Wuxia. Xianxia. Cultivation fiction. Some of the hottest indie fiction genres in the market today, inspired by Chinese folklore, web novels, movies and television. Strip away the Eastern-esque aesthetics, and what you get is the quintessential power fantasy.
Take a protagonist. He is a commoner, a hero chosen by destiny, or someone cursed with the inability to cultivate. Through hard work, he develops fantastical power, overcomes legions of foes, and becomes an immortal, a god, a being that stands above human existence. He becomes stupendously wealthy, every corner of the world knows his name, and optionally, he attracts a harem of beautiful women. It speaks to every base desire in every man.
This is not cultivation.
Cultivation fiction relies on many tropes. Absorbing qi from the air, the cosmos, defeated enemies, and using it to grow one’s power. Potions and pills to further develop your qi. A world of martial cultivators with a strict class and level system, defined by their qi levels and power. Bloodthirsty beasts and bandits, arrogant martial artists, a world where strength is paramount.
This is not cultivation.
Battles are worthy of Hollywood. Cultivators who can fly on swords, leap over a mountain in a single bound, execute dazzling martial arts moves. Magic drawn from qi that grants the power to obliterate all enemies before you. Legendary weapons, secret martial arts manuals, feuds between men and sects and gods.
This is not cultivation.
What is cultivation?
Cultivation fiction is inspired by Chinese metaphysics and internal martial arts. But it is only a shallow interpretation of metaphysics, twisted around for mere entertainment. Chinese metaphysics is grounded in a mindset utterly different and strange from the modern world.
Movement, meditation, medicine, magic and martial arts are one and the same. Standing or sitting still is an essential exercise in developing calmness and focus, but also sensitivity and martial power. Through endless repetitions of techniques and forms, the exponent strengthens his muscles and sinews, cultivates his qi, forges his spirit. Martial techniques produce lightning speed and overwhelming power, and massage the internal organs, and grow your capacity to generate and absorb qi, all at the same time. More than just combat, martial arts is internal alchemy, transforming mind, body and spirit.
The internal martial arts of China are renowned for their sensitivity and power. A lesser known benefit is its physical and psychological effects.
The five element theory of Chinese metaphysics is the same theory that grounds traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. Every major organ in the body is assigned to an element. By balancing the elements within the body, you create good health. The internal martial art of xingyiquan uses the five elements as the basis of its fighting strategy, with each of its five core techniques inspired by the elements. By progressing through the five fists, a xingyiquan practitioner works with his internal organs, strengthening what is weak and controlling what is overactive, leading to good health.
More than just health, xingyiquan develops a military-like mindset. Practitioners become driven, persistent, determined, willing to blow straight through obstacles, mimicking the core strategy of xingyiquan, which is to power into the enemy down a straight line. In contrast, the art of baguazhang involves stepping around the enemy to gain an advantageous position and neutralize him. Baguazhang practitioners become soft, fluid, adaptable, winding around obstacles and threats. I have read that xingyiquan cultivates yang qi, while baguazhang cultivates yin qi, and it shows in how the practitioners change through training.
Chinese metaphysics further holds that the cosmos moves through grand cycles, governed by the flow of subtle energies. By harmonizing yourself with these cycles and intentionally harnessing these energies, you can create abundance, health and happiness for yourself. You can even become an immortal or a Buddha.
The word ‘qi’ has many meanings: gas, breath, energy. In taking a breath, you draw oxygen and fresh energy into yourself. In the exhale, you expel carbon dioxide and waste energy. Energy is intricately entwined with the air, the breath, and by extension all things in the universe. With a calm heart and focused intent, you can direct the flow of qi. This allows you to nourish your internal organs, expand your qi capacity, clear toxins and internal blockages, and attain skills behind human ken.
But anyone and anything can cultivate. Men, women, children, animals, plants, spirits. Anything.
The beggar you meet on the street might be a buddha. A wild man in ragged clothes who lives deep in a forest could be an immortal. An ancient tree under which you pitch your tent might be a centuries-old soul, and gained a measure of sentience and even sapience. When strange things happen around you, know that you are in the presence of gods and spirits and stranger things yet.
