The Many Forms of Louis Cha’s Condor Heroes

Jet Li’s Chang Mo-Kei has been struck by the Jinx Palm, blocking his chi, destroying his ability to perform kung fu and causing him to need constant infusions of chi from Taoist priest Chang San-Fung (Sammo Hung). But Chang can only be cured by a massive infusion of yang energy, which he receives after falling off a cliff and meets a hermit chained to a bolder who teaches him the Great Solar Stance to get back at the hermit’s own enemies. Afterwards, Chang is super-skilled and learns kung fu with the ease of Jet Li. Then things get crazy with everybody flying and chi all over the place, a Mongol princess, the King of Green Bat, all the martial arts schools fighting each other, hundreds of people running around with flags, the not-evil Evil Cult, Hermit Chained to a Boulder Fist. And then, as it gets to the big end fight, it just stops, teasing a sequel that was never made. And I was filled with wonder.

Wong Jing’s Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) is the first time I know that I watched something adapted from a Louis Cha story. It is based on the third novel in Cha’s Condor Trilogy, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. I probably saw it at the old Golden Classics Cinema in Toronto. It was when I was watching all the Jet Li movies. This one was memorable and, having no familiarity with the source material, I found it difficult to follow. That didn’t stop me from pretending later I had been struck by a Jinx Palm. (What do you expect me to do when you give me charcoal powder toothpaste, people?). I was filled with wonder.

Since then I have made sense of what I saw through translated comics adaptations, in particular Ma Wing-Shing’s Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (Comic One, 2002), the novel Kung Fu Cult Master adapts. It seems fitting that I would first read Louis Cha via the comics of Ma Shing-Wing and Tony Wong’s The Legendary Couple (ComicOne, 2002), an adaptation of Cha’s Return of the Condor Heroes. It parallels how I first encountered him in a way that I remember in Kung Fu Cult Master, rather than Chor Yuen’s elegant Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (1978) or Wong Kar-Wai’s deconstruction and sorta prequel, Ashes of Time (Redux or not) (1993; 2008).

The comics and the 1983 television adaptations allowed me to become familiar with Cha and these stories. They allowed me start to understand stories that assumed familiarity with the story, whether Kung Fu Cult Master, Ashes of Time, or  Jeffrey Lau’s Lunar New Year parody of The Legend of Condor Heroes, The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), shot with the same cast and at the same time as Ashes of Time. Please note Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in each film.

In the early 1990s, Louis Cha was what Ip Man movies are now.

I watched some of the 2000s and 2010s tv adaptations in non-subtitled form, but by then I could understand who and what I was seeing. In fact, I was pleased when I could actually get the joke that the landlord and landlady in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2006) were the ill-fated lovers of Return of the Condor Heroes, Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü played by Andy Lau and Idy Chan in the 1983 tv adaptation I borrowed from a good friend and have since gotten for myself.

And it helped a lot watching those shows when I read Tony Wong’s Legendary Couple, because the translations of the names were so different, but I recognized a disreputable Taoist when I saw him.* Sometimes the Wudang Clan is something to mess with.

Cha’s most adapted–and possibly referenced–books are the Condor Trilogy:  Legend of Condor Heroes; Return of the Condor Heroes; and, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. They are sequels, but follow family and kung fu school lines more than the adventures of any one protagonist through three novels. And luckily for us, McLehose Press is planning on translated the whole trilogy into English. The first volume, Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born, translanted by Anna Holmwood, is now available. No English speakers will ever need to struggle like I did again. The kung fu fantasy works of Louis Cha will be available to us all–or at least some of them.

Dr. Louis Cha Leung-yung was born in 1924 in Haining, Jiaxing, China and lives in Hong Kong. That’s right, Cha is still going at 94. He has worked as an editor editor and journalist, but it was his wuxia novels, written between 1955 and 1972 under the pseudonym “Jin Yong,” (Kam Yung in Cantonese) that brought him a tremendous success. According to Holmwood, “sales of his books worldwide stand at 300 million, and if bootleg copies are taken into consideration, that figure rises to a staggering one billion.”

