Sunday, 15 January 2012

Borrowed Costume: Xiao Long Nu

Yang Guo raised his head; he saw a white jade hand lift the hanging curtain, a girl entered. The girl wore an old fashioned delicate white dress, it was as if her body was covered with smoke and mist, she looked like she was about sixteen or seventeen years of age. Apart from her black hair, her body was as white as snow [...] he thought that she was beautiful, but without comparison, exuding an icy and emotionless aura.
from Divine Eagle, Knight Gallant, Book One, Chapter 5, translated by "Noodles"

The white-clad Xiao Longnu is one of the main characters in Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha)'s Return of the Condor Hero (though it is more accurately rendered Divine Condor and his Heroic Companion or Divine Eagle, Knight Gallantas per the online translation of the novel). She is quite possibly the one of the most iconic characters of wuxia, especially given some rather consistent costume design throughout the many, many adaptations.*

Xiao Longnu is the leader of sect, the Tomb of the Living Dead. She is cold and dispassionate, cultivating a martial art that discourages any outward expression of emotions since an early age. She is the mentor and lover of Yang Guo, the non-avian titular character. The taboo nature of their relationship and their struggles with the disapproval of the pugilistic world fuels most of the plot, though the Mongolian invasion forms the backdrop to the story.

She is in many ways an archetypal Lady of War, being both hard as nails and characterised by her almost inhuman grace (she sleeps balanced on a tightrope). She can practically fly through her knowledge of the art of lightness and is, I believe, inspiration for many of the subsequent iterations of the trope in wuxia. That said, Jin Yong did largely found modern wuxia as a genre.

Divine Eagle is the second book of the Jin Yong trilogy, though it stands well enough alone. Depending on how you count (that is, if you exclude a certain slew of spin-offs made in the 90s), Divine Eagle is the most adapted of Jin Yong's wuxia novels. Like anything that has been extensively adapted, fans debate about which version was the best. The '06 version is probably the most accurate in the details and extravagant in production values (this fight is beautiful), though the '83 with Andy Lau and Idy Chan is probably the most beloved in Hong Kong. The anime is probably the most approachable since it periodically broken up by "footnotes" explaining the many of the underlying conventions of the genre (such as qiqinggong and pressure point strikes aka Touch of Death). The internet is also rife with comparisons on Xiao Longnu's various incarnations in the serials.

More than any of the other novels though, Divine Eagle is a love story, or love stories, even, as most of the characters are motivated by love. The Scarlet Immortal is primarily motivated by her deep hatred of her ex-lover (the book opens with her slaughter of his entire remaining family). The feud between the Taoist Quanzhen ("Complete Truth") Sect and the Tomb of the Living Dead come about due to the extremely repressed romance between their founders. Passionless Valley even has a poison that kills you when you think of the one you love.

Some of the plots do seem overwrought and melodramatic to the modern eye, and for a genre that is often sold on its fights, there is a lot more going on (and early tv adaptions certainly did not have the budget for hugely elaborate fights). Questions of the rejection of society (and societal judgement), the price of honour and patriotism come up. And, of course, as the frequently quoted poem asks: "What is love?" (Which makes it really very good inspiration for anyone seeking to run an Exalted game.)

The outfit is based predominately on the outfits worn by Liu Yifei in the 2006 version. It consists of three layers: a white sleeveless inner dress, a short lacy cross-collar top with long sleeves ending in lace cuffs and a large white robe. There is also a wide lace sash that is then secured with a white cord. Both this and Xiao Long Nu's costumes in the 2006 serial are quite interesting in how its very much it is a fusion of modern materials and ancient styles. Lace of the sort used for her cuffs, for example, was certainly not known in the Song dynasty. One of her variant outfits also features white cloth "petals" over her breast and some lovely white-on-white embroidery on her over robe.

Though we didn't make this costume (see here for the full story behind the shoot), it is possible to commission something like it (or something closer to any of the original Xiao Longnu robes from the various serials) from the Costume Mercenary. Email us for more details. Also, Character Kit sells an excellently weighted 38" larp-safe Chinese Jian (£50).

More photos of me pretending to be Xiao Long Nu under the cut.


* For those who have seen Kung Fu Hustle, Xiao Long Nu is revealed to be the name of the formidable Landlady (and Yang Guo, her husband). They appear in the subtitles as "Helen of Troy" and "Paris", which isn't quite the same.

My uncle's response to seeing these photos was an exclaimed "冷如霜" (literally, "cold as frost", a paraphrased quote from the novels).

Needless to say, cosplaying her is really rather vain.

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