The famed wuxia novelist Louis Cha died on October 30. Tributes to Cha rang out across Chinese social media and news outlets, praising Cha for the influence he had on generations of Chinese readers. Cha’s novels were known for creating intricate fantasies paired with adept allusions to contemporary social conditions.
Chinese Christians also noted the influence Cha had on them, including this piece from Li Jin, a frequent contributor to ChinaSource. Here Li describes the hope that Christians can find in Cha’s wuxia novels.
Note: 武侠小说 were once known as kung fu novels, but are now more commonly referred to as wuxia novels. These novels feature characters with extremely good, even fantastical martial arts and their various adventures and relationships. 江湖 , jianghu, refers to the world in which these characters roam.
Louis Cha: You and I in Jianghu—Slippery as Soap under a Hand of Iron
Wuxia novels have long been the youthful memories of so many people. And when we mention contemporary wuxia novels and their writers, we cannot neglect Louis Cha, who produced classic after classic. This wuxia world that was created by his pen was perhaps once a shared dream of ours.
In some ways, the jianghu displayed in Louis Cha’s novels reflected the societal background of the times. Through the jianghu world of flashing swords and rattling sabers, the author brings the reader into a non-fictional world of desire and freedom. This is also a reflection of contemporary society.
Mr. Cha’s death perhaps signals the end of an era. If literature parrots reality, then returning to our daily lives, in this unlovable jianghu world, how can we live out a truly happy life?
Turning to Soap under a Hand of Iron
Writing for a column in Mingpao on January 25, 1963, Mr. Louis Cha quoted from observations made by a Beijing-stationed reporter of The Times of London about the lives of the Chinese middle class of that time:
They work too hard and are responsible for too much. All day long they are worried about possible mistakes, and so do not seek to achieve anything, but simply to not make mistakes. The people that I see are clearly unhappy. They look miserable, and that is not entirely because of material lack . . .
The first reason is because they are not free. Another reason is because life is boring; there is nothing to lighten it or to entertain. The third reason, for the middle-aged couple, is that if their child is grown, then there is generally some conflicting mindset between the parents and children. The parents find some of their children’s actions distasteful, but the children filled with such brainwashing.
People’s lives lack basic freedoms, have no entertainment, and they are not allowed to speak rashly—otherwise they would be reported. Even in the home, parents and children cannot truly communicate some of the deeper questions, because once the children speak the truth outside of the home, then the parents inevitably have to bear the consequences.
In such circumstances, the atmosphere at home would naturally not be joyful. But for the majority of families, even though the love between parents and children has been affected, it still continues. This is the nature of Chinese people, and cannot be eradicated.
Not long after I arrived in Beijing, this reporter was asked by an old Beijing friend what impression he had of Beijing. He replied, “It seems like nobody smiles anymore.” The friend gave a pithy reply, “Back in the day when life was difficult, all we could do was laugh and forget our pains. But now people are really happy.” The reporter asked, “But are they really happy?” The friend answered, “You can see for yourself. They are no longer smiling!”
February 13 of the same year, in another opinion-editorial piece, Mr. Cha quoted another reporter concerning the pitifulness of Chinese people, especially the intellectuals.
I do not want to describe such persecution. The number of people affected is actually not so great, and yet their shadows touch every one. Under the new policy, these victims can receive compensation and apology…
But they use various methods to avoid getting in trouble, various ways of preserving their safety, various attempts to avoid harm. This is the highest academy, yet the fashions are hypocrisy and falsehood. Under the iron hand of such an environment, people become as slippery as soap.
The traditional Chinese philosophy of life is very apt here. The principle of not offending anyone—developed over many ages—is being used by everyone. Such a smooth and rounded method does not offend those in power. In effect, this is the highest hypocrisy: mutual deception.
Laughing in the Wind: Concerning Freedom and Desire
In this society, which is so happy it no longer smiles, everyone lives in a world controlled by the iron hand, slowly becoming a part of the jianghu Mr. Cha created.
Between the years of 1967 and 1969, Louis Cha began publishing Laughing in the Wind as a serial in the newspaper. This was an age of drastic societal change. The old order and morality was broken, and a new order, culture, and language was subsequently established. The story’s theme and representation, however, is suitable for any age, because it touches on the tension between desire and freedom.
