The Anatomy of a Wuxia Novel
What is Wuxia Literature?
Regardless of their cinematic tastes most martial artists are at least familiar with kung fu movies. The high-flying genre, with its clichéd plots and wire-assisted action sequences, is a ubiquitous component of martial culture. Fewer people may be aware of the Wuxia novel. This is unfortunate as the Wuxia novel is as significant an influence on kung fu cinema as the frequently mentioned source of Chinese Opera.
Wuxia is a relatively modern genre of literature;; certainly it has its origins in the much more venerable tradition of the Chinese historical novel, but it is important to differentiate between the two.
Wuxia is a relatively modern genre of literature;; certainly it has its origins in the much more venerable tradition of the Chinese historical novel, but it is important to differentiate between the two.
Four classics of Chinese fiction literature have had a lasting influence. Each of these four classics contributed to the overall structure of the Wuxia genre while simultaneously missing components present in the modern genre.
For its fundamental components, the Wuxia genre is indebted to "San Guo Yan Yi" and "Shui Hu Zhuan" (respectively known in the West as "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and - variously - "The Water Margin", "Outlaws of the Marsh" or "All Men Are Brothers"). These novels contribute most of the elements used by Wuxia authors to create the basic structures of Wuxia literature, principally the Jianghu and the Wulin. However, it is equally in the debt of "Xi You Ji" ("Journey into the West") and "Hong Lou Men" ("Dreams of Red Mansions") - the other two classics of Chinese historical fiction - despite their less overtly martial focus.
We begin to see the Wuxia novel develop out of these earlier historic novels during the latter half of the Qing Dynasty. A strong example can be seen in the work of Shi Yukun (???), who was responsible for "San Xia Wu Yi" ("Three Heroes and Five Gallants") - a book later expanded by other contributors to eventually settle on its modern form, renamed "Qi Xia Wu Yi" ("Seven Heroes and Five Gallants").
This novel was derived from folk stories of Bao Zheng, or Justice Bao, a judge of prodigious intelligence and incorruptible moral character. The story of "Seven Heroes and Five Gallants" is essentially a series of detective stories set against a backdrop of an empire where corruption has increasingly held sway in officialdom. Supported by a small band of martial artists, the brilliant Justice Bao seeks to purge the empire of corrupt officials and reinforce the rule of law and (largely Confucian) morality.
These ideas later found a supportive home within the Wuxia genre. However, not until the twentieth century work of authors such as Gu Long and Jin Yong did the genre come to true fruition. In their work, and the work of their contemporaries, they combined elements of the four classics, of folk stories, and of early Xia novels (such as "San Xia Wu Yi") into an intricate and carefully detailed narrative structure, creating the influential and uniquely east Asian genre of Xuxia.
Having now, in brief, outlined the evolution of the Wuxia genre, we will turn our attention to the structure and characteristics of the genre as it now stands. For reference, we will frequently cite examples from one of the most beloved books, "Sheng Diao Xia Lu" ("Return of the Condor Heroes"), by arguably the most famous Wuxia author, Jin Yong.
"Return of the Condor Heroes" is the second novel of the Condor Trilogy. These three books, chronicle several generations of families and factions within the Jianghu from the fall of the Song dynasty through the Yuan dynasty and up until the founding of the Ming. In particular, this book focuses on the last vain defense of the city of Xiangyang by Song loyalists against the armies of Kublai Khan, using it as a backdrop to explore the growth from childhood into adulthood and to question the foundation of Confucial moral structures. The plot, setting, structure and characterization used within the novel make it the quintessential Wuxia novel and the perfect example for exploration of the genre as a whole.
The Setting of Wuxia Literature
A defining characteristic of the Wuxia genre is setting. This setting shares elements with the more familiar genres of historical and fantasy novels. However, it would be incorrect to call Wuxia novels historical;; for while they frequently make use of a historical backdrop (our example certainly does), they need not do so (another of Jin Yong's novels, "Xiao Ao Jianghu," literally "Laughing in the Rivers and Lakes," most pointedly does not), and the historical component of the setting, when used, rarely does more than provide a believable time and place in which the larger-than-life heroes and villains of these stories can act.
