These muscle men who solely practice martial arts based on brute strength not only are unable to scale the peaks of martial arts and possess a bad image, they also often appear as evil characters. Using “The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber” as an example, quite a few faction leaders of the Heavenly Eagle Cult are of this genre. For example, Jin Peng’s “muscles bulged on his hand and muscles, as knotted as the roots of a tree”; the two other faction leaders are “famous strongmen, with average martial arts skills but a thick and strong body – born with unusual strength, each could carry huge boulders of around four hundred pounds”. Zhao Ming’s subordinate Ah San “is strong and sturdy, fearsome as a tiger; wherever there was muscle, on the face, the hands, the neck, it was twisted and knotted like roots, as if the whole body was filled with energy, swollen as if it was about to explode”. However, he is from the opposing side, diabolical in his methods, and obviously a villain. In contrast, Zhang Wuji, number one in martial arts in the world, is never described in the book to have protruding muscles; what Zhang Sanfeng sees is only “a look in his eyes that did not reveal any splendour, but a faint glimmer like warm crystal, showing that his inner strength had already reached the highest possible peak.”

The message this reveals is very clear: martial arts novels undoubtedly follow the traditional Chinese way of thinking about the body — contempt for the external muscles that can be seen, but high regard to the “essential spirit” people reveal, which is precisely what the “faint glimmer like warm crystal” refers to.

In Western culture, whether it is art, sculpture, dissection, or athletics, there is strong attention paid to the muscles on the human body. A healthy and strong human body is nothing but what is physically manifested through the visualisation of muscle. It was the Greeks who used muscles to understand the body and how it worked. In contrast, drawings of humans in China since ancient times never visually emphasised clearly visible lines of muscle (in reality, if one does not have special training, it is not that easy a task to observe the muscles of the human body), but emphasised instead that the life force of the human body was in its “essence” or “divine force”—think of the word “spirit”, which has already become a common word used in Chinese. (Translator’s note: The word “spirit” in Chinese is comprised of the two characters for “essence” and “divine force”.) According to Ge Hongbin’s views in his book “The Politics of the Body”, the conception of the body in traditional Chinese culture rarely focused on physically strong bodies. This is because a notion of the body that emphasised power and muscle “was often linked to notions of attack, independence, personality, and so on, and these elements were without exception viewed negatively in conceptions of politics in ancient China.” Moreover, since the Chinese did not think that the abilities of self-control stemmed from muscle but from “qi” (the “inner strength” mentioned in wuxia novels), then the mastery of a person’s martial arts was clearly unrelated to the development of their physical muscles. If a person’s fighting prowess stemmed from “inner strength”, then to judge this one could only rely on observations of the person’s bearing and demeanour (handsome, relaxed and so on). This was why Zhang Sanfeng could tell from one glance at the look of Zhang Wuji’s eyes that “his inner strength had already reached the highest possible peak” instead of grabbing and feeling his muscles.

What can best demonstrate the difference is this: Traditional Chinese Medicine actually doesn’t have technical terms to refer to the different types of muscle. In wuxia novels, you will never read about the biceps, triceps, or other references of this genre of two people who are fighting. In contrast, every book talks about the different pressure points and meridians (this is a term absent from Western studies of dissection), because the “qi” that warriors rely on for self-control all rely on pressure points and meridians through which they flow. The martial arts warriors do not see the human body as one that is made up of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels, but meridians, pressure points, and other nodes that transport “qi”. In comparison, Western medicine only measures the pulse of the “meridians”—in other words, it only calculates the number of times it beats.

And precisely because prowess in the Chinese wuxia tradition has nothing to do with muscles, it is impossible to judge who is an expert only from looking at the state of his physical body. Muscle men often have a low mastery of the martial arts; in contrast, those with seemingly sick and disabled bodies often have undeterminably strong martial arts skills. (Such as: the sickly-looking Mi Haishi and the one-armed Yang Guo from the “Ode to Gallantry”, the legless Wu Qing from the “Four Famous Criminal Catchers”. In Gu Long’s “Chu Liuxiang Series”, the strong and terrifying “Son of Bats” Yuan Suiyun was blind, and Bo Hongxue was a cripple.) Of course, this greatly expands the possibilities for characterisation, and makes it far less boring than the sort of fighting that goes on between two muscle men on a boxing platform.

The high regard for “inner strength” also encourages people to scrutinise inner characteristics. That being so, male leads are typically handsome in their bearing. According to Gong Pengcheng in “Historical Theory on China’s Literati Class”, before the middle of the Tang Dynasty, the warrior heroes in literature were more like bandits, but gradually became more Confucian afterwards, displaying rationalised behaviour. After the spread of the Neijia (literally “internal strength”) boxing in the Ming Dynasty, “the image of warrior heroes in literature increasingly shifted from that of the “plucky lad” to that of the handsome and intelligent scholar; other than a heroic temperament, he had to be gentle, know how to reply with poetic repartees, and be equally proficient in both the pen and the sword.” This cultural psyche that had been established early made the Chinese mentality prejudiced against the muscle man. Jin Yong and others naturally could not resist this mental inertia. Imagine if Jin Yong made a muscle man who specialised in brute strength as a male protagonist—would you be able to accept it?

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Source : douban
image source:http://www.efu.com.cn/data/2008/2008-02-14/227935.shtml

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org