In post-1930s Sino-cinematia, the bandit-hoodlum of chuanqi folk literature changes faces and becomes a martial arts expert – better, virtuoso. Without whose presence and performance skills the kungfu film would never have gained its current massive following. Or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger filmed. Or Bruce Lee a first “Chinese” then global sensation.
Of course there never was such a thing as a stock-character tough or hoodlum: the category includes grades of evil running (on the sadistic end) from jailers and torturers wearing heavy silver-studded belts and no shirts, to, on the more sympathetic side, the self-employed freebooter, who tends to make his living by kidnapping and ransom – ideally a bloodless crime victimizing the rich (thus in a sense a punishment for slack patriarchies).
Even more positive is the culture of the wuxia “knight-errant”, whose star seems if anything to be rising as a idealized alternative to the totally amoral world of wealth and power in the new “open” China, where (even if corrupted) class justice had originally offered a degree of resistance to sheer brutality, a culture of greed unstemmed.
But these “takes” are or have been based on abstract, film-enacted roles, and take up tales from wuxia fiction which are ultimately (by intent) surreal or magical.
One of the more remarkable features of Mo Yan’s fictional chronicles is that this modal personality is historically real, not simply the stuff of storytellers: he moves front stage and is anchored within the bounds of a rural underclass occasionally even rising to community organizer in chief This at the same time that the best known of these heroic predators (so-called) were it seems ALWAYS on the run or in hiding, even or especially when they drifted back to the villages that had spawned them. Though that is not as much a contradiction as it might seem: for though brother of the (same) soil could rise further in their native places (where they were best known and respected) than elsewhere, the connectedness of being (back) among neighbors and kin also made them that much more vulnerable to betrayal for cash, or by members of rival gangs or even patrilineages. Mo Yan’s lengthy NE Gaomi chronicles (RSF and BBWH) richly characterize 2 such “star” wanderers-cum-local-heroes: Yu Zhanao (b. ca 1900, place unknown) and Sima Ku (b. ca 1910, Dalan) with seeming admiration for their ability to disappear for very lengthy periods of time (Yu is supposed to have retreated into a family cellar on the eve of the Rev and not re-emerged until 1957).