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The Legendary Swordsman: Guangzhou Acrobatic Arts Theater offers experimental adaptation of Louis Cha’s classic wuxia novel

Guangzhou-based theatre troupe is confident it can breathe new life into a classic wuxia novel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 9:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 9:48am

Louis Cha Leung-yung’s wuxia novels, depicting a world of martial arts and chivalry, have been the creative inspirations for numerous films, TV dramas and stage productions. The essayist who co-founded the Hong Kong daily newspaper Ming Pao in 1959 and served as the newspaper’s first editor-in-chief, is a household name in Chinese-speaking communities around the world. He is 93.

One of the latest adaptations is an acrobatic theatre. Known also by his pen name Jin Yong, Cha’s works have earned many accolades and regular programmes are held at the Jin Yong Gallery in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum to explore the creative motives behind his works and their effect on Chinese culture.

The Legendary Swordsman, presented by Guangzhou Acrobatic Arts Theater, is reputedly the most experimental adaptation of Cha’s novel of the same name. It has been adapted into TV series and films multiple times – Chow Yun-fat played the lead character, swordsman Linghu Chong, in the 1984 TVB drama; “god of Canto-pop songs” Sam Hui Koon-kit played the same role in the 1990 film The Swordsman produced by Tsui Hark. The Chinese TV adaptation starring Taiwanese heart-throb Wallace Huo as Linghu was a huge success in 2013.

The Guangzhou-based theatre troupe is confident it can breathe new life into a classic. Xu Juan, deputy general manager of theatre troupe, says using acrobatic arts to retell the story will give audiences the opportunity to enjoy the familiar tale with its highly stylised action and live martial arts sequences.

Xu says: “Acrobatic theatre is one form of drama theatre. But rather than just telling the story in a straightforward manner, acrobatic theatre is the seamless integration of acrobatic techniques and props. Audiences will be able to experience the action and special effects that are shown in film and television shows – in the theatre.”

“But the acrobatic theatre adaptation of The Legendary Swordsman isn’t just about action. It is a hybrid of drama, martial arts, folk art, dance and Cantonese operatic storytelling.”

The Legendary Swordsman, also known as The Smiling, Proud Wanderer in some translations, was written by Cha in the late 1960s as a serial that appeared in Ming Pao for more than two years. The story chronicles the adventures of Linghu Chong, an orphan raised and trained by Yue Buqun, the leader of the righteous Mount Hua sect. Linghu develops into an honourable swordsman, but one day he is thrown out of Mount Hua. Linghu then discovers that Yue is not as respectable as he appears, and embarks on a quest to defeat his former master.

The highest state of martial arts is imposing self-discipline on our bodies and our hearts, so that we can have empathy for the world. In this regard, it is quite similar to the spirit of acrobatic arts
Xu Juan, deputy general manager, Guangzhou Acrobatic Arts Theater

Xu believes The Legendary Swordsman offers an ideal vehicle for contemporary acrobatic theatre. “The world of martial arts and chivalry has a lot in common with acrobatic arts,” Xu says. “The highest state of martial arts is imposing self-discipline on our bodies and our hearts, so that we can have empathy for the world. In this regard, it is quite similar to the spirit of acrobatic arts.”

The history of Chinese acrobatics can be traced back to 475 to 221BC, in the Warring States period. Initially a performance developed from self-defence skills, acrobatic artists performed dazzling actions with the use of props from jars and tables to plates and bowls. They challenged the senses of audiences with dangerous manoeuvres such as walking on high stilts and wireworks. Over the centuries, acrobatic arts have entertained and thrilled audiences by pushing the limits of physical constraints.

Xu says the Guangzhou Acrobatic Arts Theater has championed the traditional art form by setting new standards. Founded in 1959 as Guangzhou Acrobatic Troupe, the theatre company has a great reputation thanks to its many award-winning performances, including the acclaimed title Journey to the West.

Taking inspiration from Cha’s martial arts fiction is a new direction. Xu says that The Legendary Swordsman is a literary classic that has a fascinating plot as well as an inspiring character who can escape from all the social constraints imposed by Confucianism, a philosophy that has set the boundaries of Chinese culture for thousands of years.

“The greatest appeal of The Legendary Swordsman is its lead character Linghu Chong,” Xu says. “He might not be the tallest, smartest or the most handsome man but his path to freedom has inspired many Chinese people who feel restricted by the Confucius philosophy or Buddhist rules.

“The title is a great lesson for many of us. It teaches us philosophies of success and failure as well as love and honour. An acrobatic theatre adaptation of Cha’s modern literary classic raises the artistic value of acrobatic arts.”