What Speculative Fiction Writers Can Learn from the Origins and Evolution of the Wuxia Genre

by Yilin Wang

Note: This article first appeared in The Bulletin #216 in October 2021.

When I tell other writers who are not familiar with Sinophone literature that I am writing short stories and a novel that play with the wuxia fiction genre in English, I am often met with one or more of the following three questions: Can you explain what wuxia is? Do you mean a story like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Is the genre about martial arts and kung fu? In response to these questions, I smile awkwardly and sigh as I try to find a way to unpack the complexities of the genre that I love in a few concise sentences, knowing that my brief explanation would never be able to capture the multi-faceted nature and history of wuxia, let alone what the genre means to me as a writer and translator of the Sino diaspora.

“Wuxia fiction” 武侠小说 is commonly translated into English as “martial arts fiction,” but it is so much more than the quick-paced fight scenes and high-flying, gravity-defying martial arts that may first come to mind. The term “wuxia” actually consists of two individual Chinese characters: “wu,” which means martial arts or physical force, and “xia,” which stands for xiake, a type of vagabond warrior. The heart of the wuxia genre lies in its depictions of the xia—wandering heroes, outlaws, or someone in between—and their adventures, moral codes, dilemmas, and ties with one another. Wuxia stories often take place in a chaotic, lawless space known as jianghu, literally “rivers and lakes,” that is embedded in a larger Imperial China setting. The jianghu exists both as an abstract subcultural space occupied by social outcasts like the xia and as the physical wilderness and urban jungles at the edges of ancient China.

To better understand the wuxia narrative tradition that has influenced me and numerous other Sino diaspora writers, I have spent the past two years researching the genre’s history and evolution. My journey has led me to realize that, just like the free-spirited xia who wanders outside of the bounds of everyday society, the power of wuxia lies in the fact it’s not easily explained with a short definition or illustrated by a few examples. In this essay, I will give an in-depth overview of the genre’s development, charting out the ways that it centers characters who resist established power structures, expands conventional views of speculative and genre fiction, and draws on a wide range of Sinophone literature as well as translingual and transnational influences.

As I approach wuxia fiction from the liminal space of a writer and translator living in the diaspora, I hope to address Anglophone readers’ lack of knowledge about or stereotypical views of this genre while also highlighting aspects of the genre that may be unknown to or overlooked by Sinophone readers and fans. I hope this overview will help contextualize the challenges that writers and translators working with the genre in English may face; when I work with wuxia in English, I am not only trying to reclaim it and bring innovations, but also having to find ways to explain the genre clearly without erasing nuances, to navigate between cultural contexts, and to subvert the biases of the white, Orientalist gaze. For me, to bring wuxia into English through writing or translation is a way of highlighting marginalized voices fighting against systemic oppression, expanding existing definitions of speculative fiction in the Anglophone publishing world, and showing the power of cross-cultural literary dialogue.

The Xia as an Underdog, Rebel, and Upholder of Justice

Long before the term wuxia came to existence in 1904, the philosopher Han Feizi 韩非子 (280-233 BCE) was the first to give a clear description of the role of the xia, writing that “the xia uses physical force and martial arts to breach rule and laws.” He viewed the xia as someone who refuses to be limited by the conventional rules of society, but rather aims to carry out justice based on their own moral compass. Han Feizi’s understanding of the xia can be viewed in connection with the theories of an even earlier philosopher, Zhuang Zi 庄子 (around 369–286 BCE), who depicted the liminal jianghu world (which the xia inhabits) as directly in opposition to the ancestral halls and imperial courts, the two main physical and symbolic seats of power in Imperial China.

