Jin Yong: A Legend of Wuxia Literature

On the evening of Oct. 30, wuxia writer Jin Yong passed away at 94.

The New Yorker made a fair remark: “Of course, there were other wuxia writers, and there was kung-fu fiction before Jin Yong. Just as there was folk music before Bob Dylan.”

Wuxia literature gives birth to an imaginary world for martial artists in ancient China, where they have different schools and tenets to abide by.

There were countless adaptations to Jin Yong’s works, from screenplays to movies, TV series, and even games, but none is comparable to his original literary works in terms of excellence and intricacy.

four adaptations of the legend of the Condor Heroes

Jin Yong is his pen name, and his real name is Louis Cha. His life, just like his characters’, is but a mixture of what could be described roughly as switching between a secular and monastic life.

Jin was born in Haining, Zhejiang Province in southern China, and chose to settle in Hong Kong in the mid-1940s. He studied foreign policy in school and worked as a journalist before becoming a well known novelist. Back then, Ta Kung Pao, the oldest active Chinese language newspaper in China, was recruiting journalists across the country, and there were over 3,000 applicants competing for only two positions. Jin was then hired for his outstanding performances, and began to work as a telecommunications translator.

Later, he started his own paper called Ming Pao with his high school classmate. His second wife also joined the founding team. It was also around this time that Jin began to publish his novel “The Condor Heroes” on a personal column in Ming Pao.

Jin Yong

Through Ming Pao, Jin tried to convey four beliefs of his, which are strong patriotism, Confucianism, anti-war ideologies, and conservatism (against radical attempts to change the established order).

These beliefs are also found to be deeply rooted in his works. Jin is especially good at creating paradoxical settings for his characters. Lots of his fictional characters were born in a warring period of the history, and were, more often than not, confronted by dilemmas of having to choose between their own happiness or the well-being of their nation.

In one of his most popular works, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, the hero Qiao Feng, slit his own throat in front of the two armies of the Han Chinese-dominated Song Empire and the Khitan-led Liao Empire in hopes of putting an end to the conflict of the two sides. His sacrifice brought decades of peace for the two countries afterwards. He was a tragic hero, similar to the ones depicted in ancient Greek literatures. He had always wanted to live a tranquil and peaceful life with the love of his life Azhu, raising sheep and cattle away from the hassles of life, but gave in to the tragic destiny that lay before him.

Qiao Feng

Throughout the ages of ancient Chinese history, writers and martial artists have always been faced with making a choice between living a secular or monastic life. This means they had to choose whether they wanted to be politically involved or take part in the chaotic disputes of Jianghu, or live in seclusion from societal affairs, banished into a spiritual or religious retreat to faraway lands.

Jianghu is more or less the essence of wuxia literature. But what is it exactly?

According to Kaiser Kuo, Jianghu is the name of the brotherhood of outsiders that existed in ancient China. It is the counter-culture society of workers who made their living with the skills of their own two hands: craftsmen, beggars, thieves, street performers, fortune tellers, wandering healers, and many martial artists. In ancient China, where education was valued over physical ability, this was the lowest rank of social order. Mainstream society belonged to the Confucian scholar-officials. Its underbelly was jianghu. Jianghu tradition still influences martial arts to this day.

In short, they can be outcasts of societies who have not forsaken their own faiths and beliefs. Quite like a verse from the poem Renovation of the Yueyang Building of the Northern Song Dynasty, “And as an exile as he would be ,he would still preserve his fixation upon the sovereign and his lord.”

Love and Hatred in Jianghu

Though crowned as the most successful wuxia writer of this century, Jin also had his woes in his love affairs during his younger days.

Once interviewed by a reporter about his young love, Jin responded by saying that the most important thing to him was freedom. “When I was younger, I also did what I can to woo a girl. She did not love me, but I really loved her, which consequently lead to my own deprivation of freedom. If I can choose to not love her, then I’d be set free. But it is really impossible for me.”

The girl he mentioned is Xia Meng, (the pseudonym is the dream of the summer in Chinese, taken from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a Hong Kong actress of astonishing beauty. Throughout his life, the writer had three marriages, but Xia has been an unforgettable woman in his heart. But sadly when he met Xia, she was already happily married.

“What’s so special about Jin Yong’s novels is his depictions of love, an unpredictable word that could ascend you to heavenly heights and drop you down to the depths of hell as well.” The late Chinese female writer San Mao commented on Jin’s works.

His personal emotional experiences must have inspired his writings. Unlike other famous wuxia writers including Gulong, Jin has always been more keen and exquisite in depicting the romance between characters. Some of the couples do live happily ever after, but often find themselves mixed up in miseries and complicated affairs.

In the Legend of the Condor Heroes, Zhou Botong, the old Peter Pan, is one of the most humorous characters in the book. Having been imprisoned in the Peach Blossom Island for decades, he became more naive and crazier than ever. In his youthful years, he was paying a visit to the emperor of Dali when a concubine of the emperor, Ying Gu, fell in love with him studying martial arts together. But he realized that it was an act of betrayal to have made love to her and thus had to flee. To that, Ying’s hair turned grey in just one night.

Ying Gu, Zhou Botong and the emperor of Dali

Ying had been searching for him for over twenty years. When she finally found him, she couldn’t let him go out of her sight. It’s so pathetic to fall in love with an old child, who knows nothing except for practicing martial arts.

“Four weaving machines, the weaving of mandarin ducks desires to fly together right away. It’s a pity not yet old but the hair on the head has turned white. When the green spring grass ripples in the deepest of dawn’s cold; standing face to face taking a bath wearing red clothes.” Jin Yong used this pitiful poem from Song dynasty to describe their love story.

She made him a handkerchief embroidered with mandarin ducks, which is a symbol for undying lovers in Chinese culture.

What is love, you ask, that makes one say ’til death do us apart.

Among the many broken hearts in his novels, one character Li Mochou caught me deeply.

Li Mochou, also known as the “Red Fairy”

In the return of the Condor Heroes, the second book of the trilogy, she was an infamous and cold-blooded killer, yet a drop dead gorgeous beauty at the same time. Even her enemies fell easily at the mercy of her beauty. One of the techniques she invented to kill people is the Palm of Divine Serpent, which contains venomous extracts from five of the most poisonous creatures, including a centipede, a scorpion, a snake, a spider and a toad.

However, ever since she was betrayed and abandoned by her lover at a young age, she changed completely and became vicious, cruel, and unforgiving. She would hunt down anyone even with a similar name to her rival in love.

In the end, facing death, she sang in the fire, an old verse, “What is love, you ask, that makes one say ’til death do us apart.”

What is most fascinating about Jin’s writings is his ability to infuse mundane life stories into every character, hero, villain, peddler and emperor alike. Before becoming legendary figures in Jianghu, his characters all had their own moments of heartbreaks and broken promises, whether these heartbreaks were ones of love or hatred. And it is precisely in these mundane parts of their lives that we see the divine sparks of humanity.