Three Kingdoms - Read along

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Three Kingdoms - Read along

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aug 13, 2007, 4:38 pm

Having read many of the few non-specialist (non-Chinese) works about Ancient China, I decided to plunge ahead and discover the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a work hitherto unknown to me, as a way to learn more about Ancient China. So bear with my grasshopper status, as I read and comment on the classic. I hope to get some commentary and insights from you.

As I do not understand Chinese, the first question was in which European language to read it. A new German translation is forthcoming in the fall, but in my opinion the cloudiness of English captures (my idea of) Chinese better than the precise German. French would be a candidate for its formality and floweriness which seems to be cherished in Chinese. French long-windedness, however, slows my reading speed, so English it is.

I bought the Moss Roberts translation in New York's Chinatown on my just completed USA-Canada trip (the volumes seem to be reprinting, as Amazon was unable to procure it in May-June).

To accompany the reading, I found in Montréal's Chinatown the monumental 84 episode TV series about the book (on 28 DVDs). Equivalent to four regular US TV series seasons, it is an extensive and exhaustive treatment at nearly two minutes per page. The series has grandiose mass scenes, loving detail and impressive scenery, but suffers from wooden acting, didactic over-exposition and a penchant for Socialist realism. Overall, it is extremely faithful to the (translated) text and a glorious, highly recommended but time-consuming experience.

The book chapters at about 20 pages are surprisingly readable and often end in a cliffhanger (the TV series includes the resolution in a 45-minute episode). The bottleneck thus is not reading but viewing time. I intend to read/watch and discuss three episodes/chapters (about 2h) a week.

In commenting, there will be spoilers. I will mark the chapters under discussion. So please don't read the comments until you have read the relevant chapters yourself.

aug 14, 2007, 3:38 pm

What a great idea! I'll have to find a copy so I can follow along.

aug 14, 2007, 5:47 pm

Chapter 1: We start at the beginning. "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide." The famous opening is both a synopsis of the novel and an introduction to Chinese thinking (a stark contrast to the European tradition of linearity). Having read up to chapter five and rereading chapter one, I find it amazing how the principal players of the early chapters are already introduced in the first chapter. Their casual encounter forebodes their future behaviour, which only becomes apparent by a second reading of the text.

On page 6 we meet our hero, Liu Bei: "He stood seven and a half spans tall (1.65m), with arms that reached below his knees. His ear lobes were elongated, his eyes widely set and able to see his own ears. His face was flawless as jade and his lips like dabs of rouge." - A curious mix of a Chinese Snow White ("skin white as snow, lips red as blood") and simian features (reminding me of Abraham Lincoln, also a supremely righteous man). Is this based on historical sources?

If a Chinese span is similar to a standard one, his two companions/sidekicks Lord Guan (9 spans: 2.00m) and Zhang Fei (8 spans: 1.80m) were giants. They have their own physiognomical description and special action-figure weapons (thanks to the TV series I know now how the crescent-moon blade "Frozen Glory" might look like, although the reputed 45kg weight makes it an unwieldy weapon even for an Arnold Schwarzenegger type.).

The choice of the peach tree is interesting. In my (European) view, a peach tree is a very delicate, feminine tree. For an oath, I would have expected a linden ("justice") or a sturdy oak tree ("reliability").

Three men taking oaths, by contrast, seems de rigueur (Horatii, Rütlischwur, the three musketeers, ...). The swearbrothers have a clear internal hierarchy (eldest brother, ...) and a developing specialization. Are they equal? Or more like Henry V and his band of brothers?

Revolutionary times ("interesting times" in the un-Chinese Chinese curse) are a boon for men of ability. Although Liu Bei rises by brilliant military actions in the service of a decaying regime, the novel goes a great way to paint this insider as a partial outsider (in order not to taint the hero). He is a loyal supporter who destroys the agrarian revolt in the name of the current (corrupt) order which repeatedly wrongs him personally. He meets fellow soldiers Dong Zhuo and Cao Cao of whom we hear more in later chapters.

Redigerat: aug 15, 2007, 11:35 am

If this thread is still alive in six or eight weeks, the Fogies will jump in. Meanwhile, a few tidbits:

The word Roberts renders "span" is also translated "foot" or "Chinese foot." It's inconveniently between those two; best guess is abt 23 cm. Appendix I to The History of the Former Han Dynasty translated by Homer H. Dubs gives a list of weights and measures. The proverbial standard height of the average man of the time is given as seven of these "Chinese feet" or about 5 foot 4.

A good idea of what a modern historian makes of the official historical records on which these imaginative tales are based can be had from Generals of the South by Rafe de Crespigny, which focuses on the establishment of the state of Wu in the lower Yangtze valley by the Sun family, rivals of the Liu and the Cao.

aug 15, 2007, 11:28 am

Heck. I've got the four-volume edition waiting but it's going to take me at least two weeks to finish my current books. I hope I'll be able to dive in and catch up after that.

aug 16, 2007, 9:39 am

Welcome aboard, my tortoise TV viewing speed should make it easy to catch up. A special thanks to the Fogies' expert commentary. The hard to get book "Generals of the South" (and many other interesting ones) are kindly made available as PDFs by the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University: Rafe de Crespigny: Early Imperial China. I learnt a lot just peeking into the first chapter.

On to Chapter 2.

"Tommorrow we will slaughter a pig, a goat and a dog and throw down on the rebels a mixture of the animals' blood, entrails, and excrement" (p.21). The TV episode spares its viewers from recreating this moment. Even the excellent and historically accurate TV series "Rome" underplays the use of magic and spells. The Ancient World was a superstitious place we can hardly imagine. The sacrifices had a side-benefit as a good occasion to provide proteins (I don't know about China, but the Roman legionnaires ate a mostly vegetarian diet.).

"This enemy of the people ..." (p.31). I was surprised to see this term here which I strongly associate with Communist dictum.

The whipping the inspector reminded me of Peter's hacking off an ear in the defense of Jesus (Matthew 26:50-52). In both cases, an insult is avenged without sullying the leader's reputation.

Xuande rises fast: Within two chapters from battalion to auxillary corps commanding officer. For comparison, Napoléon Bonaparte 1786 Second Lieutenant, 1793 Captain (equivalent to a battalion commander), 1794 Général de brigade, 1796 Général de division.

p. 34 starts a masterful presentation of palace politics with the eunuchs playing off different family branches until the army is called in. Memo: Unless you are the army, never call the military in to regulate political disputes. These guys have every intention to rule on their own.

Cao Cao appears as a unheeded counsellor to the man in charge. He surely tends to surface near powerful men.

aug 19, 2007, 4:09 pm

Chapter 3 is a bloody study in loyalty.

First, upstart warlord Dong Zhuo secures his western base through kin before he marches on the capital.

Second, we see cunctator He Jin forced into a dilemma of either obeying the Empress (and sacrificing his life) or disobeying the Empress (and being declared a rebel). Only not playing the game is a winning strategy (as Martin Luther declined to go to Rome and went into hiding.). Like the aristocratic first wave of French Revolutionaries, He Jin's stomach for change is not sufficient and the tide washes him away.

The eunuch's triumph (by foolishly and ghastly releasing He's head to his followers) is short and apart from the two princes, the old court is destroyed. Dong Zhuo is in charge now. He mops up the supporters of old by the sword or by treason.

Lü Bu's loyalty is easily bought for the price of horse and a sack of gold. Lü Bu slays his former master and presents his head to Dong Zhuo who accepts Lü as his foster child promoting him to cavalry commander. Both men will have to watch their backs ...

For whatever reason, Dong Zhuo switches Emperors. The TV series implies that the old child-Emperor was dull. As the Emperor had practically no say in governing during his short reign, it is hard to say. By switching, Dong Zhuo at least undermines trust in the Han dynasty succession further.

Cao Cao whose advice He Jin did not heed is now in Dong Zhuo's camp.

A fast-paced and exciting chapter in which most of chapter two's characters are killed off.

aug 22, 2007, 6:40 pm

Chapter 4 continues the bloody trend.

First, the Emperor, his consort and the Emperor mother are disposed. In the TV series, this is depicted as a dignified Socratic end (goodbye cruel world) - a truly marked contrast to the gore of the book. The "fall" of the grandmother and the poisoning could be easily covered up. Strangling the consort will leave unwelcome body marks. Were these Han emperors still buried with Jade plugs?

Somehow, the planning of assassination attempts involves to many people and near public discussion. The Italians, Byzantines, Ottomans and Japanese were much sneakier ...

The chapter masterfully crafts an escalating, but failing assassination attempts by Ding Guan (ivory tablet), Wu Fu (knife) and Cao Cao (jeweled knife) whose lack of resolve in murdering the usurper is overcompensated in slaying an innocent man.

Ethically, Cao Cao's crime was unjustified. Practically, he would have entered into a blood feud with his own allies or relatives. Thus, the crime to cover his earlier murders was a necessity. Shirking away from murdering Dong Zhuo while hardly showing remorse over killing innocents does not paint Cao Cao in a good light.

Redigerat: aug 25, 2007, 1:18 pm

In chapter 5 the conservative forces react against Dong Zhuo's coup: Cao Cao assembles an alliance of 18 generals (always get a lucky number) under Yuan Shao which Liu Bei joins too.

The alliance has a white standard (isn't this colour a sign of death in Asia?) labeled "Loyalty and Honour", a favourite motto of reactionary forces: The French King's Swiss Guard used "Honneur et Fidelité" until it was massacred (and partially eaten) by the French mob in the defense of the king at the Tuileries Palace. The motto was revived by its direct descendant, the French Foreign Legion famous for its last stands (Camarón, Dien Bien Phu). The SS had a similar (but nonsensical) motto "Meine Ehre heißt Treue" (My fidelity is loyalty.) based on the doomed Nibelungen So without knowing anything about the end of the story, I expect this alliance to be doomed as well.

Much of the chapter deals with titanic fights in the style of the Ilias. While both sides command large hosts numbering in the tens of thousands of troops, battles are decided in the duels of its commanders or champions ("heroic leadership, see Martin van Creveld Command in War). What's the purpose of armies, if a superhero dream team can wipe out any opposition?

Dong Zhuo sends his first champion out to defeat the alliance. Hua Xiong ... "a man some nine spans tall, molded like a tiger, supple as a wolf, with a pantherine head and apelike arms." First, the menagerie mix would hardly stand a chance in any composition class. Secondly, is a wolf in Chinese eyes supple? Sly as a fox, or supple like a cat or panther - but a wolf? Whatever, this walking zoo slashes his way Hector-like through a number of alliance redshirts soldiers - until dramatically, Lord Guan extinguishes his spirits to return to his camp before his hot wine cools off. After initial success, Dong Zhuo's first attempt is blocked.

So he sends Lü Bu, Dong Zhuo's new champion, on his priceless steed Red Hare who rampages through a bevy of alliance opponents until the three sworn brothers together can battle him to a standstill. He withdraws.

The TV series has magnificient mass scenes with wonderful fluttering banners. Unfortunately, it mainly uses the theatre off-stage technique narrating fights (see Macbeth, Wilhelm Tell). Only the climatic duel between Lü Bu and the sworn brothers Liu Bei, Lord Guan and Zhang Fei gets an extended treatment. Instead of stuntmen, the actors themselves fight on horses with a visible (but understandable) reluctance to strike the opponent (a classic reenactment video disease). The TV series advances into chapter 6 territory.

Corrected some misspellings.

aug 25, 2007, 11:33 am

>9 jcbrunner:

The alliance has a white standard (isn't this colour a sign of death in Asia?)

Not particularly. White clothing--or more accurately, clothing made of undyed cloth--is worn in mourning, but the color white itself has no particular baleful significance. It generally connotes unblemished purity, much as in our culture.

Redigerat: sep 29, 2007, 12:23 pm

Sounds like fun. We'll see whether other demands allow the discipline of keeping up with steady progress.

>7 jcbrunner: (3) Twice, when challenged, Emperor Shao is too scared to say anything and the Prince of Chenliu has to speak up on their behalf.

>9 jcbrunner: (5) I believe I see the translation challenge with “supple as a wolf.” One of the formulas for these heroic descriptions is very Chimera-like. Taken literally, even if converted to similes, they sound like something from a Ray Harryhausen Technicolor production. Roberts has tried to soften it a little by substituting an adjective for a body part. But you still get a bit of the monster flavor. Brewitt-Taylor goes one further and eliminates some animals with, “... a stalwart man of fierce mien, lithe and supple. He had a small round head like a leopard and shoulders like an ape's.” The text has 虎體狼腰,豹頭猿臂 'tiger body, wolf waist, leopard head, ape arm'. So, an animal that is only supple isn't going to cut it, since it's a question of flexibility in the middle. Moreover, I would say that a wolf in action is pretty darn supple, even if most of our Western metaphors concentrate on other aspects.

Redigerat: aug 27, 2007, 1:43 am

>11 MMcM: I intend to keep up the speed, although after the next instalment on Tuesday, I will take a one-week break.

I like Brewitt-Taylor's version better, even if it sacrifices textual fidelty. His reduction preserves both categories of flexibility (leopard, wolf, panther) and strength (tiger, ape). To remain in the feline category, I would have combined panther and tiger (or does this sound too much like German tanks?).

On to chapter 6: The fellowship is broken.

Different men have different prices. A horse, Red Hare, convinced Lü Bu. Dong Zhuo's daughter (with no imperial claim) is not so attractive a claim to Sun Jian. Hopefully, she did not share her father's character who anticipated the G.W. Bush leadership style of conveniently ignoring dissenting voices.

Dong Zhuo further destroys the Han legacy in razing the capital and forcing the people into a reverse exodus to the ancient Western capital, closer to Dong Zhuo's power base. An early long march. Dong Zhuo gains time to rebuild his forces.

