No problem, this is China

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We stop in traffic and I glance out the window. I’m soon transfixed by the crazy moment I’ve just joined. There is a young chinese man sitting on top of a makeshift wooden ladder – it appears to have been his last project. He is intently focused on cutting the top off a metal lamppost using an old hacksaw. I watch for a little while wondering why he wants to cut the top off a perfectly good lamppost. I mean, it’s decorative, functional, what does he have against it? Then I consider that the cables that provide power to those lights must run through the middle of the pole. The pole he’s cutting with a metal saw. Are we about to witness a public electrocution?

I turn to my friend in the car and ask,
“Hey Ray… Can you tell me why he’s cutting the top off this lamppost?”
Ray turns and looks puzzled for a minute, then a huge smile breaks across his face.
“Nope. No idea at all. I told you you’re gonna see something crazy almost every day you’re here.”
“Well yes.. but.. I mean.. what could he possibly achieve by cutting it off? What problem is he trying to fix? And is he about to cut the cables and jump around for our viewing pleasure?”
Ray turns around fully now and leans forward to consider the situation.
“Nope. No idea. Maybe we should stop him or something.”
“Can we ask the driver? Or maybe Jessica knows?”
Ray turns to consult his assistant and translator the lovely Jessica, a Jiangsu local from nearby Shanghai where we are now. She talks to the driver, who is a local Shanghainese man. The net conclusion is that of the four people in the car, none of us can comprehend the slightest reason for the scene before us.
“Don’t think about it too hard mate”, Ray offers, “If you do, you’re gonna be properly crazy in a month or two.”
I ponder the likelihood of that and turn back to watch our man. He has stopped sawing about halfway through the pole and is now examining the hacksaw blade. By the look of it, it was handed down from his grandfather – it’s probably the original blade. Our car gently moves forward again and we leave him to his destiny. Ray grabs my shoulder and gives me the phrase I’m going to repeat to myself daily for months,
“No problem, this is China.”

 

What is he doing???

What is he doing???

 

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the four masterpieces of chinese classic literature.  Written in the 14th Century by Luo Guanzhong, it is shakespearian in style; telling a story based on real events.  It covers the period of time from 169AD to 280AD where the Han Dynasty is failing, the eunuchs holding real power in the court and the emporer being kept ignorant of the reality while he plays with concubines all day. Nice life if you can get it.  There are real histories from the time that Luo Guanzhong uses to frame the story and he adds numerous famous poems and songs written in the intervening thousand years.  The english translation I read is spectacular.  I found it engaging, intriguing and utterly addictive, so many nights I was awake after two in the morning telling myself ‘just one more chapter’.  Finishing it inspired me so much that a good part of my time in China was spent visiting places of significance in the story and the tombs and temples of the main characters that exist to this day.  I’m just going to assume none of you have ever heard of this amazing book (except from me raving about it), or know anything about it, so in this first part, I need to introduce you to it so when we visit the places later on, I can talk more about what’s there today.

 

“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”
What a way to start a work like this and when you land in the story the empire is dividing.  The book ends with the uniting of the empire and the start of the Jin dynasty.  So to give you some idea on why I’ve travelled to these places, I’m going to spend this first entry describing the main characters.  First who they are and then a particularly illustrative story from the book, told my way, to give you some idea on what kind of person they are.  The opening of the story gives us three of the primary men who are near the centre of almost all the book.  Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.  Now, you need to know a little something about chinese names.  The first one is always the family name, the second is their given name.  All of them have another name, their ‘styled’ name.  This is one they choose themselves to further describe to the world who they are, or aspire to be.  Some also have a Taoist name, a name in religion as it were.  So without further ado, let’s say hello to Liu Bei.

