During my research on Kung Fu I often enough stumbled upon the term Wuxia. Accordingly I researched it. Wuxia is a Chinese story genre and usually the content is about a knightly hero who is a master of Wushu. So Wuxia is roughly the same as our classic fantasy stories. A modern, well-known representative of Wuxia in the film genre is ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’.
The literary, knightly hero has nothing to do with nobility or high birth. A Xia need not have a noble descent like Tolkien’s Aragorn, but can come from any class. Often a young hero is confronted with a terrible fate and has to pass many tests. Another important part of Wuxia is a corrupt system that forces the hero to take his fate into his own hands. Through extraordinary events, the hero figure then gains the opportunity to learn Wushu. Through their own hard work, meditation and often guided by an excellent teacher, they achieve an outstanding status themselves. The skills that the figure develops are superhuman, based on principles of Daoism, Buddhism or traditional Chinese medicine.
The stories are usually set in the past and are often based on real events. Central events from the history of Kung Fu have been repeatedly incorporated into Wuxia novels. A good example is the destruction of the southern Shaolin monastery. Countless stories entwine themselves around the five survivors. Many novels are also set in the Qing Dynasty and describe the Manchurian occupiers as the enemy.
Although many Wuxia stories are set in a historical context, they have the same historical claim as our fantasy novels. The density of Wuxia often makes it difficult to distinguish what is historically documented and what is not. Novels like ‘The Three Realms’ are also often seen and used as contemporary witnesses and depictions of real history – not least because much of Chinese history has been lost.
History of Wuxia
Wuxia is a very traditional branch of literature. The genre probably originated from the stories about travelling knights and assassins (Youxia) from the 3rd and 2nd century BC. Assassin in this case does not mean a cowardly assassin, but a fighter who kills important people of other nations. Such a task was considered noble. The term Xia is not by chance present in both Wu Xia and You Xia. It describes a knightly hero.
The first novels explicitly known as Wuxia, however, are from the Ming Dynasty. These include ‘The Robbers of Liang Shaan Moor’ by Shi Naian and ‘The Three Realms’ by Luo Guanzhong.
Due to Wuxia’s often critical attitude towards the system, individual works were repeatedly banned in both the Ming and Qing Dynasties. They were described as seditious and inflammatory. The genre was nevertheless extremely popular among the people.
In the phase of the People’s Republic of China, Wuxia was completely banned as a literary genre in 1931. However, this did not stop well-known authors like Jin Yong (1924 – 2018) from writing anyway. The ban was lifted again in the 1980s. In fact, Wuxia received a very strong boost in the 20th century and made the leap to the West. Movies like ‘Hero’, ‘Tiger and Dragon’, ‘The Curse of the Golden Flower’ and ‘A Chinese Ghost Story’ found an enthusiastic audience in Western cinemas. Despite these successes, the western reader is still denied a large part of Wuxia for lack of translations.