Before I delve to heavily into the elements that make-up wuxia, I’d like to take a look back at its history to provide some context.
But first, a caveat : this is obviously a very abbreviated version of the history. I’m hitting the high points to give context, not doing a scholarly analysis of the genre.
As I said in part 1, the code of xia is an important part of wuxia. Part of the code of xia had foundations in real life : the concept of a righteous wandering swordsman, or youxia, was not made-up. While they may not have had the fantastical powers and martial arts as seen in wuxia stories, there was a time when wandering swordsmen & folk heroes were more than just characters in stories. I’ve heard accounts that say that as the more scholarly individuals came to be valued as opposed to warlords, these youxia fell out of favor with the educated classes, but were still highly regarded as folk heroes by everyone else.
Somewhere around the Three Kingdoms era (184-280), we get the source material for the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. While this wasn’t novelized (and made into plays, etc.) until the Ming Dynasty, there are folk versions of the story that have deep wuxia underpinnings. Sun Ren & Liu Bei as star-crossed lovers, Zhang Fei’s iconic shout at the bridge, Gan Ning’s daring night raid, Zhuge Liang’s various genius / insane strategies, Dian Wei protecting Cao Cao, etc. – there are numerous events that have taken on a fantastical air in the retelling, and many can’t be found in traditional literature. Sure, you can read one of the modern re-tellings, but I’m talking about the folklore versions that aren’t written down anywhere. There are even earlier precedents to these, like the attempted assassination of the first emperor, where history and folklore have interwoven, but I can’t sit here and catalog all of them.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), we see several stories emerge that have aspects of modern wuxia in them. Kunlun Nu has a black slave who could leap over walls and buildings (qinggong, or “lightness skill”), and Nie Yinniang, which is a woman who’s trained as an assassin but in an effort to get away from killing people, marries a simple man. Both of these stand out to me because they also feature characters who are still under-represented in media. Nie Yinniang is considered by some to be the first wuxia story, though it wasn’t in novel format.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which is my favorite, saw the release of the aforementioned Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Shuihu Zhuan / Water Margin, which I mentioned in my last post, where I talked about how it enriched the idea of the jianghu, and how sometimes the hero has to live apart from traditional society in order to fight the corruption that plagues innocents. We see similar ideas today in many of our superheroes and their alternate identities. Water Margin is widely regarded as the first wuxia novel, but it’s important to note that the genre didn’t really exist as a separate thing yet – it’s not like the authors set out to write a wuxia.
Side note : Nurhaci, the dude who started the Manchu invasions that replaced the Ming with the Qing dynasty, read Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and supposedly learned a lot about the Chinese mindset and strategies. I’m not saying that’s why he was successful (the Ming had a LOT of problems and was technically already gone by the time the Manchus invaded), but the point is that the dude wanted to learn about his enemy, so he studied their literature.
Wuxia stories continued to be released during the Qing Dynasty, but both the Ming and Qing began to ban art that could’ve been construed as inciting rebellion. Wuxia has a lot of corrupt government officials and heroes challenging social norms and traditions, which made those stories a target. Nevertheless, the stories remained popular with the commoners, but the point is that when artists have to fear their government, it’s hard to push boundaries and do new things with your craft / genre.
After the fall of the Qing, Xiang Kairen became what is recognized as the first wuxia novelist, with his work “The Peculiar Knights-Errant of the Jianghu.” In 1928 it became a serialized 16 part film, “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple,” thus making it also the first (and probably longest) wuxia movie. Sadly, there are no copies of the movie anymore, but it set an important precedent which we’ll return to shortly.
The 1930’s saw the rise of what is known as the “Five Great Masters of the Northern School,” which are Gong Baiyan, Huanzhulouzhu (whose novel “Blades from the Willows” was the first wuxia ever translated into English), Zheng Zhengyin, Zhu Zhenmu, and Wang Dulu (who wrote the “Crane-Iron Pentalogy,” part 4 of which is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). As is standard for wuxia, most of these stories featured protagonists who went up against greedy officials, which earned the ire of the real life government – officials read or heard about these stories and thought “that villain is a cleverly-disguised allusion to myself.” I mean, depending on who it was, they may have been right, because power doesn’t corrupt as much as it reveals a person’s inner self, and most antagonists in wuxia are characters who use their power to exploit people. Meanwhile, wuxia heroes tend to use their power to help people. One of the reasons these stories were always so popular is because they’re often allegories about the abuse of power, so it’s no wonder politicians felt called-out. To put it in modern terms, they were “triggered.” Anyhow, these various administrations enacted bans and censorship, which again hampered the growth and exploration of the genre. Still, these guys laid (or maybe re-laid) the foundations of modern wuxia, because it was about to explode.
What is widely regarded as the “golden age” of wuxia began in the 50’s and 60’s, with the rise of Liang Yusheng, Gu Long, and Jin Yong, known to some as “the Three Legs of the Tripod of Wuxia.” Liang Yusheng and Jin Yong wrote from the safety of Hong Kong, which was under British rule at the time, while Gu Long weaved his stories from Taiwan. These places were (mostly) free from the Chinese politics of the day, which enabled these writers to invigorate the genre with new ideas and new delivery methods – many works were serialized and not produced like a traditional novel. While these stories were huge sagas, their delivery with the weekly paper gave them a “pulpy” feel, and the writers used tricks like ending each episode on a cliffhanger. This a slightly amped-up version of what writers sometimes refer to as “micro tension,” where one uses small amounts of in-scene tension to keep the reader’s interest. When these works were completed and compiled into novels, they had a huge impact on the arts and media. Liang Yusheng’s “White-haired Bride,” Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes trilogy, and Gu Long’s Lu Xiaofeng series became and still are modern fantasy epics which are told and re-told constantly across East Asia.
I should also mention that lacking governmental censorship let these guys do other crazy, brilliant, innovative things. Liang Yusheng wrote poems to help describe martial arts moves and was known for having beautiful prose, Jin Yong’s “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer” and “Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre” series were both thinly-veiled (and suuuper harsh) political allegories, and Gu Long’s works often took on the feel of detective novels.
With the advent of film & television, East Asia was able to capitalize on the visual medium, where the martial arts component tends to shine the most. Probably the most-recognized of these movies were made by the Shaw Brothers out of Hong Kong. 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Five Fingers of Death, and my favorite, Legendary Weapons of Kung-fu, are heralded as classics (well maybe not the last one, but it’s still my fave). In television, popular wuxia epics, like Jin Yong’s Condor trilogy, were produced as a series. Remember how “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” was a 16 part film? The story was just far too epic to fit into one 2 hour movie, as are many wuxia sagas, which is how we get the modern 40-ish episode series. People read these stories when they were children, so getting them on the small screen was a huge treat. To this day, many wuxia stories are re-made in China like we re-make Robin Hood & Arthurian movies, and new ground is being broken all the time.
These days wuxia series have blown-up all over the world – not just in China. A couple years ago, the Chinese series “Princess Agents” achieved unparalleled success, reaching over 40 billion views on streaming sites alone (take that, Game of Thrones!). Modern manga and light novels are dipping into wuxia, some modern anime has roots in the fantastical martial arts of wuxia, and it’s easy to see how the ridiculous martial arts feats in wuxia have influenced Western action movies. Wuxia is still flourishing in print as well, just not in the West – there are countless authors writing it in various Asian languages, many of which deliver it in the same episodic, pulpy fashion that Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng did.
I can hear you now, saying, “well if it’s so wildly successful in Asia, why hasn’t it taken off here?” Ha. What do you think I’m trying to do? But seriously, that’s a topic for another post (or series of posts, kind of like the one you’re reading now).