Me and the boys. Zhang Fei, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhuge Liang and Zhao Zilong
In Jingzhou

Liu Bei (pronounced lee-ew bay) styled Xuande (Shu-an-der), is a part of the imperial family.  Liu is the surname of every emporer of the Han Dynasty.  He is officially declared during the book as the ‘Imperial Uncle’ of the emporer he spends most of his time trying to reinstate to real power.  However, his father held no position in court, something that is used against him repeatedly.  Xuande means something like ‘proclamation of virtue’ and he does indeed spend far too much time being very nice to everyone.  He becomes a very benevolent ruler who spends a lot of his time really caring for his people and threatening to kill himself when they suffer as a result of his actions.  This does get on your tits a bit, since if he showed more backbone at several particular moments, the whole history of China would be different.  In fact, his close friends and advisors tell him exactly that and prompt him to seek a better strategist advisor; Zhuge Liang.

The story that best shows his character is when he is forced to leave the city of Xinye after repeated attacks by the emporer’s forces under the command of Cao Cao (evil bastard).  Despite advice from the incomparable Zhuge Liang and others he does not want to leave his people in the city.  The compromise Zhuge Liang proposes is that they post notices telling the people they can move with Liu Bei’s troops or stay in the city and hope for the best.  In a testament to their regard for the man, they largely follow.  This slows down movement a huge amount and Cao Cao’s forces pursue constantly with the aim to destroy the rebel army.  Yeah, Cao Cao should wear a black helmet and have a way deep voice.  Liu Bei is advised many times to leave the people and run with the army to the next town.  He refuses every time and every time he ends up virtually weeping for his people’s fate.  This culminates when the main force of Cao Cao’s army catches them and Liu Bei wants to cut his own head off with a sword; tricky, but impressive if you can do it.  He is stopped by Zhang Fei who tells him ‘If you die, none of us can survive’.  So a man of the people, but he really loves his comforts when he gets them.  He does have a tomb today in Chengdu, but it’s inside the Zhuge Liang temple (Wuhou Ci) to give you some idea on how he’s regarded today.

Guan Yu (Lord Guan in the translation – pronounced Gw-an Yoo), styled Yunchang is a fugitive on the run when we meet him in the first chapter.  He killed a bully in his hometown who happened to be rather wealthy and well connected; so leaving is the only option.  He is worshipped as the epitome of loyalty, righteousness and the brother you want to have.  He is a much better general than Liu Bei or Zhang Fei, wiser, more restrained, but a hopeless politician.  His style name means ‘beautiful beard’ and he’s well famous for his long beard and bushy eyebrows.  In any statue, you can recognise him because of it.  He ends up running the central provinces of the old empire for quite a while, but loses it all to the Wu (southern) kingdom because of his failure as a politician to maintain good relations.  He also never picks quality advisors, I think relying on his own abilities above all others.  He has two tombs today and a number of temples, the most of any of the characters and more than Zhuge Liang dammit.  He has two tombs because his head is in one in Dayang and his body is in the other in Luoyang.  Met a nasty end courtesy of the Wu kingdom.

The story that best describes him is after Liu Bei is defeated badly by Cao Cao, they all split up.  Guan Yu ends up being taken in by Cao Cao and awarded the title of deputy General in his army.  Guany Yu also happens to have both of Liu Bei’s wives under his protection at the time.  He makes sure they have their own private quarters in the emperor’s palace and then stands guard himself outside the door most of the time to protect them from any hint of dishonour.  He tells Cao Cao that he is waiting only for news of Liu Bei’s wherabouts to rejoin his master.  Cao Cao honours him with a huge banquet every few days and a lesser one most days in a hefty bid to win over this incredible general.  The moment news arrives, Guan Yu asks to leave and join his master.  Cao Cao agrees, but doesn’t bother to tell anybody else about it.  Guan Yu leaves immediately with Liu Bei’s wives and then kills most of the guards at a few border crossings on the way, because he does not have official permission to leave.  Cao Cao does eventually send a rider with imperial permission for Guan Yu to leave, but he largely discovers the bloodbath left behind.  Cao Cao was hoping one of his border guards would kill the pesky general.  This is one of his famous moments of absolutely loyalty Guan Yu shows to Liu Bei and a good reason he is still worshipped as a demigod of loyalty and honour.

