It would be grossly unfair to go by the The Irish Times’s endorsement of A Hero Born, the first instalment of Jin Yong’s most popular wuxia series, Legends of the Condor Heroes: “A Chinese Lord of the Rings.” If they could, JRR Tolkien, and Louis Cha Leung-yung, the world’s most widely read Chinese author, who wrote 14 novels as Jin Yong, would roll their eyes at us from the great beyond. The global publishing industry has got to do better than treat fantasy fiction of different cultures as one homogenous unit whose names are interchangeable because they might refer to similar themes. Dear reader, abandon all preconceived notions when you are about to embark on this wildly enjoyable and nearly unputdownable novel, that, for many, will serve as a gateway to wuxia fiction.
Wuxia — meaning martial heroes — is a genre in Chinese fiction, set in ancient or pre-modern China, that revolves around the adventures of practitioners of martial arts. And native readers in the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam will tell you that nobody wrote them better than Yong, a journalist who published editorials and serialised novels in newspapers such as the New Evening Post and his own, Ming Pao, for over 17 years. Legends of the Condor Heroes is not his first offering, but at 12 volumes spread across three epics, it is his most enduring work. Over the years, there have been several fan-translated versions of the trilogy, but the Maclehose edition with Anna Holmwood is the first official English translation of the grand saga.
The year is 1205 AD and the Song empire has been fighting a losing battle against the Jin invaders from the north, who have steadily gained ground, and whose young princes, Wanyan Hongxie and Wanyan Honglie, will stop at nothing to build the empire they want, even if it means teaming up with an ally they can’t entirely trust — the Great Khan Temujin (who will later be known as Genghish Khan), of the Mongolian steppes.
Caught in the crossfire are the Yangs and the Guos, sworn brothers and martial artists whose families are torn asunder, and scattered across the region. Guo Jing, son of Skyfury Guo, is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but a chance encounter with the Seven Freaks of the South changes his life forever. The soldier in the Great Khan’s army is then trained in seven forms of kung fu by seven shifus, but little does he know that it is all for a bet the Freaks had placed with a Taoist master, who set up a combat with his student, Wanyan Kang, not long after the boys were born.
A word to the wise: before sitting down to read A Hero Born, it is imperative to take a trip back to 1978, when some of the best and most enduring kung fu films were made. Films such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (directed by Lau Kar-leung and starring Gordon Liu), Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (directed by Yuen Woo-ping, starring Jackie Chan) and Drunken Master (also directed by Woo-ping and featuring Chan) can be viewed as essential background material. Although the book comes with a few illustrations, without these visual references, it will be nearly impossible for a layperson to conjure images of Yong’s elaborate and detailed fight sequences, each boasting of new characters who introduce new moves and new weapons.
Given its expansive length, Legends of the Condor Heroes defies easy categorisation — it is a family drama, a coming-of-age story, a brief history of the wulin (community of martial heroes), a redemption tale — all rolled into one. While the style of the prose might take a while to settle into, there are no complaints about the pacing of the plot. Yong’s mastery lies in the way he uses the wuxia setting to examine the class structure of ancient China, a place not unlike any other in the way prejudice works, but martial arts allows for a semblance of equality. One of Guo’s teachers, Zhu Cong, says, “The martial arts are without limit. Every peak sits under the shadow of another, so every man may meet one stronger than himself…Never strip a mountain bare and you will not want for firewood.”
One of the great joys of reading A Hero Born lies in encountering Yong’s female characters. Barring one or two, they are martial artists who defy expectations, within the narrative and out of it, too. One of the most exciting villains to grace fantasy fiction has got to be Twice Foul Dark Wind, a woman so skilled in the art of destruction, and kills with such finesse, that Yong’s prose shivers in anticipation of her next move.