One thing that Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek had in common was a mutual dislike for Louis Cha. Cha’s kung-fu novels were banned in China until 1984, and 1989 in Taiwan. Both Mao and Chiang disliked Cha’s writing, suspecting that it often contained hidden political meaning.
Cha, known to most readers by his pen name Jin Yong, is China’s most famous kung-fu novelist. Now 89, he is estimated to have sold more than 100 million books (many more will have been pirated, of course). His 36 novels have also been adapted into films, television series and video games.
To understand Cha’s enduring power, look no further than Hunan Satellite TV’s latest hit series New Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. The series, which stars Wallace Hou and Chen Qiaoen from Taiwan and Chinese starlet Yuan Shanshan in the lead roles, was a hit even though the story had already been adapted for the small screen six times (the book’s English title is The Legendary Swordsman).
Why is it so popular? Ling Huchong, hero of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu, is an orphan who stumbles on a coveted kung-fu manuscript ‘Star-Sucking Skills’ (its adherents learn to absorb the powers of their opponents). With his new-found skills, Ling helps his father-in-law Ren Woxing take down the ruthless “Invincible East” to become the leader of a martial arts sect.
Xiao Ao Jiang Hu was hugely influential when it was first published in 1967 and the book has been described as Cha’s most controversial work because of its political connotations. In fact, critics say they are surprised that it has been adapted for Chinese television today (previous adaptations were produced in Hong Kong and Taiwan). Critics say Cha’s caricature of “Invincible East” as an effeminate but deranged kung-fu master is a parody of Mao’s self-styled title as the “red sun in the east” (although in the latest TV version, the allusion may have been muted by casting a woman – Chen Qiaoen – as Invisible East). The book’s character is so hungry for power he even goes to the extreme of castrating himself in order to master the skills outlined in another legendary sword manuscript, ‘The Sunflower Manual’.
Meanwhile the father-in-law character was given a name that means “I do as I will,” calling to mind Mao’s notorious self-characterisation as wu fa wu tian, which means “defying law and nature”.
Cha, who has always been critical of the Communist Party, has acknowledged that Xiao Ao Jiang Hu was a reflection of the Cultural Revolution. “I attacked worship of the individual,” he noted, hinting that the characters in the plot could be seen as politicians rather than kung-fu chieftains.
While most of Cha’s novels are set in rich historical contexts, stretching back through the Tang Dynasty to the Ming and Sung eras, Xiao Ao Jiang Hu is an exception. Cha says he intentionally left out the historical backdrop: “The ruthless struggle for power is the basic condition of political life, from antiquity to the present, in China and abroad… Characters of all these types have existed under every dynasty, and most likely in other countries as well,” he writes in the afterword to Xiao Ao Jiang Hu.
Cha got his start as a novelist when he was asked to fill in for the serial writer at a newspaper in Shanghai. He continued writing when he moved to Hong Kong and started his own newspaper Ming Pao Daily in 1959 (which still sells in Hong Kong today). As editor of the newspaper Cha attacked Beijing in his editorials. And at night he worked away on the daily instalments of his martial arts epics. He only stopped in 1972 after completing what some critics regard as his best novel, Tale of the Sacrificial Deer, about the personality cult of an emperor intent on ruling all of China.
Critics say Cha’s kung-fu novels strike a chord with a wide audience. While entertaining to read, he uses tales of kung-fu as a literary device to address serious issues like the misuse of power and the causes of corruption (hence why Chiang Kai-shek wasn’t a fan too). In Cha’s fictional world there is social justice, even if it is usually achieved less through the forces of law and order and more by the arrival of his fearless heroes.
As such, his tales also draw on the Chinese concept of the ‘mandate of heaven’, an ethos that sees a cruel and corrupt regime eventually brought down by a strong warrior. Cha’s heroes are akin to vigilantes, filling a void left by an absence of rule of law.
“Kung-fu novels must depict justice and righteousness. Good people fight off bad guys. Traditional ethics are asserted through the characters and their stories, not by preaching with words,“ Cha told the China Daily.
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