The person who started off the new wave of Chinese Chivalrous novels is Jinyong (金庸). He is presently the most influential member, though retired, of the Min Pao Daily in Hong Kong, which he founded. After a total of 14 novels, he has put down his pen.
With these 14 novels, he has bodly created another form of literary expression in Chinese literature. He has pioneered the path to another world of skilful pugilists and martial arts exponents, vividly portraying the complex interplay of human characters within the established framework of Chinese ancient society. Later many talented writers of Wu Xia (武侠) novels, have drawn from the world of Jinyong’s 14 novels. Some of the expressions and techniques used are even further enhanced by the rich imagination of later writers.
I have read many reputed materpieces written by internationally acclaimed authors. But, after reading 9 of Jinyong’s 14 novels, I have come to the realisation that they are far more powerful and real. The created characters are so passionately well written that they seem immortal. The poorly printed Chinese characters (words) on cheap low quality paper tend to stand and project themselves out with the protagonists in the prescribed actions and sequences.
I never knew that novels could be written with such beauty and truth that my inner feelings are driven to wild, frenzied heights of delight and at times, blissful ecstasy. The beats of my heart, the pulsation of my palm and moods of my mind are ever shifting and swaying with the rhythm of the enchanting scenic descriptions and the contrasting characters in diverse situations.
My spiritual self, imprisoned in this weary body whose sole occupation is daily routine work, transcends from within me to experience unsurpassable joy and pleasure in this ever widening universe of chivalrous novels that knows no frontier to an ardent explorer.
Different kinds of readers harbour different reactions after reading a given novel. Moralists, educationists, legalists, politicians etc give different interpretations to a given novel. I belong to the masses. Therefore, I harbour sentiments prevailing in their hearts.
Chivalrous novels are a world of human beings and martial arts. The ancient Chinese society which is Confucian in nature, provides the foundation and structure upon which those morals, values, customs and other forms of social behaviour in the novels are distinctly Chinese, without any infiltration of outside elements.
Within this basic structure of a closed Confucian society, logic is the guiding principle in the writing of a chivalrous novel whose protagonists display unbelievable skills in the martial arts and perform amazing kung fu feats as their characters dramatically unfold.
Though the characters in the novels perform many seemingly impossible and fantastic feats, they are as real as in our modern existence. They are like us, subject to universal pressures of greed, power, evil, envy, love, wealth, pleasure, despair.
In fact, the martial arts aspect is what we call special licence. It can only be found in this Chinese literary form of expression. The martial arts aspect has the main function to effectively highlight those universal pressures that all humans irrespective of creed experience.
The hero from a novice to a martial arts expert suffers a long, difficult and painful development. Since he needs the skills to discharge his obligations to his clan and uphold righteousness, he has to overcome the multitude of formidable obstacles. Endurance and the drive of perserverance are highlighted here.
The fact that Jinyong novels were written more than 30 yrs ago, yet still command a large following in the television, cinema, radio and books testifies my assertion. Any Chinese stream student will tell you who is Jinyong.
At present Jinyong’s novels have yet to be translated into other languages which further proves that they are distinctly Chinese. As a result of those characteristics, I have fallen ardently in love with Jinyong’s chivalrous novels.
Here I should like to add that the Japnese Samurai and the French 3 Musketeers are not like those Chinese chivalrous novels. They belong to another form of literary expression for they do not have the Wu(武), though they undoubtedly have the Xia(侠). In Chinese chivalrous novels, the Wu is just as important as the Xia. Without the Wu, they would lose their unique flavour.
Jinyong’s early novels are less successful. This is because the Wu is so emphasised that the equilibrium between Wu and Xia is upset. That results in super human characters, losing some of their authencity. But as he matured, so did his novels. The later novels are mainly drawn from the diverse personalities found in the long, glorious dynastic history of China. For this reason, they are called historical novels.
It’s by no accident that his best novels are very long with about 1,600 pages. Perhaps in this way, his characters and settings can be narrated with detail and precision.
His best novel and last – Lu Ding Ji (鹿鼎记), the 14th novel is over 2,000 pages. It is in this novel that Jinyong attains his height as a chivalrous novelist. To borrow an expression from Jinyong’s friend and critic, this novel is not a chivalrous novel but is within the confine of chivalrous novels.
This statement is well said because Jinyong with his matured skills is able to strike a balance between the two opposing forces of Yin and Yang or realism and fantasy. The novel is brought down to earth by the main character from the illusory and fantasy world of super human martial arts and kungful experts.
The protagonist, Wei Xiabao (伟小宝) is a normal 14-yr old boy without any martial arts but is surrounded by skillful and deadly pugilists. The long novel traces the young commoner (son of a prostitute & unknown father) to manhood. The setting is in the early years of the Qing or Manchu dynasty. Wei Xiaobao’s story centres around the palace and the rebellious pugilists of Heaven and Earth (天地会) secret society bent on overthrowing the Manchus and restoring the previous Ming dynasty. ( 反清复明！)
Wei Xiaobao is in a dilemma because the emperor, Kung Hsi is his childhood friend (Wei sneaked into the palace and became friend with the boy emperor) and he is a Chinese. Being a Chinese (not Manchu), the son of Han, he is forced to join the Heaven and Earth secret society to rid China of the Manchus with the given task of assassinating the benevolent emperor.
This novel encompasses the whole of China for there are chapters where diplomatic relations with Czarist Russia are described and Wei is sent as an envoy of the emperor.
I find the part when Wei and the Russians negotiating the common border hilarious with Wei insisting that they should start from Moscow and Beijing in order to have a fair and equal territorial border.
The part where Wei – after translation into Russian – “I want to marry your mother (Czar’s mother) and sleep with your mother”. The Russians replied that they felt honoured that he is interested. They didn’t realise their mother attracted his attention!
When Wei slept with the Russian princess he remarked that he didn’t like it cuz she got so much hair on her body!
If you have not already read them, why don’t you buy or borrow a chivalrous novel by Jinyong from the library? I assure you will be in for a stimulating read and you will learn more about China’s past in the bargain.
After Jinyong completed all his titles, it was discovered that the first characters of the first 14 titles can be joined together to form a couplet with 7 characters on each line:
Shooting a white deer, snow flutters around the skies;
Smiling, [one] writes about the divine chivalrous one, leaning against bluish lovebirds (or lover).
PS: This article was published on my school’s newsletter “Newsville” on 21/7/1982. I have done some editing before it is re-produced here.