Jin Yong Wuxia novels in Chinese mainland: from ‘poisonous weeds’ to literary classics
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There is a saying that “where there are ethnic Chinese, there are fans of Jin Yong.” The writer, whose real name is Cha Jing-yong and who recently passed away, is commonly hailed as the most-read Chinese-language writer with his 15 Wuxia (martial arts and chivalry) classics that have fascinated several generations. However, the truth is, although Jin Yong’s literary works finally got to be published in the Chinese mainland in the 1990s, state-run media still didn’t think his Wuxia novels could appeal to refined taste.

From 1949 to the 1980s when China just started to open up to the outside world, Wuxia novels, as a literary genre, had been banned in the country.

In 1955, Cha Jing-yong began to work on his first Wuxia novel serialized as The Book and the Sword for Ta Kung Pao, known to be the oldest active Chinese-language newspaper. In 1959, Cha founded the Hong Kong Ming Pao and since then, all his novels were serialized in the daily newspaper till 1972, when Cha completed his last Wuxia novel, The Deer and the Cauldron, after which, he officially retired from writing novels.

Ming Pao was deemed to be a right-wing newspaper in the first decade of its publication. At the time, Cha used his real name to write commentary on current events while using his penname Jin Yong to serialize Wuxia stories. He was critical of the Chinese mainland back then.

With the “cultural revolution” unfolding, Ming Pao began to work on a special edition titled Looking North to China, repeatedly expressing support for leaders including Deng Xiaoping and Peng Dehuai. Cha himself once composed articles to prop up Deng as a hero like Guo Jing, the protagonist of his Wuxia masterpiece, The Legend of the Condor Heroes.

In 1981, Deng Xiaoping granted an interview to Jin Yong at the Great Hall of the People, telling him he had himself read his book before and so felt like old friends already. After this, a dozen of Chinese mainland publications printed dozens of Jin Yong’s Wuxia novels without being authorized.

In March 1973, after Deng returned to Beijing from Jiangxi province, he had asked for an assortment of Jin Yong Wuxia novels to be purchased from overseas, as he was really impressed by the stories.

Through the meeting in 1981, Deng hoped to deliver new messages to Taiwan, considering Cha, as a much-loved writer in the world of ethnic Chinese, had a loyal and growing fanbase in the area.

After the meeting, Cha sent from Hong Kong to Deng the whole set of his Wuxia works and the ban on his novels was lifted in China.

However, throughout the whole 1980s, all print copies of Jin Yong Wuxia books were actually pirated, except for one publication which was authorized to print The Book and the Sword.

Jin Yong really became a household name during the mid-1980s when Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), a local broadcaster in Hong Kong, aired TV series The Legend of the Condor Heroes.

But contrary to the trend, Chinese state-run media did a negative review of China’s state-run media. CCTV, China’s national broadcaster once castigated ubiquitous Jin Yong Wuxia in its prime-time news program for allegedly “toxic influence” on teenagers.

Shen Changwen, the former general manager of Beijing-based SDX Joint Publishing Company, played a key role in getting Jin Yong books published on the Chinese mainland. In 1988, he visited Cha in Hong Kong to talk about related matters.

Back in Beijing, Shen’s plan got approved by his company’s management, and in 1991, the two parties signed a 10-year long contract for publication. By May, 14, Sanlian Bookstore affiliated to Shen’s publishing company formally released an assortment of Jin Yong Wuxia, by the time, Cha had stopped writing novels for 22 years.

By the mid-1990s, multiple commentators who were also liberal arts professors of the Peking University commended Jin Yong Wuxia, paving the way for it to be also viewed favorably by the state-run media.

In 1995, Wang Yichuan of Beijing Normal University compiled an anthology of novels written by Chinese language literary masters in the 20th century, in which Jin Yong was ranked the fourth only after Lu Xun, Shen Congwen and Ba Jin. And he was put ahead of really significant figures like Lao She and Mao Dun in China’s modern literary history. At the time, Chinese people tended to compare Jin Yong with pop culture celebrities like Teresa Teng, a Hong Kong pop singer, and Chiung Yao, a Taiwan-based writer featuring romance works.

The startling ranking soon stirred up heated debate in both academic circles and among common people. Several liberal arts professors from Peking University came forward to prop up Jin Yong and his works. On October 25, 1994, Cha was awarded a professor emeritus title. Professor Yan Jiayan from the university said the May Fourth Literary Revolution had help novel to be considered as a literary work, and Jin Yong’s novels would usher Wuxia stories into the shrine.

Mainstream media on the Chinese mainland began to acknowledge the literary value and social significance of Jin Yong Wuxia. In 1999, Cha sold the copyright of his novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer to CCTV for it to produce a TV series, and the work became a prelude to a series of CCTV-produced Jin Yong opera.

If the comments of Peking University’s liberal arts professors could be regarded as endorsement, Cha’s nomination in 1999 as the dean of the School of Humanities of Zhejiang University was interpreted as him being accepted by the Chinese mainland academia in general.

In 2004, Cha quit his teaching position in the university due to “deficiency in pursuing studies.”

The experience seemed to have upset Cha. Leaving the Zhejiang University, he set out to the UK and acquired both a Master’s and Doctor’s degrees in Chinese History from the Cambridge respectively in 2006 and 2010.

In 2004, the Chinese textbook for high school students in Chinese mainland included excerpts of a Jin Yong Wuxia novel, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Like his works which had transitioned from banned “poisonous weeds” to literary classics, Cha Jing-yong behind the household name Jin Yong will be remembered by the literary history.  

 


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