Cao Cao with 10.000 men pursues, is ambushed and returns with only 500 men after a narrow escape: His follower/relative Cao Hong first gives up his horse for Cao Cao and then, Cao-pherus, carries his lord through a stream. "The world can do without Cao Hong, but not without you, my lord!" Cao Cao has a Fouché-like talent for survival. His supporters do not fare as well.

Meanwhile, timid Yuan Shao sits in the destroyed city watching his political capital melt away. A miraculous find of the jade seal - a Chinese holy lance - forces Yuan Shao into open confrontation with Sun Jian, the finder of the seal. A Chinese version of the Achilles problem who has final booty claim. The seal obviously being a better deal to Sun Jian than Dong Zhuo's daughter. Sun Jian turns south, narrowly escaping a trap. The alliance crumbles and the lords retreat to their bases to rebuild their forces. Dong Zhuo has the child-Emperor, Yuan Shao the ruins of the capital, Sun Jian the seal.

A beautifully structured chapter with the double challenges to Sun Jian's loyalty and the double escapes from ambushes.

aug 28, 2007, 2:47 pm

Chapter 7 Player rotation - in: Zhao Zilong, out: Sun Jian

A weak chapter that owes its existence solely to retain historical continuity. In the TV series, the chapter events are narrated in one scene.

In the North, the White Horse general, Gongsun Zan, with Liu Bei and friends, battles Yuan Shao to a standstill. A new hero, Zhao Zilong, assists Gongsun Zan. His role remains unclear. Curiously, they accept mandates from Dong Zhuo and Liu Bei even is recommended for a governorship.

In the South, Sun Jian is killed after having foolishly sworn twice on his life not to have the jade seal. "I don't recall" would have been a better strategy ... His son Sun Ce ends the fighting and starts rebuilding.

aug 28, 2007, 3:53 pm

Chapter 8 Enter Helena
As the TV series combined chapters 6-8 and I am taking a one-week break afterwards, I add the dramatic chapter 8 now.

The chapter starts in painting Dong Zhuo as a vile, voluptuous and cruel character. Wang Yun, who earlier had procured the jeweled knife for Cao Cao's failed assassination attempt (ch. 4) targets Dong Zhuo's heart with a sweeter weapon, a woman.

Finally a female character! And what a character: Diaochan is one of Four Beauties of China. They have a stunning effect on nature (and males) cited in Wikipedia: "Xi Shi said to be so entrancingly beautiful that fish would forget to swim and sink away from the surface when she walks by." "Wang Zhaojun said to be so beautiful that her appearance would entice birds in flight to fall from the sky." "Diaochan said to be so luminously lovely that the moon itself would shy away in embarrassment when compared to her face."

Playing à la bande, Wang Yun first exposes Diaochan's charms to Lü Bu who falls madly in love, before presenting her as a gift to Dong Zhuo, the plan being on playing the two jealous men off against each other. Dong Zhuo is enthralled and for a month business cedes to pillow activities. All the time, the damsel sends Lü Bu signals of love and distress. Dong Zhuo feels Lü Bu's strain and tries to mollify him with a present of gold and silk (replacing intrinsic with extrinsic motivation) with the reverse effect of pushing Lü Bu over the brink.

Lü Bu arranges a sneaky meeting "in the back garden by the Phoenix Pavilion" with his damsel where she attempts to plunge herself into the pool to recover her blemished honour only to fall into Lü Bu's strong arms. Romeo and Julia speech leading to a dramatic embrace viewed by the entering Dong Zhuo who, picking up Lü Bu's halberd, gives chase until he crashes into another person:

"His fury mounted to the sky,
but his heavy frame sprawled on the ground." The resolution will have to wait for a week.

aug 29, 2007, 12:37 pm

Oh my. I think I saw this story in a movie when I was a child!!! No clue about the rest of the movie or any character names, but I remembered this bit between the two men and the girl. It was such a memorable movie, ending in the most child-gratifying way.

Redigerat: sep 6, 2007, 5:19 pm

Hi, I wish I had time to join you. Just wanted to say that the t.v. drama improves, the actors become less wooden. I read San Guo Yan Yi nearly 20 years ago with the help of my mom, but I was mostly confused about who was fighting whom. After watching the t.v. series, I only hoped I could one day find the time to reread.

Good luck!

sep 6, 2007, 7:28 pm

I am glad that acting will improve. The present chapter certainly removes a bunch of bad actors ...

Chapter 9: The Ides of March

The last chapter ended with the interruption of the lovesick generals' chase in the Phoenix Pavilion. Counselor Li Ru physically stopped Dong Zhuo by knocking him over (quite a feat considering Dong Zhuo's volume and speed) and advises to cool the matter by handing Diaochan over to Lü Bu. The beauty feigns distress about leaving Dong Zhuo who is easily swayed by the girl's affection (and botched suicide attempt). A period of stalemate ensues until minister Wang Yun incites lovesick Lü Bu to murder Dong Zhuo, using the proven method of calling the prospective victim to court.

Like Caesar, Dong Zhuo disregards a ton of warnings (why do the gods love this brute?), arriving at the court to be crowned emperor. Instead he is faced with long knives. After having asked for his own Brutus "Where is my son?", his head is shortened and his body finds a gruesome end: "There was so much fat in his body that the guards lit a fire in his navel as it burned, and grease from the corpse ran over the ground." Sic semper tyrannis ... Dong Zhuo's death eliminates the last of the first round of leaders in this bloody novel.

Lü Bu rescues Diaochan in Dong Zhuo's palace. Wang Yun starts a short reign of terror until Dong Zhuo's followers rise up, defeat the valiant Lü Bu, plunder the new capital and cut Wang Yun down and extinguish his clan. Some even want to kill the child-emperor. Lü Bu, leaving his family behind (Diaochan?), escapes to Yuan Shu. Will he accept the services of Lü Bu whose track record includes murdering his previous two bosses?

The fate of Diaochan remains unclear. In episode 7 of the TV series she drives off into the sunset in a music video tribute. Wikipedia says she and Lü Bu will meet again, an internet source claims that Dong Zhuo's followers killed her. Compared to Helena or Briseis, she is more active, but her role is underutilized. The boy gets girl element vanishes in a sea of blood.

sep 8, 2007, 1:44 pm

Chapter 10 November Rain

Four general form a junta: Li Jue (General of Chariots and Cavalry, lordship, Capital Districts, court administration), Guo Si (General of the Rear, lordship, court administration), Fan Chou (General of the Right, lordship) and Zhang Ji (General of the Flying Cavalry, lordship). Li Jue is chief honcho commanding the military elite, the capital and the court. Guo Si and Fan Chou are equal in second place, the smaller rear or reserve forces compensated by administrative power giving him a slight edge. Zhang Ji is offered a consolation price outside the capital. The lordships give each general independent economic resources.

The junta wants to honor their murdered leader with a royal funeral (cf. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar). As we have seen in the last chapter, there is not much left to be buried from Dong Zhuo's remains. So they commission a statue, dress it in royal robes, pick an auspicious day and start the funeral procession. Alas: "At the burial, however, a tremendous cloudburst flooded the area, and the force of thunder shook the coffin open, knocking the statue out. Li Jue waited for the skies to clear but the storm raged on and internment had to be postponed again and again until the fragments of Dong Zhuo's corpse had been consumed by lightning. Great indeed was Heaven's wrath."

A great scene, unfortunately missing in the family-friendly TV series (episode 8 advances far into chapter 11 and/or 12). Most open-air concert goers will be familiar with the frustration: Frenzied managers and security trying to shelter the equipment, console the dignitaries and control the masses. Some exposed to the elements, some sheltered under a myriad of umbrellas and raincoats, all waiting for a intermittent clearing. Dashed hopes after the rain resumes. The propaganda event literally "ist ins Wasser gefallen" (The event was rained off. The German expression covers exactly such a case, unexpected heavy summer rain being quite common.).

The ruler's main problem is how to stop the dragon's seed cycle of violence provoking violent reactions. Two challengers from the West, Ma Teng and Han Sui, march an army to the capital. As the junta has to control the capital, the send two hothead subordinates to battle the challengers. The son of Ma Teng, Ma Chao, easily dispatches the two generals defeating the small junta army. The main junta army takes up a blocking position forcing the challengers to withdraw due to supply problems. The junta sends its two minor generals Fan Chou and Zhang Ji in pursuit. Fan Chou and Han Sui already arrayed in battle, claiming both to fight for the emperor, call the engagement off in a case of fraternization (for a similar event between Swiss Protestants and Catholics, see Kappeler Milchsuppe). Li Jue invites Fan Chou to a banquet where, predictably, the latter loses his head. Nr 4 is promoted to Nr 3 and the junta becomes a triumvirat.

The Yellow Scarves stage another uprising and Cao Cao is sent by the junta to punish them. Instead he uses this for a recruiting drive enlisting the best of the Yellow Scarves' fighters. The court, powerless to oppose Cao Cao's rise from governor to army commander appoints him General Garrisoning the East. Cao Cao builds a think tank/staff and calls for his father and clan to join him. Unfortunately, on the way, this traveling group is extinguished by their provincial escorts. Cao Cao seeks revenge from the (innocent) local governor and besieges his city.

sep 11, 2007, 9:19 am

Chapter 11 Freestyle Wrestling

Cao Cao besieges Tao Qian who sends for help to Kong Rong (distant relative of Confucius) who in turn is besieged by the Yellow Scarves. Liu Bei rescues first Kong Rong, then comes to the assistance of Tao Qian. Cao Cao lifts the siege as his home territory is attacked by Lü Bu. Cao Cao returns to defend his cities but is defeated.

We are introduced to a bunch of new faces. Governor Kong Rong with a sharp tongue (lacking the usual deference to elders and authorities), honest advisor Mi Zhu and a young warrior Taishi Ci.

Liu Bei is offered the governorship by Tao Qian but declines. Is he simply modest or does he recognize the low defensibility of this province?

20blackwhiteandgrey Första inlägget
sep 13, 2007, 11:53 am

There's a wonderful story about Kong Rong which forms a proverb that is often used to teach Chinese children about the value of generosity and respect for one's elders. When I first read Three Kingdoms/watched the TV series, I was surprised to see him as a character because the proverb itself is so famous.

sep 13, 2007, 3:54 pm

As I am starting with a (mostly) blank slate regarding China, thank you very much for highlighting Kong Rong. From the Three-Character Classic - San Zi Jing:

Rong, at four,
could yield the (bigger) pears.
To behave as a younger brother towards elders,
is one of the first things to know.

Begin with filial piety and fraternal love,
then see and hear.
Learn to count,
learn to read.

BTW, no original sin in Confucianism; and all Nurture (not Nature): People at birth, are naturally good. Their natures are similar; their habits become different. If, negligently, not taught, their nature deteriorate.

Redigerat: dec 4, 2007, 12:06 am

>11 MMcM: He is falsely modest when he should be decisive. He is the worst of the lot! And you will see that as a result of indecisiveness and pretense to being noncovetous, he causes a stampede of refugees and much suffering. The rest of the book will be his attempt to regain northern territory from positions of weakness and great instability.

All the poor fools who follow Liu Bei. Poor Zhuge Liang!!

But this is the Yanyi not the historical Liu Bei. Luo Guanzhong decided to make Cao Cao the bad guy and Liu Bei the better man because Liu was purportedly a descendent of the Han royal family. Liu Bei was shrewd and did not take up Jing Zhou when Liu Biao offered it because he knew if he said, yes, I'll take it, he would have been turned into mince meat. Liu Biao was likely testing Liu Bei's appetite for power.

The rich families of Jing Zhou (Cai Mao) were leaning toward Cao Cao's to the north and was ready to surrender to him.

sep 14, 2007, 3:06 am

My children's reader of the sanzijing says there was a debate about nurture vs nature and that the beginning lines are a compromise.

Redigerat: sep 14, 2007, 7:31 am

>#21, #23

jcbrunner is technically right that the concept of original sin is lacking, but the inference drawn from that in #21 is incorrect. mvrdrk has it right: there was indeed a debate and the sides straddle jcbrunner's formulation. Mencius is credited with the notion that human nature is good by birth and that it is only made bad by being twisted. Xunzi calls Mencius out by name and claims human nature is bad by birth and only made good by being trained and educated. The two sides had quite a political conflict during the Han, well described by Michael Loewe in Crisis and Conflict in Han China.

edited to correct spelling

sep 14, 2007, 8:15 am


That's one of the great debates about the book. Liu Bei's actions are meant to make him the paragon of virtue (since Three Kingdoms is nothing if not a morality tale), but from a more modern perspective many do become frustrated with his traditional sense of right.

But anyway, no spoilers.

sep 14, 2007, 12:02 pm

Bear with me and excuse my ignorance, as I shot from the hip regarding the first lines of the sanzijing. Yin without yang would be un-Chinese ... Next up on the weekend: An appreciation at the 10 % read mark.

Chapter 12 Treachery and ambushes, ambushes and treachery

The defeated Cao Cao is offered the opportunity to acquire a city by treachery but is ambushed by Lü Bu and nearly trapped within it. The frantic ride in near darkness to all the four city gates is well told. Cao Cao manages to escape having been burnt by a fallen timber. He feigns death to trigger Lü Bu into a rash attack. The ruse works and Lü Bu is defeated. The two armies are forced to pause their slaughter due to famine caused by (non-human locusts). The peasants even resort to cannibalism.

Meanwhile, the dying Tao Qian with his last breath hands Xuzhou over to Liu Bei who accepts to rule the province - temporarily (Does -zhou stand for province or organization?). The people rejoice. Envious Cao Cao thinks about attacking Liu Bei. His adviser prevails: "To risk Yanzhou for Xuzhou is to sacrifice what is important for what is not, the fundamental for the peripheral, something sure for something uncertain."

