Also wu xia and wu'xia.

The flying swordsmen genre
Chinese genre of action story centered around heroic warriors, often with superhuman abilities. Filmmaker Ang Lee, while in production on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, once attempted to describe the genre to a reporter by saying that wuxia told stories of "flying Taoist superheroes."

In the Chinese language, Wu is a character used to describe martial arts (also, the military, war). Xia refers to the protagonist of these stories, a sort of knight-errant, a vagabond warrior bound by honor, justice, and loyalty, but not belonging to a particular class nor pledged to a specific lord. Typically in the genre, the Xia is a swordsman who fought for justice, a person bound by honor to keep his word, even if pledged to a stranger. Xia are portrayed as outsiders, because they place individual loyalty and reputation above family loyalty, and would challenge arbitrary labels of status or class. (Their Taoist training puts them at odds with mainstream society's Confucianism).

While wuxia literature would creatively invent various styles and schools of martial arts, there's one style you won't see: Shaolin kung fu. More likely the hero was trained in Wudan kung fu, meant to show inner strength (the yin martial art to Shaolin's yang), and which comes from an indigenous Taoist tradition (Remember, Shaolin comes from Buddhism, an import to China). In addition, the hero's dedication to their martial art would give them superhuman abilities, such as breaking the bonds of gravity (a weightless leap, not really flying), making ones body as hard as iron, or being able to channel energy with one's palms.

Xia date back to the Zhou dynasty in China, when civil society could not guarantee the rule of law. A need arose for hired killers to settle disputes. Soon thereafter, these figures became romanticized into Robin Hood-like heroes, standing up to corrupt officials and landlords.

From novels to opera to film
Prose romances of the Tang dynasty, which featured heroic warriors, prefigured wuxia stories, which came of age in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Wuxia characters and plots entered Peking Opera in the nineteenth century, where dazzling acrobatics added to their impact. Wuxia novels, often serialized in newspapers and running to hundreds of pages, became mass literature in Shanghai shortly thereafter.

The twentieth century brought a new interest and growth in the genre, as writers capitalized on the public's questioning of Confucian values. With themes of personal freedom, questioning or outright rebellion towards authority, and a rejection of family bonds, Wuxia films and literature would be banned at various times under both the Qing dynasty and the republic. While some wuxia novels were written specifically as social criticism, much of the genre was created as pulp fiction.

In the 1920s, as Chinese filmmakers searched for material to create compelling stories, they turned to Wuxia. The first example of wuxia pian, The Burning of Red Lotus Monastery, was filmed in 1928 and based on The Legend of the Strange Hero by Xiang Kairen. The production used 300 martial artists, incorporating special effects for palm lightning bolts, and wire work to simulate flying-- the beginning of the a popular movie genre that many Western audiences would not know until the work of Tsui Hark (A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman and Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain).

Examples of wuxia literature:

Many of these novels have been adapted for manga and for television.

Bordwell, David. "About Hong Kong Martial Arts Cinema." Magic Lantern, Inc. <> (2 January 2003)
Lee, Ang. "A Conversation with Ang Lee and James Schamus." Magic Lantern, Inc. <> (2 January 2003)
Spike. "Wuxia Fiction: Key Inspiration for HK Action Films." Heroic Cinema Web Site. 4 February 2000. <> (2 January 2003)
Yin, Eric. "A Definition of Wuxia and Xia." Heroic Cinema Web Site. 13 February 2001. <> (2 January 2003)
SPCNet. <> (7 January 2003)

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