For as long as I can remember, martial artists in the movies have been defying the laws of physics, breaking boulders with their fists, knocking down giant trees with their feet, and slicing through steel with their swords, battling on—for good or for evil—until some slight advantage that the virtuous possesses reveals itself to triumph over the sins of greed and the forces of irresponsible power. Those were the movies of my childhood and youth, and the magic swords and extrakinetic abilities of the heroes and heroines seemed no more ridiculous to me then than lightsabres and Jedi “force-lightning” seem to fans of the Star Wars films now. But what raises the greatest indignation and even the ire of some is that the martial artists fly. Why do they have to fly? The answer is surprisingly reasonable: a primary goal of wushu (martial arts) and of its sister art, meditation, is harmony between the inner and the outer worlds, wherein neither the contingencies of the human nor the forces of nature would (pre)dominate. Levitation—moving through the air with ease—is a logical outcome when an equivalence and interchangeability exists between the human world and the natural world.
Flight has always been a part of the Chinese martial arts novel, and the earliest swordplay films in 1920s Shanghai were already fantastic spectacles of superhuman locomotion. But aerialism as an asset in the martial arts genres is not intended to escape earthly connections. Whereas Socrates used flight to portray the nature of the soul as superior to the body—the charioteer’s horse that is “fine and good and of noble stock…moves on high and governs all creation” as the soul, but the other horse, which is “opposite in every way,” sheds its wings and “falls until it encounters solid matter. and puts on an earthly body” (Plato 1973,50)—Laozi elucidated a requisite complementarity in which flight (exploration) is possible precisely because of rootedness (stability): “high and (be)low lean upon each other.”7 The problem, for modern audiences, is that levitation is easily assimilable to the Socratic kind of disembodied freedom reinforced in the late Victorian era, when bodies were simply not admitted into existence. This is not the aim of the women of wuxia, who do the work of the world and want the things of the world (including being with each other and with the men they love). The freedom they enjoy is that of mastering their actions so that these become magical—the wuxia heroines grow invisible wings to conquer all odds.8 Mary Russo (1994,11, 29) calls it “the aerial sublime,.. .a realm of freedom within the everyday” but also “an embodiment of possibility and of error.” Yuen Wo-ping’s Wing Chun has faith in the quotidian, in risk, and especially in the complementarity of flight and rootedness; in contrast, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon alternately laments the failure of one and then of the other.