It would be equally incorrect to refer to Wuxia novels as fantasy. Although elements of the supernatural certainly occur in these stories (not only in the form of fantastic and unrealistic martial arts but as fantastic creatures such as the giant condor who befriends, heals and trains Yang Guo in "Return of the Condor Heroes"), these are often downplayed more than in the fantasy novels of the western world. These stories may contain mystical elements, but the authors of the genre go to great lengths to remind us that they are based in our world and in a formulation of our world that if not entirely plausible does not require a total suspension of disbelief.
There are two absolutely indispensable components of setting in the Wuxia genre. These are the Jianghu and the Wulin. Generally speaking, the Jianghu is the formulation of our world in which the Wuxia stories are set, while the Wulin is the culture in which the principal characters of Wuxia stories act.
The word Jianghu literally means "rivers and lakes," but one should not let the aquatic translation of the term confuse them. Contextually, the Jianghu can have many specific meanings. Within the context of Wuxia literature, the Jianghu often refers to a world of complications where the dividing line between friend and foe, loyalty and betrayal, life and death is razor thin. As this genre originated in China, the setting is usually China and those nations historically within the Chinese sphere of influence.
The Jianghu, as an element of setting, developed largely out of the settings of two of the four classic novels which we previously mentioned. "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Outlaws of the Marsh" (the translation of the title we prefer and will use for all future references) present a world where social order has collapsed due to corruption, poor government, war and dynastic change.
In a chaotic time such as this, the population is largely subject to the petty tyrannies of strongmen who, through force of arms or threat of punishment, extort whatever they wish from a subjugated populace. This provides a rich plethora of antagonists from all walks of society.
Important antagonists within "Return of the Condor Heroes" include no less than Kublai Khan himself, as his army of Mongols oppresses the Chinese citizenry and attempts to conquer the strategically important city of Xiangyang.
At an intermediate level, Gongsun Zhi does not command the massive army of Kublai Khan;; but while his petty plots may not threaten the stability of the nation, the tyrannies he visits upon his family, retainers and visitors to the estate he rules are no less odious for their smaller scale.
Providing a third (and even more petty) example of antagonism within our chosen example is the character known as Li Mochou. Li Mochou does not use her carefully cultivated strength and cruelty to capture or command. This nihilistic bandit and assassin wanders the world seemingly seeking nothing more than to make everyone she encounters as miserable as she is herself. Frequently she disappears from the story after some minor setback only to pop up again at some inopportune moment like a bad weed.
A population oppressed by such a variety of villains will inevitably see a strange cross section of protagonists emerge. The protagonists of the Jianghu are, in some cases, differentiated from the antagonists only by the finest of margins.
The crux of the division between hero and villain is largely related to the quality of loyalty. Yang Guo's father, Yang Kang, is a major antagonist of the first novel of the trilogy despite being the sworn brother of the chief protagonist, Guo Jing. Yang Kang is intelligent but treacherous. The nearly moronic Guo Jing, however, is exceptionally loyal. Yang Kang's son Yang Guo is, in his turn, a heroic character because, despite misunderstanding and occasional conflict with other protagonists, he remains ultimately loyal.
Many of the heroes of Wuxia stories are essentially vagabonds. Though some may have had noble upbringings (Guo Jing and his mother were guests of Ghengis Khan during his formative years), many more were orphans who lacked inheritance, property or wealth. These heroes frequently overcome entrenched and politically powerful rivals through physical strength (readily be seen as a metaphor for their moral strength) and through popularity with their peers and with the subjected population who see this bizarre assortment of robin hoods as liberators. Together the heroes and villains who populate the Jianghu form the second fundamental locus of the setting: the Wulin.
The Wulin is, as we mentioned previously, the name given to the collection of heroes and villains within the Jianghu. Certain structural elements occur in nearly all Wuxia novels, and these serve to differentiate the genre from others that share common elements.
The Wulin is a loose collection of martial artists. These fighters are usually not government-trained or -equipped soldiers - though they may occasionally be bandits and rebels against governmental authority. Even when a member of the Wulin chooses to take up defense of the nation, they rarely do so with anything resembling support from the institutions of the nation. Guo Jing is repeatedly rebuffed by an emperor (not seen, but referred to obliquely) when he seeks reinforcements to break the siege on Xiangyang.
