Hip Hop Wuxia and the Jianghu of Breaking
“Wuxia?” “Not much, you?”
Wuxia (pronounced like “woo-sha”) is a genre of Chinese martial arts historical fiction. If you’ve ever watched movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, you know what I’m talking about.
As a fan of both wuxia and breaking, I explored the subjects to look for parallels between the two. It turns out that there’s quite a few.
Disclaimer: Not all Buddhist monks know how to do hand hops. (Dancers for MCA Day, prod. Gro-Cho). Handhop b-boy in the photo: Gin of Floor Obsessions.
Kung fu movies of the 1970’s, starring the likes of Gordon Liu and Bruce Lee, undoubtedly inspired the early generations of b-boys. This 2007 blog article titled “The Impact of Kung-fu Movies on Breakdancing” covers the history of that connection.
It’s cool to see kung fu moves being used in dance even today, but wait until you see the deeper similarities between wuxia and breaking.
The jianghu of breaking
‘Jianghu,’ which literally means ‘rivers and lakes’ in Chinese, is “a term used to describe a sub-society parallel to…mainstream society” (Wikipedia). Sounds like the b-boy scene. Somewhere along the line, Chinese fantasy novelists started using jianghu to talk about martial artists and sects (clans). This definition is closer to that of ‘wulin’ or ‘martial forest,’ which refers to the community of martial artists. Fun fact: The 武 (wu) in wulin means ‘martial,’ and is pronounced the same as 舞, which means ‘dance.’
Just as fictional jianghu is full of famous fighters and sects, the jianghu of breaking has its legendary dancers and crews. Conflicts are resolved through combative encounters instead of conventional systems. In wuxia novels, good and evil sects often battle for opposing ideals.
While I wouldn’t call an all-star team like Monster Energy B-boys “evil,” it’s clear that they have different ideals than organic crews like Momentum or Flow Mo. These various crews battle at events that resemble martial arts tournaments. At a smaller scale, individual breakers often challenge each other for reasons ranging from personal honor (e.g. calling out the judges) to self improvement. These motives can be found in the wuxia genre as well.
Martial sects are also like breaking crews because they have a signature style. Wuxia fans can tell you all the differences between Shaolin Sect’s Tiger Subduing Palm and Beggar Sect’s 18 Dragon-Subduing Palms. Likewise, breaking fans could gladly explain how Morning of Owl’s quirky crew style was a departure from the technical Korean breaking of that time.
Knowledge is passed down from master to student in wuxia, and the same goes with breaking. A great example is Paranoid Android and Thesis —PA passed his dynamic puzzle-like style on to Thesis, who worked it into his own movement.
Ain’t nobody messin’ with my sect, sect, sect. (Gordon Liu in ‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’)
The b-boy as a modern day wuxia
Even individual breakers resemble the characters of wuxia, a word which literally means ‘martial hero/heroes.’ Perhaps that’s because breakers want to be heroes in some way. Breaking is appealing because it offers an outlet for self-expression, and the power to make a positive impression on those around you.
“Every kung-fu movie…people got they ass whipped and they went back and got revenge…maybe we saw this as kids in the hood, as something we dealt with every day in our lives.” -Ken Swift
I wouldn’t be surprised if those kids in the 70’s thought of themselves as warriors, battling in the streets of New York. Nowadays, anime and video games inspire the youth to imagine themselves as heroes. Breaking allows them to turn imagination into reality.
That’s a big deal for heroes of humble beginnings. Typical wuxia protagonists come from a lower social class, as many of the first b-boys did. They also follow a chivalrous code. The code’s values include “benevolence, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth, and desire for glory” (Wikipedia). Some of these, especially individualism, are also shared values in breaking.
Speaking of individuality, what better way to show it than the hero’s weapon? Ye Kai holds the Little Li Flying Dagger, Naruto uses the Rasengan, and Issei has signature moves like the Swallow Reversal. Ask a random person on the street whether each of these is from wuxia, anime, or breaking, and they’ll probably have a hard time guessing.
Thoughts for the future
Breaking has the potential to attract a wider fanbase because it shares the appeal of wuxia—Everyone loves a hero. Like in those stories, breakers and crews can be representatives and role models for their people.
We as b-boys/b-girls should know what our ideals are, and our reasons for being a part of this community. It’s okay if your motive is something as simple as getting exercise. Not everyone has to be a martial hero. However, if you do want to earn a name in the scene, think about what could make you a true ‘wuxia.’ The values you hold and the impact you have on others are many times more powerful than your skills alone.
This article was originally published on Medium. It was revised for this blog by the original author.