"Wuxia" (Part 2): Archetypes and Tropes
This is Part 2 of a multi-part series on Wuxia, the genre that encompasses tropes and themes of popular modern stories such as Dragon Ball. In Part 1, the typical geographical settings of Wuxia stories were defined as Jianghu. 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. Part 2 focuses on the character archetypes of Wuxia. The article continues below.
Chapter 1: Setting, Archetypes, and Tropes (Continued)
In defining the world in which these stories are set, we then must also define the many types of characters who populate it.
Obviously the central conceit of this genre is martial arts (preposterously exaggerated supernatural martial arts, but martial arts just the same), thus a vast majority of wuxia characters and archetypes are made up of various stripes of martial arts masters and students.
With the practice of martial arts being as heavily mythologized and even downright deified as it is in this genre (its not at all uncommon for a master kung fu expert in a Wuxia story to be spoken and thought of as a god), another very important concept to understand in Wuxia fiction is that of the Xia and the Wulin.
Simply speaking, Xia is a term referring to practitioners of the (sometimes literally) godlike forms of martial arts utilized throughout Wuxia fiction, allowing the user to perform awe inspiring feats of physical, mental, and spiritual strength. In most Wuxia tales, the Xia are a highly secretive, underground community of martial arts experts, often made up of a very, very loosely connected network of schools, clans, and sects scattered all across the lands, who typically exist somewhere out on the far flung fringes outside of mainstream society.
By this token the Xia are also defined by their name, taken from the “chivalrous/noble” half of the word Wuxia: they are defined not only by their superhuman level of martial arts mastery, but also by their relationship with various codes of honor and philosophical principals of the martial arts community (that relationship consisting of a lifelong adherence to or rebellion against those principals, depending on the character in question).
Depending on the individual, particular Wuxia story in question, its not unusual for Xia and their abilities to be thought of and dismissed by typical, average peasants, townsfolk, farmers, etc. as little more than played up rumor and gossip. In some stories however, by contrast, they can just as well be depicted as famed, revered (or feared), and well known far and wide. As with anything in a genre this old and dense, it varies a lot from one generation of stories to the next.
The underground, fringe society of supernaturally powerful martial arts practitioners that the Xia make up in itself (complete with all their ethical codes, beliefs, traditions, customs, etc.) is typically referred to commonly as Wulin, which basically means The Martial Arts World, or Martial World.
As noted, the depiction of Xia and the Wulin/Martial World and how it interacts with or is viewed by the rest of mainstream society can vary greatly depending on the individual story being told. Overall, generally speaking however, no matter what their standing (or lack thereof) may be among the general populace of the lands of Jianghu, Xia are almost always depicted in some way or another as existing and operating outside the law and parameters of government, monarchy, or whatever power structure might be in place within the Jianghu world of the story in question.
No matter their “alignment” (in D&D terms) or personalities or quirks, the typical, traditional depiction of the Xia across the vast majority of Wuxia is usually that of outsiders, renegades, and staunch individualists, who when push ultimately comes to shove show little actual regard for traditional laws of the land, acting as though said laws generally do not apply to them.
As their name denotes, they are governed solely by their own martial honor codes and values (or lack thereof in some villainous cases) which they hold as sacred above any other form of power structure. If aligned with a specific martial arts school, then often times the rules and codes of the school and the whims of its masters will take precedent for a Xia well above that of the ruling kingdom or government of the lands.
Apart from their inhuman level of skill and dedication to (or rejection of) a set of rigid warrior's principals, Xia are also notable for their sheer single-minded dedication to perfecting their kung fu training. While some Xia characters can be portrayed as devoting more spare time to individual, non-martial arts related pursuits (ultimately this will vary from character to character and writer to writer, more so particularly in later, more contemporary stories), generally speaking overall, a typical Xia character in a traditional Wuxia story is someone who has forsaken just about close to ALL other aspects of life that do not in any way contribute to the betterment of their skills and the further sharpening of their bodies and minds.
This in turn is another factor that paints Xia as outcasts of society, no matter how heroic their deeds or how noble their intentions: to them their training and their improvement as warriors comes before almost ALL else, even if its at the direct expense of a happy, leisurely life (and it very often is). There is never a time for rest, never a time to set martial arts aside for a higher cause: to them, there IS no possible higher goal in life than total mastery of the martial arts.
There are a wide, vast abundance of classic Wuxia character archetypes that have populated the genre's stories for literally thousands of years.
Very classically there's the Youxia, roughly translated as “roving/wandering force” or “Knight Errant”, essentially the Chinese equivalent of a masterless Samurai or Ronin. A very cliché go-to standby central hero (or at the very least intriguing supporting player), the Youxia are usually (though not necessarily always) lone travelers.
The archetype of the lone traveler
Youxia are often wandering adventurers aimlessly traveling the Jianghu lands in search of new challenges for their fighting skills, new adventures to excite them, new opportunities to test and prove their mettle as warriors, and so forth.
In their backgrounds they can come from virtually anywhere of any social caste. They can be former princes or princesses who ran from their kingdoms, tired and bored of pampered, spoiled lives, they can be former government bureaucrats who'd grown weary of enforcing laws they do not truly believe in (or the children of government stooges rebelling against their families), they could be strong, brave peasants from poor villages who seek fortune for themselves and/or their families or justice for the downtrodden (a fairly common, often used stock type for such characters).
In terms of martial arts training, they could have picked up their skills from a vast ocean of possibilities. They could be formerly devoted students to a particular school who either left it willingly due to philosophical differences or were perhaps driven from it when the school was destroyed by its enemies, or perhaps driven from it due to deceit from a rival student or a bitter falling out with its master. If from a wealthy or privileged background, its not uncommon for them to have picked up their skills from training by a famed master hired by their families to help teach them proper-self defense and discipline.
