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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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