0240 | The Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Lo Kuan-chung

Context: While reading this I started wearing reading glasses and… boy!… they really took some getting used to!

REVIEW
Battles, rivalry, espionage, subterfuge, love, filial honour, tradition, strategies, mysticism, kingdoms, suicide, plots, intrigue, betrayal, loyalty, cunning, wisdom, wealth, corruption, conquest, weaponry, tactics, plots, debauchery, virtue, memorials, poetry… if any of these are what you’re looking for in a novel then The Romance of the Three Kingdoms might interest you.

Most of those do interest me and Romance did not disappoint. For the most part, this 1360 page epic held me in its grasp not too loosely at all. At times, yes, it was all a bit much, but the story ebbs and flows as unpredictably as the fates of the three kingdoms. Just hanging in there for a couple of the brief chapters and I was back into it again.

The writing is amazing for being nigh on 500 years old. The translation isn’t perfect, but it certainly isn’t as laborious as I’d have expected in an ancient epic. It’s very readable. The first line (below) sets the stage masterfully. Structurally, it’s a vast saga of the Shu (Han), Wu and Wei kingdoms who vie for power right until the very last 100 pages. But within this huge storm of power, there are literally hundreds of smaller stories that range from the fantastic, to the criminal, to the romantic, to the downright gruesome.

And some of the characters I won’t forget in a hurry: Liu Pei (also, confusingly, known as Yuan Te) the spurned Han Emperor; his fantastically wise advisor Kung Ming (also, confusingly, known as Chuko Liang) who no one can outwit in battle or in magic; the tryannical and traitorous Tsao Tsao who plays a central role in making the Wei kingdom a real player in the political realm; Kuan Yu who is so innured to fear that he plays a board game while a surgeon scrapes an infection off a bone in his arm. That some of these are not more well-known in the west is a telling sign of our ethnocentricity.

In terms of its influence it ranks up there alongside Shakespeare, the Bible and Harry Potter. You can’t interpret any subsequent text in Chinese culture without reference to it and that goes for a large part of East Asian literature too. In fact, there’s a Korean proverb that says something like you can’t talk about life until you’ve read it. Well, I have now so…

I’ve rated it “superb” because of this legacy of influence and also because it has given me a completely new perspective on China, revealing the nation to me like nothing I’ve ever read from there. I now want to watch some films or read other novels that have been influenced by or based on it. And next time I meet someone from China, I’m looking forward to talking about it and its influence in their country.

It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea though. Unless you are really into military history, you’ll probably find the endless descriptions of battles and conflict quite tedious. There are so many characters you have to just abandon any hope of remembering any more than a handful and that may prove daunting. And there’s a fair bit of gore: “The arrow hit Hsiahou Tun full in the left eye. he shrieked, and putting up his head, pulled out the arrow and with it the eye. “Essence of my father, blood of my mother, I cannot throw this away,” cried he, and he put the eye into the mouth and swallowed it.”

Finally, my translation (Brewitt-Taylor) is cram full of typos: “I have been slam [slain] by that dastard [bastard] Sun Hsun” and “Lu Hsun knows the rat [art] of war even as did Sun Wu.” Many of these seem to be because the editors seems to have relied on OCR of the text at some point which could interpret an unclear “slain” as “slam.” They probably scanned the original translation, which was done in the ’20s, did the OCR and ran a spell-check and thought, that’ll do. Shame they didn’t actually read it.

Glad I did though.

FIRST LINE
Empires wax and wane; states cleave asunder and coalesce.

QUOTES

If you attempt more things… you will only add legs to your sketch of a serpent.

Our days flash by as the glint of a white horse across a chink in the door.

to contend with a man so strong is to try to smash stones with eggs

CLOSING LINE
The kingdoms three have vanished as in a dream,
The useless misery is ours to grieve.

RATING
rubbish | poor | mediocre | okay | good | very good | excellent | superb

  • mee January 25, 2010, 1:19 am

    Wow it’s amazing that you have read those thick books. I grew up with the story. My dad has told me countless times of the little and big stories within the tale. I’ve watched movies and played games based on it. My brothers learned all the names of the characters. I never did, only the big ones, but I would recognize many scenes, including that general who eats his eye. I promise myself I would read the books once in my life. It hasn’t happened yet. The translation of your copy sounds pretty bad, but that’s the only ones available in English I think. I have the books lying around somewhere at my parents’ house. If you want to see one of the movies, the latest adaptation is called Red Cliff. Very big in Asia.

