Like the martial art heroes that he writes about, Louis Cha is a legend in his own time. Better known to his Chinese fans by his pen name of Jin Yong, Cha is the unrivaled giant of the modern martial arts (wuxia) genre. His novels were initially written for serialization in his own Ming Pao newspaper, which was published in Hong Kong. However, they became so popular that they were reprinted in Chinese newspapers around the world. His novels, which total fourteen, were subsequently published in book form. His accomplishment was magnified by the fact that during this time Mainland China was a literary desert because Communist rigidity only allowed publication of titles that conformed to socialist realism, i.e, it had to help build socialist ideals. Definitely, no room for escapist kung fu adventures there.
Alas, in spite of his stature, his works were only accessible to Chinese readers. Although the novels were initially written between 1955 and 1972, it was not until 1997 that the English translation of "The Deer and the Cauldron" was published by Oxford University Press (and that was only the first volume of three!). Although that translation of Cha's last and, many argue, his best novel was excellent, it still left something to be desired because "The Deer and the Cauldron" was not representative of the genre. Therefore, it is with great excitement that we awaited the publication of the "The Book and the Sword", Cha's first novel earlier this year. The novel was initially translated and published on the web by Graham Earnshaw in 2001 but it was picked up by Oxford University Press in 2003 and edited by Rachel May and John Minford. Mindford was the translator for "The Deer and the Cauldron". The book finally became available earlier this year.
"The Book and the Sword" takes place during the reign of Emperor Qian Long (1735-1795) of the Qing dynasty. The Qing dynasty had been founded by the Manchus almost 100 years earlier. By this time the Manchu rulers, whose homeland was in the north east of present day China, had been thoroughly sinicised. Qian Long himself was a great patron and practitioner of Chinese culture. Nevertheless, there were still resistance groups formed by the Han majority. The story follows one of these secret societies, the Red Flower Society, whose members are determined to overthrow the Qing. The members of the society are a colorful bunch of characters, most of whom are men but they also include several women in their ranks (the woman are all beautiful and deadly, of course). The members come from a cross section of the society but have been brought together by their wilingness to risk life and limb to protect the weak and fight for justice. The newly elected leader of the society, Helmsman Chen, is an unlikely hero whose manners and knowledge reveal a priviledged upbringing as the son of a former prime minister. We join the group as they repeatedly fail to free one of their own, Rolling Thunder Wen, who is being escorted to the capital under heavy guard. Rolling Thunder, you see, happens to know about a deadly secret: that the emperor was actually born to a Han family but swapped with a Manchu baby girl. Helmsman Chen discovers this secret himself soon enough and hopes to convince the emperor himself to evict the Manchus. What Chen doesn't know, however, is that the origin of the emperor is related to his own selection as the leader of the Red Flower Society. Much of the action actually takes place in the western border of China in present day Xinjiang, home of the Uighurs, whom Helmsman Chen befriends and helps on various occasions. Since Qian Long was in the process of bringing the Uighur land under his empire, the Uighurs and Chen had a common enemy in the emperor. It is through these relationships with the Uighurs that Chen encounters the book and sword of the title. Although these two items are not directly related to his quest for the Manchu overthrow, they do lead him to two beautiful Uighur sisters and later painful choices between love for a woman and love for country.
Those who have never read a wuxia novel are in for a surprise. Although frequent fight scenes featuring incredible acrobatics, swordmanship, and good old kung fu skills are present as expected, they are really not the most important part of the story. In fact, the book is very much like a typical Hong Kong movie where the movie director has never bothered to decide whether the movie is a comedy or drama, a kung fu spectacular or a tender love story, an uplifting message-filled narrative or horror movie. It is simply all of that and it switches between them at great speed. In this case, "The Book and the Sword" features several romantic pairings between leading characters. A theme central to all wuxia novels, that of loyalty, is tightly woven into the novel. Not just loyalty to the cause but also to the group and to one's kung fu master. The plot moves a mile a minute across various locales throughout China and spends quite a bit of time in the desert of Xinjiang, a area featured quite prominently in the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero" movies. Louis Cha clearly is a student of Chinese history and has interwoven several real life personalities of the time, including the legendary Fragrant Princess, an Uighur girl so enchantingly beautiful that she naturally smelled like flowers. The core of plot itself, that Qian Long was a Han Chinese, is a well-known but unsubstantiated rumor. I only wish that Cha had spent more time describing Qian Long's own struggle with his new found identity. At it is, he seems to be too eager to sweep it under the rug, which seems incongruous with the historical fact that he became a great emperor admired by all Chinese. In contrast, Cha presents Emperor Kang Xi (Qian Long's grandfather) in a more positive light in "The Deer and the Cauldron".
In summary, we strongly recommend "The Book and the Sword" to all readers. The book is about 500 pages long which is much more accessible than the three-volume "The Deer and the Cauldron". The long wait has not been in vain. Now if they would just hurry up and finish translating the other twelve novels. In my lifetime.