A language learner’s guide to wuxia novels

In the first article about learning Chinese through wuxia, Sara K. explained what wuxia is, why it’s relevant for Chinese learners and how to get started with wuxia. This second article is focused entirely on the “how to get started” bit and introduces a few wuxia novels. Hopefully, this guide will help you chose your first wuxia novel, or, if you’re already familiar with the genre, it might give you suggestions for what to read next!

One of the hardest things about getting into Chinese fiction for Chinese learners is that they simply do not know what to read. This is especially big problem for Chinese learners who want to try wuxia, since most of them know little about the genre.

In the last article, I explained what wuxia is and why Chinese learners should know about it. Here, I present five novels that I consider to be good starting points for Chinese learners who want to try wuxia.

A special problem with wuxia is that many novels have slow beginnings – which can be a particularly big problem for people who are struggling with the language. A classic example of a novel with a slow beginning is The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (倚天屠龍記). The main protagonist, Zhang Wuji, is not even mentioned in the first 250 pages, and in my opinion the story is really slow until almost halfway through the novel.

That said, the last section of the novel is a heck of a roller-coaster, and the scene where a certain character sticks a sword into someone’s chest is definitely one of the five most famous moments in all of wuxia fiction, but I would advise even advanced learners to stay away from it until they’ve read at least a few other wuxia novels. That’s why this list is biased towards novels that I think start at a relatively quick pace.

In this article, I will introduce the following novels:

  1. Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (寶劍金釵) by Wang Dulu (1939)
  2. Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星‧蝴蝶‧劍) by Gu Long (1973)
  3. Return of the Stormy Swallow (風雨燕歸來) by Wolong Sheng (1961)
  4. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部) by Jin Yong (1963)
  5. Kung-fu (功夫) by Giddens Ko (2004)
  6. Other novels and further reading



Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (寶劍金釵) by Wang Dulu (1939)

Language difficulty: (abridged version) intermediate, (unabridged) upper-intermediate/advanced

Story

When some martial artists come to murder Yu Shulien’s father, she swiftly and single-handedly kills them all.

Meanwhile, Li Mubai, who possesses the ‘precious sword’ in the title, has decided that, if he can’t marry an excellent martial artist, he will never marry. One of his friends tells him about Yu Shulien, and says that she will marry anyone who can beat her in a duel. Li Mubai doesn’t believe this, but he goes to duel her anyway. He finds that she is a fine swordswoman, and promptly falls in love with her.

Then he finds out that his friend made up the marry-whoever-beats-her-in-a-duel bit. In fact, she is already engaged to marry Meng Sizhao, and he gave her a nice golden hairpin. This is a great disappointment to Li Mubai.

Then the enemies of Yu Shulien’s family try again…

Thus begins a tale of love and revenge.

Background

Wang Dulu was one of the most popular wuxia writers of the 1930s. He strongly influenced all wuxia writers who followed him.

His most famous work is the ‘Crane-Iron Pentalogy’, of which Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin is the second novel. Readers do not need to know anything about the first novel, Crane Frightens Kunlun (鶴驚崑崙), to enjoy Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, and I think Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin is better. The other three novels are Sword Force, Pearl Shine (劍氣珠光), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), and Iron Rider, Silver Vase (鐵騎銀瓶).

You can read more about the pentalogy here.

Why This Novel Got on the List

First of all, this is such an influential novel that being familiar with it helps one appreciate later wuxia novels, just as reading Asimov and Heinlein helps one appreciate later science fiction novels.

Second, this was originally published in a newspaper, and Wang Dulu wrote it so that new readers could jump into the story without reading the first few chapters. How does he do this? About once ever chapter or two, there is a brief recap, which usually goes like this:

Character A: What is going on?

Character B: It all started when… [recap]

This is excellent for Chinese learners. If there is something the reader didn’t quite understand, and it’s important, it will get mentioned in a recap.

Additionally, each chapter title is a summary of what happens in that chapter. Though the chapter titles are written in classical Chinese, they still let readers preview what they are going to read about in that chapter.

Also, for an wuxia novel, the language is relatively easy. There is some archaic vocabulary, but 95% of the archaic words can be ignored. The sentence structure is simpler than many other wuxia novels.

Furthermore, the beginning of this novel moves quicker than most wuxia novel beginnings – Yu Shulien kills off her father’s assailants before page 20.

And finally, this novel made it to the list because it’s one of my favorites.

Recommended Approach

In traditional Chinese characters, there is an abridged version of this novel combined with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (I presume Sword Force, Pearl Shine is included too) called 臥虎藏龍-重出江湖版. I have read the first chapter of the abridged edition, and language-wise, it is easier than the original (and the original itself is not that hard). It’s also a lot shorter. I think the abridged version is an excellent choice for intermediate Chinese learners.

However, advanced Chinese learners should just go straight to the unabridged novel (available in both simplified and traditional characters).

