Cai Li's Culture Column

Flip on the tube in China and you're sure to see kung fu. But chances are, it won't be Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. In this article, Cai Li introduces you to master kung fu writer, Jin Yong. After reading the article, choose a link below to read another -- or to visit another section of the Classroom Package.

Jin Yong, the Kung Fu Master

Something amazing has been happening in China. There's no way you can flip through the TV channels at any time of day without encountering an adaptation of a novel written by the same author. Well, what can I say, except -- Jin Yong rules!

In China, Jin Yong, whose fifteen martial arts books have nurtured two generations of youngsters, is unanimously proclaimed the ultimate kung fu writer of all time. But youngsters aren't the only ones watching and reading -- and Jin Yong's novels are the only martial arts books (among hoards of others) that are considered true classics. That's because they reach far beyond kicking and punching to address serious social issues, such as gender and racial conflicts and philosophical definitions of morality, and are courageous enough to develop different perspectives on historical events in China. But most of all, in a subtly sophisticated way, they challenge the traditional Confucian dogmas that have been part and parcel of the way Chinese people think for the past two thousand years. Advocating freedom of will and expression, they offer new and refreshing perspectives to post-Mao China and help shape modern Chinese culture and ideology.

Jin Yong's signature technique is the creative integration of fictional characters and stories with historical figures and events. When reading his novels, we cheer for the Song Dynasty heroes that fought back the invasions of the Mongolians; we are party to treaties being signed between foreign countries and the Chinese government after the Opium Wars; we smile disdainfully at the childish Russian princess Sophia; and we marvel at the exploits of Kangxi, one of the most influential emperors of the Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty of China. Of course, there is plenty of kung fu interspersed with all that history, but the key battles of Jin Yong's novels are between zheng, the right or the mainstream, and xie, the wrong or the alternative; li, reason, and xing, human nature; dao, moral rules, and yi, loyalty to friends. And as Jin Yong fleshes out these natural struggles on his pages, he celebrates the courage to overcome suppression and pursue true love and friendship. Above all, though, he honors loyalty when it is practiced in the face of societal isolation and abandonment.

Jin Yong's heroes are self-searching warriors. After a painful process of self-realization, they become tian xia di yi -- 'the best ones under the sky:' ultra-laid-back drinkers of white wine and defenders of the weak and poor who care nothing for power, rules, or fame. They are the human elite, characterized by da qi -- big energy -- a combination of open-mindedness, generosity, selflessness and deep concern for the well-being of others. Some are tragic characters, some funny and lucky, some hesitant and more like average people, and some natural charismatic leaders. The heroines, of course, are all stunningly beautiful, yet each has her own distinctive and appealing character traits.

In Jin Yong's world, friends and lovers are worth dying for. They are one's zhi yin -- people who 'understands your music,' particularly when no one else does. In Jin Yong’s last and arguably best work, Lu Ding Ji, the main character, Wei Xiao Bao, is one of the few kung fu heroes in all of Chinese literature who isn't handsome or even anywhere near respectable. Born in a brothel and never knowing his father, he steals and cheats his way through life, but is strictly faithful to his friends. Despite his dishonesty, in the end, he is rewarded for his loyalty (by the benevolent author) with a very enviable life: he is the best friend of the emperor of the Qin Dynasty and has seven beautiful wives and many children. While the legend of Wei is something of a contemporary joke, he is very well-liked among Chinese readers -- as a symbol that loyalty trumps all.

And, yes, Jin Yong wrote exquisitely about kung fu, but he also crafted intriguing and heart-rending love stories, none more famous than Shen Diao Xia Lu -- The Holy Eagle Couple. In the story, after dramatically overcoming a slew of obstacles, the title couple finally unites. But, it is too late: our heroine, Xiao Long Nu, is already dying of poison. She slips away, leaving a note for her lover, Yang Guo, telling him to meet her in sixteen years. Faithfully, after the painfully long wait, he goes to the mountain meeting place only to find that Xiao Long Nu has not come as she promised she would. In despair, he throws himself off a cliff -- and is amazingly reunited with his love at the bottom of the valley. Xiao Long Nu knew she was dying but wrote the note so Yang Guo would live on earth for another sixteen years. What she did not foresee was that her practice of kung fu would allow her to miraculously survive her own suicidal plunge and recover from her poisoning -- and that, sixteen years later, her lover would take the same leap of fate.

Jin Yong’s body of work is also fittingly rich in Buddhist and Taoist wisdom, since the world-renowned shao lin and wu dang martial arts schools are Buddhist and Taoist, respectively. The story described above is a perfect example of a fundamental Buddhist principle that is also deeply imbedded in the way Chinese people think: everything in the universe has a yin -- a reason or a cause -- and a guo -- a fruit or a result. Since a reason leads to a result, one deserves whatever he gets. In Jin Yong's novels, we also learn about such Buddhist concepts as self-suffering, forgiveness, and sacrifice to enlighten others; and such Taoist ideas as energy preservation, the five elements and astrology. Yet, the Buddhist and Taoist monks in his books are not perfect. They express the gamut of human emotions and are prone to mistakes. If they pretend to be perfect, they are described as hypocrites.

The master writer also exposes his readers to classic Chinese poetry, regularly quoting from both Shi Jing and Chu Ci, China's oldest poetry collections. In fact, many young people can quote ancient lines of Chinese poetry thanks only to having read them in a Jin Yong book. One famous line -- Asking the world, what on earth is love? -- became something of a national slogan for teenagers, appearing in countless TV series, movies and magazines.

Fifteen years ago Jin Yong retired from writing martial arts books to research Chinese history. Yet his fifteen books will lift the spirits of Chinese readers for generations to come, transporting them back into China's historical past and challenging them to create an honorable future. For this, his faithful call him da xia -- 'the noble knight' -- and he is truly tian xia di yi -- 'the best under the sky.'

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Cai Li's Culture Column

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