Friday, April 06, 2007

On Fiction, History, Talent & Remembrance

In History, tyranny and oppression exist side by side with honour and valour. It is a necessary juxtaposition. The former warns while the latter inspires. the juxtaposition is what makes History mostly fascinating. A reader has asked how many noble men can we unearth if we excavate the tomes of Chinese history in light of the imaginings of the previous entry. The answer is many. But so too, in excavating the past, Chinese or otherwise, History is replete with examples which can support the reasoning behind the impending salary increase for civil servants and the Ministers.

What matters is really who owns the power to determine narrative, who owns the power to tell the Story. Who dominates the Wordscape, setting the frames of reference for discourse, setting the conduits into which citizens' arguments are channeled. And more often than not, History is made to escort the helpless concentration camp refugees into the gas chambers without lifting a finger in protest. Because History is mute and History is just words waiting for deliverance.

But still, all is not lost. Culture and belief systems in human society are products as much from stories which escape the rigors of History. And sometimes, these stories live through Time achieving a pseudo historical significance much greater than those real Heroes and Villains from the recorded past. Epics like the Illiad and the Ramayana live in spite of Time, constantly finding rebirth and new representations in modernity as comics, as movies, as art, as dance, as plays, as computer and arcade games.

In this spirit, lets explore the Chinese epic novel telling the remarkable story of the Three Kingdoms. In many ways, this novel continues to live in culture and to inform modern values and belief systems. It is an apt story for Singapore because the novel, in one aspect, deals with the importance of political talent. Throughout the story, the rise and fall of kingdoms are determined by people of sublime talent. There is the coterie of great Generals recruited by Cao Cao, the ostensible villain in this epic. Generals, like the great Lu Bu or Zhang Liao, are not killed when defeated but co-opted into service in recognition of their talent. Then there are the talented strategists. Foremost being the famous Zhuge Liang. But peppered across the novel are other great talents like Pan Tong, who is the unsung hero of the Battle of Red Cliff. Lu Xun, the Wu strategist who perhaps starts the tragedy for the Shu kingdom of Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang. And Sima Yi, the Wei strategist who eventually united China under one kingdom.

Amidst the numerous colorful characters in the novel, Guan Yu is a mammoth. His prowess are such that when trapped and at the mercy of Cao Cao, the latter offers him amnesty. Guan Yu responds with three conditions : that he will yield only if his lord's two wives are guaranteed safety, that he swear fealty only to the Han Emperor not Cao Cao and that he will be discharged from service if he finds the whereabouts of his lord, Liu Bei. Despite these terms, Cao Cao gladly takes Guan Yu into service. What follows is a period where Cao Cao tries his best to fete Guan Yu with riches to win his loyalty. The latter does not budge.

Throughout this period when Guan Yu is in Cao Cao's service, he bows to Cao Cao only once, when the latter presented Guan Yu with the most prized steed in the Kingdom, Red Hare. Cao Cao asks "I have sent you beautiful women, gold, rolls of silk ... and never did you condescend to bow. Now for this horse, you keep bowing. Do you value a beast above humans?". In reply, Guan Yu says "I admire this horse for it travels a thousand li in one day ... it will allow me to reach my brother (Liu Bei) in a single day if his whereabouts are known." True enough, when Guan Yu finds out that Li Bei is alive, he seeks discharge from Cao Cao's service. Despite the latter's entreaties, promise of wealth, of power, implicit threats of harm, Guan Yu leaves, escorting Liu Bei's wives, with his honor intact.

Across the novel then, there is a fierce competition for political talent. The story of how Liu Bei making three trips and beseeching Zhuge Liang to be his adviser is one indication. The delight of men of power in the novel when generals or strategists defect or are removed is another.

For Liu Bei, the ostensible Hero of the novel, he is blessed with the best General and the best strategist : Guan Yu and Zhuge Liang. They stay loyal to him even when the cause is dying or to all effect, dead. For Zhuge Liang, he could have taken Liu Bei's throne upon his death but he does not do so. He stays loyal to the Shu-Han House and tries but fails to fulfill Liu Bei's dream of restoring the Han Dynasty.

The novel, Three Kingdoms, if interpreted by the rational, self-seeking individual, the cynic and the political realist will tell you: virtue and merit does not win the political struggle. But these same people forget that in the epic, none of the monarchs of the Three Kingdoms won. The epic ends with the family of Sima Yi, usurping the power of the Cao family, and finally re-uniting China. More importantly, these people will ignore the fact that what endures from Three Kingdoms is not Sima Yi, he is always forgotten. What endures is the character like Guan Yu. He is so venerated that he has become a Deity, a God who is prayed to still by the Police and the Chinese underworld, the triads. In the novel, all the characters including Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang and also Guan Yu have failings. But in folk understanding, they are remembered for the values they represent in totality. And these are the "talent" that are remembered across Time. The values they represent in pursuit of their political goals.

