An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Sanxia wuyi 三俠五義

Dec 22, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Sanxia wuyi 三俠五義 "Three heroes and five gallants (lit. 'fighting for justice')" is a late Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) novel consisting of several adventure and criminal stories. The book of 120 chapters (hui 回) length was written by Shi Yukun 石玉昆 (c. 1810-1871) and was first printed in 1879. The first preface was written by a certain Wenzhu Zhuren 問竹主人, and the second foreword by anonymous scholars called Tuisi Zhuren 退思主人, and Rumi Daoren 入迷道人 (Wen Lin 文琳?).

Shi Yukun 石玉昆, courtesy name Zhenzhi 振之, hailed from Tianjin and was famous for his collection of criminal stories Longtu gong'an 龍圖公案 whose prose text was enriched by numerous poems and songs. In later editions, the poems were eliminated, and the pure stories remained, with the title Longtu erlu 龍圖耳錄. The editor Wenzhu Daoren later refined the text of the stories and published them as Zhonglie xiayi zhuan 忠烈俠義傳 "Stories of loyal and heroic knights and gallants", or Sanxia wuyi. Yu Yue 俞樾 (1821-1907), who changed the wording of many chapters to give them a more literary flair, rated the first chapter (Limao huan taizi 貍貓換太子 "A wild cat is exchanged for the Prince") as not refined enough, and left it out - also on the ground that none of the heroes is involved who gave the novel its name. Yu also added some stories with new protagonists and republished the novel in 1889 with the title Qixia wuyi 七俠五義 "Seven heroes and five gallants".

The characters which gave the novel its name are:

Southern Hero (nanxia 南俠) Zhan Zhao 展昭
Northern Hero (beixia 北俠) Ouyang Chun 歐陽春
Twin Heroes (shuangxia 雙俠) Ding Zhaolan 丁兆蘭
Ding Zhaohui 丁兆蕙
Small Hero (xiaoxia 小俠) Ai Hu 艾虎
"Black Fox Demon" (hei yaohu 黑妖狐) Zhihua 智化
"Little Zhuge" (Xiao Zhuge 小諸葛; see Zhuge Liang) Shen Zhongyuan 沈仲元

This comes to a total number of seven heroes (qixia 七俠), for which reason the novel is also known by the name Qixia wuyi.

The Five Gallants (wuyi 五義) are:

Penetrating-Heaven Rat (Zuantian Shu 鑽天鼠) Lu Fang 盧方
Piercing-Earth Rat (Chedi Shu 徹地鼠) Han Zhang 韓彰
Boring-Mountain Ra (Chuanshan Shu 穿山鼠) Xu Qing 徐慶
Overturning-River Rat (Fanjiang Shu 翻江鼠) Jiang Ping 蔣平
Brocade-Pelt Rat (Jinmao Shu 錦毛鼠) Bai Yutang 白玉堂

Finally, four "braves" (si yongshi 四勇士) play a certain role, namely Wang Chao 王朝, Ma Han 馬漢, Zhang Long 張龍, and Zhao Hu 趙虎.

Apart from these heroes, who support the government to eliminate evil characters and support the oppressed people, Bao Zheng 包拯 (999-1062), also known as "Justice Bao" or "Master Bao" (Bao Gong 包公), is a central figure in many stories of the novel. He lived during the early Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) and is a popular hero in many vernacular stories and theatre plays. Justice Bao and the heroes and gallants fight to support the imperial court and to protect the people. The novel is thus an extraordinary liaison of the traditional stories of knights (wuxia 武俠) with crime fiction.

