Remaking history: The Shu and Wu perspectives in the Three Kingdoms period.

Author:Tian, Xiaofei

Of the three powers--Wei, Shu, and Wu--that divided China for the better part of the third century, Wei has received the most attention in the standard literary historical accounts. In a typical book of Chinese literary history in any language, little, if anything, is said about Wu and Shu. This article argues that the consideration of the literary production of Shu and Wu is crucial to a fuller picture of the cultural dynamics of the Three Kingdoms period. The three states competed with one another for the claim to political legitimacy and cultural supremacy, and Wu in particular was in a position to contend with Wei in its cultural undertakings, notably in the areas of history writing and ritual music. This article begins with an overview of Shu and Wu literary production, and moves on to a more detailed discussion of Wu's cultural projects, both of which were intended to assert Wu's legitimacy and cultural power vis-a-vis Wei and Shu's claims to cultural and political orthodoxy. Ultimately, this article implicitly asks the question of how to write literary history when there is scant material from the period under question, and suggests that we perform textual excavations and make use of what we have to try and reconstruct, as best as we can, what once was. A good literary history of the Chinese medieval period, the age of manuscript culture and that of heavy textual losses and transfigurations, should be written with the awareness of the incomplete and imperfect nature of the data we do have, and incorporate the phenomenon of textual losses and transfigurations as well as some reflections on the underlying reasons into its narrative and critical inquiry.


A gap in standard Chinese literary history, so large that it becomes imperceptible, glares at us. Of the three powers--Wei [??], Shu [??], and Wu [??]--that divided China for the better part of the third century, Wei has received the most attention in standard literary historical accounts; little, if anything, is said about the literary production of Wu and Shu during the Three Kingdoms period (220-65). Opening any typical work of Chinese literary history, we find that the account of the third century is dominated by a linear narrative organized around the literary output of the three political eras, that is to say, the Jian'an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] era (196-220) of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), the Zhengshi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] era (240-49) of the Wei dynasty (220-65), and the Taikang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] era (280-89) of the Western Jin dynasty (265-316). The narrative is further punctuated by a few stellar clusters, namely Wei's ruling family, the house of Cao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; the "Seven Masters of the Jian'an Era" (Jian'an qizi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); and the "Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove" (zhulin qixian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), in particular its two literary luminaries, Ruan Ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (210-263) and Xi Kang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (223-262).

This story is so familiar to any student of classical Chinese literature that it is largely taken for granted. The Three Kingdoms period is a popular topic of poetry, fiction, and drama in later times, with Shu and Wu playing central roles in the saga; however, the literary works of these two states themselves have curiously slipped into oblivion. A recent volume of Chinese literary history summarizes the Three Kingdoms literature in the following characteristic statement: "The state whose literature flourished the most was Wei. The literary texts of the other two states that have been preserved and transmitted are very few and have no distinctive characteristics." (1) Literature did flourish in the Cao-Wei court, but Shu, despite being the smallest and weakest of the three states, was not devoid of scholarly, and to a less significant extent, literary activities. As for Wu, it is a different story altogether: judging from the list of literary collections in the "Bibliography" section of the early seventh-century Sui shu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (History of the Sui), and judging from records in earlier historical sources, the Wu court boasted an impressive array of scholars and writers. The perceived lack of "distinctive characteristics" is a debatable issue, as the Wu writings certainly have a strong "local" character that is difficult to ignore.

