The God of War: Guan Yu (关羽)
Guan Yu (关羽) in San Guo Yan Yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms)
In the Three Kingdoms’ vast world, nearly one thousand characters cross the stage. Among the characters, Guan Yu (关羽, Lord Guan) is the principal fictional creation of the novel. The plot centres on him more than on any other character.
Guan Yu is a symbol of righteous courage. In countless episodes during the novel he displays extraordinary courage and fortitude, as well as a fraternal attachment to Liu Bei. Moreover, his treatment of the trapped Cao Cao transcends ordinary relations between enemies.
Let me give a general profile of this character in the novel. The original text describes him as: “身长九尺，髯长二尺；面如重枣，唇若涂脂；丹凤眼，卧蚕眉，相貌堂堂，威风凛凛” (a man of enormous height, nine spans tall, with a two-foot-long beard flowing from his rich, ruddy cheeks. He has glistening lips, eyes sweeping sharply back like those of the crimson-faced phoenix, and brows like nestling silkworms. His stature was imposing, his bearing awesome.)
Guan Yu’s death, which triggers Liu Xuande’s invasion of the Southland, is what drives the tale to its conclusion. After his death, Guan Yu’s fictional essence is underscored by his return as a ghost. In fact, the return of Guan Yu as a ghost is based on Guan Hanqing’s other surviving Three Kingdoms play, The Double Dream (Guan Zhang shuangfu xi Shu meng).
In the novel, Guan Yu’s soul returns to the world of the living (chapter 77) by having a conversation with a Buddhist monk, Pujing (Universal Equilibrium). Pujing reproachfully reminds Guan Yu’s new ghost of the many heads he took before losing his own. The monk’s conversation with the God Guan Di, in the clouds, is based on the Buddhist Law of Karma. Because Guan Di – even though his motives may have been good – killed other men, he must endure like treatment at their hands, no matter that he is a God. Through adhering to Buddha’s Law, Guan Yu transcends historical time and becomes a benign deity, his soul freed from the effects of his earthly deeds.
It is worth mentioning the context in which this novel was composed. The author Luo Guanzhong was writing at a time when Guan Yu was already an object of national veneration (he was to become a God in Ch’ing times) and so he accords him all the reverence merited by a saint. He notes his imposing looks and martial stature, his long beard and mighty sword, and, whenever justified, impresses us with his surpassing bravery and great nobility. But at the same time he gives history its due by noting in instance after instance his sheer ignorance of policy, his childish vanity and unbearable conceit. Such hamartia finally brings Guan Yu failure and then to his death.
Now I will look at the descriptions of Guan Yu in English translations of this novel. Among the early English translations, there are two versions which particularly focus on this character: one by Frederick Herman Martens and the other by Herbert Allen Giles. Both translated parts of the story of the character Guan Yu and, more interestingly, they applied the same title: The God of War.
The version by Martens was collected in his book The Chinese Fairy Book published in 1922 in London . In the preface, the translator claimed that the fairy tales would carry the reader back “dramatically and powerfully to the Chinese age of Chivalry” (ibid). “Chivalry”, long imbedded in Western culture, may be a good parallel to the spirits in Chinese fairy tales and classic novels like San Guo Yan Yi. The other version, Herbert Allen Giles’s translation, was published in the book Gems of Chinese Literature in 1922.
Although the two versions both focus on the same character with the same title, they differed considerably in content. Martens’s version epitomized the character Guan Yu by describing his appearance and personality as: “faithful, honest, upright and brave beyond all measure” (Martens, 1922: 66). He also focused on the talk between his spirit and the monk. In fact, Guan Yu was canonized as the “God of War” after that talk, and temples were erected around the Hills of Jade Fountains, where the talk was said to have taken place.
Herbert Giles, on the other hand, focused on a specific scene when Guan Yu was commanded to fight against a bold and powerful enemy, General Yan Liang, and succeeded in cutting off Yan’s head. In the original novel San Guo Yan Yi, this plot is quite well known for presenting Guan Yu’s capability as a brave hero in the war. It is highly likely that the translator intended to select this scene to support the title God of War and to shape this character in the reader’s mind. However, in spite of Giles’s vivid rendering of this plot, some specific names and details were omitted, partly because he may have wanted to simplify the story for English readers.
How did Guan Yu become canonized in history? According to Martens, “Whenever a new dynasty is founded, his holy form may be seen. For this reason temples and sacrifices have been instituted for him, and he has been made one of the Gods of the empire. Like Confucius, he received the great sacrifice of oxen, sheep and pigs. His rank increases with the passing of centuries. First he was worshiped as Prince Guan, later as King Guan, and then as the great God who conquers the demons. The last dynasty, finally, worships him as the great, divine Helper of the Heavens.” (Martens, 1922: 68) Even in modern China, people often worship him as a God who is a powerful force for deliverance of those plagued by devils and foxes. Anyway, whether Guan Yu is regarded as a brave general or the God of War, his personality is admired by ordinary Chinese, as shown by this poem:
“Behind the ruddy face, a ruby heart –
Lord Guan astride Red Hare outrode the wind.
But far as he rode, he served the Fire King
By oil lamp light he studied history;
In war he trusted to his dragon sword,
His inmost thought would welcome light of day.”