Wuxia Novels, Movies, and Television Series: A Beginner's Guide
A. What is Wuxia?
Simply put, Wuxia (武侠) is a genre of Chinese literature featuring the lives and adventures of Chinese martial artists. The stories are always set in historical China, typically between the Tang and middle Ching dynastic periods (approximately AD 618 to AD 1800). The main attraction of Wuxia novels is the myriad of powerful martial arts, or kung fu, wielded by the story characters.
While cinematic and television adaptations of famous Wuxia novels tend to show protagonists capable of feats such as scaling tall buildings, shattering walls with one blow, and self-healing, it should be noted that Wuxia stories are never supernatural in premise. Gods, demons, and monsters do not appear. Tropes such as inter-realm travel and non-human races are non-existent too. In the parlance of modern Chinese literature, Wuxia is clearly differentiated from Xianxia (仙侠) by having no “magic.” The latter genre is the one closer to the western fantasy writing genre that international world readers are more familiar with.
Note: Xia (侠) is the Chinese character for chivalry and could be used as a suffix for many terms.
B. A Brief History of Wuxia Novels
Although Wuxia is frequently described as a type of Chinese pulp fiction, stories with similar premises have long appeared in Chinese literature.
For example, the story of Nie Yinniang (聂隐娘), a female assassin, was written in the Tang dynasty. Various tales of citizen heroes upholding justice and righteousness were also penned during the Ming and Ching dynasties. Historically, the bulk of these were banned and destroyed by disapproving Imperial Courts.
Wuxia as an acknowledged Chinese literature genre only came into prominence after the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the movement itself spearheaded by patriotic students calling for a new response to the world order. From this movement evolved new styles of Chinese storytelling, and progressively, the Chinese world saw more and more works written in the Wuxia style. Such works peaked in popularity between the 1960s and the 1980s, fueled by the popularity of Wuxia writers like Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng, as well as numerous successful movie and television adaptations. Of note, Wuxia novels written in the 1960s and later markedly differ in style from predecessors. These newer works were easier to read. They also included storytelling elements such as mystery, romance, and political intrigue.
C. Kung Fu, the Heart of Wuxia
Martial arts, or kung fu, is the heart of Wuxia. With the notable exception of Jin Yong’s Duke of Mount Deer, practically every Wuxia story has a protagonist capable of astonishing martial art feats.
When adapted into movies or television dramas, these protagonists display wondrous abilities such as superhuman strength, extraordinary agility, and even the ability to walk on walls and water. Such “abilities,” needless to say, are often the main selling point of such adaptations too.
In a way, such fantastical abilities make Wuxia characters similar to the meta-humans of American comics. However, it should be noted that Wuxia abilities are largely limited to physical prowess. Psychic abilities, such as hypnosis, do rarely feature, but never with the sort of formidability found in American comics. Lastly, Wuxia characters are never born with their abilities. There is no W-Gene, etc. Whatever Wuxia heroes are capable of doing is the result of arduous and prolonged training.
Kung fu is actually the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters 功夫. In Mandarin, it is pronounced as gong fu.
D. Common Tropes in Wuxia Stories
Insurgency: Many best-selling Wuxia novels are set in the Qing Dynasty, and to a lesser extent, the Yuan and Southern Song Dynasty. These were the centuries when China was under threat, or conquered and ruled by foreign powers. Such novels thus feature martial artists gathering to resist invasion or to overthrow occupying forces. Many of the genre’s most beloved characters hail from such works. For example, Guo Jing (郭靖), Yang Guo (杨过), Lü Siniang (吕四娘), and Chen Jialuo (陈家洛).
Legendary weapons or skills: With kung fu being the heart of Wuxia, many stories naturally involve quests or conflicts for legendary weapons (兵器 bing qi) and skills. In the case of the latter, it is usually some forbidden manual (秘笈 mi ji) that records exotic or lost secrets of kung fu. Of note, legendary weapons in Wuxia do not possess magical properties. They are typically coveted for their finesse, or are themselves keys to larger treasures.
Wulin dominance: Wulin (武林), or Jianghu (江湖), is the world of the martial artists. It encompasses all clans and sects, unaffiliated individuals, as well as all interactions between these characters and factions. Wuxia novels with this trope usually feature one clan or individual rising to power through sheer kung fu superiority or ruthless machinations. The bulk of the story is then about the struggle to overthrow this tyrant. Typically with the “main hero” mastering some form of superior technique.
