Sometimes you read a book and you realise that you don’t have the right frame of reference to appreciate it fully. Jin Yong‘s A Hero Born (review copy from Quercus) is just such a book. This is the first time that this classic of Wuxia fiction has been translated into English. Anna Holmwood has done a fantastic job of translating the text, but I suspect there are whole layers of meaning and allegory that are invisible to a Western reader without further explanation.
A Hero Born is the first in the Condor trilogy, following two boys in 13th century China. Before their birth they were bonded to each other by their fathers, who were best friends and comrades in arms. The boys also become the subject of a rash bet about which school of martial arts can raise the best fighter, with each school pledging to train one of the boys ahead of a competition when they are older. But an attack on their village saw their fathers killed and their mothers separated. One flees north and raises her son amongst Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire. The other’s beauty catches the eye of a nobleman who lures her away with the promise of helping her get revenge on her husband’s killer.
It’s easy to see why this is regarded as a literary classic. It is woven through with Chinese history and it extols the principal Confucian virtues of benevolence, kindness, loyalty, courage and righteousness. The story principally follows Guo Jing as he grows up in Genghis Khan’s tribe. He is trained by the Seven Freaks of the South in various aspects of martial arts and weapons, and the novel is riddled through with the names of various moves and techniques. They aspire to teach him the almost supernatural levels of skill familiar to Western audiences from wuxia films.
The Seven Freaks was where I struggled most with this book. To a Western reader they appear as grotesques and caricatures, and it is difficult to take them seriously as experts and teachers in their field. They are easily duped, and spend a lot of time fighting and arguing amongst themselves. They are not good teachers, and frequently get frustrated with the rather pedestrian Guo Jing. Yet we are apparently meant to revere and admire them.
Lying at the heart of this book is a story about a kind boy growing up far away from home and trying to make his way in a confusing world. The book is strongest in its critique of corruption and unfettered power, and the importance of the Confucian values.
Goodreads rating: 3*