March 9, 2013
|Lao She, author of Tea House|
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.
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).