While regal, dignified warriors with nobility in their roots was a more standard characterization for Youxia in earlier Wuxia tales, later Wuxia stories would more commonly depict many Youxia characters as coming from poorer, often rural regions: a common characterization for these can be that of uncultured, rough and tumble, and naïve to the stuffy, prim and proper ways of larger civilizations. The former depictions tended to offer a more romanticized, loftily admiring frame of view to the character, while the latter would be generally seen as framing the hero as a more down to earth, relatable everyman, particularly to common Chinese peasants with more experience toiling in farms than hobnobbing with wealthy land owners and government VIPs.
Ultimately though the backstory of any given Youxia character is an entirely flexible matter. What ultimately defines them is their current status as a nomadic warrior free of any ties to any particular group or land, with absolutely no allegiance to anyone but their own individual drives and motives, and who are traditionally driven by a strong, unshakable set of personal values tied to their fighting arts (however individual or perhaps even unconventional they may be unto them).
Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre
Youxia are considered among the absolute oldest and earliest of all Wuxia character types, the subjects of some of the very earliest, most antiquated poetry in the genre's entire history. In fact, long before being dubbed Wuxia, most stories within the genre were typically known as Youxia, named for their usual choice of protagonists. As such, examples of Youxia are impossibly vast.
One of the most iconic examples within modern Wuxia fandom is Zhang Wuji, the main protagonist of the (VERY oft adapted) wuxia novelHeaven Sword and Dragon Sabre.
A popular go-to favorite wuxia hero the last several decades, Wuji very much embodies the anti-authoritarian/social outsider aspect of Youxia and Xia in general, in that he's largely defined by his reluctance towards and mistrust of power structures and authority: something which he wrestles with a great deal when he is eventually chosen to become a leader of a martial arts sect himself.
Smiling Proud Wanderer
Another notable Youxia is Linghu Chong, of the Smiling Proud Wanderer series.
An orphan raised in the mountains by a pair of great kung fu masters (one of whom eventually becomes one of his greatest enemies), Chong is the archetypical “rural, spunky, scrappy” Youxia through and through, whose bright, playful energy stands in stark opposition to that of the stoic, reserved Youxia of older myths.
For my generation of Western Wuxia fandom (late 80s/early 90s), Linghu Chong is among the most instantly recognizable and fondly remembered wuxia heroes, embodied most memorably by a very young Jet Li in a pair of Smiling Proud Wanderer film adaptations (The Swordsman) that were insanely popular at the time (and probably were most responsible alongside the Once Upon a Time in China series for Li's pre-Lethal Weapon 4 fame stateside).
Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain
Speaking of my generation of Wuxia fandom, another notable Youxia for me is among my very first growing up: Ting Yin from Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain.
A highly competent, dangerous fighter specializing in guided/homing ki/chi attacks, Ting Yin is decidedly of the more traditionally “serious, aloof” stripe of Youxia, and who has always been memorable to me for his somewhat ambiguous morals and self-doubting nature, making him a very atypical subversion and deconstruction of the more traditional examples of this archetype.
Two of the most ridiculously well known, popular, and often used (and re-used, and re-re-used) characters in a Youxia-like role are taken from actual real life history: Fong Sai-yuk and Wong Fei Hung, two actual historical figures whose martial arts skills and real life exploits/bravery has long ago since earned them near-mythical status in China and the world over.
As fantastical and fantasy-oriented as it is, Wuxia still takes a great deal of its elements and inspirations from real life historical Chinese events and people, and Fong Sai-yuk and Wong Fei Hung are hardly exceptions, being typically given very much the Youxia character-type in a dizzying array of both grounded/realistic as well as fanciful Wuxia embellishments of their deeds and adventures (some of which are among the earliest modern examples). Wong Fei Hung in particular has ran the gamut in terms of his characterization/depiction in these fantasy takes of his exploits, from stern and somber to wildly over the top energetic and humorous (the latter most popularly by none other than Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master films).
Another hugely important and common Wuxia archetype is the Xian. A very loose word whose translation can range anywhere from “enlightened spirit” to “transcendent being” to “immortal saint” to “superhuman”, or even simply “wizard” or “sage”.
Wong Fei Hung
The real life Wong Fei Hung
The archetype of the wise sage
A distinctly Taoist concept (Taoist and Buddhist beliefs and philosophies making up a GIGANTIC chunk of traditional Wuxia lore) Xian are ancient, aged old masters of the martial arts in all its forms and stages: physical, mental, and especially spiritual. Xian are veteran, weathered old warriors who have mastered the mystical aspects of kung fu so thoroughly and so completely that they are no longer considered entirely human anymore, but something more evolved, something closer to the spirit realm than the physical realm.
As such, while Xian are traditionally ancient and heavily aged in physical appearance, they are generally considered ageless and quasi-immortal (living lifetimes of hundreds, if not thousands of years old), their minds and spirits so advanced that their bodies are now able to withstand a great deal of the deteriorating factors of advanced age (allowing them to move just as well as, often far better even, than a young, fit person in their physical prime).
Geniuses at philosophical matters as much as they are at the art of combat, Xian are the elder statesmen of the Wulin/Martial Arts World and the Xia as a whole, and are roughly the closest thing the community has to a “ruling body” of sorts. Xian are of course almost always HIGHLY revered and respected within the Martial Arts community of Xia, whose views and opinions are generally looked upon by younger warriors with the highest of deference.
Often (but not necessarily always) hermetic and solitary by nature, Xian commonly isolate themselves further away from civilization than most other Xia typically tend to, living generally in very remote, hard to reach locations, typically dangerous to even attempt to travel to. This trait can be easily read as further emphasizing their increased detachment and alienation from the rest of normal society as their increased physical and spiritual powers have grown and transformed them so much so as to remove them bit by bit from feeling as if they can relate well with others (though this attribute of course can vary greatly from one characterization to the next).
