I started this back on the last few days of Feb on Twitter just as Shan He Ling / Word of Honor was starting because there was a LOT of confusion, and a total lack of understanding of the Wuxia genre in the English section of fandom. This is by no means an in-depth study on the history of genre (thousands of years old) or academic in any way. This is more of things people should know about the genre when watching. All my knowledge comes from growing up watching the dramas and reading the genre (80s Hong Kong wuxia dramas! TVB!!!). These are the things that ALL Chinese people know if they were born and at least grew up there for the first 5 to 10 years of their life.
Wuxia literally means "martial/military vigilante/hero". Wuxia focus on vigilantes/heroes who are martial artists often from the lower social classes. These martial artists follow a code that mostly consist of chivalrous behaviour - right the wrongs, defend the weak, etc. They are independent and operate outside of political/imperial power.
Freedom is a major theme of wuxia, Zhou Zishu craved this at the beginning the drama, heart sick and tired of the politics, he returned to Jianghu. However, while wuxia is about freedom, it is also about how there are ALWAYS CONSEQUENCES for one’s actions and the price of freedom can be high. It is about generations of intricate relationships between individuals, sects, and the blood debt owed and paid.
Wuxia themes are often positive; sticking to your own morals and values in a complicated world. Help those in need, and how one can never judge people based on appearance and rumours.
Jianghu’s literal translation is “lakes and rivers”, which makes shit all sense for the people who don’t know Chinese. Think of Jianghu as a sort of parallel society consisting of merchants, adventurers, heroes and villains abiding their own code. By all rights Jinaghu is literally a society that operates fully independent of the larger society. Think of it of a mish-mash of the criminal underworld except Jianghu mostly consists of ‘good’ sects.
Jianghu consist of bad and good sects; it’s often a trope in wuxia stories for the "good" sects who are meant to be triumphing good & justice to be just as rotten as their "evil" counterparts. They will often kill and steal in the name of "justice".
Romance and a sense of freedom to live in Jianghu is a huge component of wuxia stories. It is also a component of wuxia stories for individuals to find their 知己(Zhiji). It means confidant, intimate friend, etc. And yes, soulmate applies here. However, UNLIKE the English fandom which seems to be obsessed with the idea of sexual intimacy when it comes to soulmate, Zhiji in Chinese culture and especially in wuxia, is often platonic. It is about finding a person or people on this earth who shares your views, your beliefs and your goals. Often the person is of the same sex, and NOT sexual. So, yes. Word Of Honor, most likely got a lot of shit through censorship by leaning on the concept of Zhiji, because traditionally Zhiji is NOT sexual.
NOTE: Zhou Zishu in the drama is an interesting case, because he was of royal blood from his maternal side, but sometime before the age of seven (7) or maybe a bit later, he would have been taken in by Qin Huaizhang, Zhou Zishu’s master and head of Four Seasons Manor. ZZS was NOT born into Jianghu, he most likely grew up in the lap of luxury, till his father was accused of treason, and more than likely his whole family was executed, and there might have been some truly impressive political manoeuvring to have kept him safe. And it would not surprise me if Qin Huaizhang came in right at the right moment. The drama addresses the issue that QHZ and ZZS’ father were most likely friends.
Traditional Wuxia often consist of a young hero whose family/loved ones have been wronged/murdered, and they must better themselves via learning martial arts in order to defeat the villain. The hero will go on a journey consisting of adventurers, new friends, enemies. They will experience love, and much pain through their journey. By the end they will have matured, experienced many tragedies, and would have become powerful enough to win against the main villain(s). This model has obviously evolved & changed through the years like any other genre. NOTE: In the case of Word Of Honor, Zhang Chen Ling is actually a perfect example of a wuxia hero. Except the focus is not on him but rather Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing who breaks the mould because the two can be argued are already near the peak of their abilities. Actually both WKX and ZZS are prime examples of Gu Long wuxia heroes; martial artists at the peak of their power with a tragic and mysterious past. In fact WKX's style of fighting with the fan is very much in the vein as Chu Liuxiang, expect the latter used it in defense and never killed. So, yeah.
Wuxia stories consist of super weird and crazy characters that are all powerful through the various martial arts. They can come in any form; men, women, old, young, and none binary gendered. They'll use anything to fight; furniture, clothing, water, hair, etc. gliding through the air.
