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Chinese martial arts
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Wuxia[pronunciation?], literally "martial hero", is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to diverse art forms like Chinese opera, manhua (Chinese comics), films, television series, and video games. Wuxia is a component of popular culture in many Chinese-speaking communities around the world.
The word "wuxia" is a compound word composed of the words wu (武), which means "martial", "military", or "armed", and xia (俠), meaning "honourable", "chivalrous", or "hero". A martial artist who follows the code of xia is often referred to as a xiake (俠客, lit: "follower of xia", "hiệp khách") or youxia (游俠, "wandering xia", "du hiệp"). In some translated works of wuxia, the martial artist is sometimes termed as a "swordsman" although he may not necessarily wield a sword.
Typically, the heroes in Chinese wuxia fiction do not serve a lord, wield military power or belong to the aristocratic class. They are often from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. Wuxia heroes are usually bound by a code of chivalry that requires them to right wrongs, especially when the helpless or the poor are oppressed. The wuxia hero fights for righteousness and seeks to remove an oppressor, redress wrongs, or to bring retribution for past misdeeds. The Chinese xia traditions can be contrasted with martial codes from other countries, such as the Japanese samurai's bushido tradition, the chivalry of medieval European knights and the gunslingers of America's Westerns.
Even though wuxia, as the name of a genre, is a recent coinage, stories about the xia date back more than 2,000 years. Wuxia stories have their roots in some early youxia tales from 300–200 BC. The Legalist philosopher Han Fei spoke disparagingly of youxias in his book Han Feizi in the chapter On Five 'Maggot' Classes (韩非子·五蠹) about the five social classes in the Spring and Autumn Period. Some well-known stories include Zhuan Zhu's assassination of King Liao of Wu, and most notably, Jing Ke's attempt on the life of the King of Qin (who would become Qin Shi Huang later). In the Assassins volume (刺客列傳) of Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian outlined a number of notable assassins from the Warring States Period, who undertook tasks of conducting political assassinations of aristocrats and nobles.
These assassins were known as cike (刺客, literally: "stabbing guests"). They usually rendered their loyalties and services to feudal lords and nobles in return for rewards such as riches and women. In another volume of Records of the Grand Historian, Youxia (游俠列傳), Sima Qian detailed several embryonic features of xia culture from his period. These popular phenomena were also documented in other historical records such as the Book of Han and Book of the Later Han.
Xiake stories made a turning point in the Tang Dynasty and returned in the form of chuanqi (傳奇, literally: "legendary tales"). Stories from that era, such as Nie Yinniang (聶隱娘), The Kunlun Slave, Thirteenth Madame Jing (荆十三娘), Red String (紅線) and The Bearded Warrior (虬髯客), served as prototypes for modern wuxia stories. They featured fantasies and isolated protagonists, usually loners, who performed daring heroic deeds. During the Song Dynasty, similar stories circulated in the huaben, short works that served as prompt-books for storytellers.
The genre of the martial or military romance also developed during the Tang Dynasty. In the Ming Dynasty, Luo Guanzhong and Shi Nai'an wrote Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin respectively, which became two of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. The former is a romanticised historical retelling of the events of the late Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms Period, while the latter criticises the deplorable socio-economic status of the late Northern Song Dynasty. Water Margin is often seen as the first full-length wuxia novel: the portrayal of the 108 heroes, and their code of honour and willingness to become outlaws rather than serve a corrupt government, played an influential role in the development of jianghu culture in later centuries. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is also seen as a possible early antecedent, and contains classic close-combat descriptions that were later borrowed by wuxia writers in their works.
In the Qing Dynasty, further developments were the gong'an (公案, literally: "public case") and related detective novels, where xia and other heroes, working with a judge or magistrate, solved crimes and battled injustice. The famous Justice Bao stories from Sanxia Wuyi (三俠五義, later extended and renamed Qixia Wuyi 七俠五義) and Xiaowuyi (小五義), incorporated much of social justice themes of later wuxia stories. Xiayi stories of chivalrous romance, which frequently featured female heroes and supernatural fighting abilities, also surfaced during the Qing Dynasty. Novels such as Shi Gong'an Qiwen (施公案奇聞) and Ernü Yingxiong Zhuan (兒女英雄傳) have been cited as the clearest nascent wuxia novels.
The term wuxia as a genre label itself first appeared at the end of the Qing Dynasty, a calque of the Japanese bukyō, a genre of oft-militaristic and bushido-influenced adventure fiction. The term was brought to China by writers and students who hoped that China would modernise its military and place emphasis on martial virtues, and it quickly became entrenched as the term used to refer to xiayi and other predecessors of wuxia proper, while in Japan itself, however, it faded into obscurity.
