Wandering heroes are found in almost every culture, stories of do-gooders who come across folks in trouble, and rush to their rescue, saving them from trouble or defeating the bad guys, without asking for anything in return. In Europe, they're called knights errant, in Japan they're rōnin samurai, and in China they're known as xia (the heroes of the wuxia genre). But whatever their name, these folk heroes have captured our imagination for centuries.
Members of these groups were highly skilled in combat, and abided by a code of conduct. For knights, it was the code of chivalry, an informal code of manners and ethics that were loosely applied to knights from the twelfth century onwards. For samurai, it was Bushido, a strict set of rules by which they lived and died (also thought to have been established in the twelfth century, believe it or not). The xia code was a little more complex, consisting most of commonly held Confucian values followed by the rest of society, with some notable exceptions that set them apart from society at large.
For the most part, we remember knights and samurai as fiercely loyal soldiers, completely devoted to their lords. Yet errant knights and rōnin samurai were lord-less wanderers, as in many cases were xia. While unremarkable in all aspects to contemporary thinking, this individualism is one of the key points that set xia apart from their societal peers, who strove for familial and communal peace above personal satisfaction. We may think it completely normal for such heroes to rebel against unjust commands from their lords or masters (or teachers), but that streak of individualism that we expect from our heroes is actually a strong deviation among these groups of soldiers who prized loyalty so highly. After all, heroes have to stand out from the crowd, right?
Whether they wandered in search of revenge, or a new cause to call their own, personal loyalty and an innate sense of justice was something that all of these heroes had in common, and that justice is precisely what made them folk heroes to the poor and downtrodden they met in their journeys. Whether a knight in shining armor, a noble stranger, or an unexpectedly strong beggar, these saviors are found in many different stories no matter where you are from.
However, one thing in particular that stands out about wuxia heroes, or xia, when compared to their counterparts in Japan and the West, is their background. Historically, knights and samurai both came from very privileged backgrounds; you had to be born into that class or status, and while it was something you dedicated your whole life to, it was not a life you chose for yourself. Outsiders were excluded, and knights and samurai were almost universally men. Xia on the other hand came from all classes and backgrounds, and could be either male or female.
While we at Immortal are great fans of all three groups of heroes, and their stories (real, fictional, or a mix of both), we believe this key point is part of what makes the wuxia genre so unique. That every one of us can be a hero, is a story we all need to hear.
by S. Sifton
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