This genre in Chinese literature has probably remained unknown to the Western world until Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon hit the big screens in Hollywood. Going by Western classification, this genre would probably go under fantasy. I would call it fantasy+historical romance.
Growing up in the 1970s, I was quite familiar with the tacky Hongkong sword-fighting flicks by Cho Tuck Wah et al. The dialogue was all in Cantonese. The plots were always quite predictable. Bad guy kills a family. The baby was rescued by some kungfu master who lives in the mountains. He trains the child to become a top pugilist. The child grows up and descends from the mountain to avenge his parents’ death by killing the bad guy.
From all these mediocre scripts, a star emerged. A migrant from Zhejiang Province by the name of Cha Liang Yong was working for a HK newspaper. In 1955, he wrote a series of fantasy swordfighting stories entitled “Book & Sword” 书剑恩仇录 under the pseudonym of Jin Yong 金庸. No more predictable stories of carnage and revenge. Interesting characters, convoluted plots and historical authenticity made “Book & Sword” an instant hit in 1955. Jin Yong continued to write serials in the newspaper he worked for. The serials were compiled into novels which remained bestsellers for many years.
When television in Hongkong was flourishing during the late 1970s, a bold attempt was made to dramatise Jin Yong’s novels. Words are just words. They work well with readers with a lot of imagination, but how about actually fleshing out those complex characters and exotic settings on screen? Given the technology back then, it was a challenging task to say the least. Apart from convincing props, special effects, stunts and fighting scenes, the directors and producers had to mobilise “armies” to make the scenes look authentic. Admittedly, they are not very good by today’s standards, but they followed the original plot quite faithfully. The result? Engaging TV serials that had teens and adults alike hooked to Channel 8 every evening.
Below is a list of Jin Yong’s novels written over the years. How many can you recognise? We can see that he stopped writing 40 years ago. Even then, his books are still selling and more incredibly, nobody managed to dethrone him as the greatest Wuxia 武侠 writer of all time. He has retired with a fantastic passive income.
An aspiring writer at age 16, I’ve attempted writing the genre in English on pieces of foolscap paper. My friends enjoyed reading them, but I’ve not written any of such stories ever since. A local writer actually published a Wuxia novel in English in the 1990s. I didn’t read his book, but it was a flop. Perhaps it’s the timing. I suspect he might have better luck with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon fans in America today.
I’ve often been asked which my favourite Jin Yong novel is. I have to say that it’s Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre 倚天屠龙记. Many people have the same favourite as this particular novel by Jin Yong has been made into dramas countless times and dubbed in Bahasa Indonesia.
And my favourite scene from the story is the video embedded above. Why? Because somehow, I can identify with Zhang Wu Ji. Not that I practise 九阳神功, but I only know too well how it feels to be misunderstood and wronged by the self-righteous and “orthodox”. Not to mention the numerous cranky and grumpy aunties like Mie Jue that I have to deal with in real life. Indeed, time seems to stand still when you exchange stares with a beautiful stranger destined to become another cranky auntie.
Wuxia is not just about fighting and martial arts. Under Jin Yong’s pen, it has become fantasy, adventure, “history” and romance. We can be sure that the stories were all fabricated by Jin Yong. But when we suspend our disbelief as we immerse ourselves in a novel, every scene becomes convincing and familiar; a reflection of our hopes, fears, angst and fantasies. The glorious past that we can imagine today is always more beautiful than what actually happened in the past. Even for a piece of history we’ve actually lived through, our memory fades and blurs the details. Sometimes, the result is an ethereal treasure that we can only touch with our imagination.