Cha got his start as a copy editor in 1947 at Shanghai’s Ta Kung Po newspaper. He became deputy editor of Hong Kong’s Hsin Wan Po. He left journalism briefly to work as as screenwriter for Great Wall Movie Enterprises, Ltd. In 1959, Cha co-founded Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper. And it was primarily Ming Pao that serialized his fifteen wuxia stories. His first was The Romance Of The Book And The Sword (1955). His last was Sword of the Yue Maiden. He retired from writing fiction in 1972 and he’s been updating and revising the work ever since. There was a time in the 1970s when his books were simultaneously banned in both the Mainland–because it was seen as satirizing and criticizing the Chinese government–and in Taiwan–because it was seen as somehow pro-Communist, anti-Kuomintang and critical of Taiwan’s one-party rule.In 1995, he retired from his position as editor-in-chief of Ming Pao. Cha has been active in Hong Kong politics, helping draft the Hong Kong Basic Law and then working on the Preparatory Committee in advance of the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. And he’s spent much of the new millennium pursuing higher education. He studied at St. John’s College in Cambridge, receiving a doctorate in Chinese history in 2010. And the South China Morning Post reports that Cha (might have) received another doctorate, this one in Chinese literature from Peking University in 2013. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to cover his probable knowledge of martial arts like the Nine Yin Manual and 18 Dragon Palm. One assumes Dr. Cha is cultured in all things.

Dr. Louis Cha, via the South China Morning Post.

Whenever I think of Louis Cha, I think of Tony Leung Chiu-wai in Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000). Sure, there is lovely music and melancholy love with the sartorially unstoppable Maggie Cheung, but it is easy to overlook that not only is Tony Leung a writer, he is a writer of wuxia novels. I’m not saying that Wong made a movie about Louis Cha’s love life, which I hope is less depressing, but I think Cha and writers like Gu Long  and Wang Dulu were in the background. Especially after Ashes Of Time. And Ashes of Time is a lot easier to follow if you realize it is a deconstruction of the Condor Trilogy. It relies on the same kind of familiarity that Peter Greenaway relies on people having with The Tempest in watching Prospero’s Books (1991). I love that the touchstones for both extremely artsy-fartsy directors are different. I love that Wong works with a serialized wuxia writer. It would be like Greenaway deconstructing Tolkien or Robert E. Howard**—but all wrapped up together. The high and low brow have a common enemy. God save us from the middle brow.

And Cha is being compared to Tolkien and George R. R. Martin in many of the reviews of A Hero Born. In fact, right on the cover a blurb from the Irish Times reads, “A Chinese Lord of the Rings.” And I get it. It’s short hand. People need some kind of reference before they’ll pick up the book. That’s fine. There will be plenty of time for pedantry later. Once people have read the book and become Cha fans, they can start arguing on the internet, “Hey, Louis Cha is a much more prolific author than Tolkien ever was with a more profound influence on Chinese language literature and readers.”

I would probably make those comparisons myself if my first encounter with Cha’s characters and stories hadn’t been Kung Fu Cult Master. Then again, Kung Fu Cult Master is the first half of a projected two-art adaptation but, like Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings, there was never a part two. So. Yeah. It’s just that I don’t know what other comparison to make.

In an interview with South China Morning Post, Anna Holmwood describes Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born as “China’s Walter Scott mixed with The Lord of the Rings fantasy things. That’s exactly what it is.” For their part, the SCMP copy editor chose a title comparing the trilogy with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire. A Hero Born is wuxia at its best. It’s 1205 CE and the Jin are encroaching on the Song Empire. The emperor is unworthy and the people are oppressed. Itinerant heroes try to make things right. Two of them, Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang encounter a grumpy Taoist priest Qiu Chuji*** who, while heroic, is a jerk. He avidly demonstrates why the Wu Tang Clan is nothing to mess with. Guo and Yang become involved in a fight with soldiers and must flee. Their children, Guo Jing and Yang Kang grow up on different sides of the conflict. Plus, there’s Genghis Khan! And a secret beggar sect! And one of my favorite characters keeps his wife’s body in a frozen cave! I wish I could do better, but I’ll just suggest you read the book, read the comics, watch the tv shows and movies.

Oh, yeah, and there’s plenty of fantastic kung fu move and school names and action. Comics, while also working in a static medium, don’t face the same kinds of challenges a novel does in depicting action. Comics creator Ma Wing-Shing in particular captures the force of the martial arts masters moves. I am particularly fond of his chi lines. But Holmwood has some interesting thoughts on translating the names of the various stances, fists and swords as well as conveying the choreography of a fight sans images.

