Asia’s answer to the Lord of the Rings
My family often spent the summer school break with my grandparents in Mumbai. Their’s was a home of rituals. One of these was eating a bowl of yogurt after lunch. No protestations were allowed or entertained. My grandfather liked to ripen fruit, such as mangoes and litchis in straw baskets, under his bed. The most important thing was the afternoon siesta. Mats were put up to block the strong afternoon sun and bedspreads rolled out. Everyone passed out for a few hours, before stirring for tea and biscuits.
Except, I couldn’t sleep in the afternoon. This was the only time the state tv channel broadcast cartoons and other programming for children (such as German village sports). So, as a bribe, to stop complaining and not jump around, my grandmother allowed me a rare treat. She opened the cupboard which contained the books her kids, my uncles and my mum, had read when they were my age, and I was now allowed momentarily to browse. I have no idea why the books were ordinarily locked away and no one was allowed to touch them.
Many of these novellas were tellings of Indian folklore in English. They were filled with magical beasts and spirits that lived in rivers. Monsters named rakshasas that kept home in forests as couples, and ate humans if they smelled them. Tales of the Mughal court, such as Akhbar and his wise counsellor Birbal. Undead corpses that hung upside down from Banyan trees and tormented travellers. The books were decades old, browning, and had that wonderful old book smell. They have almost completely disappeared from bookshops, replaced by foreign imports such as Harry Potter or Twilight. I don’t remember when I last saw a good TV show or Bollywood movie based on Indian magic, like the Ramsay brother movies or Vikram aur Betaal.
This hot afternoon experience of illicit, fantastical reading in a house of snoozing adults was not mine alone. In his translator’s preface to The Adventures of Amir Hamza by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, Musharraf Ali Farooqi writes:
“I grew up in Hyderabad, Pakistan, whose climate during summertime closely resembles that of Hell. Temperatures can reach 50°C (approximately 120°F) and in the absence of air-conditioning, a three-hour nap is considered the best answer to nature’s excesses.” Farooqi and his brother used their unsupervised liberty to chop up lizards and chameleons and feed them to their cat, Mano. He continues:
“That was how we passed our afternoons before we discovered books. Everyone from my generation is familiar with the children’s titles publishes by Ferozsons. A few of these were translations of English-language classics, by the rest were written in Urdu. My older sisters had accumulated about a hundred of these titles, and in a city lacking in public libraries, this was a considerable treasure. After inheriting the collection from our sisters, Arif and I developed an unhealthy appetite for these stories. The schoolwork suffered, and I was often caught under the covers with bound paper and a pencil light.”
To anyone who has grown up with stories about devs, jinns and peris, when in Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (the first part in the Legends of the Condor Heroes wuxia series) the Seven Freaks stumble across three neat piles of nine skulls each, and cold dread starts to fill their hearts, it is immediately signified that some tantric ritual is at foot. When the horribly taloned couple behind the piles appear (called Copper Corpse and Cyclone Mei) we know they are some kind of rakshasa couple. But this is no ordinary rakshasa. They are a rakshasa couple that practise a horrible type of kung fu called Nine Yin Skeleton Claw.
Jin Yong is often compared to JRR Tolkien, but is actually much closer to J.K. Rowling — in that his novel series is essentially composed of long and complicated, intertwined family histories (it reminded me of another Bollywood trope, where two brothers are separated at the Kumbh mela with nothing to reunite them in adult life but two-half fragments of their mother’s prized locket). Yong uses the story to idealise the Han Chinese identity, with divisions and enmities, further abstracted through martial schools of kung fu.
China boasts of the world’s oldest culture of literacy. This includes the monk Faxian’s translations of texts he brought back from an epic quest to India; the histories of Sima Qian, and, the earliest novels in the four classics of Chinese literature: Water Margin; Journey to the West; Romance of the Three Kingdoms; and Dream of the Red Chamber. Apart from this are esoteric texts such as The Secret of the Golden Flower (a favourite of Carl Jung). As explained in a note to Jin Yong’s novel by the translator, Anna Holmwood,
“There is a deep relationship between Zen, Taoism and Chinese martial arts is undeniable, and the emphasis on discipline and lifelong study in the pursuit of enlightenment was incorporated into the latter.”
With Buddhism falling in and out favour with Emperors; invasions from the West by the Mongols (this novel is set in the backdrop of Gengis Khan’s imminent invasion); and that Daoism was never really respected by the Confucian mainstream, wuxia has proved to be flexible and adaptive form to the political needs of its authors. One great example of this coded metaphor is the myth of the Shaolin temple. Historians seriously doubt if such a real place actually existed in history, but yet this myth serves as a base for the entire kung fu industry.
Moreover, China is probably the only country where a national sport has been inspired from fantastical literature.
The art work that re-invented Chinese martial arts as a Hong Kong mass culture phenomenon (the real cause that establishes Jin Yong as the planet’s most-read author) animating the stories of the fighting prowess of ancient masters that had been trapped in ancient history manuals and newsprint magazine stories for the opium-soaked gentleman of leisure, and liberating them from stuffy exclusive domain of the red opera seats of the city elite was a silent-era film titled The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.
Directed by Zhang Shichuan, produced by the Mingxing film company, the film’s exhibition ran from 1928 to 1931. It was shown in nineteen feature-length parts and estimated to run to twenty-seven hours. No copies (except for a few stills) have survived. What we know about the film is purely from literary sources and it is reputed to be one of the longest films ever produced.
The story concerns the rescue of an important general from a heavily defended monastery full of perils and traps. The main power of the kung fu adepts in the movie was being able to shoot electricity from their hands. Special effects brought this marvellously to life and the film became a landmark in Hong Kong cinematic history, passing into local lore.
The treatment for the film was based on a serialised novel by a man named Xiang Kairan (1890–1957). This novel is described by varying names: some sources refer to it as Marvelous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes, and others call it The Tale of the Extraordinary Swordsman.
Xiang Kairan was of the first modern man for whom practising martial arts and writing stories based their personal exploration of this heritage would be a lifestyle (he used the wonderful pen-name “The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang”). Kairan’s contribution was not just restricted to being the writer responsible for a film that contributed massively towards the public consciousness of China’s martial and cultural history. His other great work, a somewhat factual and meandering biography of Huo Yuanjia, the founder of the Jingwu Athletic Association: the first organisation that taught Chinese martial arts to the general public.
Amongst the millions who were influenced by this genre included Bruce Lee. When he was a little boy, the thing he wasn’t seen without was a wuxia book. Lee was a total nerd, complete with thick glasses. His eyesight remained poor as adult (he was an early adopter of contact lenses) and, he was near blind without spectacles. Lee, too, would take wuxia in his own direction — from the lives of Chinese labourers in Thailand, to restaurants workers in Rome, an island in the Southern Seas, and back to a pagoda in Game of Death.
Western readers would not be entirely unfamiliar with the setting of these novels. Chinese literature is often the base for stories attributed to “Arabia”. For instance, Aladdin, the fable of magic carpets, genies emerging smokily from lamps, and talking tigers, isn’t really Arabian. In fact, not much of the Arabian Nights is actually from “Arabia”. Most experts agree that many of the novels the translators used to construct the 1001 Nights actually originated in China’s rich literary culture.
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But reading Jin Yong, and seeing the clear imprint of Islamic folklore of South Asia in wuxia, especially tantric black magic, I began to wonder — how Chinese is the Chinese novel?
The greatness of a civilisation is signified by its ability to shamelessly borrow and adapt useful things from foreign-lands, without rejecting ideas and people simply because they are alien. It is not so much the valour of the heroes past, but it is this attribute that makes China a great nation.