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Late Hong Kong writer Jin Yong’s martial arts fantasy novels resonate around the world, helping build Hong Kong as a bridge between Chinese cultures and others, says his close friend and colleague Poon You-Ming

By Suo Youwei Updated Nov.1

Visitors look at displays at an exhibition dedicated to late martial arts novelist Louis Cha (1924-2018), known by his pen name Jin Yong, Shanghai, November 1, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

Late wuxia novelist Louis Cha (L) with Poon Yiu-Ming (Photo by Chengdu.net)

The late writer Louis Cha (1924-2018), known by his pen name Jin Yong, is a cultural icon at home and abroad, influencing readers across many generations with his martial arts fantasy novels, a genre known as wuxia. Hong-Kong based Ming Pao Enterprise has been a leading Chinese media enterprise since Jin co-founded it in 1959. In 2008, Ming Pao Enterprise merged with Sin Chew Media Corporation and Nanyang Press to create Media Chinese International Limited.  

In a recent interview with China News Service (CNS), Poon Yiu-Ming, chief editor of Ming Pao Monthly, a publication under Ming Pao, also chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Writers, as well as a close colleague of Jin since 1991, shared his thoughts on the huge popularity of Jin’s novels, their cultural significance, as well as Hong Kong’s status in literature exchanges between China and the world.  

CNS: You were a close friend of Jin Yong and have been in the Ming Pao publications system for many years. What role do his novels play in cultural exchanges?  

Poon Yiu-Ming: Jin Yong novels command an extremely broad readership, from ordinary people to senior officials and senior intellectuals, ranging from nine to 90. Yang Chen Ning (a Nobel laureate in physics along with Tsung-Dao Lee in 1957) is also a fan of Jin’s stories. Some third-generation youngsters in the Chinese diaspora do not understand Chinese and are even reluctant to learn Chinese. But after reading translations of Jin Yong novels in foreign languages, they are attracted by the writing style and storylines, and they want to read them in the original. In this sense, Jin Yong’s novels serve as a bridge promoting the Chinese language among overseas ethnic Chinese communities.  

When I was in charge of Joint Publishing’s copyright department (in the 1980s), I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair each year. Once when I visited Munich, I even found a study group for Jin Yong novels, and they had a journal. Wherever there are ethnic Chinese, there are Jin Yong readers.  

I have never seen any literary works in the world, Chinese or foreign, spread as deeply and widely as those of Jin Yong. I attended a seminar on Jin Yong more than a decade ago, which claimed that Jin Yong had 200 million readers around the world. When I accompanied Jin Yong on a visit to Japan in 1995, a local publisher had all of Jin Yong’s works translated into Japanese, and the books were very popular.  

After Jin Yong sold Ming Pao Enterprise Limited (to Sir Tiong Hiew King in 1995), he planned to run a magazine where he would write and publish his historical novels. He asked me to pay a visit to South Korea, where a professor told me that more than 60 percent of the country’s university students had read Jin Yong’s novels. This was not a result of government promotion, but circulation among the public.  

CNS: What can Hong Kong writers, as well as other Chinese language writers, learn from Jin Yong’s works? What experiences can Hong Kong literary circles learn from how far his books have spread?  

PY: Jin Yong himself said that kungfu novels were just his extracurricular work. Since he ran a newspaper, he had to think about its market positioning. But we cannot simply classify Jin Yong’s kung-fu novels as popular literature. China’s four great classical novels were, in the past, all popular literature. Dream of the Red Chamber, for example, was even regarded as a pornographic work by Chinese parents who would not allow their children to read it. Good literature is not only serious literature. Popular works that stand the test of time will become classics. Several of Jin Yong’s works could last as long as the classics.  

Nowadays, we talk about how to tell the Hong Kong story properly (so that people from the rest of the world can have a better understanding of Hong Kong). In the past, Hong Kong stories were often about consumerism and cuisine, but these are from elsewhere, and so is Disneyland. Jin Yong, however, is an example of Hong Kong’s own local culture, grown in Hong Kong. I have called for the creation of a Jin Yong theme park. Jin Yong also once told me that an entrepreneur was interested in the idea, but it ended up going nowhere. James Wong and Ni Kuang were also Hong Kong writers. (Both, along with Jin Yong and Cai Lan, are widely recognized as “Hong Kong’s most talented” writers.) To tell the Hong Kong story well involves its authentic indigenous culture and literature. Above all, you must value your own culture before you can properly promote it. Cultures brought in from elsewhere belong to others. This issue has to be taken seriously in Hong Kong’s cultural policymaking.  

Jin Yong novels are actually written in the style of Ming-Qing fiction (freestyle narratives with themes ranging from legend to romance written in the 14th century up to the early 20th century). Jin Yong’s texts are pure Chinese language, with no traces of European influence. You can barely see foreign expressions in the paragraphs. His writings contributed to the standardization of the Chinese language.  

Readers can find a clear historical horizon in Jin Yong’s novels. A graduate student of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has compiled a “Jin Yong Map” based on his martial arts novels, which covers many different regions in China, and displays the beautiful landscape of the country. This silent influencing is much more effective than hard selling. Good literary and artistic works can make Hong Kong stories persuasive.  