Cao Cao needs a new target for his army in a Wallensteinian "war feeds war". Fortunately, there are grain reserves of the Yellow Scarves nearby to capture. He defeats the Yellow Scarves (like the pirates in the Asterix comics, always ready to be defeated) and acquires the services of a new paladin called Xu Chu (according to Wikipedia a XXXL-sized 2.4 m tall guy). Fresh from victory, Cao Cao defeats and evicts Lü Bu who can only lament: "To the military man defeat is commonplace. Who knows when the loser will rise to fight again?"

The last line I knew from a discussion contrasting Western warfare seeking decisive battles to Eastern fluidity (just as in chess and go). But the military situation could easily have taken place in the Hundred Years War or the Thirty Years War in Europe.

sep 14, 2007, 1:59 pm

>26 jcbrunner: Nothing to excuse, this is a huge learning opportunity for me. Thank you for doing this!

sep 14, 2007, 9:10 pm

'Zhou' is the ancient Chinese equivalent of province.

>27 mvrdrk: Seconding - I'm really enjoying reading your thoughts.

Redigerat: sep 15, 2007, 6:44 am

>#26 We also second what mvrdrk said. No cause for embarrassment in not knowing as much about China as the experts do. You’re the star of the group now—by all means keep it coming.

As a sidebar, here’s a passage we ran across in the official dynastic history History of the Three Kingdoms in the section on the history of Shu. It seems one of Zhuge Liang’s most successful generals, Wang Ping, was illiterate.


Fogies’ translation: “Ping was born and raised among military expeditions. He could not write at all, and could recognize no more than about ten characters. He would write by oral dictation and always conveyed his intent with clear logic. He had someone read the royal (紀) and non-royal (傳) biographies in Records of the Grand Historian and the History of the former Han Dynasty to him, and he got the general significance of everything he heard. He would often discuss them without misunderstanding.”

Edited to try to fix wonky touchstone to history of former Han--no can do

sep 16, 2007, 8:51 pm

Thanks for the compliments, although I wasn't fishing for any. Getting the pitch right is difficult. By all means, go on commenting etc.

Literacy is a lot harder to achieve in Chinese than in most other languages. Competency means handling 1,500 Chinese characters ... The frustrating thing is that even knowing 100 plus characters will be unhelpful in understanding any text without excessive stroke counting and dictionary consultation. According to this Washington Post article there were still 116 million Chinese illiterates in 2005, 11 percent of the world total.).

An appreciation at the 10 % read mark

Readability. I was surprised how well the text reads (Others might comment on the quality of Moss Roberts' translation.). Chapters comprise 15 to 20 pages which are easily readable in one session. They mostly end in a cliffhanger (just as Lord of the Rings) which is resolved in the first paragraph of the next chapter. I usually cheat by reading that paragraph with the preceding chapter. Three Kingdoms is enthralling but not addictive (in contrast to LotR which I read in three night sessions, a decade ago). The language is concise, clean and devoted to advancing the story.

Uniqueness. As my prior exposure to Chinese history was mostly limited to the 20th century (still reflected in most China shelves in bookshops with five books on Mao for every book on Ancient China), I had practically no knowledge about Three Kingdoms. I have read other novels about countries in turmoil such as Eiji Yoshikawa's Taiko about Japan's Sengoku Jidai, Henryk Sienkiewicz's The Deluge about Poland's terrible 17th century devastation by Sweden or Homer's Iliad. Among non-historic works I would also count Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire saga. Unlike Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind or John Jakes' North and South, all these works are written from a leader's or ruler's perspective. All feature multiple perspectives but most have a clear focal point, a hero (and usually a chief villain). Up to chapter 12, Three Kingdoms is still in the build-up phase, so no spoilers please. It is interesting that most of the works about times of turmoil were written during turbulent times themselves.

The multi-perspective of Three Kingdoms, overall, is extremely well handled. The good chapter structure helps to keep track among the different action locations and players. The problem I have is the sheer unlimited number of extras. The author is an inveterate namedropper which is a problem for all those (like me) who lack the cultural reference frame. Moss Roberts' annotations fills some of the gaps but, as intended, the full enjoyment is reserved for the literati. Fortunately, just like all those guest stars in US series, not recognizing them does not hurt the story.

Regarding the characters. Blackwhiteandgrey's mention of a morality play matches my impression. Just like the generic characters in morality plays (placeholders for abstract concepts), many Three Kingdoms' characters lack depth, in particular emotional depth. I wonder what other authors would have made with Cao Cao's scene learning about his father's death. Can I root for Liu Bei, Cao Cao or Lü Bu as I do for Odysseus, Hector and Diomedes? No, only the lovesick Lü Bu acquires tragic loveability for a moment until his robot-like actions take over again. Can I admire his dexterity in adversity? Yes, but do I care? Not much. Part of the wooden TV acting is accounted for by this literal interpretation. In most works above, the heroes and villains are much more positively and negatively charged. Apart from noting (dis-)loyalty, Three Kingdoms remains very non-committal. Even a monster like Dong Zhuo (who delights in torture, razes the capital and kills innocents by the thousands) is dealt with in fairly neutral terms.

Place descriptions. Compared to the other works, Three Kingdoms has few descriptive or illustrative parts. In an impressionistic way, it indicates an image or setting like the Phoenix Pavilion and leaves the details to the reader. Smaller places such as Puyang in chapter 11 and 12 serve as battlegrounds without telling the reader its location, which is frustrating as the maps I have often use a different transliteration or feature modern city names if they list the place at all. The other works usually have fewer distinct locations (and better maps).

Political and military actions. Three Kingdoms excels in presenting political actions. The Machiavellian stratagems and court intrigues are well presented and even commented on. I wonder what the Florentine would had made with this tale. Marco Polo returned too early ...

The battlefield narratives are little marvels. Even fairly complex actions and movements are concisely told. Most battles come to life and the clashes of the champions is exiting. Why they bring along the masses of troups if battles are decided in duels is a little bit strange, though. Just like in the Ilias, the champions probably need their fan clubs.

Before I will engage fully into the Cao Cao and Liu Bei discussion, I will have to read further. Up to chapter twelve, Cao Cao is too impulsive. He is at his best if he enacts the plans of his advisers. Liu Bei is too wimpy for my taste, a superman who refuses to use his powers. Both are fairly good at acquiring followers, surprisingly in the case of Liu Bei as he has few rewards to offer.

sep 18, 2007, 5:05 am

In my opinion, the book has yet to truly get into its stride at this point, both in terms of character and in terms of plot. Many of the most vivid personalities of the era have yet to be introduced, although the Diao Chan affair is one of the most famous events in the novel.

Liu Bei's great skill is seen as his ability to win the allegiance of people very easily by both his reputation and his actions. Cao Cao is a genius in many ways in his own right, but he is not seen to have the same kind of pull, although men did flock to him.

sep 18, 2007, 9:57 am

Chapter 13 Cockfight & Marche de l'Empereur

In the first part of the chapter, Lü Bu is seeking a place to recuperate his army. His last rescuer, Yuan Shao allies with Cao Cao, so going to Liu Bei is his last life line. Liu Bei accepts him into the city and, curiously, even tries to hand over the signs of office, entrusted to him personally by Tao Qian. Given the shock expressed by the sworn brothers, this was more than an empty gesture. Lü Bu calls Liu Bei "worthy younger brother", again to the displeasure of the sworn brothers. Liu Bei even accepts the terminology and defers to "elder brother" Lü Bu. Liu Bei assigns Lü Bu and his army to his old camping ground nearby at Xiaopei.

As Mark E. Lewis writes (Qin & Han, p. 110), in Han China every man (apart from a slave) was ranked according to a 20 class system (8 commoner levels, 12 noble ones). Given the Confucian tradition and the extreme rank-conscious if not obsessiveness, rank preference gives huge benefits. Liu Bei is still following the system even during a civil war where official positions lag behind political events and do not reflect current standings.

Thus, in real power, Liu Bei is much stronger than Lü Bu. Liu Bei was Governor of Pingyuan and is acting Imperial Inspector of Xuzhou (probably unconfirmed by the Court). Furthermore, he is of imperial lineage. Lü Bu's highest position was Knight General, as Second-in-Command to Dong Zhuo, according to Wikipedia, but now in rebellion, essentially a maverick general without a home. Both commanders, however, keep up the charade in acting in the name of the Emperor, thus Knight General is higher than Governor. Given the weakness of the current position of Lü Bu, Liu Bei should have tried to acquire the services of Lü Bu as one of his commanders. Liu Bei is certainly no good politician. Having accepted Lü Bu as his superior, this puts the two on a collision course.

The second part of the chapter shifts to the Court and is a strange and sad story. The junta survivors (chapter 10) Li Jue and Guo Si clash - largely due to their women's interference. Again, the novel is not very benevolent regarding women's influence. From a strategic point of view the fight between the generals is nuts. They just acknowledged the rise of Cao Cao in the East, they still have the Dong Zhuo dead-enders in the West, the South is on its own ... and still they fight like children, destroying the Court in a tragicomic process.

As the German saying about the Burgundian Duke Charles the Bold goes: "Karl der Kühne verlor in Grandson den Hut, in Murten den Mut und in Nancy das Blut“ (At Grandson he lost his hat/treasure, at Morat his courage and at Nancy his blood.). During the escape, Li Jue wrecks the Court, successively curtailing it until the roped Emperor, stripped off all dignity, is lowered like a parcel into a boat. The Son of Heaven is reduced to crying for a little food in a hut, a Last Emperor. Weeping is the main strategy of the courtiers - in contrast to the haughty reign of the eunuchs some years back. The flight in an Eastern direction (back to the old capital of Luoyang) puts the Emperor conveniently within reach of Cao Cao, but the chapter ends with this cliffhanger. The Han dynasty seems to be at the end.

sep 20, 2007, 12:26 pm

chapter 14 Consolidation

Cao Cao completes his consolidation of power. He controls the Emperor, establishes the Court in Xuchang, which becomes already the third capital, and has his men assigned imperial offices and titles. He crushes the remnants of Dong Zhuo followers enticing some to switch sides, adding Xu Huang to his already impressive stable of generals. "The wise bird chooses its branch, the wise servant his master." Is there a Western equivalent?

As Yuan Shao in the North had already accepted Cao Cao's leadership, Cao Cao's next challenge are Liu Bei, Lü Bu and Yuan Shu. Cao Cao has the Emperor appoint Liu Bei "General who brings peace to the East" but adds a poison pill in ordering him to kill Lü Bu, his guest. Liu Bei lets an ideal opportunity to murder Lü Bu pass and even informs him of the mission. He then procrastinates (mañana, mañana), hoping time will solve the dilemma.

Cao Cao's advisers then pitch Liu Bei against Yuan Shu. The obedient Liu Bei battles and defeats Yuan Shu leaving his city relatively unprotected under the care of Chen Deng and Zhang Fei. The latter was entrusted this mission under the promise not to drink. As in a fairy tale, he promptly breaks his promise. Drunk, he insults, then whips Cao Bao, father in law of Lü Bu (since when? How many wives does Lü Bu have? Where is Diaochan?). Humiliated Cao Bao opens the city gate to Lü Bu's forces which capture the families of Liu Bei. Zhang Fei slays Cao Bao and escapes to the now homeless Liu Bei. Morale: Don't drink and rule.

Cao Cao's plan seems to work flawless. His three opponents are all weaker than before. Given Liu Bei's loyalty to the Emperor, Cao Cao could have convinced him to submit to his forces and keep his province. Now, he has created himself an enemy.

THis completes the story arc of TV episode 8. As the complicated political stratagems translate badly to the small screen, TV viewers get only a condensed version of the events.

sep 23, 2007, 2:12 pm

Chapter 15 A Sun rises in the South

First, Liu Bei forgives Zhang Fei: "Brothers are like arms and legs; wives and children are merely garments that can always be mended. But who can mend a broken limb?" Very Roman: Alliances are more important than (replaceable) property. Although the proverb must have been dated even then, as mending broken limbs must have been known in Chinese medicine.

As told in the last chapter, Schmerzensmann Liu Bei has violated the number 1 rule of Strategy Games (Protect your home base). He sheepishly accepts to serve as Lü Bu's underling, stationed at Xiaopei: "Bending when one must and accepting one's lot makes it possible to await a more favorable time. Who can contest fate?" Liu Bei has an imperial order to kill Liu Bei in his pockets. I do not understand what motive Lü Bu has in helping a challenger. In fact, his own actions showed how dangerous an army close by can be. A strange pair of bedfellows.

The second part of the chapter tells the rise of Sun Ce, son of the jade seal thief/protector (?) Sun Jian. The reader is crushed under an name avalanche of places, followers, allies and enemies of Sun Ce. It is very hard to grasp who the important persons are.

Sun Ce borrows soldiers from Yuan Shu by pawning the imerial jade seal. While Yuan Shu wastes his energies against Lü Bu and Liu Bei, Sun Ce with his new forces undertakes sensible conquests against fairly weak opponents in the south. Sun Ce comes to blow with Taishi Ci, another young warrior we met some chapters back. Taishi Ci, in the service of Liu Yao, has a titanic but inconclusive duel with Sun Ce (The shoddy quality of this DVD prevented me from viewing episode 9 and the duel.). Later, Sun Ce manages to convince Taishi Ci to switch sides. Taishi Ci becomes an important champion of Sun Ce.

Sun Ce is a Chinese Alexander the Great, son of a murdered father, he develops leadership skills early. He is brave and leads by example: "... unless I take the forefront in battle, braving arrow and stone (?), I will lose authority over my officers and men." He is also ruthless enough not to accept unequal peace offerings and strangles adversaries. He mercilessly kills a city emissary who proposed a surrender on an equal basis. He treats his followers well, procuring the best medical care for a wounded soldier, and the peasants like his fair rule. In lightning campaigns, he becomes master of the south.

