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August 3, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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Tolkien of the East

echoes

Mention “Dongya Bingfu” (‘Sick Man of the East’), and you’ll likely get a strong response from most Chinese (not just ‘nationalists’). The epithet stuck after China was utterly humiliated by Britain in the Opium War of 1840, which proved to be the beginning of a long string of defeats by various Western and Japanese powers, culminating in World War II. Twice the emperor had to flee Beijing (1860, 1900), and, more destructively, ordinary Chinese people lost confidence in their own culture. The fact that China managed to survive all these, and even show signs of a Renaissance (of sorts), is a testament to a latent Chinese spirit that strives against even the most overwhelming of odds.

For a long time, however, many Chinese people had a lot of self-doubt and pessimism. The West was rich and powerful, China poor and weak. It was little wonder that Chinese people came to admire Bruce Lee, when he finally ‘made it’ into Western popular culture, and more satisfyingly, defeated big and brawny Westerners on screen. This contrasts starkly with the long-standing image of Chinese men being hopelessly hooked on opium, with long, ugly hair and glazed eyes. An image far removed from the junzi (‘gentleman’) ideal of Confucianism, or the carefree spirit of philosophical Daoism. For a long time in China, few people seemed willing or capable to stand up for others in the name of justice.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. China has always had a strong, underlying xia (俠, ‘heroic chivalry’) culture, which arose as a response against corrupt officials and evil, powerful men who acted with impunity. Sometimes these xias or ‘chivalrous heroes’ acted in the political arena (JING Ke most famously tried to assassinate the tyrannical First Emperor), but they mostly fought for oppressed commoners. Xia culture was also influenced by Mohism, a philosophical school which advocated universal love and strict pacifism. (Mohists would travel to besieged cities and help construct defensive fortifications, independent of political allegiance—they were hit hard by the purges under the Qin, and never recovered.)

Xias are widely celebrated in Chinese popular culture, most notably in the wuxia (武俠; wu refers to ‘martial arts’) genre of literature and drama. This is related to the ‘kungfu’ movies familiar to Westerners (e.g., Bruce Lee, even David Carradine), and to other martial codes such as Bushido (‘bu’ is a cognate of wu). However, in wuxia, the emphasis is more on xia—chilvary or righteousness.

Wuxia occupies a similar place as fantasy does in Western culture—a kind of parallel world full of action and heroes. But as is characteristic of Chinese culture as a whole, the wuxia parallel world (Jianghu, ‘Rivers-and-Lakes’) is more humanistic and less fantastic, set in a more or less realistic society, albeit one where exponents possess near-supernatural martial arts skills.

One name towers above all in the genre: Jin Yong. His fourteen novels, written from the 1950s to the 1970s, are wildly popular among Chinese people all over the world. By far the most successful of the so-called ‘new school’ wuxia writers, Jin Yong (pen name of ZHA Liangyong, or Louis CHA) was not just a fiction writer, but also a respected journalist and newspaper personality in Hong Kong. Indeed, his early successes as a writer and as a newspaper editor were inextricably linked—he first published his wuxia novels in serialised bits in the daily he co-founded, the Ming Pao, often deliberately ending in cliff-hangers. The circulation of his newspaper as well as the popularity of his stories both grew, and in time Jin Yong came to enjoy a prestigious status in the wuxia genre, just as J R R Tolkien did, and still does, in the realm of fantasy. His novels have been adapted into television and film numerous times, with a new version coming out once every few years (like Shakespeare or Dickens), in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. In Chinese popular culture worldwide, Jin Yong is the ‘One Name to Rule them All’.

Like Tolkien, much of Jin Yong’s literary success can be put down to the mastery of his native language (he came from a scholarly family), along with his adoption of Western literary techniques regarding plot and character development. Just as one would want to read Tolkien in English rather than in translation (if possible), it is preferable to read Jin Yong in the original Chinese (his works are still not fully translated, I believe). Just as language plays an important role in Tolkien, right down to the etymological roots of names, much of Jin Yong’ charm would likely be lost in translation. For it’s not just about mindless fighting—even seemingly fanciful martial arts ‘superpowers’ in his novels are steeped in Chinese culture, from their names to their philosophical underpinnings. The difficulty in translating Jin Yong is obvious even from the titles of his novels—his best work (in my view) Xiao’ao Jianghu is awkwardly translated as “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer”. Now don’t lol, please.

CHINESE TAKEAWAYS:
Bruce Lee’s response to “Sick Man of the East”
Chapter 2:7
Typical wuxia exponents

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