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The Wuxia genre

Last update: Saturday 15 July 2006

Articles about the wuxia genre.

Recommended readings:

The martial arts novel is one of the most distinctive and widely-read forms of modern Chinese fiction. It is popular not only within Chinese-language communities but in translation throughout East Asia and in cinematic and other adaptations throughout the world. In Paper Swordsmen, John Christopher Hamm offers the first in-depth English-language study of this fascinating and influential genre, focusing on the work of its undisputed twentieth-century master, Jin Yong.

Hamm traces the narrative and thematic roots of the martial arts novel from early literary traditions through the fantastic tales of the Tang dynasty and the vernacular fiction of the Ming and Qing periods. He then addresses the twentieth-century reinvention of the genre as a form of mass entertainment, and the geopolitical and ideological background of the "New School" revival of martial arts fiction in postwar Hong Kong. Heading this revival were the works of Jin Yong, who is widely credited with elevating the genre from the ghetto of formula fiction to new heights of literary accomplishment.

Through close readings of Jin Yong’s recognized masterpieces (from the early Book and Sword, through the ground-breaking Eagle-Shooting Heroes and The Giant Eagle and Its Companion, to The Deer and the Cauldron’s riotous subversion of the genre), Hamm shows how these works combine a rich literary tradition with an extraordinary narrative artistry and an evolving appreciation of the political and cultural aspects of contemporary Chinese experience. Interwoven with analyses of the novels are explorations of Jin Yong’s newspaper and publishing empire; the effects of his rising prominence as a journalist, entrepreneur, and political and cultural spokesperson on his fiction; and how his motivations and enterprises intersected with those of readers and critics in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China.

Impressive and comprehensive, Paper Swordsmen will be welcomed by students of Chinese literature, cultural studies, history, political science, anthropology, and comparative literature—as well as fans of martial arts fiction with an interest in the wider implications of the "Jin Yong phenomenon."

What is Wuxia?

Wǔxiá (also Wu Xia) (Traditional Chinese: 武俠; Simplified Chinese: 武侠; pronounced "woo seeyah") literally meaning "martial arts chivalry" or "martial arts heroes", from Mandarin Chinese, is a distinct genre in Chinese literature and cinema. Wuxia figures prominently in the popular culture of all Chinese-speaking areas, and the most important writers have devoted followings.

The wuxia genre is particular to Chinese culture, because it is a unique blend of the martial arts philosophy of xia (俠, "chivalry", "a chivalrous man or woman") developed down the centuries, and the country's long history in wushu. In Japan, samurai bushido traditions share some aspects with Chinese martial xia philosophy. Although the xia or "chivalry" concept is often translated as "knights", "chivalrous warriors" or "knights-errant", most xia aspects are so rooted in the social and cultural milieu of ancient China that it is impossible to find an exact translation in the Western world.