The most famous adaptation of the Iron-Crane pentalogy is of course is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (that, by the way, is another reason this novel made it to the list). While it’s a good movie, and it introduces the main characters of Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin who live long enough to be in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I don’t think it’s the best place to start. It’s not particularly easy language-wise, there are major spoilers for the preceding novels, and I think Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin is simply a better story. That said, beginning Chinese students who want to get a feel for wuxia and don’t mind using foreign language subtitles might want to watch the movie.

There is also a manhua adaptation by Andy Seto. Though the manhua is called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the first couple volumes are actually based on Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (note: I haven’t read the manhua, so this is second-hand information). The manhua is available in English, French, and of course Chinese.



Meteor, Butterfly, Sword (流星‧蝴蝶‧劍) by Gu Long (1973)

Language Difficulty: Intermediate

mbsStory

This has possibly the most famous opening of any wuxia novel (I’m borrowing this English translation from Wikipedia):

“A shooting star burns but briefly, but while it burns what other star in the heavens is as bright, as brilliant. When a shooting star appears, not even the stars in the enduring constellations can match its light. The life of a butterfly is delicate, even more fragile than flowers, but alas it lives only in the spring. It is beauty, it is freedom, it is flight. Although its life is short, it is fragrant. Only swords, in comparison, are eternal. A swordsman holds his light, his brilliance, and light in his hands, but should the sword feel emotion will its brilliance be as short as that of a meteor.”

An alternative translation of the opening is available here.

I think this is one of the harder passages in the novel, so if you can read the above in the original Chinese, you are ready to read this novel.

Meng Xinghun is a sentimental and very sensitive guy, who wants to be sweet, gentle, and most of all, do the right thing. Alas, he is forced to work as an assassin. The fact that his profession is so at odds with his personality makes him profoundly unhappy. He tries to drown his sorrows with various addictions (for example, he’s alcoholic), but this doesn’t work, so he tries to drown himself in a more literal way. However, his suicide attempt is thwarted by the woman who pulls him out of the river and, immediately after saving his life, runs off. Might this woman represent a ray of hope in Meng Xinghun’s gloomy existence?

Background

Gu Long is the most famous of all Taiwanese wuxia writers, and is generally ranked as the second most popular wuxia writer of the 20th century. He studied foreign literature at Tamkang University, and combined traditional wuxia (he was a fan of Wang Dulu) with the influences of foreign writers such as Jack London, Ian Fleming, Nietzsche, Ernest Hemingway, etc. to form his own style.

Lots of TV shows and movies have been adapted from his works, as well as some manhua, and more than 20 years after his death, there are still new adaptations coming out.

This specific novel is being adapted into a MMORPG, called ‘Butterfly Sword Online’, not to mention many TV/movie adaptations.

Why This Novel Got on the List

Gu Long simply must be represented on a list like this, because he is one of the most popular writers, and because he is the easiest to read. Lots of short paragraphs and short sentences. Some of his novels are mostly dialogue. His works can be read at a lower level of Chinese than pretty much any other wuxia writer.

That said, Gu Long novels are written for educated native speakers, so encounters with Cthuthlu can happen, especially in his earlier works which tend to have more complex language. However, I think novels from the middle of Gu Long’s career are generally fine for intermediate learners and above.

The biggest problem that Chinese learners have with Gu Long, however, is not with the language, but with the content – many people simply don’t like his novels.

If you do like his novels – congratulations, you now have a lot of relatively easy material that you’re motivated to read. If you don’t like his novels, it’s better to try to read a more difficult novel that you actually do like than to try to force your way through something you don’t like.

So why this Gu Long novel? It is one of his most famous novels, and it seems to work with a wide range of readers. Furthermore, it’s shorter than most of his other famous novels, and is not a part of long series.

Some people love this novel, some people hate it, but I think few people would say it’s boring.

Recommended Approach

This novel so easy to read that I would actually expect the TV/movie adaptations to be harder to understand than the novel itself (unless one’s listening skills are way ahead of one’s reading skills). Therefore, my advice is to go straight to the novel. You might not like it, but even if you don’t, you’ll learn something.



Return of the Stormy Swallow (風雨燕歸來) by Wolong Sheng (1961)

Language difficulty: Upper-intermediatefyygx

Story

Tao Yu is back, he’s a huge threat to everyone in the martial arts world, and he’s getting stronger every day. Can the protagonists defeat him before it’s too late?

Background

This is the sequel to the much more famous Swallow and Dragon (飛燕驚龍), which was one of the most popular novels of the 1950s. Wolong Sheng, along with Gu Long, is considered one of the four great wuxia writers of Taiwan. Wolong Sheng had much less formal education than most major wuxia writers, yet he was an avid reader of wuxia (another Wang Dulu fan!)

