Beginner's Guide to Wuxia Part 1
What is Wuxia?
Simply put, Wuxia (武侠) is a genre of modern Chinese writing featuring the lives and adventures of martial artists. The stories are always set in ancient China, typically between the Tang and middle Ching dynasties (approximately AD 618 to AD 1800). The main attraction of the genre is the myriad of powerful martial arts, or kung fu, wielded by the story characters.
While Wuxia movies and television dramas tend to show protagonists capable of feats such as scaling tall buildings, shattering walls with one blow, or self-healing, it should be noted that Wuxia stories are not supernatural in premise. Gods, demons and monsters do not feature in them. Tropes such as inter-realm travel or non-human races also do not appear. In the parlance of modern Chinese writing, Wuxia is differentiated from Xianxia (仙侠). The latter being stories with supernatural elements.
Note: Xia (侠) is the Chinese character for chivalry and could be used as a suffix for many terms.
A Brief History of Wuxia
While Wuxia is recognised as a genre of modern Chinese writing, stories with similar premises have long appeared in Chinese literature. For example, the story of Nie Yinniang (聶隱娘), a female assassin, was written in the Tang dynasty. Various tales of citizen heroes upholding justice and righteousness were also penned during the Ming and Ching dynasties. However, the bulk of these were banned and destroyed by the disapproving Imperial Court.
Wuxia as a proper genre only came into prominence after the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the movement itself spearheaded by patriotic students calling for a new response to the world order. From this movement evolved a new form of literature, and progressively the Chinese world saw more and more works written in the Wuxia style. Such works peaked in popularity between the 1960s to the 1980s, fuelled both by the rise of popular Wuxia writers like Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng, and television and movie adaptations which were very well received. Of note, Wuxia stories from the 1960s onwards differ markedly in writing style from predecessors. These newer works are easier to read, and also include other storytelling elements like mystery, romance and political intrigue.
Kung Fu, the Heart of Wuxia
Martial arts, or kung fu, is the heart of Wuxia. With the noted exception of Jin Yong’s Duke of Mount Deer, practically every Wuxia story has a protagonist capable of astonishing martial art feats.
When adapted into movies or television dramas, these protagonists display wondrous abilities such as superhuman strength, extraordinary agility, or the ability to walk on walls and water.
In a way, this makes Wuxia characters similar to the meta-humans of American comics. However, it should be noted that Wuxia abilities are largely limited to physical prowess. Psychic abilities, such as hypnosis, do feature rarely, but never with the sort of formidability found in American comics. Wuxia characters are also never born with their abilities. They is no W-Gene, etc. Whatever they are capable of doing is the result of arduous and prolonged training. In this sense, Wuxia does not differ too markedly from actual martial arts learning.
Kung fu is actually the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters 功夫. In Mandarin, it is pronounced as gong fu.
Common Tropes in Wuxia Stories
Insurgency: Many popular Wuxia novels are set in the Qing Dynasty, and to a lesser extent, the Yuan and Southern Soong Dynasty. These were the centuries when China was conquered and ruled by foreign tribes. Stories thus feature martial artists gathering to resist invasion, or to overthrow occupying forces. Some of Wuxia’s most well-known characters hail from these novels. For example, Guo Jing (郭靖), Yang Guo (杨过), Lü Siniang (吕四娘), and Chen Jialuo (陈家洛).
Legendary weapons or skills: With kung fu being the heart of Wuxia, many stories naturally involve quests or conflicts for legendary weapons (兵器 bing qi in Chinese) and skills. In the case of the latter, it is usually some manual (秘笈 mi ji in Chinese) that records exotic or lost secrets of kung fu. Of note, legendary weapons in Wuxia do not possess magical properties. They are typically coveted for their smithing finesse, or are themselves keys to larger treasures.
Wulin dominance: Wulin (武林), or Jianghu (江湖), is the world of the martial artists. It encompasses all clans and sects, unaffiliated individuals, as well as all happenings between these characters and factions. Wuxia novels with this trope usually feature one clan or individual rising to the top through sheer kung fu superiority or ruthless machinations. The bulk of the story is then about the struggle to overthrow this tyrant. Typically with the “main hero” mastering some form of superior technique.
