Jin Yong’s A Hero Born is a fantastical generational saga and kung fu epic, stretching from the Song Empire to the appearance of a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.
Filled with an extraordinary cast of characters, this Chinese classic—coming to the U.S. for the first time on September 17th as translated by Anna Holmwood for St. Martin’s Press—is a tale of fantasy and wonder, love and passion, treachery and war, betrayal and brotherhood.
Want to start reading now? Tor.com is serializing A Hero Born all summer long—start here with “Suddenly A Snowstorm”, and check back every morning this week for another installment of the second chapter/episode: “The Seven Freaks of the South”.
A HERO BORN
After his father, a Song patriot, was murdered, Guo Jing and his mother fled to the plains and joined Ghengis Khan and his people. Loyal, humble and driven, he learned all he could from the warlord and his army in hopes of one day joining them in their cause. But what Guo Jing doesn’t know is that he’s destined to battle an opponent that will challenge him in every way imaginable and with a connection to his past that no one envisioned.
With the help and guidance of his shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing returns to China to face his foe and carry out his destiny. But in a land divided by treachery and war, betrayal and ambition, he’ll have to put his courage and knowledge to the test to survive.
“The Seven Freaks of the South”
Yan lie stepped out into the corridor. A yawning middle-aged man was shuffling toward him, his leather slippers scuffing along the floorboards. He seemed to be half smiling, perhaps even winking at him. His clothes were ragged and spotted with grease, his face grimy as if he had not washed in weeks, and he fanned himself with a broken black oilpaper fan.
His dress showed he was a man of some education, but his filthy appearance disgusted Yan Lie, who scuttled on, pressing himself against the wall so as not to brush up against him. Just as they were passing each other, however, the man broke into a harsh, hollow laugh, flipped his fan shut and tapped it against Yan Lie’s shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Yan Lie cried, unable to deflect the fan in time.
Another dry laugh, and the scholar shuffled away, his slippers scuffing against the floorboards. The man then turned to one of the men working at the inn and said, “You there, young man. I may look as if I’ve fallen on hard times, but I travel with silver in my pocket. It’s not me you should be watchful of, but those men in fancy clothes pretending they are important. They seduce respectable women, eat without paying, take rooms and never settle the bill. Keep an eye out for those types. I would make them pay in advance, just to be sure.” He had already disappeared down the corridor before the attendant could reply.
Yan Lie was furious. The attendant glanced at Yan Lie, walked up to him and bowed.
“Please don’t take offense, sir,” the attendant simpered, “I don’t mean to be rude, but… ”
“Take this, and make sure you put it somewhere safe!” he snorted, reaching beneath his shirt for his silver. But the color drained from his face. He had tucked at least forty or fifty taels in there before leaving his room, but they were gone.
The attendant straightened himself and puffed up his chest. So the scholar was right, and not just bitter. “What’s that? No money?”
“Wait here,” Yan Lie replied. “I have some in my room.” I must have forgotten it as I hurried out, he thought. But back in his room, he opened his pouch to discover all his gold and silver had vanished. He had no idea when it could have been taken. Madam Bao and I both went to the lavatory at the same time just now, he said to himself, but we were only away from the room for a matter of moments. Could someone have stolen it in such a short space of time? The thieves of Jiaxing were impressive indeed.
The attendant poked his head through the door. Yan Lie was still puzzled, his hands empty. “Is this woman even your wife?” The attendant was angry now. “If you’ve kidnapped her, we will be implicated!”
Charity was mortified, her cheeks flushed crimson. Yan Lie took one large stride toward the door and slapped the back of his hand against the attendant’s face, knocking out several teeth.
The attendant brought his hands to his bleeding cheeks. “First you don’t pay, then you start a fight!” he cried.
Yan Lie kicked the attendant in the behind, sending him crashing out the door.
“Let’s go, we can’t stay here any longer,” Charity said, shaken.
“Not to worry.” Yan Lie smiled, grabbing a chair and sitting by the door. “We are going to get our silver back first.”