In his heyday, his novels were so popular that some people would try to look over his shoulder as he wrote the next instalment for the newspaper because they needed to know what happened next that badly. Indeed, the fact that so many people in Taiwan had to read the latest instalment before they ate breakfast was known as ‘Wolong Sheng’ or ‘Yuchai Meng’ syndrome (Yuchai Meng/玉釵盟 is one of his most famous novels).

Why This Novel Got on the List

Since Wolong Sheng is one of the major writers, I think it’s good to represent him here. And out of all of the Wolong Sheng novels I’ve read, Return of the Stormy Swallow is the easiest. That’s partially because it has such a straightforward story – my blurb is so short because I don’t feel I need to say more. It’s also relatively easy from a language perspective – the sentences and paragraphs in this novel are shorter than in most other Wolong Sheng novels. Furthermore, the story moves pretty quickly.

Now, some people might wonder why I chose the sequel instead of the first novel, Swallow and Dragon. I admit that this novel did not make it to the first draft of this list precisely because it’s a sequel. Yet the sequel happens to be easier, and personally, I like the sequel more than the first novel. You don’t have to read Swallow and Dragon first because everything you need to know is covered in Return of the Stormy Swallow. That said, Return of the Stormy Swallow has tons of spoilers for Swallow and Dragon.

I do not think anybody will suggest that Return of the Stormy Swallow is a great literary achievement. That said, I do think it is entertaining, and well suited for building Chinese reading skills. If you need a novel with relatively simple grammar/language/plot, but cannot stand Gu Long, this is a good alternative.

Recommended Approach

Since I am not aware of any adaptations of this novel, I guess you just have to read it. That said, it might be helpful to read a summary of Swallow and Dragon first (here is an overview in Chinese).



Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部) by Jin Yong (1963)

Language Difficulty: Advanced

I think, of all of the music written for this story, this song best conveys the atmosphere (note: the song is in Cantonese).

Story

Duan Yu, is the prince of a small kingdom called Dali (present day Yunnan Province). He runs away from home because he is a Buddhist pacifist, and his father wants to teach him martial arts. After running away, he gets into a lot of trouble.

Qiao Feng is the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, the largest organization of martial artists. After certain information about his past emerges, he gets into a lot of trouble.

Xu Zhu is a monk at Shaolin Temple. He observes a demonic game of go (圍棋) in which the player who is losing the game would get plunged into their own personal nightmare and eventually choose to commit suicide in other to stop the horror. Being a monk, Xu Zhu cannot just stand there and let someone kill himself, so he randomly puts down a piece to break the spell. Ah, but by randomly placing a piece in a demonic game of go has consequences…

Imagine that Oedipus Rex and the Odyssey were combined into a single story, but it was set in Song dynasty China, and written as a serial novel with lots of cliffhangers to make readers buy the next issue. That should give you a sense of what Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is like.

TLBB2Background

I’ve met a few people who say that this is their favorite wuxia novel. Furthermore, it has been adapted into movies, multiple TV series, a manhua, and one of the most popular Chinese MMORPGs ever. In English, the MMORPG is called ‘Dragon Oath’ and was listed as one of the highest-revenue online games worldwide by Forbes.

Jin Yong is the most popular Chinese novelist of the 20th century. People love to analyze and interpret his works so much that it has become an entire branch of study, known as ‘Jinology’ (金學). I’ve found two ‘Jinology’ books dedicated just to this single novel: 天龍八部欣賞舉隅 and 無人不冤,有情皆孽:細說天龍八部

His key works are considered mandatory reading for all educated Chinese speakers (though I know in practice some just watch the TV series). And as his longest novel, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is definitely one of his key works.

In other words, this one novel is probably more popular than all of the other novels on this list combined.

Why this Novel Got on the List.

Since Jin Yong is practically the god of wuxia, I had to put one of his novels on this list. The two big problems with picking a Jin Yong novel for Chinese learners is a) they tend to have very slow beginnings (like The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre) and b) the language is difficult. However, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils has a fast-paced beginning for a Jin Yong novel, and in spite of being his longest, it’s possibly the easiest to read (by contrast The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain, his shortest novel, is one of the hardest).

For one thing, this novel is repetitive – in a good way. You know the really famous ‘No, I Am Your Father’ moment in Star Wars? That happens about four times in this novel. Repetition is good for language learning (and it makes it easier to follow the story if the same things happen over and over again).

Jin Yong uses a lot of chengyu, which is wonderful, because they get repeated often enough that I actually learn them. Reading Jin Yong has probably done more to drill chengyu into my head than anything else.

It is longer than War and Peace, but also a lot more pulpy. This novel was originally a newspaper serial. Guess what sells newspapers? Eye-gouging, people committing adultery, women killing their husbands, men killing their fiancees, Buddhist monks breaking their sacred vows, incest, melting an iron mask onto somebody’s face, people committing suicide in front of their children, etc. (I compared this to Oedipus Rex for a reason). The novel is intended to shock and titillate its readers, while stringing them along with suspense.

