What Are the Differences Between Wuxia, Xianxia and Xuanhuan?

Allow me to start with how I fell into the depths of drama addiction. Growing up, my dad would relive his days of reading wuxia novels by marathoning HK serials with me. I was amazed by this fascinating world of swordplay and martial arts that my childhood heroes easily became iconic characters created from Jin Yong’s imagination.

Back then, wuxia series were far from mainstream, yet my guilty pleasure grew far and wide, amassing a sizeable collection that have become too many to count. I usually just lump everything historical under wuxia, but there’s actually different distinctions. Here’s a handy guide if you’re new to the genre. 

Daniel Chan, Ariel Lin and Feng Shao Feng in popular cdrama Lan Ling Wang

Wuxia 武俠

Wuxia is translated literally to “martial hero” with works of renowned authors Jin Yong and Gu Long almost synonymous to the genre and sprouting an endless continuum of remakes and adaptations.

Wuxia is particularly appealing to me because its more “realistic.” It’s about ordinary men and women well-versed in the art of fighting because of their practice of ‘chi’, a word that will surely ring a bell if you like Asian-infused action flicks. ‘Chi’ or ‘qi’ means air. It signifies the life force that allows practitioners to perform all sorts of incredible feats.Of course, people flying in the air is not possible in real life, but wuxia is at least grounded in the practice of martial arts albeit to an exaggerated extent. It is not uncommon to see kung fu manuals in shows like this. There are also different factions and sects mastering their own thing. 

Chivalry is also very much alive and kicking. People could die in the name of honor but I notice that this thinking is not restricted to wuxia but rather spans across most period dramas because apparently, people from the olden days are better versions of ourselves. I’m an old soul.

For newbies, I recommend Lan Ling Wang 蘭陵王 starring Feng Shao Feng, Ariel Lin, Daniel Chan, George Hu and many more. Lan Ling Wang is a beautifully-packaged romance drama with noticeable modern influences.


There’s been some contention on my choice of Lan Ling Wang so let me explain why I chose it. I felt that a nice introductory drama for anyone new would be something still mainstream with a taste of heroes who can “fly.” Lan Ling Wang is actually more of a historical romance though the lead to me, has the qualities of a chivalrous hero. However, the comments are valid is saying that it’s not really wuxia. For that, I say you can’t go wrong with Jin Yong novel adaptations.  

Hu Ge and Crystal Liu Yi Fei in ep1 of Chinese Paladin 1

Xianxia 仙俠

Xianxia is translated literally to “immortal hero.” It is a sub-genre that has been getting a lot of love mainly from younger fans. Since that’s where you make the big bucks, production companies tend to make more and more such dramas that are also star-studded to boot.

Xianxia can encompass anything supernatural with the latest trend being adaptations of role-playing video games and the sky’s the limit in terms of subject matter that can include demons, fairies, gods, magical realms and what not. If you thought that wuxia was fantasy because the heroes appear to fly when they make very exaggerated leaps, in xianxia, they literally can fly in the air. 

For my second pick, I recommend Chinese Paladin 仙劍奇俠傳 starring Hu Ge, Crystal Liu, Ady An and Eddie Peng. It might be a bit older but it is the first of its kind and the best one in my opinion.

Xuanhuan 玄幻

Even now, there are times when I get confused between xianxia and xuanhuan. Is Chinese Paladin which is considered xianxia technically xuanhuan? The two are almost interchangeable in that both are high fantasy. Perhaps the biggest difference is that xianxia has influences of Daoism and Buddhism. In Chinese Paladin, the main character Ling Er is a descendant of Nuwa, known as the mother goddess in Chinese mythology. 

I basically take it that all other fantasy would fall into the category of xuanhuan. Usually, these are stories completely up to the imagination of the author. Xianxia and xuanhuan are not my preferred genres as I can’t get over silly pet peeves like the characters being able to video chat via magical portals in a historical drama. However, I understand the innate appeal of an idol-cast so I continue to be hook, line and sinker’ed nonetheless

Hu Ge and Wu Lei in ep 1 of popular cdrama Nirvana in Fire

Historical Dramas 古装剧

Last but not the least is a made-up category that is just a catch-all for anything else. Off the top of my head are palace dramas, historical biopics, romance and melodramas to name a few so for my third and final pick, I recommend Nirvana in Fire (2015) 瑯琊榜 starring Hu Ge and Liu Tao. 

I was torn between Scarlet Heart versus Nirvana in Fire despite the two being so different that they shouldn’t even be compared. What holds true is that both are extremely successful dramas. I ultimately decided to go with Nirvana in Fire because it is too good to miss out.

Nirvana in Fire is a massive 54-episode revenge drama that is a masterpiece of epic proportions so brilliantly written and thought-provoking. Lest I run out of adjectives, I will let the drama speak for itself so please, please check it out. 

Bae Yong Joon in Legend aka Story of the First King

Sageuk 史劇

It might seem like I’m going off on a tangent but many years ago, my dad decided to buy DVDs to the 2007 k-drama called Story of the First King’s Four Gods aka Legend starring Bae Yong Joon and Lee Ji Ah. I won’t go needlessly wordy on this but it’s safe to say that like a happy kid who found a neighboring candy store, I started venturing into Korean historical dramas aka sageuk 史劇 and never looked back. They also have another category known as fusion sageuks that are still set in ancient times but have varied themes aside from just depicting history. 


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