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    How Video Games Fueled the Rise of Chinese Fantasy

    Thirty years ago, the martial arts epic was the country’s most popular genre. Today, fantasy dominates the entertainment industry, thanks in part to the success of an 18-year-old video game.
    Nov 20, 2021#entertainment

    In 2003, Taiwan-based video game developer Softstar released two follow-ups to its 1995 hit The Legend of Sword and Fairy. Although the two sequels were released in a span of months, they bore little resemblance to each other. The two-dimensional Legend of Sword and Fairy II, produced by Softstar’s Taiwan office, stayed true to the first installment’s wuxia martial arts theme and aesthetic, while the three-dimensional Legend of Sword and Fairy III, produced by Softstar’s Shanghai subsidiary, had a dramatically different look based on xianxia, or “chivalric fantasy.”

    Even at the time, Softstar’s decision to release drastically different sequels to an eight-year-old game in such quick succession was perplexing, but the market’s verdict was clear: Whereas the wuxia-themed second installment was met with a tepid popular and critical response, the high fantasy-inspired third installment proved wildly popular, selling hundreds of thousands more copies and scoring significantly higher on review aggregators like Douban.

    The contrasting market performance of these two games proved to be a watershed moment in the development of the Chinese video game industry. In the two decades since, the center of the industry has migrated from Taiwan to the mainland, while xianxia fantasy themes have overtaken wuxia martial arts stories as the industry’s bread and butter. Just to give two examples, the wildly popular mobile games Honor of Kings and Onmyoji are both influenced heavily by xianxia. And while wuxia never fully disappeared — it’s particularly common in Western game studio portrayals of East Asia — xianxia dominates the Chinese market — not just in video games, but also in online literature, television, and film.

    In its infancy, the Chinese video game industry was heavily dependent literary adaptations for both content and stylistic flair. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, top international titles were routinely “reskinned” with superficial elements drawn from China’s literary canon. In the 1990s, as Chinese developers gradually transitioned from reskins to original games, no literary genre was more popular with Chinese audiences or more widely adapted than wuxia martial arts novels.

    Wuxia literature emerged in its modern form during the Republican era (1912-1949), but it’s in the 1950s that it became a cultural phenomenon. Literary masters like Louis Cha, better known as Jin Yong, crafted escapist fantasies of righteous warriors who traveled the land, righting wrongs and exacting justice with their martial arts skills. In the early years of the People’s Republic, the genre’s influence was limited to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Chinese diaspora communities, but when the mainland opened its borders and markets in the 1980s, wuxia novels quickly appeared on shelves across China. Its popularity was further boosted by a wave of Hong Kong and Taiwanese film, television, comic book, and video game adaptations in the 1980s and 1990s. 

    However, even as wuxia culture was reaching new heights of popularity on the Chinese mainland, the influence of xianxia began to spread, first online, and gradually into mainstream Chinese culture. Xianxia is a cousin of sorts to wuxia, with both genres tracing their modern roots back to Xiang Kairan’s 1923 novel “The Peculiar Knights-Errant of the Jianghu.” But while wuxia authors preferred the down-to-earth and unpretentious styles of classic novels like “Water Margin,” xianxia was more indebted to a different, even older part of the Chinese canon: zhiguai. Literally meaning “records of anomalies” or “tales of the strange,” zhiguai literature originated during the third century AD. Zhiguai — and its descendent, xianxia — told tales and myths of supernatural phenomena that mainstream Confucian society preferred to ignore or suppress. In “The Analects,” Confucius explicitly avoids discussions of “extraordinary things.” In zhiguai and xianxia, the extraordinary is everything.

    By the late 1990s, Chinese artists and storytellers were mixing elements of xianxia with the typical “swords and magic” of Western fantasy novels like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Drawing on Taoist notions like “self-cultivation” — through which sages sought immortality and transcendence — they created an alternate, parallel universe, complete with its own language and logic. The resulting genre, known as xuanhuan, or “mystical fantasy,” represents a continuation of the xianxia genre, and by extension zhiguai.

    If wuxia novels were typically published in newspapers and magazines, xianxia and xuanhuan literature was mostly shared anonymously online. In the early days of the internet, online communities were relatively segregated from each other, and xianxia and xuanhuan literature remained niche fandoms. But they did find a dedicated audience among fans of role-playing games — themselves largely marginalized. The Legend of Sword and Fairy III may have been the first major xianxia game, but it was followed by another xianxia-themed sequel in 2007, as well as other popular titles like 2009’s JX Online 3 and 2010’s Swords of Legends.

    Over time, game developers created a visual language for xianxia distinct from that of earlier wuxia-centric titles. In particular, although xianxia was very much a Chinese genre, its mixed origins meant its fans were more likely to be familiar with Western fantasy and storytelling conventions than wuxia, which remained relatively esoteric. To name just one example, developers drew on Western fantasy and RPG conventions to establish hierarchies of Chinese mythological creatures and their powers, allowing them to organize various spirits and beasts drawn from a disjointed corpus of myths and zhiguai stories into a coherent, universally applicable system.

    Because the xianxia genre is not bound to any specific historical era, designers were also freer to experiment with different styles and looks. For instance, character designs could be inspired by traditional Han Chinese garments, but audiences wouldn’t find it odd if they also incorporated the kind of more structured, geometrical designs common in Western military uniforms. This can be a double-edged sword: Whereas in wuxia, female characters are often capable fighters who dress androgynously, xianxia game developers took cues from Japanese anime, comics, and games culture, pandering to the male gaze by dressing female characters in as little as possible.

    This hybrid style is not limited to character design; xianxia creators liberally borrow elements from Eastern and Western cultures in their worldbuilding. Often, it’s only in the mortal realm that buildings abide by Chinese architectural conventions; buildings belonging to practitioners of Taoist “self-cultivation” often resemble Baroque cathedrals and gardens.

    Today, the meteoric rise of xianxia and xuanhuan is often attributed to online literature, but the work done by game developers to lay the foundations of its eventual popularity shouldn’t be ignored. In 2005, the televised adaptation of “The Legend of Sword and Fairy” — the first ever such adaptation of a video game produced on the Chinese mainland — marked a major milestone in the transition of xianxia from a subculture to a mainstream genre.

    Meanwhile, unlike wuxia, which has struggled to gain purchase in overseas markets, the globalized nature of xianxia makes it well-suited for both domestic and international audiences. Although it draws on local cultural elements with deep roots, its liberal appropriation of international cultural markers and storytelling conventions has spared it to an extent from associations with Chinese nationalism. Indeed, when developers can’t find appropriate visual reference material for elements of the xianxia canon, they often default to “Westernizing” it. 

    Xianxia game developers may have never consciously set out to change China’s cultural landscape, but their hybrid approach to storytelling has revolutionized Chinese pop culture far beyond the gaming industry. The genre’s rise mirrors the ways in which contemporary China is simultaneously rediscovering its national identity and embracing globalization.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: A still frame from 2009 TV series “Chinese Paladin 3,” which isadapted from video game “The Legend of Sword and Fairy III.” From Douban)