How Wuxia Kicked My Chinese Learning to the Next Level

Light Sabre in Buddha Palm

Star Wars? No, it’s a wuxia movie.

What is wuxia? A quick and dirty way to explain it is to compare it to Star Wars.  Some people say Star Wars is wuxia in outer space, and they have a point.  If you took the story of Star Wars, set it in the Chinese empire, replaced the Jedi with xiákè, replaced the light sabres with Chinese swords, replaced ‘the Force’ with Taoism/Chinese medicine/Chinese martial arts/etc., then the result would be indistinguishable from wuxia.

Actually, you don’t even need to replace the light sabres.  The weapon this guy from the movie The Buddha Palm is holding sure looks like a light sabre to me.

Wuxia has been a big, BIG help with my study of Chinese.

During my first year or so of studying Chinese, I did not feel a connection to creative works in Chinese.  I had my reasons for choosing Chinese over Korean and Japanese, but I did (and still do) have a great interest in Korean and Japanese culture, and even after I reminded myself of my reasons for going with Chinese, I couldn’t help wondering if I had made a mistake. Using Chinese as a tool to access Korean and Japanese culture (watching anime in Chinese, reading Korean comics in Chinese, etc.) helped, but that still made me think studying Korean or Japanese might have been a better choice.

I wanted to change this, so after moving to Taiwan, I would sometimes go channel-surfing, trying to find something that would catch my eye.

Something did catch my eye. Namely, historical dramas set in imperial China, particularly ones which featured martial arts or swordplay.

My Chinese was so bad I could only hope to, at most, understand 20% of the dialogue, but I was still intrigued.  I knew I had to learn more.

And that is what led me to wuxia.

At the time my Chinese was far from being up to the task of actually reading/watching wuxia seriously (though it was fun to guess what was going on). But just knowing about its existence injected new energy into my Chinese studies.  And when my level was sufficiently advanced to contemplate diving into wuxia, I steamed right ahead into it – and came out with my Chinese reading skills vastly improved.  I finally started saying ‘yes, I can read Chinese’.

Other Chinese-language creative works have thoroughly engaged me, but it was wuxia which turned Chinese from something I learned because I had good reasons to learn it, into something I learned because I was passionate about it.  Connecting to something so distinctively a part of Chinese-speaking culture is what finally lit that flame.

The lesson is, regardless of what language one is learning, clicking with some part of the culture tied to the language you are learning makes it much easier to love the language learning process.

About Sara K.

Sara K. grew up in San Francisco and currently lives in Taiwan. She has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese, writes the column 'It Came From the Sinosphere' at Manga Bookshelf and maintains her own personal blog 'The Notes Which Do Not Fit'