Xia 侠 stories are one of the major heroic traditions in Chinese literature. With tales of swordsmen and cultivators stretching back as far as 100 BCE in China. Today, it’s probably best known around the world through kungfu movies, and more recently, the 20th century wuxia novels of writers such as Jin Yong and Gu Long have become popular again.
In China itself, the tradition has never stopped evolving, and there has recently been an amazing output of vibrant CDramas on streaming sites, adapted from the current slew of exciting web novels. It’s interesting to see how modern living, and preoccupations have shaped this classic storytelling tradition, and I thought it would be fun to look at how this new generation of Xia authors and directors are developing new tropes, both visual and thematic, with a bingo card (at the bottom of the article) to help you navigate through the complex and ever-changing universe of wuxia, xianxia and any other branches of this dynamic genre.
If you’re starting a new series, I would love to hear from you how many of these you spot. And if you get a full house? How soon in the series you found yourself stamping the final square! I look forward to seeing your completed bingo cards over on Twitter. Just be sure to tag @xuetingni, so I can find them!
Poisons, blocked qi, and fatal diseases have always ben a staple of classic Xia stories, usually linked to forbidden kung fu or assassin clans, but those black veins on the lower face, neck and hands that look so cool in series such as The Untamed and Word of Honour, are very much a trope of the new Xia. With influences ranging from zombie films, rock videos, and even the arvel antihero Venom, the black vein look, is achieved with a mix of simple CGI and skilled on-set make-up artists, and is a great visual sign of some formidable evil or poison “crawwwwlling in my veeeiiinnnss”
The Woman in Red
Whilst a red dress on our heroine used to be saved for a marriage scene (usually short lived, and used to give male characters further motivation), the modern trope of The Woman in Red seems to stem from the idea of The Woman in White. A cornerstone of Chinese Gothic, the white clad woman is frequently an ethereal presence untainted by worldly affairs, a ghostly figure swooping down on whoever disturbs her hermetic mountain life, or a sickly pale, half-crazed figure, isolated in the deepest and darkest of prisons. Ultimately, it’s a fantasy female in need of rescuing or wooing, whilst her new companion, the Woman in Red, is a model of Vitality. Equally beautiful, and far more corporeally present, she is an independent, razor-focused individual, with kickass moves and her own set of goals. She is certainly not the bride, though she’ll gain the attention and adoration of both sexes.
The CGI Animal Companion
The CGI techniques means productions no longer have to rely on actors in giant feathery mascot suits, trying to act with the dignity that Jing Yong’s words infused into his condors. Whilst the actual implementation of the CGI can vary wildly from show to show, almost every C-Drama fantasy now features some sort of small furry animal. Whether talking mouse, a poisonous pet snake, a soaring eagle, or more fantastical creatures of China’s rich mythology, they are often accompanied by the message, 出场动物为CG所制 (the animal within shot is produced by CG), thanks to China’s legislation against Deep Fake productions, and for animal welfare. Whether they actually add anything to the show is up for debate, but they certainly give merch manufacturers something to present on keychains and notebooks.
The Masked Villain
Over the course of the pandemic, it has come to light that the Chinese are no stranger to masks. The lower face coverings have always reminded me of those worn by cike (assassins) and thieves, and otherwise recognisable protagonists, their common purpose, keeping a low profile. The villains of 3rd Wave Xia, however, seem to be favouring the Western moulded, decorated masks that cover the top half of the face, leaving their high cheekbones and pretty lips visible. This is certainly a sign that this generation of writers and designers have grown up watching the masked bishi of anime, especially, when we see set vignettes of those masks being broken, or sliced apart by a sword, leaving a single trickle of crimson gore, and revealing the villain’s beautiful face, or shocking identity.
Spitting blood is another staple of classic Xia. Some talented elder would poke their opponent in a few key points, sending them reeling back and letting gobs of bright red stage blood fall from their mouth to indicate a shocking internal injury, which far outweighs the actual impacts we’ve seen. They may even go as far as switching to a dark blood to make it even more ominous. The recent evolution of this fantastic visual effect, has our protagonists spitting blood as a symptom of stress, usually after a great shock, or a (psychological) blow, or even being spurned by angry words from a lover. The dramatic pause, followed by a rapid gush of gore lets us measure the impact of the stress by cubic centilitres. Spitting blood into a handkerchief indicates some level of control, spitting it on the floor, shows at least they have the wherewithal to avoid clothes or furniture, whilst spitting it onto the table? Now that is stressed. I have yet to see a situation where blood is actually spat over the other party, but you have to assume that if we ever get there? The other person probably deserves it.
