The Hero’s Journey
In recent centuries, China has been subject to many foreign powers even on its own soil. In times of low national pride, martial art masters such as Ye Wen and Huo Yuanjia became national heroes, inspiring the Chinese people to prove their worth to visiting foreigners and preserve their sovereignty. Through a comparative study of heroic martial artists in the recent Chinese films Ip Man（叶问) and Jet Li’s Fearless (霍元甲), this paper will explore how the stories that they tell relate to and critically reflect the “Hero’s Journey” narrative pattern identified by American Scholar Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s 2008 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces provides a theoretical frame for this paper. We will study how these martial artists’ personal stories inspire their community and the nation to overcome great hardship and how the filmic representation of their images represents the self-image of China as a nation. Drawing a parallel between these heroic images and China’s own journey toward self-reliance and national regeneration, this paper will argue that the narrative pattern of “A Hero’s Journey” could also project a meaningful reading of China’s own trajectory of social and economic growth as a nation. The first film that this paper studies, Jet Li’s Fearless takes place in the early 1900’s, half a century after the Opium Wars have resulted in China giving up territory to Western powers as well as diminished their rule over foreigners in Chinese cities. In this historical period, Western powers look down on the Chinese as the weak men of Asia. Likewise, despite his father being a martial arts master, Huo Yuanjia is not permitted by his father to practice wushu because of his asthma. After his father’s death, Yuanjia is able to practice wushu openly and begins to build his reputation as the “best of Tianjin.” Huo Yuanjia’s call to adventure comes after tragedy strikes his family. Yuanjia is led by one of his disciples to believe that another martial artist, Master Qin, has beaten him without provocation. In the ensuing confusion, Yuanjia kills Master Qin and Master Qin’s nephew in turn kills Yuanjia’s wife and daughter. This personal tragedy can be contextualized in the historical period knows as the Boxer Rebellion. China’s reluctance to accept western ideals, specifically its rejection of Christianity, led to irrevocable conflict across the country in which many innocent people lose their lives. As portrayed by the film, one of China’s major weaknesses was its inability to adapt as the world around it modernizes and westernizes. A hero is not without mentors and ultimately must work to gain a treasure, which can then be used to transform the world. Huo Yuanjia is humbled by the tragedy that struck his life and learns to accept guidance from many around him. In a small mountain village he is taught how to live in harmony with nature. Upon returning to Tianjin, he visits his old friend Nong Jinsun with a changed heart. Yuanjia knows that China’s image is in desperate need of refreshing and asks his friend to pay his way to challenge O’Brien, the US boxing champion, in Shanghai. Huo Yuanjia then undergoes many tests, finding allies and enemies along the way. He is invited to dinner and tea on occasion. The first invitation comes, again, from his friend Nong Jinsun. The two agree that China must realize the gravity of their situation and reunite to take back their sovereignty. Jinsun knows that Yuanjia can unify the country through martial arts and is so dedicated to the idea that he sells his successful restaurant in order to help open the Jingwu Sports Federation. Later, Yuanjia has tea with an arranged challenger, Anno Tanaka. Tanaka is prideful of his knowledge and taste for differentiating various grades of tea. In perhaps the deepest line of the film, Yuanjia explains to Tanaka that the tea does not judge itself, but people judge it, placing one above the other. In contrast, Yuanjia believes that the all...
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