Fake is relative: Eastern and Western Superheroes


“Dooood… that movie is soo fake.”

I have heard Westerners say this sort of thing too often about wuxia and kung fu cinema.  Flying swordsmen, wacky kung fu techniques, ninjas jumping backwards onto roofs – that’s just fake.

Yes of course it’s fake.  All movies are fake, except some documentaries.

The same Westerners who revile Eastern superheroes love the crap out of Superman.  They say they find Western superheroes completely plausible because they are less “stupid and fake” than the heroes of the East.

superman 3 - bastard swordsman
(1983 Super Guys: Christopher Reeve in “Superman 3”; Alex Man Chi Leung in “Bastard Swordsman”)
Superman @ denofgeek.com


Because I think Eastern superheroes are kewl, I used to argue passionately with those self-appointed members of the Western Superhero Defense League.  And I wondered why they feel so strongly about differences that seemed so irrational and unimportant to me.  The people I talked to could not explain themselves, so I tried to figure out the differences for myself.

It isn’t just because the heroes wear different clothes and look different.  It’s the Eastern superhero abilities – flying, jumping, running – that Westerners think are stupid.  There are different rules of “reality” in Eastern stories – rules that allow people to blast rays out of their bodies or fly.   So what are these rules, and what makes them different?

Allow me to yak about what I think might be going on.

In terms of cinematic storytelling, Eastern and Western rules of reality have radically different bases.  The rules, whatever they may be, must be perceived as valid reasons to suspend disbelief long enough to “believe” and enjoy a movie.  I love being told stories and have never had a problem believing that both Western and Eastern heroes can fly.  I am willing to believe just about anything in a story as long as it’s presented in a way that’s “believable” – that is, as long as the story rules are systematic and somewhat logical.

In modern Western storytelling, SCIENCE is the basis of belief.  Westerners love “scientific reasoning”.  If the reason a guy can fly sounds all scientific-y, heck yeah I’ll believe it.  Well, at least I’ll believe it long enough to forget real science and just enjoy the story.  Many modern (post-Enlightenment) Westerners think that religious faith, e.g. belief in miracles, is untenable.  Things like The Rapture is totally ridick to many Americans.  Science is tenable.  It’s reasonable.  It’s logical; it’s a thought process superior to all others, and it explains everything in our world.  So if we can somehow scientifically explain the very un-scientific things we love to believe – gods, superheroes, La Chupacabra, aliens who brought civilization to Earth – then we give ourselves permission to believe in those things.  “Jesus in a UFO in Hale-Bopp Comet” and “angels are actually aliens” are examples of our god-hungry, weak-minded love affair with pseudo-science.  It is interesting to google images of Superman and see just how many of us incorporate his symbolic self into our daily lives.

So the basis of Western superheroes is science.  Thus their super-abilities must be grounded in science.  Their physical bodies, with the notable exception of tech-geek Batman, have special powers that are created by some kind of abnormal scientific interference:  a spider bite (Spiderman); parents from another planet (Superman); an advanced military experiment gone awry (Wolverine); knowledge uploaded directly to the brain via computer programs (Neo, “The Matrix”).  To the Western mind, these bases for superpowers are believable storytelling.

Fair enough.  I’m an American; I can totally  believe and enjoy these kinds of “fake” stories.

Super Boy Towing Planets
Image @ Comicvine.com



In the wuxia and kung fu cinema of the East, there is NO SCIENCE.  The basis for superheroic skills is training and spirituality.  “Spiritual Kung Fu” is a bundle term that includes intense discipline and dedication to a life of specialized, often esoteric physical training; and mysticism that is focused on enhancing physical abilities.  It is the basis of the reality in wuxia films and is part of the shared reality of Jiang Hu / Gong Wu, the martial world of the popular novels and films of Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Once I wrote a review for Tong Gaai’s 1983 Shaw film “少林傳人/ Shaolin Prince” and ended up arguing with a bunch of dudes who hurt my iddle feelings by saying it is totally dumb and fake.  It comes down to this:  If you can’t suspend disbelief for spiritual kung fu then yes, it is dumb and fake.

