Reading Versus Watching: Wuxia

Addendum added 7/10/2006

Consider the case of Jin Yong aka Louis Cha. To quote from the book Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel:

Jin Yong is by most accounts the single most widely read of all twentieth century writers in the Chinese language. Readers' polls rank him second only to Lu Xun in importance and appeal, and his actual readership undoubtedly far surpasses that of the anointed father of modern Chinese literature. Jin Yong's work is lauded for its panoramic and emotionally charged engagement with Chinese history; its seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness and the dazzling complexity of its plotting; its range of vivid, multifaceted characters and psychologically adventurous exploration of human relationships; its integration of a modern sensibility and Western literary techniques with the inherited material of the martial arts genre; its reinvention, through the the rejection of Europeanized elements, of Chinese vernacular prose; its ability to wed a breadth of learning and profound insights on life with the most crowd-pleasing action and melodrama; and its effectiveness in accessibly introducing Chinese culture and values to a socially, geographically, and generally diverse readership, including such "disadvantaged" elements as the younger generations of Chinese overseas. Various parties[...] claim with increasing vigor and assurance not merely that Jin Yong's novels are the finest specimens of martial arts fiction but that they transcend the genre to stand as fiction pure and simple, or even as Literature. His works have been adopted for college curricula, and they are the subject of an ever-expanding body of commentarial and appreciative secondary literature; rumors persist of his being considered for the Nobel Prize.

My question is this: if Jin Yong is the most widely read contemporary Chinese author, not only in China but all over Asia, and thereby certainly one of the most widely read authors in the world, why is he so sparsely translated into English? A cursory search on Amazon turns up exactly two of his fourteen novels, The Book and The Sword and The Deer and the Cauldron (in an abridgment), his first and last novels, respectively, both only available in expensive, hard-cover editions from a university press. This is someone whose works have sold many millions of copies, who writes popular, crowd-pleasing fiction. So why does one have to learn an Asian language to be able to read it? Especially since, as I explored in my post about novelizations, novels are generally cheap to put out, compared with other media. Why haven't the English-language publishers smelled money here?

Perhaps there are some objections that a publisher could make. First, you have the problem of genre. The genre Jin Yong writes in is called "wuxia" in Chinese, which literally translated means something like "martial arts chivalric heroes." To the Chinese, the genre is similar to that of knight errantry or the western, something that usually takes place in the historical past and features heroic adventure stories. But really, you already know what wuxia is like because of countless Hong Kong "Kung Fu" movies, including such recent favorites as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. We even have some American wuxia in the form of "Kung Fu" the television series (which fused wuxia with the western), and many dozens of action movies. But there is a wide disparity between the American acceptance of wuxia movies and television and that of wuxia novels. Consider that Crouching Tiger was based on the novel of the same name by Wang Dulu, a novel that has still never been translated from the Chinese. With all the movie novelizations, one has to wonder, can it really be so much harder to hire a translator than a novelist? While Crouching Tiger helped bring legitimacy to wuxia in film in the West, pulling it out of what many see as a ghetto of enthusiasts and "nerds," the effort has never been made to even expose those same enthusiasts to the novels that inspired and long predated the films. (Though there has been some notable effort by fans to translate the novels themselves—an effort that I think should set off alarm bells among publishers that there is a demand for this stuff.) (More fan translations here.)

Another problem with Chinese wuxia novels for westerners is that the style of writing is very non-western. The wuxia genre has a very long history in China, dating back arguably thousands of years, with the fourteenth century wuxia novel Outlaws of the Marsh (aka Water Margin) considered one of the great works of Chinese literature. Writers will often assert that contemporary wuxia writers like Jin Yong adopt western story-telling techniques, and compared to their predecessors they almost certainly do, but these are not western novels. Jin Yong specifically manages to somehow write very fast and very slowly at the same time; for instance, in the first fifty pages or so of The Book and the Sword, there are perhaps twenty fight scenes, though in that span the main plot lines move hardly an inch. Partially this is because there are so many of them; the book has three or four major plot lines, dozens of major characters and everything is intricately bound up with minutia of feudal Chinese history. The books are also long; The Deer and the Cauldron in English is abridged into three-volumes of six-hundred pages each, an unabridged version being more like five volumes. There's a way in which the Chinese make the Russian novelists look like pantywaists.

