"'Wu' means martial arts, which signifies action, 'Xia' conveys chivalry. Wuxia. Say it gently... 'whooshah'... and it's like a breath of serenity embracing you. Say it with force, 'WuSHA!', and you can feel its power."
One of the oldest genres in Chinese literature, wǔxiá (武侠 — literally "martial-arts chivalry" or "martial arts heroes", and pronounced roughly woo-seeah
) stories are tall tales of honourable warriors (侠 xiá
) fighting against evil, whether it be an individual villain, or a corrupt government. Notable for melodrama
, spectacular swordplay
, and high-flying martial arts
Although some wuxia
stories are set in modern times, or even the future, most take place in the "Martial Arts World" of Jiānghú
(江湖 — literally "rivers and lakes") a Fantasy Counterpart Culture
of Imperial China
. The Jianghu
is a "shared universe", populated by martial-artists and monks, wandering knights
and beautiful princesses, thieves and beggars, priests and healers, merchants and craftsmen. The best wuxia
writers draw a vivid picture of the intricate relationships of honour, loyalty, love and hate between individuals and between communities in this milieu. It is implicit that law and government are unjust, ineffective and/or corrupt, requiring the xia
to settle differences by force moderated only by their chivalrous code, and often forcing them to live as outlaws despite their noble characters. In modern Chinese, perhaps as a result of these connotations of a separate world with its own rules, the term jianghu
has taken on other meanings, including the underworld or criminal gangs
A more romantic term known as Wulin
(武林 — literally "Warrior's Forests") is used when one wants to talk specifically about the world of martial artists and warriors specifically
, divorced from the ugly connotations of criminality that jianghu
has come to embody. Wulin
is basically a majestic way of saying "The World of Warriors."
Modern works often incorporate outside themes and ideas, allowing the genre to develop, and in turn wǔxiá
themes and visual styles have strongly influenced Western media, especially in cinema.
Compare High Fantasy
, Heroic Fantasy
, and Swashbuckler
. For the 2011 movie titled Wu Xia
, see Swordsmen
Common tropes include:
- Academy of Evil: If the story leans heavily toward martial arts, expect one or more of these to exist in the setting.
- Action Girl: There are plenty of damsels in distress, but female martial-artists have a long history in the genre.
- Alas, Poor Villain: One of the side effects of having to put an end to a very powerful villain is the loss of a great talent in the world.
- Ambition Is Evil: One of the stock aesops, especially in stories that deconstructs To Be a Master.
- Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Pretty much a standard feature.
- Badass Princess: There are plenty of these, though many suffer from the Standard Female Grab Area problem.
- Bare-Fisted Monk: Wuxia is essentially the source-material for the unarmed combat monk trope, drawn from real-life Chinese monks who practiced martial arts.
- Bastard Understudy
- Battle Couple: In the world of wuxia where both the guys and the girls can kick ass, romances will often take this form.
- Blood Brothers: The relationship of "sworn brothers" is a central feature of the genre. The "Peach Garden Oath" of Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a particularly famous example.
- Byronic Hero: Some stories have "heroes" with barely-controlled vices. Expect them to kill people in a fit of rage, and then lament upon it when their clarity return.
- Calling Your Attacks: Mostly averted. Although bucketloads of fancy moves and techniques are described and named in wuxia genre, very few characters actually shout them out during fights. The names of the moves are generally introduced in the following ways:
- By a bystander of a fight: “Is that not the [insert move name] of the legends?"
- By the teacher of that move: "The one I just taught you is no other than the famed [insert move name]".
- By the narrator him/herself : "Little does s/he know that the move s/he faced is no other than the [insert move name]".
- Cast from Hit Points
- Cast from Lifespan
- Charles Atlas Superpower: The basis of many special powers and abilities is presented as long, arduous training, often from childhood.
- Chick Magnet: 99% of the male leads of these stories.
- Chop Sockey: This is a loaded and rather disrespectful term, but may apply in movies depending on the production values.
