If you had to sum it up in just a few words, I suppose you would call the stories in the wuxia genre Chinese, historical, martial arts epics. It’s almost the Chinese version of a western but, instead of the rough-around-the-edges, drifter with a gun that blows into town in the American west of the 19th century to clean up the place the hard way, it’s a lone, often lowly-born, wushu warrior in pre-modern China. Plus, there is normally an element mystery.
It’s actually got a pretty complex and storied history, so rather than attempting to explain it further, I’m going to hand it over to Chinese-born romance author, Sherry Thomas…
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The Chinese enjoy a long literary tradition of stories dealing with crime and punishment. Often those stories have for a protagonist an incorruptible magistrate – not that easy to find, it would seem, in the imperial bureaucratic system, and therefore the more heroic for his rarity. The magistrate has a lot of power over his jurisdiction: He is prosecutor, judge, and jury, not to mention the lead detective on the cases that come before him.
Those stories don’t necessarily fit into the whodunit model of the modern detective story. Sometimes the culprit is known at the beginning. Sometimes the major theme of a story is the just and honest magistrate butting heads with powerful and corrupt forces that seek to shield the guilty.
Modern western mysteries were introduced to China late in the nineteenth century and quickly became popular. Chinese readers consumed a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures and Chinese writers produced many detective titles of their own. But after Communist rule was established in the mainland, that output ground to a halt, since it seemed to serve no “revolutionary” purposes.
Outside the Communist sphere, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, mystery writers continued apace. But mystery writers weren’t the only ones to adopt and adapt the formula: Some of the most widely read mysteries written in the Chinese language were, in fact, martial arts epics.
Collectively known as wuxia, martial arts epics are some of the most popular genre books in the modern Sinosphere. They feature heroes and heroines who are adept in the various disciplines of martial arts, and portray grand dramas set against something of an alternate society, in which characters belong to myriad lineages of martial training and often find themselves involved in blood feuds dating back generations.
Classical wuxia novels were more likely to be straightforward accounts of itinerant heroics. But the most influential writers of the modern era delight in incorporating mystery elements. Sometimes it is done as a partial plot arc, such as when the clever heroine of Legends of the Condor Heroes, a work comparable to The Lord of the Rings in its reach and influence, figures the true murderers of her fiancé’s masters. Sometimes it is the entire plot: Long before I knew what a locked-room mystery was, I had read one, about how a roomful of great martial arts masters, on seclusion to take their skills to the next level, were all found dead when the doors to the hall were at last thrust open.
Mystery novels aren’t just about solving the puzzle; they are also about seeing justice served. Classical western detective fiction usually did not deal with the portion of the legal process that would actually see the culprits punished; the implicit assumption was that, with means, motive, opportunity so clearly laid out, often with a confession to boot, the system would work as it should. (Agatha Christie sometimes liked to have the murderers commit suicide, just to be sure.)
But such a legal system does not exist in the parallel universe that is the martial world in wuxia novels. The revelation of guilt, therefore, is often followed by a battle royale, from which our heroes emerge victorious, and the villains are disposed of extra-judiciously, but justly, a solution that suits the ethos of wuxia literature, with its emphasis on a system of honor, rather than a system of laws.
The funny thing is, I had devoured all the wuxia novels I could lay my hands on in my adolescence, never once realizing that they were, in fact, a melding of eastern and western storytelling. It was only later, when I read more about the development of modern wuxia, that I learned its highest practitioners had made the deliberate choice to fuse the structure of detective fiction onto the age-old setting of the martial world.
All I can say, looking back at my voracious reading of yesteryear, is that as an artistic choice, it totally worked!