Wuxia (武俠), which is a type of Chinese fantasy with a lot of martial arts. It’s a lot of attractive people flying around
with swords using powers, and it’s amazing. What you see wuxia world in dramas, what you think is the ancient Chinese cultural ideal world is actually created within the last say a little bit over half a century in the 1950s.
In this post, I am going to attempt to explain the rather complicated concept of Wuxia and Jianghu that even a lot of Chinese native people actually don't quite know about that. So if you're coming from a different cultural background and you don't speak the language it might be even more confusing for you to understand what jianghu. So first we have to understand the word Wuxia, and then the concept of Jianghu.
Wuxia World in Chinese Dramas
If you have been watching a lot of Chinese dramas, you may realize a large proportion of current Chinese dramas are of the period drama genre and within this genre. A large proportion is the Wuxia genre or versions that branch off from this genre or even if it's really a serious political or Romantic period drama, which is always an element that will show up somewhere within the story. You almost never see a pure without wuxia element period drama, these days given that it really is depicting a concept and idea and a world that is long gone, and it's not even anything resemble how Chinese people live these days it's a very interesting cultural phenomenon.
The genre started out as novels but spread into movies and TV shows that made my younger years quite unproductive. Wuxia means roughly martial arts heroes. So the stories take place in ancient or medieval China.
In some stories, it’s a specific time period, in history, and in others, it’s the author going, “Look it happened back then okay? Some time back then, what do you want from me?” The characters in wuxia stories are these wandering heroes.
Wu is Kungfu, Xia is Hero
Think of the knight-errant in medieval European stories who go around saving fair maidens and following their code of honor. Like Don Quixote, but competent, and had readers other than college students in Humanities class. But these people are different from knights in that they’re not dicks from the upper class. Wuxia heroes are usually from the lower class. They’re not rich, they don’t serve any lord. They roam from place to place, living a romantic life not attached to anyone spot for long.
Alright they’re homeless, okay? The adventures of homeless people. Although it’s weird, they don’t have stable
jobs, but you almost never see them have money problems. The stories don’t go into that. They’d enter a town, and then pop into the inn for some wine. Dude, you got like 3 coppers in your pocket. Like the errant knight, they had their own code of chivalry and it’s an important part of the stories.
Wuxia Novels Master - Jin Yong
But before we go into that, let me talk about how freaking popular these stories are in China. The godfather of modern wuxia novels is Louis Cha, or better known by his pen name of Jin Yong (金庸). There was one author who wrote this type of novel before him, but Jin Yong really gets the credit for creating this entirely new genre
of fiction back in the 1950s, with its own rules and factions and themes.
The dude influenced every wuxia author that came after, kind of like what Tolkien did for the fantasy genre, or what Citizen Kane did for people who pretend to know what they’re talking about. He owned a newspaper in Hong Kong and the advantage of owning a newspaper was that you could put your books in it. He serialized his books in his newspaper and other newspapers.
Jin Yong was a really political guy and he injects a lot of political themes in his books. These were huge books by the way, some over a million words. The typical English fantasy novel has, off the top of my head, 50,000 to 150,000 words. He wrote his first book in 1955.
They became so popular that even today, decades later, pretty much everyone in China and Hong Kong knows Jin Yong. Kids still read them. You can mention the name of a major character to any Chinese person and that person will probably not know who it is because of your accent. But yeah, most Chinese are familiar with major characters from Jin Yong’s novels. They remake TV series based on his books like every few years, and he had a lot of books.
Jianghu is A Dream World
At least one series based on his books is ongoing in China or Hong Kong at any one time. They’re basically the same stories but with different actors and special effects. Hollywood saw that and thought it was brilliant. So these wuxia characters are part of this society or community called Jiangsu (江湖), or the martial arts world. You know how in that masterpiece of a movie, Twilight, Bella was a normal high school girl, but when she met Edward she was introduced to this underworld of vampires and werewolves that existed right under everyone’s noses?
The martial arts world is kind of like that, but with less depression. It’s a society of people with kickass martial
arts that exists alongside the normal world. It’s called Jiangsu. The martial arts world is a pretty good translation.
Sometimes people translate it as martial world, or underworld, but underworld implies something bad or evil. Sometimes people call it pugilist world, which...c’mon guys. But one difference between this world and the world of vampires is that it’s not secret.
