martial arts fiction


martial arts fiction
(wuxia xiaoshuo)
Martial arts fiction (wuxia xiaoshuo, literally ‘fiction of war and chivalry’) has been one of the most widely read thematic subgenres of mass-distributed popular fiction in modern and contemporary China, and the one most often perceived as expressing a uniquely Chinese sensibility. Wuxia xiaoshuo has been closely tied with similar material in other media, most notably martial arts films, and its themes, characters and imagery are well-nigh ubiquitous in Chinese popular culture.
Representations of martial prowess and the chivalric ideals of the figures known as ‘knights-errant’ (xia) can be traced back to Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian (Shi ji, first century BC) and recur throughout Chinese literary history, most notably in Tang dynasty classical tales and in the Ming vernacular novel Tales of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan). In its modern form as vernacular fiction produced for a mass reading public, wuxia xiaoshuo took shape in Shanghai and other urban centres in the 1920s and 1930s, its characteristics and popularity interwoven both with the nascent film industry’s treatment of related material and with nationalistic revivals of China’s traditional martial arts.
Banned on the mainland after the founding of the PRC, wuxia xiaoshuo experienced a revival in Hong Kong, Taiwan and among overseas Chinese communities beginning in the latter half of the 1950s. The leaders of what came to be called ‘new school’ (xinpai) wuxia xiaoshuo in Hong Kong were Liang Yusheng (pen name of Chen Wentong, b. 1922) and Jin Yong (Zha Liangyong, b. 1924). Their novels, serialized in newspapers and then republished in book form, offered readers elaborate tales of heroism, revenge, chivalry and romance in historical or semi-historical settings, blending elements of traditional vernacular narrative with themes from contemporary adventure fiction and film and leavening the whole with patriotism and the evocation of a mythicized cultural heritage.
On Taiwan, where martial law restricted the circulation of both Republican-era novels and contemporary wuxia xiaoshuo from Hong Kong, an indigenous ‘new school’ arose, including such authors as Wolong Sheng and Sima Ling. The most prominent of the Taiwan authors was Gu Long (Xiong Yaohua, 1936–85), whose accelerated plotting, cinematic imagery, aphoristic prose and dehistoricized settings are sometimes credited with establishing a truly ‘modern’ wuxia xiaoshuo and blazing a trail for such successors as Wen Rui’an.
Wuxia xiaoshuo from Hong Kong and Taiwan flooded the mainland in the 1980s, and many new authors, both popular and middlebrow, tried their hand at the genre. Hong Kong’s Huang Yi gained popularity in the 1990s. In general, however, film, television, comic books and video games replaced full-length fiction as the favoured media for new martial arts adventure, and readers increasingly came to regard the works of the 1960s through 1980s as the ‘classics’. The last decade of the twentieth century also saw increasing critical and scholarly attention to the genre as a whole and to the works of Jin Yong in particular.
Chen, Pingyuan (1992). Qiangu wenren xiake meng: wuxia xiaoshuo leixing yanjiu [The Scholars’ Age-Old Dream of the Knight-Errant: A Generic Study of Chivalric Fiction]. Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe.
Hamm, J.C. (2001). ‘Local Heroes: Guangdong School wuxia Fiction and Hong Kong’s Imagining of China’. Twentieth-Century China 27.1: 71–96.
Liu, J. (1967). The Chinese Knight-Errant. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
JOHN CHRISTOPHER HAMM

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.