I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
Are these opening lines not the most epic beginning to a story ever written?
Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
If that doesn't make 2300 pages of romanticized political intrigue and warfare look appealing, I don't know what does. I mean seriously, that's just awesome. I think Luo Guanzhong might just give Tolkien a run for his money there. And all this time I thought "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" was something to fawn over.
Much to my utter devastation however (sarcasm, sort of), I recently discovered that those lines were not originally written by Luo. The standardized text of the Three Kingdoms classic so popular today is a heavily edited version by Mao Zonggang and his father Mao Lun. Large portions of the text were cut out, and passages that put the famous Cao Cao in a positive light were removed. Even my copy of Three Kingdoms says on its cover, "attributed to Luo Guanzhong."
I suppose, though, that the fact that Luo Guanzhong did not originally write those opening lines makes sense in the light of the political vision he was trying to achieve. The division/unity theme represents the continuous dynastic cycle that has repeated itself over and over in Chinese imperial history. According to the Wikipedia article I linked, earlier editions focused less on division and more on heroic attempts at reunification. This aligns quite well with my limited knowledge of Luo Guanzhong. He lived at the time of transition between the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, at the cusp of a new age. The Ming Dynasty looked to successful models and examples of the past in order to build its future. So it makes sense that Luo's cultural epic would reflect that sense of idealism, maybe hope even. Also makes sense that Luo's treatment of Cao Cao and his generals would be more lenient that that of the Maos; Cao Cao still tried to unify China, after all.
My point is, the idea that what I'm reading right now is not THE 100% FOR SURE ORIGINAL, even that insignificant bit about Three Kingdoms being "attributed" to Luo Guanzhong, sort of freaks me out a little--because how the heck am I supposed to factor that in to my reading? I think the general idea in literary culture is that "original is always best." And yet, reading Three Kingdoms (I'm about 250 pages in at the moment) and loving every single bit of it, I'm not entirely sure about that. The narrative flow for example is nearly flawless. Was that a result of Mao's editing? And I wonder, if I ever had the chance to objectively see both versions--the original and the edited--for myself, which one I would have preferred. The Cao Cao bit really makes me curious especially, seeing how most readers of Three Kingdoms classify him as a villain.
Maybe some amazingly knowledgeable and informed Three Kingdoms fan is reading this post now and sneering at my ignorance--come on, you didn't know that this book was edited? Duuuuuuh. Well, ok. I just feel like I'm floundering a little here. But hey, if my research turns out to be wrong, for those of you well informed enough, feel free to fix what errors I might have made--I can't wait for the day when I can finally grapple with the historical context surrounding this book without feeling like an idiot.
Still, generations of people have enjoyed this book just fine, and I certainly am now as well. I guess the best thing to do is just sit back and have fun with it. It's one of the most unusual and complex things I've ever read (culture shock), but for all that it's excitingly fast-paced and the narrative structure is so clear and comprehensible it's unbelievable. So, although the ambiguity surrounding this book makes me uncomfortable--especially in the way it might affect the reader's moral interpretation of the characters--I'll try not to let it bother me and appreciate the copy in front of me simply for what it is.