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  • Western Han: A Yangzhou Storyteller's Script transed. by Vibeke Børdahl and Liangyan Ge
  • Jing Zhang (bio)
Vibeke Børdahl and Liangyan Ge, editors and translators. Western Han: A Yangzhou Storyteller's Script. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2017. x, 720 pp. Hardcover $200.00, ISBN 978-87-7694-214-4.

The monumental nature of this book reaches far beyond its massive size. It is the first full translation and publication of a genuine storyteller's script (jiaoben 腳本), as the result of a superbly resourceful execution by Vibeke Børdahl and Liangyan Ge, two leading scholars in the study of the writing-orality interplay in Chinese traditional fiction and storytelling. The original script is untitled and anonymous. It belongs to the repertoire of Western Han (Xi Han 西漢), and the story cycles on the founding of Western Han (or Former Han) (206 B.C.E.–23 A.D.) in the oral tradition of the Yangzhou storytelling (Yangzhou pinghua 揚州評話). At least five generations of storytellers have told this repertoire since the first half of the nineteenth century. The previous owner of this unique script was the master storyteller Dai Buzhang 戴步章 (1925–2003). When Dai passed away in 2003, his family donated this script to Børdahl, who, in her many years of working on Yangzhou storytelling, visited Dai, recorded his performance, and had become a good friend. The Dai Script offers strong evidence to the long speculated and debated existence of jiaoben, or written [End Page 12] aide-memoire for professional storytellers in China. Its publication and translation, in its original and complete form, will enable scholars in China and the West to further explore the most fascinating feature of the interplay of the oral and the written in traditional Chinese literature and popular culture.

The Western Han repertoire tells about the rivalry between Liu Bang, the King of Han, and Xiang Yu, "the overlord" of Chu, for the imperial throne during the final years of the Qin (221–206 B.C.E.), focusing on the scheming and fighting for power and ending with Xiang Yu's defeat and suicide by the river of Wujiang. In the Dai Script, the story starts with the discovery of the extraordinarily talented Han Xin, a low-level officer in Xiang Yu's army of Chu, by Zhang Liang, a top counselor for Liu Bang. Han Xin has remained neglected, despite "the Patriarch" Fan Zeng's repeated recommendations of him to Xiang Yu. Therefore, Zhang Liang successfully persuades Han Xin to leave the state of Chu for Han, while Xiang Yu has become increasingly ruthless and moved the capital of Chu to his native city Pengcheng. Upon arriving in the Han capital Hanzhong, Han Xin quickly earns trust and admiration from the duke of Teng Xiahou Ying and the prime minister Xiao He. However, he fails to impress Liu Bang because of his humble origin. Frustrated, Han Xin takes a sudden leave of Hanzhong but is brought back by his earnest patrons, whose sincerity and persistence finally convince Liu Bang of Han's talent. Appointed as commander-in-chief of the Han forces, Han Xin starts to consolidate his authority and secretly prepares his troops to march through the Path of Chen Cang, while Xiang Yu, tricked by Zhang Liang, decides to attack Qi. With Han Xin quickly becoming an invincible strategist at battles and Zhang Liang using his eloquence to alienate Chu, Han's power rises rapidly. Carried away by his triumphs, Liu Bang attacks Pengcheng prematurely regardless of Han Xin's caution and suffers a debacle. Restored to his commanding position, Han Xin leads a series of expeditions to conquer more land and build up Han's dominance among the states. In the meantime, Xiang Yu increasingly resorts to cruelty and villainy for transitory victories against Han, only to alienate himself from his most valiant generals. Then, with Han Xin's conquest of Qi, the power balance between Chu and Han shifts and the right moment for the final showdown finally arrives. Ambushed and defeated by the Han troops at all fronts, the Chu soldiers begin to flee the battlefield upon hearing the melancholy Chu tune played by Zhang Liang late at night...


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