A Definition of Wuxia and Xia

He is honest in words, effective in action, faithful in keeping promises, fearless in offering his own life to free the righteous from bondage.

-- Sima Qian

    The word wuxia is composed of two characters. The first character, wu is used to describe things having to do with martial arts, war, or the military. The second character, xia refers to the type of protagonist found in wuxia fiction, and is also a synonym for chivalry. Thus, wuxia fiction is translated as martial-chivalric fiction. The simplest way to describe this genre to those who are not familiar with it is to define it as Chinese swords and sorcery. Most gamers become familiar with wuxia, through films such as A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman and Zu.

    The word xia in its context of describing a type of person, is more difficult to define. A variety of translations have been used for the word. They include hero, swordsman, adventurer, soldier of fortune, warrior, or knight [-errant]. In some respects, the xia is all of these things, yet these definitions neither fully nor accurately describe the xia.

    The most frequently used definitions for xia, are knight and knight-errant. Like the knight, skill in combat was the stock and trade of xia. However, xia were soldiers only on rare occasion. They excelled in personal combat, and were more akin to the renaissance duelist than the medieval knight. In addition, unlike the European knight who was exclusively a member of the aristocracy, xia could come from both humble or aristocratic backgrounds. The xia were often wanderers seeking adventure, but greed and self-interest was not always their motivation. As hired swords, xia resolved conflict through use of force, but their actions were tempered by a personal sense of justice and honor. Thus, what set xia apart from other men with fighting skills had to do with their ideology and code of conduct. As a force for good, xia have been extolled by Sima Qian. Later historians elaborated, making the distinction between xia, and other types of outlaw who used force without scruple for personal gain. Others saw little difference between xia and their less principled brethren. Han Feizi listed the xia among the five vermin of society for being subversive vigilante, while Xun Yue took a moral stance against xia for their rejection of Confucian values.

    The traditional xia of fiction is a non-conformist who fights for justice. He is honorable to a fault, his word is inviolable, and his reputation is more important than life itself. Moreover, he is a master of the martial arts who does not hesitate to use his skills in the defense of his beliefs. This type of xia is the idealized version of the heroic xia, and is primarily encountered in modern fiction and cinema. A less romanticized description of xia can be drawn from history and more traditional fiction. This xia is also a swordsman, but one who is more dogmatic than altruistic. He is a champion for any cause to which he has pledged his loyalty, be it benevolent or otherwise. This definition takes into account the sometimes dubious nature of actions performed by xia. Along these lines, in Once Upon a Time in China all swordsmen who adhere to the principles of loyalty, reciprocity, and duty are xia. No distinction is made between xia who are altruistic, and those whose motives are of questionable merit.

The Xia Value System

He treasures the state, friendship, duty, promises, kindness, vengeance, honor, and righteousness more than his own life.

-- Liang Qichao

    In The Chinese Knight-Errant, eight common attributes of the xia are listed as altruism, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth and desire for glory. Except for individualism, these characteristics typify the Confucian junzi (princeling, gentleman). The junzi embodied all of the traits of the Confucian gentleman, among them: ren (benevolence), zhong (loyalty), yong (bravery) and yi (righteousness). Disregard for riches was a product of the (Northern) Chinese disdain for merchants, and was demonstrated by magnanimity, or indifference to monetary profit. Thus, in many respects the values of the xia are merely an extension of traditional Chinese mores. Few could live up to the standards of the junzi, though it was held up as the ideal. The best of the xia tried, but most were subject to human foibles. Thus, not all xia were altruistic, and many were acquisitive. Frequently their sense of justice was subjective, and more often than not was in fact vengeance. Their sense of justice (and altruism) could also be looked upon as part of a code of honor that embodied certain elements of li (chivalry, propriety). Noble xia personified chivalry, and even villainous xia would extend chivalry to those they deemed capable of appreciating the notion of honor. Loyalty was one virtue that defined any xia, but it was based on the oft ignored principle of reciprocity. A xia who was not treated with due respect did not feel any obligation to serve his patron with zeal. This was not the blind loyalty promulgated by later Confucians. The courage of the xia was that of any fighting man, and his truthfulness did not always imply honesty. It had more to do with maintaining a reputation as one whose word was sacred, and could often turn to intractability. Even the desire for personal glory was not universal among xia. Some considered it counter to the spirit of wude (martial virtue), which counseled humility and forbearance.

