Wuxia Wanderings: What is Wuxia?

In Yun Zhongyue’s 1976 novel The Great Assassin, protagonist Lin Yan has the following exchange with an elder monk from Emei:

“Benefactor, if Tax Commissioner Liang is assassinated do you know how many people in Shaanxi will suffer?”

“How many innocent people will suffer if he doesn’t die? Can it compare?”

“If the tax commissioner dies the imperial court will just send another to take his place. Maybe two.”

“At least the next one won’t be as venomous as this one.”

“Benefactor, do you know the Ten Evil Stars under Venomous Dragon?”

“I’ve heard of them. They’re Venomous Dragon’s personal die-hard followers.”

“Benefactor, can you take on three of them by yourself?”

“I can,” he said without hesitation.

“What if there are four of them, or five…”

“Eventually I’ll be able to catch them when they’re alone.”

(…)

The old monk remonstrated, “Good is rewarded, and evil is requited. Payback is just a matter of time. A person who goes berserk will always receive Heaven’s punishment and sink to the deepest pits of hell. Benefactor, you’re a promising, capable youth. Why must you risk yourself like this? The highest level of attainment for a martial artist is to become one with nature, without boundaries, merged with the universe, transformed…”

“I understand all that.” He drew his sword and stood. “Everyone will die one day,” he said solemnly. “Great Master, even if you cultivate until you transcend your physical body, or I cultivate to the highest realm and become one with nature, neither of us will live forever. We are both heading toward death’s final journey. You might leave behind your relic ashes, and I my immortal fame, but our lives will still end in extinction.” He held up Cold Rainbow. “What good is it?” He spoke each word pointedly. “If my accomplishments don’t benefit the empire and its people or any other living thing, then what’s the difference between me and a walking corpse? A block of stone sits there for thousands of years, empty, still, neither alive nor dead. It’s still just a block of stone, meaningless to everyone.

“Let me tell you, one more or one fewer of your ilk won’t make much difference. Let me tell you, I’m young and ardent. I know good from bad, right from wrong, and I’ve trained diligently for more than a decade. Not for my own personal gain. I want to put everything I have into helping the common people. You can say that I’m foolish; you can say that I’m bringing trouble to the world; you can say that I am working for others to please my own desires. I won’t argue with you. I will hold high the sword of chivalry and ardently fight evil to the end, never cowering, never yielding, but advancing courageously without hesitation. If you all are thinking of stopping me, be sure not to take the task lightly.”

There’s something about seeing justice served that is universally appealing. Superheroes saving the world, revenge tales, samurai movies, King Arthur, and Robin Hood, every culture leaves its own mark on righting wrongs. Wuxia is the Chinese mark. Lin Yan in the above passage puts the xia in wuxia. Xia 俠 is often translated as hero, though that isn’t quite right. A hero to whom? A xia 1 is not necessarily a hero. He, or just as frequently in wuxia, she, holds to a code or morals of his or her own choosing, placing others before themselves and shunning fame and wealth, choosing to serve a lord or to serve no one as they see fit. For one “who knows them” they may lay down their life, but they will just as soon leave the service of those who do not appreciate them. 2 They keep their word and requite favors often in excess, even with their lives. Xia were historical figures, though they have mostly been depicted in fiction.

When I first moved to Taiwan from the States in 2010 I barely knew any Chinese, just a bit of pinyin and a few characters I had picked up in basic university classes. When I came to Taiwan I enrolled in a university language program to get better at the language, cause after all I planned to live here permanently. I also wanted to learn to read Chinese because I was already interested in Chinese literature, though not much had been translated to English. So I decided to learn to read it myself. I took to translating as a means to this end, beginning with short stories that had already been translated to English so I could use the English versions as a crib. Soon I turned to reading wuxia novels for fun and practice reading, then to translating them.

I don’t remember how I learned of wuxia, actually. It probably began with reading Water Margin 水滸傳, which you could say is a kind of nascent wuxia, a wuxia novel before wuxia really became a solid genre. 3 At some point I found the Spcnet.tv and Wuxiasociety forums where fans were translating wuxia novels by Jin Yong, Gu Long, Liang Yusheng, and Huang Yi. Living in Taiwan meant access to used bookstores and the treasure trove of Taiwan wuxia novels produced here, and I began collecting them and learning more about the genre.

The Great Assassin, by Yun Zhongyue

So what is wuxia?

Well, it’s a genre of literature, film, TV, etc. You can look up definitions, but really the best way to know a genre is to experience it. Let me put it simply, then. Wuxia is basically martial arts fighting, usually in an ancient setting, though sometimes set in modern times as well. Could be sects or schools or cults fighting amongst each other, or vying for some precious object like a sword or treasure map or martial arts manual. There are no neatly demarcated cultivation levels like in xuanhuan or xianxia novels. It’s mostly just exaggerated (or not) martial arts. The MC tends to be a good guy, sometimes even a goody two-shoes, but rarely an arrogant jerk lording it over others (*cough* Li Qiye *cough*). Sometimes the plot centers on the MC learning better and better martial arts, but more often these are dramatic stories of good standing up to evil, or some grey in-between. Revenge is a common theme. Resisting corrupt officials. Saving the nation from foreign invaders, or trying to anyway. Romance is common. Or just surviving.

As in Yun Zhongyue’s novel, Song of Exile, which I will be translating on volare this spring. Our MC, Cai Wenchang, is orphaned at a young age and then expelled from his village and has to learn martial arts just so he can survive as his circumstances result in him making enemy after enemy.

