Brief Story Overview
A group of martial artists find and fight over a treasure chest. Then they get snowed in at a house on top of a mountain, menaced by the vicious “Fox Volant of Snow Mountain.” Having nothing better to do, they tell each other stories, which gradually reveal a long history of family feuding and provide a lot of context for what is going on.
I am not going to try to summarize the whole, complicated backstory—instead, I’m just taking out a slice.
One of the people present in the house, Miao Renfeng, unintentionally killed his good friend Hu Yidao. He does not know what happened to Hu Yidao’s infant son, Hu Fei, but he wishes he could have raised the child himself to compensate for the wrong he did to his friend. Miao Renfeng also did not teach his own daughter, Miao Ruolan (also present in the house) martial arts because he wants the feuding to end with his generation.
[Tangent: in lots of western literature and even sometimes in manga they make a big deal when a female can do well in combat—”ZOMAGOSH she can fight?!!!”—but in wuxia it is taken for granted that females can fight, so generally it’s more shocking when it is revealed that a female does not know martial arts—”ZOMAGOSH she can’t fight?!!! How come she’s still alive??!!”]
Miao Ruolan had felt sorry for Hu Fei ever since she first heard the story of what happened to Hu Yidao, and thought that if, by chance, he was still alive she would want to comfort him for all of the pain he must have endured in his wretched life. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I say that Hu Fei is actually still alive. In fact, he has a nickname … “Fox Volant of Snow Mountain.”
This novel is by Jin Yong. If you read this column regularly, you already know who he is. If you don’t know who Jin Yong is, read this and this.
The novel was originally serialized in Ming Pao, one of the top newspapers in the Chinese-speaking world. In fact, the first chapter was published in the very first issue of Ming Pao.
Since I’ve discussed Ady An a couple times (The Outsiders 1&2 and Autumn’s Concerto) I feel obliged to say that she was cast as Miao Ruolan in the most recent TV adaptation of this novel. I haven’t seen the adaptation (and probably never will, based on the negative reviews I’ve read) but casting her as Miao Ruolan makes a lot of sense to me.
About the Context
This is unusual for a Jin Yong novel. Most Jin Yong novels span the course of years or decades, but thanks in part to the framing-story device with the various people telling their stories at the house, this novel just takes place within the course of a day. And while Jin Yong stories tend to have people running up and down Jianghu, this story takes place at that building and its vicinity (it’s hard to travel far within a day, especially with all that snow). Thus this story does not have the sense of adventure I associate with Jin Yong. Instead, it feels a bit more like No Exit, where a bunch of characters are stuck together and have to hash out their issues with each other. It’s one of his most “literary” stories, since instead of having characters swashbuckling around, he uses fancy narrative devices and gets nice and psychological in a way that literature professors approve of.
However, while this is unusual for a Jin Yong novel, it is not an unusual wuxia novel. Wuxia comes in many flavors. Jin Yong novels tend to be sweeping, historical, melodramatic adventures, but there are plenty of wuxia novels which emphasize mystery and atmosphere and focus more tightly on a smaller cast of characters (hello, Gu Long). Though I personally prefer epic adventures, even I like variety.
“The Lovers’ Blades” and “White Horse Riding in the West Wind”
Most Chinese-language editions of this novel come with two Jin Yong novellas, “The Lovers’ Blades” and “White Horse Riding in the West Wind.” I do not have anything to say about “The Lovers’ Blades,” but I find “White Horse Riding in the West Wind” interesting because it is the only Jin Yong story in which the main protagonist, Li Wenxiu, is female.
In some ways, Jin Yong treats Li Wenxiu just like most of his other protagonists—she undergoes childhood tragedy, trains in martial arts, and eventually overcomes and compensates for that tragedy. But he treats her differently in that, instead of granting her a (reverse) harem, she gets just one love interest, and [spoiler]she even loses him[/spoiler]. It’s more like a typical Jin Yong tale than The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain. I also happen to like the story.
The Lady, or the Tiger?
