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China’s most celebrated martial arts fiction writer Louis Cha has died aged 94

"Generations are said to have owed their interest in reading itself to his fiction"

The world’s biggest kung fu fantasy writer, Louis Cha OBE, has died in Hong Kong following a long illness.

Known widely by his pen name Jin Yong, Cha’s books defined the genre known as wuxia for generations and led to him being known as the JRR Tolkien of Chinese literature. He wrote 15 novels throughout his illustrious career which were subsequently made into films, games, comics and television shows.

Cha became one of the oldest students to ever undertake a PhD at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, when he began his research here in 2005 aged 81. He was also admitted to the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters at the University of Cambridge and as a Fellow Commoner at St John’s in 2005. He was later made an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College in 2010 - the same year that he received his PhD.

Louis Cha with members of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Louis Cha with members of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at St John’s College

"Louis Cha excited the imagination of successive generations of young Chinese as did no other novelist"

Professor David McMullen, his PhD supervisor, said: “He brought to bear on his writing a command of the history of dynastic China and of ancient texts that put to shame even research students from Peking University.  He was a long term citizen of Hong Kong but he was also an admirer of traditional British culture, and that is why he came to Cambridge and to St John's.

“Here, with the support of his devoted wife May, he enjoyed the atmosphere of an ancient English institution. He took part in academic activities, including, memorably, a graduate reading group, and he dined at the High Table as a Fellow Commoner. But above all he enjoyed meeting with and talking with young students in  the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and in St John's."

Sir Christopher Dobson, Master of St John’s, said: “Louis Cha’s writings and other contributions to the world have touched the lives of a vast number of people. We are extremely proud of his links to St John’s and are deeply saddened to hear of his passing.”

Cha was the founding editor of Ming Pao, the Hong Kong daily newspaper, and in the 1950s he put together a set of stories charting the progress of a young martial arts fighter during the Song dynasty and serialised them. The plots were fictional but the historical background was real. They became the biggest Chinese publishing hit of the last century. 

His books were largely set in the world of the jianghu, a pugilistic society where martial arts exponents travel China trading blows, teaching skills and upholding a strict code of honour.

But despite being known the grandfather of martial arts novels and being one of China’s most celebrated authors, his name is not widely known in the west. This is largely due to the complexity of the world he created and the huge challenge for translators.

Professor David McMullen added: “Louis Cha excited the imagination of successive generations of young Chinese as did no other novelist. He wrote of young high spirits, courage, romance, freedom and love, and he did so over the years when the state education system in China had other priorities.

“His language was in turns elegant, erudite, earthy and nimble. Generations are said to have owed their interest in reading itself to his fiction. His readership far transcended political divisions in the global Chinese community.”

Cha stone

June Manjun Zhang and Avital Rom, two recipients of the Louis Cha scholarship at the Louis Cha stone at St John's College

“My deepest gratitude to Louis Cha for the imagination and inspiration he gave to the Chinese communities all over the world"

Cha was 94 when he died in Hong Kong on Tuesday, October 30 2018.  

He provided considerable support for cultural and academic activities inside and outside Chinese communities and he made a very generous donation to support graduate research on dynastic China at St John's.

His choice of St John's for this gift stems from his appreciation of the College's longstanding commitment to scholarship on China and his confidence in its future ability to maintain traditions of excellence in a field of study dear to his heart. The scholarship covers a maximum of three years of study and comprises a maintenance grant of £14,500 per annum and university tuition fees.

St John’s College awarded the first Louis Cha Scholarship to Avital Rom, an MPhil student from Israel, in 2014. Rom progressed to a PhD in Music and Power in Ancient China which she is now in her final year of.

Upon learning about Cha’s death, Rom said: “His story and his choice to continue learning and to deepen knowledge in his late years, have greatly inspired me. Above all, and on a personal level, I've had the honour of being the first student to enjoy his enormous generosity and have my studies in Cambridge funded by him.

“I will forever be grateful to him and his family for enabling me to live this exciting and wonderful life here, which itself sometimes seem to me like a dream or a story rather than reality. It would never have been possible if it weren't for him. Rest in peace, Jin Yong. Thank you for changing my life and making it what it is today. A thousand times thank you.”

The second Louis Cha Scholarship was awarded to June Manjun Zhang, from the Guizhou province, China, this year. She is doing a PhD in Chinese Studies.

Louis Cha David McMullen Richard Perham

Louis Cha with his MPhil certificate with Professor David McMullen and Professor Richard Perham, former Master of St John’s, at the Senate House, University of Cambridge, in 2007

She said: “The life of the man has ceased like a zither silenced by the broken strings. But the echo continues to resonate; so does the chivalry of wuxia 武侠, and the dream of jianghu 江湖.

“My deepest gratitude to Louis Cha for the imagination and inspiration he gave to the Chinese communities all over the world. More personally, thanks to his generosity in setting up the Louis Cha Scholarship at St John’s College so that students like me can pursue their dreams as young scholars in the field of premodern Chinese Studies.”

The two scholars were able to pay their respects to the benefactor who contributed so much to the world and to them personally at a commemorative five-foot high piece of Taiwanese sandstone engraved with a couplet Cha penned while he was studying at St John’s. The stone is located in a rose garden in the grounds of St John’s and was unveiled in 2012 thanks to the generosity of May Lok Yee Lam, Louis Cha’s wife.

The couplet engraved on the stone reads:

The scent of flowers, the scent of books clings to the College paths;

The sound of oars, the sound of song drifts through the Bridge of Sighs.

Written by a student, Jinyong.

Published: 1/11/18

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