Vengeance: The trope of vengeance appears heavily in Wuxia stories. Usually, it is some conflicted individual seeking revenge for the murder of his clan or sect. Or the quest to redeem one’s honour after a mortifying defeat.
Wulin Intrigue: Outside of insurgencies, inter-faction struggles, etc, many Wuxia stories also examine the intricate relationships between their larger-than-life characters. Common sub-themes include love, rivalry, greed, and the burden of family name. The stories of Taiwanese novelist Gu Long are especially noted for their piercing insights about these humanly traits
The Three Masters of Wuxia
Whether in China, Taiwan or South East Asia, three writers are universally acknowledged as representative of the Wuxia genre.
Jin Yong (金庸, real name Louis Cha)
The undisputed grand master of the genre, Jin Yong’s sprawling epics have captured the imagination and love of the international Chinese community for over half a century. Many of his stories revolve around historical events in Imperial China, and some of his characters are so well-received they have become synonymous with Wuxia. Among his most celebrated works are the Condor Trilogy (射雕三部曲 she diao san bu qü), Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龙八部 tian long ba bu), The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖 xiao ao jiang hu) and The Duke of Mount Deer (鹿鼎记 lu ding ji). Till today, his works continue to be adapted into movies and television series regularly.
Liang Yusheng (梁羽生, real name Chen Wentong)
Like Jin Yong, Liang Yusheng’s stories frequently revolve around historical events and struggles. In fact, being a pioneer of the new school Wuxia genre, most readers acknowledge it was Liang Yusheng’s style that inspired Jin Yong. Liang’s stories are most famous for their strong female protagonists. Women who are not only formidable in skill, but also tower above male counterparts in courage and valour. His most famous characters include Lü Siniang (吕四娘), Lian Nichang (练霓裳) and Yilan Zhu (易兰珠). Several of his novels have also been adapted into movies and television series over the years.
Gu Long (古龙, real name Xiong Yaohua)
Taiwanese born Gu Long famously acknowledged that his prose would never match the quality of Jin Yong or Liang Yusheng’s works. And so he adopted a different approach. Gu Long’s works are entirely devoid of historical references. They are also dialogue heavy, and frequently his protagonists are misfits. Alcoholics, lechers, hermits and the likes of. Because of his colourful characterisations and dialogue heavy prose, Gu Long’s works are the easiest to adapt for movies and television, something which continues to happen regularly. By the way, Gu Long’s works are the most “matured” of all three celebrated masters. While there aren’t any explicit sex scenes, they do not shy from discussions of human sexuality.
Other Wuxia Masters
Other Wuxia writers include Wen Rui’an (溫瑞安), Zhuge Qingyun (諸葛青雲) and Wo Longsheng (卧龙生). In recent years, Hong Kong writer Huang Yi (黃易) also rose to prominence. Compared to older writers, Huang’s stories include science fiction elements, such as time travel, and his prose is markedly more modern. In the words of several Chinese publications, Huang injected fresh life into the Wuxia genre when it was declining in popularity. Like his predecessors, Huang’s most successful works were also adapted into television series.
Wuxia and Mass Media
The popularity of Wuxia as a storytelling genre, in fact, the recognition of it as a genre, is entirely the credit of mass media. Specifically, movies, television series, and radio readings.
The golden age of Wuxia lasted from the late 1950s to the 1980s. During the earlier part of this, many Chinese remain uneducated, so the novels themselves were wholly inaccessible. Thanks to movie producers, Rediffusion, and television stations like Hong Kong’s TVB, these stories were vividly brought to life for public consumption. In fact, many older Chinese are more familiar with the movie or TV version of these works than the original stories. Many older Chinese also tend to think of veteran actors both by their stage names, and the Wuxia characters these actors are most renowned for playing. This itself testifies to the symbiosis between Wuxia and mass media.
Shaw Brothers Studio
Special mention must be given to Shaw Brothers Studios, the Hong Kong producer responsible for many Wuxia / kung fu films between the 60s and 80s. Many of their “classic” films have been dubbed in English and are easily found today. Before modern masterpieces like Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger, Shaw Brothers Wuxia films have already introduced the world of medieval Chinese chivalry to international audiences.