    What really set the xia apart from society was their value on individualism, and their willingness to use force to achieve their aims. Thus despite the fact that most of their beliefs were quite mainstream, xia were seen as a part of the counterculture. The individualism of the xia manifested itself as non-conformity with respect to certain traditional conventions. The xia were criticized for placing personal loyalty above family loyalty. Often, an oath sworn to a stranger was considered more important than the unspoken obligation between family members. This was a serious breech of Confucian propriety. To further outrage social convention, many xia had great disregard for authority. Those who were ostensibly their social superiors were often treated with open contempt, while those of humble status were shown great courtesy. Some characterize this behavior as rebelliousness, but in many cases it was due to a sense of egalitarianism. The xia valued individuals over what they considered arbitrary labels of family and status, and were not loath to challenge such notions.

The Origin of the Xia

The names of the baseborn knights are now no longer heard of. The famous Lords of Yanling, Mengchang, Chunshen, Pingyuan, and Xinling must surely be virtuous people since they have gathered under them many knights-errant. Being relatives of the Emperor, and in possession of land and wealth allow them this privilege. Their fame has spread in the same manner as calling down the wind: even though the voice is not loud, the wind carries it a long way. Since it is now much more difficult, so much more valuable is it for commoners to try to distinguish themselves by practicing knight-errantry. Much to my regret, both the Confucians and the Mohists have neglected to record the exploits of the baseborn knights. Subsequently , these gallant men of the pre-Qin era have fallen into oblivion.

-- Sima Qian

    The Zhou dynasty which lasted from about 1027 BC to 221 BC was China's longest lasting dynasty, as well as the final period in China's golden age of antiquity. The Zhou maintained a semi-feudal political system in which the Zhou sovereign ruled conquered territories by enfeoffing kinsmen, favored supporters, and potential political allies. Those who held title to rule these lands did so without much in the way of centralized governmental control. In return, this new class of Zhou nobility was obligated to provide tribute to the royal court, and men for military service when required.

    During this period, warfare was a highly ritualized affair conducted by shi, the traditional warrior class of the lower nobility following the rules of li. In 771 BC, the Zhou capital was sacked by barbarian nomads, and the court re-established itself near the city of Luoyang, starting the period known as the Eastern Zhou dynasty. In the following century, Zhou royal power began to decline, and the Zhou king became a mere figurehead as his dukes vied for supremacy. In an attempt to maintain order, the Zhou king appointed his most powerful duke as pa (Lord Protector, overlord), in a system similar to the bakufu of feudal Japan. The first half of the Eastern Zhou, known as the Spring and Autumn period (Chun Qiu), was a time of great intellectual activity. It was during this time, that the shi became divided into wu-shi (military shi) and wen-shi (scholarly shi) groups. There was great turmoil during this period, as ministers usurped their princes, and large states began to engulf their weaker neighbors. Under such conditions, the shi became highly prized as men of unquestioned loyalty who could assist in the preservation and expansion of a kingdom. The second half of the Eastern Zhou was known as the period of Warring States (Zhan Guo). As competition between the Zhou states became more bloody and ruthless, conflicts that were formerly settled through knightly combat between shi became battles between vast armies of peasant conscripts. Warfare became increasingly brutal, and the code of chivalry that bound conflict in the past was trampled in the yellow dust of the Northern Chinese plains. As kingdoms were destroyed, social displacement of the shi created a large body of roving warriors who offered their services as swords for hire to the highest bidder.

    These men have been called you-xia or roving knights, and were patronized by feudal princes as ke (resident guests, or rather swordsmen). Among these lords were men who charged their retainers with carrying out justice and maintaining order in a time of chaos and upheaval. The most famous xia in these times were the lords of Yanling, Mengchang, Chunshen, Pingyuan and Xinling, who were described by Sima Qian as men of virtue for gathering many xia under their banners. Influenced by the writings of Sima Qian, the historian Qian Mu suggested that these lords were the original xia, and that the term only came later to be applied to the swordsmen who were in their employ. However, the truth of the matter can never be verified, as records of xia prior to the Qin dynasty have been lost to history.

