The Legend of Jin Yong
China’s most popular author created mythical universes that enchanted billions of readers. He also changed pop culture forever
louis cha, whose pen name was Jin Yong, is likely unknown to most English-speakers, but his martial arts novels have been translated into dozens of languages, selling more than 300 million copies (1 billion if bootlegs are included). Until his death at 94 on October 30, he was China’s most widely read living author and arguably its most influential.
Often called the J.R.R. Tolkien of China, Cha was a master of the wuxia genre, set in the world of kung fu chivalry and popularized in the West by films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy. Wuxia’s roots extend back centuries, but Cha revitalized the genre—which combines fantasy, romance, history and the mythic archetype of good and evil—with extraordinary energy and strong, complex female characters. His plots—preposterous at times but also enchanting and richly imaginative—are best represented in his magnum opus, Legends of the Condor Heroes, which takes place in 13th-century China. Cha lived long enough to see the epic trilogy’s opening installment, A Hero Born, published in English for the first time in March.
“It’s difficult to overestimate his cultural influence,” Boston University professor Petrus Liu told NPR. “He turns novels into an encyclopedia of Chinese history, medicine, geography, philosophy, mathematics .... Nobody ever does that.” Liu regards Cha as “the most important author of modern Chinese literature, because he is the only [one] who writes in a narrative tradition
that is truly Chinese.”
Liu, who considers the comparison to Tolkien limiting, compares Cha’s popularity and relevance instead to Jane Austen. For one thing, there are “only six novels to work with, but the movies never quit coming,” he said. And, like Austen, the inexhaustible “emotional richness” of Cha’s work helps explain the plethora of ways in which the books have been adapted (into films, TV series, video games and comics).
The author was born in China but moved to Hong Kong before the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover, co-founding the daily newspaper Ming Pao in 1959 (he also served as editor-in-chief). His early novels, including the first—1955’s The Book and the Sword—were serialized; his last martial arts book, the final volume of The Deer and the Cauldron, was published in 1972. A lifelong advocate for democracy, he had one secret fan back home: Communist leader Deng Xiaoping, who, according to rumors, had secret agents smuggle Cha’s novels in from Hong Kong.
Hashtags relating to his death topped 1.7 billion posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and fans held a candlelit vigil in the city of Xiangyang, in central China, where his novels were often set. One fan posted, “The world he created represents the dreams of this generation, the one before and many more. At the end of every story, the spirit of chivalry and justice is felt. I hope this spirit will continue to be passed down.”
Wrote another: “I read your books during class, hidden in my desk. You were with me for my entire youth. You’ve left now, but you are still here.”
HERO WORSHIP Comparing Cha to other writers, like J.R.R. Tolkien, is misleading, say fans. “,t’s difɿcult to overestimate his cultural inʀuence.”