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In this article, I discuss some personal experiences and reflections in adapting, imagining, and working with the wuxia genre in Da Xia: Gallants of the Three Worlds (henceforth referred to as Da Xia). Da Xia is a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) I am currently developing, which centres play on the collaborative creation of narratives about the struggles of folk heroes in 1940s Syonan (the Imperial Japanese name for their colony of Occupied Singapore).
This game explores upheavals and tensions in what I call the ‘Syonan Jiānghú’, a wuxia-inflected imagining of Syonan’s changing society; as a work of historical fiction, Da Xia is inspired as much by archival and historical research as it is by wuxia stories, and takes creative liberties to explore this fraught period’s potential conflicts and situations. Da Xia incorporates wuxia genre elements (menacing empires, social disruptions, enduring bonds, romanticised outsiders, yearnings for justice) to evoke life’s rhythms in Imperial Syonan’s jiānghú, especially with regards to the element of xia (righteousness, chivalric heroism) and its place in a society burdened by militant imperialism and uncertain loyalties.
When Syonan was ruled by violent warlords, and held in appraising stares of informers and collaborators, what does it mean to be a righteous xia? When prospects for survival were slim, and working with the corrupt Imperial order could expand dismal chances … what are the resonances and ramifications for those choosing lives as romantic outsiders of the jiānghú?
The premise for Da Xia was inspired by the Japanese Occupation’s ‘chilling effect’ on ideals of righteousness and justice … how might the Japanese Empire’s reprisals and suasions affect or modify the imaginations and aspirations of xia in a cowed populace? After all, the thumb that sticks out is the one that gets cut down by an Imperial sword. Would people be discouraged from practicing benevolence or standing up for justice, lest such behaviour draw the dreadful weight of the war machine’s gaze upon them? These were questions which led me to imagine a kind of unique ‘Syonan Jiānghú’ setting for Da Xia, where questions about morality and justice were handled quite differently from more traditional wuxia stories.
Before the Occupation, righteousness might have meant taking overt stands against the distant invaders of their ancestral homelands through donating money, labour, or expertise to Chinese wartime efforts. Yet during the Occupation, such behaviour would get one killed or suspected of treason; one might find it better to remain discreet and fade into the background, or leave for safer shores. Could one uphold justice and righteousness quietly, subtly, and effectively within such a world of harshness and deprivation?
For more historical comparison and context … in the cultural universes of 1930s to 1940s Singapore, what might righteousness look like to different Chinese communities? To those Chinese who espoused British Imperial identities as loyal subjects of the British Crown, righteousness might have looked like enlisting for military service alongside the rest of the British Empire’s soldiers, perhaps in a military organisation like the British-led, Chinese-staffed Force 136.
To those Chinese seeking to improve China’s abilities for self-defence and self-determination, righteousness might also have been imagined as providing labour, funding, and logistical support (such as through the National Salvation Movement) for Chinese defence efforts. Civic duty, obligations to communities of one sort or another … One could imagine perhaps a similar nationalistic fervour in Jin Yong’s genre-defining vision of the jiānghú, as the heroic fraternity of martial artists swear to remember and prevent defeats and humiliations such as the Jingkang Incident.
Upon Singapore’s defeat, in the new Syonan Jiānghú, what would become of all these imaginings of righteousness? What would happen to such notions of righteousness? Many who harboured such beliefs and opinions might have found themselves in shallow, unmarked graves. Upon assuming control of Syonan, the Imperial Japanese Army carried out Sook Ching, a purge targeted largely at teenagers and adult men of Chinese ethnic descent, in an attempt to punish the local Chinese community for their support of Chinese armed forces in the Second Sino-Japanese War, as well as exterminate any potential figures of resistance. Bespectacled men were suspected of intellectualism and Chinese nationalism, while tattooed men were persecuted for triad connections— which also tied them to Chinese nationalist interests such as the Tiandihui (Heaven and Earth Society) and Tongmenhui (Chinese United League). Many men of Hainanese descent (people from South China’s Hainan Island) were also singled out for killing due to that island’s history of left-leaning loyalties.
Through Sook Ching, those suspected by the Japanese Army of fighting for the British Empire, Chinese Nationalists, or Chinese Communists were apprehended, then sent to remote areas to be shot, bayoneted or slashed with swords … many were slain or gravely wounded. The Japanese Army’s unsystematic approach to profiling and murder meant they did not capture all their potential targets, and their brutality might also have created precisely those enemies they were hunting. Some fled into the jungles and mountains to become guerrillas and insurgents; perhaps more than a few were innocent of Imperial accusations, yet hardened into rebellion by such crass cruelty.
Many prominent Chinese leaders, heroes, and tycoons who had organised and led efforts to stymie Japanese invaders had fled overseas until war’s end. How would the remaining Chinese population of Syonan, scarred by war with nowhere to go and without recourse to generational wealth or international mobility, live? What might these communities and individuals imagine as righteousness or justice in this new ‘Syonan Jiānghú’?
Contemporary historiographies rarely offer discussions of righteousness or justice, perhaps a diplomatic treatment of difficult times when moral compromises were the norm. In Syonan, aspirations to righteousness might get one killed, or worse … they might get one’s entire family or community killed. Many depictions of this wartime past emphasise accounts of passive helplessness or stoic rectitude in the face of atrocity and difficulty. Records of wartime ingenuity and resilience are common, but discussions of fighting or resistance seem less emphasised in the memories curated by heritage and media organisations; for me, a big challenge in Da Xia was to imagine sounds and echoes left in the silences of these omissions.
