For a long time, the genre of Xianxia dramas has always been an important category in Chinese television productions. Whether it's the once dominant and repeatedly aired "New Legend of White Snake", or the pioneering work of contemporary Xianxia dramas, "Chinese Paladin", or the 2017 sensation that sparked a craze "Eternal Love", Xianxia dramas are an inevitable subject in Chinese TV series creation. And beneath the fantastical world and martial heroes lies its ever-changing core, the values of changing times.
Classic values in Xianxia drama series
When reminiscing about Xianxia and monster-themed dramas you have watched, you may immediately think of classics such as "Journey to the West," "New Legend of White Snake," and "Gods of Honour" which were adapted from Chinese folk legends and historical texts.
Underneath their classic stories, these immortal drama series possess lasting vitality undoubtedly related to their fundamental narrative logic. For instance, at its essence, "Journey to the West" is a tale of team adventure where protagonists undergo different forms of growth after facing conflicts and difficulties.
The protagonist often embarks on a journey alone or with a team to search for something but ultimately discovers that what they find isn't tangible treasure but rather their own inner selves. At its core, this story explores how conflict events impact character development.
In "New Legend of White Snake," shaping Bai Suzhen's character embodies the heartland theme within this drama series. She becomes an active participant in romantic relationships by constructing a new female image characterized by agency over love affairs.
This kind of initiative-taking behavior by female spirits was commonly depicted in ancient supernatural novels: "Gentle and understanding women actively approach virtuous scholars, engage in passionate love affairs, and then depart either willingly or unwillingly."
To some extent, it reflects past unequal imaginings of gender relations. However, through the adaptation process by modern creators, Bai Suzhen has become a classic template for romance: an independent, opinionated female character who dares to make decisions and challenge authority. "New Legend of White Snake" has once been the highest-rated drama in Chinese television history with the highest replay rate as well as being frequently remade.
Regardless of whether it is ancient mythological works or modern online novel, the settings of Xianxia stories mostly originate from the "Classic of Mountains and Seas". As there is no specific historical background to rely on, the creation of Xianxia dramas often offers more freedom than historical dramas. However, the essence behind these legendary stories that have been able to endure does not lie in sensationalism and shock value, but rather in the portrayal of human nature.
Changes in modern Xianxia drama
In recent years, most new Xianxia drama scripts are adapted from online novels. Online novels allow for even greater imagination and are not constrained by existing character images; they can be completely fictional stories. By 2023, almost all well-known Xianxia web novels have already sold their publishing rights.
Xianxia dramas are also becoming a highly versatile shell within Chinese television productions where romance, workplace dynamics, school life themes can smoothly blend in with its appearance while maintaining a down-to-earth content.
In 2017, "Eternal Love" became immensely popular as it portrayed a classic narrative pattern for Xianxia dramas: The love between the male and female leads is destined; they must go through multiple reincarnations to save sentient beings while facing interference from malicious individuals before finally reaching a happy ending after enduring repeated heartbreaks.
Commonly seen xianxia dramas still adhere to the traditional model of "domineering boss falling in love with me". In 2022, "Love Between Fairy and Devil" was considered one of the best-received and most influential Xianxia dramas in recent years; it was once hailed as the light of Xianxia dramas.
However, it still told an emotionally torturous story about a strong-willed male protagonist who excels across three realms falling in love with gentle-hearted little fairy Xiaolanhua from Heaven Realm. When creativity becomes challenging to manifest at its core level within storytelling frameworks, creators can only try to differentiate themselves through other aspects of the setting.
Nowadays, time in Xianxia dramas is becoming increasingly inflated: "New Legend of White Snake" made people feel that waiting a thousand years was already an eternity; now, it seems insufficient without tens of thousands of years for a profound emotional connection.
Audiences have gradually become indifferent towards concepts such as multiple lifetimes and tens of thousands of years. They are acutely aware that tens of thousands of years are merely a narrative device; it does not represent concrete life experiences nor entail actual suffering.
In the realm of endless love narratives, the so-called chivalrous feeling in Xianxia dramas is gradually diminishing. The lines spoken by Xiaolan in "Love Between Fairy and Devil" seem to provide a classic footnote on this matter: "I love all living beings, as well as one person."
On the other hand, online novels targeted towards male readers, such as "Zhu Xian" and "Ze Tian Ji," follow a different but traditional formula, that is, leveling up through battles, saving the world, becoming unrivaled under heaven while gaining friendship, romance, and status along the way. These plotlines reminiscent of games often strike a chord with male viewers.
In contrast, some Xianxia dramas have taken on the form of family dramas. Elements of family ethics are indispensable; tragic supporting characters often come from tragic original families. Even if the protagonist experiences misfortune at birth, they still grow up in an environment filled with love. For instance, in "The Journey of Flower," despite being despised by villagers due to her origins, but Hua Qian Gu has a loving father who cares for her.
Henceforth it has been remarked that Xianxia dramas are ultimately contemporary plays adorned with new shells. They do not lack petty human affairs; rather they reflect the desires and fantasies of modern men and women. The immortal cultivators and fairies depicted in these dramas do not lead idyllic lives either; they also face complex workplaces, chaotic family relationships, and unrequited love.
Xianxia dramas in the worldwide market
It is difficult to say whether such domestic Xianxia dramas truly only suit Chinese tastes since nowadays it is no longer surprising for them to find international success. In 2022, the rights of "Love Between Fairy and Devil" were bought by South Korea after only one hour of airing. A few months later, Netflix also acquired and aired the series. On iQiyi's international media, "Love Between Fairy and Devil" gained global popularity within four hours of its release. During the same period, another Xianxia drama titled "Immortal Samsara" became a hot sensation in Southeast Asia.
Netizens ranked their favorite costume dramas on social media: "The Untamed" and "Ashes of Love" received the highest acclaim, followed closely by "Eternal Love," while "Love Between Fairy and Devil" and "Immortal Samsara" emerged as popular new favorites. Notably, within ten days of aired, the viewership data for "Immortal Samsara" in Thailand surpassed that of any other Chinese TV drama with over one million views.
Prior to this, Xianxia web novels had already made a successful foray into the worldwide market. In 2014, the first English-translated website dedicated to wuxia literature, WuxiaWorld, was born. Its founder is Lai Jingping, a Chinese-American who also served as the translator of the fantasy novel "Coiling Dragon." By the end of 2014, with support from book enthusiasts through crowdfunding efforts, Lai Jingping relinquished his job as a U.S. diplomat and established the WuxiaWorld website.
In 2016, the audience of WuxiaWorld had already surpassed one million people, with users from 115 countries. Even now, it still attracts an average of 760,000 visitors per day. Among them, Xianxia and Xuanhuan web novels consistently dominate the top spots in the website rankings. Concurrently, Gravity Tales and Volarenovels were also launched. The overseas consumption of Chinese Xianxia web novels has formed a professional industry chain that encompasses full-time translators, original authors, and comprehensive glossaries.
Riding on the early exportation of web novels, Xianxia dramas naturally gained a foundation among international audiences. For these viewers abroad, eastern culture is no longer a symbolized spectacle; what truly captivates them are those universal emotions mentioned above friendship, love, and family ties, combined with splendid aesthetics and fantastical settings. With its accessible nature and inherent allure as a Xianxia drama genre without barriers to entry, it is simply visually appealing.
The contrast exhibited by heroic characters in Xianxia dramas resonated deeply with many viewers; their personal charisma and chivalrous spirit fully embody the essence of Chinese heroism. Younger audiences immerse themselves in this series due to its vivid plotlines and rich character development while simultaneously learning about Chinese culture through watching these dramas unfold before their eyes.