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If you’ve been spending a lot of time on social media over the past year, there has likely been a mention of a Chinese drama called The Untamed. The series features rival clans, handsome men in beautiful clothes, and an epic slow-burn relationship that was supposedly subtext, but most people picked it up anyway. Unsurprisingly, the show won over many new fans who then looked for more stories. Some fans tracked down the original novel that served as the inspiration for the series: The Grand Master of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. Others, more interested in the world-forming ideas of sword techniques, political rivalries, and the pursuit of immortality, were concerned with the umbrella genre of wuxia novels.
What are wuxia novels?
Put simply, the wuxia genre tells stories about martial artists and their adventures in an alternative ancient China. Sometimes wuxia stories contain fantastic elements like we see in The Untamed, but often they don’t. For a few cinematic examples of wuxia, think back to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and House of Flying Daggers.
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There are many types of wuxia stories, but certain elements keep repeating themselves. The protagonist typically comes from the lower class. They usually have no social influence, privilege, or power. Wuxia heroes tend to follow a personal code of honor that leads them to fight injustice, overcome injustice, and defeat oppressive and corrupt figures. In fact, much of the conflict these heroes face comes from them bumping heads against established traditions and social mores.
Up until the last decade, film has been the most accessible way of consuming wuxia stories. Nowadays, however, readers find it easier to find wuxia novels and comics to read. Both new and old fans will find official English translations of classic novels. There are even some romance novels that have wuxia elements in them. And of course, many novels in the hugely popular LitRPG genre on Kindle Unlimited are influenced by Wuxia, whether people realize it or not.
Important wuxia terms
Before we dive into some examples of wuxia novels, it may be useful to go over some common terms.
Jianghu: This refers to people in ancient China depicted in wuxia stories living on their hands. Because ancient Chinese society valued education and science, these people often found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder. Guess where Wuxia’s battle heroes live on their fists, where do they belong? You will sometimes see that Jianghu is translated as a variation of the “fighting world”.
Wulin: While the heroes of the Wuxia stories are Jianghu, they are usually also part of Wulin. This is just another way of saying they use martial arts. Another way of thinking about this would be to imagine that these war heroes belong to a loosely connected underground society.
Cultivation: If you’ve seen The Untamed, you’ve seen plenty of references to it. Cultivation refers to the pursuit of immortality and supernatural abilities. If we’re precise, The Untamed and other similar stories don’t fall under the wuxia category. You belong to the Xianxia Genre that is about cultivation and the pursuit of unimaginable power. Wuxia is an alternate story, while Xianxia relies on Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional Chinese medicine to help build the world. Definitions are fuzzy in common usage, so it may be easier to think of Xianxia as the fantasy sibling genre of Wuxia. The two are originally separate categories, but for the purposes of this list, I am including both Wuxia and Xianxia novels.
Read more about the Chinese fantasy and its history.
Classic wuxia novels
A hero born of Jin Yong
We can’t talk about wuxia novels without mentioning Jin Yong. He wasn’t the first wuxia writer, but he was certainly the most famous. Many of his works are still popular today and are among the best Wuxia novels. A Hero Born is the first book in Legends of the Condor Heroes, Yong’s most enduring work. It tells the story of two men who under other circumstances would have been sworn brothers but are now enemies.
The three kingdoms of Luo Guangzhong
The Three Kingdoms, or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms as it is sometimes called, isn’t actually a Wuxia novel. It is a historical novel that was written in the 14th century and is considered one of the four great classical novels of China. As you can see from the title, the book covers the time before and during the era of the Three Kingdoms in China. The reason it sometimes falls into the wuxia category is because it dramatizes and romanticizes the historical figures who played key roles in that period. Readers who like the larger than life scale and characterizations found in Wuxia will want to check out these. You can find more books on China here.
Modern wuxia novels
Nowadays, Chinese genre writers usually serialize their works as web novels. You can imagine continuing the tradition of Jin Yong, whose stories were published in newspapers. While you can find unofficial fan translations, as in the case of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, there are legitimate translations. It is best to support official customizations as this both signals a demand and supports the original creators.
Renegade Immortal by Er Gen.
He Gen is one of the most popular Xianxia writers today. Although he is better known for his later works, I Shall Seal the Heavens and A Will Eternal, I have selected his first work to be included on this list. There is something very appealing about the average person who has to adapt to their situation and work their way up. The cultivation world is not a place where people with mediocre talent are favored. It is, therefore, gratifying to see characters overcome this limitation.
Against the gods through the force of gravity on Mars
If you’ve read Korean web novels or Japanese light novels, Against the Gods has a familiar premise with a twist. A young man dies while protecting a precious item from some enemies. He wakes up in a new body in another world. Do not worry. He still has the item he died for. And like many Japanese light novels, it gathers a harem of women in this new world. While the harem aspects are a polarizing element (to put it lightly), many modern cultivation novels contain it, so I wanted to include a well-known example.
Street Cultivation by Sarah Lin
Wuxia novels usually take place in a different ancient China. But what about modern society? How would battle heroes act against corporations and government agencies? You cannot convince me that the physical skills and cultivation powers of classic wuxia heroes are not sought and marketed. Lins offers a vision of this possibility.
Wuxia fantasy novels
The order of the pure moon reflected in the water by Zen Cho
Given the fantastic elements of the wuxia genre, it has influenced several of today’s fantasy writers. Many readers know Zen Cho for her historical fantasy novels, but this novella adds a fun twist to the classic wuxia story. It presents outsiders, thieves, and sects in a beautifully strange package.
The Empress of Salt and Happiness from Nghi Vo
If Zen Cho’s novella includes classic wuxia tropes, the Empress of Salt and Happiness takes a different route, combining classic wuxia influences and presenting a story of political intrigue and oppression by a maid’s memories while addressing the woman remembered who overthrew an emperor dynasty.
Romance novels with wuxia elements
The hidden blade of Sherry Thomas
If you loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you should try this novella. It depicts a biracial young woman learning martial arts and the young English boy crossing her path. Just one word of caution: be prepared for an emotional roller coaster ride, but if you’re looking for wuxia novels to read after watching The Untamed, you’re probably fine with emotional devastation. This is also a sequel to a full-length romance novel between the two main characters. So don’t let the unsolved ending surprise you.
The sword dancer from Jeannie Lin
Jeannie Lin has written many novels set during the Tang Dynasty, but they are stand-alone and don’t need to be read in the correct order. The classic wuxia protagonist is an outcast whose personal code of honor leads them to act fairly. The sword dancer takes this archetype and puts a woman in this role. And the hero, of course, is the man who was sent to catch them.
Dragon Prince Yuan of Tian Can Tu Dou
Nowadays, most of the wuxia manga, more precisely Manhua, as Chinese comics are called, are published as webtoons. We usually associate webtoons with Korean comics, but that’s no longer true. The term actually encompasses most digital comics, regardless of their country of origin. Many wuxia webtoons are also adaptations of novels. Dragon Prince Yuan is no different. The title character has the mission to settle a score. A hostile country invaded his kingdom, injuring his family and poisoning him. Since the poison also prevents him from cultivating, his resentment is justified. This is a great series if you like main characters who are constantly underrated and see them defy expectations.
Hopefully this selection of wuxia novels gave you a good idea of what is out there. As you can see, you have many options for different genres and approaches. Granted, if you want something exactly like The Untamed, there aren’t many officially translated queer wuxia novels out there yet. Give it time. I expect someone will fill this void in the years to come. If you’re interested in other genres of Chinese novels, here is a list of Chinese science fiction. Or if you have another reading niche that you’d like to suggest, try TBR, Book Riot’s referral service.