Wuxia is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. It is exemplified by stories that combine martial arts, spiritual growth, and supernatural abilities.
The wuxia genre was developed in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and matured in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
Even though wuxia fell out of favor after the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), it has never completely disappeared.
Some scholars believe that the wuxia genre may have peaked during the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1522–1566).
Over the years, Wuxia has evolved into a genre of literature, film, television and video games that revolves around the adventures of martial artists in ancient China.
Let’s take a look!
What Is Wuxia?
The word wuxia is a compound composed of xia, meaning “chivalry” or “martial hero” and wu, meaning ‘martial arts’.
Wuxia films are also known as chuanqi (pinyin: chuánqǐ), which are heavily influenced by legends of the Song military figures who rebelled against the Mongol Yuan dynasty.
Wuxia films often contain elements including martial arts battles, historical themes and sometimes supernatural occurrences.
The wuxia genre has been popular in Chinese cinema since the 1990s after a long period of being suppressed for political reasons.
Since then it has also become increasingly popular in other parts of East Asia such as Japan and South Korea where it has been used as inspiration for manga and anime.
History Of Wuxia Novels
The Wuxia genre of Chinese fiction has a long history. The first wuxia novels were written in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The early novels were usually based on legends or historical events, but over time they began to rely more on imagination and fantasy.
There were many different genres of Wuxia novels, including Xuanhuan (Journey to the West), Dongxian Xiaoshuo (Chivalry Romance) and Daojiao Xiaoshuo (Taoism Romance). These novels were often very popular among readers.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), some scholars wrote philosophical works such as Dream of Red Mansions and Journey to the West that are still widely read today.
Many well-known works were created in this period, including The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber by Jin Yong.
In modern times, the genre has continued to evolve into new forms such as Hong Kong action films which have become popular worldwide.
History Of Wuxia Films
Wuxia films are a subgenre of Chinese martial arts films and Hong Kong action films that features a unique cinematic style known as “wire fu”.
Wuxia films were made popular in the Chinese-speaking world by such directors as Chang Cheh, King Hu, Lau Kar-leung, and Yuen Woo-ping.
These films have been noted for their fluid and graceful combat sequences, which often showcase the use of acrobatics and kung fu skills.
The first wuxia films were made during the 1920s by two studios: Manhua Film Company, led by Wong Jing and Jin Shanzhuo; and Lianhua Film Company, led by Yuan Muzhi (director), Zhou Jianyun (composer), Xu Lichen (actor) and Cai Chusheng.
Among them were early works such as The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928) directed by Lai Man-wai and The White Snake Legend (1930) directed by Bu Wancang.
Wuxia films began in China in the 1920s with the arrival of Western cinema and actors from Europe and America.
The first Chinese action film was The Burning of Red Lotus Temple (1928), directed by Li Minwei.
This film was inspired by Western adventure movies such as D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919).
Li Minwei also directed The Burning of Red Lotus Temple 2 (1930), which was influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling movies like Robin Hood (1922).
In 1941, the Hong Kong film industry was officially established with the release of The Butterfly Lovers or Zhuajiao Nvrenxingtong.
The genre’s popularity in Hong Kong dates back to the early 1960s when Cantonese opera performers such as Yu Lee-fei and Yueh Hua began making movies such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), which featured a number of swordfighting scenes.
Later, Chang Cheh, a prominent director known for using a lot of violence and blood in his films, directed what is considered the first wuxia film, One-Armed Swordsman (1967).
The film was not only an international success but also established him as one of Hong Kong’s most important directors.
Wuxia In The 20th Century
In the late 19th century, China was going through a period of change. It was moving from an agrarian society to one with more commercialization and industry.
Many people migrated from the countryside to cities for work, leaving behind the traditional ways of life.
The Chinese government tried to modernize their country by adopting Western technology and ideas. This included adopting Western clothing, music and literature.
The government also tried to standardize Chinese characters (Hanzi) so that they could be used by all people across China, instead of just those in specific areas.
The 20th century saw the rise of the martial arts genre, especially in Chinese cinema.
With the arrival of sound, martial arts films were increasingly viewed as outdated, and many actors who had worked in them were forced to find other work to make a living.
The genre remained popular in Hong Kong and China, but it also spread to other regions such as Thailand and Japan.
The most famous example of this evolution is the Buddhist martial arts film, which combines religious themes with martial arts action sequences.
These films tend to follow an ascetic hero who travels across China fighting against evil forces before finally achieving enlightenment.
The three most famous examples are The Big Boss (1972), Fist Of Fury (1972) and Enter The Dragon (1973).
The martial arts genre also became popular in America when Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon was released there in 1973.
The film was a huge hit at the box office and it helped kick start what we now know as “kung fu” cinema. Films made by Hong Kong filmmakers set in China or featuring Chinese characters or themes.
Kung Fu And Wuxia
The word “wuxia” is Chinese for “martial hero.” It refers to a literary genre that is seen in both film and literature. The genre began in China but has spread across Asia, with many Japanese manga based on wuxia themes.