The members of the Wulin are generally divided based on three structures of allegiance. The tension between these allegiances and the way in which the protagonists resolve the tensions is a major feature of the plot of Wuxia stories (as is the frequent failings of the antagonists to adequately resolve their conflicting loyalties). These three structures are factional loyalty, familial loyalty and romantic loyalty. Rarely are the tensions between these three forms of loyalty as pronounced as in "The Return of the Condor Heroes."
Factional politics plays a role in most Wuxia stories. The Wulin seems perpetually divided into several antagonistic groups. In the Condor trilogy we see divisions among the "five divines" (five martial artists of exceptional skill), their students and their rivals. These divisions exacerbate conflicts that distract the Wulin from the otherwise central task of resisting the advances of the Jurchens. Even after the Jurchen threat is repelled, replaced with the threat of the Mongols (who easily transition from ally to enemy as the political landscape shifts), the factional rivalries continue and are, in fact, passed down from the aging five divines and from the survivors of Guo Jing's generation to the youngsters of "The Return of the Condor Heroes."
The conflict between the Quanzhen sect and the Ancient Tomb sect does not lie in the actions of Yang Guo or Xiaolongnu any more than in the actions of Zhao Zhijing or Yin Zhiping;; however, mired in a conflict that predates any of them by nearly three generations, they find that their often contrary interactions are governed in part by handed-down grudges.
In Jin Yong's stories, this conflict is often portrayed as quite petty. For all their lofty ideals, the martial masters of the Wulin are often guided by remarkably unimportant grudges. Zhao Zhijing largely falls to treason due to his resentment of Yang Guo for forsaking him as an instructor. Yang Guo in turn forsook him as an instructor because he felt the man's skills were inferior to those of his own uncle (Guo Jing) and his godfather, the detestable Ouyang Feng.
The Ancient Tomb sect, a small faction of martial artists based geographically adjacent to the Quanzhen sect, has rules requiring them to express their dislike for Quanzhen - which Yang Guo is happy to accept even though the architects of the feud died long before he was born. When it is eventually revealed that the two became rivals because of a failed romantic relationship and that each sect is essentially incomplete without the other, the nature of this rivalry is exposed in all its pettiness and is ultimately resolved with the cross-pollination of Quanzhen and Ancient Tomb theories through a friendship that develops between Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu on the one hand and Zhou Botong (the most senior surviving member of Quanzhen and one of the few characters in the story who could claim to have met the founders of the rivalry) on the other.
Poised in conflict to factional loyalty is romantic loyalty. We have already hinted at this by suggesting a romantic source for one of the chief factional feuds within the Jianghu of "The Return of the Condor Heroes." But this is explored even further within the novel through the relationship between Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu. The two youngsters are close in age and rapidly attain similar skills; however, much of the novel centers on the strife that arises from their romantic relationship.
Although the conflicts this relationship creates are primarily familial for Yang Guo, the same does not hold true for Xiaolongnu, who has no family at all. However, this does not prevent Xiaolongnu from facing the ire of her martial sister, Li Mochou, who is scandalized both by Xiaolongnu's willingness to take Yang Guo on as a student and her willingness to allow the teacher/student relationship between the two to transform into a romantic (and martial) partnership.
Conflicts of familial loyalty frequently provide the most divisive elements. Yang Kang and Guo Jing are bound by a compact between two families that predates the birth of either. The obligation of their families to fulfill this agreement thrusts the two otherwise dissimilar men together in a way that culminates in conflict as Yang Kang must choose between the adoptive family that raised him and the history of familial connections that ties him to his homeland. His failure to resolve this conflict and his eventual decision to side with the Jurchen prince who took his mother in establish his status as an antagonist and precipitate his eventual downfall.
The fallout of this conflict is generational in scope as Yang Guo learns how he became an orphan who never had a chance to meet his father. Guo Jing, who is responsible for Yang Guo's upbringing until foisting the latter upon the Quanzhen sect, has remained silent on the issue of Yang Kang's villainy. As a result, Yang Guo has deep-seated issues of abandonment made worse by the various tribulations he undergoes throughout his tumultuous youth. When Yang Guo eventually discovers evidence suggesting that Guo Jing and his wife Huang Rong may have been responsible for his father's death, the bonds of familial loyalty are strained, and he must choose between the only family he has ever known and the father who sired him.
