Cao Cao as depicted in a movie
“The proponents of the Hundred Schools of Thought in the Warring States and Spring and Autumn periods made important contributions to Chinese prose style. The writings of Mo Zi (Mo Di, 470-391 B.C.”), Mencius (Meng Zi; 372-289 B.C.), and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.) contain well-reasoned, carefully developed discourses and show a marked improvement in organization and style over what went before. Mo Zi is known for extensively and effectively using methodological reasoning in his polemic prose. Mencius contributed elegant diction and, along with Zhuang Zi, is known for his extensive use of comparisons, anecdotes, and allegories. By the third century B.C., these writers had developed a simple, concise prose noted for its economy of words, which served as a model of literary form for over 2,000 years. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Tang period also saw a rejection of the ornate, artificial style of prose developed in the previous period and the emergence of a simple, direct, and forceful prose based on Han and pre-Han writing. The primary proponent of this neoclassical style of prose, which heavily influenced prose writing for the next 800 years, was Han Yu (768-824), a master essayist and strong advocate of a return to Confucian orthodoxy. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Vernacular fiction became popular after the fourteenth century, although it was never esteemed in court circles. Covering a broader range of subject matter and longer and less highly structured than literary fiction, vernacular fiction includes a number of masterpieces. The greatest is the eighteenth-century domestic novel Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). A semiautobiographical work by a scion of a declining gentry family, Hong Lou Meng has been acknowledged by students of Chinese fiction to be the masterwork of its type.

The Dream of the Red Chamber and Other Famous Chinese Novels

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TV drama version of Dream of Red Chamber

Classic novels include The Tales of the Marshes by Sze Nai-an (translated into English by Pearl S. Buck), Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Lo Kuan-chung (a collection of stories sometimes referred to as the Chinese equivalent of Arthurian legends); Historical Memoirs, Water Margins and the writings of Tu Fu and Li Po. Many classic stories are associated with Chinese Theaters. See Theater and Opera.

The Dream of the Red Chamber is a comedy of manners by Cao Xueqing, who is sometimes called the Chinese Tolstoy. Detailing a number of sexual trysts involving members of both the opposite sexes and the same sex, it was written in the 19th century and set in the 16th century and revolves around a young man named Jia Baoyu and his two girl cousins, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochi, who are his lovers. Lin Daiyu is the tragic figure in Dream of Red Chamber. Orphaned at the age of five, she goes to live with her uncle and must compete with her cousins for lover and attention. The story is also known by title Dream of Red Mansions. David Hawkes’ fine translation of Dream of the Red Chamber is both a faithful translation and a masterpiece of English prose.)

Journey to the West

Journey to the West is a 16th century novel by Wu Cheng En that has many similarities with The Wizard of Oz. It is based on the 7th century wanderings of real life Buddhist monk named Hsuan-tang Zang who went to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts. In the story the Great Monk Tang is accompanied on his journey by three animal spirits: the dim-witted and awkward Pigsy (a pig), the Monkey King (an immortal that possesses a monkey) and the water spirit monk Sha (a feminine spirit).

Hsuan-tsang (Xuan Zang), the Chinese monk who inspired the story, left China for India in A.D. 645 to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He made it to Central Asia and India despite being held up by surly Chinese guards and guides who abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. In Central Asia he traveled to Turfan, Kucha, the Bedel pass, Lake Issyk-kul, the Chu Valley (near present-day Bishkek), Tashkent, Samarkand, Balk, Kashgar and Khoton before crossing the Himalayas into India. Hsuan-tsang spent 16 years in India collecting texts and returned with 700 Buddhist texts.

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Film version of Journey to the West

Journey to the West is widely regarded as the greatest story of Chinese literature and is well known in Japan and Korea and elsewhere in Asia. The monk Hsuan-tang Zang is kind of an anti-hero, pious but cowardly. He repeatedly has to be rescued by the monkey king and the water spirit. The greatest challenge for the four characters is crossing the 400-kilometer-wide river to Heaven, guarded by a monster that feeds on children. When they return to China with scrolls they went to India to collect the find the scrolls are blank and are told that is the true teaching of Buddha.

