12 Best Chinese Wuxia and Historical Movies To Put in Your Watch List

Best Chinese wuxia films

Chinese productions are known for their top-notch martial arts films. The fight scene choreography is always jaw-dropping, and most of its timeless movies are in this genre. However, there's a genre in Chinese cinema that's often confusing to overseas fans. It's called wuxia. 

Wuxia literally means "martial heroes", a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. But while drama fans thought wuxia and martial arts are the same, Hongkong filmmaker, Ronny Yu, once explained in an interview that wuxia should not be confused with martial arts films.

Wuxia and Martial Arts

During the promo period of Jet Li's last wuxia movie, "Fearless" (2006), Ronny Yu (who directed the movie) said, "We don’t want to use "martial arts", we want to use ‘wuxia’ because martial arts term is too generalized. 

Karate is a martial art. Korean fighting is also a martial art. But wushu is really a traditional Chinese martial art. We want to use this opportunity to let the Western audience understand there’s another genre called wuxia, Chinese wuxia, because very easily people confuse.

People think of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or my previous film, The Bride With White Hair, or Hero or House of Flying Daggers [as martial arts films], and   they think, ‘Oh, those are martial arts movies!’ 

"Those are not martial arts movies – those are called wuxia movies, and are not real. They’re like Lord of the Rings, where there’s fantasy and magic and people can fly – people can fight in trees and in the middle of a lake and all - that's wuxia".

Most of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee's movies are called martial arts movies rather than wuxia because they performed real combat scenes.

Jackie Chan's The Legend of Drunken Master, Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, and Donnie Yen's Ip Man are the best examples of pure martial arts movies.

Understanding Wuxia

The word "wǔxiá" is a compound composed of the elements wǔ (literally "martial", "military", or "armed") and xiá ( literally "chivalrous", "vigilante" or "hero"). Fighters in wuxia films are generally called martial artists.

The heroes in wuxia fiction typically do not serve a lord, wield military power, or belong to the aristocratic class. They often originate from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. 

A code of chivalry usually requires wuxia heroes to right and redress wrongs, fight for righteousness, remove oppressors, and bring retribution for past misdeeds. 

However, not all historical action films are wuxia.  For instance Red Cliff, Sacrifice, and Curse of the Golden Flower are more suited to be called historical films and palace drama rather than wuxia because the narrative is not centered on the fight in the martial arts world.

Here's the list of the best Chinese-themed wuxia and historical movies (from Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as long as the theme of the story originates in ancient China) that you should be watching now. The fight scene/battle choreography is simply breathtaking.

12. Brotherhood of Blades 2 (wuxia/conspiracy) - 2017

Directed by Lu Yang and stars Chang Chen, Zhang Yi, and Yang Mi, it is a prequel to the 2014 Brotherhood of Blades that also stars Chang Chen. 

The story is set in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) period and follows Shen Lian (Chang Chen), a captain of the embroidered uniform guard, the imperial secret police of the court, as he searches for the truth behind a conspiracy that framed him, his colleague Pei Lun (Lei Jiayin) and a young woman named Bei Zhai (Yang Mi).

Best Chinese wuxia films

The film starts with the Battle of Sarhu, where the Ming dynasty army has been overrun by the Later Jin forces. A Ming soldier, Shen Lian, saves Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi) from Jin soldiers who are executing any remaining Ming soldiers.

Years later, Shen Lian is the captain of the guards in Southern Beijing and Lu Wenzhao is his superior officer. In a case related to the death of Master Guo, he is forced by a rival Lieutenant Ling, to pursue and arrest his subordinate Yin Cheng for an alcohol-induced rant against the Chongzhen Emperor.

The film falls more on the palace intrigues/conspiracy theme rather than solid wuxia. There are surprising plot twists along the way and the intense fight scenes are heart-pounding.

11. Reign of Assassins (wuxia) - 2010

Directed by Su Chao-pin and co-directed by John Woo, it stars Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh and South Korean actor Jung Woo-sung. Also starring Wang Xueqi, Barbie Hsu, and Shawn Yue.

The story is set during the Ming Dynasty and Michelle Yeoh plays an assassin who tries to return to a normal life after being counseled by a monk. After saving her husband and herself from robbers, she attracts the attention of her former assassin gang. 

Best Chinese wuxia films

A narration tells of a legendary Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhi who found the art of Kung Fu and the belief that his mummified remains have mystical powers.

The Dark Stone gang, having found that half of the remains are in Prime Minister Zhang's hands, sends assassins to kill him and his son Renfeng. 

