From the Legend of the Condor Heroes to My Love from the Star

Hongkong novelist Louis Cha, better known by his pen name Jin Yong. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Hongkong novelist Louis Cha, better known by his pen name Jin Yong. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Poster for the South Korean drama series, My Love From The Star starring Lim Soon Hyun (left) and Gianna Jun. --  PHOTO: CHANNEL ONE
Poster for the South Korean drama series, My Love From The Star starring Lim Soon Hyun (left) and Gianna Jun. --  PHOTO: CHANNEL ONE
Hong Kong TVB version of The Return Of The Condor Heroes starring Idy Chan and Andy Lau. -- HANDOUT PHOTO
Hong Kong TVB version of The Return Of The Condor Heroes starring Idy Chan and Andy Lau. -- HANDOUT PHOTO

I am, most times, a law-abiding, rule-following person.

But as a middle-school student in China’s Tianjin city 10 years ago, there was one infraction I would always commit. I would sit in class, prop up a textbook on my desk and behind it, secretly devour the adventures of legendary pugilist Yang Guo and his lover Little Dragon Girl, of swordsman Linghu Chong and his soul mate Ren Yingying.

These were period characters brought to life by Hong Kong novelist Louis Cha, better known by his pen name Jin Yong, in his wuxia, or martial arts, novels.

My best friend and I were so mad about his stories that a favourite topic of discussion was which television actress best portrayed the role of Zhao Min in the various TV adaptions of the novel The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. My pick was Hong Kong’s Gigi Lai in the 2001 version, while my buddy preferred a Taiwanese actress.

Across China and South-east Asia including Singapore, the stories of those duelling pugilists, their amazing fighting prowess, eternal feuds and undying love also played out on TV screens in many living rooms – to huge popular success. Top actors today such as Andy Lau and Tony Leung cut their teeth playing these characters in the 1980s and 1990s.

Decades on though, the magic of Jin Yong's stories seems to have faded.

In February, the famously reclusive Zhejiang-born writer marked his 90th birthday – with nary a mention here in Hong Kong, where he has lived for more than 70 years. The day passed, largely unnoted.

Intending to get a copy of his Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber as a gift for a friend, I visited a book store last weekend. I walked by the bestsellers - tomes on politics, gossipy magazines, modern romance novels, travel guides, cookbooks - before finally finding the author's works on a dusty shelf in an obscure corner.

There is also little interest in the TV industry. Sadly, I found that the last time TVB, Hong Kong's dominant broadcaster, produced a show based on a Jin Yong novel was in 2001 - more than a decade ago.

Even in mainland China, where pop culture tastes lag Hong Kong's by 10 to 20 years, people are unenthusiastic. A TV series based on his novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils was canned halfway earlier this year due to low viewership. Another one based on The Smiling, Proud Wanderer had its plot changed beyond recognition. The male protagonist Dong Fang Bu Bai, who castrated himself in the novel, was bizarrely turned into a girl in the TV version.

So why the waning interest in Jin Yong's stories? One reason, I think, is that his vision of love, as depicted in his novels, has become passé.

The reason his martial arts tales had been so popular, among both men and women, was due to not just the kung fu theme but also the gripping love affairs. Jin Yong's heroes are invariably charismatic men with good looks and steely principles surrounded by beautiful girls who not only love them but are also prepared to die for them – even when the hero loves someone else.

In The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, the protagonist Zhang Wuji, leader of the anti-Yuan dynasty Ming cult, is torn between his fiancée Zhou Zhiruo and the Yuan Dynasty princess Zhaomin. As if that wasn't enough, there are two other lasses in love with him, his maid Xiao Zhao and his cousin Zhu Er.

In The Return of the Condor Heroes, among the girls infatuated with the rebellious knight errant Yang Guo, two became spinsters for life and one became a nun.Not to mention the sly street gangster Wei Xiao Bao, the protagonist of The Deer and the Cauldron, who is married to, not one, but seven women.

Girls in Jin Yong's stories are thus quite passive, waiting for men to choose them, pick them and love them, and their admiration is an accessory of the protagonist that makes him more attractive.

This is no longer relevant today. The taste of readers and viewers has changed, especially in recent years with the rise of Korean television dramas which thrive on strong female characters. Today, people laugh and cry along with the characters in shows like the Korean drama My Love from the Star, which has been a phenomenal success in East Asia.

Armed with a very strong personality – blur, crazy but kind and cute and with a very successful career, the female protagonist is fiercely independent and chooses who to love and to fight for, making her an equal player in any love relationship.

In China, Jin Yong's upright heros have also fallen out of vogue. China's teenagers today prefer roguish characters – of which a popular one is “fuhei”, a word originated from a Japanese word, Haraguroi, used to describe those who are outwardly courteous and elegant but who engage in dirty tricks albeit with cause, such as to take revenge.

One of the most well-known “fuhei” figures is the fourth prince in Scarlet Heart (Bu Bu Jing Xin), a contemporary romance novel written by a post-80 writer. He pretends to be indifferent to the throne but later secretly plans a coup, forges the late emperor’s testament and steals the throne from other princes. The book was adapted for TV to enormous success across all provinces two years ago.

Compared to such characters, those depicted in Jin Yong’s world who win or lose, fair and square, are far too serious, and even a little rigid by today’s standards.

Students today, unlike during my time, will thus not be found sneaking Jin Yong's novels into class. In fact, the irony is that textbooks in China's schools now even incorporate excerpts from his stories to teach not only Chinese literature but also morals and values.

The question is, will anyone be interested?