SGYY: A Tragedy?

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SGYY: A Tragedy?

Unread postby yagij » Sat Sep 11, 2004 6:32 am

Since I have a Westerner's PoV and education, I was wondering how the Chinese classify the SGYY.

If it was an English work, I would think that it would be classified as a tragedy and taught as such. The preferential treatment that the author bestows upon Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang's journey lets you know who he supported and who should win the day. However, as we all know, the "Good" side is faced with many setbacks, and as soon as they get a firm footing on the situation ( Setting Yizhou and conquering HanZhong ), they are faced with "massive" setbacks that keep the pace of the work moving and providing additional conflict/resolution moments--due mostly from human flaws/weaknesses ( such as Guan Yu's arrogance, Liu Feng's weakness, etc ). Even our lead heroes make mistakes that cost them the lives of those people around them and cost them their own peace of mind. Having said that...

Since I've never had any sort of Chinese Lit/Asian Lit education, how do the Chinese classify it? Do they see the work as a tragedy with its characters as they tempt fate ( e.g. Oedipus or Hamlet )? I can't imagine that they do, but I'm hoping someone here can help me out here.

( Focusing more on SGYY as a piece of fiction as opposed to historical truths here )
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Unread postby Lady Wu » Sat Sep 11, 2004 6:48 pm

Being Chinese but not having had any training in literature analysis, I may be babbling nonsense here. However, as I see it, the tragedy/comedy distinction is very much a Western construct. While SGYY can be seen as a tragedy in the way you described it, it really is neither from a Chinese perspective.

The author, Liu Guanzhong, clearly did not see his work as being either tragic or comedic. Granted, this was the very first full-lengthed novel in Chinese history, so he really didn't have much to go back on. He was out, rather, to tell a story based on history--or tell history with a folksy slant. The distinction between good and evil wasn't even that strong in the orginal work--Cao Cao was often good, and Liu Bei was often quite evil. As far as the author's point of view goes, this is not a tragedy or a comedy.

Nor do I think that the Chinese would consider SGYY particularly tragic. My feeling is that the Chinese have a very matter-of-fact view of history. Sure, sometimes things are nice, sometimes they aren't, and perhaps fate or the gods have something to do with it, but move on, for crying out loud. The traditional Chinese model of history, the cyclical model, is amply evident in the beginning line of the novel: "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide." The fall of the Han, the rise of the division, and the reunification of the world was just meant to be this way. Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan did not fail in uniting the world, but rather succeeded in bringing about the inevitable division. But since division is ultimately a Bad Thing for the people (wars, etc), the unification by the Sima family was also inevitable and a Good Thing.

It seems to me that the Western kind of tragedy is very much character/personality-driven. Character development in Chinese literature really didn't happen until Dreams from the Red Chamber in the Qing dynasty; Chinese novels up to that point are by and large event-driven. Even the Water Margin story, on the surface a story about 108 bandits, is event-driven--the heroes met up because of the corruption in the court, reaches the zenith in power, then after the amnesty they slowly dispersed or died off: a complete cycle. The personalities of the RTK heroes were mostly an accident of history, not intentionally created to highlight the tragedy. (Though someone could argue that Zhuge Liang's military leadership was exaggerated so to make his death more tragic...)

It's not the case that the notion of "tragedy" or "tempting fate" is unknown to the Chinese. A lot of myths and legends of the ancient past involve tragic individuals. There's one story about this man who wanted to chase after the sun, but before he could catch the sun, he died of exhaustion. In another myth, there used to be 10 suns, who took turns to bring light to the earth. Once the ten decided to rise at the same time, and refused to set. This of course brought much misery to the human beings as all their crops died and it was way hot. One of the gods (demigods?), Hou Yi, a renowned archer, decided to save the people, and shot down nine of the suns. This action infuriated the Emperor of Heaven (after all, the suns were gods too), and he exiled Hou Yi forever to the mortal realm.

There are plenty of myths like those, involving a hero (perhaps flawed), who had ambition, aspirations, that were contrary to "fate" or the human environment. However, those don't seem to be the tales favoured by the intelligentsia, especially the Confucian variety, who viewed society and "fate" (well, "laws of nature", whether political nature or environmental nature) as more important than individualism. This culminates in the religious-fication (?) of history and discerning patterns in history in Chinese intellectual culture. The birth of the novel probably served to reintroduce individualism in the Chinese mindset (the Yuan plays/operas probably did a bit of that too), but as far as SGYY goes, this "tragic hero" concept is only nascent, if it existed at all in the novel.
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Unread postby Kong Wen » Sat Sep 11, 2004 11:32 pm

Tragedy? What's wrong with the epic genre? Or even the romance? The problem with calling it a tragedy is that there is no clear central character who possesses a tragic flaw or makes a single tragic mistake. There is no clear foil or elevation and fall from grace. It's really hard to tack a giant work like SGYY into a category as narrow as "tragedy", even if we try to loosen the genre up a bit.
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Unread postby PrimeMinister Bu Zhi » Sun Sep 12, 2004 12:30 am

SGYY is a very difficult story to consider. Liu Bei and Cao Cao are the main heroes, but both start with little and go to great hights later. Then, even when they die, the story goes on for many chapters. I won't even place it under a genre, other then "historical fiction".
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Unread postby Kong Wen » Sun Sep 12, 2004 1:40 am

