About Wuxia Novels

What are Wuxia Novels?

A theme in Wuxia novels.

After his father, a devoted Song patriot, is murdered by the Jin empire, Guo Jing and his mother flee to the plains of Ghengis Khan and his people for refuge. For one day he must face his mortal enemy in battle in the Garden of the Drunken Immortals. Under the tutelage of Genghis Khan and The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing hones his kung fu skills. Humble, loyal and perhaps not always wise, Guo Jing faces a destiny both great and terrible. This is the notable story of “A Hero Born” by Jin Yong.

Since childhood, we started to read martial arts stories, the most popular Chinese novels called wuxia, mostly featuring chivalrous and righteous warriors.
Most people in the west may be more familiar with the term “Fantasy literature”,  generally set in an imaginary universe, with or without any locations, events, or people from the real world. This is Wuxia in Chinese fiction. Those supernatural and magical characters and creatures are common in many of these imaginary worlds of Wuxia. This kind of fantasy literature is not only for children or adolescents they are for adults too; they are fairy tales for men and women.
In the west, children are more familiar with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit. They are similar to Xuanhuan, a science-fiction-like genre in Wuxia.

Wuxia novels find their audiences not just in China, but all across South East Asian countries, especially among the local Chinese communities, like in Vietnam and Indonesia or Thailand. Wuxia literally means “martial heroes”. It is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China.

Wuxia has a broad sense and a narrow sense. Broadly speaking, it is traditionally a form of fantasy literature with chivalrous and heroic scenes or story settings; it includes historical and humourous martial arts stories. Ancient Chinese often saw them in different local operas, like stories from the Outlaws of the Marsh or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Narrowly, Wuxia includes only martial arts novels in the past century when it won its popularity after their adaptation for diverse art forms such as operas, television dramas, films, and video games.

The word “wǔxiá” is a compound composed of two characters: wǔ (literally “martial” or “military”) and xiá (literally “chivalrous” or “vigilante”). A martial hero who follows the code of wuxia practice is often referred to as a xiákè (literally “follower of xia”) or wandering swordsman even though they may not necessarily wield a sword.

Wuxia as the name of a genre is a recent coinage, but stories about martial heroes date back more than 2,000 years. When Emperor Qin Shihuang burnt most literary works, his dictatorship also destroyed martial arts works. But those stories remained in the minds of future generations. Martial stories have their roots in some early tales from 300–200 BC. There must be many more stories about the class struggles in the form of wuxia in the Warring States period. The philosopher Han Fei spoke disparagingly of wandering swordsmen in his book about five social classes in the Spring and Autumn period.

Some well-known stories include assassinations of imperial rulers, and most notably, Jing Ke’s attempt on the life of the King of Qin. These assassins were known as cike or stabbing guests. They usually rendered their loyalties and services to feudal lords and nobles in return for rewards such as riches and women. The Grand Historian Sima Qian detailed several embryonic features of this martial culture from his period.

Before the invention of gunpowder, swords and halberds were called cold weapons, in the era of cold weapons, personal martial arts skills were very important, they were used not only to protect the family and defend the country but also to seek fame and wealth, both culturally and in martial arts techniques.

The word xia in its context of describing a type of person is more difficult to define. A variety of translations have been used for the word. They include a hero, swordsman, adventurer, soldier of fortune, warrior, or knight-errant. In some respects, the xia is all of these things, yet these definitions neither fully nor accurately describe the xia.

Source of Wuxia Novels

There were at least two sources of martial arts literature in China: “One is the legend of the rangers and assassins in Sima Qian’s Record of History in the early Han Dynasty; The second is the miscellaneous mythical and fairy tales stories that prevailed between the Wei and Jin dynasties and the Six Dynasties. ”
Sima Qian wrote, “He is honest in words, effective in action, faithful in keeping promises, fearless in offering his own life to free the righteous from bondage.”

The Xia Value System

In The Chinese Knight-Errant, eight common attributes of the xia are listed as altruism, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth, and desire for glory.

Confucius said, ‘The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, the sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler.’ When he was to choose from these characteristics, he preferred food to military equipment.

