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Spirit Cultivation Genre

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Also known as Xianxia ("Immortal Hero"), a Spirit Cultivation story is about characters with the ability to improve their own power through meditation and training, all with Wuxia-themed abilities and settings. Expect lots of Supernatural Martial Arts.

Essentially a High Fantasy version of Wuxia, it usually features a Taoist or Buddhist protagonist (or Fantasy Counterpart Religion version) mixing in Full-Contact Magic with his martial arts, and fantastic elements being overt rather than subtle and in the background. It is an emerging genre whose precise boundaries are in flux, with a number of popular Web Serial Novels having brought it to prominence.

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If seeking immortality is not the central point of the story and there are loads of non-Eastern elements alongside qi cultivation and martial artistry, it may in fact be a further subgenre known as Xuanhuan ("Mysterious fantasy").

The Other Wiki's article on the genre. See also wuxiaworld.com's glossary on various terms of the genre

Common tropes include:

  • The Ageless: Because Wizards Live Longer. Cultivators who manage to reach immortality can still be killed, even if it's very hard to do, but they will no longer die of natural causes such as aging.
  • Always Someone Better: This is a recurring theme in these stories. If you're the biggest badass around, chances are that you're just the biggest fish in your local pond, which will inevitably turn out to be a backwater that the real big boys don't care about. In The Outside World, the average ten-year-old will be stronger than you. And it's not unusual for the world of the "big boys" to repeat the pattern, being a minor region within a greater world (or cosmos) full of beings who could destroy it with a thought. And so on.
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  • Asskicking Equals Authority: Pretty much a given. Cultivators of lower rank will be expected to defer to those of higher rank, for the very good reason that a more powerful cultivator can trivially kill a weaker cultivator. If there are any rules that bind the actions of the strong, it's because they might piss off other strong people if they violate them.
  • Bag of Holding: Qiankun pouches are a common item in the setting which allow a cultivator to carry a large supply of weapons and objects with them in a bag as small as a coin pouch. Sometimes crosses over with Hammerspace via qiankun sleeves. Of course this is Depending on the Writer and there's a honestly many different types of similar artifacts that involve some form of this. Another popular form is a ring that can open a pocket dimension and summon anything stored inside it at will.
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  • Crapsack World: Most iterations of the Cultivation World are this to some extent, especially for non-cultivators. It's a world full of monsters, demons and malicious ghosts that could kill you at any moment. There's always the chance you could get kidnapped by Demonic Cultivators to be experimented on or drained of your qi to aid their cultivation methods or killed by some arrogant supposedly righteous cultivator showing off in a crowded street. That is, if they don't kill you on purpose for offending them somehow, which is shockingly easy to do. Often times even the "heroes" aren't really all that heroic. Other times, the heroes are genuinely heroic, but they and sometimes the sect they belong to are the only truly "righteous" cultivators who actually care about protecting the common folk while all the other supposedly righteous cultivators care more about their own power and prestige and petty political squabbles. In that way, it isn't too different from Wuxia stories that focus on the politics between different martial arts schools.
  • Deity of Human Origin: High-level cultivators often develop immortality — hence the title of the genre — and display godlike abilities, sometimes even undergoing apotheosis to join the ranks of the gods.
  • Enlightenment Superpowers: To be expected when greater knowledge/understanding of the self and the universe tends to translate to supernatural martial prowess, control over one's body and the elements, and even divine apotheosis.
  • Fair-Weather Friend: When a cultivator previously renowned as a genius suffers an incident and becomes a "trash", many of their associates will abandon them. Likewise their fiance, usually a prince if a man, usually a sect successor if a woman, will, feeling too good for them, proceed to break the engagement. Cue the protagonist becoming determined to recover their power as payback. For bonus points, there are cases where the former fiance Loves My Alter Ego of the person they abandoned. The protagonist and the former fiance will ultimately have a duel, with the protagonist triumphant and the former fiance regretting their callousness and what they have lost because of it.
  • Fantastic Rank System: The Power Levels are often divided into distinct "realms," with sub-ranks within the realms. Very generally, there tend to be about ten sub-ranks; the beginner or foundation rank, then three realms with three sub-ranks each. But the names, powers, and methods of the realms and sub-ranks all vary wildly.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: A common type of protagonist origin is a mediocre, "trash," cultivation student who can't seem to overcome that mediocrity no matter how hard he trains and gets frequently bullied by other more talented disciples stumbling across some kind of cheat, or awakening to his non-human heritage, or stumbling across a cultivation manual containing a cultivation method more suited to him, and quickly turning things around to become a badass almost overnight, often brutally murdering or at least humilating his bullies in the process.
  • Harem Genre: Partly because having multiple wives was common among the wealthy in ancient China, there are plenty of this type of story in this setting. Marry Them All is almost always a certainty in these stories, so usually the competition between haremmates, if that gets any focus, is over who gets to be Top Wife.