The tension is first and foremost represented by Dongfang Bubai [literally “undefeated in the east”]. In the book, Dongfang Bubai was portrayed as without peer in both his martial arts as well as his cleverness. Even in the final battle, the three most skilled martial artists of the time were powerless under Dongfang Bubai’s attack.
And yet, even his name embodied strangeness. Because people are not absolutes. They cannot overcome absolute abysses, nor can they avoid relying on others. On the one hand, Dongfang Bubai was the leader of the Sun and Moon cult, so that even hearing his name sent a shiver down one’s back. On the other hand, he became an embroidering maid living deep in seclusion.
In the book, Louis Cha describes the scene where hero Linghu Chong and Ren Yingying enter Dongfang Bubai’s inner room:
Upon entering, they smelled a strong fragrance of flowers. They saw hanging in the room a painting of three beautiful ladies, with embroidered cushions on their chairs… There were bunches of flowers all over the room, the strong sense of makeup assaulted the nose. On the eastern end of the room, someone sat beside a dressing table. He was dressed in pink, and held in the left hand an embroidery frame, and in the right, hand an embroidery needle. The person glanced up, a look of surprise on his face . . .
Everybody recognized that this was clearly Dongfang Bubai, who had stolen the leader’s title for himself in the Sun and Moon cult, who has been the top martial artist in the world for the past ten years. But now, he was shaved clean, and there was even makeup on his face. The clothing he wore was neither male nor female, and was so garishly colored that even if Ren Yingying were to wear it, it would appear too bright, too gaudy.”
Dongfang Bubai’s strange transformation was accomplished through his desire for power and the witchcraft within The Sunflower Manual [a kung fu manual which influenced Dongfang Bubai to castrate himself for the sake of greater martial arts skills]. He once fantasized about becoming god, becoming the highest power. But he was unable to fulfill this desire within himself, and instead the desire became refracted into the fantasy of a woman relying on the man Yang Lianting. Though his innate desires were still hidden in violent killing and purging, on the surface he attempted to become divided as a soft, gentle woman, even taking on a mother’s identity.
Dongfang Bubai said, “When I first became cult leader, I was at the top of the world. They praised me as ‘skilled at both martial and literary arts,’ ‘reviving the holy religion,’ but it was all shameless flattery. Only when I studied the Sunflower Manual later on did I slowly come to know the mysteries of life. After diligently practicing my inner martial skills for a number of years, I finally understood the principle by which all life is created and nourished.”
And yet, Dongfang Bubai was stuck in a secondary reality that he created for himself, and Yang Lianting created an outward secondary reality through language and rule of fear— “skilled at both martial and literary arts” and other phrases of flattery that Dongfang Bubai, and later Ren Woxing, heard.
But Dongfang Bubai continued to fall deeper into this fantasy, further creating an inner fantasy that only people living in reality saw as problematic. “As they listened to him deliver these words in a high-pitched voice, their palms became wet with cold sweat. This person spoke rationally, and his mind was clear, but the more they looked at his strange appearance that was neither male nor female, the more they shivered in their hearts.”
Before Ren Woxing achieved his vengeance and re-took the title of cult leader, he saw such flatter and thought to himself that he would dispense with it. And yet, once he started giving orders as cult leader, and heard his subordinates praise him as “holy leader skilled at both martial and literary arts, merciful and wise. May the leader revive the holy religion, and his blessings cover all who are living. May he live for a thousand autumns and ten thousand years, unifying the jianghu”—Ren Woxing also slowly came to welcome this as his reality.
The old world was not overturned by revolution. The tide of revolution sweeps on, swallowing its own children, becoming a sort of cycle, a pretended noble sacrifice.
At this point, Louis Cha pulled the hero Linghu Chong out of this secondary reality, and let him live in the primary reality. What Linghu Chong saw was “the lights were dim. From afar, Ren Woxing’s face was already fairly blurred. Linghu Chong suddenly thought to himself, ‘What difference does it make, whether it is Ren Woxing or Dongfang Bubai sitting on this seat?’”
When witchcraft and totalitarianism pervert language and the outward environment into a fantasy, when people face a secondary reality, we would be quickly swept into this world through our participation and entertainment. And yet, our disgust can remind our conscience that this is a false reality.
When all the cult members were declaring their loyalty, “Linghu Chong stood at the temple entrance, the sun shining from behind him. Everything outside the temple was bright and clear, but in the dim temple close to a hundred people were kneeling on the ground, sprouting flattery. In his heart he felt an unspeakable disgust . . .”
