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Ren Xiong’s Illustrations of Knights at Arms

Ren Xiong's Illustrations of Knights at Arms
The author Jin Yong is beloved and famed in the Chinese speaking world for his popular martial arts novels, perhaps as famous there as J.R.R. Tolkien is in the English-speaking world.

Numerous movies, tv dramas, and video games have been based on his novels such as the The Legend of the Condor Heroes and The Smiling, Proud Wanderer.

Some later editions of his novel The Ode to Gallantry are appended by Jin Yong's essays about his favorite martial arts or knight errantry stories from traditional Chinese literature. Also included are Qing dynasty illustrations he selected depicting the various characters from the stories. Where did these illustrations come from originally?

It turns out that classic Tang and Song Dynasty stories were collected in the Ming Dynasty to form the first Chinese anthology exclusively dedicated to knight errantry, the Jianxia zhuan. A young Qing dynasty illustrator, Ren Xiong (1823-1857), produced a series of four albums of character illustrations based on traditional Chinese tales, one each on immortals, worthies, lofty scholars, and the martial arts heroes of the Jianxia zhuan. Scholar Roland Altenburger notes, "All four sets are regarded highly by critics for their unconventional, even provocative artistic approach . . . the 33 character portraits illustrating Jianxia zhuan, in particular, became a lasting attraction to posterity and a publishers' favorite. Even nowadays, they are frequently being reproduced." These Ren Xiong Jianxia zhuan illustrations are the ones Jin Yong selected to accompany his essays.

Reproductions of all four sets in the series of Ren Xiong's illustrations, together with other background and research material, can be found today at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer-Sackler Library, where they are available for public use.—Mike Smith

Ren Xiong's Illustrations of Knights at Arms
Ren Xiong's Illustrations of Knights at Arms

Selected Bibliography: 

Altenburger, Roland. Jianxia zhuan (tales of knights at arms): on the formation and tradition of the classical anthology of knight errantry-stories. Asiatische studien, Vol 54, no. 2 (2000), pp. 303-348.

Ren, Xiong. Ren Weichang jian xia zhuan xiang. Shanghai: Shanghai shu hua chu ban she, 1986.

Liu, James. The Chinese knight-errant. London : Routledge & K. Paul, 1967.

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