Studies in Philology
The Epic of Chu and Han:
Stephen W Durrant
This scholarly reconstruction recovers what can now be known of the now lost early Han romance called Chu/Han Chun/Chyou "The Saga of Chu and Han," which was one of the major sources for the later history Shr Ji. The monograph gives a full translation of the known fragments, and identifies the author of the work, and the conditions under which it arose.
No reader of the Shr Ji has ever failed to be thrilled by the heroic defiance and the tragic death of the Chu general Syang Yw, or to be amused by the canniness and bravado of his rival, the Han founding emperor Lyou Bang, or to be moved to tears by the dramatic moment when the appearance of Four Wise Old Men spoils Lyou Bang's chance of leaving his empire to the son of the only woman he ever loved. These and like passages from the early years of Han have given the Shr Ji a permanent reputation as a masterpiece of literature.
But that literary mastery is curiously confined to the early years of Han; elsewhere, the Shr Ji is stylistically straightforward. It includes some briefly eloquent documents and letters, but it lacks the power to move the reader narratively. When explaining some phrase in the masterful portion of the Shr Ji, Tang and earlier commentators would often note that the Chu/Han Chun/Chyou version had a slight textual variant. Once we realize that the Shr Ji passage is actually a variant, indeed an incorporation, of the earlier Chu/Han Chun/Chyou, we suddenly understand that the narrative mastery of the Shr Ji is a second-hand trait, and that in comes from the wholesale incorporation of the Chu/Han Chun/Chyou into that work.
From the Shr Ji commentaries and from other early quotations in Tang and earlier texts, Stephen Durrant has collected the still extant fragments of this lost saga, inferred from them the shape and purpose of the original work, and presented them in translation, along with a discussion of the work's authorship (and of the other work that is traditionally attributed to the same author) and its later history. The result is a powerful reminder that much in early Chinese literature was liable to perish unless it was also orthodox, or got itself absorbed into the orthodox mainstream.
This work has important implications for readers of the orthodox mainstream. Scholars will now have to adjust their perceptions of early Han history to the fact that the standard (and curiously hostile) portrait of the Han founder in Shr Ji is liable to reflect novelistic exaggerations and inventions, and that a true estimate of his character and accomplishments will need to be based on less colorful material.
For another reconstruction of a Chinese text, see The Saga of Chung-ar.
STEPHEN W DURRANT is Professor of Chinese at the University of Oregon.
The Epic of Chu and Han: A Reconstruction
Approximately 160 pages.
Tentative $44.95 cloth. ISBN 978-936166-48-0
Tentative $21.95 paper. ISBN 978-036166-88-6
Tentative Release Date: August 2012
When announced, this book may be ordered from the University of Massachusetts Press
14 August 2010 / Contact The Project / Exit to Publications Page