Sunday, September 17, 2017

Non-Orientalist View on Chinese Society and Politics

In order to understand China, we must first explore four important Chinese historical novels:

It is also known as All Men are Brothers
Author: Shi Nai'an (Published in 14th century)

A 19th-century mural depicting Lu Zhishen uprooting a tree, a scene from the novel
The opening episode in the novel is the release of the 108 Spirits, imprisoned under an ancient stele-bearing tortoise.[9]  The next chapter describes the rise of Gao Qiu, one of the primary antagonists of the story. Gao abuses his status as a Grand Marshal by oppressing Wang Jin; Wang's father taught Gao a painful lesson when the latter was still a street-roaming ruffian. Wang Jin flees from the capital with his mother and by chance he meets Shi Jin, who becomes his apprentice. The next few chapters tell the story of Shi Jin's friend Lu Zhishen, followed by the story of Lu's sworn brother Lin Chong. Lin Chong is framed by Gao Qiu for attempting to assassinate him, and almost dies in a fire at a supply depot set by Gao's henchmen. He slays his foes and abandons the depot, eventually making his way to Liangshan Marsh, where he becomes an outlaw. Meanwhile, the "Original Seven", led by Chao Gai, rob a convoy of birthday gifts for the Imperial Tutor Cai Jing, another primary antagonist in the novel. They flee to Liangshan Marsh after defeating a group of soldiers sent by the authorities to arrest them, and settle there as outlaws with Chao Gai as their chief. As the story progresses, more people come to join the outlaw band, including military personnel and civil officials who grew tired of serving the corrupt government, as well as men with special skills and talents. Stories of the outlaws are told in separate sections in the following chapters. Connections between characters are vague, but the individual stories are eventually pieced together by chapter 40 when Song Jiang succeeds Chao Gai as the leader of the band after the latter is killed in a battle against the Zeng Family Fortress.  The plot further develops by illustrating the conflicts between the outlaws and the Song government after the Grand Assembly of the 108 outlaws. Song Jiang strongly advocates making peace with the government and seeking redress for the outlaws. After defeating the imperial army in a great battle at Liangshan Marsh, the outlaws eventually receive amnesty from Emperor Huizong. The emperor recruits them to form a military contingent and sends them on campaigns against invaders from the Liao dynasty and rebel forces led by Tian Hu, Wang Qing and Fang La within the Song dynasty's domain. Although the former outlaws eventually emerge victorious against the rebels and Liao invaders, the campaigns also led to the tragic dissolution of the 108 heroes. At least two-thirds of them died in battle while the surviving ones either return to the imperial capital to receive honours from the emperor and continue serving the Song government, or leave and spend the rest of their lives as commoners elsewhere. Song Jiang himself is eventually poisoned to death by the "Four Treacherous Ministers" – Gao Qiu, Yang Jian (楊戩), Tong Guan and Cai Jing.

Author: Luo Guanzhong (Published in 14th century)
Download the novel:

Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, silk painting by Sekkan Sakurai (1715–1790), depicting Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.
One of the greatest achievements of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the extreme complexity of its stories and characters. The novel contains numerous subplots. The following consists of a summary of the central plot and some well-known highlights in the novel.

