The illustrious world of sword-wielding kung fu masters battling on mountain tops created by late novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung has been a household staple in the Chinese-speaking world.
Depending on who you ask, however, the books by Cha, who used the pen name Jin Yong, may not be a person’s point of entry into this fantasy world that splashes fictional characters against historic backdrops.
Since the 1950s, generations of Hong Kong people have grown up with film and television adaptations of Cha’s works, attaching the names of his characters to actors and actresses who would go on to become cultural icons. Here are some of the best-known characters:
1. Yang Guo and ‘Little Dragon Maiden’ from The Return of the Condor Heroes
Said to be Cha’s most romantic work, the second entry in the “Condor trilogy” tells the bittersweet story of young man Yang Guo and “Little Dragon Maiden” – his martial arts teacher-turned-lover. In this tale the ill-fated couple battle through fatal obstacles seeking reunion.
In five films and eight drama series, the pair was portrayed by famous actors and actresses, including a memorable TV iteration in 1983 that featured Andy Lau Tak-wah as Guo and Chan Yuk-lin as the “Little Dragon Maiden”.
2. Guo Jing from Legends of the Condor Heroes
This novel marks the start of the “Condor trilogy”, following protagonist Guo Jing on his journey to learn his twisted family history and train with mystical kung fu masters. Guo, a man of Han ethnicity who was born in Mongolia, also faces a dilemma in picking a side in a looming conflict between the two forces.
This novel was also the first of Cha’s books to be visualised. Despite being an ongoing serial at the time, it was turned into a film titled Story of the Vulture Conqueror by Emei Film Company in 1958. The book went on to be adapted into five more films and 10 TV drama series, including a 1994 series featuring actress Athena Chu Yan as Guo’s lover, Huang Rong.
3. Zhang Wuji from The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre
The last protagonist to complete the “Condor trilogy” is Zhang Wuji who becomes a cult leader and goes up against the Yuan dynasty. Unlike Guo and Yang, Zhang is more of a pacifist and less prone to killing his opponents. During his TV career, award-winning actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai played Zhang in a 1986 series aired on TVB.
4. Wei Xiaobao from The Deer and the Cauldron
From Cha’s last and most satirical novel, Wei is a breakout from the writer’s previous protagonists. Instead of a young man aspiring to become a kung fu master, Wei is a cunning and witty boy born to a sex worker in the Qing dynasty. In the book, Wei goes on to fake his identity as a eunuch, befriend young emperor Kangxi and have seven wives.
This novel was adapted seven times as a television drama and was the base of four films – including two starring Hong Kong’s best known comedian Stephen Chow Sing-chi as Wei.
5. Linghu Chong from The Smiling, Proud Wanderer
In the afterword to this novel, Cha outlined his ideal hero in protagonist Linghu Chong, a hermit who longs for freedom and detachment from “Jianghu” – the real world that is vested with power struggles and politics. Award-winning actor Chow Yun-fat portrayed Linghu in a 1984 TV adaptation of the book.
Written in the 1960s as China was going through a brutal period known as the Cultural Revolution, the book tells the story of different sects fighting for a mystical martial arts manual, which led readers to ponder whether Cha was referring to events happening in mainland China. In the afterword, Cha denied the plot was based on real world events.