Why I think Martial World is one of the best martial arts novels everyone should try at least once.
Zhehai Zhang |
Tue Mar 23 2021 |
11 min read
Evaluation: What Martial World does differently
Imagine it is Ancient China. Amongst the billions of people living in this era, you are one of the poorest. Every day, the greatest struggle is not to get into your dream university, but how to put food onto the table for your grandparents. Wherever you go, the stink of your unwashed shirt and lack of status in the city is like a heavy anvil pressing down on you, forcing you to bow your head to corrupt officials and rich people, and your only option is to grit your teeth and endure the shame. That is, one day, you stumble upon a mysterious object by some obscure cornfield. It appears ordinary and can sell for a few bucks at your local flea market, but with some gut feeling you hold onto it. Later on, you realize that this “mysterious object” can actually teach something called martial arts, something commoners wouldn’t be able to get a hold of. With the help of the object, you are opened to a whole new aspect in life- by training in martial arts techniques, consuming pills and elixirs and undergoing tribulations, you can improve your health, increase longevity, and grow powerful enough to the point where you can split mountains with a strike of your hand. With this stroke of fortune, you are determined to become powerful enough so that no one can bully your family ever again!
This is the overall premise of a martial arts novel, where the protagonist embarks on a path of martial arts to fulfil their goal. Although martial arts novels may seem fairly niche, there’s been many popular novels and films based on Chinese mythology almost everywhere: Sun Wukong was in The Journey to the West, which was published in the 16th century, while Xingtian the General, Fuxi, and Nuwa appeared in Desolate Era, which was published in the 21st century. With such a common trope, most people tend to think that new novels based on martial arts are unoriginal and repetitive, which in turn lacks potential for the appeal to grow any larger for years to come. This begs the question: with such a competitive market for this type of genre, what makes a martial arts novel worth reading? Although it may seem childish and bizarre to readers initially, the martial arts novel Martial World, successfully brings out the best of its genre through logical storytelling, elaborate character development, and by having a distinct moral standing.
In any martial arts novel, the main character grows stronger through multiple tempering experiences and trials. While anyone can write a story of a protagonist beating the enemies senseless, how they go about doing it is more than meets the eye. Most martial arts novels cannot be covered easily in two or three books because of difference in power levels - to give a sense of how wide the gap is, the protagonist usually starts off as an ordinary mortal who can bench press their weight at most, and then at the end of the novel, they can be a sword-wielding god who can destroy Earth breaking a sweat. As a result of such a difference in power, the author needs to be very careful in their storytelling and plot throughout the books. What makes or breaks these novels are not the minute plot holes, but what you’d least expect: the overall goal of the protagonist. Before we take a look how Martial World avoids these pitfalls, we’ll take a look at another novel: in I Shall Seal The Heavens, Meng Hao is an ordinary scholar who failed his imperial exam three times. Out of the blue, he gets abducted into a martial arts school, where he realizes that in this world, it’s “the law of the jungle. All of my problems are because my cultivation base is too low” (Er 16). Due to how weak he is, he decides on his goal - he wants to become strong enough so he can defend himself, so that no one can look down on him ever again! While this type of goal seems reasonable at first glance, there’s actually a fallacy in this goal: while you beat the first aggressor after becoming stronger, there will always be someone stronger than you that you will have to surpass. While this type of plot is fine since readers get to see Meng Hao get stronger through fights and competitions, if the goal is centered around something that he will never achieve, readers will find the previously exciting climb to power boring and unoriginal.
Contrary to I Shall Seal The Heavens, the novel Martial World is an example of a novel that has an overall goal readers can look forward to. Lin Ming is initially a humble boy who was destined to marry his first love Lan Yunyue and then live happily ever after. That is, until a powerful and influential man named Zhu Yan shatters Lin Ming’s dreams, abducting her to be his fiancée, never to be his again. Hence, Lin Ming decides to embark on a journey of harsh cultivation and trials all in order to save Lan Yunyue. As a result, the readers are able to enjoy Lin Ming’s progression through the stages of cultivation in hopes of seeing that one day he will eventually become powerful enough to save his beloved. Solely based on a goal set by Ling Ming, Martial World distinguishes itself from the rest of the herd.
Cultivation in a martial arts world is filled with countless dangers and perils, meaning that if you make a single mistake, you could forfeit your life. While getting killed is obviously something you want to avoid, there’s something worse than death for cultivators - crippling your cultivation. After cultivators become powerful enough where they can live for thousands of years and live carefree with dozens of maids and concubines by your side, crippling their cultivation is destroying their martial arts - after being spoiled for so long, can you live your life as an ordinary mortal? If the main character in a martial arts novel wants to fulfil their goals, because of the dog eat dog world they live in, every challenge from an enemy is a life and death battle - they can never ever become crippled, they can never ever die, because then the novel would be over. As a result, many martial arts novels have one big flaw that is hard to overcome, and that’s character development. Meng Hao in I Shall Seal The Heavens is a prime example of a main character who never changes once for the better. When he initially enters the world of cultivation, Meng Hao admits that he “had no choice … but to rob some people to improve [his] cultivation base” (Er 14) in order to grow stronger. To the readers, this seems somewhat justified since Meng Hao is doing whatever he can to survive. However, as the novel goes on, regardless of how strong he gets, Meng Hao never stops stealing from others. In fact, Meng Hao manages to benefit from everyone at least once, and even those that did not do much harm to him. His shameless behaviour of stealing from others is portrayed as a “lucky chance” to get stronger, instead of it simply being a selfish personality. You would think that his behaviour would be corrected, but it’s due to the fact that whenever an enemy picks a fight with him, he’s always the one on top. Whenever there’s a tournament, he manages to snag the first-place reward. Meng Hao never truly experiences an actual “defeat” so he will never be able to learn from his mistakes. No one would want to read about a one-dimensional character who after thousands of years cultivating, can’t even make a mature decision.