In history, there is always a category of people, like today’s anti-governmentists, who have a different view of court politics and those in power, and anti-government activists in martial arts are those who claim to be chivalrous. They are exiled to remote areas for various reasons, and they rely on themselves to do a good job, challenge the powerful, and evil, and help the needy, but there are also times when they are confused because of the so-called heavy feelings and righteousness-kind of anger, just to repay favor or revenge, and they can ignore the laws of the country and the interests of others, this is what Han Feizi said: “Chivalry is forbidden by martial arts.”

The model of an ideal person in Confucian philosophy is called a junzi. Except for individualism, these characteristics of Xia typify the Confucian junzi (princeling, gentleman). The junzi embodied all of the traits of the Confucian gentleman, among them: ren (benevolence), zhong (loyalty), yong (bravery) and yi (righteousness).

In Chinese tradition, the “Five Virtues” refer to “Benevolence, Rightness, Propriety, Wisdom and Trustworthiness”, which are the core values of Confucianism.
Disregarding riches was a product of the (Northern) Chinese disdain for merchants and was demonstrated by magnanimity or indifference to monetary profit. Thus, in many respects, the values of the xia are merely an extension of traditional Chinese values. Few could live up to the standards of the junzi, though it was held up as the ideal.

Confucius said, “the junzi loves wealth, but he gains it by the Tao.” He implied that a good person gained his profits through righteous ways.

The best of the xia tried, but most were subject to human foibles. Thus, not all xia were altruistic, and many were acquisitive.

The emergence of xia was the result of social injustice. For the xia persons, frequently their sense of justice was subjective, and more often than not was in fact vengeance. Their sense of justice (and altruism) could also be looked upon as part of a code of honor that embodied certain elements of li (chivalry, propriety).
Noble xia personified chivalry, and even villainous xia would extend chivalry to those they deemed capable of appreciating the notion of honor. Loyalty was one virtue that defined any xia, but it was based on the oft-ignored principle of reciprocity.

Martial arts teachers want their disciples to be loyal to their masters. This is a very important point in their training and actually, it is the key to bringing tradition to the modernization of martial skills.

A xia who was not treated with due respect did not feel any obligation to serve his patron with zeal. This was not the blind loyalty promulgated by later Confucians. The courage of the xia was that of any fighting man, and his truthfulness did not always imply honesty. It had more to do with maintaining a reputation as one whose word was sacred, and could often turn to intractability. Even the desire for personal glory was not universal among xia. Some considered it counter to the spirit of wude (martial virtue), which counseled humility and forbearance.

What really set the xia apart from society was their value on individualism, and their willingness to use force to achieve their aims. Thus despite the fact that most of their beliefs were quite mainstream, xia were seen as a part of the counterculture. The individualism of the xia manifested itself as non-conformity with respect to certain traditional conventions.

Humans have hearts for freedom. That characteristic individualism is in the heart of every single xia as he must have the character to pursue personal freedom in society.

In that sense, the xia were sometimes criticized for placing personal loyalty above family loyalty. Often, an oath sworn to a stranger was considered more important than the unspoken obligation between family members. This was a serious breach of Confucian propriety.

Loyalty to one master often means the sense of adversary to another master. And this is often the cause for more conflicts in the xia society and the reason for different sects or organizations in the wuxia world.

To further outrage social convention, many xia had great disregard for authority. Those who were ostensibly their social superiors were often treated with open contempt, while those of humble status were shown great courtesy. Some characterize this behavior as rebelliousness, but in many cases it was due to a sense of egalitarianism.

The xia valued individuals over what they considered arbitrary labels of family and status, and were not loath to challenge such notions.

The Origin of the Xia

The first chivalrous men were mostly independent, personal actions, such as the story of Nie Zheng and the famous Jing Ke’s assissination of King Qin in the Historical Records by Sima Qian.

There were still many such people and events in the Spring and Autumn Warring States period, when due to the struggle for hegemony and dominance between the seven states, there were many grievances and grievances, and the magnates of various states vied to recruit talents, and the warriors here refer to samurai,  such as the Lord of Xinling Jun and the Lord of Pingyuan Jun at that time raised hundreds or even thousands of such feast events.