Before long, the attendant came rushing back in with a group of thugs, each armed with a club. Yan Lie smiled. “A fight?”
He leaped up and snatched a club from the hand of one of the men, faked a right, jabbed to the left, and knocked half the men to the ground. They were used to turning up and merely intimidating their opponents, but it was obvious their fighting skills were nothing compared to this wealthy guest’s, so the remaining men threw down their clubs and swarmed out of the room. The others scrambled to their feet and followed.
“This is serious,” Charity said, her voice shaking. “The authorities might come after us.”
“That is exactly my intention,” Yan Lie said.
Charity did not know what was going on, so decided to stay quiet. Within the hour, shouting could be heard outside and a dozen government runners burst into the courtyard holding sabers and shorter broadswords.
Over the sound of clanging metal, Yan Lie heard a man say: “Kidnapped her and then assaulted you? How dare he! Where is this crook?”
The men rushed in. Yan Lie was sitting perfectly still in a chair. He cut an intimidating figure in his expensive clothes.
“You, what’s your name?” the man in charge demanded. “What are you doing here in Jiaxing?”
“Fetch me Gai Yuncong!” came Yan Lie’s reply.
The men were surprised and angered to hear him use the Governor of Jiaxing’s name so casually. “Have you lost your mind? How dare you use the Honorable Governor’s given name?”
Yan Lie removed a letter from inside his shirt and threw it on the table. “Deliver this to Gai Yuncong and see if he comes.”
The man in charge walked over to the table, took the letter and read the characters on the front. He was visibly shocked, but hesitated, unsure if the letter was genuine. “Watch him, make sure he doesn’t get away,” he hissed as he dashed out of the door.
Charity sat, her heart thumping and her cheeks deathly pale.
It was not long before another dozen government men came crowding into the room, two among them clothed head-to-toe in full ceremonial dress. They ran over to Yan Lie, dropped to their knees and kowtowed at his feet: “Your humble servants Governor Gai Yuncong of Jiaxing and Magistrate Jiang Wentong bow before Your Excellency. Your humble servants were not informed of Your Excellency’s arrival; please forgive us such an improper reception.”
Yan Lie waved at them and lifted himself from his seat a little. “I was robbed of some silver this morning. May I trouble you two good sirs to investigate?”
“Of course.” Gai Yuncong nodded, waving two of his men over. They each carried a tray; one glowed the warm yellow of gold, the other glinted the dazzling white of silver. “Your humble servant is ashamed to admit such brazen and odious villains roam free in our county, and that they have stolen from Your Excellency. The fault is all mine. Will Your Excellency accept this as a small token of our regret?”
Yan Lie smiled and nodded. Gai Yuncong further presented Yan Lie with a letter. “Your humble servant has just had the Governor’s residence cleaned, and Your Excellency and His Lady are cordially invited to stay there as long as Your Excellency may wish.”
“That won’t be necessary. I like it here, it’s peaceful. We don’t want to be disturbed again,” he said, his face darkening.
“Yes, of course! Should Your Excellency require anything, please let me know. Your humble servant will take care of it.”
Yan Lie did not reply but waved them away, at which the two men ushered the others out.
The attendant had been cowering in fear, but now the innkeeper dragged him over to Yan Lie and made him kowtow and beg for mercy, declaring they would accept whatever punishment His Excellency might choose to mete out. Yan Lie took an ingot of silver from the plate and threw it on the ground. “There’s your payment. Now go.” The attendant froze in stunned silence, but the owner judged there to be no malice in Yan Lie’s actions, so he grabbed the piece of silver, bowed a few times and pulled the attendant out of the door.
Charity was as uneasy as before. “What was so special about that letter? Why would an official be so frightened after reading it?”
“I don’t actually have any authority over them,” Yan Lie said, “but these officials are useless. Zhao Kuo likes to surround himself with worthless men. If he doesn’t end up losing his land, then there’s no justice in this world.”
“Emperor Ningzong of Song.”
