Tuesday, March 6, 2018


I want to make a quick note that these are just my observations about the role of martial heroes in the wuxia genre, as a fan of the genre. I am not an expert, nor am I an academic. I simply enjoy watching and reading wuxia. In Wuxia Inspiration, I give my point of view on the topic. This is definitely not the only way to look at things, and there are always exceptions to any rule or trend I talk about. In particular, this discussion is centered around the role of Martial Heroes in the Condor Heroes trilogy. I encourage anyone reading to reach their own conclusions and look at things in their own way. 

In gaming circles, we often have debates over how high level characters with impressive magical abilities should affect a setting. It seems that wuxia has a genre has considered this problem. In wuxia stories, movies and drama series, Martial Heroes have visible roles in the setting. These can vary writer to writer, but their heroic ability gives them powers that carves out a spot for them, not unlike how superheroes have a clear role in the supers genre. 

Last week Kenny and I finished our read-through of Return of Condor Heroes and it got me thinking on this subject. One of the interesting roles played by martial heroes in Return of Condor Heroes (and in the trilogy in general) is how they are used in warfare and how they are used by people in power. 

The abilities of martial heroes are known, often clearly quantified, and the leaders on both sides (the Khans of the Mongols and the officials of the Song) recruit and use martial heroes in their efforts. On the battlefield they function something like a general and a tank. Guo Jing spends much of Return of Condor Heroes commanding forces, diving into skirmishes and taking out 18 men at a time. His father-in-law, Huang Yaoshi, who has all but retired from the world and lives as a reclusive wanderer, has a great moment where he puts his knowledge of Daoist principles, martial arts and war together to develop a technique that relies on formations based on the five elements. He places 5 martial heroes in command of 5 divisions of roughly 8,000 soldiers each. This scene is spectacular to imagine and epic, with one division, for example, using medieval flame throwing devices, while another sprays vast amounts of poison at the enemy through hoses. 

However, soldiers and armies still matter. An important plot point in the story is the defense of the city of Xianyang against the Mongol advance. Both sides have martial heroes. The Song have greats like Guo Jing, Huang Rong and, eventually, Huang Yaoshi, Yang Guo and more. The Mongols have a terrifying Tibetan Lama named Jinlun and retinues of scheming mercenaries. Even though the Song appear to have a numeric advantage when it comes to martial heroes (or they at least have martial heroes more devoted to the cause and less devoted to in-fighting), this can't be counted on for success. It is not entirely clear exactly how many soldiers each martial hero is equal to, but this is occasionally mentioned. For instance, two of the Mongolian mercenaries, Yenkexi and Xiaoxiangzi, who we know to be quite powerful, are said to be able to handle 40-400 Mongolian Officers (presumably 20-200 each). This means, Martial Heroes are essential, they just are not the only thing that matters. Eventually they could be overwhelmed by an army's sheer numbers (there are moments during the later battles for example where even really powerful characters like Zhou Botong are wounded by arrows). 

Another use martial heroes often serve is as strike teams. Yang Guo and his men attack a small contingent of 2,000 soldiers for example (stationed in two different locations), then present their ears as a gift to Guo Jing's daughter for her birthday. They also destroy vital munitions in a another attack. On multiple occasions heroes go into the Mongolian encampments for a variety of reasons. 

But they have a role in the broader society as well, and they role can vary depending on the disposition of the characters. If 20-400 soldiers have no hope of stopping martial heroes, then what hope do farmers have? We see this with Li Mochou, who doesn't serve the mongols, but serve her own desire to vent anger and resentment. She roams the world, pretty much doing what she wants, wreaking havoc that only other martial heroes can stop.  So another role of martial heroes is to stop the martial experts in the setting who have become villainous or unhinged. 

Characters like Li Mochou are free to break the norms of society because they have power. But it is choice, and they often are also bound by the rules they choose or feel compelled to abide by. Li Mochou kills who she wants, with little to no hesitation. At one point she kills a mother and baby for no real reason at all. However she is a Taoist priestess and a former member of Ancient Tomb Sect. She takes great umbrage when she believes that Xiaolongnu and Yang Guo have violated the rules of their sect and the norms of the martial world by becoming lovers. 

Return of Condor Heroes is interesting in large part because it is about where a martial hero should direct their abilities. Does Yang Guo retreat from the martial world and pursue his own desires in the caves of Ancient Tomb sect or does he protect the Song from the Mongol invasion? The main character, Yang Guo, is able to find a unique path where he is an eccentric like Huang Yaoshi (by the end of the book he is called The Passionate Hero fo the West), and he almost prides himself on this point, but he also greatly admires Guo Jing's heroic defense of the Song, and in the final chapter helps defend Xiangyang at a crucial moment. Ultimately, and especially in a game context, this is about choice. These characters are choosing which virtues to embrace, which norms to accept or reject. That is something we all do, the only difference is, in the case of a martial hero, they have greater ability to fight the consequences. 

Obviously, the heroes are usually the good guys, and typically do use their power to defend the weak. But wuxia stories are populated by heroes, villains and people in between. And even the most upright heroes are rarely boring. Guo Jing can be intensely righteous at times, but he is a bit simple minded. Huang Rong is heroic and smart, but sometimes too scheming for her own good. Zhou Botong is an eccentric old man who is obsessed with the martial arts but behaves like a child.  I think in the context of an RPG, the players can choose to be any of those things. 

I did a podcast discussion on the topic a few days ago. Here is a link to it: 

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