San Guo Yan Yi (三国演义, Romance of the Three Kingdoms) in Drama
Popular Chinese historical novels, as Brewitt-Taylor, the translator of the earliest version wrote, are "perhaps better known through stage-performance than by actual reading."
San Guo Yan Yi or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, composed by Luo Guan Zhong (罗贯中) in the 13th to 14th century, is a great historical novel based on The Annals of the Three States (三国志) written by Chen Shou. It outlines the great and terrible events of the period from 168 to 280 CE, when China’s first great dynasty, the Han (206 BCE-220 CE) was riven, through decades of bloody strife, into three separate states, nearly constantly at war with each other. It features the waxing and waning of the states with literary complexity and depth.
A wide variety of legends based on the history of the Three Kingdoms sprang up very early among the common people. Some are contained in volumes such as Records of Shu (蜀记) by Wang Yin, of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, and the New Anecdotes of Social Talk (世说新语) by Liu Yiqing, of the State of Song, during the period of the Southern Dynasties. In addition, the Records of Music section of the History of the Jin Dynasty (晋书) contains details of stories from the Three Kingdoms which were designed to be sung and crucially contain the embryo of the plot of Three Kingdoms.
According to Volume 25 of Tao Zongyi’s Resting from the Plow in South village (南村辍耕录), five zaju plays dealing with Three Kingdoms subjects were popular in both north and south China when those areas were ruled respectively by the Jin and Southern Song dynasties. They were The Bloody Battle of the Red Cliffs, the Stabbing of Dong Zhuo, The Meeting at Xiangyang, The Great Liu Bei and Cursing Lv Bu. Even more, zaju plays dealing with Three Kingdoms themes were produced during the Yuan Dynasty, with over 40 titles listed in documents from the period, of which only 21 survive. Two are attributed to the master playwright of the Yuan, Guan Hanqing: Lord Guan Displays His Swordsmanship (关大王单刀会) and The Dream of Lord Guan and Zhang Fei Journeying to Western Shu (关张双赴西蜀梦). Other notable works were Liu Xuande Goes Alone to the Xiangyang Meeting, by Gao Wenxiu, The Tipsy and Homesick Wang-can Mounts the Tower and Battles against Lv Bu at Tiger-Trap Pass, by Zheng Guangzu, and The Tipsy Liu Xuande Leaves the Yellow Crane Tower, by Zhu Gai.
Western readers have also long been interested in these dramas and as early as 1860s, some pieces were translated into English. For instance, in 1869, Teaou-Shin: A Drama from the Chinese, composed by G. G. Alexander, was published by Ranken and Company in London. It focuses on the story of the beauty Diao Chan. A later English version was a book entitled Famous Chinese Plays, translated and edited by L. C. Arlington and Harold Acton, published by Henry Vetch in Peiping (Beijing) in 1937. The translators chose five parts adapted from the novel San Guo: Ch’ang-Pan P’o (长坂坡), Chi Ku Ma Ts’ao (击鼓骂曹), Cho Fang Ts’ao (捉放曹), Ch’un Ying Hui (群英会), Tiao Ch’an (貂蝉).
Let me give a brief outline of the five pieces. The first piece, Ch’ang Pan-po, depicted two brave heroes. The first was Chang Fei who used his thundering voice to defeat the enemy, which was similar to the situation of Achilles and Patrodus in the two passages from the Iliad. The second hero,Chao Yun, had a fierce battle alone against his enemies and saved the life of the son of his lord. Chi Ku Ma Ts’ao described a debate between a cynical scholar and Cao Cao, like the philosopher Apemantus in Shakespeare’s Timon in Athens. Cho Fang Ts’ao depicted the valiant personality of Cao Cao, since he slaughtered the whole family of Lv Boshe who had given him help, and Chen Gong’s hesitation to kill Cao Cao. Ch’un Ying Hui is based on the most stirring episodes of The Battle of the Red Cliff, when Chou Yu burnt Cao’s army and a cliff is said to have been reddened by the flames. This piece includes scenes like Kong Ming’s grass boats borrowing arrows from Cao’s army, Pang Tong’s proposing of the chain scheme (i.e. chaining the ships together), and the like. Tiao Ch’an is based on a chain plan, as well as the deep-laid love for the beauty Diao Chan. The present minister Wang Yun made use of this beauty to foment the deadly feud which sprang up between the tyrant Dong Zhuo and his adopted son Lv Bu. The main plot and the story of Diao Chan have been discussed here
In the introductory part of Famous Chinese Plays, the translators explained their intentions: as lots of westerners complained that there were few materials for them to learn about Chinese plays at that time, ‘we set about filling the gap, with these versions on the stage itself. Our aim is to offer a selection eminently popular as well as representative: all these plays are frequently given in the theatres of Peking, and the humblest Chinese are familiar with them.’(Arlington and Acton, 1937: xi)
This may explain why they included many photos of actors’ costumes and illustrations of some terms in Chinese plays to convey a full image of traditional Chinese drama to western readers. In one of the pieces related to San Guo Yan Yi, for example Chi Ku Ma Ts’ao, a musical score for the singing of Mi Heng is included as a separate page before the translated text. Moreover, the translators gave their own interpretations to these pieces. Take another San Guo excerpt, – Chu Fang Ts’ao, as an example. The translator presented his own views on the main character Cao Cao (Ts’ao Ts’ao) in the Finis at the end of the translation. He cited Frederick’s re-echoing of Cao Cao’s most popular maxim at the beginning of his career: “If one has cut down a tree, it is wise to destroy the roots as well, lest the aftergrowth replaces the tree in time.” (ibid, 151)
The plays adapted from the stories in San Guo Yan Yi, much exaggerated and dramatized, contributed to the popularity and long-standing position of the history of this period among ordinary Chinese. In this regard, we may say that history proceeds and gains a new afterlife in the dramas.