First! Sorry I haven't hit anyone up for chess just yet. Until the end of the month I'm in a situation where I need to plan in advance to sit down at a place with an Internet connection. I will contact people individually and set up some games, though. Promise.
So. Last October -- just as our "Let's Read Pierre" experiment was winding down -- I found a message in my email inbox from Mr. Jon B, who asked if I had any interest in joining him in bum rushing Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the tremendously famous and influential classical Chinese novel. We finally began reading in May, and finished in late July. (Ten weeks, about 200 pages a week. I can finally brag about having read a novel longer than War and Peace.) After the impending jump, you can read an abridged version of our email discussion (mostly unedited, so my contributions in particular might seem rather half-cooked), but first I'd like to put out an invitation.
At some point in the not too distant future (during the fall, perhaps?) Mr. B. and I are planning to read through Bolesław Prus's The Doll (Lalka), acclaimed as Poland's greatest novel by no one less than Nobel prizewinner poet Czesław Miłosz. (If you've been keeping track, I've posted a couple excerpts in the past.) Even though I read it for the first time nearly three years ago, I'm eager to revisit it again -- but more than that, I just want more people to actually read the damn thing. It's easily one of the best novels I've ever read, but virtually no one in my neck of the woods has even heard of it.
So! If anyone's interested in participating in another "Let's Read" event, please let me know! I can promise it will not be a repeat of the Pierre debacle -- had I known at the onset what a hot mess of a novel it was, I wouldn't have dragged anyone else in with me. The Doll is a much better book than Pierre, I assure you. (I can't help myself from adding that Pierre is a very compelling book if you already have an unhealthy preoccupation with Herman Melville, but is nevertheless a clusterfuck.)
In the meantime, here's the abridged version of our two-man Three Kingdoms book club.
* * * *
Man. This has been a lot to digest.
It just goes so fast. Just a paragraph after we're introduced to the latest hapless trio of commanders (whose names are always composed of two syllables picked out of a hat of the same twenty syllables), two or three or them get impaled or beheaded or executed before they have a chance to say or do anything. This is new to me -- in a novel. But I'm used to it in stuff like, say, Homer and Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War is all assiduously compiled lists of places and names as they enter into the labyrinthine politics and conflicts of the day. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is all that AND it's written to titillate an audience rather than simply relate all the minutiae of a historical chronicle.
|The Oath Brothers; Dynasty Warriors illustration|
I don't see Lu Bu coming to a good end. He's a first-rate warrior, but he's not really bright. He's easily manipulated and has no talent for manipulating others. And Emperor Xian is a sitting duck; if he's not about to be killed, he's certainly going to be deposed by the first warlord with enough muscle and daring (my money's on Cao Cao).
[Derp. "So I'm about fifteen minutes into Star Wars, and I'm really getting the sense that this 'Vader' guy might turn out to be a pretty major villain in the saga."]
* * * *
Every character of Romance of the Three Kingdoms was a historical figure, and all of their actions were well documented. Luo Guanzhong certainly knew all of their histories as he penned the novel, but I doubt he expected the average reader to know them, even if his audience was the well educated elite. This is a little different than the Iliad, since the intricacies of the lives of Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and Aeneas would have been known and loved by everyone who heard/read the Iliad. The Iliad is character based; Agamemnon could never get away with saying a thing Achilles said because their actions were inseparable from their characters. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the exact opposite. It's themes are developed through actual history, and history doesn't care who did what, but only that it happened. While knowing the identity of the characters is helpful to understanding why the events which happened took place the way they did, they're secondary to the events themselves.
[Fact check: the novelist does take several liberties of both omission and commission, but the basic point stands. The translator compares it to Shakespeare's histories (Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, etc.) in some ways.]
|Cao Cao & Dong Zhuo|
The problem is when we take this approach to history some of the intricacies are lost. Maybe that's why Guanzhong leaves in so many of these names. He wants his novel to be a novel, but doesn't want to sacrifice historical precision. take any name he mentions, no matter how minor, and I'm there's a decent Wikipedia page devoted to the character. Learning a bit about these guys can color the events of the novel a bit differently. For example look up Zhunagzi, the sage who appeared to Zhang Jue, giving him the Essential Arts for the Millennium, which prompted him to start the Yellow Scarves. [Ah, yes. Zhuangzi.] Knowing about his philosophy of speculation and anarchism changes how the Yellow Scarves appear at least a little. I'm sure similar stories are behind most of these characters, and it would be beneficial to look at them, however they're not part of the story Guanzhong wants to tell, so they're only mentioned, then killed off. It might not be the best approach, but I think it works for what he's trying to do.
* * * *
What do you think about Lu Bu? I'm not quite sure what the intended feelings towards him are supposed to be. It seems like the reader is supposed to dislike him, but of all the characters I've seen, I'm getting to believe he was the most noble. Maybe that's not the right word, so I'll try to explain what I mean.
Compare him with Xuande, who appears to be the closest thing this novel has to a protagonist. First of all, Xuande was who ultimately had Lu Bu killed. While Lu Bu did conquer Xuande's territory and certainly took advantage of him at times, he saved Xuande from Ji Ling/Yuan Shu, of which Xuande promised to always remember, and spared Xuande's family once he conquered Xuande's town after Xuande joined Cao Cao. He believed that Xuande only joined Cao Cao out of necessity, and meant no harm to him. Xuande allowed Cao Cao to execute Lu Bu, breaking his promise, after realizing that if Lu Bu was allowed to live he would only make Cao Cao stronger, hurting Xuande's ultimate cause.
The novel also seems to look negatively at Lu Bu's affection towards his family. The Oath Brothers are praised for killing each others' family so that they would be free from any familial duties. Even the hunter guy, who's name I forget and never wrote down, killed his mother and served it to Xuande, then got great respect for that. I understand that this may be a cultural thing, but I strongly side with Lu Bu on this one. It was ultimately his devotion to his wives which caused his defeat. However, compare this with all the people mentioned who are perfectly fine with having their entire clan be killed in order that they might rebel against Cao Cao.