Thanks to wuxia, everyone in China knows the baoquan salute, the out-stretched fingers of one hand supporting the fist of the other. It’s even available as a WeChat emoji. In classic Xia drama, there was little more than one form of salute, but a lot more historical research, and world building is put into the Xia dramas of today, which distinguish the court and formal salutes from the jianghu gestures. And all these alternative ancient dynastic universes split into many fictional kingdoms, have required a lot of creative imagining, resulting in a multitude of different hand salutes, to denote the different customs between the nations. And why have these forms of greeting become such a fan favourite? Well, beyond them being far easier to recreate than the costumes and courts, they meet a need in a society which is looking for a friendly, respectful way of greeting each other, which isn’t undermined as we dash for the hand sanitizer.
‘He Looks Pretty’
Female to male cross-dressing has been a common trope of classic wuxia, allowing the female character a lot more scope for action in a patriarchal world, and creating comedy of errors as pretty young ladies fall for our heroine, or a strange set of circumstances has them needing to disrobe with a bunch of “other guys”. But more and more often, 3rd Wave Xia stories will tackle cross-dressing in the other direction, as male characters dress up as women. There is a universal base comedy to this, which has relied on the denigration of women, or mocking homosexuality. But here, they are often played straight, and without caricature. Servants who have even assisted in the transformation commenting on how they find their masters quite attractive when dressed this way, which it seems is a sentiment mirrored by the audience. Whilst this is usually shown as a brief disguise, or as part of an undercover plan, occasionally, the authors have gone further, as with Mu Xiaoqiao in Bandits (Legend of Fei). Whilst played by a cis male actor, they dress, speak, bow, and otherwise act entirely female, and whilst their performance borders on camp, they are a respected member of wulin, and no joke is ever made at their expense.
‘Buy Me Snacks’
Meat and alcohol, enjoyed in large amounts, and with reckless abandon, has long been the preferred diet of jianghu, but this has mostly been confined to male characters in the classics. In 3rd Wave Xia stories, where women are no longer the dainty eaters with delicate appetites, new heroines crave meat and drink as much as their male counterparts, often more so, winning drinking competitions against brawlers twice their size. Often, what our heroines consume is limited not so much by their slight forms, but their small coin pouches, and those who reward them for their help with banquets, or even a meal at the local restaurant, often find themselves financially responsible for groaning tables, the contents on which will be all be happily polished off. Food in the Xia world is more than just fuel for the fights. it’s also the language of romance, care giving, camaraderie, affection and longing. And having your protagonist insist their love-interest buy them snacks from the street market, or a meal at the tea house, is a fantastic way to position everyone for a set piece of combat or pursuit.
‘When I Was Little’
One major reason why 3rd Wave Xia dramas have taken the world by storm, is their well-developed characters, and one tool that is seemingly ubiquitous is the main characters’ childhood flashbacks. Whilst we may have seen classic Xia heroes as children, especially in long multi-generational series, it’s the non linear nature of the storytelling which allows the writer to establish a character trait, or weakness, before recounting the cause. This may forgive some crude or callous behaviours, or fill a hero’s silly fear with tragic pathos, but it definitely draws you in, and presents a more complex character. Giving you more to invest in their personalities. More importantly though, don’t they just look adorable as kids?
The Bullet-Time Cheek Graze
There are some moments in the fight scenes of wuxia we have come to expect. An archer firing three arrows at once. An overwhelmed staff wielder swinging round and knocking back a whole circle of attackers. The current explosion of lavish Xia screen adaptations are very much inspired by the films which have come before them, both by Hong Kong New Wave cinema, and the western films which themselves have borrowed from Sinophone cinema. One particular set piece is the slow motion tracking of a throwing knife or saber as it glides towards our hero, only for them to narrowly avoid the blow, losing maybe a lock of hair, a ribbon, or in the worst of cases, suffer just a graze to the cheekbone or jawline, leaving a delicate line of vermilion; indicating not only the power of the opponent, but the yet greater power of the recipient. Long hair flows and hanfu are swept up by the wind, it looks amazing and gives the camera yet another chance to show off the actors’ fantastic beautiful bone structure. Of course, this whole genre of slow motion fighting was extolled by Yuen Woo Ping’s choreography of the Matrix films, but the small cuts to our hero, leaving make-up like scars, draws heavily from film makers like Luc Besson, who favoured the trope to express both the strength, and vulnerability of his heroines.
