2015 Reading Challenge: Legend of the Condor Heroes

I know what you guys are thinking. Man she abandoned another challenge!! The truth is, I’ve spent the last few months on a comic book series and haven’t been able to finish 38 books of it until recently. It’s no excuse cos who takes three months to finish a comic series and another two weeks to write this post haha but that’s what it is.

When I was 12, a few friends in Primary School got me into 神雕侠侣 (The Return of the Condor Heroes) which as many Singaporeans would know is that martial arts show where Fann Wong and Christopher Lee were lovers and he called her 姑姑 (Aunty) and she wore white and was frankly a bit strange and they insisted on living or dying together. Chinese martial arts comics tend to have such romances. I was rather into it, as 12 year old girls tend to be, and was gushing to my mother about the comic book versions which only refreshed vague memories of the Channel 8 local production. That was when my mom went ‘Oh but you haven’t read the original, which is so much better!’ And there was no turning back from that.

Legend of the Condor Heroes

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For the uninitiated, Return of the Condor Heroes is as its title implies – a return. Which means it’s a sequel of the original Legend of the Condor Heroes 射雕英雄传. One of the more recent adaptations was in 2008 starring Ariel Lin, but this book, like other series from Louis Cha, have been worked and reworked into series and movies for many years. It’s part of the Chinese canon of literature and popular culture now. And I love it. I read the series then at 12, and again recently because I missed it. I also bought the original Hong Kong adaptation of the series which I will attest to my dying day is the best one, complete with people throwing props into the screen as special effects and very very very visible stunt wires. I might have watched it a little more than I should and it’s probably why I can understand a bit of Cantonese.

But back to the story. 

Legend of the Condor Heroes is about 郭靖 (Guo Jing) and 黄蓉 (Huang Rong) who are such canonical characters that when I type their pinyin in, their names appear. As all ancient Chinese stories, our protagonist’s birth is tied strongly to their place in history. For Guo Jing, he was born in a time of dynasty collapse–where the Song Dynasty was corrupt and ineffectual, where the Middle Kingdom faced threats from all sides, the invasion of the Manchurians spreading through the country like plague and the looming shadow of a consolidating Mongolia under Genghis Khan. Growing up to be honest and loyal to a fault, Guo Jing becomes instrumental in fending off his country from these threats.

Guo Jing’s father Guo Xiaotian was sworn brothers with this other dude Yang Tiexin and they were local heroes in their own right but living their lives quietly with their wives in a small village. They brought trouble on their doorstep when they helped a priest who was famed for killing corrupt officials. Later, the priest will name the brothers’ unborn children as Guo Jing and Yang Kang in the hope that they never forget the country’s 靖康之耻 (Jing Kang Zhi Chi)–the country’s humiliation in the Jing Kang era suffered during the successful invasion of the Manchurians in the East capital where they massacred, burnt, raped.

But as Chinese stories go too, history is made intensely personal. Ultimately what sealed the terrible fates of the Guo and Yang families was that the Manchurian prince fell in love with Yang Tiexin’s wife. The prince got the help of a corrupt official to kill both families and took the wife away under pretences. He was to bring up Yang Kang, and Guo Jing’s mother escaped to the West and gave birth to him on a bed of snow.

This then begins the most interesting crux of the story–watching Guo Jing and Yang Kang diverge and grow up to be entirely different people and pursue very different endings. Guo Jing never forgot the humiliation of his country and Yang Kang never remembered anything beyond his status as a princeling and the fierce desire to protect a life of riches.

The romance 

What I love most about the series though is the central romance. Hardly surprising.

Growing up in Mongolian camps, Guo Jing finally goes back to China (or the central plains quite literally translated) when he was older to find his own path. Guo Jing is a very moral person, but is not very bright. Once he got there, he got tricked into spending all his money on a good meal with a beggar and giving the beggar his fur coat and super awesome horse. The beggar on the other hand was very bright but not very moral. She’s Huang Rong.

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Huang Rong is a spoiled and eccentric girl who grew up with her father on the strange and isolated Cherry Blossoms Island. After a fight with her father, she ran away in a huff and disguised herself as a beggar, convinced no one could love her. Until she met Guo Jing who gave her everything he had because he’s the most trusting person on earth.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

One of the things I love most about the central relationship is how much the two characters complement each other. Guo Jing is trusting, but he can also be stupid. And Huang Rong reminds him that the world is not as kind as he is. Huang Rong is one of the most intelligent people in the series, and her smarts often get her out of trouble, but Guo Jing helps her to be a better person so she doesn’t leave other people behind. I am always a fan of relationships that make each other better. They are a stronger unit together than they ever were alone.

