Yun Zhongyue’s Jianghu

This essay is a translation of an article posted on the oldrain forum. The original source is here.

Yun Zhongyue short story collection

Cover of a Yun Zhongyue short story collection.

by xuefengzisui (雪峰資水)

Nanjing University 小百合站 May 16, 2003

Everyday seeing people talk about Jin Yong moved me to write this essay. Every wuxia star is like a perilous peak among a towering range of mountains. Although they all stand firmly, tall and straight among the clouds and mist, but each has its own distance and height. Everyone has their favorite author, and readers are perhaps the most bigoted. Reading wuxia, if you a reader likes one writer and regards others as a pair of old shoes, then it’s a lot like visiting a famous mountain yet not appreciating or delighting in it. Wuxia, despite being fiction that narrates stories of made-up characters, yet every writer has his own method of fabrication, and from these methods we can see where current trends spring up. Regarding wuxia authors from Hong Kong and Taiwan, I believe there are several whose accomplishments are underrated. Whenever I see people loudly declaim at forum discussions that everyone other than Jin Yong is trash, or everyone except X is trash, I can’t help but sigh at their juvenile temperament. The ancients said, “A leaf blocks the eye and you can’t see Mt. Tai”. For a lot of wuxia readers, Jin Yong has become the standard, and Jin Yong’s jianghu has become a model, and wuxia should be written this way.

But although everyone knows that Jin Yong is good, yet he is still not capable of overshadowing others’ literary grace. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, aside from the greats Jin Yong, Gu Long, Liang Yusheng,Wen Rui’an, and Huang Yi, there are three other authors whose achievements have been underrated, and those three are: Sima Ling, Sima Ziyan, and Yun Zhongyue (雲中岳). It’s too bad that, despite the fact that these three authors’ novels have their own unique characteristics, people still rate them as second-rate wuxia authors, along with Zhuge Qingyun and his generation of writers. The special traits of Sima Ling and Sima Ziyan’s novels will be discussed in another essay, here I want to talk about Yun Zhongyue.

Of course, Yun Zhongyue’s shortcomings are enough to fill a large basket, such as his style of writing wants a smoother flow, his character models are repetitive, etc. Overall, he can’t compare to Jin Yong or Gu Long, but Yun Zhongyue has achieved the rare feat among wuxia writers of devising his own unique system of jianghu. Wuxia’s trait that is most derided is it’s duplication, authors echoing and copying each other. There are so many wuxia authors that, if you didn’t know who the author was or what the name of the novel was before reading, after finishing, you wouldn’t be able to guess who the author was no matter how hard you racked your brains.

Yun Zhongyue’s novels are different. His works have a distinctive quality, and what is laudable is that his novels seldom show any influence or trace of Jin Yong. This feat alone is enough to secure him a seat at the main hall of wuxia literature. Wuxia’s number one key element is the jianghu, the rivers and lakes. But what is the jianghu? Is it the rivers and lakes that Li Shangyin refers to in his poem: “Forever remembering the rivers and lakes to which I would return, white-haired, I yet wish to turn around heaven and earth before entering a tiny boat”? Obviously it’s not.

Formulating a concrete reality and fictionality of the jianghu, it is impossible to give “jianghu” a precise definition. An outstanding wuxia author must in his novels embody his own concept of the jianghu. I personally believe that to bring out that embodiment, we must look at the contrast between the author’s concept of the jianghu and the imperial court, and the jianghu and society. First we will look at how Jin Yong, Gu Long, Liang Yusheng, and Wen Rui’an describe their jianghu. (I want to state clearly in advance that my remarks are directed at each authors’ novel’s typical or representative case, I’m not saying every novel written by a given author matches that model.)

Jin Yong, despite being known for his heroic characters coming to the aid of the nation, and perfectly mixing it with history, if you look closely, Jin Yong’s jianghu is a self-sufficient, self-evident closed-off community, and the jianghu’s influence on the imperial court, the government, is striking. Heroes and knights-errant, the Xia, can easily perform in the role of government, but the state’s influence on the jianghu is perplexing. Court officials commonly emerge with a jianghu identity. If the Xia (俠) are leisurely and carefree, then the imperial court are indifferent to them. In addition, Jin Yong’s characters almost never have to think about the problems of living. Ha ha, to take it to the extreme, their almost like supernatural immortals who never have to eat. Wherever the Xia come and go, the masses bow in submission and worship. Consequently, Jin Yong’s novels really cater to the model mentality of the weak masses. In other words, Jin Yong’s novels have a strong feeling of substitution/representation, where the reader can imagine himself in the role of the characters. Even plots like when Zhang Wuji quietly retires from public life, he can comfort yourself with the thought that, it’s not that don’t want to serve the nation, it’s just that my moral state is high, and I transfer it to you base people.