This also created living conditions for such samurai warriors, most of whom were known for their chivalry, either for the country or to repay the favor of their masters, acting as assassins, and even sparing their lives for righteousness. This was a major social feature of the feudal period, similar to the knights of the European Middle Ages and the samurai of Japan.

History of the Xia

Sima Qian wrote in his Historical Records, “The names of the baseborn knights are now no longer heard of. The famous Lords of Yanling, Mengchang, Chunshen, Pingyuan, and Xinling must surely be virtuous people since they have gathered under them many knights-errant. Being relatives of the Emperor, and in possession of land and wealth allow them this privilege. Their fame has spread in the same manner as calling down the wind: even though the voice is not loud, the wind carries it a long way. Since it is now much more difficult, so much more valuable is it for commoners to try to distinguish themselves by practicing knight-errantry. Much to my regret, both the Confucians and the Mohists have neglected to record the exploits of the baseborn knights. Subsequently, these gallant men of the pre-Qin era have fallen into oblivion.”

The Zhou dynasty lasted from about 1027 BC to 221 BC. It was China’s longest lasting dynasty, as well as the final period in China’s golden age of antiquity. The dynasty had a warring states period of division when the country was said to be mostly at war.

The Zhou warlords maintained a semi-feudal political system in which the Zhou sovereign ruled conquered territories by enfeoffing kinsmen, favored supporters, and potential political allies. Those who held title to rule these lands did so without much in the way of centralized governmental control. In return, this new class of Zhou nobility was obligated to provide tribute to the royal court, and men for military service when required.

The Zhou Dynasty was also a period of “A Hundred Schools of Thought” blossoming. The fights of mouth often led to the fights of hands and feet.

During this period, warfare was a highly ritualized affair conducted by shi, the traditional warrior class of the lower nobility following the rules of li. In 771 BC, the Zhou capital was sacked by barbarian nomads, peasants in rebelliance as a result of long years of famine and heavy recruitment of the youth into the army, and the court re-established itself near the city of Luoyang, starting the period known as the Eastern Zhou dynasty.

Although the country was in decline in the moral sense, as Confucius said in his words, the states were at large stable due to common people’s aherance to traditional virtues or ethical standards.

In the following century, Zhou royal power began to decline, local powerful warlords no longer paid their respect to the central government and the Zhou king became a mere figurehead as his dukes vied for supremacy. In an attempt to maintain order, the Zhou king appointed his most powerful duke as pa (Lord Protector, overlord), in a system similar to the bakufu of feudal Japan. The first half of the Eastern Zhou, known as the Spring and Autumn period (Chun Qiu), was a time of great intellectual activity. It was during this time, that the shi became divided into wu-shi (military shi) and wen-shi (scholarly shi) groups.

Still the country was administered by “shidafu”, shi and dafu, “shi” more in military sense and “dafu” more in literary sense.

There was great turmoil during this period, as ministers usurped their princes, and large states began to engulf their weaker neighbors. Under such conditions, the shi became highly prized as men of unquestioned loyalty who could assist in the preservation and expansion of a kingdom.

The second half of the Eastern Zhou was known as the period of Warring States. The Ming Writer Luo Guanzhong opened his novels with these words, “The world after long division must unite; after long unity must divide.” That best describes the Warring States period.

As competition between the Zhou states became more bloody and ruthless, conflicts that were formerly settled through knightly combat between shi became battles between vast armies of peasant conscripts. Warfare among states became increasingly brutal, and the code of chivalry that bound conflict in the past was trampled in the yellow dust of the Northern Chinese plains. As kingdoms and palaces were destroyed, social displacement of the shi created a large body of roving warriors who offered their services as swords for hire to the highest bidder.

These men have been called you-xia or roving knights, and were patronized by feudal princes as ke (resident guests, or rather swordsmen). Among these lords were men who charged their retainers with carrying out justice and maintaining order in a time of chaos and upheaval. The most famous xia in these times were the lords of Yanling, Mengchang, Chunshen, Pingyuan and Xinling, who were described by Sima Qian as men of virtue for gathering many xia under their banners.

