Best­selling au­thor of sto­ries seen as al­le­gories for the tyranny of the Chi­nese com­mu­nist regime

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - Jin Yong Mar­cel Th­er­oux

The au­thor Louis Cha, who has died aged 94, be­gan writ­ing fic­tion to fill pages in a Hong Kong news­pa­per. Se­rial pub­li­ca­tion had been a path to suc­cess for a hand­ful of writ­ers be­fore him, but he can have had lit­tle inkling of the im­pact his sto­ries would make.

Un­der the pen name Jin Yong,

Cha be­came one of the best­selling authors in the world. His tales of itin­er­ant martial artists bat­tling evil over­lords in the tur­bu­lent years of Song dy­nasty China were the apoth­e­o­sis of the genre known in Chi­nese as wuxia: the world of kung fu chivalry.

There had been wuxia sto­ries be­fore Cha, just as there were pi­rate sto­ries be­fore Trea­sure Is­land, but, like Robert Louis Steven­son’s clas­sic, Cha’s books tran­scended the genre in which they were con­ceived, of­fer­ing mul­ti­ple and para­dox­i­cal plea­sures. They were es­capist en­ter­tain­ment for hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple, and yet they could be read as al­le­gories for the tyranny of the com­mu­nist regime in China. While never ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal, they also cel­e­brated China’s past at a time when at­tacks on “the Four Olds” (old cus­toms, cul­ture, habits and think­ing) by Mao’s Red Guards threat­ened to de­stroy the coun­try’s cul­tural pat­ri­mony.

Cha (Zha Liangy­ong) was born in Hangzhou, in east­ern China, the sec­ond of seven chil­dren of Zha Shuqing and Xu Lu. Like a char­ac­ter in one of his sto­ries, he found his for­tunes ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­tered by the tur­bu­lent course of China’s his­tory. Af­ter the com­mu­nists took power in 1949, Cha’s fa­ther was ex­e­cuted and the fam­ily es­tate con­fis­cated. Cha, who had be­gun a ca­reer in jour­nal­ism in Shang­hai in 1947, had moved to Hong Kong the fol­low­ing year.

He con­tin­ued to work as a jour­nal­ist and in 1955 be­gan writ­ing his wuxia sto­ries, which en­joyed im­me­di­ate suc­cess. In ad­di­tion to sell­ing mil­lions of copies, his books have been adapted many times for tele­vi­sion pro­grammes, films and video games.

Cha’s fic­tion is set in the his­tor­i­cal mi­lieu of me­dieval China in the years lead­ing up to its con­quest by the Mon­gol leader Kublai Khan.

The no­tion of an an­cient em­pire on the verge of con­quest and the tests of loy­alty faced by its sub­jects sug­gested ob­vi­ous par­al­lels with con­tem­po­rary China.

How­ever, Cha re­sisted ad­mit­ting that his fic­tional cre­ations had any rel­e­vance, oblique or other­wise, to events on the Chi­nese main­land. Much later in his life, he con­ceded that as­pects of his work were in­deed al­le­gor­i­cal. “Mas­ter Hong of the Mys­tic Dragon Sect? Yes, yes – that means the Com­mu­nist party,” he ad­mit­ted to an in­ter­viewer from the New Yorker. His pre­vi­ous ret­i­cence had not stopped peo­ple see­ing cor­re­la­tions be­tween fig­ures in his books and China’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, nor from us­ing his char­ac­ters as an Ae­sopian de­vice for get­ting around the coun­try’s strict cen­sor­ship laws.

What­ever Cha’s po­lit­i­cal in­ten­tions, his books were ini­tially loved for their all-ac­tion sto­ry­lines, vivid evo­ca­tion of pe­riod and lov­ingly de­scribed martial arts set pieces. They are steeped in Cha’s in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm for the minu­tiae of tra­di­tional martial arts and the es­o­teric lore of Taoist in­ter­nal alchemy. How­ever, what gives the books their en­dur­ing power – in ad­di­tion to the eerie sense that the world he de­picted is a dis­tant mirror of 20th-cen­tury China – is Cha’s gen­eros­ity of vi­sion. He in­stinc­tively en­dowed his fe­male char­ac­ters with com­plex­ity and put them at the heart of the sto­ries and in the thick of the com­bat.

Af­ter the prag­matic Deng

Xiaop­ing came to power and be­gan lay­ing the foun­da­tions for the coun­try’s eco­nomic rise, Cha was one of the un­ex­pected ben­e­fi­cia­ries. Tra­di­tional martial arts and the lit­er­ary genre cel­e­brat­ing them found them­selves once more in favour. Cha’s books were pub­lished in the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic and won a vast new au­di­ence. His epic Le­gends of the Con­dor He­roes, pub­lished in 12 vol­umes from 1957 on­wards, even­tu­ally be­came re­quired read­ing in Chi­nese pri­mary schools.

In his jour­nal­ism, writ­ten for the news­pa­per he founded in Hong Kong af­ter his first suc­cess, the Ming Pao Daily News, Cha opined frankly and crit­i­cally about the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in China. Dur­ing the 1960s, his crit­i­cism of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion earned him death threats from ac­tivists in Hong Kong sym­pa­thetic to the Red Guards. The threats were con­sid­ered cred­i­ble enough for him to go into ex­ile for a while.

Af­ter the bloody crack­down on the stu­dent democ­racy pro­test­ers in Tianan­men Square in 1989, Cha wrote many ed­i­to­ri­als de­nounc­ing Bei­jing’s ac­tions. As a lit­er­ary and moral emi­nence in Hong Kong, he was asked to be in­volved in draw­ing up the agree­ment set­ting out the con­di­tions for the han­dover of the ter­ri­tory to China in 1997. He was sub­se­quently crit­i­cised for be­ing too ac­com­mo­dat­ing to Bei­jing and be­tray­ing the ter­ri­tory’s as­pi­ra­tions for democ­racy.

In 2010 he earned a doc­tor­ate in Chi­nese his­tory from St John’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, and then, demon­strat­ing the even-hand­ed­ness of one of his fic­tional Taoist masters, went on to study for one in Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture from Pek­ing Univer­sity. He also en­dowed a schol­ar­ship at St John’s for the study of China’s dy­nas­tic his­tory.

For most of Cha’s life, there was no con­certed at­tempt to bring his work to an English-speak­ing au­di­ence. The pub­lish­ing con­sen­sus ap­peared to be that Cha’s vi­sion was too rooted in the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of Chi­nese his­tory and cul­ture to find favour with a for­eign au­di­ence.

How­ever, ear­lier this year the first English trans­la­tion of A Hero Born, vol­ume one of his mag­num opus, Le­gends of the Con­dor He­roes, was pub­lished in the UK.

Cha is sur­vived by his third wife, Lam Lok Yi, and by a son, An­drew, and two daugh­ters, Grace and Edna, from his sec­ond mar­riage.

Jin Yong (Louis Cha/Zha Liangy­ong), writer, born 10 March 1924; died 30 Oc­to­ber 2018

Like a char­ac­ter in one of his sto­ries, he found his for­tunes ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­tered

Jin Yong in 2011. His fic­tion was set in me­dieval China in the years lead­ing up to its con­quest by the Mon­gol leader Kublai Khan

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