Wuxia and the History of Kung Fu Movies: Legendary Tales of Chivalrous Martial Heroes of Ancient China

Those who are familiar with the Chinese word wuxiá (“martial heroes“) may associate the word with memories of  martial arts films and television programs that portray a fanciful depiction of Chinese martial arts to audiences around the world. However, there is more to wuxia than meets the eye. Wuxia is in fact an entire literary genre that depicts the exploits of ancient Chinese martial artists. It has proven to be popular enough to be used in a number of modern cultural media, including Chinese opera, films, television series and video games.

Bruce Lee and Ip Man (1958)
Bruce Lee and Ip Man (1958)

In general, wuxia tells us about heroes. But the heroes in wuxia rarely serve a ruler, wield military power, or belong to the aristocracy. In fact, they are frequently descended from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. The chivalric code upheld by the hero typically requires heroes to right and redress wrongs, fight for righteousness, remove oppressors, and bring retribution for previous wrongdoings. Despite the fact that the term wuxiá as a name of a genre is a recent innovation, martial stories date back over 2,000 years tracing their roots all the way to ancient Chinese warrior folk stories known as youxia (“wandering vigilante”) which were glorified in classical Chinese poetry and fiction.  In this context, the Chinese xia traditions are comparable to martial arts codes from other cultures such as the Japanese samurai bushido which formalized earlier samurai moral values and ethical code. With the ascent to power of the warrior caste at the end of the Heian period (794–1185) and the founding of the first Kamakura shogunate, sincerity, frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor until death were all stressed by bushido. It is a code which allowed the violent existence of the samurai to be tempered by the wisdom, patience and serenity cultivated by the Samurai themselves. 

Samurai armour, Edo Museum (By Corsario CL -  CC BY-SA 4.0)
Samurai armour, Edo Museum (By Corsario CL – CC BY-SA 4.0)

 In his chapter of five social classes in the Spring and Autumn Period (the chapter is called “On Five ‘Maggot’ Classes”), Legalist philosopher Han Feizi (c. 280 – 233 BC) spoke disparaging of the youxias. In the chapter On Five ‘Maggot’ Classes about five social classes in the Spring and Autumn period of Han Fei’s book Han Feizi, the legalist philosopher Han Fei spoke disparagingly of youxias. As he was a part of the governing nobility, having been born into the Han State’s reigning dynasty during the Warring States period, it is possible that Han Fei showed his distaste towards youxia because it was popular among the lower social class. In an essay on the “essence of the six schools of thought,” Sima Tan (d. 110 BC) notes that fa jia (legalism) are “strict and have little kindness,” and “do not distinguish between kin and stranger, nor differentiate between noble and base: everything is determined by the standard (or law, fa).” Therefore, taking this into consideration, it is also possible that Han Fei disliked youxia  because, in his view, it does not adhere to the strict standard of legalism that he upheld.

The Popular Stories of Ancient Chinese Assassins and Military Romance

Some well-known stories of wuxia include the story of Zhuan Zhu. Zhuan Zhu was an assassin in the Spring and Autumn period (c.  771 to 476 BC). He was recommended to the king’s cousin Prince Guang (who later became King Helu of Wu) who wanted to kill King Liao of Wu and take the throne himself. In 515 BC Zhuan Zhu managed to kill King Liao in a party organized by Prince Guang with a dagger hidden in a fish. most notably, Another popular figure upon whom wuxia stories is another assassin named Jing Ke. Jing Ke was a retainer of Crown Prince Dan of the Yan state (an ancient Chinese state during the Zhou dynasty (c.  1046 BC – 256 BC)). Jing Ke made a failed assassination attempt of King Zheng of the Qin state, who later became Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor who reigned from 221 BC to 210 BC. Jing Ke’s adventure is told in a chapter called “Biographies of Assassins” in Sima Qian’s Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian),  a monumental history of ancient China completed around 94 BC. Apart from Zhuan Zhu and Jing Ke, Sima Qian mentioned three other notable assassins in the Warring States period – Cao Mo, Yu Rang and Nie Zheng, all of whom undertook tasks of assassination of aristocrats, nobles and powerful political figures in their day. Cao Mo, considered to be the earliest and most effective assassin, was a general of Lu during the Zhou dynasty tasked with killing the Duke Huan Gong of Qi.

Openwork cast gold sword hilt, decorated with interlaced dragons, 6th-5th century BC, Eastern Zhou dynasty. It would have been attached to a bronze or cast-iron blade but was probably only intended for display, as the gold would have been too fragile for actual use.  (By Zunkir - CC BY-SA 4.0)
Openwork cast gold sword hilt, decorated with interlaced dragons, 6th-5th century BC, Eastern Zhou dynasty. It would have been attached to a bronze or cast-iron blade but was probably only intended for display, as the gold would have been too fragile for actual use.  (By Zunkir – CC BY-SA 4.0)

