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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.

History and Context

Earlier precedents

Wuxia stories have their roots in some early youxia (游侠) and cike (刺客) stories around 2nd to 3rd century BC, such as the assassination attempts of Jing Ke and Zhuan Zhu (专诸) listed in Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian. In the section entitled "Assassins" (刺客列传), Sima Qian outlined a number of famed assassins in the Warring States who were entrusted with the (then considered noble) task of political assassination. These were usually shi ke (食客) who resided in the residences of feudal lords and nobilities, rendering services and loyalties much in the manner of Japanese samurais. In another section "Roaming Xia" (游侠列传) he detailed many embryonic features of the xia culture of his day. This popular phenomenon continues to be documented in historical annals like The Book of the Han (汉书) and The Later Book of the Han (后汉书).

Xiake stories made a strong comeback in the Tang dynasty in the form of Chuanqi (传奇, literally "legendary") tales. Stories like Nie Yin Niang (聂隐娘), The Slave of Kunlun (昆仑奴), Jing Shi San Niang (荆十三娘), Red String (红线) and The Bearded Warrior (虬髯客) served as prototypes for modern wuxia stories, featuring fantastic, out-of-the-world protagonists, often loners, who performed daring heroic deeds.

The earliest novel that could be considered part of the genre was Water Margin, written in the Ming Dynasty, although some would classify parts of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a possible earlier antecedent. The former was a political criticism of the deplorable socio-economical state of the late Ming Dynasty, whilst the latter was an alternative historical retelling of the post-Han Dynasty's state of three kingdoms. Water Margin's championing of outlaws with a code of honor was especially influential in the development of Jianghu culture. Three Kingdoms contained many classic close combat descriptions which were later borrowed by wuxia writers.

Many works in this vein during the Ming and Qing dynasties were lost due to prohibition by the government. The ethos of personal freedom and conflict-readiness of these novels were seen as seditious even in times of peace and stability. The departure from mainstream literature also meant that patronage of this genre was limited, and stifled some of its growth. Nonetheless, the genre continued to be enormously popular, with certain full-length novels such as The Strange Case of Shi Gong (施公案奇闻) and The Romance of the Heroic Daughters and Sons (儿女英雄传) cited as the clearest nascent wuxia novels. Justice Bao stories seen in San Xia Wu Yi (三侠五义) and Xiao Wu Yi (小五义) incorporated much of social justice themes of later wuxia stories.

20th century

The modern wuxia genre of novel started in the early 20th century. Historians have attributed this surge to a psychological decry in response to the upheavals in the politics in China, starting with the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, followed by Dr. Sun Yatsen's new party Kuomintang, who gave way to the warlord Yuan Shikai. Yuan sought to re-establish a new imperial China and his dream proved to be shortlived. Inevitably Kuomintang decomposed through corruption and incompetence, which led to their ultimate eviction by the Chinese Communist Party. Laypeople found it more and more difficult to trust the so-called lawful establishments and sought a different world — a martial, somewhat underground one, which was governed by different rules and a different ethos. In the second half of the century, many educated and upper-class wuxia authors left the People's Republic of China; some were forced to leave after the Communists took control. Wuxia writing continued in earnest in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The Old School

Modern wuxia novels outlined values complimentary to Confucius' (551-479 BCE) teachings concerning the virtues of Ru (excellence, scholarship) but combined this with a willingness to use force. The codes of xia was often synonymous with Tao or Daoyi, belonging to the teachings of another Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, although the paths or ways prescribed in the 5000 odd words in the Tao Te Ching never advocated the use of force.

This was in sharp contrast to the unchanging style of talent-search bequeathed by the Confucius School for 2500 years of Chinese history, a system which advocated harmony rather than conflict. Some students of this period of history go as far as to say the value of xia (or xia yi) was the missing element of the Yin Yang of Taoism, indeed the missing component of ru jia, which Westerners know as Confucianism.

A parallel universe, the Jiang Hu world, was thus created in all of the wuxia novels, partly to engender acceptance of the alternative history thus propositioned. By the same reasoning The Water Margin and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms should not be seen as wuxia novels precisely due to the fact that they do not take place in a jianghu world.

The New School

The works of Jin Yong can be seen as yet another category in which actual historical backgrounds intermingled with the fictitious. Historically accurate Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty settings, including the Emperors and nobility of the day were woven into the storylines, e.g. giving a Han-lineage to the Manchurian Qing Emperor Qian Long.

