In Our Time: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a Chinese novel written around 1400 AD which is one of the great works of Chinese literature. It is a part historical, part fantastical story of the events of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, which was in the 3rd Century AD. It’s still very popular and an important part of general culture in China today, and many films and video games are based on the book. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Frances Wood (British Library), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Margaret Hillenbrand (University of Oxford).

As usual the programme started off by setting the topic in context – in this case there were multiple historical contexts we needed. The first of these was a very brief overview of the Three Kingdoms period. This is the name given to the period in the imediate aftermath of the Han Empire. The time when the Han ruled China (from ~220BC to ~200AD) is still regarded as a high point of Chinese history, and as the source of many of the bureaucratic systems that persist throughout Chinese history. Han rule of China began to fall to pieces in the late 2nd Century AD, partly driven by weakening power in the centre & their devolving of greater power to military leaders on the peripheries of the empire (so that they could put down rebellions more effectively). Eventually the state fractured, and three kingdoms emerged from the chaos. This was a time of conflict, but it was also a time of artistic and cultural vibrancy. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not the only artistic work to be inspired by this period in later generations.

The novel is normally said to be written by Luo Guanzhong, who was active in the late 14th Century AD (the first copy still in existence dates back to 1522, so the dates and attribution are a little vague). So the time of writing is thought to be at the end of the Yuan dynasty – which is the second of our historical contexts. The Yuan were the descendants of Genghis Khan and had ruled China for around a century. Around the time that Guanzhong was active the Chinese state was beginning to disintegrate into civil wars, and so the parallels with the end of the Han are obvious.

And the third of our historical contexts is the later Ming dynasty when the novel really becomes popular and enters the canon of Chinese literature. There’s a couple of different things that drive this. One is that it’s during this part of Chinese history that printing technology really takes off – whilst there’s nothing technically new the scale of operations changes. More books are published in larger numbers, and the growing merchant classes are increasing the literacy percentage of the population. The other thing that changes is that novels become more respectable – prior to this period novels were something for women or lower class people, members of the literati elite wouldn’t admit to reading them. They were concerned with higher art forms like poetry. But in the early 16th Century this is changing and novels are being taken more seriously.

Having put us into context the experts moved on to discuss the novel itself. One of them (Hillenbrand, I think) described it as being 70% history, 30% fiction. Clunas pointed out that when we say 70% of it is historical what’s actually meant is that it’s clearly based on a historical text (Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms) written shortly after the period ended by an official in the court of one of the Kingdoms in question. So we don’t know that the historically “accurate” parts of the novel matched the actual events, but they do match a probably quite biased contemporary text. But as well as the historical parts where different dukes lead troops into battles etc, there’s also place where the text takes off into a flight of fancy – someone gets deified or something like that.

There is a large cast of characters (men, mostly) and the primary protagonists are the rulers of two of the Kingdoms. One is somewhat of a villain, the other is a man who was loyal to the Han Dynasty and is doing his best for China. Among other important characters are the loyal man’s sworn blood brothers. And there is also an advisor/strategist whose talents are thinking outside the box – one of the experts said this was her favourite character. The stories about him are often part of the fantastical side of the story – like an occassion where he’s short of arrows for his army, so he devises a scheme to “borrow” some. He sends a boat padded with straw bales to sail up and down the river baiting the enemy into firing at it – when it returns it has all the arrows he needs stuck in its straw bales!

There are several themes to the novel, but the one that they spent some time talking about was that of loyalty. As it’s a novel about the disintegration and reintegration of a vast empire who is loyal to whom obviously drives a lot of the plot. The three sworn brothers and their loyalty to each other (and the Han) are particularly noteworthy. Chinese culture places a lot of importance on kinship, and loyalty to one’s family and ancestors. So swearing loyalty to the state and to other non-kin who are loyal to the state is notable. They suggested that one reason for the growing popularity of the novel in the later Ming dynasty was that this theme spoke to the new middle classes. These people didn’t come from the lineages that the upper classes did, and they had often moved from their ancestral homes to cities to become merchants and tradespeople. So this novel spoke of how to navigate the world when your kinship ties weren’t the answer.

They also discussed the prose of the novel. Previous literature was written in classical Chinese, and tended to be very elliptical and allusive. But Luo Guanzhong used a lot of vernacular expressions in his writing, and this made it more direct and visceral. Another note here about authorship – they compared the novel’s status in China to Homer’s cultural legacy in the West but there’s another point of comparison. There are indications in the style of different bits of the novel that imply that Luo Guanzhong might’ve been collecting together already existing oral traditions.

