Thursday, 8 May 2014

#talk 13: An Introduction to Ancient C-Novel Genres

   I've been wanting to write a short introductory entry about the various Ancient C-Novel Genres and some traditional chinese concepts that may not always be easy to translate. I thought this would also be useful for non-chinese readers who would like to recognise commonly used chinese phrases. 

  As a disclaimer, all these are just my personal views and based on my understanding of chinese, I welcome comments from others if they have other opinions to add! :) 

   The C-Novels we usually discuss about belong to the category called "言情" (Yan Qing), so "言" (yan) means speech and words and "情" (qing) means emotions and feelings, usually indicating romance. So "言情" is basically the romance section! Haha. In chinese, when we talk about romancing someone, there's a commonly used phrase "谈情说爱" (which indicates courtship, the romancing process, literally it means to discuss about feelings and talk about love). When someone asks you about who you are dating, they will usually ask, "你在和谁谈恋爱呢?" The key chinese words here are "谈恋爱" which is literally talking about love. So in chinese, talking about love = dating = 言情 (Yan Qing). 

   In "言情", there's two main sub-categories, basically modern "现代" (xian dai) and ancient "古代" (gu dai). "代" (dai) in this context means era. "现" (xian) means now, so "现代" (xian dai) means modern times. "古" (gu) means old/ancient/classic, hence "古代" (gu dai) means ancient times or classical chinese times. 

  Have I given you a headache? In Singapore, many youths flee from Chinese because it's often taught by rote memorisation. Most youths will tell you, "I know the chinese word, but I cannot write it". Haha. It's pretty hard to remember all the characters in the chinese language, but the history of each character is pretty interesting. 

 Anyhow, at onesecondspring, it wasn't a conscious intention at all, but all the translations here belong to "古代" (gu dai), the ancient category. But, even within this sub-category, there are many genres. 

  I thought I would focus on three main ones which basically covers the translations currently on onesecondspring as well.

  First, it's important to try and understand the concept of "侠" (xia). A "侠" (xia) is a hero, a knight, a chivalrous person who is full of honour, goodness and helps the weak. Although it seems to refer to a specific individual, I always liked to think of "侠" (xia) as a honour code, a just way of life and beliefs. 

 So, based on this "侠" (xia) concept, there are two hugely popular genres: "仙侠" (xian xia) (gods/immortal heroes) and "武侠" (wu xia) (martial arts heroes). 

  (i) "仙侠" (Xian Xia) 

   "仙" (xian) basically refers to gods and immortals, hence "仙侠" (xian xia) basically are stories that cover the heavenly and mortal realms - they can be stories between gods, demons, sprites, ghosts and mortals. Famous examples: Tang 7's Three Lifetimes Three Worlds series (Ten Thousand Miles of Peach Blossom, The Pillow Book) and Dian Xian's Heavy Sweetness Ash-Like Frost

   I think Lost You Forever and Once Promised also falls under the "仙侠" (xian xia) genre, although this leans more on the fantasy and mythology side. In these novels, the gods are so much like mortals because it is set in a time where gods still roam on earth, which is quite different from the normal "仙侠" (xian xia) setting where there is a clear demarcation between the Heavenly Realms and the Mortal Realms. 

(ii) "武侠" (Wu Xia)

  "武" (Wu) basically refers to martial arts, hence "武侠" (Wu Xia) refers to stories set in the pugilist world. The most famous example on onesecondspring would be Gentleman Free Floating Cloud, where you have the Central Plains and the Bai Ming Sect (the supposedly "evil" unorthodox sect). Actually, the "武侠" (Wu Xia) genre is bigger than the "言情" (Yan Qing) category and is usually male-dominated. The most famous author would be "金庸" (Jin Yong), most of his works will be considered under this genre. In these stories, you will usually find secret manuals, the search for the most powerful martial arts, the battle for supremacy in the "江湖" (jiang hu - the rivers and lakes which refers to the pugilist world). 
 On a side note, the Ancient Wife Doting Series have characters that seem to easily fit into the "武侠" (Wu Xia) genre, for example you have the highly skilled Long Fei from the Dragon Flies Phoenix Dances as one of the main male leads - but they won't be considered as falling under the pure "武侠" (Wu Xia) genre. So, sometimes novels are a mix of genres and tropes!

