Jin Yong’s A Hero Born–The best epic adventure story you haven’t read

Review by C.J. Bunce

When you think of epic adventures, maybe first that comes to mind is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George Lucas’s Star Wars.  Maybe the cinematic stories of Akira Kurosawa, like The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, and Rashomon.  Or maybe your epic adventures are more fantasy, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror, or historical, like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, C.S. Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower, or go farther back, like Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte De’Arthur, the Maya’s Popul Vuh, the Old English Beowulf, the Old Norse Poetic Edda, or even the stories of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey.  What if someone wrote an equally exciting, rich adventure in the 1950s that has been read by more than 300 million readers, and you missed it, simply because it hasn’t been translated into English yet?  That would be the first English edition just released of A Hero Born, by Jin Yong, the pen name of Chinese author Louis Cha.  His novels sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the series is finally available to U.S. readers.

Two men, Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang, grow up together around 1200 AD.  Becoming best friends and blood brothers, they get married and have their firstborn both due at the same time.  They swear loyalty to each other, including a vow binding the futures of their family together that will survive these men, just as intruding warriors divide and even kill members of their family, leaving the friends and their families to disperse and flee.  Enter the Seven Heroes of the South (known by their enemies as the Seven Freaks of the South).  When the two friends are feared dead, this elite Magnificent Seven of sorts, a fabulous mix of warriors with every type of skill and weapon, makes a bargain with one of the revered seven Immortals, Eternal Spring Qiu Chuji.  They will separately train the offspring of the men, and in 18 years return for a showdown to see who are the better masters or shifu.  To one of the women a boy is born, named Guo Jing, and it is his story–his mythic hero’s journey–that the reader follows in this first adventure, which takes him from birth into adulthood, toward a destiny he may not be prepared for.  Guo Jing does not know his life and training is all based on a wager.  What does it take to have honor, to have character, to be a hero, and what surprises will he stumble upon on his way to meet his destiny?

Books like A Hero Born are why we have words like “epic.”  First published in Chinese in 1957, A Hero Born is the first novel in Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes series set in the 13th century, following the life of a family in a community under the Song Empire who escaped to join Genghis Khan and his people.  It’s hard to believe the novel wasn’t written a hundred or hundreds of years earlier, or that George Lucas didn’t base his entire Star Wars saga on this story.  Anna Holmwood′s use of prose in her translation is pure artistry–A Hero Born reads seamlessly as if the novel was originally written in English.  Holmwood conveys the meanings of the hundreds of Chinese terms without seeming to explain them, weaving cultural nuances, the unique characters, the rich history of China, the Mongols, and Jin, the Taoist philosophy, and visual kung fu choreography into easy reader understanding.  The world-building will suck readers in and leave you wanting even more.  Luckily the entire series has been translated now, to be released over the next few years.

Until his death in 2018, Jin Yong was the world’s most-read living writer.  His novel is more than mere martial arts hokum, although barely a page goes by without the use of some incredible survival technique or discipline (Hawk Fights the Rabbit, Split Muscles Lock Bones, Flying Carp and Mandarin Duck Kick, and Sword of Mutual Demise are just the beginning), yet all is in furtherance of the journey.  The backdrop is warring nations and kung fu as an almost magic discipline that is at the same time a metaphor for life, but the mythic archetypes, deep character study, and relationships between people in conflict are what makes the book so hard to put down.

Surprisingly in a work from 1957, the women characters are as present as the men, and just as interesting, powerful, and inspiring, like the charismatic manipulator Lotus Huang, the swordswoman Jade Han, the streetfighter Mercy Mu, and the frightening master of the gruesome Nine Yin Skeleton Claw technique, Cyclone Mei, also known as Twice Foul Dark Wind.

No less than four film companies are working on adaptations of the series for the big screen.

A cast of characters upfront in this edition was a welcome addition.  And more than a dozen traditional illustrations by Jiang Yun Xing add to the fun.  Holmwood, sure to receive awards for her translation, includes an introduction and explanatory appendices.  An illustrated guide of all the kung fu maneuvers would be great to see in a future version.

The next novels in the series can’t come fast enough.  A Hero Born is a must-read for any reader of fiction, and any fan of world history, mythology, martial arts, the wuxia genre, or China in general.  This is one to savor.  A Hero Born is now available for the first time in the U.S. in English, available in a hardcover edition here and audiobook here from St. Martin’s Press.  The next volume, A Bond Undone, is available for pre-order here, with a street date of March 2020.

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