The “Lord of the Rings” of Chinese literature is finally being translated into English

Jin Yong meets a fan in Chengdu in 2004.
Jin Yong meets a fan in Chengdu in 2004.
Image: Reuters/China Photos
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The world imagined by Chinese writer Jin Yong is one which celebrates loyalty, courage, and the triumph of the individual over a corrupt and authoritarian state—carried out by no less than heroes who fly through trees and deliver deadly blows to their enemies with a single finger.

It’s a world familiar to many readers of wuxia (martial-arts related fiction) writer Jin Yong, a pen name for Louis Cha, the best-selling author in the Chinese-speaking world. Though Cha’s fantasy worlds rival J.R.R. Tolkien’s every bit in creativity, breadth, and depth, his works remain relatively unknown to English readers because of a conspicuous lack of translations. Now his Condor Trilogy (1957), arguably the most celebrated of the 93-year-old writer’s works, is finally getting translated into English.

Like Tolkien, the themes of justice and heroism are also central to Cha’s works. But unlike the British writer’s fantasies about hobbits, elves, and orcs, Cha’s world is in fact rooted in China’s past, a sort of historical fiction that reimagines alternative “what if” scenarios in history. Legends of the Condor Heroes, the first book of the Condor trilogy, is set in 1205 in the Southern Song Dynasty of China, at a time when the Han Chinese population faced continuous attacks from the northern Jurchen Jin dynasty, as well as from Genghis Khan’s Mongols. The story centers around two heroes, Guo Jing and Yang Kang, the sons of two close friends who bonded over their fierce resistance against the Jurchen invaders, and who want their boys to be sworn brothers. Guo is taken in as a child by Genghis Khan’s army, but eventually comes to fight against the Mongols.

“Most of his novels are Bildungsroman, in which a young hero experiences numerous ordeals and romance, and gradually grows to be a perfect hero who not only has the ability of fighting evil and saving the world, but also embodies parts of Chinese culture, such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism,” said Liu Jianmei, co-author of The Jin Yong Phenomenon and a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The characters in Cha’s world—who have colorful names like the “Seven Freaks of the South” and “Immortal Cloud Sect”—operate in what is known as the jianghu, a term that is familiar to Chinese speakers and any reader of wuxia fiction but difficult to translate into English. The word literally translates as “rivers and lakes,” but is typically used to mean people who live in a world parallel to conventional society, one that operates by its own laws and code of ethics. It is closely linked to another wuxia term, the wulin, or “martial arts forest,” referring to a community of people practicing martial arts.

A still from an adaptation of “Legends of the Condor Heroes” by Hong Kong broadcaster TVB in 1994.
A still from an adaptation of “Legends of the Condor Heroes” by Hong Kong broadcaster TVB in 1994.
Image: Screengrab/TVB

Indeed, one of the reasons that Cha’s novels have for so long lacked English translations despite his popularity in the Chinese-speaking world is that it was simply deemed too difficult.

“Translating Jin Yong is often a daunting task because of the complexity of his language, which integrates prose and poetry and makes extensive use of ‘four-character phrases’ and other Chinese idioms in order to recreate the ‘feel’ of traditional Chinese vernacular novels,” said Petrus Liu, associate professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Boston University.

The first volume of the first book of the Condor trilogy, A Hero Born, is translated by Anna Holmwood. All in all, the trilogy will be translated into 12 books in English. Sweden-based Holmwood worked in collaboration with a UK agent to find a publisher for Condors in 2012, pitched as a Chinese answer to Lord of the Rings. The book was picked up by London-based publisher MacLehose Press, and is scheduled for a February 2018 release. Translating A Hero Born alone took a year and a half, Holmwood said; another translator has been brought on to continue with the next volume.

Holmwood said that many Chinese fans of Jin Yong have been “quite obsessed” with how she would translate the myriad names of martial arts moves in the novels in particular. Some of the translations used by Holmwood include “Branch Beats the White Chimpanzee,” “Nine Yin Skeleton Claw,” and “Lazy Donkey Roll”—a move whose true strength is belied by its apparent softness, she explained.

Though Cha’s novels, characters, and martial arts moves are now recognized across the Chinese world, for many years his 15 martial arts novels were off limits to the vast majority of Chinese speakers. Cha moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1949, the same year the Chinese Civil War ended and the communist-ruled People’s Republic of China was founded. He continues to reside in Hong Kong today.

In Hong Kong, Cha founded Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao, which was seen as an anti-Communist publication back then—today Ming Pao is still viewed as one of the most well-regarded newspapers in Hong Kong. Cha serialized his novels in the newspaper. He was also a vocal critic of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966, and as a result his literature was banned in China.

His works were also banned until 1979 in Taiwan, because the then-ruling military government felt it saw communist influences (links in Chinese) in some of Jin Yong’s works.

The turning point came with the accession of the reformist Deng Xiaoping to power in China. In 1981, Deng, who was reportedly a fan of Cha’s novels, invited him and his family (link in Chinese) to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People for a meeting, and Cha’s novels were allowed in mainland China (paywall) in 1984. Cha’s popularity in China was also boosted by a series of television adaptations of his books by Hong Kong’s main Cantonese-language broadcaster TVB in the 1980s.

Today, evidence of Cha’s influence can be found in China in the most unlikely of places. For example, Chinese e-commerce pioneer and Alibaba founder Jack Ma is a huge fan of Cha, and martial arts more generally. Ma adopted the nickname Feng Qingyang, a swordsman from one of Cha’s books, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (1967). Alibaba’s values are also dubbed “Six Vein Spirit Sword,” a reference to Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1963). Employees at Alibaba have nicknames based on Cha’s novels, or other martial-arts characters.

Cha hasn’t written a novel since the 1970s, and rarely makes public appearances anymore due to frail health. But the lessons of Cha’s novels are still as relevant as ever.

“In an age of the Paradise Papers and everything, people can appreciate when the people in power are after the money and not the well-being of the everyday man,” said Holmwood. “There’s a universal desire to imagine that the powerless can prevail, and kick their ass with a spinning kick.”