The monkey is fearless and likes to fight, defending his rights. At teh beginning of teh story he gate crashes into heaven hoping to become mortal but instead is deemed to self-centered and is imprisoned by Buddha in mountain for 500 years as punishment, and later offered a chance to redeem himself by protecting the monk Hsuan-tang Zang as travels from China to India. The journey takes over a hundred years.

Journey to the West has been staged as a play and a Japanese television series in the 1970s and made into Chinese and Japanese films. In 2007 Chinese director Chen Shizheng collaborated with Damon Albarn of the rock groups Blur and Gorillaz, and James Hewiit, the Gorillaz cartoonist, to do a stage and opera version of Journey to the West. It is a unique blend of animation, dance, acrobatics, martial arts and video game elements. The Times of London called it “an improbable combination of The Lion King, Cirque du Soleil and Crouching, Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Chen is the one who brought the 20-hour, 55-act Ming dynasty opera Peony Pavilion to New York and directed the film Dark Matter with Merlyn Streep. Dalmon’s score by an electronically-enhanced pit orchestra is eclectic and minimalist but is perfect for the show. Fei Yang is delightful and acrobatic as the Monkey King.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is a popular epic written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th Century based on some real-life historical figures. Comprised of over 800,000 words and containing almost 1,000 characters, it takes place when China was divided into many warring and focuses on three kingdoms---Wei, Wu and Shu. It remains popular throughout Asia today and has been an inspiration for scores of movies, television dramas, manga and video games. What has made the book so popular is not so much the battles and fighting but the personalities involved and their interactions.

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is for China roughly what Homer is for Europeans, a swashbuckling adventure story, with lots of blood, excitement and craftiness on the battlefield. Chinese boys live and breathe the story, with its hundreds of characters in cloaks and long robes and multiple sub-plots, spanning a century of convulsion before the empire was reunited. it retells the events surrounding the demise of the Han dynasty and echoes Confucian values that were popular at the time. The story begins just as the Han empire is about to break up. The opening words are: "It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012 >>>]

“The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a good corrective to the hypnotising story of harmony that Chinese rulers like to tell when they are in control and trying to stay there. China is not a readily stable and harmonious country. In fact, governments need a powerful narrative of unity precisely because China has such a tendency to fall apart. "Chinese history is not as clean-cut as written in textbooks," says archaeologist Wang Tao. "It's full of fighting. And I remember looking at some archaeological sites and you see so many remains - weapons, headless bodies. There is actually a lot of blood in history, which of course now we don't normally see in textbooks." >>>

“The Confucian code insists that the superior man achieves his goals without resort to force. Liu Bei and his enemies were certainly ready to use intelligence, diplomacy and downright lying if it got them what they wanted. As Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War": “A leader leads by example not by force," he wrote, several centuries earlier. "To know your enemy, you must become your enemy. Opportunities multiply as they are seized. Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across. All warfare is based on deception." There is no shortage of deceptions in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” >>>

Peony Pavilion and the Peony in Chinese Literature

One of China’s most famous stories, The Peony Pavilion , written more than 400 years ago by the Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xiazu, is a love story that takes place within a dream: a woman falls asleep by a peony pavilion and dreams of a handsome scholar she has never met. Unable to find him in the real world she dies of a broken heart and ends up in the Underworld, where the strength of her desire convince the Infernal Judge to release her ghost back into the land of the living to marry the man of her dreams. Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “The story “tells you universal emotions and passions. People can understand how strongly the heroine fights to find love. Drama and novels developed from the same story-telling tradition in which the use of vernacular language is a prominent feature. The Peach Blossom Fan and the popular short stories collected in Lasting Words to Awaken the World and Pounding the Table in Amazement are other works that grew from this tradition.

In a review of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin, Sixiang Wang a PhD candidate at Columbia University wrote: “The peony has come to have a variety of associations in the East Asian literary tradition. Its luxurious petals have signaled wealth and beauty while its peculiar, seedless manner of reproduction has come to symbolize sterility and empty luxury. It has even come to represent political power as a symbol of China as a nation, arguably one of its dominant associations today. [Source: A review by Sixiang Wang PhD Candidate, East Asian Languages and Cultures; History-East Asia. Columbia of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin +++]

