When you talk about the wuxia genre, one of the first names that comes to mind is Louis Cha Leung-yung, who also went by the pen name Jin Yong. His stories, depicting chivalry in the martial arts world, are practically required reading in many schools in Hong Kong. If you’re a newcomer to his work, a good starting point would be The Legend of the Condor Heroes.
The book is set during the Jin-Song wars period (1125–1234) in ancient China and, along with The Return of the Condor Heroes and The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, makes up his famous Condor trilogy.
The two main protagonists of The Legend of the Condor Heroes are Guo Jing and Huang Rong. Guo is an honest but rather simple young man, who grows up in Mongolia under the care of Genghis Khan. When Guo discovers his Chinese heritage, he is torn between fighting for the Mongols or helping his fellow Han Chinese fight the Mongol invasion. He meets the clever and beautiful Huang during his travels, and they fall in love. The romance between Guo and Huang is depicted as a strong and steadfast love that withstands the trials and tribulations the couple face.
The duo meet many people within the jianghu (literally translates to "river and lakes"), or martial arts, community, and Guo becomes a strong and powerful fighter thanks to chance meetings with martial arts masters.
The novel’s central themes and questions of what it is that makes a hero, and what the right thing to do in any given situation is, are on full display as Guo makes his way through the world.
Guo’s actions, along with his need to always do the right thing, contrasts against the actions of the novel’s antagonist, Yang Kang, who ends up having to choose between power and his people. Spoiler alert: Yang, who also grows up not knowing the truth about his Chinese heritage, comes to a nasty end because of his greed and ambition.
The martial arts displayed in The Legend of the Condor Heroes have, since its publication, worked their way into popular culture. Fighting techniques like “Dragon Killing Palm” and “Nine Yin Manual” are constantly referenced in other works, while debates about which character was the strongest, or which school or martial arts was best, continue to rage on today.
A word of warning: while you can enjoy the novels in their English translations, it is highly recommended that you read them in their original Chinese, as some of the names and themes will make better sense.