Jianghu, or “rivers and lakes”, is an imaginary world where knights, hermits and hooligans fight and coexist.
The value upheld there is xia, a combination of courage, justice and self-sacrific
This world is never a hideaway from the real one. The heroes fight for the disadvantaged against evil, defend their country in wartime, and even re-examine their narrow nationalism and learn to understand the peoples and cultures that they oppose.
Their social concern is summed up as jiaguo, which literally means “home and country”.
What’s more, the ups and downs in their love stories can be as sweet and twisted as their relationships can be in real life.
The journalist-turned-novelist who created this world, Louis Cha Leung-yung, better known by his pen name Jin Yong, died in Hong Kong on Tuesday at age 94.
Cha is probably the best-known and most widely read contemporary author in the Chinese-speaking world. His 15 novels have sold at least 350 million copies, while he also has a huge body of adaptations for TV series, films, games and animations to his name.
He was a newspaper editor who filled the pages of supplements with his first stories, and rode the success of his novels to found his own newspaper, Ming Pao, in 1959. Many Hong Kong writers and intellectuals published their first works in this paper, of which Cha was editor-in-chief for 30 years.
His ideals fascinated his publishers abroad more than martial arts. Christopher MacLehose, a veteran of the profession in London, published Legends of Condor Heroes in the United Kingdom in February. He said, “The story he tells is part of his view and opinion. I think it’s inaccurate to simply call it martial arts fiction.”
Albert Yeung Hing-on, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Novelist Association, who was Cha’s secretary at Ming Pao in the late 1980s, said readers can find Cha’s personal values and philosophy in his novels’ characters, and Duan Zhengming in The Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is the one closest to the real Cha.
“Duan is a benevolent and wise monarch from Dali. He is highly skilled in martial arts. In his old age, he abdicates and becomes a monk,” Yeung said. Cha himself sought self-improvement over fame and wealth. In his 80s, he enrolled at the University of Cambridge to pursue a PhD in Oriental Studies, Yeung said.
Cha had “a bit of a stammer” but was fluent and scintillating with his writing, Yeung said, adding, “He preferred writing to talking.”
“When I worked as his executive secretary at Ming Pao, he wrote down the instructions on a note and passed it to me. If he thought I had done a good job, he would send me a note of praise, while seldom talking to me in the office. He treated other employees in the same way,” he said.
“Maybe that’s because speaking Cantonese made him nervous. He was most comfortable with the Jiaxing dialect, from his hometown.”
Born in Haining, Jiaxing, East China’s Zhejiang province, in 1924, Cha divorced twice before marrying Lin Leyi in 1976.
Cha was surrounded by family members when he died at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital.
The author, who lived on Hong Kong Island for the most of his life, describes in his novels the magnificent landscapes of the Chinese mainland, especially the Mongolian Plateau. Yeung said, “The scenery is so beautiful and the writing widens our imaginations.”
Weijie Song, associate professor of Chinese Literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said Cha also intentionally focuses on the ethical, and cultural crisis in the transitions from the Song to Yuan and Ming to Qing dynasties, and explores topics including the ethnic conflict between Han and non-Han peoples, the collective memory under colonial rule, and broad and narrow nationalisms.
According to Petrus Liu, associate professor of comparative literature at Boston University, Cha’s works contain an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Chinese history, medicine, geography, cosmology and even mathematics.
Chun Chun-fai, the author of Hong Kong studies on Cha’s novels, said that in the 1980s many people born in Hong Kong were studying abroad. They returned to the city to work, but knew little about Chinese culture. It was Cha’s novels that allowed them to understand the spirit that Chinese society promoted and to appreciate the charm of Chinese literature.
“The novels carry Hong Kong people far from our busy daily lives. They lead us to a world of chivalry with knight-errant heroism, drawing us away from anxious, fast-paced society,” Chun said.
Cha’s trilogy Legends of the Condor Heroes begins in 1205, just before the Mongol conquest, and ends more than 150 years later.
British novelist Marcel Theroux told The Guardian of the trilogy: “I felt a slight regret that I was coming to it in my fifth decade. It would be a wonderful invitation into a lifelong enthusiasm for China, its history and civilization, its vast and chronically misunderstood presence in the world.”
