Knights of Kung Fu

There is a word I would like to add to our martial vocabulary: WuXia. This translates pretty well into the English term, Knight-Errant (travelling knight). Wu of course is the word for “martial,” as in Wushu (martial arts). Xia (shee-ah) is a Chinese word composed of the characters for person and “in the middle,” somewhat like the term Ronin in Japanese.

kfcineman_1Like a Knight of the Round Table, the WuXia was a real figure following a creed of altruism, disdain for money, justice, individual freedom and loyalty. Up until the Qing dynasty, these Kung Fu Knights made a real presence in China, supplying an iconic figure in the Chinese consciousness. For centuries these brave men were hired to protect and advise those in need. This became a heroic image in the Chinese mind and only started to dispel with the rise of insurance companies and the Pao Chu (Body Guards). Many of these came from the WuXia but now they were absorbed into the “system” and lost their reputations as lone wolves.

kfcinema_2We watch them reincarnated through film today, flying through the air with their swords held out like the noses of rockets, striking their poses, standing on mountain tops, running across the rooftops. In Iron Monkey, Crouching Dragon, Emperor and the Assassin, and hundreds of other films we thrill to the exploits of these colorful knights. They represent that part of us we feel we are refining by bringing the awareness we seek in martial practice. Think about the many millions of people who all feel worth in this practice, despite media continually misunderstanding the significance of our art.

Anyway, here is a translation of a Chinese poem with some of that spirit…

Song of the Eastern Gate
by Lu Yu
Presented to Ch’in Yi-Chung

Don’t you see,
The man from the Eastern Gate has the spirit of Hou Ying;
He killed someone in broad daylight in the dusty market-place,
The Metropolitan Prefect knew his name but dared not arrest him,
While he leant his sword against the sky on Mount K’ung-T’ung.
He made friends with three or four like-minded men,
Together they rode freely on their piebald horses,
Looking up to heaven, he laughed and made light of all things,
Then went into his house and received guests no more.
Yet his line prospered and his descendants became officials at court,

From The Chinese Knight-Errant by James J. Y. Lu

Not only battles and triumphs were recorded, but the more introspective aspects of the knight’s life.

I smite the water with my sword
Hoping to check its flow,
But the water flows on;

I empty my glass
Hoping to dispel my sorrow,
But sorrow engenders sorrow.


wuxia_1One of the most famous, at least in spirit, was the poet Li Po. Here is a poem by Li Po (Li Bai), half swordsman, half drunkard, all poet. His genius was so fruitful it is said he would fold his poems into paper boats then float them downstream for any unknown hand to pluck out of the water. Capable of beautiful and lyric poetry, he chronicled the best and worst in life always with a piercing eye and a haunting word. This is a translation by Arthur Waley.


Last year we were fighting at the source of the San-kan;
This year we are fighting at the Onion River road.
We have washed our swords in the surf of Indian seas;
We have pastured our horses among the snows of T’ien Shan.
Three armies have grown gray and old,
Fighting ten thousand leagues away from home.
The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage;
They have no pastures or ploughlands,
But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands.
Where the house of Ch’in built the great wall that was to keep away the Tartars,
There, in its turn, the house of Han lit beacons of war.
The beacons are always alight; fighting and marching never stop.
Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword;
The horses of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven.
Crows and hawks peck for human guts,
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees.
Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass;
The General schemed in vain.
Know therefore that the sword is a cursèd thing
Which the wise man uses only if he must.

One last poem by Yuan Chi (21-263 c.e.)


When I was young I learnt fencing
And was better at it than Crooked Castle.
My spirit was high as the rolling clouds
And my fame resounded beyond the World.
I took my sword to the desert sands,
I drank my horse at the Nine Moors.
My flags and banners flapped in the wind,
And nothing was heard but the song of my drums.

swordswoman_1Brave, self-sufficient, moral, helpful but, equally, introspective, the WuXia remains a part of the martial legacy even in these times.

One Response to “Knights of Kung Fu”

  1. J. Andrews says:

    Thanks for this glimpse into the Chinese martial heritage and these moving poems.

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