Wuxia: Martial Heroes and Chinese Literature

Written by Tom

What is Wuxia?

Wuxia 武俠, literally translated as ‘martial heroes’, is a long-established Chinese literary genre that can be traced back to ancient Chinese history and continues to be produced today. The stories are most often set in fantastical pre-modern Chinese historical settings, generally during times of significant social or political upheaval. The historic events of these periods are sometimes relied on heavily as plot points, and other times merely provide a backdrop for the novel’s story. The plot normally follows a male protagonist who suffers a life-changing hardship during his childhood, such as the death of his family, and goes on to learn martial arts from various martial trainers. He eventually becomes a powerful martial artist who is capable of vindicating himself and his family.

Martial prowess and supernatural ability are blended together in wuxia. Photo credit to Charlein Gracia on Unplash.

Typically, the protagonist follows the code of xia 俠 which is composed of two main virtues: yi 義 ‘rightenousness’ and xin 信 ‘honour’. Benefactors are repaid, revenge is dissuaded, and loyalty to the teacher shifu 師父 is cherished above all else. This code of xia exists outside the bounds of the law of the land; it is instead a set of moral principles or a way of life. This is often referred to as jianghu 江湖: literally meaning ‘lakes and rivers’, the term was first used by a scholar during the Warring States period for those people who deliberately distanced themselves from politics. Those martial artists that refuse to abide by xia and take the power of martial arts for personal use are often the antagonists of wuxia novels.

Wuxia are not only limited to literature, but are also a popular form of television drama. These are often produced with huge budgets and an all star cast.

Protagonists and antagonists in wuxia novels will typically possess a number of skills and abilities. Neigong 内功 or ‘internal ability’ is the ability to channel internal energy or qi 氣 around one’s body, enabling characters to resist poisons and to gain superhuman strength and speed. Dianxue 點穴 is the ability to touch your opponent on certain vulnerable points to cause paralysis or even death. This is related to the art of acupuncture that is still popular today. Many characters combine hand-to-hand combat with weapons: popular in wuxia novels are the sword dao 刀, the staff gun 棍 and the spear qiang 槍.

In wuxia novels neigong is commonly channeled by sitting or lying down and concentrating on the movement of energy throughout one’s body. 

The Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of the most famous wuxia novels, and my personal favourite, is Jin Yong’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes 射鵰英雄傳. Set during the Jin-Song wars (1125-1234) the story follows the protagonist Guo Jing, whose family are killed fighting invading Jurchen forces, and who is trained in martial arts by a group of masters known as ‘the seven freaks of Jiangnan.’ The antagonist, Yang Kang, was also orphaned by the Jurchen, but is instead adopted into a Jurchen aristocratic family and learns martial arts to assist the Jurchen’s conquest of Song China. Both learn from a variety of masters, acquire romantic partners, and fight against a variety of opponents while travelling across China. It is a real page turner, with each chapter bringing new twists and turns to the plot.

This image depicts one of the earlier encounters in Condor Heroes between patriots Yang Tiexin and Guo Xiaotian and the Taoist Qiu Chuji, a real historical figure.


Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes was nothing sort of a cultural phenomenon in China. Numerous films and television series were made and continue to be made depicting the story of Guo Jing and Yang Kang. Comics, video games and music have also been created for the story. Jin Yong proved that, although the genre of wuxia is extremely old, it can still be popular in the modern era. In addition to this, Anna Holmwood is currently translating into English each section of Condor Heroes, releasing one book per year. Could this be the start of an international wuxia revolution?

Statue of Guo Jing at the Hong Kong Avenue of Comic Stars, Kowloon Park, Hong Kong.

About Interact China 


“A Social Enterprise in E-commerce Promoting Oriental Aesthetic Worldwide!”  

Aileen & Norman co-founded Interact China in 2004 with specialization in fine Oriental Aesthetic products handmade by ethnic minorities & Han Chinese. Having direct partnerships with artisans, designers, craft masters and tailors, along with 13 years of solid experience in e-commerce via InteractChina.com, we are well positioned to bridge talented artisans in the East with the rest of the world, and directly bring you finely selected products that are of good quality and aesthetic taste. 

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