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01.06.2018

No one can be certain why a fantasy series about the fates of daring mediaeval Chinese patriots got saddled with the translated English title ‘Legend Of The Condor Heroes.’ The condor is about as native to Asia as Matt Damon to Song-dynasty China. But at last, someone not only takes a stab at an explanation, but a full-length translation of an actual classic.

You’ll learn why once you’re through the 400-odd pages of A Hero Born: Legends Of The Condor Heroes, Vol. 1. This is Anna Holmwood’s English translation of an epic series written in the 1960s by Hong Kong journalist Jin Yong. Other things you’ll learn: how to defend your best friend to the death from an invading power; how to betray your best friend to the death (in collusion with an invading power); how to drink wine from a bottomless bowl while fighting off your rivals; the pleasures of steppe life in Mongolia; how to escape a bloodthirsty snake in a locked room; the value of a good Nodding Phoenix move and the effectiveness of the Heartbreaker Palm. Oh, and why never to tangle with masters of the Nine Yin Skeleton Claw.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Condor Heroes made it all hugely popular in the first place, much like Tolkien is the reason you know what an ‘elf’ is supposed to look like even if you haven’t read Lord Of The Rings. Martial arts literature about brave heroes, spiritual warriors and the yearning for a free and righteously-led Han China has all been around for centuries. In these stories, the true warrior sought not only honour or justice, but also mastery of the self.

As Holmwood explains, it was really Jin Yong, a brilliant newspaper editor whose real name is Louis Cha, who revived this literature in modern form. Hundreds of millions of Chinese readers grew up his stories, and from Condor Heroes springs the whole phenomenon of kung-fu fighting in popular culture: the books, the video games, the TV series - and most of all, the ‘wuxia’ movie.

A Hero Born opens in the year 1205. The Song empire has been overrun by the northern Jin invaders. The Jin are greedy and overbearing, and simple people chafe under their yoke. A tragic encounter with their soldiers destroys the quiet life of two small families, both expecting their first babies. Two boys will be born into separate destinies, and only a small band of martial artists, dedicated to their practice, are capable of training them into powerful youth whose paths will re-unite them one day.

Like every convoluted fantasy saga, the aim of A Hero Born is to get readers to lose themselves in the book, perhaps with a wiggle of the toes and occasional squeals of delight. In this, it succeeds magnificently; Jin Yong knew how to write quickly flowing plots and appealing characters (the novels were first serialised in newspapers in the late 1950s). Holmwood’s translation, too, is limpid.

But more interesting still is what it says about the time and place in which it was produced. Most fantasy is some kind of pastiche of the past, a recourse to old cultural and political structures that help craft a resolution to contemporary dilemmas. In this respect, this early installment of the Condor Heroes plot proves particularly special. It’s driven by dreams of a glorious past, but its articulation is much kinder and more complex than the brute force nationalism that we’re growing used to in our own time. (Think of the last 20 years, in which the wuxia films of Zhang Yimou, for example, have done so much to justify a dominant Chinese present with grandiose imperial history.)

The hated Jin rulers are sophisticated villains; the Mongolians who take Guo Jing’s mother in are clever, highly civilised people. Guo Jing himself is an adorable blockhead; the template, you now realise, for a generation of journeyman kung fu warriors played by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Holmwood’s translations of key Chinese names and concepts may veer close to parody for the unfamiliar reader, but even if you’re inclined to titter at Abbot Withered Wood and the Island Of The Peach Blossom, Jin Yong’s universe is so richly and earnestly drawn that it can cut through readers’ ignorance - in a perfect Part The Clouds To Reveal The Sun move.

Plunge into its welcoming waters, but pace yourself, please: the next installment is out in January 2019. Keep (Doklam) calm and carry on.

Getting there: Get A Hero Born here.

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