"Wuxia" (Part 1): The True Genre of Dragon Ball
Prologue: The Idiot Basics
Wuxia (technically pronounced closer to “woo shya", but often mispronounced by many Westerners as “woo zeeya”): broken down, the Chinese term translates to “Martial Hero”, from the words Wu (meaning martial, warrior, fighter, soldier, etc. popping up obviously as a component of a dizzying array of Chinese martial arts-related terms and phrases, such as this one) and Xia (meaning chivalrous, noble, heroic, etc.)
Basically the name for this genre succinctly captures and summarizes its core-most narrative themes and elements universal to all the stories that it comprises: physical fighters and combatants (trained in various forms of Chinese or otherwise Asian martial arts fighting styles) who hold to or against a particular code of noble principals and ethics. More on the particulars of those ethics later.
Compared to most fiction genres that are still hugely popular globally today, wuxia is old. Oooooooold old-old. Its hard to accurately gauge, but it roughly dates back 2nd or 3rd Century BC (though the term Wuxia itself originates a fair deal later on) putting its origins somewhere approximately within Qin Dynasty China, with the earliest known wuxia tales passed on orally or scrawled on scrolls in the form of archaic poetry.
Poems were the earliest known medium for crafting wuxia myths, but of course it would hardly stop there: over the ensuing millennia, wuxia would find its way into virtually every (and I mean every) storytelling format man has devised, including music, performance art, plays, opera, paintings, novels, comic books, films, television, animation, and video games.
While the genre itself may date back to ancient times, the actual name Wuxia is a much more recent coinage, with the word's origins as a genre-label for martial myths dating back to the 19th Century Qing Dynasty and being retroactively applied to much earlier works by many scholars and historians.
Beyond martial arts and honor codes, the other key ingredient that defines wuxia as a genre is magic and mysticism. What makes a martial arts story a wuxia story goes a fair bit beyond simply depicting heroic figures engaged in standard kung fu battles and rivalries: wuxia stories originated in ancient Chinese myths, folklore, and tall tales. Beyond their honor codes and principals, what also defines a wuxia character is their immensely exaggerated proficiency in supernaturally powerful martial arts fighting styles and techniques.
In the simplest possible terms, Wuxia is the direct Chinese equivalent and counterpart to European Arthurian/Tolkien-esque High Fantasy. No, seriously.
In both genres there are dragons, there are monsters, there is magic, there are beautiful princes and princesses, there are valiant knights (of a sort), there are thuggish barbarians, there are cunning and deceitful thieves and bandits, there are corrupt and power hungry evil warlords, there are ancient and wise old mystics and mentors, there are enigmatically mysterious lone wolf nomads and vagabonds, there are quests and journeys across strange and dangerous lands, the tone is that of grand epic myth, and the setting is generally in a distant, ancient medieval past of kingdoms, swords, and sorcery.
For all the immense cultural differences between them, the absolute rock-bottom core-most essentials are strikingly similar and directly comparable.
Except of course for the fact that European High Fantasy has 100% less characters eating viciously brutal and elegantly swift kung fu kicks to their craniums than Wuxia does. Advantage: Wuxia. :P
There's a hugely, vastly great deal more beyond this of course, but that covers the absolute bare bones basics in a brief, summarized form. We'll try to break down the details and particulars from here on out one step at a time.
And insofar as Dragon Ball and its place within the genre goes? That also gets a fair deal complicated and requires a GREAT deal of historical context about the genre's modern day evolution throughout the past 40 to 50 someodd years to fully comprehend. Which is also a large reason why this thread will also tackle, in fairly broad detail, the modern day media history of the Wuxia genre as it pertains not only to China, but also globally.
Its fair to say though, in short summary, that Dragon Ball is without a doubt an example of a sort of “post-modernist” Wuxia story. That is, a Wuxia story that includes a great deal of modern elements as well as flourishes from other, more contemporary genres (most notably science fiction and space opera). That being said though, its crucially important to note that this contemporary blending of ancient Wuxia lore and narrative with modern day trappings is something that is NOT at all remotely unique to Dragon Ball, nor was Dragon Ball anywhere near where this practice originally began.
Once more, proper historical context for Wuxia's evolution throughout modern day, 20th century media is HUGELY important to understanding how that contemporary growth over many decades had helped inform and shape and lay in place the foundations upon which Dragon Ball would inevitably become built. Which is why chronicling that history (in as concise a manner as I can possibly manage to: this is a GARGANTUANLY DENSE mammoth of a topic unto itself) is so crucially important here within the context of Dragon Ball, as Dragon Ball was the direct beneficiary of many, many, many long years upon years upon years worth of time where the genre's conventions has been first firmly established and then eventually deconstructed and subverted.