“The name [of these moves] is very evocative and it’s part of the creating of the world, but what really matters to readers is can they follow who is doing what, what the actions are, who is hitting whom, and how they are hitting them,” she said. “When you are translating, you have to read on such a careful and deep level. You are constantly asking yourself: is the hand going there? Is it going up or down? How is this move working? That’s the most challenging part – is to be able to express what the actions are in a way that is going to be vivid on the page and people can clearly understand and follow what’s happening.”

“You can shorten sentences to make the action move, and use some short punchy verbs that make the actions very fast,” she said. “When you want to draw attention to the moment for dramatic effect, you add more details, slow it down, and make the sentence a big longer.”

And I have to say it works. Right from the start of A Hero Born, I easily imagine Qiu Chuji’s unnecessarily brutal fights with the heroes he mistakes for scoundrels. Does it help that I’ve read Ma Wing-Shing, Tony Wong and seen film and television adaptations of Cha’s stories? Maybe. But Holmwood does a good job of taking readers into the martial world. I can’t wait for the next translated volume of Legend of Condor Heroes finally presented if not in its original serial format, something close. McLehose is planning three more volumes of Legend of Condor Heroes before starting on Return of the Condor Heroes–making this a burly “trilogy.”

So much chi happening in these panels by Ma Wing Shing.

I wrote more about Ma Wing-Shing and his adaptation of Hero here.

*This Taoist is no Chang San-Fung / Zhang Sanfang.

**Or finally making my long hoped for film, Peter Greenaway’s Batman and Robin.

***There is one disreputable Taoist and then there is Qiu Chuji, who is extremely reputable, but incredibly judgmental and harsh. I am afraid to think of what Qiu Chuji might be without Taoism.


Cured of the Jinx Palm, Carol Borden has retired to Peach Blossom Island to study Nine Yin White Bone Claw.

5 replies »

    • Hi, Bryan. Thanks for the spelling correction. That’s what I get for writing and copy-editing while sick. I am aware that he, like many characters who appear in Cha’s fiction, is a historical figure.


  1. Great article! I think it will go a long way in helping new fans delve into some of the context among the various media titles.

    There have been a multitude of TV drama versions out of Hong Kong (and mainland China) but these were often limited to those proficient in Cantonese/Chinese. With very limited language skills, I watched the VCD versions of the Andy Lau / Idy Chan version of RETURN OF THE CONDOR HEROES and I was super happy when that version finally saw a dvd release with English subtitles. Celestial also released the 1983 film version LITTLE DRAGON MAIDEN (starring Leslie Cheung) and I do believe that title is currently available on Netflix (US). At some point, I’d like to get ahold of the ‘95 series where Louis Koo plays Yang Guo.

    I was always more partial the ‘Return’ saga, and this one’s popularity seems to have travelled more easily across borders to some extent, perhaps because of the central love story. The 19 issue Asiapac manhua series by Wee Tian Beng (out of Singapore) remains my favorite version in comic form.

    The 2001 anime version THE LEGEND OF THE CONDOR HERO (a Japan/HK co production) also covers the Return saga, and did have a DVD release with English subtitles as well.


    • Thanks so much! I saw several of the Aughts series when they were aired on Omni or Omni 2 when I was living in Toronto. As you say, they were not subtitled and I relied mostly on having seen the two 1983 series by then. I would love to see the whole Louis Koo series. Will he lose his tan when he is training in the tomb–or will his tan grow stronger as he becomes mightier?!

      I will have to look for the Wee Tian Beng comics.

      And, dammit, I can’t believe I forgot the anime verions. Oh well, there always more to say and think about with all this.

      Thanks again for the comment and recommendations. Like you, I hope that the new translation takes off!


  2. Following Louis Cha’s death last year western media calls him “China’s Tolkien” or “China’s Georege R.R. Martin”. Why not the other way because it just as plausible to say Tolkien or Martin are the “West’s Louis Cha”.
    Cha or Jin Yong differs from his western counterparts because his story captures romance and soul much more meaningful than Tokien and Martin, one portray his story metophorically and the other for hard reality both not always leave their readers not particularly want to remember it for its fondness but for shock factor. Like most things once you got to know the shock factor it no longer posses that magic of seducing the audience. However Jin Yong’s story can be retold many times and still gets people reading even after we know the outcome over and over again. The adaptation into TV series and movies for me personally I can watch Yin Yong’s repeats and new adaptations but I cannot say the same with LOTR and GoT.
    I a 500 years from now people will still be reading Jin Yong.


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