“The Deer and the Cauldron” by Louis Cha

Sculpture of  Jin Yong (Louis Cha) on Taohua Island, Zhejiang (WikiMedia Commons) Sculpture of Jin Yong (Louis Cha) on Taohua Island, Zhejiang (WikiMedia Commons)

Author Louis Cha, whose wuxia martial arts novels became Chinese cultural touchstones and who heralded an explosion of Hong Kong literary and media production, died 30 October. Though Cha leaves a legacy of massive sales in Asia, his books have not yet taken hold in the west. Efforts this year to expand his English readership, however, can only gain new resonance with Cha’s passing. A translation of his novel A Hero Born, published in March, prompted reviews in The Guardian and other major publications as well as a profile in The New Yorker. On the heels of this, Oxford University Press has reissued John Minford’s 1997 translation of Cha’s mélange of wuxia, parody and picaresque, The Deer and the Cauldron.

Cha (known also by his pen name Jin Yong) straddles popular and literary realms. Gripping “Chinese peasants and foreign academics alike” (as a blurb on the book would have it), in his joining of romantic narrative and historical erudition, he perhaps most resembles Alexandre Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Deer and the Cauldron confirms his unique cultural position. In the preface, Cha calls the book “a very strange novel, a novel I had never imagined writing.” First serialized in 1969, this trilogy, set in the early days of the Qing dynasty, deals in the intrigues of Manchu courtiers and of the Ming patriots who would end their foreign rule. With secret societies plotting insurgency, chases, disguises, and battles, the book bears the hallmarks of classic swashbuckling fare and of Cha’s earlier works.

Yet readers expecting gallantry will be surprised, and some readers likely dismayed, by Trinket, the antihero of this epic. The barely literate son of a prostitute, he relies on bluff and instincts honed in the whorehouse. Though besotted with chivalric tales (the straightforward type Cha ordinarily writes), the adolescent Trinket is a streetwise rogue and a gambler who cares little for the code of the stalwart martial artists he falls in with:

In terms of actual fighting he had a virtually unbroken record as a loser—unless one counted the times he had bullied little eight- or nine-year-olds. He might have got the upper hand once or twice in the occasional scrap—but that had always been through some cheap trick or other: biting, or throwing sand, or slicing off bits of his opponents’ feet from under the table.

A series of encounters brings Trinket to the Forbidden City, where he masquerades as a palace eunuch, rapidly ascending in rank and gaining access to the imperial family. He also joins the Triads, becoming an ambivalent double agent in their campaign to restore the Ming. Little do the conspirators realize Trinket’s goals extend to little more than arson and someday, running a whorehouse of his very own.

Cha’s wuxia martial arts novels became Chinese cultural touchstones.

The Deer and the Cauldron, Louis Cha (Jin Yong), John Minford (trans.) (Oxford University Press, May 2018)
The Deer and the Cauldron, Louis Cha (Jin Yong), John Minford (trans) (Oxford University Press, May 2018)

The Deer and the Cauldron novels were the last significant works of Louis Cha, and he seems to have written them to upend, or at least stretch toward deeper purposes, the genre he energized and brought to a wider audience. Penned while China fell into the mania of the Cultural Revolution, the prologue concerns a literary inquisition in which the authors of a heretical Ming history are denounced and hunted by paranoid authorities safeguarding the new orthodoxy. The allegory extends in a dialogue which explains the book’s title. As soldiers force-march politically unacceptable scholars and their families to their doom, a boy asks why they would punish a baby who is among that unfortunate procession. His father responds,


So you understand what the Government soldiers do is wrong… Good for you! They are the cleaver and we are the meat. They are the cauldron and we are the deer.


The cauldron (ding) is a classic Chinese symbol of empire and hegemony, and the father clarifies that


For the common people though, the subjects of Empire, our role is to be the deer. It may be uncertain who will kill the deer, but the deer gets killed all right.


While the Qing inculcated a different ideology, their ruthless methods perhaps hardly differed from those preying on the Chinese “deer” at the time of the book’s writing.


On the face of it, the book’s direct storytelling suggests it can make the jump from Chinese to English, just as the steady narrative lines of Treasure Island or The Three Musketeers must surely carry in Chinese. Yet The Deer & the Cauldron at times wobbles. The pace drags when Trinket undergoes martial arts training, with only modest bits of plot and characterization sprinkled in then. The comedy, often through puns, can be elusive, and the occasional peculiar translation (“by the blazing balls of tofu!”, “hot-piece mama”) can deepen this gulf. Newcomers to Cha may struggle to work through his epic’s worthy, but curious blend of elements, not to mention the 1500 pages of its three books.

Though Cha had been inactive in fiction for many years, his passing will spotlight his role in refining wuxia, and the tributes and obituaries appearing in major western publications might spark new interest in his singular, and in the case of The Deer and the Cauldron, surprising, takes on the “martial arts novel”.

Scott Crawford is a writer and historian based in Beijing.