Yuan Shu, current (but now undeserving) keeper of the imperial jade seal, has helped create a strong challenger to his south. Cao Cao is strong in the northwest/centre. Thus, Yuan Shu has only the East coast to expand. He targets Lü Bu and Liu Bei.

sep 24, 2007, 6:21 am

I think a lot of the actions in the novel can be explained by the premium placed on reputation in ancient China. While Lu Bu's actions seem to indicate that he's one of the few who doesn't care what everybody thinks of him, he's still more or less bound by the same social rules.

The Sun Ce-Alexander the Great comparison is a brilliant one. Now that I think about it, it really works in almost every way, but I won't elaborate at this point for fear of spoilers.

sep 27, 2007, 9:31 am

Lü Bu is a loose cannon. "Brothers are like arms and legs"? Not to Lü Bu who killed his two "elder brothers" for a horse and a woman respectively, repaid Liu Bei's kindness by conquering his city at the first opportunity. His childish impulsiveness and living in the moment positively results in him holding no grudges. Negatively, he is easily manipulated by more sophisticated players, a pawn in the big game. In the following chapter, we see him trying out big politics.

Chapter 16 Sex, Lies and Marriage

Yuan Shu still seeks to conquer Xuzhou. He sends Lü Bu a load of grain and Liu Bei an army commanded by Ji Ling. On the advice of the cunning Chen Gong, Lü Bu comes to Liu Bei's rescue with an army. Lü Bu defuses the situation with an ordeal. If he hits his distant halberd with an arrow, Ji Ling has to withdraw his army, otherwise Lü Bu will not intervene. Liu Bei accepts despite the adverse odds (having no alternative, BATNA in negotiation speak), Ji Ling yields too as he does not want to drive Lü Bu into the opposing camp. The immortal shot succeeds. Ji Ling withdraws his army.

Yuan Shu, not having military success, picks the Austrian strategy (tu felix Serica, nube?). "Strangers never come before relatives" somewhat contradicts "brothers are like arms and legs" as it depends on the definition of "stranger". Liu Bei refers to Lü Bu as Elder Brother. The honorific title does not imply familial relations but surely they are no strangers. How much their male bond weighs compared to a female (weak?) relation is probably dependent on political calculations. A proverb to justify any action will be found ...

Yuan Shu needs a bride for his eldest son. Conveniently, Lü Bu is father to a single daughter (no other heirs). Here finally is the description of Lü Bu's family affairs I asked for above (chapter 14): Two wives (Lady Yan and Cao Bao's daughter for local guanxi) and a concubine (Diaochan). Lü Bu accepts Yuan's proposal and marriage preparations start. According to customs, the waiting period between the engagement and the nuptials would be at least six months. Chen Gong wanting to seal the deal speeds it up to one night. The daughter is sent on her way to Yuan Shu. Victory? Unfortunately for Yuan Shu, Chen Deng (another Chen? Fun fact: In Southern China, 11 % of the population share that name.) persuades Lü Bu to call the wedding off without informing Yuan Shu.

Troubling for Lü Bu, he hears that Liu Bei is building up his forces. Zhang Fei has stolen horses from Lü Bu. The two warriors come to blows. Liu Bei characteristically wants to accommodate Lü Bu but Zhang Fei sneaks out Liu Bei's party which seeks refuge with Cao Cao. Again, Liu Bei is at the mercy of a rival. For PR reasons, Cao Cao does not want to murder Liu Bei. At least, the Liu Bei-Lü Bu relations are settled (for the moment).

Before Cao Cao can attack Lü Bu, trouble looms on another front. He sends titles and gifts to Lü Bu who stays put. In a lightning campaign, Cao Cao conquers Wancheng. In a sort of sexual humiliation of the locals (Boudica?), Cao Cao takes the former ruler's widow as a concubine stirring up bad blood. The lady seems to accept her new situation quite willingly. In a Trojan Horse manoeuvre, Zhang Xiu leading the locals places troops within Cao Cao's camp. Having filled up Cao Cao's giant bodyguard Dian Wei with wine (another alcohol problem?), the locals attack with fire and overwhelm Cao Cao's troops despite a heroic last stand by Dian Wei. Cao Cao's eldest son and nephew are killed while helping the wounded Cao Cao escape. Other victims of the pillow. Cao Cao has learned little from Dong Zhuo's fate. Escaping out of burning cities is becoming his specialty. The first time he was hit by a beam, now he is wounded by an arrow ...

Seeing weakness, rebels rise against Cao Cao. A local commander called Yu Jin defeats them but is himself accused of being a traitor. Before clearing his name with Cao Cao, Yu Jin defeats the approaching forces from Zhang Xiu. Cao Cao promotes Yu Jin. Chen Deng plays double agent for Cao Cao and Lü Bu is sent to defeat the invading Yuan Shu who realized the Lü Bu's game. Officially, Lü Bu and Liu Bei are now allies of Cao Cao (playing for the same team). Yuan Shu's days look numbered ...

sep 30, 2007, 10:02 am

Chapter 17 Despots United

"My decision stands. Whoever says more, dies." The hitherto unsuccessful Yuan Shu goes all in, declares himself Emperor and leads seven armies (why not the magic eight?) into Xuzhou, executing his supply officer on the fly. Lü Bu raises five armies and manages to turn two of Yuan Shu's generals. Together they defeat Yuan Shu's main army, nearly killing the man himself. Lord Guan sent by Liu Bei attacks the rear.

Sun Ce plans to attack the weakened Yuan Shu from the south while Cao Cao (licking his wounds after his escapade, ch. 16) advances from the north with Liu Bei and Lü Bu. Liu Bei brings a bloody present: the head of Yuan Shu's turncoat generals who had received counties for their service and plundered them to liberally. Uncharacteristically, Liu Bei had invited them to a dinner where he murdered them. Der Moor hat seine Schuldigkeit getan; der Moor kann geh'n. (The Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go).

After a short battle, Cao Cao besieges Yuan Shu's general in Shouchun. Cao Cao's besieging army is hungry. Cao Cao has borrowed food from Sun Ce but does not distribute it. Instead he has the rations reduced. When the troops complain, he sacrifices his innocent supply officer and shows the head to his troops ("pour encourager les autres"). Morale improves. The next day he issues his generals a three-day ultimatum to take the city or join their beheaded comrade. With Cao Cao leading from the front, they capture and sack the city.

Pursuing Yuan Shu, Cao Cao learns that Zhang Xiu (allied with Liu Bao) has used the opportunity to attack Cao Cao's base. Cao Cao secures the East by assigning Liu Bei to Xiaopei watching Lü Bu (and neutralizing him if possible). The two generals cancel each other out. In other news, the last of Dong Zhuo's generals have been beheaded. Their whole clans are executed and their heads posted at the gates.

While heading towards Zhang Xiu, and having experienced the devastation and hunger caused by destroying the agricultural infrastructure, Cao Cao prohibits his forces to trample fields. When Cao Cao himself accidentally ruins some wheat with his horse, he cuts off his hear as punishment ("leading by example"). Cao Cao defeats Zhang Xiu and besieges him in Nanyang. If he succeeds in this siege, Cao Cao will be in control via divide et impera of most of the land (apart from Liu Bao). Lü Bu, Liu Bei, Sun Ce and Yuan Shao at least nominally obey the Emperor's (i.e. Cao Cao's) edicts.

A bloody chapter in which most protagonist let their hair down. They are ruthless: killing their superiors (twice: Lü Bu), their guests (Liu Bei), their hosts (Cao Cao), their officers (Cao Cao). O tempora, o mores.

okt 3, 2007, 10:33 am

Chapter 18 The Eye of the Tiger

Tricked into an ambush on the southeast gate, Cao Cao's army is defeated and withdraws. The pursuing Zhang Xiu loses and wins a battle against Cao Cao's rear guard. Cao Cao rushes to the capital to protect it against the advancing Yuan Shao who, however, only seeks permission to attack Gongsun Zan in the north. This fits Cao Cao's plans as the fighting will occupy them. Sun Ce (and Cao Cao's covering force) will keep Liao Bao in check. Thus, Cao Cao is free to smash Lü Bu. Cao Cao advises Liu Bei to prepare his forces.

Unfortunately for Liu Bei, his return envoy is captured and the plan leaked to Lü Bu who promptly has Liu Bei besieged in Xiaopei by Gao Shun and Zhang Liao. The three sworn brothers cover each a gate, no. 4 is assigned to Sun Qian and the centre to Liu's in-law Mi Zhu. Zhang Liao attacks first the west gate, then the east gate. Gao Shun raises the siege and marches against the approaching army of Cao Cao.

Cao Cao's general Xiahou Dun battles with Gao Shun. During the fight, an arrow pierces his eye: "Xiahou Dun plucked out the arrow; the eyeball had stuck fast to the point. 'The essence of my parents cannot be thrown away', he cried and swallowed the eye." And killed the bowman. The wounded Xiahou Dun left the field to Gao Shun who sent his forces against Liu Bei.

Swallowing an eye must have been a ghastly action even then (otherwise it would not have been reported.). Fortunately, it was the eye (the window to the soul) that served as a marker not an arm or leg ... We experimented with bovine eyeballs in school. I imagine that it is quite a challenge to swallow such a sturdy thing.

okt 7, 2007, 10:11 am

Chapter 19 Tastes like chicken ... or wolf?

The besieged Liu Bei once again loses a battle and escapes to Cao Cao. On the way, he has a ghastly experience of cannibalism: A hunter, unable to procure game, serves Liu Bei parts of his own wife. The next morning in the kitchen, "Xuande realized what he had eaten and tears of gratitude streamed from his eyes." Liu Bei even tells about this horrible event to Cao Cao and the hunter is praised and rewarded. What an alien, alien culture!

Meanwhile, Cao Cao advances against Lü Bu. Through treachery, Chen Deng manages to have two parts of Lü Bu's forces to battle each other in a night encounter and has Mi Zhu close Xiaopei's doors to to Lü Bu who thus loses both an army and a city. Lü Bu retires to the well provisioned Xiapi, his last resort, and is besieged by Cao Cao. Chen Gong advises Lü Bu to escape with the cavalry; Lü Bu declines. Relying on his women, he sends envoys to Yuan Shu who naturally plays for time. Lü Bu transforms from Hector to old Elvis. In a repeat of Zhang Fei's bad example (ch. 14), Lü Bu has one of his loyal generals whipped who promptly retaliates by sending Lü Bu's famed horse to Cao Cao, takes away the halberd from the sleeping Samson. Lü Bu is bound up and delivered to Cao Cao who has him strangled (on the advice of Liu Bei no less). What an unsatisfying, dismal end to a champion. Cao Cao also executes the faithful Chen Gong (who has chosen the wrong branch) but spares the hot-headed Zhang Liao.

Overall, a shocking chapter. First, Liu Bei's remorseless transgression; then Lü Bu's anti-climatic death. Strangled like a criminal? His capture was certainly a low point in Chinese TV acting ...

Exercise: Compare the leader-subordinate relations of Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Lü Bu and Zhang Fei.

okt 7, 2007, 8:07 pm

The whole episode with Liu Bei, while horrible, makes 'sense' if you put it into the context of a time when wives were the property of husbands to do with as they wished just like their cattle. And there you see the effects of the misogyny of Confucianism.

Lu Bu's death has traditionally been seen as a traitor getting his comeuppance when his reputation for betrayal and his arrogance finally did him in: again with the morality tale.

Redigerat: okt 10, 2007, 12:35 pm

>34 jcbrunner: (15) I am several chapters behind the group.

Brewitt-Taylor translates 手足斷安可續 as “but who can reattach a lost limb,” which is closer to the original and addresses your observation about Chinese medicine then. Of magic snakes, the dictionary quotes
the magic snake can be cut and then reconnect, but it cannot make people not cut it

I think this scene and the one in the Peach Garden were the cornerstones of a Queer theorist interpretation of the homosocial environment of the novel.

I went out and got the DVDs, too. This topic had set my expectations for the acting, so my only complaint is that turning on both sets of subtitles (better reader than listener) they sometimes overlap. It's 84 episodes on 28 DVDs, and Chopra's Mahabharata is 94 episodes on 16 DVDs, so about the same depending on how you count.

okt 11, 2007, 8:50 am

I gladly pause. As you are only a few pages behind, it should not take long to catch up. Is the two chapter a week rhythm acceptable (Sun, Thu; I usually view the corresponding two TV episodes back to back.)? Slowing to one chapter a week would add a year ...

The closed fraternity of double subtitle readers! After a movie, nothing drives people nuts faster than commenting on translation nuances in subtitles ...

I wonder how the English subtitles to the Three Kingdoms DVD were produced. Given the uncommon misspellings (such as hangs for hands), I suspect a first step translation on paper by a Chinese English-speaker was transcribed by a non-English speaking person and never checked. As I do not understand Chinese, I have to rely on them, though.

In the meantime, we could discuss Lü Bu whose narrative arch is now complete (ch. 3-19). Is Lü Bu a hero or a villain? Is his fate tragic or deserved?

I see him less as a traitor (almost everyone in the novel betrays at one time or another) but more as a gambler who overplayed his cards. He strikes me as, dare I say, very American:

A free agent (independent) in a world built on fixed relations,
egalitarian (even listening to women's opinions),
meritocratic (power being the sole currency),
living in the present (short-term thinking) with a disdain for history and precendent,
optimistic (tomorrow is another day, instead of fatalistic acceptance of the present),
hedonistic (Red Hare, Diaochan), seeking worldly pleasures (instead of moral and positional ones like Liu Bei),
opportunistic/realist (abandoning weaker partners, cutting loses, taking advantage of others).

