Secret symbols of power, martial arts-practicing heroes and villains, societies populated by outcasts — find out how this 21st-century superhero series resembles Tang-dynasty Chinese literature.

In April, I blogged about new TV shows that featured entertaining martial arts action but allowed their boldness to dwindle as seasons progressed. One of them was Arrow. When it debuted on The CW, Arrow displayed impressive weapons choreography. However, during the fall 2014 season, the combat quality waned. It eventually culminated in a highly anticipated sword fight between Arrow, aka Oliver Queen (played by Stephan Amell), and the skilled-but-ruthless leader of the League of Assassins, aka Ra's al Ghul (played by Matt Namble). It was a disappointing battle, to say the least. Arrow's expertise vanished — he seemed to forget how to move and wield a sword. Ra's appeared less skilled than a quarterback averaging 10 interceptions per game. The episode caused me to stop watching the series, but my DVR kept recording it. That prompted me to give Arrow a second chance, and once I stopped scrutinizing the fights — wow!


Photo by Jordon Nuttall/2015 The CW Network

I’ve concluded that although Arrow is based on the superhero character Green Arrow, launched by DC Comics in 1941, the series comes across more like an old Chinese wuxia novel. I also noted a nod to World War I's renowned Battle of Gallipoli (1915-16) — more on that later.

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Background: Jiang Hu is a staple of wuxia novels, a form of Chinese prose that gained repute during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). The stories are romanticized tales of altruistic heroes with magical martial arts skills. Jiang Hu, meaning “rivers and lakes” in Chinese, is an alternative society composed of beggars and outcasts, as well as kung fu heroes and villains. They all coexist in communities that have their own laws and ethics. The essence of wuxia can be seen in the Chinese characters that are used to write the word. Although wu means “martial,” the character's components mean “to stop the fight.” Xia loosely translates as “chivalrous hero.” Anyone with virtue is described as xia. Thus, wuxia writings feature virtuous people who use martial arts skills and morality to do good deeds. This winds up being a perfect description for Arrow and his clan. Photos by Cate Cameron/2015 The CW Network Jiang Hu includes a sub-community called Wu Lin, in which inhabitants compete to be the head fighter, swordsman or clan leader. They strive to attain that position by adhering to the unwritten but respected ethical codes of loyalty and righteousness. Yet some avoid virtue and attain power via violence. This is reminiscent of Arrow’s Ra's al Ghul, head of the League of Assassins. In Chinese films, Jiang Hu is often called the Kung Fu Underworld. In it, clans frequently vie for a symbol of power — perhaps a secret martial arts book, a special weapon or an ancient emblem. Whoever possesses the symbol rules the underworld. The Arrow parallel: Whoever wears the full-finger golden ring becomes the Ra's al Ghul.

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In 1915, when Mustafa Kamal of the Ottoman Turks arrived at the Battle of Gallipoli, the out-of-ammo Ottomans were retreating from the Allied forces. Kamal ordered them to fix bayonets, then famously said, "I don’t order you to fight; I order you to die." The Ottomans won the battle, and Kamal became Turkey's first president in 1923. In an episode of Arrow titled “The Offer,” Ra's paraphrases Kamal's words to Oliver: "My men don't have to kill for me; they have do die for me." Then Ra's explains that the League of Assassins has roots in the Koran and Muslim history. Photos by Cate Cameron/2015 The CW Network If Arrow consistently had good fights that didn’t tend to look alike, it could become a creative leader in the genre. It’s an ironic observation when you recall that in season 3, Malcolm teaches Thea how to fight, warning her to never use the same move twice. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Arrow does: The action scenes have used the same techniques hundreds of times. Nevertheless, I find Arrow intriguing because of its connection to Jiang Hu, Wu Lin and the wuxia genre. In fact, it’s that connection that makes me wonder how much of what comic-book creators have done since the 1930s stems from wuxia. It’s possible that they were so inspired by wuxia literature that they — knowingly or unknowingly — borrowed from them. Maybe that’s their “trade secret.” Just saying. Go here to order Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors.
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