The Epic World of Wuxia and Xianxia

The Epic World of Wuxia and Xianxia

There are many genres of fantasy and science-fiction on the market, and many of them have cross-cultural story lines which anyone can enjoy. One of my recent interests has been the Chinese fantasy genre of Wuxia and Xianxia (“Woo-sha” and “Sheng-sha”). For westerners (like myself), think Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for a Wuxia plot and think The Forbidden Kingdom for a Xianxia plot.

Wuxia focuses on lower caste or blue-collar heroes who sometimes have superhuman powers yet live by a code of honor to protect the people of their same class structure. Farmers, fishermen, and orphans raised by the poor are common backgrounds for larger-than-life fighters of injustice. They tend to be outsiders among their own people who serve a wealthy benefactor yet they are mortals the same.

Xianxia is similar for the stylistic fighting and supernatural elements, but the protagonists in this classic Chinese genre are on a path towards immortality and to become stronger. The Xian, or “cultivators”, are similar to the heroes from Wuxia, but they have varied codes of honor and a focused goal in attaining more strength rather than protecting others. The plots themselves had a range of antagonists put in the paths of the cultivators which took on political themes in the early 20th century against colonizing westerners, Japanese aggression, and feudal emperors who abused their power.

The Chinese fantasy genres are not dissimilar to the moral codes of the protagonists in western melodramas, but the Chinese versions of those heroes tend to be more well-adjusted than the western archetypes. For an example, the movie Die Hard’s protagonist was an outsider who risked his own life to save the lives of dozens of people, yet John McClane was notably a bad husband and made it very clear that outside of that heroic journey he was not socially tolerable. A Wuxia hero will have trained for a long portion of their lives in order to be there when needed, but they are nearly always related as being charismatic, respected, or loved outside of that heroic journey. Xianxia is the combination of an immortal (Xian) who has superhuman powers, and a hero that embodies noble characteristics (xia). The Xianxia cultivators have a range of reasons why they seek more power, yet the audience is also given the notion that hard work and being respectful to those with less power has given these characters stable lives that led to their journeys.

While both Wuxia and Xianxia have similar larger-than-life protagonists, they shouldn’t be confused for one another. Wuxia doesn’t require the mystical aspects of Xianxia to explain the sometimes superhuman feats of the characters, and Xianxia gives the protagonist more choices when faced with moral dilemmas. Cultivators in Xianxia seek out fights that they feel challenged and serve a good cause. Wuxia heroes will also possibly look for a challenge to further their training, but their driving instinct is to protect or avenge the common people who they live among.

The fantasy genre has been growing as a sizable market in western countries for nearly twenty years now, so it’s not a new phenomenon. My own interest in these stories was film-related as a child, watching Kung Fu Theater reruns on the weekends. The stylized fighting is a dance of pain or death with secret techniques and the use of mystical energies to surpass the fighting skills of normal people. The motivations of the protagonists and the scope of the plot carve out different stories between Wuxia and Xianxia, but the audience or reader are treated to an epic journey to overcome seemingly insurmountable fights or conflicts.

You’ll find many of the Wuxia or Xianxia novels include a lot of time spent on relationships or love interests for the main characters. Personally, these portions of the story are fine with me so long as they don’t dwell too long on sexual desires or actions which truly have nothing to do with furthering the plot. However, be warned that some of the Wuxia and Xianxia novels spend a lot of time crossing into erotica rather than action or adventure. Romance is a wonderful tool for setting up the motivations and decisions of the hero or heroine, however I prefer when the sexual descriptions or scenes in movies are only long enough for me to skim less than a page or grab something from the refrigerator.

I’ve seen quite a few LitRPG authors bending the rules and formulas of the gaming convention with the worlds of Wuxia and Xianxia recently. While the narrative medium is new to me and I’ve yet to pour through a few downloads on Kindle, I have been given some suggestions of crossover LitRPG novels I should try which follow the Chinese genre. If they are worth the read, I’ll definitely let you all know.

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