Yu Rang, on the other hand, failed in his mission to assassinate Zhao Xiangzi. Yu Rang worked as minister Zhi Yao’s retainer. When Zhao Xiangzi, the head of the House of Zhao, killed Zhi Yao in battle, Yu Rang fled to the mountains and vowed vengeance on his master. Yu Rang hid in a restroom to assassinate Zhao Xiangzi. His plan had failed, and Zhao Xiangzi’s men were preparing to execute him. Zhao Xiangzi, on the other hand, ordered Yu Rang’s release out of respect for his moral righteousness. Yu Rang disfigured himself later, realizing that Zhao Xiangzi could recognize him again, by having his skin covered with lacquer to create scars and sores. Yu Rang swallowed charcoal to alter his voice. Yu Rang, armed with his sword, crept beneath a bridge. When Zhao Xiangzi crossed the bridge, his horses were startled by Yu Rang’s approach. Despite his beggar appearance, Zhao Xiangzi recognized him and had his warriors arrest Yu Rang. When Xiangzi questioned him, Yu Rang explained that it was still his duty to avenge his former master Zhi Yao. Yu Rang tells Zhao Xiangzi, “I am ready to die today,” because he is outnumbered by Zhao Xiangzi’s men and has no way to escape, he knows that he would never be able to kill Zhao Xiangzi. He asks Zhao Xiangzi, “all I ask is that I cut your robe and show my vengeful intent.” Zhao Xiangzi gave Yu Rang his robe and Yu Rang preoceeded to stab the robe three times crying to heaven that now he was ready to face his master in the afterlife. After that, he killed himself by his own sword. After his death, Yu Rang’s story spread throughout China and people hailed him for his loyalty to his master.

Spring and Autumn Period gold ornaments, Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou.
Spring and Autumn Period gold ornaments, Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou. 

Nie Zheng (4th c. BC) went to the Han capital and killed the Han minister Jia Lei on behalf of his noble friend. Nie Zheng then committed suicide so that no revenge would be taken on his family. However, when his sister came to claim his body, she herself died on the spot out of grief.

These assassins were called Xiake (which literally “stabbing guests”), and they were popular folk figures. Instead of working for rewards such as riches and women, they usually rendered their loyalties and services to feudal lords and nobles. Sima Qian detailed several embryonic features of xia culture from his period in Volume 124 of the Shi Ji. Other historical records, such as the Book of Han and the Book of the Later Han, documented these popular phenomena.

Xiake stories reached a tipping point during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and reappeared as chuanqi (“legendary tales”). Stories from that the Tang dynasty, such as Nie Yinniang, The Kunlun Slave, Thirteenth Madame Jing, Red String, and The Bearded Warrior, also served as models for modern wuxia stories. They featured fantasies and lone protagonists who performed daring heroic deeds. Similar stories circulated in the huaben, short works that were once thought to have served as prompt-books for shuochang (traditional Chinese storytelling) during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD)

Buddha on a lotus flower, China, Tang dynasty, 618-906 AD, gilded bronze - Östasiatiska museet, Stockholm
Buddha on a lotus flower, China, Tang dynasty, 618-906 AD, gilded bronze – Östasiatiska museet, Stockholm 

The martial or military romance genre flourished during the Tang dynasty. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD),  Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong and Water Margin by Shi Nai’an were written. Both works went on to be considered among the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a romanticized historical retelling of events during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period, whereas Water Margin criticizes the late Northern Song dynasty’s poor socioeconomic standing. Water Margin can also be considered as the first full-length wuxia novel as its depiction of the 108 heroes, as well as their code of honor and willingness to become outlaws rather than serve a corrupt government, influenced the later development of jianghu culture.

The gong’an (“public case”) and related detective novels, in which xia and other heroes solved crimes and battled injustice in collaboration with a judge or magistrate, were further developments in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD). Many of the social justice themes found in later wuxia stories were incorporated into the stories of the day such as stories of Justice Bao. Stories of chivalrous romance, which frequently featured female heroes and supernatural fighting abilities, also appeared during the Qing dynasty. At the end of the Qing dynasty, the term “wuxia” first appeared as a genre label, a calque of the Japanese “bukyo,” a genre of often-militaristic and bushido-influenced adventure fiction. The term was introduced to China by writers and students hoping that China’s military would modernize and emphasize martial virtues, and it quickly became the term used to refer to forerunners of the wuxia we know today.

The Eagle-shooting Heroes Decorative screen in Jin Yong Gallery By Wpcpey - CC BY-SA 4.0
The Eagle-shooting Heroes Decorative screen in Jin Yong Gallery by Wpcpey – CC BY-SA 4.0

How to Recognize a Wuxia Story

 A typical wuxia story features a young male protagonist who suffers a tragedy, such as the death of a loved one, and then goes through a series of trials and tribulations to learn various martial arts from various fighters. He is revealed at the end of the story to be a formidable fighter who few can match. He uses his talents to uphold the xia code (martial code) and heal the jianghu‘s ailments (Jianghu is the community of martial artists). Although this is a common plotline, the story can take a variety of forms. For example, the protagonist is turned down for membership in a martial arts sect. He then faces adversity, trains in secret, and waits for an opportunity to demonstrate his abilities and surprise those who dismissed him at first. In some stories, a hero who has matured and gained strong martial arts abilities battles an equally powerful antagonist as his nemesis. The plot will build to a final dramatic confrontation between the protagonist and his nemesis.