In Liang Yusheng’s novels, clashes between the jianghu and the state are numerous, to the point you could say that they are a main thread of his novels, but more numerous than that is the conflict between Han Chinese and peoples from other ethnic races. What’s strange is (a friend of mine posed this to me): You brazenly (Minshan School) rebel against me (Qing court), but I don’t send an army to suppress you, but instead hire a group evil martial arts masters to come deal with you? If this were like a third-rate wuxia author’s exaggeration, where a master of the wulin is so powerful he can take out an army of 100,000 by himself, then you could justify it, but the Xia in Liang Yusheng’s novels are absolutely not like this, with such magical powers.

In addition, when the good guys make a big show of calling for and gathering a group of hundreds to go against the Qing government, the imperial court shows no interest in it, but instead relies on a few traitors within the good guys’ group to tip them off. It feels like the imperial court and the jianghu are like children playing in the family wine, to such an extent that it belittle’s the reader’s intelligence. Liang Yusheng most praises “heroic bravery and emotional hearts”, and correspondingly, his male and female characters are simply like banished immortals descending to the mortal realm, they’re all the best of the best, they do things that are refreshing and pleasing the to eye (you can imagine the Glacier Goddess (冰川天女) taking out money to pay a bill, does Zhang Danfeng not have enough money?) playing harmonious music on qin and flute. “Wuxia is fairy tales for adults” is just about right. But this ill-talk is just the author talking in his sleep.

We need not mention Gu Long’s novels, which thoroughly abandon the court and reside in completely fictitious society (but their societal background has a strong projection of reality).

Wen Rui’an’s point of view is interesting. The state is the jianghu, pick any official you see and they are all martial arts adepts. The fights within the jianghu are the state’s/court’s fights. Writing this way, the jianghu loses its spirit of wildness. In other words, you don’t need to write about the jianghu, why not just use the wuxia structure to write about political struggles? From here we can see Yun Zhongyue’s originality in contrast. What’s written below is merely regarding the typical, representative model of Yun Zhongyue’s works (some of his novels do walk down Jin Yong’s path).

First of all, in Yun Zhongyue’s eyes, characters must be real. His protagonists are different from the traditional form taken under Jin Yong or Liang Yusheng’s pen. His characters have to strive for food, they have to think about income, money, expenses. Even if his main characters are heroes for a time, even more time is spent in the low position of reality, bowing their heads in submission. They face reality and often have to sigh as their ability is not equal to their ambition. In Yun Zhongyue’s novels, you rarely see Xia constantly expounding moral principles, and you rarely see people taking on the personal responsibility of saving the world (these kinds of characters Yun Zhongyue generally holds with an attitude of ridicule). Some of his characters instead are scoundrels eking out a living in the jianghu, or killers who earn profit through blood and sweat, or common people who by chance are drawn into the struggles and conflicts of the jianghu. The refined scholar one often finds in wuxia novels are seldom seen in Yun Zhongyue’s work, and when they are seen, are often playing opposite their expected role.

In addition, the relationship between the jianghu and the imperial court maintains a marvelous tension. The jianghu has its own rules and regulations, its own autonomy, but the imperial court regards the jianghu with a manner of hostility, feeling more jealousy and suspicion than trust and confidence. Their methods are suppression and sowing discord, and the schools and sects of the jianghu scorn the court, fear and guard against the court, seek refuge away from the imperial court, even as far as exiling themselves away from the government, but most often these organizations show superficial obedience to the court. Desperadoes rise in rebellion, but those who can survive don’t dare openly oppose the government. It’s the so-called “the people’s hearts are like iron, the officials like a furnace” (Yun Zhongyue loves using that sentence). No one doesn’t fear the imperial house, even the novel’s protagonist, if he one day comes in conflict with an official, in the end will often flee in self-imposed exile to a remote region and live incognito. As for the “white way” (good guys), black way (bad guys), the greenwood way (outlaws, brigands), the chivalrous way (righteous “Xia” behavior), according to Yun Zhongyue’s interpretation, all are from the imperial court’s perspective, but in the eyes of jianghu personages, between these different kinds of organizations there is just a different “method of seeking one’s living”, they are indifferent to high morality.

The influential schools and sects are the ones that are the most powerful, the ones the imperial court temporarily tolerates. If the court becomes ruthless and brutal, the big organizations just take advantage of the situation to preserve their own interests. There are no “administer the country to pacify all under heaven” characters, at this moment there are few who uphold justice, most of the time you have to rely on the pawns and nameless nobodies occupying the lowest positions in society. You could say that Yun Zhongyue’s knights-errant (俠客) are closer to what Sima Qian described as “foot soldiers butchering dogs”. Yun Zhongyue’s jianghu is not happy and carefree like that of Jin Yong or Liang Yusheng, his jianghu is an “autumn wind and rains and freezing cold frost” jianghu. The strong eat the weak is the standard of Yun Zhongyue’s jianghu, and the imperial court is the jianghu’s biggest tyrant. And the protagonist of his novels have to strive to live, outwardly suffering humiliation while inwardly struggling with their inner hearts, only bursting forth for a brief instant their magnificent radiance.

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