- Clothing Combat: The more fantasy-based wuxia are prone to having an Action Girl who whaps people with sleeves.
- Conflicting Loyalty: Any character with any loyalty at all, can expect to be tested.
- Cool Old Guy or Cool Old Lady: Whether it is the old shifu who teaches the heroes martial arts, or the venerable sage who administers the Secret Test of Character, the tradition of respect for age makes these standard character types.
- Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Secret martial techniques often feature, sometimes simply as the powers of characters, sometimes as goals of quests, sources of jealousy, causes of rivalry etc.
- Dark Action Girl: And it would be the challenge for the heroes to tame them. Don't expect them to surrender anything though.
- The Dark Arts: Any respectable martial arts school will have a sub-style that its students aren't meant to learn, because it will lead them toward...
- The Dark Side
- Deadly Upgrade
- Deceptive Disciple: The student who betrays their master (a very serious breach of filial duty in the Chinese source material), frequently becomes the Big Bad or at least The Dragon.
- Dragons Up the Yin Yang
- Driven by Envy: Villains are often motivated by jealousy of heroes' success, favour shown them by masters, beautiful girls etc.
- Dueling Dojos: Technically, duelling guǎn，since we're in China.
- Eunuchs Are Evil: And if you're in a fantasy story, expect him to be an Evil Sorcerer as well.
- Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: This is all over the place, though generally there's some narrative focus other than just the fighting.
- Evil Chancellor: The "good emperor, evil chancellor" trope appears again and again.
- Evil Former Friend: Having one seems to be part of being a shīfu. Don't worry, even if you can't win against him or her, your disciple(s) will take care of the matter.
- Foe Yay: Expect heroes and villains to be be obsessed with defeating each others, to the point that it becomes the raison d'etre of their life.
- A God Am I: Some villains will behave like this. It's up to the hero(es) to correct them.
- Gun Fu: For modern settings.
- Happily Married: Though it often does not last, leading to a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Heir to the Dojo: Given the nature of martial art schools in this genre, there tend to be certain characters who are chosen by his/her master as a sucessor.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Very common, particularly in the context of Blood Brothers (see above).
- Honor Before Reason: The code of xia embodies this trope.
- Implausible Fencing Powers:
- Important Haircut: Hair cutting, or refusing to cut it, has had important implications in Chinese culture and history, making this a trope that appears quite often.
- Improvised Weapon: Chopsticks, furniture, musical instruments, gardening tools. Basically, you name it...
- In a Single Bound
- Instant Expert: Wuxia rivals the shonen genre for the enormous gulf between how long learning a new style is supposed to take and how quickly the protagonist learns it. Zhang Wuji learns the Heaven and Earth Great Shift in the span of hours, despite the fact that it's meant to take years.
- Interesting Situation Duel
- Ki Attacks
- Knight Errant: Every hero in the genre.
- Kung-Fu Sonic Boom: introduced in the late 90s, this effect is increasingly common in recent series.
- Kung-Fu Wizard: Magic-users are capable of just as much asskicking as everyone else when it comes to kung fu.
- Lady of War
- Lonely at the Top: A problem that plagues every shīfu, good or evil. Some of them will raise disciples just so they can have someone to spar with as equal.
- Love Dodecahedron
- Love Triangle
- Manly Tears
- Martial Pacifist
- Master-Apprentice Chain: And sometimes, it's thicker than blood.
- Master Swordsman
- McNinja: Despite being generally set in China, wuxia films commonly feature characters dressed in stereotypical black ninja-like costume and utilizing stealth tactics. However, many are typically not so stealthy; a reoccuring theme is for one to sneak about only until they reach their intended victim, then straight up burst into the room and engage the target in a Sword Fight.
- Mentor Occupational Hazard: Played straight and subverted in equal measure.
- Old Master: Lots of these. Anyone addressed as shīfu will inevitably be one.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You
- The Paragon Always Rebels
- Patriotic Fervor: Stories are often very pro-Chinese.