There was also some discussion of the impact of the novel outside China, which has been relatively small. The first English translation of it doesn’t come until the early 20th Century (worked on by a customs officer in his spare time). However there were some copies that made it out of China to European libraries – one in the Spanish royal library, and one split into sections and sold seperately to a variety of collectors across Europe (before anyone could read Chinese to know it was one book).

“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” ed. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson (Part 1)

This is the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name that ran at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from November 2005 to April 2006. I didn’t go to see it myself, but I’ve borrowed the book from my Dad who did. A lot of the book (as befits an exhibition catalogue) is full of pictures of the objects that were displayed. It starts with three general essays, then each section of objects has some introductory text. It also has a map of China, and of the Forbidden Palace. And a chronology which covers both the major events in China of this period and puts them in context with the rest of the world. So far I’ve read the general essays, so that’s what this post is about. The first essay is about the history of the period & is the one I was most interested in. The second is about the imperial art collection, and the third (and least interesting to me) is about the architecture of the palaces of these Emperors.

The Three Emperors of the title of the book are the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor who were the 2nd to 4th Emperors of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. This was the last Dynasty to rule Imperial China, and they held power from 1644 through to 1911. These three Emperors are the high point of Qing China. Previous post about this era of Chinese history: 7th part of “China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed”.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1649: Charles I beheaded.
  • 1688: Glorious Revolution (i.e. William & Mary take the throne of Britain).
  • 1714: George I took the throne of Britain.
  • 1720: South Sea Bubble (post).
  • c. 1760: Industrial Revolution begins in Britain.
  • 1776: US independence declared.

“The ‘Prosperous Age’: China in the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns” Evelyn S. Rawski

This essay covers the history of the period, and also looks at the way it has been discussed and summarised by historians both inside and outside modern China. Rawski starts by reminding the reader that the Qing dynasty were outsiders who conquered China, and that they regarded themselves as different from their Han Chinese subjects in China Proper (which is the name used for the area that the Ming Dynasty ruled over). They created a writing system for their Manchu language, and this was an official state language alongside Chinese. They regarded their subjects as divided into Han Chinese civilians and Bannermen (and citizens of the non-China Proper regions), and there were different political institutions involved in ruling over the two sorts of people. The people of China Proper were still ruled via the Ming bureaucracy, but the inner councils of the Emperors were derived from the Bannermen and the conquest elite. Intermarriage between the two groups of citizens was forbidden.

The Kangxi Emperor was the second Qing Emperor – he took the throne at 7 years old in 1662 after the death of his father the Shunzhi Emperor. Even though the Qing had been ruling China since 1644 the conquest wasn’t finished, so Rawski says that the main thrust of the Kangxi Emperor’s long reign was finishing the conquest and consolidating Qing power. Consolidation was required because a lot of Ming commanders & officials surrendered once the Ming dynasty was toppled, and so the Qing actually gained territory rather faster than they could assimilate it. The last of the Ming claimants to the throne was executed in 1662, the same year as Kangxi took the throne, but a loyalist rebellion lead by the Zheng family persisted until 1683. The Zheng family were maritime traders who had built a vast trading empire. Although nominally on the side of the Ming they were pretty much acting in their own interests, rather than under the control of a Ming claimant. Luckily for the Zheng, the Qing initially lacked a navy and anyway were more interested in land conquests. Also during this period there was a rebellion by three Han Chinese generals, who had been given control over parts of south & southwest China after joining the Manchu side early in the conquest. Attempts by the Kangxi Emperor to take back control of these regions sparked the rebellion which was eventually put down in 1681.

As well as finishing the conquest and putting down rebellions the Kangxi Emperor used political means to consolidate his power over both his Han Chinese subjects and his Bannermen subjects. For the first the Kangxi Emperor acted as a proper Confucian Emperor should. He kept the bureaucratic structure that the Ming Dynasty had used (including the examinations), and he participated in the Confucian rituals of the court. He was fluent in Chinese (unlike his father) which I thought it was interesting. After the Norman Conquest, for instance, French was the language of the English court for a couple of hundred years and there’s no sign that the monarchs learnt English. But the second generation of the Qing Dynasty have made a point of learning the language of their new country and demonstrating their fluency with it. Maybe it’s got something to do with the relative prestige of the conquered country? I mean the Qing probably conquered China because they wanted to be specifically Emperors of China rather than it being just somewhere conveniently nearby. Or maybe it was the easiest way to consolidate his rule over China Proper – by being just as “Chinese” as the last Dynasty? Relevant to this exhibition in particular is that part of being a “proper” Chinese Emperor was patronage of the arts.

