The Literary Legacy of Louis Cha
On Oct. 30, the Chinese-speaking world lost a literary titan: Louis Cha, the famed novelist and author of over a dozen martial arts epics, who passed away at the age of 94.
The mainland-born, Hong Kong-based Cha was something of a Renaissance man: In addition to being one of the most influential Chinese writers of the 20th century, he was also a noted journalist, the founder of an influential newspaper, and a scholar of Chinese history who earned a doctorate from Cambridge University when he was in his 80s. But most readers know him best as Jin Yong — the pen name he used while producing some of Chinese literature’s most fully realized and distinctive characters.
Cha was a poet laureate of sorts for jianghu — a nigh-untranslatable term for a semi-mythical realm located outside the law, an oft-idealized criminal underworld filled with cunning rogues, rapacious brutes, and brave heroes, all living off little more than their fists and wits. By resurrecting one of the most classic and popular genres in the Chinese literary canon and updating them for modern sensibilities, Cha built a lasting following of millions of readers and laid the groundwork for a revival of martial arts novels, plays, and movies.
The key to Cha’s success lay in his vision of the world. Although Chinese culture is commonly viewed as a composite of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions, there is another important component that often gets overlooked: xiayi. Most often translated as chivalry, xiayi is the very heart of Cha’s philosophy.
The earliest advocate of xiayi was Mozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher and rough contemporary of Confucius and Laozi. Mozi lived in a time of constant upheaval and conflict. Aside from a hearty appreciation for the martial spirit, his version of xiayi was defined by three core tenets: a willingness to die for what you believe is just; resolution to honor your word, no matter the cost; and finally, perseverance to always help the downtrodden and less fortunate.
While all this may sound reminiscent of the Western chivalric code or Japanese Bushido, xiayi is a distinct concept, lacking both Western chivalry’s Christian undertones and Bushido’s emphasis on fealty. Unlike Bushido, which was designed to meet the needs of warriors who were on retainer for feudal warlords, the embodiment of xiayi is generally in the form of an itinerant martial artist. They may have a teacher or a master, but in the end, they must make their own decisions about what constitutes as right and wrong.
Two thousand years ago, during the Han Dynasty, the historian Sima Qian — China’s Herotodus — included several stories of itinerant warriors in his “Records of the Grand Historian.” In the process, he gave readers a concise summary of the key difference between the Confucian scholar-gentleman and the xiayi knight-errant: The former’s deeds are recorded in the pages of history, the latter’s in the hearts of the people.
Beginning in the Tang Dynasty — a period roughly concurrent with the European Early Middle Ages — writers increasingly romanticized xiayi in popular fiction. The heroes of Tang Dynasty short stories, for example, tend to emerge, shrouded in mystery, to defend someone in their hour of need before fading back into the shadows.
Over the ensuing millennium, xiayi remained a prominent theme in Chinese novels, plays, and folk culture. The pinnacle of the genre might be the early Ming Dynasty novel “Water Margin” — one of China’s four great classical novels — whose heroes manage to be both chivalrous and bold in equal measure.
But, what could explain the continued hold xiayi has on our imaginations? Zheng Zhenduo, a well-known 20th century writer and literary critic, argues that the genre is most resonant at times “when the common people are experiencing extreme political oppression or violence, and are filled with feelings of indignity and anger.” Powerless to fight back, they look for the emergence of a “superhero” — an all-powerful individual unbound by ties to the local elite and committed to righting wrongs and restoring order.
Cha leaned heavily on this archetype in his work. His novels’ heroes are the very embodiment of Mozi’s xiayi: They never flinch at the prospect of sacrificing themselves for others. His first novel, “The Book and the Sword,” centers on the doings of the heroic Red Flower Society, an organization whose code is to protect four types of people: the noble and good man; the filial son, the chaste or widowed woman, and the oppressed commoner.
Yet Cha never lost sight of the need for thrills, either. He built rich, stunning worlds around his cast, imbuing them with elements plucked from traditional Chinese culture and folklore. In “The Legend of the Condor Heroes,” he gives human form to traditional folk beliefs about the cardinal directions, turning them into a group of warriors known as “The Five Greats”: Western Venom, Northern Beggar, Eastern Heretic, Southern Emperor, and Central Divine. “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer,” meanwhile, features a group of four eccentric martial artists, each having mastered one of the four skills that define a Chinese scholar-gentleman: the zither, chess, painting, and calligraphy.
Cha’s most innovative contribution to the genre may have been his willingness to adapt traditional Chinese concepts to 20th-century sensibilities, which he managed to do without sacrificing their intrinsic natures. The noble heroes, vile villains, and smashing swordplay of traditional martial arts tales are all present in his stories, but he took care to leave some more outdated content on the cutting room floor. “Water Margin,” for instance, might be the genre’s most well-known work, but it suffers from some distinctly retrograde, misogynistic attitudes. Cha’s novels, on the other hand, feature a number of unforgettable female characters, and he frequently wrote moving stories about monogamous, long-term relationships between warriors.
Cha also made frequent use of Western literary tropes in his work. “A Deadly Secret” is essentially a retelling of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” for example, and most of his novels contain elements of classical bildungsromans, or coming-of-age tales. Of course, he was careful not to import too much, and he never dabbled in more popular trends like stream of consciousness narration or magical realism. In that sense, his work was classically Chinese: clean, concise, and elegant.
Indeed, Cha was something of a nationalist. “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” is a novel very much concerned with ethnic and national identity. The story’s hero — Guo Jing — is Han Chinese, but grew up in the court of Genghis Khan, who treated him like a son. After witnessing how the Mongols treat other Han Chinese, however, he chooses to fight on the side of the Song Dynasty, and defends their capital from Mongol attack. In one of the most famous lines from the book, he says, “I’ve spent my life studying the martial arts, and what for? To fight for justice and protect the weak, yes, but that is only a small part of what it means to be a warrior… More important is to fight for people and for country.”
Yet despite these undertones, the majority of Cha’s fans were attracted to his novels, not for their patriotism or the occasional barbed political metaphors he included, but for their more enduring qualities. In particular, Cha is revered because of his heroes’ inspiring devotion to xiayi. In a way, they are the embodiment of all that is good and all that we strive to be.
News of Cha’s passing has sparked an outpouring of grief across the Chinese-speaking world, as his legions of fans — myself included — mourn the loss of one of China’s greatest authors. Yet, I do not believe the martial arts novel will die with him. If Cha’s success has taught us anything, it’s that traditional narratives can be updated for modern audiences without losing what makes them unique. As for xiayi, I expect it, too, will live on. As long as people hunger for honor and justice, there will always be a place for larger-than-life heroes in our books and on our screens.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: Still frames from two TV adaptations of Louis Cha’s novel ‘The Battle Wizard,’ released in 2003 (left) and 1997 (right). From Douban)