    Reply
  • fael January 25, 2010, 5:06 am

    I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet but keep promising myself that I will. I would say that it’s had as much of an influence (possibly even greater according to some) on the Chinese diaspora. From my very limited knowledge of Chinese history and culture I think there is a big gap in modern China stemming from the turmoils of the cultural revolution and other such events. It is therefore arguable that the Chinese communities in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and even Australia are closer to the traditional notion of ‘Chineseness’ than say modern China. If anything they will have a view of it which is probably less influenced by the recent rise in China on the world scene.
    When you’ve recovered from ploughing through this one, the other big read would be ‘Water Margin’, set a thousand years after Romance. While less epic, I am told it’s also very important in shaping the collective consciousness of the Chinese.

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi January 27, 2010, 2:44 pm

    [quote comment=”18994″] If you want to see one of the movies, the latest adaptation is called Red Cliff. Very big in Asia.[/quote]
    great recommendation… thanks for that

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi January 27, 2010, 2:46 pm

    [quote comment=”18995″] the other big read would be ‘Water Margin’, set a thousand years after Romance. While less epic, I am told it’s also very important in shaping the collective consciousness of the Chinese.[/quote]
    yep… that’s on the list by the same author right? I need to find myself a copy first I guess. I do try to read one massive book a year so maybe in a few years’ time.

    Very interesting to read your comment. Thanks for it.

    Reply
  • fael January 29, 2010, 4:37 am

    [quote comment=”19006″][quote comment=”18995″] the other big read would be ‘Water Margin’, set a thousand years after Romance. While less epic, I am told it’s also very important in shaping the collective consciousness of the Chinese.[/quote]
    yep… that’s on the list by the same author right? I need to find myself a copy first I guess. I do try to read one massive book a year so maybe in a few years’ time.

    Very interesting to read your comment. Thanks for it.[/quote]

    You’re welcome. I saw that you had lived in Japan so thought you may find it interesting. I am also working out in Asia at the moment and it’s fascinating to see how embedded into the popular consciousness these stories are. Even children who are not interested in it from a historical perspective get to know them from computer games and TV series, and perhaps more interesting is how the Water Margin was made into a really popular Japanese TV series. A quick look at Amazon shows that there’s a translation quite readily available in the UK (ISBN: 7119016628) although I don’t know how good it will be. Be prepared to knuckle down though as it is well over two thousand pages long. I’m not brave enough to start yet.

    About the authorship, I think it’s disputed whether the same author wrote both books, but my take on it is that like Aesop’s fables and the Arthurian legend they were probably tales and ballads which eventually were written down much later on. Which I think makes it even more as belonging to the East Asian culture.

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi January 29, 2010, 6:06 pm

    [quote comment=”19011″] there’s a translation quite readily available in the UK (ISBN: 7119016628) although I don’t know how good it will be. Be prepared to knuckle down though as it is well over two thousand pages long.[/quote]
    ah yes… but the translation seems a bit sad. I was interested though to see that Tuttle are about to release a different translation in the UK in May:
    http://www.amazon.com/Water-Margin-Outlaws-Marsh/dp/0804840954

    thing is, this is only 800 or so pages long… how can that be? Do you know anything about this edition. It seems to be written by someone I’ve not heard of.

    Reply
  • fael January 30, 2010, 7:25 am

    Hmmm, interesting. I suspect there may not be a ‘right translation’, or even the ‘right version’ in the original language. For example I just read Heiké Monogatari a couple of weeks back, and it was completely different to another translation/edition that was circulating. Not pretending to be an expert, I think the problem is partly caused by the age of these stories. They have gone through so many revisions over the years that it is impossible to say which one is the ‘right’ version. An analogy would be the different versions of Shakespeare’s plays – folio or quarto? I think there are editions of both Romance and Water Margin with varying thickness even in the original Chinese.

    With the Water Margin it’s probably compounded by how the very nature of the tale itself is a story of 108 outlaws (a not insignificant number), although not all are given equal prominence. I suspect the 800 page translation would probably be a trimming down of both language and also would have cut out the tales of the less famous outlaws. For sure you would have the most famous tales intact.

    To maintain sanity I would probably not go into a discussion of ‘Monkey’ (‘Journey to the West’) and also ‘A Dream of Red Mansions’, which complete the quadrant! 😉

    Reply

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