Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century)

This tome is one of the four great Chinese classics. It is not a fun read and it says lots of bad things about Chinese government during the time of the fall of the Han dynasty.

I have the 120 chapter version. Around chapter 80, I really had to start forcing myself to continue. At the beginning of Chapter 116, I decided to call the game and move on.

The stories are repetitive and mention people and family lines that are nothing to me.

The stories are straightforward in that everyone is either incompetent, treacherous, or in most cases, both. The surprises are created by the ministers, court officials, and generals that were truly masters of misinformation, misdirection, and misappropriation!

To have even the smallest chance of figuring out how any player was going to react, one would have had to, at a bare minimum, factor in the following;

  • family connections
  • clan interests
  • friendships/alliances (including civil, military, familial, and political)
  • duties (including civil, military, familial, and political)
  • the city or cities associated with the person and all of the interests above
  • state of the Empire and the Emperor

NOTE: At the time of this book, the Emperor is always weak but is often surrounded by very fierce folks who had no problem usurping his authority. Thus, “state of the Emperor” can be many things to many people.

Once those things are factored in, one should anticipate the following challenges and pitfalls;

  • plots
  • poison
  • murder
  • portents
  • advisors with one or more agendas
  • eunichs with one or more agendas
  • war
  • treachery
  • betrayal
  • famine
  • diesease

Misery, rebellion, and treachery. The guys in this book make the machinations of the Roman Empire look like a friendly square dance at a family picnic!

It is going to take be a long time to digest what I’ve read. The one observation I have right now is that the Chinese belief in “rectitude” is clearly shown throughout this tome from Hell. The one guy no one in their right minds would want to be is a Chinese Emperor. His “rectitude” is pretty much the whole game. Beyond that, the emperor was expected to sit back and let everyone else make the decisions. Since everyone around the emperor is a opportunistic animal, this has problems…

Water Margin Tales from the Marsh

Water Margin Tales from the Marsh
a/k/a Outlaws of the Marsh
Shi Naian

I am tackling the Chinese classics, in English translations, to get a glimpse of the roots of Chinese culture and thinking. This book helps me towards that goal.

It is considered one of the four great Chinese Classical Novels. The edition I read was translated by Sidney Shapiro with additional edits and revisions by Collinson Fair. The Kindle edition: Amazon.com link.

While I didn’t want to spend money, I also did not want to deal with a less than pristine translation. I felt that the subject matter warranted a good solid version. There are 70 chapter, 100 chapter, and 120 chapter versions of this book. This version is the 100 chapter version that ends with the death of the main character. The 120 chapter version has a materials that were added long after the fact and I don’t personally regard them as part of the original story. Maybe one day I will read a 120 chapter version, but not now.

“Classical Novels” may not mean exactly what you think it means. This particular tome, while written sometime in the 1300s, was written in common vernacular NOT classic style. In this case, “classical”, means very widely read and accepted and accepted as a national treasure. In other words the book itself is a classic but the style it was written in was not.

I have finished the book. While it did seem exceeding lengthy, it was not difficult reading.

The first two thirds of the books relate to the criminal fraternity and their dealing with local issues. Most killing and robbing. The last third relates to military campaigns against foreign encroachment.

The criminals are bad guys who do bad things but who have their own code of chivalry, a “gallant fraternity”. They are murderers, arsonists, thugs, and God knows what else. They are also loyal to the emperor and act on Heaven’s behalf. Think of a really big bunch of Robin Hood types with more blood lust and murderous intent who understand the true art of bribery.

I will let selected quotes give you an idea of the book;
“Truly, flowers open, only to be blown down by the wind.”
“…star can only fly down, it can never fly back.”
“Life and death are man’s destiny. Why take it so hard? There are important matters awaiting your attention.”
“In these times it doesn’t pay to be too proper.”
“The two spoke of feats of good fellows in the gallant fraternity, of deeds of murder and arson.”
“Of all the thirty-six possible solutions, the best one is— leave.’ Get out, quickly! Don’t delay!”
“‘With money you can reach even the gods.’ A bitter truth indeed.”

I did like the fact that there is a reference to a puppet show or play related to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the book. Even back then, authors gave props!

What appears so simple on the surface, has a lot of texture and shadows. I will need to finish the other three classics before I put any real thought into this book’s meanings.

The Four Great Chinese Classical Novels

The four great Chinese classical novels;

  1. Water Margin Tales of the Marshes (14th century)
  2. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century)
  3. Journey to the West (16th century)
  4. Dream of the Red Chamber (18th century)

The books are between 580 pages and 1400 pages.

In order to get a better idea of the roots of Chinese thinking, I have started reading the first of the four great Chinese classic novels, Water Margin Tales of the Marshes (English translation). The reading is light an interesting. It is filled with lots of chapters that each have a few pages.

After I have finished them, I will post my observations.