Jin Yong’s A Hero Born: A Legendary Chinese Epic Travels West

Against the backdrop of the Jin–Song Wars, two Song patriots, Ironheart Yang and Skyfury Guo, make a vow: if their unborn children are of the same gender, they will be sworn siblings. If they’re of different genders, they will be married. Before their wives Lily Li and Charity Bao can give birth, their village falls under attack. Justice Duan—a Song army officer secretly working for the Jin—kills Skyfury Guo. Ironheart Yang, Lily Li, and Charity Bao are forced apart as they flee, none of them aware of the others’ fates.

The balance of A Hero Born—written by Jin Yong, first serialized in China from 1957 to 1959, and only now translated by Anna Holmwood—picks up the story years later, following the journey of Skyfury Guo’s son, Guo Jing, who has joined the Mongolian hordes on the steppes with his mother Lily. There, he becomes sworn brothers with Tolui, one of the sons of Temujin, later known as the great Genghis Khan. Guo Jing is a slow but good-hearted boy, and, under the tutelage of the Seven Freaks of the South and with the assistance of other mentors, he hones his archery and martial arts skills to become a formidable warrior. He faces deadly challenges and powerful enemies while uncovering the truth of his heritage and past.

Though this is a tale drawn from history, don’t mistake A Hero Born for purely historical fiction. This book, and the many that followed it in the Legend of the Condor Heroes series, are part of a Chinese narrative tradition known as wuxia, which straddles the line between genre and non-genre, realism and fantasy. While set against real events, Jin Yong imagines sequences of exaggerated, fantastical martial arts impossible to perform in real life. The real historical figures that dot the pages are fictionalized versions of themselves. Furthermore, the way Legends of the Condor Heroes is received in its original cultural context grounds the series on the fantasy and speculative fiction side of the literary spectrum.

It’s difficult to convey the popularity and cultural impact of Jin Yong’s long-running saga. The publisher’s comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin are apt as thematic parallels—The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones are similarly vast epics featuring countless heroes mired in conflicts that span both time and space. But even those lofty comparisons fall short with regard to Jin Yong’s ubiquity in the sinosphere, where the novels have sold some 300 million copies. When I visited my mother and told her I was writing about A Hero Born, she excitedly led me to her bookshelf to show me her complete set of the Legend of the Condor Heroes in the original Chinese. (My father also has a complete set in his home.) While Tolkien and Martin have a wide reach, helped along by movie and TV adaptations, you would still be hard-pressed to find complete sets of their books outside the homes of genre fans.

This edition of A Hero Born also includes the original illustrations that accompanied the novel as it was first serialized. Such illustrations often adorn the pages of Chinese classics, highlighting the action and intensity of the scenes they’re embedded in. I only wish that it also included a map, if only to show readers the different historical borders of the era, and to help them orient themselves when the text refers to “the North” and “the South.”

As a translator myself, I appreciate the difficulty of tackling such an iconic work, especially one so rooted in the culture and history of present-day China. I don’t have the space here to comment on the technicalities of translation choices or where they might differ from the ones Holmwood has made. Instead, I’ll simply note that the prose reads fluidly, although translations of names and combat moves could have been more poetic and adapted to anglophone traditions. But any stiltedness in the work is no more jarring than that found in any fantasy dating from the 1950s, or the poetic license of, say, Thor’s flowery dialogue in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Any fan of epic fantasy, political intrigue, brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, and coming of age stories will feel perfectly at home reading A Hero Born.

The anglophone world has its share of high fantasy classics, but so too does the rest of the world. A Hero Born is a timely expansion of the high fantasy canon that will broaden the horizons of anglophone speculative fiction readers. Prepare to enter an action-packed world of larger-than-life heroes and deviously wicked villains. Let your imagination soar.

A Hero Born is available now. The next volume in the Legend of the Condor Heroes, A Bond Undone, arrives in March 2020.

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