This combination made him an outsider, an unreliable risk in a perturbed but fairly closed world. His ambition and untrustworthiness led to his downfall. Although he battled nearly everybody (Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Yuan Shu), he could have survived, even prospered, if he had accepted a position as a paladin, one among many. Two elements did him in: He did not listen to his Daedalus, Chen Gong, and he lost the trust of his allies. Cao Cao did pardon Zhang Liao but not Lü Bu, because he would have risked a betrayal (just like Liu Bei and Yuan Shu). I would have preferred a more heroic ending, him going down in flames (keeping up the Icarus imagery).

Redigerat: okt 12, 2007, 1:58 am

>39 jcbrunner: (19) I don't know that Liu An's actions are actually being put forward as within the ordinary bounds of the culture.
I may be out of line, but for extraordinary devotion to duty exceeding those ordinary bounds of right and wrong, consider “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’.” In a footnote, Brewitt-Taylor quotes an editor who observes that while all the silver might buy a new wife, it would be hard to find takers. On the one hand, this is deliberately gruesome fiction and that's wry, but on the other hand, if looked at hard, it suggests some of the same misogynist tendencies not so long ago in our own culture.

>42 jcbrunner: I am caught up (reading that is, viewing isn't a real priority).
There is no need to change the pace on my account. I keep up when I can, and I eventually catch up when I can't. Other than the occasional comment out of sequence, there is no real loss. You are the one driving this effort (and so all the action in this group at present); do it the way you like.

Even if the translation is online, the DVD mastering might well require typing it over again rather than copy and paste. And yes, I'm sure that is done by someone without perfect command of English.

okt 14, 2007, 9:04 am

>43 MMcM: No question that from the sacrifice of Iphigenia to "honour" killings most cultures carry some misogynistic baggage. Cannibalism is seen as a transgression and clearly marked in the text by noting Liu Bei's ignorance about the flesh's provenience. What I find interesting is less the transgression itself than the process that led to it and society's reaction to it:

Liu An is a hunter, a commoner with a lower social prestige living somewhere at the edge of civilization. Liu Bei would have stayed at the highest ranking local household, thus Liu An's must be the only place around (otherwise Liu An could have borrowed some meat.). As Liu An is caring for his mother, he must also be the first born son, the head of the family.

Due to the cultural norms, the hunter Liu An can not lose face in front of even the meek Liu Bei (who informed of the hunter's plight would, I assume, have preferred a vegetarian meal) which leads to the horrible event. A small, resolvable but culturally charged issue causes a vastly larger problem (similar to the famous Uma Thurman-John Malkovich scene in Liaisons Dangereuses).

After the act, it is crucial how others judge the action. Society obviously interprets it as an act of sacrifice and duty within the boundaries of proper behaviour (warped as they may be, see "honour" killings where murdering relatives is seen as an act of purification). The hunter literally receives blood money and thanks for his devotion to duty.

Brewitt-Taylor's sarcastic editor raises a good question: Would Liu An's action penalize his remarriage value? Staying within the cultural reference frame, it should not, as his solution to the dilemma was accepted (and even rewarded) by society. The monetary reward might even enhance his social status. A repeat performance is highly unlikely, too.

By the way: Are Brewitt-Taylor's commentaries available online too?

Redigerat: okt 18, 2007, 12:33 pm

>44 jcbrunner: Are Brewitt-Taylor's commentaries available online too?

An interesting question. As a rule, his translation is devoid of notes, since, I suppose, it aims to be read like a novel.

What few there are do not appear on, which has his text, readable there or downloadable.

Searching for the full text of the note in question, it shows up in a thread on a site which looks like it's for those who have come to the works via the games (which I have nothing other than middle age against).

And in the Google Books limited preview of the Tuttle edition I've mostly been reading.

Among the other differences:

The online text has had pinyin substituted for the original Wade-Giles.

The newer Tuttle version seems to have been computer typeset from an OCR of an older edition. At least, that's the only way I can account for printing errors such as tram for train and hack for back.

okt 17, 2007, 1:46 pm

Language barriers and region codes block me from playing any ROTK games ...

On to chapter 20 Cao Cao takes the mojo away

Cao Cao assigns the Lü Bu-free Xuzhou to one of his lackeys, keeping a close watch over Liu Bei in the capital. The Emperor tries to lessen his dependence on Cao Cao by elevating Liu Bei to the position of "Imperial Uncle" and General of the Left in recognition of the drop of Imperial blood in his veins (The almost biblical lineage shows that lordships were non-hereditary, as Azar Gat in War mentions Imperial China had already moved beyond feudalism to a state system.).

Cao Cao in full self-destruct mode meanwhile terrorizes functionaries and eyes ascending the throne himself (Moss Roberts adds a fine anecdote in the style of the George W. Bush school of leadership: Zhao Gao, a Chinese Lysenko, presented a deer to his advisers and called it a horse. All advisers calling the deer a deer were executed.).

An Imperial deer hunt provides the perfect opportunity to display the new Cao Cao. As an appetizer, Liu Bei kills a hare (on TV, he murders Bambi). Next, it is the Emperor's turn: He shoots three arrows at a stag but misses every time (performance anxiety). Foolishly, the Emperor asks Cao Cao to have a go at the animal. Cao Cao takes the Emperor's bow killing the animal with the first shot. Here, the TV action in full Freudian mode is superior to the novel's rendition: The Emperor's impotence, Cao Cao disarming the Emperor (a symbolic castration) and Cao Cao's triumph acknowledging the cheers and keeping the Imperial bow is brilliantly shown. Growling Lord Guan is restrained by Liu Bei from murdering Cao Cao.

The Emperor goes all Hamlet and sobs with his Empress and father-in-law. They sew a secret decree written in the Emperor's own blood into a girdle, present it to the faithful Dong Cheng who is expected to free the Emperor from Cao Cao's grip. The watchful Cao Cao has Dong Cheng remove the garment and even tries it on himself, but does not notice the hidden message in the girdle. Dong Cheng, again in possession of the garment and girdle, examines it closely and finds the message by accident and starts clumsily gathering a junta by loyalty tests. Ma Teng, of the North-West, adds military force to the junta. He also recommends Liu Bei as a possible co-conspirator ...

Chinese Emperors (at least in my limited knowledge), like the Japanese ones, play very feminine roles. This hunting scene is one of the Emperor's few public displays of masculinity (which he botches). Normally, the Emperor stays hidden in the palace and works his way by indirect and pleading means. Public shaming, crying and affection withdrawal seems to be his only weapon. Or is this image mistaken by the Last Emperor and other Chinese tales of the empire in decline? Only the forceful First Emperor comes to my mind as a counter example.

okt 18, 2007, 3:08 am

Great analysis of the deer hunt.

Impotent emperors are certainly portrayed, like you say, in a very feminine matter. The ones who are held up as examples of great rulers are in general coded as far more masculine.

okt 18, 2007, 12:49 pm

belleyang mentioned the horse-deer in an earlier topic.

Negative portrayals of the emperor's masculinity seem a staple of an empire in decline. Think of Maximinus' partisans and Alexander Severus or pretty much every Roman writer and Elagabalus. Or the Japanese emperors under the Tokugawas.

okt 21, 2007, 12:40 pm

Ba! The Chinese reading of the Japanese uma, reminding my about my futile effort to memorize kanji. "Baka" makes a nice, crispy addition to my passive vocabulary. The chance of actually catching a misbehaving Japanese meriting such a slur is minuscule ...

Chapter 21 The Circle of Trust

Dong Cheng tries to recruit Liu Bei. Can Liu Bei trust him? They progressively reveal their intentions and Liu Bei joins the conspiracy. The conspirators' coordination problem of growing beyond a circle of friends is beautifully shown in this scene. A fragmented opposition can be kept in check by a few ruthless souls.

The suspicious Cao Cao invites Liu Bei for a horticultural and political chat. Having dismissed to other current players as insignificant, Cao Cao defines a hero: determination to conquer (aggressiveness), a mine of schemes (political and military knowledge), ability to encompass the realm (big picture view) and desire to rule. He proclaims that he himself and Liu Bei are the only beings. Liu Bei characteristically drops his 'sticks (but recovers from the blunder). It is not clear if these James Bond style musings (we will kill you after telling you the evil master plan) were appetizers to an assassination, in the end the sworn brothers escort Liu Bei home.

Liu Bei also hardly fits Cao Cao's criteria: He has shown little desire to conquer and rule, his actions are triggered by others and the big picture has not been his major concern. Sun Ce matches the bill much more.

Meanwhile, Yuan Shao has defeated Gongson Zan, Liu Bei's Obiwan, uniting the North-East. The trapped Gongson Zan first killed his own family and hung himself. Isn't hanging an ignoble death reserved for criminals?

Yuan Shu is revealed to be the brother of Yuan Shao! He accepts to transfer the Imperial Seal (still pawned from Sun Ce) to his brother. Cao Cao sends Liu Bei with an army of 50,000 men to intercept him. Cao Cao thus does not merit his own hero criteria either having just given his main rival command of a huge force. Cao Cao realizes his error and orders Liu Bei to return. For once, Liu Bei disobeys an order. Fellow conspirator Ma Teng also return to his base.

Liu Bei's forces clash with Yuan Shu's. Liu Bei having lately been the exalted "Imperial Uncle" is taunted with his humble beginnings: "miserable mat-weaver, sandal-maker!" I am curious about Chinese sandals. The photo in Google image search about Chinese straw sandals does neither look comfortable nor fashionable (and impracticable in marshy rice fields). Anyway, Yuan Shu is quickly defeated and dies among his starving followers. Lü Bu and Yuan Shu had little to show for all their warmongering.

Liu Bei is back in command in Xuzhou, having tricked Cao Cao's underling governor into a trap. Entering the city, Zhang Fei immediately slays the underling's whole family (tabula rasa), doing the dirty business for Liu Bei who appears saint-like at the crime scene. Nevertheless, he will have to bear Cao Cao's anger.

Liu Bei again has little political grasp and lets Cao Cao's underlings capture the Imperial Seal. Cao Cao now has the Emperor, the capital and the seal in his possession. He is, however, surrounded by his more-or-less adversaries (Ma Teng, Liu Bao, Sun Ce, Liu Bei and Yuan Shao). Sun Ce and Ma Teng are still officially allies, so Cao Cao has to decide whether he wants to have another go at Liu Bao (who seems quite content in his corner) or battle against either or both Yuan Shao and Liu Bei. Military science would dictate to knock out the smaller player (Liu Bei) first.

okt 21, 2007, 2:47 pm

>49 jcbrunner: Isn't hanging an ignoble death reserved for criminals?

Hanging oneself, drowning oneself and falling on one's own sword are all honorable suicides. Execution was by decapitation, or if a horrifying example was to be made, then by cutting the victim in two at the waist, or tying arms and legs to four oxcarts and pulling the victim apart, but these cruel methods were rarely used.

okt 22, 2007, 8:29 am

There's been a lot of discussion about Liu Bei and Cao Cao's famous conversation over the years. I think one of the things Cao Cao really does admire about Liu Bei is his tendency to conceal his ambitions and abilities, appearing instead as entirely benevolent and harmless. Like the dragon in Cao's description, able to become small enough to hide and yet big enough to swallow the world (paraphrasing from the original Chinese).

The slaying of entire family clans was the standard treatment for traitors, although it was considered overboard to do it to those who commit lesser offences.

Redigerat: okt 24, 2007, 12:37 pm

My Moss Roberts translation arrived today and I will attempt to read it alongside the Chinese original, using it as gloss. I won't try to catch up to jcbrunner and others but reading as I find time. I think this may end up a life long project.

I have been watching a dvd lecture series on San Guo by Yi Zongtian who is a professor from Xiamen University. He expounds on the historical figures recorded in San Guo Zhi--the history written by Chen Shou during the Western Jin--one of the sources upon which Luo Guanzhong based his novel.

The Moss Roberts translations is indeed excellent!

okt 25, 2007, 6:39 pm

Welcome aboard, Belle.

Liu Bei still puzzles me. In contrast to the other survivors like Joseph Fouché or Talleyrand, Liu Bei is not an intriguer. Among the power-driven warlords, he is an atypical stoic in the vein of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha "I can wait". Like the dragon, fluid like water, he adapts to changed power structures. Unlike the dragon, he is driven by the ambition of others, reacting to events (que sera, sera).

Chapter 22 Above the clouds where freedom is without limit

Liu Bei seeks to ally himself to Yuan Shao by the intermission of the scholar Zheng Xuan, a student of Ma Rong, a man with a very peculiar teaching environment. The next scene which explains the erudition of Zheng's household is too good not to quote in full:

"In Zheng Xuan's own household all the serving girls were well versed in the Odes. Once a maidservant displeased Zheng Xuan, and he had her kneel for a long time at the steps before the main hall (stress positioning falls under the definition of torture, although currently not in the land of the free). Another maidservant teased her, quoting from the Odes (no. 36): 'What has thou done to land in the mire?' The punished maid, quoting back, replied (Ode 26):'I voiced my plaint and met with wrath'."

Ode 26 ends, in the beautiful Legge translation, "Silently I think of my case, But I cannot spread my wings and fly away." Simply marvelous, by not quoting the punch line (which the other girl certainly knew also) the author both mirrors her silence and sharpens the contrast between her physical restraint and her unbound spirit. My kind of girl, a poetry quoting little rebel. Wonderful! (Now, I have to read the Book of Odes/Songs too. I will open a new thread to discuss which edition I should buy.)