The rigid adherence to Confucian ethics of Guo Jing further complicates matters for Yang Guo when he brings his girlfriend home to meet the family. Confucian morality forbids the transformation of a teacher/student relationship into a romantic one, and both Guo Jing and Huang Rong (Guo Jing's wife) go to some lengths to attempt to disrupt the burgeoning romance between Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu.
This is actually one point in which "The Return of the Condor Heroes" stands out from the pack. While it is true that Confucian ethics and morality play an important role in most Wuxia novels, it is a much rarer event to find a novel willing to engage and, in fact, challenge Confucian morality. This quirk helps propagate ambiguity between friend and foe within the Wulin by demonstrating that the clearly heroic Huang Rong shares common ground with the evidently villainous Li Mochou - as each independently expresses very similar sentiments regarding the inappropriateness of the relationship between Yang Guo and his teacher.
These conflicting the Wulin loyalties create a tension not found in other genres of fiction. One would never expect Aragorn to sit down and have a chat with the Nazgul. And yet this is precisely the case within the Wulin - which is a small enough community that most of the protagonists and antagonists are aware of each other by reputation if not socially.
The close nature of the Wulin and the factions and families within it is a defining characteristic of Wuxia. Within the Condor Trilogy, Jin Yong presents hope for the eventual resolution of these factional rivalries as, by the advent of "Yi Tian To Long Ji" (known in English as "the Heavenly Sword and the Dragon Sabre"), the conflicts that drive the first two books have faded away. However, a cynic will note that though these conflicts have been resolved, this was done only to make way for new conflicts. The clever author then proceeds to allow the fallout of these rivalries to spill over into "Xiao Ao Jianghu" which, although not technically part of the series, occupies the same fictional history as the Condor Trilogy.
Plot in Wuxia
Jin Yong has a narrative style that informs the plot in all the books he writes. This plot structure has predecessors within Chinese historical fiction and is also present to a greater or lesser extent in the works of most of the other relevant modern Wuxia authors.
These works usually begin with a first chapter that is very nearly a prologue, divorced by time, location or characters who may not make an appearance in subsequent chapters. A tragic event will occur (frequently costing the lives of many of the characters just introduced) and this will set events in motion that culminate in the primary action of the story.
This pattern can certainly be seen in the Condor Trilogy. The first chapter of "The Legend of the Condor Heroes" concentrates on the parents of Guo Jing and Yang Kang, who die or disappear in short order to establish the situation that leads to the two young men's very different development.
Our main example is no exception. In this book the opening pages show Li Mochou arriving at a home to seek revenge on a former lover who spurned her in favour of another. Finding her lover and his wife already dead, she decides simply to kill everyone else at the house. This atrocity is largely irrelevant to the eventual outcome of the story (as Li Mochou exits the story years before the tale ends), but it serves two purposes. First, it introduces new factions previously absent in the earlier book, and second, it provides an understanding that there is no one starting point for the events of the Jianghu.
One must approach a Wuxia novel with the understanding that the story will already be in progress. The authors understand that the passage of history is fluid, and they attempt to show an openness to the start of the action that compensates for the frequently definite endings of the stories.
The use of returning characters within the first two novels of the Condor Trilogy furthers the idea that this is a story with no definite beginning or end. Even after the heroes vanquish their foes and get to live "happily ever-after," ever-after turns out to be only a short time. Ten short years later, Guo Jing and Huang Rong (the primary protagonists of the first book) return to action, albeit as secondary protagonists, when they decide to send Yang Kang's orphaned son off to school.
The temporally distant conclusion of the trilogy furthers this sense of "open-endedness." It provides only the slightest of links to the action of the first two novels, by means of the first-chapter inclusion of the daughter of Guo Jing and Huang Rong (an early teenager smitten by hero worship for Yang Guo in the concluding chapters of the second book) and the presence of two swords forged from Yang Guo's iconic giant blade (which serve as major plot items throughout the novel).
As the authors of Wuxia novels openly admit, they cannot capture the entire history of a course of events; so instead, they choose to structure the story along a different, and well-used, pattern - the progression from childhood to adulthood.
