Knight-errant in Traditional Chinese Literature

Mar 22, 2019
folder_opencategory: Literature

The literature of every country has its own heroes. Being usually warriors or knights, these men know how to protect the innocent and dispose of the enemy. Greek heroes sought glory, Medieval knights looked for love of fair ladies, while Chinese knights-errant pursuit justice. The knight-errant is one of the frequent themes in traditional Chinese literature and it is an altruistic type of a man. The teaching of Confucius promoted the image of a fearless man, always ready to help the ones in need. It means that the knight-errant is both strong physically and spirituality. Although the Chinese knight-errant helps innocent people, he does not do it for glory or love. On contrary, he wants to do things right and fulfill his duty. The present paper discusses the image of the knight-errant on the example of two traditional Chinese stories, namely “Wu-shuang the Peerless and “The Sung Founder escorts Ching-Niang One Thousand Li.

The term ‘knight-errant’ is the closest in meaning to the Chinese for hsia or wuxia, which means “wandering force, “chivalrous warrior, “adventure seeker, etc. (Berry & Farquhar 168). The culture of knights-errant originated long ago and has Confucian philosophy as its basis. Knights-errant helped people and, thus, restored justice. Therefore, it is one of the most favorite images in traditional Chinese literature. Unlike many other occupations in ancient China, the hsia are “neither intellectuals nor politicians, but men of strong will and simple faith, who lived and died the way they wanted (qtd in Wu-chi, 1969, p. 625).

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The Chinese knight-errant is, first of all, a masculine, hence the term wuxia. In any case, the knight-errant has physical strength and utilizes martial arts. As a reflection of Confucianism, the knight-errant is a person of exceptional spiritual qualities. Chinese knights-errant did not belong to any specific social class or group. Any man could become a knight-errant. People could come to him and ask for his services or he could choose himself whom to help. Consequently, the knight-errant did not have a special code of honor. Not being subordinate to anyone, he had a certain freedom and made his own decisions regarding whom to serve and help (Ma & Lau 39).

In his book The Chinese Knight-errant, James J. Y. Liu argues that men of different professions could be the hsia, even poets and musicians (Wu-chi, 1969, p. 625). If one wants to interpret the term broadly, it can characterize all men who acted in a chivalrous manner at least at some point in their lives. In this way, “the altruistic, bold, and freedom-loving revolutionary martyrs, most of them intellectuals, of the pre-Republican period can be called the hsia. However, as a rule, knights-errant were men of military training, such as soldiers. In both stories examined in the present paper, the knights-errant are officers.

Due to the fact that knights-errant were unlimited in their freedom, it was impossible to make them help. They had to want it themselves. However, as Chinese society complies with an extensive set of norms and rules it was possible to softly persuade a knight-errant to help. People could be obliged by the principle of reciprocation (pao) (Ma & Lau 39). An example of it can be seen in the traditional Chinese story from T’ai-p’ing kuang-chi “Wu-shuang the Peerless. It took the protagonist Hsien-k’o a year to mildly persuade Officer Ku help him out without actually saying a word. He never approached Ku with his request. Instead he sent lavish gifts and everything that the officer might need. After a year of such generous treatment it was Ku who approached Hsien-k’o and asked what he could do for him. Ku says, “I feel that there must be something you’d like me to do for you (Ma & Lau 55). As a man who lives in a culture that highly values reciprocation, Ku acknowledges it saying: “Since I am a man who knows what gratitude mans and fully appreciate your generosity to me, I am ready to put my life in your hands to do a service in return (Ma & Lau 55). Such example illustrates the unspoken law of reciprocity. Although all nations more or less understand the principle, Chinese treat it in their own way. In Chinese culture, each gift implies that the recipient would turn into a giver at some period of time in the future. In the story, Officer Ku demonstrated this knowledge by coming to Hsien-k’o after a year of lavish presents.

“Wu-shuang the Peerless retells the story of a girl of high standing, Liu Wu-shuang, and her cousin Wang Hsien-k’o who were separated by life circumstances. A political turmoil occurs in 783. It corresponds to the rebellion in Chu Tz’u in 742-784 (Mair 587). And Wu-shuang’s parents are blamed for assisting rebels and are executed. The young girl is sent to the Emperor’s palace as a servant. Being in despair and deprived of the possibility to see the girl he wanted to marry, Hsien-k’o, an orphan, managed to gain a higher standing and office, as well as earn some fortune. After that he decided to find out whether it was possible to see Wu-shuang at the palace. Through his former servant Sai-hung, Hsien-k’o receives a letter from his beloved one where she advises him to seek help of an only man able to help them, Officer Ku. After Ku agrees to help, he manages to arrange the transferal of Wu-shuang and develops a scheme, which finally leads to release of Wu-shuang, as well as deaths of ten people.

