The Leg­end of Jin Yong

China’s most pop­u­lar au­thor cre­ated myth­i­cal uni­verses that en­chanted bil­lions of read­ers. He also changed pop cul­ture for­ever

Newsweek - - Culture | Books - BY BREN­DAN COLE @bren­dan­mark­cole

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.”

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