In some examples this progression is symbolic rather than literal. Linghu Chong, the protagonist of "Xiao Ao Jianghu," is an adult when first encountered and the book spans only a few years of time. Linghu Chong is not much older at the end of his story than he was at the beginning. However, we still see the young man progress from childish concerns and dalliances into much more adult ones as his unwavering loyalty repeatedly thrusts him into the rocks of betrayal at the hands of his inhuman master. The maturation of the character is as marked as if he had progressed from a ten-year-old boy to a forty-year-old man.
In "The Return of the Condor Heroes," the progression from childhood to adulthood is much more literal. Yang Guo is still a child when first encountered in the early pages of the novel. By the end of the story he is a battle-hardened and deeply wounded man in middle age. Decades pass as the hero develops from a rebellious boy to an exemplar of compassion, loyalty and forgiveness.
The use of martial arts further reinforces this transformation.
Kung Fu in Wuxia Literature
It would be nearly impossible to discuss Wuxia literature without addressing kung fu. In fact, we have already been doing so at length with references to the teacher/student relationship, the factional rivalries that contribute to the tension within books of the genre, and even by simply mentioning the name of the genre and of the community of characters within the stories (as the "Wu" of Wuxia and the Wulin is the same as the "wu" of wushu). Martial arts is an indispensable part of the setting, a fundamental device employed in all Wuxia stories, that provides insight into the metaphysics of the genre and is a symbol for personal growth of the primary characters within a story.
At the most basic level, martial arts enters the Wuxia novel as a part of the setting. The truth is that the characters who act in significant ways within the genre are, for the most part, martial artists. Pugilism is the primary career of the protagonists and is very frequently the obsession of antagonists. Some memorable characters (such as Ouyang Feng) become so obsessed with cultivating greater skill with fists and feet that they will take extremely cruel actions just in the off chance that their fighting abilities might improve.
This obsession with martial arts by the characters in Wuxia manifests itself in a standard trope of the genre: selection of a leader by way of duelling. In "Return of the Condor Heroes," Huang Rong steps aside as head of the beggar's guild and a contest is held to select the new leader. When some otherwise ineligible candidates come forward and successfully claim the right to compete for the position, we can see the extent to which martial skill matters to the population.
At this particular competition further involvement of fighters with little interest in leadership but significant interest in fighting against the interlopers disturbs matters further, and eventually a man is selected as leader who is most decidedly not the most powerful martial artist in attendance. This has later consequences when one of the pugilists who attempted to crash the party eventually murders the essentially defenseless man and the Beggar's Guild is forced to repeat the whole insane process over again.
The Beggar's Guild is certainly not alone as a martially derived faction. Quanzhen sect (along with Wuxia mainstays such as Shaolin and Wudang - neither of which plays a significant role in the action of our example novel) was, in reality, a religious order in which martial cultivation, if present, would have played second-fiddle to spiritual cultivation. In the world of Wuxia, this dichotomy is turned on its head and suddenly the fact that the Quanzhen "sword sect" is actually an order of Taoist priests is seen as mere window-dressing for their famous pugilistic powers. In novels featuring Shaolin temple we see the same process occur. Furthermore, this process has been so successful that many people in the west may be likely to think of kung fu before Buddhism when Shaolin is mentioned.
Of course, the martial arts of the Wuxia genre are not the mundane fighting arts of our modern world. Instead, it derives from a medical and metaphysical outlook rooted in Chinese traditional medicine and in folk stories of supernatural beings such as the Monkey King and semi-mythical folk heroes such as Guanyu and Zhang Fei.
A few common features of Wuxia martial skills are sadly unavailable to those of us who practice our arts in the real world. One such technique - a favorite of kung fu cinema - is called Qinggong (or lightness skill). Masters of Qinggong can't quite fly, but it's a near thing. The Qinggong expert, able to propel himself effortlessly dozens of feet into the air, to run across the tops of tall grasses and even across the surface of water, is a mainstay of the Wuxia novel. Beyond the feats of near flight and generic "lightness," these masters can also move at exceptional speeds over great distances. Even if the hero is not an expert at Qinggong at the beginning of a book, one can expect that they will have obtained training in this fundamental skill by the end.