Considering how many of modern Chinese novels, especially Xia stories, have grown out of apps where readers, digesting stories chapter by chapter, review, comment and promote authors as they like, the idea of clout and social media presence is rather ingrained on a writer’s subconscious. When we see the earliest forms of Chinese storytelling crop-up, in the teahouses of 3rd Wave Xia, it’s fantastic to see our protagonists react to the storyteller’s latest tale as if it were a Weibo post, tipping them when they exaggerate all the best bits, berating them for getting the details wrong, or maybe requesting their favourite adventures be told again, in order to bolster their reputation.
Bad at Girling
China is facing a shakeup of gender conformity, fed by internet access, and the increasing pressures put on both sexes equally. Whist there is still a huge patriarchal expectation for women to also meet domestic and wifely expectations, the explosion of successful female Xia novelists have meant we’re getting to see less stereotyped, more rounded female characters in shows where women are able to break, or often just ignore gender-stereotypes. In fact, we very much see them breaking these on screen, by being bad at sewing, mess up rules of deportment and grace, and much prefer to drink and fight instead. Their often shown openness, lack of airs and graces, and refusal to be cowed by restrictive society, all mark them apart as strong and independent, although, it must be said, that the male protagonists almost always find this ‘charming’ and ‘refreshing’. One day, we shall see our heroine embroiled in a farting competition with soldiers, and we’ll see if the prince finds that charming and refreshing.
What are traditional style rooftops for in Xia stories, except for qinggong chases, and nocturnal rooftop drinking. This is a reflective moment, or the calm before the storm, when the two main characters talk about their dreams and fears. Sometimes it’s courting, but more often than not, they just bond over their sorrows, and a pot of wine, or ten. These quiet moments are definitely far more common in contemporary Xia, definitely allowing the viewer to recover from a fast paced bit of action, or twisting court intrigue, but also for us to engage more with the characters emotionally.
The Piggy Back
There are still some almost puritanical ideals about physical contact in China, which are often misconstrued as disapproval of certain sexualities, but even within heteronormative couplings, the pair will hardly, if ever, touch. It’s why every block as they spar, every accidental meeting of fingers over an item is given such great significance. Chinese story does use acts of care and concern as short hand for tender moments of love. So for example, carrying your lover when they fall, are injured, or too weak to move, allows you to break the social taboo in the historical setting for physical contact between two unrelated people. In more traditional Xia, this used to be the gongzhu bao (“princess hold”), or bridal carry, but now, when the relationships are less defined by gender, it has become the piggy back. Suitable for danmei, or any situation where the passenger may not be significantly smaller than the carrier.
The Angsty Antagonist
Where classic wuxia are very quest orientated, or peppered with procedurally stronger encounters, 3rd Wave Xia stories are a lot more character driven, and a new archetype is emerging. If they were alive in contemporary China, they’d be recognised as a member of the sang subculture. Disillusioned, dejected, and full of angst, this type of antagonist spends much of the show setting themselves in opposition to the protagonist, either by constantly trying to attain their goal before them, or just standing in the way of their progress for the sake of it. Eventually comes the revelation that they are not the villain of the piece, they just wanted to be loved, validated, or given the sweet treats they were denied as a child. They are usually given an opportunity to redeem themselves with some final sacrificial act, which justifies those fans who couldn’t help but be drawn to them. We live in times which are far too complex to separate into our shiny eyed cinnamon roll heroes and beard stroking villains, and whether it’s taking a job at an unsavoury company, or just being overwhelmed beyond care by the news cycle, sometimes we just want someone who represents those grey aspects of modern life.
Warm on the Inside
There was definitely a stereotype, among older xianxia and xianxia stories, of the icy hermit maiden from an all-female clan, or a stone-cold lady assassin raised by the villains. Carried internationally, this has been the route of the ‘Dragon Lady’, but is akin to the 80’s archetype of Ellen Ripley, or Sarah Conner, i.e, characters written by men, with male attributes, but then cast female. This trope has translated into the disciplined, reserved and taciturn character, who joins the cool and aloof male hero as the most badass, most determined players in the story. Where classic xia would sing the virtues and steadfastness of these, their character development would be practically nil. It may be an overused idea of “the grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one”, but seeing these cardboard cut-out martial arts masters melt with a torrent of pent-up passion and learn to express their feelings in the 3rd Wave Xia stories, is a wonderful experience, especially when it comes with a good dose of humility, embarrassment, and very human failings.