For the second half of his consolidation the Kangxi Emperor strengthened his control over the banner lords. Previously the leaders of each banner were pretty close to autonomous and were also involved in deliberating state decisions. Helped by some dismal performances during the putting down of rebellions in the early part of the Kangxi Emperor’s reign he took control of who the commanders of the troops were. And the administration of the banners was gradually bureaucratised and taken away from the traditional leaders – who were still princes, just with less actual influence.

One thing the Kangxi Emperor didn’t do well was organising the succession. The Ming had a rule that the eldest son of the Empress was the heir, but the Qing didn’t have this tradition. Their ancestors had permitted brothers to inherit as well as sons, but by the time of the conquest of China it was always a son that inherited. However they still had a tradition that it was the most worthy son that would inherit. The Kangxi Emperor first decided to follow the Ming custom, but then disinherited his eldest son, then re-inherited him, then dis-inherited him again and refused to name an heir until on his deathbed. At that point he is said to have named his fourth son, but there were rumours that this was fabricated. As a result the Yongzheng Emperor (this fourth son) instituted the (slightly odd to my eyes) practice of secretly designating an heir in a sealed casket which was hidden until after his death. This both made sure that the wishes of the deceased Emperor were known (and known to be true, due to the sealing) but no-one knew while he was alive so there would be less court intrigue.

The Yongzheng Emperor ruled for 12 years, and there’s only about 2/3 of a page of this 18 page essay devoted to him. The theme of his reign was reforming the fiscal administration of the state and finishing off the subjugation of the banner lords to the throne.

The Yongzheng Emperor was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor in 1736, and he ruled for the next 60 years. Apparently traditional Chinese historians divide his reign into to three – roughly categorisable as good, OK, bad. And then after that it’s downhill all the way to the inevitable end of Imperial China. The Qianlong Emperor would see it differently – he was proud of his Ten Great Victories and that the territory he ruled stretched further than that of the Ming Dynasty (and further than the People’s Republic of China). He saw himself as ruling over 5 distinct peoples (Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and Chinese), only linked because he ruled them. His government had systems in place to balance the powers of the bureaucracy & the powers of the bannermen. China during this time was part of a lucrative intra-Asian trade network, and exports to Europe tilted the net balance of that trade in China’s favour.

Chinese society during the period was influenced by outside cultures as well as traditional Chinese ways. There were many Jesuits at court, and they were involved in introducing European science to the Qing and in negotiating treaties on behalf of the Qing with Russia. Russians too lived in Beijing, providing another avenue for cultural & commercial exchange. There was also increased social mobility, and apparently the literati worried about the rise of the nouveaux-riches. Contracts became the general way to organise your affairs (as opposed to institutions like hereditary slavery), and consumption of material culture including books increased. In the bits of the Qing Empire that weren’t China proper the Qianlong Emperor & his predecessors tried to promote their separate cultural traditions, but that doesn’t seem to’ve had particular success. Rawski discusses how the Manchu language influenced Chinese, and vice versa.

Traditional Chinese histories point to the last few decades of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign as the beginning of “dynastic decline” and cast the rebellions that were put down around this time in that light. But Rawski thinks that this is misplaced – instead of a rotten centre all the rebellions and unrest occurs at the edges of the Empire. So it’s the bits where the authority of the state is starting to run thin due to distance, not a breakdown of the state itself. And it was also a reaction to the attempts to extend state authority over those areas.

More recent Chinese histories of the era see it as the high point of China’s Imperial history, but also judge it ultimately as a failure. They compare it to the Industrial Revolution that kicks off in Europe around this time and see that as a missed opportunity that China should’ve seized. But outside China historians see the period differently. Rawski discusses the analysis of André Gunder Frank (a historian I assume …) who sees China as having been part of a global economy since the 1500s. And a core part of this economy until 1800 – metal flowed into China and goods flowed out. I got a little lost towards the end of this section, but I think the take home message was that Britain industrialising whilst China (and other countries) did not was not because of some difference in their history but was dependent on some specific circumstance in Britain at that time. Because of the global economy of the time China and other parts of Asia were as highly developed as Britain.