Novels

Wuxia novels now constitute a highly popular fiction genre in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Wuxia novels, especially by eminent authors like Jin Yong and Gu Long, have a cult-like following there, not unlike fiction or science fiction in the West.

Important wuxia novelists include:

Many of the most popular works, such as most of the work by Jin Yong, has been repeatedly converted into films and TV series in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. In addition, the study of Jinyong's work has created an independent branch of study called Jinology.

Themes

Plot and setting

The modern wuxia stories are basically adventure stories with a strong dose of cultural and historical context. Plot differs largely from writer to writer.

A common plot typically features a young male protagonist (only two modern wuxia novels have detailed female protagonists) in ancient China, who experiences a tragedy (e.g. the loss of a family or an old master), goes through exceeding hardship and arduous trials, and studies under a great master(s) of martial arts, or comes into possession of a long-lost scroll containing unrivalled martial arts expertise. Eventually the protagonist emerges as a supreme martial arts master unequalled in all of China, who then proffers his skills chivalrously to mend the ills of the "Jianghu" world.

Another common thread would involve a mature, extremely skillful hero with an equally powerful nemesis with whom he has had misgivings, and the storyline would meander from the past to a final showdown between the protagonist and his nemesis, where the hero would eventually triumph.

The Deer and the Cauldron, the final novel by Jin Yong, is distinguished as an "anti-hero" novel that breaks all of the cliches above, and his anti-hero, the lazy, greedy, lewd, sycophant brothel-boy Wei Xiaobao, has become a cultural symbol of sorts, loved by some and hated by others. Other novels, especially those by Gu Long, create detective-type and romance stories in the setting of ancient China.

Philosophy of Xia

To understand the concept of xia from a Western perspective, consider the Robin Hood mythology: an honourable and generous person who has considerable martial skills which he puts to use for the general good rather than towards any personal ends, and someone who does not necessarily obey the authorities.

Foremost in the xia's code of conduct are yi and xin, righteousness and honour, which emphasize the importance of gracious deed received or favours (恩 ēn) and revenge (仇 chóu) over all other ethos of life. The importance of revenge is disputed, since a considerable number of xia are influenced by the powerful Buddhist martial arts, and therefore some of its philosophy, which stresses forgiveness and compassion. Nevertheless, this code of the xia is simple and grave enough for its adherents to kill and die for, and their vendetta can pass from one generation to the next until resolved by retribution, or, in some cases, atonement.

Jiang Hu

Jiang Hu (江湖) (Gong Woo), (literally means "rivers and lakes") is the wuxia parallel universe - the alternative world of martial artists and pugilists, usually congregrating in sects, disciplines and schools of martial arts learnings. It has been described as a kind of "shared world" alternate universe, inhabited by wandering knights and princes, thieves and beggars, priests and healers, merchants and craftspeople. It corresponds roughly to America's Wild West period, or to the era of the Book of Judges in the Bible. The best wuxia writers draw a vivid picture of the intricate relationships of honor, loyalty, love and hatred between individuals and between communities within this milieu.

A common aspect to jiang hu is the tacit suggestion that the courts of law or courts of jurisdiction are dysfunctional. Differences can only be resolved by way of force, predicating the need for xia and their chivalrous ways. Law and order is maintained by the alliance of wulin or wulin mengzhu, the society of martial artists. They are elected and commanded by the most able wuxia, who is usually (but not always) the protagonist of that novel (in a few films, such as the TV miniseries Paradise, the position is hereditary). This alliance leader is an arbiter, who presides and adjudicates over inequities and disputes. He is a de jure chief justice of the affairs of the jiang hu.

Martial arts

Although wuxia is based on true-life martial arts, the genre elevates the mastery of their crafts into fictitious levels of attainment. Combatants have the following skills:

  • fighting, usually using a codified sequence of movements known as zhāo (招) where they would have the ability to withstand armed foes.
  • use of qīnggōng (T: 輕功 S: 轻功), or the ability to move swiftly and lightly, allowing them to scale walls, glide on waters or mount trees. This is based on real Chinese martial art practices. Real martial art exponents practise qinggong through years of attaching heavy weights on their legs. Its use however is greatly exaggerated in wire-fu movies where they appear to circumvent gravity.
  • use of nèilì (内力) or nèijìn (內勁), which is the ability to control mystical inner energy (qi) and direct it for attack or defense, or to attain superhuman stamina.
  • ability to engage in diǎnxué (T: 點穴 S: 点穴) also known by its Cantonese pronunciation Dim Mak 點脈, or other related techniques for killing or paralyzing opponents by hitting or seizing their acupressure points (xué 穴) with a finger, knuckle, elbow or weapon. This is based on true-life practices trained in some of the Chinese martial arts, known as dianxue and by the seizing and paralyzing techniques of chin na.

