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It Came from the Sinosphere: The Crane-Iron Pentalogy (Part 2)

I actually do not think this image from the manhua is quite in the spirit of the original novels, but it's still pretty.

I actually do not think this image from the manhua is quite in the spirit of the original novels, but it’s still pretty.

Read Part 1

The Development of a Pentalogy

Though the internal chronology is Crane Frightens Kunlun / Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin / Sword Force, Pearl Shine / Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Iron Rider, Silver Vase, the first novel to be written/published was the central one, Sword Force, Pearl Shine, followed by Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, with Crane Frightens Kunlun.

In other words, Wang Dulu first went back in time, and then decided to go back forward in time.

Sword Force, Pearl Shine is the shortest of the five novels, and I suspect that it was originally intended to be a stand-alone novel. However, being shorter, it is also a little less developed than the other novels. This underdevelopment may have been a blessing in disguise, for I suspect it led Wang Dulu to ask himself about Yu Shulien and Li Mubai’s origins, which inspired Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, and then he asked himself about Southern Crane, which led to writing Crane Frightens Kunlun. Crane Frightens Kunlun itself has a loose end, and tying that up leads to the creation of a key character (Yu Jiaolong) and much of the plot of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Whether that loose end was put in Crane Frightens Kulun on purpose because Wang Dulu was already planning to write Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I do not know. I strongly suspect, however, that Wang Dulu did deliberately write that open-ended finale ine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because he was already planning to write Iron Rider, Silver Vase.

The point is, Wang Dulu did not have a master-plan when he was writing the pentalogy. He let it unfold organically, one book at a time, and even he probably didn’t know where the story was going to go more than a book in advance. The novels are much better because of this.

The scriptwriter Brian McDonald says that storytellers should be the slaves, not the masters, of their stories. To me, it seems that Wang Dulu was not the master of his stories, and I mean that in a good way. On the surface, they seem quite humble and not at all impressive, but they prove to be surprisingly powerful.

About the 2000 Ang Lee Film

Nowadays, even in the Chinese-speaking world, most people know about the Crane-Iron Pentalogy thanks to the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So how does it compare?


The film simplifies the story. A lot. It has to. It’s only two hours long, and most of the audience is not familiar with the events of Crane Frightens Kunlun / Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin / Sword Force, Pearl Light.

While I love the Crane-Iron Pentalogy as a whole, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the novel I love the least. Unlike the other novels, I felt CTHD has some rather long, tedious sections. The film, quite wisely, leaves out all of the tedious stuff, while keeping the most interesting parts.

Of course, while the movie leaves out a lot detail, it certainly drops quite a few hints. For example, one of the major characters is Cai Xiangmei, a girl who performs acrobatics on the street, yet the only reference to her in the entire movie is a single shot showing a girl performing acrobatics on the street. I think this is Ang Lee’s way of saying ‘Yes, I read the novel, but I simply do not have the screen time to include this character’s story’. I do not think people who haven’t read the novels are consciously aware of these little hints throughout the movie … but I suspect they can still feel that this is just part of a broader story.

Ultimately, the feel of the movie is not the same as the novels. That does not make it a bad movie – in fact, it probably would have been a worse movie if it had tried to stick too close to the novel. I have trouble imagining the subtle psychological tug-and-pull in the novels translating well into film, and of course the gorgeous cinematography of the film is totally absent in the novels.

It’s a good movie, and I recommend it. But…

The Thing Which Bothers Me About the Movie

I am going to be a bit vague to avoid spoilers.

The message of the movie is that you need to recognize, pursue, and consummate (romantic) love before it’s too late. That’s not the message of the original novel, but that is not a problem, nor is it a problem that the movie changes the ending to pull this off. The movie implies that a certain couple never got married because they did not realize how much they loved each other / did not have the courage to pursue their love, and that they regret this. That is also not a problem. The problem is … the couple used to demonstrate this point is Character Y and Character Z (I said I was going to be vague).

In the novels, Y and Z know that they love each other, and they didn’t remain unmarried because of a lack of courage. They stayed unmarried because they decided they did not want to marry. While one could have a great discussion about why they make this choice, it clearly is a deliberate choice on their part.

And they put up with quite a bit of nonsense from other people because of this.

Years after they have made their decision clear, their friends are still scheming up ways to get them married. They get kicked out of shelter onto the street in the middle of the night because of their unmarried status. At one point, someone practically orders them to get married.

But the movie glosses all over this. If two people who are in love with each other refuse marriage, there simply must be a problem, they cannot just be mature adults making thought-out choices about their own personal lives.