Vengeance: The trope of vengeance is heavily used in Wuxia stories. Usually, it involves a conflicted individual seeking revenge for the murder of his clan or sect. Or it could be the quest to redeem one’s honor after a mortifying defeat.
Wulin Intrigue: Outside of insurgencies, inter-faction struggles, and so on, many Wuxia stories also examine the intricate relationships between larger-than-life characters. Common sub-themes include love, rivalry, greed, and the burden of family name. The Wuxia novels of Taiwanese writer Gu Long are especially noted for their piercing insights about such humanly weaknesses.
E. The Three Masters of Wuxia Novels
Whether in China, Taiwan, or South East Asia, three writers are universally acknowledged as representative of the Wuxia genre.
1. Jin Yong (金庸, Actual Name Louis Cha)
The undisputed grand master of the genre, Jin Yong’s sprawling epics have captured the imagination and love of the international Chinese community for over half a century. Many of his stories revolve around historical events in Imperial China, and some of his characters are so well-received they are nowadays synonymous with Wuxia. Among his most celebrated works are the Condor Trilogy (射雕三部曲 she diao san bu qü), Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龙八部 tian long ba bu), The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖 xiao ao jiang hu), and The Duke of Mount Deer (鹿鼎记 lu ding ji). Till today, Jin Yong stories continue to be regularly adapted into movies and television series.
2. Liang Yusheng (梁羽生, Actual Name Chen Wentong)
Like Jin Yong, Liang Yusheng’s stories frequently revolve around historical events and struggles. In fact, as a pioneer of new school Wuxia novels, most readers acknowledge it was Liang Yusheng’s style that inspired and motivated Jin Yong. In addition, Liang’s stories are also famous for their strong female protagonists, women who are not only formidable in skill but also tower above male counterparts in terms of courage and valor. His most famous characters include Lü Siniang (吕四娘), Lian Nichang (练霓裳) and Yilan Zhu (易兰珠). Several of his novels have also been adapted into movies and television series, a famous example being 2005’s Seven Swords.
3. Gu Long (古龙, real name Xiong Yaohua)
Taiwanese Wuxia writer Gu Long famously acknowledged that his prose would never match the quality of Jin Yong or Liang Yusheng’s works, and so he adopted a totally different approach to writing. Gu Long’s works are dialogue-heavy, entirely devoid of historical references, and frequently feature social misfits as protagonists; misfits such as alcoholics, lechers, and loners. Because of his colorful characterizations and script-like prose, Gu Long’s works are the easiest to adapt for movies and television. Incidentally, Gu Long’s novels are also the most “matured” of all three celebrated masters. While there aren’t any explicit sex scenes, they do not shy from discussions of human sexuality.
F. Other Wuxia Writers
Other successful Wuxia novelists include Wen Rui’an (溫瑞安), Zhuge Qingyun (諸葛青雲) and Wo Longsheng (卧龙生). In recent years, Hong Kong writer Huang Yi (黃易) also rose to prominence. Compared to older writers, Huang’s stories are unique in the sense that they include science fiction elements such as time travel, and that his prose is markedly more modern. In the words of several Chinese publications, Huang injected fresh life into the Wuxia genre when it was declining in popularity. Like his predecessors, Huang’s most successful works were also adapted into television series.
G. Wuxia and Chinese Mass Media
The popularity and recognition of Wuxia as a storytelling genre is largely the credit of Chinese mass media entertainment. Specifically, movies, television series, and radio readings.
The golden age of Wuxia lasted from the late 1950s to the 1980s. During the earlier part of this era, many Chinese remain uneducated, so Wuxia novels in their original form were wholly inaccessible. Thanks to movie studios, Rediffusion, and television stations like Hong Kong’s TVB, though, these stories were vividly brought to life for public consumption. In fact, many older Chinese are more familiar with the movie or television adaptations of Wuxia works than the original stories. Many older Chinese also tend to think of veteran actors both by their stage names and the Wuxia characters these actors are most renowned for playing. This testifies to the enduring symbiosis between Wuxia and Chinese mass media.
H. Shaw Brothers Studio
Special mention must be made of Shaw Brothers Studios, the Hong Kong producer responsible for many Wuxia / kung fu films between the 60s and 80s.
Before modern masterpieces like Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger, Shaw Brothers Wuxia films introduced the world of medieval Chinese chivalry to international audiences. They also contributed greatly to awareness of the genre worldwide. Many of their “classic” films have since been dubbed in English and are easily found nowadays.