Chinese tradition implies loyalty and utter measures that servants can take in order to help their masters. In “Wu-shuang the Peerless, Sai-hung, Wu-shuang’s former female servant called Ts’ai-p’in and officer Ku agree to sacrifice their lives for the happiness and peace of Wu-shuang and Hsien-k’o. However, officer Ku is not a servant but as a man of advanced years he decides to sacrifice his life, as well. In such way, the treacherous scheme did not leave any traces and witnesses and Wu-shuang and Hsien-k’o could hide in some remote part of the country and lead a happy life.

According to Ku’s plan, Wu-shuang took a special pill that induces half-death on a person who takes it. As a result, the man or woman resembles a dead person with no breath for three days and then revives. Ku received the pill from the holly Taoist mountain, transferred it to Wu-shuang, came when she took the pill dressed as one of her blood relatives to ransom the body, and delivered it in a palanquin to Hsien-k’o’s house with the help of bribed servants. In order to ensure that no rumors would be started he killed all the people involved, including Sai-hung and Ts’ai-p’in. Upon telling the story of Wu-shuang’s wonderful return to Hsien-k’o, Ku kills himself, as well (Ma & Lau 52). Here is another case of pao. The Chinese principle of reciprocity implies that “reciprocity must be of greater value (Lo 219). At the same time, Ku complies by not only performing an enormously difficult task but also giving away his life.

Traditional Chinese culture has two types of male masculinity. Wen is a “refined masculinity and is associated with scholars and philosophers. The wen man exercises his intellectual abilities rather than his physicality. Consequently, such man is not always strong physically. All his strength is in his mental power and knowledge he gathers by reading the books. However, it does not mean that the given type of males is unattractive to women. On the other hand, women love them but they remember that the wen man always chooses his obligations over feelings. In contrast, wu is “martial masculinity and symbolizes warriors. While it is natural that the wu man has physical strength more pronounced than intellectual, it does not mean that they favor women. On contrary, warriors tend to live alone and despise women (Berry & Farquhar 200).

The knight-errant of “The Sung Founder escorts Ching-Niang One Thousand Li is a perfect example of a man of strict discipline and pronounced masculinity. The man who later became Emperor Tai-tsu of the Sung dynasty had the name of Chao K’uang-yin and was very brave and tempestuous. The story tells about his journey with 17-year-old girl named Ching-niang. She was abducted from her father on a trip to the holly mountain by two bandits who both wanted to marry her. Not being able to decide who would marry her, they left the girl in a monastery and went to find another girl for the second bandit. Meanwhile, Master Chao found out about the girl and seeing her distress decided to help and take her to her home village. He believed that he and the girl could travel a thousand li through the places full of bandits. However, Chao turned out to be very strong and brave and he managed to win all the battles with bandits and finally brought the girl home (Ma & Lau 77).

However, one episode highlights that Chao was truly a knight-errant and the wu man. By the end of the trip Ching-niang was incredibly impressed by Chao’s feats and deeds and she believed that the only way she could demonstrate her gratitude was to marry him. But when she offered it to Chao, he laughed and said, “I rescued you simply because I took pity on your plight, not because I lusted for your beauty (Ma & Lau 73). When the girl tried to protest and insist, Chao became angry and said that he would leave her amidst the danger, if she does not stop her efforts to persuade him immediately. Chao explains his reluctance by comparing himself to Liu Hsia-hui of the Spring and Autumn period who “was known for his alleged indifference toward women (Ma & Lau 73). Furthermore, when Ching-niang’s parents did not believe her explanation and offered Chao to marry her, he ran away in anger and never came back. In its turn, Ching-niang committed suicide but Master Chao found out about it only after many years, when he became the Emperor.

Wu-shuang the Peerless and “The Sung Founder escorts Ching-Niang One Thousand Li are the examples of a common theme in traditional Chinese literature dedicated to the knight-errant. The hsia is a notion of a fearless hero who is ready to help people in need for no other reason as his own sense of right and wrong. Chinese knights-errant demonstrate loyalty, reverence, good manners, and chivalry. As wu men, knights-errant usually refused from women and were lonely rangers who roamed the roads searching for people in plight. Being spiritual and religious, knights-errant confessed Confucianism. Besides, political and social unrest contributed to the distribution of the genre.

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