On the other hand, we have Lin Ming in Martial World, who appears to be undefeated for a very good portion of the novel, and every success brings him to a higher cultivation level, up to the point where he’s able to protect the birth planet from invaders. However, one of his closest friends, Sheng Mei, ends up betraying him, essentially crippling him to a low-level martial artist who can only live for a couple of decades. This was Lin Ming’s first real defeat, and for the first few years he was simply an empty shell of a human - aimlessly wandering his home planet, just waiting for death. Eventually, Lin Ming comes to realize that “if the heavens wish to destroy me then I will destroy the heavens. If the death god wants to take me then I will cut down the death god” - and even if it means fighting one of his most trusted friends, Lin Ming will do whatever he can to save humanity from disaster. From his epiphany, at the verge of his death, Lin Ming makes one final attempt to break through, eventually surpassing his limits and ends up reclaiming a portion of his strength. Martial World taps into a new meaning the readers haven’t seen before - Lin Ming didn’t become powerful because of fate or some magic treasure, but because he is hardworking and is resolute in his decisions. Through character development, readers can connect with an ever-changing protagonist that they will come to love as the novel progresses.
While martial arts novels are complete fantasy, a good martial arts novel should be able to convince readers that there is something more than just a hot-blooded adventure. Since most people read these novels because they want to project themselves as the character experiencing this journey, these protagonists should also be good role models - in the sense where they have a clear set of ethics. A common misconception people hold is that the protagonist is always the good person. Typically, it is the case, but there are situations where the moral ground gets a little dicey. For example, in True Martial World, Yi Yun is actually from modern day Earth and gets transported to the martial arts world. He ends up in a very poor state, and is treated very poorly by the village higher ups, but once he becomes one of the knights of the central city, a bodyguard of Yi Yun’s archnemesis switches sides and tries sucking up to Yi Yun by helping him beat up his enemies. While this seems like an act of redemption for what he used to do, the people that the bodyguard beat up didn’t really do enough harm that can be considered downright evil. Yi Yun doesn’t move to correct the bodyguard’s behaviour, which shows how much of a hypocrite he is - despises those who hurt him, but ignorant of those he hurts. Moreover, Yi Yun originated from the 21st century, a time where morals play a big factor, which reinforces the fact that Yi Yun truly doesn’t care about what happens around him as long as he and his family are safe, making him a shallow character who doesn't see the bigger picture. Many readers will be conflicted when reading because while they want to root for the good guy, Yi Yun isn’t particularly good, making him less appealing for readers to look forward to as he advances in his cultivation.
Comparing this to Martial World, Lin Ming has set himself some standards in which he follows no matter what: “In my life, my principles have never changed. If someone gives me one foot of respect, then I shall give them 10 feet of respect. If someone punches me, then I will stab them with three sabers. Whoever dares to harm my friends and family, then I shall annihilate nine generations of their entire family” (Li, “Martial World” 703), which is a great life lesson in itself. More importantly, this gives the reader a better impression of the protagonist, where they can rest assured knowing that anyone Lin Ming kills or cripples deserves it wholeheartedly. By defining a moral stance, Martial World gives readers a sense of trust knowing that the person they’re rooting for really is doing the best they can to fulfil the goals they’re aiming for.
To an outsider, martial arts novels seem like they are all about the same thing - growing overpowered, and then defeating your foes in a spectacular manner. Although this is true, the thrill you get from watching the Ling Min’s hard work pay off, the moments of despair when he loses his most loved ones, and the thoughtful lessons he manages to perceive on his journeys is what separates his story from others. At the end of the day, “fantasy and reality are polar existences of each other, and yet dependent on the other. Without fantasy, there is no point in reality. Without reality, fantasy has no meaning” (Li, “Martial World” 183), so regardless of what martial arts novel you’re reading, even if it isn’t Martial World, as long as it’s entertaining, that’s all that matters.
Er, Gen. I Shall Seal The Heavens. Translated by Deathblade, Qidian, 2017.
Jietuo, Enci. Apotheosis - Ascension to Godhood. Translated by zzwenxue, 2019.
Lǐ, Cánjiǎn. Martial World. Translated by hyorinmaru, Qidian, 2018.
Lǐ, Cánjiǎn. True Martial World. Translated by CKtalon, Qidian, 2019.
Wu, Cheng'en. The Journey to the West. Print, 1977.
Zhu Zhi. Desolate Era. Translated by RWX, Qidian, 2017.