Young and dangerous(ly traditional): reading Guangong and the act of obeisance in Hong Kong films since 1986.

Author:Sondergard, Sidney L.

The cycle of Triad/gangster films that began with John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986), a cycle with roots in the literary tradition of the sanguo yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and the shui hu zhuan (The Water Margins) as well as in the reality of Triad presence in the business end of the Hong Kong cinema industry, (1) has since expanded into a discrete cinema genre sometimes characterized as "Triad Boyz or rascal movies" (Stokes and Hoover 86). (2) The genre paradoxically portrays the criminality of young men and women who are simultaneously presented as essentially Confucian in their affirmation of filial piety, justice for the vulnerable, and exemplary leadership. Yet the ubiquitous visual cue of righteousness and traditional values within this genre--that also celebrates rebellion and independence regardless of the legality of characters' actions--is the iconic act of obeisance to the deified Guan Yu (166-220 C.E.). This image figures prominently at the site of on-screen shrines, public and private, in Hong Kong films as the cultural product of semiotic coding that conflates values associated with all four facets of Guan as a cultural sign. Guan Yu is the historical general who served Liu Bei and the political aims of the kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period (220-265 C.E.); Guan Yunchang (Guan Yu's style name, reserved for use by intimate friends), the oath brother of Liu Bei (Xuande) and Zhang Fei (Yide), is the literary figure glorified in Luo Guangzhong's sanguo yanyi as an exemplar of loyalty and of warrior skill; Guandi is the imperial title conferred on Guan Yu by Ming emperor Wanli in 1614, also designating him a deified figure, the god of war, though Guandi is now frequently conflated with Caishen, the god of cash, and Guangong ("Lord Guan"), who is a synthesis of the other three, an apotheosis of the moral and martial ideals modeled in the sanguo yanyi.

While the semiotic concept of iconicity is ordinarily communicated to a viewer/reader via a relation of resemblance through which an icon "means" what it explicitly seems to represent, Ravi S. Vasuvedan has argued that in film, iconicity may reflect "a meaningful condensation of image" which facilitates "the articulation of the mythic" within cinematic narratives, as discrete cultural codes function collectively to "bind a multiply-layered dynamic into a unitary image" (137). Hong Kong cinema's emphasis on the Guangong facet of this particular cultural icon, with his guandao halberd, ruddy cheeks, and flowing beard prominently on display, is a narrative device employed for thematic reinforcement rather than solely a reflection of some kind of shared cultural subjectivity or tacit evidence that Guangong is meaningful to the Chinese people primarily as a "god of war." Public images of Guangong in China often emphasize his moral over his martial virtues by shifting emphasis in his icon from the guandao to his long beard, as we have observed, for example, in the large porcelain statue of Guan Yu displayed at the Battle of Red Cliffs Museum, Chibi; in the bronze statue and the diorama effigy of Guan Yu at Longzhong, the site of Zhuge Liang's thatched cottage; or in the stone murals illustrating Guan and his oath brothers, located in the city alleys of Xinye, near Xiangfan. (3) Significantly, crime films since the mid-1980s have exploited a fundamental moralism associated with Guan Yu as a cultural figure who was conversant in the principles of classics such as The Spring and Autumn Annals, (4) employing images of Guangong effigies that give equal emphasis to the guandao, signifying martial superiority, and to the beard, signifying the cultivation of an idealized ethics of behavior.

In the following essay, we will explicate this dual nature of the Guangong icon and its implications as an adaptive cultural signifier in Hong Kong Triad and gangster films. Showing it to be multivalent in its potential for communicating non-verbally to audiences the qualities of police officers and of conventionally "good" characters, as well as the values of Triad members and other associates of the criminal underworld, we will demonstrate that its narrative function is essentially metaphorical rather than merely iconographical. The presence of Guangong effigies and shrines in Hong Kong films is less an endorsement of the values associated with Guan Yu per se than an index of how individual characters who do obeisance to Guangong--or who feign obeisance--are to be interpreted within their discrete film narratives. The appearance of the Guan icon, no matter how fleeting, always functions as a cultural referent that cues the audience how to decode particular character motives. Long before a film's final delivery of exposition or of plot denouement, its network of character interactions with, or juxtaposed with, Guan images (e.g., in terms of proxemics as well as of specific contact/rejection) provides the interpretive key to audience members wishing to read the hearts of protagonists and antagonists.


