Words in pieces

In older times there were no standards set for the length of a story or a book. Because of that there exist some massive works spreading many volumes and it is only the loss of material due to lack of copying (everything) over time that many are reduced to more manageable sizes.

Recently I had a lengthy vacation in China and this roused by interest in the classics of Chinese literature. China invented bookprint some centuries before the West did so there must be some stuff around. I selected two works, partially because they were quite extensive as mentioned above. Luckily these were complete stories. However their length also meant that the work had been cut into separate volumes. Of course this happens all the time these days but with such old works there is always the question if the place where the work is cut into pieces is not random and does allow for a break. I have no idea so I will have to wait and see.

The first work is a historical novel called The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (ca. 1400) by Guangzhong Luo. It is an abridged version, although this was done in the 1660s, in which non-relevant material (for the story) was removed and some passages were improved. So technically the story is still complete. It’s total length is about 1300 pages so the novel is cut into two parts. The novel is an adaptation of a set of oral tales about a period in history from 184 to 280, telling about the events that lead to the fall of the Han dynasty and the breakup of China into three rival kingdoms which warred with each other. The story has been adapted into modern versions a lot so it is nice to read the original tale.

The second work is one of the first modern Chinese novels, written in 1760, although the work was still incomplete by that time as the author, named Xueqin Cao, died in that year. It took until 1791 before the work was actually published and the publisher, named Gao E, used the working manuscript of the author to complete the story. The work I am talking about is published under two titles. Its most common name is The Dream Of The Red Chamber, although my edition carries the alternative name, The Story Of The Stone. Its total length runs to about 2500 pages. I have obtained the complete version of the novel and this edition has been cut into five pieces: 3 books of 600 pages, compromising the original works by Xueqin Cao, and 2 books of over 300 pages which have been completed by Gao E. Unlike The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms the five volumes each carry a title of their own: The Golden Days, The Crab-Flower Club, The Debt Of Tears, The Warning Voice, and The Dreamer Awakes. As the last two versions were not completely written by the author I intend to review each novel separately, although that may give me some headaches on giving each something new to say about.

So far about the background of this work. As I’ve mentioned it is a modern novel, which means it has a story that takes place in about the same time and reflects events that take place. So when it was published it was a contemporary novel: It told about people, society and culture that were fairly familiar to the readers and as such the work reflects and depicts mid seventeenth century life and just for that it makes a very interesting work as very few of such works can be found from the past and this one belongs to the earliest in which authors began to write about their own society and life (not counting autobiographies) in a story they made up themselves.

I don’t know when I will pick up these works but they will be attracting my eye on my bookshelves for the time to come.


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