Dem Tiger Flügel geben - 如虎添翼 rú hǔ tiān yì
So what exactly is Wuxia – or better, what is it in this game?
To say it in one sentence: Wuxia is genre depicting Chinese martial arts fighters in a historical setting. In the west, it is by now best known by Wuxia movies, especially after the success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Still, older “Kung Fu”-movies like “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” and “The One-Armed Swordsman” are equally Wuxia. If you have never seen any Chinese (or maybe Korean) martial arts movies, I would highly recommend to do that before playing, just to get a feeling for the action and look of Wuxia.
The genre has its roots in tales about historical events and figures. Famous among those is the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, telling the fall of the Han Dynastie and the battles between three newly emerged nations. The leaders of those nations feature – at least in the fictional version – superhuman abilities. Not only the ability to wield polearms weighting 18 kgs (Guan Yu), but also to invent devices like the repeating crossbow (Zhuge Liang). Those heroes can be considered to be the grandfathers of the modern Wuxia hero.
Modern Wuxia heroes differ in one important aspect: They normally are outsiders of society, outcasts who rely on their martial prowess and inherent virtue to right wrongs and spread justice. Such “Chinese knight-errants” are called “Xiake”. Their home is the “Jianghu” (literally “Rivers and Lakes”), the “underworld” of the Chinese society. In Wuxia stories, not only criminals and other outcasts inhabit the Jianghu, but also the secret societies and brotherhoods of the martial arts world. The reason for the Jianghu is that in many Wuxia stories, things are not right in the ruling dynasty (whichever that might be), e.g. corruption, indifference of the ruling class or dangers from beyond Chinas boundaries such as Mongol or Manchu invaders.
“Water Margins”, which could be considered to be the first full Wuxia novel, includes exactly these themes. Each of the 108 heroes is a man of honour and virtue, whose fall from grace is caused by corrupt or immoral, but influential, people. In the end, their brotherhood becomes strong enough to challenge the empire itself.
The main themes of Wuxia stories are:
- Revenge: Avenging a parent, sibling, friend or mate unjustly slain is probably the most common motivation for a Xiake. Many stories evolve from the question: how far will you go? What will you sacrifice? No, revenge, though often justified, is not necessarily seen as healthy.
- Fellowship: The societies of the Jianghu, e.g. martial arts schools, clans or sworn brotherhoods, are a close-knit fellowship. It is imperative to defend and help your comrades and, in the worst case, sacrifice your life for them. The trouble of divided loyalties can be a great dilemma for Wuxia heroes.
- Protecting the Country: This can be both beneficial and detrimental to the ruling government. If at least the emperor is able and just, Wuxia heroes will go above and beyond to defend the existing dynasty. If it is unjust, the ruling government might face a rebellion led by Wuxia heroes.
- Reputation and honour: If a Xiake looses face, correcting his mistakes or avenging his honour is extremely important. In grimmer tales, like the Water Margins, this can lead to rather drastic measures. Reputation and honour are not necessarily the same. Some Xiake’s whole raison d`être is tied to their reputation: To become “Tian xia di yi”, the first under the heavens, the strongest warrior there is.
- Justice: Justice can stretch from giving steamed buns to begging kids, protecting villages from warlords to toppling corrupt officials – or even the Emperor. More idealistic stories often feature the struggle to uphold justice in a deteriorating society, which, of course, is up to the Wuxia heroes.
- Romance: A popular element of current Wuxia stories, love can be a strong motivation for any Xiake, as well as a great disruptor of other motivations, such as fellowship.
All in all, Wuxia themes are very close to the swashbuckling themes mentioned in S7S. Aren’t fellowship and protecting their king the Three Musketeers main drives? Isn’t Inigo Montoya avenging his father? Yes, but… the flavour is different. While nearly all swashbuckling stories include a lot of comedy, Wuxia tends more to the melodramatic side and offers much grimmer heroes. Witty repartee, a staple of swashbuckling, is nearly non-existent in Wuxia. Same goes for random adventuring: Most Wuxia stories develop from strong inner motivations of their heroes, not from the spirit of adventure.
How grim can Wuxia heroes be? Well, that varies. The outlaws of the “Water Margins” kill their enemies quite horribly (like disembowelling a murderous wife and sacrificing her entrails on her husbands ancestral shrine), but modern stories aren’t as bloody. Many Wuxia TV-shows are much more light-hearted, concentrating on romance and featuring much more humour. Still, even funny characters like the rascal hero in “Chinese Paladin” will turn serious when facing their nemesis. As always, set the dials to decide how grim or light-hearted your game is going to be.
But let’s be honest, the coolest part about Wuxia is the action. Wuxia movies offer lightning fast, acrobatic fights, spiced with some wire fu (or wire works, making actors “fly” with help of steel wires). Martial arts might be the defining, benchmark of Wuxia. In all Wuxia-stories, the power of martial arts is exaggerated. Some only feature devastating punches and kicks, others feature concentrated energy levelling mountains and causing random explosions. The dials of this setting point to the middle: All martial heroes have the fantastic abilities to jump incredible high, float short distances, fight on bamboo stalks and focus their inner energy (see the description of the Wushu forte). On the other hand, they don’t cause random explosions and can’t project energy shields.