Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Battle of Chibi (Red Cliffs)




Long ago, along a stretch of a river deep and wide but far away from the consciousness or imagination of All under Heaven (China), a battle was fought that determined the fate of its people for the next four hundred years.

This book vividly retells selections (translated by the author) from the great Chinese classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  This novel combines fascinating characters in action as well as ideas in conflict, battle scenes, deception and earnest debate; there is even a marriage proposal arranged for the purpose of entrapping the Loyalist leader.

It weaves together stories, drama, poetry--events and episodes that have engrossed Asian readers and listeners for the last seventeen hundred years.  Above all, the warriors and leaders in this retelling, their loyalties and conflicts, show why this classic has been valued as the best introduction to Chinese thought.  

In its entirety, the Romance is a large work made up of one hundred and twenty hui, scenes or chapters, each usually with at least two dramatic episodes.  It is usually published in two, three or four volumes.  It is not only long but also lacks a central set of circumstances, much as a story about the Tudors would suffer in comparison with one that had the unifying focus of the personal life of Henry VIII or the achievements of the Elizabethan era.

This retelling has selected and translated the eight chapters that describe the events and discussions surrounding the Battle of Chibi (chapters 43 to 50 in the Romance); that battle is generally considered to be the tipping point of the period.  To those eight, I have added eleven prior chapters that supply background to the characters and events, as well as four chapters from after the Battle that takes the story through the death of Zhou Yu, the central actor in the alliance against Cao Cao.  Thus this work consists of a total of twenty-three chapters.  

As a translation, the goal was a readable and lively language as well as internal consistency, eliminating the most visible anachronisms (such as the drinking of tea); it does not otherwise try to correct any detail of Luo’s narrative.  The ubiquitous references to the rites and rituals of welcome and departure have been somewhat reduced; a minor unrelated episode or two have been omitted as well as an occasional poem or part thereof; additions have been made to provide for smooth transitions or clearer indications of the passage of time.  Many passages of the original reflect their origins as dramatic dialogue; I have tried to retain the flavor of these dialogues as they are livelier than any narrative.

The Romance is perhaps the best introduction to “Chinese thought” to be found in classical Chinese literature.  It makes vivid what the Ancients wished to teach through the story of human beings rather than through the collections of sayings of sages; such texts often communicate a surreal quality, a sense of detachment from the human drama.  The main outlines of Chinese social and political thought—Confucian values, Daoist influences, and Realist methods—are reflected in the Romance; it is clear that all three could be entertained in the same minds.  This work has tried to capture such an overview of Chinese Thought as well as to tell the story of the battle at Chibi.

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From the reading of December 18, 2010.

Writing this book

As a Chinese student of European history and political thought, I believe it was inevitable that I would feel guilty at some point for having neglected the study of Chinese classics.  I started, therefore, in 2003 to read in English translation the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  Of all the Chinese classics, I considered this most likely to suit my preference in reading.  I had found Arthur Waley's Monkey, a selection from the Journey to the West, amusing but too fanciful and less than even-handed in its discussion of Daoism as opposed to Buddhism, it was after all the story of the pilgrimage made by a Buddhist monk.  The Water Margin struck me as too limited in its view of the world; banditry perhaps had that effect.  I honestly did not know what to make of Jin, Ping, Mei (sometimes translated as "The Plum [Blossom] in the Gold[en] Vase").  At any rate, I found reading the Romance in translation a great disappointment.

When I expressed to some friends my view that perhaps it was an over-rated work, a Japanese woman protested to me that it was her father's favorite book, one that he read over and over.  Later, a Korean friend told me that he owned several translations as a new one seemed to appear every fifteen or twenty years, so popular was the work among Koreans of a certain age.

For other reasons, I started to study classical Mandarin a year or two later and soon tired of the usual exercises in the usual book of language instruction.  Archie Barnes' wonderful Chinese through Poetry (2007) introduced to me the pleasure of reading traditional verse in its original language and gave me the courage to attempt the translation of the poems I found in the Romance.  By that time I had already started translating some of the prose.  These efforts were made much easier by the existence of electronic Mandarin-English dictionaries with a character recognition software that was available for personal digital assistants.  I do not know how I could have undertaken what I eventually did if it were not for Pleco (R) and its product.

Finally, a chance conversation persuaded me that the Battle of Chibi (Red Cliff) was indeed pivotal in the development of the Three Kingdoms and advanced the idea of bringing coherence to a selection from the Romance.  This is open to some debate, of course, for coherence is not a universal literary value.  For example, one suspects that the Ramayana is better known than the Mahabharata not because it is more coherent but primarily due to the unwieldy length of the latter.  The Romance too is a large work, comprising one hundred and twenty hui.  Further, it bears the literary burden of the fact that by the half-way point of the book most of the main characters it started out with are dead.  The Battle of Chibi, therefore, begins where the Romance begins but ends with the funeral of Zhou Yu, commander in chief of the Wu kingdom of Jiangdong and a vital strategist in the Battle.  Several chapters have been skipped over but of the chapters translated little has been left out (except for the last chapter):  an episode here and there, together with a poem or portion of one every so often.  Half of the last chapter translated tells of what happened after the funeral.

I toyed with changing the sequence of chapters or of parts of some chapters but came to the conclusion that Luo Guanzhong, the Ming dynasty compiler of the Romance, had done his work too well.  Lastly, I should say that I have added only to provide smoother transitions and to give a better sense of the passage of time.  The Romance covers events over more than eighty years; the Battle extends over nearly thirty.  In all it took nearly four years to translate and retell the story and more than four months to see it through the editing and proof-reading before publication.  It is my fond wish that this book will  lead non-specialists,  "general readers," to explore the fascinating world of Chinese history, literature and values.

To see a listing or to purchase book click here.

To see a listing for George Henry Lewes, a Victorian Mind, click here

To see my article on "Women in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (you'll have to scroll down a bit), click here

To see my article on "Fate and Loyalty in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (scrolling required) click here

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On December 13, Eric Tomb of Tomes and Booktown and I spoke about the upcoming reading  at his bookstore.  See his blog and listen to the interview by clicking here.
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On Saturday December 18, 2010, a misty moisty afternoon, I gave a reading and signed books at Tomes/Sierra Mountain Coffee Roasters.  This was my first as an author and it was a great pleasure to see friendly faces in the crowd!

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For a taste of the battle scenes that are better shown on screen, see following trailer from John Woo's recent movie "The Battle of Red Cliff" (pictured below is Fengyi Zhang as Cao Cao the usurper):