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Western or Wuxia? Genre in Firefly

Wild Wild Space?

Fusions are great.  In cooking, fanfiction, music, ideas, anything really, blending the right ingredients together can create something new and exciting.  Joss Whedon is a master of melding genres and Firefly is a perfect example.

It’s Sci-fi, obviously, as it’s set in Space.  It’s kind of dystopian, with its evil government attempting to micromanage the ‘Verse.  Occasionally, it’s a crime caper (the epic hospital heist in Ariel springs to mind).  Most notably, it is absolutely a Western, with its barren wild west planets, an honest-to-God train job, bordellos, horses, shotguns and hardy outdoor clothing (brown and leather, like cowboys, is a strong theme). 

Ambushing a train is definitely easier with a spaceship…

With the liberal doses of Chinese swearing, frequent appearance of Chinese letters and plenty of Chinese-sounding names (like “Tam”), it got me thinking about Wuxia.

Wuxia, to clarify, is the most Chinese of all Chinese genres.  The term derives from ‘wu’ (‘military’) and ‘xia’ (‘chivalry’, ‘honor’) and that pretty much sums it up.  It’s all about honorable warriors, forced by an unjust society and their own moral code to live outside the law, wandering, protecting those close to them and righting wrongs in a dangerous, unexplored fantasy world, with kickass action, martial arts, romance, and themes of loyalty, friendship and honor thrown into the mix.

Sounds familiar, right?

OK, Mal and the crew are smugglers rather than wandering knights searching for wrongs to right. (Though, come on, space travel is perfect for the errant knight trope.  There’s a reason Star Wars drew inspiration from Bushido, Japan’s Sumurai tradition.)  Mal insists: “I do the job. And then I get paid”.  But there’s an awful lot of honor angsting going on beneath the surface.  Mal can brood with the best of them, and he even has his own unwanted morality Yoda in Shepherd Book.  This is actually important, as Wuxia’s obsession with chivalry often leads to the exploration of lots of moral grey areas.  For instance, how is it OK for the hero to decry violence against the innocent, then use it to the max in exacting revenge?  Or like the awful choice the crew make in Serenity.  You know the one I mean.

In fact, a lot of Firefly’s drama and character development is drawn from that tension between pragmatism and, essentially, honor.  Even Jayne evolves as a character, risking his life and developing actual loyalty to Serenity’s improvised family, despite his spectacular betrayal in Ariel.  

As for protecting the innocent and rebelling against evil governments, the whole show kicks off with the crew’s decision to shelter River and Simon from the Alliance.  Mal is only in his line of work because he needs to stay under the radar after a war won by a government he despises.  He is literally the idealist warrior on the run from his political enemies.

 Wuxia has also had doomed love down to an art for centuries.  The unresolved romantic tension between Mal (noble but poor warrior) and Inara (beautiful but unattainable lady) is familiar, as are the many burning looks, significant silences and emotional repression of Firefly’s romantic heroes.  Heroes getting in the way of their own happiness is, sadly, a universal trope.  (Can we blame honor?  I think we can.)  Still, at least we get a battle couple in Zoë and Wash.

The Final Frontier

Space as a setting is also a perfect stand-in for the traditional backdrops of both Westerns and Wuxias.  The essence of both is their unpoliced, vast landscapes where adventures can be had, morality can be played with and dog-eat-dog fantasies of survival of the fittest conflict with codes of chivalry.  Space ticks all the same boxes, despite the best efforts of the Alliance.

It also has all the potential for the unknown and fantastic of classic Wuxia epics, like Journey into the West.  (Europe’s a pretty weird-sounding place if you live in ancient China, you guys.)  Deep space evokes the same kind of awe and fear response in the Firefly ‘verse as, say, Mordor, giving the visit to Miranda a definite epic quest vibe, especially as the goal is to bring down a totalitarian government.

Interestingly, River’s nigh-on supernatural strength and telepathy is a mix of sci-fi (enhancements courtesy of the Alliance) and a hint of the magical.  Wuxia heroes routinely leap through the air (roof hopping), performing completely implausible aerial acrobatics during fight sequences as a matter of course, which sounds a lot like River.

More than that, River is a magical weapon.  She is the Deus ex Machina, discovering new powers and saving the day just in the nick of time, like the protagonist of a fighting anime.  You could read her story arc as the classic tale of a young hero learning to conquer her fear, master herself and join the fight for good, quite literally in Serenity.  She even eventually gets to fill the role of Young Apprentice (pilot) to the Old Master (Mal), a Space Karate Kid, if you will, after avenging herself and lost loved ones, of course.  No Wuxia or Western is complete without settling a few scores.

River kicking ass and taking names

To a newbie like me, Wuxia marries the tropes of Westerns with fantasy pretty well, though Wuxia is much older.  Maybe it’s something about the physical environment?  Vast, wild places must breed a certain kind of character and trope, wherever you are in the world.

And Firefly does a great job of making that apparent. 

Better still, Word of God has stated that the Alliance is a melding of Earth’s last superpowers: the USA and China.  (Check out their flag in The Train Job and Bushwhacked. Stripes for the US, stars for China.)  Hence the vestiges of Chinese culture (and the accusations of whitewashing.  I mean, what the hell, Whedon?  Not a single Asian actor in the main cast?).

The Alliance’s Flag

So it’s satisfying that Firefly matches its fusion of cultures with a fusion of genres.

If it’s a Space Western, it has got to be Space Wuxia too.

Originally published on the Whedonist blog and fansite.


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