You'll have solo adventurers, members of secret sects that specialises in poison, religious sects, all female sects, begger sects, the lists goes on. And each sect will have a specialised martial art style that's exclusive to their sect/school. These martial arts are guarded. Each sect will protect their school's martial art from outsiders. A lot of wuxia stories consist of whole sects being wiped out by the rest of Jianghu because they had a form of super duper strong and secretive martial arts that eveybody wants. Often, it is the main hero’s family / biological or martial that gets murdered by the villains in order to gain them. . NOTE: This is what drives all the sects of Jianghu to go feral in Word of Honor, because Rong Xuan and Five bros GATHERERED/weaselled/stole ALL the secret martial arts technique from the Jianghu sects and locked it all up in the Amoury/Repository/ Library. Zhang Chenling and Wen Kexing actually all fit this criteria.
Below are some of the most common sects from the top of my head. There are HUNDREDS of these sects spread across multiple novels written by different people. These sects have sunk so deep into the popular consciousness of Chinese people that even if they don’t know the novels they appear in they will know of the sects.
- Emei Sect (峨嵋派)
- Beggars' Sect (丐幫)
- Shaolin Sect (少林派)
- Mount Heaven Sect (天山派)
- Wudang Sect (武當派)
- Kunlun Sect (崑崙派)
- Snowy Mountain Sect (雪山派)
Wuxia has a high body count. People you like will die. Often there is generational hate/back story that has led to the current tragedy. The hero has to continually learn, train and improve their martial arts. It is often a dangerous training process.
People in wuxia are able to ‘fly’ around and have superhuman abilities due to qi (气). It is the internal energy for the basis of ALL martial arts in wuxia. One builds up AND cultivates qi through rigorous training over a prolonged amount of time. Qi can be used for both defensive and offensive purposes.
One use qi to increase physical attributes; speed, strength, durability stamina, healing, etc. One can exert their qi as a force on their physical environments. Depending on the intent, the type of martial arts being trained, the exertion of qi can cause fear and actual physical damage to the physical environments. Some characters can express their qi as elemental attacks, this is actually pretty rare in Wuxia, because mostly Qi is expressed as something warm. E.G Wen Kexing heating up alcohol for Zhou Zishu by using his inner qi.
If a person suffers damage to their internal qi core/pathway then the strength of their martial arts drops dramatically. In wuxia, characters who have had their internal qi core/pathway completely destroyed meant the superhuman quality of their martial arts is completely gone. NOTE: This is what is happening to Zhou Zishu, his pathways are dying and breaking down. Due to this his qi had decreased. He still knows the technique, but he can’t perform the techniques at such superhuman strength or speed anymore.
Qi can be used to heal or be transferred to a character. Often it is how our hero gain decades of power overnight because a random crazy Jianghu powerhouse decided to transfer their qi to the hero before their deaths for various reasons; vengeance, love, pure spite etc. NOTE: Wen Kexing basically did this in episode 36 of the drama via Sixth Joined Technique. And we also get multiple cases of Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu heal each other via Qi Transfer. But also, you can reinforce a person’s qi to fight off an exertion of qi energy. Wen Kexing does this for both Ah-Xiang and Chenling against the lute playing assassin. While Zhou Zisu played the flute to exert his qi through in order to fight off and attack the qi being exerted through the lute by the assassin. Now, I want to scream a bit about how fucking awesome ZZS is here, because the man is at half of his normal qi, and he still fucking managed to defeat a well-known Jianghu assassin that people fears. ZZS is motherfucking kickass and strong.
走火入魔 (Walking the Fire, Becoming a Monster)
When cultivating Qi and practicing martial arts one can become "走火入魔" which means a person can become corrupted by their martial arts training. This could be due to a person's negative emotional state when they are training, which leads them to not meditate well or focus on their martial arts, which leads to crazy powerhouse nut-jobs that goes around murdering everyone. The other scenario is the fact the martial arts technique itself is corrupt itself and will affect anyone who practices it. Wen Kexing experiences this when he wakes up in Four Seasons and goes running, this was most likely due to his agitated emotional state at remembering shit and also having failed in saving Han Ying.
Powerful martial artists/qi practitioners can feel each other's Qi. One can identify a person based on their qi. Powerful practitioners can disguise their qi so they are not detectable. Qi can feel corrosive/corrupt depending on whether the martial arts practiced are evil or not.
轻功 (QING GONG)
Martial artists in wuxia DON'T fly. They have Qing Gong, direct translation is “Light Work” which um, yeah. QG in the context of wuxia is a form of basic martial arts technique that allows the user to be super-human fast AND light. QG allows practitioners to use PHYSICAL objects to glide, jump high and scale mountains. They are NOT flying, they are literally bouncing off physical objects; tree branches, parts of buildings, water, etc. anything that is physical they can bounce off to travel great distance in one leap. It looks like flying but it is NOT.