Some things did shock me … and eventually, it got to the point where all of the stuff which was supposed to shock and tug my heartstrings had me laughing out loud, which proves that I am a bit like Duan Yu’s half-sister Princess A’zi (阿紫).

Is there some serious literary merit? Yes, in a Greek-tragic sense. However, that pit of literary merit is surrounded by lots of juicy, juicy pulp.TLBB3

Another reason I picked this novel is that, if I had to pick the one Jin Yong novel which offers the most insight into Chinese-speaking culture, I would pick this one. It’s partially because of the shock/titillation factor (for example, this novel will help you understand traditional Chinese attitudes towards incest), but much of this novel is also about what makes somebody Chinese. Are Chinese people Chinese because their ancestors are Chinese, or are they Chinese because they have embraced Chinese culture? And is deciding who is Chinese and who is not Chinese important at all?

Finally, this is one of the most parodied of all wuxia stories, so reading this will help you understand when people are making fun of wuxia.

Recommended Approach

Even though this is relatively easy by Jin Yong standards, it is still by far the hardest novel in this list. Furthermore, Jin Yong is a brilliant composer of words, and it’s hard to appreciate just how good his prose is if you haven’t read quite a bit of other Chinese-language fiction.

That said, the very first novel I read in Chinese was a Jin Yong (after having read lots of comics in Chinese). While I do not recommend it, it is possible to start with his works, and starting with Jin Yong actually worked out pretty well for me.

If you haven’t read Jin Yong before, I strongly recommend first reading the manhua adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, or watching one of the TV series, to learn some of the story and get some exposure to the language. As far as I know, only the MMORPG is legally available in English.

The second edition and third edition are a bit different, in particular, the ending is different. I myself have only read the second edition, but since most fans say the second edition is better (as in, Taiwanese wuxia fans start fuming when I mention thethird edition), I recommend sticking with the second edition. If you get a copy which was published before 2003, it is second edition (if you somehow end up with the first edition, I’ll be extremely impressed, because I don’t think I’ve ever found a copy of the first edition).

This novel is also available in large-print editions for people whose eyes struggle to with regular-sized print.

Furthermore, this is an incomplete but otherwise excellent resource for people who try to read the novel.



Kung-fu (功夫) by Giddens Ko (2004)

Difficulty: Upper-intermediate

Kung-FuStory

The narrator lives in 1980s Changhua, Taiwan. He loves reading wuxia novels. One day, he meets an old man who is martial artist and offers to accept him as a disciple. Might our narrator turn into an wuxia hero himself?

Why This Novel Got on the List

Like Return of the Stormy Swallow, this novel was not on my original list. I had initially disqualified it because it has tons of references to Jin Yong and Gu Long novels, and without familiarity with those stories, it’s not possible to appreciate some of the humor of this novel. That said, I changed my mind about this because some people who know hardly anything of stories of Jin Yong / Gu Long have read and enjoyed this novel. While I still think it’s better to read this after reading some Jin Yong and Gu Long novels (or at least watching the adaptations), apparently it’s not necessary to do so.

Besides, you could read this novel, then go read some Jin Yong / Gu Long, and then read this novel again. You’ll be able to read this novel a second time with a fresh perspective, and of course reading the same thing twice is very good for improving your Chinese.

Giddens Ko is the most popular active fiction writer in Taiwan today, and he’s also very popular in China, so I think it’s good for all Chinese-learners to know about him. And, of all of the Giddens novels I’ve read, I like this one the most.

This is much shorter than most famous wuxia novels, and the language is also relatively easy. And the fact that it’s set in the 1980s rather than the 18th century might actually help readers who are new to wuxia.

Finally, unlike the other novels on this list, this novel is available online for free at the writer’s official website.

Recommended approach

I still strongly recommend reading at least one Gu Long novel before reading Kung-fu, since quite frankly, novels such as Meteor, Butterfly, Sword are not harder than this novel, and it will help you appreciate it.

There is a lovely manhua adaptation of Kung-fu, which I recommend to people who do not feel confident enough to take on the novel itself. Actually, a good approach might be the read the manhua first, and then only read the novel itself after reading some Gu Long and Jin Yong novels. There is also a movie adaptation which will be released in the summer of 2015.



Read them all!

I think any one of these novels would individually be a decent introduction to wuxia. However, if one is having trouble picking one, one could just read them all. I think reading all five of these novels would give one a good sense of what wuxia is.

