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Entry updated 1 December 2022. Tagged: Theme.

"Martial Heroes". A shorthand term often employed in writings on Chinese fiction and film, denoting the adventures of martial artists. Originally a calque of the Japanese term bukyō, introduced in the adventure novels of Shunrō Oshikawa around 1902, the term was co-opted by a community of authors scrambling to address the Matter of China in troubled modern times. [For Matter see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below.]

China during the Qing era (1644-1911) was ruled by a foreign aristocracy, the Manchu, and subject to ferocious censorship purges aimed at rooting out any references to revolution, resistance, or the glory days of earlier dynasties ruled by ethnic Chinese. Authors were hence incentivized to locate their stories in a vaguely-defined dreamtime, the jianghu [literally "rivers and lakes"] of an idealized Fantasy realm, safely situated in the distant past, or devoid of overt references to contemporary places or people. Drawing on older traditions of wandering swordsmen, the wuxia tales sought to allegorize Chinese heroes as a Pariah Elite of picaresque warriors, often drawing upon inner power derived from Daoist sorcery and quasi-magical kung fu training (see Pseudoscience).

Following the proclamation of the Chinese Republic in 1911, and the loss of the prime impetus to allegory, wuxia fictions drifted further into Pulp. Initially encouraged as a domestic antidote to foreign incursions and influences, the stories fell out of favor with such modernist policies as the May 4th Movement (see China). Xiang Kairan twice studied in Japan, and returned to China as a devout modernist and supporter of the culture of physical betterment through sports and martial arts. Opposed not only to the toppled empire, but also to the corrupt republican regime that had replaced it, he wrote several novels under the name Pingjiang Buxiaosheng, including Jianghu Qixia Zhuan ["Marvellous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes"] (January 1923 Hong Zazhi; 1923), a 160-part epic that was later adapted into the film Huoshao Honglian-si ["The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple"] (1928). Although not the first wuxia film by any means, it featured a panoply of special-effects work including the depiction of transmigratory souls, "flying" combat between weightless swordsmen (suspended on wires), and hand-drawn animation transforming swords into energy beams. Themes of Immortality and Reincarnation became embedded thereafter in the wuxia tradition, along with the treatment of martial artists as Superheroes.

Despite the success of the film, its seventeen sequels and its multiple imitators, such fantasy was increasingly seen by the authorities as an unwelcome, opiate distraction from the real world. The nascent film industry adapting many best-selling wuxia novels was quashed in the 1930s by a series of new laws, although the stories continued to flourish as serials in newspapers. One of the leading proponents during World War Two was Wang Dulu, whose Wohu Canglong ["Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"] (March 1941-June 1942 Qingdao Xinminbao; fixup 1948) featured martial artists whose superhuman power is matched only by their unswerving sense of duty and justice; the story was belatedly filmed by Ang Lee as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which won the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Post-1949, wuxia remained suppressed in Mainland China (until the 1980s) and Taiwan (until the 1960s), but enjoyed a vibrant and potent resurgence in Hong Kong and among overseas Chinese communities. With a population swelled by refugees in the 1950s, the British colony acquired a bilingual newspaper environment in both local Cantonese and expat Mandarin, creating a rich environment for novelists like Ni Kuang and Liang Yusheng (1926-2009). New wuxia tales, such as Jin Yong's Bixue Jian ["The Sword Stained With Royal Blood"] (January-December 1956 Xianggang Shangbao) now fearlessly dealt with issues of the Manchu conquest and oppression, in allusion to the rise of the Communists that had forced so many Chinese from the Mainland. Recurring themes often favored the end of the Ming dynasty, with its echoes of an unwelcome change in government and a flight to the south by the true of heart. Many such works hence contained the subtext, all too real as the Cultural Revolution took hold, that the Chinese diaspora and the Cantonese-speaking world had become the curators and guardians of Chinese culture.

The rise of wuxia film among overseas Chinese communities during a time when Mainland China itself was shut off behind a Communist curtain, and when the 1930s restrictions still held in Taiwan, also created an entirely mythical and unhistorical Fantastika, without any specific references to historical periods. Secret Masters, often from the fictionally opposed Shaolin and Wudang martial arts traditions, duelled with each other and with agents of Western Imperialism and Manchu domination. Meanwhile, the term jianghu experienced a shift in meaning in Cantonese slang, evolving into a term for the Wainscot Society of the Hong Kong underworld, often depicted as a place where the traditions, beliefs, enmities and vendettas of the wuxia past were re-enacted in modern dress.

From 1970 onwards, the wuxia tradition enjoyed a new expansion into the word of Cantonese Comics, with many adaptations into graphic form, including Tony Wong's Luhng Fu Muhn ["Dragon Tiger Gate"] (graph 1970; trans as Oriental Heroes) and Yuhloih Sahnjeung ["Buddha's Palm"] (graph 1982). Its apotheosis into the world of fantastika was arguably Andrew Lau's film Fung Wan (1998 Hong Kong; trans as The Storm Riders), based on Ma Wing-shing's and Siu Kit's Fung Wan ["Wind and Cloud"] (graph 1989; trans as Storm Riders 2001), in which superpowered characters with names that look suspiciously like placeholders from a work in progress ("Lord Conqueror", "Shaolin Monk", "Sword Saint") battle over prophecy, usurpation and revenge in what is supposedly the Ming dynasty.

Very occasionally, the wuxia mode broke out into open sf, such as Andy Seto's comic Chiu Sahn Z ["Cyber Weapon Z"] (graph 1993), which reimagined the Shaolin Temple as a Eugenics project in the Far Future. The film Dungfong Sam Hap ["Three Oriental Heroes"] (1992 Hong Kong; trans as The Heroic Trio), transplants to a Dystopian urban setting a mundane plot (for wuxia) about an invisible thief of potential emperors, while Fei Jing (2004 Hong Kong; trans as Silver Hawk) reinterprets the heroic swordswoman as a motorcycle-riding superheroine in a Hong Kong rebranded as "Polaris City". With the modern censorship authorities in the People's Republic remaining periodically wary about matters of "superstition" (see Huang Yi), Hong Kong remains the primary purveyor of the fantastic to the Chinese-speaking world, albeit with increasing involvement and consideration of the mainland audience and investors.

This overseas motherlode, removed from the censorious realm of the People's Republic, may have been the main impetus for the rise in the 2010s of the term Xianxia ["Immortal Heroes"], sometimes poorly glossed as "Fairy Salvation", to distinguish the more fanciful and magical stories popular in Hong Kong and on Taiwan from the (slightly) more down-to-Earth narratives tolerated on the mainland. This neologism creates a similar division as that found in the Anglophone world between low fantasy and high fantasy. [JonC]

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