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A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes, by Jin Yong

translated by Anna Holmwood

MacLehose Press, 2018

Publisher's Blurb

China: 1200 A.D.

The Song Empire has been invaded by its warlike Jurchen neighbours from the north. Half its territory and its historic capital lie in enemy hands; the peasants toil under the burden of the annual tribute demanded by the victors. Meanwhile, on the Mongolian steppe, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.

Guo Jing, son of a murdered Song patriot, grew up with Genghis Khan’s army. He is humble, loyal, perhaps not altogether wise, and is fated from birth to one day confront an opponent who is the opposite of him in every way: privileged, cunning and flawlessly trained in the martial arts.

Guided by his faithful shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing must return to China – to the Garden of the Drunken Immortals in Jiaxing – to fulfil his destiny. But in a divided land riven by war and betrayal, his courage and his loyalties will be tested at every turn.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Lorna Amor, 17/12/20

From the outset, A Hero Born bears the hallmarks of a cult classic. First published in 1959 and hugely popular in the Chinese-speaking world for decades, this timeless martial arts adventure from Hong Kong author, Jin Yong, is the first in a four-book series (The Legends of the Condor Heroes) published by MacLehose Press for Quercus. With its vast and quirky cast of warring families, sects, and tribes, fierce loyalties, intrigue, betrayal, and chivalrous combat, this glossy series brings to mind other bingeworthy, battle-riddled, historical sagas such as Game of Thrones, or The Last Kingdom.

Here, of course, there’s a kung fu twist, but you don’t have to be an avid fan to appreciate A Hero Born. A huge genre within the Chinese arts, wuxia combines martial arts with a culture of chivalry, a defined moral code, and elements of fantasy. In her appendix, translator Anna Holmwood mentions a desire to lure in new readers as well as maintain the series’ original fanbase; a desire that will surely be fulfilled. As a martial arts novice, reading this felt like a well-paced introduction – descriptions of action are tight and dynamic, but slow enough to allow visuals to form, and never too much as to distract from dialogue or narration. Holmwood’s translation is enviably slick. Lightly, fluidly, she captures Jin Yong’s masterly story-telling, the plot’s twists and turns, the romance of the era, the humour, and technicalities.

Set at the beginning of the thirteenth century, A Hero Born paints a romantic image of imperial China, mapped through the fate of a young man, Guo Jing. The country is split between the Song empire in the south and the Jin in the north. Further north still, the reputation of Mongolia’s tribes, yet to be united, is nowhere near as threatening as it soon would be. Before he is born, Guo Jing’s Song patriot father, Skyfury Guo, and his sworn brother, Ironheart Yang, are attacked by traitors. To avenge them, and resolve their own feud, Taoist master Qiu Chuji and the Seven Freaks of the South vow to track down and train their unborn, fatherless children, and promise to meet again in eighteen years to settle their score in combat.

In the process, a naïve, unwitting hero is born. Guo Jing is raised on the Mongolian steppe, brought up both sheltered by his shifus, the Freaks, and exposed to the brutal realities of living under the wing of Mongolia’s most formidable leader. I was captivated by the Mongolian scenes. There’s clever contrast between the technical detail and speed of close combat, and the awe-inspiring scale and sweeping strategies of Mongolian warfare, and I happened to read this in tandem with Marco Polo’s Travels in the Land of Kublai Khan (from Penguin Books’ Great Ideas series, translated by Ronald Latham and originally published by Penguin in 1958); an inspired chance book pairing. The story traces Guo Jing’s youth and training. We meet characters to warm to, and some to take an instant dislike to, all of whom share the wulin’s respect for bravery, skill, and good manners. His allegiances, his enemies, his friends and blossoming romances carry him along to the fateful meeting with the son of his father’s sworn brother.

We’re left dangling from a cliff edge, hungry for more. Reading this as winter draws in and the pandemic continues to rage outside, my anticipation for the second in the series, A Bond Undone, surpasses my impatience for the release of favourite box sets this season. With enough camaraderie to shake off any lockdown social slump, A Hero Born has proved excellent company in otherwise unsociable times; an addictive, entertaining must-read.

Reviewed by Lorna Amor


Reviewed by Barry Howard, 8/4/20

Jin Yong is the pen name of Louis Cha, one of China’s most popular writers of wuxia novels. This genre of Chinese fiction typically follows the escapades of martial artists in a romanticised ancient China. Think medieval adventures involving King Arthur and you won’t be too far off. The popularity of these works in China has spawned literature, comics, video games, TV dramas and films.

