Recently, we’ve been hearing this word thrown around a lot, first with Disney’s live action Mulan remake last year and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings this fall. If you’re like me, you may have thought this was a producer, or a new effects company…I was completely clueless that Wuxia is actually a storytelling tradition that is thousands of years old! From oral traditions, to epics, to published short stories in the 9th and 10th centuries, and finally modern novels and hit blockbuster movies, it has captured the imagination of billions of people.
Wuxia is generally translated as “martial arts heroes,” who are often ordinary people that devote themselves to training their bodies and minds, and follow a specific code of conduct, much like a knight’s code of honor or the code of bushido. Unlike European knights or Japanese samurai however, these heroes did not owe their allegiance to any lord or political power.
The code that these heroes followed was essentially derived from traditional Confucian virtues, including truthfulness, altruism, and justice. They used their abilities to help those they encountered, and punished evildoers. For these reasons, though they were shunned by society at large, they were looked up to by the masses; they were folk heroes like Robin Hood, who could help the poor and needy when normal means failed them.
Yet their individualism ran counter to Confucian teachings, and in a society that honored scholars, the reliance of Wuxia heroes on violence to solve disputes and punish wrongdoers was frowned upon (it also fostered prolonged revenge cycles, which feature prominently in Wuxia stories). The Wuxia heroes instead found community in the Jiang Hu, or parallel world. It was a separate society which was inhabited by practitioners of martial arts and others on the fringes of normal society. Though it could be considered a secret society, its existence was common knowledge to those in normal society.
Within the Jiang Hu, they dedicated themselves to learning from a martial arts master, whose edicts were inviolable to their disciples. These master and student groups were often organized into schools, or clans. This master (if they accepted the wuxia hero) would teach them everything they knew, becoming more important than a parent to them, and in turn the rivalries and the vendettas of their master would become the disciples’ own, thrusting the heroes into conflict beyond their ken.
Each school would teach a unique style of martial arts. Though we may be familiar with martial arts as fighting with your bare hands and feet, martial arts schools based around different weapon styles seem to be the norm in Wuxia stories. There are 18 common weapons that pop up frequently, and named weapons with a long history can feature prominently, but many authors and directors have certainly added beautiful and deadly new weapons to the mix.
That said, anything as ordinary as a fan or a calligraphy brush could be a weapon in the hands of a master of Qi. Like the Force in Star wars, Qi (sometimes translates as chi or ki) is the life energy of all living things but you don’t have to be born with special Force-sensitivity to be able to learn to use Qi; in Wuxia stories anyone can do it with proper training and dedication! Similarly, learning Qinggong techniques would allow for incredible feats of movement by the user, such as flying through the air, floating on the water’s surface, or alighting on a tree without stirring a single leaf. Both of these concepts are based on real techniques in Chinese martial arts, but tend towards the fantastical in Wuxia stories.
In fact, most of the martial arts used in Wuxia stories are usually based on real schools and traditions. Though most Wuxia stories were written against historical backdrops in ancient China, modern storytellers have pushed the boundaries of the genre to write new Wuxia stories set in modern, urban life, or even in futuristic settings. While outlawed for 50 years under the Republican Era of the early twentieth-century, the genre was revived to great popular acclaim by Shiao Yi, Jin Yong, and others in the 1950s and 1960s, and has rocked the big screen of Chinese cinema ever since. Wuxia and Wuxia-inspired stories have existed for millennia, and continue to be hugely popular with Asian audiences today. I for one am eager to learn more, and am incredibly excited to see where new authors and directors can take these rich stories in the future.