History and lineage in A Hero Born – Book 1 of the Holmwood translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of the unexpected impacts of the Coronavirus crisis of 2020-21 has been the delay of certain expected book releases. Originally I’d intended to read all four volumes of the recent translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes back to back and then to write an essay after completing that effort. Then I discovered that the fourth volume had been pushed back from a March release date to an August one… on the day I went to the store to buy it. Needless to say I put it under pre-order. However I did decide I’d space out my reading of the volumes to allow me to better keep up with my theory reading and to allow me to read a few other books that I have planned essays about (look for essays about A Wizard of Earthsea and a return to The Invisibles in the intermediate future – I want to make some revisions from my too-surface Hegelian read of the latter work.)

I have previously read Legend of the Condor Heroes via fan translations. In fact, while it’s quite rough around the edges, my essay about Hong Qigong was a test balloon for much of what I’ve been trying to do in this space recently.

Writing about Jin Yong was also my original introduction to literary criticism and represents my earliest attempt to work in the field. I frequently refer to Jin Yong as my favourite author, and this isn’t empty hyperbole. Legend of the Condor Heroes is one of the greatest works of fantasy literature written, and the sprawling text provides vast opportunities for engagement and assessment. I want to start by providing the most basic information: A Hero Born is the first of four volumes within this translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes – this volume was translated by Anna Holmwood and she was either the translator or the editor for each subsequent volume. There are other translators involved in the project, but I will be referring to this edition of the overall work as the Holmwood translation throughout as a matter of expedience. I will make sure to name other credited translators when I review future volumes of course.

This volume covers the Condor Heroes story from its start to the escape of Yang Tiexin and Bao Xiruo from the palace of Wanyan Honglie. This also means that this book does the heavy lifting of introducing the principals (Guo Jing, Huang Rong, Yang Kang, Mu Nianci, Wanyan Honglie, Ouyang Ke) but aside from allusions and the repeated appearance of Huang Yaoshi’s student, Mei Chaofeng, the Five Greats are absent from the story. The ending-point feels well-chosen. There was never going to be a spot in the first quarter of this novel that wouldn’t have seemed abrupt, but the conclusion of the action at the palace is a strong choice for where to leave off.

Holmwood proves an excellent translator; she has a sharp eye for prose and, most importantly when translating Jin Yong, seems to understand the purpose that underlies some of his odder structural choices. Many adaptations of Jin Yong’s work (such as the 2017 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes) will gloss over Jin Yong’s frequent asides, and re-order events in order to bring characters into the story more quickly. We want to see Huang Rong and Guo Jing interacting faster, so we put those scenes before the failed attempt of Ouyang Ke’s retainers to steal his horse: that sort of thing. Happily Holmwood does not do this. The end result is a text that might prove a challenge to people who are accustomed to either linear structures or the in-media-res – flashback – climax structure preferred in English and American fantasy but, if you can get past the structural alienness of the text, there is an incredibly rewarding book on the other side.

Holmwood’s translation is a welcome upgrade from the era of fan translations; but comes with a welcome call-back in the form of illustrations from a past Chinese edition of the book. If you are a reader either of fantasy fiction or a fan of Dumas, Scott, and other 19th century romance-adventure authors (to whom Jin Yong owes a deep debt) then I would heartily recommend this book. But I suppose there’s not much point in me trying to hype a new translation of the best-selling fiction book of all time. So let’s, instead, turn our attention to the question of how Jin Yong’s book creates a sense of the self in opposition to Descarte’s Cogito.

What is the self anyway

The Guo family must have descendants.

Let’s start with the super-nutshell version. Descartes was pretty much the OG skeptic. And he systematically tried to demonstrate that anything was beyond the possibility of doubt. In the end Decartes could find only one thing that he could not doubt. That there was a self who doubted. This idea, that the ability of a subject to be conscious, became the ground upon which most modern liberal conceptions of self are based. We like to think of ourselves as being singular, atomic, individual.

You might have noticed that I regularly state, “we are dividual” and various other formations of the same throughout my prior writing. This is not some strangely pervasive spelling error but is rather one of the two approaches of attack to the idea of the cartesian cogito. You can attack whether the cogito is, in fact, one thing or many things. If we imagine the subject that doubts not as a solid kernel of identity but rather as a frothing process of force, potential and change then we problematize Descartes. This helps to restore the validity of self-doubt, which became a topic of significant focus for early existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also raises the specter of nihilism since, if we cannot even be certain that the cogito that thinks is an accurate approximation of our self, what can we be certain of?

So that’s one way to attack the cogito – to question whether the self could be divided into multiple components – but there is another thing you can do to the self to break the hold of the cogito and that is to situate identity as being part of a process that is larger than the single person. In this case, the boundaries of the self dissolve into that of the community. As John Mbiti put it, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” While this viewpoint is most often expressed through the ideas of Ubuntu philosophy, this also is the form of self that Jin Yong presents in this text.

