Saturday, March 9, 2013

How and Why The Battle of Chibi was written


March 9, 2013


Lao She, author of Tea House
About ten years ago, I complained to a group of friends that I found reading the Romance of the Three Kingdoms   boring.  I had thought it would fill a gap in my education and had sought out the latest and greatest English translation.  One of my friends, a Japanese, protested that this was her father's favorite book, that many Japanese have read several translations of this Chinese classic even as younger generations knew it chiefly from manga or computer games.

Two or three years later,  overtaken by retirement, I undertook to study Mandarin.  I soon found the usual exercises in the usual text books quite dull and decided to take on some "real stuff."  Lao She's Tea House (茶館), written in the Beijing vernacular (although the author was a Manchu) lured me with its deceptively simple language; the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, I thought, could not be all that much more difficult.


I hasten to add that I would never have progressed to this stage without the remarkable software developed by Pleco (link) that combines access to several Chinese-English dictionaries with recognition of Chinese graphs as they are handwritten on the touch screen of a personal digital assistant.  Even so, the Romance is 120 chapters and over a thousand pages long (in English).  Further, although the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history dates from 220 to 280 A.D., the Romance actually starts with the fall of the Han Dynasty (around 180 A.D.); by chapter 50, it is still preoccupied with the battle of Chibi that took place in 208 A.D.

A friend who is better versed in East Asian history explained that this Battle was pivotal to the character of the Three Kingdoms as it ensured that China would not be united during this period due to the stand-off among the three contenders for leadership.  This gave me pause and the excuse to bring some "unity" to the project.  The result is the selection and translation of 23 chapters ending before the Three Kingdoms period actually begins.  I also eliminated names that were not associated with a speech or an any action.  This would, as I envisioned it, mitigate the "shaggy dog" character of the classic to a novel that contained enough action, debate and stratagem as well as instances of heroism and stupidity that have made the Romance what it is--the best introduction to classical Chinese thought.  


I did not try to create a novel with anything like Aristotelian unity of form or action, only a story with a beginning, middle and end with my translation following the original fairly closely.  The Chinese text contained much dramatic dialog that I tried to reproduce.  It contained much poetry which I initially avoided (as I do not think there is a single poetic bone in my body) until I chanced upon Archie Barnes' brilliant book, Chinese Through Poetry published posthumously in 2007.  Working through this book gave me the courage to attempt the translation of the poetry I felt was essential for The Battle of Chibi; it also boosted my spirit through the final stages of writing.

This is a story I have told a few times in different ways, in response to those who were kind enough to ask about the making of this book; how a writer comes to write a book.  For the record, this is how and why I came to select from the Romance and translate what became The Battle of Chibi (link).