    After Qin unification of China, there was a suppression of xia by the Qin government, which adopted the Legalist principles Han Feizi, and condemned xia, along with Confucian scholars, as among the "five vermin of society." The xia were temporarily driven underground, but soon after the death of the First Qin Emperor, the empire began to founder, and xia once more played a decisive role in the unification of China. The race to claim the Mandate of Heaven became a struggle between the commoner Liu Bang, and the aristocratic Xiang Yu. Liu Bang eventually became emperor, and his generals and supporters received lands and titles. This turn of events brought many xia into the ranks of officialdom during the early part of the dynasty, and seemed to herald a period of ascendancy for the xia. However, Liu Bang was an advocate of centralized authority, and adopted a certain brand of Confucianism that was heavily influenced by Legalism as his ruling ideology. The major concern of Confucianism was in establishing social harmony. The xia were a disruptive force in society, and their activities were seen as a challenge to Han authority. To counter this challenge, the severe measures advocated by Legalism were used to suppress xia during later years of the dynasty.

    As opportunities in the upper reaches of society became closed to them, xia began migrating to the lower levels of society, where they often assumed roles of leadership in local communities. Under these circumstances, the composition and nature of the xia gradually began to change. The new xia who emerged were those of common origin. Many of these new xia were uneducated, and though they could boast of skill in arms, they were not the professional warriors of the previous era. Frequently, they were impoverished vagabonds who drifted into cities to attach themselves to rich and influential families. These landowners and feudal lords organized private armies, and their xia were used to control local power and resist the authority of the central government. The common xia who lived up to the ideals of chivalry still existed, but the haoqiang xia (local bully) who used his physical strength to exploit the defenseless, and to carry out the whims of his patron became the rule. These haoqiang xia became the enforcers of the local gentry families. They extorted peasants, intimidated local authorities, and even murdered in the frequent vendettas between rival clans.

    The names of most post-Han xia have fallen to obscurity. Except for those who made the transition into the world of literature little is known of their deeds. During the close of the Han dynasty, xia like Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu rallied to save the empire (at least temporarily), and later went on to be influential personalities of the Three Kingdoms period. During the turbulent era following the fall of the Sui dynasty, a new kind of xia emerged -- the Shaolin monk. Bandits and warlords ravaged the countryside, and fighting monks came to the forefront as icons of stability and justice. Zhicao, Huiyang, Jueyuan and Tanzong were among the thirteen monks charged by Li Shimin (who would later become the Emperor) to capture the warlord Wang Shichong. During the Song dynasty, barbarian incursions from the north saw xia of a more military nature emerge. Generals like Yue Fei and She Siahua, matriarch of the Yang Family Women Warriors fought against the Liao invaders. Xia of the Ming dynasty included Ou Qianjin, famous for his wu-gong, and Zhang Songxi who could still break stone slabs bare-handed at age seventy. As the Ming dynasty began to wane, xia once again were called upon to fight barbarian invaders. The Shaolin monks Yue Kong and Da Zaohua fought Japanese pirates ravaging the coasts of eastern China. Qin Liangyu and her White Lance Troops held Sichuan against Manchu invaders for fourteen years following the conquest of the Ming dynasty. Ming restorationist ideology began to coincide with xia behavior, and they were driven underground by the new Qing dynasty. The xia of this era were Shaolin trained fighters who fought against Manchu tyranny. They were monks, outlaws, and members of the anti-Qing Hong-men. The Five Elders of Shaolin, and Zhi Shan were some of the most famous fighting monks of the period. Ming loyalists trained by Shaolin who formed the Hong-men, became known as the Five Ancestors of Shaolin. The Five Ancestors and their disciples solidified the association between xia and secret societies during the Qing dynasty. Xia were called upon to lead village militias against oppressive landlords and their private armies (min tuan), rapacious tax collectors, as well as against bandits. The anti-government sentiments of these xia led to their suppression, and the rise of a more acceptable form of xia -- the piao ke or biao shi (security escort). These xia guarded bank shipments, and acted as bodyguards to Qing officials. This development was in some ways counter to xia non-conformity, but the biao shi embodied the xia virtues of loyalty, courage and incorruptibility.

The Jianghu

Enticing from without; awesome from within.