In the important years of 1969-1972, through the serial The Deer and the Cauldron, Louis Cha created the entertaining and seemingly absurd character Wei Xiaobao, and through him further explored the cult of the dragon, manipulation through drugs and power, promotion of the younger generation, using the young people to purge faithful older members, and even cult leader Hong who thought that he was the indestructible sun . . .
The transition from Linghu Chong in Laughing in the Wind to Wei Xiaobao in The Deer and the Cauldron seems to indicate that while Linghu Chong was a beloved character by many, he was a dream that could not be reached. Yet Wei Xiaobao was more like that piece of soap in the hand of iron, able to easily navigate the realities of life.
In the 80s of last century, our generation listened to the pop music of the likes of Teresa Teng on Hong Kong radio and read pirated wuxia novels by Master Cha. At the time many young people dreamed of a jianghu of freedom. Who did not long to be free like Linghu Chong, who laughed in the wind? But as time flies, slowly we desired power instead, and were attracted by those in power, so that we became piece of soap in an iron hand, having lost our happy smiles.
Generation after generation, we live a life we do not like—smooth and world-wise. Even after coming to know the Lord, we slowly continue to lose ourselves. One cannot help himself when in jianghu. Even Mr. Louis Cha lost some of his impassioned pen when he was old, and became more slippery.
Hoping for the Eternal in this Unlovable Jianghu
In this jianghu, though we try hard to grab on to something, we ultimately realize that our hands are empty. The inner problem each of us has is reflected by the fictional jianghu created by Mr. Cha’s pen.
So, in the jianghu world of flashing swords and rattling sabers, is there true happiness? Perhaps the following examples can give us some understanding.
Pastor Colson was born poor. He served in the army, and when he was young he desired success and fame. When commenting on himself and his dreams, he said,
I wanted to be successful. After leaving the Marine Corps, I started my own journey. While working for a senator, I finished law school by studying in the evenings. At the age of 30, I started a law firm with someone else. If I had stayed and worked there, I would have become very successful.
Eight years later, I sat in the office next to the president’s office . . . And yet, at the peak of my life, I realized that the perfect life I had been chasing after was so empty, so meaningless . . . Deep in our hearts, each of us knows that there is something more important than money or fame. And yet, in this consumerist society, it is definitely not easy to stay clear headed.
If under the sun, you and I have no God in our lives, and that’s all our lives are, then let me ask you, what satisfaction is there in your toil? Who is there that can answer such a question?
After World War II, many thinkers realized that though humans have invented so many technologies, they are unable to bring hope to life. The same questions still afflict us— “Who are we? Where do we come from; where are we going? What are we hoping for; what is there that will receive us?”
And yet, Paul displayed the glory of Christ. In his life, in our lives, he provided an answer. Humans will never be able to find meaning within themselves. They will never be fulfilled within themselves. They will never be able to look to themselves as the wellspring of hope.
We think back to when the Lord asked his disciples whether or not they had anything to eat, and asked his disciples to give him food to eat; we think back to when he asked the Samaritan woman at the well for water to drink; he asks for what we possess in our own lives, not so that we would be disappointed or discouraged, but so that he can place what is best into our lives—he himself. The Christian life is the life of a cross, it is imitating our Lord in his humility and sacrificial life. If we live our lives like the Lord lived his life on earth, then in the future we can share in his resurrection and glory.
Therefore, Paul is able to say:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18]
Bonhoeffer said that this is true happiness in life. He said,
Those who have arrived at the goal for which we run are blessed. They will be surprised to discover a truth: that grace is precious, because this grace upon Jesus Christ is from God.
Those who have already been won over by the grace of Jesus Christ, and so directly begin following him, are blessed. They can sing songs from their humble hearts praising the precious grace of Christ. Those who know this grace and can live in the world without becoming like the world, are blessed. Because they follow Jesus Christ, they firmly believe that they are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and they can live truly free lives here on earth.
Those who know how to be disciples are living lives of grace, and true grace means becoming a disciple of Christ. These people are blessed. Those who become Christians by God's grace are blessed. To them, the word ‘grace’ is already proven to be the wellspring of God’s mercy.
This is our hope. So, smile! In this unlovable jianghu, let us look forward to eternity with a pure heart. Let us not live like soap under a hand of iron, but live out the fullness of life by the Lord’s grace.
Author bio: Li Jin is a PhD candidate in philosophy and theology.
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