How video games fueled the rise of Chinese fantasy
In 2003, Taiwan-based video game developer Softstar released two sequels to its 1995 hit, The Legend of Sword and Fairy. Although the two sequels were released in the space of a few months, they hardly looked alike. Two-dimensional Legend of the Sword and Fairy II, produced by Softstar’s Taiwan office, stayed true to the first installment wuxia the theme and aesthetics of martial arts, while the three-dimensional sword and fairy legend III, produced by Softstar’s Shanghai subsidiary, had a radically different look based on xianxia, or “chivalrous fantasy”.
Even then, Softstar’s decision to release radically different sequels to an eight-year-old game in such rapid succession was puzzling, but the market verdict was clear: while the wuxia-The second installment on the theme met with a lukewarm popular and critical response, the third installment inspired by high fantasy proved to be extremely popular, selling hundreds of thousands of additional copies and scoring significantly higher on aggregators of reviews like Douban.
The contrasting market performance of these two games has proven to be a turning point in the development of the Chinese video game industry. Over the next two decades, the center of the industry migrated from Taiwan to the mainland, while xianxia fantastic themes have overtaken wuxia martial arts stories like bread and butter industry. Just to give two examples, the hugely popular mobile games Honor of Kings and Onmyoji are both heavily influenced by xianxia. And while wuxia never completely disappeared – this is especially common in representations of Western game studios in East Asia – xianxia dominates the Chinese market – not only in video games, but also in online literature, television and film.
A woman holds a copy of “The Legend of Sword and Fairy III Plus”, 2018. IC
In its early days, the Chinese video game industry was heavily dependent on literary adaptations for both content and stylistic flair. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the best international titles were regularly “given a makeover” with superficial elements taken from the Chinese literary canon. In the 1990s, as Chinese developers gradually shifted from reskins to original games, no literary genre was more popular with Chinese audiences or more widely adapted than wuxia martial arts novels.
Wuxia Literature emerged in its modern form during the Republican era (1912-1949), but it was in the 1950s that it became a cultural phenomenon. Literary masters like Louis Cha, better known as Jin Yong, conceived escape fantasies of righteous warriors who roamed the land, righting wrongs and demanding justice with their martial arts skills. In the early years of the People’s Republic, gender influence was limited to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Chinese diaspora communities, but when the mainland opened up its borders and markets in the 1980s, wuxia novels quickly hit shelves across China. Its popularity was further bolstered by a wave of film, TV, comic book and video game adaptations in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s.
However, even as wuxia culture was reaching new heights of popularity on mainland China, the influence of xianxia began to spread, first online, then gradually into traditional Chinese culture. Xianxia is a kind of cousin of wuxia, both genres tracing their modern roots to Xiang Kairan’s 1923 novel “The Particular Knights Errant of Jianghu”. But at the same time wuxia the writers preferred the down-to-earth and unpretentious styles of classic novels like “Water Margin”, xianxia was more indebted to a different, even older part of the Chinese canon: zhiguai. Literally meaning “recordings of anomalies” or “tales of the strange”, zhiguai Literature originated in the 3rd century AD. Zhiguai – and his descendants, xianxia – told stories and myths of supernatural phenomena that traditional Confucian society preferred to ignore or suppress. In “The Interviews” Confucius explicitly avoids discussions of “extraordinary things”. In zhiguai and xianxia, the extraordinary is everything.
In the late 1990s, Chinese artists and storytellers were mixing elements of xianxia with the “swords and magic” typical of western fantasy novels like the trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” by JRR Tolkien. Relying on Taoist notions such as “self-cultivation” – through which the sages sought immortality and transcendence – they created an alternate and parallel universe, with its own language and logic. The resulting genus, known as xuanhuan, or “mystical fantasy”, represents a continuation of the xianxia gender, and by extension zhiguai.
Yes wuxia novels were usually published in newspapers and magazines, xianxia and xuanhuan literature was mostly shared anonymously online. In the early days of the Internet, online communities were relatively separate from each other, and xianxia and xuanhuan literature has remained niche fandoms. But they found a dedicated following among role-playing fans – themselves largely marginalized. The Legend of Sword and Fairy III may have been the first big xianxia game, but it was followed by another xianxia– a themed sequel in 2007, along with other popular titles like JX Online 3 in 2009 and Swords of Legends in 2010.
Over time, game developers have created a visual language for xianxia separate from the one before wuxia-titles centered. In particular, although xianxia was a very Chinese genre, its mixed origins meant that its fans were more likely to familiarize themselves with Western conventions of fantasy and storytelling than wuxia, which remained relatively esoteric. To cite just one example, the developers drew on Western fantasy and RPG conventions to establish hierarchies of Chinese mythological creatures and their powers, allowing them to organize various spirits and beasts drawn from a disjointed corpus of myths and zhiguai stories in a coherent and universally applicable system.
Because the xianxia the genre is not tied to any specific historical era, designers were also freer to experiment with different styles and looks. For example, the character designs might be inspired by traditional Han Chinese clothing, but the public wouldn’t find it strange that they also incorporated the type of more structured geometric designs common in Western military uniforms. It can be a double-edged sword: while in wuxia, female characters are often capable fighters who dress androgynously, xianxia game developers took inspiration from Japanese anime, comic book and game culture, bending to the male gaze by dressing female characters as little as possible.
A promotional image for the video game “The Legend of Sword and Fairy VII”. By @ 仙剑 奇侠 传 on Weibo
This hybrid style isn’t limited to character design; xianxia the creators generously borrow elements from eastern and western cultures in their construction of the world. Often, it is only in the mortal realm that buildings adhere to Chinese architectural conventions; buildings belonging to practitioners of Taoist “self-cultivation” often resemble baroque cathedrals and gardens.
Today, the meteoric rise of xianxia and xuanhuan is often attributed to online literature, but the work done by game developers to lay the groundwork for its eventual popularity should not be ignored. In 2005, the television adaptation of “The Legend of the Sword and the Fairy” – the very first such adaptation of a video game produced on the Chinese mainland – marked a major milestone in the transition from xianxia from a subculture to a dominant gender.
Meanwhile, unlike wuxia, which has struggled to get bought into overseas markets, the globalized nature of xianxia makes it well suited for national and international audiences. Although it draws on deeply rooted local cultural elements, its liberal appropriation of international cultural markers and storytelling conventions spared it to some extent associations with Chinese nationalism. This is because when developers cannot find suitable visual reference material for elements of the xianxia canon, they often “westernize” it by default.
Xianxia Game developers may never have consciously set out to change China’s cultural landscape, but their hybrid approach to storytelling has revolutionized Chinese pop culture far beyond the game industry. gender reflects how contemporary China is simultaneously rediscovering its national identity and embracing globalization.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: a still image from the 2009 television series “Chinese Paladin 3”, which is adapted from the video game “The Legend of Sword and Fairy III”. De Douban)