Wednesday, 7 June 2017

What's a fox volant? Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain by Jin Yong

As with their cooking, the Chinese tend to vaunt what would ordinarily be perceived as moderately good cultural products as the ‘world’s best’. This wouldn’t be a problem if Western foodies and culture vultures didn’t go along with it, with the result that Chinese food is now laughably referred to as one of the world’s greatest cuisines, mid-list Chinese novelists win Nobel prizes, and mediocre films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon take home Academy Awards (among numerous others). Even the Chinese version of communism gets good press these days in the West.

Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain suffers from this same innate Chinese desire to categorise all things Chinese as world beating. And as usual, Westerners nod and kow-tow in agreement. Western film critics repeatedly knocked their heads on the floor over the unremarkable martial arts (wuxia) film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as though it were white rhinoceros horn powder, when in fact it had a plot any passably talented undergraduate could have drafted in a week. Gao Xingjian himself must have chuckled when Soul Mountain won him a Nobel Prize; it was incomprehensible in Chinese, let alone the execrable English translation. I could go on.

So it is no surprise that Fox Volant suffers the same fate. Like Crouching Tiger, it also has a wuxia lineage, and is an example of, according to the New York Times, an author’s work that “mesmeris[es] both Chinese peasants and foreign academics alike.” The University of British Columbia calls Jin Yong a ‘literary giant.” The trend to overrate authors of mid-list quality works continues. Jin Yong is the best-selling Chinese author of all time (no mean feat), but he’s no literary giant. Literate Westerners coming to Jin Yong for the first time will shake their heads in disbelief at the sobriquets heaped upon the poor man.

Which is a pity. Because wuxia literature is essentially the Chinese equivalent of the penny dreadfuls or pulps. And there’s no shame in that. The story moves along quickly, there are clear heroes and villains, and the action never stops. Watch any Hong Kong martial arts movie made in the last fifty years and you’ll see what I mean; they’re usually fun, but forgettable. Just don’t overdose on them. And don’t start telling your friends they’re the best movies ever made. They’re not.

Western critics need to start calling out Chinese artists for what they are; moderately talented but overhyped.

Oh, and volant? It refers to the ability of an animal to fly. In other words, he’s a flying fox. It figures the Hong Kong Chinese translator would use it; for world class literature you need a world class word. 

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