Having received Zheng Xuan's missive, Yuan Shao deliberates whether to rest his forces or to attack. If he allows his forces to recuperate from the Northern campaign, he risks Liu Bei's destruction. Thus, he readies 150,000 cavalry and 150,000 infantry. His adviser Chen Lin drafts a long proclamation which presents Yuan Shao's view of the preceding twenty chapters and indicts the upstart Cao Cao for misgovernment and usurpation. Yuan Shao incites the other warlords to come to the Emperor's and his aid.

cao cao and his adviser Kong Rong decide to split their forces, sending 50,000 under two generals against Liu Bei and 200,000 against Yuan Shao. Cao Cao's and Yuan Shao's forces enter into a drôle de guerre. Neither side is willing to risk a decisive battle. Both sides dig in. Cao Cao even sends a sizable contingent back to his capital to secure his back.

Meanwhile, Lord Guan and Zhang Fei manage to capture the two opposing generals in two commando raids. Liu Bei sees Cao Cao as a lesser nuisance than Yuan Shao and sends the two captured generals as peace emissaries back to Cao Cao. Kong Rong manages to dissuade Cao Cao from executing them Darth Vader-like.

As the other warlords probably consider Cao Cao a less powerful enemy than Yuan Shao, the latter can not expect much support. If Cao Cao had been a better strategist, he would have taken 120,000 of his men and knocked out Liu Bei's 50,000, while his other 80,000 delayed vacillating Yuan Shao's huge host. Come Spring, Cao Cao is at the mercy of Liu Bei. Does he break his alliance with Yuan Shao?

(My chapter title alludes to German troubadour Reinhard Mey's Über den Wolken from the Seventies.)

Redigerat: okt 27, 2007, 1:46 pm

>49 jcbrunner: (21) I am curious about Chinese sandals.

My PDA dictionary has an entry for 織席編屨, so I guess it's a chengyu. I'm not exactly clear on when one might have occasion to use it, though. Only the literal translation, 'weave mats and make straw sandals' is given. A waiter who aspires above his station? A utility reader who shows up at an inconvenient time?

I rather suspect that when the water and muck got to be too much, one worked barefoot. On the other hand, here is an enterprising antiques dealer selling some leather boots as special rice field footwear. I've always heard that straw sandals are good for slippery rocks and stone paving and leather boots for the Tartar steppes. But then I've also heard that 下駄 act like stilts in the flooded fields, which seems a bit implausible. At some point you have to give up figuring out fashion. I mean, loose socks? There's a fun-looking shoe exhibit at the MFA right now, which we may go see this weekend.

>53 jcbrunner: (22) Book of Odes/Songs ... which edition I should buy.

We had a brief bit on that a while ago in this topic. Belle went with the same etext that you linked to. Scans of Legge's book are in Google Books. Here is the ode in question, to show how rich the critical apparatus is there. Unfortunately, even cheap reprints as actual books are quite expensive.

okt 28, 2007, 1:56 pm

I liked the Boston MFA Asian art wing, relaxing there after the excellent, but overcrowded Hopper exhibition last July (My Boston favourite, however, is the quirky Gardner, although its size is not ideal for repeat visits.).

I always wondered why the Japanese warrior monks were so fond of geta. In the woodblock prints, they show a wonderful agility instead of a realistic stuck in the mud. The prints have probably the same reality factor as gun handling portrayed in Hollywood films ... Regarding shoe, textiles, etc. exhibitions I prefer the evolution of design as an engineering challenge affected by social change. Most museums (as the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto or the MAK here in Vienna) treat these objects too much as works of art instead of as purposeful instruments (Gebrauchskunst, applied art).

Back to the Three Kingdoms, now follows the most troubling chapter yet (My DVD is another dud, although this time, I am quite grateful not having to watch all the gore.).

Chapter 23 Diplomacy, nudity and violence
First a round of diplomacy. Yuan Shao and Cao Cao woo the smaller warlords. As I assumed in my last post, most warlords consider Cao Cao the lesser evil. The high game of diplomacy is achieving concessions for the actions you want to do anyway.

Zhang Xiu, advised by Jia Xu, who had successfully defended their home turf against Cao Cao in ch. 18, now tender their services to Cao Cao and receive fancy titles.

To woo Liu Bao, Cao Cao intends to send one of China's brightest. On the advice of Kong Rong, Mi Heng is approached. This guy may have been bright, but he suffered from a Tourette's syndrome of speaking truth to and challenging power. And warlords, dictators and CEOs manage to tolerate everything but insults to their vanity. Cao Cao is actually quite good at it. In the first round, Mi Heng insults the major followers of Cao Cao who assigns him a position as a drum master. In the second round, when teased about his shabby dress while on the drums, Mi Heng drums on - Full Monty style. The court members shield their eyes, shocked by this display of male nudity, a Chinese Nipplegate and insult to Imperial protocol.

After this assault of the senses, another round of abuse follows. Cao Cao, the good sport, sends Mi Heng, the insult machine, on to his opponent Liu Bao, supposedly to win him over. Liu Bao tops Cao Cao's challenge in sending Mi Heng on to the next warlord who, not in on the joke, finally executes Mi Heng. What a strange intermezzo.

Liu Bao plays for time. He sends his adviser Han Song to the capital. Out of loyalty to the Emperor, Han Song switches sides (which he had announced to Liu Bao beforehand) and becomes an Imperial envoy to Liu Bao who still does not commit himself to one side (thus slightly favouring Yuan Shao).

Now, come the atrocities. We are back in the capital. Dong Cheng reveals the conspiracy in a fever dream to his (and Cao Cao's) doctor, Ji Ping. In good Yakuza manner (yubitsume), Ji Ping bites off one of his own finger tips (Is this even medically possible? The Japanese use knives for this barbaric practice.) as a loyalty pledge. He promises to poison Cao Cao on his next visit (primum non nocere?). All those empire dreams cause Cao Cao massive headaches (migraines are caused by overheated liver qi (gan-huo-shang-yan) in my beginner's book on Chinese medicine).

This time, however, Cao Cao only feigns illness, as the plan has been betrayed by a mistreated house servant (again). Cao Cao exposes his doctor's treachery by ordering him to taste his own medicine (poison). The desperate Ji Ping tries to force the poison down Cao Cao's throat by pulling his ear but is overwhelmed. Ji Ping is severely tortured.

The next day, Cao Cao invites the notables (sans the sick Dong Cheng) to a banquet where he wants Ji Ping to betray the remaining conspirators. Ji Ping remains firm despite another atrocious round of torture in front of the notables (including the conspirators minus Ma Teng, Liu Bei and Dong Cheng). Cao Cao disolves this gruesome banquet, but has the conspirators taken into custody.

Come morning, Cao Cao pays a visit to Dong Cheng and produces the tortured Ji Ping. Again, the doctor remains firm. Now Cao Cao enters Dong Zhuo territory by personally cutting off Ji Ping's remaining fingers with one knife stroke. Before Cao Cao can also cut off his tongue, Ji Ping feigns to confess but commits suicide by smashing in his own head against the stairs.

Not yet satisfied, Cao Cao has the flayed, finger ambutated and head smashed in corpse dismembered and Dong Cheng's residence searched. They find the bloody decree. Cao Cao orders the extermination of Dong Cheng's clan.

A gruesome read. Cao Cao has lost major brownie points in this chapter. While revealing conspiracies is the warlord's lifeline, the torture was unwarranted. Simple detective work would have led to a faster and cleaner resolution. The house servant's accusation merited a sweep of Dong Cheng's residence and Ji Ping could have been detained somewhere. As with the preventive, instant murder of his hosts in ch. 4, Cao Cao is too quick to lash out. Aspiring "Son of Heaven"? More like one of those crazy Roman Emperors.

Redigerat: okt 29, 2007, 1:45 am

>6 jcbrunner: jcbrunner said:

"p. 34 starts a masterful presentation of palace politics with the eunuchs playing off different family branches until the army is called in. Memo: Unless you are the army, never call the military in to regulate political disputes. These guys have every intention to rule on their own."

Had Dong Zuo not been called in by He Jin to get rid of the eunuchs, the Eastern Han Dynasty may have lasted yet awhile longer.

It would have been relatively easy for He Jin to kill a few eunuchs and keep the wolves from the wild, wild West at bay. Once Dong Zuo was invited in, he would be hard to get rid of.

Is ths not akin to America in Iraq. Whoever let America in to help get rid of Saddam should have known America was easier to invite in than escort out.

okt 29, 2007, 5:45 am

Cao Cao cleverly borrowed someone else's knife to kill his own eyesore in Mi Heng.

It has been speculated that what Cao had that caused the headaches was a brain tumour.

okt 31, 2007, 3:18 am

As we read Luo Guangzhong's fiction of Sanguo, we have to remember that the characters are fictionalized. Liu Bei was not the weeping milquetoast but had to have personal magnetism to attract and keep the likes of Guangong, Zhangfei and later Zhuge Liang.

Sanguo is best accompanied by "The Art of Warfare." Sanguo is more art of warfare than "The Art of Warfare." It is said that the invading Manchus had translated Sanguo into their language and doled the copies out to their military and political leaders. When a Manchu showed a Han a copy of their secret military manual, the Han said, "Ah, but this is but our popular novel, San Guo Yanyi!" :)

nov 1, 2007, 2:18 pm

The Art of War was actually one of the first books I bought in English (during an English summer course in Oxford). The interplay of The Art of War (500 BCE), the actual events (200 CE), the commenting on these events in the additions to The Art of War and their use in the Three Kingdoms (1300 CE) would be a fairly interesting seminar topic.

Now it is still to early for me to read it (to prevent spoilers), but is there (apart from the excellent works of De Crespigny thankfully pointed out by the Fogies) a good modern history of the Three Kingdoms period in English (or any other Western language)?

I am thinking of a Chinese Stephen Turnbull, who in his wide range of books makes the Sengoku Jidai accessible for Westerners.

Chapter 24 Cao Cao executes, Yuan Shao sulks, Liu Bei flees again

Cao Cao executes the conspirators and even does not halt from having a pregnant imperial consort strangled. He rudely interrogates the Emperor. The weakling does nothing but plead for his consort, in fact it is the Empress, of all people, who pleads for the unborn infant. Cao Cao persists. He orders the consort killed. Oderint dum metuant.

Meanwhile, Liu Bei sends a messenger to Yuan Shao who procrastinates due to the illness of his favourite youngest son who suffers from scabies. While my medical know-how is limited to watching House MD, according to Wikipedia, scabies is basically a mite infection. Why does Yuan Shao talk about a possible death of his son? Apart from the fact that his presence will neither help nor harm any medical progress, Yuan Shao thus opens a window of opportunity to Cao Cao to defeat Liu Bei in detail.

Which is exactly what Cao Cao does. Having been overwhelmed by sneak attacks in the previous campaign, Cao Cao's forces prepare to be ambushed again. Liu Bei and Zhang Fei promptly oblige with a night attack. Both forces are wiped out and Zhang Fei and Liu Bei barely survive. Zhang Fei escapes into the hills and Liu Bei flees to Yuan Shao.

Liu Bei adds another lost battle (and army) to his already sizable number of defeats. Being a soldier under Liu Bei must truly suck. Still not all hope is lost, as Lord Guan (the much better general) still holds Xiapi. Can he hold against the full might of Cao Cao?

nov 2, 2007, 6:42 pm

Yuan Shao's indecisiveness strikes again. I've always found the contrast between him and Cao Cao interesting: Yuan Shao and Cao Cao were colleagues and friends before the conflict broke out in earnest. Their leadership styles are completely different.

The Yuan family was one of the most powerful and respected in China at the time, and Cao Cao's background (although his father was originally one of the powerful and prestigious Xiahou clan, he was adopted by the enunch Cao Teng) was often used to taunt him.

An interesting period for the Liu Bei faction begins.

nov 3, 2007, 12:22 am

>59 jcbrunner: jcbrunner said: "Now it is still to early for me to read it Art of Warfare (to prevent spoilers)."

jcbrunner, you've got enough to reading material without having to study "Art of Warfare," but should you find yourself perusing it, it won't ruin the story for you at all. It will augment.

nov 3, 2007, 8:53 am

Sorry Belle, if my posting was unclear. The indeterminate "it" (paragraph 2 in posting 59) should refer to the yet to be found history of the Three Kingdoms period. What I am looking for is information about the resources controlled by Cao Cao (3? provinces incl. the capital) and Yuan Shao (4 provinces). Perhaps somebody knows about a Sanguo game site in English which assesses the different provinces (population, economy, etc.)?

The current situation reminds me of Caesar/Pompeius. The latter mostly lost first by ceding the capital and then by handing the initiative to Caesar (Repeat performance by Octavian/Antonius). Running the examples through my mind, losing control of the capital in a civil war usually means losing the war too (Rome, French Wars of Religion, English Civil War, Russian Civil War, exception: Spanish Civil War).

Redigerat: nov 3, 2007, 3:42 pm

>59 jcbrunner: (24) One does not die of scabies per se (and I'm pretty sure that's all 疥瘡 can mean). If the scabs are scratched open, they become infected and death is due to sepsis. This is long before Lister. It still happens in modern times in extreme conditions, like POWs in particularly nasty ethnic conflicts. I could even imagine someone with a compromised immune system being admitted to hospital for scabies and contracting MRSA; but had that happened, the Murdoch media would be all over it.

Interesting that you bring up the problem of losing the capital. I believe that when Richmond was threatened and nearly fell (a few years before it ultimately did), there was fear that European backers of the Confederacy would cease their support based on exactly that classic principle. On the other hand, didn't Thiers say something famous around a decade later about losing the capital but saving the army as he moved the cannons out of 1871 Paris to Versailles?

Redigerat: nov 4, 2007, 10:33 am

... must resist temptation to derail thread ... must resist. A quick look at my catalogue will show that you, MMcM, pushed the right buttons :) Let me just say that the true kicker for the British was the Emancipation Proclamation after Antietam. The French had temporarily taken over the US task of messing up Mexico (being fairly indifferent what les Anglos did to each other, as long as they did not hurt others).

