Thirteenth-century China is a time of mayhem, when wandering heroes and martial masters must choose their side in a conflict between the Jurchen Jin invaders from the North and the dispersed and submissive remains of the Song dynasty.
The protagonist of A Hero Born, Guo Jing, is stirring in his mother’s womb when, during a snowstorm, a Daoist called Qiu Chuji arrives at the village of his father Skyfury Guo. During his brief visit, this martial monk manages to name and bless the Guo offspring in utero, thus acting as the catalyst for the legend about to begin, while killing off the entire Jin search party chasing him:
“Before he had landed on the horse’s back, he had already slices his sword straight through the officer’s back to the base of his spine. Qiu Chuji threw the body from the horse, grabbed hold of the reins, and started to chase the others, his blade dancing silver against the grey-white of the storm.”
After the monk leaves, another military search party arrives, the families of Guo and his sworn brother Yang are scattered, the men presumed dead, and the pregnant women flee into the frozen night. This snowy scene, with its hints of legends to come and its effortless and terse account of breathtaking bravery and consummate violence is typical of the entire novel, which chronicles the birth and early boyhood of Guo Jing, the son of Skyfury Guo, as he grows up, exiled with his mother to Mongolia.
In these post-postmodern times where nothing is simple and even the superheroes of our childhood struggle with emotional traumas (Spiderman—and indeed any man—has the right to a god cry now and then), it is refreshing to meet literary characters that are so completely and uncomplicatedly heroic. This does not mean that there is no romance: A Hero Born contains several examples of pacts made in love and death as well as martial couples such as Zhang Asheng and Jade Han of the Seven Freaks of the South, or Copper and Iron Corpse—also known as Hurricane Chen and Cyclone Mei—the two evil masters of necromantic Nine Yin Skeleton Claw kung fu:
“‘My dear harpy, are you alright?’ Hurricane Chen called over. ‘They blinded me!’ Cyclone Mei growled back from where she was slumped against a tree. ‘Bastard husband of mine, if you even let one of these scoundrels go, I will kill you myself.’”
What could be more romantic than that?
While Jin Yong (pen name of Louis Cha) remains one of the best-selling authors on the Chinese language market, he has yet to reach the same fame in an anglophone context, despite the translation into English of several of his works (The Book and the Sword, The Deer and the Cauldron, Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain). There are instances, however, where parts of Jin Yong’s fictional universe have already entered global popular culture. One such example is the technique of qinggong or lightness kung fu:
“Sabre, spear, ship and axe; Guo Jing’s eyes darted between them. His only weapon was his lightness kung fu as he danced between the blades.”
Through the medium of Hong Kong martial art films, for which Jin Yong and other wuxia (martial heroes) writers were a major source of inspiration, the concept of qinggong has entered the global visual arts sphere, and has most recently appeared in the Hollywood production of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where Legolas the elf uses it to jump between falling rocks. The Hero Born has in turn been compared to Tolkien’s novels, and while there are of course no direct inspiration either way, brilliant and much-loved works like these can be said to engage in a kind of post-publication dialogue through their readers and their reception in global popular culture.
Jin Yong situates his epic in a context of classic Chinese vernacular fiction, referring to his protagonist Guo Jing as “a descendant of Prosperity Guo, one of the heroes of the Marshes of Mount Liang,” thus designating his own novel a literary descendant of the Ming dynasty novel The Water Margin (shuihuzhuan), one of the four great literary masterpieces (sidamingzhu ).
Despite the simple plot and the inconsistency of some of the characters, this read fascinates and delights the reader with the complexity and variety of martial techniques as well as the piled on awesomeness of weird and amazingly accomplished shifus (masters), each with their own strange and almost unbeatable style of kung fu.
Holmwood has elected to use transliteration and translation of many wuxia terms interchangeably: “Woodcutter Nan was more practised in neigong inner strength, however, and Jade Han looked as if she still had some energy.” This is a thoroughly good thing as some readers will be already familiar with Jin Yong’s universe and those who aren’t will be only too keen to immerse themselves in the land of knight errant fantasy and learn the local lingo.
This smooth and highly readable translation of a wuxia classic is a cornucopia of Chinese martial arts and Mongolian equestrian archery that will satisfy and charm the nerd as well as the newbie.
Jin Yong (2018): A Hero Born. Translated by Anna Holmwood. MacLehose Press.
(This review was first published on Asian Review of Books)