The basic assumption of QG is that the more powerful a person is with their Qi, the better their QG is. Every sect will have their own form of QG; more focus on speed, more focus on jumping etc. Btu the basics of QG is to allow martial artists to uses their qi to do shit like gliding on water and ‘flying’ using treetops.
NOTE: While it looked like ZZS & WKX were flying. They were NOT. They were using the treetops to fly through the air, used water and other objects to keep on gliding and 'flying'. This ISN'T xianxia where they can literally fly through air without the assistance of a physical object. The reason ZZS & WKX couldn't just fly up while falling off a cliff is because they DON'T have a PHYSICAL object to use as a bounce-off point. If there was a tree or rock outcropping they might potentially use it as a way for them to glide/jump to safety.
So, EP 18 when WKX & ZZS were falling they used their QG to get into position where they could grab Chen Ling & fling him to safety. This would have made it near impossible to save themselves. As they fell they would have been fighting against gravity with NO PHYSICAL objects to assist them to fight off the pull. This is why they fell and COULDN’T fly out of it. Also, while they were in the zombie/drugged men pit, one of the reasons they couldn’t just fly out was because both of them has SUFFERED INTERNAL QI DAMAGE. ZZS was already low on qi, and WKX had taken significant damage as he fell. So, I doubt both of them had enough Qi to propel themselves up to the outcrop where what’s his name was sitting in his wheelchair.
I have already mentioned some of them in the above.
- The two endings you usually get for wuxia stories/heroes are:
- They, their beloved and their friends achieves their revenge and leave everything behind to travel Jianghu together, spending their life carefree and in love. NOTE: This was ZHOU ZISHU’S DREAM. Live what he has left of his life free with his zhiji.
- The hero defeats the villain, achieves their revenge but is left alone, having lost their loved ones through death. The hero will travel through Jianghu alone righting wrongs. Let's all admit it this is a bit of a downer. But it's 50/50 which ending it'll be. And for several minutes, this was the ending that EVERYONE thought Zhou Zishu was left with.
- Part of wuxia is the romantic ideal of finding your zhiji, often a person of the same sex who shares the same views and thoughts as you. But none of the romantic/sexual feelings. ALL OF ZZS AND WKX.
- Somebody's hair go all white because 1) tremendous grief/trauma, 2) transferring half or more of their Qi to save another person, or 3) learning a martial arts technique. WKX fulfils the last two points in saving ZZS.
- Previous generations causing most of the pain and trauma for the new generation. THE WHOLE FUCKING SET UP OF THIS DRAMA. And how the new/young generation must deal with the fallout. Debts need to be paid. Debts owed in blood always come back to hunt the main characters.
- Recognising characters based on their martial arts and their weapons. ZZS and his sword, Baiyi, half of the reason he didn’t use the blade was because how recognisable it and also the fact if he pulls out Baiyi he is ready to kill. Chenling recognises ZZS without his mask because of his sword. WKX recognises ZZS because of Four Season Divine Steps in ep 1, which ZZS tried to hide by using the giant umbrella. Everybody recognised WKX due to him using his father/family’s sword technique.
- Your adoptive parents are somehow responsible for the deaths of your parents, whether on purpose/accidents. Chenling, the poor kid.
- A good person being the person responsible for all the bad things; Zhao Jin you shithead.
- CLIFFS, CLIFFS, CLIFFS. NOBODY EVER DIES FROM FALLING OFF A CLIFF. Yang Guo of Return of the Condor Heroes sort of immortalised this concept in the public conscious by falling off a cliff WHILE ONLY HAVING ONE ARM LEFT, and coming back years later MORE POWERFUL THAN EVER. The story was written in the 1950s/60s. So, all you fuckers talking about plagiarism, go fucking educate yourselves. E.G. WKX falling off a cliff and surviving, at least he had time to plan this shit, Yang Guo fricking fell off the cliff with one arm and had to fight a fucking condor. Anyways. NOTE: The only exception is when a CHARACTER CHOOSES TO JUMP OFF A CLIFF to end their own life. It is a choice, often made by characters who has lost everything; family, loved ones etc. HOWEVER, even then sometime fate sucks and they end up living, this usually happens at the beginning of a wuxia series when an adult jumps off a cliff with a baby. The baby will definitely survive, the adult, eh, 50/50. Oh, shit I just realised Untamed used this trope. Oh noes, plagerism. *Eye roll*.
