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Reviewed by:
  • Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture
  • Siyuan Liu
Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture. Edited by Kimberly Besio and Constantine Tung. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. xxvi + 193 pp. 10 illustrations. Hardcover $65.00.

As one of the four famous classical Chinese novels, Three Kingdoms has provided Chinese culture with some of its most memorable heroes, such as Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, as well as one of its great villains, Cao Cao. Therefore, a book on its literary and philosophical implications as well as its influence on various forms of popular entertainment, including theatre, is a welcome addition to Chinese and theatre studies. A collection of eleven articles on these themes, Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture is based on a 2001 conference titled "The Historical, Fictional, Theatrical, and Artistic Three Kingdoms: A Sino-American Colloquium." It includes four sections that focus respectively on the relationship between the novel and Chinese values, Chinese history and historiography, Chinese drama and art, and, finally, the novel's influence on contemporary East Asia.

The three articles in the first section, plus the preface by the novel's English translator, Moss Roberts, provide a good introduction to the basic value system of Three Kingdoms as an embodiment of the core Confucian principles of loyalty, brotherly love, and appropriateness. In the first two articles, "Cosmic Foreordination and Human Commitment: The Tragic Volition in Three Kingdoms" by Constantine Tung and "Essential Regrets: The Structure of Tragic Consciousness in Three Kingdoms" by Dominic Cheung, the authors see the novel as a tragedy featuring clashes between cosmic foreordination and human efforts. Both authors view these heroes through the prism of Greek tragedies, as when Chueng compares Cao Cao's temper to Achilles' wrath (18) or when Tung adopts Aristotelian and Hegelian tragic theories to explain the failures of Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang in fulfilling their ambition to reunite China and restore the Han dynasty.

For scholars and students of Asian theatre, the value of the book obviously lies in the three articles of the third section, "Three Kingdoms in Chinese Drama and Art." In the first essay, titled "Zhuge Liang and Zhang Fei: Bowang shao tun and Competing Masculine Ideals within the Development of the Three Kingdoms Story Cycle," Kimberly Besio compares two versions of the zaju Bowang shao tun, one from the Yuan dynasty and the other from the subsequent Ming dynasty. Specifically, she argues that changes in the depictions of masculinity ideals in two characters, the wise scholar-statesman Zhuge [End Page 390] Liang and the rash warrior Zhang Fei, as emblematic of Chinese society's change from "a masculine ideal of the warrior [. . .] toward that of the scholar-statesman" (82). Through astute analysis of the two scripts, she shows how this changing sentiment was displayed through the dramaturgical change from the commercial Yuan zaju model of a single singing star to its court-sponsored Ming successor with multiple star turns. Unfortunately, she does not provide enough cultural/historical analysis in support of her stated shift in social values. As several other papers in the collection also contain sections of underdeveloped arguments and analysis, I wonder if this phenomenon reflects the result of length limit for these conference papers.

The next article in this section, "The Theme of Three Kingdoms in Chinese Popular Woodblock Prints" by Catherine Pagani, is a fascinating study of the relationship between the novel, its theatrical adaptations, and New Year woodblock paintings known as nianhua. She analyzes ten such prints and points out that their inspiration often came directly from theatrical representations of the stories. She makes a number of perceptive observations about these links and in the end poses some provocative questions for further research. Unfortunately, Pagani's efforts are at times hampered by her lack of sufficient knowledge of Chinese theatre, resulting in several misleading or mistaken identifications of the characters in the paintings. For example, in the nianhua The Union of the Dragon and Phoenix/Returning to Jingzhou (Fig. 5), she recognizes "three male military leaders dressed for combat" as Zhao Yun, Zhuge Liang, and Zhang Fei (97). Although Zhuge Liang and Zhang Fei do appear in this scene, they are...


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