Paris is a special case. Its control being a curse, the government held hostage by mobs (still honored by annual strikes today). Louis XIV had the wisdom of moving outside (as did Peter the Great). I wish Lyon, St. Petersburg and Bonn were the capitals ... Must stop now. Sip abhorrent green tea, think about China.

chapter 25 Tomorrow, we dine in ... in the capital with style

Having crushed two out of the three sworn brothers, Cao Cao tricks Lord Guan out of fortified Xiapi. Cut off and surrounded on a hill, Lord Guan risks either a Little Big Horn or an ignoble surrender.

Zhang Liao, the upright Lü Bu officer who had already lived through the surrender process to Cao Cao (ch. 19), offers Lord Guan a way out with a little sophistry. Lord Guan's suicide charge would commit three offenses: break his oath by dying on the same day, not protecting Liu Bei's wives and not upholding the house of Han. The three reasons are philosophically weak (paging Mi Heng!), but as the work-arounds of the Shabbat prohibitions, they serve as a cover for human weakness in the face of overpowering demands. To fight another day is a perfectly good reason for a surrender (in most Western eyes, to a samurai a bit less). With either a philosophical camouflage or a literary precedent, it is fine for Lord Guan too.

Lord Guan surrenders under the condition of safe conduct to Liu Bei (once located) and sanctity of Liu Bei's wives as well as surrendering technically to the Emperor and not Cao Cao (which in my opinion is not possible, as a true surrender would imply treason to the Son of Heaven, warranting death. Apart from the fact that Lord Guan and the Emperor were actually on the same side battling Cao Cao.).

Cao Cao probably had no intention to harm or take over Liu Bei's women (neither having special looks nor connections). As hostages in the capital, he can dispose of them anytime he wants. In discussing the surrender, the women reply to Lord Guan: "Brother, make all these decisions yourself. It is not necessary to consult us womenfolk." This self-depreciation reminds me of the extremely vocal Swiss women's committee against women suffrage when Switzerland voted twice on that topic (fortunately, this stain was erased before my birth, archaic democratic Switzerland had all too long continued in restricting the vote to those bearing arms and not children).

Now follows a morality tale: Cao Cao tries to induce Lord Guan to come to the dark side. First by the attractions of the flesh. He offers but one room to Liu Bei's women and Lord Guan. No chance. The paladin holds vigil outside with a candle in his hand (a Freudian image if there ever was ... *glances to my chance find Culture of Sex in Ancient China *). Cao Cao then showers Lord Guan with honors and presents (silk, women, a uniform, a silk (beard cover) sack (for the demanding Chinese metrosexual; beard quality in the TV series is a bit on the sprouty side, not much of a competition for the Man of the Magnificent Beard) and finally Red Hare, Lü Bu's wonder horse which had already been once the price of treachery (In a footnote we finally learn about gossip that Cao Cao had also taken Lü Bu's Diaochan. I would have preferred this footnote earlier.). Lord Guan remains faithful, only promising to fulfill one mission for Cao Cao as a sort of compensation.

One wonders how Zhang Fei had acted in Lord Guan's situation. Liu Bei was wise in keeping Zhang Fei close and giving the more difficult assignment to Lord Guan.

Meanwhile, Yuan Shao finally agreeds to send an army against Cao Cao. Due to Liu Bei's intervention, Yuan Shao relents to "only" incarcerate his cautious adviser instead of executing him. Don't these potentates see neither an execution's extreme destruction of human capital nor the hurtful effects of group think? Anyway, Yuan Shao sends out an army of 100,000 against Cao Cao's 50,000.

Yuan Shao's general quickly kills two of Cao Cao's champions before the latter sends in his wonder weapon: Lord Guan on Red Hare who executes a lightning decapitation strike (helped by the fact that Yuan Shao's general probably thought that they fought for the same side). Yuan Shao's now headless army easily routs.

The chapter ends on a cliffhanger: The furious Yuan Shao wants to chop off Liu Bei's head for Lord Guan's treachery. Has Liu Bei's luck after his string of defeats run out? I don't think so, the author's cliffhangers have become too predictable: Persons in cliffhanger peril always survive. Personally, I prefer Lord Guan to Liu Bei, so would not mind seeing the latter's whiny head shortened (bad, bad me). Alas, no chance.

Redigerat: nov 8, 2007, 11:08 pm

>64 jcbrunner: (25) At the Super-88 market the other day, they had these painted plaster statues of Guan Di with his flowing beard in one hand and a book he's reading in the other. Like the ones that show up in Google Image search for 關帝. Seems appropriate to this topic. They're next to the ceramic carp and kitties with one paw raised like the Fogies have their real cat imitating. All for the same purpose, I believe; his duties include war, literature, and some kinds of business success. I guess I should also speak in defense of the long scraggly gray beard look.

nov 9, 2007, 1:09 pm

They deified Lord Guan? A Chinese Heracles?

Chapter 26 You shan't be beheaded!

As predicted, Liu Bei is allowed to keep his head. Another army of 100,000 is sent against Cao Cao. Yuan Shao wisely assigns Liu Bei to the van (Uncertain allies should be the first to make contact with the enemy; remember Sekigahara. Thus, if they betray, the main force has time to react.). Yuan Shao's general's complaint about Liu Bei's miserable battle track record is merited, but the measure of giving Liu Bei 30% of the force and assigning him to the rear is wrong.

Cao Cao shows supreme strategic leadership (not unlike Napoleon at the Battle of Arcole): Cao Cao offers his supply trains as bait. Yuan Shao's unsuspecting general falls with his 70,000 into Cao Cao's trap (leaving Liu Bei's troops behind on the other side of the river). First mistake: Splitting his troops. Yuan Shao's looting troops are quickly routed. Second mistake: Allowing the disorder. Lord Guan kills Yuan Shao's army commander, again. Third mistake: Allowing the enemy to kill you. Didn't Lord Guan promise to only fulfill one mission for Cao Cao? Certainly, a blood-lusty fellow. Liu Bei at least identifies Lord Guan's banner from the other side of the river.

Yuan Shao is a terrible leader of the anti-Cao fraction. His timidity and indecisiveness has cost many lives (at least Liu Bei's and two of Yuan Shao's armies). Yuan Shao threatens Liu Bei's life for the second lost army but relents again. I wonder where on the continuum of leadership styles one has to situate Yuan Shao?

Finally, Liu Bei sends a letter to Lord Guan (as does Yuan Shao). If Liu Bei had had more foresight, he might have sent advance letters to trusted sources in the capital.

Meanwhile, Lord Guan mops up for Cao Cao some Yellow Scarves rebels (the eternal punching balls in the novel, like the Pi'ates in the Asterix comics). Having received the two messages, Lord Guan finally plans on rejoining Liu Bei. He seeks the (promised) safe conduct pass from Cao Cao which the latter evades to give by feigning absence. Without the letter, leaving behind all of Cao Cao's presents (save Red Hare), Lord Guan and a tiny retinue escort Liu Bei's wives out of the capital. Cao Cao's advisers want to immediately pursue the vulnerable party ...

Lord Guan should have sent the trusty Zhang Liao to obtain the paperwork. Given the surrender conditions, this shady escape is an unnecessary risk.

nov 9, 2007, 9:30 pm

I wonder where on the continuum of leadership styles one has to situate Yuan Shao?
Wherever you put someone who is utterly inept, I suppose. :)

Although there are temples to a fair few of the characters/people in the Three Kingdoms, some of whom were given posthumous titles by later rulers, Lord Guan - or, to give him his title, Emperor Guan - is the only one who was deified by them.

nov 11, 2007, 9:13 am

Chapter 27 There are no friendly civilians!

After Cao Cao learns about Lord Guan's escape, he sends Zhang Liao out to have Lord Guan wait for a farewell interview with Cao Cao. Tactically sound, Lord Guan positions himself on a bridge for a little chit-chat. Cao Cao plays nice and bears gifts but no safe conduct pass (Lord Guan does not ask for one either.). Both sides withdraw, Cao Cao to the capital, Lord Guan to his camping place - where, gasp, some Yellow Scarves, have briefly abducted the two wives. Fortunately, one valiant Yellow Scarf protected them and informed Lord Guan. He thanks but declines the young rebel's offer to join him (showing the rigidity of the Chinese class system even in times of war). Given the vulnerability of the small party, a valiant and reliable sword more would have been helpful. (Due to a typo (I think "preferred" should be "proffered"), the sentence is a bit unclear (p.446): But Lord Guan was reluctant to associate with a Yellow Scarves bandit and declined the offer as well as the gold and silk Liao Hua preferred.)

As Lord Guan has neglected to get a safe conduct pass from Cao Cao, he has to fight his way through five checkpoints Rambo-style (the US god of war; other candidates: George Washington, if he had been a better soldier; I settle for William T. Sherman), killing the post's chief each time (perfect sequence for the book video game).

A valiant warrior, if not a bright one. I faintly remembered Sun Tsu's words (p.77, which I have now at hand thanks to Belle's advice):"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skills" ( Odysseus vs. Achilles, now called the economy of force principle). With a little slip of paper, the whole killing mess could have been avoided. Cao Cao expected his underlings to do the dirty business but did not provide a champion nor an assassin (With a little foresight, he could have assigned one pass to a top-notch team).

Having crossed the river into Yuan Shao's territory, Lord Guan meets Sun Qian who informs him that Liu Bei has moved to Runan. Liu Bei has probably lost the appetite to put his neck on the line for a feeble commander in chief. Going to Runan, which lies south-east of Xuchang, means reversing the direction and crossing Cao Cao's territory again, however.

Six of Cao Cao's men bar his way (cue Ennio Morricone). The quest goes on ...

nov 16, 2007, 5:25 am

chapter 28 The fellowship is restored

Cao Cao's henchman Xiahou Dun has cornered Lord Guan. It takes three messengers from Cao Cao (the final being Zhang Liao, again saving Lord Guan's neck) to restrain Xiahou Dun. Finally equipped with the required papers, Lord Guan and party travel on.

Stopping overnight at a farm, Lord Guan is shown the perils of laissez faire education (an early little emperor). During the night, the brat tries to steal Red Hare. The good horse kicks the thief who is apprehended. The old father pleads for his son and Lord Guan relents. Bad choice, as the brat calls on some Yellow Scarves to steal the horse. The brat is unlucky a second time, as the Yellow Scarves are friends of the three swornbrothers (see ch. 26). As soon as Lord Guan displays his beard in all its glory, all the Yellow Scarves want to enter his service. Liu Bei's wives see to it that only Zhou Chan joins the party. The rest of the Yellow Scarves agree to stay behind.

The party arrives at Gucheng where Zhang Fei has established himself as the ruler of the city. The two swornbrothers meet. Wielding his spear, Zhang Fei calls Lord Guan a traitor. Both wives, Lord Guan and Sun Qian try to convince the not so sharp Zhang Fei of Lord Guan's innocence. Fortunately, one of Cao Cao still revengeful henchmen appears and swiftly loses his head to Lord Guan who thus has given proof of his loyalties. The brothers Mi Zhu and Mi Fang also rejoin the party.

Lord Guan and Sun Qian travel on to Runan to meet Liu Bei. No luck, Liu Bei has already returned to Yuan Shao in the meantime, so the two reverse their course once more to find him. Lord Guan stays behind at Yuan Shao's border while Sun Qian meets Liu Bei chez Yuan Shao. Under the pretext of going to Liu Bao, Liu Bei takes leave from Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao, ever the master of diplomacy, sends Liu Bei confusing signals about Lord Guan's safety at his court. Liu Bei, in his element, soothingly says to send Sun Qian for Lord Guan (no chance in hell for that). After Yuan Shao has also allowed Jian Yong to depart, the whole Liu Bei party travels back to Gucheng.

On the way, Lord Guan adopts Guan Ping and Zhao Zilong joins the party (having accidentally slaughtered many of the camping Yellow Scarves). In Gucheng, Liu Bei and friends build a small army of five thousand and march to join Liu Pi. Liu Bei is back in play, controlling a small base and a formidably staffed nucleus of an army. The fellowship is restored.

Survival is Liu Bei's true skill (fluctuat nec mergitur. Or as Watership Down says it: "All the world will be your enemy, prince with a thousand enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.").

Yuan Shao finally realizes Liu Bei's escape. At first furious, he is reminded that his main enemy is Cao Cao. Yuan Shao seeks Sun Ce as an ally:

Having lost Xuande, hero of the north,
Yuan Shao sought a champion from the south.

nov 18, 2007, 12:27 pm

LT is up again for the Sunday chapter:

Chapter 29 A bloody intermezzo in the South

Finally, I thought, the story of Sun Ce advances but his return is of short duration, only diminishing his record. After Sun Ce has one of his own traitorous governors strangled in a diplomatic joust with Cao Cao, three of the governor's followers attack the hunting Sun Ce. The wounded Sun Ce fights heroically, killing one attacker by returning the arrow plucked out of his own cheek and fending off the other two until help arrives. The fight is confusing: Wouldn't Sun Ce himself be better armed? If he carries a bow, why does he lack arrows?

The life-threatening wounds do not increase Sun Ce's people skills. The doctor-recommended 100 days of rest conflict with Sun Ce's type A personality. From the sickbed, he starts preparations for an alliance with Yuan Shao against Cao Cao. During a banquet, the attention shifts from the sick prima donna to a Taoist priest clad in crane feathers and carrying a goosefoot staff (Isn't goosefoot too bendy and small for a proper staff?). According to Wikipedia, cranes are a symbol of longevity "and 'heavenly cranes' (tian-he) or 'blessed cranes' (xian-he) were messengers of wisdom. Legendary Taoist sages were transported between heavenly worlds on the backs of cranes." Sun Ce, without provocation, jails the innocent healer and rainmaker, later upping the punishment with cangue and fetters.