Maybe I'm looking at this wrong. Xuande and others certainly care about their families, and these incidents are mentioned in order to show how great their devotion is to the Emperor/Han Dynasty. This certainly isn't just a Chinese thing; Abraham was lauded by god for almost killing his son. Is this a good thing? Maybe. I can understand Abraham's motives a little better, since it was his god who commanded him to do this act. However, why is it so important the cling to these ideals? Having a dream and pursuing it is something praised by almost everyone, but why is it so great? What happens when these ideals clash with the interests of others? Yes, serving the Empire is great, but service of the Empire is a vague and somewhat abstract concept that can never 100% be reached. Caring for one's family is much more immediate, i.e. it's something that one can actually accomplish. So which one is more important?
* * * *
So I finally think I’m getting the hang of this book. I went in having no idea what to expect (I really should have read the introduction, but I picked up the book a couple days later than I than I intended and really didn’t want to flake or fall behind on the weekly 200-page quota), and was sent tumbling along before I could get my bearings. Now that I have a better sense of the scene, I almost want to go back and start from the beginning, so I can understand the early events in the context of later ones.
|Lu Bu vs. Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, & Guan Yu|
I have been scrupulously reading the endnotes, however. The Chinese Classics edition was an excellent choice – not only is at least one editor helping the translation-reading foreigner with little substantial knowledge of Chinese history (perhaps I only speak for myself) to contextualize events, but supplementing modern commentary with notes from a 17th century editor was a superb editorial stroke. (If only they were as attentive in their copyediting, though. On occasion the typos are so bad as to actually create ambiguity.) At any rate, getting Mao’s commentary on the literary significance of events (rather than just the historical/geographical import) has been an invaluable marker for details I might have otherwise missed as a stranger to Chinese culture and literature. In particular, I fear I would have overlooked some of the subtleties of the high-stakes “frienemy” politicking between Xuande and Cao Cao were it not for Mao. One page I bookmarked in the endnotes contains this comment:
There are some who hold the view that Xuande, knowing the fate of Ding Yuan and Dong Zhuo, should have tried to persuade Cao Cao to retain Lu Bu. I disagree. Cao was a far different sort from Zhuo and Yuan. He would have known how to make use of Bu and guard against him at the same time. Xuande would only have been augmenting Cao’s strength, and he knew that at the time.
Poor Lu Bu.
During the first twenty or so chapters, when I was still too off-balance to appreciate characters and events more entirely within the context of the narrative per se, I processed them by finding analogies in similar and more familiar texts, like the Iliad and History of the Peloponnesian War. Early on, I compared Lu Bu to Achilles. Now that’s not so much the case.
I might argue that morality exerts more of a gravitational force upon the narrative in Three Kingdoms than in the Iliad. Achilles is forgiven his failings in that he isn’t undone by them, whereas Lu Bu makes too many stigmatically bad calls and pays for them.
First: Lu Bu fails strategically. He doesn’t really have a strategy. He’s a battle god who doesn’t mind acquiring power, wealth, and influence, but he is incapable of anticipating some of the consequences of his rise: namely, that he attracts the attention of players who face him in the arena of realpolitik, where he can’t competently compete. Bu is a pugilist; Cao is a manipulator. I’m reminded of something Scarface said in an episode of Batman: the Animated Series: “when the muscles start thinking it’s the brains, it’s time to amputate.” Bu’s proper role was as a vassal, not an independent warlord.
Second: I know only a few things about Chinese culture, but one of those things is the sacrosanct status of filial devotion. Lu Bu basically commits sacrilege by betraying and murdering not one, but two father figures for personal gain and satisfaction. It’s a crime that a narrative rooted in Confucian values cannot forgive; and so when Cao asks Xuande whether Bu should be spared, all Xuande has to do is mention Bu’s betraying his prior masters.
. . . . . . . .
When you put on your double-lensed glasses and look at Xuande and Bu’s actions, you get inverted pictures. From the perspective of culture that prizes individuality and doesn’t think too poorly on insurrection and rebellion, Bu doesn’t seem like an awful guy. But to a reader subject to a culture in which devotion to the father is an overriding cardinal virtue, and in which the emperor is essentially the father of fathers, Bu’s putting his own interests ahead of the emperor’s probably wouldn’t be perceived as deserving of praise, but as a fatal flaw (which it indeed proves to be). Xuande, on the other hand, is the story’s main hero precisely because of his unshakable loyalty to and willingness to sacrifice for the dynasty.
* * * *
|Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed; illus. Junko Taguchi for M:tG|
"Wait. Xun You? Wasn't he just killed a few pages ago?"
"Oh. That was Xu You. Well, right."
I’ve been discussing the books with another person on my end. She’s a big fan of Three Kingdoms, but she’s never actually read the books. She has, however, watched one of the more recent television dramatizations in its entirety (ninety-six hours!), so her grasp of the general plot and cast of characters is pretty solid. (She keeps on asking me if Zhuge Liang has appeared yet -- and as of Chapter 36, he has! -- evidently the actor who plays him is quite the looker.)
But anyway, she’s the sort whose philosophical/political inclination is to view events and ideas through a feminist lens, so I asked for her opinion regarding my “there are no female characters in Three Kingdoms” assertion.
She shrugged. “Pretty much.”
Coincidentally, some of the earlier chapters of this batch began with Lord Guan’s escorting of Xuande’s wives from Xuchang to Yuan Shao’s territory. “Why are you asking ME anything?” Lady Gan keeps saying to Guan. “I’m just a woman. MY opinions don’t matter.” (Of course these aren’t direct quotes, but it’s pretty close.)