If a Chinese learner does decide to read them all, this would be my recommended order:

  1. Kung-fu (manhua)
  2. Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin (abridged or unabridged)
  3. Meteor, Butterfly Sword
  4. Return of the Stormy Swallow
  5. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (this is a bit of a stretch, but if you were able to read the above three novels, then I think you should be able to read Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils if you’re willing to invest the effort in the extra scaffolding
  6. Kung-fu (novel)

Other novels

Here are some novels which did not make it to the list because a) they are too difficult and b) even if one is fluent in Chinese, I do not think these are the best choices for people who’ve never read an wuxia novel before. But I think one should still be aware of these novels to have a better appreciation of just how diverse the genre is and, of course, to stimulate your curiosity:

The Bride With White Hair (白髮魔女傳) by Liang Yusheng (1957)

The White-Haired Demoness is one of the most famous characters in all of wuxia, and certainly the most iconic female character. Even though this novel was written in the 1950s, it continues to be very influential, with the newest film adaptation set to hit theaters in February 2014. I don’t think it’s a good novel because, well, much of the writing is mediocre. But it is a great novel because the White-Haired Demoness herself is such a memorable figure … not to mention the fact that the novel is, even after all these years, a very refreshing departure from ‘standard’ wuxia. This is required reading for all wuxia fans and anyone who’s interested in gender dynamics in Chinese-speaking cultures. If you try to read the novel and get impatient, my advice is to go straight to the last third – all of the good stuff (and the stuff which makes the novel famous) is in the last part.

I have written more about The Bride with White Hair here.

Happy Heroes (歡樂英雄) by Gu Long (1971)

Gu Long thought that wuxia novels might be focusing too much on anger, hatred, revenge, violence, etc. So he wrote a wuxia novel that’s primarily about joy and companionship. And it works. For example, one of the protagonists has discovered the most comfortable bed in the entire world, so his goal in life is to arrange affairs so he can spend as much time lying in bed as possible. This is actually my favorite Gu Long novel. I did not put it on the list because I think it’s too atypical, but I definitely think it’s worth checking out, especially if you get tired of angsty/gory wuxia.

Tang Dynasty Dragon Duo (大唐雙龍傳) by Huang Yi (1996)

This is the most popular wuxia novel (in Taiwan/Hong Kong) of the 1990s. At around seven thousand pages, it is the longest novel I have ever read. And I think it’s worth it.

I have written more about Tang Dynasty Dragon Duo here.

Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero (多情浪子痴情侠/天觀雙俠) by Zheng Feng (2006)

This might be the most popular wuxia novel of the first decade of the 21st century – it is very popular in China and Taiwan. While Zheng Feng’s later novels diverge more from standard wuxia, I’m listing this one because a) it’s the most accessible and b) it’s the most famous. I even considered this novel for the list of first five wuxia novels to read, but I ultimately pulled it from the list because it has too many wuxia in-jokes while being harder to read (language-wise) than Kung-fu. For example, much of the Mongolian sequence in Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero is a parody of a certain famous wuxia novel.

I have written more about Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero here.

The Nine Provinces (九州) by Jiangnan (2005)

Jiangnan is currently one of the most popular, if not the most popular, wuxia writer in China today. I need to put this novel on the expanded list because I have never read anything else like it – even Jiangnan himself says that this novel is a ‘betrayal’ of wuxia because he messes with so many tropes of the genre.

I have written more about The Nine Provinces here.

About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She grew up in San Francisco, California, and writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit. She has previously written two articles on Hacking Chinese: A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese and Approaches to reading in Chinese.

Wuxia, a key to Chinese language and culture

The read more Chinese or die challenge is in full swing (and no, it’s not too late to join), so to keep people inspired and perhaps also help you find reading material, several articles focusing on reading will be published here on Hacking Chinese, all of them written by people other than me. This first article about wuxia is a very good example of an article that I could never have written myself, because although I read a lot, I don’t read much wuxia. Sara K., on the other hand, does. After reading this article, I know I want to read more wuxia and I hope that you will too. Of course, even if the focus this month is on reading, don’t forget that wuxia isn’t limited to books and comics!

This post is split into five parts:

  1. What is wuxia?
  2. Wuxia in Chinese-speaking society
  3. Why is wuxia relevant to Chinese learners?
  4. Some notes on the language in wuxia
  5. How to get started with wuxia


What is wuxia?

Short answer: Chinese martial arts fiction featuring heroism, usually set in imperial China.

Long answer: A few wuxia movies, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, are famous in the English-speaking world. While I don’t think these movies are the most representative of the genre, they are genuine wuxia, and anyone who has seen them already has some idea of what wuxia is.

Sometimes, I see ‘wuxia’ translated into English as ‘tales of chivalry’. 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 that Batman’s Chinese name is 蝙蝠俠(‘The Bat Xia’) and that Spiderman’s Chinese name is 蜘蛛俠 (‘The Spider Xia’). Comic book superheroes are much closer than Sir Lancelot to being wuxia. Just because many wuxia stories are set in medieval China does not mean they are the equivalent of tales set in medieval Europe.

If one must find an equivalent in medieval Europe, the obvious one is Robin Hood, though I’d like to note 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.

