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