For Xian who are more sociable and living out in plain view within society however, its a common, well worn stereotype for them to be perceived and written off by the average townsfolk as little more than a crazy old beggar/vagrant spouting laughably nonsense superstitions.
Its also of course extremely common for many Xian to have at one point been Youxia themselves at some point earlier in their lives previously.
The Xian of course is the archetype from which your stereotypical “wise old master/teacher/mentor” figure, at least certainly within kung fu fiction, directly springs from. The direct Japanese equivalent term for this character type is of course... Sennin, a word which ought to be a tad bit familiar to folks here.
Among the most well known examples of a Xian (arguably/possibly the primary inspiration for it) is Zhang Sanfeng. Debatably a real life historical figure (though this is an extremely contested claim due to numerous conflicting accounts), Zhang Sanfeng has nonetheless been used as the Xian archetype countless, countless times to the point of downright embodying it.
A holy man of Taoist principals known in legends for his humility and total absence of ego along with his immense, superhuman martial arts prowess, Sanfeng if the (highly embellished) accounts of his life are to be believed had supposedly lived to well over 200 years of age. Regardless of the highly dubious nature of most historical accounts of his life, the tales and mythos surrounding him has sparked the imagination of countless Wuxia writers and storytellers for countless hundreds of years now. Many stories and legends have him as the creator of the art of Tai Chi as well as an innovator of many internal Chi/Qi/Ki focusing techniques.
Of course as with any archetype or trope, there are definite subversions, and its not at all uncommon to find Xian in Wuxia stories who are anything but noble or benevolent, but rather are corrupt, deranged, and driven mad with vanity and ego by their own power and mastery (or who were possibly already so thoroughly corrupted from the getgo and were driven to acquire such an advanced level of mastery and skill for all the wrong reasons right out the gate). Twisted Xian like this are often considered some of the utmost dangerous opponents and adversaries one can face in a Wuxia story.
Among the most popularly well known “Corrupt/Wicked Xian” examples is of course Bak Mei (or Pai Mei, depending on your dialect of preference) aka “White Eyebrows”. Much like Zhang Sanfeng, Pai Mei was supposedly a real life historical figure of shaky authenticity and dubious accounts.
Once a Shaolin high priest residing in the primary monastery for the entire sect (and supposedly the creator of the Eagle Claw style, one of the most brutal and lethal of all the animal-based Shaolin forms), legend has it that he betrayed the order and helped lead the Qing Dynasty to sack and burn the temple to the ground: an event which wiped out a LARGE percentage of the Shaolin order's best warriors, leaving a mere five to wander the country in search of students to pass their skills on to and someday rebuild the order (thus disseminating many Shaolin techniques and fighting secrets beyond the temple walls). This event is much like Bak Mei/Pai Mei himself in that while its grown incredibly famous and notorious over the centuries, its actual accuracy is subject of debate.
Nonetheless, this story of an attack on the principal Shaolin Temple (lead by a treacherous priest with large white eyebrows) has similarly endured to be used often in countless Wuxia stories and folklore (Water Margin most famously) as a key event in the back history of the (Wuxia-ified) Shaolin Order and among the most horrific atrocities committed against the Wulin in Jianghu.
Pai Mei's key role and participation in this temple raid has likewise painted him permanently as one of the most iconic, famous examples of an evil, amoral Xian in Wuxia fiction. While most prominently depicted to modern audiences in a trilogy of Shaw Bros. films, millennial Western audiences will of course immediately recognize him from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films (where he's portrayed as more or less the same Pai Mei from the Shaw Bros. films).
In Kill Bill, the fact that none other than the mythical Pai Mei himself is used by Bill's Deadly Viper Assassination Squad as their go-to “wise old hermit mentor” is meant to further paint them as a group of villainous fighters, adding an extra layer of amorality to them for Kung Fu fiction-savvy audiences to whom the name Pai Mei immediately conjures sinister connotations.
Another common Wuxia archetype
Another common archetype in Wuxia is that of the Assassin.
Self-explanatory enough, Assassins are martial artists who primarily use their skills as guns for hire, selling their fighting abilities to the highest bidder. Driven by money and greed rather than principals and ethics, Assassins are thus traditionally cast as villainous figures.
Often times the Assassin is vaguely similar to a Youxia (and can possibly be considered something of a dark counterpart to them, depending on the story) in that they are often lone, masterless, and without any particular allegiance to any faction (beyond who pays well); though some later Wuxia stories have posited Assassin characters as belonging to particular martial arts schools who train and dedicate themselves to the business of fighting and killing other warriors (or even non-fighters) for monetary profit, and are thus generally portrayed as thoroughly corrupt compared to other schools (or at the very least a bit more sketchy and shady).
Rarely ever portrayed as having the slightest ounce of honor (making them seen as thoroughly despicable by most other Xia), assassins are often times the underlings for a higher villain of a story, but can sometimes take center stage as the primary antagonist if the vendetta between them and the hero is personal enough or the danger they represent great enough. They can also sometimes show regret for their profession and turn away from it towards a life of righteousness, depending on the story in question.
One of my favorite Wuxia stories about a martial arts clan of Assassins is the Shaw Brothers classic The Avenging Eagle, which focuses on the criminal Iron Boat Gang and their elite kung fu hitmen the 13 Eagles. The Eagles' leader Yo Xi Hung is one of the all time most memorable on-screen martial arts assassins shy only of the great Hwang Jang Lee's many villainous roles; the story pits him against Chik Ming-sing, a remorseful former student and killer of his wishing to make amends for his murderous past with the gang by turning and fighting against them, and Cheuk Yi-fan, a fighter whose family were victims of Chik Ming-sing during his time as a hitman for the Eagles and is reluctantly teaming with him (in spite of Chik's direct part in slaying his loved ones) in order to strike at the deeper heart of the evil responsible for their deaths.