Three Kingdoms is a story that makes sense even if it is fictional. We are living in a political moment now that makes no sense even if it is reality.

Quote of the Day –

“Bold in arms by dint of godlike might
He knew his letters in a scholar’s right.
Like glare of day, his heart reflected true,
His Spring and Autumn honor touched the clouds –
A shining spirit to live through History,
Not just the crowning glory of a world in three.” – Ode to Guan Yu, anonymous Chinese poet, cited in Three Kingdoms, Luo Guan Zhong


Blogger don said...

there are 2 versions of the 3 kingdom story, the fictional and historical

12:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honour is less valuable to pragmatic people and values are not as valueable as money!

6:59 AM  
Blogger Bart JP said...


You are over romantising Guan Yu. He was an arrogant, stubborn, and abusive towards his subordinates, which all contributed to his downfall. He sought only personal honour and glory, and cared less about the larger consequences of his actions.

Take the story of Yue Fei, another tragic-comic and overly venerated hero in chinese history. His blind loyalty to the Court cost China's its empire - effectively snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Romantists may again remember only the best bits (ie his loyalty) and conveniently forget what his actions actually resulted.

The real political heroes care not about personal glorification, but the impact his actions would have on his people. Reviled by his people if need be.

9:49 AM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

don : Agree, its a point that this entry is trying to make, that there are two versions, the historical and the novel. Remembrance is another issue. History does not hold a monopoly on remembrance.

Bart : You missed the point of the entry. Your issues with Guan Yu are recognised and addressed in the penultimate paragraph, last few lines. Mahatma Gandhi had a chequered personal life as well. Your last line contradicts the point you are trying to make. In all, its a confusing comment and suggests that you are not reading closely.

2:00 PM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

Bart : Was remiss, forgot to congratulate you on fatherhod. Happy blessings to you, your wife and child --

Sweet sleep with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep, Angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child.

Smiles on thee, on me, on all,
Who became an infant small.
Infant smiles are his own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

A Cradle Song, William Blake

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Spirit is mightier than the sword and the pen< it seems> And materialism is only part pragmatism> Gain the whole world and lose your soul< who said that!

9:24 PM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

wisdom is better than silver and gold *winks*

2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cao Cao must have been an idiot to crave for the services of an arrogant and abusive prick. Great leaders\talents like .. *fill in the blank* .. have no ego.

And Yue Fei was defintely another idiot. He should have considered his alternatives carefully. which was rebel against the Song emperor. Yup, civil war was defintely the best option.

NoName Ninja

5:13 AM  
Blogger Bart JP said...

Hi XB,

Thanks for your warm wishes.

Was there a contradiction in my last sentence? I meant to say that real political heroes might be those who dare to incur public wrath or historical contempt because they cared about the consequences of their actions.

Many chinese heroes like Guan Yu and Yue Fei have been over-romanticised don't you think? Liu Bei a hero? I am having a laugh. As a Liu member, his goal of restoring the Han dynasty was . . . self-serving?

Nevertheless, all these characters were possibly celebrated in latter years because they served as models for social control. Which absolute ruler would not like characters who were loyal to the point of strategic insanity? You somehow seemed to ignore the fact that China was a feudal society, heroes. Cao Cao, Sima Yi might not be as celebrated, but certainly they are far from being forgotten.

You write well, but often overly one-sided. Can I say that your style of writing does make it open to interpretation. Apologies if I had misrepresented any thing you said.

8:35 AM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

Bart : In the entry, Liu Bei is described as an "ostensible Hero", its my qualification because in my cynical reading, he leaves much to be desired. The points you are making about the characters are correct. If you comb through their actions, each is far from perfect. Each is a political animal through and through. But how are they remembered? We can theorise about social controls, structured remembering, which are valid points, historiography tells us that. The fact remains : how are these political animals remembered?

The contradiction in your comment is as follows : your ideal political hero cares not about revile, scorn but cares about the larger strategic consequences of his actions. So this political hero is judged not on character/personality analysis. Its an analysis based on the consequences of the Hero's actions. Who judges the consequences? His "people"? Historians? But the "people" cannot judge the consequence because your Hero cares not about their revile or scorn. Neither can your Historian because the Hero cares not about historical contempt.

