Rein­ter­pret­ing Clas­sic Chi­nese Nov­els

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhou Fu­jing Edited by Greg S. Vanisky

The Bei­jing Pub­lish­ing House has re-pub­lished a se­ries of col­lec­tions un­der the name “Da­jia xi­aoshu (great mas­ters, small books),” with some con­tain­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of great clas­sics.

Known as the “Four Great Fa­mous Books” of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, Wa­ter Mar­gin, Ro­mance of the Three King­doms, Jour­ney to the West and Dream of the Red Cham­ber are widely read. In re­cent years, the Bei­jing Pub­lish­ing House re­pub­lished a se­ries of col­lec­tions au­thored by el­der gen­er­a­tion schol­ars un­der the name “Da­jia xi­aoshu (great mas­ters, small books),” and some con­tained in­ter­pre­ta­tions of these great works. Schol­ars an­a­lysed the char­ac­ters, gave a de­tailed ac­count of its his­tor­i­cal back­ground, and dis­cussed Chi­nese so­ci­ety us­ing one of the works as a ref­er­ence. They also made the orig­i­nal four mas­ter­pieces full of con­no­ta­tions even more en­joy­able, ex­pand­ing the reader's aca­demic vi­sion.

Truth of His­tory

What kind of era was the Three King­doms (AD 220–280)? How should later gen­er­a­tions eval­u­ate it ob­jec­tively? These are ques­tions that have fas­ci­nated count­less his­to­ri­ans, and Lü Simian (1884–1957) was one of them. He wrote the pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal work San­guo shi­hua (“the story of the Three King­doms”), help­ing read­ers to bet­ter un­der­stand the pe­riod. Lü Simian, Chen Yuan, Chen Yinke and Qian Mu are praised as “four great his­to­ri­ans.”

San­guo shi­hua is one of the author's few mas­ter­pieces on lit­er­a­ture and his­tory. It con­tains a plethora of in­for­ma­tion and com­pares the char­ac­ters and events in lit­er­ary works to those recorded in his­tory. In the book, the author cor­rected pre­vi­ously in­ac­cu­rate un­der­stand­ings, em­pha­sised ne­glected points, and put for­ward the idea that his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and lit­er­ary works should not be wholly trusted. The book also presents the author's own in­ter­pre­ta­tions and pop­u­larises sto­ries such as the ris­ing of Cao Cao, one of the most-men­tioned po­lit­i­cal fig­ures in his­tory, as well as the bat­tles be­tween Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, Liu Bei tak­ing Yizhou (near to­day's Sichuan Province) by force, and Sun Quan's seizure of Jingzhou (to­day's Hubei Province).

In the ap­pendix, the author spoke of the rise and de­cline of the East­ern Han (AD 25–220) and Three King­doms, the sit­u­a­tion at the begin­ning of Jin (AD 265–420), and the lo­cal separatist forces at the end of Han (206 BC–AD 220).

The book is about a pe­riod dur­ing China's long his­tory and de­scribes both its tur­bu­lent and pros­per­ous times. Set­ting an ex­am­ple for works that aim to pop­u­larise his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, San­guo shi­hua is easy to read and un­der­stand. The author con­nects his­tor­i­cal re­search and has ex­cep­tional in­sight. His book Zhong­guo tong­shi (“his­tory of China”) is also worth read­ing.

Heroes in Three King­doms

“Three King­doms” refers to the state of Wei (AD 220–265) founded by Cao Cao, state of Shu (AD 221–263) founded by Liu Bei, and state of Wu (AD 222–280) founded by Sun Quan. It was an age of rapid change that gave birth to peo­ple who be­came heroes, and their sto­ries have been widely cir­cu­lated.

The Ro­mance of the Three King­doms, one

of the four great nov­els of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture, was the re­sult of many years of schol­arly ef­fort. Could it be pos­si­ble to re­store the true fea­tures of the heroes in this novel based on ex­ist­ing his­tor­i­cal sources? This was a hy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tion. How­ever, Fang Shim­ing (1919–2000), who stud­ied un­der renowned his­to­ri­ans Gu Jie­gang, Chen Yinque and Qian Mu, de­cided to turn this idea into a re­al­ity.

Fang was en­gaged with Chi­nese me­dieval his­tory for many years. In 1986, he be­gan writ­ing ar­ti­cles and read­ing notes about well-known char­ac­ters in his spare time. This helped him to de­velop ma­te­ri­als for his book Lun san­guo renwu (“on heroes of the Three King­doms”), reprinted by the Bei­jing Pub­lish­ing House in 2016. The work cen­tres on ma­jor his­tor­i­cal events, ex­plains the in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships and thoughts of the char­ac­ters, and judges his­tory from a di­alec­ti­cal per­spec­tive. The char­ac­ters are de­picted fairly and sup­ported by an abun­dance of col­lab­o­rat­ing his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. In the book, the author also an­swers ques­tions that may per­plex read­ers to help them bet­ter un­der­stand his­tor­i­cal truth, which was in line with the orig­i­nal pur­pose be­hind pub­lish­ing the “Da­jia xi­aoshu” se­ries.