The novel can be divided into two parts, the first of which (ch. 1-70) is dedicated to Justice Bao and his solution of criminal cases, including a variety of strange cases of injustice in which the local tyrant "Sickle" Pang Yu 鍘龐昱 tried to kill Justice Bao, the murderer Ge Dengyun 葛登雲 was found guilty and punished, and how Justice Bao helped Empress Dowager Li 李太后 to get rehabilitated as the mother of the rightful heir. Other famous stories are the ennoblement of the Southern Hero Zhan Zhao as "Imperial Cat" (Yumao 御貓; bodyguard of the 4th rank) or the trouble the Five "Rats" met in the Eastern Capital Kaifeng 開封 before obtaining government posts as a reward for their loyalty to the court. The second part of the novel (ch. 71-120) focuses on Yan Shenmin 顏眘敏 (Yan Zhasan 顏查散) - a substitute for Justice Bao - who was supported by a group of brave and righteous people in eliminating the criminals Ma Zhaoxian 馬朝賢, Ma Qiang 馬強 and Zhao Yu 趙玉, the Prince of Xiangyang 襄陽.

The character of Justice Bao became popular in the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) and performs in the novel collection Hetong wenzi ji 合同文字記, the Yuan-period 元 (1279-1368) theatre plays Baozhuanghe 抱妝盒, Pen'ergui 盆兒鬼 and Chenzhou tiaomi 陳州糶米 or the late Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) story collection Longtu gong'an 龍圖公案. The Sanxia wuyi is based on these early stories, but transforms them into a higher literary genre and with a narrative style fitting to a novel with long chapters. This enables the author to create personalities with a veritable character. The novel also adds a lot of news stories of brave and chivalrous persons patrolling the villages and cities to eliminate evildoers and to contribute to the peace and harmony of the country. Zhan Zhao, for instance, killed a criminal monk at the Golden Dragon Monastery (Jinlongsi 金龍寺), arrested an assassin in Tianchang Town 天昌鎮, and eliminated a demon in Pangji Garden 龐吉花園.

The novel combines the idea of legal justice with the prosperity of the country. This can be seen in the appointment of the heroes and gallants as personal guards of the emperor (huangjia huwei 皇家護衛). Even if they belonged to the upper class, the heroes and gallants represent protective powers that support and help the common populace. It also clarifies typical evils of Chinese society. Grand Preceptor (taishi 太師) Pang Ji 龐吉 is shown as an imperial minion who uses his position to incriminate loyal officials; Pang Yu is portrayed as a local tyrant who kills men and rapes their women; Miao Xiu 苗秀 father and son ruthlessly exploited the people of the countryside, and Ge Dengyun and Ma Gang 馬剛 terrorized the local community. These evil persons are juxtaposed with righteous and honourable persons like Liu Hongyi 劉洪義, who sent charcoal in the middle of a snowstorm, or the eunuchs Yu Zhong 余忠 and Qin Feng 秦鳳 who died in order to save the life of the rightful heir apparent and his mother, Madame Li 李妃.

The Sanxia wuyi, with its vivid description of plots and characters, has retained the lively colloquial features of the art of dialogue that had developed since the Song and Yuan period. Its portrayal of characters and their environments goes hand in glove with the development of the plot. In particular, the depictions of the heroes and gallants, each with their own, unique characteristics, are full of character and richly embedded in the atmosphere of daily life in late imperial China.

The Sanxia wuyi was immensely popular after its publication, and several sequels and imitations were created, like Xiao wuyi 小五義, Xu xiao wuyi 續小五義 or Yingxiong da ba yi 英雄大八義, and Yingxiong xiao ba yi 英雄小八義. Quite a few stories in the novel were transformed into theatre plays, like Daluanjia 打鑾駕, Yu huanghou 遇皇后, Dalongpao 打龍袍 or Wushu nao Dongjing 五鼠鬧東京.

In 1980, the Baowentang 寶文堂 Press in Beijing published a high-quality typographical print. The original shape of the novel, Longtu erlu, surviving as a manuscript produced in the Xielan Studio 謝藍齋, was published in facsimile form in 1981 by the Shanghai Guji Press 上海古籍出版社.

There is a partial translation created by Susan Blader (1998), Tales of Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants: Selections from Sanxia wuyi (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press).

Blader, Susan (1986). "San-hsia wu-i 三俠五義", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 667-668.
Hou Zhong 侯忠 (1986). "Sanxia wuyi 三俠五義", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing; Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 685.