Monks, Nuns, and *ahem* Celibacy in Wuxia: Part 3

I suggest reading Part 1 and Part 2

Wuxia writers are very comfortable with chastity; it’s really common in wuxia stories. Wuxia writers are also comfortable with characters being celibate for long periods of time, possibly a lifetime, especially if they are being celibate because their One True Love is not sexually available and they are too in love to have sex with anyone else.

What wuxia writers do not seem comfortable with are people who completely take sex, romance, the possibility of procreation, and even couplehood out of their lives.

Even though sexless marriage does happen in wuxia, it is never presented as an ideal state. At best, the characters are simply waiting for the right time to have sex and make a baby. And if the characters do not wish to have sex and babies together in the long run … then something is wrong with the marriage. At the very least, the sexless marriages are still a form of pairing up.

People who take monastic vows are not waiting for their One True Love or the ‘right time’ to have sex/romance/babies/couplehood. They are choosing a different path. Granted, people are generally allowed to leave Chinese monastic orders should they no longer wish to live that way, but most wuxia monks and nuns have no intention of leaving their order when they make their vows.

And this seems to be something which wuxia writers cannot seem to wrap their heads around.

Hence the monks who cannot control their sexual urges. While many lay male characters seem to be able to manage their sexual urges just fine, sexual urges are used to make it impossible for the monk to keep on rejecting coupling.

Hence the nuns who must be involved in romance. Wuxia writers generally cannot wrap their heads around female characters who have worthwhile stories which are not about romance, and so the nuns must have romantic entanglements.

I have pointed out The 36th Chamber of Shaolin as being an excellent exception – a monk whose story really does not have any sex or romance. But San Te is only allowed to choose to be without sex and romance because he’s doing it for his parents’ sake. In traditional Chinese culture, just about the only thing which is more important than getting a mate and making babies is respecting your parents. If San Te had kept his vow of celibacy because he lacked an interest in sex and romance, that would have been radical – but keeping his vow of celibacy because he is honoring his parents does not threaten traditional values (note: it is possible that San Te also lacks interest in sex and romance, but the movie does not state this – it simply does not bring up sex or romance at all).

While compulsory sexuality is at play here, as well as compulsory romanticism, I think the real crux is that everybody must get on the wuxia equivalent of the relationship escalator – while the wuxia escalator is, in my opinion, more flexible than the relationship escalator in mainstream American middle class culture, there is still this idea that everyone should wish for at least one established partner (both polyamory and extreme monoamory are common), and eventually make babies. People who take monastic vows are rejecting that. So the wuxia writers try to make it seem that it’s not really possible to keep those vows, or at least that it’s not possible to have a meaningful story about people who do choose to live without sex, romance, and pairing up.

I think there are many possible story-lines which can revolve around monks and nuns in which sex and romance do not come up at all. The fact that this is so rare in wuxia implies that wuxia writers cannot imagine a worthwhile story about a monk in which he actually keeps his vows, or a nun who has a life that is not centered on romance.

Speaking of vows, Buddhist monks and nuns also often (though not always) need to abstain from alcohol and meat. Breaking this vows is also a common theme in wuxia. It reminds me of something Swankivy wrote.

Now, I must say there is some truth to the depiction of monks having sex. In Asia, some sexual predators do become Buddhist monks to serve as a cover for their predatory behavior, and I’m sure there have been monks who have broken their vows of celibacy since forever. Likewise, there probably are nuns who have romantic feelings for other people since this is something which cannot be completely controlled.

However, I am also sure that, if 1% of all humans are on the ace-spectrum, then probably a lot more than 1% of monks and nuns are on the ace-spectrum. I do not know how many monks and nuns are aces because I am not aware of any research on this question. However, if I were an aromantic asexual in imperial China, especially if I preferred not to marry, I think joining a monastic order would be one of my best options.

Regardless of the character’s orientation, only telling stories about people who break their vows of celibacy erases the experiences of people who choose their celibacy and actually keep it. And while asexuality is not celibacy, there is a significant overlap between ace-spectrum people and people who voluntarily abstain from sex.


To the extent possible under law,
the person who associated CC0
with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring
rights to this work.

Monks, Nuns, and *ahem* Celibacy in Wuxia (Part 2)

I started this series just before I decided to leave Taiwan, hence the interruption. I finally continue this series. You can refer to Part One here

In the first part, I talked about male characters in monastic order i.e. monks. Now, its the nuns’ turn.

A poster for the 2009 version of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, a story which features a number of nuns/priestesses who take vows of celibacy.

A poster for the 2009 version of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, a story which features a number of nuns/priestesses who take vows of celibacy.

