The Iliad of China

by Kenneth Champeon, Jan 31, 2004 | Destinations: China / Beijing

The Thais believe that if you have read the novel Sahm Gok, then you can't be trusted. So your seemingly humble reviewer may have something up his proverbial sleeve. Sahm Gok is the Thai name for Three Kingdoms, a historical novel that has been called the Iliad of China. It is about war, and its influence on Chinese culture is comparable, in degree if not in kind, to the influence of the Iliad on the West.

The reason readers of Three Kingdoms are treated warily is that war, according to the Chinese military treatise The Art of War, is "mainly a game of deception". And insofar as life is a kind of warfare, those who wish to win at life may benefit from the novel's various stratagems, including the feigning of intoxication, the circulation of slanders, the forging of letters. Consider this early episode from Three Kingdoms: Cao, one of the novel's principal characters, "was a boy with ingenious ideas for any situation, a regular storehouse of schemes and machinations.

"Once Cao's uncle, outraged by his nephew's wild antics, complained to Cao's father, who in turn reproached Cao. The next time the boy saw his uncle, he dropped to the ground and pretended to have a fit. The terrified uncle fetched the father, who rushed to his son's side only to find him perfectly sound. 'Your uncle told me you'd had a fit,' said [Cao's father]. 'Has it passed?' 'Nothing of the sort ever happened,' responded Cao. 'My uncle accuses me of everything because I have lost favor with him.' The father believed the son and thereafter ignored the uncle's complaints, leaving Cao free to indulge his whims."

If, as has been said, you cannot truly understand China until you've read Three Kingdoms, then perhaps the author of the obscure novel Iowa, Beijing was not exaggerating when he called China a "civilization of lies." Consider Cao's enumeration of a hero's qualities: "a determination to conquer, a mine of marvelous schemes, an ability to encompass the realm, and the will to make it his." Western heroes are rarely known for their "schemes" but for their courage and nobility. Then again, Cao is traditionally cast as the novel's villain, so his definition may not be intrinsically Chinese.

And there is more to Three Kingdoms than scheming. The novel stresses that the two principal Chinese virtues are loyalty and filial duty. As exemplars of loyalty, the novel introduces three men - Xuande, Lord Guan, and Zhang Fei - who take a Three Musketeers-like oath. The three have united to suppress a rebellion by the so-called Yellow Scarves and to preserve the faltering Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). This pits them against the aforementioned Cao (full name Cao Cao), who as regent to the nine-year-old Emperor Xian is effective leader of the Middle Kingdom. Eventually there are three emperors: Xuande, Cao Cao's son Cao Pi, and Sun Quan. Hence Three Kingdoms, which sometimes appears as Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Vicissitudes of the Three Kingdoms. The present translator has opted to drop the word "romance" on the grounds that romance is pure fiction, while Three Kingdoms is fictionalized history.

To call Three Kingdoms "the Iliad of China" is to pose a challenge not only between the two works but between the august, ancient, and highly literate civilizations that produced them. But the works may be incommensurable. The Iliad is an epic poem, Three Kingdoms a novel interspersed with verse, heroically rendered into rhyme by the present translator. So the Iliad is valuable as much for its language as for its story, whereas Three Kingdoms is comparatively unadorned. Consider the opening lines of each text. The Iliad begins with an alliterative plea to the divine: "Achilles' cursed anger sing, O goddess, that son of Peleus, which started a myriad sufferings for the Achaeans." Three Kingdoms begins with two prosaic truisms: "Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide." Homer lived around the 8th century BC, and contemporary scholars believe that the Homeric epics emerged as oral histories centuries before. Three Kingdoms was written in the 15th or 16th centuries AD.

Another difference: the Greek pantheon actively intervened in the events of the Iliad. But in Three Kingdoms the realm of the supernatural is limited to magic, prognostication, ghosts, and the invocation of an abstract heaven. Brief mention is made of the "Six Ding deities and the Six Lia deities [who] control celestial phenomena", but no deity ever shows its face.

Instead the human characters sometimes assume god-like attributes. A certain Zhang Bao employs a "magic formula" whose effects resemble the antics of a Zeus: "As throngs of Xuande's soldiers charged, a thunderstorm started to gather, and a black mist surrounded what seemed like an army of warriors in the sky." The wisdom of the master strategist Kongming sometimes approaches omniscience. But of all the characters Lord Guan may be the most god-like: in one of the book's few humorous scenes, Cao Cao faints when Lord Guan's decapitated head momentarily revives.

The Iliad is about war. But Trojan horse to one side, it is not about military science. Three Kingdoms is. And apparently no less than Mao Zedong deemed it his most valuable book throughout his rise to power. Indeed, the novel asserts what would become the bedrock of Maoist guerilla strategy: "win the affections of the people before all else," as one Liu Ye tells Cao Cao. Three Kingdoms frequently cites "Sunzi" (a.k.a. Sun-Tzu). Though The Art of War is never mentioned by name, many of its maxims appear in paraphrase: that doomed men become fearless; that leaders who know their own conditions and their enemies' conditions are bound to prevail; that in war there is no end to deception. Military principles known to both sides can sometimes be twisted by one side to its advantage, e.g. that "a show of force is best where you are weak; where strong, feign weakness." Up against Kongming, Cao Cao decides that Kongming "purposely sent his men to some nooks in the hills to set fires to deter us from going that way....I won't fall into his trap!" In a civilization of lies, it's possible to be deceived into thinking one is being deceived.

