The Chinese claim to have invented many things. To paper and gunpowder, we should probably add historical novels. The English language only came into this genre with Walter Scott’s Waverly novels in 1814, while Chinese readers had been enjoying The Romance of the Three Kingdoms already for five centuries. Late Ming literatus Feng Menglong’s Chronicles of the States of the Eastern Zhou (東周 列國 志）brings to life another eventful period in Chinese history, that of the Warring States. Kings and courtiers, concubines and ministers dream, scheme, take counsel and spill blood in dizzying succession. Feng’s story did not, however, captivate generations of readers by offering nothing but sex and beheadings. Rather, readers concerned about the decline of the Ming, or even 21st-century America, can find compelling narratives of how empires fall. Two new translations, one by Seoul National University’s Olivia Milburn, the other by Erik Honobe from Japan’s Tama University, tackle this classic text for English readers.
The Zhou dynasty (ca 1046 BC – 256 BC), originally hegemons over most of the north Chinese plains, gradually evolved into a loose federation of states in which they, like the Holy Roman Emperors, played the role of primus inter pares and limited interstate violence. The increasing weakness of the Zhou rulers tempted their nominal vassals to expand their domains, and ultimately contemplate replacing the Zhou altogether. What protected Zhou power for so long was not so much the force of their armies, as the cult of maintaining their eight-century-old ancestral rites (li 禮). Ambitious rulers could not imagine a world that did not observe the dynastic rites of the Zhou or of their rivals. But that is indeed what happened, and Feng’s analysis of the process is the heart of this novel.
Feng’s heroes are the ethically-minded, of pure intentions. They courageously remind wayward rulers not to neglect their duties and to follow the precedents set out by their ancestors. History is their strongest argument. Humble scholars are promoted to the rank of court grandees on the basis of their grasp of the past. The corrosive element at work against hoary tradition is individual greed or desire. Feng frequently characterizes women as especially selfish and reckless. This is understandable since their tenuous position in the harem hierarchy can be protected only by an all-or-nothing push to have their children selected as royal heirs. Women corrupt the ethical and ritual order with their charms. Men corrupt the court through bribery and flattery. The good counselors are wise, but their enemies are clever, and clever trumps wisdom in the short run.
This struggle between the wise and the clever gives Feng’s narrative its dialectic power. “Everything rests in the quality of those serving at court” (from the Milburn translation). The marquis of Chen, a Zhou vassal, gives himself over too much to wine and women. Egged on by his debauched courtiers, one righteous counselor fearlessly remonstrates with him. “I am terrified of that man,” the marquis complains to his drinking companions. They take the hint and have the man assassinated. Later the marquis of Chen is assassinated by the outraged son of their shared mistress.
The fate of another good counselor is happier. After watching the ruler of Qin (the former Zhou vassal state that goes on to unite China under the First Emperor) execute and expose 27 of his wise counselors for remonstrating with him to recall his mother from exile, a humble scholar undertakes a suicide mission to warn the lord against his unfilial behavior (note that the mother tried to have her son assassinated). The Qin ruler bellows, “take a good look at the counselors’ cadavers hanging outside the city gates! You will not even join them. I’ll have your body boiled in a cauldron.” As the cauldron comes to a boil, the righteous man undresses and runs towards his martyrdom. Moved by this willingness to die for his cause, the Qin ruler hesitates, and asks the man to state his case again. “Only by following the rites, can the Qin state pretend to unify China,” argues the naked scholar. This advice, advocating the long term view over the short term, wins the ruler’s approval. The scholar is robed in honor and promoted, and the Qin state goes on to take over China.
Feng’s message for his contemporaries could not be any more clear. In the twilight of the Ming the corruption and venality of the court made honest men despair for the dynasty, which collapsed one year before Feng’s death. In our own times, we worry that selfish impulses are sapping the body politic in some western states. We cannot see what is going on in Zhongnanhai but we can be sure people there are reading Feng.
This important book, previously unavailable in English, now exists in two partial translations. Olivia Milburn’s version selects 17 out of the original 108 chapters. This covers the most dramatic episodes in the story, but leaves the reader wondering about a number of loose ends. Erik Honobe takes a different approach, translating the first ten chapters to make a more coherent narrative.
Milburn’s introduction provides comprehensive cultural and bibliographic background for readers unfamiliar with the Ming or the Zhou. Robert E Hegel, who introduces the Honobe translation, gives a pithy summary of the Zhou era and of tradition of historical fiction in China. The Honobe translation also benefits from a description of the key characters in tabular form, and a summary of the dramatis personae in each chapter. The Honobe version is illustrated by charming woodblocks from early 17th century editions, and copious contemporary maps. It’s good to know that even the Ming era readers had trouble keeping track of the locations of the Warring States.
Milburn uses colloquial American language to make the drama of the Zhou more vivid. Honobe’s prose is more mannered, with a nod to the formality of Classical Chinese prose. Compare the description, in Chapter Two of both books, of the renowned beauty Bao Si, 褒姒:
Milburn: She has a face as beautiful as flowers and as lovely as the moon; she was a woman for whom men would sack cities and overthrow kingdoms.
Honobe: She had the grace of flowers and the radiance of the moon, the kind of amazing beauty that could topple cities and empires.
For the reader without Chinese, both versions offer entertainment, moral lessons, and insights into Chinese political traditions that are probably as relevant today as in Ming, or indeed Zhou times.
David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.