Glad I asked. I’ve been sort of dodging this because I really dislike the idea of genre definitions – stories have to fall into some pigeon holes, right? I guess so we can wrap our brains around where they’ll be in the bookstore maybe? Or for folks who say “I only read X genre,” they know what not to read. I’ve heard it said many times (and I tend to mostly agree) that great fiction crosses or blurs lines. I could launch into a lengthy comparison of genres, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Wuxia is a lot of things. Here’s an attempt at a very broad check list :
1) Setting – historic China – wuxia is generally set in pre-revolution China, so the Qing Dynasty / around 1912 and earlier. The era and locations are sometimes almost completely unimportant, sometimes hyper-important. Stuff like “Lone Wolf and Cub,” while good, would not be wuxia (because it’s set in Japan). How important was the era and setting in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? Not very (go watch it again – could you actually discern what dynasty it was? Was that important?), but it was still there.
2) Fantasy elements – sometimes this is ultra-high fantasy with aliens invading China (yes, it’s a thing) and sometimes it’s more moderate, but almost universally there are characters who tend to have “magic,” usually in the form of fantastical martial arts. Carving sentences into mountains with their swords, flying through the air, killing people with music, etc. Clearly there are fantasy elements here which remove it from the category of “historical fiction,” regardless of its historical accuracy.
3) Martial arts – wuxia universally involves martial arts in some way. This is often where the above fantasy element comes in. There are a few “detective-style” stories in wuxia where the protagonist is a Sherlock Holmes -type investigator who pieces clues together by studying battlefields. Even if the main character isn’t a fighter, martial arts are involved.
4) “Adventure” – a broad term, characters in wuxias leave their “comfort zone” in some way, most often physically / geographically. Protagonists have to chase their dreams and goals into danger, or be chased by something / someone into the outside world.
5) Romance – not having read ALL wuxia, I’m not entirely sure how “universal” this is, but from everything I have seen, it’s at least a subplot, if not the crux of the entire story. The romance in “Return of the Condor Heroes” is a centerpiece around which most of the other elements revolve, but there’s still a LOT of ass-kicking.
6) Chivalry – also not sure how “universal” this is, but the “jianghu” or martial arts world, is a chivalrous association. There are certainly villainous characters in the jianghu, but by and large it’s made up of Robin Hood-esque characters who generally don’t give a damn about their social / economic / legal status, they’re gonna fight for what’s right. “Water Margin” (aka “All Men are Brothers”) is a “classic” wuxia about 108 heroic outlaws who oppose the corrupt government and invaders.
So there ya go, super broad definitions. I will no doubt reference this in my future writings about wuxia.
Also, seriously don’t consider these the “last word” on what makes something wuxia. Remember that part in the opening where I said I dislike genre definitions?