Over at Yago, I compared wuxia to Star Wars, mainly because it’s a good way to explain what wuxia is in few words. However, I think the best equivalent to wuxia in the English-speaking world is the Western genre. In fact, some Americans even call wuxia stories ‘Easterns’ The similarities include:

  • A historical setting
  • The government is corrupt or otherwise non-functional, so common people have to take care of justice themselves
  • Frequent use of gorgeous natural scenery
  • Interaction among different ethnic groups, including a dominant nation (China/United States) whose boundaries are constantly shifting, tribal nations (Khitans, Miao, Uyghurs, Navajo, Lakota, Cheyenne, etc.) and characters from other nations (Korea, Portugal, India, France, Mexico, Russia, etc.)
  • The focus is generally on personal vendettas and debts of gratitude, not trying to save the world
  • Being strongly tied to a specific culture/country. Though there are spaghetti Westerns and wuxia books/comics/TV shows from southeast Asia, Westerns are almost always strongly tied to the United States, and wuxia stories are almost always strongly tied to China. Other genres, such as science fiction and romance, are not married to a particular culture/country.

However, any comparison between wuxia and non-Chinese fiction must be limited, because wuxia arose in the Chinese-speaking world, and it could have arisen nowhere else. Wuxia rides on Chinese-speakers’ history, ethics, medicine, ecology, philosophy, hopes, dreams, and nightmares.

For more description, head over to TVTropes (though note that I do not agree with everything said there).

Wuxia in Chinese-speaking society

While there is debate about when/how the wuxia genre emerged, most people would say that it reached maturity in Republican China in the 1920s and 30s, when it was the most popular genre of Chinese fiction. Wuxia was part of the national conversation about how to be Chinese in the modern age. For example, a prominent 1920s’ writer, Xiang Kairan, was also involved in promoting traditional Chinese martial arts and incorporating ideas from science and European athletics. I think this period of Chinese history left a powerful mark on wuxia, even decades later, in both the openness to new ideas, and the cynical outlook.

Of course, as with any popular genre of fiction, there have been people saying that it is bad influence: it’s too violent, it’s anti-Confucian, it’s just for juveniles, etc. As a non-Chinese person, I don’t completely get the stigma of wuxia, but then again, popular genres such as science-fiction, romance, and YA get stigmatized outside of the Chinese speaking world.

Even after the People’s Republic of China banned wuxia, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) put it under heavy censorship, wuxia continued to be wildly popular – if anything, government censorship made wuxia even more appealing. Where wuxia writers had the freedom to do so (Hong Kong), they sometimes used wuxia as a platform to criticize politics and society.

Though wuxia TV shows and movies continue to be very popular, wuxia novels (from which most TV shows and movies are adapted) supposedly went into decline in the 1980s. What this really means is that, instead of being a mainstream genre, it became a thing mainly for geeks (though mainstream readers are generally still familiar with the ‘classic’ wuxia novels).

Why is wuxia relevant to Chinese learners?

Here is one reason: wuxia is so deeply woven into Chinese-speaking culture that at times you won’t understand what people are saying without some familiarity.

Here is an example; in the movie Seven Days of Heaven, which is a Taiwanese movie set in contemporary Hong Kong and Changhua, a character at one point says 「小龍女從法國打電話回來了」 which roughly means “Xiaolongnü is calling from France”.

xiaolongnv

Most adult Chinese learners would wonder what ‘Xiaolongnü’ means. However, most native Chinese speakers over the age of 10 know exactly who Xiaolongnü is: she’s a is a mysterious beauty and dangerous sword fighter who grew up in the Tomb of Living Death (活死人墓). In addition to fighting with swords, she can use poison gold needles, and attack people with the sashes of her sleeves. In spite of her chronological age, she always looks like she’s sixteen years old – it’s implied that her body does not age because she’s not entirely alive. She’s like Sleeping Beauty, except she’s not asleep and is a dangerous martial artist.

A big poster depicting Xiaolongnü across the street from Taipei Train Station. Generally, if you see a beautiful maiden wearing a white dress who looks like she’s from pre-modern China, you’re probably looking at Xiaolongnü.

So why is this movie dropping a reference to Xiaolongnü? It’s more poignant (and succinct!) to say ‘Xiaolongnü’ than to say ‘the person who is so much at the center of your existence that you wouldn’t want to live without her, yet she is beyond your reach’.

When I read in English “I thought mentioning [something] was just like saying ‘Voldemort’”, I understand it because I’m familiar with the plot of Harry Potter. The most popular wuxia stories have also reached the stage where Chinese speakers will drop references to them and expect to be understood.

Name-dropping manifests something deeper: wuxia is an integral part of Chinese-speaking culture. You will probably never encounter enough name-drops to justify learning about wuxia for that reason alone … but wuxia is thoroughly Chinese in a way that no other genre of fiction is, which makes it an excellent vehicle for getting into the minds of Chinese-speakers.

I have learned a great deal about the subtler nuances of the Chinese language by reading lots of wuxia, some of which I don’t think I could have picked up by reading literature-in-translation.