Different Kind Of Strength
In the worlds of Jin Yong and Gu Long, worth is the product of martial arts mastery, and perhaps the kind soul with which it is employed. Whilst there may be a favourable word said for someone who also knows about medicinal herbs, the power is measured along a single axis. One of the most interesting elements of 3rd Wave Xia, is that apart from the often now female hero, whose kungfu skills match their wits, daring and defiance, there is often a supporting protagonist whose strength does not rely on fighting. Sometimes it’s diplomacy they excel in, or statecraft, and other times, it’s deduction or scholarship. Someone needs to gather, transcribe and study all these different fist, palm, saber and sword techniques for posterity to understand them, or pick up the small clues and hints passed over during the epic battles. These characters’ genders usually match that of the main hero, allowing them to stand on an equal footing, without the martial prowess. This is a very positive message for a female audience, that their value does not have to be tested by ‘masculine’ scales, but that message can be even more valuable to a male audience.
Sickly Male Hero
A definite trait among 3rd Wave Xia, is to limit the strength of the main male protagonist, either with a chronic illness, or some form of curse or poison which renders them unable to use their kungfu. This provides narrative space for the physically capable female heroine to be the strong one, the powerful fighter, showing that the traditionally male role of the saviour is intrinsically non-gendered. These days, the rare flora and fauna, usually in some unreachable storm-wrapped cliff top, which serves as a McGuffin, is now painstakingly tracked down by the heroine, rather than the hero of the older narratives. It also allows the male sufferer some time for contemplation. Either in reassessing their true strength, or in appreciating the vulnerability of those who can’t slap swords and arrows out of the way.
Along with childhood versions of the main cast, contemporary Xia narratives are not afraid to add children to their main cast. A young orphan boy, running round after our hero, calling them big sister or brother, that they can take under their wing and protect. When this is a female fighter, it’s an opportunity for them to still show a more traditional caring role without being the traditional dour authoritative figure. Male protagonists presented with a young child, are often given the space to be reflective, light hearted, or otherwise shown to be more emotionally available than the standard fare of conflict and intrigue would allow them to be. Jianghu is a place where you can make your own family.
Entitled Second Stringer
There is nothing quite like opposition from within for creating dramatic tension, especially when it leads to an ambush from both directions. Whilst a rival is common to all kinds of stories, this concept, of someone who either the court structure, or clan heirarchy has marked as a superior compared to our unconventional xiake heroes who excel in spite of this, are left with a grudge which we as an audience are just waiting to explode into active hostility. Sometimes these can be childhood friends who feel the hero to be getting preferential treatment, sometimes it can be rightful heirs who feel cheated out of their inheritance by the adopted child, or the lead disciple bested by his more powerful female counterpart. It usually comes down to a conflict of societal order versus personal worth, and honestly, the fact that one of the most popular genres of web novel and TV entertainment is favouring the self, is a massive key change in Chinese thinking.
More Than Friends
As a space in which social norms are often turned on their heads, Xia literature has been no stranger to queerness, or at least, gender fluidity. Both the wealth of contemporary danmei, and vignettes involving female cross-dressers have certainly broken the visual taboo of same sex romance on screen. More and more, Xia stories are beginning to explore queerness in nuanced ways, allowing for more diverse physical appearance, and by suggesting there is more than mere friendship and sisterhood in female relationships.
The Secret Network
Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the internet, or just generally the value put on learning and information in the modern age, but amidst the intrigue of jianghu, the most important allies you can make are those whose information networks reach where you yourself could never go. Whether this is a clan of merchants and beggars who go about generally unobserved, or a special branch of the palace guard trained in espionage, it seems that whilst classic Xia heroes were happy to stay aloof from worldly concerns, today’s clan leaders and heroes need to know everything that’s going on in the world at large.
Healing From Trauma
With far more non-male novelists at the helm, the current crop of Xia stories have struggles being represented beyond clashing blades, and male characters are shown dealing with terrible experiences of their earlier lives, not by going on a vengeance-fuelled killing spree, but working through the trauma, and coming to terms with it. Our heroes are shedding tears and expressing their feelings in C-Drama like never before, and certainly more than China’s male population do in real life. There has been a huge key change in media portrayal of male feelings in China, and whilst there’s been the obvious push back by those who see it as ‘demasculating’, these heroes are conquering monsters even Pu Songling would be scared of writing about.
In the old world of wuxia, kungfu techniques are nearly always acquired after many years of training, practice, and qi cultivation, and even then, it’s after careful study and rumination. Whether it’s a sign of an impatient generation, or just that training montages are a little old hat, or assumed as a given, 3rd Wave Xia often finds quick ways of levelling up some of its characters. This new power could come from the transfer of qi from a master, the acquisition of some artefact or medicine, or absorbing the energy of some rare mythical beast. In any case, the much needed skill set are gained with little more effort than downloading an app, though true mastery of the new skill may take some time, and attempts to fast track your way to a power greater than you can handle is a sure fire way to end up as a mad, raving villain.
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