Saturday, May 2, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: Wuxia

Well, today we’re going for something a little bit less familiar to a lot of my readers…and possibly something I’ve talked about before, but not necessarily in depth like this. Wuxia fiction. It’s at once a very specific description and also an incredibly broad one. Wuxia translates (roughly) to ‘martial hero,’ if I can believe the internet. I don’t speak any dialect of Chinese, so take what I have to say with a side-dish of doubt, when it comes to that.

Wuxia is a very old genre, and it deals with the adventures and wanderings of martial artists. Normally, they aren’t serving anyone but their own code of honor, which is often the best sort of law. It’s normal in wuxia to see a corrupt or unjust government (or at the very least, incompetent) which forces our martial artist hero to take matters into his or her own hands. All of this is set against the jianghu, assort of alternate reality version of imperial China (Note: wuxia doesn’t technically have to take place in that setting, but it almost always does. If anyone knows of any set in the modern world, please please let me know—I think that would be so awesome to read/watch/what have you.).

So all of that is what makes it such a specific subgenre of fantasy. If you miss those essential beats, it’s going to leave the audience a bit perplexed, at best, even if they don’t know why. At worst, it’s going to make for a very upset audience member or two… or more.

What makes it so general is… well, everything else. Wuxia is a very broad-ranging genre. It was initially literature, but has so pervaded culture in China (and is taking a stronger and stronger hold in other part of the world) that it’s moved into opera and, probably most famously overseas, cinema. All those movies (or a lot of those movies, anyway) that you see full of martial arts and questionable physics? They’re part of the rich landscape that is wuxia.

Probably the most famous wuxia movie for most people in the US is Crouching Tiger, HiddenDragon. And it hits all the beats. A government that has some seriously messed up stuff, a bunch of disparate martial artists, each with a very strict code of honor, the jianghu, and of course the fighting.

But then, on the other side of the movie coin, you have Kung Fu Panda. Yes, I’m absolutely serious about this. Take a look at it. Kung Fu Panda hits all the required wuxia beats: the closest we have to a real government (the prison) lets the incredibly dangerous evil kitty cat out. At the same time, our hero, who has no master, is destined to fight the evil kitty cat. And we’ve got the jianghu, which is very obvious. I’ll admit, it’s incredibly westernized, but it’s still widely considered to be a wuxia movie, and for very good reason. It even touches on a lot of tropes that pop up in other works of wuxia (the secret technique, the counter to the unstoppable style of combat, the old man/woman you don’t want to mess with).

When it comes to books, probably the most famous of all in wuxia are Romance of the ThreeKingdoms and Journey to the West, both written hundreds of years ago. In more modern literature, you have the Dutch-written Judge Dee books (initially inspired by an eighteenth century wuxia work) and the slightly-off-from-wuxia Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox.

Now, I wouldn’t be able to go into wuxia without at least touching on the influence it’s had in a newer story-telling medium: video games. You have the Dynasty Warriors franchise (based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms). You also have one of my favorites from my gaming era, Jade Empire. Even World of Warcraft got on board the wuxia boat with Mists of Pandaria.

And there are TV shows. There are comics and graphic novels. There are anime and manga that take from wuxia. It’s one of the most pervasive subgenres, yet it’s also hardly known to those outside of China. It’s also one that I think deserves its time in the spotlight.
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