Shaw Brothers Wuxia films are also distinctive in several ways. While the studio did adapt many Wuxia novels for live-action presentation, equally as many of their movies were specifically written for the big screen. There was also an emphasis on “real” martial arts fighting, with many of the studio’s biggest stars being trained fighters, examples being Alexander Fu Sheng, Gordon Liu, and Lo Mang. Finally, Shaw Brothers movies had a distinctive element of “exploitation” in them. Female nudity occasionally appeared. Gore and violence were never shunned away from. Muscular male protagonists invariably fought bare-bodied too. The latter is especially laughable when you consider the likelihood of someone walking into a saber fight without body protection.
I. The World of Wuxia Music
In Hong Kong especially, it is common for movie and television adaptations of Wuxia novels to feature soundtracks performed by top artistes. In turn, the enduring popularity of these songs, many sung or composed by top musicians of the day, contributed much to the enduring popularity of the genre.
Wuxia Music Often Features a Mix of Eastern and Western Musical Styles
J. Recommended Reading / Watching
Here are five Wuxia works that I feel encompass the essence of the genre. You can easily find translated text, television adaptions, and movie versions for all these.
Legend of the Condor Heroes (射雕英雄传 she diao yin xiong zhuan)
Part one of Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy, the story narrates the adventures of the rather dim but absolutely valorous Wuxia hero Guo Jing (郭靖). Born during the tumultuous years of the Southern Song Dynasty, bumbling Guo Jing not only won the admiration of several masters, eventually becoming one of the strongest pugilist in Wulin, he ultimately also led the Mongolian army in their campaigns against the Jurchens. or watch this for a taste of Jin Yong’s skills in weaving historical events and fictional characters into a coherent story. Read
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖 xiao ao jiang hu)
Renamed as Swordsman in three movie adaptations of the 90s, Jin Yong’s The Smiling, Proud Wanderer does not reference historical events but instead centers on the struggles between various Wulin factions. Through these conflicts, Jin Yong makes a scathing commentary on the true nature of power alliances, alliances such as Nato and the defunct Warsaw Pact. Read or watch this for the story’s memorable protagonist i.e. the alcohol-loving bum Linghu Chong (令狐冲). Read or watch this too for some of the most exotic techniques ever penned in Wuxia novels. Techniques such as the Black Hole Stance, the Nine Solitary Swords, and the horrible, horrible, Sunflower Manual Technique.
Seven Swords (七剑下天山 qi jian xia tian shan)
Arguably Liang Yusheng’s most representative work, the novel itself could be confusing for the story is a continuation of several earlier titles. The various movie adaptations, however, did a reasonable job of condensing the story. I recommend Seven Swords, instead of other Liang Yusheng works like The Bride with White Hair, for it is a great summation of Liang’s distinctive style. There are several strong feminine characters. The story is also set against the rise of the Qing Dynasty in China. Most of all, Seven Swords establishes the mythos for all of Liang’s works set in later periods. This is a useful, almost necessary reference, if you are keen to read his other stories.
Chu Liuxiang (楚留香)
Chu Liuxiang is the protagonist of a series of novels by Gu Long. A Robin Hood of sorts, he steals to help the poor, and also frequently intervenes in Wulin matters to uphold justice. One of Gu Long’s most enduring characters, if not the most, Chu Liuxiang is famous for his wit, charisma, and unmatched speed. In the 70s and 80s, he was frequently portrayed on television and in movies by Hong Kong veteran actor Adam Cheng. Cheng was so successful with these portrayals, he became the semi-official face of Chu Liuxiang for life.
Lu Xiaofeng (陆小凤)
Lu Xiaofeng is another famous Wuxia protagonist under Gu Long’s pen. Like Chu Liuxiang, he is dashing, incredibly popular with women, and fond of intervening in Wulin crises. Lu’s defining feature is also his moustache, which earned him the nickname “four eyebrows.” Together with a band of capable friends, Lu Xiaofeng investigates various Wulin conspiracies, including one that sought to assassinate the emperor. Lastly, Lu’s signature technique is his Lingxi Finger (靈犀一指), a miraculous technique that allows him to easily trap and immobilize weapons between his fingers. In the 70s, Lu was famously portrayed on Hong Kong television by veteran actor Damian Lau.
Visit My Wuxia Glossary If You Are Already Reading and Watching These Great Works!
- Wuxia Glossary - Beginner's Guide to Wuxia Part 2
Bewildered by the many terms and names found in Chinese Wuxia stories? Here’s a glossary of terms, popular characters and legendary techniques for your reference!
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