    Jianghu is a word that appeared during the Ming dynasty, and is used to describe the world of the you-xia. The word originally referred to places where hermits lived, but eventually came to designate what has been termed as the Underworld, the World of Vagrants, or sometimes the World of Martial Arts. For Once Upon a Time in China the literal translation of River-lake will be used. The historical River-lake, refers to the world of secret societies and bandits. The fictional River-lake includes the Wulin, and is composed of wanderers of slender means, with no fixed abode. Its denizens include xia, lumpen intelligentsia, adventurers, monks, priests, rebels, cultists, unemployed peasants and laborers, itinerant peddlers, beggars, disbanded soldiers, gangsters, smugglers, and other outcasts of society. To these people, the River-lake provided a substitute lineage, which offered them the assistance and protection that they did not receive from mainstream society.

The Lulin

Those who deprive others of their property are either bandits or burglars. The former work in groups, use violence unreservedly; they kill and rob in broad daylight, in open defiance of the law. On the other hand, the later work in cliques of three to five; they sneak about at night, and only resort to violence when their lives are at stake.

-- He Xiya

    The Lulin is the World of the Outlaw. Its members are termed 'underworld stalwart' in The Water Margin, or 'brothers of the greenwoods' in Judge Dee novels. The Lulin includes bandits, burglars, pirates and other criminals. In general, bandits and pirates started out by working in small groups. In order to strengthen themselves against opposition, they would recruit from the ranks of dispossessed peasants and boatmen, as well as other members of the River-lake. As their numbers grew, it became necessary to form hierarchies and establish rules to maintain order. The bandits borrowed heavily from secret societies in this respect. Members of the Brotherhood of the Greenwoods swore blood-oaths, maintained their own codes of law and ethics, and communicated with secret codes, signs and languages.

    In times of stability, bandits would prey upon honest peasants. Towns and villages would be forced to pay protection money or suffer the consequences. These villages essentially became part of a bandit 'lineage', and could prevent the depredations of weaker bandit groups by claiming the protection of their 'elder brothers.' Occasionally, villages would call upon their outlaw protectors to carry out inter-lineage vendettas. An independent village facing this type of opposition, would be forced to join a rival bandit gang for their own protection. This would lead to an escalation of the conflict, and such disorder would result in the intervention of the government. Ironically, for the official charged with the task of suppressing bandits, the Lulin was also the source from where mercenaries for his militia army (tuan lien) were recruited.

    A related development was that of the village union (lian zhuang hui), which was organized and led by the peasants themselves, to resist bandits, and oppose the more egregious demands of the local elite. Such groups were often sympathetic to anti-dynastic revolutionaries, due to infiltration of their ranks by members of secret societies. Officials called such groups 'bogus militia' or 'bandit militia' for their armed resistance to tax-collectors, and for the ease with which they became actual bandits when instigated by secret societies. Even traditional bandits became full-fledged rebels during periods of turmoil, leading popular uprisings against oppressive landlords. It was also quite common for such bandit groups to work in conjunction with anti-dynastic secret societies. In the wuxia genre, righteous bandits who opposed local despots and protected the weak were known as dao-xia.

The Wulin

Your gong-fu is no good!

    The Wulin exists only in fiction, and is a term used to describe the World of the Martial Arts. This is the world of the wuxia heroes of authors like Jin Yong and Gu Long, as well as the Hong Kong cinema (or rather, the Mandarin cinema). It is a world in which xia dedicate their lives to perfecting their martial skills, and fighting for truth, justice and the Confucian way. More worldly xia seek glory, fame and wealth. In fiction, these members of the Wulin carry on the shi legacy, and follow many of the rules embodied in wude (martial virtue), li (chivalry), hao (gallantry), and bao (vengeance). In the River-lake, the elite of the Wulin are known as gao shou (lit: high hands) or huang-baofu (lit: yellow-bags), and treated with the utmost of respect and deference.

Sects and Secret Societies

In the River-lake, a man cannot decide for himself.

    Unlike the rural bandits of the Lulin or aloof wanderers of the Wulin, secret society members belonged to the urban community. Derived from mutual-benefit societies, the tang (society hall) was a community center, where members could gather to socialize. During times of disaster or hardship, the society provided financial aid or shelter. In other circumstances, they offered physical protection of life and property. In essence, the secret society was a substitute lineage which welcomed destitute peasants, demobilized soldiers, and other social outcasts of the River-lake. It offered security, and a sense of family which members would otherwise not have.

