Sunday 5 February 2023

Wuxia and xianxia, guest post from Alice Poon

Alice Poon is currently based in Vancouver. After a childhood spent devouring Jin Yong’s wuxia novels, Alice has, over the years, fed herself a steady diet of modern wuxia / xianxia and Chinese history and mythology masterpieces.

Since the release of her two historical Chinese novels, The Green Phoenix and Tales of Ming Courtesans, nostalgia for the magical world of wuxia and xianxia has spurred her to write in the Chinese fantasy genre.

Set in a world of human conflicts, fantastical martial arts, sorcery and celestial magic, Alice’s debut fantasy, The Heavenly Sword, follows a martial maiden’s heartbreaking adventures in her quest for love and justice. The goddess Chang’e is sent to the mortal world to stop the Sky Wolf Zhu Di’s plans to usurp the throne. Reborn as Tang Sai’er, a simple village girl, her celestial mission requires all that Sai’er can give, but in order to protect her family and the village people from the effects of Zhu Di’s brutal civil war, she must also fight a battle against her growing feelings for a member of the evil tyrant’s court. When Sai’er and her allies pit themselves against the wicked new Emperor and other adversaries including the vicious Green Dragon, Sai’er has to enlist the help of immortals. But even with their help, she finds that her dreams are on a collision course with her mission.

You may of course be wondering, what are wuxia and xianxia? Over to Alice…

I write historical and speculative fiction based on Chinese history and mythology. Two of my published historical novels are The Green Phoenix and Tales of Ming Courtesans . Today I will talk about my recently published debut Asian fantasy novel, The Heavenly Sword , which is the first part of a duology called Sword Maiden from the Moon.

The Heavenly Sword is a hybrid of a wuxia story and Chinese mythical legends, set against a major civil war and subsequent rebellions inspired by true historical events that took place in the early Ming dynasty.

At one author interview I was asked what made me decide to branch off from the historical fiction genre to fantasy. Well, I have always been a dabbler in Chinese history thanks to my childhood passion for Jin Yong’s wuxia novels, which all have historical settings, and one of my cherished dreams has been to introduce to Western readers true stories of spirited and resilient Chinese female historical figures. 

Having published two historical novels, I found that while I immensely enjoyed writing them, the stringent requirements of the genre did not allow me enough room to flex my power of imagination, requirements like the need for historical realism, and the rule to adhere to meticulous research. 

Somewhere along the line I began reminiscing on my childhood predilection for Jin Yong’s fantastical wuxia stories and it dawned on me that my love for the wuxia world had not dimmed. The flash of an idea then became the impetus to engage fully with a new writing project, which eventually ended up as a wuxia-myth duology called Sword Maiden from the Moon.

Non-Asian readers, may be unfamiliar with the wuxia genre in Chinese literature, so I’ll try to elaborate a bit on this. Presently in the English-language mainstream book market, the wuxia genre doesn’t exist. If you look at the Amazon book categories, you won’t find such a genre. Books that belong in this genre are mostly categorized under Asian Myth & Legend Fantasy and /or Action & Adventure Fantasy

As for the definition, the wuxia genre is one that is specific to Chinese culture and history that dates back to at least the Tang dynasty (600-900AD). Wuxia fiction typically has three traditional hallmarks: (1) it has ancient historical settings; (2) the main characters are martial artists with superb kung fu skills; (3) the main plot is about violent conflicts. All wuxia fiction shares some or all of these themes: knight-errant righteousness, brotherhood loyalty, resistance to tyrannical regimes, chivalric benevolence and altruistic ideals. 

In the last century, the iconic Hong Kong-based wuxia fiction writer Jin Yong (1924-2018) came to be celebrated as the godfather of modern wuxia fiction, with global sales of his books surpassing 100 million copies and countless multi-media adaptations distributed all over the world. Many from my generation and later generations grew up watching those TV and movie adaptations. There are also more recent TV productions that are as good as, if not better than, the blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  

Recently, his popular Condor Heroes trilogy novels have been or are being translated into English and distributed by mainstream publishers. The translated versions have met with warm reception in the English fiction world, especially among the younger non-Chinese-speaking diasporic communities.

There is also another genre called the xianxia which is similar to wuxia. Xianxia came about as a result of the huge popularity of webnovels written by mainland Chinese writers and of their equally sought-after multi-media adaptations. 

A prominent example is the globally acclaimed action drama series, The Untamed based on the novel Mo Dao Zu Shi written by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, whose works have been translated into English and become bestsellers. Many of these xianxia webnovels writers have been influenced by Jin Yong and his peers. This genre also features super-skilled martial artists in historical settings, but has a slant on Taoist culture aiming at reaching immortality.

Apart from the familiar wuxia tropes, readers can expect to find retold Chinese mythical fables in my novels. Let me talk a little about the Chinese myths that inspired The Heavenly Sword.

The first Chinese myth that inspired the story of Tang Sai’er, protagonist of The Heavenly Sword, is the folk legend of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess. In the novel, Tang Sai’er is the Chang’e incarnate sent by the Deities to impede a tyrant on earth. It is revealed that she had a less than happy relationship with the Lord Archer Hou Yi in their previous mortal lives, and this bears on Sai’er’s coming-of-age story. 

Another Chinese myth that prompted a story within the main story is the fable of Nezha and the Green Dragon of the East Sea, which originates from the Chinese mythology classic Investiture of the Gods. There are a few anime movie adaptations of this well-known fable. In my novel the bitter conflicts between the two are retold, with dramatic implications on Tang Sai’er’s celestial mission.

The worldbuilding of the novel takes readers through the mortal, immortal and demonic realms of Chinese religious beliefs. So I’d just briefly describe the Pantheons that are portrayed in the novel.

The Chinese Pantheons mainly have to do with the two major religions in the Chinese civilization—Buddhism and Taoism. Generally, Buddhist Deities are believed to inhabit the West Pantheon, mainly because Buddhism was imported into China from the far west, while Taoist Deities are taken to reside in the East Pantheon. The supreme leader of all Deities—the Jade Emperor—is said to be the occupant of the Central Pantheon. According to some ancient Chinese legends, the Warrior God Xuan Wu, represented by a black tortoise, rules the North Pantheon, and the Longevity Deity rules the South Pantheon. 

I’d like to stress that wuxia and xianxia stories, as well as mythology, have a great cultural impact in China. I, as an ethnic Chinese writer, fervently wish to see these find a rightful place in world literature. I’m happy to say that the sequel to The Heavenly Sword is a work-in-progress. When I finish writing this sequel, I plan to work on other wuxia-myth projects, because it’s great fun writing in this highly creative genre. Besides, the world needs more wuxia stories and retold Chinese myths!

Details: The Heavenly Sword is published by Earnshaw Books, Hong Kong, in hardback, paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.