Dark Stone's top assassin, Drizzle (Michelle Yeoh) steals the remains and flees. She encounters the monk, Wisdom (Calvin Li) after dispatching a pursuing Renfeng at the top of a bridge. 

Wisdom is revealed to be an accomplished martial artist who demonstrates to Drizzle that her swordsmanship has four fatal flaws. Warning that she can be killed by a master, he attempts to persuade her to turn a new leaf and leave the life of an assassin. 

The three months of their association end with him dying at her hands, a final demonstration intended to enlighten her. After Wisdom's death, Drizzle is burdened with sorrow and guilt and decides to leave her old way of life. 

She goes to a famous surgeon who changes her appearance and she assumes the identity of Zeng Jing, a common cloth merchant. However, she attracts the attention of the messenger Ah-sheng (Jung Woo-sung), whom she eventually marries. 

The Dark Stone gang's leader, Wheel King (Wang Xueqi), recruits and trains a new assassin, Turquoise (Barbie Hsu), a merciless girl who murdered her fiancé and in-laws on her wedding night.

Zeng Jing saves her husband from the robbers thereby revealing her whereabouts to the Dark Stone gang who began hunting her down. 

10. The Banquet (Historical/palace drama) - 2006

Directed by Feng Xiaogang, The Banquet stars Zhang Ziyi, Ge You, Daniel Wu, and Zhou Xun. It is a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet and is set in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in 10th-century China.

Best Chinese wuxia films
The Banquet

This film is more of a palace intrigue rather than a historical war. Its story is set near the end of the Tang dynasty. The Crown Prince, Wu Luan (played by Daniel Wu), is deeply in love with the noblewoman Little Wan (played by Zhang Ziyi). 

However, his father, the emperor, decides to marry her. Wu Luan, deeply hurt, flees to a remote theater to study music and dance. Meanwhile, the emperor is murdered by his brother, Li (played by Ge You) to usurp the throne. He also dispatches riders to assassinate Wu Luan, who survives the attack. 

Believing that his nephew is dead and power is firmly in his grip, the emperor calls for a grand banquet without knowing Wu Luan has returned to the palace to perform swordplay during the ceremony. 

9. Sacrifice (Historical/Revenge) - 2010

Directed by Chen Kaige, Sacrifice stars Ge You, Wang Xueqi, Huang Xiaoming, Fan Bingbing, and Vincent Zhao. It is based on the Yuan dynasty play, The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang. It generally talks about political ambition and paternal love.

Chen Kaige's young son, Arthur Chen (Chen Feiyu), then 10 years old, debuted in this film, playing the role of a young emperor.

Best Chinese wuxia films
Sacrifice

The story centers on Chen Ying (Ge You), a court physician who saves the life of the newborn heir to the throne when the child’s family is massacred in a coup ordered by Gen. Tu'an Gu (Wang Xueqi). 

Gen. Tu'an Gu had a feud with Zhao Dun, the chancellor of Jin, and his son, General Zhao Shuo (Vincent Zhao) so he secretly murdered the Duke of Jin to put the blame on the Zhao family, using the incident as an excuse to massacre the Zhao family. 

The sole survivor is Zhao Shuo's baby son, Zhao Wu, whose mother is the Duke's elder sister, Lady Zhuang (Fan Bingbing)

Lady Zhuang pleads with Tu'an Gu's subordinate, Han Jue (Huang Xiaoming), to spare her child. She then instructs Cheng Ying (Ge You), a physician, to bring the child to Gongsun Chujiu (Zhang Fengyi), a friend of the Zhao family, before committing suicide. 

When Tu'an Gu learns that the orphan has escaped, he issues an order to seal the gates and to gather all newborn babies in the city to find Zhao Wu. Cheng Ying sacrifices his own son to save Zhao Wu because the latter is the only survivor of the imperial family. 

Cheng Ying raises the boy as his own and returns to serve  Gen. Tu'an Gu with in mind to avenge the death of his wife, son, and the Zhao family.

8. Ashes of Time (Wuxia) - 1994

This is a Hong Kong film written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. The story is inspired by characters in Jin Yong's novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes. 

It stars Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung, Jacky Cheung, and Maggie Cheung.

This is one of the most memorable films (together with A Better Tomorrow and Farewell My Concubine) of Hongkong multi-awarded actor and singer, Leslie Cheung, who committed suicide in 2003 by jumping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hongkong due to depression.

Best Chinese wuxia films
Leslie Cheung as Ouyang Feng

This film consists of five short stories each featuring a main character from the novel; with the young Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) serving as the narrator and the common link.

