“The Chinese Lord of the Rings.” Or, as translator Anna Holmwood puts it in her introduction, “one of the world’s best-loved stories and one of its grandest epics, a series that can count its fans in the hundreds of millions. And yet this is the first time it has been published in English, despite making its appearance in a Hong Kong newspaper over half a century ago. … Generations of young readers have stayed up past their bedtimes, following Guo Jing and his descendants in their fight to regain the glories of the past…” (p. ix) The promise and the peril of A Hero Born are all right there in the description.
Holmwood sets the scene, “We begin in the year 1205, as the Song Empire has been pushed southwards out of its capital by the Jurchen Jin Empire. Meanwhile, the great Mongol commander Temujin, who will later become known as Genghis Khan, is gathering power and men out on the steppes.” (p. viii) Last year, I read a specialist collection of scholarly essays that also covered this period and was enthusiastic about the stories implied by even the smallest historical details. “The nativist-irredentist movement that acquired momentum in the late 1120s was led by the monk Myoch’ong, who was able to gain influence over the young king Injong by virtue of his thaumaturgic reputation,” is from history, but is the kind of story that would fit perfectly into the world of A Hero Born, the first of a prospective twelve translated volumes in the Legends of the Condor Heroes.
Indeed, A Hero Born is full of wandering monks, martial arts warriors, hidden princes, cunning soldiers, mysterious travelers, corrupt officials, and much more. The story sweeps from China’s south to the Mongolian steppes and back to the northern capital, known today as Beijing. It follows the coming of age of Guo Jing, whose life is shaped by the circumstances of his father’s death and by an encounter among different schools of martial artists when he is still in his mother’s womb. It ought to be an amazing and wonderful story, and for many millions of people it clearly is. I wasn’t one of them.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the book was first serialized in 1959. Although it was revised in 1976 and 2003, the book still felt dated in a way that was neither charming nor historically interesting. Fantasy storytelling has developed in the decades since, leaving A Hero Born a bit stranded in the twenty-first century. It’s new to the English-speaking world, but it’s also of its time, as if the first episodes of Doctor Who were expecting to compete for audiences’ favor with Game of Thrones or the Marvel movies. Yes, I can see why people love it, but no, it’s not the equal of the best of what today has to offer.
Another part is that I want greater depth and sophistication from what I read, even when I am reading just for fun. The book is all plot, and plot of the one thing after another variety. Consequences sometimes arise from characters’ choices, but essentially never from the characters’ nature. One of the longest narrative threads arise from a bet taken between an antagonist and a group of martial artists. It’s a clever way of solving the conflict between the two, but it’s also a terribly contrived way to drive the story. The characters do things that, on the surface, involve a lot of action, but there isn’t any depth to them. They go here, they go there, and they fight a lot.
One aspect that Jin does not stint on is descriptions of the fights. They were sometimes fun to read, and it was interesting to see what kind of inventive names he gave to the kung fu moves, but I did not find that their contribution to the story warranted the amount of space Jin gave them. I would have preferred to find out more about the settings, or to have the characters more fully developed.
I’m glad that the Condor Heroes are available in English, and particularly that younger readers will have a chance to take these stories to heart and make them their own. I may peek in on later volumes to see if Jin took them in the directions that I would enjoy reading about, and I will definitely leave A Hero Born lying around to see whether the next generation in my household discovers this beloved set of stories.