In contrast to contemporary martial arts, where the value of a master is assessed based on his fan base and followers, Jin Yong’s Wuxia Novels only attribute value to secret teachings available only to the happy few. Googling will not get you anywhere, as only fate determines if you belong to the chosen disciples.
In A Deadly Secret (連城訣), a peasant boy gets hold of a manual that not only teaches him an invincible sword technique, but also points him the way to a hidden treasure in the wuxiaworld. How convenient!
In The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (倚天屠龍記), the hero finds himself wandering through a lonely pine woods, only to find the legendary Jiu Yang Jing manuscript that contains the doctrine that will eventually turn him into a stupendous warrior. One can be lucky too. Just reach for the next sword hanging on a wall, for it could have a treatise inscribed on its blade! Or look inside the hilt for a yellowed scroll!
Eventually, these hidden teachings are no more than puffed up versions of traditional energy exercises. They all build on the Yi Jin Jing, an ancient text which came to great prominence among the Shaolin monks and Qigong schools. Primarily, it consists of physical exercises with therapeutic effects. They train tendons and muscles to balance the body’s Qi circulation.
Today, the “12 Posture Exercise” remains a classic routine among many Asian martial arts schools. Secondly, these techniques also contain strategic advice. For example, “using weakness to overcome abrasiveness” or “using the yin in order to defend the yang”.
The ingenuity of these teachings, however, is outmatched by Jin Yong himself, who started out with humble beginnings and became one of the most influential personalities in modern Hong Kong. They originally published his stories in newspaper instalments and fed an urbane audience the escapist phantasies it craved.
Having published his first series in the fifties, he quickly proceeded to becoming an editor himself. Together with a high school friend he edited the Ming Pao which soon became Hong Kong’s prime liberal media outlet.
At first, it seemed that his Wuxia Novels did not spread beyond the city-state. He was esteemed as a local Hong Kong author, but his impact within the vast field of Chinese letters was negligible.
In Taiwan, censors thought they contained communist ideas and prohibited publication. While in mainland China, the feudal setting of all plots was difficult to reconcile with Maoism and was censored as well. But like the wise swordsman, Jin Yong only had to wait for the right moment to strike. Once they relaxed the censorship laws, there was no stopping.
At one point, even Deng Xiaoping, then head of the People’s Republic of China, confessed to be an ardent reader of his works. Eventually, in the 2000s, excerpts from his most celebrated Wuxia Novels, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部) had entered in mainland Chinese and Singaporean high school textbooks.
Once you attain such high status, enemies will appear. In 2000, Wang Shuo, a Chinese writer, accused Jin Yong of poisoning readers with his elaborate martial arts phantasmagoria.
Wang argued that he entices readers to lust and robbery in the name of justice: “To me the most intolerable thing is that he glorifies violence and murder in the name of patriotism.”
But such criticism came too late. At this point, people adapted all of his novels to film and had become inescapable cultural references in Chinese societies. Be it in mainland China, in Hong Kong, Taiwan or among the Chinese diaspora.
Despite the financial wealth and the political weight that Jin Yong had accumulated during his career, his reply to Wang Shuo demonstrates that he still knew how to “use weakness to overcome abrasiveness.” First, he declared himself unworthy of his opponent’s severe critique. Wang simply has too high expectations, he insists in a humble fashion. Furthermore, Jin Yong referred to Buddhist doctrine to clarify what he made of his opponent’s critique: a wise man must strive to remain unmoved by external influences.
Jin Yong indeed followed the butcher’s advice in Zhuangzi’s parable. Observing the natural lines, his knife slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. Like a great master, who renounces fighting at the height of his fame, Jin Yong had retired in 1971. Nonetheless, his readership continued to grow, and little effort was necessary—other than licensing reprint after reprint.
The battle between Jin Yong and his critics resembles one of those fights at the beginning of his novels. A young fighter draws his sword, challenging his opponent with provocative gestures. There the old man comes—jumping from a rooftop! The blades clash, vibrate from the impact. For a second, the sunlight flashes in the metal, the osprey cries afar. And then the fight continues until the youngster pierces the old man’s clothes.
He withdraws, strokes his white beard and smiles: “Your movements are quick … too quick!”
As the blades continue to rattle against another, the young man comes off balance. As he comes to his senses, he finds his weapon in the hands of the opponent. He, the venerable chief of a secret sect, hands it back to him and urges him to become his apprentice.