Yet once one gets over the tide of characters and plots and settles into the leisurely pacing, what one uncovers is beautiful, pointed and completely unexpected. One of the story-lines in The Book and the Sword (one volume, 500 pages), for instance, centers around the Manchurian Ching dynasty oppressing the Muslim Uighur population, an ethnic minority in north-western China . The Ching have stolen a tribe of Uighurs' only copy of the Koran (the "book" of the title), and are trying to force them off their land. A secret society of heroic martial artists comes to their aid, helping them recover their book and rout the advancing Ching army. On a political level, one can't help but see a parallel between the Ching's political and religious oppression of the Uighurs, and the Communist Chinese political and religious oppression of the Tibetans. (The Chinese government invaded Tibet in 1950; the book was published in 1955.) It could also be seen as a more direct commentary, since in point of fact the Chinese government is also still oppressing the Uighrs. Yong gets away with this, I think, the same way that Arthur Miller got away with criticizing McCarthyism in The Crucible, by disguising it behind an isolated event in the distant past. (Though Yong was then writing in British Hong Kong, I don't think there's any chance of him being arrested for dissidence now that Hong Kong is under Communist rule.) It also illustrates the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the midst of essentially political story-lines like this one there are also elements that border on magical realism. For instance, there is a Uighur princess who always smells like flowers. There is an Atlantis-like lost city, long-ago swallowed by sand-storms in the middle of the desert, guarded by marauding wolf packs. And, of course, there are martial artists who can balance on tree leaves and paralyze you with a single touch.

In other words, The Book and the Sword is a work of historical adventure fiction with a touch of the fantastic, something that cannily combines politics and history with heroics, battles and love stories. There's a way in which one might compare it to The Once and Future King, a blend of fantasy and history that touches upon modern issues.

The fact that major publishers have not picked up and distrubited Chinese wuxia novels like The Book and the Sword is indicative of a characteristic short-sightedness. The barrier to readers formed by non-western pacing and complexity is already beginning to fall with the popularity of manga and anime, which generally have a similar construction to Chinese wuxia (which, along with Japan's own historical martial arts fiction, is a major influence upon it). Just think of "Naruto" or "Full Metal Alchemist." Manga is so popular these days that publishers are falling all over each other to publish it, and that's not just because of the pretty pictures. Likewise the barrier formed by the genre of wuxia itself is falling away for much the same reasons: the embrace by the West of eastern martial-arts culture spanning from Bruce Lee, "Kung Fu" and Seven Samurai to Jet Li and Crouching Tiger. And there are untold hundreds of untranslated wuxia novels just waiting to have their American rights bought up. This is a market waiting to happen, a no-brainer, something that any one wily publishing company could latch onto and watch explode.

Addendum added 7/10/2006

It's come to my attention that there is also an English translation of the Jin Yong novel Fox Volant and Snowy Mountain, however this is called a bad translation by nearly every commenter on its Amazon.com page, so it's probably worthwhile to wait for another edition.

Further, there are also numerous adaptations of Jin Yong in comics form in English. It's not clear to me, but it seems these are translations of Chinese comics, which would mean that comics adaptations of his work are being translated, but not the original work itself.

Also, according to the Wikipedia page, Jin Yong's work was banned in mainland China and also Taiwan for some time, in the former because it was seen as criticising the Communist government, and the latter because it was seen to be endorsing it. Currently, however, no such bans exist.

Post Script (I'm still trying to come up with a name for this section)

Also read this week Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an interesting book, and sort of refreshing after the scholarly Paper Swordsmen, since Freakonomics is in much larger type and simpler language (as my girlfriend put it, "the smaller the print, the smaller the audience"). Of relevance to the world of publishing and books was this passage, ostensibly about crack dealers:

In the glamour professions—movies, sports, music, fashion—there is a different dynamic at play. Even in second tier glamour industries like publishing, advertising, and media, swarms of bright young people throw themselves at grunt jobs that pay poorly and demand unstinting devotion. An editorial assistant earning $22,000 at a Manhattan publishing house, an unpaid high-school quarterback, and a teenage crack dealer earning $3.30 an hour are all playing the same game, a game that is best viewed as a tournament.

The rules of a tournament are straightforward. You must start at the bottom to have a shot at the top. (Just as a Major League shortstop probably played Little League and just as a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan probably started out as a lowly spear-carrier, a drug lord typically began by selling drugs on a street corner.) You must be willing to work long and hard at substandard wages. In order to advance in the tournament, you must prove yourself not merely above average but spectacular. [...] And finally, once you come to the sad realization that you will never make it to the top, you will quit the tournament. (Some people hang on longer than others—witness the graying "actors" who wait tables in New York—but people generally get the message quite early.)