Sima Qian was born to a well-off, but not upper-class, family. His father was the court astrologer who held the title “grand historian” but whose primary function was divination based on observation of the yearly calendar and writing accounts of the emperor’s deeds, court life, and affairs of state. Sima was devoted to his father and acquired his same interests in history and scholarship.

Influenced by the writings of Sima Qian, the historian Qian Mu suggested that these lords were the original xia, and that the term only came later to be applied to the swordsmen who were in their employ. However, the truth of the matter can never be verified, as records of xia prior to the Qin dynasty have been lost to history.

After Qin unification of China, there was a suppression of xia by the Qin government, which adopted the Legalist principles Han Feizi, and condemned xia, along with Confucian scholars, as among the “five vermin of society.” The xia were temporarily driven underground, but soon after the death of the First Qin Emperor, the empire began to founder, and xia once more played a decisive role in the unification of China.

Wuxia Novels, Fairy Tales of the Low Class

Liu Bang was born into a low-class family. The race to claim the Mandate of Heaven became a struggle between the commoner Liu Bang, and the aristocratic Xiang Yu. Liu Bang eventually became emperor, and his generals and supporters received lands and titles. This turn of events brought many xia into the ranks of officialdom during the early part of the dynasty, and seemed to herald a period of ascendancy for the xia. However, Liu Bang was an advocate of centralized authority, and adopted a certain brand of Confucianism that was heavily influenced by Legalism as his ruling ideology.

Han Feizi was a strong critic of Confucius. The major concern of Confucianism was in establishing social harmony. The xia were a disruptive force in society, and their activities were seen as a challenge to Han authority. To counter this challenge, the severe measures advocated by Legalism were used to suppress xia during later years of the dynasty.

In the history of Chinese literature, the Six Dynasties of the Wei and Jin dynasties are regarded as the period of the formation of literary “consciousness”. The works during these periods contain the ideas of the gods and ghosts of the ancestors, as well as the yearning for surreal and mysterious powers.

The concept of ghosts and gods is an important part of the philosophical thinking of the ancient ancestors, especially the lower-class people. This is actually the result of people’s thinking about themselves, and the suffering of reality makes them yearn for something beyond nature, a special ability, and some special tool.

As opportunities in the upper reaches of society became closed to them, xia began migrating to the lower levels of society, where they often assumed roles of leadership in local communities. Under these circumstances, the composition and nature of the xia gradually began to change. The new xia who emerged were those of common origin. Many of these new xia were uneducated, and though they could boast of skill in arms, they were not the professional warriors of the previous era. Frequently, they were impoverished vagabonds who drifted into cities to attach themselves to rich and influential families. These landowners and feudal lords organized private armies, and their xia were used to control local power and resist the authority of the central government.

The common xia who lived up to the ideals of chivalry still existed, but the local bully (haoqiang xia) who used his physical strength to exploit the defenseless, and to carry out the whims of his patron became the rule. These haoqiang xia became the enforcers of the local gentry families. They extorted peasants, intimidated local authorities, and even murdered in the frequent vendettas between rival clans.
According to a feature in the Comics & Films, the names of most post-Han xia have fallen to obscurity. Except for those who made the transition into the world of literature little is known of their deeds. During the close of the Han dynasty, xia like Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu rallied to save the empire (at least temporarily), and later went on to be influential personalities of the Three Kingdoms period. During the turbulent era following the fall of the Sui dynasty, a new kind of xia emerged — the Shaolin monk. Bandits and warlords ravaged the countryside, and fighting monks came to the forefront as icons of stability and justice. Zhicao, Huiyang, Jueyuan and Tanzong were among the thirteen monks charged by Li Shimin (who would later become the Emperor) to capture the warlord Wang Shichong.

If it is said that the two Hans of the pre-Qin dynasty and even the Wei and Jin Zhiwei laid a solid foundation for the production of martial arts novels, it was a prelude; Then when the Tang legend led the way in literary history, martial arts novels really began to sprout.

