Clueless English-Speakers Turn ‘Wuxia’ into a Vampire That Sparkles in Sunlight

The purpose of fiction genres is to help readers to find the stories they want. For example, I like space operas more than murder mysteries. When I’m given a choice between a space opera and a murder mystery, I will choose the space opera without hesitation. If a story is both a murder mystery and a space opera, such as Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold, um, maybe. But if the ‘space opera’ turns out to be a murder mystery set in Virginia in 1965, I’m going to be pissed.

Fictional genres have expectations that are well known to their readers, such as the ‘central love story’ and ‘happily ever after/happily for now’ criteria for ‘romance’ stories. If a ‘romance’ story has a tragic ending, and it’s not a subgenre like ‘tragic romance,’ readers will feel cheated. By contrast, a ‘soap opera’ can put a romantic relationship at the center of the story without an expectation of a happy ending. The key genre expectation of ‘memoirs’ is that the story is true, the key genre expectation of political satire is that it will make fun of politics in a dry way, etc.

Back when this blog started talking about wuxia, the term ‘wuxia’ was pretty much only used by English speakers who had some familiarity with the wuxia classics and thus at least a vague sense of the genre expectations. In intervening years, the term ‘wuxia’ has sprouted among English-speakers in a bad game of telephone where the original understanding of the genre has been garbled.

What are the genre expectations of wuxia anyway? I’d break it down into two expectations. First, the ‘wu’ which means ‘martial.’ In wuxia, some kind of combat will happen. It might be brief, but it will exist and be plot-relevant. The other expectation is the ‘xia’ which basically means there is some kind of jianghu/wulin (without a jianghu/wulin, ‘xia’ or more precisely ‘xiá​yì​’ doesn’t make sense).

When the ‘jianghu/wulin’ is defined loosely, many stories which are not wuxia also meet these core criteria, including some gangster stories, superhero stories, and Fight Club. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese translation of Fight Club uses a lot of wuxia vocabulary. That’s okay, just as it’s okay that some stories which aren’t put on the ‘romance’ bookshelf also center a romance with a happy ending, some books which aren’t memoirs also tell true stories, etc.

Most of the time English speakers who throw around the word ‘wuxia’ are aware of the ‘combat’ criterion (though sometimes they mess up even that). It’s the second criterion they often screw up.

Notice what isn’t in those core expectations of wuxia? Chinese-ness. Since most wuxia stories are in Chinese, they tend to have ethnic Han Chinese characters in China, but neither of those things are genre expectations. Wuxia stories can be set somewhere other than China; the protagonists may not be Han Chinese or Chinese subjects. In all genres, many books written in Chinese have Chinese protagonists and/or Chinese settings. In Chinese language fiction, the default assumption is that the characters/settings are Chinese. If the characters/settings are not Chinese, that needs to be marked, such as by giving them weird non-Chinese names. One could argue Chinese language readers feel that wuxia is more distinctively Chinese than, say, dystopian fiction, but generally the ‘Chinese quality’ is not the feature of wuxia which stands out most. In Chinese language literature/pop culture, everything has a ‘Chinese quality,’ therefore nothing stands out by being ‘Chinese.’

Some English speakers who are spreading bad definitions of wuxia in their game of telephone treat ‘wuxia’ as anything Chinese which has fantasy elements. Um, no. Though wuxia often has light fantasy elements, and can stretch to heavy fantasy elements, fantasy elements are not a core expectation. If an wuxia story violates no law of science as currently understood, I’d still recognize it as wuxia. Combat and the jianghu/wulin do not depend on fantasy elements. Chinese language fiction recognizes various other ‘fantasy’ genres which are not wuxia. When I want to read qihuan (and when I don’t), I’d like it to be labelled as ‘qihuan’, not ‘wuxia,’ thank you. Slapping the ‘wuxia’ label on something just because it’s ‘Chinese’ regardless of whether well-read Chinese speakers would recognize it as wuxia reflects a reductive and, dare I say, ignorant view of Chinese popular culture. That treats ‘Chinese-ness’ as the relevant marker. It’s like saying that something is ‘unique’ just because it’s ‘Chinese.’ If you don’t think something being ‘American’ or ‘British’ makes something unique, please ask yourself why something would be unique just because it’s ‘Chinese.’

Many vampire fans were upset that the vampires in Twilight not only did not weaken in sunlight, they sparkled. They wished Stephenie Meyer had used a word other than ‘vampire.’ I’m not a vampire fan. I don’t care whether vampires weaken or sparkle in sunlight. But I understand why vampire fans find the ‘mislabelling’ irritating. It makes it harder for them to find the fiction they want.

Imagine this. Chinese speakers interpret the ‘Western’ genre to mean ‘any story set in the western United States with guns.’ Therefore, they label The Maltese Falcon, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner, Fifty Shades Darker, and “D” Is for Deadbeat all as ‘Westerns.’ Readers who like Riders of the Purple Sage, The Virginian, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,Lonesome Dove, Shane, etc. have difficulty finding stories like that because the label ‘Western’ no longer points them to what they want. Maybe that thought experiment clarifies why warping the meaning of ‘wuxia’ makes it harder for traditional wuxia fans to find what they want to read.

It’s one thing when random people on the internet warp the meaning of ‘wuxia’ into something different than what wuxia fans have meant by ‘wuxia’ for decades. It’s another thing when an author or publisher does it. If an author or publisher labels a work which doesn’t meet the genre expectations as ‘wuxia,’ that suggests they didn’t bother to research wuxia or connect with traditional wuxia fans. Why should I bother with them?

The proliferation of ‘wuxia’ in English meaning something completely different from the conventional Chinese definition irritates me because it makes it harder for me to find fiction I want. I am close to unilaterally refusing to read ‘wuxia’ in English since so few English-language works labelled as ‘wuxia’ these days fits the core genre expectations of traditional wuxia. Luckily, I can read Chinese.

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