Although the xia in stories rarely follow the above binaries in clear-cut ways, these philosophical views of the xia and jianghu codified the role of the xia as a romanticized, unconventional rebel who carries out justice when systems fail. This perspective of the xia paved the way for this role to be filled by characters whose background meant they otherwise lacked power and agency in Imperial China. For example, many female xia are featured as protagonists in chuanqi stories, an umbrella term similar to “short fiction” that includes genres like romance, history, adventure, and supernatural tales. The chuanqi genre rose to the height of its popularity in the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). “Nie Yinniang” 聂隐娘, “The Legend of the Red Thread” 红线传, and “The Woman in the Carriage” 车中女子 center around a female assassin trained by a nun, a servant woman with incredible agility, and a woman bandit leader, respectively. These characters possess independent agency, follow their own moral codes, wield superhuman martial arts skills, and venture outside the traditional domestic sphere where women dwell to perform extraordinary feats in the wilderness, local seats of government, and the royal palace. While these chuanqi tales were likely written all through the male gaze, due to most women lacking access to education, these chuanqi stories established a strong expectation for the genre to center xia who are marginalized, such as women, cross-dressers bending gender expectations, elderly folks, and people from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Many Sino heritage writers with marginalized identities are now reclaiming this aspect of wuxia.

The perception of the xia as opposing unjust structures was thus well-defined by 1904, when the wuxia genre label was applied by Liang Qichao 梁启超 for the first time, to describe the 14th-century novel Water Margin 水浒传. The novel features a band of 108 outlaws who steal from the rich to aid the poor and try to start an uprising against an oppressive government, although they do not always act as heroically as they claim and are eventually recruited by the Emperor after he grants them amnesty. The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants 七侠五义, a novel from the Qing dynasty, further blurs the line between the xia and the systems the xia traditionally opposes by fusing together the wuxia and gong’an (court case) genres 公案小说. The novel portrays many righteous xia who help Judge Bao uphold justice, demonstrating how the xia can occupy the gray area between jianghu and seats of power, following their own values yet working on behalf of the establishment in spaces just beyond the reach of the law.

The view of the xia as an upholder of justice continues to be crucial to the wuxia genre while modern-day writers increasingly portray the xia as morally gray, question the use of violence as a means of bringing justice, and complicate the romanticized notion of individual heroism.

Xia Narratives as Fluid, Genre-Bending, and Forms of Speculation

While the xia narratives I have introduced are similar in their portrayal of the subversive nature of the xia, the worldbuilding scope of these stories differs wildly, ranging from historic sagas about real-world martial artists to low-magic legends where the xia possess wall-scaling abilities just beyond the edge of human ability, to high-magic wuxia-adjacent genres that feature immortals flying atop clouds. Many Anglophone readers are often surprised or confused by this grouping of what they consider “realistic,” “historical,” “surrealist,” and “mythological” stories all under one umbrella. This fluid view of genre is a common one in Sinophone literary history, however, and offers a broader and looser view of what may be typically labeled “fantastical fiction.” When it comes to xia narratives, which are sometimes referred to as “fairy tales for adults,” the speculative element is not necessarily the supernatural or magical, but rather the mere existence of the xia figure who challenges existing power structures and dwells in a jianghu world outside of the seats of power.

The umbrella of xia narratives has historically included legend-esque biographies and highly fantastical works. The earliest recorded tales of the xia were in Sima Qian’s Biographies of Youxia 游侠列传 (a volume from The Records of the Grand Historian), which contains accounts of xia characters who are actual travelling advisors, assassins, and mercenaries from history, but may be viewed as figures of legend. Later on, in Tang dynasty chuanqi stories and related short prose genres, xia narratives transformed from featuring historical figures to depicting greater-than-life characters with uncanny abilities to fly across a city, walk through walls, use magical solvents to dissolve a corpse, and change their appearance through shapeshifting. When some xia narratives fused with the gong’an (court case) genre in the Qing dynasty, this branch of xia stories broadened to include the xia’s engagement with two common elements of the gong’an genre—the logical reasoning of crime fiction and supernatural encounters with vengeful ghosts or beings from the underworld.

