The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins


copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century “wüxia” has become shorthand in the West for “Chinese martial arts literature or film.” However, the roots of wüxia are centuries-old and involve historical people as well as literary genres.

Literally translated, wüxia (also written as wü-hsia, wü hsia, and yü-hsia) means “wandering” () and “force” (xia). Traditionally the term has been applied to knights-errant or “sworn brothers,” wandering warriors who roamed about the countryside using their skill at arms to fight injustices. The knight-errant emerged during the chaos of the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.E.), when seven different states fought for supremacy. Soldiers, both noble and peasant, wandered from state to state looking for employment, and some or many of these soldiers protected the weak and oppressed against the powerful and unjust.

Sima Qian described xia as members of a plebeian class hailing from ‘humble alleys’ and wearing ‘common clothes’. In the Warring States period, this class included the likes of robbers and brigands, soldiers and freethinkers who were untenured warriors sometimes referred to as ‘private swords’ (sijian). In the Qin period (221–207 BCE ), xia included political assassins sympathetic to righteous ministers or politicians trying to rid states of tyrants. Sima Qian noted that such men treated status and wealth lightly and were not afraid to die. They flouted authority, were loyal to friends and helped the poor and the oppressed.1 

Knights-errant appear in the historical record through the centuries and dynasties, only disappearing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.).

The historical Chinese knight-errant differed from his Western counterpart in a number of ways. Western knights were members of religious orders and belonged to the aristocratic class. Chinese knights came from every social class and had no religious affiliations, even being seen as having rejected Confucian values. Western knights became associated with the idea of courtly love, while the Chinese knights practiced sexual abstinence. Western knights, though often defending the weak, were members of the aristocracy and ultimately fought in support of the feudal system, while Chinese knights-errant were hostile to the social system they lived under. Western knights were welcome everywhere, while the Chinese knights-errant, as social outcast, inhabited “the complex of inns, highways and waterways, deserted temples, bandits’ lairs, and stretches of wilderness at the geographic and moral margins of settled society.”2 “They imply an illicit space nurtured by conflict and corruption, but functioning as an ‘alternate society’.”3 

The fictional Chinese knight-errant first appeared in poetry during the Han Dynasty (221 B.C.E. to 206 C.E.) and was popular for the next several centuries. The character fell out of fashion during the Sung (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) Dynasties and was successfully revived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Oral ballads and prose about the wüxia became popular toward the end of the Tang Dynasty (c. 800 C.E.). Long prose romances about the wüxia appeared during the Yuan Dynasty. The greatest number of wüxia novels were published during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.), when the development of lithography cut production costs and time to a fraction of what it had been under the traditional block-print method of bookmaking.

During the nineteenth century the three most popular and common genres of wüxia fiction were detective, love, and flying swordsmen. The detective or legal wüxia story is a hybrid form, combining the traditional knights-errant story with the kung-an (alternatively, gong-an) or crime and criminal story. Kung-an is as old a genre as wüxia, and combining the two proved to be popular with the audience and profitable for the writers. The format of the detective wüxia story involves knights-errant working for or protecting a righteous official (usually a fictionalized version of a historical person) in his prosecution of criminals. Shih Yü-k'un’s The Three Heroes and Five Sworn Brothers is a notable example of the legal wüxia genre. Other notable late Qing detective wüxia include The Cases of Lord Shih (original: Shih-kung An, 1798), about the supposed exploits of Shih Shih-lun (1659-1722), a notably righteous official, and The Cases of Lord P’eng (original: P’eng-kung An, 1891), about the supposed exploits of the righteous official P’eng (1637-1704). Though popular the legal wüxia story are rarely artistically successful. The integration of the kung-an genre with the wüxia story with the more adventurous aspects of the wüxia genre is usually uneven, so that the legal investigations of the judges are given less attention by the author than the battles and exploits of the wüxia. As well, the wüxia were traditionally rebels and outlaws (though honorable and heroic) while the judges were the defenders of the status quo and the embodiment of the law. Their collaboration meant that the outlaws were helping the representative of an unjust social system, and that the judge was forced to rely on outlaws to enforce the law. This can be seen as a cynical comment on the justice system of nineteenth century China, but in the context of the story the clash of philosophies leads to a moral and thematic confusion.

The love wüxia story usually has all the elements of a traditional romantic story (boy meets girl, boy and girl overcome difficulties, boy and girl live happily ever after), but the story often begins as wüxia fiction and ends as a variety of the scholar-beauty story, as in Wen Kang’s The Gallant Maid. The wüxia’s rough edges are smoothed over and his youthful impetuousness is transformed into sober propriety.

The flying swordsmen genre became popular only in the late Qing period and is now the dominant form of wüxia story. Western audiences will be most familiar with this genre through Wang Du Lu, Wang Hui-Ling, and Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The heroes of flying swordsmen wüxia are usually Buddhist or Taoist monks who have magical powers. Storyteller’s Jigong (see: Jigong Drum Song) is a good early example of the flying swordsmen wüxia and usefully defines the flying swordsman knights-errant as those who “fly over eaves and walk on walls.” Flying swordsmen wüxia are sometimes immortal, perform various miracles, and have a variety of powers which they use against evil wüxia and various monsters.

From antiquity, the concept of the martial hero in China formed a counterpoint and potential challenge to Confucian relationships. The disregard of protocol and indifference to the hierarchy of relationships is obvious from the stories of martial heroes and assassins in the Shi ji (Records of the historian) and other early texts. On the other hand, martial heroes go to spectacular extremes to live out their own values, thinking nothing of dying for the cause. This ruffled Confucian feathers: If you will die for a complete stranger, what can you do for your parents? Still, even the martial hero’s apparent freedom is circumscribed by a code of ethics centered on revenge, requiting favor, and righting injustice.4 

While wüxia literature reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s and is now secondary to wüxia films in China and Taiwan, the literary version of the genre remains popular in both countries with both audiences and critics, who see it as “the popular culture version of the great Chinese literary classics and vessel for depicting customs and traditions of Chinese society; of which some are already extinct and some are still very much alive.”5 

For Further Research

John Christopher Hamm, Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.

C.T. Hsia, “The Military Romance: A Genre of Chinese Fiction,” in Cyril Birch, ed., Studies in Chinese Literary Genres. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974. 339-390.

James Liu, The Chinese Knight-Errant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967 

Stephen Teo, “Wuxia From Literature to Cinema,” in Stephen Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. 17-37. 

Margaret B. Wan, Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

1 Stephen Teo, “Wuxia From Literature to Cinema,” in Stephen Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 18.

2 John Christopher Hamm, Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 17.

3 Teo, “Wuxia From Literature to Cinema,” 18.

4 Margaret B. Wan, Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), 2.

5 Petra Rehling, “Harry Potter, wuxia and the transcultural flow of fantasy texts in Taiwan,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 13, no. 1 (2012): 74.