An example.

In the first chapter of the book, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin have encountered the Taoist priest Qiu Chuji who has just completed a mission to murder and ritually mutilate a government official who sold out the Song to Jin invaders. As you’d expect from a person currently carrying a man’s head, heart and liver in a sack, Qiu is feeling a bit paranoid and so when Guo and Yang invite him to come and have a drink with them (they’ve noticed his kung fu and think he seems cool) he assumes an ambush and picks a fight.

Now the book has informed us already that Guo and Yang are patriots and the descendants of heroes. Yang, in particular, is descended from a retainer of Yue Fei, so when he starts fighting with Qiu, the Taoist recognizes the way he fights as being his family’s famous spear technique. As Qiu comes to this realization, the action shifts from the fight (literally mid-movement) into an extended description of Yang’s famous ancestor, including his achievements in battle and his heroic death:

He gave his life for his country on that battlefield. When the Jin army burned his body, over two jin1 of molten metal flowed into the mud beneath him. After that battle the Yang family spear became famous across China's great planes.

The recognition Qiu is able to give to Yang is not because of his own merits. Or at least it’s not entirely because of his own merits. Qiu recognizes Yang is a good spearman. He is appreciative of Yang’s ability, but what tells Qiu that Yang is probably not an agent of the Jin come to ambush him isn’t the quality of his spearmanship but its lineage. Yang isn’t Yang Tiexin the man; he is Yang Tiexin the descendant of a heroic soldier, and the father of Yang Kang who is not yet born. His identity is a node in the ongoing flow of history. It may have its singularity in the moment, but its significance as an identity is superseded by the collective identity of the Yang family and the Yang spear pedagogical lineage.

Obligation and history

This pattern continues to repeat throughout the story. Whenever a new person is introduced, especially when that person’s physicality is introduced, it will be coupled with the history of their family or of their school. When Guo Jing’s eventual teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, are introduced, Jin Yong provides the following introduction to one of them:

In ancient times, the two southern kingdoms of Yue and Wu were long at war. The King of Yue, Gou Qian, kept himself ready for combat at all times bysleeping on a bed of straw and drinking from a gall bladder. But the Wu army was universally acknowledged to be superior, mainly due to General Wu Zixu's strategic prowess, learned under the master tactician Sun Tzu. One day, however, a beautiful young woman, accomplished in the art of the sword, arrived in Jiaxing, then located just inside the Yue border. One of the kingdom's highest-ranking ministers, Fan Li, asked if she would teach them her skills so they might defeat the Wu. So it happened that Jiaxing came to be the home of this particular sword technique, passed from master to disciple, generation to generation. 

Just as in the first example, this aside, which is actually a synopsis of Jin Yong’s Sword of the Yue Maiden happens mid-way through a physical movement which is intended to tell us about what the character (Han Xiaoying) but diverts temporally from the narrative to tell us, in brief, why her lineage matters. This is how she is introduced because she is the product of that lineage and the one upon whom it rests to pass that lineage on into the future. This is how we can understand who she is.

And this gets at the specific relationship that a subject in the present of this story has toward the past and that is continuity. When Guo Xiaotian is killed during Wanyan Honglie’s kidnapping of Bao Xiruo, Qiu’s first (and honestly only) thought is that the Guo family must continue. He is so obsessed with preserving the life of Guo’s widow, and more importantly the unborn child she carries, that he bursts into a Buddhist monastery, wrecks up the place and then picks a fight with the heroic Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, all just to ensure that Li Ping delivers her baby in safety. And when he realizes she’s gone missing he proposes the famous bet with the Seven Freaks that holds within it the very same relationship of obligation to history and to the future that positions identity.

Specifically he proposes that he pursue Bao Xiruo (and the unborn Yang Kang) and the Seven Freaks will pursue Li Ping (and Guo Jing). Should either he or the Seven Freaks find their child alive, they will train the child in their martial arts. Upon their eighteenth birthday, they will each bring their pupil to the same place to have a martial arts match (the Seven Freaks and Qiu are evenly matched and uncertain who is the stronger martial artist) after which, if both children are boys they’ll be sworn together as oath brothers and if one is a boy and the other a girl they will be married, thus ensuring the continuation of the Guo family, the Yang family, the teachings of the Seven Freaks and the teachings of Qiu Chuji, regardless of the outcome.