Wuxia offers many paths to get to know Chinese culture better – for example, I can look up the various places mentioned in the novels and improve my understanding of Chinese geography, I can look up the herbs used and learn something about Chinese traditional medicine and botany (that’s how I learned about a very cool plant called ‘gastrodia‘), I can look up the actors who play Characters Y and Z, and see what other TV shows/movies they acted in… and so forth. Of course, I ignore all this most of the time I do because there are only so many hours in a day, but I think that because wuxia connects to so many aspects of Chinese culture and society, it is an excellent node for one’s knowledge web.

Then there is the way that being familiar with wuxia changes my relationship with native Chinese speakers. When I reveal that, yes, I have also read [famous wuxia novel], it cuts down the mental distance between us. Some native Chinese speakers think this is wonderful, others are not comfortable with the fact that I’ve shared that part of their head space, but it always makes me less of an outsider.

However, by far the most important benefit wuxia has for me is that it makes me much more motivated to study Chinese. I think the above reasons are enough for all Chinese learners to at least learn about wuxia, but I think the possibility of turning into a wuxia fan is the biggest reward. If you turn into a wuxia fan – as I did – you suddenly have enough material that you’re motivated to read/watch to keep you going for a long, long time, and since very little of it is available outside of Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai/Indonesian/etc., you have to read/watch it in Chinese (unless you understand one of those other Asian languages).

Not everyone loves wuxia, and if reading/watching a couple stories fails to pique your interest, then drop it. But if you don’t try, you can’t know whether or not wuxia suits your tastes.

Some notes on the language in wuxia

I should also note that the Chinese in an wuxia novel is going to be a bit different from, say, contemporary conversational Mandarin, just as the language in a Tolkien novel is a bit different from what you’ll hear in a California high school. For example, just this morning I was watching a TV show, and I repeatedly heard ‘他圓寂了’. That a literary way of saying ‘he’s dead’. Reading/hearing the much plainer'他死了' is also common in wuxia (in fact, it’s more common than ‘他圓寂了’), but it’s still an example of how the language can be different.

I learned the language simply by reading, looking up stuff I didn’t understand, and putting the new expressions into my SRS. However, it might be a good idea to learn many different ways of saying ‘die/kill’ in Chinese, because it’s generally important when a character dies. I think learning other specialized vocabulary is generally not necessary to understand the story (and if it is necessary, it will probably get repeated a lot).

Here’s a list of terms which mean ‘die’ or ‘kill’ which I’ve extracted from wuxia novels:

Editor’s note: I have added links to the relevant entries on youdao.com.

(Notice the pattern in the above three words)

(Notice the pattern in the above two words?)

(Notice the pattern in the above two words?)

(Notice the pattern in the above six characters/words?)

Not all of these terms mean the same thing (for example, some only apply to young people who die, and some only apply to old people who die) so you should look at the dictionary entries. Of course, the best way to learn these terms is to see them in context.

Classical Chinese has a way of sneaking into wuxia, and occasionally there’s even entire poems written in Classical Chinese. I have an easy technique for dealing with classical poetry – ignore it. It’s never interfered with my enjoyment of the novels. As far as Classical Chinese words being mixed with Mandarin – you can learn it like you would learn other unfamiliar vocabulary, or you can ignore it.

Finally, the language difficulty runs the whole range from novels which consist mostly of simple short sentences to works full of sophisticated wordplay. Obviously, the former is a much better place to start.

How to get started with wuxia?

‘How to start’ depends on your level of Chinese, but first, an exercise that is suitable for learners at all levels:

Ask native speakers about wuxia

  1. Find a native speaker to talk to.
  2. Ask them which wuxia stories they have read/seen.
  3. Ask their opinion about those stories (for example, if you are a beginner, you can ask questions like 你喜歡嗎?)
  4. Ask them to describe an wuxia story to you.
  5. Repeat with another native speaker.

After doing this exercise with a few native speakers, you’ll have a pretty good idea which wuxia stories tend to be sources for name-drops…

For beginning learners

No, you cannot read a wuxia novel or watch an wuxia movie without subtitles, at least not yet … but you can still learn about wuxia. There are some online English-language resources about wuxia:

You will learn something about Chinese-speaking culture, and it might motivate you to study Chinese harder, just as looking at photos of delicious food might motivate you to improve your cooking skills.

You can also look into the limited range of wuxia available in English (or any other language you understand). Movies are most likely to be available in English.

For intermediate learners

For lower-intermediate learners, my advice is pretty much the same as for beginning learners, though one can be a little bolder – for example, checking out the Chinese version of one of the above websites, or trying to read/watch a bit of wuxia in Chinese.

At the upper-intermediate level, there are a lot more options. Some suggestions are:

I think it’s good to read comics and/or watch a TV show/movie before proceeding to novels, because a lot of things which happen in wuxia stories are much easier to understand visually than verbally, especially to people who are new to ideas such as 輕功.

