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The Book and the Sword by Louis Cha

Louis Cha is one of China’s best-known and most widely-read novelists, somewhat incongruously—given the city’s reputation for being a literary wasteland—hailing from Hong Kong. He is almost entirely unknown outside the Chinese-speaking world, since his several dozen novels have been largely restricted to that particularly Asian genre of the kung fu novel, with few having been available in English—until now.

The Book and the Sword by Louis Cha
The Book and the Sword, Louis Cha (Oxford University Press, January 2005)

The Book and the Sword is Cha’s first novel, originally written—in a Dickensian throwback—for newspaper serialisation in the 1950s, and has just been released in English. The also somewhat incongruous choice of publisher, Oxford University Press, not normally given to publishing works of adult popular fiction, indicates that The Book and the Sword is being presented as something more than just a good read.

The Book and the Sword is a complicated, sweeping and panoramic story of China in the 18th century during the reign of the great Qing (Manchu) emperor Qian Long, at the apogee of China’s latter-day greatness. The at times exceptionally complex plot involves anti-Manchu secret societies, a couple of beautiful Uyghur princesses, a sacred Koran (the book of the title), a precious sword, several love affairs, and lots of lots of kung fu.

Readers who are kung fu fanatics will need little to persuade them to read the book, for The Book and the Sword is a classic of the genre. Others may find the novel interesting enough to overcome whatever drawbacks that may be perceived in the work itself, or its presentation in English: the novel is a bit too sprawling, the large number of characters means that the novel starts slowly and takes 100 pages to hit its stride, the central plot element—Qian Long’s Chinese ancestry—is introduced quite late and the various subplots mean that the book has several denouements, as if the book is really three separate novels between one set of covers. The novel’s origins as a newspaper serialization are apparent, and explain many of these problems, if such they are—devotees of the genre may very well consider them advantages.

But by the time one has gotten 1/3 of the way through, the novel has picked up pace and sweeps cinematically from Beijing to the western reaches of Xinjiang; characters range from commoners to the Emperor, from Manchus and Chinese to Uyghurs and Mongolians. Although we know the outcome—Qian Long was a de facto if not de jure Manchu—Cha nevertheless maintains tension until the last page.

I shall let others debate whether the The Book and the Sword is a “good book” or not—but it is extremely interesting. It bears considerable resemblance to European chivalric romances—from Arthurian legend to the Song of Roland and Robin Hood—or at least nineteenth century expressions of them: particularly striking are the resemblances of the Manchu/Chinese rivalry to the Norman/Saxon one of mediaeval England.

The Book and the Sword is almost subversive in its respect for Muslim Uyghur religion, language and culture, to the extent that it might almost be seen as advocating Xinjiang’s independence or at least autonomy through an association of equals. Xinjiang was conquered not by the Chinese, but by the illegitimate Manchu and that through treachery. The heroic Uyghurs are supported in their attempts to resist central authority by patriotic Chinese outlaws. In a symbolic equating of Chinese and Muslim, the novel’s protagonist promises to convert to Islam.

While quite possibly true to the original, something I am not in a position to judge, the translation is not as fluent as one might have wished, and one needs to wonder whether the publisher exercised its normal fastidiousness in editing: the endpapers show a map of “China and Central Asia in the Eighteenth Century” with Vladivostok clearly marked in spite of the fact that it was not founded until a century after the period in question.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if The Book and the Sword were re-issued as a mass-market paperback, or perhaps a series of three, and placed in airport bookshops. Cha might have as much success in English as Chinese.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.