Consistent with Chinese beliefs about the relationship between the physical and paranormal, these skills are usually described as being attainable by anyone who is prepared to devote his or her time in diligent study and practice. The details of some of the more unusual skills are often to be found in abstrusely written and/or encrypted manuals known as mìjí (秘笈), which may contain the secrets of an entire sect, and are often subject to theft or sabotage.

The fantastic feats of martial arts prowess featured in the wuxia novels are substantially fictitious in nature, although there is still widespread popular belief that these skills once existed and are now lost. A popular theory to explain why current martial arts practitioners cannot attain the levels described in the wuxia genre is related to the methodology of passing on the martial arts crafts. Only the favourite pupil of a master gets to inherit the best crafts but the masters tend to keep the most powerful or significant chapter to himself. Hence what we have today at the Shaolin or other schools are but a fraction of what they were centuries earlier. There is little evidence to support this claim.

Suspension of disbelief

Because the wuxia genre occupies a difficult-to-define position between pure fantasy and reality, and many tales are set in clearly defined historical periods, Western audiences may have difficulty accepting the conventions of wuxia genre, dismissing them as pure improbability.

Paradoxically, the Western audience readily embrace the concept of the Force in the Star Wars series or the superpowers of The Matrix and the superhero fantasy subgenre, or the magic in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or JK Rowling's Harry Potter. The difference can be explained by the general inconsistencies within the lineage of the novels. That is, insufficient background or ground rules have been detailed for the fantasies in the novel to be visualised by Western readers. With the exception of the works by Jinyong and Liang Yusheng, many wuxia novels are mono-dimensional, lacking the layering of elements that Western readers have come to expect from fantasy authors. Asian audiences understand the context of the "martial arts world" in which wuxia takes place, so such stories are self-explanatory in their own context.

With the works of Jinyong beginning to be translated into English, it is anticipated that western readers will begin to accept the some of the wuxia fantasies in the same way as they have with Tolkien's and Rowling's works.

Films

Wuxia film (or wuxia pian, Mo Hap film, Mo Hap Pin) (Traditional: 武俠片; Simplified: 武侠片; Hanyu Pinyin: ) is a film genre originating in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Because of its distinguishing characteristics (a historical setting, action scenes centred on swordplay, a stronger emphasis towards melodrama and themes of bonding, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal), this genre is considered slightly different to the martial arts film styles. There is a strong link between wuxia films and wuxia novels, such as those of Jinyong. Many of the films are based on novels; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an example of this.

The modern form of the genre has existed in the Pacific Rim region since the mid 1960s, although the earliest films date back to the 1920s. King Hu, working from Taiwan, and the Shaw Studio, working from Hong Kong, were pioneers of the modern form of this genre, featuring sophisticated action choreography with plentiful wire-assisted acrobatics, trampolines and under-cranking.

The storylines in the early films were loosely adapted from existing literature. Actors, actresses, choreographers and directors involved in wuxia films became famous. For example Cheng Pei-Pei and Jimmy Wang-Yu were two of the biggest stars in the days of Shaw Studio and King Hu. Jet Li was a more recent star of wuxia films, having appeared in the Swordsman series and Hero amongst others. Yuen Woo Ping was a choreographer who achieved fame by crafting stunning action-sequences in films of the genre. Mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou's foray into wuxia films was distinguished by the imaginative use of vivid colours and breathtaking background settings.

Wuxia was introduced to the Hollywood studios in 2000 by Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Following Ang Lee's footsteps, Zhang Yimou made Hero targeted for the international market in 2003, and House of Flying Daggers in 2004. American audiences are also being introduced to wuxia through Asian-television stations in larger cities, which feature well-produced miniseries such as Warriors of the Yang Clan and Paradise, often with English subtitles. With complex, almost soap-opera storylines, lavish sets and costumes, and veteran actors in pivotal roles, these tales can possibly appeal to Western viewers whether or not they catch the subtle nuances.

Wuxia film style has also been appropriated by the West. In 1986, John Carpenter's film Big Trouble in Little China was inspired by the visuals of the genre. The Matrix trilogy has many elements of wuxia, although the heroes and the villains of The Matrix gain their supernatural powers from a different source. Similarly, when Star Wars was released in the late 1970s, many Chinese audiences viewed it as a western wuxia movie set in a futuristic and foreign world.

Significant wuxia films include:

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