Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Kuo Chih Yen-I) - Vol. 1

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Kuo Chih Yen-I) - Vol. 1

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Kuo Chih Yen-I) - Vol. 1

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (San Kuo Chih Yen-I) - Vol. 1

Excerpt

"Empires wax and wane; states cleave asunder and coalesce." This is the sobering reflection with which China's great fourteenth-century historical novel San Kuo Chih Yen-i--here titled Romance of the Three Kingdoms--begins, and it is a paraphrase of the same sentiment that, 120 chapters later, brings the book to a close. But the inevitability of change in human life and government is far from the actual theme of the work. Its subject matter is really nothing so elevated as this, and certainly not the detached treatise the phrase might suggest; the book is rather a historical romance of major proportions, a fascinating novel whose chief theme is the nature of human ambition.

This no doubt explains why until modern times fiction of the general type of the San Kuo has not been highly thought of by traditional Chinese scholars. An anomaly has resulted. In the traditional Chinese system of cultural values a complete history of literature could very well be written without ever mentioning this work, or the other important examples of its genre. The traditional Chinese scholar has until recently hardly even been willing to consider worthy of study as "Literature" most works that the Occidental scholar would wish to include under the term; at the same time the major part of what the Mandarin would regard as important literature has been official prose and documents of a variety that most persons in the. West could hardly be induced even to take seriously.

Since this is so, it is relevant to ask how China got such novels as the San Kuo in the first place, who wrote them, and who read them. The first are fairly difficult questions, as we shall see below, but the last is simpler. The same people who most looked down on these novels, namely, the members of the scholar-official class, wrote them and also avidly read them. This is not to imply, of course, that novels like the San Kuo have been exclusively the property of China's literati; for centuries they have also been enjoyed by Chinese in every walk of life, and their plots and characters are especially . . .

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