Before 1975, under the Republic of Vietnam, there were countless privately owned newspapers and magazines. These outlets attracted their readers not only by covering the latest information about war and politics but also by serializing fiction (also known as feuilleton). And the one kind of fiction that received a lot of fanfare at the time was the novels about Chinese martial arts and chivalry or wuxia, written by Jin Yong. It is said that to maintain the consecutiveness of the series, there had been daily flights from Tân Sơn Nhất to Hong Kong to fetch the manuscripts from Ming Pao for translating and publishing. The most well-known translator of these novels was Hàn Giang Nhạn.
People in South Vietnam, especially college students, loved Jin Yong’s novels just like how today’s people love J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. They read and discussed at great length in groups about how powerful this character is compared to another, or about how some details reveal some correlation to the real-life history of China. They used many expressions from the books in their daily conversations (i.e., cao thủ 高手, đại hiệp 大侠, or tẩu hỏa nhập ma 走火入魔). Many journalists adopted the names of Jin Yong’s characters as their pen names. Many writers included references to Jin Yong’s novels in their essays or short stories. Some critics, such as Đỗ Long Vân and Vũ Đức Sao Biển, even wrote a book to give their decent acclaims to the novels. And the best part of all these things is that there was no censoring and no restrictions on the access to these novels.
However, after April 1975, like other books of South Vietnam, Jin Yong’s novels were also burned and put in the list of banned books. Perhaps the only place where a Northerner could find a copy of Jin Yong’s novels is the “limited reading room” of the official state libraries. For two decades after the Fall of Saigon, these works were still regarded as “toxic cultural products of colonialism” that needed to be carefully researched before letting the public know about them. Teenagers, who by chance managed to borrow a copy, had to read at night under their blanket with a flashlight and return in the morning so that their parents wouldn’t know. This is just an example of how the cultural legacy of South Vietnam was treated in the post-war era. A very sad chapter of Vietnam’s history.
The conservative attitude towards Jin Yong’s novels had gradually changed during the 80s. Until 1990, the Ministry of Information and Communications quietly lifted the ban on the publishing of Jin Yong’s novels. And a few years later, in 1993, the Quảng Ngãi general publishing house printed a great number of copies of Jin Yong’s novels, which marked a significant milestone in vulgarising these works to the readers in the North and paved the way for other initiatives in republishing Jin Yong.
Another effort to bring Jin Yong back to Vietnamese readers was made by Phương Nam Book Company. Ms. Phan Thị Lệ, the General Director of the company, even went to Hong Kong to meet Jin Yong in person and negotiate the copyright matters. Jin Yong generously told her that he would only charge royalties on each work after its release based on the number of copies printed. He also promised to go to Vietnam to attend the book launch, but unfortunately, due to some health problems, he was unable to meet his beloved readers in Vietnam.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, there have been millions of Vietnamese people reading Jin Yong or watching the movies adapted from his novels, from Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Thiên long bát bộ, 天龙八部) to The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (Tiếu ngạo giang hồ, 笑傲江湖). Today, although most young people are no longer interested in wuxia, to many adults in their thirty-something, Jin Yong and his books still recall the memories of a disaffected youth, and to the elderly, the upheavals of Vietnam through war and post-war eras.
Talking about Jin Yong, despite being born in Zhejiang, he spent most part of his life in Hong Kong, a former colony of Britain. He thus was influenced by various Western ideas, including feminism and equality. Jin Yong’s works have many social advances compared to writers before him and of his time. The depiction of women in Jin Yong’s novels significantly differed from the concepts of masculinity and womanhood of traditional Confucianism. After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, Jin Yong voiced strong criticism of the Beijing government. However, in 1996, he joined a committee that observed the handover of Hong Kong and seemed to be in favor of the communist party, which led to many criticisms against him later in life.