What Genre is Tian Xia?

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Tianxia is a mash-up of two distinctive subgenres many people consider the same thing, wuxia and more traditional Kung Fu or martial arts drama.

Wuxia is a Chinese term, meaning “wandering warrior” or “knight errant”, that focuses on the trials and tribulations of transient warriors with great skill as they deal with the conflicts in the martial arts world — a violent subculture involving duels, vendettas, survival and prosperity through martial skill. Even political intrigues and similar struggles are framed by conflicts between powerful warriors. Wuxia can usually do incredible things and often have powers and skills that seem superhuman, such as making leaps covering hundreds of feet or knocking volleys of arrows out of the air mid-flight. Good examples of wuxia in media are films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Bride with White Hair, Storm Riders, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and Wuxia.

By contrast, the traditional martial arts drama is usually more grounded. The characters often have powerful fighting skills, but high-flying superpowers and secret martial arts subculture usually gives way to a somewhat more grounded approach. Politics, Kung Fu school rivalries, criminal organizations, and smaller scale interactions feature more prominently in the plots of these stories. Comedy is also more common. The action often favors straight melees and fights over special effects and superheroic stunts, though even with few or no wires or computer graphics the action can still be jaw dropping and seem almost superhuman. Examples of traditional Kung Fu in media are Last Hurrah for Chivalry, Fist of Legend, Five Deadly Venoms, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and pretty much everything Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan ever did.

Of course there is a lot of crossover between these two subgenres, and that is where we find Tianxia. The martial arts action is more like wuxia, it is over the top, and characters are capable of some pretty crazy feats, especially once they gain some skill. On the other hand, the stories revolve around not just the martial arts world and its inhabitants, but also bandits, criminals, spies, corrupt merchants and officials. This means Tianxia characters tend to keep their feet planted more firmly on the ground even when they are punching a mountain in space. This also tends to lead to a very stylized and highly referential feel that mash-up or mixed genre settings sometimes have. Good examples of this mix of over-the-top and down-to-earth are found in Western films like Bunraku and Man With the Iron Fists, as well as Chinese films like Iron Monkey and The Duel.

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