The bestselling Chinese author of all time passed away in 2018, at the age of 94. He’d been made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, awarded an OBE, and held an honorary professorship at nine different universities. But the vast majority of his books remained untranslated into English throughout his lifetime. In the year of his death, the first part of his Condor Heroes trilogy was finally given an official English language release. We take a look at the ‘Chinese Lord of the Rings‘, and why you should consider reading it — now that you can.
When I found Jin Yong I didn’t know what I was looking for. I’d been re-watching Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow’s minor masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema which seamlessly blends slapstick comedy and kung fu action. There’s a scene near the end of the film in which two characters are identified as “the legendary lovers, Paris and Helen of Troy”. I’d always assumed this was an English language localisation (Paris and Helen are famous for many things, but being kung fu masters is not one of them), but I was suddenly curious about who these characters were really meant to be. Sifting through a page or two of Google results gave me an answer: in the Cantonese script, they were Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü, the protagonists of the middle novel of Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes trilogy. One dive down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole later, I was left with a much more pressing question — why on Earth had I never heard of these books?
Jin Yong was the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung (originally Zha Liangyong and usually styled simply as Louis Cha). He was born in Zhejiang province in 1924, the second son in a family that eventually included seven children. Cha was politically outspoken from an early age; he was expelled from his first high school in 1941 for criticising the Nationalist government. Although he originally intended to pursue a career in the foreign service, by 1947 he had decided to become a journalist instead, moving from Shanghai to Hong Kong the following year. This move may have saved his life; when the communist party took power in 1949, Cha’s father, Cha Shuquing, was arrested on charges of being a counter-revolutionary and executed in 1951.
It was in the early 1950s, while working as deputy editor of the New Evening Post, that Cha met and befriended Chen Wentong. Chen had already published his first wuxia novel under the pen name Liang Yusheng, and he encouraged Cha to begin writing in the genre as well. The two men would eventually be known as two legs of the ‘Tripod of Wuxia’, along with Xiong Yaohua (pen name Guo Long). They were not the 20th century’s first wuxia writers, but it’s fair to say they revolutionised the genre, building on earlier developments by bringing in elements of romance and mystery from Western writing traditions.
At this point it’s probably worth defining what wuxia is. The word translates literally as ‘martial hero’ and is generally used to mean ‘fiction about martial arts’, but not every film or book about a martial artist belongs to the wuxia genre. Wuxia generally deals with a lone protagonist who undergoes significant trials before attaining great martial prowess, which they must use to right wrongs in the world around them. Wuxia heroes are commoners, not members of the aristocracy or the government, and are frequently pitted against corrupt officials and institutions. They follow their own code, the xia, which emphasises loyalty, benevolence, justice, courage, and individualism. The normal setting for a wuxia story is China’s past, but historical details may or may not be included; wuxia is understood to take place in the alternate universe of the jianghu, the world of martial arts, which may be home to magical powers and demons, and certainly allows its heroes and villains to access superhuman levels of skill.
In the 20th century, wuxia was also a slyly subversive genre. Its emphasis on individualism opposed traditional Confucian values and its stories of bad governments and the people who resist them were interpreted by many as allegories for unrest in contemporary China. From the late 1920s onwards there were periodic attempts to outlaw the genre in mainland China, proving that the ruling party was well aware of these undertones.
Why the wait?
Jin Yong’s popularity is undeniable. His fifteen novels have sold, depending on who you ask, between 100 and 300 million copies worldwide. They’ve been adapted for television and film over 90 times, with more adaptations in production to this day. So why have official English translations taken so long to reach us?
In part, it’s a question of timing. The books were originally published between 1955 and 1972, well before the advent of the internet made cross-cultural exchange comparatively easy. Although the 1970s saw a boom of interest in martial arts cinema in the English-speaking world, after the release of seminal Bruce Lee vehicle Enter the Dragon, only a handful of films from Hong Kong’s prolific studios actually made it to British and American theatres. Enthusiasts would often have to seek out the films in Chinatown cinemas, or hope for a release on home video — many titles were only available through bootlegging. Arguably, the first wuxia film to see genuinely mainstream distribution in the Western world was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which didn’t come out until the year 2000. This being the case, it’s perhaps not surprising that publishers didn’t regard the kung fu craze as proof there was a built-in audience for wuxia literature. After a couple of decades, the fact that there was no existing translation became a self-fulfilling prophecy — surely, if the books could be translated it would have happened already. Anna Holmwood, who is spearheading the current project to translate the Condor Heroes books, joked in 2018 that the only reason she was able to take on the work was that she was “young and foolish” enough to believe it could be done.
