Wuxia is a form of Setting Aesthetics that can be crudely defined as "the Oriental Adventures version of Heroic Fantasy", but this Chinese fantasy genre has traits unique to it and is widely entrenched in Chinese culture. The chief examples of RPGs using this setting are Legends of the Wulin and Feng Shui.
The word "wǔxiá" is a compound composed of the elements wǔ (武, literally "martial", "military", or "armed") and xiá (俠, literally "chivalrous", "vigilante" or "hero"). A martial artist who follows the code of xia is often referred to as a xiákè (俠客, literally "follower of xia") or yóuxiá (遊俠, literally "wandering xia"). In some translations, the martial artist is referred to as a "swordsman" or "swordswoman" even though he or she may not necessarily wield a sword.
The heroes in wuxia fiction typically do not serve a lord, wield military power, or belong to the aristocratic class. They often originate from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. A code of chivalry usually requires wuxia heroes to right and redress wrongs, fight for righteousness, remove oppressors, and bring retribution for past misdeeds. Chinese xia traditions can be compared to martial codes from other cultures such as the Japanese samurai bushidō.
Modern wuxia stories are largely set in ancient or pre-modern China. The historical setting can range from being quite specific and important to the story, to being vaguely-defined, anachronistic, or mainly for use as a backdrop. Elements of fantasy, such as the use of magic powers and appearance of supernatural beings, are common in some wuxia stories but are not a prerequisite of the wuxia genre. However, the martial arts element is a definite part of a wuxia tale, as the characters must know some form of martial arts. Themes of romance are also strongly featured in some wuxia tales.
A typical wuxia story features a young male protagonist who experiences a tragedy – such as the loss of his loved ones – and goes on to undertake several trials and tribulations to learn several forms of martial arts from various fighters. At the end of the story, he emerges as a powerful fighter whom few can equal. He uses his abilities to follow the code of xia and mends the ills of the jianghu. For instance, the opening chapters of some of Jin Yong's works follow a certain pattern: a tragic event occurs, usually one that costs the lives of the newly introduced characters, and then it sets events into motion that will culminate in the primary action of the story.
Other stories use different structures. For instance, the protagonist is denied admission into a martial arts sect. He experiences hardships and trains secretly and waits until there is an opportunity for him to show off his skills and surprise those who initially looked down on him. Some stories feature a mature hero with powerful martial arts abilities confronting an equally powerful antagonist as his nemesis. The plot will gradually meander to a final dramatic showdown between the protagonist and his nemesis. These types of stories were prevalent during the era of anti-Qing revolutionaries.
Certain stories have unique plots, such as those by Gu Long and Huang Yi. Gu Long's works have an element of mystery and are written like detective stories. The protagonist, usually a formidable martial artist and intelligent problem-solver, embarks on a quest to solve a mystery such as a murder case. Huang Yi's stories are blended with science fiction.
Despite these genre-blending elements, wuxia is primarily a historical genre of fiction. Notwithstanding this, wuxia writers openly admit that they are unable to capture the entire history of a course of events and instead choose to structure their stories along the pattern of the protagonist's progression from childhood to adulthood instead. The progression may be symbolic rather than literal, as observed in Jin Yong's The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, where Linghu Chong progresses from childish concerns and dalliances into much more adult ones as his unwavering loyalty repeatedly thrusts him into the rocks of betrayal at the hands of his inhumane master.
The eight common attributes of the xia are listed as benevolence, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth, and desire for glory. Apart from individualism, these characteristics are similar to Confucian values such as ren (仁; "benevolence", "kindness"), zhong (忠; "loyalty"), yong (勇; "courage", "bravery") and yi (義; "righteousness"). The code of xia also emphasises the importance of repaying benefactors after having received deeds of en (恩; "grace", "favour") from others, as well as seeking chou (仇; "vengeance", "revenge") to bring villains to justice. However, the importance of vengeance is controversial, as a number of wuxia works stress Buddhist ideals, which include forgiveness, compassion and a prohibition on killing.
In the jianghu, martial artists are expected to be loyal to their master (Shifu). This gives rise to the formation of several complex trees of master-apprentice relations as well as the various sects such as Shaolin and Wudang. If there are any disputes between fighters, they will choose the honourable way of settling their issues through fighting in duels.
The martial arts in wuxia stories are based on wushu techniques and other real life Chinese martial arts. In wuxia tales, however, the mastery of such skills are highly exaggerated to superhuman levels of achievement and prowess.
The following is a list of skills and abilities a typical fighter in a wuxia story possesses:
- Martial arts (武功): Fighting techniques in a codified sequence called zhaoshi (招式), which are based on real life Chinese martial arts.
- Weapons and objects: Combatants use a wide range of weapons in combat. The most commonly used ones are the dao (broadsword or saber), jian (sword), gun (staff), and qiang (spear). Everyday objects such as abaci, benches, fans, ink brushes, smoking pipes, sewing needles, or various musical instruments, are also used as weapons as well.
- Qinggong: A form of real Chinese martial arts. In wuxia fiction, however, its use is exaggerated to the point that characters can circumvent gravity to fly, cover tremendous distances in a single stride, run across surfaces of water, mount trees, and jump over or scale high walls.
- Neili (内力; lit "internal force" or "internal strength")/Neigong (內功; literally "internal skill" or "internal function"): The ability to build up and cultivate inner energy known as qi and utilise it for attack and defensive purposes. Characters use this energy to attain skills such as superhuman strength, speed, stamina, durability and healing as well as the ability to project energy beams and elemental forces from their bodies.
- Dianxue (點穴; literally "touching acupuncture points"): Characters use various acupuncture techniques to kill, paralyse, immobilise or even manipulate opponents by attacking their acupressure points with their bare hands or weapons. Such techniques can also be used for healing purposes, such as halting excessive bleeding. Real life martial artists do use such techniques to paralyse or stun their opponents, however, their effectiveness is highly exaggerated in wuxia stories.
In wuxia stories, characters attain the above skills and abilities by devoting themselves to years of diligent study and exercise, but can also have such power conferred upon them by a master who transfers his energy to them. The instructions to mastering these skills through training are found in secret manuals known as miji (秘笈). In some stories, specific skills can be learned by spending several years in seclusion with a master or training with a group of fighters.