If you like progression fantasy, chances are you’ve run into words like Xianxia, Wuxia, and “Western Cultivation” along the way.
Lovers of progression fantasy already know there are many nuances between its seemingly endless list of subgenres. Words like Xianxia, Wuxia, and “Western Cultivation” may appear in the description, but that doesn’t always clear everything up for LitRPG “noobs.” What exactly are the differences between these subtypes?
We are so glad you asked!
Before we dive into it, it’s important to know that these three subgenres all pull inspiration from Eastern cultural history – Chinese to be specific. Because of this, progression fantasy novels of these types will often take place in ancient China, center around historical characters/events, or even feature gods and demons from Chinese folklore. Writers in these subgenres are also heavily influenced by Taoism and Buddhism with cultivation levels sometimes based on real-world meditations and exercises like martial arts and qigong.
Now that we know what makes them similar, let’s talk about what makes them unique.
We’ll start with the Chinese equivalent of “High Fantasy,” Xianxia.
Xianxia translated to English means, “immortal heroes.”
With a name like that, you can assume these stories are led by otherworldly and superhuman characters. The main character in a Xianxia novel begins their journey at a lowly status in a world that is filled with magic and governed by extremely powerful gods or leaders. For this character to “level up” and reach their goal at the end of their hero’s journey, they must practice the art of “cultivation.”
Xianxia cultivation typically involves martial arts, meditation, and otherworldly characters.
Cultivation can mean a number of things, but in Xianxia, this typically involves character development through some combination of martial arts and meditation. The levels also range from lower-class humanity to heavenly heights. Along their adventure, heroes in this subgenre encounter gods, demons, and otherwise powerful characters who help or hinder them by sharing wisdom or exchanging blows. Eventually, this character can develop enough to become a xian or immortal, godlike character themselves, elevating them to the highest level of cultivation.
A popular example of a LitRPG fantasy with Xianxia elements is Tao Wong’s A Thousand Li series.
Conscripted to join the Verdant Green Waters Sect, Wu Ying must decide between his pedestrian, common life and the exciting, blood-soaked life of a cultivator. As the story progresses, the reader follows Wu along his journey to immortality. With an expert blend of Eastern and Western cultural elements, this series honors its Chinese roots but is also easy to enjoy for those less familiar with that culture.
If you’re looking for a great introduction to Tao Wong’s work, check out his audiobook, The Nameless Restaurant.
Set in a magically hidden restaurant in the heart of Toronto, this cozy cooking fantasy kicks off his new Hidden Dishes series and features many elements of Xianxia without progression. Comparable to games like Coffee Talk and its newest second edition, this story allows the listener to grab a seat at a uniquely otherworldly dining establishment.
Now, let’s consider our next subgenre – Wuxia!
In English, Wuxia can be translated to “martial heroes” or “martial art.”
As the name implies, the action that takes place in a Wuxia saga revolves around ancient Chinese martial arts history, techniques, and lore. In these stories, the characters will often represent real historical figures but with martial arts skillsets that surpass the typical human.
Wuxia combines rich, Chinese history with an action-packed storyline.
A great example of this can be seen in popular martial arts movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Set during China’s Qing Dynasty and featuring characters committed to mastering the martial art of Wudang, this story is rife with typical Wuxia tropes. Their fight sequences, for instance, are heavily stylized and amplified, but are based on real fighting styles that have been studied for thousands of years!
Are you a fan of martial arts action like this? We highly recommend the exciting Wuxia audiobook, The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang.
Narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, this martial arts-inspired masterpiece is based on one of the earliest Chinese novels written in vernacular Mandarin, Water Margins. This story follows Lin Chong, an expert martial arts instructor for the Emperor’s soldiers. Lin Chong recruits the Liangshan Bandits, mountain outlaws who proclaim a belief in justice, to help her bring down the powerful and corrupt empire.
You’re probably thinking, “Xianxia and Wuxia are both so similar… are they the same thing?”
Well, yes and no.
Xianxia and Wuxia can be separated or blended across a spectrum of adventure!
Often, Xianxia is seen as an even further subgenre to Wuxia. Others separate them with the distinction that one is “high fantasy” (Xianxia) while the other is “low fantasy” (Wuxia). Like many other subgenres within the fantasy realm, these types often blend across a spectrum of possible adventures to enjoy!
Hey, wait a minute. What about “Western Cultivation?”
Western Cultivation is basically the West’s answer to the same type of progression fantasy celebrated in the East. The main distinctions between Xianxia/Wuxia and Western Cultivation are the settings and cultural elements within the story.
Even though the plot and story devices are often inspired by martial arts and Chinese folklore, these elements aren’t always present in a literal sense.
A popular example of this is Will Wight’s New York Times best-selling Cradle series.
Inspired by Chinese martial arts novels, the Cradle Series is steeped in magic and lore. At the opening of the first volume, Linden begins his journey in spite of being forbidden to learn the sacred arts. Like so many other main characters in this subgenre, he must acquire this secret knowledge to cultivate new skills and powers along the way.
Fans of the Cradle will love the Sulterra: Unblood series, written by Robyn Wideman and the Scribes of Sulterra.
When a tragic mistake unlocks a powerful artifact that changes time and space, our hero Kiran’s life is forever changed. Danger brings opportunity, and for a young cultivator, there is nothing like pressure to force them to adapt and grow stronger! Featuring light romance and a story to excite all ages, this audiobook is perfect for anyone starting to read Western Cultivation.
Well, that about covers it.
In the ever-changing world of progression fantasy, there will always be more subgenres to explore. As fellow audiobook adventurers, we hope you find the perfect story to inspire the hero within and transport you to other realms!