Everyone loves a good underdog story. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone fight their way to the top, using pure will power to get there. That sense of hard work and diligence is one of the most important attributes to a wuxia hero, often going hand-in-hand with themes like morality and honesty. As a result, cultivation is perhaps one of the most core elements of a wuxia series. At its heart, cultivation is the process of growing stronger and gaining a longer lifespan, but the details of how people cultivate and the impacts it has on a person are very individual to a story.
The method of cultivation changes case-by-case. Even within the same world, it’s not uncommon for characters to use vastly different techniques. These can range from having to hunt dangerous beasts for materials, to making and drinking expensive elixirs, or to sitting and meditating for long periods of time. Having said that, most cultivation stories are heavily based on real-world Qigong.
Qigong is an umbrella term for thousands of schools and styles, but at its core, Qigong is about the coordination of mind and body, and the long-term health benefits of martial arts. There are two kinds of Qigong: active Qigong which focuses on flowing patterns of movement, such as Tai Chi, and passive Qigong, which focuses more on meditation and breathing. Together they create a system of self-care which balances mind and body, and improves health. This is the system you see in series like “Nirvana in Fire”.
More low-fantasy wuxia series might stop there, but more fantastical, or xianxia series, usually add to a basic Qigong system. Following traditional acupuncture, many of these stories will include the formation of “cores”, which is essentially the condensation of qi into a solid form. The qi is pooled in something called the “dantian” located in the lower abdomen and flows through the “meridians” - which are a bit like veins - through the rest of the body. Oftentimes this involves meditation, but can sometimes be done while moving or in combat.
Beyond the addition of the core, many xianxia stories will add their own unique twist. Series such as “Douluo Dalu” or “Soul Land” for example, have a system of spirits that cultivators must improve. These spirits give them access to supernatural skills and abilities, but can only grow by consuming the life force of powerful beasts. After killing a beast, cultivators absorb their powers, changing and influencing their future growth.
Xianxia stories tend to have a much greater scale than a more mundane wuxia world. Where a wuxia protagonist might be impressive for stopping bullets, a xianxia protagonist might reasonably blow up a mountain single-handedly. To quickly differentiate between levels in these worlds, authors often provide a series of “realms” or “grades” - some of which might be further subdivided into early, middle or late stages. As an example, a character could be an “early-stage earth immortal” and you would immediately be able to tell they’re more powerful than something like a “late-stage core formation expert”.
Oftentimes, the final goal of cultivation is immortality. Over the course of their cultivation, the characters gain strength and grow their lifespan until they’re so strong, they essentially - or sometimes literally - become gods and ascend to the heavenly realm. A mortal gaining immortality goes against the “Will of Heaven” which, in retaliation, sends lightning to strike down cultivators in a “heavenly tribulation”. You might have seen these in series like “Ten Thousand Miles of Peach Blossoms”. Every time a character in these stories makes a great leap in their cultivation, they must withstand a heavenly tribulation, the strength of which changes. Usually it’s based on how powerful the cultivator is, but sometimes their cultivation method exceptionally aggravates the Will of Heaven, in which case they may face even greater challenges.
Cultivation is a very deep and complex category of power systems. There are so many examples of exceptions and additions to the traditional system that it’s impossible to strictly define any given aspect of how cultivation works. Instead, cultivation becomes one of the most unique features of a wuxia or xianxia series and leads to some deeply creative world building. For further reading, check out this glossary of common terms and phrases.
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