  • Ki: Some sort of Life Energy is typically the key to the entire magic system. Names vary (both between real-life variants like qi and chi or a new fantasy version), but it inevitably requires meditating and refining the energy to make yourself more powerful.
  • Magical Society: A "sect" is a generic term for an association of cultivators; The Clan is a subtrope for sects that are largely or exclusively hereditary. A sect teaches martial arts and cultivation techniques, provides Phlebotinum Pills to accelerate its members' cultivation, and protects their members from being casually murdered by stronger cultivators. Wars between sects are usually routine, whether over cultivation resources, prestige, or a variety of blood feuds.
  • Phlebotinum Pills: There are usually a variety of magical medicines (from potions and elixirs to actual pills) that help improve cultivation.
  • Power Fantasy: The genre lends itself to these very easily, and because the majority of English translated Web Novels involve this, many westerners are under the mistaken impression that basically every story in this setting falls into it. That's not really true.
  • Power Levels: Levels of cultivation are often present in these stories, and are often separated into two categories between one's Ki and physical body. In fact, they may very well be the Ur-Example, as this type of power system is the main influence for the various fathers of modern shonen Fighting Series like Dragon Ball and Fist of the North Star.
  • Privileged Rival: The Arrogant Young Master archetype, which is the most common form of rival in xianxia (Especially the power fantasy focused ones). This character is always a member of a cultivation clan, usually it's heir and son of the leader of the sect the protagonist is a part of. The protagonist always starts out as the child of commoners or an orphan who got brought into the sect, and when the protagonist is "mediocre trash" like mentioned above, this guy is usually the one leading the other disciples in their age group in bullying him for his lack of talent. He's pretty much always doomed to die at the protagonist's hands or suffer some other horrible fate once the protagonist comes into his power, except on the rare occasions where he's subject to Defeat Means Friendship. Since a lot of Xianxia Web Novels are Long-Runners with hunderds or sometimes thousands of chapter, you should expect some permutation of this character to show up a lot, often as heirs to other sects, children of famous cultivators or even princes. Stories with female protagonists will equally have her go up against various similar Young Mistresses.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: A problem for many of the power fantasy focused Xianxia in particular. Quite a few authors have a problem of going on and on about how "good" and "righteous" their protagonist is even while they commit all kinds of terrible deeds, which the narration will claim is justified. This isn't always the case. A few authors actually do seem to know how to make genuinely good and sympathetic heroes and others more deliberately make their protagonists Anti-Heroes or Villain Protagonists. But its still a frequent enough issue to be a subject of parody.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Many of the worlds of various novels are ludicrously large, mostly due to the way a lot of the various authors of these novels apply the Chinese measurement of Li (usually half a kilometer). Some novels can house planets, nations, islands, or even trees the size of real world stars as big as our own sun, if not even bigger, and, depending on the scope of the novel in question, is often the starting point for a protagonist's story, as at some point via Serial Escalation, they will find themselves to be too powerful to feel challenged.
  • Sex Magic: Dual Cultivation, where two cultivators have sex as a cultivation method to, theoretically, strengthen both parties. This is often used as further justification for the protagonist having a harem as mentioned above. Some novels have a more PG-13 form of this where two usually opposite sex cultivators meditate together. Usually it is believed heterosexual couples are the most ideal for this, due to it requiring one partner to provide an equal amount of yin energy to balance out the other's yang energy, but this is not a hard and fast rule and if Dual Cultivation comes up in a story with a same sex relationship, usually Danmei, the author will either find a way to justify it or ignore this requirement altogether. This is generally why a cultivator's spouse will often be referred to as their cultivation partner. A less consensual form of this is usually referred to as turning someone into a "human cauldron." While dual cultivation is supposed to benefit both partners, a human cauldron situation only benefits the dominant partner.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts: Almost universal. Typically everyone with training will have it, but occasionally only the protagonist will.
  • Tautological Templar: Antagonists from the righteous sects will often perform blatantly evil acts, all the while proclaiming that they are enforcing justice and trying to abuse Asskicking Equals Authority or being a Rules Lawyer to get away with it.
  • Trapped in Another World: The is a popular setting for Isekai power fantasy stories, lending itself to them very well. Usually involving either reincarnation into a inhabitant of the world or transmigrating into the body of an already existing person. Not all of them actually involve someone from our world ending up in a xianxia world either. Sometimes someone from a Xianxia world will find themselves in a different xianxia world that works very differently from the one they're familar with.
  • Time Travel: The most common form of this seems to be an Uber Powerful badass getting sent back in time to their rookie disciple days and being forced to do it over again.

