Wuxia–Chinese Swashbuckling Adventures
In the 1960s, swashbuckling Chinese Wuxia stories were regarded as little more than pop entertainment. They were a cheap read for the literate, or hours of thrilling audio entertainment, i.e., storytelling on Rediffusion.
Today, the literary worth of the genre is well-recognized and honored throughout the Chinese-speaking world. While the golden age of Wuxia is long considered to be over, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong producers continue to regularly release Wuxia drama series and movies. Many such productions still enjoy high viewership too.
If you are curious about Chinese culture and heritage, if you are curious about what has enthralled East Asian audiences for over half a century, Wuxia stories should be part of your reading list.
The following are seven beloved classic Wuxia stories written by the three famous “Wuxia masters” of Jin Yong (金庸), Liang Yusheng (梁羽生), and Gu Long (古龍). If you are unable to read Chinese or find English versions for any, try watching the many television adaptations instead. This will still provide you with a clear idea of what Wuxia, and Wulin (武林), are all about.
1. The Legend of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳 | Shediao Yingxiong Zhuan)
Ask any Chinese in East Asia, and chances are, whoever you approach would be able to give you a rough idea of who Guo Jing is.
Arguably Jin Yong's most beloved protagonist, the dull-witted but patriotic Guo Jing encompasses all the values the Wuxia genre considers heroic and exemplary. Guo Jing's fictional exploits during the final days of the Southern Song Dynasty also establish the semi-historical style that Jin Yong is representative of. This style eventually led to the Wuxia genre earning respect as a proper medium for the introduction of imperial Chinese history.
At the same time, Guo Jing's ability to master a wide variety of superior martial arts despite his supposed dimness is an allegory for Jin Yong's staunch belief in perseverance and focus. Readers able to read between the lines will note that Guo Jing is far from stupid; in his youth, he was merely distracted when forced to learn too wide an array of skills.
The author continued to emphasize his beliefs in this area, and his views on education, in many subsequent works. One could say these views are among Jin Yong’s most important messages in his sagas.
2. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部 | Tianlong Babu)
Jin Yong’s eleventh novel features a slew of dazzling, near-supernatural abilities. It is also his most philosophical and expansive.
Through the adventures of not one but three protagonists, the veteran Hong Kong writer explores thorny questions of nationalism and race. The tribulations of Khitan warrior Qiao Feng, the eldest of the trio, is an extended thesis on nature versus nurture. Through that, the author then shares Buddhist views on vengeance versus forgiveness, integrity versus patriotism, brotherhood versus duty, and so on. In many ways, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils could be considered a philosophical discourse, one that requires multiple readings to get a full understanding of.
As for the unusual title, it is a loose English translation of the Chinese name for the Aṣṭasenā–eight races of supernatural beings in Buddhist mythology. Though the author initially intended the nature of each race to be a character prototype, he ultimately abandoned the concept and instead used the name as a metaphor for the incessant, often unavoidable conflicts between factions, countries, and races.
Buddhist names and concepts furthermore appear throughout the saga, and as intended, greatly imbue the tale with a thick layer of mysticism.
3. The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖 | Xiao Ao Jiang Hu)
Considered by critics to be Jin Yong’s most politicized story, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer was the Hong Kong author’s scathing critique of Cold War politics and divisions.
Through the story of a decades-long Wulin conflict between the self-righteous Five Swords Alliance and the Non-Han Chinese Sun Moon Sect, Jin Yong expresses his strong distrust of political alliances such as NATO. He laments how power inevitably corrupts. To him, most if not all such political alliances cannot escape the fate of being dominated by the strongest faction. The leader of that faction would also invariably be beguiled by power.
Similar to Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer is also full of incredible Chinese pugilistic skills, the most terrifying being the Sunflower Manual. Mastery of this forbidden art imbues one with godly speed, but to even begin to learn, one needs to make an immense sacrifice. One also has to contend with lifelong enmity and avarice from other pugilists thereafter.
Through this, was Jin Yong sharing his opinion of nuclear weapons? Did he forecast the fates of countries like North Korea? The late author himself never made it clear and slyly left it to readers to decide for themselves.
4. The Duke of Mount Deer (鹿鼎記 | Lu Ding Ji)
Also known as The Deer and the Cauldron, Jin Yong’s final Wuxia story is a complicated swansong.
A sprawling saga filled to the brim with historical references and characters, The Duke of Mount Deer tells the story of Wei Xiaobao, an illiterate scoundrel who accidentally befriends Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty.
Acting as the young emperor’s agent and shadowy hand, Wei then steadily rises in status and power, ultimately becoming one of the most powerful courtiers in the Manchu Court. Incredibly, he also accomplishes all these while being a double agent for a leading Anti-Manchu underground sect. In short, his colorful life is a constant, precarious balance between different loyalties.
Compared to Jin Yong’s earlier works, The Duke of Mount Deer is notably unusual in that Wei Xiaobao never relies on martial arts, or kung fu, to get himself out of fixes. His wits are consistently his deadliest weapons.