“Jeongsoo Shin gives an overview of the peony flower’s origins as a medicinal plant. Despite its connection with female allure in later literature, the flower, from a traditional horticultural perspective, possessed characteristics of both “male” and “female” plants. Understanding the peony’s origin as an androgynous, medical plant is essential for appreciating its subsequent emergence as a literary trope. Although it is difficult to establish exactly when the peony became a garden flower, its emergence in Tang China (618–907) as a significant literary trope was undoubtedly connected to its popular cultivation. New methods of cultivation produced varieties never before seen, and the peony’s chameleon-like ability to appear in different colors made it a “prodigy” among flowers. By the High Tang, through the poetry of Li Bo (701–762), the peony flower came to be intertwined with the tragic figure of Consort Yang on whom later writers blame the decline of the Tang, due to emperor Xuanzong’s (r. 712–756) singular attention to her. The flower thus emerged as a rather negative symbol, representing exuberance, luxury, and desire. +++

“Though its association with the court made it also a symbol of secular power, the flower enjoyed cultivation beyond the confines of the palace: Buddhist monasteries, among the locations famous for their flowers, sometimes supplied the imperial palace with peonies. Peony poetry took off in the late Tang in step with the development of peony as a fashionable commodity, and it was during this frenzy that the idiom “Guo se tian xiang”, which Shin translates as “reigning beauty and heavenly fragrance,” first came to be attached to the flower in the poems of Li Zhengfeng. What is curious, however, is that despite its feminine allure the peony also acquired the epithet, “king of one hundred flowers”, a term that in all likelihood originally applied to other flowers than the peony. +++

Later Shin “turns attention away from the poetry of the capital Chang’an to that of Luoyang, which emerged not only as a center for peony cultivation but a political and cultural center supplanting Chang’an amid the decline of the Tang. Here, the flower lost its connection with the Tang court per se, emerging as a symbol for “Chinese civilization”. Shin gives one poignant anecdote: as northern China was coming under the hegemony of the Northern Song (960–1127), southern kingdoms such as the Southern Han (917–971) held on to their independence. The people of the Southern Han were disdainful of the “Central States”. Proud of the jasmine flowers they cultivated, the southerners called them their “small southern vigor”. When the Han was conquered by the Song, the Han ruler was taken to Luoyang, only to be “terrified” by the size of the peony blossoms there, where, he was told, they were called “great northern victory”. Though the size of the peony blossoms may symbolize the power and strength of the “Central States,” others interpreted the “barren seeds in the large blossoms” to be indicative of “empty, superficial brilliance”. +++

“The flower found its way into the court politics of the early Song. Shin discusses the development of connoisseurship in terms of the political conflict between two courtiers, Qian Weiyan (962–1034) and Li Di (971–1047). While the latter was lauded for resisting the regency of the empress Dowager Liu, Qian was seen as currying favor with the powerful. Criticism of Qian’s “peony cultivation” was an oblique criticism of Qian’s political position. Qian’s protégé, however, the well-known early Song statesman Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) , not only refused to criticize his patron, he also celebrated the peony’s cultivation. His “Account of the Luoyang Peonies” elevated the peony above all other flowers, and the peonies of Luoyang above the flowers of all other regions. The way Ouyang explains the lusciousness of the peony’s blossoms, however, was in terms of a “disease of [its] original, vital energy”. He too saw the peony as a prodigy of nature, but one that was remarkable as a “concentration of beauty”. Its uncanny existence was for Ouyang not a vehicle for moral criticism; in Shin’s reading, Ouyang’s celebration of the aesthetics of peony cultivation was in fact a veiled political defense of his patron. +++

The horticultural dimension of the story helps reveals a separate set of concerns. Writing against what he believes to be the overemphasis of the peony as an embodiment or representation of “Chineseness,” which has “overshadowed other significant elements of the flower,” Shin has set out to give a more diverse reading of its valences within the Chinese literary tradition (p. 221). By bringing in the Korean literary context, he has pointed how the gendering of the peony as female cannot be taken for granted. Its “transgendering” was, then, a mechanism of “transculturation.” Elucidating the many ways in which the literary symbol of the peony has been deployed in politics. +++

Image Sources: 1) Storyteller, Bukliin archives ; 2) Book, Calligraphy, Palace Museum Taipei ; 3) Encyclopedia, Li Bao, wikipedia; 4) Handscroll, Columbia University; 5) Tang party, University of Washington ; 6) Red Chamber TV, Hongloumeng; 7) Bei Dao, Poets.org 8) Pearl Buck, Pearl Buck website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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