The Guangong icon derives its most influential and traditionally pervasive cultural signification from the sanguo yanyi and its range of paradigmatic episodes that have helped to shape the values popularly associated both with the deified Guan Yu and with jianghu, or the brotherhood of rivers and lakes, a counterculture existing outside traditional Confucian society and comprised of figures from hermits to political refugees or other figures unjustly persecuted as criminals--the ideological and folkloric topography from which the Triads would eventually emerge. Elucidation of these fundamental values associated with Guangong, specifically including among them the virtuous behaviors drawn from the zhouli, the Zhou Book of Rites, can assist viewers of Hong Kong films in appreciating why both police officers and criminals may be portrayed as morally upright individuals.

These archetypes include the peach garden oath of brotherhood that binds Liu Bei (Xuande), Zhang Fei (Yide), and Guan Yu (Yunchang) to pledge their lives to the restoration of the Han (chp. 1), demonstrating you [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], sincerity in friendship; (5) Lord Guan's martial mastery as typified by his defeat of General Hua Xiong and his return with Hua's head before the heated wine offered Guan by Cao Cao has a chance to cool (chp. 5); Lord Guan's unswerving loyalty to Liu Bei despite Cao Cao's best efforts to draw him into his own service through bribes and kindnesses (chps. 2526), demonstrating xiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], filial respect, and yin, love of kindred, (6) for his metaphorical father/elder brother; Lord Guan's skill and perseverance in escorting Liu Bei's wives 1,000 li to be reunited with him, slaying six of Cao Cao's generals in the process (chp. 27), demonstrating ren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], endurance on others' behalf; Lord Guan's sense of personal obligation for past benefits that convinces him to release Cao Cao even at the cost, potentially, of his own life (chp. 50), demonstrating xue, or charitable compassion; Lord Guan's unparalleled braveness in undertaking Hua Tuo's cure of his wound from a poison arrow, calmly playing a game of chess while the doctor opens his arm with a knife and scrapes free the traces of poison that had penetrated all the way to the bone (chp. 75); and during Lord Guan's manifestation to the monk, Pujing, where the monk assists him in understanding that his death reflects karmic justice (chp. 77), Guan exhibits mu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a harmonious sense of peace in recognizing the just quality of his fate.

Hong Kong filmmakers index these virtues through juxtaposition of the Guangong icon with their characters, which in crime films yields examples of both the noble criminal and the noble policeman. For example, while no sympathy is generated for the tyrannical kidnapping victim in director Taylor Wong Tai-loi's Sentenced to Hang (1989), his three kidnappers, Li (Tony Leung Kar-fai), Ma (Kent Cheng Chuk-see), and Tang (Elvis Tsui Kam-kong), are introduced nostalgically in the film as childhood friends: following a shot of a menacingly top-lit Guangong effigy, the three boys make obeisance with sticks of incense and take their own version of the sanguo yanyi's peach garden oath, swearing in demonstration of you their intention to die on the same day--but unlike the oath in the mythos, when these three are eventually hanged for their crime, their pact is fulfilled, their mutual fidelity both respected and lamented by audiences. On the other hand, in an example reminiscent of Guan Yunchang's defeat of any number of wicked opponents in Luo's novel, when Inspector Li (Danny Lee Sauyin) in John Woo's The Killer (1989) finally captures Eddie (Tommy Wong Kwong-leung), a vicious criminal willing to kill innocent bystanders in order to make his escape, a close-up of Li's face dissolves into the image of Guangong. The superimposition of the Guan effigy on his features externally signifies his inner spirit and acknowledges the formidable skill he exhibited in the arrest.

Just as the sanguo yanyi is a narrative composite of myth and history, the actions of characters in the Hong Kong films that reference the Guangong icon are influenced both by the external cultural heritage of the Guangong mythos and by their own narrative historicity. The Guangong icon, then, can be both superimposed non-diegetically onto the film narrative and incorporated into the narrative thematically. An example of the former from the Triad perspective appears in director Wong Ching-po's Jianghu [Rivers and Lakes] (2004), as a visual image of a small shop's shelves of Guangong effigies, without segue or other diegetic contextualizing, follows the ren promise from Left Hand/Lefty (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) that he will remove the threat of three rival bosses and their crime families to his own boss...

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