My childhood was full of slightly odd, and very Westernised, views of China. Hong Kong Phooey was a favourite post school cartoon, we all sang along with Carl Douglas and occasionally called each other ‘Grasshopper‘. But our first introduction to the reality of Chinese culture came from watching the best tv series ever (imho), Monkey… In later years I thought I had moved away from (non-edible) things oriental (although I did read and love the book which Monkey was based on) and, like many others, I have been guilty of reducing a great and ancient civilization to a cuisine and a visit to see the Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum so I decided to try to correct this somewhat by reading Hero Born, the first volume in an epic series which has been described as a Chinese version of The Lord of the Rings…As I read it though I was reminded of how much the culture of the Far East we are familiar with now.
The story, we are told in the introduction, follows two Chinese Patriots who are part of the fight by those faithful to the Song Empire against the Jurchen invaders. These young men, however, die very early in this volume and we move to the fates of their as yet unborn children. This volume – the first of three – concentrates on Guo Jing, son of Skyfury Guo, who finds himself raised on the Mongolian steppes in the camp of the great Genghis Khan. He is trained in martial arts by a group known as the Seven Heroes of the South (although there are actually only six for most of the story), and aided in secret by a mysterious Taoist. Although he doesn’t know it a battle was arranged for him and Yang Kang, son of the other Song patriot, to take place when they are eighteen and his teachers (or shifus) have been planning this training since before his birth. It is, in many ways, a simple story of a boy who is trained to fulfill his destiny but it is also wonderfully complex. The historical and political situation in 1200AD China is covered in great detail – this is also a very well researched historical novel – and interwoven with a sort of fantasy tale of chivalry and revenge. It also includes a lot of complicated fight scenes, some romance and political intrigue.
I enjoyed this book but think that calling it a Chinese Lord of the Rings is a bit simplistic. Think of it more as a cross between that, the fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a fairly hefty dose of Kung Fu Panda. But without the panda. The pace of the book might seem a little odd – a mix of philosophy and choreographed fights – but this is actually the point where it reminds me of the favourite of my youth, Monkey. Jin Yong is a hugely popular author in China and has been honoured around the world: although national tastes differ I am willing to give a writer who has sold over 300 million books worldwide a try. You could too – you may well love it too…