11 January 2018

Tragic hamartia in the Three Kingdoms

The Peach Garden Oath 桃園三結義

The first work of Chinese literature which I read in the original Chinese – albeit with the help of an English translation ready – was the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Ming novelist Luo Guanzhong: a sprawling historical epic which illustrates the fall of the Han Dynasty, the splintering of China into the eponymous kingdoms, and its reunification under the Sima family, the straight-laced Confucian-gentry founders of the Jin Dynasty. Apart from being a masterwork of literature in its own right, with a vast and colourful array of characters, it has been the inspiration for countless poems, operatic works, television serials, movies and video games.

More importantly, though, what made Luo’s work a classic of Chinese fiction is how deeply it considered the arts of strategy and deception, the psychology of leadership, the warping effects of power and libido dominandi on human character, the tragic and cyclical nature of Chinese history, and the interplay between Confucian ideals of rulership and the grim realities that necessitate martial trickery and Legalist sleight-of-hand. Luo Guanzhong is also responsible for compiling another great Chinese novel, Water Margin, and the two works together are summarised in a famous saying: 「少不讀水庫,老不讀三國。」 ‘Young men shouldn’t read Water Margin, and old men shouldn’t read Three Kingdoms.’ The implication is that the social rebellion and private vengeance so prominent in the former would be harmful to the upbringing of the young; and that the scheming, military trickery and political manipulation in the latter would be harmful to the character of the old.

The basic premise is the stuff of which great tragic operas are made – and indeed, have been, many a time. The faltering Han Dynasty (having failed to heed the brilliant New Text scholar He Xiu’s remonstrances about the rise of wealthy landlords and of the eunuchs as a court faction – the latter of whom had him dismissed from office) is crippled by corruption. Meanwhile, in the hinterlands, a Huang-Lao Daoist healer and fortune-teller, Zhang Jue begins foretelling the downfall of the Han Dynasty using portentous readings of natural disasters and attracting a band of followers through his ‘miracles’. These followers, the Huangjin, stage a massive, bloody rebellion against the Han emperor.

The Han Dynasty does not recover from this crippling blow, and is instead beset by further problems: the treason of the Ten Eunuchs and the tyranny of Dong Zhuo, after which the Emperor is relegated to a mere figurehead at the mercy of a successive series of warlords. However, in all of these events, several remarkable men distinguish themselves. Cao Cao, a promising young captain of the guard at Luoyang, serves valiantly in crushing the Huangjin revolt and makes an abortive attempt to assassinate Dong Zhuo. Liu Bei, a kinsman of the Emperor whose mother had fallen on hard times, raises a loyal peasant militia in Hebei to fight the Huangjin – a militia which includes the heroes Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, Liu’s sworn brothers. And the Hangzhou native Sun Jian fights the Huangjin in Henan, and later joins the coalition against Dong Zhuo, during which he allegedly ‘finds’ the Imperial Seal at the bottom of a well in a Henanese village. (More likely, he bumped off some poor bloke who was trying to save the damn thing from falling into Dong Zhuo’s clutches, and took it for himself.)

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms thereon follows, in the main, the power struggles and civil war that embroils these three men and their families, after each of them rises to take territorial control, each of one part of the country. Dong Zhuo’s tyranny is overthrown by his own adopted son Lü Bu at the instigation of a loyal, upright but ill-fated palace maid, leaving Cao Cao in custody of the Han Emperor and in control of the Central Plains. Cao Cao, a better-than-average tactician, ruthless, somewhat paranoid and willing to improvise as the situation demands, defeats and destroys the power base of his rival Yuan Shao in the Chinese north, thus consolidating his power there.

Liu Bei, in the meanwhile, having been an ally of Yuan Shao, flees from Cao Cao and seeks the advice of a precocious scholar-hermit named Zhuge Liang. With Zhuge’s strategic aid, Liu Bei establishes his own Han Dynasty in the rural Chinese southwest, in the territories of Ba and Shu. And the sons of Sun Jian – in particular Sun Quan – exert their overlordship over the Chinese southeast through a tactical alliance with the warlord Yuan Shu, Yuan Shao’s cousin.

The Romance relishes detailing each of the intricate struggles – intrigues, temporary alliances, sneak attacks, espionage and counter-espionage, the use of feigned and real turn-coats and honey-pots – between these three warlords, their advisors and their successors. Luo Guanzhong’s sensibility is a Shakespearean one – though he clearly has a favoured ‘side’ (that of Liu Bei), his understanding of human nature and the exigencies of civil war give his work a tragic cast that even his heroes can’t escape.

Even though Liu Bei and his two sworn brothers are held up as models of heroism, loyalty and righteousness, the Romance’s tragic slant refuses to allow them to stay there. Guan Yu, indeed, comes the closest to being a true stalwart in the martial fashion, but in the end, he is done in by his own overbearing pride, exhausting his forces and alienating his captains, leaving him vulnerable to the advance of the Eastern Wu general Lü Meng. Zhang Fei is also physically brave, but his irascible temper and cruelty to those beneath him antagonise his own subordinates, who assassinate him and defect to Eastern Wu. Liu Bei himself – at least in the novel – is too easily swayed by sentiment, and this allows Sun Quan and his advisers to take advantage of him repeatedly. Liu Bei dies of exhaustion after failing to avenge the deaths of his sworn brothers at the hands of Sun Quan, and his kingdom falls into the hands of his feckless son, Liu Shan – whose rule is sustained only by the support of Zhuge Liang.

Cao Cao, too, is a victim of his own Shakespearean flaw – paranoia. A man of the capital, privy to the intrigues of the eunuchs and corrupt officials like Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao understands that his survival depends on his trusting no one. Again, early on in his career, that trait served him in good stead: it saved him from the wrath of Dong Zhuo after his failed assassination attempt. But Luo’s novel tells a fictional story of Cao Cao’s death: he develops a brain infection that causes him terrible headaches and fever, and thereupon summons the famous doctor Hua Tuo to cure him of it. The doctor recommends that the abscess be removed by opening Cao Cao’s skull, but Cao Cao comes to believe that this procedure is a pretext for Hua Tuo to kill him. (He had been subject to a previous assassination attempt by another doctor, who tried to give him poisoned medicine.) Cao Cao imprisons Hua Tuo, but then succumbs to the brain infection.

The irony is that Liu Bei’s attachment to his sworn brothers, Guan Yu’s charismatic self-assurance, Zhang Fei’s ferociousness and even Cao Cao’s paranoia were all features of their personalities that allowed them to flourish and to achieve political power in the first place, in the anarchic era in which they found themselves. Luo Guanzhong is making a point that is somewhat anti-Machiavellian, in a way that parallels Shakespeare’s treatment of his machiavels: the virtù (rather than virtue, properly speaking) of such individuals may be sufficient for them to wrest power out of a chaotic situation, but not necessarily enough for them to hold onto it. Often the same characteristics and forces of habit that allow for their rise also bring about their tragic downfall.

As to whether the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has any bearing on modern politics, I don’t doubt, of course, that it does. I would assuredly demur from any triumphalist interpretation of the Romance. However, I will readily say this: Luo Guanzhong’s understanding of the Chinese history and politics of that previous era is as deeply coloured by irony as a modern observer’s should be of ours, and (sorry, Chinese nationalists) the human drama of the Romance does indeed have a certain universal appeal.

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