Walk The Jianghu

What is wuxia?

The short answer (if you’re too lazy to read the rest):

Chinese  martial arts fiction featuring heroism usually set in imperial China.

The long answer:

All of us must have seen some wuxia movies,famous ones being Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero.While these are not ideal examples, they should give you a general idea.

A quick and dirty way to explain it is to compare it to Star Wars. Some people say Star Wars is wuxia in outer space, and they are right in a general sense. If you took the story of Star Wars, set it in the Chinese empire, replaced the Jedi with ‘xia’, replaced the light sabers with Chinese swords, replaced ‘the Force’ with Taoism/Chinese medicine/Chinese martial arts/etc., then the result would be indistinguishable from wuxia.

Sometimes, wuxia is translated as ‘tales of chivalry’. However wuxia stories are not ‘tales of chivalry’. ‘Chivalry’ is based on a medieval European code of conduct for knights, who were almost always of noble lineage, and was about maintaining the feudal  system. Most wuxia heroes come from the peasant class, and would not mind taking the aristocracy down a notch. The ‘xia’ in ‘wuxia’ does not mean ‘chivalry’; it means standing up for what is right. To give you a sense of what ‘xia’ really means, note thatBatman’s Chinese name is ‘The Bat Xia’ and that Spiderman’s is ‘The Spider Xia’. Comic book superheroes are much closer than Sir Lancelot to being wuxia. Although the ‘xia’ are not vigilantes per se, they do take the law into their hands when crimes occur on their territories (or when it’s convenient for them).

If one must find an equivalent in medieval Europe, the obvious one is Robin Hood, though it should be noted that in Robin Hood, King Richard is usually depicted as a good guy, whereas in wuxia fiction, the emperor of China is generally, at best, a neutral party or a very grey character.

Although some wuxia stories are set in modern times, or even the future, most take place in the “Martial Arts World”; of Jianghu (literally “the land of rivers and lakes”) a counterpart culture of Imperial China. The Jianghu is a “shared universe”, populated by martial artists and monks, long-lost princes and beautiful princesses, thieves and beggars, priests and healers, merchants and craftsmen.

People of the Jianghu have their own laws and are only held accountable by other people of Jianghu. In this world, people value brotherhood, promises, vengeance, and righteousness. Here, one’s word is inviolable and one’s reputation is more important than life itself. When I was reading my first wuxia novel (“The Smiling, Proud

When I was reading my first wuxia novel (“The Smiling, Proud Wanderer” – Jin Yong), I honestly thought that these people were bat-shit crazy. I mean, one moment, they’d be sitting down, drinking and laughing like they were best buddies, and at the next, they’d be at each other’s throats. They admire and show respect to their enemies, but stab their own brothers in the back for power. And the value they give to their own lives, it makes you think the Jianghu is filled with suicidal maniacs.

But then, their way of living has this strange allure. There’s something about adventuring the world with your sworn brothers(not related by blood, a brother-from-another-mother kind of thing), staking your life in situations you know you shouldn’t butt in, but your conscience says otherwise, that makes you feel, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to live like this.

So, that is basically my experience of the Jianghu. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying too hard to sell this, but I actually am, so there you go. It just gets to me that there is this fascinating portion of literature (or movies, whatever floats your boat) that very few people know about. In conclusion, what I’ve been  blathering about for two pages boils down to; try wuxia, it’s fun.

Anirudhya M


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