Generations of Chinese readers have been captivated by the novels of Jin Yong.
Will ‘China’s Tolkien’ succeed in the West?
In stature and in style, he’s often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien.
His 15 novels have sold at least 300 million copies combined, and are hailed as the “common language” of the Chinese-speaking world.
While he’s a household name in Asia, his fame hasn’t spread to the west – not yet, at any rate.
But a new translation of his work might change all that.
Jin, whose real name is Louis Cha, is considered the maestro of the wuxia genre, a form of martial arts-heavy fantasy literature set in historical China.
His worlds are inhabited by heroes and villains well-versed in kung fu techniques like “18 Dragon-subduing Palms” and “Nine Yin Skeleton Claw” – and his work explores themes including chivalry, love and nationalism.
His novel “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” is arguably his most popular work, and a new English-language translation of the first volume of the novel was released in February, bringing Jin's world to mainstream readers in the English-speaking world.
A native of Zhejiang province, Jin moved to Hong Kong in 1948 and founded the influential newspaper Ming Pao in 1959. Many of his editorials were highly critical of Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution period from 1966 to 1976.
His novels were banned in turn. But one of Jin Yong's earliest readers in mainland China was none other than Deng Xiaoping, the leader who pushed for economic reforms and opening-up in the 1970s and 80s.
Jin's cultural influence can be felt across Asia. Through television and movie adaptations, video games and comics, Jin's work has become a cultural cornerstone.
Four years ago, the then-90-year-old novelist gave a rare interview to Nick Frisch, a doctoral student at Yale’s Council on East Asian Studies. Inkstone talks to Frisch about the unique charm of Jin’s novels and the reasons he remains largely unknown in the West.
Inkstone: Why did you want to interview Jin Yong?
Nick Frisch: The European and American markets enjoy reading literature from other cultures, so I found it strange that somebody so famous and beloved in one great cultural tradition like China could be so anonymous in the West. From that, I became very interested in his background and literary legacy.
Inkstone: Do you think that Jin Yong cares about his relative anonymity in the English-speaking world?
Frisch: He's extremely proud of his position as a beloved writer to all Chinese-speaking people. I think that a part of him may know that his books have this very Chinese quality that might make them difficult to translate to western languages. Any writer would like to be famous in other languages, but on the other hand I think he likes the idea that he is considered such a classical Chinese writer who understands the Chinese mentality. If you look back through the years, there have been a few efforts to start translating his books into English. For whatever reason, there was never a breakthrough translation of one of his books: until now with the new translation of volume one of “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” by Anna Holmwood.
Inkstone: What's the most surprising thing you discovered during the interview?
Frisch: He told me that Master Hong of the Mystic Dragon Sect, the antagonist of his last novel “The Deer and The Cauldron,” alludes to Chinese leader Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution [Hong is a cult leader with superlative martial arts skills, but he is also ruthless and loves nothing more than power and flattery]. If you look at his past statements on the matter, he never completely denied it, but said that fiction that satirizes only an individual moment in politics would not have lasting value. But using allusions is a big tradition in Chinese literature, and he was so involved with current events as the editor of Ming Pao. He was threatened during the Cultural Revolution and was put on an assassination list by the communist underground. He had to leave Hong Kong briefly for safety.
Inkstone: Do you think that Jin Yong's novels will be popular in the West?
Frisch: His work is very useful as introduction to Chinese culture. In a world where China is going to be ever more important, not just as a political or economic or military power, but also as a cultural power, the way the Chinese look at their own history and their place in the world is going to become relevant to other countries. I think it will benefit us to have great novels that represent aspects of Chinese history and culture in ways that are more accessible than dense academic books.
The interview has been condensed and edited.