    In order to maintain order in a diverse company, codes of conduct were adopted by secret societies. Rigid discipline was practiced, and initiation rites and trials by ordeal were required for entrance. Members of groups like the Hong-men were expected to follow the 72 articles, the 36 oaths, and the 21 ordinances, as well as know the 10 taboos, and the 10 penalties. Such restrictions were used to exercise control over society members, and had the added effect of allowing members to commit crimes with an easy conscience, provided that such acts were permitted within the system. However, those who did not observe the rules of the society were punished with draconian harshness.

    Secret societies could be categorized into to major groups -- those influenced by religion, and those which were overtly political in nature. Secret societies of the former variety were most common in northern China, where most groups were offshoots of the White Lotus society. Secret societies of the south were primarily of the latter variety, particularly during the Qing dynasty. Yet despite the differences in their backgrounds, there was a large degree of overlap between these types of secret societies. Organization and goals of political and religious secret societies converged, due to the adoption of many aspects of worship and ritual by political groups. These secret societies assembled under the guise of religion to avoid government persecution, and rebels frequently went about their activities disguised as monks. The fact that monasteries had been granted the privilege of buying and selling identity documents since Shaolin monks aided Tang Taizhong in 622 A.D. also resulted in monasteries becoming refuges for political dissidents. This of course led to the suppression of religious sects, which were also occasionally persecuted when their influence became too widespread. For their own defense, these sects would develop anti-dynastic agendas after being driven underground.

    Religious elements had a profound influence on secret societies, and were influenced by the Chinese utopian ideal. Since the Tang dynasty, the slogan of the secret society has been 'Peace and Equality.' Secret societies claimed to seek parity between commoner and gentry elite. In addition, secret societies welcomed women to their ranks. In contrast to mainstream tradition, many secret societies asserted equality of the sexes, and women were able to achieve high rank in such societies. In their efforts to protect the interests of the disenfranchised, secret societies promoted mutual aid, and instructed members in the martial arts. They organized village defense forces so that peasants could resist the burden of heavy taxes by corrupt officials and landlords, and often promulgated moral and social reform.

    The leadership of secret societies came from the lumpen intelligentsia -- degree holders unable or unwilling to find jobs, failed examination candidates, ex-military officers, yamen clerks, monks, priests, and other literate members of the River-lake. Secret societies offered educated men who could not fit into the roles prescribed for officials with normal government careers an alternative path to achieve power and status. From a political standpoint, secret societies functioned in a manner similar to gentry clan lineages. They sought to influence local government by bullying weak officials or bribing corrupt ones. If the government was strong, their activities fell more along the lines of petty outlawry, smuggling, and resisting tax-collectors. The militias that were organized to suppress such activities were only nominally led by the local gentry. The actual training and command of the troops was relegated to subalterns, who were often members of secret societies. Further infiltration by secret society members allowed militia units to be transformed to bandit or rebel group under the proper conditions. During times of disorder, foreign invasion, and weak government, secret societies frequently instigated peasant revolts, and allied themselves with professional bandit groups to challenge the imperial state. In fact, secret societies have been directly involved in every peasant rebellion throughout Chinese history.

Xia, Jianghu, and Society

Ten years make a scholar, but not a River-lake veteran.

