The definition of "侠"
Inspired by a tangent to this post.
So after all that musing about the definition of the western superhero, I got thinking on what my interpretation of "侠" is.
One thing I'd have to agree on would be the coolness factor. Inept martial artists don't get that title unless they're arrogant enough to try and pin it on themselves (and then only when they are portrayed as comic relief). You just don't earn that title unless you've got some fame throughout the pugilist world (江湖).
But, I don't think that's the only criteria, since wuxia stories are also full of famed fighters who don't get honored/pinned with that title. I suppose one way to sort through those other possible criteria would be to go through some examples - at least those I'm familiar with.
We start of course with Jing Yong's Condor trilogy, since they appear to have become the archetypical wuxia story. Off the top of my head, we have Guo Jing (郭靖), Yang Guo (杨过), and the seven disciples of Wudang (武当七侠). With 郭靖 and the 武当七侠, it is apparent that they are honored by their peers with the titles of "侠" not only for their ability but also for being a sort of moral role model. Y'know, the whole defend the weak, fight against injustice/evil, loyalty to nation, etc (you could almost say "truth, justice, and the Chinese way"). 杨过 might have a more antagonist-like start, but by the end of his story, when he was getting called "侠", he was also more or less the same. At least he was happily slaughtering Mongols to defend the ailing Song Dynasty anyway. One interesting thing though, is aside from patriotism on the battlefield (which is more anti-Mongol than really pro-Song or pro-Ming), these folks really don't consider themselves as under government authority. There is a slight...aura...of "we know better what's good for the country than you" kind of thing going on.
Then there's 七侠五义, popular spinnoff from the novel 三侠五义 and the 包青天 mythology. There is an interesting dichotomy in those stories about who constitutes a 侠客. On the one hand you have Zhan Zhao and Ouyang Chun, hailed as 南侠 and 北侠 respectively even as they also held high government offices and were basically charged with protecting important political figures or doing what's basically spy/assassination jobs for the imperial government.
One the other hand, you have folks like the 五鼠, who apparently have very little respect for government authority (aside from 包青天 of course) and are given more of a Robin Hood like role where they stand on behalf of the common peasant against the injustice of corrupt magistrates (who are apparently all over the place). They can easily be called vigilantes, and yet they are also the protagonists. Although, in some versions of the story, they do die gruesome deaths in the line of duty (well, not so much duty as they were roped into the gig by friends and friends of friends).
So, I suppose, the common theme appears to be that a 侠客, aside from being famed for their martial prowess, is also someone famed for their ethical standards... or maybe just their particular "code of honor". They fight against what they (and those who honor them with the 侠 title) perceive as injustice, even at personal cost.
And I guess that's why the folks in Water Margins (水浒) aren't "侠". Of those 108 characters, most were on the lam for crimes committed, but which were not usually committed on behalf of some innocent party, but for their own or their friends' gain. There's maybe one person among the bunch who was genuinely innocent, and hardly any who can be considered to be really altruistic.
...Well, okay, one more note. There's also the romance angle, I suppose... if we can define a wuxia story by the presence of a torrid romance. Kind of reminds me of the lyrics of one (really awful) wuxia TV series...
(Rough translation: The heroes in the books can do anything, let me tell an adult fairy tale of beauties loving heroes, Your feet crosses snow without leaving a trace, my heart is full of romance; Today we are happily together, tomorrow we turn on each other in vengeance, You because of the wrongs of the distant past, me because of the secrets of martial arts.)
Not saying this should be part of the definition, but it appears to be a definite trend. :P