The English patient: bestseller Jin Yong’s long wait for English-language publication

The English patient: bestseller Jin Yong’s long wait for English-language publication

Louis Cha Leung-yung, best known by his pen name Jin Yong, is probably the biggest-selling author English-language readers have never heard of. The writer of 15 wuxia books—historical martial arts epics with fantastical elements; think "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" meets Wolf Hall—has sold perhaps 300 million copies throughout the Chinese-speaking world since first being published in 1955.

Beyond those book sales, Cha’s influence is wide: his books have been made into more than 65 Chinese-language TV series, and 35 films. While there hasn’t been a Jin Yong-based feature film released for more than 20 years, at this year’s Cannes film festival the Hollywood Reporter noted that there were four different Hong Kong and Mainland China film studios with Jin Yong adaptations in the pipeline.

There is also a mini-industry of video games and graphic novels based on his work. Concerning the latter, Tencent Comics & Animation recently announced that it is to create a series of web comics based on four Jin Yong novels. Tencent general manager Zou Zhengyu said the idea was to bring a new generation to the source material: "Though the films and TV series are well known, the original books have probably been read by a small number [of younger people]. We hope the comic series will attract more youngsters to read the novels."

Challenging times
Cha was born in 1924 in Haining, a large town in the Yangtze River Delta some 80 miles south-west of Shanghai. His childhood and early adulthood were eventful and tragic—his mother died while the family was fleeing the Japanese invasion during the Second World War; his father was executed as a counter-revolutionary in 1950 (and posthumously exonerated in 1980). By the time of his father’s death, Cha had moved to Hong Kong and while working there as a journalist he met Chen Wentong, who was writing wuxia stories under the pseudonym Liang Yusheng. Chen encouraged Cha to write fiction, and in 1955 the first "Jin Yong" novel, The Book and the Sword, was serialised in the New Evening Post newspaper. It was an immediate hit.

Cha began working as a director and screenwriter and later founded his own newspaper, the influential Ming Pao Daily News, where the bulk of his novels would eventually be serialised. The last, The Deer and the Cauldron, ended its run in the newspaper in September 1972. The Jin Yong books were not officially published in China until the 1980s, after Cha famously met the nation’s former leader Deng Xiaoping—a big fan of the author’s. In English, Cha had never before been published by a trade house, though there were some editions released in academic presses. Cha sold Ming Pao in 1993 and has not been seen much in public since 1997, when he suffered a stroke. However, in the early 2000s the then-octogenarian announced he would be revising some of his books.

Among the millions of avid fans was Anna Holmwood, who brought the books to the attention of agents Peter and Rosie Buckman of The Ampersand Agency. The duo went to Hong Kong to secure the rights from Cha, then sold world English rights for 12 titles to MacLehose Press last year; the first, A Hero Born, will publish in February. For the next decade, MacLehose will publish one book in the series annually, releasing each around the Chinese New Year.

Christopher MacLehose, publisher at his eponymous imprint, says the path to English publication was "very unusual", and praised Holmwood and the Buckmans. He adds: "All I did—as anyone who read Anna’s sample translation and description of the whole series would have done—was to buy the books and commission the translation. I did also consult our Chinese readers and was told that every young reader in China had read these wonderful stories, and would read them again and again."