Many wuxia works produced during the Ming and Qing dynasties were lost due to the governments' strong crackdown and banning of such works. Wuxia works were deemed responsible for brewing anti-government sentiments, which led to rebellions during those eras. 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 to the masses and not to the literati, which led to the stifling of the development of the wuxia genre. Nonetheless, the wuxia genre remained enormously popular with the common people.
The modern wuxia genre rose to prominence in the early 20th century. The early 20th century and the period from the 1960s–1980s were often regarded as the golden ages of the wuxia genre. Xiang Kairan (pen name Pingjiang Buxiaosheng) became the first notable writer of the wuxia genre, his maiden work being The Peculiar Knights-Errant of the Jianghu (江湖奇侠传). It was serialised from 1921 to 1928 and was adapted into the first wuxia film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928). Zhao Huanting (趙煥亭), who wrote Chronicles of the Loyal Knights-Errant (奇俠精忠傳, serialised 1923–27), was another well-known wuxia writer who was based in Shanghai. Starting from the 1930s, wuxia works proliferated and its centre shifted to Beijing and Tianjin in the north. The most prolific writers there were collectively referred to as the Five Great Masters of the Northern School (北派五大家) -- Huanzhu Louzhu (還珠樓主), who wrote The Swordspeople from Shu Mountains (蜀山剑侠传)); Bai Yu, who wrote Twelve Coin Darts (十二钱镖); Wang Dulu, who wrote The Crane-Iron Pentalogy (鹤铁五部作); Zheng Zhengyin (郑证因), who wrote The King of Eagle Claws (鹰爪王); and Zhu Zhenmu (朱贞木), who wrote The Seven-Killing Stele (七杀碑).
Wuxia fiction was banned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after its rise to power in China. The ban was lifted in the late 1970s following China's liberalisation. During the ban, wuxia writing continued to prevail in the 1960s in other Chinese-speaking regions, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Writers such as Liang Yusheng and Louis Cha (Jin Yong) spearheaded the founding of the "new school" (新派) wuxia genre that differed largely from its predecessors. These writers wrote serials for newspapers and magazines. They also incorporated several fictional themes such as mystery and romance from other cultures. In Taiwan, Wolong Sheng, Sima Ling, Zhuge Qingyun (诸葛青云) and later Xiao Yi (萧逸) and Gu Long became the region's most famous wuxia writers. After them, other writers like Wen Rui'an and Huang Yi also rose to prominence in a later period. Chen Yu-hui is a married contemporary female wuxia novelist who made her debut with the novel The Tian-Guan Duo Heroes (天觀雙俠; mainland Chinese title: 多情浪子痴情侠). She writes very much in the spirit of Louis Cha.
There have also been post-1980s works that attempt to create a post-wuxia genre. Yu Hua is one of the more notable writers, writing a weird counter-genre short story titled Blood and Plum Blossoms, in which the protagonist goes on a quest to avenge his murdered father. However, he only does this because he is forced to, and not because of any deep-seated sense of honour, dignity, or filial piety.
Modern wuxia stories are basically adventure stories set in ancient China. The plots vary from writer to writer, but there are distinct similarities between wuxia protagonists and characters from the modern Western fantasy genre. The fantasy element is not a prerequisite of a wuxia story and it is possible for a wuxia tale to be realistic. Louis Cha's Swordswoman Riding West on White Horse or The Book and the Sword are examples of possibly realistic wuxia stories. However, the martial arts element is a definite part of a wuxia tale, as most of the characters must know some form of martial arts.
Themes of romance are also strongly featured in several wuxia tales. The protagonists of most wuxia stories usually have beautiful maidens to accompany them on their adventures and the story typically concludes like a fairy tale, in which the protagonist and his lover are married and live happily ever after. The romance element is key in several of Liang Yusheng's novels, such as Baifa Monü Zhuan, and in most of Louis Cha's as well.
A typical wuxia story features a young male protagonist who experiences a tragedy such as losing his loved ones. He undertakes several trials and tribulations throughout his adventures and learns several forms of martial arts from various fighters. At the end of the story, the protagonist emerges as a powerful fighter whom few can equal. He uses his abilities to follow the code of xia and offers them chivalrously to mend the ills of the jianghu. For instance, the opening chapters of Louis Cha's works follow a certain pattern; a tragic event occurs, usually one that costs the lives of the newly introduced characters, and then it sets events into motion that will culminate in the primary action of the story.