I think that’s rather insulting to Character Y and Z, and I think it contradicts the point the novels try to make about freedom in personal relationships. I really wish the movie had found a different way to make this point.

About the New Movie

The word is that Yuen Wo Ping, who was the action choreographer for the Ang Lee film, will be directing the new movie, which I’ve seen titled as both Iron Rider, Silver Vase and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 – the Green Destiny.

My guess is that it will be even less faithful to the original novels than the Ang Lee film, but will probably incorporate at least parts of the story of Iron Rider, Silver Vase. Personally, as long as they make a good movie which does not do anything too irritating, I’ll be happy. That said, I do hope they will include Han Tiefang and not change him too much, since he’s one of my favorite characters in the pentalogy.

The Heart of Wuxia

One of the things which strikes me about wuxia is the emphasis on the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and relationships with each other. This introspective emphasis is much heavier in wuxia than in western speculative fiction (with some exceptions). That’s not to say that wuxia is better than western speculative fiction, since western speculative fiction explores plenty of other things. Nonetheless, the emphasis on feelings and relationships makes wuxia stories (particularly novels) sometimes feel more like romance fiction than the speculative fiction I grew up with.

The Taiwanese edition of Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin

The Taiwanese edition of Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin

I have not read many of the old (as in written before 1950) wuxia novels, so I cannot make my own analysis, but I’ve read that the older wuxia novels are full of lots of exciting, magical, action-packed adventures, and contain not so much psychology. The claim is that Wang Dulu, and the Crane-Iron Pentalogy in particular, changed that.

Now, anybody reading the Crane-Iron Pentalogy for the fights and action sequences is going to be disappointed. It’s not that it’s badly written, it’s just that all of the ‘action’ parts are really brief. Wang Dulu always uses violence/action as a tool to get the characters where they need to go, and never as an end in itself.

Some say Wang Dulu brought the wuxia genre to maturity. His wuxia-romances certainly became very popular very quickly, and I can tell that he has a strong influence on later writers. Based on what I know, it seems that his major contribution is putting the ‘heart’ – the passion, the introspection, the intense human relationships – into wuxia.

Availability in English

Simon and Schuster acquired the English translation rights to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and possibly the other novels as well, and then did … nothing.

The 2001 Ang Lee movie, the 2004 movie, and manhua which bear the name Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are all available in English. I haven’t seen the 2004 movie, though generally it’s considered inferior to the Ang Lee film. I have also yet to read the manhua, but the word is that the first two volumes are actually based on Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, and that starting around volume 3 the story gets further and further away from the novels.

The manhua, again.

The manhua, again.


I love the Crane-Iron Pentalogy. I’m still left with a sense that there is something wonderful about the stories which I have totally failed to convey in these two posts.

My love, as you may have gathered, is not equally distributed among the novels. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gets the least love from me, whereas my favorites are Iron Rider, Silver Vase and Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin. Particularly Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin. It is a beautiful novel which swept me up and then left me in tears. Part of me wishes they would adapt Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin into a movie, and part of me cannot imagine any movie adaptation being as moving as the original.

Next Time: Starry Starry Night (movie)

Sara K. worked on this post as Typhoon Soulik made its way across Taiwan. Soulik managed to greatly annoy Sara K., but it did not do her any major harm.

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  1. awesome blog…..

  2. Hi Sara, it’s always great to find other fans of Wang Dulu. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Wang Dulu and the Crane-Iron series, but I believe you’re mistaken on one point. The first book of the series that was written was Baojian Jinchai (serialized from Nov. 1938 to May 1939), and not Jianqi Zhuguang (serialized from Jul. 1939 to Apr. 1940). It wasn’t until after JQZG that Wang Dulu went back to tell the story of Southern Crane. As Wohu Canglong was written immediately after He Jing Kunlun, I do believe he used it to set up plotlines in the following novel. Again, great read!

    • Thanks for the correction.

      I tried to double-check that point, but I couldn’t find any chronologies (in English or Chinese) listing the exact publication dates of the novels, so I just went with my memory.

      Yeah, it’s not easy to find Wang Dulu fans, even in Taiwan. In fact, I’ve only met one Wang Dulu fan in Taiwan (heck, she’s the only other person I’ve met in Taiwan who I know has even *read* a Wang Dulu novel). Though she has read many wuxia novels (she’s persuaded me to read some Xiang Kairan some day … though I haven’t done that yet), she has, oddly, never read a Jin Yong novel.