The saga incorporates far more Chinese historical characters than Jin Yong’s other works too. Practically all major historical allies and adversaries from Kangxi’s early reign make appearances, with the emperor himself also a major character. Through the successful campaigns of the Manchurian Kangxi, the story furthermore details the transition of Imperial China from a medieval Han-based culture to the modern Sinosphere.
Epic, imaginative, and introspective, Lu Ding Ji is in many ways, Jin Yong’s opus magnum; a summation of all the elements that made his Wuxia novels so popular. On another note, readers will find it hard not to love the vulgar and uncouth Wei Xiaobao. The ultimate rogue, the story ends with him having seven harmonious wives and a mountain of riches. How’s that for a lordly accomplishment?
What Is the “Deer Cauldron?”
No such artifact appears in The Duke of Mount Deer. Instead, it refers to a key location during the conclusion of the saga as well as Wei Xiaobao’s highest post. “Deer” and “Cauldron” are also characters in an ancient Chinese idiom about the domination of the Central Plains, i.e., China.
5. The Wanderer Chronicles (萍蹤俠影錄 | Pingzong Xiaying Lu)
Published in 1959, Liang Yusheng’s The Wanderer Chronicles is less famous and popular compared to the other Wuxia stories on this list. Nonetheless, it is regarded as a significant work thanks to its protagonist, the Ming Dynasty swordsman Zhang Danfeng.
Simply put, the chivalrous Zhang was a heroic archetype for later Wuxia writers. His deeds and personality encapsulate the honor, sacrifice, and heroism that subsequent Wuxia heroes strive for.
Liang’s incorporation of historical elements and events into The Wanderer Chronicles also influenced the style of other Wuxia writers, most notably, Jin Yong. As for the actual story itself, it follows the adventures of Zhang in the tumultuous years following the AD 1449 capture of China’s Zhengtong Emperor by the Mongolians. A secondary plot is also that of Zhang’s forbidden love for fellow student Yun Lei; the Zhang and Yun families are bitter adversaries.
Such doomed romances because of family obligations will often be repeated in later Wuxia novels.
6. Sentimental Swordman, Ruthless Sword (多情劍客無情劍 | Duoqing Jianke Wuqing Jian)
More famously known in the Chinese world by its television dramatization name of Xiaoli Feidao (小李飛刀), Sentimental Swordman, Ruthless Sword introduces Taiwanese author Gu Long’s most mythical character, the ever-self-sacrificing scholar Li Xunhuan.
Referred to by Wulin as Li Tanhua (Third Scholar Li) and widely feared for his flying daggers, which never miss, the melancholic character was Gu Long’s prototype for many subsequent protagonists. Readers familiar with Gu Long’s life and his death from alcoholism will also immediately notice the similarities between Li and his creator.
Coming to the plot, the saga is divided into two arcs. The first details Li’s investigation of a mysterious rapist. The second involves his conflict with Shangguan Jinghong, the arrogant ruler of the most powerful clan in Wulin.
To further flesh up the saga, Gu Long injected several juicy secondary plots, for example, the Ranking of Weapons. This is a medieval “listicle” created for no other purpose than to promote murderous rivalry in Wulin. Apart from illustriously accomplishing its objective, some of Gu Long’s most imaginative and memorable weapons appear in this diabolical list.
7. Swordsman Chu Series (楚留香 | Chu Liuxiang)
Half of Gu Long’s most famous protagonists are tormented, deeply conflicted lone wolves. The rest are confident and self-aware champions of Wulin, with the most famous of the latter being Lu Xiao Feng (陸小鳳) and Chu Liuxiang.
In the case of Chu Liuxiang, the “Bandit Chief” is a Chinese Robin Hood renowned for his wits and superb qinggong, i.e., agility and speed. Together with his band of steadfast allies, he investigates and solves Wulin mysteries, mysteries often involving horrific murders and inexplicable disappearances.
Story-wise, the various Swordsman Chu novels are distinctive for their incorporation of western murder mystery elements; many plots bear a strong resemblance to Japanese detective stories. Last but not least, Chu himself is also renowned among Wuxia fans for his reliance on wits. In practically all climatic fights, he wins not by strength but through quick thinking.
The creative “solutions” he cooks up on the spot are major highlights of his colorful, swashbuckling adventures.
© 2019 Ced Yong
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on May 24, 2020:
I have a link in the article that takes you to the latest official translation of Condor Heroes.
As for the rest, if you google "louis cha wuxia novels english online" , you'd come across some resources. However, many of these are not professional translations, so you need to be discerning.
Simone Zen on May 24, 2020:
Where can I find these books in English?
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on October 22, 2019:
Hey Mary, thanks for reading and commenting!
Thing is, Wuxia stories aren't true Chinese folk stories, most were written in the 1960s. On the other hand, they are so popular, so widely known, they have been integrated into Chinese culture; in a way, they are "modern" Chinese folk stories. Such an interesting cultural development, yes?
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 22, 2019:
It is interesting to know so many other folk stories from various cultures. Each culture has some stories such as these though I think the Chinese ones are really fully developed.