The literary genre known as Wuxia, Chinese martial arts fiction that extols the chivalrous deeds of a hero who develops superpowers to fight injustice, has found an academic home at UCLA Library.
The family of the late Shiao Yi, considered one of the most successful authors of Wuxia (pronounced woo-sha) novels in the modern era, has donated to UCLA a collection that includes his published and unpublished works, manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and books from his private library — materials that span his prolific career, most of it based in Los Angeles. Due to Wuxia’s popularity, most North American-based East Asian libraries have collections of these materials, but what makes the Shiao Yi Wuxia Collection unique is that it is a Wuxia author’s private collection, including unpublished work.
The author, whose work is beloved around the world, wrote more than 60 novels and novellas and nearly 1,000 essays; 31 of his works were adapted for film and television. He was also the founder and first chairman of the North America Chinese Writers' Association.
Thanks to his son, Peter Shiao, and the Shiao family, the collection will be stewarded by UCLA Library’s Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library, where Shiao Yi’s books will be made available.
“Peter Shiao’s generous donation of his father Shiao Yi’s collection to our East Asian Library will enable UCLA Library to become a rich resource for Wuxia research, providing significant academic value for faculty, students and other researchers interested in Chinese literature, Chinese cultural forms, and Chinese American contributions to the field of art,” said Ginny Steel, the Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian. “We are particularly excited to preserve and elevate the legacy of Shiao Yi given his connection to local Asian American communities and for his international reputation as a master of the genre.”
The collection will also help create a more robust representation of the literary and cultural contributions of Chinese Americans and be useful across the campus and beyond to scholars of Chinese literature and culture as well as for teaching, research, community outreach and programming.
Enjoyed by a global fan base of millions, Wuxia is the most popular literary genre in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and throughout the Chinese diaspora, said Su Chen, head of the East Asian Library. These fantasy stories celebrate traditional Chinese culture, history and values, central to Taoist philosophy. Rooted in the oral tradition, stories about xia (the knight errant-hero) go back more than 2,000 years.
In Wuxia, said Peter Shiao, a UCLA alumnus, “the philosophy, spirituality, the moral codes, the poetry, beauty and history — all of it is wrapped up in this hero’s journey and speaks to everybody who wants to be empowered, who wants to believe in themselves.”
Having the collection at UCLA will be a tremendous benefit to faculty, students and the global community at large, said Cindy Fan, vice provost for international studies and global engagement and a professor of geography.
“This collection represents a unique combination of Chinese culture and literature, transnational heritage, trans-disciplinary appreciation, academia-community collaboration, and the global and lasting impact of one of the greatest martial arts novelists in the world,” said Fan, who grew up enjoying Wuxia films and novels, including Shiao’s.
Chen, the East Asian librarian who in 2019 first approached Peter Shiao about the possibility of a donation, advised that readers can become addicted to the genre. “It’s so popular that anywhere you go in the Chinese-speaking world, you will hear people use metaphors and storylines from Wuxia novels.”
Min Zhou, distinguished professor of sociology and Asian American studies, said she is also a fan of the genre.
“As a UCLA professor doing research and teaching in the area of international migration, Asian American studies and Chinese diasporic studies, this collection is extremely valuable, not only as a rare materials collection that is the only one of its kind for the library, but also for the very rich original data that will benefit future research and teaching,” said Zhou, the director of the UCLA Asia Pacific Center and the Walter and Shirley Wang Chair in U.S./China Relations and Communications.
The son of a general in the Chinese army, Shiao Yi was born in Beijing in 1935 and moved with his family to Taiwan at age 14. Fascinated by Chinese historical fiction and Wuxia novels, he began writing short stories in middle school and, at 23, published his first novel, “Iron Geese, Wings of Frost,” which met with instant success and led to a two-part movie franchise. In 1977, he moved his family to Los Angeles in search of better opportunities for his children. A lifelong student of Chinese history, classical Chinese literature, poetry, Taoism, Chinese astrology and fortune-telling, he pursued a full-time career as a novelist, journalist, essayist and screenwriter until his death in 2018 at the age of 83.
Today, Peter Shiao, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Immortal Studios, continues to expand the Wuxia storyverse by adapting his father’s writings to new platforms, such as comics, films and video games. Immortal Studios is part of a vanguard of media entertainment companies leading a resurgence of interest in the genre.
“For a very long time, Wuxia fiction was not taken seriously by academia,” said Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies and professor of contemporary Chinese culture in the department of Asian languages and cultures. “It was considered lowbrow and disposable; it was pulp fiction.”
“But that has changed,” said Berry, a scholar of Chinese film who is also on the faculty of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “It’s growing influence globally can be traced to the rise of Bruce Lee, the arrival of Hong Kong filmmakers in Hollywood, the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Marvel Studios’ success with “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
But Wuxia has the potential for providing more than entertainment.
Through the strength of a common culture and the powerful bond of storytelling, said Peter Shiao, Wuxia can connect countries in conflict. “Through our collaboration, through the establishment of the Shiao Yi Wuxia Collection at UCLA, we can shine a light on the cultural bridges that can bring people and nations together.”