Wuxia

Martial arts, epic tales of adventure, dark criminal underworlds, and righteous justice. These are the fantasy stories you may not be familiar with. In China, however, wuxia is a phenomenon. 

Wuxia Wuxia

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    With heroes rising against oppressive forces, fighting for the common man, and embarking on enlightening moral journeys, the world of wuxia is both intense and complex. These thrilling fantasy narratives have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years; let's read on to learn about their definition and history.

    Wuxia: definition

    Wuxia is a form of Chinese popular fiction which follows the lives and adventures of martial artists.

    The word wǔxiá (wuxia) is made up of two words: , which means 'martial' or 'military', and xiá, which translates to 'hero', or 'chivalry'. Wuxia, as a whole, roughly translates to 'martial hero'.

    Wuxia, Shaolin Temple Wushu, StudySmarterFig 1. This image depicts Shi DeRu and Shi DeYang, two grandmasters of the Shaolin Temple. They practice Shaolin Wushu (Shaolin martial art), Many wuxia narratives are based upon this style of fighting.

    It's so difficult to find a 'perfect' translation of the word 'wuxia' because the stories of the xiá are embedded in Chinese popular culture, and have narrative roots dating back to Ancient China. The genre originated as fantasy literature, but its intense popularity has led to an extensive range of adaptations, including video games, dramas, operas, and films.

    Wuxia stories usually depict heroes of lower social class rising against oppression, tackling injustices and righting social wrongs. Martial arts are an important part of all wuxia tales – a character will use these skills as they are tried and tested, and will emerge a powerful hero at the end of the narrative.

    It can be helpful to relate the xiá to the story of Robin Hood. Both stories feature a hero with immense skill who fights for the benefit of the poor over the rich and doesn't always listen to authority.

    Wuxia: history

    Although the term 'wuxia', as a form of popular literature, is a recent conception, similar tales and legends have existed in Chinese literature for millennia. As the narrative tropes are so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, it's difficult to define when the genre began. Some stories that bear resemblance to modern wuxia date back as far as 300-200BCE.

    In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), what is considered the first wuxia novel, Water Margin (date uncertain), was authored by Shi Nai'an (1296-1370).

    Water Margin was an important landmark for wuxia as a genre. It was extremely influential in its portrayal of a group willing to be outlawed over cooperating with a dishonourable government.

    Within the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), detective novels, wherein the martial hero would solve crimes and battle injustices became popular. This developed the themes of social injustice that are commonplace in many contemporary wuxia narratives.

    Many examples of Wuxia were lost during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This is because the government outlawed the genre, as it was believed to provoke rebellion against the government. Despite this, the genre was still immensely popular with the lower classes.

    'Wuxia' was first popularised as a term in 1919. Chinese literature was evolving in response to social change, and the xiá became associated with individual freedom, meaning many were looking for a new way to define the tales of the martial hero.

    Between 1960 and 1980, modern wuxia soared in popularity, and entered what is now referred to as its 'golden age.' The genre remains extremely popular today, with many works of literature being converted into TV and film. The digital age has also allowed wuxia to circulate the world, helping to maintain its popularity well into the 21st century.

    Wuxia: world

    Although Wuxia narratives can be set in the present or the future, the most common setting for the stories is a fictionalised Ancient China. The fantasy world that many Wuxia stories inhabit is known as the 'Jianghu'.

    Jianghu translates to 'rivers and lakes', and refers to the environment that Chinese Wuxia stories use as their setting.

    There are no concrete features of the Jianghu setting. The conventions of the land can be adapted to suit the author, but it is commonly stated to be an alternate universe that exists alongside the real historical China.

    Wuxia writers acknowledge that they can't capture a historically accurate version of Ancient China in their work. The stories are frequently symbolic, and the tales are often more concerned with characterisation than the historical setting. This makes Jianghu the perfect setting for Wuxia narratives, as although the setting closely resembles Ancient China, the world can be adapted and twisted to suit the narrative.

    Jianghu is associated with the underworld – a sub-society closely related to, but different from, the Chinese mainstream. The law is often non-applicable in this world, with rebels, bandits, and outlaws ruling the streets. Order can only be maintained through righteous heroes who act out of their own moral codes.

    The term 'Jianghu' transcends the Wuxia genre. It is used to describe real-life lawless societies, like mobs and gangs, who apply the term to describe their hidden crimes. In Western society, the Jianghu is equivalent to the 'criminal underworld.'

    Wuxia: novels

    Let's look at some of the most important wuxia works.

