By John Christopher Hamm
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 11, no. 1, pp.93-124
Jin Yong, who began publishing martial arts adventures in Hong Kong newspapers in the latter half of the 1950s, has become perhaps the single most widely read Chinese-language novelist of the latter half of the twentieth century. His martial arts fiction has been hailed as “the common language of Chinese around the world.” The claim that Jin Yong’s works appear in Chinese communities around the globe–in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, and overseas–is demonstrably true. But the now commonplace deployment of Jin Yong’s works as a signifier of a unitary Chineseness that transcends political divisions and cultural and linguistic diversity is a strategy that cries out for interrogation. A first step towards understanding the cultural status of Jin Yong’s fiction is an investigation of the historical and social contexts of its production, dissemination, and successive reevaluations. Towards this end, the present study offers a reading of Jin Yong’s earliest works–Shujian enchou lu (Book and Sword, Gratitude and Revenge), first serialized in 1955-56, and Bixue jian (The Sword Stained with Royal Blood), first serialized in 1956–against the background of post-war Hong Kong society and the context of contemporaneous newspaper fiction. The scenarios and geographic imaginary of these novels present elements that can easily be read as reflections of the geopolitical situation of Jin Yong’s earliest Hong Kong readers: a fascination with moments of crisis in Chinese dynastic history, narratives of imperial catastrophe ending in exile beyond the borders of the Chinese nation. But examination of fiction published alongside Jin Yong’s works makes it clear that their engagement with the readers’ experience is not limited to this sort of allegorical representation of history. “Comedies of displacement,” in which characters from traditional fiction and from martial arts novels themselves find themselves dislocated to modern-day Hong Kong, suggest a more fundamental discursive complementarity between contemporary readers’ experience and the imaginary of the martial arts adventure. Jin Yong’s fiction imagines the “rivers and lakes,” the world of the martial arts, as both a terrain of political crisis and a Chinese cultural universe poised at a nostalgic remove from the Hong Kong of the 50s and 60s. If the novels’ allegorical elements mark an engagement with the specifics of Hong Kong’s history, the suspension in discursive distance makes the world of Jin Yong’s fiction accessible not only to Hong Kong’s post-Liberation refugees, but equally to readers conditioned by any of the various political, social, and economic disruptions which 20th century Chinese communities have undergone. And this equality of access, in turn, facilitates the seductive fantasy of identity–that is, of locating one’s self in a unitary Chineseness that elides the specifics of history. The sense of nostalgic distance that cocoons Jin Yong’s world, while so intimately a product of its birth in the particular circumstances of post-war Hong Kong, has paradoxically but perhaps inevitably facilitated its travel far beyond the environs of its original production and reception.