But when one of these women appears in a position of authority -- always because of their having a noble husband or son -- they turn vicious, and their venom is usually directed towards other women. Empress He poisons one of Emperor Ling’s concubines; Yuan Shao’s wife has all of his concubines murdered just after his death. Usually when something like this happens, the lady's next move is to go after her rivals' sons. They do this, Guanzhong suggests, out of jealousy. Nevermind that these actions occur during occasions when succession politics are on the horizon; and nevermind that these women only wield power by virtue of their proximity to an officer or emperor, and there's a chance that they might be unwilling to be at the mercy of whichever alpha male comes along next. Nope. They're just nasty termagents.
Of course, when men murder each other in the battlefield to gain and consolidate power, they're acting out of courage and nobility and virtue. Of course.
My connection to the currents of video gaming is tenuous at best these days, but I still browse gaming forums (and occasionally blogs), and there's a remark with which I'm becoming familiar: "I play video games and read philosophy books -- never novels. When I want entertainment and a story, I play a game. When I want a dose of knowledge and insight about our world, I read philosophy."
I don't think that's an accurate assessment. I've just started reading philosophy in the last few years, but I find it's as dismal a science as economics. A philosopher is correct until he is proven wrong, and the history of philosophy is nothing if not crops of new thinkers shooting holes in the old ideas. The world remains a riddle. Philosophy concerns itself with generalities, and our existence is too variegated to be resolved in such broad strokes. A good novel is as concerned with problems of the world and of the intellect as any philosophical tract or treatise, and can attack the mystery at points that the methods of philosophy can not approach.
It can also be used as a sort of Petri dish in which ideas can be explored -- like a computer simulation of how the intercourse of physical laws might play out in an actual environment. Often I find myself experiencing Three Kingdoms as a didactic "fable" that expresses the values of Chinese culture and Confucianism and the shapes they take within a complex ongoing situation.
* * * *
|The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms (PC), 2009 |
So it seems Cao Cao has become a much larger focus. In the previous section it seemed Cao Cao's rise to power was narrated in order to provide as many parallels to Dong Zhou as possible. As the focus has shifted towards him, Cao Cao seems like less and less of a bad guy. While certainly not an ideal hero, he has many things going for him. Cao Cao's praise towards to his advisers who warned against entering the desert is a great example of his character, and caught me off guard when I first read it. There are also all sorts of instances of him giving amnesty to opposing generals after succeeding in his campaigns.
A similar process seemed to happen with other notable characters. I can't say I was a big fan of Lu Bu when he was first introduced, but as the novel started to focus on him for a while he became a flawed but interesting and likeable character. Same with Sun Ce, Liu Biao, and even Dong Zhou to some extent.
The only exception may be Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao seemed to be a respectable and powerful general at the beginning of the novel, being voted as the leader of the resistance against Dong Zhou. However, once his conflict with Cao Cao became more important and Yuan Shao was mentioned more often his flaws became more apparent. Why is that?
Most modern authors seem to focus more on the psychological process that precedes actions. So I guess it's quite a feat for Guanzhong to achieve a similar level of characterization while almost never entering the heads of the characters. You mentioned Ezra Pound, so I'll bring him up again since I've been reading quite a lot of his work recently. He set down a few principles of Imagism with some colleagues, one of them being "direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective."
It's pretty obvious this idea descended from East Asian literature. The events of the Three Kingdoms aren't examined, the characters' psyches are not put under a magnifying glass. Things happen in such a way that there is no need for any of that. The reader is allowed to look at things deeper if he'd like, but the book gives him everything he needs to do that just by stating the events in a direct and precise way.
This method isn't any better than the methods of presentation most modern Western novels use, it's just different, and therefore has different results. I suppose the approach Guanzhong takes goes much smoother with the ideas he's trying to explore. Western values and ideals tend to focus more on the individual, while Eastern values lean towards the group. Nihilism, Existentialism, Absurdism and other Western philosophies would be very awkwardly expressed in a novel like the Three Kingdoms. And while Confucianism could be explored through a stream of consciousness novel, the approach Guanzhong takes is very harmonious with the ideas he's playing around with.
* * * *
This was a really neat segment. Not a lot happened, but the battle of the Red Cliffs has been sufficiently set up, and every character illustrated at the beginning has been introduced. I also suppose that the events in this chapter have sealed the fate of China, plotting the eventual Three Kingdoms which will come after the Han. Xuande still doesn't have a 'kingdom', but he has managed (at the very least to seem) to become a major player in the conflict between the North and South, especially with recruiting Zhuge Liang/Kongming.
|Tony Leung as Zhou Yu in Red Cliff, 2008-9|
At this point the novel has started to put less emphasis on the main characters (Xuande, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan), and is now focusing on the subordinates (mainly Kongming and Zhou Yu). While Kongming is often praised, Zhou Yu is quite a general himself. Zhou Yu's constant attempts to kill Kongming are really interesting. It's obvious to any outside observer that it's in Zhou Yu's best interest to keep Kongming alive, at least till Cao Cao is dealt with. There is certainly some rationality behind attempting to kill Kongming, but a glimpse of rationality is often the easiest way to fall into irrationality.
* * * *
Yeah, this last block has been fun; we've changed channels from the "Xuande and Friends Hour" to "Kongming the Cleverest Boy Alive Show." I daresay these contests of shrewdness between Kongming and pretty much everyone else in China make for more compelling reading than most of the contests of strength we've seen.
. . . . . . . .
Liu Biao died, didn't he? I almost completely forgot about him until I got to flipping through chapters to refresh my memory -- which is funny, because he's represented one of the primary powers in the wake of the empire's splintering. Not an insignificant figure at all -- and yet not very memorable, either. Maybe that's what Guanzhong intended: Biao was never taken seriously by the shrewder (and therefore more effective) players because of his reluctance to make his presence and power felt. When the tacticians write him off, it's to a chorus of "lack of ambition."