(iii) "宫" (Gong) - Palace 

  In all honesty, I do not know if the term "宫" (Gong) is actually used to describe this genre of novels. "宫" (Gong) refers to palace, so I use this as a shorthand for palace politic novels. I generally steer away from this genre of novels, although this is vastly popular and make up the bulk of c-dramas and c-novels. The most common plot would be - guy aims to become Emperor, and the girl (either time-travelling from modern times or a rare genius in her own time) helps the guy fulfill his ambitions. I must say that some of the most famous and arguably best-written c-novels are in this genre, but I have relatively not touched them - because I think they are strewn with heartbreak.

  I think the most popular of this genre would be novels such as Tong Hua's Bu Bu Jing Xin and Fei Wo Si Cun's Eastern Palace. There are many other famous ones, whose names escapes me now, I do plan to read some of the more famous ones and perhaps you will get to see them in reviews. 

   On onesecondspring, I would argue that the Emperor's Strategy is a mix of "武侠" (Wu Xia) and "宫" (Gong). 

 So, here is my brief summary of three popular genres in ancient c-novels! :) Hope this increases your pleasure when reading. Tell me if you have questions about the genres or other types you would like to know more about! I plan to label the c-novels on onesecondspring by genres one day (lol), but I wonder when that one day will be. 


  1. Thanks Decembi. This is very enlighting for non Chinese readers like me.

    1. That's great! So happy to hear this since that was my aim!

  2. If there’s a genre I can’t stand, it’s those harem dramas. They’re filled with horrible, catty women who scheme and fight with one another simply for the love of an emperor. I really hate it
    Male antagonists usually do evil things for the sake of power or revenge. Female antagonists are primarily driven by feelings— whether it’s to gain the love of a man, or to help the man they love. These petty and jealous characters often ruin my enjoyment of a story, which palace/harem novels are usually filled with. Rarely do you ever find a female villain who is a stone-cold, ruthless mastermind with grand ambitions; the sort of person you can respect despite their immoral actions.

    I love historical Chinese settings, but at the same time, I am put-off by it. There weren’t many opportunities for women to gain power aside from their husband or families. I guess this is why my preference leans towards the Wuxia & Xian Xia genre, where female characters can gain empowerment by other means.

    Although my family is Buddhist, they were never devout worshipers and personally, I’m not a religious person at all. I only (vaguely) recall some lessons about the importance of being a charitable and magnanimous person.

    My question is, are the gods within the Xian Xia genre based on any particular religion? The portrayal of these gods sometime surprises me, since they often display the negative aspects of human emotion (lust, jealously, hatred, vindictiveness). It is my understanding that in order to achieve the highest state of enlightenment, one must abandon all worldly desires.

    I’m confused, because in some stories romantic love is considered ‘sinful’. There was this drama I watched back when I was a kid (I don’t recall the title), where two immortals had fallen in love and were banished from the heavens. Through multiple reincarnations, they were unable to regain their immortal status because of their feelings for each other, and because they refused to relinquish that love.

    When I started reading the C-novel translations at SSB, I was initially confused because the gods in these stores were allowed to marry just like regular humans. It’s strange, since most religions preach purity and chastity, yet these gods also keep harems filled with concubines -__- I guess that rule only applies if you’re a woman.

    1. If you like women character that are smart enough to gain power on their own rights, I recommend to read "Both Are Foxes" (both the male and female lead are super-smart), "The King is Here" (the female lead is the King, I didnt read this book though) and "A Lonesome Fragrance Waiting To Be Appreciated"...cant think of any title any more.