Shaolin Prince - Ti Lung - Lee Hoi Sang - gravity
And also awesome as hell.



Eastern superheroes need a huge amount of determination and many years of intense, rigorous discipline and training to transform their scientifically un-enhanced selves into masters of light, speed, sound and gravity.  When their skill surpasses anything for which we could suspend our disbelief, sacred scriptures that hold mystical skill-boosting secrets are obtained, studied and mastered.  The skill booster in “Shaolin Prince” is the “Scripture of the Sinews”, which of course makes you have the most super-powered sinews in the world.  Sure, why not.  I enjoy believing these “fake” rules.

In wuxia stories, a person’s internal body is often altered by another person, usually an adept kung fu master. For instance, in “Zu Warriors” (1983) Yuen Biao’s veins are placed “in unison” by Adam Cheng.  Yuen suddenly becomes a “super fighter” the same way Neo would later in “The Matrix” when he says his famous line “I know kung fu”.  Until I understand what the hell “placing veins in unison” even means, I don’t really have the right to knock it.

Another belief that appears with some regularity is that a hero must combine his Yang male energy with the female energy Yin to become complete and invincible.  While this idea of balance and unity is not overly common, it does appear in many wuxia stories.  For instance, in “Bastard Swordsman” (1983), Tsui Siu Keung receives internal silk worm energy transfer from three women.  This harmonizes with his male energy and turns him into a whole, complete super ass-kicker.

NormanChu TsiuSiuKeung Bastard Swordsman
Silkworm power, activate!!
spider-man-web myfreewallpapers dot net
Here’s another totally fake guy who can
make insect string come out of his hands.

Eastern internal discipline has always seems vaguely “scientific” to me, and also seems pretty similar in essence to Wolverine’s surgery or Neo’s computer program uploads.   Hmmm, maybe it all symbolizes something…


In the Eastern imagination, the rules of discipline and spirituality are as valid as science.  Kung fu masters can do 12 butterfly twists, jump 13 feet in the air, and stack 14 guys on top of each other in an impossible pile because they have devoted their entire life to practicing esoteric martial arts.   When their inner qing gong skills get incredibly developed, they can fly.

Shaolin Prince - Tong Gaai - Dragon Formation - no gravity
What is more real:
The 18 Lohan Array
a guy with metal knife-bones that can suddenly sprout from his knuckles?

I can easily believe in the Lohan and Wolverine and the dude from “Full Metal Yakuza” (1997) as long as film makers tell the story right.  I can suspend my belief for kaiju fighting giant robots in “Pacific Rim” (2013).  I can believe almost anything, for the sake of being entertained.  To me, no rules are more “fake” than any others.  Because in the end, doood, they’re all fake.

Cinematic rules of reality are mainly cultural but they can also be a personal preference.  I happen to like the idea of training and mysticism a little bit more than the idea of science.  I guess I feel like when you worked your ass off that long and hard, you’ve earned the right to fly.

Shaolin Prince - Tong Gaai - Derek Yee - spinning
I also think the Shaolin Hall is much prettier than a laboratory.


Ultimately I don’t think Eastern and Western superheroes are very different.  They both try to live in honor, do the right thing, and fight for justice.  They both struggle to solve problems by using weird entertaining superpowers, and they both make the important hero journey.

When we are presented with brand new storytelling rules of reality, of course we don’t understand them.  It can be quite a shock to see people jumping backwards onto roofs when we can’t understand how they do it.  But “fake” is relative.  If the stories appeal to us, we can approach them with tolerance and an open mind to learn how these stories work.  If we can accept the rules, then any hero is free to fly, walk on water, summon winds or whatever he needs to do to add excitement, fun and wonder to the storytelling process. The imaginations of both Western and Eastern storytellers are filled with marvelous characters who can do marvelous things.  They may fly by different rules but in the end, they all fly high.



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