Complicating these matters is the occurrence of the Cold War immediately after the Second World War; the deeds and experiences of anti-Japanese guerrillas, many with links to the Malayan and Chinese Communist Parties, remain less discussed in Singapore and Malaysia’s history, as the Southeast Asian ex-colonies aligned themselves strongly with British and American interests. Yet even if these guerillas’ stories were amplified, we cannot escape tensions posed by their vigilante killings and gruesome assassinations of alleged collaborators during and after the war, which could muddy romanticised images of righteousness. Throw in the ethnic dimensions and complex geopolitics of these conflicts (especially as Japanese imperialists sought to cultivate close relations with certain quarters of the populations, in a bid to gain anti-Western allies from Asia’s colonised peoples) … and suddenly, amidst this fog of war, righteousness might seem a lot less straightforward, and far harder to grasp in a satisfactory manner.
Thus, I attempted to locate Da Xia in a particular milieu and context that can negotiate, and if need be, sidestep these issues. Firstly, I veered away from the nationalist associations of xia, especially where ethnonationalism was concerned … which is a deliberate step away, for example, from the usual stories of horse-riding invaders of the Central Plains. Sinophone narratives of invasion and occupation—and their attendant ethos of self-empowerment and self-strengthening—are historical traumas and tropes I personally grew up with, yet within the diverse communities and historical experiences of Singapore’s multi-ethnic society … for I fear that approach might enable and encourage ethnic chauvinism in examining the past.
Instead, I tried to focus on xia as the willingness and bravery of people to do good in service of the needy in their immediate communities and beyond. I considered ideals of benevolence and compassion (Confucianist ren and Buddhist ci), and also spontaneity and freedom (Daoist zizai … to be free and assured enough in oneself to do good for others despite deadly opposition, as the heart of the xia wanderer, who acts righteously on behalf of Heaven!
I also decided to take a far more grounded approach to the ‘Syonan Jiānghú’ than in other wuxia fiction, as I wanted to keep my game truer to the conditions of the time … and in a way, more respectful to people’s lived experiences and anxieties. In Chinese history, martial arts have proved unable to face the challenges of gunboat and black powder; from the Opium War, to the Eight-Allied Nations sacking the Summer Palace, fists cannot beat bullets. While other settings might posit supernatural martial arts capable of overcoming industrial munitions, I personally found it hard to do so and face the wartime dead … I felt an overemphasis on magically-potent martial arts in a war-inspired setting, with the wounds still fresh from under a century ago, would be disrespectful to combatants and civilians alike who died on battlefields and in unknown graves, without armaments or protection from their surrendering British superiors. (I had considered a more fantastical approach to martial arts, to wu; but when I did so and visited the historical sites of Sook Ching, I suffered from nightmares, which I chose to interpret as the war dead’s remonstrations. When I revised my game design to incorporate different approaches to martial arts, these nightmares stopped; necromancy, perhaps, as method?)
My wu in Da Xia thus became more inspired by Chinese fighting traditions, arts of qinggong (light-arts), waigong (external arts), and neigong (internal arts), and practices in Chinese religion. Martial arts masters in Da Xia might be able to leap acrobatically and survive attacks from swords, channel the blessings of a tutelary deity to endure starvation and privation, or duck out of the way of explosives with grace and swiftness; armed with spears or staves, they might be able to fight against five enemies by themselves. These are exemplary feats which remain within the realm of possibility, which allow for individual heroics without trivialising the gun’s deadly power of killing and conquest; nobody in this game can fly beyond the range of a rifle, emit sword-light that trivially defeats entire troops of soldiers, or ride upon the clouds or the blades of scholar’s swords.
Perhaps more crucially, Da Xia isn’t really about martial arts. Martial arts play a large part in Chinese cultural identity, but my game isn’t exclusively about using martial arts to solve problems. Martial arts are part of the toolkits and narrative spaces players can explore, but Da Xia is really more about how and why people do righteous deeds to help each other in a time of desperation and uncertainty. I took some inspirations from Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin, as well as the genre of gong’an fiction, to generate cases of mystery and injustice, which I designed to emulate typical grievances and unhappy events which might occur in Syonan.
For example, landlords and black marketeers drove the prices of rent and food to ridiculous amounts, and many people struggled to make ends meet. Collaborators hoping to impress new overlords would trick, seduce, or abduct attractive individuals to offer as concubines to the bureaucrats and soldiers in the hopes of securing business deals; con men might lie to widows and children, bereft in the wake of Sook Ching, about their friendships with missing fathers and husbands, and extort payment after payment from the grieving. In all of these cases, what might a xia’s righteousness look like, and what would justice, in a time of imperialist persecution and desperate backstabbing, feel like to the powerless and the lost?
These are all questions that guide my ongoing creation of Da Xia. I was also fortunate enough to receive support from a Creative Residency awarded by Singapore’s National Library; this Residency encourages the research and development of creative works inspired by the collections of the National Library and National Archives. As a result, I could pore over many books, microfilms, theses, newspapers, and interviews with civilians, soldiers, bureaucrats, merchants, labourers, and many other people who lived and worked in Syonan.
Wuxia to me is also about the (often-plebeian) voices of the jiānghú; my research helped deepen and enliven my mental picture of a ‘Syonan jiānghú’, to situate the stories that the players of Da Xia could create. It is my hope, when Da Xia is completed and released, to share this Syonan Jiānghú with you, and reimagine wuxia in the interstices of our histories and memories.