Wuxia refers to a genre of Chinese literature based in ancient Chinese literature and fables. The plot of wuxia mediums usually follows the tales of heroes, which may span over generations as they battle against the unjust. Values such as benevolence, loyalty and righteousness are highlighted in the plot as virtuous characteristics. This genre in the manhua (comic) medium has been prolific in Hong Kong beginning in the 1960s, with its popularity in cinema firmly rooted due to stars such as Bruce Lee (1940-1973) and later Jackie Chan (1954-) and Jet Li (1963-).

The existence of wuxia has been documented as far back as the Chinese historical writing, Shiji by Sima Qian, (145 BCE -90 BC). The genre draws its roots from literary works such as San Guo Yan Yi (known as “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in the West) and Shui Hu Zhuan (variously named “The Water Margin” or “Oulaws of the Marsh”) by Luo Guanzhong (1330-1400) as well as Xi You Ji (popularly known as “Journey into the West”) by Wu Chen’en (1500-1582) and Hong Lou Men (known as “Dreams of Red Mansions”) by Cao Xue Qin (1715-1763). Characteristics common to Wuxia literature (as well as other mediums including comics and film) include:

  • “Wulin”, which is simultaneously the culture of wuxia as well as the collection of protagonists and antagonists who practice martial arts (“wushu” or kung fu) within the plot
  • A historic backdrop (typically in ancient China)
  • “Jianhu” (with the literal meaning of rivers and lakes) is the existence of a corrupt world in which the wuxia elements are plausible

San Xia Wu Yi (or “Three Heroes and Five Gallants”, later renamed “Qi Xia Wu Yi” in its expanded form) by Shi Yukun (a Qing dynasty storyteller) is an early example of the wuxia genre. It follows the exploits of honorable Justice Bao, who fights to restore justice in a kingdom filled with corrupt government officials, assisted by a group of martial artists.

In comic form, the wuxia genre of manhua (comic) emerged in the 1960s during the influx low costs entertainment and mediums (most notably television). To compete, manhua artists in Hong Kong such as Tony Yuk long Wong (1950-) turned to Kung Fu themes to attract readers, comics such as Dragon Tiger Gate emerged in the 1970s. Due to the static nature of manhua, the visual portrayals of “qi” (or energy) and movement were used, which later translated into the special effects utilized in wuxia and kungfu cinema. The establishment of firms dedicated to the creation of manhua such as Wong’s Jademan (Holdings) Limited attracted many top artists of the era including Ma Wing Shing (1961-) allowed for the proliferation of the kungfu and wuxia manhua today.

— Shelly Qiu

Further Reading

  • Ka-Min, Kenny Chow. 2007. “Hong Kong Animation: The Uncanny Brush in Wuxia Film”. Asian Cinema. 18 (1): 138-149
  • McNeil, Simon. “The Anatomy of a Wuxia Novel.” Kung Fu Magazine. Accessed May 26, 2015 http://www.kungfumagazine.com/ezine/article.php?article=873.
  • Wendy Siuyi Wong. 2002. “Manhua: The Evolution of Hong Kong Cartoons and Comics”. Journal of Popular Culture.35 (4).