The film follows Ouyang Feng, from the novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, when he is a young man crossing paths with other important characters. The movie humanizes Feng and depicts the events that lead to his descent into villainy. 

The story begins with Ouyang Feng – known as the Western Venom due to his mercilessness and hailing from the western province – effortlessly toying with and disposing of a group of henchmen. 

He narrates that he is venomous because he is enraged with jealousy. The story flashes back to a time when Feng was younger and working as a broker for assassins in a remote, desert region.

7. Fearless (Wuxia) - 2006

Fearless, also known as Huo Yuanjia in Chinese, is a wuxia film directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Ronny Yu and starring Jet Li, Dong Yong, Sun Li, Nakamura Shido II, and Collin Chou.

Best Chinese wuxia films

It is loosely based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial artist who challenged foreign fighters in highly publicized events, restoring pride and nationalism to China at a time when Western imperialism and Japanese manipulation were eroding the country in the final years of the Qing Dynasty before the birth of the Republic of China. 

6. The Assassin (Wuxia) - 2015

Directed by Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, The Assassin is a Taiwan/China/Hong Kong co-production, the film is loosely based on the late seventh-century martial arts story "Nie Yinniang" by Pei Xing. The film stars Shu Qi and Chang Chen.

It premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in France where Hou Hsiao-Hsien won Best Director. The Assassin was named the best film of 2015 by Sight & Sound magazine. It was Hou Hsiao-Hsien 's final film before his retirement in 2023. 

Best Chinese wuxia films
Taiwanese stars, Chang Chen and Shu Qi in The Assassin

The story is set in seventh-century China during the last years of the Tang dynasty following the An Lushan rebellion. 

The circuit of Weibo (also known as Tianxiong, a province or circuit of the mid to late Tang dynasty), though nominally a part of the Tang Empire, is de facto ruled independently by military governor Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen)

The film centers on Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), an assassin who is directed to slay corrupt government officials by her master, Jiaxin, a nun who raised her from the age of ten. 

When Yinniang displays mercy by failing to kill during her duties, Jiaxin punishes her with a ruthless assignment designed to test Yinniang's resolve: she is sent to the distant province/circuit of Weibo in northern China to kill its military governor, her cousin Tian Ji'an, to whom she was betrothed as a child.

5. Curse of the Golden Flower (Historical/palace drama) - 2006

Directed by Zhang Yimou, the film combined talents from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as main leads. Chow Yun-Fat (Hong Kong), Gong Li (mainland), and Jay Chou (Taiwan).

Best Chinese wuxia films
Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat in Curse of the Golden Flower

On the eve of the Double Ninth Festival, the Emperor (Chow Yun-fat) and the second of his three sons, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), return from their military campaign to Nanjing so they can celebrate the holiday with their family. 

The Empress (Gong Li) has been in an affair with her stepson, the first son of the emperor, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye). 

Without the empress's knowledge, the Crown Prince is also in an affair with Jiang Chan (Li Man), a daughter of the Imperial Doctor. Crown Prince Wan is keen on rejecting the throne so that he may run away with Jiang Chan.

Prince Jai notices the declining health of his mother, the Empress, and is confused by her sudden interest in chrysanthemums and the golden flowers. 

The Empress explains that the tea she drinks has been poisoned for some time by the Emperor, but that she is planning a rebellion to overthrow him. 

After some initial hesitation, Prince Jai agrees to be the leader of the rebellion. The Empress hires a mysterious woman to discover the type of poison that she is suffering from, but the woman is captured by Crown Prince Wan and taken to the Emperor. 

4. House of Flying Daggers (Wuxia) - 2004

Directed by Zhang Yimou, this film stars Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro (a Japanese-Taiwanese actor). House of Flying Daggers is more of a love story than a classic wuxia.

Best Chinese wuxia films

The story is set in the year 859 in ancient China as the Tang Dynasty declined. Several rebel groups are established, the largest of which is the House of Flying Daggers, based in Fengtian, whose members battle the corrupt government officials that oppress the people. 

The members use special throwing daggers that always hit their targets to steal from the rich and give to the poor, gaining the support of the locals. 

Two police officers, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), are ordered to kill the leader of the group within ten days, a task that appears to be impossible as no one knows who the leader of the House of the Flying Daggers is.

To accomplish this, Leo arrests Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer who is suspected of being the previous leader's daughter. 