Other stories may use different structures. For instance, the protagonist is denied being accepted as a student of a martial arts sect. He experiences hardships and trains secretly and waits until there is an opportunity for him to show off his skills and surprise those who initially looked down on him. Some stories feature a mature hero with powerful martial arts abilities confronting an equally powerful antagonist as his nemesis. The plot will gradually meander to a final dramatic showdown between the protagonist and his nemesis. These types of stories were prevalent during the era of anti-Qing revolutionaries.
Certain stories also have unique plots, such as those by Gu Long and Huang Yi. Gu Long's stories have an element of mystery and are written like detective stories. The protagonist, usually a formidable fighter and intelligent problem-solver, embarks on a quest to solve a mystery such as a murder case. Huang Yi's stories are blended with science fiction.
Despite these genre blending elements, wuxia is primarily a historical genre of fiction. Notwithstanding this, wuxia writers openly admit that they are unable to capture the entire history of a course of events. They choose to structure their stories along the pattern of the protagonist's progression from childhood to adulthood instead. The progression may be symbolic rather than literal, as observed in Louis Cha's The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, where the young Linghu Chong progresses from childish concerns and dalliances into much more adult ones as his unwavering loyalty repeatedly thrusts him into the rocks of betrayal at the hands of his inhumane master.
The code of xia (俠) can be likened to the Anglo-Saxon myth of Robin Hood. The hero of a wuxia story keeps his honour by upholding justice and helping the poor, just as Robin Hood robs the rich to help the poor. A typical follower of xia has considerable martial arts abilities that are used not just for personal gain, but employed to achieve the greater good. However, just as Robin Hood is an outlaw, the swordsman may not necessarily submit to higher authority. When part of a larger group, the code of xia requires the group to maintain social justice within the best of the group's abilities.
The code of xia is composed of two main virtues - yi (義; righteousness) and xin (信; honour). The code also emphasises the importance of repaying benefactors after having received deeds of en (恩, grace or favour) from others, as well as seeking chou (仇, vengeance) to bring villains to justice. However, the importance of vengeance is controversial, as a number of wuxia works stress Buddhist ideals, which includes forgiveness, compassion and a prohibition on killing.
In the jianghu, most fighters are expected to be loyal to their martial arts teacher or shifu (師父, sifu in Cantonese pronunciation). This gave rise to the formation of several complex trees of teacher-student (master-apprentice) relations as well as the various sects such as Shaolin and Wudang. If there are any disputes between fighters, they will choose the honourable way of settling their issues through fighting in duels. This is similar to the one-on-one sword duels adopted by knights in medieval Europe. Only two fighters are involved in each duel and they are usually of the same level or status if they belong to any sect.
The martial arts in wuxia stories are based on real wushu techniques and other Chinese martial arts. However, the mastery of such skills are highly exaggerated in wuxia tales to superhuman levels of achievement and prowess.
The following is a list of skills and abilities a typical fighter or martial artist in a wuxia story might possess:
In wuxia stories, characters typically attain the above skills and abilities by devoting themselves to years of diligent study and exercise, but can also have such power conferred upon them by a master who transfers his energy to them. The instructions to mastering these skills through training methods are often found in secret manuals known as miji (秘笈). In some stories, specific skills can be learned by spending several years in seclusion with a master or training with a group of fighters.
The jianghu (江湖) (Cantonese: gong-woo), which litrally means "rivers and lakes", refers to the community of martial artists.
The jianghu is an alternate universe. It consists of several martial artists gathered in the wulin (武林), usually congregated in sects, clans, disciplines and various schools of martial arts. It is also inhabited by others such as youxia (wandering heroes), nobles, thieves, beggars, priests, healers, merchants and craftsmen. The best wuxia writers draw a vivid picture of the intricate themes of honour, loyalty, love and hatred between the individuals and communities within this milieu.
A common aspect of the jianghu is the tacit suggestion that the courts of law are dysfunctional. All disputes and differences can only be resolved by use of force, as such, predicating the need for the code of xia and acts of chivalry. Law and order within the jianghu is maintained by the various orthodox and righteous sects and heroes. Sometimes, these sects may gather to form an alliance against all evils within the jianghu. Related to the typical wuxia settings are stories in which superhuman martial arts abilities exist, but practitioners are generals, law enforcers, criminals and so forth; retaining both elements of wuxia combat but also a functional society more similar in structure to ancient China.
A leader, called the "wulin mengzhu" (武林盟主), is elected from amongst them to lead the sects to ensure law and order within the jianghu. The leader is usually someone with a great reputation for righteousness and a high level of mastery in martial arts, even though he is often involved in some conspiracy or killed. In some cases, the leader may not be among the greatest martial artists in the jianghu. The protagonist of the story may also become the leader by coincidence, while in some other cases, the position of the leader is hereditary. The leader is an arbiter who presides and adjudicates over all inequities and disputes. The leader is a de jure chief justice of the affairs of the jianghu.
