Top 7 Classic Wuxia Stories
In the 1960s, Chinese Wuxia stories were regarded as little more than pop entertainment. 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 subsequently also enjoy high viewership.
The short of it, 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 7 beloved classic Wuxia stories written by the three 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, consider watching the many television adaptations instead. The latter will also 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 a Chinese city, 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 character, dull-witted but patriotic Guo Jing encompasses all of the values the Wuxia genre considers as heroic and exemplary. Guo Jing's fictional exploits during the end days of the Southern Song Dynasty also establishes the semi-historical style Jin Yong would be representative of. This style eventually led to Wuxia 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 in spite of his supposed dimness is also a metaphor 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 would continue to emphasize his beliefs in this area, and his overall approach to learning, in many other works.
2. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部 | Tianlong Babu)
Jin Yong’s eleventh novel not only contains 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 Qiao Feng, the eldest of the trio, is also an extended thesis on the questions of nature versus nurture, vengeance versus forgiveness, and integrity versus patriotism.
The curious title is itself 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 conflicts between factions, countries, and races. Throughout this wonderful Wuxia saga, Buddhist names and concepts also repeatedly appear, greatly imbuing 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 like NATO. He also 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 inevitably be beguiled by power.
Like Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer is also full of incredible Chinese martial art 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 left it to readers to decide for themselves.
4. The Duke of Mount Deer (鹿鼎記 | Lu Ding Ji)
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 rose in status and power, until becoming one of the most powerful courtiers in the Manchu Court. Incredibly, he accomplishes all these while being a double agent for a leading Anti-Manchu underground sect. His life is a colorful, constant balance between different loyalties.
Compared to Jin Yong’s earlier works, The Duke of Mount Deer is unusual in that Wei Xiaobao never ever relies on martial arts to get himself out of fixes. His wits are his deadliest weapons. The saga itself also incorporates far more historical characters from Chinese history than Jin Yong’s other stories. Practically all major historical allies and adversaries from Kangxi’s early reign make appearances, with the emperor himself also a major character. Truly 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 novels so popular. On another note, readers will find it hard not to love 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?
You Can Easily Visit Jin Yong’s World of Wuxia, Virtually
As a testimony to Jin Yong’s enduring popularity, his stories are regularly adapted into video games. And in recent years, MMORPGs.
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 the heroic archetype for other Wuxia writers. His deeds and personality encapsulate the honor, the sacrifice, and the heroism many other 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 capture of China’s Zhengtong Emperor by the Mongolians in AD 1449. 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 Chinese novels too.
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 in 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 detect the similarities between Li and his creator.
As for the plot, the novel is divided into two arcs. The first details Li’s investigation of a mysterious rapist. The second involves his conflict with Shangguan Jinghong, ruler of the most powerful clan in Wulin. To flesh up the saga, Gu Long injected several secondary plots, for example, the Ranking of Weapons. This was a medieval “listicle” created for no other purpose than to promote murderous rivalry in Wulin. Some of Gu Long’s most imaginative, most memorable weapons originate from this wicked 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, 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 novels are also distinctive for their incorporation of murder mystery elements; many plots bear a strong resemblance to Japanese detective stories. Last but not least, Chu himself is 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 stories.
Different Titles and Compilations
Gu Long wrote several Chu Liuxiang Wuxia stories – there are eight stories in all, each with a unique name too. However, publishers tend to group the earliest ones under the same title. For example, Chu Liuxiang Chuanqi i.e. the Legend of Chu Liuxiang.
Questions & Answers
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