- A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil
- Pressure Point
- Psycho Serum: Usually in the form of pills.
- Rebellious Princess: Often combined with the Lady of War.
- Recursive Crossdressing
- Rival Turned Evil
- Roof Hopping
- She-Fu: Not to be confused with shīfu ("master"), which is pronounced (roughly) "shrfu".
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism (Most wǔxiá stories are deep in the idealistic side)
- Supernatural Martial Arts
- Sweet Polly Oliver
- Three-Point Landing
- Training from Hell: Many wuxia heroes typically have to go through this to get badass.
- Treacherous Advisor: A must-have in stories of palace intrigue.
- Tsundere: If The Hero is a guy, expect every martial-arts-capable lady he meets to be like this. Every single one of them.
- Wax On, Wax Off
- Wire Fu: Used in films to perform exaggerated feats of qinggong ("light body skill").
- World of Badass: Named characters in any work are usually able to kill a normal human in one strike. Not that there's very many muggles, mind you...
- Worthy Opponent
- Villain Forgot to Level Grind: Numbers of overpowered villains introduced early on in a series are usually left in the dust when the main characters get rapidly stronger.
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Anime and Manga
- Seirei no Moribito: A chance encounter with the royal procession and one act of heroism later, Balsa finds herself a guest at the Imperial Court - where the Empress learns of her vow to atone for the 8 lives she took, by saving 8 lives in return. After hearing her story, she asks Balsa to take her son and make him the 8th life she saves. Thus begins an epic quest to save a young prince, the mysterious egg inside him, and a country.
- G Gundam was heavily inspired by wuxia. In fact the director, Yasuhiro Imagawa, rather likes wuxia, which also shows up to a greater degree in Giant Robo and less so in Shin Mazinger.
- The first season of Gundam SEED can be read as a loose adaptation of Jing-Yong's The Heaven Sword And Dragon Saber novel, especially concerning Kira as a rewrite of the kind-pacifist turned Warrior-God Jang Wu-Ji.
- It seems more likely to be a loose adaption of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series though, with elements from more recent ones thrown in.
- Dragon Ball, which was loosely based on Journey to the West.
- The Manga Mahou Sensei Negima! has become this through a combination of Writer Revolt and gradual Genre Shift. Also magic.
- Fist of the North Star has all the elements of wuxia... other than being set in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic Earth where law and order has all but ceased to exist, rather than a corrupt one. Its Prequel Fist of the Blue Sky is actually closer in style and spirit to classical wuxia being set in Shanghai during the twilight years of classical China helps.
- Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple, though originally more of a simple high school fighting shounen/satire, as the plot gradually moves forward it becomes more and more like a modern-day wuxia, as Kenichi becomes increasingly involved in his masters relationships and rivalries, as well as the rivalries/friendships Kenichi himself builds with their rivals and their rivals disciples. The world Kenichi lives in has also been shown to have a well-developed and complicated secret martial arts world, which most of the more "normal" cast are entirely ignorant of at the start, much like the Wulin concept.
- Two different manga by Oh! Great effectively become this over time: Tenjho Tenge is a straight example, with each of the characters having long histories, internal and external conflicts between bloodlines, clans, sensei's, and fighting styles. The other is Air Gear, which does pretty much the exact same formula, except instead of magical kung-fu they use magical motorized inline skates.
- King of Fighters has an ongoing manga that is heavily influenced by wuxia manhua, which is perhaps expected giving it's artist and writer has a great deal of experience drawing and writing for that particular comic genre.
- Hero Tales, a manga by Huang Jin Zhou (a unit composed of Hiromu Arakawa, Genco and Studio Flag), is inspired by wuxia drama and novels.
- The Burning of Red Lotus Temple, one of the earliest wuxia films, released in 1928.