“Shhh!” Charity was horrified. “You can’t use His Majesty’s given name. Someone will hear.”
Yan Lie was pleased that she cared for his safety. “It’s fine. That’s what we call him in the north.”
Yan Lie nodded and was about to explain when they heard the sound of beating hooves outside. Another group of men on horses stopped in front of the inn. A warm flush of red had just returned to Charity’s snowy cheeks, but the sound of horses’ hooves brought back memories of her capture only days before and once again they faded to ashen white. Yan Lie’s brow wrinkled, displeasure clearly etched across his face.
Footsteps echoed around the courtyard outside as the men, dressed in brocade, entered the inn. “Your Royal Highness!” They saluted Yan Lie in unison, dropping to their knees.
“You found me at last,” Yan Lie said with a smile.
Charity was now even more surprised. She watched as they stood up, her eyes tracing the muscles beneath their clothing.
“Everyone outside.” Yan Lie waved at them. The men barked their assent and filed out. He then turned to Charity. “What do you think of my men? How do they compare to the Song’s soldiers?”
“These men don’t fight for the Song?”
“I suppose I should be honest with you. These are elite forces fighting on behalf of the Great Jin Empire!”
“Then, you’re… ” There was a tremble in her voice.
“Madam, I cannot lie anymore. My name is not Yan Lie. There are two characters missing. I am in fact Wanyan Honglie, the Sixth Prince of the Jin, titled Prince Zhao.”
Charity had been weaned on her father’s stories of how the Jin had ravaged Song lands and massacred the peasants of the north, and how the Song Emperors had let themselves be captured. Her husband’s hatred for the Jin ran even deeper. Had she really spent the last few days with a Jin prince?
Wanyan Honglie could see the expression on Charity’s face change. “I’ve long heard about the wonders of the south,” he continued, “so last year I asked my father, the Emperor of the Jin, to send me to Lin’an to act as envoy for the New Year Celebrations. And in any case, the Song Emperor still had not paid his annual tribute, a few hundred thousand taels of silver, so my father wanted me to collect that as well.”
“Indeed, the Song Emperors pay us a tribute of silver and silk so we won’t invade. They always claim they cannot collect enough in taxes in order to pay it promptly. But this time I demanded it from Chancellor Han. I told him that if they did not pay within a month, I’d lead Jin soldiers to the south myself to collect in full.”
“How did Chancellor Han respond?”
“In the only way he could: the silk and silver were in the north before I even left the city!” He laughed. Charity frowned and did not answer. “Of course, they didn’t really need me to chase the tribute,” he continued. “A special envoy would have been good enough. But I wanted to see the beauty of the south myself, the scenery, the people, their customs. I never imagined I would meet my lady, and that you would save my life! Luck was shining on me, indeed.”
Charity’s head swirled and panic was rising within her.
“And now I’m going to buy some more clothes for you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Charity replied without looking up.
“The money the Governor gave me himself from his own pocket would be enough to buy my lady a new outfit every day for a thousand years! Please don’t be afraid, Madam; the inn is surrounded by my men, nobody can harm you.” With that, he left.
Charity was left with her thoughts of all that had happened since the day she first met him. He, a royal prince, treating a lowly widow with such kindness. His intentions had to be dishonorable. Her husband was dead, leaving her, a poor wretched woman, all on her own, and instead of running away she had ended up she knew not where. Panic pulsed through her again. She hugged her pillow close, her tears running into it.
Wanyan Honglie tucked the gold and silver into his shirt and walked in the direction of the market. He watched as the local peasants went about their business. There was something dignified about them despite the simplicity of their situations, and he could not help but admire them.
All of a sudden, drumming hooves. A horse appeared up ahead, galloping toward him. The street was narrow and filled with market stalls and people shopping. Wanyan Honglie jerked to the side just as the sandy-colored mare came sailing through the sea of people. Miraculously the horse drifted through the crowd without knocking against a single person or kicking anything over, each stride light, each jump smooth, as it skimmed over a stall selling ceramics and baskets of vegetables. It was as if the horse was floating across open grasslands, rather than charging through a busy market street.