The term jianghu is linked to cultures other than those pertaining to martial arts in wuxia stories. It is also applied to societies where there is no law and order. For instance, the Chinese triads, secret societies and gangs use the term jianghu to describe their world of organised crime. Sometimes, the term jianghu may be replaced by the term "underworld", with reference to the criminal underworld.
In modern terminology, jianghu may mean any circle of interest, ranging from the entertainment industry to sports. Colloquially, retirement is also referred to as "leaving the jianghu" (退出江湖). In wuxia stories, when a reputable fighter decides to retire from the jianghu, he will do so in a ceremony known as "washing hands in the golden basin" (金盆洗手). He washes his hands in the golden basin filled with water, signifying that he will no longer be involved in the affairs of the jianghu. When a reclusive fighter who had apparently retired from the jianghu reappears, his reappearance is described as "re-entering the jianghu" (重出江湖).
Wuxia stories have become a new genre of writing within Chinese society and have remained popular in several countries with significant Chinese-speaking communities, such as Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia.
The most notable modern wuxia writers are as follows:
|Name||Pen name||Active years||Some works||Additional information|
|Louis Cha Leung-yung /|
|Jin Yong (金庸)||1955–1973||The Book and the Sword, Condor Trilogy, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, The Deer and the Cauldron||The most popular, and regarded by some as the most accomplished, writer to date. His works have been adapted into films and television series numerous times.|
|1955–1984||Qijian Xia Tianshan, Datang Youxia Zhuan, Baifa Monü Zhuan, Saiwai Qixia Zhuan, Yunhai Yugong Yuan, Xiagu Danxin||The pioneer of the "new school" (新派) wuxia genre. Some of his works were adapted into films and television series.|
|Gu Long (古龍)||1960–1984||Chu Liuxiang Series, Juedai Shuangjiao, Xiao Shiyi Lang, Xiaoli Feidao Series, Lu Xiaofeng Series||A writer who blends elements of mystery in his works. He writes in short paragraphs and is influenced stylistically by Western and Japanese writers. Some of his works were adapted into films and television series.|
|Sida Mingbu, Buyi Shenxiang, Jingyan Yiqiang||His works were adapted into the television series The Four and Face to Fate.|
|Huang Yi (黃易)||Xunqin Ji, Fuyu Fanyun, Datang Shuanglong Zhuan||Combines wuxia with science fiction in his works. His works were adapted into the television series A Step into the Past, Lethal Weapons of Love and Passion and Twin of Brothers.|
Although new and original wuxia writings have dwindled significantly in the last 25 years, particularly so as patronage and readerships of the genre decimated due to the readily available alternatives in entertainment like DVDs, affordable gaming-consoles and so forth, the genre has proliferated in manhua (Chinese comics) in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, with the core essentials of the wuxia genre living on in weekly editions equivalent to the Japanese manga.
Some notable comic artists are listed as follows:
|Name||Pseudonym||Active years||Some works||Additional information|
|Ma Wing-shing /|
|Ma Wing-shing /|
|Fung Wan, Chinese Hero, Black Leopard||Some of his works were adapted into films and television series like The Storm Riders, Wind and Cloud, The Blood Sword, and A Man Called Hero.|
|Wong Jan-lung /|
|Wong Yuk-long /|
|Oriental Heroes, Weapons of the Gods, Legend of Emperors, Buddha's Palm||Some of his works were adapted into films and television series like Dragon Tiger Gate, Kung Fu VS Acrobatic, and The Buddhism Palm Strikes Back.|
|Khoo Fuk-lung /|
|Saint, Solar Lord|
The earliest wuxia films date back to the 1920s. Films produced by King Hu and the Shaw Brothers Studio featured sophisticated action choreography using wire and trampoline assisted acrobatics combined with sped-up camera techniques. The storylines in the early films were loosely adapted from existing literature.
Cheng Pei-pei and Jimmy Wang were two of the biggest stars in the days of the Shaw Brothers Studio and King Hu. Cantonese screen idol Connie Chan grew up starring in wuxia films and was famous for her male roles. Jet Li is a more recent star of wuxia films, having appeared in Swordsman II and Hero, as are Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, and Brigitte Lin. Yuen Woo-ping is 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 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 appeal to a variety of audiences.
Western attempts at the genre have been limited such as the 2008 film, The Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michael Angarano. However, a major exception is DreamWorks Animation's media franchise Kung Fu Panda. Created as an earnest, if humorous, emulation by producers who were knowledgeable admirers of the genre, the series has been particularly hailed in China as an excellent contribution to the form.