Wuxia stories typically feature martial arts heroes who are skilled in combat, often with supernatural powers.
These characters travel the world fighting evil enemies and protecting the innocent. Wuxia stories are usually set in ancient China or Japan although they can be set elsewhere.
There’s one main difference between Kung Fu and Wuxia: martial arts skills are usually not needed to tell a good story in the wuxia genre!
A good example of this is the popular anime series “Dragon Ball Z” which features no martial arts at all. Instead, it focuses on fighting aliens with laser guns instead of swords and bows!
Common Tropes In Wuxia Stories
Let’s look at some of the common tropes and storylines inherent in much Wuxia storytelling.
1. Insurgency In Wuxia
The concept of insurgency is an important one in the study of Wuxia. The idea of martial artists being able to fight against an oppressive government has been a part of Chinese culture for centuries, and it’s no surprise that it has influenced the development of the genre.
In fact, one could argue that this is where Wuxia as a genre comes from.
The legend of Yue Fei, who was credited with bringing down the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115-1234) through guerrilla warfare tactics, may have been one inspiration for later stories about martial artists fighting against corrupt regimes.
2. Legendary Weapons Or Skills In Wuxia
Wuxia is not just about martial arts. It is also about legends and myths. Therefore, it would be wrong to believe that the legendary skills or weapons in Wuxia are limited to the martial arts category. They can be found in other categories as well.
Some of these weapons are so famous that they have become part of the culture and folklore, while others are quite obscure but still worth mentioning because they have left an impact on people’s mindsets and lives.
3. Philosophy Of Xia In Wuxia
The philosophy of Xia in Wuxia is one of the most important aspects of the genre.
The Xia concept is a way of life that emphasizes the importance of personal honor and integrity, especially when it comes to fighting for what you believe in.
In fact, the roots of this idea can be traced back all the way to early Chinese history and its connection to martial arts.
4. Wulin Dominance In Wuxia
Wulin is the term for the martial arts world. It’s a place of peace, where martial artists come together to learn from each other and pass down their knowledge.
But there are always those who would seek to rule over all others, and this is where our story begins!
In wuxia stories, there is often a conflict between martial artists and fighters from other disciplines.
This can be seen in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, where the main characters are sword fighters. These two movies represent different views on how sword fighting should be done.
5. Jiang Hu In Wuxia
Jiang Hu is a Chinese term for a society of martial artists that can be found in Wuxia stories.
It is used to describe the world outside of the imperial court, where martial arts are practiced by heroes and villains alike.
The Jiang Hu are often described as being martial artists who live in seclusion, away from the affairs of men.
They may be monks or hermits, or they may simply be too busy with their own training to concern themselves with the goings-on of the world at large.
These characters are usually not given names, but rather titles such as “the Immortal” or “the Sword Saint.”
6. Obey Your Master In Wuxia
In Wuxia, there are many masters and disciples. The master is a mentor and guide while the disciple is his or her student.
The master teaches the disciple martial arts and other skills needed to fight in real life and survive in the world of Wuxia.
The relationship between a master and his or her disciple is very important because it reflects their mutual trust and understanding for each other.
However, this does not mean that a master will treat their disciples equally because there are certain rules that must be followed when taking on a disciple.
7. Vengeance In Wuxia
In the world of wuxia, revenge is a common theme, and revenge often takes the form of seeking justice for a loved one.
In an interview with Screenrant, director Zhang Yimou discussed his film Hero (or Ying Xiong), which was about a man seeking vengeance for the death of his father. He said that “revenge is the most important element in this film.”
Revenge is also a recurring theme in many other martial arts films, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (where Jen Yu seeks revenge against Li Mu Bai for killing her father) and House of Flying Daggers (in which Mei Chang Su falls in love with a woman who happens to be his prisoner and whose husband he killed).
Masters Of Wuxia Novels
Let’s look at some of the top writers in the genre.
1. Jin Yong (ak aLouis Cha)
Jin Yong is a Chinese writer. He is best known for his wuxia novel series, starting with The Condor Trilogy, which consists of three novels: The Legend of the Condor Heroes, The Return of the Condor Heroes and The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber.
Jin Yong has been called the “Godfather of Wuxia” (武侠之父), a Chinese literary genre based on chivalry, which he popularised in his works.
His literary creations have been translated into numerous languages and adapted into numerous media.
2. Liang Yusheng (aka Chen Wentong)
Liang Yusheng was a Chinese novelist and wuxia writer. He is considered one of the most important wuxia writers and is credited with developing the genre.
Liang’s first novel, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, was published in 1934 when he was still a student at Peking University. His works are noted for their realism and his use of colloquial language.
In addition to his novels, he also wrote short stories and novellas which were compiled into more than ten books.
3. Gu Long (aka Xiong Yaohua)
Gu Long is a Chinese novelist. He is considered one of the most influential writers in the genre of wuxia and his works are widely read in China and abroad. Gu Long was born Zhu Ziqing into a poor family in Yulin, Shaanxi Province, China.