Examples:

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    Anime, Manga, and Manhua 
  • Cultivator Against Hero Society is a parody of this trope, showing how someone so powerful would fit in a world with traditional Eastern and Western superhero parodies not too dissimilar to One-Punch Man. The main character, Yan-Sen, is so powerful that no one shown in the series so far (the unseen Ancient Heroes being a possible exception) can even match him, and he is instead more focused on rebuilding his sect to find a way to get back to his realm that he was thrown out of.
  • Juushinki Pandora: A science-fantasy take on the genre mixing quantum physics with Taoism, wherein it's theorized that the Evolution Field responsible for the creation of biomechanical monsters called Brai is also responsible for the ancient Chinese legends of gods, demons, and Immortals. Rather than cultivating power within themselves, the protagonists pilot mechs outfitted with Hyper Drive reactors, which are powered by Yang energy and grow more powerful as the series progresses. Conversely, the villains use Yin energy-powered Dark Drive reactors to create and upgrade Brai. Two of the supporting characters are Taoist priestesses descended from a lineage of cultivators, though one of the villains is skeptical that their powers are truly supernatural and instead believes them to be derived from the same font of quantum energy that powers the Evolution Field, Hyper Drives, and Dark Drives.

    Film — Animation 
  • Jiang Ziya is loosely based on the classic Chinese novel Investiture of the Gods, and focuses on the Taoist Immortal warrior Jiang Ziya, who was exiled from the heavenly Jingxu Hall for his failure to execute the Fox Devil Nine-Tailed, as he seeks to help Xiao Jiu — an amnesiac young woman with fox-ears — regain her memories and uncover her sinister connection to Nine-Tailed.
  • Ne Zha is loosely based on the classic Chinese novel Investiture of the Gods, and focuses on the Taoist immortals Taiyi Zhenren and rival Shen Gongbao vying to become a Deity of Human Origin by training the demon-in-human form Ne Zha and the dragon prince Ao Bing respectively.
  • New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021) serves as a cyberpunk take on the genre, being a sequel to the story of Nezha where the various gods of Chinese mythology have been reincarnated as humans. Li Yunxiang discovering that he is the reincarnation of Nezha and that he must awaken his dormant divinity when he discovers the Dragon Clan is looking to settle their 3000-year-old grudge against him.
  • White Snake (2019): The narrative serves as a prequel to the classic Chinese fable Legend of the White Snake, and the protagonist Xiao Bai/Blanca and the other members of her clan are snakes that have managed to cultivate enough spiritual energy to become demons, with Xiao Bai/Blanca and her sister Xiao Qing/Verta in particular seeking to become Immortals. The General is a Taoist sage who seeks to absorb their energy for his own malicious purposes, with his apprentice being called the "Little Daoist".
  • Green Snake (2021): An Urban Fantasy sequel to White Snake focusing on Verta, who has been separated from Blanca by the Buddhist sage Fahai and trapped in the seemingly modern metropolis of Shura City, which is populated by both humans and demons.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Holy Flame of the Martial World is a Shaw Brothers film about two siblings who are separted at birth and seek the qi-powered swords known as the holy flames; compared to most Shaw Brother films, it has many supernatural elements and fantasy theming.
  • Jade Dynasty is about a cultivator who accidentally draws the attention of the Ghost King.
  • Once Upon a Time (2017) is in the xuanhuan subgenre and is about a goddess who falls in love with the Crown Prince of Nine Heavens.
  • Painted Skin and its sequel, Painted Skin The Resurrection, are based off the 1740 Chinese short story The Painted Skin and star Xiaowei, a fox-demon who cultivated supernatural powers and maintains her youthful human form by devouring human hearts. In the first film Xiaowei falls in love with a human and sacrifices her cultivated powers to resurrect him and his wife. In the sequel, Xiaowei is imprisoned in a glacier for 500 years for having done so, and after being broken free by the bird-demon Que'er, she tries to find a human willing to give her their heart so she can become human herself — instigating a love-triangle between herself, a general, and a princess before sacrificing herself so the general and the princess can be together.
  • The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity is about four masters who have to stop a snake demon escaping.