As a sappy left-leaner who lives in a community of religious pacifists, it is strange to see how a lack of appetite for violent conquest being perceived as a failing. I mean, Biao would rather just keep his borders secure and his people safe than marshal armies to violently annex surrounding territories. (It's the kind of national conduct I would really like to see.) Our editor Mao would probably suggest that Biao's moral failing is in how he remains quiescent (or tries to), when what he SHOULD be doing is attempting to restore the dynasty to power after Cao Cao's de-facto coup. And so his reluctance to get involved was a lost opportunity to check Cao's power, which by now is overwhelming.
Questions I'm reluctant to ask among the Quakers: if the social climate were largely pacifistic and the general law was live and let live, what happens when somebody with a lot of friends and a lot of weapons decides he has more to gain by not playing nice? Who stops him?
. . . . . . . .
Often against Kongming's advice, Xuande repeatedly chooses virtue at the cost of expediency; he and his military/political causes always suffer for it. Presuming that Kongming is speaking genuinely when he lauds Xuande's virtues as he castigates Sun Quan's advisers, the situation is such that Xuande and Kongming's alliance isn't just convenient and mutually beneficial; it seems to bear the stamp of divine providence. In Xuande's battle against Cao, his scruples are serving as a handicap -- he needs an almost supernaturally perspicacious tactician and adviser to even the odds. Kongming, for his part, is practically born to win and destroy empires, but would never lend his talents to a warlord unless that man were a paragon of morality and justice. Xuande and Kongming complete each other.
Speaking of: I started flipping through a collection of Confucian texts edited by Lin Yutang. I only had time to get through the first ten pages, but one thing I took away was Yutang's suggestion of an equivalence between morality and politics in the Confucian understanding. If the people behave morally, the polity will fall naturally into harmonious order.
The implication is that the righteousness of Xuande's campaign is based as much on his unflaggingly moral conduct as his tie to the imperial bloodline -- in fact, I would guess that in through the Confucian lens, they are practically equivalent.
* * * *
|Red Cliffs site?|
In the Tongsu (TS) edition, when showing the validity of Xuande's campaign in Nanjun, Kongming says "The empire belongs to no one man, but to all the empire." Which you happened to just mention. This isn't the first time this phrase has been used. Apparently twice before this, and three times after this.
It seems Guanzhong likes to take bits of wisdom like this and explore exactly what they mean by putting them in various contexts and usages. I tried and failed to find some of the other uses of this phrase, but I can guarantee they were spoken in a very different way than how Kongming just used it. This phrase most likely originated long before Guanzhong's time. He doesn't seem to be questioning it; he's exploring how this knowledge should be applied. It's not much different than many modern Christians. Every Christian I know holds the Bible as the word of god, yet whole denominations spring up over small reinterpretations of a single verse.
Many other ideas are examined in the same way, often being represented by a simple phrase like "The wise bird chooses its branch, the wise servant his master." Most likely in Guanzhong's eyes there was no questioning whether these assertions are valid or not. However, I'm guessing what he really wanted to explore in writing this was "So what? What does this mean to me and others?" He takes simple Confucian and Daoist ideas and runs them through a thousand characters in a hundred different scenarios. What comes out of all of this?
. . . . . . . .
Just as nice parents tend to raise terrible children, can't it be argued that just and benevolent rulers' subjects are more likely to be unjust themselves? America's as good an example as anything, a rich nation with a historically (relatively) just government filled with a population rolling in excess. (Coincidentally, I just saw the new Great Gatsby film the other day.) As the population falls into excess its government does the same. Xuande may be moral and therefore his kingdom may prosper, but in the real world things seem to go quite the opposite in the long run. Morality and justice always tend to directly oppose wealth and prosperity. Of course, I'm inclined to blame this on Capitalism.
* * * *
I am vigorously nodding at your take on Guanzhong's exploration of Confucian and Taoist ideas (how does idealism play out in a complicated situation where cutthroat pragmatism is more efficient, etc.), but have nothing to add. I look forward to seeing how this all concludes, though. (I am sorry, however, that Guanzhong probably won't end all this, all Tolstoy did, with an essay detailing his own conclusions.)
. . . . . . . .
Lady Sun. Yen (the friend of mine who has watched, in its entirety, each Three Kingdoms television dramatization made since 1990), keeps asking about her; the Three Kingdoms MTG block gives her her own card. She probably won't be a fairly inconsequential flash in the pan like Lady "Don't Ask Me I'm Just a Girl" Gan. Actually, she's kind of a bad ass, as far as Three Kingdoms can permit her to be. Sure, most of her power is administered in the form of "DON'T YOU KNOW WHO MY BROTHER IS, PEASANT?" but she's sure got moxy.
I'm beginning to get a little sick of Kongming. He gets less and less interesting with each chapter. The only other major character who's been as monochromatic was Dong Zhuo. (Remember him? I barely do! IT'S BEEN SO LONG.) We can take every other significant figure and find things we like about him and things we dislike; he has strengths and he has foibles. Our hero Xuande makes stupid calls and dick moves. The traitor Cao's history is a two-decade sequence of dick moves, but it's often hard not to admire his brilliance (and his humanity, on the rare instances he shows it). But then this little shit Kongming is just perfect. He knows everything better than everyone else. In fact, he knows EVERYTHING, period. He will not be surprised or outwitted. He is never wrong. He's perfect, and a perfectly smug son of a bitch. When something as trifling as seasonal weather patterns happens to obstruct one of his schemes, Kongming can simply change the winds to suit his liking. Why not?! BAH. OF COURSE HE CAN. HE'S JUST THAT CLEVER.
I guess I didn't realize how much I sympathize with Zhou Yu until I sat down to write this. But I'd like to think I grudge him as a reader rather than on some "personal" basis. Kongming is making the book less interesting for me (although I still can't put it down, don't get me wrong), and the way he could most quickly redeem himself is to fall flat on his face or find himself caught off guard. I want to see him humanized.
(I'll admit that I like when his plans call for Xuande to moan and sob until the interlocutor between he and Sun Quan feels disturbed and sorry for him and just goes away.)