Jin proceeds to assault the jail and set Mei free, pretending that he is a rebel sympathizer, an act which gains Mei's trust. As Mei and Jin travel to the Flying Dagger headquarters, Leo trails behind with reinforcements. Unfortunately, Mei and Jin fall in love.

3. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Wuxia) - 2000

Directed by Taiwanese filmmaker, Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a surprise international success, grossing $213.5 million worldwide. It grossed US$128 million in the United States, becoming the highest-grossing foreign-produced Mandarin-language film in American history.

The film stars Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Chang Chen, and Zhang Ziyi. It received universal acclaim from critics, praised for its story, direction, cinematography, and martial arts sequences. 

Best Chinese wuxia films

It earned 10 nominations at the 2001 Oscar Awards, including Best Picture, and won four - Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography, receiving the most nominations ever for a non-English-language film at the time, until 2018's Roma tied this record. 

The film also won four BAFTA (British Academy Film Awards) and two Golden Globe Awards, each of them for Best Foreign Film. For retrospective years, Crouching Tiger is often cited as one of the finest wuxia films ever made, and has been widely regarded as one of the greatest films of the 21st century.

The story is set during the Qing dynasty in China and follows two martial artists, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a renowned Wudang swordsman, and his friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a female warrior who heads a private security company. 

Shu Lien and Mu Bai have long had feelings for each other, but because Shu Lien had been engaged to Mu Bai's deceased close friend, Shu Lien, and Mu Bai feel bound by loyalty and have not revealed their feelings to each other. 

Shu Lien and Mu Bai later face a great challenge when the treasured Green Destiny sword is stolen. A young aristocrat, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), prepares for an arranged marriage but soon reveals her superior fighting talents and her deeply romantic past. 

As each warrior battles for justice, they come face to face with their worst enemy - and the inescapable, enduring power of love. 

2. Hero (Wuxia) - 2002

Directed, co-written, and produced by Zhang Yimou, Hero stars Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen, and Chen Daoming.

Best Chinese wuxia films

The film became the first Chinese-language movie to top the American box office, where it stayed for two consecutive weeks, and went on to earn $53.7 million in the United States and $177 million worldwide. 

Hero was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscar Awards in 2002 but lost to Germany's Nowhere in Africa. 

The historical background of the film refers to the Warring States Period in ancient China when the country was divided into seven states. 

In 227-221 BC, the Qin state was about to unify the other six states, and assassins from the six states were sent to assassinate the King of Qin. One of the most famous incidents was Jing Ke's attempted assassination of the King of Qin.

In the middle of the Warring States period, Nameless (Jet Li), a Qin prefect, arrives at the Qin capital city to meet the King of Qin (Chen Daoming), who survived multiple attempts on his life by the assassins Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung). 

As a result, the king has implemented extreme security measures: no visitors are allowed to approach him within 100 paces. Nameless claims that he has slain the three assassins and their weapons are displayed before the king, who allows the former to approach within ten paces and tell him his story.

1. Red Cliff (Historical war) - 2008

Directed by John Woo, Red Cliff is an internationally co-produced Chinese epic war film based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, most specifically the Battle of Red Cliffs (208–209 AD), and the events at the end of the Han dynasty and immediately before the Three Kingdoms period in Imperial China. 

Best Chinese wuxia films

The film stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, and Lin Chi-ling. 

Red Cliff was released in two parts, however, the international version was compressed into a single film release, so you need to watch the original version - parts 1 and 2, to make the most of this film.

The story is set in ancient China towards the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), the warlord who controls the figurehead Emperor Xian (Wang Ning), leads the imperial army on a campaign to eliminate the southern warlords Sun Quan (Chang Chen) and Liu Bei (You Yong), whom he denounces as rebels. 

After the emperor reluctantly approves the campaign, Cao Cao's mighty army swiftly conquers Jing Province. Cao Cao and Liu Bei's forces clash at the Battle of Changban. 

During the battle, Liu Bei's sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei lead their men to protect the retreating civilians and hold off Cao Cao's cavalry. Meanwhile, Zhao Yun (Hu Jun), one of Liu Bei's warriors, fights bravely to save his lord's family but only succeeds in rescuing Liu Bei's infant son.

Following the battle, Liu Bei's adviser, Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro), goes on a diplomatic mission to Jiangdong to form an alliance between his lord and Sun Quan against Cao Cao. 

Sun Quan is initially in a dilemma on whether to surrender or fight back. He ultimately makes up his mind to go to war with Cao Cao after listening to Zhuge Liang and going on a tiger hunt with Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), the frontline commander of his forces, and his sister, Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei).

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