Louis Cha, the Chinese martial arts novel grandmaster said to have sold more books than “Harry Potter” author J K Rowling, died in Hong Kong on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 94.
The death of Cha – better known by his pen name Jin Yong – is being mourned across the Chinese-speaking world, where generations have come to regard his repertoire as essential reading.
Full of noble heroes and pitched battles, Cha’s stories were epic, featuring not just fantastical kung fu swordsmen who can fly and walk on water, but also complex characters and plots woven into dramatic historical events.
Starting out as a newspaper journalist, his 15 novels have been adapted into more than 150 popular movies and television series, starring many of the most famous Chinese actors.
Although he wrote only in his native language, and just a fraction of works have been translated into English, his loyal fans dot the entire world, earning him the reputation as the most widely read Chinese writer of modern times.
Accolades have long poured in for his contribution to literary arts not only from China but also from the British and French governments – there is even an asteroid named after him.
On Wednesday, China’s usually tightly controlled state media provided extensive coverage of Cha’s passing, with the topic trending on the country’s social media platforms.
Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, called Cha “a learned man and an acclaimed writer” in a statement, adding that his works “inherited the tradition of Chinese classics with the integration of history and culture.”
Journalist to best-selling author
Cha was born in 1924 in eastern China but had lived in Hong Kong since 1948, shortly before the Communist takeover of the Chinese mainland.
He started his career as a journalist, becoming an author of martial arts stories almost accidentally.
Originally written as a serial for the Hong Kong newspaper that employed him in 1955, his first novel “The Book and the Sword” became an instant success, prompting him to write 14 more in the genre in the next decade and a half.
His final martial arts novel, a short story titled “Sword of the Yue Maiden,” was published in 1970.
Despite his success as a novelist, Cha remained a newspaperman throughout his life. In 1959, he founded the Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong, which evolved from an outlet for his martial arts stories to an influential – and profitable – publication known for its neutral coverage in a politically divided territory.
His involvement in politics proved more controversial, however. He was a member of the committee tasked with drafting Hong Kong’s future mini-constitution in the 1980s, as China prepared to regain sovereignty over the long-time British colony.
He resigned from his post on the committee in 1989 after the Communist leadership declared martial law in Beijing over growing pro-democracy protests, which were later brutally crushed in the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre.
Ostensibly set in ancient times, Cha’s novels nevertheless feel timeless, reflecting philosophies and practices that still permeate contemporary Chinese society and whose consequences can seem all too real even for recent readers.
Written during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern Chinese history, Cha couldn’t avoid some events taking place in mainland China from influencing his works.
The author later acknowledged in interviews that two of his most famous titles – “The Smiling, Proud Wanderer” and “The Deer and the Cauldron” – drew a partial parallel between evil ancient cults with power-maniacal leaders and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s.
Despite the veiled criticisms of China’s Communist rulers, Cha’s works transcended ideological, geographical or even language and cultural barriers, and appealed to millions of readers of all tastes across the globe.
China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping – himself a victim of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong’s purges during the Cultural Revolution – was a fan of Cha’s novels and met with author in Beijing in 1981.
Other noted admirers of Cha include Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba, as well as a myriad of Chinese celebrities from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan who quickly reacted online to his passing, paying tribute to the literary giant and cultural icon.
Cha spent his later years mostly away from the public eye. Despite his numerous professorships and honorary degrees from universities worldwide, he was determined to become a full-time student again, eventually earning a doctorate degree in Chinese history in 2010 from Cambridge University.