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Tommy Sun foresees a revival of interest in martial arts novels. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hong Kong writer forecasts renewed popularity of martial arts novels amid political discord

Tommy Sun says the genre becomes popular at times of turmoil, citing the Occupy protests, the Mong Kok riot and dissatisfaction over Leung Chun-ying’s leadership

Recent social conflict and political tension in Hong Kong have created a perfect environment for the comeback of once-popular Chinese martial arts literature, said Tommy Sun Sai-shing, president of Knightly World Press and himself an established writer.

Known as wuxia, the fictional tales of Chinese knight-errants in imperial times, gained popularity in the city during the 1950s and 60s as political turmoil hit mainland China.

The genre became one of the most prominent cultural symbols of Hong Kong through masterpieces written by Louis Cha Leung-yung – under the pen name Jin Yong – and Liang Yusheng.

It prompted the Hong Kong Book Fair to choose wuxia as this year’s theme.

Sun said social upheaval was a necessary element for the genre to flourish as people fancied someone like those fictional knights to uphold justice against the authorities.

“What happened in Mong Kok during the Lunar New Year was just like the plots in wuxia novels involving peasant uprisings,” Sun said. The event saw a night of violence with protesters hurling bricks and starting fires and police firing two warning shots.

Sun considered the spirit of rebellion was the core value of Chinese knight-errants.

“When people suffer from bad governance, those grass-root Chinese heroes would take action against the authorities out of a sense of justice,” Sun said.

He added that the Occupy protests in 2014 also mirrored some novel plots.

Acclaimed martial arts novelist Louis Cha (left) speaks with fellow writer Wang Sai-yu. Photo: SCMP Pictures

The disobedience movement saw thousands of protesters block roads to call for “genuine universal suffrage” for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections.

“The intensified conflicts in Hong Kong society under the 689 government right now resembles the situation described in many wuxia novels,” Sun said. The figure 689 refers to the number of votes Leung Chun-ying received to win the 2012 chief executive election.

The fictional Chinese knight-errants, who are skilled in martial arts and treasure honour and righteousness more than their own lives, could be perfect leaders to solve problems, he said.

The 69-year-old writer said the popularity of Hong Kong wuxia novels in the 1950s and 60s was largely due to the political turmoil on the mainland at the time.

He said when mainland Chinese were battling hunger and poverty during natural disasters and political struggles such as the Culture Revolution, Hong Kong people illegally sent numerous food and clothes parcels to mainland China to keep their relatives alive.

“This was exactly the spirit of wuxia,” Sun said.

“In peaceful times, people only talk about love affairs under the moon. Romantic novels sell. But social transformation brings about wuxia fans.”

Hong Kong needs a Wei Xiaobao, who can talk to the central government, listen to the pan-democrats and even make friends with gangsters
Writer Tommy Sun

But Sun did not think the martial skills and force of typical Chinese knight-errants could solve the city’s troubles.

Instead, Hong Kong needs a figure like Wei Xiaobao, who appears in The Deer and the Cauldron, the last novel written by Jin Yong.

Unlike most right-minded and skilled knight-errants, Wei did not know any martial arts. He relies on wit and cunning to get out of trouble.

Born to a prostitute from a brothel in Yangzhou in Jiangsu province in the early Qing dynasty, the sly and illiterate protagonist made his way to the imperial palace through a series of adventures and became a close friend of the young Kangxi emperor. But he also managed to gain the trust of Tiandihui, a secret society aiming to overthrow the Qing regime.

Despite his conflicting loyalties, he earned the respect of both sides for eliminating wicked officials and defending the Qing dynasty from foreign invasion. On top of this achievement, he met seven attractive women and married all of them.

“Hong Kong needs a Wei Xiaobao,” Sun said, “who can talk to the central government, listen to the pan-democrats and even make friends with gangsters.”

But to his disappointment, no one is like Wei Xiaobao in Hong Kong right now. “Society is too divided,” he said.