By Lewis Manalo
CHINA: By now it’s a scene we in the West are familiar with: a swordsman or — swordswoman — makes an acrobatic leap to a stone-tiled rooftop and sets off in pursuit of a masked bandit. The swordsman leaps from roof to roof, across ridiculous distances and with such balletic grace, he seems to be on the edge of flying. He catches up with the bandit in a few bounds. Both draw swords, and a duel of exotic and impressive style ensues, taking the audience’s breath away.We know it as a scene from a martial arts film, but in China, the genre is called wuxia. Wuxia are stories of chivalrous heroes with a tradition that goes back centuries, a rich literature of fantasy that has a basis in ancient fact. Without rival, the twentieth century’s king of the genre is Louis Cha. Estimates of his book sales reach up to 300 million copies. One editor at the Far Eastern Economic Review estimated that, if one also counted the pirated copies, over 1 billion of Cha’s books have been sold. His fourteen novels have been adapted into countless comic books, television shows, and films.
In 1955, as he worked as a journalist in Hong Kong, Cha’s first novel, The Book and the Sword, began serialization in the evening edition of Ta Kung Pow. The Republic of China had been based in Taiwan for several years. The fighting of the Korean War had ended, but the ROC and the People’s Republic of China had been on opposite sides of that conflict, with only the U.S. Navy in the Strait of Taiwan to keep them from fighting directly.
According to Graham Earnshaw, a publisher, former journalist in China, and the English language translator of The Book and the Sword, Louis Cha’s novel came to its Chinese audience at a time when it was needed, and when there was little in the market to compare with it. Depicting a fantasized golden era before the West arrived to pry open China’s closed world, the novel celebrates an ideal that Chinese people hold for themselves, and in the turbulent twentieth century, Cha’s patriotic fantasy, about a band of Han fighting to overthrow the ruling Qing dynasty, was a salve to the spirit of a torn country.
Through the 1950s through the 1970s, Louis Cha (writing under the pen name Jin Yong) wrote a total of fourteen seminal wuxia novels. First serialized in Hong Kong newspapers, his stories move with a breathless velocity. Within the first thirty pages of The Legend of the Condor Heroes, two sworn brothers Yang and Guo witness a hunchbacked thief kill some royal guards, they befriend a Taoist monk who kills some soldiers, learn that both their wives are pregnant, arrange the marriage of said unborn children, are attacked and killed by more soldiers, and then one of their wives is rescued by a mysterious and handsome stranger who just happens to be a prince in disguise from the wrong side of the border. Life is exciting for a Louis Cha character.
Every Louis Cha novel has people in disguise, often a woman disguised as a man, esoteric and supernatural martial arts styles, secret manuals, misguided villains, lives sacrificed out of loyalty to friends, and a burning sense of patriotism. The heroes in these stories value righteousness and fame, and they’re not afraid to use their swords to get either. Unable to find justice in a corrupt government, the swordsmen make their own justice, never afraid to take the fight to villainous government officials. A Louis Cha hero is knight and superhero rolled into one energetic, little package, and Chinese readers love them all.
Among his many accolades and honorary degrees, Louis Cha, the greatest living writer of chivalrous stories, has himself been knighted. France has awarded him both the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1992 and the high rank of Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004.
Despite the recognition, Louis Cha is not without his critics. The best-selling Chinese author Wang Shuo says he had to “hold his nose” to read Cha’s violent and badly-written novels. And though he may write about ideals of character, Cha is not without his personal regrets. In the 1970s, his eldest son committed suicide while attending college in the United States, and during a television interview Cha openly expressed guilt over one of his failed marriages.
But any examination of Louis Cha’s life cannot hide his enormous success. And regardless of their huge popularity for Chinese and Asian audiences, Western access to Louis Cha’s books has been limited. Graham Earnshaw’s translation of The Book and the Sword is available from Oxford, but only in a fifty dollar hardcover edition that doesn’t quite fit the genre’s spirit of fun or the budget of the audience most-likely to read it. Sinologist John Minford, known for his translations of the classics Dream of the Red Chamber and Sun Tzu’s Art of War, translated Cha’s The Deer and the Cauldron into three heavy tomes, but those are now out of print.
Many who want to read Louis Cha in English have found backdoor access to his books through the Internet. Nearly all of Cha’s novels are available in English as online bootlegs. The bootlegs are of varying quality, often communal efforts by wuxia enthusiasts, and sometimes the long serials are incomplete. According to Statbrain.com, just one of these sites averages over five hundred hits per day, which isn’t impressive by Internet standards, but when compared to how many hits per day many well-known small presses receive, it’s a respectable statistic. Furthermore, nearly every one of those five hundred hits is a downloaded book in translation. The fact is, there are more readers for Louis Cha in English than there are for many other novels.
I don’t advocate reading bootlegs, but I advocate reading Louis Cha. As Graham Earnshaw says, the stories are not only entertaining; they allow foreigners an insight into how Chinese people think. Where the world sees the hard-line conformity of the Communist Party or of Confucian values, the Chinese also see the China that Louis Cha depicts, one of loyalty and brotherhood, where family and justice have their place, but so do the spirit of protest and individuality.
Lewis Manalo is the book buyer for Idlewild Bookstore in New York City.
VISIT: Louis Cha’s Wikipedia page
DISCUSS: Should publishers intervene when pirated copies “outsell” official versions?