Three Kingdoms, the first of the “great six” pre-modern masterworks of Chinese fiction, coalesced into a full-length novel sometime around 1500 and has remained popular ever since, never more so than at the present moment.
ASIA441A Masterworks of Chinese Fiction and Drama in Translation - CHIN FIC&DRAM TR Sections
Reading of a classic novel or play, with attention to intellectual, social, and political subtexts as well as aesthetic dimensions and problems of interpretation.
Students who take this class will read the entire novel, either in an excellent translation by Moss Roberts or in the original. One objective of the course will be to appreciate how pre-modern Chinese novels work. That is, what techniques does the novelist use to create a unified work out of so many episodes and so much material? We will also explore how these episodes, based on both official and unofficial sources, have been disseminated on stage, in film, and in other popular media.
Among the many heroes that populate the novel, Guan Yu attained the status of a god because of his near-superhuman courage and prowess. In this illustration he is depicted playing a game of go as the physician Hua Two scrapes bone to clean an infected wound. We will examine the cult of Guan Yu as one facet of Chinese sectarian religion. Three Kingdoms was a “best seller” in pre-modern China and many woodblock editions of the novel were lavishly illustrated. We will consider how episodes from the novel were represented in visual and material culture, and what this tells us about the reception of it over time.
While Three Kingdoms is overwhelmingly a novel about men written for a male readership, women figure crucially in several episodes, in ways we will explore in class. Women serve as “reflectors” of the men with whom they become involved, sometimes revealing their strengths, but more often exposing their weaknesses. Reading the novel with gender in mind also reveals how Three Kingdoms, in the edition we will read, reflects a crisis of identity for Chinese men who experienced the Manchu conquest of 1644 and questioned their manhood as a result.
Students who take this course can expect to emerge from it having read in its entirety one of the great works of world literature, which has commanded a vast readership in East Asia and, now, globally. No pre-modern Chinese novel has had a greater impact on Chinese, culturally and politically, than this one. This is attested at present by the popularity of films such as Red Cliff, which enjoyed the enthusiastic cooperation of the Chinese government as it was being made. We will explore how pre-modern readers grappled with issues raised in the novel, see how episodes from it have been performed on the stage, and watch TV a serialization and film adaptation. We will also debate issues occasioned by the novel’s complicated depiction of the heroes, who face many dilemmas as they struggle to reunify the country at a time of deep divisions. Depending on class size, I may schedule an optional extra meeting for students interested in reading portions of the novel in Chinese
Who will be teaching this course
Catherine Swatek has taught courses on pre-modern vernacular fiction and drama of China’s late imperial period (c. 1400-c. 1850). She is the author of Peony Pavilion Onstage: Four Centuries in the Career of a Chinese Drama (2002) and is currently working on a playwright from Suzhou named Li Yu (李玉. 1612-c. 1681), whose career spanned the Ming-Qing divide.