As they started traveling together, almost everybody in their lives disapproved of the relationship–Guo Jing’s mentors finding Huang Rong highly inappropriate and devilish while Huang Rong’s father finding Guo Jing an untalented brute who doesn’t deserve her. And it was very early on in the books that the two declared their undying love for each other, which can be a tad unrealistic and reeking of youth naïveté, but also rather romantic. How did they know? From the start? Huang Rong makes him reckless and Guo Jing makes her devoted.

Chinese martial arts stories tend to speak of undying love at first sight, and that might not be the experience of the real world, but I just love the strength of the couple’s conviction. That they’re so willing to sacrifice for each other the moment they determine the other is The One. And the best thing about the relationship is how it becomes stronger over time. Sometimes they get separated, sometimes in life and death circumstances, some other times they piss each other off, but they always come together again better than they were in the past.

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This notion of moral progress and growth is essential in the series’ portrayal of positive relationships. Love and romance exist yes, but they are not healthy and good for you if not accompanied by some sort of morality. Huang Rong and Guo Jing ground each other and therefore see progress in their relationship.

In contrast, Yang Kang–who himself experiences great love in his life with the beautiful and devoted Mu Nian Ci–is doomed to a miserable relationship with her as she oscillates from loving him and hating herself for loving someone who betrayed his own family and nation for riches and fame. In some moments, you almost root for Yang Kang and Mu Nian Ci. He obviously loves her, enough to kill for her. And her loyalty to him is devastating. But ultimately Yang Kang’s evil deeds brought his own downfall and Mu Nian Ci has to raise their son alone.

Similarly, the Manchurian prince who attacked two families to snatch a woman over never got his happy ending. Sure, eventually Yang Tiexin’s wife married him and he brought up Yang Kang, but the wife never forgot her former life. She stayed in a wooden shed within the palace and thought of her husband, whom she believed to be dead, everyday. And when Yang Tiexin reappeared, she chose to die along with him. At the prince’s last moment of death, as Guo Jing brings him to execution for his war crimes and personal revenge, the prince looks up at the sky and says ‘Xi Ruo, I’m coming to join you.’ And it’s bullshit because if I were the lady up in heaven, I’d be like dude go away I’m with my husband now. But you also feel a sense of sadness for the prince. All this, and for what? All this love and no morality causes only destruction. 家破人亡.

And that is a very Chinese notion I think. Romantic love can be grand, self-sacrificial, and everything you ever wanted, but it’s not the be all and end all of the world. You need love for your family. Love for your country. Love for your fellow man. Only when you’re able to do that can your love thrive.

The journey 

Together, Guo Jing and Huang Rong go on an epic journey where they meet plenty of amazing heroes and villains from the 江湖 Jiang hu, who teach them kungfu and lessons. Through a series of fateful events, Guo Jing becomes one of the strongest and most skilled heroes out there, worthy of fighting to be the best in the world. This is a coveted title and many misguided people use untoward means to get their hands on the most powerful kungfu.

I guess the martial arts component of the comics is the nerdiest part. It’s unrealistic and sometimes hilarious. But just like the romance, learning martial arts in the comics is all about morality. 水能载舟,也能覆舟 – it’s not about who is more powerful, more skilled, more experienced. It’s about how they put their skills and experience and power to use.

As the series comes to an end, Guo Jing has lost almost everything – his only family his mother, he thinks Huang Rong is lost, and all his loyal service to the Mongolian Khan has come to nothing but destruction and war. Devastated, he questions why he even began learning kungfu in the first place when he has been unable to protect the very people he loves. Martial arts have brought nothing but trouble in his life.

But ultimately, Guo Jing is reminded by his shifu the North Beggar that his pursuit of excellence in kungfu is intricately linked to his commitment to being good. And I love it. The reasons why I love this comic series are somewhat similar to why I love Captain America – our hero is a straightforward black and white character whose goodness is the best thing about him. And he exists in a world of complexity where heroes are not always what they seem and villains are human too.

All in all, Legend of Condor Heroes – highly recommend! It’s also a great opportunity to improve your Chinese.

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Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
  3. A book from your childhood: Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong
  4. A book that was originally written in a different language: The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong
  5. A book set during Christmas: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who)

PS. I also read two more books during my recent trip to Hanoi. Whether I’ll write reviews I’m not sure yet. Watch this space.