Needless to say, it is not wise to offend any of these beings, even if you are not aware of their true nature. Consequently, Chinese metaphysics also cultivates a culture of deep respect towards all beings and things, with elaborate rituals to communicate with and appease spirits.
Chinese metaphysics is a holistic view of Heaven, Man, Earth and Cosmos, engaged in a glorious dance of entwining and releasing energies and intentions and actions. The physical and the metaphysical intersect in many myriad ways, each affecting the other.
This is a mindset utterly alien to the modern world. Materialism insists that matter is the fundamental substance in the universe, and all things stem from material interactions. Spirituality is a quaint concept practiced only by fools, primitives and the superstitious. Focusing on the external world is the only way to progress, and scant attention is paid to the internal world. Every person is an individual, isolated from every other person. The loner, the rebel, the pariah are heroes, for defying social conventions—and signaling this rejection through being offensive to everyone.
The old ways persist even today. Businessmen book important meetings and calls during auspicious dates and hours, and sit in lucky sectors of their house with their backs turned towards good directions. Martial arts masters work as doctors so they can train the ability to sense the subtleties of nerve impulses, muscle twitches, and qi circulation. Construction companies choose special days to break new ground and avoid all work on certain days, even if it means taking a short-term loss. When the world of men intersect with other worlds, priests stand ready to intercede. Following the proper methods leads to smooth sailing. Failure to carry out the prescribed rites risks offending powerful beings or clashing with the qi of the times, leading to misfortune and disaster.
People want to be rich, famous and powerful. Many Chinese metaphysics methods can achieve that. But this is not cultivation. Cultivation is not about power. Cultivation is not about gaining wealth. Cultivation is not about becoming famous.
Daoist cultivation aims to attain immortality. Buddhist cultivation aims to attain enlightenment. Along the way, the cultivator acquires numerous boons, but they are not the destination. Only way markers and resources.
Robust health allows you to continue your practice, free from illness and injuries. Wealth—more properly, abundance—allows you to continue your practice without worrying about the bills, and to help materially support others during their practice. Fame—or rather, influence—allows you to pass on what you’ve learned to others, and dissuade them from going down the wrong path. Should a student develop supernatural powers, he is advised to wise it for the benefit of others, or not at all.
The purpose of cultivation is not to cultivate the ego. Elevating the ego and satisfying base desires takes you down the path to dissolution and self-destruction. Every step down that road takes you further and further away from Heaven or Nirvana.
Cultivation in the real world is the complete antithesis of how it is portrayed in fiction. Instead of elevating the ego, it erases it. Instead of satisfying base desires, it extinguishes them. Instead of becoming the greatest being of all, you help others realise their full potential. Instead of bending Heaven and Earth to your will, you become one with all things.
What about wuxia and xianxia? The key word in both genres is not ‘wu’ or ‘xian’. It is ‘xia’. It translates into many terms, but the most important one is ‘hero’. The protagonist uses his skills and powers to protect, heal and support others. He is selfless, decisive, respectful, strictly obeying a moral code. In obedience to this code, he will raise his sword against all he deems evil, even the authorities. He is not motivated by fame or fortune, but simply the burning desire to use his skills to do good in the world. He who does not follow the code of the xia cannot be called one.
Cultivation fiction today is little more than power fantasy with Asian props. Such stories are blandly formulaic. Instead of touching on higher and deeper subjects, they must cater to the base desires. Writers and stories must thus compete to have the bloodiest battles, the most spectacular magic, the biggest harems. It becomes the equivalent of junk food, providing little more than a short-lived dopamine drip, and quickly forgotten.
Cultivation fiction could be so much more than this. And I, I intend to bring out its full potential.
Cultivation draws deeply from Chinese culture—one of the few pillars that the communists could not destroy. It is a culture barely understood by many Westerners, and from this shallow understanding springs the power fantasy in Asian dress. More than tropes, characters, and awesome battles, cultivation reflects a holistic worldview, one alien to Western thought yet carefully preserved and transmitted across centuries. This mindset drives my own forays into the cultivation genre.
I know of no one who can write like this. Therefore, I must.
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