- The TWIRL OF LOVE – A female character will be rescued by her love interest, he will have an arm around her waist as the two stare each other in the eyes as they twirl in the mid-air. There will be music and slow-mo. EVERY WUXIA DRAMA. EVERY ONE. WKX ‘saving’ ZZS from YBY on the bridge.
- The talentless lead who is super slow to learn martial arts, only to find out later he is once in a hundred years talent. See Chenling.
- The good guys/righteous sects being utter shitheads due to greed. See all of Jianghu.
- Weird old people who are super strong rocking up randomly to save the day, teaches our leads some martial arts then fucks off. They often have some super heartbreaking back story, and are wandering around basically waiting to die. See Ye Baiyi.
- Super-duper martial art technique that everyone wants to learn only for it to fuck people up by learning it, or having some super-duper dark secret to the technique. YBY and his Sixth Joined Technique.
- The female lead suffers for the male lead, and won’t tell him how much she is suffering because she loves and wants him to be happy after she dies from poison/devil’s deal/etc. See ZZS.
- If there is a Wulin (martial arts world) conference then it will end in revelations, blood, tears and deaths. Usually all of the above. During these conferences either our heroes are accused of crimes they didn't commit and forced to jump off a cliff, or the bad guy is revealed as the evil dickbag he is. WoH has BOTH scenarios. WKX jumping off a cliff, WKX rocks up, ZJ gets revealed as a dick. Oh, and Gao Chong's death. These are ALL PEAK WUXIA TROPES. (Thanks to Star_Bening for the reminder).
- NAGA reminded me of the following: Anyone who starts and continues to cough is dying; Zhou Zishu whole being.
- Anyone who got hit with qi attack will cough blood irregardless of where they got hit, but worry not, they will likely heal in an instant after an application of healing qi. This happens to Wen Kexing several times, at least two of those times Zhou Zishu transfers healing qi to his; in Puppet Manor.
- Every bad guy wants to be Wulin alliance leader; Zhao Jin, Mo the bastard. Sometime the Wulin Alliance leadership is only a stepping stone for more crazy shit; see Scorpion King and his honestly insane plan to become Emperor one day. More often it is the Imperial Court that send spies and monitors Jianghu.
- There will be some weird, science-defying ailment or affliction that can only be cured by even weirder cure. Don't try to understand it, just accept it (see 7 Nails).
- DUAL CULTIVATION IS A THING! (see ep 36) But usually with a lot less clothes. Youku ripped us off. I just want to add that often Dual Cultivation is basically IMPLIED THEY HAD SEX. Dual cultivation is incredibly intimate, and the few times I remember it happening in wuxia had always been between a man and woman that eventually ends up together, or one of them is obsessed about the other and want to fuck them.
- I have mentioned this in the above, but just wanted to reinforce the idea that ANYTHING CAN BE USED AS A WEAPON in wuxia. As long as they are powered by a martial artist's qi. ZZS fighting off the Lute playing assassin by playing the flute; he is channeling his qi through the flute to cancel out the effects of the assassin's qi that has been amplified and changed via the lute. Both of them are exerting their qi on the physical environment and people. The Lute affects people's minds, forces them to hurt themselves and rush into danger. Both WKX and ZZS weren't effected because their internal qi is vast and larger than the lute player. WKX using his fan to kill; his fan is just a normal fan (as far as I know), he is able to kill with it because he is channeling his qi into it, reinforcing it so that it is stronger/sharper. At one point ZZS also used water to fight off the Beggars' Sect, he was using qi to amplify the strength of water.
- There is a million poisons in Jianghu created by a tonne of sects; they range from knocking somebody out to instant death to prolonged suffering to aphrodisiac to hallucinogenics. Basically there is no poison/drug that Jianghu doesn't have. The antidote can be something general or very specific.
- Wards that confuse people on entry is a thing. This can be done via building structures that confuses the sense or they use of drugs. The temple that WKX and ZZS stumbles across in ep 5 has a ward in the form of the hallucinogenic incense. Puppet Manor is built to confuse people. Four Seasons Manor doesn't confuse the sense but they have their own protection in the form of automated defenses.
- Thin/sheer veils are traditionally worn by beautiful women to entice. i CANNOT believe the show had ZZS and WKX wear them!!!
- Losing a limb; an arm or leg just means you will be more kickass. Old lady of the Matcha CP had lost her right arm, but she was still fucking kickass.
That’s all I can think of for now. I will add to this as I remember more.
I just don’t want this thing to go over 3k!. I'm going to be adding to this a lot.