2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 14: History and Historical Fiction: New Studies of Sanguo yanyi ("Romance of the Three Kingdoms") and Shuihu zhuan ("Water Margin")

Organizer and Chair: Paul J. Smith, Haverford College

Discussant: Patricia A. Sieber, Ohio State University

This panel brings together five scholars from disparate but overlapping fields to explore new approaches to Sanguo yanyi ("Romance of the Three Kingdoms") and Shuihu zhuan ("Water Margin") that illustrate the relationship between historical fiction and the study of history. In the first two papers Anne McLaren and Liangyan Ge focus on historiographical and political influences from the Southern Song (1127–1279) and early decades of the Ming (1368–1644) to show how the 16th-century Sanguo yanyi text conclusively shifted the mantle of dynastic legitimacy from Cao Cao of Wei—where the original 3rd-century Sanguo zhi annals put it—to Liu Bei of Shu, while investing Liu with the same attributes of the ideal sovereign adumbrated in the Mencius that the Ming founder expurgated in pursuit of his goal of imperial absolutism. In the second two papers we turn to Shuihu zhuan as a guide to the past and an influence on the future: Paul J. Smith uses Shuihu as a lens through which to view Song sources on the widespread militarization of Chinese society during the last half-century of the Northern Song (960–1127), while Anne Burkus-Chasson analyzes the differences between the graphically violent depictions of the Water Margin heroes in Ming illustrated versions of the text and their more aesthetically refined representations by the late-Ming painter Chen Hongshou and his early Qing successors. Our discussant, Patricia Sieber, has dealt with many of these same issues of representation and historicity in her own work on Chinese drama.

History Repackaged in the Age of Print: The Sanguozhi and Sanguo yanyi

Anne McLaren, University of Melbourne

One of the greatest attractions of the Sanguo yanyi for its readers is its unambiguous treatment of the Three Kingdoms hero, Liu Bei of Shu, as the legitimate successor to the Han dynasty. The official history of the era, Sanguozhi, by Chen Shou, is equally unambiguous in its treatment of the Wei house of the Cao Cao as the legitimate successor. However, Chen’s work did not silence debate on this subject. In subsequent centuries, the issue of the Shu-Han succession frequently served as a mirror for debate about the relative merits of territorial control, blood relationship, and morality as grounds for imperial legitimacy. This debate reached a new height at the time of the Jurchen occupation of North China when the Southern Song daoxue (Neo-Confucian) thinker, Zhu Xi (1130–1200), in his Zizhi gongjian gangmu, reversed the official verdict by regarding Liu Bei as legitimate heir to the Han. This significant reinterpretation of history had important consequences. If the judgment of official history could be reversed then should not the text of the official history be rewritten to reflect this reversal? Several attempts were made to do this during the Song. This paper will discuss two revisions of the Sanguozhi (both entitled Xu Hou Han shu) that sought to reflect the legitimacy debate at a time of alien invasion. These works are of interest not just in the development of official historiography but also for innovations in format and design that potentially influenced the formation of the Sanguo yanyi.

Liu Bei in Sanguo yanyi and the Mencian View of Political Sovereignty

Liangyan Ge, University of Notre Dame

While the earliest known edition of the Chinese historical novel Sanguo yanyi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) was published in 1522, its manuscript prototype was most likely composed in the early decades of the Ming (1368–1644). This paper discusses the possible impact on the novel from the early Ming sociopolitical context, especially the blatant appropriation of the daotong (orthodox learning) tradition by the two founders of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368–1398) and his son Zhu Di (r. 1402–1424), and their manipulation of the curriculum of the civil service examinations. Such ideological control was epitomized by Zhu Yuanzhang’s expurgation of the Mencius, which advocates a type of sovereign-subject relationship vastly different from the emperor’s political absolutism. In Sanguo yanyi, Liu Bei, the leader of the Shu, emerges as one who wins support from the common people with his compassion and acquires loyalty from men of talent with his fraternal love, despite inconsistencies and possible excess in the novel’s depiction of his moral character. The paper proposes to read this image of a "benevolent ruler" as a literary expression of the Mencian view of political sovereignty advocated just when the Mencius was censured and the intensity of imperial despotism reached an unprecedented level in Chinese history. Precisely because of the painful absence of a benevolent ruler in reality, a novelistic simulacrum became all the more significant and appealing to the intellectual gentry, who had long been nurtured by the Mencian teaching both morally and politically.

Ming Artifacts of the Northern Song: Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan) as a Guide to the Military Subculture of the Late Northern Song

Paul J. Smith, Haverford College

The received versions of Shuihu zhuan (dated roughly between 1589 and 1614) constitute a late-Ming culmination of Song,Yuan, and Ming story cycles about what was in fact a relatively minor band of outlaws who operated in Shandong in the 1120s. Can an epic tale compiled some four centuries after the events it portrays serve as a window onto the social world of that original era? The social order delineated in Shuihu zhuan no doubt mirrors the violence and banditry of the sixteenth century, when the many source tales about outlaws in the late Northern Song were woven into a mature literary work for readers of the late Ming. But I propose that despite the chronological distance between the finished novel and the events it depicts, Shuihu offers a fruitful guide to aspects of Northern Song culture that historians have largely overlooked. In particular, Shuihu attributes to the Northern Song a robust military subculture that, if accurate, complicates our usual understanding of the Song as an era thoroughly dominated by civil institutions and values. In this paper I focus on the figure of the military arms instructor (jiaotou) and his northern magnate patron (zhuangzhu) to argue that Shuihu’s depiction of a pervasive military subculture reflects a genuine Song phenomenon: the widespread militarization of north Chinese society catalyzed by the irredentist wars and attendant New Policies promoted by Wang Anshi and Emperor Shenzong and his sons and successors from 1068 to the fall of the Northern Song in 1127.

Facing Off: Criminals and Clerks in Late-Seventeenth-Century Pictorial Representations of Shuihu zhuan

Anne Burkus-Chasson, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

I propose to explore the ambiguity inherent in pictorial representations of fictional characters from Shuihu zhuan produced in the late Ming and early Qing. I focus on images devised by the late Ming painter Chen Hongshou for a set of printed playing cards, in addition to other later images that interpret his distinctive compositions. Contemporary illustrations of Shuihu zhuan display the violence committed throughout the text in detailed narrative scenes. Chen instead represented a series of single characters from the story. He presents them as they are first introduced in the narrative. Thus, he generally avoids the depiction of violence. Nonetheless, he constructs a conundrum relative to the distinction between lawful violence and unlawful violence. The ambiguity of Chen’s figures embodies contemporary disagreements about the literary figures themselves. In the early Qing, Chen’s figures were imitated in a variety of arenas. Their ambiguity was pushed even further in the 1669 Liu Yuan jinghui Lingyan ge (Liu Yuan respectfully painted Gallery that Skims Clouds). On the other hand, renditions of characters from Shuihu zhuan on early Qing porcelains tend to erase the ambiguity between criminal and clerk that fascinated both Chen Hongshou and Liu Yuan. The menace of the outlaw might lie in a weapon or a deformed face, but it is muted in the absence of a violent act. They instead acquire an aesthetic pleasure, especially in the context of an artistic genealogy that includes Chen Hongshou.