MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
It begins with a storyteller, with news from the north, a tale of crushing defeat and humiliation, a great Chinese Empire in tatters and fleeing south.
It begins with a court corrupt to the core, willing to sacrifice the Chinese people to the invading Jurchen tribes for the chance of gold and escape.
It begins with two patriots, two farmers self-taught in the martial arts, and one Taoist priest determined to avenge their deaths.
It begins with two sons, still in their mothers’ bellies when their fathers are slain, divided and taken into enemy hands, brought up far away from their Chinese motherland.
This is the start of an explosive epic of courage, honor, and justice by one of the world’s best-loved writers.
You are about to begin a journey that will span the lengths of the Chinese Empire and beyond, traverse centuries, and witness dynasties rise and fall in brutal wars and deceitful invasions, brave men fight and die for their homeland, and traitors exchange honor for personal gain. You will meet young men and women with remarkable kung fu skills, and you will encounter gruff men who, despite appearances, always respect the code of honor that governs the martial arts world. You will be amazed by semi-celestial animals, magic medicinal concoctions, and poison-tipped weapons. You will come face-to-face with princes who manipulate and mothers who are easily manipulated, men whose love is undying and women whose hearts never err.
Jin Yong was the pen name of Louis Cha, born in Zhejiang Province in China in 1924. As Jin Yong, his fictional universe has captured the imagination of generations of Chinese readers ever since his first novel appeared in serialized form in the Hong Kong newspaper New Evening Post in 1955. He went on to write fourteen novels, most of which are in fact the length of several novels by modern publishing standards, and one final short story. These epics, of which Legends of the Condor Heroes is considered one of his best, quickly cemented Jin Yong’s reputation as a master of the wuxia genre, which can be roughly translated as “martial heroes” literature. The genre has its antecedents in some of the earliest vernacular writing found in Chinese. Although disparaged by some early commentators, elements now considered fundamental to this literature have been argued to be present in great works of “serious” literature such as Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji). Wuxia fiction’s counterculture credentials have, however, always formed a large part of its appeal. While there are features that feel familiar to us from western chivalric literature, the martial arts fighters who populate Jin Yong’s books are often lone figures from the lower levels of society rather than members of court, who burn with a strong sense of justice and righteousness, or sometimes mere ego and greed.
Unashamedly entertaining, even to this day some have wished to write martial arts fiction off as merely the stuff of pulp, but with Jin Yong’s writing came a serious challenge. Born into a wealthy landowning family later stripped of their wealth under Maoism, Louis Cha attended law school before turning to journalism after moving to Hong Kong. Yet this was merely the start of a life of learning, which saw him gain two PhDs in his eighties, one on Tang dynasty history at Cambridge University and one in Chinese literature at Peking University. The depth of his knowledge of Chinese history and the classics of Chinese writing are evident everywhere in his novels. Furthermore, his body of writing has given rise to an area of academic study all of its own, known as Jinology.
Remarkably, you hold in your hands the first edition of Legends of the Condor Heroes to have ever been published in English in the United States. Considering that he has sold in the hundreds of millions and his reputation extends over most of East Asia, it is astonishing that it has taken sixty years to get here. Why, may you ask? Many have considered Jin Yong’s world too foreign, too Chinese, for an English-speaking readership. Impossible to translate. The fact that it hadn’t been done was proof that it could never be done.
I first came across Jin Yong in my first term of reading Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford University. I was still stuck in the rudimentaries, shakily tracing my first characters and trying to sound out the correct tones of ni hao, hello. Even then, without a hope of being able to read them, Chinese friends were telling me about their favorite author. “You must read his books! I’ve loved them since I was a child,” I kept hearing. It was to take me another three years of intensive study to even dare to open one and try. And instantly, I was hooked. With a dictionary by my side, I started to wander great emotional landscapes of love, loyalty, honor, and the power of the individual against successive corrupt governments and invading forces.
It was to be some years later, however, that I would actually try to translate Jin Yong’s writing. I had published a few translations of contemporary Chinese novels already and was starting out on my career as an agent representing Chinese writers when I got the chance to try pitching and translating Legends of the Condor Heroes. I was convinced that it would work in English, that people would fall in love with these stories the way Jin Yong’s readers had in China if only they got the chance. The supposed “untranslatability” of it seemed strange to me, as the fundamental emotional worlds of these characters felt as universal as any story could hope to be. And yet … my first attempt was a disappointment, dry and flat. The action felt dead on the page. I was beginning to understand why it was considered difficult. After months of work, edits, and feedback from the agent I was working with, we had a draft that was ready to be shown to editors. And the reaction was instant. Six publishers were keen, but one of the UK’s most eminent editors was determined to have it for his list. Before I knew it, I was embarking on a full-length translation.