Then of course there are the Monks.
One of the most beloved archetypes
Monks can come from a variety of sects (real-world based, or completely fictional) and are generally among the most unwaveringly focused and dedicated warriors in the Wulin/Martial World even by the usually rigid standards of a common Xia, having literally committed every waking minute possible aspect of their entire lives (down to even their very appearance and banal daily habits) towards nothing more or less than the further sharpening of their bodies, minds, and skills towards the art of fighting.
Monks are even more remote, secretive, and removed from society than most typical Xia, typically spending most of their time holed up in their various temples and temple grounds far from civilization, rarely venturing out into the world unless its for the utmost urgent of matters. Often times however, a Monk character in a Wuxia story can be a “wandering Monk”, who roams freely throughout the Jianghu lands. This could be for any number of reasons: the Monk could have broken free of his sect, his sect/temple could have been wiped out in a battle, or he could be simply on a specific mission requiring a great deal of travel.
Very often, a Monk's principal motives in a Wuxia story will differ greatly from that of a Youxia: Youxia traditionally fight purely for the sake of growing their own skills and for their own personal ideals, whereas Monks much more often tend to have far more broader-ranging motives, usually tied to the will and orders of their temple and its masters. This however doesn't usually apply to Monks who have splintered away from their temples, and there are many former Monks who wander Jianghu and fight more for their own personal reasons, similarly or identically to Youxia.
The two most stereotypically common monastic sects used throughout the vast majority of Wuxia tales are of course the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang (or Wudang, depending on your preferred dialect). The Shaolin were/are of course a real life sect of Buddhist monks, while the Wu-Tang (named for the mountainous regions they often reside in) are a largely fictional one borne of a collection of myths and folktales spanning countless hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Throughout the vast majority of Wuxia fiction that they appear in, the Shaolin and Wu-Tang are posed against one another as mirror opposites, rivals in power and standing throughout the Martial World, and often as adversaries (to varying degrees of acrimony depending on the story). According to lore, the Wu-Tang's origins have them as having long ago splintered from the Shaolin into their own sect. While the Shaolin's beliefs and philosophies stem from Buddhism, the Wu-Tang's stem from Taoism.
In most Wuxia tales, Monks (particularly Wu-Tang) tend to often be masters of some of the most outlandish and flagrantly supernatural of martial arts styles and techniques. Even in a more relatively “grounded” Wuxia story (relative being the operative word here), its not uncommon for the monks, should any appear in the story, to be the ones most outwardly flying around zapping things with their Qi/Ki/Chi energy. This is all relative of course from individual story to individual story as just as many Wuxia tales can have just about every major character of importance capable of displaying such raw power.
In a great many Wuxia stories, monks are enigmatic and often considered “odd” or “impenetrable” in their beliefs and practices even to some of the more outlandish Xia characters (but generally still respected more often than not), and are just as much spiritual/religious figures as they are elite warriors. Traditionally used as supporting characters, many Wuxia stories have also featured monks as the primary narrative focus as well. Needless to say they are also of course usually forces to be reckoned with in a fight.
And of course, like Xian, not all Monks are necessarily of the honorable or noble sort: many Wuxia stories feature individual monks or entire monastic sects who are very much corrupt and wicked in their ways and intentions.
One of my all time favorite Wuxia characters is an example of an evil monk: the insane, renegade Shaolin Monk Huogong Toutuo.
The archetype of the evil monk
Driven mad with greed and lust for power, Huogong stole from his temple a secret manual containing instructions in the mastery of the Solar Stance, a powerful martial arts technique that helps the user greatly increase their focus and output of Ki/Chi/Qi. He spends a large chunk of the story as a fugitive on the run from nearly every faction within the story (who all want from him the manual and the secrets/knowledge of the technique for their own various reasons and uses) and remains remarkably slippery, resilient, and nigh impossible to capture or kill.
Monks of course are very easily and immediately distinguishable visually by their (typically) yellow and red Kasaya robes, shaved heads, dotted incense burns/scars on their foreheads, as well as sometimes carrying Khakkhara staffs (denoting their dual nature as religious/warrior figures), prayer beads, and wearing large, bowl-like Kasa hats.
Also as per their religious aspects, in more horror/spirit/ghost/demon-themed Wuxia stories (of which there are a great, great, great many, enough to establish itself as its own sub-genre of wuxia: “horror-wuxia” if you like) Monks, generally of the Taoist sort, often play the role of Exorcists and demon/ghost hunters, and supply a great deal of knowledge & exposition about the rules and laws of the spirit realm.
A Taoist warrior monk and ghost hunter/exterminator, Yin Chik-ha is the source for a great deal of handy information about the demon world for the (non-fighter/non-martial artist) protagonist Ning Choi-san, as well as acting as Ning's primary protector/combatant when it comes time for the two to navigate the endless void of demonic hordes when they inevitably cross over from the living realm into the spirit world during the climax.
Full disclosure: Monks have generally always been among my absolute all time favorite character types in Wuxia fiction since my earliest exposure to the genre, and the one I most heavily latched onto as a small child, mostly due to their incredible sense of dedication and discipline in their typical depictions.
And speaking of which, another extremely important element to the tapestry of Wuxia is a fairly broad archetype: Demons, Gods, Monsters, and the Supernatural.
As noted earlier, the world of Jianghu (just like many other fantasy worlds) is filled with a vast bestiary of inhuman creatures. This in itself covers a fairly broad range throughout the genre's history: many are mythical beasts and monsters that roam the wilds as animals and can pose natural threats against unsuspecting warriors traversing these magical (and treacherous) lands.
Other creatures are more friendly and can even be tamed and act as useful allies to the heroes.
