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  • Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel
  • Meir Shahar (bio)
John Christopher Hamm. Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press 2005. xi, 348 pp. Hardcover $49.00, ISBN 0–8248–2763–5.

The remarkable popularity enjoyed by the fiction of Jin Yong (the pen name of Zha Liangyong or Louis Cha [1924–]) is among the most intriguing aspects of contemporary Chinese culture. Beginning in the mid 1950s, the Hong Kong–based author published a series of large-scale martial arts novels, which are estimated to have sold hundreds of millions of copies. Moreover, his novels have spurred an entire industry of related media, having been adapted into film, television drama, comic books, and computer games. In his Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel, John Christopher Hamm examines this literary body within the social, economic, and cultural spheres of its production and dissemination. In its rigor and breadth alike, his study surpasses previous Jin Yong scholarship, offering the literary critic and the cultural historian valuable insights.

In his introduction, Hamm defines his mission to examine not only the fiction of the best-selling author but also the “Jin Yong phenomenon” itself. Indeed, Zha Liangyong’s multifaceted—and enormously successful—career defies disciplinary boundaries. Jin Yong is not only a stunningly popular novelist, but also a keen businessman who has launched a powerful media empire. As owner and chief editor of the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao, he had been an influential political commentator, gradually emerging as a political player himself: during the 1990s he was appointed to the draft committee responsible for engineering Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. The novelist’s role as a cultural icon is even more intriguing—the Jin Yong persona is considered to be an embodiment of Chinese cultural values, reflecting the prestige of the cultural nationalism that he himself has helped foster. [End Page 119] Hamm pointedly observes that his subject’s “status and reputation have expanded well beyond those of an ordinary novelist, extending, on the one hand, into the kind of celebrity commonly associated with movie stars and, on the other, into veneration of the sort reserved for cultural spokesmen and gatekeepers of the high tradition. No simple analytical model, whether of literary excellence or of mass appeal, can do justice to this interweaving of artistic prestige, marketing savvy, fan culture, celebrity worship, political theater, and media fomentation” (p. 118).

Striving to untangle the Jin Yong myth, Hamm juxtaposes the author’s career and the fate of his fictional protagonists. His analysis expands from the novels’ diegesis to the institutional mechanisms of their dissemination and canonization. After laying the groundwork for his investigation by a survey of martial arts literature in general and the genre’s Guangdong school in particular (chapters 1 and 2), he dedicates approximately half of his study to a literary analysis of the Jin Yong novels (chapters 3, 4, 6, and 8), reserving the other half for the growth of the author’s media empire, which has capitalized on the novels’ popularity at the same time that it has further enhanced it (chapters 5, 7, 9, and 10). It is this broad concern with the economic, cultural, and political agencies shaping the reception of literary products that makes Hamm’s book pertinent not only to the Jin Yong fan and the martial arts aficionado but also to those interested in the Chinese cultural field.

Jin Yong’s fiction is available nowadays in a thirty-six volume Collected Works, which is being distributed simultaneously on the mainland (by Sanlian Press), in Taiwan (by Yuanliu Publishing), and in Hong Kong (by the author’s own Ming He publications). Hamm is not satisfied, however, to read the novels in this handsome packaging, but seeks their humble origins in the 1950s fiction supplements of the Hong Kong tabloids. The martial arts adventures of Jin Yong were originally serialized in Hong Kong newspapers, and it is by reading them in this context that Hamm is able to unravel their underlying social and historical concerns. Examining the early installments of Jin Yong fiction...