sometimes witty book reviews
First published: 209-141 BCE
Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University
Pages/read time: 576, two days (no, that was not a thorough read)
[Edited version of a class summary]
As you may have noticed recently, I’ve been ploughing through some heavy Chinese classics on this blog. Well folks, yet again I am struck by the unavoidable similarity of description order and construction between this translation of the Records (Han) and Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad.* At first I tried to see this as a reflection of the common ilk of the two translators; their training or their particular style that was similar. At least, this is what I first attempted in order to ‘see beyond’ the translator’s Western lens (however far apart the birth years of the respective translators actually is). Now, however, having read the Records more extensively, and The Iliad, the level of detail and rate of ‘name-dropping’ for me remains striking. Take for example the two following passages:
After several moths he led his troops to attack K’ang-fu. Joinging with the armies of T’ien Jung and Ch’i and Marshall Lung Ch’ieh, he went to the rescue of Tung-a, which was besieged by Ch’in, and there inflicted a major defeat upon the Ch’in army. T’ien Jung led his troops bacl to Ch’i and deposed T’ien Chia, the king of Ch’i. T’ien China fled to Ch’u and his prime minister, T’ien Chueh, fled to Chao, where his younger brother, T’ien Chien, a former general of Ch’i, was living, afraid to return to Ch’i. T’ien Jung set up Shih, the son of T’ien Tan, as king of Ch’i. Hsiang Liang, having already defeated the army of Tung-a, was in pursuit of the Ch’in forces, and several times sent envoys to urge the foces of Ch’i to join him in proceeding west. T’ien Jung announced: “If Ch’u will kill T’ien Chueh and T’ien Chien, then I will dispatch my troops.” Hsiang Liag replied, “T’ien Chia is the king of an allied state. He has come to me in distress andplaced himself under my care. I cannot bring myself to kill him.” Chao likewise declared that he would not kill T’ien Chueh and T’ien Chien for the sake of buying favor with Ch’i. As a result, Ch’i was unwilling to dispatch troops to aid Ch’u.
Records of the Grand Historian (Han), 42
Peneleos, Leitus, Arcesilaus, Prothoenor, and Clonius were captains of the Boeotians. These were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis, and who held Schoenus, Scolus, and the highlands of Eteonus, with Thespeia, Graia, and the fair city of Mycalessus. They also held Harma, Eilesium, and Erythrae; and they had Eleon, Hyle, and Peteon; Ocalea and the strong fortress of Medeon; Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe the haunt of doves; Coronea, and the pastures of Haliartus; Plataea and Glisas; the fortress of Thebes the less; holy Onchestus with its famous grove of Neptune; Arne rich in vineyards; Midea, sacred Nisa, and Anthedon upon the sea. From these there came fifty ships, and in each there were a hundred and twenty young men of the Boeotians.
The Illiad, Homer, Book II
The level of detail feels almost useless in the narrative format that the two texts were based. Though the motivation between the two text diverges greatly (a record of a dynasty commissioned by the Emperor versus an epic poem), the flow of information is similarly overwhelming. At times, even seemingly unnecessary. Both texts aim, at this point, to explain the make up or outcome of great human conflicts. They seem to strive to convey a shining kernel of wisdom, even in these short passages. Throughout both, however, I yearned for the narrative elements to be plucked out and reordered into neat, pithy sentences. The historical information would do well (in their presented forms) in a long, dot-point style timeline to be read in tandem to the text. In essence, this was another week of overwhelming facts and figures from an historical writer who, I am certain just like Homer, aimed to bamboozle and belittle the reader with their control of obscure facts and heroic (but repetitive) descriptions. In my case, both succeeded once again.
*Or am I, at this point, just desperately trying to make sure y’all know I’ve read The Iliad?