It was, and as I continue through the series continues to be, a life-defining challenge to translate these books. Jin Yong’s status, his many, many, many adoring fans, and their expectations have worn heavy on my shoulders. But my greatest debt lies to you, the English reader, those of you who cannot pick up an original copy and discover Jin Yong on his terms alone. Perhaps this is always the hardest part of being a translator. To me, the most important thing is to try to re-create the feeling of reading Jin Yong in Chinese, the pace, the excitement, the emotional highs and lows. There will be words and concepts unfamiliar, quotations from ancient verse and philosophical texts alongside amusing set pieces and great humor. These are the things that make Jin Yong a master, my shifu if I may presume to call him such, because he can combine the profound and the comical like no other. In 2018, we lost Louis Cha. But we will always have Jin Yong, and his legacy lives on now in ever more languages around the world.
So, dear reader, all that is left is to enter through these pages into a universe at once fantastical and based on real historical events, one both foreign and intimately familiar, a story full of heart and of remarkable physical prowess.
SUDDENLY A SNOW STORM
The Qiantang river stretches from the west, where its waters swell day and night, past the new imperial capital of Lin’an and the nearby Ox Village, on to the sea in the east. Ten cypresses stand proudly along its banks, their leaves red like fire. A typical August day. The grasses are turning yellow beneath the trees and the setting sun is breaking through their branches, casting long, bleak shadows. Under the shelter of two giant pine trees, men, women, and children have gathered to listen to a traveling storyteller.
The man is around fifty, a pinched figure in robes once black, now faded a blue-gray. He begins by slapping two pieces of pear wood together, and then, using a bamboo stick, he beats a steady rhythm on a small leather drum. He sings:
“Untended, the peach blossoms still open,
As misty, fallow fields draw the crows.
In times past, by the village well,
Families once gathered to vent their sorrows.”
The old man strikes the pieces of wood together a few more times and starts his story.
“This poem tells of villages, where ordinary people once lived, razed by Jurchen tribes and turned to rubble. One such story concerns Old Man Ye, who had a wife, a son, and a daughter, but they were separated from one another by the invasion of the Jin. Years passed before they were reunited and could return to their village. After making the perilous journey back to Weizhou, they arrived to discover their home had been burned to the ground by enemy forces, and they had no choice but to make for the old capital at Kaifeng.”
“The heavens unleash unexpected storms,
People suffer unforeseen misfortune.
“Upon arrival,” he continues, “they encountered a troop of Jin soldiers. Their commanding officer spotted the young Miss Ye, by now a beautiful young maiden, and eager to capture such a glorious prize, he jumped down from his horse and seized her. Laughing, he threw her onto his saddle and cried, ‘Pretty girl, you are coming home with me.’ What could the young Miss Ye do? She struggled with all her might to free herself from the officer’s grip. ‘If you continue to resist I will have your family killed!’ the man shouted. With that, he picked up his wolf-fang club and smashed it down on her brother’s head.
“The netherworld gains a ghost, just as the mortal world loses one more soul.” He breaks again into song.
“Old Man Ye and his wife threw themselves on top of their son’s body, weeping and sobbing. The commanding officer raised his wolf-fang club and once again brought it down on the mother, and then once more on the father. Rather than cry or plead, the young Miss Ye turned to the soldier and said, ‘Sir, rest your weapon, I will go with you.’ The soldier was delighted to have persuaded her, but just as he let down his guard the young Miss Ye grabbed the saber from his waist, unsheathed it and held the point of the blade to his chest. Was she about to avenge her family’s death?
“Alas, it was not to be. Being experienced on the battlefield, the soldier knew that if he took a deep breath, tensed his muscles and pushed against the blade, she would tumble to the ground. Then he spat in her face. ‘Whore!’
“But young Miss Ye brought the blade to her neck. That poor, innocent girl.
A beauty made of flower and moon,
And so was taken the sweetest soul that night.”
He alternates between singing and speaking, all the while beating his small drum with the bamboo stick. The crowd is entranced by the old man’s words; they snarl with rage at the soldier’s cruelty, and sigh at the young girl’s sacrifice.
“Dear friends, as the saying goes, ‘Keep honest heart and ever gods in mind. For if evil deeds go unpunished, only evil doth one find.’ The Jin have conquered half our territories, killing and burning, there is not an evil deed they have not committed. And yet no punishment is forthcoming. The officials of our great Empire are responsible for this. China has plenty of men, healthy and willing to fight, yet every time our army faces the Jin they turn and run, leaving us peasants behind to suffer. There are stories, a great many stories just like this one, north of the Yangtze. The south is a paradise in comparison, but still you live each day in fear of invasion. ‘Rather be a dog in times of peace, than a man in times of trouble.’ My name is Old Zhang, thank you for listening to the true story of young Miss Ye!”
The storyteller bangs together the two pieces of pear wood and holds out a plate to the crowd. Villagers shuffle forward and drop a few coins onto it. Old Zhang puts the coins into a pocket and starts gathering his belongings.
As the crowd disperses, a young man of about twenty pushes his way up to the storyteller. “Sir, did you just come from the north?” He is short but strong, with two hairy caterpillar eyebrows stretched across his brow. He is from the north; it can be heard in his accent.
“Yes,” the old storyteller answers, surveying him.
“Then may I buy you a drink?”
“I dare not receive such favor from a stranger,” comes the old man’s reply.