The book be­gins with Dong Zhuo.

“He (Dong Zhuo) seems in­ca­pable of be­ing cat­e­go­rized as a fig­ure from the Three King­doms pe­riod, as stated by the author in the pref­ace, but Fang fol­lowed the tra­di­tion of the San­guo zhi ( Records of the Three King­doms) writ­ten by Chen Shou, whose first chap­ter was ti­tled “Dong Zhuo zhuan (‘bi­og­ra­phy of Dong Zhuo').”

Chi­nese So­cial De­vel­op­ment

If you want to re­search Chi­nese so­ci­ety, pay at­ten­tion to the no­ble class, farm­ers, land, hukou (reg­is­tered res­i­dences), floods, droughts, cur­rency, bu­reau­cracy and mil­i­tary. Politi­cian and scholar Sa Mengwu (1897–1984) wrote a se­ries of thought-pro­vok­ing books including Shui­huzhuan yu zhong­guo she­hui (“Wa­ter Mar­gin and Chi­nese so­ci­ety”), Hon­gloumeng yu zhong­guo jiu ji­at­ing

(“Dream of the Red Cham­ber and old Chi­nese fam­i­lies”), and Xiy­ouji yu zhong­guo gu­dai zhengzhi (“Jour­ney to the West and an­cient Chi­nese pol­i­tics”) that all pro­vide an in-depth anal­y­sis of Chi­nese so­ci­ety.

In Shui­huzhuan yu zhong­guo she­hui, Sa Mengwu in­tro­duced the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy, eco­nomic life and eth­i­cal con­cepts of Liang­shanpo, where the Wa­ter Mar­gin sto­ries took place. Us­ing char­ac­ters and events from the Wa­ter Mar­gin, Sa then il­lus­trated the sig­nif­i­cance of “act­ing for Heaven to per­form right­eous deeds,” ex­plains why Zheng Tu, a butcher, could seek dom­i­nance in Yan'an Pre­fec­ture, as well as the rea­sons for the preva­lence of Bud­dhism. He dis­cusses an­cient mar­riages through the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Pan Jin­lian and Xi Men­qing, and ex­am­ines an­cient pol­i­tics from the per­spec­tive of Song Jiang's fam­ily. The book also an­swers ques­tions such as why Lin Chong's po­si­tion was lower than Guan Sheng, why Wu Yong ranks third of the 36 Heav­enly Spir­its, and why Yan Qing gets in­cluded among the 36 Heav­enly Spir­its. The author quotes many his­tor­i­cal sources and analy­ses the pol­i­tics, econ­omy, ethics, mil­i­tary sys­tems, so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tions, and the mar­riage of an­cient Chi­nese so­ci­ety in de­tails.

Por­traits of Heroes

Meng Chao (1902–1976) de­voted his life to lit­er­ary and artis­tic pur­suits and spent a lot of time found­ing news­pa­pers and jour­nals as well as writ­ing ar­ti­cles for them. In the 1940s, he se­lected over 30 heroic fig­ures from the Wa­ter Mar­gin to write the book Shuipo Liang­shan yingx­iong pu (“por­traits of heroes in Liang­shanpo”). The book con­tains por­trait draw­ings of the char­ac­ters, and was reprinted by the Bei­jing Pub­lish­ing House in 2013.

In the book, the author wrote in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent style and from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive than Jin Sheng­tan, a lit­er­ary critic from the late Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing (1644–1911) pe­riod. Meng's anal­y­sis is wise and pro­found, and his writ­ing style is con­cise and time­less. The book por­trays a group of char­ac­ters—“timely rain” Song Jiang, “jade kylin” Lu Junyi, “day­time rat” Bai Sheng, the three Ruan brothers, “flow­ery monk” Lu Zhishen, “ten feet of blue” Hu San­ni­ang, and “leop­ard head” Lin Chong.

Por­trait draw­ings are a high­light of the book. Zhang Guangyu, an in­flu­en­tial comic artist and pro­fes­sor from the Cen­tral In­sti­tute of Arts and Crafts (to­day's Acad­emy of Art and De­sign, Ts­inghua Univer­sity), drew the il­lus­tra­tions. It was chal­leng­ing and dif­fi­cult, but read­ers can tell who the heroes are from their pro­file and cos­tumes. The con­cise texts, cou­pled with draw­ings that are both re­al­is­tic and ex­ag­ger­ated, give the book a special mean­ing.

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