Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the
Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel

By John Christopher Hamm

Reviewed by Paul B. Foster
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2006)

John Christopher Hamm.               Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel              . Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. 348pp. US$              49. ISBN 0-8248-2763-5 (cloth)

John Christopher Hamm.  Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel
. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005. 348pp. US$
49. ISBN 0-8248-2763-5 (cloth)

Paper Swordsmen is not merely a history of China’s most important martial arts writer and a critique of his expansive oeuvre, but more importantly an elegantly written, exhaustively researched, and fascinating analysis of the role of popular fiction in the construction of cultural identity. Hamm beautifully weaves close readings of Jin Yong’s novels with solid historical research and critical theory, particularly that of Pierre Bourdieu, to produce a clear, relatively jargon-free analysis that will appeal to the sensibilities of martial arts fiction fans and literary critics alike. Through painstaking research, Hamm situates Jin Yong’s fiction firmly in the discourse of “print capitalism” (à la Benedict Anderson) and demonstrates how Jin Yong’s works were used not only to build a market for his newspaper empire, but also how the newspaper empire functioned in the marketing of his novels in print, television, and film. Hamm elucidates, for critic and martial arts aficionado alike, the discursive social, political, cultural, and literary factors leading to Jin Yong’s controversial canonization in the 1990s. Paper Swordsmen is the only significant book-length literary analysis of Jin Yong’s fiction in English. In addition to adopting Western literary and cultural theory, it also draws deeply on Chinese critical discourse to describe the rise of both Jin Yong studies and the construction of the “Jin Yong phenomenon.” Whereas Chinese biographies of Jin Yong typically reiterate a massaged set of facts and fine, lengthy Chinese literary analyses present an encyclopedic catalogue of plot structures, characterization, thematic and allegorical readings, Hamm’s book surpasses this Chinese research by situating the Jin Yong phenomenon within its discursive construction as a cultural product formed by a variety of literary, publishing, marketing, political, and popular forces.

Hamm begins Chapter 1 with historical and literary contextualization of New School martial arts fiction reflected against an actual martial arts battle in Macau between masters of two schools. He demonstrates a specific link between the hype surrounding this physical battle and the serialization of Hong Kong marital arts fiction, to wit, the serialization of Liang Yusheng’s novelDragon and Tiger Vie in the Capital, which consciously drew its inspiration from the fight and became the forerunner of New School martial arts fiction. Juxtaposed to analysis of the melodrama of the martial bout is Hamm’s succinct analysis of the Chinese tradition of martial arts fiction from the Warring States period, through Tang Dynasty chivalric chuanqi tales, up to the classic Ming novel, the Water Margin. His historical sketch encompasses May Fourth intellectual denigration of Old School martial arts fiction—under the general rubric of Saturday School or Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies School fiction—as well as relegation of martial arts fiction to “the category of ‘poisonous weeds’” after the establishment of the PRC. The rise of New School martial arts fiction at the colonial margins of Chinese culture reflects the geopolitics of the center and periphery, and provides an organic critique of rapidly transforming Chinese culture and politics. Hamm argues that Jin Yong’s works transcend “national allegory” and eventually even challenge the nationalist narrative of “presumed identity between ethnicity and national loyalty” (25-26).

Hamm’s study provides a blend of historical phenomena, literary-critical theory, and close analysis of Jin Yong’s works to both inform readers and challenge them to contemplate the many different factors involved in the production of literature. Each chapter satisfies one’s intellectual curiosity about historical facts behind production and provides a theoretical context in which to evaluate what might be regarded as a visceral blood and guts pulp literature. In Chapter Two, Hamm demonstrates the continuity between Hong Kong’s New School martial arts fiction and Guangdong School martial arts fiction; the shift to literary production in the diaspora complicates Old/New demarcations. Analysis of Guangdong School martial arts fiction, in Hamm’s words, “allows us to perceive anew the celebration of universalized, mythicized Chinese identity that lies at the heart of New School fiction” (33). It also links Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the sphere of cultural production through newspaper journalists/fiction writers as they crossed the borders during the war against Japan and the ensuing civil war.

In Chapter 3, Hamm moves on to specific analysis of Jin Yong’s particular context in post-war Hong Kong and the serialization of his early fiction. Hamm draws the reader into his analysis with a fascinating historically grounded sketch of “a day in the life of Hong Kong” on the first day of serialization of Jin Yong’s first novel, Book and Sword, Gratitude and Revenge, on February 8, 1955. The novel is thus first situated in “the haziness of the boundaries between information and entertainment, fabrication and reported fact” of the newspaper’s “textual materiality” (54). Analysis of Book and Sword establishes an overall thematic breadth in which to assess Jin Yong’s later fiction, from ethnic struggle to complex and conflicted relationships that depict moral and psychological responses to themes of love, loyalty, and identity. Hamm points out that development of one’s martial arts skills and fighting are not an end of Jin Yong’s texts, but rather related to the grander “communicative function of a literary text” within the matrix of Chinese cultural tradition (61). Analysis of the dialectic of the center and periphery, which shapes the contours of Book and Sword, is continued in discussion of Jin Yong’s book, The Sword Stained with Royal Blood, which is finely designed to culminate in discussion of the phenomenon of comedies of displacement, that “articulate[s] the experience of displacement that so shaped the lives of Hong Kong’s residents during the decades” following 1949 (71). Thus, Hamm debunks the simplicity of “immemorial appeal” of the knight-errant by analyzing the “deliberate evocation of tradition that lies at the genre’s heart” in the process of mythologization of the Chinese past at a specific historical moment in a specific cultural context (73).

Chapter 4 analyzes the “national passion” represented by the “heroic nationalism” in Jin Yong’s early work, The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, and its sequel The Giant Eagle and Its Companion. He puts it this way:

The thematic evolution of Jin Yong’s works can be understood in part as a transformation of the early novels’ exilic metaphors and narratives of loss into a creative and celebratory vision of a Chinese cultural tradition conceived as untainted by political struggle, manifested through individual subjectivity, and independent of, though still emotionally tied to, the physical territory of the Chinese empire. (80)

Hamm’s style is to weave such general assessment of Jin Yong’s oeuvre into specific analysis from his texts, and then step back to offer a metacritical view that suggests historical contingencies of his analysis. He does not merely discuss the intricacies of plot and characterization, but rather digs deep to analyze the novels in relation to their discursive role in the construction of Chinese identity in the second half of the twentieth-century. Thus, Hamm depicts the imagery of dynastic struggle and exile against a “second imaginary,” another vision of Chinese identity centered on the geographically central sacred mountain, Huashan, and the contest for martial supremacy that takes place there years before The Eagle-Shooting Heroes’ primary narrative begins. Particularly illuminating and thorough is Hamm’s analysis of the nation narrated through geographic dispersion at five points of the compass represented by the five heroes, the Heterodoct of the East (Dong Xie), Venom of the West (Xi Du), Emperor of the South (Nan Di), Beggar of the North (Bei Gai), and Plenipotent of the Center (Wang Chongyang). Geographical mapping of the nation is complemented by historical/fictional narration. The Eagle-Shooting Heroes’ protagonists and the reader learn together of the Dispute of the Swords through what Hamm describes as Jin Yong’s technique of “back narration,” which deepens the “narrative through the cumulative revelation of an ever-expanding complex of antecedent events” that “becomes a hallmark of Jin Yong’s fictional technique” (87). The Eagle-Shooting Heroes and The Giant Eagle and Its Companiondemonstrate a key to Jin Yong’s early fiction:

Different styles of martial arts reflect and shape different individuals’ distinctive personalities. And the gradual mastery of martial skills serves as the vehicle for broader processes of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturation. Jin Yong represents the martial arts in this last aspect as inextricably linked with other practices and principles of Chinese cultural tradition; and a crucial aspect of this linkage is the role of texts and textuality in education, both martial and otherwise. (91)

The sacred text, however, requires interpretation and illumination. It holds martial secrets, but also embodies a tension between “private passion and public duty” (108). The Giant Eagle and Its Companion’s protagonist, Yang Guo, struggles to reconcile these two poles, which Hamm reads in part as a process that informs Yang’s education as a “loyalist” who in fact surpasses The Eagle-Shooting Heroes’ protagonist, Guo Jing, as the embodiment of chivalry in service to the nation and the people. Herein Hamm also sees the novel harboring the potential to subvert the public and patriotic project via “private erotic experience” (112), the topic Hamm addresses more fully in his analysis of The Smiling, Proud Wanderer in Chapter 6.

In Chapter 5, Hamm strategically turns to an initial discussion of the “Jin Yong phenomenon.” He addresses

institutional aspects of Jin Yong’s publications: the financial and institutional growth of Jin Yong’s publishing enterprises, the concomitant elevation in the publisher’s cultural status, and the ways in which both spheres of growth facilitated and were facilitated by the enunciation of a particular political and cultural stance—a Chinese cultural nationalism that defined itself in large measure against the excesses of the mainland’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. (119)

Hamm begins by framing his analysis with a 1998 literary conference in Taiwan on Jin Yong’s novels, to which he ties intriguing facts about Taiwan politics, marketing of television serialization of Jin Yong’s works, media coverage, and star power all adeptly managed by Jin Yong in a conscious construction of the Jin Yong phenomenon. Hamm thus analyzes how the Jin Yong empire grew and what role his novels played in that growth by tracing the rise of Jin Yong’s newspaper, the Ming Pao, from tabloid to independent voice in Hong Kong and politics during the Cultural Revolution. Jin Yong is depicted as an upright editor standing up to leftist radicals on the mainland despite a price on his head for such opposition. Clashes with the left raised his newspaper’s credibility and circulation, and increased revenue allowed him to start new publishing enterprises such as monthly and weekly publications, as well as a martial arts magazine. Synergy between these publications was found in mutual advertising for the martial arts stories serialized exclusively in them, while at the same time other intellectual and cultural content was also promoted. These issues are further examined in Chapter 7, where Hamm discusses Jin Yong’s publishing enterprises and the discourse of martial arts fiction in Chinese literature, but first he turns in Chapter 6 to analysis of Jin Yong’s Wandererand the topics of subversiveness and subjectivity.

Hamm suggests that Wanderer reflects points of contact between text and historical context, and reads this as indicative of Jin Yong’s “increasingly confident sense of cultural mission” (136), which beyond thematic development of his martial arts fiction bespeaks of a “political function of Jin Yong’s fictional project as a whole” (138). Indeed, Chapter 6 offers perhaps the most interesting literary and political analysis of this book. Hamm sees in this novel a conflation of the official and martial worlds; the Rivers and Lakes “become in effect a self-subsistent universe, incorporating within itself issues previously constructed through tension with its other” (157). This is a complex and well-argued analysis that yields for Wanderer an interpretation that is extreme political allegory:

it is not Jin Yong’s protagonists who withdraw from the arena of dynastic contestation but dynastic history itself that vanishes from the narrative. The specificity of political history is replaced by a more abstract vision of politics itself as a realm of violence and delusion. It is as a representation of political strife in an essentialized form that the Rivers and Lakes come to stand in for the historically specific empire. And it is as the alternative to the increasingly discredited and abstracted political arena that China’s cultural past assumes a central role as the positively valuated constituent of inherited identity. (162)

While the Jin Yong aficionado might wish Hamm not end his inspiring analysis of Wanderer too soon, the cultural critic will be satisfied as Hamm turns in Chapter 7 to analysis of the mutually reinforcing role of Jin Yong and his publishing empire in the trajectory toward his canonization in Chinese literary history. Hamm discerns in Jin Yong a highly strategic author/publisher conscious of “his own work’s serving as a bearer of literary and cultural capital” (168). Jin Yong uses his publications to promote and market his novels, but also seems to consciously create a reading community through discussion of the works in forums such as direct exchanges with his readers in a Jin Yong Mailbox. Hamm calls on Bourdieu’s concept of “bourgeois consecration” to bolster his observations of film reviews in Ming Pao that act as advertisements for film adaptations of Jin Yong’s fiction. He also refers to citations of university professors reading martial arts fiction to lend high culture legitimacy to Jin Yong’s work as literature, and he shows that Jin Yong as publisher occupied a particularly powerful position in the marketing of his works. This chapter is a textbook example of the value of theory in demystifying the discursive relationship between authors, publishers, and literary works. In addition to examining the publishing enterprises invested in promoting Jin Yong’s works, Hamm looks specifically at Jin Yong’s texts and analyzes Jin Yong’s Royal Blood as a case study to show how “the project of revision participates in the process of establishing literary and cultural value” (184). Then Hamm discusses the function of the Collected Works of Jin Yong in “certifying the author’s credentials as a dedicated literary artist” (194), setting the novels “within a museum of Chinese history and culture” through use of frontal matter such as historical documents, maps, portraits associated with the novels (195), and offering to the diaspora of readers an educational experience.

Chapter 8 turns to an analysis of Jin Yong’s final novel, The Deer and the Cauldron, seeing it as a move beyond the generic bounds of martial arts fiction. Concurrently, Hamm argues that critical response to this novel played a crucial role of bringing Jin Yong’s works into academic criticism with questions about “genre, of the fictional representation of personality and human nature, of typicality (dianxing) and national character (guominxing), of parity with such universally recognized literary creations as Lu Xun’s Ah Q” (201). In character with his previous chapters, Hamm juxtaposes the political and the literary in his analysis to address both the work itself and the role of Jin Yong’s fiction in the “Chinese mainland’s rapidly changing fields of literary and cultural practice” (203). Hamm addresses legitimization and exclusion, cultural economy, as well as allegory and identity, paralleling the trajectory of Jin Yong’s fiction entering the mainland and Hong Kong reuniting with China.

The concluding Chapters 9 and 10 neatly round out Hamm’s critical narrative, as he analyzes the discursive context surrounding the introduction of Jin Yong’s fiction in mainland China during the “massive influx of Hong Kong and Taiwan popular culture in the 1980s” (227). Whereas cultural creations like Jin Yong’s fiction moved to the periphery leading up to and after 1949, Hamm notes, “the flow was now reversed, with the fictional imaginary traveling from Hong Kong (and through Hong Kong from the world beyond) back into the Chinese heartland” (230). In Chapter 9, Hamm continues the analysis of Chapter 7 by framing Jin Yong’s “coming home” to the mainland in terms of Bourdieu’s concepts of the distribution of symbolic capital in the literary and cultural fields. Hamm traverses in detail the literary and cultural contexts of the period from the underground distribution of Jin Yong’s works to the establishment of the field of Jin Yong studies (Jinology), to Jin Yong’s canonization, symbolized perhaps most poignantly by his receipt of an honorary professorship at Beijing University.

In Chapter 10, Hamm concludes his book with discussion of a “duel” between Jin daxia (the great knight Jin Yong) and the “hooligan” author Wang Shuo. Wang Shuo’s attack on Jin Yong and martial arts fiction in 1999 “provoked a firestorm of reaction” (252), which fed a nationwide debate on popular culture. Hamm’s detailed summary and analysis of this debate is well worth reading on its own, and Hamm cogently concludes with a reflection that the new cultural space that the debate engendered illuminates “a variety of social and cultural agents’ efforts to redefine the Chinese literary field, and to establish their own position and prerogatives within that field, during a period of profound change in Chinese society in general” (260).

Hamm uses extensive content notes and references throughout Paper Swordsmen to ground his book firmly in late twentieth-century Jinology and provide Chinese literary studies with a much needed and timely analysis of an important cultural and literary phenomenon in late-twentieth-century China. Elegant writing, compelling analytical structure, thorough research, infrequent editorial errors, an extensive bibliography and Chinese character glossary, and illuminating content notes provide the reader with a top quality study of a fascinating literary and cultural phenomenon. Paper Swordsmen will serve as a foundation for Jinologists conducting research on individual Jin Yong novels as well as specific issues from political allegory to nationalism and, of course, popular culture in twentieth-century China.

Paul B. Foster
Georgia Institute of Technology