All-conquering heroes

A Hero Born (Legends of the Condor Heroes I). By Jin Yong. Translated by Anna Holmwood. MacLehose Press; 416 pages; £14.99.

AS HE built his e-commerce empire, Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba, proudly sported the nickname “Feng Qingyang”. The moniker was borrowed from a cunning swordsman in a novel by Jin Yong. In spite of official sales estimated at 300m copies, plus multiple spin-off films, television serials and games, the 14 martial-arts epics written by Jin Yong between 1955 and 1972 have remained unknown to most Western readers. Their author, though, is hardly a hermit scribe.

His real name is Louis Cha. Now 93, Mr Cha founded and edited one of Hong Kong’s leading newspapers, Ming Pao. He has been honoured by Queen Elizabeth and awarded two doctorates (one honorary, one for research) by Cambridge University. The swashbuckling blend of medieval history and heroic fantasy that he honed as Jin Yong is now set to reach a wide English-language readership.

“A Hero Born” is the first of the 12 volumes of “Legends of the Condor Heroes”, written in the late 1950s. Set in the years after 1205, it enjoyably wields the weapons of wuxia—traditional martial-arts fiction, with its spectacular combat and pauses for philosophy—to show Chinese identity under threat from foreign and domestic foes. “Three generations of useless emperors” have brought the Song dynasty to its knees. Quisling allies of the Jurchen Jin invaders, who rule the north, abet imperial decline.

Enter the dragons of salvation: an “eccentric” kung fu clan known as the Seven Freaks of the South, and the militant Taoist monks of the Quanzhen sect. They are first rivals, then collaborators. Though strained, their joint mission embodies a pact between “physical force” and the “more enlightened path” of wisdom that may rescue China.

Bereaved and exiled by traitors, the hero Guo Jing grows up on the Mongolian steppes. He joins the entourage of Temujin, a great warrior who will become Genghis Khan. Although manifestly a parable of Han Chinese resistance to foreign humiliation, the story does not demonise outsiders. The Mongols, ferocious but “refined people”, nurture the “not naturally gifted” youngster as a fighter and a patriot. In Anna Holmwood’s spirited translation, this action-packed and ideas-laden saga is as revealing of modern as of ancient China.