Zhang Fei, styled Yide seems to have little history before the events in the book, apart from being a notably good warrior.  Yide means something like helping the virtuous, but should mean ‘general pissant’.  He is a very good general, with plenty of tricks of his own that he uses to great effect.  His problem is when he isn’t being a general in battle, he seems a little lost and repeatedly drinks too much.  Whilst he has plenty of respect for his superiors, especially Liu Bei and Guan Yu, he lacks any for his subordinates and routinely punishes them too much – often while drunk.  He’s noted for a quick temper and ability to sleep with his eyes open that scares the crap out his subordiantes who think he’s always watching.  He often gets a bad run in the book and the real histories speak more of his capabilities as a magnificent warrior and general.  I only found one temple to Zhang Fei, it’s on the Yangtze river between Chonqing and Yichang, but my boat didn’t stop there…dammit.

The story that best describes this man is when he holds off Cao Cao’s entire army at a bridge.  By himself.  This is the same time where Liu Bei wanted to kill himself for causing suffering to his people and it’s Zhang Fei who saves the day completely.  Before Cao Cao’s troops arrive, he has his men go behind the hill on his side of the river and drag trees behind their horses to raise a huge amount of dust.  This makes Cao Cao think there’s a huge army waiting to ambush them if they try to cross the bridge or the river.  Then Zhang Fei astride his horse challenges someone to fight him.  Repeatedly.  He yells so strongly and loudly at one of Cao Cao’s generals that they drop dead on the spot.  The army turns back and Zhang Fei laughs.

So these three swear an oath of brotherhood in the first chapter.  Liu Bei is elder brother, Guan Yu second and Zhang Fei third.  This oath and the brotherhood loyalty these three show throughout the story is why they are regarded as the forces of righteousness.  Another general, Zhao Yun, styled Zilong (and normally called Zhao Zilong), joins this group to form the hard core of fighting brilliance that becomes the Shu Han Kingdom later on.  Now Zhuge Liang is going to get a whole post to himself later because I love him so much, so let’s just say his style name is Kongming.  The Kong is a refence to Kong Fuzi (Confucious) and the ming means ‘bright’.  I think you see where he’s going with that.

Hot Cao Cao Action
In Wuhan

So the last main man you need to meet is Cao Cao (pronounced tsow-tsow).  He becomes the prime minister under the Han emporer after winning a series of battles, both of bloodshed and politics.  He spends all his time working to become the next emporer and holds the court utterly in his sway.  I think Machiavelli is a pussy next to this guy.  At one point he has the empress beaten to death and nobody says a word.  He is the epitome of an opportunistic politician, if there’s any way to achieve his desired end, he will take it without a thought.  He routinely shows public regret on his actions killing people, their friends, their families, their pets and… you get the picture…but the regret always seems purely politic to make him seem more like an acceptable confucian king.  I’m not sure he has anything but statues commemorating his contribution to history.

The story that best shows his character is when he is running from a bad defeat very early in the story and seeks refuge with his uncle.  His uncle welcomes him and his aide and bids them make themself comfortable while he fetches some wine from the village and his family prepares a banquet.  Cao Cao is sitting inside when he overhears a conversation between his family members outside.
“We’ll string him up tightly, there’s no way he’ll get out of this….his life is ours”…followed by laughter.  Cao Cao’s paranoia overcomes him and he and his aide rush out and slaughter everyone in sight.  Members of his own family.  Imagine his surprise when he finds a trussed up pig awaiting slaughter.  Filled with fear and regret he flees and meets his uncle on the road, returning with the wine.  Thinking quickly, Cao Cao kills his uncle on the spot so no-one will know what happened and to avoid revenge.  Keep your friends close and this guy as far away from you as possible.

Right, that’s it.  There’s a host of other dudes who will come into the picture over the story, but this crew are the main contingent.  So onwards and upwards to the next post where we have a look at the Kingdom of Wu, who were based in modern day Wuchang (now the eastern side of Wuhan), then later Nanjing (the first time it was used as a capital city).

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