The first volume of Legends of Condor Heroes was published in February before being reprinted seven times. The Irish Times hailed it as “A Chinese Lord of the Rings”. The second volume is due out in January.
Copyright for the first volume has been sold to the US, Germany, Italy, Finland, Portugal and Hungary. Cha’s works have been translated into English, Korean, Japanese, French, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Thai.
Ying Mathieson, publisher at ACA Publishing in London, said Cha’s works resonate with a Western audience because his writing is centered on emotions such as love, anger, sadness and happiness, which are shared across every culture.
“For this reason, international readers can immediately identify with emotions depicted through his writing — even if they understand nothing about Chinese culture,” she said.
Anna Holmwood, translator of the first volume of Legends of Condor Heroes, said the Mongolian setting “acts likes a gateway to Western readers into the Chinese setting and historical background”.
“The Chinese people have perhaps felt that their culture has long been neglected. Now, it’s a time when they can feel confident about their place in history and their culture in the world. Sometimes it’s that exact uniqueness that creates the selling point.”
Cha believed in the power of words. In his last novel, Deer and Cauldrons, he wrote a paragraph of commentary that seemed unrelated to the story’s development.
It read: “He (the hero) was just a hooligan and got most of his literary education through storytelling, which was based on the historical epics written. The knowledge was enough for him to plot and change the political scene. Throughout Chinese history so many writers wrote great, thoughtful works. The power of writing is tremendous.”
Cha lived from writing throughout his life. He started working for the Ta Kung Pao newspaper in Hong Kong in 1948, and began authoring kung fu series in 1955. His works won immediate acclaim.
After publishing three successful novels, he founded Ming Pao in Hong Kong in 1959. In the paper’s early years, Cha wrote many of its front-page stories and editorials.
The paper flirted with bankruptcy but was kept afloat by its must-read fiction supplement, which serialized other writers’ novels as well as Cha’s.
A Ming Pao statement said: “Thanks for Cha’s contribution during the initial stages of Ming Pao, the newspaper survived and has kept serving readers for 59 years. His passing away is definitely a great loss for Ming Pao, Hong Kong’s journalism industry and the Chinese literary world.”
Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, said on Tuesday: “Professor Cha is also highly regarded in the newspaper industry with decades of experience in it. He founded Ming Pao in his early years and also wrote editorials with constructive comments on society, earning the respect of the sector.”
Lam said Cha also served in public office in Hong Kong, being a member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee before the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hui Kei, a Hong Kong columnist who worked at Ming Pao several years ago, said, “Despite relatively low salaries, Ming Pao is still a popular choice for youngsters looking for a job”.
Apart from its professionalism, he said another reason is that the newspaper is willing to recruit diversified talent, including Hui himself, who had never studied journalism before.
Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong deputy to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislature, worked with Cha on the Basic Law Drafting Committee in the 1980s.
Tam said the proposal Cha put forward back then with fellow committee member, Hong Kong industrialist Cha Chi-ming, on electoral arrangements for the city’s chief executive and legislators had contributed to the stable development of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s political system.
Tam said Cha was familiar with the political affairs of the day, was quick-minded and put forward many suggestions to the committee.
Death is a topic that features often in Cha’s novels. In one scene in Heavenly Sword Dragon Slaying Sabre the heroes are cornered and chant: “What is the happiness of life and what is the bitterness of death? We have done good and uprooted evil. All the luck, joy, sadness and suffering are going to ashes. People are pathetic as they worry too much.”
At the end of almost every novel, Cha would set a scene where the hero left the jianghu.
In The Return of The Condor Heroes, he wrote: “Suddenly Yang Guo (the hero) stood up and said to the crowd: ‘We have had a good drink, and it is time to say goodbye.’ He waved the sleeve of his robe, took the hand of his lover and they went down the mountain shoulder to shoulder in the company of the condor.
“The moon was clear in the sky and the breeze swept the leaves in the tree. Crows on the tree top were making a noise. Guo Xiang (his admirer) could not hold her tears anymore and cried.”