Of course since the Dragon Ball manga and anime themselves are of Japanese creation, its also worth pointing out that you won't find much mention of Wuxia under that term in almost an piece of DB media due to it being a Chinese term, not recognized in Japan linguistically. That being said though, the genre DOES very much exist over there (as it does across numerous Asian territories, as well as branching out quite a bit into the Western world) among many countless other media examples since well long before and well far beyond just Dragon Ball: some examples of which might even be already familiar to many of you reading this here.
This of course is due in no small part to Japan's extraordinarily long, long history of quite liberally, *ahem*, “borrowing” a staggeringly countless array of cultural artifacts and folklore directly from China. Wuxia myths and stories being but one among a great, great deal many others.
And as we delve into learning the fundamentals/history of the genre itself, we'll also be taking a look at Dragon Ball's place and standing within the genre as well as maybe dispel a few long-standing misconceptions (held to and perpetuated by even some of the most thoroughly knowledgeable and dedicated amongst the members here) along the way.
Everyone ready? No? Tough shit. Y'all are WAY past overdue for this. Let the training begin.
Chapter 1: Setting, Archetypes, and Tropes
Lets start with the setting of most Wuxia stories, since that's a bit of a specific topic unto itself.
There's actually a set name for it, and its an exceedingly important term to remember and hang onto whenever consuming, examining, or otherwise discussing and thinking about Wuxia in general: Jianghu.
Much like the term Wuxia itself, Jianghu was a word coined a fair bit later on in the genre's lifespan. Its a topic of debate for some, but its generally agreed that the Wuxia epic novel Water Margin (one of the four most singularly important cornerstone works of Chinese literature, three of which are Wuxia, alongside a certain other Wuxia novel by the name of Journey to the West) is the likely progenitor of the word as it applies to the genre in the modern context.
The translation of the word is a bit odd: taken literally it means “Rivers and Lakes”, likely stemming from the typical scenic depiction of the lands featured in Wuxia tales as that of misty mountains overlooking a lush wooded land of dense forests, plains, and... well, rivers and lakes. The word itself has been around for at least over 600 years and pre-dates Water Margin by a bit, but its generally agreed by many that Water Margin helped codify the word's proper context as it pertains to Wuxia as a genre.
Put simply, Jianghu is the catch-all term for the highly idealized, romanticized, and mythologized depiction of ancient Dynastic China that about 90% of all Wuxia stories are traditionally set in. Much in the same way as Middle Earth holds basically the exact same function for the medieval European lands in the similarly genre-codifying works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
As with Middle Earth, the world of Jianghu is very much a mythic fantasy world of grand beautiful kingdoms, regal and elegant royalty, downtrodden simple peasants, ruthless outlaws and thugs, scenic villages with shops, inns, and taverns, vast, treacherous wastelands, hideous wild monsters, curses, ghosts, evil spirits, supernaturally powered mystic artifacts and weapons (well hidden or guarded of course), and skilled warriors of a staggering variety of dispositions and allegiances.
In Jianghu there is always a new conflict on the horizon, be it a massive scale dispute between entire kingdoms, a supernatural uprising of demons from the underworld, a war of philosophical differences between martial arts schools (often resolved by beating each other senseless usually), or a simple, personal blood feud or rivalry between two individual martial artists.
There are always new adventures and journeys unfolding somewhere, be they a young martial arts student's rite of passage, a long cross country training voyage for a seasoned warrior, a quest to find and retrieve a sacred crystal, talisman, sword, dagger, or fighting staff granting the user with immense Chi-infused power, a tireless search for a lost, deadly, forbidden martial arts technique (recorded in written manuals generally, an extremely common Wuxia MacGuffin), a roaring rampage of revenge by an enraged martial artist against the thugs who wronged him/her, or perhaps a massive gathering of warriors for a martial arts fighting tournament.
As the supernatural plays such a vital role in defining the world of Jianghu, ghosts, demons, gods, and other assorted metaphysical beings also play great prominence throughout a great deal of Wuxia fiction. Its not uncommon in fact for characters to frequently cross over into the afterlife/spirit realm, converse with, and even train under various immortal beings, and generally continue about with their journeys/martial arts conflicts there.
TL;DR: Chinese Kung Fu Middle Earth (coined long before Tolkien's great great great grandparents were ever born). That's Jianghu in the simplest nutshell.