Reinterpreting Classic Chinese Novels
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the author corrected previously inaccurate understandings, emphasised neglected points, and put forward the idea that historical documents and literary works should not be wholly trusted.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.