Apart from wild monsters, there's also the presence of demons, ghosts, and various assorted evil (and benevolent) spirits. These can range wildly from anything to giant Oni-like demons,
or legions of underworld hordes,
hideous shape-changing Hellspawned abominations,
undead Chinese Vampires (Jiangshi), more traditional zombies,
and malevolent spectral entities that can possess mortal beings.
Some are lesser demons who are mindless vehicles of destruction, but others are extremely intelligent, cunning, and powerful Demon Kings/Queens and Generals who take on leadership roles among their clans, often acting as primary villains/antagonists across a great many Wuxia stories.
By extension of these supernatural beings appearing in the physical/mortal world, Wuxia also at times leaves the Earthly plane entirely and wanders into Bangsian fantasy (fantasy fiction set in or otherwise devoted to the afterlife). Numerous Wuxia stories devote their focus towards the heavenly realm...
...and Hellish underworld...
...often with gods and deities, usually from Buddhist or Taoist lore, appearing as characters who interact, directly or otherwise, with Wulin martial arts masters and other denizens of Jianghu.
Thus it is not at all out of the realm of possibility for deceased fighters to find themselves exploring the afterlife and facing otherwordly challenges and adventures there.
Next up, and tying itself in pretty firmly with the previous above two archetypes (Monks and Demons/Monsters/Ghosts/Supernatural Entities), is our next character-type which I'd already briefly touched upon earlier: the Fangxiangshi, otherwise known as Chinese Exorcists or Ghost Hunters.
Ghost Hunter Archetype
The English translation for the Chinese name is notoriously hard to pin down, but it typically tends to be somewhere along the lines of something akin to “one who sees evil/unwanted spirits in all directions”, or many variations thereof.
Exorcists (of the Eastern Buddhist/Taoist sort), like most all other Wuxia archetypes, have a very, very long, dense history in ancient Chinese culture. Often starting their training from the position of common Buddhist monks, the transition into a proper Fangxianshi Exorcist would involve a monk obtaining mystical/shamanic skillsets in their training such as divination, ritualistic spellcasting, and establishing a connection to the spirit realm as a spiritual medium. Such skills of the metaphysical realm would of course often require of the monk heavy training and expertise in cultivating, controlling, and channeling one's inner Ki... no different than any conventional martial artist would for purposes of physical combat.
Most active in real life Dynastic China from roughly 3rd Century BC to 10th Century AD (Han through Tang Dynasties), Fangxianshi were generally used both in the official employ of the Imperial State, or as wandering freelancers traveling from village to village and kingdom to kingdom offering their services: which usually including anything from curing plagues and diseases - ranging from conventional flu and fevers to more serious ailments like malaria - from contaminated buildings (because they were then-believed to be caused by malevolent demons), driving away flesh-devouring spirits from tombs and grave-sites, leading and blessing funeral processions, exorcising evil spirits from individuals believed to be possessed, and so on.
Because of the gigantic overlap in Taoist spiritual beliefs – namely the cultivation and harnessing of spiritual Ki power through rigorous and diligent martial training - between many forms of mystical Buddhist monastic training and the folklore surrounding ancient kung fu martial arts training (including those found within Shaolin sects) that makes up such a gigantic aspect of Wuxia, throughout Wuxia fiction's vast history Fangxianshi characters have shown up as both warriors and sagely mystics time and time again: usually in heroic roles (either as primary focal protagonists, or more often in supporting roles as specialists that the main heroes might consult for assistance with a particularly spirit world-centric problem).
As I briefly mentioned earlier, horror-themed Wuxia makes up its own distinctive subgenre within the broader Wuxia landscape: and typically speaking, its often within ghost, ghoul, and demonically-fixated horror Wuxia where Fangxianshi characters thrive and are found most heavily, particularly as main protagonists, where they generally face off primarily against specters, the undead, the possessed, and so forth more so than rival martial artists (or at least human/living ones :P ).
A Chinese Ghost Story II - the direct sequel to the iconic and groundbreaking original films - introduces Chi Chau, played by Jackie Cheung, a younger and more driven Taoist Exorcist/Ghost Hunter who assists in fending back the demonic forces giving chase against Ning-Choi San and co. after a series of comic misunderstandings.
As should be common enough knowledge, a tremendously great deal of “traditional” Japanese culture is in actuality simply made up of traditional Chinese culture that was directly copied and pasted over - initially by many would-be conquering Japanese armies attempting to invade China throughout history – since many, many, many centuries ago. This includes the Japanese adoption of a gigantic chunk of Chinese superstitious folklore and religious practices (and yes, also includes a great deal of Taoist Wuxia legends and mythology).
Among them was the assimilation of Buddhist and Taoist paranormal occultism (including Fangxianshi practices) into Shintoism and Omnyodo. A Japanese Shinto priest or an Omnyoji (the latter of whom is a practitioner of and expert in Japanese cosmological occultism) often tend to take on the roles directly equivalent to Chinese Fangxianshi within the context of Japanese culture (including within Wuxia-derived Japanese martial arts fantasy stories, or just general Japanese Gothic Horror/Dark Fantasy stories such as Hiroshi Aramata's classic occult epic Teito Monogatari).
While real life Fangxianshi primarily took on the role of shamanic priests for ceremonies, rituals, and last rites, within most Wuxia fiction they are often depicted as every bit as much battle-ready martial arts warriors as any Youxia, Xian, Assassin, traditional Shaolin fighting monk, etc. This is both due to the aforementioned general overlap in Taoist Ki cultivation training between Chinese Exorcists and standard martial arts fighters as well as the fact that fictional Wuxia Fangxianshi tend to be shown doing a helluva lot more actual combat against actual Chinese ghosts, demons, evil entities, and paranormal manifestations than the real life equivalent were ever generally called upon to do (seeing as how such supernatural creatures aren't exactly, y'know, real or anything).