Wuxia takes place in the jianghu. Think of jianghu like an underground culture, like the world of organized crime or the Wild West. It is everywhere people are, as the saying goes, set within normal society yet at the same time removed from it, with its own rules and customs and etiquette. The wulin resides among the jianghu. Often translated as martial world or martial fraternity, the wulin is the collection of martial artists within the jianghu. Some authors use the term to encompass all martial artists, while others use it to include only the “good guys”. We’ll look at these terms more in the future.

Fight scenes are a big part of wuxia. Some authors describe the scenes in great detail, like Jin Yong who points out what each hand and foot is doing, like you are watching the scene in slow motion. While others, like Gu Long, barely describe the fighting at all, opting instead to focus on character development and drama. Here’s a Gu Long fight scene, from his novel Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword:

“Since you’re injured I’ll give you three moves,” Iron Flute said.

Ah Fei looked at him. He smiled.

He stuck his sword back in his belt and turned to leave.

Iron Flute roared with laughter and jumped up, his silk robe spreading out like a hawk as he landed before Ah Fei. “You think I will let you leave?”

Ah Fei didn’t even look at him. “If I don’t go, you will die,” he said coldly.

Iron Flute laughed. “I will die? Or you will?”

“No one can let me have three moves.”

“So if I give you three moves, I will die for sure?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you try it?” Iron Flute said.

Ah Fei said nothing, but turned and stared at him.

Iron Flute suddenly felt a sharp chill rising in the pit of his heart.

It was no fluke that he was so renowned. He had fought many bloody battles, and each time he had faced a pair of eyes.

All kinds of eyes. Some harbored frightening hatred. Some harbored angry, murderous intentions. Still others harbored fear and seemed to beg for mercy.

But he had never seen eyes like these.

These eyes seemed to contain no emotion whatsoever. They seemed to have been carved from stone, and when they stared at you they were like the statued eyes of a god on an altar, watching over the mortals.

Iron Flute unconsciously took half a step back.

As he did, Ah Fei’s sword was drawn.

When his sword struck, it never missed.

This was Ah Fei’s tenet. He would not draw his sword if he was not absolutely sure.

Iron Flute’s body soared up to the top of the plum trees and with a crash snowflakes and plum blossoms filled the sky.

The mingling white flakes and red blossoms were a pretty sight. Looking up one could see Iron Flute’s body dancing lightly among the red and white.

Ah Fei never looked up, just put away his sword.

Iron Flute fluttered down, falling slowly, like he was made of paper. Before he landed the snow on the ground was already stained with blood.

Ah Fei gazed at the blood. “No one can give me three moves,” he said slowly. “Not even one!”

The problem with wuxia for English speakers is there just isn’t much of it translated. There are some fan translations you can still read on spcnet.tv, but mostly just two authors, Jin Yong and Gu Long. Official translations are even fewer. So few I can list them all for you right now:

The Book and the Sword: Jin Yong’s first novel. The translation is good, but unfortunately it’s abridged. Still worth reading though.

Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain: Another Jin Yong novel. Translation is okay except for some bizarre naming choices. Translator Olivia Mok opts for translating the characters names. Eh. This novel is kind of experimental anyway as the entire story takes place in a single day and is loaded with flashbacks. Still, it’s a good read.

The Deer and the Cauldron: Jin Yong’s final novel, and his most lauded. It’s published in three volumes, but the translation is dreadful. And it’s heavily abridged, reduced to little more than a summary in later volumes. Don’t bother with this one. There’s a better, complete fan translation on spcnet.

Blades From the Willows: An older wuxia novel by Huanzhu Louzhu. Seems to be just one volume of longer novel or series. I haven’t read this one.

The Eleventh Son: A Gu Long novel, translated by Rebecca Tai. Still the best official wuxia translation out there. Becky started translating this on spcnet and then got rights from Gu Long’s publisher and published the full translation through a small press. Get this one. It’s still in print and typical of Gu Long’s style.

A Hero Born: The first volume of the first novel in Jin Yong’s “Condor trilogy”. This is a new addition; it just came out this February. Translation is okay but suffers the same bizarre character naming as Fox Volant does. This novel is a classic though. You’ll just have to wait until next year to read the next volume (only 1/4 of the first novel, Legend of the Condor Heroes, is out right now).

And that’s it for official English wuxia translations. Song of Exile, by Yun Zhongyue, will be the seventh when it begins here on volare this spring.

But even if you’ve never read wuxia before, I bet you’ve seen it. The Hong Kong martial arts movies from Shaw Brothers Studios made some inroads into the West. Come Drink With Me, The Avenging Eagle, One-Armed Swordsman, Five Deadly Venoms, etc.

Still no? Well, I bet you’ve seen this:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a loose adaptation of the eponymous novel by Wang Dulu, the fourth in his Crane-Iron series. Too bad the novel series never got an official translation, though there is a complete fan translation of the first novel titled Crane Startles Kunlun online. Crouching Tiger was then followed by other films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Reign of Assassins is another fairly recent wuxia film worth checking out.

We’ll look at the genre of wuxia more in the coming weeks. There’s no set schedule to this blog series, but I plan to talk more about xia, jianghu, wulin, the sects and tropes of the genre, wuxia weapons, as well as introduce you to more wuxia authors and their works, and review wuxia films and tv series. Anything and everything wuxia. Stay tuned for Song of Exile, debuting here soon. I’ll have more on this novel and its author, Yun Zhongyue, in the near future.

Until then, check out those official translations I listed above and the movies I mentioned.

GZ~~

  1. Pronounced more or less like shee-yaw, only in one syllable; or just say “shaw” and you’re almost there
  2. An example of this is in the story “Nie Yinniang” which you can read on volare
  3. I recommend Sidney Shapiro’s translation of that novel, the four-volume set published by Foreign Language Press under the name Outlaws of the Marsh.