Written in 1967-72,The Deer and the Cauldron was Louis Cha's last, and by many considered his best, Martial Arts novel. It is a sprawling work covering twenty odd years of the early reign of the Emperor Kangxi. In historical terms, the novel begins sometime after the death of Koxinga in 1662 and the Ming History purge of 1682/3, and before the death of Oboi in 1669. It covers the period of the rebellion of the "Three Feudatories" , and the surrender
of Formosa to the Manchus in 1683, before ending shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Nertchinsk in 1689. The plot moves from the pleasure-houses of Yangzhou to Peking and the Imperial Court and the sacred mountain of Wu-tai-shan to a desolate island off the north-east coast of China, base for the fanatical
drug-taking Sect of the Mystic Dragon, through the frozen north-east to Fort Albazin to Moscow and the boudoir of Princess Sophia; before finally returning to the birthplace of the protagonist, Yangzhou.
The Deer and the Cauldron introduces a vast array of underworld characters, all of them members of the so-called Brotherhood of River and Lake - material arts practitioners of every school and shape and size, outlaw secret society members (especially the Triads), singsong girls, innkeepers, gamblers, beggars, salt-smugglers, itinerant (and often fighting) monks and Taoists, herbalists, butchers, and boatmen. We also encounter dissident literati (Gu Yanwu, Huang Zongxi, Lu Liuliang),
corrupt magistrates, ruthless petty Yamen officers, members of the fallen Imperial family of the Ming dynasty, the Paladins of Prince Mu, the descendants of Koxinga, eunuchs (including one aged and wheezing eunuch who practices a particularly lethal form of kungfu), Tibetans, Mongols, Cossacks, the Emperor
Kangxi himself, the Dowagers Empress and a host of pretty girls of various origins.
The novel's protagonist, a young rogue called Trinket, was born in a Yangzhou whorehouse. His nom de guerre is Little White Dragon but he has many guises and is also known as Grand Master of the Greenwood Lodge of the Triad Society, the eunuch Brightie, the Bannerman Captain Huachahuacha, the Zen Brother Claritas, Duke of Albazin, Grand Patriarch of the Sect of the Mystic Dragon, among others. Trinket is one of the truly unforgettable characters in Chinese fiction; he is the prankster,
the larrikin, the trickster who breaks every known convention (of both worlds he inhabits, the high and low), the singsong girls's son whose ultimate dream is to run his own bordello, the perfect anti-hero, the subversive antithesis of the true xia, the apotheosis of the liumang. And yet he has a highly
developed sense of friendship, loyalty and honour. His ambivalent, and touching, relationship with the emperor Kangxi is one of the recurring themes of The Deer and the Cauldron.