Speaking of dick moves on Xuande's part -- he's been making quite a few lately, what with this muscling family members out of their own territory with a friendly grin on his face. It often sees to me that he knows what he wants, but makes himself wait for a moment where he can seize it without making himself look like the bad guy, even if he is the one administering the shakedown. As long as he can't be perceived as an open aggressor (and can brandish the emperor's edict), he can stand blameless for whatever he does, can't he?
Sun Quan. What's your take on this guy? I'm having a hard time getting a fix on him. Xuande and Cao Cao seem to be, as Xuande himself says, each other's antithesis. So if one is red and the other is violet, where on the spectrum do we find Sun Quan? What can we say about him other than that he has an unusual and noble appearance, and that he's better as an administrator than a battlefield commander?
* * * *
Well, that was unexpected: somebody managed to surprised Kongming, and that somebody was Zhang Fei. I recall Xuande mentioning that Zhang Fei honed his propensity for strategy by his acquaintance with Kongming. I doubt "ironic" is the right word for it, but it is striking how one of the characters to undergo the most drastic change since the beginning of the novel (some thirty years and 1,200 pages ago) owes his transformation to the influence of one of the novel's most static. (And even though Kongming still isn't my favorite character, I smiled for Zhang Fei. Praise from Kongming about strategy is worth a hell of a lot.)
A transcription from Mao, just for good measure:
The Zhang Fei of this day is not the Zhang Fei who lost Xuzhou through drunkenness. They are virtually two different men. But the Zhang Fei who outwitted Zhang He is the Zhang Fei who outwitted Yan Yan. When he outwitted Yan Yan, there were two Zhang Feis [a real and a false one], one behind the woods, one in front. When he outwitted Zhang He, there were again two Zhang Feis . . . almost as if, like Zuo Ci, he could materialize outside of himself. Is this his transcendence in wine?
I also have to say I was surprised at how much I was moved by the exchange between Zhang Fei and Yan Yan. It's a sort of scene and a sort of bond that's not often witenessed in modern American civilian life.
Oh. So Lady Sun's gone again. I really do hope she reappears, but "important female" is practically an oxymoron in Three Kingdoms. (I wonder where Diaochan ended up?) But this has been repeated ad nauseum (mostly by me).
Wait. Wasn't Lady Sun lured back to the Southlands with a lie about her mother falling ill? How did she react when she came home -- after a long journey which had her abandoning her husband, kidnapping his firstborn son, and practically duking it out herself with Zhao Zilong -- and found her mother alive and well?
. . . . . . . .
|Pang Tong, "Young Phoenix;" illus. Li Tie for M:tG|
(Suddenly I'm remembering the space pirates from Outlaw Star, whose major figures all commanded Tao magic. It was overwhelmingly powerful and very difficult to counter, and Gene usually got by through luck. Neither did their Tao magic inhibit them from building and piloting spaceships, going toe-to-toe with Suzuka and Aisha in a fight, or trading gunfire with Gene. WHAT'S THE DRAWBACK? THIS IS A BROKEN MECHANIC, HERE.
* * * *
Hmm... I've been noticing a recurring theme in characters like Yang Song. Cao Cao bribed him to slander Pang De so that Zhang Lu would unjustly punish him. Pang De begins to lose his loyalty, and Cao Cao recruits him. Cao Cao is then able to conquer Hanzhong; all due to the help of Yang Song. However, the moment Cao Cao is finished with Zhang Lu, he kills Yang Song for his treachery, even though conquering Hanzhong would be a lot more difficult without him.
I love this kind of justice that's been happening throughout the book. My first thought is that it must be a Confucian thing. Then I'm reminded of western folklore, like the story of Tarpeia, which is quite similar. A foreign kingdom attacks Rome, and Tarpeia offers to open the gates if they give her the bracelets they have on them. They agree, she lets them in, the city is burned down, Tarpeia's friends and family are killed, raped, and so on. She then asks for the bracelets, and the enemy soldiers kill her for being so disloyal to her kinsmen. I guess it's a common sense thing then, held by most cultures. It's a bit refreshing, when you consider that if Tarpeia or Yang Song lived today and did the same deeds they'd be made ambassadors to Norway or something similar.
For the role Lu Su played, his death was a tad disappointing. It looks like it was just a means to introduce Guan Lu and show off his magic Taoist abilities. On that subject, did Guan Lu actually do anything besides impress Cao Cao? Maybe to contrast with Zuo Ci? All of his predictions are fulfilled within the chapter they're made, so it's not like he's foreshadowing what's to come. I guess he'll be important in the future? This whole story arc seems a little sudden in the context of the narrative. It just happens, then we move on. Perhaps there's something more to it that I'm not seeing? On the other hand, there's the fact that this is based on actual history. Lu Su's death might not have been that interesting or important, and rather than ignore it, the novelist may have decided to briefly mention it in the context of this whole other seemingly unrelated event.
Now that you mention Cao Cao's death, I looked at the chronology at the back of the last volume. If you don't count the last chapter, which is probably just tying up loose ends since it covers 16 years, the novel ends at 264. Cao Cao's not the only one who will be dead before this is over. Think how weird it will be when every character we started out with is dead.
* * * *
So...yeah. Everyone is dying and Xuande becomes an emperor and becomes a jerk. That's where I'm at right now. Um...hopefully I'll have caught up by next week.
* * * *
Wow, this set has been pretty disturbing. What you said, "everyone is dying and Xuande becomes an emperor and becomes a jerk," sums it up pretty well. It's amazing how the course of events has changed so quickly.
Lu Bu's fall came about due to similar circumstances, putting family and other private concerns over his public duty. Interestingly enough, Xuande was the one who permitted Lu Bu to be killed, basically condemning his actions. At the time of Lu Bu's death, Xuande may have seemed righteous and like a perfect Confucian hero, but now that he has had real difficulties, it's fairly obvious he's no different than Lu Bu. Even his recent strategic errors seem to draw parallels to Lu Bu.
