Okay, to be precise, they are both sub-genres of a genre with no widely recognized name. Maybe the “‘Stern” genre?
I’ve said for years that wuxia is closer to westerns than any other genre well-known among English speakers, and I’m far from the only person who says this. That’s why some people refer to wuxia as ‘easterns’ (westerns set in East Asia).
The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne defines different genres. According to him, westerns don’t have to be set in North America. They only need a frontier setting with tenuous ‘law and order.’ This describes much of East Asia at various points of history.
What’s a ‘frontier’ setting? Coyne doesn’t define that, but I can.
A ‘frontier’ is the edge between a high-organization society and a low-organization society. High-organization societies are often referred to as ‘civilizations’ and low-organization societies are often referred to as ‘uncivilized’, but those words carry judgments I refuse to make. A high-organization society requires a lot of coordination and trust (or at least compliance) among strangers, whereas in low-organization societies people depend only on people they have personal relationships with and thus coordination between strangers is unnecessary. Technological complexity correlates with high social organization, but a highly organized society can be low-tech, and (in theory at least) a low-organization society can be high-tech (the real life example which comes to mind are indigenous Arctic societies which developed complex technologies to survive in an extreme climate yet still didn’t rely on coordination between strangers before contact with industrialized societies).
A culture can encompass both types of societies. For example, if a group of people from a high-organization society get shipwrecked on an island and lose all contact with outsiders, they will turn into a low-organization society while still keeping the same language and cultural heritage. Likewise, if the government which maintains the regional water and transportation networks collapses, a village which previously belonged to a high-organization society may turn into a de facto low-organization society.
A frontier is an edge between these two types of society.
Everything Coyne says about ‘westerns’ is also true about wuxia. The values in play are subjugation vs. freedom/autonomy, and the key tension is between ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders,’ or between ‘wilderness’ and ‘civilization,’ or between ‘strength’ and ‘weakness.’ The ‘subgenres’ are “Classical” (a stranger with a special talent comes to town), “Vengeance” (exactly what it sounds like), “Transition” (an insider transforms into an outsider), and “Professional” (the protagonist is just doing their job—outside of the rule of law).
Coyne points out that in the middle of the 20th-century, westerns were the iconic genre of the English-speaking world, but now, aside from the most famous classics and the most devoted fans, the genre is dead. The genre of our times is the thriller. Coyne explains why thrillers speak to our age, but he never says why westerns used to rule.
The curious thing is, traditional wuxia flourished in the Chinese-speaking world at around the same time westerns in the English-speaking world. And traditional wuxia went into decline just about when westerns declined among English speakers.
Why would stories about subjugation vs. autonomy storm through Chinese-speaking and English-speaking societies at the same time, then disappear? Political economy can’t explain it, since Chinese-speaking and English-speaking societies had such different political economies in the middle of the 20th century.
Or did they?
Were the political economies more similar that people want to admit?
Or is it not about political economy? Is something even more fundamental than political economy shaping the cultural sensibilities of an era, something which spans East Asia, North America, Oceania, and Western Europe? And maybe other regions?
The next question is, as a person in the 21st century, why do ‘westerns’ appeal to me more than thrillers?