Shaw Brothers Wuxia films are distinctive in several ways. While the studio did adapt many novels for the big screen, as equally many of their works were written specifically for the cinema. There was also an emphasis on “real” martial arts fighting. Many of their biggest stars were trained fighters, such Alexander Fu Sheng, Gordon Liu and Lo Mang. Most of all, Shaw Brothers movies had a distinctive element of “exploitation” in them. Female nudity occasionally appeared. Gore and violence were never shunned away from. Muscular male protagonists almost invariably fought bare-bodied. Something quite ridiculously, considering who would walk into a sabre fight without proper upper body clothing
In Hong Kong especially, it is common for television and movie adaptations of Wuxia classics to feature soundtracks by top artistes. The enduring popularity of these songs, many sung or composed by top musicians of the day, contributed much to the survival of the Wuxia genre.
Visit my Wuxia Glossary if you are already reading and watching these great works!
- Wuxia Glossary - Beginner's Guide to Wuxia Part 2
Bewildered by the many terms and names found in Chinese Wuxia stories? Here’s a glossary of terms, popular characters and legendary techniques for your reference!
Recommended Reading / Watching
Here are five works that I feel encompass the essence of Wuxia. For all of them, there exists translated text, television adaptions and movie versions.
Legend of the Condor Heroes (射雕英雄传 she diao yin xiong zhuan)
The first of Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy, the story narrates the adventure of rather dim, but absolutely kind hearted Guo Jing (郭靖). Born during the tumultuous years of the Southern Song Dynasty, bumbling Guo Jing won the admiration of several masters, eventually becoming one of the strongest in Wulin and joining the Mongolian army in their campaigns against the Jurchens. Read or watch this for a taste of Jin Yong’s skills in weaving historical events and characters into Wuxia fiction.
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖 xiao ao jiang hu)
Known as Swordsman in three movie adaptations in the 90s, Jin Yong’s The Smiling, Proud Wanderer does not reference historical events, but instead centres on the struggles between various factions in Wulin. Through these conflicts, Jin Yong makes a scathing commentary on the true nature of power alliances. (I once read a commentary stating Jin Yong was actually critiquing NATO) Read or watch this for its memorable protagonist, the alcohol-loving bum Linghu Chong (令狐冲). Read or watch this too for the most exotic kung fu techniques Jin Yong ever penned. Techniques such as the Black Hole Stance, the Nine Solitary Swords, and the horrible, horrible, Sunflower Manual.
Seven Swords (七剑下天山 qi jian xia tian shan)
One of Liang Yusheng’s most representative works, the novel itself could be confusing for the story is a continuation of several earlier titles. The various movie adaptations, however, did a reasonable job of condensing the story. I recommend Seven Swords, instead of other Liang Yusheng works like The Bride with White Hair, for it is a great summation of Liang’s style. There are strong feminine characters. The story is also set against the rise of the Qing Dynasty in China. Most of all, Seven Swords establishes the mythos for all of Liang’s works set in later periods. This is a useful, almost necessary reference, if you are to continuing reading his stories.
Chu Liuxiang (楚留香)
Chu Liuxiang is the protagonist in a series of novels by Gu Long. A Robin Hood of sorts, he steals to help the poor, and frequently also intervenes in Wulin matters to uphold justice. One of Gu Long’s most popular characters, if not the most, Chu Liuxiang is famous for his wit, charisma, and unmatched speed. In the 70s and 80s, he was frequently portrayed on television and in movies by Hong Kong actor Adam Cheng. Cheng was so successful with these portrayals that he became the semi-official face of Chu Liuxiang for life.
Lu Xiaofeng (陆小凤)
Lu Xiaofeng is another famous Wuxia protagonist under Gu Long’s pen. Like Chu Liuxiang, he is dashing, incredible popular with women, and fond of intervening in Wulin crises. Lu’s defining feature is his moustache, which gave him his nickname “four eyebrows.” Together with a band of capable friends, he investigates various Wulin conspiracies, including one that sought to assassinate the emperor. Lu’s signature move is his ‘Lingxi Finger' (靈犀一指). A miraculous technique which allows him to trap and immobilise weapons between his fingers. In the 70s, Lu was most famously portrayed on Hong Kong television by actor Damian Lau