- Once Upon a Time in China, set in the twilight years of Imperial China, chronicling the saga of historical hero Wong Fei Hong (played marvelously by Jet Li), greatest Doctor and Warrior of Canton. Singlehandedly revitalized the genre as one worthy of artistic respect and capable of conveying political meaning.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought the classical form of the genre to the mainstream in the West.
- Hero is notable for coming out a few years later than Crouching Tiger, with a lot more controversy. It was a big Wuxia production relatively soon after the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong, which made some critics see the Historical Hero Upgrade of the king as a way to win the approval of the Chinese government, while others insisted that variants of this "Emperor And Assassin" story had been told in China for centuries, even in Hong Kong under British rule.
- House of Flying Daggers
- Red Cliff, which is notable for being based on actual history - the Battle of Chibi, in the Three Kingdoms period. It is more subdued and realistic than the average wuxia story, although characters retain wuxia's standard deep sense of honour and ability to jump incredible distances.
- Warriors Of Heaven And Earth
- The Matrix was definitely a wuxia story (especially the first film) applied to a Cyberpunk setting.
- The entire Star Wars franchise is arguably a wuxia saga in a Space Opera setting.
- The Kill Bill films were at least heavily influenced by wuxia.
- The Forbidden Kingdom is another Western example.
- Kung Fu Hustle
- Kung Fu Panda is either an Affectionate Parody or a slightly more comedic example of the genre. Either way, even the Chinese thought it was a worthy addition to the genre.
- Kung Pow! is a straight up exceptionally weird parody.
- Swordsmen In Double Flag Town is a "down and dirty" hybrid of wuxia and western set in China's own Wild West.
- The Chinese Ghost Story series has more of a fantasy element than most stories in the wuxia genre.
- As does Zu Warriors Of The Magic Mountain, which is as bizarre as Chinese fantasy movies get.
- Savior Of The Soul is a more sci-fi take on wuxia featuring futuristic fantasy warriors.
- The Myth
- Kung Fu Cult Master, an adaptation of the Jin Yong novel The Heaven Sword And Dragon Sabre.
- Tai Chi Master aka Twin Warriors.
- Heroic Trio is this genre mixed with the Super Hero genre.
- The Bride With White Hair
- Curse of the Golden Flower has elements of this during fight scenes.
- Detective Dee
- Legend Of The Black Scorpion
- Come Drink With Me.
- Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate starring Jet Li. Also, its predecessor New Dragon Inn (which was, itself, a remake).
- True Legend
- Water Margin, a novel dating from the fourteenth century, is probably the earliest example, although it is clearly based on even earlier folk stories. Especially influential in defining the Jiānghú world.
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms, again probably written during the fourteenth century, but based on earlier histories.
- Journey to the West, still another classic novel, probably fifteenth century in this case, also based on earlier folk stories.
- The novels and short stories of Jin Yong, Gu Long, and Liang Yusheng, the great masters of modern wuxia literature.
- One of the legends in Hitherby Dragons is a wuxia parody/homage.
- Despite martial arts not being the center of their plots, Bridge of Birds and the other Master Li & Number Ten Ox novels by Barry Hughart are set in, "an ancient China that never was," that is a clear homage to Chinese mythology and the Wuxia genre. He lists Romance of the Three Kingdoms among his main influences.
- The Judge Dee novels and short stories draw on many wuxia elements. Ciao Tai is a typical gentleman-outlaw swordsman character, and his best friend Ma Joong is the kung-fu master.
- The Dragon Series by Laurence Yep.
Manhwa and Manhua
- The Breaker, Veritas, Now, and Ping are all Korean manhwa that use wuxia tropes.
- Ravages Of Time, as it is based on The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms.
- Weapons of the Gods (which the RPG below is based on)
- The Celestial Zone
- Chinese Hero, the epic manhua saga by the author of The Storm Riders, starting with Chinese fighters defending Chinese pride against racists in America with martial arts before moving on to other settings.
- Id uses many Wuxia tropes and mixes them with Norse and Christian mythology.
