Lost in translation

Why the much-loved ‘Tolkien of China’ never won the Nobel prize


Cha with his number one fan Jack Ma

Comedies rarely get short-listed, much less win, the Best Picture award at the Oscars. Similarly, JRR Tolkien never won a Nobel prize for literature, even though his Lord of the Rings trilogy sold millions of copies worldwide and shaped the imagination of generations. The fantasy writer got closest to the accolade in 1961, according to documents made public in 2012, but the Swedish Academy eventually decided that his prose did “not in any way measure up to storytelling of the highest quality”.

Chinese novelist Louis Cha, who wrote under the name of Jin Yong, was often referred to as the Tolkien of Chinese literature. The comparison was never perfect: Cha infused his martial art novels with a strong sense of reality by intertwining his fictional heroes with historical figures from key periods of history.

Cha died last week at the age of 94. Even foreigners who have never heard of him were made aware of his influence in the Chinese-speaking world, as international media outlets from CNN to Nikkei all ran obituaries.

His death led to an outpouring of tributes in China. A hashtag marking his death quickly became the top trending topic on social media, being viewed and shared billions of times.

One of the most debated topics was why this giant of Chinese literature had not got more international recognition during his lifetime.

WiC readers will be more aware of Cha. His novels have been adopted countless times into movies, TV series and video games. The Legend of the Condor Heroes, first serialised in a Hong Kong newspaper back in 1957, has been adapted for the big screen six times and as a TV series on 10 further occasions. Many A-listers in China and Hong Kong’s entertainment industry have made their names by playing characters from Cha novels. Liu Yifei, for instance, got her big break in a TV dramatisation of Return of the Condor Heroes (she was subsequently cast in the title role for the film version of Disney’s Mulan, which is set to be released next year).

His 15 novels have gone through more than 1,000 reprints and Cha is arguably the most read Chinese writer of all time, suggests United Daily News. The Taiwanese newspaper adds that licencing fees for his works could easily have earned Cha more than $2.5 million a year.

Cha’s work has influenced several generations of readers in China. One of his biggest fans is Jack Ma and the Alibaba boss has named conference rooms at his headquarters after places or terms from Cha’s novels. “If not for you, I wonder if there would have been an Alibaba,” he wrote last week in a tribute to Cha, also a Zhejiang native.

But Cha’s legacy is not only cultural. In 1959 he also founded Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper that has often been a vocal critic of the Chinese government. This did not seem to prevent Cha from forging close relationships with Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, who was another big fan of the writer’s novels. They met in 1981 in Beijing and a few years later Cha was appointed as a member of a high-powered committee responsible for drafting the Basic Law, a mini-constitution for Hong Kong after it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

Some of Cha’s more conservative ideas, such as how quickly Hong Kong people could pick their leaders through universal suffrage, made it into the Basic Law, the Apple Daily noted. The newspaper thinks that Cha was involved in brokering a compromise on electoral reform, which placated Beijing but sowed the seeds for some of the political tensions in the city in recent years.

Cha believed his political connections with Beijing may have dented his chances of becoming a Nobel laureate. According to Graham Earnshaw, a former journalist based in Hong Kong who translated Cha’s novel The Book and the Sword into English, Cha was China’s preferred candidate to win the honour. The novelist also told Earnshaw that former President Jiang Zemin once arranged for an emissary to lobby the Swedish Academy, arguing that it was high time for a Chinese writer to get the prize for literature, and that Cha was the best choice.

“Of course, they declined. And the irony was that with the suggestion having been made [by Beijing], I was forever ruled out from being awarded the Nobel prize for literature,” Earnshaw quoted Cha as saying, in an article in the South China Morning Post last week.

In 2000 Gao Xingjian became the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel prize for literature – three years after he became a French national – but this brought a storm of controversy in his native country, where Gao’s work had been banned since 1989.

The myth that only an author that was persona non grata in China could win a Nobel prize was only broken in 2012 when Mo Yan – who wrote Red Sorghum – became the first Chinese citizen to win the top award (see WiC168).

Indeed, following Cha’s death, a 2004 interview with Hong Kong’s Takungpao newspaper once again did the rounds on Chinese social media. In the piece, which has since been republished by the website of the People’s Daily, Cha said that David Li Kwok-po, a banking magnate and one of Hong Kong’s most well-connected people, also nominated Cha for the Nobel prize but his case was again rejected.

“I know I won’t win the Nobel literature prize. First of all they are politically biased. Secondly they don’t like narrative for narrative’s sake. They like works about ideology, about the human soul,” Cha told Takungpao in a light-hearted manner. “All the judges are university professors. They don’t like work that the general public likes. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter may never get the prize too because they are too popular, too interesting. Perhaps I would win the Nobel literature prize if no one really wanted to read my novels.”

Cha’s books have been republished in a variety of Asian languages, including Japanese and Vietnamese. Yet according to, it is difficult for foreign readers to truly appreciate Cha’s world of wuxia (that term itself is almost impossible to translate into English, blending connotations of spirituality and the martial arts).

“In the West, Cha’s name is barely known, largely due to the complexity of the world he has created and the puzzle that he has posed for translators,” the Observer newspaper in the UK suggested last year in explaining the challenges for MacLehose Press and its translator Anna Holmwood in turning Legends of the Condor Heroes into a 12-volume series in English. (To illustrate some of the complexity: the main character’s name is translated as Serenity, but the original Chinese name has a deeper meaning for local readers related to a historic episode in which the emperor and his father were captured by Manchurians during a battle in the Song Dynasty.)

Other aspects of his stories risk being lost in translation. “The 18 Palm Attacks to Defeat Dragons [a set of 18 kungfu moves]… Some things in Cha’s novels can pose unsolvable problems for translators. This is a reality,” a linguistic expert wrote on Zhihu, a popular question and answer platform.

“There are always some bits in Chinese literature that are inscrutable for the rest of the world.”

Perhaps that’s another reason why Cha failed to get his hands on the prestigious Nobel prize…

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.