Sun Ce fights the good fight of rationality in a rather irrational and unjust way. Plagued by a drought, Sun Ce sees an opportunity to expose the rainmaker as a fraud. He challenges him to produce rain. Tied to a pyre, the healer prays; a thunderstorm delivers the promised (huge) three spans of rain in time. A furious Sun Ce cries "correlation is not causation". On Sun Ce's order, the healer loses his head. His body miraculously disappears and from now on, he haunts Sun Ce's dreams who loses his sanity (Sun Ce is quite a mama's boy btw). He abdicates to his younger brother Sun Quan, advises the rest of the family and passes away. The mother again plays an important role in the transition.

I am a bit disappointed by Sun Ce's short and crazy intermezzo in the novel. Reading his Wikipedia entry, he emerges much more positive. The novel incoherently mixes the three explanation strains: Sun Ce dying nobly like Caesar in an ambush, Sun Ce the type A personality leaving the sick bed to early and Sun Ce punished by the gods for injustice and irrespect. The compiler should have selected and sharpened one strain, as did the Brothers Grimm.

Sun Quan does not look particularly Chinese to me (see the Dynasty Warrior pic in Wikipedia). The other somewhat bug-eyed portrait in Wikipedia is less flattering: He "... had a square jaw (good for Hollywood) and a broad mouth, jade green eyes and a purplish beard ... His striking and heroic looks and massive frame (massive as in large or as in fat?) betoken great nobility as well as a long life."

Following the advice of his brother, Sun Quan assembles an adviser dream team. Zhang Zhao for internal matters, Zhou Yu for external relations, who in turn recommend Lu Su and Zhuge Jin. In a strange (homosexual?) bonding night sleepover, Lu Su advises Sun Quan. On further advice by Zhuge Jin, Sun Quan declines Yuan Shao's alliance and casts his lot with Cao Cao. He thus secures the South for him and greatly reduces Cao Cao's challenge to control the North (a much bigger prize).

Yuan Shao, seeing that delay will not increase the number of allies, gathers a huge host of 700,000 soldiers. The logistical challenge of sustaining this walking city for any period of time is daunting. The size of this force practically limits his movement to rivers. The decisive clash between Yuan Shao and Cao Cao is approaching fast.

nov 22, 2007, 3:57 am

I just got the books in. Goal for 2007: catch up to the summaries.

I'm having trouble, though, I keep getting distracted by the annotations and I'm already having trouble keeping names straight. I'm going to have to find the hanzi for all the names and pencil them in! Fun!

nov 22, 2007, 7:14 pm

There are multiple character cheat sheets on the net. This database might also be helpful: Three Kingdoms English/Chinese Name Conversion Chart.

Chapter 30 Cao Cao runs rings around Yuan Shao

Cao Cao leads 70,000 men against Yuan Shao's 700,000; fearful, impossible odds, even if the numbers are vastly exaggerated (as did the Greeks regarding the Persian invaders, see Hans Delbruck). Sun Tsu says "When ten to the enemy's one, surround him." (p.79).

Yuan Shao's advisers want to play for time forcing Cao Cao to withdraw due to supply problems. Yuan Shao correctly concludes that this would be interpreted as a sign of weakness if he did not use the giant army he has assembled. So he attacks, not without imprisoning his advisers, continuing his Queen of Hearts leadership mode.

Cao Cao and Yuan Shao both claim to battle in the name of the Emperor. Cao Cao has an edict, Yuan Shao the bloody decree. What count higher, the intention of the Emperor (Yuan Shao) or the form (Cao Cao)? A pound of flesh for a solution ...

Yuan Shao wins the first round, thanks to his crossbowmen and valiant Zhang He. Cao Cao's army routs. Instead of completing his victory, Yuan Shao pulls a George McClellan, besieging Cao Cao with giant walls and shelling him with arrows. Cao Cao answers with stone ballistae. Yuan Shao's tunneling is fruitless too. Stalemate for two months.

Cao Cao plays RE Lee. He first has Yuan Shao's supply column destroyed. Yuan Shao sends an incompetent general to protect his main supply depot. Yuan Shao also captures a message about Cao Cao's supply woes. He declines to follow his advisers in attacking the barely defended capital. Instead of rewarding the messenger Xu You, Yuan Shao threatens him, until he defects for real. Xu You informs Cao Cao about Yuan Shao's strategic disposition (nice anecdote about how Cao Cao keeps his cards close).

Assembling a five thousand strong task force under false banners, Cao Cao leads them to Yuan Shao's main supply depot (Venus in retrograde movement indicates a world upside down), overwhelms the surprised defenders, torches it. Cao Cao sends its negligent commander back to Yuan Shao (minus nose, ears and fingers). Cao Cao manages also to fool and defeat Yuan Shao's relieving force.

His supply base destroyed, Yuan Shao may attack either Cao Cao's main line or the returning raiders. Again, he makes the wrong choice. Instead of the simpler task of blocking the raiders, he decides to attack the fortified lines of Cao Cao while an enemy force is roaming in his rear. Foolish.

Continuing marching under false flags, Cao Cao defeats a second relieving force. Yuan Shao attacks Cao Cao's line (the battle of Guandu) until he is bottled up by the returning raiders. Cannae. Zhang He and Gao Lan defect to Cao Cao. The pressed Yuan Shao loses half his force. Concerned of being cut off, he sends a hundred thousand soldiers to protect his flanks. Cao Cao routs his weakened center, capturing the camp and all the treasures. Yuan Shao escapes with only 800 riders.

Cao Cao, ever the shrewd diplomat, burns incriminating papers found in Yuan Shao's camp (allowing the unfaithful to return to the flock). He even pardons Yuan Shao's (unheard) chief adviser. The latter unfortunately tries to escape to his master, is captured and killed (Cao Cao has a nice tomb built in his memory.). Cao Cao pursues Yuan Shao, the hunter becomes the hunted, astrology fulfilled.

The chapter shows Cao Cao supreme, a gifted general and diplomat. Yuan Shao is toast.

nov 25, 2007, 11:22 am

Chapter 31 Cao Cao executes a Cannae on Yuan Shao and mops up Liu Bei again

Not-yet-toast Yuan Shao quickly recovers his will to fight. Would you rather be right or happy? Yuan Shao's adviser has chosen the first option and now has to fall on his sword for being correct. Yuan Shao's three sons arrive with relief armies from the provinces and assembles his new army at Cangting. Cao Cao places his opposite Yuan Shao's. A clash ensues. Yuan Shao's third and favorite son Yuan Shang duels with one of Cao Cao's generals. The general battle ends in a stalemate.

Chen Yu advises Cao Cao a Cannae strategy: Place your host with the back to the river (no escape), lure Yuan Shao in attacking them until ten hidden units on both flanks ambush Yuan Shao. The battle goes according to plan: Yuan Shao accepts the bait, is even defeated in the center and then routed by the ambushes. Vomiting blood, Yuan Shao and his sons return to their provinces to organize a defense. Before Cao Cao can finish off the provinces one by one, Liu Bei makes a foolish move on the capital.

Why, oh why, Liu Bei? Cao Cao has just twice defeated the hordes of Yuan Shao. How on earth can Liu Bei even think of winning with his faithful few? Liu Bei sets up his troops: Lord Guan northeast, Liu Bei and Zhao Zilong center and Zhang Fei southwest. He even wins the first bout against Cao Cao's troops, because the latter has sent his forces to capture a supply train and Liu Bei's base in Runan knocking Liu Bei out. Liu Bei's retreat turns into a rout. Liu Bei is desperate and even considers suicide. His faithful warriors sacrifice themselves for him. Zhao Zilong, Lord Guan and Zhang Fei hack him out. A remnant of the army gathers at a river (nice parallelism: river as a source of strength for Liu and Cao) where they decide to go to Liu Biao to recover. Sun Qian, specialist for diplomatic missions, is sent to Liu Biao and wins him over. Liu Bei is allowed to recover with his distant relations. I hope for the sake of his poor soldiers that Liu Bei himself refrains from further battles.

During the winter, all sides R&R. Come spring (202), Cao Cao covers his back with forces at the capital and Runan and leads the main army to Guandu again against Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao's most active son Yuan Shang leads an army against Cao Cao. Third time is the charm? We will see in the final chapter of this volume.

nov 26, 2007, 1:37 am

>70 jcbrunner: (29) 藜 is Chenopodium album, of which Wikipedia says walking sticks have been made since ancient times; evidently it hardens with age. Recall that back in chapter 1, Zhang Jue met an old man with one, who like Sun Quan had 碧眼, which oddly enough Brewitt-Taylor in the printed copy I have renders as 'very bright eyes' then, but 'blue eyes' in this chapter. The cleaned up online version has 'very bright, emerald eyes' and 'green eyes', respectively. Similarly, 紫髯 is 'dark brown beard' in the book, but 'purple beard' online. The book translation doesn't say what either staff was made of, but it's 'oak-wood' online in chapter 1. Weird because they are normally the same except for romanization of proper names. Either there were multiple source editions or someone went to the trouble to change just these few specific qualities.

nov 29, 2007, 4:46 pm

What's the meaning of the different eye colors?

chapter 32 With water Cao Cao dissolutes the Yuan blood

Cao Cao defeats Yuan Jr. ("a chicken phoenix plumed") which gives Sr. the rest. Mama Yuan spoils all the deceased's fun in the after-life by going berserk on the concubines: "Driven by jealousy, she had their heads shaved, their faces slashed, and their corpses mutilated, lest they try to rejoin their master in the nether-world. As a further precaution Yuan Shang killed the concubines' relatives." The youngest is now clan-chief, very un-Confuzian - I fear the worst.

One Yuan brother blocks Cao Cao's army and asks for reinforcements. Yuan Shang is torn: If he sends them, he augments his rival's power, if not, he risks losing the battle. In the end, he comes himself with an army. The third brother arrives also. Cao Cao overwhelms them all. Instead of besieging the brothers, Cao Cao garrisons Liyang and Gandu, and directs his forces against Liu Biao. As predicted, the brothers Yuan start fighting amongst themselves. The younger brother prevails, the elder seeks help from Cao Cao who again turns his army north. Liu Bei, commander of Liu Biao's advance guard, complies in withdrawing instead of harassing Cao Cao's rear. As a consolidation for the surrender, Cao Cao offers one of his own daughters to (elder brother) Yuan Tan (which, in case of the latter's likely premature death, gives him a cover of legitimacy to occupy the provinces). Yuan Tan arranges for a double-game with his former generals (the rookie has no chance against a Cao Cao).

Yuan Shang next attacks his brother's army (his only chance is knocking him out before he joins forces with Cao Cao). Instead of sending help, Cao Cao goes for the jugular: He attacks and besieges Ye. Yuan Shang tries to relieve the city. Like Julius Caesar at Alesia, Cao Cao defeats a breakout from the city first and then Yuan Shang's attack - bravely exposing himself to fire. Cao Cao is a true leader. The defeated Yuan Shang flees, again plucked like a chicken. Through treachery, having already diverted a river, Cao Cao captures the city. He kills the city commander who nobly, as a servant of the North, wants to die facing northward. Cao Cao pardons the straightforward adviser Chen Lin.

Enter Cao Pi, the eighteen year old wonder-boy of Cao Cao. Will he kill two sobbing Yuan women in his first appearance? On this cliffhanger ends the first volume.

The Three Kingdoms are now emerging: The North, united under Cao Cao who controls the Emperor and has gathered a large number of palladins, advisers and followers. The South under the still unproven Sun Quan, and the West under Liu Biao (plus Liu Bei and friends).

dec 4, 2007, 11:25 pm

Just to let you know I am still tagging along behind you. Now reading Chapter 11. With each chapter, I read the Chinese text, next I read the English and finally return to the Chinese text again. I've also begun to watch the dvd of the film, finding it rather charming because of the Peking Opera-ish movements and gestures.

Redigerat: jan 10, 2008, 5:00 am

Reading the original alongside the translation must be wonderful albeit sometimes frustrating, most translations losing a lot of the original flavor and meaning.

I will resume with volume II in January (Over Christmas, I have the last Harry Potter to kill.).

Link to the volume II thread.

dec 7, 2007, 3:42 pm

>77 jcbrunner: Hello, fearless leader, jcbrunner. Good you are taking a break. Maybe I and others like mvrdrk can slowly catch up to you.

aug 29, 2008, 11:33 pm

Thanks for creating this. I'm only sorry that I just started the first volume and am unlikely to ever catch up with you.
I just wanted to ask if anyone has any tips on how to read the Three Kingdoms.
I feel like I almost need to create a flowchart as I read to keep track of the dizzying, growing cast of characters.
Do you usually skim over the names except for those of the principals or is every name important?

aug 30, 2008, 7:08 am

Welcome, feel free to start a new thread/topic to comment on earlier chapters (it will be easier to follow). I (and many others in the group) would love to discuss it with you.

Being neither an expert on China nor the 3K, I find the Wikipedia list of personages helpful (attention: the biographic sketches are full of spoilers). In time, you develop a feeling whether a person is a proper character or only there for namedropping or (Star Trek) red-shirt purposes. At times, I have trouble keeping similar-sounding names separate (Yuan Shao, Yuan Shang), but with practice comes familiarity.

I also like this 3K Kongming map (attention: the names are slightly different from the Moss Roberts translation, so it might take a while to track down a location).

sep 2, 2008, 8:33 am

Thank again. I restarted the book and have been finding it much more enjoyable the second time through with you read-along and the other sources.
I even managed to track down the DVDs -- but mine are in Chinese only -- not sure if that's standard.

sep 6, 2008, 8:52 am

My DVDs have terrible if necessary English subtitles. Due to the cheap production, about every tenth 3K DVD refuses to play the third episode on the disk. Grr!