It is helpful at this point to define the terms xia and Jianghu. Jianghu, which translates literally as “rivers and lakes,” is a philosophical term coined during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) to refer to the world’s vastness. In both fiction and real life, jianghu now refers to the uncharted territory beyond or beneath lawful society. This perilous and unpredictable world is somewhat reminiscent of the American Wild West as, in the cutthroat world of jianghu, everyone is forced to follow its strict rules and ethics if they want to survive while conversely the lawful world’s code of conduct carries little weight in this world.

Old reference book exhibition in October 2019 black and white movie film named Jin Yong's novels The Smiling Proud Wanderer and The Legend of the Condor Heroes
Old reference book exhibition in October 2019 black and white movie film named Jin Yong’s novels The Smiling Proud Wanderer and The Legend of the Condor Heroes (By Fia Tunam Siwyh, CC BY-SA 4.0)

There is no direct translation for Xia, but it roughly translates to heroes with subversive tendencies. They are defined by their unconventional pursuit of justice, often as vigilantes who cannot tolerate the corruption or ineffectiveness of institutions. They are  a good heart and a free spirit combined. Xia is almost always a wuxia — a martial arts hero — because their lethal skills allow them to be an anti-establishment agent who defies and resists the status quo. These heroes are typically driven by a strong sense of purpose and righteousness, guided by strong values and strict codes of conduct.

The xia’s eight common characteristics are benevolence, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth, and desire for glory, which are usually embodied by the hero. Apart from individualism, these characteristics are similar to Confucian values such as ren (“benevolence”), zhong (“loyalty”), yong (“courage”), and yi (“compassion”). The xia code also emphasizes repaying benefactors after receiving en (“grace”) from others, as well as seeking chou (“vengeance”) to bring villains to justice. However, the significance of vengeance is debatable, as a number of wuxia works emphasize Buddhist ideals such as forgiveness, compassion, and a prohibition on killing.

A Shaolin Monastery mural depicting sparring.
A Shaolin Monastery mural depicting sparring.

In the jianghu, martial artists are expected to be loyal to their master. As a result, several complex trees of master-apprentice relationships emerge, as do different sects such as Shaolin and Wudang. If fighters disagree, they will choose the honorable method of resolving their differences by fighting in duels instead of dishonorably poisoning or stabbing their opponents at their vulnerable moment.

Ancient China and their Enduring Fascination for Martial Artists

Martial arts and chivalry were not only a historical phenomenon and a way of life in ancient China, but also a type of aesthetic need in the public. The ancient Chinese society, which arose from an agricultural civilization, gave birth to the deeply held belief in “harmony between man and nature.” This concept gradually formed the core of Chinese traditional culture as it evolved and was integrated with various theories.

19the century woodblock triptych print, oban tate-e. Various ghosts, devil-like figures, and the King of Hell lording over his domain.
19the century woodblock triptych print, oban tate-e. Various ghosts, devil-like figures, and the King of Hell lording over his domain.

Trying to judge the historical accuracy of a wuxia story is pointless. The important thing for wuxia writers is not the little-known historical data, but how to express what has been seen. As a result, narrative discourse in wuxia stories is no longer a tool for restoring historical truth, because narrative discourse in all rhetoric is branded with the author’s personal history of the subject. The most common plot points in ancient Chinese Martial Arts novels are: the young hero meets misfortune, he saves himself, and he excels at martial arts. He then enters the Jianghu Way. After a series of trials and tribulations, he exacts his final (and usually personal) vengeance and saves the martial arts world. If we remove the label of “hero,” we will discover that the character achieves the same fate as any other human beings, that of trials and maturity. It’s reminiscent of a classical Greek hero’s journey to the underworld. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero returns from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man,” Joseph Campbell wrote.

The underworld is notable in this concept as a place where a hero could descend and prove himself. The underworld represented a point of no return for the ancient Greeks. Some, on the other hand, have managed to descend into the realm of the dead and return to the land of the living. The ability to enter and return from the realm of the dead while still alive is regarded as proof of the hero’s prowess and mastery over himself and the world around him, or, in the case of the goddess Persephone’s return from the underworld, the cyclical nature of time and existence.

Attributes of Shinje Chogyel (Yama Dharamataja) in a Tibetan "rgyan tshogs" banner , By  https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0018258.html, CC BY 4.0
Attributes of Shinje Chogyel (Yama Dharamataja) in a Tibetan “rgyan tshogs” banner , By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0018258.html, CC BY 4.0

Going to hell and back is one of the oldest concepts known to mankind because it is so all-encompassing. A person goes through trials and tribulations, and when they are strong enough, they emerge wiser, stronger, and more valuable to their tribe. Although the wuxia hero does not always descend into the underworld, his trials and tribulations in a world where normal law does not apply have greatly aided his maturity and acquisition of martial mastery. He would then use this ability to save his community before going on to contribute to society as a mature and wise martial artist – an artist who embodies the best of nature and humanity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s