Normal people know that these heroes live among them. The martial arts world lives outside the law. It has its own rules and morality. The jianghu code of chivalry has the usual values. A hero should be righteous, honorable, chivalrous. They should fight for justice. Their word is their bond. No fighting dirty, like going for the crotch. Revenge is important. If someone kills your master, duty dictates that you must kill the murderer.
Wuxia is Perfect World
People would understand and not get in your way. Unless those people are disciples of the murderer, then they would go after you. You can see how this causes issues.
They also have values that are unique to the martial arts world, that you don’t see with knights or the samurai code of bushido. You must do whatever your master tells you to do, even if he tells you to kill yourself or watch an episode of The Bachelor. You must do it. Your master is the person who teaches you martial arts. He or she is like your father or your mother. No, your master is probably above them. You cannot learn martial arts from someone else unless your master allows it.
This is important because there are a ton of different schools of martial arts, each with its own style. You’re expected to stay within your master’s school. It becomes your school. Now these schools are not places you go to
learn, then graduate to go out into the world and become unsuccessful.
They’re more like clans. You join a school and they’re your family now. If they have beef with another school, congrats it’s now your beef too. Shaolin is the most famous school. Yep, that’s the Shaolin Temple. You gotta be a monk to train there though, which is a bummer. You can also leave the martial arts world. You can do it just by going away and living a normal life, only interacting with normal people. Or if you’re someone famous, you can officially
retire by having a washing of the ceremony.
Afterward, all of the alliances, vendettas, and grudges you had with other fighters are washed away. It’s like filing for bankruptcy if you were never a college student. You can live a normal life. Other fighters won’t bother you and you can’t bother them. It’s rare, but you can come back from retirement. Sometimes a person retires but then returns
Their grudges return with them though. Alright, let’s talk about crazy fighting techniques and abilities. Most people in the martial arts world have some fighting ability. The thing everyone wants is to get stronger, either by training really hard in their own style or by going around learning different techniques. The highest honor is attaining the title of the strongest. Here are core abilities and techniques that make up wuxia martial arts. Fighting is one of them, obviously.
Wuxia Kung Fu System
Some fighters don’t use weapons, they just use the arms and legs that mama gave them. Others do have weapons, usually a sword, but you have people who specialize in all kinds of weapons like a staff or a spear. And then there are the crazy mofos who use weirder weapons like fans, needles, ink brushes, and musical instruments. Which brings us to qi energy. Qi is this mystical force or energy within your body. Naruto fans know this as chakra. Wuxia fighters can’t do the crazy stuff that you see in Naruto, but by using their qi they can do stuff that normal people would consider crazy.
It’s how some people can use common household objects as weapons. They would infuse their qi into a banana or
something and make it as sharp as a knife, or turn the sound waves from a flute into waves of death. These fighters usually have more qi than the average martial artist. Qi is something a person can increase through training, like working out. The more you train, the more qi your body can store. This energy is used for all kinds of things,
like to become super fast or super strong, or even shoot energy beams from your fingers.
Qi is how unarmed fighters can go toe-to-toe with swordsmen. You know how in Kill Bill, they had the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique? If you’re hit with that, after taking five steps, your heart explodes. My ex hit me with that technique during our breakup. Wuxia fighters do a lot of that.
They’re called palm techniques where the fighter transfers qi into the palm and hits you with it. They can do this with a punch, but the palm is more common. Depending on the power of the attacker, the force of a palm technique can fling you back like a grenade or a rejection from your crush. Another ability is qinggong (轻功), or lightness technique.
This is separate from qi. These techniques center around movement. They allow you to jump far almost like you’re
flying, or run over water, or just run really fast. People would jump from roof to roof like they’re doing parkour, or escaping from the DEA. In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, there’s a scene where people are standing on thin tree branches like they were light as a feather.
Finally, we have acupuncture point techniques. In these stories, acupuncture points are real, and by striking specific points on an opponent, you can cause his body to do all kinds of things. Depending on which points you press, you can temporarily freeze a part of the body or the entire body, you can kill someone, you can cause them to laugh or cry. It can also be used for good, like to stop the bleeding when someone’s arm is cut off, and believe me, someone’s arm will get cut off.
Wuxia is Popular Culture over the World
Wuxia world is a system outside of the official system, because the official system, the court system often is depicted as corrupted and very bad. So when you go out and you go into the Jianghu world who has its rules. Jianghu has good people and bad people, they fight but there's always justice in the story ends, so it almost serves people's psychological need to believe that such a world could exist and have existed and there's freedom there's good morale. There is possibility and hope, they can believe in this fictional world and it helps them to really live through the difficulty.