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A hero reborn: Western readers are entering the gripping world of Chinese Jianghu

By Guo Meichen (People's Daily Online)    18:37, April 20, 2018

Now in an era that consists of highly advanced technology and instant social media access, people no longer face difficulties gathering information about other cultures and classic works. However, this theory doesn't always apply to Chinese classics, especially literature based on traditional, obscure allusions and poetic language. This is part of the reason why A Hero Born, the first volume of Jin Yong’s trilogy “Legends of the Condor Heroes" had not, until recently, been introduced abroad, despite being a household name in China. Eventually, in Feb. 2018, it hit the U.K. market in English, translated by Anna Holmwood, a professional who specializes in Chinese-English literature.

Jianghu (which literally means “rivers and lakes”), a thrilling kung fu world where ancient knights and marital heroes (“Wuxia” in Chinese) fight for their fame and power in literary works, is now gradually unfolding in front of western readers. It’s typical of Jin Yong to combine Jianghu with Chinese history, which gives readers an insight into different dynasties with familiar characters.

A recommendation from The New Yorker

The New Yorker introduced Jin Yong to their readers vividly in an article titled “The Gripping Stories, and Political Allegories, of China’s Best-Selling Author”,writing that Jin Yong’s work “in the Chinese-speaking world, has a cultural currency roughly equal to that of ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Wars’ combined.”

Jin Yong gained the reputation of the greatest Wuxia writer very early in his career. The fact that Jin Yong novels are both soul-stirring and deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture meant his books started to attract numerous fans fast across China after their release in the 1980s. All of a sudden, people of all ages were crazy about reading, sharing and talking about the legends made up by Jin Yong. Adaptations of these stories are even more popular today, such as TV shows, movies and video games. Jing Yong novels also perform very well in Southeast Asia, where “Guo Jing” (the fictional protagonist in The Legend of the Condor Heroes) and other characters are well-known.

Fortunately, the hero, Guo Jing, is now reborn as Jin Yong’s Wuxia world are accessible to western countries, thanks to Anna Holmwood. “Holmwood’s translation offers the best opportunity yet for English-language readers to encounter one of the world’s most beloved writers — one whose influence and intentions remain incompletely understood,” said The New Yorker.

A shared taste across borders

There are other Chinese Kung Fu novels that have already been exposed to and admired by a foreign audience who don’t speak Chinese. WuxiaWorld, a website ranked 1334th globally according to Alexa, collects plenty of Chinese Wuxia novels for worldwide readers. Among this group, U.S readers account for the largest proportion at 40.7%.

WuxiaWorld is, by no means, the only website focusing on interpreting Chinese Jianghu to it's audience. Gravity Tales is a free website set up by Richard Kong, a Chinese-American student from the University of Maryland. Richard translates Chinese novels into English with his team and puts them online, where they get 2.5 million daily views from all over the world. Again, the US are the largest proportion of users, accounting for a third of all views.

However, these websites don't get much support from official channels and are not known by the majority. There are some additional obstacles facing Chinese authors’finding themselves accessible to foreign readers.

A difficult but exciting way to Chinese Jianghu

On a practical level, it's difficult to keep a balance between the narrative speed and rich complexity when translating a Chinese novel. In an original Chinese Wuxia novel, countless words exist which may not have a direct impact on the plot but play a significant role in depicting characters, creating special atmospheres or foreshadowing what is to follow. It would be cumbersome for a translator to retell all of these words, however it's also tasteless to ignore them completely.

On the other hand, the specialist vocabulary is another big problem in translating Chinese novels. “There is a lot of specialist vocabulary when it comes to martial arts and lots of things to do with Chinese medicine and like the acupuncture points and all these kind of things,” said Anna Holmwood.

The complexity of dealing with Chinese work keeps lots of translators away and many famous Chinese classics have not yet introduced to western readers. But this doesn't mean that efforts should not been made to enable them to experience the enchantment of Jianghu. Chinese Wuxia novels contain similar features with foreign fantasy books, A Hero Born being a good example. Waterstone's, one of Britain's largest chain bookstores, said on its website: “If you are a fan of Lord of The Rings and are looking for the next best thing, A Hero Born is definitely the book for you.”

A dialogue against intercultural background

In the future, the exchange among cultures will be promoted more, so the culture gap will, in turn, be narrowed. Literary works should not lag behind, either. There are already thousands of western scholars and sinologists who make great contributions to mutual understanding between different countries and cultures.

A hero reborn, Guo Jing, has come into the focus of Western readers, and led them to discover the tip of iceberg when it comes to the gripping Jianghu. Who knows when the other heroes from the Wuxia world will grace Western bookstores! 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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