In the West, we have encountered this genre in reverse (films first, books last). The iconic Bruce Lee brought martial arts to the big screen in the 1970s, followed by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Ang Lee’s box office hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave Westerners a definitive visual portrayal of the wuxia genre in 2000. Afterwards came the ongoing series of Kung Fu Panda films for younger audiences.

The 2018 publishing of A Hero Born looks to have been a serious effort to promote the written form of the genre to an English-speaking audience. MacLehose Press (who brought us the English translation of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) have served the author well with a professional production of the book. It has been printed and edited to a high standard. Leading with an Irish Times quote to promote the book as “A Chinese Lord of the Rings” is less endearing. JRR Tolkien’s LOTR was influenced by his Catholic faith and by European mythology. Jin Yong was following on from a centuries old Chinese tradition of wuxia tales.

A Hero Born is full of action. The writing is energetic and highly descriptive. The latter being necessary to convey the imagery of complex fight scenes. An audiobook version is available and I imagine it could sound similar to a radio commentary of an exciting boxing fight or tennis match. And therein lies the problem. If you’re a fan of such sports, you’d rather be watching than hearing or reading about them.

The combat scenes of highly trained martial artists, with supernatural skills, overcoming numerous attackers or dying in heroic defeat come one after another. The repetition both dominates the novel and drains it of vitality. Characters and storylines are subservient to the set pieces. It is in complete contrast to watching a Jackie Chan film from the 1970s or 1980s. His choreographed fight scenes are mesmerising and you just want more. Weak storylines or poor character development just don’t matter, but they do in the written format.

Often we think of books being transferred to the screen as inferior because so much is left out. However, who would now translate Wang Dulu’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Yet that is what has happened here. A Hero Born was written in 1959 and reading it now it seems very clichéd. I think this and other translations of Jin Yong’s books are too late. Jin Yong helped revitalise the wuxia genre, but he was the giant whose shoulders have since been stood on by others and in other ways.

Reviewed by Barry Howard

Reviewed by Kate Costello, 31/3/20

Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes I: A Hero Born is a delight to read. The novel is thoroughly engrossing, providing a much welcome respite from these turbulent times. Anna Holmwood’s masterful translation transports readers back to a world governed by ethics and honor. Set in the swirling sands of the Mongolian steppes, a land filled with warlords and powerful steeds, A Hero Born is filled with all of the suspense and intrigue that you would expect from China’s most beloved contemporary author. Disputes are settled by duels and battles, with the loser suffering from humiliation as often as military defeat. The fast-paced narrative weaves through a complex repertoire of interrelated characters who invoke our sympathy and disgust in equal measure. You will find yourself rooting for the earnest, but not naturally gifted, Guo Jing when he is the underdog and recoiling in fear and horror at Cyclone Mei’s depraved and wanton violence.

A Hero Born begins with the birth of two boys, the sons of two sworn brothers. When the two patriots are brutally and unjustly killed at the hands of the Commander Duan and their heavily pregnant wives scattered to the wind, Taoist Qiu Chuji vows that he will raise their children and avenge their deaths. But finding the boys proves to be a challenge, as the widows are taken far from their homeland in the South. This novel follows Guo Jing, son of the great Song patriot Skyfury Guo, as he grows from a young boy to one of Temujin’s most trusted men (Temujin is better known to us today as Ghengis Khan). Trained in the martial arts by the ragtag Seven Freaks of the South and the best warriors of the steppes, Guo Jing is unaware of the bet that will shape his future.

The English language publication of Legends of the Condor Heroes has been a much anticipated event. Martial arts fiction comes with its own challenges in translation. Naming is a particular challenge here, from the characters themselves to the martial arts moves. Anna Holmwood has handled these with grace and aplomb, with names both evocative and memorable (the move ‘Lazy Donkey Roll’ is one of my personal favorites). The exploration of good vs evil is appealing and immediately understandable to most audiences, as is the strong sense of justice in the novel, and yet the martial arts genre presents other difficulties. Details (such as a drinking game where one opponent expels wine through his feet) provide conceptual obstacles for both reader and translator, but they provide only the most minor deterrents. Women masquerading as men jolt us with their misgendered pronouns, but following these instances through we can see that this is a case of providing the reader with more information than the characters have access to.

