Originally published on Rue89.com-12/29/2007 –
Shrug of shoulders, condescending looks, these are the reactions that may create the mention of Chinese martial arts novels.The release two months ago one of masterpieces of the genre, “Tiger and Dragon” by Wang Dulu in the elegant translation of Solange Cruveillé leads to a more subtile evaluation.
The origins of this “wuxia” literature go far in the past: the knights-errant were not soldiers or nobles, their origin was irrelevant, they could rent their swords to protect convoys, but what distinguished them was their sense of justice, loyalty and honor. In this, they belong to the great tradition of Confucius, while sometimes placing personal loyalty above that due to the family.
The turbulent history and invasions from the north, political and religious secret societies, the Shaolin monks and monasteries as refuge, the struggles of the faithful during the dynastic changes, all these themes will be used by this literary tradition.
There is a direct relation with the Ming storytellers or the great classical novels as “The Water Margin”. The marshes of Mount Liang in the novel, the first attempt to create this world of imagination, the “world of rivers and lakes”, a setting of many novels of martial arts.
The modern kung fu novel follows the literary revival after the May 4, 1919 movement and the establishment of the Republic, but the will to break with the traditional Confucian family values create difficulties with the censors. This situation will be aggravated with the People’s Republic where these books were regarded as “poisonous weeds” and banned.
The golden age of the genre will develop in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the years 1950-1970. Major writers are Wang Dulu, Gu Long and above all Jin Yong . Their personalities are totally different.
Wang Dulu and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: Born in 1909 in Beijing in a poor Manchu family; after a number of different jobs, he began writing detective or sentimental novels in 1930, then sixteen novels of martial arts until the establishment of the People’s Republic. He will then become a professor. This did not save him from trouble during the Cultural Revolution; he died in 1977. The cycle of five novels “Iron Crane” (the bird is the symbol of immortality) is best known. The episode which has just been published is the first volume of the first episode, the second volume is expected to follow this year. The film by Ang Lee is based on the fourth episode of the cycle.
Gu Long and “The four bandits of Huabei”: the author was born in Hong Kong in 1937 but has lived in Taiwan. After some studies at university, he found work with the U.S. military in Taipei and started to be published in 1960. His personal life was very hectic and after a second divorce he went through a phase of depression which worsened his alcoholism. He died prematurely at age 48 and that was the number of bottles of XO cognac that his friends brought at the funeral … The novel “The four bandits of Huabei” was published in 1990 by Editions Philippe Picquier. The style is very different : many dialogues, very basic backdrops: hostel, small towns, mountains, hideouts. Heroes are not part of great episodes in history as with Jin Yong. The dramatic turn of events, as always, is the essential means to hold interest. The friendship between heroes is the essential value on the fringe of society. Gu Long wrote nearly seventy novels, sometimes towards the end with a co-author. The success was important and numerous TV series and movie adaptations led the author to create his own studio.
Jin Yong and “The Legend of a heroe, an eagle hunter”: this is a monument, an author who has sold one hundred million books and more if you count the huge pirate production; he is also a newspaper publisher and a politician.
Louis Cha (pen name) was born in 1924 in the south of Shanghai, in a well known family of scholars. After studying foreign languages and law, he started his career as a journalist for a newspaper in Shanghai, which sent him to Hong Kong which he will never leave.There he met Liang Yusheng who became a famous writer of martial arts books which unfortunately are not translated. Under his influence, he wrote in 1955 “The Book and the Sword.” Thirteen novels will follow up to the last one ” The Deer and the Cauldron” in 1972. These two novels have been translated into English by a leading translator, John Minford (who published a translation of one of the finest novels of world literature “A Dream of Red Mansions”).
In 1959 the “system” Jin Yong is taking place, he founded the newspaper “Ming Pao”, which publishes both his editorials and his serialized novels. The success of the novels and the newspaper is spectacular and, after 1972, Louis Cha dedicates himself to the revised and “official” edition of his novels that find new audiences in post Mao China. Radio, television and cinema adaptations and more recently video games are an important economic activity in the world of Chinese culture. In 1993, he sold his shares in his newspaper, his wealth is estimated to 60 million Euros.
Many honors; honorary professor of the largest Chinese universities and Oxford and Cambridge. The French government grants him several decorations. Many politicians of China and Taiwan are regular readers and Deng Xiaoping was one of his fans. His works are one of the topics of the Chinese literary critic, but the “jinologie” does not make him immune to bitter controversies. Wang Shuo a writer in Beijing, talented but a bad boy, blows the horn in 1999: “Jin Yong clumsily fabricated characters, widely disseminated by movies and TV shows (…)who give to the world a wrong image of the Chinese people”. The controversy also highlighted the infantile character of these novels which lead to escape from reality.
This controversy did not hurt these successful novels. It is also interesting to see the specialized websites where users from around the world, publish on line their own translations of the novels, exchanging thousands of messages, trying to create communities.
Jin Yong, style and values:
The novels take place during historical crises well known to Chinese readers. Heroes do not look for honors but their patriotism leads them to outstanding acts.Moreover to save “widows and orphans, is a duty for the righteous and valiant” .
The style, descriptions, dialogues are much more elaborate. It is also interesting to note his admiration for the values of the invaders from the north which are very different from the decadence of the imperial administration. It is also clear that this cultural nationalism is also defined against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Woman has an important role in the novel, she is independent, a seasoned fighter, sometimes more intelligent than the hero Guo Jing, the eagle hunter.
The values of martial arts literature were analyzed by Nicolas Zufferey, professor at the University of Geneva, in the volume “Thinking in China today,” directed by Anne Cheng, which includes many outstanding articles.
Confucianism and martial arts:
It does not seem obvious to bring martial arts novels and Confucianism together. The scholars are certainly not valued in these novels and Taoist influences seem more present. However, many values are in accordance with Confucian morals: filial piety, loyalty due to the master and the other disciples, authoritarian vision of the clan and society. For N. Zufferey, “number of models and values in this literature overlap those of Confucianism and offer a vision of a society that should be in some respects an authoritarian regime.”
Similarly, several films (“Hero”, for example, by Zhang Yimou, 2003), underline explicit relationships between formation of the Han nation, nationalism and martial arts. As said by N. Zufferey: “Martial arts novels, offering a romantic vision of the Chinese past, contribute to national pride and perhaps to the rise of nationalism,” or that ” we do not try here to criminalize martial arts literature but simply to note that the resurrection of this kind of literature on the continent comes with the rise of neo-authoritarian and nationalist discourses. “
It is possible that in the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew, who promotes “Asian values” and an authoritarian conception of democracy, the fact that Jin Yong texts are in the program of students studying Chinese,is not only motivated by the desire to entertain these students …