    Literature 
  • Beware of Chicken: A nameless man dies and reincarnates into the body of Jin Rou, a young cultivator. He decides that the cultivator lifestyle is too violent and stressful for him, so he becomes a farmer in a backwater village — but accidentally becomes remarkably powerful anyway, producing supernaturally good harvests and sapient kung fu barnyard animals. This story subverts and deconstructs many common Xianxia tropes.
  • Coiling Dragon is about the descendant of a once-legendary clan who's trying to reclaim their lost glory.
  • Cradle Series: Literally everyone is a sacred artist, meaning they practice cultivation. Lindon is the weakest in Sacred Valley due to being an Un-Sorcerer, but he is the one who discovers that his home is going to be destroyed in thirty years. He needs to become one of the strongest beings in the world in an impossibly short timeframe to stand a chance of saving everyone.
  • Cultivation Chat Group: A comedy manhwa where a modern student is accidentally invited into an online chat group for cultivators, despite having no knowledge of the supernatural himself.
  • The Divine Dungeon combines this with Dungeon Core as its main mechanics. The main characters of the first series are Cal, a newborn dungeon core, and Dale, a human who stumbles across his dungeon and ends up becoming a cultivator. Cultivation of Essence is the primary mechanic by which both dungeons and humanoid characters gain power, and their Power Levels range from mortal baseline all the way up to terrifyingly powerful. (One-Man Army is somewhere in the middle of the scale.)
  • Desolate Era: An isekai cultivator story. Ji Ning dies and is reborn in a world of immortals and demigods, and resolves to gain power and fame that he was always denied in his first life.
  • The Distinguished Cute Master: A double isekai cultivator story. The heroine is reborn as the final boss in a cultivator world and is killed by the hero. She is reborn young again, she decides to take the hero in as her disciple and resolves to raise him to be loyal, but instead he turns out a jerkass.
  • Douluo Dalu takes place in a world where soul masters are everpresent in both daily life and world politics. By killing spirit beasts and taking their soul rings, soul masters aspire to become closer and closer to godhood.
  • Er Ha He Ta De Bai Mao Shi Zun: Emperor of the cultivation world Mo Weiyu finds himself back when he was a young disciple after taking his own life. He finds out that many things that he thought were true weren't, most shocking that the hated Shizun he had tormented in his past life was secretly protecting him...
  • Fox Demon Cultivation Manual: Song Ci accidentally consumes the Demon King's blood and becomes a demon himself.
  • Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation: Mo Dao Zu Shi: Wei Wuxian, the founder of the demonic path and scourge of the cultivation world, returns to life 13 years after his violent demise. He's soon drawn into a mysterious plot involving unfinished business from before his death and conspiracies spun in the years afterwards, unexpectedly working alongside a righteous hero he has history with.
  • Heaven Official’s Blessing: Tian Guan Ci Fu: Xie Lian was once a darling prince who managed to cultivate his way into godhood. 800 years later he's mocked as a trash god and considered an utter joke when he ascends for the third time.
  • Lord of Mysteries is about a man who gets reincarnated in a Victorian-esque world where individuals called Beyonders seek to climb the various paths of power.
  • Mistakenly Saving the Villain: Song Qingshi transmigrates into a web novel. But he isn't familiar with the novel so he accidentally changes its plot.
  • Nine Star Hegemon Body Art is about a boy who learns a cultivation technique from a god's memories.
  • Novoland: All the novels are set in the same universe, the titular Novoland, which is inhabited by ordinary humans, cultivators, and winged humanoids.