    Water Margin (date uncertain)

    Water margin is the earliest example of what is now known as wuxia, and is considered as one of the four core works of classical Chinese literature. It tells the account of 108 outlaws, gathering at the base of Mount Liang, hoping to rebel against a corrupt government that has framed them as bandits.

    The group is hoping to receive amnesty, meaning their criminal status will be dropped, and they can continue to serve their country without fear of being persecuted.

    Upon receiving amnesty, the group is sent across China to wage battles with invading forces. After many conflicts, only 27 of the 108 are left alive. Many of the men leave to begin a quieter life, and the two men who accept an offer of leadership from the emperor, Song Jiang and Ju Junyi, are murdered by corrupt officials, who believe that they are bandits. The men receive no punishment for their crimes, but Song Jiang and Ju Junyi are worshipped and revered in China from then on.

    Water Margin deals with the theme of a corrupt government, a concern that many wuxia writers would address in later works. It also pioneered the concept of the Jianghu (criminal underworld), where laws don't apply, and the world is run by corruption.

    The works of Jin Yong (1924-2018)

    Jin Yong is the most popular wuxia writer of all time. Over 100 million copies of his work have been sold worldwide. His narratives have the ability to cross cultural barriers, and at the time of his death in 2018 Yong was the best-selling Chinese author.

    Yong wrote 15 works in total, with 14 being full-length novels. Despite being initially featured in newspapers, his novels, such as The Book and the Sword (1955), The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1957), and The Return of the Condor Heroes (1959), have been adapted into feature films numerous times.

    Wuxia, Jin Yong statue, StudySmarterFig 2. This sculpture of Jin Yong (1924-2018) resides on Taohau island in the Zhejiang province of China. It reflects Jin's status as one of China's most popular writers.

    Much of Yong's work is concerned with the Chinese spirit and strength. His novels celebrate national identity, teaching about culture, values, and history. He often tracks the growth of a character from childhood to adulthood as they progress on their martial journey. Yong is also concerned with the relationship between citizens and government, and emphasises loyalty, morality and righteousness within his work.

    Wuxia: drama

    Wuxia has also been adapted into a range of influential television and film dramas. The Chinese government banned the genre from cinema in the 1930s to protect the youth from moral corruption. Despite this, wuxia was popularised again in the 1960s, pioneered by influential directors like King Hu and Chang Cheh.

    Works like Dragon Inn (1967), One-armed Swordsman (1967), and A Touch of Zen (1971) are cited as extremely influential, featuring the corrupt government and journeys to enlightenment familiar to wuxia literature.

    Wuxia - Key takeaways

    • Wuxia is a genre of Chinese fantasy fiction, made up of the words 'wu', meaning 'martial', and 'xia' meaning 'hero'
    • The stories feature, martial arts, corrupt governments, fights against oppression, and personal growth.
    • The world of wuxia is known as Jianghu, an alternate underworld that mirrors ancient China, but allows outlaws to roam free and rules to be bent.
    • Water Margin is seen as the first work of wuxia fiction, as it helped to pioneer the concept of a corrupt government and a world separated from conventional law.
    • Jin Yong is the most famous wuxia writer of all time. His work has frequently been adapted into television and film.

    References

    1. Fig 1. Shi DeRu and Shi DeYang (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shi_DeRu_and_Shi_DeYang.jpg) by Dr.Abdullah Al Noman (https://bn.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%A6%AC%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AF%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%B9%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%80:Dr.Abdullah_Al_Noman) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
    2. Fig 2. Sculpture of Jin Yong (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sculpture_of_Jin_Yong.JPG) by Clestur licened by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Wuxia

    What is wuxia?

    Wuxia is a form of Chinese popular fiction which follows the lives and adventures of martial artists.

    What does the word wuxia mean? 

    The word wǔxiá (wuxia) is made up of two words:

    which means 'martial' or 'military', and xiáwhich translates to 'hero', or 'chivalry'. Wuxia, as a whole, roughly translates to 'martial hero'.

    What is wuxia drama?

    Wuxia drama relates to wuxia that has been adapted for film, television and theatre. Works like Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971) are good examples of wuxia in film.

    What is wuxia and xianxia? 

    Wuxia and xianxia are two genres with lots of similarities, but subtle differences. Xianxia is more focused on fantasy than wuxia. While wuxia may feature a protagonist performing incredible feats grounded in the real world, xianxia is focused on magic, immortality, and otherworldly feats.

    What is wuxia novel?

    Wuxia novels refer to the works of literature that define the genre, like Water Margin, The Book and the Sword, and Condor Heroes.

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