The wǔxiá genre is a blend of the philosophy of xiá (俠, "honor code", "an ethical person", "knight-errant"), and China's long history in wǔshù ("kung fu" or "martial arts"). A male martial artist who follows the code of xiá is called a swordsman, or xiákè (俠客/侠客). Japan's samurai bushidō traditions, Western Europe's knight chivalry traditions, and America's gunslinger Western traditions all share some aspects with China's swordsman xiá traditions. The swordsmen in wǔxiá need not serve a lord or hold any military power and they are not required to be from an aristocratic class, although some are.
Xiákè stories made a strong comeback in the Tang dynasty in the form of Chuanqi (傳奇/传奇, literally "legendary") tales. Stories like Nie Yin Niang (聶隱娘/聂隐娘), The Kunlun Slave (崑崙奴/昆仑奴), Jing Shi San Niang (荆十三娘), Red String (紅線/红线) and The Bearded Warrior (虬髯客) served as prototypes for modern wǔxiá stories, featuring fantastic, out-of-the-world protagonists, often loners, who performed daring heroic deeds.
The earliest full-length novel that could be considered part of the genre was Water Margin, written in the Ming Dynasty, although some would classify parts of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a possible earlier antecedent. The former was a political criticism of the deplorable socio-economical state of the late Northern Song Dynasty, whilst the latter was an alternative historical retelling of the post-Han Dynasty's state of three kingdoms. Water Margin's championing of outlaws with a code of honor was especially influential in the development of Jianghu culture. Three Kingdoms contained many classic close combat descriptions which were later borrowed by wǔxiá writers.
Many works in this vein during the Ming and Qing dynasties were lost due to prohibition by the government. The ethos of personal freedom and conflict-readiness of these novels were seen as seditious even in times of peace and stability. The departure from mainstream literature also meant that patronage of this genre was limited to the masses and not to the literati, and stifled some of its growth. Nonetheless, the genre continued to be enormously popular, with certain full-length novels such as The Strange Case of Shi Gong (施公案奇聞/施公案奇闻) and The Romance of the Heroic Daughters and Sons (兒女英雄傳/儿女英雄传) cited as the clearest nascent wǔxiá novels. Justice Bao stories seen in San Xia Wu Yi (三俠五義/三侠五义, which was later extended and renamed Qi Xia Wu Yi 七俠五義) and Xiao Wu Yi (小五義/小五义) incorporated much of social justice themes of later wǔxiá stories.
The modern wǔxiá novel genre started in the early 20th century. The early 20th century and the 1960s to 1980s are often regarded as two golden ages of wǔxiá writing.
Wǔxiá fiction was banned by the Chinese Communist Party when they came to power in the People's Republic of China. (The ban was lifted in the 1980s, with China's liberalization.) As a result wǔxiá writing continued in earnest only in 1960s in Taiwan and especially Hong Kong, headed by pioneers Liang Yusheng and Louis Cha, who founded the 'new school'. Writing serially for papers and magazines, they incorporated many fictional techniques from the West. Although Cha declared the genre effectively dead in the 1990s, its fiction is facing a resurgence, as seen in the sci-fi wǔxiá novels of Huang Yi and countless amateur Internet writers.
The modern wǔxiá stories are basically adventure stories set in ancient China. Plot differs largely from writer to writer, but there are very clear similarities with wǔxiá protagonists and those of the modern Western fantasy genre. The fantasy element is not a prerequisite; it is possible for wǔxiá fiction to be largely realistic, such as Louis Cha's Swordswoman Riding West on White Horse or The Book and the Sword. But as the genre requires, some, perhaps most, of its characters should know martial arts.
A common plot typically features a young male protagonist in ancient China, who experiences a tragedy (e.g. the loss of a family or an old master) and goes through exceeding hardship and arduous trials to learn. Eventually the protagonist emerges as a supreme martial arts master unequalled in all of China, who then proffers his skills chivalrously to mend the ills of the "Jianghu" world.
Another common thread would involve a mature, extremely skillful hero with an equally powerful nemesis with whom he has had misgivings, and the storyline would meander to a final showdown between the protagonist and his nemesis.
Other novels, especially those by Gu Long, create detective-type and romance stories in the setting of ancient China.
To understand the concept of xia from a Western perspective, consider the Robin Hood mythology: an honourable and generous person who has considerable martial arts skills which he puts to use for the general good rather than towards any personal ends, and someone who does not necessarily obey the authorities.
Foremost in the xia's code of conduct are yi and xin, righteousness and honour, which emphasize the importance of gracious deed received or favours (恩 ēn) and revenge (仇 chóu) over other ethos of life. Nevertheless, this code of the xia is simple and grave enough for its adherents to fiercely defend.
These skills are usually described as being attainable by those who devote themselves to diligent study and practice. The details of the most powerful skills are often to be found in manuals known as mìjí (秘笈). In some stories, specific techniques can be learned by spending several years either in seclusion with a master or cloistered with the Buddhist monks at a Shaolin temple.
The Jiang Hu is a "shared world", an alternate universe, made up of martial artists and pugilists gathered in wulin (武林), usually congregrating in sects, clans, disciplines and schools of martial arts learnings. It is inhabited by wandering knights and princes, thieves and beggars, priests and healers, merchants and craftspeople. The best wǔxiá writers draw a vivid picture of the intricate relationships of honor, loyalty, love and hatred between individuals and between communities in this milieu.
A common aspect to jiang hu is the tacit suggestion that the courts of law are dysfunctional. Differences can only be resolved by way of force, predicating the need for xia and their chivalrous ways. Law and order is maintained by the alliance of wulin or wulin mengzhu, the society of martial artists. They are elected and commanded by the most able xia, who is usually (but not always) the protagonist of that novel (in some versions, such as the TV miniseries Paradise, the position is hereditary). This alliance leader is an arbiter, who presides and adjudicates over inequities and disputes. He is a de jure chief justice of the affairs of the jiang hu.
The term jiang hu (江湖) is linked to cultures other than those pertaining to martial arts. It can be used in any situation where laws are dysfunctional. For example, Chinese Mafia people use this term to describe their world. In Mandarin, jiang hu now means any circle of interest such as show business, sports, etc. Retirement is referred to as getting "out of jianghu" (退出江湖).
Cheng Pei-Pei and Jimmy Wang-Yu were two of the biggest stars in the days of Shaw Studio and King Hu. Cantonese screen idol Connie Chan Po-chu grew up starring in wǔxiá films and was famous for her male roles. Jet Li is a more recent star of wǔxiá films, having appeared in the Swordsman series, Hero and his latest film Fearless. Yuen Woo Ping is a choreographer who achieved fame by crafting stunning action-sequences in films of the genre. Mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou's foray into wǔxiá films was distinguished by the imaginative use of vivid colours and breathtaking background settings.
Wǔxiá was introduced to the Hollywood studios in 2000 by Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Following Ang Lee's footsteps, Zhang Yimou made Hero, targeted for the international market, in 2003, and House of Flying Daggers in 2004. American audiences are also being introduced to wǔxiá through Asian-television stations in larger cities, which feature well-produced miniseries such as Warriors of the Yang Clan and Paradise, often with English subtitles. With complex, almost soap-opera storylines, lavish sets and costumes, and veteran actors in pivotal roles, these tales can appeal to a variety of audiences.
Significant wǔxiá films include: