The three novels in Shè Diāo Sānbùqǔ, or as it is known in English, The Condor Trilogy, are the most popular Chinese-language novels of the 20th century. Due to their popularity, the novels have been adapted into TV shows, movies, video games, and of course, comic books (manhua). Because everybody has read the novels or at least seen one of the TV adaptations, the trilogy needs no introduction and I can jump straight to talking about the manhua.
Even though asking somebody in the Chinese-speaking world “Have you heard of The Condor Trilogy?” would be like asking somebody in the English-speaking world “Have you heard of Harry Potter?,” The Condor Trilogy is strangely obscure outside of Asia. When I discuss the manhua, I want to discuss the manhua, so before we get there, an introduction to the trilogy is in order.
The books in the Condor Trilogy are wuxia novels – wuxia being a Chinese genre which lies in the gray area between historical, action, and fantasy fiction. The term “wuxi a” comes from “wǔ” (which means “martial” as in related to the military or martial arts) and “xiá.” “Xiá” is often translated into English as “chivalry,” but I think that translation is wrong, because xiákè are very different from knights or samurai. Knights and samurai generally belong to the gentry and try to uphold their society’s social hierarchy, whereas xiákè generally belong to the peasant class and are often opposed their society’s corrupt ways. A xiákè has a lot more in common with Robin Hood than Sir Lancelot. Nonetheless, the xiákè are trained fighters and do have a code of conduct referred to as the way of the ‘xiá’.
The Condor Trilogy was written by Louis Cha under the pen name Jin Yong in the 1950s and early 1960s. Jin Yong is considered the top wuxia writer of the 20th century, possibly of all time. The novels were originally published as newspaper serials in Hong Kong, and later collected as books. They had been banned in Taiwan and possibly China too (I know some of Jin Yong’s other novels were banned in China). The bans did not work, because pirated copies were widely distributed. Nowadays, the Condor Trilogy is available unabridged everywhere in the Chinese-speaking world.
The General Story
The plot of the trilogy spans over a century—from the late Song dynasty to the very beginning of the Ming Dynasty. In between the Song and the Ming eras, China was ruled by the Mongol empire, and Mongols play a major role in all three of the novels. However, the Mongol invasion is usually in the background, not foreground. The heroes sometimes choose to collaborate with the Mongols, and the Song and Ming are not exactly depicted in a flattering light. While the Mongols are considered particularly bad because they destroy towns, massacre people, and are not Chinese, there is a general sense that all governments are corrupt and dominated by the power-hungry, and that the common people suffer no matter who is in charge. The trilogy is much more concerned with the lives and relationships of individual characters against the backdrop of such historic events.
Some people say that the trilogy is a martial arts soap opera. They are correct, mainly because there are many scenes like this:
Character #1: (Oh no! Six groups have joined forces to kill off the faction that my maternal grandfather and maternal uncle belong to! I must save them!) “I won’t let you all hurt a single person in this faction”
Crowd: “Who the hell are you?”
Character #1: (If I reveal my true identity, they will force me to betray my godfather) “I am [fake name]. Each of you, send a champion. If I can beat every one of your champions in a duel, then don’t kill anybody from this faction.”
[Long elaborate fight scene]
Crowd: “How come this nobody is such a great martial arts fighter?!”
[Long elaborate fight scene finishes. Character #1 won, but is in a bloody heap and, without medical attention, will die soon]
Character #2: “I must kill that person over there!”
Character #1: “I won’t let you hurt a single person from that faction!”
Character #2: “But he kidnapped and raped my fiancée!”
Character #1: “Before you can hurt a single one of them, you must kill me first.”
Character #2: “Even though it is not honorable to kill people who are already bloody heaps, I must get vengeance for her!”
Character #1: “Then kill me, dear uncle.”
Character #2: “You said that just the same way my brother’s son used to call me uncle. My poor nephew, he died years ago… could it be… you are…”
Character #1: “Yes, it’s me!”
In the process of simplifying and de-spoilering this scene, I also significantly downplayed it. The actual scene is vastly more melodramatic.