Chapter 85 is the last chapter with a title mentioning Xuande in the entire book, and that chapter concerns Xuande's heir. It seems likely that things are pretty much over for Xuande after his actions in Chapters 81-84. I'm very interested to see what things are like once Kongming takes over, and how his interactions with the other two kingdoms may turn out.
. . . . . . . .
Another thing that's pretty interesting, and which has only been hinted at so far, is a theme of reincarnation. Apparently many of the characters are believed to be reincarnations of early Han dynasty figures. I think this is really cool, and though I doubt the author came up with this idea, it's a pretty great way of tying the novel in with the rest of Chinese history/mythology. Apparently Dream of the Red Chamber (another Chinese novel I'd be interested in reading) does something similar, starting the novel with a frame story, then casting many of the characters as reincarnations of people from the frame story.
Have you ever read/seen any Noh plays? These sort of plot points I mentioned are very Noh-like in my opinion. I have a very tough time of explaining Noh to anyone, at least partly because I really have no idea what Noh is myself, but if you haven't read any before, you should check it out. Ezra Pound has done some very good translations and published them alongside some essays of his and Ernest Fenollosa. (If it's not already obvious, I am completely in love with Ezra Pound.)
Something I like about a lot of ancient civilizations' mythical traditions is how interconnected everything is. E.g. every story in Greek mythology has a direct connection to other stories, often culminating in major events like the Trojan War. Even the Romans connected themselves to Greek tradition through stories like the Aeneid. Chinese literature seems to be the same way. It's really cool to see these links going thousands of years in time between characters of the Three Kingdoms and ancient Chinese historical figures. At the very least it makes me want to read more about it, since I know practically nothing about Chinese history.
* * * *
|Kongming leaving home|
If I had to guess, Sun Quan will probably prove to have the overall long-term advantage. Kongming is the only one holding Shu together, and he won't live forever. The Cao camp will only last until the Sima boys realize they're probably better off running things themselves. Sun Quan, on the other hand, is much more firmly established, and better at choosing competent and loyal followers to run things.
Speaking of Sima Yi: it was rather refreshing to see Kongming come up against someone he actually fears. And I wasn't as happy as I expected to be when his campaign against Wei ended in failure. He was not directly responsible for it -- but as he castigates himself for his poor choice in commanders, I'm once again reminded of Sun Ce's rationale in naming Quan as his successor.
(On everyone dying, I'm not sure if we can actually count Lord Guan out. Years after his execution, he's STILL able to run around killing people. I wonder if we'll see Kongming posthumously outsmarting people.)
Kongming's southern campaign against Meng Huo was a lot of fun. More than ever, Three Kingdoms reminded me of Herodotus -- particularly the sections in which the Persian king Cyrus led a series of expeditions against a series of outlandish barbarian tribes. I realize there's always a kind of cultural chauvinism in these sorts of stories (as our editor mentioned), but it's fun to see an imagination running wild in its take on foreign lands and their people.
And Kongming's relationship with Ah Dou seems like an inversion of Cao Cao's and Xian's. In both cases you have a flimsy sovereign and an outstanding prime minister who actually runs things, but one arrangement is consensual, the other is basically coercion. But I think we might be about to see another disadvantage of scruples. The traitor Cao Cao was able to ensure that power would have to pass on to his own clan rather than to the imperial lineage, and things would continue running smoothly afterwards. Kongming, following Liu Bei's example of dynastic piety, has no intention of seizing the actual sovereignty, practically ensuring that it will be in incapable hands once he's out of the picture.
* * * *
|Yokoyama Mitsuteru Sangokushi, 1991-2|
I find it interesting that after only ten years Wei is in an almost identical situation of that which the later Han was is. Instead of Emperor Xian being obviously bossed around by Cao Cao, we now have Cao Rui being more subtly manipulated by Sima Yi. Of course, as you mentioned, Shu isn't much different with Kongming and whatever Xuande's son's name is. Sun Quan is the only competent leader. What will his heir be like?
Compare Cao Pi's and Sun Ce's successions. The moment Cao Pi chose to be succeeded by Cao Rui instead of his more capable brother Cao Zhi Wei's fate was sealed.
Another similarity between Shu and Wei: both sovereigns are totally incapable individuals living in the shadows of their extraordinary ancestors. In fact, the whole book could be described as that. I think the name 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' is a bit of a misnomer. It seems much more concerned with the demise of the Han. The Han, which began as its own insurrection against the Qin, becoming an immense and powerful civilization filled with great men. It's a bit poetic that the Han dynasty existed just about the same time Rome was ruling in Europe, our equivalent to the Han. The book is about the men who lived in the shadow of the early Han as it fell apart. It doesn't matter if the Liu Bang was as great as everyone says he was, or if he killed the white serpent or any of that. What's important is that he is seen as an ideal ruler by the characters of the novel.
Such a big conflict for many of the characters is the need to do something, to be remembered just as the Great Ancestor was. Isn't that what Zhao Zilong was praised for? Instead of wanting to marry some girl, his deepest desire was to do great deeds, to have fame, to be known. There are hundreds of different characters, some trying to save the Han, some trying to end it, and some just fighting for their own survival, but in each of them is the desire to be remembered and to actually matter.
Wow, how familiar. A little like the Zeroes, I think.
I need to write these right after I finish the last chapter in the set instead of waiting a few days. It's amazing how quickly the novel is moving, and the chapters about Kongming's battles with Meng Huo seems so distant at this point.
* * * *
|I have no idea.|
Glancing at your last message a second time, I'm once again flattered by your comparison of Three Kingdoms to The Zeroes, but I think it would be more appropriate to compares apples to apples and epics to epics by pulling out the similar thread in the Iliad. Gah -- I don't have my copy of the Fagles translation on hand, but let's see if I can find it on one of the public domain versions...