    2. S. Zara, I SOOOO agree. I really dislike harem dramas and novels, but this does not only relate to male having lots of women, it also relates to the female lead having lots of men! I generally steer away from novels where every single male falls in love with the girl - that's really no fun at all. Although I see it happening a lot, and even c novels I recommend have that kind of scenarios, I still generally prefer if instead of making every male fall for the female lead, the author works on developing the main couple :)

      I think what you have said is very thought-provoking. It's true that females have lesser freedom in Ancient China, but I think that's part of the attraction for me in the novels too - but there's so many obstacles and tension to overcome - more than just insecurity of whether the perfect male lead loves me too. Hahaha.


      I'm not actually well-versed with chinese mythology, it's really just something I grew up with? Journey to the West (Monkey God haha), Feng Sheng Bang (often translated as The Investiture of the Gods), etc... I don't think the mythology in every single novel tend to gel together although they have the same characters like the Jade Emperor, Er Lang Sheng, Nu Wa... maybe I will write another entry about these gods. To be honest, they are not really treated as part of a religion? They are kind of treated as facts, as something that exist either as history or legends? Some actually have temples and are worshipped, but that's more deity worship? Buddha and Guanyin has a part to play in Chinese mythology as well, but they are often treated with a kind of sacred respect that the other gods don't necessarily get? I find this fascinating too! When I have a better grasp of stuff, I might write an entry on this.

      Yes, I remember tales like The Legend of the Eight Immortals, fairies/immortals get sent down to earth when they fall in love with another immortal. But in some other tales, it's ok for gods to fall in love, they are only not allowed to fall in love with mortals. Hahaha.

    3. I also agree with Fangorn's recommendations, except for "A Lonesome Fragrance Waiting To Be Appreciated" since I have not read that. Though those novels kind of prove S. Zara's point because in Both Are Foxes the female lead needs to pretend to be a male to be empowered and in The King is Here although the female lead is the a Demon King, she runs away because she was being forced into a marriage!

    4. decembi, my recommendations on purely from smart female POV. Not really on female empowerment POV.

      "A Lonesome" actually tells on male and female leads who are both war strategists but on opposite side (country). It is medium length novel.

    5. Hahaha! Yes those female leads are very smart. I keep hearing good things about "A Lonesome". The only reason I have not started is lack of time and a general wariness of politics!

    6. Gyah... if we are talking about smart females, then YOU CANNOT LEAVE OUT JUE MU'ER from 3 Marriages. <3 her. That's probably the only brilliant female character who is NOT caught up with palace politics. I guess I should also throw in Ruan Yan from Tang Dynasty Female Medical Examiner, only because she's a brilliant doctor and ME. It's refreshing to have a time-travelling professional who is calm, cool and collected (as opposed to the hot-blooded female youth). :P

      I've read Lonesome Fragrance, but I'm not really a fan of it. But then again, it has been some years since I've read it so I might just not have a very good memory of it? I think Ping Ting from LF is like a brilliant political strategist, but meh... she's a bit weepy if I remember correctly.

      On Chinese Mythology - hahaha... I LOVE Chinese Mythology. Basically, classics like Journey to the West and a lot of the folktales we grew up with is a mix bag of pantheons. I think most of Chinese mythology developed from our chinese ancestor's pragmatic outlook of, "I would rather worship 100 gods/deities and invite their blessings than to make the wrong bet and invite misfortune." Lol.

    7. Hahahahahah. Unni proclaiming her Jue Mu'er Love. Actually, I would classify her as being part of palace politics ultimately though hahaha.

      Me too! Hahaha yes the chinese mentality of wanting all the blessings! It's been quite thoughtful examining the basis of all these mythology.

