Between Historicity and Fictionality: Xiang Kairan,
Martial Arts Fiction, and Chinese Narrative Tradition

By Iris Ma

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no.1  (Spring 2019), pp. 229-263

The author examines Xiang Kairan (1889-1957), one of the most successful Republican-era martial arts writers, and his writings, particularly the bestseller Biographies of the Marvelous Knights-Errant in the Jianghu (Jianghu qixia zhuan), which triggered the “martial arts craze” of the 1920s and 1930s. Previous studies have approached Xiang martial arts novels from a variety of perspectives, analyzing the psychological function of Xiang’s fiction, the commodification of fictional writing and the demand of a reading market, and the correspondence between the readers’ purportedly benighted state of mind and an underdeveloped literary culture. I shift the attention to the Chinese narrative tradition and argue for Xiang’s allegiance to a traditional linkage between fiction and historiography. Through narrative devices such as the first-person narrator, Xiang Kairan generated a triangular inter-referentiality between his public persona as a martial arts master, his writerly identity, and the role of the narrator, thereby effectively obscuring the boundaries between the historical and the fictional and between the real and the imaginary and lending credibility to his fictional works. Xiang Kairan’s success and the phenomenon of the “martial arts craze” cast new light on the enduring impact of the narrative tradition on fashioning literary culture in modern China.