It is early in the third century and the once-glorious Han Dynasty is in its twilight. Those who would cast themselves as China’s next rulers have brought the empire to the brink of war. Court eunuchs scheme, rulers fall, and great heroes are born in epic combat. The people of China, longing for peace, wonder what will become of their lives as war rages across the land. The dynasty seems to have lost its “Mandate of Heaven”—what now?  This is the backdrop for the literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great pillars of Chinese literature (Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Dream of the Red Chamber are the others). Its fourteenth century author, Luo Guanzhong, draws upon history and folklore to create a colorful tale that showcases the era’s political and social affairs.  Moreover, it is considered a guidebook to military strategy that has been likened to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Through its pages, readers meet dozens of iconic characters from history, and witness battles of every scale. Three Kingdoms is at the core of Chinese cultural identity and, especially, the concept of yi—the essential glue that binds a harmonious society.  Shen Yun’s 2015 dance Capturing Arrows With Boats of Straw, tells of one of the brilliant stratagems employed in this mega-historical saga.
Three Kingdoms at War  
As lords and generals gather to vie for supremacy, three great leaders soon emerge. Their names are Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan. These are men of formidable character, prowess, and guile, each keen to see his ambition fulfilled. They are each rulers of their own kingdoms—Shu, Wei, and Wu, respectively—and each aspire to unite the empire, bringing together “All Under Heaven,” as they call it.  With the help of the most brilliant minds and bravest hearts of the time, these three rise to power and engage in an epic contest for the future of China.
Kingdom of Shu
Warlord Liu Bei is the founder of Kingdom of Shu. His claim to the imperial throne is that he is a descendant of the Han’s rulers and can thus continue the heritage if not the dynasty.  Liu is portrayed as the most legitimate and deserving contender. He is high of mind and kind of heart, but lacks the resources and raw power of his rivals. But his lofty character acts like a magnet that attracts to his cause some of the novel’s most unforgettable heroes—mind-boggling strategists and nearly infallible warriors. Together, they successfully establish their own state.  The alliance of these heroes begins in one of Three Kingdoms’ best-known scenes: “Oath of the Peach Garden.” Liu Bei and the two warriors Zhang Fei and Guan Yu become sworn brothers:  “We don’t ask to be born on the same day,” they vow, “but we ask that it be on the same year, same month, and same day that we together die.”  The bond between the three establishes a strong theme that wends throughout the tale. Later, Liu Bei's influence increases rapidly after obtaining the help of Taoist sage and expert strategist Zhuge Liang. Some of Three Kingdoms’ most fantastic stories, like “Capturing Arrows With Boats of Straw,” owe to Zhuge’s exploits.
Kingdom of Wei 
In Three Kingdoms, the ambitious general Cao Cao is Liu Bei’s and conniving rival. Here is an example of a dialogue between him and his loyal chef:  Cao Cao: I need to borrow something of yours. Loyal Chef: Sure, what is it? Cao Cao: Your head. Loyal Chef: What? Cao Cao: Don’t worry, I’ll make sure your family is taken care of.  Cao Cao (pronounced tsao tsao) has an enormous army and the loyalty of much of the realm. He is also an accomplished poet whose works go on to have a significant impact on the Chinese poetic style.
Kingdom of Wu
Meanwhile, the Sun clan controls most of southern China. At the age of 18, after his older brother is assassinated, the red-bearded Sun Quan steps into power. During the decisive "Battle of Red Cliffs," Sun Quan allies with Liu Bei to keep Cao Cao’s armies from advancing across the Yangtze River.
Their allegiance was short-lived, however, and the three kingdoms continued to maneuver and vie for the future of China, known as the Middle Kingdom. But in this riveting tale filled with both triumph and sacrifice, every episode comes back to the principle of yi.
The Meaning of Yi
