Jin Yong is my wife’s favourite writer and probably the best known guy writing Chinese martial arts in the whole world.
Though most people in the west don’t know him.
I don’t know the reason, but not many of his books have been translated into English. My wife told me it’s hard to translate from Chinese to English as the traditional Chinese characters used often have a meaning that can’t be translated well. Also, there probably aren’t many western writers, apart from academics, who are at a high enough standard in Chinese writing to give it a crack.
Maybe the American-Chinese guy who did ‘The 3 Body Problem’ could give it a crack sometime?
Anyway, what my wife said could be true in this case, as the translation I read was quite simple in its style, word choice and sentence structure. And a lot of the story was just plot, plot, plot, which made me wonder if a lot of the deeper, between the lines stuff had been lost along the way.
And when I say ‘a lot’ I mean:
The Chinese version of ‘The Book and the Sword’ is about 1,000 pages
The English version is around 500 pages.
500 pages worth of story was lost?
I don’t know,
although there were a lot of characters to keep track of and the story was quite melodramatic in a lot of ways, there were aspects of it that I thought were great.
Kung Fu strategy
The way Jin Yong describes the action is decent, but the parts that really stood out were the parts in-between where the characters or the narrator would delineate the style that was being used and the strategy behind it
E.g. the one third attack
The warrior attacks by doing one third of a move then quickly transitions to one third of a different move, giving the other fighter no chance to properly defend or counter-strike. The warrior keeps doing this, not to win with a decisive strike, but to drive the other warrior back, or, if they’re lucky, to make him trip over his own feet or make a mistake that would allow a fatal strike.
The whole idea behind the kung fu in this book is similar to a strategy game like chess or UNO, with most of the characters fighting to a high standard. Each move has a defence and each fighter has his/her own style and is ranked at different levels.
The only negative to this is the lack of a surprise victory, as it seems that someone with superior kung fu will always beat someone with even a slightly lower level. No kung fu master ever seems to have an off day.
Actually, this isn’t entirely true as, near the end of the book, the main hero learns a new style of kung fu akin to hip hop and is able to defeat the bad guy [Fire Hand Zhang], who was previously at a higher level.
It’s interesting, the kung fu ranking system could be seen as a reflection of the ranking in Chinese culture, or old Chinese culture at least. [And I say this as an amateur historian on old Chinese culture, not an expert, so there’s a good chance that this is completely wrong] The idea that you have to work and train hard to become great, and for good fighters to rarely deviate from what they’ve learnt.
In fact, when the hero does deviate and come up with his own style, everyone looks at him like he’s just parted the Red Sea.
‘What the hell are you doing? How did you do that? Who was your master?’
Is this a sly dig at communism from Jin Yong?
Killing is fun
I love the way the heroes kill every Ching soldier they come across. There’s not much in the way of morals here, maybe just a few times where they pardon someone, but generally, if you’re working for the Ching Dynasty then you’re fair game.
In one scene, two of the heroes drug a Ching guard they recognise from previous fuckery and then stab him in the heart when he’s unconscious.
I don’t think I’ve seen this in Western fiction, and it’s something that really sets Chinese martial arts fiction apart, in a good way. The characters have their beliefs and conviction and code and they stick to it.
To them, if you’re with Ching then you’re a collaborator and must bear the consequences, the consequences being knocked out and stabbed in the heart.
Or thrown into a pit of wolves.
Ching was not Chinese
If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese history, the Ming Dynasty was Chinese run, and quite isolationist, whereas its conquerors, the Ching Dynasty, was Manchurian.
Manchuria = the area in the North East of modern day China, just above North Korea. The people there were, I think, considered barbarians by old Chinese dynasties [except Ching obviously] and, just like Newcastle fans, could walk around topless in the middle of winter without feeling cold.
In the Book and the Sword, the heroes form an alliance with the Uyghur people in the north western region and its clear Jin Yong’s sympathies are with them, the minorities, as not one Ching character is painted in a good light.
From the Chinese perspective at that time, as far as I can tell, the Ching Dynasty was the same as the Mongolians before Ming. They were not Chinese, they were invaders, and they were set on expanding the Chinese borders, which is why the plot focuses on the war against the Uyghurs.
Obviously, I’m spelling Uyghurs wrong [googled + fixed now], but I’m talking about the Muslim people of what is now North West China, who were massacred and invaded by the Ching Dynasty and have never been able to get their land back.
Strangely, no one seems to talk about this much now, so good on Jin Yong to make it part of his plot.
Though it’d be interesting to see how the modern Uyghur people would see this story as, apart from one female character, they’re pretty much portrayed as the noble savage and the Chinese rebels are the saviours.
Maybe the distinction between Ching and Chinese is enough to make it okay, as there were undoubtedly many Chinese who hated Ching, but did they really help the Uyghurs?
I don’t know.
As with all history, it’s a complicated matter. The same way that Slavery movies in the US often have white characters who help the slaves, which probably did happen, but rarely feature black slaves saving themselves or rebelling of their own volition, which also happened, as you can see in the new film ‘Birth of a Nation’ [not the racist 1915 version] which shows the rebellion of slaves led by Nat Turner.
The difference is that China got rid of Ching [ending up with something possibly even worse], but the US is still the same old mess it was 150 years ago, with most of the mess just shoved under the bed and denied instead of being put into bags and thrown out.
Speed of plot
Man, this story moves fast.
There’s not much in the way of landscape description, just ‘we’re going to this place, let’s get there in two sentences’, and I really like this style a lot.
Modern storytelling that focuses on describing locations with adjectives and no creativity is a waste of time and Jin Yong knows it.
If your characters are going up a mountain, the reader will automatically picture a mountain in their head no matter how you describe it. A real mountain they’ve been to or a movie mountain, not the author’s careful, literary description of a mountain.
So why bother describing it?
The Jin Yong way is the best way, and you can see why his books have been so popular over the years. They’re so easy to read, so fast, maybe too fast sometimes as there aren’t many character moments to balance the action out, but, like I wrote earlier, that could just be something that went missing in translation.
Recommended books from Jin Yong
I don’t know which ones have been translated, but most people say ‘The Condor series’ is the best.
There’s also the one about the pretend Eunuch in the Ching Dynasty Imperial Palace, I think it’s called ‘The Deer and the Cauldron’.
There’s the one I read ‘The Book and the Sword’.
and I saw another one in the library with a snowy mountain on the cover, about a group of people meeting up to kill a guy called Fox Volant. I forget the full title of the book, but it’s got ‘Fox Volant’ in it.