- The AD&D-derived game Dragon Fist has wuxia as its primary genre, again leaning toward fantasy.
- 3.5 edition had the Tome of Battle sourcebook, with new classes (similar to the fighter, monk and paladin) which drew on Wuxia influences to soften the effects of Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards. Often regarded as the best 3.5 book ever printed.
- 4th Edition mentions this in the Dungeon Master's Guide as one of the various campaign styles you can run.
- The 69 juncture of Feng Shui lends itself quite well to wuxia stories, particularly those of a more fantastic bent.
- As do the Period Martial Arts and Bizarre Fantasy genres from Hong Kong Action Theatre.
- As a genre which is focused on awesome stunts, personal interactions, and a small group of people being vastly more powerful than anyone else, Wuxia has inspired a number of RPGs:
- Weapons Of The Gods and its successor Legends Of The Wulin are epic systems designed to showcase both the variety of kung fu techniques and the high power level of Wuxia - "Ranked Fighters" (AKA "Xia") can literally take down dozens of nameless mooks right out the gate, and character abilities deal with destiny, the wills of heaven and hell, and the fate of all of China (though it does have a lot of detail in its musings on cultural detail).
- At the opposite end of the spectrum, Qin The Warring States has much greater realism. Such tricks as walking on water or disabling two foes with a single sword stroke are exceedingly difficult, and starting characters will have some trouble facing even three or four ordinary thugs. Many brands of Chinese mysticism are also examined, including oddities such as Internal Alchemy.
- Jadeclaw is essentially a furry wuxia RPG.
- Exalted: Its stunts, martial arts and Charms are specifically set up to support wuxia-style play.
- The world setting and short stories connected to Zodiacs are heavily and openly influenced by wuxia, The Western, Samurai and the Viking Sagas.
- The not-yet-released Far West is essentially a Wuxia setting... modeled after the Wild West.
- Bujingai uses this trope as its primary motif, although it takes place in the future of Japan.
- The Dynasty Warriors series, obviously, since it's an action-based adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Also notable in that, for someone who's not familiar with the original novel, the feats the characters in the games perform seem absolutely ridiculous, while reading the novel, you can tell that, yes, that's the way they were originally portrayed.
- Some fighting games have been influenced by this genre. The original Mortal Kombat in particular has a strong Wuxia vibe (the setting is very Eastern-themed, despite being developed entirely in the United States) but this was subsequently stripped away in later games.
- Jade Empire is probably the most notable video-game example, among Western RPG gamers.
- Most video games actually made in China tend to have a wuxia theme, likely going on the principle that drives western developers to fall back on Tolkien when designing a Western RPG.
- Legend of Kay is the mixture with this, The Legend of Zelda, and furry.
- Taito's The Legend of Kage and Demon Sword, although the latter also has Western medieval fantasy elements.
- Asura's Wrath is a Sci-Fi meets Hindu Mythology version of Wuxia.
- Extremely obscure Playstation offering T'ai Fu: Wrath of the Tiger is a classic Last of His Kind Roaring Rampage of Revenge story, with a bit of Power Copying along the way by learning the techniques of those he defeats. The eponymous T'ai Fu, a Panthera Awesome Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy trying to avenge his massacred clan and their Doomed Hometown, is cast more in a rebellious hero role than the traditional noble martial arts practitioner of most wuxia films.
- World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria copies the setting into Azeroth with all of its fantastic races. A race of stone creatures serves as a reference to oppressive emperors, savage bull men stand in for Mongol invaders, furry hat wearing pygmies stand in for the Nepalese Sherpa and the Pandaren themselves represent the simple scholars, farmers and monks. Then the invasion of Alliance and Horde into Pandaria and a discovery of Titan Lost Technology drives the setting Off the Rails.
- Kikokugai -The Cyber Slayers- combines wuxia with cyberpunk and send it DEEP to the cynical territory. It's from Nitro Plus.