After the emergence of the term wuxia in 1904, a wide range of wuxia novels were written from the 1910s to the 1940s in Mainland China. On one end of the spectrum, authors such as Ping Jiang Bu Xiao Sheng 平江不肖生 wrote wuxia fiction based on their lived experiences as martial artists, drawing on their actual hand-to-hand combat experiences at competitions and their struggles with conflicts in the real-world martial arts jianghu. On the other end, Huanzhulouzhu 还珠楼主 wrote epic fantasy tales inspired by the tropes of early chuanqi stories, depicting xia who could fly atop a sword across mountains, cultivate to become immortals, and possess Daoist magic. His stories inspired the creation of a wuxia-adjacent genre known as xianxia fiction 仙侠小说, which has seen a revival in popularity in the 21st century through online web publishing platforms and drama adaptations. Notable examples include Jade Dynasty 诛仙, The Journey of Flower 花千骨, and Eternal Love 三生三世十里桃花.

The genre of New Wuxia 新武侠, the second iteration of the wuxia genre that most Anglophone readers are more familiar with, was born in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s. After the initial popularity of Old Wuxia in Mainland China, a new generation of wuxia writers emerged in Hong Kong with Liang Yusheng 梁羽生 and Jin Yong 金庸 at its helm. In particular, Jin Yong’s work is notable for alluding to many xia narratives from various dynasties. He also established many aspects of jianghu settings now taken for granted, such as complex characters with colorful titles (“Seven Freaks of the South”) and fantastical martial arts moves with memorable names (“Nine Darkness Skeleton Claws”), and fused wuxia with the genres of the historical epic (creating nonlinear multi-generational narratives with plot twists) and romance tales (introducing tropes like love triangles, enemy-to-lovers, and conflicting loyalties). He went on to craft fifteen individual or serialized book-length works of wuxia fiction, which led him to become the best-known writer of wuxia in the Sinophone world.

The wide range of stories introduced here shows the fluid, ever-changing nature of genre in Sinophone literature, and grouping all these tales under the scope of xia narratives offers an unconventional view of what constitutes a speculative element. It is not the magical or supernatural that makes xia narratives speculative, but rather the existence of a rebel who exists outside institutional norms, defies figures of authority, and upholds true justice. Perhaps, for some readers, this is even harder to imagine than the existence of magic.

The Translingual and Transnational Nature of Wuxia

In 2020, I learned during my research on the wuxia genre’s origins that the characters for the Mandarin Chinese term wuxia 武侠 and the Japanese term bukyō 武侠 are identical, which led me to delve into the connection between the two terms and uncover an often overlooked part of wuxia’s literary history. A Chinese article about the origins of wuxia cites Yumi Okazaki, Jin Yong’s Japanese translator, as saying that the term bukyō first appeared in Japanese, in the title of Shunrō Oshikawa’s book Bukyō no Nippon, two years before the term wuxia appeared in Mandarin Chinese. Oshikawa’s book features submarine warfare and drew inspiration from Jules Verne. After consulting with several translators and scholars of Japanese literature, I learned little information exists on how or why the term bukyō was coined, but the character “bu” shares etymology with the term Bushidō (the way of the samurai), whereas the character “kyō” refers to a spectrum of behaviors from chivalry and bravery to wild toughness, which bears some resemblance with the representation of the xia throughout Sinophone literary history.

Liang Qichao was living in Japan when he first used the term wuxia to describe Water Margin, in a literary journal that he founded to publish Chinese fiction and translations, including translated Japanese science fiction. A year later, he wrote a book, 中国之武士道, the title of which can be translated into The Bushidō of China. It featured many historical tales of the xia that are akin to but predate the stories in Sima Qian’s Biographies of Youxia. The identical characters for bukyō and wuxia, the popularity of translated Japanese science fiction at the time, and the similar ways that Liang Qichao use bushidō and wuxia suggest the influence of samurai stories and science fiction adventure novels on the origin of wuxia. Ironically, the meaning of the term bukyō has evolved since a century ago and is now used in Japanese to describe translated wuxia fiction such as Jin Yong’s.