The Tang legend set a model of literary “martial arts” for five generations when there was no outstanding development in the subject matter and more imitation of the Tang legend. But the Song Dynasty changed this. The period is of great significance in the history of literature, and it is groundbreaking in language. The “art of speaking” was widely circulated among the Song people, and this vernacular form of the novel had its roots in later martial arts novels.

Its theme, as Song Luoye said in Drunkard’s Talk: Novel Opening: “There are spirit monsters, smoke powder, strange legends, public cases, and simple knives, rods, demons, and immortals.” And these are also liked by later martial arts novels. No matter what kind of theme, love or public cases are often used as the “excitement” of the narrative. Love stories were not only popular at the time, but even in the current martial arts novels, the love factor was an important “highlight”. The emotional entanglement between beauty and chivalry is always the attraction of martial arts novels. Whether it is Jin Yong, the giant in modern martial arts novels, or the martial arts authors who have been popular overseas, they cannot get rid of the “emotional drama”. And wonderful love plots often have unexpected effects. In this regard, the Song and Yuan Dialects, have made outstanding contributions.
During the Song dynasty, barbarian incursions from the north saw xia of a more military nature emerge. Generals like Yue Fei and She Siahua, matriarch of the Yang Family Women Warriors fought against the Liao invaders. Xia of the Ming dynasty included Ou Qianjin, famous for his wu-gong, and Zhang Songxi who could still break stone slabs bare-handed at age seventy. As the Ming dynasty began to wane, xia once again were called upon to fight barbarian invaders.

These chivalrous warriors have existed in all dynasties, and their martial arts spirit of being righteous and awe-inspiring, helping the needy, pulling out the sword to help each other when the road is uneven, fearing no power, and not fearing brutality, is admired by people. Most of these martial arts people are real people and real happenings, such as heroes in Wagang Villiage in the Water Margin, Shaolin martial artists, and Wudang School of Martial Arts are real martial arts names.

The Shaolin monks Yue Kong and Da Zaohua fought Japanese pirates ravaging the coasts of eastern China. Qin Liangyu and her White Lance Troops held Sichuan against Manchu invaders for fourteen years following the conquest of the Ming dynasty. Ming restorationist ideology began to coincide with xia behavior, and they were driven underground by the new Qing dynasty. The xia of this era were Shaolin trained fighters who fought against Manchu tyranny. They were monks, outlaws, and members of the anti-Qing Hong-men.

These martial arts and martial arts stories that occur in real life provide a rich source and soil for the creation of martial arts novels.

The Ming Dynasty’s “Water Margin” is China’s first full-length vernacular novel, Water Margin is known as the germ of martial arts novels, the most martial arts characters in this book are Wu Song and Lu Zhishen have pre-Qin Chivalrous style, and the “flea on the drum” is the first character who can cross the ridge of the room. It has played a great enlightening role in later generations of martial arts.

The Five Elders of Shaolin, and Zhi Shan were some of the most famous fighting monks of the Ming period. Ming loyalists trained by Shaolin who formed the Hongmen, became known as the Five Ancestors of Shaolin. The Five Ancestors and their disciples solidified the association between xia and secret societies during the Qing dynasty. Xia was called upon to lead village militias against oppressive landlords and their private armies, rapacious tax collectors, as well as against bandits.

After the Xinhai Revolution, people were liberated from the shackles of feudalism, various schools of thought poured into China, the newspaper and publishing industries achieved unprecedented prosperity, literature and art were vigorously developed, literary and artistic works of various styles and schools were colorful, and martial arts novels also sprang up.

The anti-government sentiments of martial heroes led to their suppression, and the rise of a more acceptable form of xia — security escort. These xia guarded bank shipments and acted as bodyguards to Qing officials. This development was in some ways counter to xia non-conformity, but the security escorts embodied the xia virtues of loyalty, courage, and incorruptibility.

In the twenties of the twentieth century, there was first a group of open-minded martial arts novel writers known as South to North Zhao, whose representative works include “The Legend of Jianghu Strange Heroes” and The Legend of Chivalrous Heroes. Zhao Huanting wrote The Legend of the Strange Heroes.

Next we are going to talk more about martial arts in Wuxia genre.