04 October 2003

Great Classics

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) counts as one of the 3 great Chinese literary epics, the others being Journey to the West (西游记) and Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传), all written in the Ming era. I term these epics and not novels. Strictly speaking, the first (or first great) modern Chinese novel was the Qing dynasty Dream of the Red Mansions (红楼梦).

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is of unknown authorship, and the earliest surviving print copy dates from 1522. The great sequence of stories in Romance detail the interregnum between the Han dynasty and the Jin dynasty, in a brief period where China was divided into 3 warring nations, each bent on reunifying the old empire under its own banner.

In this period of strife, the Romance sequence focusses on the "Great Actors" of history, the relationships between leaders and their loyal (or treacherous) followers, and their claims to legitimate power and sole rulership of China.

Yet, it troubles me, this Romance. Through all its 120 chapters, much is made of the brilliant military strategies, the shifting alliances, the heroic battles, the little crises of self-doubt that leaders occasionally fall to. War is brutal, yet the novel's heroes and villians (poor, misunderstood Cao Cao!) must soldier on towards that manifest destiny of reuniting their sundered nation. The phrase "blood flowed like running rivers", figures in every alternate battle sequence. Which is just about every chapter. 3 nations fought a 60-year war that probably killed millions. More than half the "peacetime" chapters describe the devastating famines and poverty that the war brought on.

And yet... the novel's heroes, Liu Bei and his 2 sworn brothers, soldier on to fight their battles, and to lead more men to fight. In the novel, the trio lose their wives and families in more than one occasion, when their cities fell to maurading armies of Cao Cao, Lu Bu and Yuan Shao. And yet... the trio proclaim several times that these wives and family... are of less importance to them then their brotherly ties. And presumably, the war.

How would the Romance look like, if it was written from the view of the random slain soldiers whose blood often stain the battlefield "like a river", instead of from the view of the Hero-generals? How would the Romance look like, if it was written from the view of the peasants who were either forcibly conscripted, had their food produce "taxed for the war effort", aside from the famine and droughts? How would the Romance of the long war look like, written by the women? Would it be just as "Romantic"?

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