I think that ‘reading a wuxia comic book’ and ‘reading an easier wuxia novel’ are roughly equivalent in difficulty. It of course depends on the comic book and the level being compared, but a comic book adapted from a Jin Yong novel is going to be at least as hard to read, if not harder, than a Gu Long novel.

Advanced learners

Go read a novel or watch a TV show or play a computer game.

But which one?

I think advanced learners main concern should not be the difficulty of the language, but how accessible the story itself is. Is the story fast-paced and suspenseful, or does it drag a lot at the beginning (i.e. is it The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre/倚天屠龍記 where the main protagonist isn’t even mentioned once in the first 250 pages of the novel)? Does the story require familiarity with wuxia tropes, Chinese history, etc., or could my mother get it (if she suddenly knew Chinese)? Is it a good story?

These are concerns for intermediate learners too, of course.

And just like beginning learners, advanced learners should also have some background knowledge, especially before tackling the more difficult novels.

Movies/TV

I think this list offers a decent introduction to wuxia movies.

I have not seen too many wuxia TV shows, but one show I cannot recommend highly enough for advanced learners is State of Divinity (笑傲江湖) starring Jackie Lui (呂頌賢). People who have seen far more wuxia TV shows than I claim it’s one of the best ever made. I would go so far as to say, if you’re only going to watch one Chinese language TV drama of any genre in your entire lifetime, it should be this one.

stateofdivinityThis famous scene (YouTube) is great for studying the kind of language which appears often in wuxia stories, but it will make a lot more sense with a little context: Linghu Chong had been driven out of the Huashan sect. His greatest wish is to be accepted back by his sifu, Yue Buqun, leader of the Huashan sect, and to marry his daughter, Yue Lingshan, with whom he had developed the ‘Chong-Ling Sword Technique’. In the mean time, Ren Yingying had saved his life, so he feels he has to repay this debt of gratitude by freeing Ren Yingying and her father Ren Woxing from Shaolin Temple. Of course, many people object to releasing Ren Woxing because he is a megalomaniac. A deal has been struck that Ren Woxing and his daughter can go free if he wins two out of three duels. So far, he has won a duel and lost a duel…

This quote from episode 24 not only captures the essence of the TV show, but represents the mood of many, many, many wuxia stories.

當初我們四兄弟之所以加入日月神教,本想在江湖上可以行俠仗義,有所作為。哪知道任教主他性情暴戾,威福自用。當時我們四兄弟早萌退意,直到東方教主繼位更是寵信奸佞,誅除教中元老。我四人更是心灰意冷,決意隱居梅莊,並要看守要犯。一來,可以遠離黑木崖,不必與人勾心鬥角。二來,可以閒居西湖琴書遣懷。十二年來也可以說是享盡清福。不過人生在世,憂多樂少。人生本來就是如此了。

Automaticall generated version in simplified Chinese:当初我们四兄弟之所以加入日月神教,本想在江湖上可以行侠仗义,有所作为。哪知道任教主他性情暴戾,威福自用。当时我们四兄弟早萌退意,直到东方教主继位更是宠信奸佞,诛除教中元老。我四人更是心灰意冷,决意隐居梅莊,并要看守要犯。一来,可以远离黑木崖,不必与人勾心鬥角。二来,可以閒居西湖琴书遣怀。十二年来也可以说是享尽清福。不过人生在世,忧多乐少。人生本来就是如此了。

“When we four brothers first entered the Sun Moon Cult, we thought we could carry out heroic deeds all over jianghu. Who knew that Ren Woxing was so violent, and so hungry for power? Long after we four brothers had been disillusioned, Dongfang Bubai became the leader, and he loves wickedness even more. He executed all of the elders, and we four became even more disheartened. We decided to retreat to Plum Villa, and guard the prisoner. Firstly, far from Heimu Ya, we did not have to participate in all of the internecine struggle and backstabbing. Secondly, we could quietly live by Xihu, and fill our days with music and books. We can say that we have had twelve happy years. Nevertheless, in life the sorrows are many, and the joys are few. That is the nature of life.”

Wuxia novels

It’s hard to tell which novels are more or less suitable as an introduction to wuxia if you haven’t read them, and if you’ve read a bunch of wuxia novels, you are not a newcomer. That’s why, in my next article. I will introduce five wuxia novels which are good starting points for learners of Chinese who have never gotten into wuxia before. Stay tuned!

Continue reading the next article: A language learner’s guide to wuxia novels

About Sara K
Sara K. has been studying Mandarin since Fall 2009. She grew up in San Francisco, California, and writes It Came From the Sinosphere for Manga Bookshelf, and has her own personal blog, The Notes Which Do Not Fit. She has previously written two articles on Hacking Chinese: A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese and Approaches to reading in Chinese.