Louis Cha, a martial arts fantasy writer who also played a role in the political life of Hong Kong and founded one of its most prominent newspapers, has died following a long illness. He was 94.
Cha, who used the pen-name Jin Yong, died Tuesday afternoon at the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital surrounded by his family and listening to video calls and messages sent by friends and well-wishers around the world, the Ming Pao, a newspaper that he founded, reported.
By the time of his death, Cha's Condor trilogy of wuxia (martial arts and chivalry) novels had sold more than 100 million copies, making him the bestselling author writing in Chinese.
Former Ming Pao editor Tao Jie told the paper that Cha's literary achievement could only have happened under the freedom afforded by colonial rule in Hong Kong, where freedoms of press, publication, and association have been eroding rapidly in the wake of repeated interventions in the city's political life by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
Cha began his career as a journalist in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou in 1946, later working as a translator for the Ta Kung Pao newspaper, which sent him to Hong Kong.
By 1955, he had begun writing under the pen-name Jin Yong, and quit the Ta Kung Pao after it became clear that no criticism of the new communist regime in Beijing would be tolerated.
He founded the Ming Pao in 1959, and edited it in the evenings. His days were spent writing the popular fiction that would later net him a personal fortune of more than a billion Hong Kong dollars, "an unprecedented fortune for a Chinese man of letters," the paper said.
Cha had started his career with a huge amount of hope for the People's Republic of China under late supreme leader Mao Zedong.
But he said he turned away from Beijing after the Anti-Rightist movements of the 1950s began targeting liberal-minded intellectuals and public figures for political persecution, violence, and incarceration.
Mao's policies of nationwide collective farming and the famines that followed the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) were also a wake-up call for Cha.
"Once they started to change their tune, by the time of the Anti-Rightist movements, the Great Leap Forward and the People's communes, I became deeply disappointed and disillusioned by them," he once said.
‘Never a democrat’
Hong Kong political commentator Sang Pu said Cha had once hoped to see a genuine revival of the Chinese nation under Mao, with the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
"I think he got a new opportunity to reach out [to Beijing] from the start of Deng Xiaoping's leadership, and then we saw a Jin Yong who didn't write novels, but who was solely focused on politics," Sang said.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post quoted culture critic Oliver Chou as saying that Deng Xiaoping "was said to have sent secret agents to get him a set of Cha's novels in Hong Kong in the early 1980s."
But he added: "He was never a democrat. His suggestion that the chief executive [of Hong Kong] should be elected by a committee was extremely conservative ... and the whole of Hong Kong was very disappointed in him for that."
Cha also once correctly predicted that Chinese leaders might promise democracy to Hong Kong during the negotiations before the 1997 handover, but would never deliver on it.
"If you asked them for broad, full-on democracy, they might agree," he once said. "But personally, I don't actually believe that they would truly implement it."
Political commentator Liu Ruishao said Cha became more politically conservative with age.
"During the 1980s, his position started to morph from a definite opposition figure into a target for the Communist Party's United Front [outreach] effort," Liu told RFA. "However, he was a very clear-sighted and intelligent man, who never let himself be entirely co-opted by the United Front."
"It's entirely possible that he thought he might trade on his United Front status to achieve a few things on behalf of the people of Hong Kong," he said.
Withdraw from journalism
Though Cha was deeply involved in Hong Kong's political life through his participation in the drafting of the city's mini-constitution, or Basic Law, his later years were marked by a gradual withdrawal from journalism and public life, beginning in the 1990s.
During his life, Cha had been showered with honors, including the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1981, and a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur and a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France.
He had honorary professorships at a number of institutions, including Peking University, Hong Kong University, and the University of Cambridge, where he also earned a doctorate from the Department of Oriental Studies in 2010.
Cha's wuxia novels about an honor-bound band of martial artists who inhabit the world of the jianghu have inspired film adaptations, TV and radio dramas, comic books and video games, and left an indelible mark on Chinese popular culture.
His death was the top trending item on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo soon after the news broke, with more than a billion views by Wednesday morning.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam expressed "deep sorrow" over Cha's death, describing him as "a learned man and an acclaimed writer."
"Professor Cha's works inherited the tradition of Chinese classics with the integration of history and culture," she said.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.