Zhuge Liang is often considered the central character of the story, not Liu Bei or Cao Cao. Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Guan Yu are considered main characters, and their careers revolve around Zhuge Liang's presence in the Three Kingdoms legend as a whole. Even so, I think it's a stretch to consider Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, or even the personified kingdom of Shu as tragic heroes.
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Unread postby Wizardman » Sun Sep 12, 2004 2:17 am

For something to be a tragedy, it would have to be a story with the tragic ending of one character or a small group of characters. While the deaths of Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, etc. are indeed tragic, the story moves on instead of abruptly ending. Therefore, I'd find it hard to consider SGYY a tragedy.
I'd probabyl consider it more of an epic novel, as it's about the rise and fall of a piece of history, rather than a person.
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Unread postby Liu Yuante » Sun Sep 12, 2004 3:33 am

I've always considered RoTK to essentially concern itself with telling a story, specifically taking a historical situation and crafting an entertaining work of fiction from out of those elements. I believe that certain characters and events are presented in such a way as to emphasize either a tragic end or some form of behavior to be honored/shunned, but these are treated as events within the story itself rather than as the principal thrust behind the work. This is further made clear by the fact that the tale continues even after the deaths of the most famous and familiar people of the time. Take a work like the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles - the entire play revolves around the tragic nature of Oedipus, his undoing, and the things that those events illustrate regarding hubris, fate, etc. Were it turned around such that it became simply the story of the city of Thebes , containing certain tragic elements but possessing as its central focus a narrative or relation of occurrences, then it would be more akin to how I consider RoTK. It should also be noted that a tragic figure requires some form of flaw that results in the figure's downfall. Zhuge Liang, for the most part, is presented as being failed by his subordinates and also ultimately being unsuccessfull because Heaven does not will it to be so. That is not the essence of a tragic figure. Guan Yu and Liu Bei are more appropriate as tragic figures but again, these things are, in my opinion, simply smaller elements of the story as whole - RoTK, as noted earlier with reference to the opening lines of the book, is the story of events and a period of time, and the characters are simply the people who took part in those events.

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Unread postby Marx!_II » Sun Sep 12, 2004 6:18 am

I could see SGYY being a tragedy, but not driven by any one character. Granted, I have absolutely no grasp on the definition of tragedy (as it pertains to books and the like) but I think the tragedy portion extends well beyond the main characters and their lifespans and focuses more on the kingdoms themselves. Since none of the kingdoms attains their goal, you might say it is tragedy of kingdoms rather than any one person. Alternatively, I think it's worth pointing out that SGYY goes beyond simply retelling the exploits of three nations but also includes one of the greatest casts I've seen in a long time. I think most any character whose is mentioned more than ten or twelve times could have a book of some length written about them.
P.S. As far as character driven tragedies go, I'm surprised no one has mentioned Jiang Wei.
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Unread postby Sam » Sun Sep 12, 2004 12:22 pm

Kong Wen wrote:Zhuge Liang is often considered the central character of the story, not Liu Bei or Cao Cao. Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Guan Yu are considered main characters, and their careers revolve around Zhuge Liang's presence in the Three Kingdoms legend as a whole. Even so, I think it's a stretch to consider Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, or even the personified kingdom of Shu as tragic heroes.


I never found that there was any one consistent main character through the four novels that make up SGYY (dependent on what version of SGYY you read), but more that there was a central character to each. Liu Bei was certainly the main focus of the story in the first novel, with Kongming playing a much more prominent role later on. I don’t think SGYY is so much as a tragedy, but written more in a way to aspire sympathy to certain characters, and of course to, as Kong Wen said, the personified Kingdom of Shu.
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Unread postby yagij » Sun Sep 12, 2004 6:11 pm

LiuYuanTe wrote:Take a work like the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles - the entire play revolves around the tragic nature of Oedipus, his undoing, and the things that those events illustrate regarding hubris, fate, etc. Were it turned around such that it became simply the story of the city of Thebes , containing certain tragic elements but possessing as its central focus a narrative or relation of occurrences, then it would be more akin to how I consider RoTK.


Having read through all of these arguments, I understand the "It's about Events/City-Governments and not individuals" statement. As I have tried to rack my brain about any sort of counter to that argument, I have drawn up a blank. The only city that seems to be included/involved in an "Epic, Event-Driven" setting might be Troy, but even it falls way short as a counter argument. However, I would think that as Western literature evolved the focus on the epic journey was left to more fantasy or sci-fi and put the individual in the middle. Dunno if that is just a sign of cultural progress in the West 'cause I'm unqualified to move into such a lofty of a topic. However, the other argument I've read about "After these people die, the story moves on" is easier to discuss.

Using Shakespeare as a common point of focus, his writings with its 5 scenes almost made sure that the tragedy/consequence occured around the middle/end of the third scene and allowed the rest of the play to show how the mistake affects the players in the piece. In this kind of mindset, I found myself comparing SSGY ( if it was a work of English historical fiction which it "ain't" ) against popular Western tragedies.

The only reason I created this topic period was that SSGY, or its parts-of-the-whole, were written a period of Chinese history long since the characters existed. Since it was created in the 17th century, I was wondering if how it was looked upon within Chinese society. I guess considering the era of when the work was acted out versus the era of when the work was written I would imagine that the audience would look upon it differently? Either way, it is moments like this one when I have to remember my excursion to Japan and remember that there are parts/peoples/cultures of the world that are completely foreign to me... regardless of my personal interest or formal education on the matter.
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