1957’s Shediao Yingxiong Zhuan is a wuxia novel by Jin Yong (Louis Cha). 2019’s A Hero Born is Anna Holmwood’s English translation of the first part of the work, collectively known in English as Legends of the Condor Heroes.
Everything is going swimmingly in Southern Song era China, provided one is not a Southern Song era Han Chinese. In the north, Jin is slowly encroaching on the remnant of China left after the Jin crushed the Northern Song in the previous century. To the west, the Mongols, long divided into contending tribes, have a leader ready to unite his nation into one unparalleled force.
In the South, the Han Chinese have to prevail against foreign raids and flamboyantly corrupt officials. It is up to heroes like Ironheart Yang and his best friend Skyfury Guo to defend the Chinese against the Jin, the Mongols and most importantly, the Chinese.
Both Ironheart and Skyfury are married, Ironheart to Charity Bao and Skyfury to Lily Li. On discovering their wives are pregnant, the two men are determined that their children will be friends. If it happens one is a girl and the other a boy, they vow to marry the unborn children to each other. It’s a plan whose only flaw is that neither man will see his child born, let alone grow to adulthood. Thank the malice of corrupt Justice Duan.
Both wives survive. Charity escapes to the north, in the company of a man she knows as Yan Lie (in fact Wanyan Hinglie, a high-ranking Prince of the Jin). Lily escapes to the west and the hospitality of the Mongols, where she raises her son Guo Jing. Surely Lily and Charity’s children will never meet.
Enter Taoist monk Qiu Chuji, whose efforts to help Ironheart and Skyfury clashes with the efforts of the Seven Freaks of the South to also defend against the corruption endemic in the South. Unable to decide which of their schools of martial arts is superior, they decide to use the two children they have vowed to protect out of respect for Ironheart and Skyfury to settle the matter. As one does. The monk will train Charity’s child. The Seven Freaks will train Guo Jing. Once the children are old enough and trained, they will fight it out to see which school is superior.
Guo Jing grows into a sturdy, reliable, kind-hearted boy rarely distracted by complicated thoughts. On the minus side, he lacks the common sense needed to stay out of trouble. On the plus side, he is so clearly good hearted and dutiful only the worst sort of villain could dislike him.
His teachers discover that Guo’s willingness to work hard is undermined by the lamentable fact the young man is, well, not smart. It’s not until a master of breathing intervenes that Guo begins to grow into the sort of kung fu master his father was. Whether this will be sufficient if and when Qiu Chuji’s student appears remains to be seen.
Until then, there is the matter of surviving deadly Mongol politics, not to mention the villains known collectively as Twice Foul Dark Wind and individually as Copper Corpse, and Cyclone Mei. Cruel and malevolent, their mastery of the intrinsically evil Nine Yin Skeleton Claw technique makes them deadly opponents. One fails at Guo’s unskilled hands, ensuring the survivor will take a very close interest in Guo’s future…
Don’t get too attached to the Song Dynasty. Things will get much worse for China before they get better. I assume the intended audience for Jin Yong’s novel would have been very familiar with how things played out but for those of you who are not: Genghis (who of course Guo knows because this is that sort of adventure) united the Mongols despite the best efforts of the Mongols, after which the Mongol Empire crushed a considerable fraction of Asia.
This was not to the benefit of the Song Dynasty. In fact, it was not to the benefit of so many people that the Chinese population may have been halved; human population in general declined noticeably while the Mongols were murdering their way across the Old World. However Guo’s life plays out, history will play out according to script and as we’ve seen, righteousness does not keep people alive.
While A Hero Born is set in the last days of the Southern Song, Jin Yong isn’t going for mundane realism here. His colourful protagonists gleefully embrace bombastic names glorifying their prowess in a manner modern day superheroes would find endearing. Their kung fu laughs at mere physics. This won’t save China from a hundred years of Mongol domination, not least because the characters waste their efforts on activities that in no way assist in the defense of China, but it certainly will make China’s fall far more flamboyant than it was in actual history.
It’s a pity, therefore, that I will spend the next few paragraphs complaining.
The original book is almost a million Chinese characters long. For some reason, perhaps because the publisher was unwilling to take the risk of publishing what presumably would have been a hefty tome, the publisher is delivering Legends of the Condor Heroes in instalments. This particular instalment ends on a huge cliff-hanger. Great news for all you Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin fans but hard cheese for people who like a complete story between two covers.
As well, the prose emerges from translation a bit flat. These books were wildly popular in China but the American edition doesn’t really convey why it is so many people liked steadfast knuckle-head Guo, and his colourful mentors. Flat prose is, alas, not an uncommon problem with translated work.
Ah, well. I will still seek out the next book because while I know how all this will work out for China as a whole, I am curious what the consequences will be for Guo and his chums in particular.