Unlike the other martial arts archetypes in Wuxia however, Fangxianshi also tend to come to fights equipped with all sorts of mystical Buddhist and Taoist weapons (staffs, blades, etc.), blessed totems, and holy talismans, the most instantly recognizable and iconic of which is of course the Taoist Fulu – slips of long paper upon which the Exorcist will scribble mystical/holy incantations with which to summon, banish, or otherwise paralyze/control all manner of monsters, demons, and other undead creatures of the spirit realm or underworld. Otherwise known as Ofuda within the Japanese equivalent Shinto and Omnyodo (which often include prayers toward all kinds of various Shinto Kami).
For an apt Western fiction analogy, Fangxianshi can be seen as the direct Chinese Wuxia Kung Fu Fantasy equivalent to classic Vampire Hunters in European Gothic Horror, such as Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula: experts in the tracking, fighting, subduing, capturing, and killing of all manner of supernatural and paranormal spirits, monsters, and demonic creatures from their respective cultural folklore, using all manner of mythical weapons and weaknesses specific to each breed of ghoul (and in the Chinese Exorcist's case in Wuxia, a heaping helping of mystical kung fu as well).
(Distant cousins from across the globe. Left: Lam Ching-ying as Master Kau, the Taoist priest/exorcist and Jiangshi-slayer in the Mr. Vampire film franchise. Right: Peter Cushing as Abraham Van Helsing in the Hammer Studios Dracula film series.)
Moving starkly away from the more metaphysically supernatural for just a moment, we then have the Scholars.
The Intellectual Archetype
Scholars, unlike the character types listed above, are not martial artists or warriors of any sort at all. Scholars are civilians; and not jut any normal non-combatant, but ones who tend to play a very specific type of role in many Wuxia stories. Sometimes referred to as Wen-Shi (which translates basically to “Scholar Class”), as the name plainly denotes, scholars are intellectuals and bureaucrats, generally often from very wealthy, privileged backgrounds. They have forsaken most forms of physical pursuits in favor of study and acquiring knowledge.
While generally seen as a perfectly fine and noble pursuit unto itself, scholars are traditionally not often portrayed in Wuxia fiction under an especially flattering light. Within the context of the genre, scholars are more often than not portrayed as naïve (i.e. book smart over street smart), pampered, sheltered, cowardly, weak, and easily bullied, cowed, manipulated, and intimidated.
Scholars often play a variety of supporting roles throughout an assortment of Wuxia stories, and are often usually brutally victimized in various ways by the villains/antagonists of the piece. Generally they are there to serve as a marked contrast to the Xia: the Xia are strong, brave, determined, and righteous in all the ways that Wen-Shi are not. A Wen-Shi in a Wuxia story can very well be good hearted and well meaning (or a sniveling little weasel, again depending on the story/writer in question), but ultimately they serve as a cautionary tale of a life without martial discipline being one in the same as a life of perpetual victimhood.
Ironically enough, in real life historical/Dynastic China, the temperamental divide between the real world Wen-Shi and Wu-Shi (warrior class, i.e soldiers and fighters) was far less marked and stark, with actual Chinese soldiers and warriors generally having a greater degree of genuine respect for the knowledge of scholars than is typically portrayed in Wuxia and Chinese fiction in general (where the “aggressive Alpha Male grunt vs passive Beta Male geek” card tends to be played up far more theatrically for dramatic effect).
As with Monks, scholars are also generally easily identifiable visually in a Wuxia tale by their gaudier manner of dress, less flattering physical builds (too skinny/lanky, or too chubby/paunchy), awkward gait and body language, as well as their variety of distinctively shaped hats (which vary depending on the region) denoting them as intellectuals.
We also then have Bandits.
An Archetype of Theives
Bandits are a common problem throughout the lands of Jianghu, and prey upon ragged peasants and the wealthy/royalty alike. Generally more commonly encountered in remote wastelands or mountainous regions (where the law cannot easily get at them) Bandits tend to attack and steal from travelers as they pass through their various territories.
The fighting skill level of a bandit in a Wuxia story can vary greatly anywhere from a completely unskilled punk to a genuine warrior of fair adeptness. Bandits can work alone, or they can be part of a larger clan of thieves carving out their own territory.
Bandits have a very long and storied history as stock villains in Wuxia stories, often as canon fodder or minor obstacles (less commonly though as actual main antagonists). Other Wuxia stories however would also sometimes paint them as anti-heroes, or even full blown allies to the heroes, working on a sort of “Robin Hood”-esque principal (rob from the corrupt, give to the needy).
The noble bandit
A perfect example of a heroic bandit in Wuxia (to the point of being the central protagonist of his own series) is Chu Liuxiang, one of the most famous creations of prolific Wuxia novelist Gu Long, and who has since appeared in countless film and television adaptations based on his literary appearances.
Liuxiang is a classic noble Robin Hood-like bandit, a high-class scoundrel of the underworld with a heart of gold as well as a mysterious past (even his true age isn't really known, nor is the identity of the master who trained him) and a seemingly bottomless network of old friends and acquaintances all across Jianghu who all typically owe him “favors”.
With a houseboat as his traveling base of operations and always involving himself in some new caper, heist, or scheme (often with the ultimate end goal of helping someone), Liuxiang also possesses impeccable martial arts skills and nearly unparallelled Ki/Qi/Chi mastery. Defined by his almost inhuman level of patience and calm, and his overall relaxed nature and perceptive intellect, his signature trademark weapon (to the point of the character single-handedly popularizing it across wider martial arts media and works) is a simple fan which he uses largely defensively rather than for offensive strikes.
Due to his disciplined level of restraint, Liuxiang often only uses his massively powerful repertoire of Ki/Chi/Qi techniques in extremely controlled, subtle, and decidedly non-flashy displays of strength, only RARELY fully cutting loose with the full scope of his power in the most extreme and dire of circumstances.