His father died when he was two years old, so he was raised by his mother who worked as a tailor at home. Gu Long studied at the Lu Xun Art Academy from 1954 to 1957 but did not graduate because he failed the entrance exam for the department of art history.
Afterward, he worked as an editor for several newspapers and magazines including People’s Daily (1957–1959), New Youth (1958–1959), and Fine Arts Literature (1959–1962).
He also taught at Beijing Normal University (1961–1965) before becoming a professional writer in 1965.
Wuxia And Chinese Mass Media
There are various ways in which the Chinese mass media can help to promote wuxia. Perhaps the most obvious way is by producing new material that deals with this genre.
There have been many novels, films and television series that have dealt with wuxia since it first appeared as a literary genre.
All of these productions have helped to increase its popularity among consumers of popular culture.
Another way in which the Chinese mass media can promote wuxia is through the use of advertising campaigns.
A good example of this can be seen when we consider how many companies advertise their products or services by using images from wuxia films or television series in their commercials.
This helps to increase awareness among consumers about these types of products because they are already familiar with them due to their exposure to these works through other sources such as books or newspapers.
Shaw Brothers Studio
Shaw Brothers Studio is a Hong Kong-based film production company, founded in 1958 by Runje Shaw and his brothers. The company was one of the largest studios in Hong Kong.
The Shaw Brothers Studio was the largest film production company in Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s.
It produced many kung fu movies and was an important part of the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema.
The studio’s first film was The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), loosely based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and starring David Chiang, who had previously appeared in two martial arts films for the studio.
After this, Chiang became one of the biggest stars at Shaw Brothers Studio, appearing in over 25 films with them before moving to Taiwan to work for other studios such as Golden Harvest.
In 1976 Runje Shaw and his brother Runde Shaw sold their controlling interest in their studio to investors led by Raymond Chow (who later founded Golden Harvest) for HK$50 million (US$6 million).
Wuxia And Music
The music in Wuxia is often an important part of the film, adding to its atmosphere and mood.
The most famous example is probably the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon by Tan Dun, who also composed the score for Hero.
In the past, most martial arts films had very little music, but as time went on, composers became more interested in this genre and started composing music for martial arts movies.
Notable Wuxia Stories & Films
Let’s now look at some notable wuxia stories and films.
1. Legend Of The Condor Heroes
Legend Of The Condor Heroes is a wuxia novel by Jin Yong (Louis Cha). It was first serialised in newspapers from 1 January 1957 to 19 February 1959.
The novel is set during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor in the Qing dynasty, and it follows two protagonists, Yang Kang and Guo Xiaotian, as they grow up to become rivals.
Yang Kang is depicted as a villainous character while Guo Xiaotian is depicted as an anti-heroic character who only wishes for peace and quiet.
The novel has been adapted into various types of media, including television series, film and video games. The story has also been referenced in other works such as Wong Kar-wai’s film In the Mood for Love (2000).
2. The Smiling, Proud Wanderer
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer wuxia is a period drama set in the Ming Dynasty. It features the adventures of two martial arts brothers who are on a mission to find their lost sister.
The two brothers are played by Zhang Hanyu and Yang Mi, who are both currently enjoying great success in their careers.
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer wuxia is directed by Peter Chan Ho-sun, who has previously worked with Zhang Hanyu on a number of projects including The Warlords and Chinese Zodiac.
This is the second time that he has worked with Yang Mi, who previously starred in Love in Disguise (2013) which was also directed by him.
3. Seven Swords
The Seven Swords Wuxia is a Chinese hero and martial arts fantasy film directed by Tsui Hark. It starred Donnie Yen, Zhang Jin and Li Yuchun.
The film is based on the legend of the Seven Knights of Nanzhao who were trained as assassins in their childhood by their teacher.
The seven knights were ordered to assassinate their own king when they grew up because he had become a tyrant after being corrupted by power.
What Is Wuxia – Wrap Up
As we’ve covered, Wuxia is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial arts heroes in ancient China.
It is sometimes translated as “martial arts fiction”, “heroic legend” and “wizard-born” literature. Wuxia stories have their roots in some early youxia tales from the Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties.
Many wuxia stories have since been adapted into films or television series such as House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero.
It is often set in an ancient period and may be based on real historical events. The term wuxia is usually used to describe works of fiction.
However, it has also been used to refer to martial arts films, the actors in those films, and even the fans of those films.
Wuxia stories typically focus on heroes who have supernatural powers. Those heroes often fight against evil forces as well as rival martial artists or groups of martial artists who want to take over their territory or simply kill them because they are considered enemies.
Wuxia stories often have a lot of action and adventure including many fights between good guys and bad guys.
They also often have some romance involved as well as some tragedy or sadness that comes from the fact that many of these characters do not live long lives due to their constant battles with one another which results in death for many people involved.