HONG KONG – Jin Yong, a literary giant of the Chinese-speaking world whose fantastical epic novels inspired countless film, TV and video game adaptations and were read by generations of ethnic Chinese, died Tuesday in Hong Kong. He was 94.
Jin Yong, the pen name of Louis Cha, was one of the most widely read 20th-century writers in the Chinese language. The panoramic breadth and depth of the fictional universes he created have been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and have been studied as a topic known as “Jinology.”
Jin Yong received his start as a novelist in the mid-1950s while working as a film critic and editor for the New Evening Post in Hong Kong. He had moved there in 1948 — the year before Mao’s revolution — and lived there for most of his life.
From 1955 to 1972, Jin Yong wrote 14 novels and novellas and one short story in the popular genre known as wuxia, which consisted mainly of martial arts adventures.
His first wuxia novel, “The Book and the Sword” (1955), drew its inspiration from a legend that held that the Manchu emperor Qianlong was in fact a Han Chinese who had been switched at birth. The novel, serialized in the New Evening Post, became an instant hit.
By the time he began writing, the Chinese Communist Party had banned wuxia literature, calling it “decadent” and “feudal.” But in Hong Kong and other parts of the Chinese diaspora, Jin Yong’s novels helped spearhead a new wave of martial arts fiction in the 1950s and ’60s.
Jin Yong blended in poetry, history and fantasy to create hundreds of vivid characters who travel through a mirror underworld that operates according to its own laws and code of ethics.
In tales of love, chivalry, friendship and filial piety, his characters are flawed, with complex emotional histories, making them all the more appealing. “Writing about heroes was very easy,” Jin Yong said in 2012. “But as I got older I learned that these big heroes actually had another, more contemptible side to them, a side that was not shown to others.”
Translated into many languages, his books have sold tens of millions of copies, fueling a sprawling multi-media industry.
Jin Yong used martial arts fiction as a vehicle to talk about Chinese history and traditional culture, forging his own fictional vernacular that drew heavily on classical expressions. His stories were often set at pivotal moments in Chinese history, like the rise and fall of dynasties. They made reference to Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist ideas, and positioned martial arts as an integral part of Chinese culture, alongside traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and calligraphy.
Jin Yong took a “marginal, even disreputable, form of popular fiction and made it both a vehicle for serious literary expression and something that appealed to Chinese readers around the globe,” said John Christopher Hamm, an associate professor of Asian languages and literature at the University of Washington.
Following the early success of his novels, Jin Yong established his own newspaper, Ming Pao Daily News, in Hong Kong in 1959. Soon he was publishing installments of his novels while writing daily social commentaries about the horrors of Mao Zedong’s China.
Cha Leung-Yung was born on March 10, 1924, in Haining, in Zhejiang Province on the central coast.