This first part of “Blades in Ink” will take a look at the roles of characters and meanings behind the stories in a few of Jin Yong’s famous Wuxia Novels and their parallels to historical realities and religious philosophies in wuxiaworld.

Jin Yong Wuxia Novels

jin yong Wuxia Novels
Never underestimate flute dude
Jin Yong, Shu Jian En Chou Lu (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998)

Martial arts masters live in mountains, ravines or bamboo forests, those forsaken places that Chinese landscape painters populate with lone pine trees and hermits. Martial arts masters don’t live amid the hustle and bustle of post-war Hong Kong. Where would you find an honest swordsman among those salesman and their fake Rolex watches, their polyester suits? Which wise old man would set foot into an elevator, only to stroke his bushy eyebrows on the 52nd floor of Jardine House, Hong Kong’s first skyscraper?

Yet neon-lit Hong Kong is the place where Jin Yong, perhaps the most widely read Chinese author of the twentieth century, conceived his Wuxia Novels. They tell of warriors who have mastered superhuman skills and solve every possible conflict by their fighting prowess. In this overtly pragmatic Asian metropolis populated by a Chinese majority and ruled by the Her Majesty the Queen of a faraway island kingdom, Jin Yong published stories that unsurprisingly often engaged with colonial concerns.

In Book and Sword (書劍恩仇錄), the conflict develops along the tensions between the Manchu rulers and the ethnic Han-Chinese population. While a corrupt alien elite occupies the heartland, the Han-Chinese heroes retreat into the unconquered territories in the hinterland. They only want to conceive of plots to overthrow their foreign sovereigns.

Jin Yong’s Fighters

jin yong Wuxia Novels
Stop trying to impress the girls and come down.
Jin Yong, Yi Tian Tu Long Ji (Taipei: Yuanjing, 1982)

Up to this day, some readers cannot resist the temptation to connect the plot line of Book and Sword with the unique history of Hong Kong, which had become a British colony in 1898.

Lin Chuanming, however, a Taiwanese university student, protests at this suggestion: “Nonsense! Jin Yong looks across the border: the year of its publication, 1956, coincides with Mao’s Great Leap Forward.”

However, most readers refrain from suggesting that Jin Yong’s narratives have anything to do with current affairs. As they are phantasies about glorious heroes in an era before the advent of firearms, the radio and social media.

Used to the brutal images of mixed martial arts, it is difficult for us to take seriously the philosophical elaborations of Jin Yong’s fighters. And yet, in The Giant Eagle and Its Companion (神鵰俠侶), the young swordsman Yang Guo contrives a new fighting technique on the basis of traditional war poetry.

Each move corresponds to a poetic line: “Like a wind he gallops, like lightning gone. / Catching a bird’s shadow in flight; / dashing across the central plain, / Every glance he casts / Shows a hero with grace and might!”

Imagine Conor McGregor devising his hop step while reciting Byronic verse!

Heroes in His Wuxia Novels

jin yong martial arts novels
The kids realized he had finished all the bacon
Jin Yong, Bi Xue Jian (Taipei: Yuanjing, 1983)

Meanwhile, Jin Yong’s Wuxia Novels abound with allusions to Buddhist sutras and Daoist texts. Often, they contain the secret teachings necessary for the hero to succeed in the wuxiaworld.

In Book and Sword, Chen Jialuo discovers a Zhuangzi manuscript and takes inspiration from the story of Bao Ding. The butcher used his knife so effortlessly that the King took notice of him. Whenever the butcher approaches an ox, the corpse appears to fall apart by itself. One can only see him leaning forward with his shoulder and changing the position of his feet. When people asked how he managed to work so effortlessly, the butcher refers to the method of the Dao:

“When I first began to cut up an ox, I saw nothing but a carcass. After three years, I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I deal with it in a spiritual manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills. Observing the natural lines, my knife slips through the great crevices. And it slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented.”

Finally, the butcher prides himself on not having changed his knife in nineteen years, having cut up several thousand oxen.

His main point teaches Jin Yong’s hero that strength does not matter: “Whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated and drops to the ground.”

When successfully applied to the art of war, anyone can beat any army, no matter how badly equipped one is. Now in possession of this esoteric martial technique, the hero can finally proceed to defeat his foes. Realize what all of Jin Yong’s heroes are supposed to do: serve his people and his country in the wuxiaworld.

Read Part 2 here.

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