“The Qianlong Emperor as Art Patron and the Formation of the Collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing” Gerald Holzwarth

What was once the Forbidden City is now the Palace Museum, and it houses over a million items 80% of which were previous held by the Qing court. Holzwarth divides these into four groups according to their original function. The first group is things that were collected as works of art both ancient and newly created at the time. These were catalogued and kept boxed up – only taken out to be looked at or shown off, they weren’t exhibited as a matter of course. These include paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, jades etc. The second group is propaganda and was displayed on the palace walls – these were also works of art by our modern standards but the purpose at the time was the political message. The third group is the ritual and religious objects, for the Confucian state rituals as well as Buddhist & Daoist objects. And the fourth group consists of the clothing & accessories of the court, including things like the Emperor’s writing instruments & other everyday objects.

Holzwarth then discusses the first group, and the Qing Dynasty & the Qianlong Emperor’s role in developing the collection. The basis of the collection was the Ming Dynasty collection, and that was part of a continuous tradition of collecting going back 1600 years. The forerunners of this collection go back as far as the Shang Dynasty (post) c. 1500BC.

The Kangxi Emperor’s main legacy was to set up imperial workshops to create more art works for the collection. He was also a keen calligrapher, and wrote poetic inscriptions on pictures from the Imperial Collection. I’m the sort of person who hates the thought of writing in books, so this tradition of writing inscriptions on paintings fills me with horror. The Kangxi Emperor wasn’t much of an art historian, and relied on an expert who was a collector himself … and so the expert kept the best for his own collection and gave the Emperor the cheap ones or the fakes. His collection did later get amalgamated into the Imperial Collection by the Qianlong Emperor.

The Yongzheng Emperor gets about a paragraph in this essay – he was the best calligrapher of the three.

And then we move on to the Qianlong Emperor, whose influence on the collection is the subject of the bulk of the essay. Holzwarth calls him the last of the great imperial art collectors, and unlike his grandfather he was an expert in his own right. He inspected the new works of art while they were still being drafted, and he inspected the ancient ones and gave them his seal of approval. Literally – he had various collection seals, and marking a collected painting (or other artwork) with one’s seal was a traditional thing for collectors to do. This tradition actually grew out of authenticating written documents by putting imperial seals over the seams where pieces of writing were pasted together to form a hand scroll. He also wrote inscriptions on paintings, not just poems but also on some paintings he wrote notes on the experience of enjoying them. And he also wrote art-historical essays on some paintings, discussing who had painted them and correcting any misattributions. He did take care to consider the aesthetics of the painting when adding his inscriptions, but it still feels so alien to my attitude towards art.

As well as general collecting the Qianlong Emperor was consciously trying to create a canon of approved art. And as part of this aim he instituted cataloguing projects. Eventually these catalogues stretched to about 22,500 pages and covered over 5000 paintings and several thousand works of calligraphy. The best quality ones had highly detailed entries – including a list of all inscriptions and seals on the work. Other artifacts were also catalogued, with explanatory notes where appropriate.

The end of this essay harks back to the end of the first essay. Holzwarth notes that while the Kangxi Emperor was interested in European sciences, the Qianlong Emperor concentrated on renewing classical Chinese cultural heritage. So at a point where science & industrialisation was taking off in Europe, in China the man who set the cultural fashions was interested in the preservation & the equalling of the arts of the past.

“Imperial Architecture of the Qing: Palaces and Retreats” Frances Wood

The bulk of this essay describes the layout and building materials of the Forbidden City. The Qing inherited this from the Ming. Although there was some (unknown amount of) destruction during the events at the end of the Ming Dynasty, it was clearly still intact enough for the Shunzhi Emperor, his regents and government to move in immediately in 1644. They didn’t really alter the plan of the various buildings, even tho they did alter the use of some of them and tastes in interior decoration changed. Because it was mostly constructed of timber there were frequent serious fires, the essay describes how the library buildings were protected to some extent by pools of water in front of them & ornamental rockerys both of which acted as fire breaks.

Although the Forbidden City was the official main residence and the ceremonial seat of government the three Emperors spent several months of each year either on the move or in their summer palaces. These were generally north of Beijing closer to or in the ancestral Manchu territory, with countryside around them where the Emperors & their court could hunt and hold archery & horse-riding contests.