Another one of the best known examples of a more romanticized/heroic depiction of a bandit in Wuxia is Song Jiang from Water Margin, who lead a band of 36 outlaws (operating largely out of the Liang Mountains) in open rebellion against corrupt imperial forces for the Song Dynasty.
Then there are Soldiers.
Worriors of the Status Quo Archetype
Soldiers are warriors who fight on behalf of the power structure/status quo of the current ruling government/monarchy of Jianghu in a given Wuxia tale. In spite of sometimes (generally in the cases of the more prominent/important characters of this type) possessing superhuman kung fu proficiency comparable to the Xia, Soldiers are in many ways mirror opposites to most Xia. As the Xia often act well outside of Jianghu mainstream society, Soldiers by contrast thoroughly embody and personify it. To put it in a VERY stupidly oversimplified context, if the Xia are the Rebel Alliance, the Soldiers are the Storm Troopers for the Galactic Empire.
In spite of their opposed standing within the Jianghu power structure from that of the Xia, the role of Soldier characters in many Wuxia stories is a fair bit more complex than one might think at first glance. While sometimes playing the expected role of generic villains, grunts, mooks, cannon fodder, secondary/main antagonist etc. many Soldier characters however have also been lent significant complexity and development throughout Wuxia's history.
Its not unusual or uncommon for a Soldier character to feel torn or guilt ridden about their job, and to eventually become a Xia themselves (a very common backstory for a Youxia is that of a disillusioned former Soldier), or at least a reluctant ally/mole on the inside for the principal Xia characters. Also, particularly should a kingdom in question be of the benevolent stripe, Soldiers can also occupy conventionally heroic roles from the outset.
Put another way, Soldiers are warriors in a Wuxia story who are not of the Wulin community, in spite of sometimes perhaps possessing comparable fighting skills; though once again even this can come with its own set of subversions/complications, as there are soldier characters who are sometimes depicted as ALSO being Xia with ties of their own to the Martial Arts World (which can be used to play up their internal conflicted tensions with the lands/kingdoms they fight for: duty to one's kingdom vs honor to one's martial arts school, etc).
One of the most densely complex, and richly layered soldier characters is Jet Li's Nameless Prefect in the 2002 Wuxia epic Hero.
A prefect for an unknown small providence, Li's nameless soldier harbors a secret vendetta against the current emperor of the Qin Dynasty for ordering an attack on his home state which saw the massacre of his family among the casualties. Feigning loyalty to the ruling government while secretly honing his skills on the side in an array of lethal martial arts styles and techniques (including his signature attack “Death at Ten Paces” which allows him to strike an opponent's vital points from a distance) in numerous duals and fights with Xia warriors, the nameless soldier attempts to gain the trust of the Qin emperor by foiling several assassination attempts on him by other Xia fighters who are rebelling against his rule.
Eventually his exploits earn him a face to face with the emperor, who immediately sees through his facade and correctly deduces the prefect's true intentions. They talk, with the nameless prefect recounting his story and the emperor explaining to him his desire to unite the warring states in peace. The prefect becomes overwhelmed with what he sees as the emperor's noble broader intentions in spite of the violence that was inflicted by him along the way towards it, and surrenders himself willingly, renouncing his revenge and agreeing to be executed for his intended assassination, dying a martyr so that the Qin emperor can continue to unite all of the kingdoms under one rule.
The nameless prefect is an incredibly fascinating example of the Soldier archetype, all the more so when considering the broader scope of the genre. He secretly trained himself as a Youxia, fighting in duals amongst the Wulin community and sharpening his fighting skills under the guise of loyalty to the kingdom when in his heart he thinks mainly of himself and his own loss and wishes nothing but to avenge his slain loved ones.
At the start of the story, in spite of still being outwardly in military service, in his heart he is acting as a Youxia through and through with a Youxia's individualistic ideals and sense of justice/vengeance driving him. By the end of his long discussion with the emperor, the loyal soldier in him wins out and he sees the wisdom in the collective and the needs of the many outweighing his own personal needs: he renounces the Xia's values and dies a “hero” for his kingdom and government, like a true soldier.
From the personal vantage point of this unnamed character, his is a heroic end: in his heart of hearts he is a soldier who spent most of his career struggling with an inner conflict brought about by grief and causing him to stray from the collectivist ideals of the state towards the more individualistic values of the Xia. By the end he overcomes his personal crisis and ultimately chooses to be a loyal servant of his kingdom, even if that means his death. This is a Wuxia story told not from the perspective of a Xia, but a Soldier.
A mirror opposite of this character is Yuen Biao's character Ti Ming Chi from Zu: Warrior's of the Magic Mountain.
Ming Chi is a young soldier taking part in a vast war between several rival nations. However Ming Chi is a free spirit at heart and is completely disillusioned with what he sees as the petty bureaucratic squabbling of these giant kingdoms. He seeks adventure and fighting for a cause that he finds more fulfilling... thus he completely forsakes being a soldier and loyalty to his kingdom in favor of pursuing his own path.
In doing so he winds up befriending, traveling with, and fighting alongside the above mentioned Ting Yin, learning mystical kung fu and the ways of the Xia along the way. Ming Chi and Ting Yin are a bit of an odd couple: Ming Chi is youthful, spirited, and filled with idealism, whereas Ting Yin is older, deeply cynical, and world-weary from his many journeys and adventures as a Youxia throughout Jianghu.
In spite of their clashing personalities and many hardships and battles faced along their travels, Ming Chi never experiences the “buyer's remorse” of Jet Li's nameless prefect... when he abandons his life as a soldier in pursuit of life as a Youxia, he remains very much faithful to that path, and he ends the story a stronger and more principled Xia than even his mentor Ting Yin.
Lastly (there's certainly loads more character-types, and sub-types, and sometimes sub-types OF sub-types, but I could be here quite literally forever and ever going through all of them, so I'm trying to keep this as basic-most and broad as I possibly can) there are Warlords.