One of the earliest English translators to take on the challenge of the Jin Yong oeuvre was Graham Earnshaw, who worked on a version of The Book and the Sword in 1979. Although he consulted closely with the author on the text, Earnshaw was unable to interest a publisher in it for another fifteen years. His translation was eventually released in 2004 by Oxford University Press (OUP), as part of a project which intended to translate the entire Jin Yong canon into English. In fact, OUP only published one other work in this series, John Minford’s three-volume translation of The Story of the Stone.
Writing shortly after Cha’s death, Earnshaw said that in his opinion “the things described and not described” were the main barrier to bringing his work to an English audience. Things as simple as the appearance of clothes and as complicated as major political developments may be only briefly sketched over in the text, which assumes a Chinese cultural context. At the same time, fight scenes can run to pages long; one has to remember that these novels were originally serialised in newspapers and magazines and that Cha, like Charles Dickens before him, wasn’t opposed to padding his word count here and there. In addition to the pacing issue, the sheer length of the novels made them an expensive prospect for publishers, especially before the onset of digital books. Cha was notoriously prolific; at the height of his career, working both as a novelist and as editor at Ming Pao, the newspaper he co-founded, he was reputed to write over 10,000 Chinese characters a day. It’s notable that MacLehose Press’s new Condor Heroes translations are coming out in instalments, with each novel in the series split into three or four parts, and each part still running to at least 400 pages. On their planned timeline, it will take a decade to release the entire trilogy.
So, what are the books like?
Although necessarily broad, the comparison of Jin Yong to Tolkien is a good one. Both authors situate their books in a mythical past (Jin Yong’s 12th century China is a little closer to the real world than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but still essentially fantastical), but their stories have relevance to their contemporary anxieties. Both mix action set pieces with small, quiet moments of reflection and poetry. And both tend towards stories that play out on an epic scale.
For a new reader, the sheer length of Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy is what’s most likely to be off-putting. Legends of the Condor Heroes, the first novel in the trilogy, is ostensibly about the relationship between two young men who ought to have been friends but, because of their upbringings, grow up to be deadly rivals instead. It begins before they are even conceived, and dedicates two chapters (more than 120 pages) to events occurring before their births. The whole trilogy spans 200 years and three different ruling dynasties. Any way you look at it, these books are a serious time commitment.
If you have the time, though, and you push through that initial intimidation, the books are gloriously, almost miraculously readable. Holmwood and her fellow translators have opted for a very open, simplistic style, allowing the characters and set pieces to speak for themselves without embellishment. Explanation of technical Chinese and martial arts terms are kept to a minimum so the flow is not interrupted; most of the details are easy to deduce from context. The action scenes are grippingly cinematic — hardly surprising considering that Louis Cha was personally involved in the Hong Kong film industry, working briefly as a scriptwriter and later directing two films himself. Any fan of kung fu movies will be able to visualise the scene perfectly when a disguised martial arts master on crutches suddenly evades his pursuers by flying into a tree, or a group of heroic characters play a drinking game by tossing around a heavy iron censer.
For me, though, the most unexpected and rewarding thing about Legends of the Condor Heroes was how well the characters are drawn and how much I came to care about them. Some of them may have superhuman fighting skills, but all of them have real flaws and frailties in addition to their moments of heroism. Some of the most moving moments in the books are when a character makes a mistake, and although as a reader you instantly grasp that the consequences will be terrible, you understand and sympathise with the decision they’ve made. The books’ treatment of female characters made me particularly happy; women in this world can be tough martial arts masters or vulnerable people with few means to defend themselves, and are allowed to be human and complex wherever they fall on that scale.
Anna Holmwood’s plan is to release one part of her Condor Heroes translation annually, around the time of Chinese New Year. Going by her timetable, in 2021, three years after I found Jin Yong, I should be able to meet Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü, the characters who lead me to him in the first place. I’m looking forward to it already.
A Snake Lies Waiting: Legends of the Condor Heroes Volume III is available from MacLehose Press.