How China’s Favorite Fantasy Realm Faded Into the Background
Martial arts dramas, part of a genre known in Chinese as wuxia, were an important part of my childhood. When I was still very small, my father and I would hound my mother to let us watch the latest Hong Kong-produced wuxia series instead of her preferred Taiwanese soaps. My daydreams were filled with warriors performing gravity-defying stunts, running up walls, and leaping from the eaves of buildings as they battled for justice in the semi-mythical realm known as the jianghu.
Looking back, these memories seem like fragments of a world that no longer exists. Wuxia isn’t dead, even if it sometimes feels that way. For decades, young writers tried and failed to follow in the footsteps of the greats who defined genre’s mid-20th century heyday, authors like Jin Yong, Gu Long, and Liang Yusheng. But the past few years have seen a wuxia renaissance of sorts thanks to the whirlwind development of online literature, and several popular online novels could feasibly be categorized as wuxia or wuxia-adjacent.
But while these novels — and the TV adaptations they’ve spawned — are filled with even more twists and turns than the books I grew up with, they also feel different. Perhaps that’s because, if wuxia is still alive, the jianghu is dying.
The jianghu — literally, the “rivers and lakes” — has been used for centuries to describe the realm of China’s knights-errant. In the “gallant knight” novels of the Tang dynasty (618-907), the term referred to the world of the everyday: It was the mean streets and back roads where wandering vigilantes could make a name for themselves.
By the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, the jianghu had developed into China’s wild west, a lawless but noble counterpart to the corrupt temples and palaces of the imperial state. In the last century, writers like Jin Yong further evolved the jianghu into an alternate universe, one in which court struggles faded into the background in favor of chivalrous vigilantes helping the common people.
The jianghu is far from a romantic utopia. It, too, is fraught with power struggles, manipulation, and often rigidly hierarchical factions. But its defining characteristic is its openness. It is home to all kinds of eccentric characters, from valiant protagonists to good mothers who also happen to be ruthless killers.
These characters often offer satirical commentary on the order, hierarchy, and power structures of the real world. For example, the protagonist of one of Jin Yong’s most famous novels, “The Deer and the Cauldron,” is a brothel-born ne’er-do-well whose only skill is running fast. But he is able to trick emperors, the jianghu elite, and powerful dignitaries until he unexpectedly becomes a high-ranking court official.
Earlier screen adaptations often took this spirit further. In Jin Yong’s “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer,” the male protagonist Ling Huchong questions his sexual orientation after an encounter with the androgynous martial artist Dongfang Bubai. Given that wuxia is thought of as one of the most “masculine” literary genres, the inclusion of LGBT themes in a film adaptation may seem surprising, but this reversal of mainstream norms is perfectly in keeping with the eclectic, subversive nature of the jianghu.
Although the popularity of wuxia fell off around the turn of the millennium, the rise of online literature and its televised adaptations has breathed new life into the once moribund genre. Young audiences seem to gravitate to the show’s complex plots and strong production values. Both 2015’s “Nirvana in Fire” and 2019’s “Joy of Life” were watched more than 20 billion times. Although 2021’s “Sword Snow Stride” didn’t quite achieve the same success, it nonetheless reached 7 billion views, making it one of the year’s most popular shows.
But whenever I watch these massively popular series, I can’t help but wonder: Where is the jianghu?
The very institutions the jianghu once defined itself against — the temples and palaces of court life — now occupy center stage, with some plots even taking place exclusively behind their closed doors. The protagonists of these stories are not commoners struggling in a world of turmoil, but rather the offspring of generals, nobles, or ministers. Instead of freely roaming the rivers and lakes, they instigate power struggles and intrigue at court. In “Nirvana In Fire,” the hero, Mei Changsu, is the leader of the largest jianghu faction, but he uses his position primarily as a weapon for revenge and to help a new emperor ascend the throne.
Martial prowess remains important, and the protagonists of these shows still demonstrate varying degrees of rebelliousness toward symbols of authority. But their attitudes are only possible thanks to the ample support of their prestigious families, and their ultimate success is judged by their ability to rise to positions of power.
To some extent, this could be seen as a more “realistic” approach to wuxia. These days, it can be difficult to imagine a world in which marginal figures such as tramps and street urchins could possibly become heroes. The intrepid warrior who takes justice into their own hands, the varied experiences he has on his travels, and the eccentric town folks he encounters aren’t relatable to contemporary audiences.
What viewers want is bingeworthy escapism: a kind of self-insert success story where they can count on the cool-headed protagonist to always gain the upper hand in complex political struggles thanks to their innate wisdom and powerful connections. They seemingly find greater enjoyment in watching a smooth progression of victories by a character from a good background than seeing an underdog who perseveres even when the odds are stacked against them. The turmoil, danger, and absurdity of Jin Yong’s jianghu is no longer of interest — what truly seduces people is the thought of rising through the ranks and wielding power in a highly stratified, orderly society.
The appeal of the jianghu once lay in the infinite possibilities it offered. Everyone could follow their own path. By exchanging the individuality of the jianghu for the conformity of the temples and palaces, writers have dampened their characters’ spirit as well as that of the wuxia genre more generally.
At the end of the early-modern novel “Water Margin” — arguably one of the most influential predecessors of the wuxia novel — bandit leader Song Jiang ultimately chooses to submit to imperial authority and return to court. It’s a fitting metaphor for the fate of modern wuxia, as the genre’s eccentric outsiders retreat to the temples and palaces — and close the door on the untamed lands beyond.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the 2021 online series “Sword Snow Stride.” From Douban)