Aaron Fox-Lerner reviews Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born
It says a lot about China’s top-selling novelist that nobody in the West seems to know how to describe him. Anna Holmwood’s translation of Jin Yong’s 1957 novel Legend of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born marks the first commercial release of his work in English, and the first new translation since The Book and the Sword, translated by Graham Earnshaw, and Olivia Mok’s translation of Fox Volant of Snowy Mountain. The going line on Jin – the pen name of the Hong Kong writer and newspaper publisher Louis Cha – is that he’s the Chinese Tolkien. Publications from the Guardian to Quartz have compared the book to Lord of the Rings as a handy reference to Jin’s longstanding popularity and influence on Chinese pop culture.
If anything, the comparison may be underselling Jin. Legend of the Condor Heroes alone has spawned a slew of TV series, multiple video games and at least four movie adaptations of varying fidelity, including Wong Kar-Wai’s elliptical Ashes of Time. That might not seem to rival the footprint left by Tolkien until you consider how prolific Jin was as a novelist, penning 14 major works, many of which have spawned their own long list of TV shows, movies, comics, video games and parodies. Estimates of total books sold vary – especially when piracy is taken into account – but many put the figure at 300 million or more.
Also compared to Alexandre Dumas for his swashbuckling sense of historical heroics, with Chinese characteristics, Jin Yong in many ways occupies the place in Chinese culture that comic-book legend Stan Lee holds in America: the creator of a pop-culture universe of characters and tropes still omnipresent decades after their creation. Much like Lee, Jin gained his fame not as an inventor of a genre but as the refiner of one: what Lee did for superheroes in the 60s, Jin did for the wuxia genre with a series of martial arts adventures published in the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao from the 50s through to the 70s.
It may be Jin’s genre of choice that explains why such a popular novelist has until now gone with only a few translations from academic presses. Literally translated as martial heroes or martial chivalry, wuxia focuses on wandering warriors with fantastic abilities gained from their studies of the martial arts. Think less Bruce Lee, more Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
While this genre might not be especially familiar in the West, reading just a few pages of A Hero Born, the first book of the Legend of the Condor Heroes series (confusingly described as a trilogy despite encompassing 12 books in its English translation), proves just how easy it is to get into. As translated by Holmwood, Jin’s prose and storytelling are clear and direct, free of any pretentious language that might accompany its historical setting. The book’s plotting is dense and absorbing, while its characters are easily distinguished and almost entirely lacking in interior life.
It’s not hard to see how Jin’s work has been adapted so many times for the screen. Jin gives the novel’s many fight scenes lengthy, blow-by-blow break downs, like in this late encounter between a young girl and an older master:
“Tiger Peng’s style was to mix feigned and real moves, switching between the two at great speed. His eighth was just such a false strike to the left as he lunged to the right. Lotus had expected him to do just the opposite, and come in on his left despite faking a right. She had meant to dodge to her left, Tiger Peng’s right, but after Gallant Ouyang’s cry, she dipped low and sailed right. It was a most elegant move, everyone could see that.”
There are a lot more fight scenes like this, and your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for loving descriptions of martial prowess. The plot of A Hero Born centers on a pair of orphaned boys as they’re trained in the martial arts during the decline of the Song dynasty. There are a ton of characters thrown into the mix, but the main protagonist is Guo Jing, a kind-hearted, filial and determined boy – if a bit dull-minded – who is being trained by a group of warriors delightfully known as the Seven Freaks of the South, as part of an 18-year bet they made with an arrogant but patriotic Taoist priest.
If that sounds convoluted, it feels a lot less so while actually reading the book. Jin deftly switches between characters and places, ranging from southern China up to the Mongolian steppes. There were points in the novel when it was clear how shamelessly Jin was manipulating me as a reader, but I still didn’t care because of how good he was at it. A Hero Born is built upon a ridiculous lattice of coincidences: you can’t go anywhere, from a rural village to the top of a remote mountain, without accidentally running into a master martial artist. In fact, just about everyone is a kung fu master, with the exception of onlookers, unfortunate soldiers and the mothers of kung fu masters.
“Jin was shamelessly manipulating me as a reader, but I still didn’t care because of how good he was at it”
In a novel where characters’ command over their qi allows them to sweat out poison and leap up cliff faces, these coincidences still strain credulity. If you can accept them, however, the abundance of encounters between martial artists can be quite fun. It also allows for plenty of opportunities to showcase some of the more interesting tropes that readers are likely to recognize from kung fu movies. There is a rich sense of egalitarianism in the idea that any beggar could be a secret master in disguise, and more gender equality than you might expect from a Chinese novel from the 50s, with women playing a far more active role than in almost any Western equivalents from the period.
Agile, powerful heroines (often disguised as men) are a major hallmark of the wuxia genre – one of the most famous wuxia films, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, essentially inverts the standard action movie narrative with a female heroine who keeps saving her male lover from danger. While A Hero Born stays firmly focused on its male heroes, a side effect of making almost all its characters martial artists is that as the story develops, female characters reveal themselves to be no less capable than the men.
Another feature that helps to distinguish the book from Western adventure narratives is its emphasis on training. Whereas American heroes tend to be special by birthright alone – Luke Skywalker inherits the force, Superman’s Kryptonian legacy makes him more powerful than any man – the martial arts genre usually has a very Chinese emphasis on hard work. In a reflection of its emphasis on traditional virtues, A Hero Born is no exception. Its hero Guo Jing spends a lot of the book’s four hundred pages training under various masters, and by the end of the book he’s still far less powerful than most of the martial artists that populate its pages. When Guo confesses that “I practice day and night and I still can’t do it,” we can guess what the answer is: more practice! When Guo is eventually pitted against a naturally skilled but less hard-working rival, it’s clear where the sympathies of the novel lie.
Even if the moral is an old-fashioned one – hard work breeds success – it still feels effective within the world of the novel. It’s not hard to see why people may roll their eyes at Jin’s work, but it’s equally easy to understand why he is so popular. Beyond the novelty of wuxia novels in English, its notable how Jin’s take on Chinese history is more complex than many of the films that drew from him, as he splits his sympathies between Han Chinese and Mongol, Song and Jin dynasties. Ultimately, A Hero Born shows that Jin is not just the Chinese Tolkien or Dumas or Lee. He’s an entity all his own, and if we’re lucky we’ll get to see more of his world. ∎