If you have been paying attention to new Chinese literature in translation in the past couple of months, you have surly seen announcements and reviews for the first English translation of The Legend of the Condor Heroes 射鵰英雄傳 by the famous Hong Kong author Louis Cha 查良鏞 (*1924), who better known by his pen name Jin Yong 金庸. The first installment of Condor Heroes now published is called “A Hero Born” and the translator is Anna Holmwood. I have yet to read this novel, so I can’t say anything about the book in Chinese or English. Rather, this post is to talk about Jin Yong’s oeuvre and how it was framed in the reviews to appeal to a Western audience. A caveat: My understanding of Jin Yong novels is based on the 2003 adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 天龍八部 and the first few chapters of A Deadly Secret 連城訣, which I am reading at the moment. (This is a very poor basis for a book review. Kids, don’t do that at school!)
The reviews on “A Hero Born” face the daunting task of introducing a new audience to a whole universe that is very much based in Chinese history and tradition. The wuxia 武俠 elements may be traced back to classics such as Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin), with strong fighters that adhere to a very specific “chivalrous” conduct. The backdrop is firmly rooted in Chinese history, that would be familiar to a Chinese reader, but completely foreign to a Western one. (A failure of our school systems exclusive focus on European and Post-Columbian North American history perhaps?) As a Sinologist I was very fascinated by the use of the complex political landscape of the Northern Song 北宋 (960–1127) in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, where the leaders of Dali 大理, Yan 燕, Jurchen 女真, Western Xia 西夏 and Liao 遼 (Khitan 契丹), as well as various spies and ambassadors contributed to a layered and varied storytelling, with groups of bandits, monks and assassins making the chaos complete.
This was the universe I pictured in my mind, when I read the first of many reviews to claim that Jin Yong’s novels are “the Lord of the Rings of Chinese Literature” and the author as “China’s Tolkien“. And I asked myself: How? How does a storytelling universe based on historical tradition compare to a fictional world that was created for its story? How do the complex relationships between characters, the power play of various groups and the conflicting loyalties the characters face compare to a novel featuring a character that is the ultimate enemy? Was this comparison made, simply because there are fantastic elements in both of them? Unfortunately, there is a tendency among literary critics to not take novels in the “fantasy” genre seriously, to disregard nuances and subgenres (often lumping it together with science fiction on top of that) and picture the readership as predominantly young adults. Is this what happened here?
I had sort of forgotten about this awkward comparison until I saw a summary of Alexandre Dumas’ (1802-1870) The Three Musketeers (1844) on youtube in the excellent playmobil reenactment by “Sommers Weltliteratur to go” (in German only).* Only knowing The Three Musketeers from the excellent movies featuring Michael York and Richard Chamberlain (and other movies which, while fun, weren’t nearly as good), I learned now that this story was originally published as a serial, with new chapters published separately. (Again, don’t do this at home kids. I do not assume that I have “read” The Three Musketeers after having seen some movies and a youtube summary.)
As Martin Sommer was retelling the back and forth of the story that was full of sword fights of the four protagonists against whole armies, d’Artagnan repeatedly falling in love, betrayals, power plays, hidden connections between characters etc., I was very much reminded of the style of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils: larger than life heroes destroy whole enemy armies, one protgonist falls repeatedly at love at first sight, characters get betrayed by those closest to them, tragic deaths lead to dramatic vengence plots and secret relationships between characters are constantly uncovered. At every turn the stakes are high and they only get higher. This breathless tension is unfortunatley coupled with a clumsy writing style, lack of in-depth world-building and an overall YA novel or soap opera feeling in the main characters approach to relationships.
Just like Dumas, Jin Yong published his works in installments. Both of them were professional writers dependant on publications for their income and even both hired other writers as ghostwriters: Auguste Maquet and Ni Kuang 倪匡 respectively. They needed to keep the readers interested in every installment; slowly building up towards a climax or crafting a complex story was not possible. They were the exact opposite to J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) who took almost 20 years to slowly write his masterpiece and argue with publishers about proposed cuts and volume titles while continuing his day job. The stories they wrote reflect their fast writing and publication process. And before you complain about the lack of the supernatural in The Three Musketeers as compared to Jin Yong’s works: I personally never gave up on a book because there was too much or too little magic in it. I did give up on books, because I did not like the style of writing.
I don’t think that the works of Jin Yong should need to be framed in terms of a “corresponding Western novel” to be considered worthy of our time. To me, the very fact that they are unlike the books I read as a kid or teenager makes them more interesting. But I understand that for some readers it might be helpful to have some idea of what they will get themselves into and I think telling them Jin Yong’s oeuvre was “the Chinese Lord of the Rings” is misleading. Instead: Think Three Musketeers, think constant excitement, adventure, love triangles and sword fights set against a romanticized historical universe. Not one giant epic story that is given time to grow, but fun and excitement in every single installment.
Jin Yong’s works in the original Chinese can be bought in many reprints across the Chinese-speaking world.
Jin Yong, A Hero Born, Vol.1 of Legend of the Condor Heroes, translated by Anna Holmwood, MacLehose Press 2018.
Alexandre Dumas on gutenberg.org (page currently blocked in Germany)
*Many thanks to my colleague Andrea Kreuzpointner for alerting me to the fact that playmobil reenactments are a thing.