Last time I did a post detailing my own definitions of wuxia. I’d like to go a little more in-depth and talk about some things that many wuxia stories have in common, but don’t necessarily define the genre.
1) Cultural / social / political / etc. commentary – Yep. While they’re fun stories with high-flying martial arts, there’s a lot of hidden cultural / social / political commentary. One plot in “Demi-gods & Semi-devils” is driven by blatant racial issues – Qiao Feng is a pretty decent guy, but since he’s a Khitan (a northern people viewed as barbarians), everyone starts to hate him. On the other side of this, outsiders like the Manchus, Mongols, etc. are often portrayed as corrupt savages, even when they’re in power. Then again, people in positions of power are often vilified in wuxia, regardless of their racial affiliation. Morality, religion, social status, etc. there are a lot of statements about these, but most are in a cultural context that transcends a simple translation from Chinese.
2) Lots of characters – This sort of thing has gotten a lot of attention with western fantasies like Game of Thrones and the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Wuxia has a tendency towards having a huge cast too – “Water Margin” is about 108 heroic outlaws, and that’s just the good guys. “The Deer and the Cauldron” has at least that many, and some consider “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” a wuxia, which has almost a thousand characters. As a counterpoint, think back to the 2004 movie “Hero” with Jet Li – there were only 6 dramatic characters in the story.
3) The jianghu or “rivers and lakes” – The idea of the jianghu is that there’s a society of martial artists, sometimes official, sometimes very unofficial, but it’s a community where reputation means a lot. The one true constant is that the jianghu is supposed to be a chivalrous order – governments and laws are usually corrupt in wuxia stories, but the jianghu is a realm which operates outside those rules and adjudicates disagreements in its own ways. In some stories there are even “leaders” of the jianghu who are chosen through various means. It’s important to note that the jianghu isn’t always a huge deal in wuxia stories – it wasn’t mentioned but once or twice in the “Yi Zhi Mei” series, but in “Heaven-Reliant Sword & Dragon-slaying Saber” it was integral to the plot.
4) “WTF is a 3-act structure?” – The standard Western “go-to” for storytelling is the 3-act play, and while there are variations on its description and specifics, the general sense is “beginning, middle, end.” The “hero’s journey,” in which the hero encounters an “inciting incident” which begins their journey. Wuxia stories often evade this. I’ve said a few times that wuxia “begins sort of in the middle, moves to a middle, and ends in another middle.” The protagonists of “Heaven-Reliant Sword & Dragon-slaying Saber” and “Legend of the Condor Heroes” are’t even born at the start of those stories, and when I asked Stinky “where’s the ‘inciting incident’ in ‘Return of the Condor Heroes?'” neither of us could find one.
5) “…and then X shows up!” – One of my favorite scenes in “Return of the Condor Heroes” is when Yang Guo and the Golden Wheel Monk are fighting over an infant. It’s a stalemate because each can only use one arm while they’re holding the baby, but then Li Mo Chou shows up, and she pretty much hates everyone, so she fights them both and takes off with the kid. In “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Jen Yu is about to kill Shu Lien when Li Mu Bai arrives, chases Jen Yu into the bamboo forest, and when she’s about to drown, Jade Fox appears to save her. Some see this as a “deus ex machina,” which isn’t entirely inaccurate – the Chinese might say “it’s Heaven’s will that this happened.”
Whew! Reading this over, I realize that any one of these points could be expanded upon into their own post, and on top of that I’m not even done with all the “hallmarks.” In order to give myself a break and not club you over the head with a wall of text, I’ll stop here for now.