A Major Villain Archetype
Warlords are VERY often used as major villains in a Wuxia story, and are despotic rulers of corrupt, dystopic kingdoms. Warlords can be non-fighters who are physically weak, but mentally cunning masterminds who have their own throngs of minions to fight for them, or they can be corrupt members of the Wulin themselves who are just as dangerous in a one on one fight as they are seated upon the throne giving orders.
Warlords are as stock a villain-type as it gets in Wuxia, and come in a dizzying array of variants, shapes, and sizes. They can be grand rulers of a vast, powerful kingdom (or kingdoms), or petty tyrants making their way conquering smaller villages and bullying the weaker townships. No matter how great or small of a threat they represent to Jianghu as a whole, they will almost always inevitably come into conflict of some sort with principled Xia, who will fight them either on behalf of the weak whom the Warlord is dominating, or purely for the Xia's own personal reasons.
Probably one of the most currently well known examples of this character type in modern Wuxia is Lord Godless – gotta love that name - from the best selling Chinese manhua (comic books in China, essentially the Chinese equivalent of manga: MUCH more on those later) Fung Wan.
One of the greatest, deadliest martial arts masters in all of Japan, Godless, his family, and his armies travel to the mystical lands of Jianghu from abroad hoping to expand their empire and dominate the Jianghu kingdoms and the Wulin community. In an effort to consolidate his power and hold over the Wulin, he manages to have most of the greatest Xia masters and teachers captured and brutally tortured into swearing their schools'/clans' loyalty and allegiance to him and his rule.
In doing so, he comes into conflict with the series' two primary protagonists, Wind and Cloud, bitter rivals/comrades who happen to be divided on separate journeys at the time of Godless' arrival. Wind crosses paths with Godless first and attempts to master a fighting style utilizing negative/dark Chi/Ki/Qi energies in order to defeat him and protect the Wulin community. Throughout the series Wind was always the patient, level-headed counterpart to Cloud's moody, temperamental hair-trigger, so it is assumed that Wind would have the self-control necessary to be capable of tapping into negative, demonic Ki/Qi/Chi energies without fully plunging into total insanity... which doesn't quite pan out as well as expected.
Godless is an exceptionally powerful warrior, putting him within the class of Warlord-type characters who are more than capable (and indeed, incredibly feared) fighters, requiring the protagonist to risk undergoing dangerous training of an unstable new technique in order to stand up to him... a very common Wuxia narrative trope.
Another example of a Wuxia warlord is Lord Iron Fingers from a childhood favorite of mine, the latter-era Shaw Brothers film Shaolin Prince.
A corrupt member of a royal court who betrays and murders his kingdom's rightful emperor grabbing the throne for himself, Iron Fingers is eventually opposed only by the slain emperor's two young sons who are whisked away as babies from Iron Fingers during his initial treasonous attack by the emperor's loyal bodyguard and are raised separately: one by a trio of clumsy, oafish Shaolin monks, the other by a wealthy prime minister.
They both grow up into capable, powerful Youxia (both exemplifying the two primary contrasting “types” of Youxia: one a naive, cheerful country bumpkin who was raised in seclusion by the three monks, the other a regal, worldly, serious-minded warrior who comes from nobility) and find each other through a series of supernatural/paranormal adventures before teaming up to depose Iron Fingers, whose name comes from his signature fighting weapon: a metal gauntlet with an extended pair of fingers that he uses skillfully in combat for guarding against blades and striking with expert precision at his opponents' most vulnerable points.
Of course not all characters of the Warlord's nature are necessarily leaders of entire Jianghu kingdoms. Wuxia being a martial arts genre, some despotic, megalomaniacal, tyrannical ruler-types in it could also lord their power over martial arts schools, clans, and sects. In fact, should a martial arts school become thoroughly corrupted enough by an evil, wicked master, it could in turn transform into a full blown Cult with fanatically devoted followers and arcane practices of religious-like zealotry.
Villainous Cult Leader
Martial Arts Cults are another common faction in Wuxia and cult leaders can often take on villainous roles very closely similar to that of a Warlord of a whole kingdom or empire. The Sun Moon Holy Cult from The Smiling Proud Wanderer series is a famous example of a martial arts cult in Wuxia and its leader Dongfang Bubai is easily one of the most famous and iconic examples of a villainous Cult Leader in all of Wuxia.
Many years later, the teachings of the corrupt, re-purposed Sunflower manual are passed on to Dongfang Bubai, a devoted warrior whose mind – like that of all the other fighters that have studied the manual's teachings before him – is corrupted by his continued study of its fighting arts. Bubai is so singularly fixated on mastering the manual's skills that he even castrates himself and becomes a eunuch (just as the manual's original author did), a practice that the manual advises will allow the practitioner to dramatically increase their focus and their body's ability to perform many of the techniques more fluidly. Developing an increasingly feminine demeanor as a result of this, Bubai masters the Sunflower manual more thoroughly than any fighter before him, and uses its skills to ascend to leadership of the Sun Moon Holy Cult, defeating its previous leader in the process.
While not also without his more honorable and sympathetic side, Bubai nonetheless is ultimately a villainous figure in the story and transforms the cult into one of the most lethal and feared martial arts sects in all of the Wulin world, inspiring devotion in his followers through despicable cruelty, typically poisoning all of them with toxins that cause them agonizing physical pain that can only be alleviated with medicines that he doles out to them sparingly as rewards for their successes.
For as many different characters and archetypes that populate Jianghu in a given Wuxia story, ultimately most Wuxia stories are ruled over by the honor-bound principals of the Xia (they're basically NAMED for their principals after all). These ethical concepts are often the very backbone upon which most Wuxia narratives are crafted, so with that being the case, let us then look over at Part 3...