A Hero is Born5 min read

An excerpt from Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born by Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood

Also read our review of the book


China: 1200 A.D.

The Song Empire has been invaded by its warlike Jurchen neighbours from the north. Half its territory and its historic capital lie in enemy hands; the peasants toil under the burden of the annual tribute demanded by the victors. Meanwhile, on the Mongolian steppe, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.

Guo Jing (Skyfury Guo), son of a murdered Song patriot, grew up with Genghis Khan’s army. He is humble, loyal, perhaps not altogether wise, and is fated from birth to one day confront an opponent who is the opposite of him in every way: privileged, cunning and flawlessly trained in the martial arts. Guided by his faithful shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing must return to China – to the Garden of the Drunken Immortals in Jiaxing – to fulfil his destiny. But in a divided land riven by war and betrayal, his courage and his loyalties will be tested at every turn.

It was during the third watch later that night. Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang had been waiting for more than two hours to spear a boar or a muntjac in the woods seven li west of the village, but it was looking increasingly unlikely they would catch anything and they were losing patience.

At that moment a loud smack of wood against metal echoed around the woodland from beyond the tree line. Skyfury and Ironheart looked at each other.

Then came the sound of men shouting:

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Stop, now!”

A shadow had entered the woods and was running in their direction. The moonlight caught a man’s robes and Guo and Yang were able to make him out. It was Qu San. He was jabbing his wooden crutches into the undergrowth. Knowing that he would struggle to outrun the men following him, Qu San flew straight up into the air and back down behind a nearby tree. Guo and Yang looked at each other in astonishment.

“Qu San practises martial arts?”

By now Qu San’s pursuers had reached the edge of the woods. There were three of them, and they stopped, whispered something to each other, and began to walk towards Guo and Yang. They were dressed in military clothing and each carried a sabre, their blades flashing a cold green in the moonlight.

“Damned cripple! We can see you. Come out and surrender!”

Qu San stood utterly still behind his tree. The men were waving their weapons like machetes, swinging and chopping through the straggly bushes, slowly edging closer. Just then: Thump! Qu San thrust his right crutch out from behind the tree, hitting one of the men squarely in the chest and sending him lurching backwards with a yelp. Startled, the other two men waved their blades in the direction of the tree.

Using his right crutch for leverage, Qu San flew up to the left, dodging the flailing blades and thrusting his other crutch in one man’s face. The man tried to block the crutch with his sabre, but Qu San pulled back and swung his right crutch at the other man’s stomach. Though he needed the crutches to support himself, he wielded them with speed and elegance.

A sabre cut into Qu San’s bundle, ripping the cloth and spilling its contents all over the forest floor. Taking advantage of the distraction, Qu San smashed his crutch down onto one man’s head, knocking him to the ground. Terrified, the last soldier turned to run. Qu San reached between the folds in his robe, and with a sharp flick of his wrist hurled something at him as he fled. It glinted an inky black as it sailed through the air, drawing a curve and landing on the back of the soldier’s head with a dull thud. The man howled and dropped his sabre, his arms waving wildly. He fell forward as if in slow motion, and landed in a crumpled heap on the ground. His body spasmed twice, and then he was still.

Guo and Yang watched, their hearts thumping, hardly able to catch their breath. “He just killed government officials. That’s punishable by death.” Guo gasped. “If he sees us he’ll kill us too, to keep us quiet.”

But they had not hidden themselves as well as they had thought. Qu San turned towards them and called out: “Master Guo, Master Yang, you can come out now!” Reluctantly they rose to their feet, grasping their pitchforks so tightly their knuckles turned white. Yang looked at his friend and then took two steps forward.

“Master Yang,” Qu San said with a smile. “Your family’s spear technique is famous throughout our land, but in the absence of a spear, a pitchfork will have to do. Your best friend Guo, however, prefers to fight with a double halberd. The pitchfork doesn’t fit his skills. Such friendship is rare!”

Yang felt exposed; Qu San had all but read his mind.

“Master Guo,” Qu San continued. “Let’s imagine you had your double halberd with you. Do you think together you could beat me?”

Guo shook his head. “No, we couldn’t. We must have been blind not to have noticed you were a fellow practitioner of the martial arts. A master, even.”

“I don’t have full use of my legs. How can I be considered a master?”

Qu San shook his head and sighed. “Before my injury, I would have defeated those guards effortlessly.”

Guo and Yang glanced at each other, not sure how to respond.

“Would you help me bury them?” Qu San continued.

They looked at each other again, and nodded. ∎

This is an excerpt from Jin Yong, Legend of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born, trans. Anna Holmwood (MacLehose Press, February 2018), republished with permission. Our thanks to the MacLehose Press and Anna Holmwood, and to Paul French for facilitating.