Chinese Literature Book Review: The Eleventh Son by Gu Long
Despite the popularity of movies such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "House of Flying Daggers", the English reader does not have too many choices when it comes to finding the martial art novels that inspired these type of movies in the first place. The first modern master of the genre to be translated into English was Louis Cha, who was based in Hong Kong and is the undisputed giant of the genre. With the translation of "The Eleventh Son"《蕭十一郎》, we have an excellent sample from another great writer, Gu Long (古龍), who was based in Taiwan. Gu Long ("Ancient Dragon") was the pseudonym for Xiong Yaohua (1937-1985), who is considered one of the top martial arts novelists. He wrote sixty nine over a twenty-five year career that was cut short at age 48, when he died due to liver failure caused by excessive drinking. "The Eleventh Son", published in Chinese in 1973, was a popular source for several movies and TV series, including Swordsman and Enchantment, a 1978 hit movie. Gu Long also published a sequel to the novel in 1976 but "The Eleventh Son" stands complete on its own.
The title character of "The Eleventh Son", Xiao Shiyi Lang, is an atypical hero even in the colorful pantheon of kung fu heroes. He is a true free spirit who, having no permanent home or family, aimlessly roams the land as he likes. He is highly skilled in the martial arts but he does not have the reputation for selfless service we come to expect of kung fu heroes. On the other hand, the established martial arts community is led by a group of exalted gentlemen whose martial skills are apparently only matched by their virtues. In fact, their reputation is such that the core group of six members is known as the "Six Ideal Gentlemen". Although Xiao's alleged crimes have never been witnessed by anyone, the "Ideal Gentlemen" have already labeled him as the "Great Bandit", a ruffian that needs to be stopped lest he sully the reputation of the whole martials arts community.
These two worlds collide when Xiao happens to rescue Shen Bijun, the most beautiful woman in the martial world, from repeated kidnap attempts. Shen is the daughter of a prominent family and happens to be married to Lian Chengbi, an accomplished martial artist from an equally respected family. In other words, Shen was already married to her perfect match, at least by the standards of Chinese society. Unfortunately for Xiao, Lian also happens to be one of the "Six Ideal Gentlemen" who are out to get him. Because of injuries they sustained as well as lies spread by Xiao's enemies, Xiao and Shen spend weeks on their own and on the run from the "Ideal Gentlemen" as well as from the person who tried to kidnap Shen in the first place. Although Shen is never unfaithful to her husband and Xiao's behavior towards her is always aboveboard, Gu Long is able to weave an ever more intense web of emotions between the characters even though they never actually reveal their inner feelings to each other. To make things more complicated, Xiao is not without his female admirers. His sometime drinking buddy and probably only friend is another free-spirit martial artist called Feng Sinian, who is probably secretly in love with him. It was Feng's scheme to steal a famed sword that put Xiao in the path of Shen Bijun in the first place.
The powder keg environment that Gu Long has created is perfect for the novel's twin themes of love and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is dealt with straightforwardly. Without giving too much of the plot away, we can say that the "Ideal Gentlemen" simply aren't so ideal after all. They all have skeletons in their closets that are the real reason they are all so bent on killing the presumed bandit. But in the subject of love, and more specifically, the pain of love is where Gu Long really shines. I have never read a novel in which the pain is so palpable even though the presumed love between the two protagonists is never actually spelled out. Both Xiao and Shen are mindful of what the proper behavior between two unrelated person of the opposite sex would be. Neither ever considers running away with the other. There's never a spoken expression of love or even a kiss. And yet no stronger bond of love could ever be created. Each is prepared to sacrifice himself or herself to save the other. Whereas many a writer has written about unrequited love, Gu Long has made a strong case that requited love can be even more painful.
As only the second martial arts writer in English translation, Gu Long is certain to invite comparison to Louis Cha. The two writers, who actually knew each other, are equally adept at surprising and entertaining their readers but use very different techniques. Both writers were well-read in both Western and Chinese novels and thus brought new vigor to the Chinese novel. Louis Cha tends to infuse his novels with historical facts and freely weaving historical personages, both real and mythical into novels. His novels tend to have a large cast of characters and they often interact with the historical figures. The result is that his novels tend to have an epic quality to them. Gu Long, on the other hand, as the translator reminds us, was very conscious of how novels, even those set in ancient times could be interpreted by government censors as commentaries on the present. To avoid possible censorship, he explicitly avoided historical references. As a result, the novel does not give much clue to identify the specific time period. The number of key characters is relatively small but they are described in rich detail. There's also an underlying sensuality that is usually lacking in kung fu novels. The overall effect is a much more human-scale novel that is the perfect laboratory of human emotions.
As translator Rebecca S. Tai writes in the introduction, Gu Long, introduced a unique writing style characterized by very short paragraphs, many just one sentence long. Gu Long also sprinkles very interesting personal observations about human behavior throughout the narrative. His wry observations, a few of which could appear dated or politically incorrect to a Western reader, help understand the motivation behind his characters.
Rebecca Tai's translation is highly readable. I strongly recommend this novel to anyone interested in an entertaining novel full of unexpected turns and heartfelt emotions.