First of all, let me list stories where a nun did not keep her vow to stay celibate:

The Laughing Proud Wanderer
Spirit Sword (I do not think the testimony of the character who claims he had sex with a nun is entirely reliable, but for the sake of this post I will assume what he says is true)
The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (yes, it was rape, but her monastic order considered her to have broken her vow of celibacy because she refused to try to kill the rapist, so it goes on this list)

I find the case in Spirit Sword particularly interesting, because (if we believe what the male characters says) the nun is so devoted to Taoism that she could never fall in love with a person … yet she still wanted to experiment a little with sex.

Now, let me list the stories where a nun stayed celibate, but had a romantic entanglement of some kind:

The Laughing Proud Wanderer (this is getting on a lot of lists!)
The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (two-three characters from this story, depending on interpretation)
Sword Stained with Royal Blood/The Deer and the Cauldron
More Tales of the Flying Fox (I put this on the list because the nun’s main purpose in the story is be someone who the protagonist falls in love with, even though she does not reciprocate his feelings)

Iron Rider, Silver Vase (the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a much better story IMO) is an interesting case. Two characters had an arranged marriage, but neither of them ever had romantic feelings for the other. It’s never stated whether or not they ever had sex together. And the wife eventually decides she wants to become a nun, which ends the marriage. So, this nun never engaged in romance, and might never have engaged in sex … but her story still revolves around the fact that she was married to a specific guy, and nothing else.

There is a woman standing alone next to a horse in a field full of snow.

Book cover for Iron Rider, Silver Vase

Let me list stories I’ve read aside from Iron Rider, Silver Vase which feature a nun character who never engages in sexual or romantic activity as a nun:


So, just as monk stories tend to be about them breaking their vows of celibacy and experiencing sex, nun stories tend to be about them experiencing sex and/or romance.

The monk stories tend to emphasize the sex; the nun stories tend to emphasize romance.

So, are nuns romantified more than lay female characters? The answer is no … because almost every female character in wuxia is romantified.

In part 3, I’ll discuss what is underlying the fact that, in wuxia, monks have so much sex and nuns have so much romance.

Monks, Nuns, and *ahem* Celibacy in Wuxia (Part 1)

San Te's head is between two giant burning pieces of incense.

San Te, the protagonist of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, actually leads a celibate life without sex or romance.

This review of The Lady Hermit has this quote (emphasis mine):

She is also not above flirting with Changchun (Lo Lieh), whose relatively unsophisticated understanding of the female psyche is only rivalled by his inadvertent sex appeal that he dispenses as if he’ll be joining a monastic order tomorrow.

If you understand the part in bold, you have either read a lot of wuxia novels, or seen a lot of kung-fu movies.

Like their Catholic counterparts, Buddhist and Taoist nuns and monks are supposed to be celibate, and monastic characters appear a lot in wuxia / kung-fu fiction. So that means there are lots of celibate and not-participating-in-romance characters, right?

Not right.

To put the above quote in context, I am going to make a list of all of the wuxia/kung-fu stories I can think of with a) a monk who is actually celibate and b) no monks who are not celibate:

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Jiang Xue Xuan Shuang by Wolong Sheng.

In the first story, the monk is the main protagonist, and he does not have any sexual or romantic experiences during the whole story. In the second story, the monk is one of the 5 most important characters.

Let’s see a list of stories featuring monks who are not celibate:

Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils
Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero
A Deadly Secret
The 8th Bronze Man of Shaolin
The Laughing Proud Wanderer
Shen Diao Xia Lü
The Deer and the Cauldron

In other words, when a monk appears in a story, and he’s is a character who actually experiences his own personal journey and growth, there is a high chance that he is going to have sex or do something sexual – or in the case of The 8th Bronze Man of Shaolin, even insignificant monk characters are depicted pursuing sex.

In some cases, the focus is not on the sex itself, but on the fact that the monk sired a biological child, and the monk’s relationship with said child receives far more attention than the monk’s relationship with his sexual partner. This still means the monk’s story centers around something which would not have happened if he had kept his vow of celibacy.

A photo of Xu Zhu carrying a young woman on his back as he walks past a hill.

Xu Zhu, from Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, is one of the most famous examples of a monk who does not stay celibate.(screenshot from the 1997 TV series)

This is all the more striking because wuxia is known for its chaste heroes i.e. many male protagonists never have sex at all during the story.

Unless, of course, they are monks.

In fact, in wuxia/kung-fu fiction, when a monk who is under the age of 40 is significant in any way, I assume they are going to have sex (the sole exception I’ve encountered is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin). By contrast, I figure that a lay protagonist has a less than 50% chance of having sex during the course of the story, even if he is married. This is what the reviewer quoted above is referring to.

So far, I’ve only been discussing male monastic characters. Female monastic characters will be the subject of Part 2.


To the extent possible under law,
the person who associated CC0
with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring
rights to this work.