Ah! Sarpedon says it. Book XII:
My good friend, if, when we were once out of this fight, we could escape old age and death thenceforward and for ever, I should neither press forward myself nor bid you do so, but death in ten thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude him; therefore let us go forward and either win glory for ourselves, or yield it to another.
That's just one strand out of the whole quilt. But -- yeah, it's there in The Zeroes too. It's one of those ubiquitous motifs of human existence: I'm going to die, but my memory will live on if I do something worth remembering. And so we try to be Napoleons and Hemingways. Using our lives to create some thing that will outlast our lives.
How familiar. Indeed.
But wait. We were talking about Three Kingdoms.
Well, there's Kongming. I take it back -- viewed as a whole, he's a great character. He's not wholly rounded out until he suffers defeat, failure, and death. As Liu Bei's wunderkind secret weapon, he seemed supernatural; but when events stop working in his favor (the prime instance being when his final attempt to destroy Sima Yi is foiled by the weather, which he was once able to predict and control), his mortality comes into such painful relief. I stopped disliking him. I didn't want him to fail.
So he spends his entire life striving towards the fulfillment of Liu Bei's goal -- and what does he get? He doesn't succeed in retaking the heartland, and the Shu-Han dynasty's days are clearly numbered, now that he's out of the picture. Was it all for nothing?
But here we are -- two people on the other side of the planet, 1800 years later, discussing the man. Not the man -- the legendary version of the man kept alive by way of cultural memory.
I honestly can't remember if I didn't unintentionally learn about the Sima clan takeover in advance. Yen might have mentioned it; it might have been in a Wikipedia article or something. But as soon as Sima Yi took the field, it seemed so obvious. All of the giants have fallen, and none of their sons can match their stature. Sima is the only new figure who comes close to matching the old; his rise to power is assured. (Would it be an oversimplification to say he's like an amalgamation of Cao Cao and Kongming?)
From the stagnation of the the late Han hegemony came revolution and chaos. Out of the subsequent power struggles arose three counterbalancing kingdoms. And now that languishing order is rocked by a new upheaval. (Am I reading this right or just being dramatic?)
Regarding what you said about living up to extraordinary ancestors: I'm beginning to question some of Mao's editorial choices. While flipping through Moss's afterword (which I intend to read fully), I noticed him mentioning that Mao views Liu Bei as the legitimate and rightful successor purely on the basis of lineage -- which is the reason why he eliminates every instance "the empire belongs to no man but to all in the empire" line. It would imply that Liu Bei's bloodline is superfluous.
Does this mean that his virtue is incidental? Does it excuse him for losing his marbles after Guan Yu's death?
Despite Mao's tweaking, the the text makes a strong argument that heritage amounts to very little. In fact, most sons fall quite short of measuring up to their fathers. Men of talent, knowledge, and ability (read: virtue?) are the ones who thrive and take control. Mao's modifications change Romance of the Three Kingdoms such that it now implicitly says: "The empire belongs to no man but to all in the empire. He who has virtue shall possess it."
So I wonder how Mao feels about the conclusion? More importantly, how does he think we should feel? The Han dynasty will be obliterated and the China will be united under a usurper who declares himself emperor -- are we supposed to see this as a tragedy? Who are we supposed to be cheering for now? Should we be relieved that the decades-long civil war is coming to an end, or upset by the illegitimacy of a non-Han ruler? Or are we expected to shrug and say "ain't that some shit?"
Or are we to meditate on the truism that history is too tremendous and too complicated for such broad judgements?
* * * *
|Sima Yi, Dynasty Warriors|
The Burton Watson translation arrived yesterday. So far I've only read the introduction, so I can't say how much this actually represents Confucius' views, but Mr. Watson wrote something a bit pertinent:
Confucius several times speaks of Yao and Shun, ideal sovereigns who were believed to have ruled the empire in very ancient times. Although the Analects makes no clear reference to the fact, Yao was traditionally believed to have passed over his own son and chosen Shun, a man of great virtue but unrelated to him by blood, as his successor. And Shun in time did likewise, it was said, ceding the throne to Yu, because of his moral worth, rather than to his own son. This "ceding" principle, the belief that wisdom and moral stature rather than birth alone are what qualify one for rulership, seems to underlie much of Confucius' thinking in the Analects.
We've obviously seen that to some degree in the Three Kingdoms, as well as the converse, the vassal deeming he is wiser than the ruler and taking control.
It seems everyone agrees Liu Bei is the ideal Confucian hero. In being the ideal Confucian hero it was necessary for him to serve the Han, no matter what. In his service to the Han the Han Emperor was disposed, effectively ending the Han. From Xuande's view he couldn't serve Wei, the usurpers, he had to continue serving the Han. The only way he could do that was invoke the power of his surname and make himself the Han Emperor, thereby continuing the Han's existence. Despite being the ideal Confucian hero, he was far from being the ideal Confucian ruler. Therefore in being the ideal Confucian hero it was necessary for him to die and hand over the state to Zhuge Liang, the far more capable leader. And if we want to look at things from a broader perspective, the Liu were not capable of properly ruling in either the late Han or the Shu dynasties. Therefore, in being this ideal image of Confucianism, it was necessary that they fall and the Sima clan, which were capable of ruling, take their place.
A question that now must be asked is "How did Jin fall? Who succeeded the Sima clan?" According to Wikipedia, Sima Dewen, that is, Emperor Gong, came to the conclusion that he was unfit to rule, and handed the Empire over to another man, not a part of the Sima clan, thus beginning the (first) Song dynasty. What was this man's surname? Liu.
"How hard to grasp-- these mysterious transformations events bring."
* * * *
|Shu vs. Wei|
I think you hit the nail on the head earlier when you pointed out that Liu Bei's first real dilemma was having to make a choice between duty to the kingdom or duty to his brother, and he chose the latter at the expense of the former. This is the climax of the Liu Bei/Shu Han tragedy -- or we'd recognize it as such through our Western literature lenses.