“After a few drinks we will no longer be strangers.” The young man smiles. “My name is Skyfury Guo,” he says, before pointing to a handsome, smooth-faced man behind him. “And this is Ironheart Yang. We were listening to your story, and we enjoyed it very much, but we would like to talk with you, ask you some questions. You bring news from home.”
“Not a problem, young man. Fate has brought us together today.”
Skyfury Guo leads the storyteller to the village’s only tavern and there they sit down. Qu San, the owner, hobbles to their table on his crutches and sets down two jugs of warmed rice wine, before returning to fetch snacks of broad beans, salted peanuts, dried tofu, and three salted eggs. Afterward, he sits down on a stool by the door and gazes out as the sun dips lower toward the horizon. Out in the yard his young daughter is chasing chickens.
Skyfury Guo toasts the storyteller and pushes the simple snacks toward him. “Here, please eat. Out in the countryside, we are only able to buy meat on the second and sixteenth days of the month, so I’m afraid we have none tonight. Please forgive us.”
“The wine is enough for me. From your accents it seems that you are both from the north?”
“We are from Shandong province,” Yang replies. “We came here three years ago after the Jin invaded our hometown. We fell in love with the simple life in the south, as well as the people, and stayed. You said before that the south is a paradise, with only fear of invasion to disturb the peace. Do you really think the Jin will cross the Yangtze?”
The old storyteller sighs. “It is as if gold and silver covers the ground, everywhere your eyes are met with beautiful women, such is the richness and enchantment of the south compared to the north. There isn’t a day that passes that the Jin do not think about invading. But the final decision lies not with the Jin but with the Song Imperial Court in Lin’an.”
This surprises Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang. “Why do you say that?”
“We Han Chinese outnumber the Jurchen by more than a hundred to one. If the Imperial Court decided to employ honest and loyal men, our great Empire would prevail. With one hundred of our men against one of their worthless soldiers, how could the Jin army win? The northern half of our country was handed to them by three generations of useless Emperors, Huizong, Qinzong, and Gaozong. Grandfather to grandson, they all entrusted our country to corrupt officials who oppressed the common people, and purged all the mighty generals who wished to fight the Jin. Such a beautiful land and they gave it away! If the Imperial Court continues to fill its grand halls with corrupt officials, then they may as well kneel before the Jin and beg them to invade!”
“Exactly!” Skyfury Guo slams his hand down on the table, rattling the bowls, plates, and chopsticks.
Ironheart Yang notices their jug of wine is empty and orders another. The three men continue cursing and drinking as Qu San goes to fetch them yet more broad beans and tofu.
“Huh!” Qu San snorts, placing the dishes on the table.
“What is it, Qu San? You disagree?”
“Good cursing! Great cursing! Nothing wrong with that. But do you suppose it would have made any difference if the officials had not been corrupt? With such useless Emperors, generations of them no less, it would have made no difference if the officials had been as honest and good-hearted as the Buddha himself.” He turns and shuffles to his stool in the corner, from where he goes back to gazing at a sky now filled with stars. Qu San has a young face for his forty years, but his back is hunched and wisps of white are threaded through his black hair. From behind he looks like an old man, much aged since losing his wife. He moved to Ox Village only a year or so ago with his daughter, fleeing painful memories.
The three men look at each other in silence, until presently the storyteller speaks. “Yes, you are right. That is quite true.”
Bang! Skyfury Guo slams his hand down on the table once again, this time knocking over a bowl of wine. “Shameful! Disgraceful! How did these sorry excuses for men ever become Emperor?”
“Xiaozong succeeded Gaozong,” the storyteller replies with renewed energy, “and Guangzong succeeded him, and all the while the Jin have controlled half of China. Now Emperor Ningzong has succeeded Guangzong. And all he does is take orders from Chancellor Han. What is our future? It’s hard to say.”
“What do you mean?” cries Skyfury Guo. “We are in the countryside, not Lin’an. No one is going to cut your head off here. There is not a person in the whole of China who does not call Chancellor Han a crook!”
Now that the topic has moved on to current politics, the old storyteller is beginning to feel nervous and dares not speak straight from the heart as before. He downs another bowl of rice wine and says, “Thank you, gentlemen, for the wine. But before I go, may I offer a modest word of advice? I know you are both passionate men, but still, it is best to be cautious in both word and deed. This is the only way to avoid calamity. With things as they are, the best we normal folk can hope to do is muddle along. Ah, it is just like the old song:
Surrounded by mountains, dancing in halls,
The shores of West Lake echo in song.
Southern fragrances entice and intoxicate
As drunkenly our noblemen mistake Lin’an for Kaifeng!”
“What’s the story behind that song?” Yang asks.
“There is no story,” the old man says, pushing himself to his feet with great effort. “The officials care only for parties and pleasures, and as long as that is the case, they won’t be trying to recover the north any time soon.”
And so the drunken storyteller takes his leave.
Copyright © 1957 by Jin Yong (Louis Cha)
English translation copyright © 2018 by Anna Holmwood
Illustrations copyright © Jiang Yun Xing