If I dare read a character trait in your Hero, he can be arrogant and stubborn and abusive. But I should not because your Hero is not about his character traits.

Guan Yu's actions at the point of his decisions were undertaken exactly as your template of the real political hero. He makes his decisions exactly with the risk of the historical contempt you are laying upon him because he sees it as for the good of his "people". Your criticism of him is based on your understanding that his actions and their consequences were only for his personal gratification. Guan Yu turns to you and says your criticism is fine, I did it out of honor and loyalty to my people even if I failed. Which is exactly what your real political hero is. This bears similarity to the problems of post-modernism in historical analysis; anything goes, apologist history, Holocaust never happened etc.

I hope you mean that it is the people who will eventually judge the Hero. And not the Hero judging himself. But more often than not the "people" is frequently lost in chains of reasoning presented above. And History has traditionally treated "people" poorly.

I would love to really know how his "people" thought of him. Maybe they actually believed in him. The "people" may have known he was arrogant, knew he was stubborn, but they could have believed in him that he was doing good for them. So all the character deficiencies you laid upon him, at that moment in time, in the eyes of his "people" could have been small issues. Or to press the point further, they could have reviled him but they still followed him.

But we will never know. I have researched historical events of great trauma. I have spoken to victims of holocaust events like genocides in Rwanda, Partition in India, trying to find this thing called "people". Beyond the silence induced by trauma, their memories are not based on History and a far cry from how History usually structures remembrance of a nihil event. Theirs are based on stories, on narratives which they construct to make sense of a moment in time when sense is not possible.

What I am getting at can be best explained thus : in Trouillot's book Silencing the Past, he has one chapter on Unthinkable History. It talks about why the Haiti Revolution was never considered a revolution until the 1960s. Whenever I come across someone who tells me about Voltaire's famous quote abut free speech and his defense of it, I smile and tell the person about the Haiti Revolution. It was a slave Revolution in 1791, about two years after th famous French Revolution and that famous Bill of Rights of Man. The Haitians drafted a constitution declaring universal rights, freedom and suffrage, for Man, meaning for black people as well. But because they were slaves, it was never considered a Revolution. Even in Voltaire's eyes, then, it was never a revolution, and the slaves' constitution was nonsense. Do we blame Voltaire? Perhaps there is something more structural at play. Unthinkable history. But Voltaire, despite his failings, is remembered still.

And Bart, please, sometimes you have a tendency to slip into contradictions, I think it is because you are being polite and good-hearted. In your last paragraph of your latest comment, you have to decide whether I am overly one-sided or my entries are open to intepretation. No need to apologise, my writing is flawed as well.

PS : You mention too Yue Fei and revisionist interpretations of his excessive blind loyalty. There is a closer corollary to this example. It is the story of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, where revisionist interpretations are contesting the image of Hang Tuah as a Hero in Malaysian academia. Values like loyalty which were once deemed important in nation building, are reviled now as blind loyalty. so textbooks change and new values are imparted. In short, I do not disagree that there are various intepretations of Yue Fei, but it is the contest of the interpretations which is my area of interest.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bart jp:

I wonder how much you know about the political situation during the Three Kingdoms Era. This comment of yours is a terrible, terrible sweeping statement:

"Liu Bei a hero? I am having a laugh. As a Liu member, his goal of restoring the Han dynasty was . . . self-serving? "

Don't criticise what you don't understand.

- "I remember Chia Thye Poh" (IrCTP)

2:24 AM  
Blogger Bart JP said...

No lah Anon, don't take it so seriously, that is but my 2 cents worth about Liu Bei in a friendly exchange with XB. I may not know Three Kingdom that well, but hope you don't take offence at my bantering. If bloggers can only comment if they have expert views, then blogosphere will be a less interesting place, no?

3:48 AM  
Blogger Ned Stark said...


With regards to Liu Bei, perhaps one should examine the situation at that point in time. Here u have a Minister who is usurping the Emperor's authority, as the Imperial Uncle what would u do?

Anyway with regards to Liu Bei's goal of restoring the Han Dynasty, one must note that he did not declare himself emperor until much later. Initially he tried to deal with Cao Cao so the then Emperor Xian could be free of the latter's influence. It was only when Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate in favour of himself that Liu Bei then declared himself the Han Emperor. Perhaps in that light can one infer that he was not that self serving...or not.