For a book that inspired Mao Zedong, Three Kingdoms contains an eerily large number of terms reminiscent of Maoist propaganda: "lackey", "clique", "purge", "ringleaders", "traitor". One is apt to conclude that Maoism was not an aberration, that the climate of total paranoia and subterfuge Mao created has arisen in China at various times. Nor is dictatorship anything new.

Or violence. Early in the novel the Emperor Shao is deposed by Dong Zhuo, who orders his guards to "mutilate" some POWs: "some had their limbs lopped off; some, their eyes gouged out; some, their tongues cut; some were boiled in vats. The howls of the victims shook the officials so that they could not hold their chopsticks. But Dong Zhuo kept drinking, chatting, and laughing away, utterly unperturbed, as was his wont." Women are defenestrated, strangled; a woman strikes Cao Cao "with an inkstone" and later hangs herself; beheadings are common; men are publicly flogged. Mention is even made of one of those epic construction projects for which the Chinese, builders of the Great Wall, have become famous: this one involves "a quarter of a million people".

Not all of Three Kingdoms is so grim. There is much wisdom in this book, much of it deriving from Confucius (including his famous identification between clear language and good politics, rendered here as "incorrect names make for illogical positions.") Loyalty and filial devotion are fine, but the inkstone thrower notes that sometimes they come into conflict, as when Xuande must choose between loyalty to the Emperor and devotion to his "oath brothers". Kongming argues that one should not meddle in the affairs of other families. The novel addresses marital issues, the cruelty of fate, the absurdity of fearing death, the necessity of broad consultation. And despite its climate of suspicion, the novel often praises honesty. Perhaps the best piece of advice is "Be vigilant!"

Three Kingdoms also offers helpful advice on statecraft, some of it plainly flouted by Mao. The Han dynasty began to crumble in part because the court eunuchs ("capons", grumbles one detractor) had become too powerful, much as Mao allowed the Gang of Four to run amok. The novel warns that the unequal distribution of justice is one of the surest ways to chaos. Even friends who prove untrustworthy or incompetent must be punished, except when the loss of the friend's talents will be more destructive than disillusionment with the law. Kongming advises Xuande to avoid "womanish benevolence". And more generally, the novel contends that when legitimacy is not based upon patrilineal succession, it must be based upon virtue. Periods of disorder are bound to occur as Heaven and Earth return to a proper alignment. This may be why seemingly frivolous groups like the Falun Gong are taken so seriously in China today; the smallest sign of disaffection threatens the Communists' heavenly mandate. They are probably well aware of this line from Three Kingdoms: "From time immemorial, what has flourished must decay; what has prospered must decline. Every dynasty ends; every house falls."

Three Kingdoms may not possess the Iliad's poetry, but it does contain some arresting language and images. For example: "Once Lady Gan had dreamed that she swallowed the stars of the Northern Dipper and conceived as a result". Christopher Marlowe asks whether Helen's was "the face that launched a thousand ships"; Luo Guanzhong introduces two "beauties whose faces would make the fish forget to swim or birds to fly; abash the very blossoms and outshine the moon." (Like Helen, these women provoke men to war.) Attacking a superior adversary is described using the proverb "smash a rock with an egg". And a "man without a spouse," explains a matchmaker, "is a house without a beam."

Like any work of classical literature, Three Kingdoms can be daunting. Its events span over a hundred years and the unabridged version features a thousand characters. What's worse, many characters have several different names. Consider: "His surname was Cao; his given name Cao; his style [official title], Mengde. Cao Cao's father, Cao Song, was originally not a Cao but a Xiahou. However, as the adopted son of the eunuch Cao Teng he assumed the surname Cao. Cao Song was Cao Cao's natural father. In addition, Cao Cao had the childhood nickname Ah Man and another given name, Jili." At one point Xuande is forced to acknowledge the silliness of this naming craze. When he seeks out the reclusive Kongming, a "lad answered the door and asked his name. 'General of the Left under the Han,' Xuande declared. 'Lord of Yicheng Precinct, Protector of Yuzhou, Imperial Uncle Liu Bei comes to pay his respects to your master.' 'Too many names to remember,' said the youth. 'Just say Liu Bei is paying a call,'" says Xuande, no doubt frowning.

Like all dynasties, the Han dynasty ends, and by novel's end the empire is reunited under the house of Jin, which would rule for 155 years. All the principal characters have perished, many in the process of trying to postpone the inevitable. The Thais are probably wrong to say that Three Kingdoms endows its readers with unnatural manipulative powers, and the Iliad is probably a superior book. But in his preface to this edition, old China hand John S. Service reports that as a boy in China he would overhear storytellers elaborating on some episode from Three Kingdoms, and the author of Iowa, Beijing was told by his Chinese colleagues that he must read Three Kingdoms to understand Chinese culture. This is more than can be said of the Iliad.

- The End -

Review of Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, translated by Moss Roberts, University of California Press, 1993.

Also mentioned: Iowa, Beijing; The Iliad.

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