Without a single exception

Henry Yiheng Zhao, "Why Jin's (金庸) Martial Arts Novels Are Adored Only by the Chinese":

For more than half a century since their publication from mid-1950s to the early 1970s, Jin's fourteen martial arts novels have been enjoying sustained popularity among Chinese readers wherever they are and of whichever age, class, or social group and it was estimated in 2004 that Jin's novels sold 300 million copies around the world [...] What deserves scholarly attention is the fact that the translations of those novels into Western languages have failed, without a single exception. Up to the present day, only three out of Jin's texts have been translated to English: Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain (Trans. Olivia Mok, 1996), The Book and the Sword (Trans. Graham Earnshaw, 2001), and The Deer and the Cauldron (Trans. John Minford, 1997-2002). The problem with regard to the lack of the translation of Jin's novels does not rest on language or narrative style because their style could be domesticated in the target language and culture. Further, Jin's novels are read also by diaspora Chinese who cannot read Chinese fluently, but who share the same aesthetic and ethical expectations as native Mainland Chinese. [...] At the same time [...] martial arts enjoys popular appeal because of actors such as Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jacky Chan, and the like. Films in particular made Kungfu popular, for example by The Matrix Trilogy or by Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger. [...] The only conclusion I can draw from this situation is that there must be a unique Chinese mentality and structure of cultural references in Jin's novels which appeal to Chinese readers only.

To spoil the ending, Zhao argues that Jin's novels are popular because they are so temperate in ethical outlook. He doesn't however directly address the question of why this shouldn't be popular outside China (except I suppose implicitly, in an argument of the form "China's culture is like this, therefore other cultures are not," but I don't find that especially satisfying).

I've never read any of Jin's work, but to judge from the descriptions in this paper the real problem might be much more concrete: his novels assume knowledge of Chinese history (both recent and older) that non-Chinese readers do not as a rule have. A good translation for popular consumption will, of course, find some way to explain these things, but it's obviously not the same as having carried the stories around in your head since your formative years, and the emotional resonance and general interest will inevitably suffer.

Popularity factor: 12


The paper overlooks the fan translations that have been produced online for most if not all of Jin Yong's work. Web forums seem like a more natural home than a university press for translations of martial arts stories that were originally serialized in newspapers (and later read in mainland China in pirated editions).


That's a good point, and it would be interesting to investigate how the fanslators regard Jin, but the reader numbers for those are still pretty tiny, right? In that sense the comparison to newspapers falters a bit -- there's no mass popular readership, people have to join a pretty obscure (albeit not exclusive) community to get access. Zhao seems interested in why Jin doesn't have MASS popularity outside China at least on the level of say Jackie Chan.


I was once (almost forty years ago now -- how tempus doth fugit!) madly in love with a Chinese woman who was fluent in both English and French as well as, of course, Chinese (Mandarin), in which she wrote poetry, some of which was published. This highly literate (and extremely beautiful) woman was addicted to martial arts novels of amazing length and complexity; I don't know if any of them were by Jin, but she once whiled away a long train ride by trying to explain to me the plot of one of them, making genealogical charts on a napkin (I wonder if I still have it in a drawer somewhere?). I found it both charming and mind-numbingly boring, and this scholarly finding makes perfect sense to me.


I note that Jackie Chan is much less of an investment than Jin Yong's novels. Which are sometimes in translation under names <i>other</i> than Jin Yong (so you have to know that, say, Louis Cha is Jin Yong, to find the text). Then there's the time to read the text.

Comparing novel sales and popularity to movie (ticket) sales, also, you're dealing with a difference in scale. Don't nonfiction books still outsell fiction books in the American market still, as well?

If one's comparing Jin Yong to Murakami Haruki, then, well... that took a while to develop. And translations of novels in general (and genre in particular) tends to lag. I am pleased at the increasing appearance of Japanese mystery novels in English, for my anglophone only circle, but that took a long, long, long time to develop and is still spotty. While French, German and Spanish language readership has other tendencies and relative sales figures for literature in translation (and those publishing worlds are not analyzed), but despite that I know French tends to get (high) literature in translation before English given that Japan is still supposed to be among the top book-reading/book-buying cultures, I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a bit of a barrier there as well. (Although: why wasn't Russian considered? Or is that not western?)

Jin Yong <i>does</i> have a bit of a following in Japan, too. So "just by the Chinese" fails there.

Or, in other words: why do you need a cultural explanation when economics and structural reasons might serve as well? Poor catch by the journal and reviewers, I think.


Well, Zhao <i>is</i> a semiotics guy. When all you have is a picture of a hammer...

I don't think he literally thinks "Logically, as many people should read 'The Deer and the Cauldron' as saw 'Rush Hour II'" - presumably some proportionality is assumed, and even by that standard Jin is less popular than you'd "expect." Also the slow build thing is only arguably relevant (Jin has been writing longer than Murakami - but then contemporary popular Japanese literature has been a thing in English longer than its Chinese equivalent...).

Overall though I think you are right that structural issues are more important than philosophical ones here, but still, even given a lot of time to build I don't think Jin's type of novel will ever be that popular worldwide (and the same for Japanese period novels of course, reliably on the local bestseller lists but seldom translated unless by a canonically approved auhor or only incidentally "period").

How big is Jin's following in Japan? I've only ever seen wuxia stuff in translation here on relatively small shelves (the outer reachers of the "period novel" zone) in relatively large bookstores.


By that logic, though, Asterix should be huge in the USA and in China too.... (You could make the same sort of "local flavor" argument there, I suppose, but I think structure also has a fair amount to do with that too.)

The internet Japanese Jin following in the 1990s was much more accessible than English-language material, which is my basis, admittedly. I don't remember seeing piles of it in local bookstores, but I could find that material in the big Maruzen or Junkudo, or so I recall.


Asterix was much bigger in the UK than the US, though, right? Wonder if that can be separated out into "More familiarity with European history = More appreciation for jokes" and "Closer = Easier to do business."

(If my subjective impression is correct, Tintin seems to be at about the same level of popularity everywhere in the Anglosphere, suggesting that the historical-knowledge angle is at least somewhat relevant.)


(Also, hat off to your knowledge of the Japanese reception of Jin Yong too. Is there anything East Asian you haven't read?!)


In case anyone is interested: Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain by Jin Yong


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