With regards to Yue Fei, i take it that you are referring to the fact that he chose to obey the summons of the Imperial Court and thus did not assault Beijing, the Jin capital. However to say that that in itself lead to the fall of Song dynasty is taking things to far. for example even if the Song dynasty had retaken the Jin heartlands, would they have been able to withstand the might of the Mongol Hordes under Genghis and Kublai? Furthermore, what other alternative did Yue Fei have? Perhaps he could have continued on, defied the Emperor? But would that not be tantamount to rebellion? Would the newly established Southern Song be able to withstand such a crisis?

5:12 AM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

just for those who are interested :

There is an English abridged version of 3 Kingdoms by Moss Roberts, Professor of Chinese in NYU, other than the story, his afterword is good reading too. He has a two volume unabridged version.

Reading it in Chinese is the best though.

9:35 AM  
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1:14 PM  
Blogger don said...

suddenly everyone is an expert in the histories of the 3 kingdoms.

Liu Bei was NOT a imperial uncle. he was probably a imperial cousin 100000 times removed.

i believe all the characters in the story was self serving, political animals, uniting China? restoring the Han dynesty? what a laugh.

sorry i cant write as well as some of u do. but lots of u are missing the point. (i think)

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Leaders of Singapore are GREEDY!

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bart JP:

"If bloggers can only comment if they have expert views, then blogosphere will be a less interesting place, no?"

What about reading up on the background first and getting a fair idea on what the discussion is about before shooting off the hip? This is precisely the problem with Singaporeans. They expect to be "spoonfed" and they cannot have an argument without making themselves look stupid. And people blame the ruling party for drawing up OB markers? - IrCTP

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


"i believe all the characters in the story was self serving, political animals, uniting China? restoring the Han dynesty? what a laugh."

Do you know Chinese history enough before making such a sweeping statement? - IrCTP

8:09 PM  
Blogger don said...

IrCTP: i did read up abit on Cao Cao, my hero in my younger days.

while i m not a chinese historian. i believe i can second guess human nature

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I call your bluff.

"IrCTP: i did read up abit on Cao Cao, my hero in my younger days."

You claim to read abit on Cao Cao but decided to comment about Liu Bei instead.

"while i m not a chinese historian. i believe i can second guess human nature"

By virtue of that sweeping statement of yours, you are now claiming to be able to "second guess" thousands of characters in more than 4,000 years of Chinese history and throw out a general comment about all of their human natures in one single swoop with your comment. - IrCTP

12:16 AM  
Blogger Bart JP said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Bart JP said...


I said I did not consider Liu Bei and Guan Yu to be heroes. I gave my own, however superficial, reasons for it. You seem to suggest that there is a monopoly of view - one correct version - and the rest are stupid. And besides hurling accusations, I have not heard anything remotely constructive coming from your part.

Furthermore, how does my own ignorance about Three Kingdoms suddenly become a seminal thesis on how Singaporeans always expect to be spoonfed or always look stupid?

As stupid as I may be, I have kept an open mind about it. Have you? Come on man, this is blogsphere. Have some maturity to accept plurality of opinions.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Ned Stark said...


Pardon me for not making myself clear. From what i remember Imperial Uncle was some sort of title in the court. Of course i based this on the book and not the san guo zhi.

8:45 AM  
Blogger don said...



---at this point. nobody bother fealty to the han emperor. everybody just grap pieces of land and power to themselves.

on :刘备,蜀汉的开国皇帝,相传是汉景帝之子中山靖王刘胜的后代。刘备少年丧父,与母亲贩鞋织草席为生。十五岁时外出求学,与同宗刘德然、公孙瓒拜卢植为师,并与公孙瓒结为好友。- if he was truely imperial anything, would his immediate family have to 贩鞋织草席为生?

Anonymous: when one read on Cao Cao of that peroid, how can another character go "missing"? true, the text i read were more "focus" on Cao Cao, but any reasonable text would include the general whole into the context.

9:59 AM  
Blogger pedro velasquez said...

I have bet basketball deliberately refrained from commenting on the death penalty for Nguyen until today. Holding out some misplaced hope that this entry will be unnecessary. But it’s a couple of hours before Nguyen hangs. And it is necessary now to speak. What I say will be brutally realistic. Mistakes were made. No blame is meant. sportsbook This is an analysis on taking on the Singapore political legal system. And it all boils down to Face. It was all about Face. Whatever fancy terms political scientists or politicians can coin, Game Theory, Great Man theories, brinksmanship politics, realism, post structuralism, Asian values, sovereignty, march madness National Interest, international law etc, when we analyse this Nguyen affair, it was all about Face. No disrespect to Rodan, political activists, lawyers, journalists and the politicians both Singaporean and Aussie, who have all come out with the same tropes to appeal and defend their respective positions in this affair.

3:04 PM  

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