Mongolian names are kept in transliteration rather than Sinicized, which makes it easy to remember each character’s cultural background. The sparse and strategic use of Chinese words such as neigong, wulin and qinggong deepen our immersion in the story-world. The translator’s meticulous appendixes provide approachable resources for the reader curious to learn more about terminology. But it is the prologue that stands apart for its thoughtfulness. In two brief pages, it does important legwork in mirroring the genre conventions familiar to English language readers. To say that it sets the scene for the tale ahead and establishes the historical background would be an understatement. Holmwood melds Jin Yong’s style with that of authors familiar to the English language reader, inviting us into a far-away world filled with danger, lawlessness, pride and honor. This English translation of the first novel in the Legends of the Condor Heroes series is worthy of its reputation as one of the most widely read books in China today.

Reviewed by Kate Costello

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter, 9/3/20

This was a great book, but it was not for me. This is no fault of author Jin Yong or of translator Anna Holmwood. As Ken Liu said in a podcast interview, “All books have an audience and need to actually find that audience…A lot of times a book that will just not work for a reader will be the perfect book for a different reader.” I know plenty of people who adore this book, and I fully appreciate the effort that went into translating it. Just because it was not my cup of tea, does not mean you will not enjoy it!

One challenge of reading the book is the large number of characters. Translator Anna Holmwood provides a list of characters in the order that they appear at the front of the book. For people like me who read the book in multiple sittings, it was really handy to have the list. After a while I found it easy to keep all the martial arts masters apart by remembering who acted sensibly and who I found to be irritating in some way. Qiu Chuji is one of the latter.
Qiu Chuji is a famously short-tempered monk and his martial arts skills are lethal. He does not behave like a monk, but there are a few monks that break their code of ethics, so that seemed fine in the world of the book. I found him to be extremely annoying, which was a problem because he simply would not go away. The fight in Chapter 2 was avoidable, but the Seven Freaks of the South and the monk only discover that they did not need to fight each other after an abbot dies. As a pacifist, I simply didn’t enjoy it. However, the fight set up the premise for the whole story: Qiu Chuji and the Seven Freaks make a bizarre bet so that each party has a chance to save face. Qiu Chuji promises to find the child of Ironheart Yang and train him or her in kung fu. The Seven Freaks promise to find the child of Skyfury Guo and train him or her in kung fu. When the children become of age, they will meet and fight. The child that wins the fight will win the bet between Qiu Chuji and the Seven Freaks. Neither of the two children consent to this, but Qiu Chuji is crazy. This is the premise of the book, so we have to go along with it.

When the story moves to little Guo Jing, the son of Skyfury Guo, the story becomes much more fun. Guo Jing grows up in the northern steppe and has to endure a harsh environment. Guo Jing is a little slow, but he has a pure heart and he is fiercely loyal to his friends. The Great Khan Temujin is impressed by Guo Jing’s bravery and rewards him every time he does something good. Guo Jing becomes “sworn brothers” with Temujin’s son, Tolui. Gradually Guo Jing learns all the skills of a typical Mongolian boy: horseback riding, archery, and fighting. Actually, the Mongolian tribes are much better fighters than anyone in the Jin army, but they are not united. As a result, they deplete their own resources by getting into power struggles. The complex politics of the Mongolian tribes is intriguing.

After six years of searching, the Seven Freaks find Guo Jing by accident. In a part of the book that I find frustrating, six-year old Guo Jing does not know his mother’s or his father’s name. Thus, the Seven Freaks are unsure if the child they found is the right one. Apparently, Charity Bao, the wife of Skyfury Guo, was so uneducated that she did not even know her husband’s name. I can’t understand why anyone would not know how to say their own spouse’s name.

But we should move on. The original Chinese story was written in 1959 and we cannot judge that text based on modern day values. Many of Jin Yong’s descriptions were still engaging and still ring true to me, even if I have never lived in China in the 1200s. The observations of how young girls flirt with boys tickled me. The way Guo Jing was hardworking but lacked cunning made him a more realistic character. Finally, I was deeply impressed by a line about training one’s disciples on page 192. “But the Freaks were single-minded in their desire to defeat the Taoist Qiu Chuji, and even though they knew it would be better to concentrate on a few techniques rather than try to teach him everything, they could not help themselves.” On the day that I read that line, I had tried to teach my students five things in one lesson, when I really should have kept my lesson simple. I could not help but smile.

I have to emphasize the exquisite translation by Holmwood, making it possible for English readers to immerse themselves in a “kung fu and swordship” (wuxia) world. She uses a wide range of strategies to keep the story unfolding at a quick pace, rather than forcing readers to have a certain level of background knowledge to enjoy the book. She uses appropriate spelling for Mongolian names and cultural references. She translates fight scenes as if she choreographed them herself. So if enjoy a book that throws the western hero’s journey archetypes out the window and you do not mind a fight scene on every other page, you should read this book.

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter