Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where it all began

I've mentioned that I'm obsessed with all things Chinese, not just the Monkey King.  But where did it all begin?  What makes a person who's never been to China so interested in everything Chinese?

I've been learning to speak Mandarin Chinese for the past 2 and 1/2 years, and over the past year I've also begun to learn to read and write it.  I won't deny it's a difficult language to learn, but I love it.  But I didn't come to it initially out of a love of the language. 

One day about 7 or 8 years ago, I had a sick day and was struggling to find something palatable to watch on daytime tv to distract me from my illness.  I happened to turn to the now-defunct International Channel.  I found myself watching a program in which various people in beautiful costumes were doing kung fu and fighting with swords.  I've long enjoyed kung fu movies, so I watched.  I soon saw a kooky old man, a young man missing an arm, and a giant bird that walked like a man.  What the heck was going on?  There were no English subtitles on the show, which I eventually discovered was dubbed in Vietnamese, though that clearly wasn't the language the actors onscreen were speaking.  Fortunately during the commercial breaks they showed a title in both Chinese characters and English.  It was called Return of the Condor Heroes. 

Despite the weirdness, I was intrigued.  It spoke to me for some reason.  I found out that the show aired daily, so the next day I left a VHS tape in the VCR to record it.  I taped it every day for the next three weeks or so, until the show concluded.  In the meantime I started searching the web for more information about it.  I finally stumbled upon a site called, where I learned that it was actually a Chinese-language program produced in Singapore, and that it was based on a novel.  That led me to another site, wuxiapediaWuxia (roughly translated meaning "heroic warrior"), I learned, is the name for a whole genre of Asian entertainment, especially literature, and that much of this literary output has been adapted for television. 

One of the more prolific contributors to the literary genre is Jin Yong, pen name of a Hong Kong newspaper magnate whose English name is Louis Cha.  It was one of his stories, originally serialized in his newspaper Ming Pao, that had become Return of the Condor Heroes.  The Chinese title is Shen Diao Xia Lu 神雕侠侣, which doesn't actually mean Return of the Condor Heroes.  It would more accurately be translated as Divine Eagle Heroic Companion, or Divine Eagle Gallant Knight.  Somehow either because the giant intelligent bird in the story is huge, or due to a translation error, it has been dubbed a condor, regardless of the fact that condors don't exist in China.  For whatever reason, Return of the Condor Heroes or Condor Heroes has become the English language title of choice for any adaptation of the novel - and there have been quite a few.

Once I learned about this novel and the rest of Jin Yong's substantial output of wuxia stories, my nest goal was to read them.  Disappointingly, only three of his works have been published in English: Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain, The Book and the Sword, and The Duke of Deer Mountain.  No publisher has picked up any of the others, despite the fact that Shen Diao Xia Lu and its predecessor She Diao Ying Xiong Zhuan 射雕英雄传 (common English title Legend of the Condor Heroes) are enormously popular in China and other Asian countries and have been turned into innumerable tv shows, movies, and comic books, in addition to being constantly in print for the past 30 years.  But I was again in luck:  some dedicated fans have taken it upon themselves to produce amateur translations available online.  They may not be as polished as a translation published by a legitimate publisher would be, but they still manage to make apparent why these books are so popular in other parts of the world.

Jin Yong wrote 15 novels and short stories between 1955 and 1970.  As I mentioned, the two books described above have been adapted for television many times.  Versions of Legend of the Condor Heroes have been produced in mainland China in 2003 and 2008.  Return of the Condor Heroes was last produced for tv in 2006.  This was the eighth tv adaptation since 1960.  The producer of the 2003 Legend and the 2006 Return has practically made his career on producing elaborate adaptations of Jin Yong novels.  Those have barely made their way across the pond; I only managed to discover the existence of the 2006 series because a friend mentioned he'd found it on Netflix (where it was confused with a 1983 version starring pop sensation Andy Lau).  I've now watched that series many, many times.  I've lost track of how may repeat viewings.  And now I can actually read some of the Chinese subtitles (though my reading skill is probably at about a second-grade level at best). 

There it is, a bit of a long, rambling explanation of what really sparked my interest in Chinese.  I still want to read the novels in the original language.  But now that I've discovered my affinity for Chinese, I hope perhaps someday I can be the one to introduce more of Jin Yong's works to an English-speaking audience.  At least it's a goal to aim for.

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