Few people lay claim, in real life, to any real approximation of the Qinggong skill. However, people do claim efficacy in acupressure and neigong, which are two areas of martial arts seen in Wuxia literature and its predecessors.
Acupressure points are carefully directed strikes that rearrange the flow of qi through the victim. These strikes can render a person unable to use their martial arts, can harm their "internal strength," and can paralyze or even kill. It seems like every pugilist in the world of Wuxia novels has at least some skill in these accurate pokes.
Neigong is the family of "internal martial arts." Although pugilists in Wuxia stories can become skilful without the use of neigong techniques, the most effective and advanced of the martial artists in these stories are deeply skilled in some profound form of neigong. Within the context of "The Return of the Condor Heroes," the two pinnacles of profound neigong appear to be the neigong of the Quanzhen sect and the Nine Yin Manual. For the sake of brevity we will concentrate on one of these two martial arts, the Nine Yin Manual. This manual, stolen in the previous novel from Huang Yaoshi, is an object of much desire for the martial artists within the story.
Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu stumble upon a part of the manual which Yang Guo learns sufficiently to show Ouyang Feng the flaw in his own version of it. Ouyang Feng has been driven mad by practicing a flawed version of the manual and is so obsessed with mastering the manual that he allows other matters to fall by the wayside so that he can improve his skill. Fragments of the powerful skill are also in the possession of various other master martial artists within the book, including Guo Jing, his daughter Guo Xiang, and an eventual descendant of Yang Guo and Xiaolongnu known only as the girl in the yellow dress, who appears in the third novel of the trilogy.
Possession of martial skills, whether these supernatural ones or more down-to-earth systems of sword combat, boxing and wrestling, is a major motivator for protagonists and antagonists alike within Wuxia stories. However, martial arts play a symbolic role within the genre that combines with the more mundane role of plot device to give them even greater significance.
Wuxia stories are, at their most fundamental level, about the development of a person from childhood to adulthood. The ability of the primary protagonist to employ martial arts and his position within the rankings of the Wulin provide a metaphor for this development. In "Xiao Ao Jianghu," Linghu Chong (with false modesty) claims in the early pages to be the eighty-ninth strongest martial artist presently active in the Wulin. Although we can disregard the specific position as spurious, certainly it positions him as a middling member of the community, strong in his own right but far from the pinnacle.
By the end of the novel, with access to the superior neigong of Shaolin Temple and the sun-moon sect, and with the death of anybody who could have practiced the Pixie sword manual or the Sunflower manual, Linghu Chong is arguably the strongest pugilist remaining.
We see a more striking parallel in the character of Yang Guo in our primary example. Yang Guo, when we first meet him, knows only a few basic techniques taught to him by his mother. These are insufficient to prevent him being bullied. Huang Rong was the primary care giver for Yang Guo between the time he comes to Peach Blossom Island following the death of his mother and when he was sent to Quanzhen. During that (admittedly brief) time she did little to improve his martial arts as she feared he would turn out like his father. Yang Guo goes on to study a hodgepodge of martial arts from the styles of the majority of the five divines as well as the Ancient Tomb sect's martial arts and those of the mysterious Dugu Qiubai. By the end of the story, he is able to single-handedly defeat Jinlun Dawang - a feat that even Huang Yaoshi and Zhou Botong cannot match.
Wuxia Literature and Cinema
In some ways, Wuxia literature has been poorly served by cinematic adaptation. Many films promote style over substance, stripping the novels down to a mere sequence of fights and training montages. As we have shown in this article, Wuxia literature is much more than simply an assortment of battles arranged into a plot. Wuxia is a complicated genre of literature which, standing at the crux of fantasy and historical literature, manages to create an independent identity that has made it one of the most dominant forms of popular literature throughout East Asia.
Any martial artist who is interested in martial media would be well advised to read a Wuxia story. Translations can be found for some of the most famous novels through online services, although the list is far from complete. The good people at wuxiapedia have endeavoured to collect a group of translations of these stories, though many of these translations are incomplete.
For those who are fortunate enough to be able to read Chinese well enough to enjoy a novel, the options are much greater for now; but in a few years time, who knows how much progress the volunteers of wuxiapedia or some other enterprising fan of the genre will have made in helping to expose the western world to this sometimes bizarre and always interesting genre of fiction.
By Simon McNeil