The phenomenon that so few writings have been transmitted from the other two states, especially from the textually productive Wu, deserves some reflection. In fact, such textual loss itself should constitute part of the literary historical narrative. Ultimately, two intertwining factors are at work here. First, the literary judgment, made by men of letters in the fifth and sixth century, largely bypassed Wu and Shu and looked to the northern state of the Central Plains--the Wei--as representing the orthodox lineage in literature. Since the Southern Dynasties (420-579) were heirs of the Western Jin, the dynasty that replaced Wei and unified China, their literary view was colored by their political view regarding legitimacy and orthodoxy. In the influential sixth-century anthology Wen xuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], no poem or poetic exposition (fu [??]) by any Wu or Shu writer is anthologized, despite the fact that a large number of literary collections by Wu writers were still extant when Wen xuan was being compiled . (2) The preference for the Cao-Wei at the expense of Shu and especially Wu represents the culmination of a long process of canonizing the Jian'an/Cao-Wei writers, which can be traced back to at least the early fifth century. (3) Second, the canonization of the Jian'an/Cao-Wei community was to a large degree responsible for the loss of most of the textual remains from Shu and Wu, and the textual dearth subsequently obscures modern scholars' view of the actual state of literary production in the third century. The extant writings from Wu only form a tiny little tip of what once had been a considerable corpus of writing by Wu writers, who had authored commentaries on the classics, book-length "masters works," Wu history, and, last but not least, poetry and poetic exposition, the proper stuff of belletristic literature.

The emphasis on Wei culture and thought in modern scholarship, as J. Michael Farmer has observed, "mirrors and perpetuates traditional biases against southern culture and results in a distorted and incomplete picture of intellectual life in early medieval China." (4) Nevertheless, in many ways we cannot properly assess the cultural and literary production of the Wei without considering Shu and Wu. Cao Pi (187-226, r. 220-226), Wei's founding emperor, felt compelled to represent himself as a man of taste in literary and cultural matters, and his urge was in no small measure due to the political need to best his rivals. (5) The three kingdoms competed with one another for the claim to political legitimacy and cultural supremacy.

At the most obvious level, the battle of wits is constantly present during diplomatic missions. Many anecdotes tell of emissaries' eloquence in defending the honor of their home state. For instance, Zhao Zi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (fl. early third century), well known for his oratorical skills, gave apt replies to Cao Pi's pointed questions, such as, "What sort of ruler is the King of Wuh Is His Grace well-versed in learningh Is Wu attackable?" (6) Shu and Wu ministers, Fei Yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 253), Zhuge Ke [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (203-253), and Xue Zong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 243), engaged in clever repartee in the form of verse in the four-syllable line. (7) The Shu scholar Qin Mi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 226) famously came up with witty answers to a series of playful but challenging questions , such as "Pray, does Heaven have a surname?" posed by a Wu diplomat. (8) While the representation of such verbal sparring depends on the viewpoint of the author recording it and thus perhaps ought to be taken with a grain of salt, it illustrates the discursive importance of such representation in the construction of the state's image.

At a more subtle level, Wei, Shu, and Wu all desired to be seen as the legitimate inheritor of the Han legacy. Regional identity is only flaunted in the sense that it makes one better suited to being the Han heir, such as in the Wu writers' poetic expositions to be discussed later. In Shu and Wu, connection with prominent old families of the Han constituted considerable cultural capital and received mention as special distinction in a man's biography. (9) Approval by members of those old families of the north is often cited as the demonstration of a man's cultural excellence and worth. (10) As will be demonstrated in this article, Wu in particular was in a position to contend with Wei in its cultural undertakings, notably in the areas of history writing and ritual music.

There is yet another, perhaps more important, way for us to rethink the cultural dynamics of the Three Kingdoms, namely, the way in which the textually prolific Wu provides an alternative, external perspective on the Wei and Shu. Many Wu writers were engaged in the writing of book-length socio-political treatises, in which they made keen observations of contemporary political events and personages. Zhang Yan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 266), Wu's Chamberlain for Dependences whose responsibilities included taking charge of diplomatic relations, offers a comparative analysis of the Shu and Wei ministers in his aptly titled Noted in Silence (Mo ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The work even preserves a memorial by Zhuge Liang that is missing from Zhuge's collection. Most remarkable is an anonymous Wu account of the warlord Cao Cao's life and...

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