However, the story of the Condor Trilogy feels as much like a fairy tale as a soap opera to me. There is the constant use of the number three. For example, after a princess saves the life of the hero’s comrade, the hero must fulfill whatever three things she requests as long as they are not against the way of the xiá, do not threaten his faction, and do not threaten his own position (actually, the mere presence of princesses makes the trilogy feel more fairy-tale like). And there are the almost-magical elements, such as a boy getting sword lessons from a giant eagle, or someone seeing what looks like a fairy approaching him on a lake, or a character being pursued by someone who looks so much like the girl she murdered that it cannot be anyone else. The supernatural is never directly invoked, but much of what happens seems almost supernatural.
Furthermore. the novels are also filled with a human-bites-dog, or rather, human-bites-snake logic.
Example 1: In order to climb an un-climbable mountain, the characters pull out a flock of sheep, chop off the sheep’s legs, and use them to create a ladder (when the blood in the legs freeze, they stick to the side of the mountain so hard that people can step on them).
Example 2: There is a boy who follows a girl and keeps on provoking and harassing a girl so that she will yell at him. Why? To him, being yelled at by a woman is the sweetest sound in the world—in fact, he considers the times he has been scolded and punished by a certain woman to be the best moments of his life.
Example 3: There is a scene where a girl is talking about how a boy bit her and she never forgot him. Said boy and a different girl are eavesdropping. The second girl then bites the boy. Then the second girl asks the boy if she bit him as deeply as he had bitten the first girl. The boy asks her why does she want to know. The second girl answers that she never wants him to forget her, so she wants to make sure that the bite is just as deep.
These off-the-wall moments make me love the trilogy that much more. It’s engaging to not be sure what bizarre thing will happen next and to constantly blurt out (in my mind) “What the hell was THAT?!” Most of all, the off-the-wall-ness makes the relationships feel that much more real. Some of the things that the characters do together are so just odd. In my mind I often treat them more like real people than fictional characters, offering them advice while reading the story, giving them a high-five when they are being awesome, and yelling at them when they frustrate me.
Unfortunately, all of the manhua adaptations tone down the off-the-wall-ness – I suppose nobody wants to draw martial artists urinating on live, venomous snakes.
Since each novel feels distinct, here’s a basic overview of each novel.
First Novel: Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn
English Titles: The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Legend of the Condor Heroes
More so than the other books in the trilogy, this is an adventure. A Chinese boy who grew up in Mongolia travels south to take care of unfinished business, and in the process he makes friends, makes enemies, falls in love, and of course, learns many martial arts techniques. There is plenty of swashbuckling fun for everyone—getting shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, hiding in a secret room, riding giant eagles, meeting the great martial arts masters one by one, running around a palace, and so forth.
However, in the last fourth of the story, fun and games are over. All of the relationships built up in the first three-fourths of the story are ripped apart. Tragedy strikes again and again. And our humble hero is forced to ask some tough questions.
This was the first novel I ever read in Chinese, and for that reason alone it will always have a special place in my heart. I grew very fond of the characters. Some—such as Huang Rong and Yang Kang—I liked right away (okay, maybe I do not “like” Yang Kang, but I really like reading about him), whereas it took more time for other characters, such as Guo Jing, to grow on me. To me, the plot is of secondary importance. Whenever I experience this story again, it is like spending time with old friends.
Second Novel: Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ
English Titles: The Giant Eagle and Its Companion, Return of the Condor Heroes, Divine Eagle, Gallant Knight, Condor Hero
When you heard or read the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” did you ever think “This story needs a Mongol invasion, a bunch of characters from Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn, and tons of violence and kung fu?” No, me neither. But having read Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ, I think the story of “Sleeping Beauty” is much improved with these additions.
At heart, Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is still a “Sleeping Beauty” story. However, rather than eliminating all of the spindles in the lands, in order to protect her from having her heart broken, the guardian of “sleeping beauty” instead trained her to kill all emotions to the extent that she is indifferent to the prospect of her own death. So successful is “sleeping beauty” in withdrawing from life that her body does not age—she looks indefinitely like a 16-year old even though she is significantly older. Yet because “sleeping beauty” is not literally sleeping, she has agency and makes choices—that makes her a much interesting character. The story of Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ really belongs to ‘prince charming’—he has a history, he has a personality, and it is not love at first sight—he has to spend time falling in love with ‘sleeping beauty’ only to lose her. “Sleeping beauty” and “prince charming” represent two approaches to the hardships of life: to escape, sacrificing joy to avoid pain; and to expose oneself to the cruelties of the world in pursuit of fleeing moments of happiness.
I would say, of all the novels, this one has the worst plot. But that is unfair, because the plot is not supposed to be good. This novel is all about exhilarating, intense moments. The plot is there to make those moments happen, no matter how much it has to contort itself. Between the amazing fight scenes, beautiful imagery, complex relationships, and of course, the passion, this is my favorite novel in the trilogy.
Third Novel: Yǐ Tiān Tú Lóng Jì
English Titles: The Heaven Sword and the Dragon Sabre, The Tale of Relying on Heaven to Kill the Dragon
While Chinese society is falling apart in the first two novels, the society has already collapsed in this story. The Mongols have been ruling China for almost a century. Violence is widespread, even between commoners. The Dragon Sabre and Heaven Sword were created so that the Chinese would eventually be able to drive out the Mongols for good. Ironically, the struggle for the Dragon Sabre, which supposedly contains the secret to dominating the martial arts world, polarizes the martial arts world and inspires the various sects to continue the internecine fighting which prevents them from uniting against the Mongols.
The main character, Zhang Wuji, is constantly defending people who I consider to be scum. I think the characters are scum because of the horrible things they did. One reason there is so much fighting is that, when Character A finds out that Character B did something terrible to Character C, Character A figures that it is okay to to horrible things to Character B. Then Character D finds out about this, and figures it is now okay to do terrible things to Character A. Zhang Wuji, on the other hand, insists on seeing people at the best, not their worst … and that’s how he manages to make things slightly better. When I finally realized this, I was quite humbled to realize I had the same attitude as the characters who were escalating the violence. In addition to being a great martial artist, Zhang Wuji is also a great doctor, and I think this represents that his true role is not to fight the Mongols, but to heal his scarred society.
This is my least favorite novel in the trilogy, mainly because the story does not really get going until halfway through the book, and it has a relatively high percentage of characters I do not like. Of course, even the first part of the novel has its gems—Chapter 10 made me cry. And, while I did not enjoy this novel as much as the other two, it has been no less thought-provoking.
Availability of the Novels
If you can only read European languages, you are out of luck. The only novel which has ever been published in a European language is the first novel, Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn, as La Légende du Héros Chasseur d’Aigles. There are fan translations into English, floating around the internet, but they are 1) in violation of copyright law and 2) incomplete. Three other Jin Yong novels, on the other hand, have been published in English: The Book and the Sword, The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain, and The Deer and the Cauldron.
Availability is much better in Asian languages. The entire trilogy has been published in Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Malay. And of course, if you can read Chinese, you’ve already read the novels, right?
More TV adaptations have been made of the Condor Trilogy than I can keep track of, and some of them are available on DVD with English subtitles. While I have not watched any of them yet, many people say that the 1980s TVB adaptation is the best, and it also happens to be the only TV adaptation which is entirely available with English subtitles on DVD. For people who cannot read the novels, this is how I suggest experiencing the complete trilogy.
And, surprisingly, some of the manhua adaptations—specifically The Legendary Couple by Tony Wong, Return of the Condor Heroes by Wee Tian Beng, and The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre by Ma Wing-shing—have been published in English.
Many people who have never tried wuxia before find the fights confusing. Thus, in the next post, I am going to break down how they work.
Then, I am going to review every manhua adaptation of the Condor Trilogy. There is a manga adaptation—Shachou Eiyuuden Eaglet—which I have not read and will not review.
For each post, I will pose a discussion question. And the question for this post is:
If you do not know the story of The Condor Trilogy, based on this post, which manga/manhwa do you think is most resembles? If you know the story of The Condor Trilogy, which manga/manhwa do you think are not most like it?
I have my own answer, which I will post in the comments section after a few other people have weighed in.
Sara K. has previously written for Manga Bookshelf: Why You Should Read Evyione Part 1 & Part 2, Mary Stayed Out All Night, and The Geeky Heart of Taipei. Her personal blog is The Notes Which Do Not Fit, though there is not much about comics or East Asian pop culture over there. She grew up in Jiujinshan – meaning the city in Jiazhou – and currently lives in Peach Garden County, Ilha Formosa.