The novel’s Chinese title, San Guo Yan Yi (三國演義), can also be translated as “Three Kingdoms Performing Yi.” Yi (pronounced ee) most exactly translates as “righteousness” or “duty.” However, the concept expands to encompass honor, benevolence, loyalty, selflessness, and brotherhood.
Yi explains the virtuous relationships between rulers and subjects, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and among brothers and friends. In traditional Chinese society it was an accepted rule that no matter what happens, you must observe yi.
Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of yi can be seen in the character of General Guan Yu. Also known as Guan Gong, later generations erected temples in his memory and worshiped him as "the God of War." On one occasion, he agreed to duel with a fierce adversary. Poured a bowl of hot wine for good luck, Guan Yu refused to drink it, saying he would be back in just a moment. Minutes later, he returned with the adversary’s head before his wine had even chilled.
And yet, along with his flowing beard, it is his indomitable spirit of yi that makes him most memorable. Faced with likely defeat, the once unbeatable warrior uttered the immortal lines:
Should the city walls fall, it means death, that’s all. Jade can be shattered, but you cannot change its whiteness. Bamboo can be scorched, but its joint cannot be destroyed. The body might perish, but the name will live on for posterity.
In order to protect his lord Liu Bei’s family, Guan Yu once allowed himself to be captured by the merciless enemy, Cao Cao. Cao Cao, who had long admired Guan Yu’s abilities as a warrior, tried coaxing him to his side with gold, titles, and prized horses. A weaker man would have easily given in, but Guan Yu took the first chance to escape. He braved great danger and overcame injury to safely return his sworn brother’s family to him.
Still, he never forgot the generosity that, though an enemy, Cao Cao had shown him. Years later Cao Cao was defeated at the “Battle of Red Cliff” and was running for his life with what was left of his decimated army. Guan Yu was sent to finish him off and intercepted Cao Cao at a narrow mountain pass. Facing the mighty Guan Yu, the disheveled and exhausted Cao Cao did not stand a chance. Guan Yu let him go.
Guan Yu, who was torn, had chosen to face certain execution for disobeying orders rather than betray yi by killing his former benefactor. Of course, Guan Yu was not executed, because it turns out that the strategist Zhuge Liang had specifically sent him to kill Cao Cao precisely because he knew full well Guan Yu could not get himself to do it. The strategist did so because he knew that China still needed Cao Cao to maintain a balance of three equal kingdoms, but that is another story.
The much-maligned Cao Cao, on the other hand, is an example of a leader with a poor sense of yi. He is known for the quote, “I’d rather betray the world than let the world betray me.” His personal philosophy becomes apparent in one scene where a pursued Cao Cao takes refuge with his father’s sworn brother. While his friend is out on an errand, Cao Cao overhears servants sharpening knives and discussing a kill. Cao Cao’s paranoia is piqued and he murders the entire family. He then discovers they were only preparing to slaughter a pig for his grand welcome dinner. When his old friend, the lord of the house, returns Cao Cao realizes he will be held accountable. So he uses the who’s-that-behind-you trick and stabs his host.
The Tale Lives On
With protagonists shining with yi and antagonists sorely lacking yi, Three Kingdoms, like Guan Yu, leaves a most important lesson for posterity. Not only has it has had a profound impact on Chinese culture and society, the novel offers a glimpse into an ancient world of moral courage and righteousness, with the glue of yi that held it together.
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Three Kingdoms author, Luo Guanzhong, believed that the fate of every nation is etched in the stars, and that humans are very limited in their ability to affect the grand flow of history. However, he also believed that if people are upright and virtuous, we are able to accomplish tremendous things, bringing glory to ourselves and our families, leaving a shining legacy that transcends the ages.