One of the most noteworthy parts of the novel (whether you love it or hate it – many people hate it) is the ending. Thus I have to discuss it. I will try to express my opinion of the ending without saying what happens, but people who are very spoiler-sensitive might still want to skip this section.
I never liked the story “The Lady, or the Tiger” because I know almost nothing about the princess—how am I supposed to know what decision she would make. However, The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain is not a short story. It’s a novel, and it has a prequel (Fēihú Wàizhuàn / Tales of the Young Fox) too. Thus there is a lot more material with which to reveal how the characters would make a tough choice.
Lots of people complain about the “inconclusive” ending of The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain, and Jin Yong has received many requests to write a “fuller” ending. I actually think the ending is sufficiently conclusive. I mean, in “The Lady, or the Tiger?” the outcomes are really different—marry a beautiful woman, or get mauled by a fierce tiger. But in this novel, the choice is between [spoiler]one tragic outcome, and a completely different yet equally tragic outcome[/spoiler]. Yeah, the possible endings are really different … except they are not. No matter what choice the characters make, the general direction is pretty clear to me. And it’s pretty clear what the fallout for each outcome would be, so I don’t think it needs to be spelled out.
The final scene, however, is exquisite in just the same way as one of my favourite scenes in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ. In both scenes, Character A has a very dramatic choice to make; either save Character B’s life, or kill him. Jin Yong writes the stories in such a way that Character A has really compelling reasons to kill Character B … and really compelling reasons to save him. I have rarely been more engaged in story than when I was reading that scene in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ because I really did not know what was going to happen, and it is still one of my most vivid memories in Taiwan. Of course, Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ actually had to move on with the plot, so Character A finally does make a choice … and the moment when the choice was made was … powerful stuff. But that was the climax of the scene for me—the remainder of the scene was not special to me. So I do understand why people are frustrated by the ending of The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain—they feel cheated of the promised climactic moment. Yet The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain does not have more plot lying in wait, and is not trying to make a specific point in the same way that Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ is. So I think, even if the choice was revealed, it wouldn’t add anything to the novel. The point of the final scene is the charged feelings of the characters and the readers, and I think trying to “complete” the ending would just dissipate that.
In fact, the fact that so many people passionately hate the ending of The Fox Volant of Snow Mountain proves just how effective Jin Yong is at rousing the readers’ feelings.
There is something that really does frustrate me about the ending, but it’s not the finale itself. It’s the build-up to the finale. Under the circumstances, a good father would have asked his daughter how she felt. Not only did Miao Renfeng not ask Miao Ruolan how she felt, but when she tried to tell him, he told her to shut up. If he had bothered to listen to his own daughter for just two minutes [spoiler]the entire tragic dilemma would have been averted and the story would have had a nice happy ending[/spoiler]. Argh.
At least people talk about the ending of this novel. Some Jin Yong endings are not particularly memorable, and I think those endings are actually worse than this ending.
Availability in English
This novel has been published in English. A lot of people criticise the Olivia Moktranslation, but based on the brief excerpt I’ve read, it is actually not so terrible (aside from the way the characters’ names are handled, which is terrible). I don’t know whether it includes the novellas “The Lovers’ Blades” and “White Horse in the West Wind” or not.
Like every Jin Yong novel published in English, it’s not cheap, so I suggest making inquiries at a library near you.
You know what? This novel is recommended.
Reading this novel won’t give you a typical Jin Yong experience. On the other hand, it’s more accessible than some of his other works. This story actually gets to the point quite quickly, unlike Yǐ Tiān Tú Lóng Jì in which Jin Yong spends over 200 pages before bothering to introduce Zhang Wuji (who happens to be the main protagonist).
I would say that, after A Deadly Secret, this is my second favorite of Jin Yong’s shorter works. It’s not as fun as some of his other tales, but the structure works quite well and I got involved in the characters’ mental tangles. I’ve read it twice, and it worked better for me the second time around. I will probably eventually read it a third time.
Next time: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (movie)
Sara K. has heard rain and fireworks while editing this post. Both sounds are very common in Taiwan.