Whatever the origin of the saying “All politics is personal,” it makes an apt description of the series of quicksilver alliances and multi-layered betrayals depicted in THE BATTLE OF CHIBI (RED CLIFFS), as translated and retold by Hock G. Tjoa.
Whether it was the vastness of the Chinese countryside, its majestic beauty, its immense wealth or a peculiarly Chinese penchant for all-or-nothing gambles, the characters we meet in these ancient tales of conquest are compulsively driven to seek glory in battle. As such, they stop at nothing to map their personal vendettas onto “the will of the gods” or “the good of the people.”
While accounts of such exploits can make for gripping reading, the ancient texts this retelling is based on share characteristics with other epics of similar vintage. Undoubtedly first heard in poetry and song, this saga spins out an unending stream of events without the shaping structures of metacommunication and summation we take for granted in modern prose.
As a result, many segments of this epic trace a familiar cycle as:
“A smites B, who is avenged by C, who is dissuaded from further retribution by an alliance with D, who earns a jump in rank and privilege for his leadership in a time of crisis.”
From that point on all is well—until E besmirches the honor of D and the cycle begins again. Despite the action, gore and high-flown emotion they imply, a lengthy series of such cycles can have a numbing effect on the imagination.
That said, you only need to adjust your expectations to appreciate Tjoa’s work on its own terms. Read without false assumptions, the battle scenes, counsels of war and tales of palace intrigue have an appeal of their own, each imbued with elements unique to the collective consciousness of ancient Chinese culture. In light of that, I’m sure this volume will be of particular interest to anyone already versed in the culture of that period.
At the same time, for many readers, the monumental effort required to render this work in English will be wasted. That’s because, for the most part, the book is inaccessible to anyone not yet immersed in the study of ancient cultures. Given that, Tjoa might well consider spinning off a few strands from the vast, Romance of the Three Kingdoms into a series of novellas that develop the themes of the larger work through the actions of selected characters.
Whether by throwing us in the saddle with the brave He Jin or letting us see a few episodes from this tumultuous time through the eyes of his servants, the author might consider presenting the fruits of his painstaking work in a more accessible format.
Regardless, this compilation makes an important contribution to our general knowledge of Chinese history and literature. If nothing else, it ought to also serve as a cautionary tale for our own age—as it continues to be torn apart by self-aggrandizement, greed, tortuous ideology and unspeakable violence.
(reviewed 15 days after purchase)