Author: Wu Cheng'en (Published in 16th century)

The novel comprises 100 chapters, which can be divided into three major sections. The first, which includes chapters 1–7, is really a self-contained prequel to the main body of the story. It deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sūn Wùkōng, a monkey born from a stone egg, who learns the art of fighting and secrets of immortality, and through guile and force makes a name for himself as the Qítiān Dàshèng (Simplified Chinese: 齐天大圣; Traditional Chinese: 齊天大聖), or "Great Sage Equal to Heaven." His powers grow to match the forces of all of the Eastern (Taoist) deities, and the prologue culminates in Sūn's rebellion against Heaven, at a time when he occupies a post in the celestial bureaucracy. Hubris proves his downfall when the Buddha manages to trap him under a mountain for 500 years.
Following this introduction, the nominal main character, Xuánzàng, is introduced. Chapters 8–12 provide his early biography and the background to his great journey. Dismayed that "the land of the South knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity, and sins," the Buddha instructs the Bodhisattva Guānyīn to search Táng China for someone to bring the Buddhist sutras of "transcendence and persuasion for good will" to the East. Guānyīn gives this task to the monk Xuánzàng and provides him with three protectors in the form of disciples, Sūn Wùkōng, Zhū Bājiè and Shā Wùjìng, together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuánzàng's horse mount. These four characters agree to help Xuánzàng as atonement for past sins. This section of the story relates how Xuánzàng becomes a monk (as well as revealing his past life as the "Golden Cicada") and is sent on a pilgrimage by the Emperor Táng Tàizōng, who has previously escaped death with the help of an underworld official.  The third and longest section of the work is chapters 13–100, an episodic adventure story which combines elements of the quest as well as the picaresque. The framework of the story is Xuánzàng's quest to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Vulture Peak in India, but the substance is provided by the conflict among Xuánzàng's disciples and the various evils that beset him on the way.  The setting of this section is supposedly the sparsely populated lands along the Silk Road between China and India, including Xinjiang, Turkestan, and Afghanistan. The geography described in the book is, however, almost entirely fantastic; once Xuánzàng departs Cháng'ān, the Táng capital and crosses the frontier (somewhere in Gansu province), he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, all inhabited by flesh-eating demons who regard him as a potential meal, with a hidden monastery or a royal city-state here and there amid the wilds.  The episodic structure of this section follows a formula to some extent. Episodes consist of 1– 4 chapters, and usually involve Xuánzàng being captured and his life threatened, while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Xuánzàng's predicaments are political and involve ordinary human beings, they more frequently consist of run-ins with various goblins and ogres, many of whom turn out to be the earthly manifestations of heavenly beings.  Chapters 13–22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuánzàng's disciples, who, inspired or goaded by the Boddhisatva Guānyīn, meet and agree to serve him along the way, in order to atone for their sins in their past lives.  Sūn Wùkōng (Simplified Chinese: 孙悟空; Traditional Chinese: 孫悟空), or Monkey, previously "Great Sage Equal to Heaven," appears right away in Chapter 13. The second, appearing in Chapter 19, is Zhū Bājiè (Simplified Chinese: 猪八戒; Traditional Chinese: 豬八戒), literally “Eight-precepts Pig,” sometimes translated as Pigsy or just Pig. The third, appearing in Chapter 22, is the river-ogre Shā Wùjìng (Simplified Chinese: 沙悟净; Traditional Chinese: 沙悟淨), also translated as Friar Sand or Sandy. The third prince of the Dragon-King, Yùlóng Sāntàizǐ (Simplified Chinese: 玉龙三太子; Traditional Chinese: 玉龍三太子) can possibly to be counted as a fourth disciple. He was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father's great pearl, but was saved by Guānyīn from execution to wait for his call of duty. He appears first in chapter 15, but has almost no speaking role, as throughout most of the story he appears in the transformed shape of a horse that Xuánzàng rides on.  Chapter 22, where Shā is introduced, also provides a geographical boundary, as the river of quicksand that the travelers cross brings them into a new "continent." Chapters 23–86 take place in the wilderness, and consist of 24 episodes of varying length, each characterized by a different magical monster or evil magician. There are impassably wide rivers, flaming mountains, a kingdom ruled by women, a lair of seductive spider-spirits, and many other fantastic scenarios. Throughout the journey, the four brave disciples have to defend their master and teacher Xuánzàng from attacks by various monsters and calamities.  The book strongly suggests that most of these calamities are engineered by fate and/or the Buddha; while the monsters who attack them are vastly powerful and many in number, no real harm ever comes to the four travelers. Some of the monsters turn out to be escaped heavenly animals belonging to bodhisattvas or Taoist sages and spirits. Towards the end of the book there is a scene where the Buddha literally commands the fulfillment of the last disaster, because Xuánzàng is one short of the 81 disasters he needs to attain Buddhahood.  In chapter 87, Xuánzàng finally reaches the borderlands of India, and chapters 87–99 present magical adventures in a somewhat more mundane, though still exotic, setting. At length, after a pilgrimage said to have taken fourteen years (the text actually only provides documentation for nine of those years, presumably to allow room for adding additional episodes) they arrive at the half-real, half-legendary destination of Vulture Peak, where, in a scene simultaneously mystical and comic, Xuánzàng receives the scriptures from the living Buddha.  Chapter 100, the last of all, quickly describes the return journey to the Táng Empire, and the aftermath, in which each traveler receives a reward in the form of posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. Sūn Wùkōng and Xuánzàng achieve Buddhahood, Wùjìng becomes an arhat, the dragon is made a Naga, and Bājiè, whose good deeds have always been tempered by his greed, is promoted to an altar cleanser (eater of offerings at altars).

Author: Cao Xueqin (Published 1791)

A scene from the novel, painted by Xu Baozhuan (1810–1873)
The novel provides a detailed, episodic record of life in the two branches of the wealthy, aristocratic Jia (賈) clan—the Rongguo House (榮國府) and the Ningguo House (寧國府)—who reside in two large, adjacent family compounds in the capital. Their ancestors were made Dukes and given imperial titles, and as the novel begins the two houses are among the most illustrious families in the city. One of the clan’s offspring is made a Royal Consort, and a lush landscaped garden is built to receive her visit. The novel describes the Jias’ wealth and influence in great naturalistic detail, and charts the Jias’ fall from the height of their prestige, following some thirty main characters and over four hundred minor ones. Eventually the Jia clan falls into disfavor with the Emperor, and their mansions are raided and confiscated.  In the novel's frame story, a sentient Stone, abandoned by the goddess Nüwa when she mended the heavens aeons ago, begs a Taoist priest and a Buddhist monk to bring it with them to see the world. The Stone, along with a companion (in Cheng-Gao versions they are merged into the same character), is then given a chance to learn from the human existence, and enters the mortal realm.  The main character of the novel is the carefree adolescent male heir of the family, Jia Baoyu. He was born with a magical piece of "jade" in his mouth. In this life he has a special bond with his sickly cousin Lin Daiyu, who shares his love of music and poetry. Baoyu, however, is predestined to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai, whose grace and intelligence exemplify an ideal woman, but with whom he lacks an emotional connection. The romantic rivalry and friendship among the three characters against the backdrop of the family's declining fortunes form the main story in the novel.