To Jin Yong, history is not a thing that happened in a past. Rather history is a fluid process that every subject is enmeshed within. We all move within history, molded by the situation of our times, becoming the people we are as a result of decisions made long before we were born. The decision of a general in the Spring and Autumn period to ask for the help of the Yue Maiden in his dynastic conflict gives rise to Guo Jing as much as the murder of his father mere weeks before he was born in the heart of a Mongolian snowstorm. Yang Kang’s eventual refusal of the lineage of his dead heroic ancestor, his willingly assuming of the position of Xiao Wangye (little prince – the son of a prince to be specific) within the Jin, isn’t immoral because there is anything fundamentally evil about the Jin. Jin Yong problematizes that quite well in the sequel which inverts the alliance patterns between Jin, Han and Mongol. It’s immoral because it is a severing off of Yang Kang from that flow of lineage. He is not part of the history of the Jin. His insertion of himself into that history, escaping from the history of heroic last stands of the Song dynasty Han in the process, is a selfish betrayal as sharp as any of the cruelties he visits upon Mu Nianci in time.

The Materialism of Jin Yong

History intrudes upon the narrative of A Hero Born constantly. And this history informs the people of the story, their places in the world and the decisions that they make. The central section of A Hero Born details Guo Jing’s childhood on the steppes of Mongolia and his eventual growth from a stubborn, honest and generous child into the youngest general of Ghengis Khan and the heroic himbo that we all know and love.

This episode of the story is one of the parts that interfaces most directly with a sort of historical fiction and it demonstrates the other very important relationship which Jin Yong has to history. History might be a present force which a subject is obligated to but it isn’t mystical. Jin Yong’s conception of history is classically materialist; it is the product of the social structures, the alliances and economies, that underpin it. Throughout the Mongolian chapters, the Jin are a constant threat. They are anxious about the boisterous, mobile and war-like Mongolians and are particularly anxious about Temujin, a modernizer who has been attempting to unite the rival clans of Mongolia. The Jin dispatch Wanyan Honglie (because of course it’s him again) and another prince of the dynasty to give Temujin a formal rank within the Jin empire and effectively to reinforce the empire-client relationship between the Jin and the two clans that Temujin has the greatest pull over.

However, the Mongols prove resistant to flattery, proud and scornful of bribes and honeyed words, and it becomes clear that Temujin is building up a force of capable generals and so instead the Jin decide to sow dissent between Temujin and his closest allies.

This plot comes to fruition with an attempted wedding party massacre, only the future Ghengis Khan proves a bit harder to catch than certain Starks we might remember, and Temujin, his closest retainers and Guo Jing end up encircled upon a hilltop. During the siege, a parlay occurs and we get the following exchange:

Jamuka rose to his feet. "you surrendered in the past when you were weaker than you are now. You give the spoils of war to your soldiers, telling them it belongs to them, not to the whole tribe. In this, again the clan leaders say you do wrong. It's against our traditions."
"But it pleases my young fighters! The clan leaders claim they cannot keep it because they want it for themselves. Such traditions make the fighters angry. Who do we need more? Brave soldiers or greedy, stupid clan leaders?"
"Brother you have always acted alone, as if you didn't need the help or advice of the other clan leaders. You have also been sending messengers to persuade my soldiers to surrender and join you, promising them riches, that the livestock won't be shared among all the people of the tribe. Do you think I was blind to what you have been doing?"

Jamuka is Temujin’s oath brother, and he’s speaking to his brother from the position of historical tradition, which Temujin will disrupt with his, strategically effective, economic revisions. But think for a second of the ridiculousness of a pause in a battle in Tolkien so that the rival generals can get together and have an argument over the distribution of horses and sheep. History is a force that subsumes the individual and it is a force that is driven by the material conditions of life. The fracture that the Jin exploit to drive a wedge between Temujin and Jamuka is economic. The dispute between these two historical figures is one over the distribution of soldiers, their place in society and the obligations those soldiers have to society. History is this vast material thing that binds us all together, it is the fabric out of which people are formed.

Guo Jing is a bundle of obligations that predate his birth. He is obliged to his family, to continue it and to carry forward its traditions. He is obliged to his teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, to be a good person, a strong fighter, an exemplar of their teachings. He is obliged to Yang Kang to marry them if they’re a girl or to become their brother if they’re a boy. He is obliged to Ghengis Khan for taking in his family. After the failure of the marriage alliance between Temujin and Jamuka, Temujin betroths his daughter Huazheng to Guo Jing and this becomes yet another obligation. Guo Jing is all of these competing strands of history, bound into a knot of perspective, coincidence and desire, and sent out into the world. Then he meets the daughter of Old Heretic Huang who demonstrates how these various obligations create antinomies and how the discovery of how to reconcile these contradictions leads on the path to heroism.


1: A jin is a Chinese measure of weight approximately equivalent to a half-kilogram. Please treat distinctly from the Jin (the Jin dynasty) or Jin Yong (the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, which roughly translates to “golden trifle”). Isn’t Chinese a fun language?

One thought on “History and lineage in A Hero Born – Book 1 of the Holmwood translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

  1. Pingback: Sense8: An escape plan from capitalism | Simon McNeil

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