CNS: The development plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area proposes to build a “Cultured Greater Bay Area.” What role can Hong Kong literature play in this process?  
PY: The idea of the Greater Bay Area would generate considerable opportunities for Hong Kong. The area gathers resources from multiple places, which include economic, commercial and cultural resources. In the past, the region had a lot of people-to-people cultural exchanges. For example, in the 35 years since it was founded, the Federation of Hong Kong Writers has had frequent literary exchanges with Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as Zhuhai and Zhongshan (all in Guangdong Province).  

Hong Kong is an open window of international cultural exchanges. In the early days of the New China (People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949), many Chinese mainland works, including books by Lu Xun, Ba Jin and Qian Zhongshu, could only be brought to Taiwan via Hong Kong, since they were not allowed for sale in Taiwan. Many works by writers from Taiwan were also brought to the mainland through Hong Kong. Taiwan’s United Daily News serialized novelist Nieh Hualing’s Mulberry and Peach: Two Women of China, but it was halted as it involved sensitive issues in Taiwan politics. This work was later published in full in Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Monthly. Before the mainland’s reform and opening-up, Hong Kong served as an indispensable bridge for cultural exchanges.  

After the mainland embarked on reform and opening-up, Hong Kong still had its special status as an international window for rapid flows of cultural, economic and commercial information. Now Hong Kong is positioned as a center for cultural and artistic exchanges between China and the rest of the world, which will be a major boost to Hong Kong’s future growth.  

Hong Kong literature is also an integral part of Chinese literature. While it should maintain its own local characteristics, it also ought to be integrated into the Greater Bay Area’s and wider Chinese literature. Since its reform and opening-up, the mainland has seen the rise of many important writers, including Nobel laureate Mo Yan. I know many mainland writers. In recent years, many mainland writers have gained an international reputation.  

CNS: You have long advocated the establishment of a Hong Kong museum of literature. Why does Hong Kong need such a museum? How do you envision it?  

PY: Hong Kong’s literature is rooted in the public. I used to be an advisor to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (established in 1995). Among its annual funding of HK$250 million (US$31.9m) to cultural projects, only HK$4 million (US$510,000) went to literature at the beginning, then it rose to HK$7 million (US$893,000), and now it’s HK$10 million (US$1.3m). Overall, literature accounts for a very small portion of the agency’s support, while the performing arts receive more resources from the government. In fact, while movies are performing arts, screenplays are literary works. So in the past, the distribution of resources was highly unbalanced.  

Hong Kong very much needs a literature museum. Beijing got a contemporary literature museum a long time ago, and so have Shanghai, Guangzhou, Macao and Taipei. But not Hong Kong. I keep saying that Hong Kong is not a cultural desert, but its environment is a desert for literature.  

Eighteen years ago, the Federation of Hong Kong Writers proposed the establishment of the Hong Kong museum of literature in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Among the more than 30 cultural luminaries who signed the initiative, 14 have passed away. Now, thanks to the support of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu, and sponsorship by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, preparation for the museum has started, which comes as a comfort for us, as well as being an inspiration to Hong Kong’s literary circle.  

A literature museum should have, above all, the function of establishing collections, then the functions of research and exchange. It could perform exchanges with literature museums from all over the world, and of course, showcase the achievements of Hong Kong literature.  

The China Writers Association once invited me to interview some of Hong Kong’s older writers to record their oral histories. It is a great pity that many manuscripts and voices of these writers of the older generation, such as Liu Yichang and Jin Yong, are not preserved. I was an advocate of recording oral histories, even before Ni Kuang passed away, as they were all living almanacs of Hong Kong literature.  

When I studied at New York University, I found that even Chinatown had oral histories of Chinatown and the Chinese community. Hong Kong has not paid enough attention to the collection, preservation and conservation of its oral histories. Now it is quite difficult to find the manuscripts of these master writers who did not keep their own scripts in their limited living space. Their families may not have kept the scripts, either. All these resources have been lost, which is very regrettable. So I think the Hong Kong museum of literature is very important. If we have a literature museum, we can collect their manuscripts, books and record their oral histories.  

When I visited Japan with a literary delegation of mainland writers, I was surprised to see that every county and township had its own literature museum in Japan. This can foster children's interest in literature. So the Hong Kong museum of literature in the future would also help children and youngsters develop literary interests and skills.  

Literature is the soul of culture and art. Without literature, the tree of culture is pale and powerless. Many performing arts are adapted based on literary works. I hope the Hong Kong SAR Government attaches more importance to literature, so Hong Kong will not only be an international metropolis for business, but also one for culture, and truly become a center of cultural and artistic exchanges between China and the rest of the world.  

Visitors attend the Jin Yong (Louis Cha) Exhibition at the Shanghai Library on November 1, 2022. More than 300 manuscripts and paintings were on display (Photo by VCG)

A bookstore assistant hangs a poster of novelist Louis Cha, on October 31, 2018, to mark his passing the previous day (Photo by VCG)