  3. GalaxyAngel0078 May 2014 at 19:44

    I'm glad that you made us non-chinese readers understand these genres. I actually saw 'wu xia' genre and got confused what is it's difference with the ancient setting c-novek I'm reading. It turns out that I'm actually a Xian Xia fan. XD I don't like these heartbreaking stories. So thank you for warning us about the Ging genre. I read a really heartbreaking c-novel before my exam because I never thought that it would turn out to be a tragic story. That story broke my heart that I can't focus on studying. Okay, sorry for spouting non sense. Hahahahaha

    1. Me too! My favourite genre is probably the Xian Xia genre, though I now tend to try and find light-hearted wu xia ones, because Xian Xia ones are often bittersweet - everything is so dramatic and "end of the universe" when the characters are gods! Oh no, I hate it when one falls for a story without knowing it's tragic. Hope you feel better now :)

    2. Personally I prefer wu xia ones the most. Maybe because I grew up watching adaptations of JIng Yong's novels, but I absolutely adore Legend of the Condor Heroes. For me Xian Xia has never been a favorite of mine; the thing is, they almost always start out deceptively cute (with people falling in love and/or going on an adventure) but almost always end tragically because of some heavenly rule against the OTP's love or something.

    3. Ahahahah i love your characterisation of xianxia! I agree! In a way, it's why I started writing my own xianxia fiction because I wanted happy endings haha. I really love jing yong too!

  4. Thank you for this post, I've been confused about these terms for a while. :) Based on the little I have managed to read from online translations, I really like xian xia and wuxia novels. I'm wary of palace politics as well, which why I've been hesitant to get into Bu Bu Jing Xin.
    Being a genre nerd, I was also curious about pure fantasy or mythological/horror/any other supernatural element or science fiction c-novels with or without romance as the focus, and with interesting female leads (I'm loving the heroine from Gentleman Free Floating Cloud!). I'd love to get your thoughts on those, as I have no idea where to start looking for recommendations.

    1. Hello Chimera,

      Thanks for your comment! It's actually something I have been thinking about - the pure fantasy and mythological type of novels. I have a few on my reading list but haven't read them yet - one is about pirates and sea sprites! Haha. Can you read chinese? Because you said you read from online translations, so I assume you can't? For c-novels that are translated, hmmm for the pure fantasy aspect... I suppose there's only Lost You Forever, Once Promised, Heavy Sweetness, Hua Xu Yin and the 3L3W series so far? If you can read chinese or don't mind google translating, I can provide you some novels with thse fantasy aspects though most of them I have not read yet. For science fiction, some people like to read Wisely (see this wiki entry:

  5. Thanks Bro. This helps a lot.....

  6. Ohhh. Now everytime bloggers use these genres I'll understand what the novel is about, so thanks :) Also makes it easier to find novels I'll like, haha.
    What about novels involving time travel into the past, but also has martial arts? Like "A mistaken marriage match" series? Would it count as wu xia, and sort of xian xia? o-o?
    I have to say, xian xia is definitely my favorite :D Sansheng, Death Exists Not at the River of Oblivion might just be my favorite from this genre :D I'll never tire from rereading it over and over again, haha. The only sort of problem I have with xian xia is that from what I have read of them, is that they are always so sad ;~; Even if it's a happy ending, there's always some sort of heartbreaker in the novel ^~^;

    1. Dear Becky, glad this entry could help! :) Time travelling novels are usually considered to be their own category. For a mistaken marriage match series, I haven't read any of the novels but from what I can see from the synopsis - some of them might have a bit of palace politics and maybe wu xia, but definitely not xian xia. Fantasy elements are not necessarily xian xia if they don't involve gods significantly.

      Me too! I definitely love xian xia the most <3 They are so unforgettable.

    2. Ohhhk then. That makes more sense, for time-travel to have it's own section :D So if the story doesn't have gods, but mythical creatures, then it still wouldn't count as xian xia, right?

    3. Hmm mythical creatures might fall under xian xia if it mentions some gods, if not it might just be plain fantasy :)

  7. OMG this really helps! actually when i read light novels especially chinese novels, ive never really understood whats the difference between wuxia and xianxia. but now i know :D