The horse was handsome, towering and muscular. Wanyan Honglie drew his eyes from the horse up to the rider and was surprised to see a short, beefy man, straddling it as if he were sat astride a lump of meat. His arms and legs were short, as was his almost nonexistent neck, making his enormous head look as if it had been pressed into his shoulders.
Incredible, Wanyan Honglie thought, unable to contain himself.
The man turned toward Wanyan as he floated past, revealing cheeks red and blotchy from too much rice wine, and a nose shiny and round like a persimmon stuck in the middle.
Such a fine horse, I must have it whatever the price, Wanyan Honglie thought to himself. At that moment, two children ran out into the lane from the opposite direction, chasing each other, straight into the horse’s path. Surprised, the horse kicked out. Just as the beast’s left hoof was about to strike one of the children, the man pulled hard on the reins and lifted out of the saddle, pulling the horse up, its hooves narrowly grazing the tops of the children’s heads. Disaster averted, the man sat back in his saddle.
Wanyan Honglie stared in amazement; there were many fine riders among his people, yet this man was surely the finest horseman he had ever seen. If I took him back with me to the capital, my army could conquer the world, he thought. Much better than merely buying the horse. He had been scouting out locations to station troops throughout this trip south, where to cross rivers, even noting the names and competencies of every county official he passed on the way. Such remarkable talent is going to waste here in the south where the government is so corrupt, he said to himself. Why not offer him a position with me? It was decided: he was going to take him back to the Jin capital in the north to cultivate his talents.
He started running after the horse, afraid he would lose them. He was about to call out after them, but the horse halted suddenly at the corner of the main road. The abruptness with which animal and rider stopped was remarkable; this alone would have convinced him of the man’s superior capabilities. He watched as the rider jumped down from his saddle and entered a shop.
Wanyan Honglie hurried closer and peered at a large wooden sign inside: LI PO’S LEGACY. He stepped back and looked up at the large gold-lettered sign hanging from the eaves: Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals, written in the finest calligraphy, and beside it, By the hand of Su Dongpo, one of the Song’s best calligraphers, poets, and statesmen. Such imposing luxury; this must be one of the town’s best taverns. I’ll treat him to a fine meal and plenty of drink, Wanyan Honglie said to himself. I couldn’t have hoped for a better opportunity.
Just then the stocky man came scuttling back down the stairs carrying a large wine jug, and waddled up to his horse. Wanyan Honglie slipped out of view.
The man looked even fatter and uglier up close. He could not have been more than three foot, about the height of his horse’s stirrups, with shoulders almost as broad as he was tall. He struck the neck of the jug a few times, swiped the top half off so that it became a basin, and placed it before the animal. The horse reared up onto its hind legs, neighed with delight and started drinking the contents. Wanyan Honglie could smell it from where he was standing. Blushing Maiden, a famous fragrant wine from Shaoxing. Aged for ten years, he deduced from a longer sniff.
The man walked back into the tavern and threw a large sycee ingot of silver onto the counter. “Bring us three tables of your best food, two with meat, one vegetarian,” he instructed.
“Certainly, Third Brother Han.” The innkeeper smiled. “Today we have the finest perch from the River Song, the perfect accompaniment to some of our best rice wine. Take back your silver, eat first.”
“What? The wine is free, is it?” he said in a strange voice and with a hint of defiance in his eyes. “Are you suggesting Third Brother Han is a villain who eats without paying?”
The innkeeper chuckled, taking it in good jest, before calling to the waiters, “Boys, get to work and prepare Third Brother Han’s food!”
“Yes, sir!” the men responded.
He’s not especially well dressed, Wanyan Honglie said to himself, but he spends generously and is treated with respect. He must be important. Looks like it’s not going to be easy to persuade him to continue further north. I’ll keep watching to see who he’s inviting to dinner.
He slipped upstairs, found a seat by a window and ordered a jug of wine and a few dishes.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.