    Once members of the ruling elite, xia were considered outsiders, who do not follow the rules of conventional society because of their use of force to resolve conflict. The illegitimate use of force was frowned upon by Chinese society. Their wandering lifestyle, and rootless existence has been seen as a rejection of family. And in a society which valued education over physical abilities, the xia was seen as an anachronism, and a representation of the Chinese counterculture. The division between wu-shi and wen-shi became particularly large during Han times. Yet the perceived clash between values is largely cosmetic, and gong-an literature shows that the two can co-exist. Relegated to the lower ranks of society, and with many of the options for advancement closed to him, the xia was not held in very high regard by the elite. To the masses of common people however, the xia was frequently a person to look up to. He was a mythic character who opposed the oppressive landlords and corrupt officials. However, despite these differences all xia values can find their roots in Confucian values. This is of no great surprise, given the fact that they trace their tradition to the xia of the Zhou dynasty, whose values were almost entirely based on Confucian traditions. The heroic xia is the Confucian junzi, who maintains the martial spirit of the shi, rather than that of the scholarly ru. Their parallel code of ethics and behavior represent the flip side of the Chinese establishment, and rather than being antagonistic to tradition, xia behavior is complementary -- yin to yang. This duality of nature is reflected in the juxtaposition of xia and scholars. The xia respected in times of chaos, while the scholar is highly regarded during times of stability. Thus the xia in his youth, frequently becomes a scholar as he matures and gains wisdom, and the magistrate who uses his wits to maintain order also employs xia when physical force is required. This relationship was popularized in the gongan (case histories) of the Qing dynasty describing the alliance between martial heroes and righteous officials to redress the grievances of innocent citizens, but certainly was based on similar relationships between xia and officials during the Tang and Song dynasties.

Wuxia Fiction

    The wuxia films that we see today are derived from modern wuxia literature. This literature has its roots in Tang dynasty chuanqi (prose romances), which contained many of the elements found in the modern wuxia genre (e.g. magic, supernatural events and vengeance), and the huaben tales of Song dynasty storytellers. Huaben tales were extremely popular during this period, the name coming from the prompt books used by the storytellers as mnemonic devices. Subjects included yinzi'er (tales of strange events) and gongan (detective stories), and tie qi'er (tales of martial heroism). However, the pioneers of the wuxia genre wrote during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and set many of the standards for modern wuxia novels. Novels like The Water Margin, were thinly veiled criticisms of the government. Others novels, like the various gongan (exemplified by the Judge Dee novels) were made for popular consumption. The modern wuxia novel came into being following the May 4th movement of 1919. A new literature evolved, calling for a break with Confucian values, and the xia emerged as a symbol of personal freedom, defiance to Confucian tradition, and rejection of the Chinese family system. As a form of protest, wuxia films and literature were banned at various times during the Qing dynasty, and Republican era. These bans hurt the growth of the genre, but following World War II, a new phase of excellence emerged in wuxia literature, exemplified by the work of Huanzhu Louzhu (author of Blades from the Willows). Other influential authors of the time include Wang Dulu who introduced the use of melodrama, and Yao Minai, who wrote about secret societies. During this period, wuxia novelists were divided into Northern and Southern schools. The Northern school was centered on Beijing, and followed a traditional approach. They focused on traditional values, were based in realism, and set their stories in a historical context. The Romance of Three Kingdoms is typical of this style, even though it was not written during this period. The Southern school was centered on Shanghai, and developed from the new literary movement. Novelists were influenced by the West, and wrote what could be called pulp fiction. A second phase was launched in the mid-50s by the work of Jin Yong (author of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain). His contemporaries include Liang Yusheng, who introduced the concept of the hero as in intellectual, and Gu Long who viewed the xia as a solitary ascetic.

    Chinese wuxia films which grew from the literary tradition include fantasy films with flying swordsmen, and the more conventional martial arts kung-fu film. The former category traces its lineage back to the first wuxia film, The Burning of Red Lotus Monastery filmed in 1928 and based on The Legend of the Strange Hero by Xiang Kairen. This film, and its sequels, were the prototype of the wuxia fantasy genre. In it are all the elements of modern wuxia fantasy films, including special effects to simulate palm power, and the use of wire-work to simulate flying. The anti-Confucian themes, violence, and supernatural elements in these films however, lead the government to ban their production in the 1930s, citing their content as being a negative influence on China's youth. When these films were again produced in the 1950s, they took stylistic elements, and conventions from traditional Chinese opera, which included the promotion of a rigid orthodox moral code. However, by the mid-60s, a synthesis with the new literature movement changed the one dimensional xia of earlier films to a more complex character with human flaws, and produced the wuxia film as we know it today. King Hu (PY: Hu Jinquan) introduced a style of imagery and beauty that appeals to our senses, while Chang Cheh (PY: Zhang Che) introduced the style of violence and bloodshed popular with gorehounds. Most however, are most familiar with the fantasies of Tsui Hark (PY: Xu Ke), who captures our imagination, and the choreography of Yuen Woo-Ping (PY: Yuan Huo-Pin) that makes the pulse race with excitement.