The Jianghu – literally, “Rivers and Lakes” – is the parallel universe in which martial arts fiction is set. It is a universe that often intersects with our own: real historical figures sometimes appear in it, and it often incorporates real places and events. The sprawling casts of characters in martial-arts novels mirror the complications of real-life extended families in the Confucian tradition, just as the feuds and rivalries between factions mirror the skirmishes and wars between clans which have occurred throughout China’s history.
But there are also crucial differences between the jianghu and the world we know. Many aspects of social organization are absent, and individuals – both heroic and otherwise – define their own morality. The characters are generally larger (or smaller) than life, capable of superhuman feats in controlling their own qi (vital energy), and gender is 10 somewhat more fluid than it is in the workaday world. Exotic martial skills are elaborated fantastically, and those who have mastered them take equally exotic and fantastical noms de guerre, such as “East Heretic” or “West Venom”.
Supernatural forces can come into play. Most striking of all, the conventional laws of physics can be suspended: when the need arises, these people can fly. The literary genre dates back at least to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), when various orally transmitted tales about the heroes of a rebellious uprising against the government of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126 AD) were formalized into the prose romance translated as The Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh. (Louis Cha explicitly situates his own martial-arts novels in a tradition dating back to the oral storytelling of the Song Dynasty.)
Jianghu romances became massively popular in the late Qing Dynasty and in early republican China (the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the western calendar), and by the late 1920s many had been adapted for the movies. In fact wuxia pian – “martial chivalry films” – were the most popular indigenous Chinese genre produced by the Shanghai film industry in its early years, and some stories were spun out to twenty or more feature-length episodes.
The genre was banned by Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT government in 1931; it was seen to risk promoting sedition and lawlessness. The communist government which came to power in China in 1949 was no more friendly towards the genre than the KMT had been, but jianghu novels and films made a spirited comeback in the Hong Kong of the 1950s – an example soon followed by Taiwan. Jin Yong (Louis Cha) began serializing jianghu theme novels in 1955, achieving great popularity and gradually emerging as the greatest writer the genre had even produced. A little lower in the pantheon sits the Taiwanese jianghu novelist Gu Long, best known in the west for the long series of films made from his books by Chu Yuan at Shaw Brothers in the 1970s and 1980s.
And while these new novels were appearing, many classics from the 1930s and earlier were reprinted, creating a new generation of fans and genre historians.
One of the famous jianghu theme writer, Louis Cha – published twelve martial-arts novels between 1955 and 1972 under the penname Jin Yong. The novels first appeared as serials in newspapers and were later published as books, in some cases running to five volumes. Unlike some other writers in the genre, Cha always anchors his fictions in specified historical periods. His novels have been adapted many, many times – as films, as TV serials, as comic-strip graphic novels, and latterly as computer games. The third of them was The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1957- 59), collected in four volumes, which contains the characters Dongxie (East Heretic) and Xidu (West Venom).
Louis Cha was born in 1924 in Zhejiang Province, China. He came to prominence in Hong Kong after the war as the founder and publisher of the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao Daily News – still the territory’s most respected and authoritative independent broadsheet. He later also founded and published the Shin Ming Daily News in Singapore. Aside from his fiction under the name Jin Yong, he has written political commentaries, journalism and historical essays; he has also served on various public bodies and played an active role in Hong Kong’s intellectual life. He retired from his publishing empire shortly before Hong Kong reverted to China’s sovereignty. An exceptionally cultured man, steeped in Chinese history, he is also a scholar of Buddhism. He is Wynflete Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and an Honorary Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He holds an honorary degree as Doctor of Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, and an honorary degree as Doctor of Literature at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him the O.B.E. and France has made him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
Despite these many honors, his fiction still goes unmentioned in most western synoptic accounts of Asian literature. This is partly because English translations have begun to appear only since 1993, and partly, no doubt, because of snobbish prejudices against genre literature. But the ‘Jin Yong’ novels, revered in Chinese communities throughout the world, develop a very ancient Chinese oral and literary tradition. Beyond their value as entertainment, they are refined and sophisticated commentaries on the philosophical traditions of Buddhism and Taoism, and analyses of the on-going struggle for a mature Chinese cultural identity. 12