  3. So.. The novels are not available in English? Such a shame! I’ve been looking everywhere for them, because I wanted to read them. :(

    • Well … they have not been published in English. The commenter above is working on fan translations (you can click on his username to get to his website).

  4. Great blog :)
    I need to know something.
    I read somewhere that Lo dies in the icy mountain , and Jen gets lost in the desert … so technically how did Iron Knight born at all? I couldn’t read the novels by Wang Dulu because they are not available in English.

    So I reaaaaally want to know how is exactly the tragedy about Jen & Lo’s love story.

    I also read somewhere , that Iron Knight found them(his parents) in the desert , so Jen & Lo were finally together in the desert with Silver Vase? So.. I read that Iron Knight found them in the desert , but he didn’t recognize them until they were both killed in front of him .. so what about the story that He died in the icy mountain and she got lost in the desert? I’m confused.
    They never got back together , and both died separated … or they actually were together in the desert and then killed in front of their son?

  5. And please Sara! Please tell me … I don’t know chinese and I can’t wait to know what happened speacially with Lo.

    Another question:
    Did Jen really love Lo? Because her character is so confused , and in Ang lee’s movie .. at the end , when she returns to Lo … she doesn’t seem so happy with him.

    • Well, to answer your questions…
      (note: I don’t like the English translation ‘Iron Knight’ so I’ll refer to him by his Mandarin name – Han Tiefang)

      Based on the novels, it seems that Jen does love Lo. However, she is also very proud and from a high-ranking family, and Lo is … a bandit. Not to mention the shame of a girl from a ‘good’ family having non-marital sex with anybody, let alone a bandit. So her love for him comes into conflict with her pride. However, the specific reason she did not stay with him was that when her mother was dying, she made Jen promise that she would not marry Lo, and Jen felt that she a) couldn’t deny her mother because she was dying and b) that it would be wrong to break her promise with her mother. Since she couldn’t marry low, she felt that ultimately staying with him would be much too shameful. She does spent one last night with him, and then leaves him without a word and … guess what, she’s pregnant.

      She went far out into the west (i.e. away from ‘Zhongyuan’ – the heart of Chinese civilization) since she didn’t want to deal with the shame which would be heaped on her if she stayed in a place where people actually knew her. In the west she gives birth to a son (Han Tiefang). Meanwhile, there is a man who really wants a son, but his concubine just gave birth to a girl, and Jen is too weak from childbirth to resist … so the concubine swaps the babies. Later, Jen is led to believe that the people who kidnapped her newborn child were attacked by bandits (true) and that her child was killed (not true). Jen is so ashamed of her past that she discards her identity and presents herself as a man, not a woman. She also raises the child which the concubine had left, and loved the girl (Chun Xueping) just as much as she would have loved her own daughter.

      As it so happens, Han Tiefang lives to become a teenager, and due to his own personal problems, also ends up fleeing and going west. He meets his mother, Jen, who is presenting as a man. She presumably recognizes her as her lost son (she eventually learned that he possibly did not die in the bandit attack and was trying to find him) but is too proud to tell him who she is, and even denies it when Tiefang asks if she is a woman. At the time she is very sick, and dies with Han Tiefang at her side. Han Tiefang does not learn that she is his mother until much, much later.

      Meanwhile … Lo hadn’t had any direct contact with Jen ever since she had left him, though he did occasionally get second-hand news: he had learned that she had a child (though he thought that Chun Xueping was their child – he had no idea about the baby-swap – so when he met her he insisted that he was her father). IIRC, he did get news about her sickness, and that’s why after so many years he was trying to find her and see her again. Anyhow, he’s too late, and he doesn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Jen before her death.

      Lo also meets Han Tiefang. In a fight, Lo gets mortally injured. This is just after Han Tiefang learned about his real parentage, and as Lo is dying, Han Tiefang and Chun Xueping try to explain that Tiefang, not Xueping, is his and Jen’s biological child, but he doesn’t seem to process what they are saying, and right up to his death he keeps on claiming that Xueping is his daughter.

      I think that answers your questions.

      • Hi Sara,

        I tried to find the book online Part V: Silver Vase & Iron Knight…
        Can you give me more details on the character of each?


  6. Hi
    I liked the movie crouching tiger,..& I would love to read the novels
    I thought it wouldnt be that hard to read it in English(I am persian)
    then i realized THERE IS NO ENGLISH TRANSLATION !!!!!
    what kind of world,we are living in!!!!
    do i have to learn mandarin to read these 5 books?! :(

  7. I mean, there was no translation 5 years ago,& there is no one I guess i should start learning chinese instead of waiting another 5 years…..:(

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