Similarly, New Wuxia authors such as Jin Yong and Gu Long 古龙 also drew inspiration from a range of international and non-literary influences besides Sinophone narratives about the xia, demonstrating these writers’ openness to world literature and to other storytelling mediums. In my essay “A Xiákè in Jiānghú: Wǔxiá Fiction, Translations, and #RacismInCanLit,” which appeared in carte blanche, I wrote about how some of Jin Yong’s works were influenced by Greek myths like Pygmalion, Shakespeare’s plays, and The Count of Monte Cristo. His work also borrowed film and stage play techniques such as blocking and cliffhangers, as well as the rotating point-of-view present in the Japanese movie Rashomon. I also wrote in the same essay about Taiwanese author Gu Long, who stated in his essay “Understanding Wuxia” that his novel Meteor, Butterfly, Sword was inspired strongly by The Godfather. The stylistic and atmospheric similarities his works share with Westerns, as well as the presence of shared themes like wandering heroes, have led scholars to draw parallels between wuxia and Westerns, some of which were in turn inspired by The Seven Samurai.

The varied influences on wuxia’s origins should not be interpreted as an invitation to simply equate wuxia, samurai fiction, or Westerns, or to erase the differences among them. Instead, the unexpected influences of other genres on wuxia push against a misguided view of wuxia as homogenous, niche, only rooted in Sinophone literature, and thus impossible to be appreciated by international readers. Jin Yong’s works have long been translated into many languages across the world, and over the last few years, translators Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang have been working to create official translations of his work in English. More and more Sinophone wuxia and xianxia novels and television drama adaptations are making their way to audiences worldwide with the help of translations and subtitles, while Asian heritage and diaspora writers are increasingly crafting stories in English that draw on and subvert wuxia tropes.

As wuxia fiction becomes increasingly known to Anglophone and international audiences, I hope readers can also take the time to appreciate and continue learning about the genre’s nuanced origins, evolution, and wider context, which I have only begun to lay out here in broad strokes. While the philosophical underpinnings behind the xia as existing in direct opposition to powerful institutions may oversimplify the difficulties of standing up to oppressive social structures, the concept of the xia nevertheless poses an alternative to the conventional hero’s journey in many western epic fantasy stories and offers Sino diaspora writers a way to center marginalized characters while giving social critique. The wide umbrella of xia narratives, which encompasses everything from legend-esque biographies about martial artists to highly fantastical tales about flying immortals, demonstrates the fluidity of genre boundaries in Sinophone fiction. It encourages a broader understanding of “speculative fiction”— to tell stories about the xia who commits powerful acts of transgression or the jianghu world that exists outside the confines of conventional society may be seen as an act of speculating in itself, regardless of the presence of magic. The openness of wuxia writers to international and non-literary influences as sources of inspiration shows how writers individually and genres as a whole can benefit from exposure to a wider range of influences, from translated works and transnational exchanges, and from comparative approaches to literature that acknowledge both similarities and differences. In light of the genre’s subversive, fluid, and transnational nature, it is no surprise for me then to see the wuxia genre continuing to thrive and to be widely adapted and translated. I look forward to seeing how the genre will expand and evolve in the years to come.

Further Readings:

  • A History of Chinese Martial Arts Fiction by Chen Pingyuan
  • “A Journey Across Rivers and Lakes: A Look at The Jianghu in Chinese Culture and Literature” by Helena Yuen Wai Wu
  • Chinese Martial Arts Cinema by Stephen Teo
  • The Chinese Knight-Errant by J. Y. Liu
  • “Imagining Female Heroism: Three Tales of the Female Knight-Errant in Republican China” by Iris Ma
  • The Sword or the Needle: The Female Knight-errant (xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative by Roland Altenburger

Yilin Wang (she/they) is a writer, editor, and Chinese-English translator. Their writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, The Malahat Review, The Toronto Star, The Tyee, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. They have been longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, a two-time finalist for the Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction, and the recipient of a 2021 ALTA Virtual Travel Fellowship. Their translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Asymptote, LA Review of Books – China Channel, Samovar, Pathlight, and the anthology The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories (Tor.com). They are a member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop class of 2020/2021. Find them online at www.yilinwang.com or @yilinwriter.