  • The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System: Ren Zha Fanpai Zijiu Xitong: Shen Yuan dies of food poisoning after raging against the terrible ending of the harem xianxia web novel, Proud Immortal Demon Way. And finds himself transmigrating to the Sadist Teacher and Starter Villain Shen Qingqiu. A satire of Xianxia male-power fantasy novels.
  • Virtuous Sons: A Greco Roman Xianxia transplants the genre conventions of spirit cultivation narratives into a setting inspired by the Mediterranean of Classical Mythology, with more than a few twists. E.g., Carthage has destroyed Rome for one, and all the gods of Olympus seem to be dead, absent, or wiped from memory.
  • Way of Choices is about a boy who learns he's terminally ill and attempts to reach divinity before he dies.
  • Wu Chang Jie is about a (deeply dysfunctional) Reincarnation Romance between two adopted brothers.
  • Zhen Hun is about a detective investigating a series of murders. Along the way he meets a mysterious man who's several thousand years old.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Ashes of Love: Jin Mi gets Xu Feng to take her to the Heavenly Realm, where she gets dragged into the Heavenly Empress's schemes.
  • The Eternal Love: A subplot revolves around cultivators searching for the soul-suppression orb which can send people to the past or future.
  • Hua Xu Yin: City of Desperate Love is about a princess who died for her kingdom then is resurrected by a magic pearl.
  • Ice Fantasy is in the xuanhuan subgenre and is about a war between the Ice Tribe and Fire Tribe, while an even more sinister being lurks in the background.
  • Immortality is about a former emperor who travels back in time to his younger self's body.
  • The Journey of Flower is about a girl who joins a cultivation sect and falls in love with the sect leader.
  • The Legend of Chusen is about a cultivator who accidentally draws the attention of the Ghost King.
  • Lost Love in Times is in the xuanhuan subgenre and is about a sorceress who tries to stop a coup by going back in time.
  • Love and Destiny is in the xuanhuan subgenre and is about a fairy who accidentally wakes the God of War.
  • Love and Redemption is about a Reincarnation Romance between the God of War and the Star of Mo Sha.
  • Miss The Dragon is in the xuanhuan subgenre and is about the Reincarnation Romance between a human and a dragon.
  • Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms is in the xuanhuan subgenre and is about a goddess who falls in love with the Crown Prince of the Nine Heavens.
  • The Untamed: Wei Wuxian, the founder of the demonic path and scourge of the cultivation world, returns to life sixteen years after his violent demise. He's soon drawn into a mysterious plot involving unfinished business from before his death and conspiracies spun in the years afterwards, unexpectedly working alongside a righteous hero he has history with.
  • Word of Honor: Zhou Zishu decides to quit his job as leader of an organization that protects the royal family and sets off to travel the world. Along the way he gets embroiled in a conspiracy in the martial arts world and meets Wen Kexing, who is really the Master of Ghost Valley.

    Video Games 

    Web Original 
  • Destiny Cycle is a forum quest turned Xianxia web novel about Ling Qi, a teenage girl who is sent to her province's Great Sect when her ability to hear spirits is discovered. While the usual fate for a commoner with talent is to join the army and eventually plateau in power, Ling Qi is determined to drive herself towards loftier goals


 
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Alternative Title(s): Xianxia

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White Snake

The narrative serves as a prequel to the classic Chinese fable Legend of the White Snake, and the protagonist Xiao Bai/Blanca and the other members of her clan are snakes that have managed to cultivate enough spiritual energy to become demons, with Xiao Bai/Blanca and her sister Xiao Qing/Verta in particular seeking to become Immortals. The General is a Taoist sage who seeks to absorb their energy for his own malicious purposes, with his apprentice being called the "Little Daoist".

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