Back to entry: xiang_kairan | Show links black

Xiang Kairan

(1889-1957) Chinese author of several influential novels and essays, some as by Pingjiang Buxiaosheng, which dragged the genre of Wuxia out of the dreamtime of the nineteenth century, and towards a more modern form with nationalist and patriotic leanings. Dubbed "the father of martial arts fiction" by the Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures (2016), Xiang was enmeshed in the radical movement to create a new and modern China, beginning with his maiden publication "Quan shu" ["The Art of Pugilism"] (March 1911 Changsha Ribao), which first outlined his interest in martial arts as a calisthenic and philosophical solution to the problems besetting the nation (see also Liang Qichao; Kang Youwei).

As a student in Hunan, Xiang had been inspired in 1905 by the story of Chen Tianhua, a student in Japan who killed himself in protest at the influence Japan was exerting on Chinese modernization. Expelled for participating in Chen's funeral in Changsha, by 1907 Xiang was himself a student in Japan, living a dissolute and somewhat aimless life, by his own admission. This ultimately became the source material for his collection of "exotic affairs and erotic experiences", Liudong Waishi ["The Story of My Student Days in Japan" vt The Unofficial History of Sojourners in Japan] (1916).

His true fame was born from two novels that began serialization in the same year, Jianghu Qixia zhuan ["Marvellous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes"] (January 1923 Hong Zazhi; 1923) focused on Xiang's lifelong obsession with "rarity" in fiction, which here manifested itself as a concentration on the Pseudoscience of martial-arts super-powers. Ridiculed by leftist authors such as Lu Xun for its quixotic and regressive reliance on magical solutions, it nevertheless became immensely popular. Its 65th chapter formed the basis for Huoshao Honglian-si ["The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple"] (1928), a watershed work in the history of martial arts film, in which magical forces were represented with early special effects, spawning seventeen sequels. This, too, was the subject of critical ire, with the author Mao Dun archly observing that "it reflected the requirement of the wavering feudal bourgeoisie to find a way out on the one hand, and on the other, it was the magic potion of the old feudal forces who intended to perplex people." The films subsequently formed a major target in a government campaign against shenguai, various translated as superstition, fantasy or "[tales of] spirits and anomalies", as opposed to the approved subjects of "science, patriotism and adventure."

Jindai Xiayi Yingxiong zhuan ["Chivalric Heroes of Modern Times"] (1923-1924 Zhentan Shijie) developed his themes further by fictionalizing the deeds of known individuals, specifically Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910), the nominal founder of the Jingwu Athletics Association, who became in Xiang's account a super-human martial artist, devoted to challenging foreign invaders – not in the traditional sense of Mongols and Manchus, but agents of modern Imperialism. It was Xiang who popularized the claim that Huo's death in Shanghai at the age of 42 had not been the result of liver failure, tuberculosis, or a heart attack, but was instead the result of poisoning by Japanese rivals.

Published in the same year, Jianghu Guaiyi Zhuan ["Strange Phenomena of the Rivers and Lakes"] (1923) is framed as an enquiry into mixin ("false beliefs"), only to unfold as a series of fantasy tales that embrace the supernatural with Fortean glee (see Charles Fort). After several chapters of explosive testimony concerning magical battles with demons, feng shui hauntings and seances with the dead, an accused murderer reveals a series of entirely prosaic and mundane explanations in his confession – compare to similar fudges inserted into the work of Tianxia Bachang.

Reports of Xiang's death turned out to be greatly exaggerated, a matter of some embarrassment after an inconveniently living Xiang returned to Shanghai in 1929 to sue the publishers who had been continuing his serials under his name as secret Sequels by Other Hands. Xiang's writing career was substantially truncated by the onset of civil war in China, the country's invasion by Japan, and the subsequent Communist revolution. After the establishment of the People's Republic, he became a leading figure in the country's martial arts/athletics programmes, but was increasingly criticized as a rightist. His last work, the allegorical fantasy "Danfeng chao yang" ["The Phoenix Greets the Sun"] (1957 Xin Miao) features an entourage of birds attempting to offer congratulation and encouragement to a godlike figure, but constantly undermined by infighting, virtue-signalling and politicized attacks. It was an obvious satire of Chairman Mao's "Hundred Flowers" campaign, but Xiang died before any real action could be taken against him.

A generation after Xiang's death, writer-director Lo Wei and an uncredited Ni Kuang resurrected one of his martial arts ideas, the poisoning of Huo Yuanjia, for a film script that imagined a fictional pupil seeking revenge. The result was Jingwu Men ["Gates of Pure Martial" vt Fist of Fury] (1972), which made an international superstar of Bruce Lee. His own work, however, remained problematic for the Chinese censor; as late as 1984, domestic editions continued to remove controversial chapters from new editions of Jindai Xiayi Yingxiong Zhuan which did not adhere to the Party line on such topics as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. [JonC]

Xiang Kairan

born Pingjiang, Hunan, China: 6 March 1889

died 27 December 1957

works (selected)

novels as by Pingjiang Buxiaosheng

about the author


Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 14:28 pm on 24 June 2024.