Maybe that's why I'm a little emotionally confused by Three Kingdoms. The way I'm used to it working is something like: Hero makes his fatal decision, things fall apart, hero dies, curtain falls. Three Kingdoms is unusual to me because I'm used to the story ending with the death of the tragic hero.
But Three Kingdoms isn't designed to deliver a cathartic payload through Liu Bei's fall; it's a major episode but not the central episode; it occurs in the context of the much larger story to which it contributes. The other events in the drama don't stop for Liu Bei's death; this is a story about the empire's division and reunification, and the story can't end until the Three Kingdoms are reconsolidated as one -- even if its protagonist (or closest thing to one) is dead for the last 1/3 of the narrative.
* * * *
Huh. The empire is reunited and all is as it should be.
That's what I didn't see coming, though I probably should have, what with all my ersatz-Hegelian "today's solutions become tomorrow's problems" talk: not only did Liu Bei's such an ineffectual lout that the event of his surrender and abdication was less than heartbreaking, but the usurping Jin clan produced men of virtue to save the Southland from a tyrannical Sun sovereign. I'm also kicking myself for being surprised at such a major shift, even though I already knew that the last ten chapters would be covering thirty-five years -- as wide a chronological span as the first sixty-something chapters.
Are there any circles of criticism in which "time compression" is a recognized literary device? I'm not sure what to call this. (Of course, most novels don't have the length, scope, or style for such a device to employed as effectively as it is here, so this is probably a very special case.) Mao keeps pointing out how events occurring later in the novel periodically echo the tunes of verses we've already heard -- but in the final chapters, as time compresses, it really speeds up. We have deleterious court eunuchs, a weak Han ruler, uprisings, tyrants, usurpations, splintering alliances, and so on, all recapitulating events from much earlier. Thucydides begins his history by stating his belief in the cyclicality of history; Guanzhong ends his novel by demonstrating it.
Any human conception of history must necessarily be flawed, incomplete, and subject to cultural prejudices and dogma, but I get the sense that the idea of an "epoch" is ubiquitous. However arbitrary the criteria for distinguishing between periods, I'm not sure we can easily conceive of history as a continuum without breaking it up into sequential blocks.
From what I can tell (mostly from the endnotes), Three Kingdoms implies the dominance of some astrological cycle -- and I use "astrological" for lack of a better word. Maybe "elemental" would be more accurate? The endnotes suggest Kongming's fire-based tactics cease to win battles because fire, the symbol of the Han, is no longer ascendant. Around the same time, there are regular allusions (usually in the poetry excerpts) that the time of the Han is coming to its heaven-ordained conclusion. From then on there begins a clear paradigm shift, as evinced by the subsequent inversion of the order we've come to recognize. We have a ruler of Shu who seems pathologically incapable of virtuous or inspirational behavior and a Shu supreme general (I can't find Jiang Wei's proper title) who's just as unable to wage a successful martial campaign. The hitherto consistently savvy and discerning head of Wu is taken in by tremendously poor counsel ("yeah, just stretch chains across the river and it'll stop the invaders, no problem" is such a wrenchingly hilarious trainwreck; it's "let them eat cake" times a thousand), and the independent and previously unconquerable Southland practically rolls out the carpet for the invading northerners. And we have a string of weak little Wei rulers who let themselves get bullied around and eventually deposed, and the Wei apparatus becomes a tool for restoring peace and order in a united kingdom. And my concerns from last week were all eased -- with some historical distance and the perspective it brings, it's harder to say that Liu Bei's and Kongming's efforts to restore the dynasty were all for naught. (What would have happened without them? Would Sima Yi have ever arisen if there was no threat from Kongming? How much longer might the Cao clan have remained in power? But it's useless pondering imponderables; it's enough to say that when the sequence is viewed as a whole, one can appreciate the importance of each step in that sequence.)
Anyway, HOW HARD TO GRASP--THESE MYSTERIOUS TRANSFORMATIONS EVENTS BRING.
* * * *
Somewhere along the line, however, things change. The story is no longer a simple Wuxia, RPG-esque adventure. Real conflict begins to occur. It becomes increasingly obvious that Xuande or his posterity will never take back the empire. The bad guys, Wei, aren't as powerful as they seem, and a new power arises in them. Once Jin comes about it becomes obvious the Shu isn't some perfect guiding light sent to redeem the realm, and that Wei isn't the stereotypical evil empire planning world domination. And then there's Wu...
Wu has given me a lot of confusion. It doesn't seem to do anything, it's just there. Whenever I encounter these sorts of characters (and I think it is useful to think of the different kingdoms as characters,) I can't help but think I'm missing the point with them, and that they actually are vital to understanding the novel. So what sets Wu apart from Wei and Shu? Every kingdom eventually came to be controlled by a Cao Cao-esque Prime Minister, Wu was the only one which managed to throw theirs out. Wu consistently was better governed and filled with strong and capable officers. Then Sun Hao came around and it immediately fell. The question is, if Wu had a better leader, would it have survived?
Questions like these are missing the point, I think. The empire is united. Division and struggle may make an interesting story and lead to progress (Confucius lived when China was divided into many warring kingdoms, not when it was united and at peace), but this struggle has to have a point, it has to lead somewhere. In our case the struggle leads to a united China, and from the very beginning of the novel we knew that that's where the story would end. That isn't how it often is in real life. Many times we live through our tedious, boring lives wishing for conflict, wishing something interesting and challenging could actually happen to us. Then we would prove to everyone that we are just as capable as Cao Cao or Kongming or even Lu Bu. But what is the point of that? It leads nowhere.
From the Pound's translation of the Analects: "Look clearly to the end and follow it up a long way; the people acting on conscience will get back to the solid." Burton Watson's translation of the same passage: "Tend carefully to death rites, and pay reverence to those long departed, and the people will in the end be rich in virtue."