A tragic peasant rebellion, abridged for today's readers

Revised edition of Li Zicheng.

Li Zicheng (李自成), the classic historical epic by Yao Xueyin (姚雪垠), is getting an update. Yao's mammoth, five-part historical novel, which fills twelve volumes and took more than three decades to complete, tells the story of the Shaanxi peasant rebellion that led to the sack of Beijing and the eventual downfall of the Ming Dynasty.

The novel is an influential piece of 20th Century Chinese literature, but at over 3 million characters, it can be more than a bit overwhelming to the reader. It was overwhelming to the author, too: critics have long pointed out historical errors and narrative imperfections in the work. To address these issues, Changjiang Literature and Arts Press is publishing a "revised abridgement" that corrects many of the mistakes while telling the same story in just under 2 million characters.

The first part of Li Zicheng was published in 1963. Mao Zedong, who took the lessons of Li Zicheng's failed peasant rebellion to heart, read the book and liked it. In August, 1966, he instructed the Wuhan party committee to protect Yao so that he could continue to work on his novel without fear of having his notes and historical materials confiscated.

When the second part of Li Zicheng was published in 1976, it won the inaugural Mao Dun Prize for Literature, despite an assessment by no less than Deng Xiaoping that it did not quite measure up to the standard of perfection set by its predecessor. The third part followed in 1981, but due to Yao's diminished faculties in his later years, the project dragged on without completion.

Fortunately for subsequent editors, Yao wrote up an extensive outline of the entire novel in the 1980s that laid out precisely what he wanted to accomplish in the remainder of the book. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 89, just as parts four and five, which were completed with the help of an assistant, were going to press.

The current abridgement is designed to tighten up the book's narrative structure by deleting whole chunks of unnecessary scenes and expository material. Because of the political climate of the time, Yao inserted commentary and arguments concerning plot and character details that might have otherwise gotten him into trouble. The new edition also largely eliminates effusive praise of Li and his wife, Gao Guiying, and cuts out the tragic back stories of some of Li's associates, who are no longer required to be stand-ins for the exploited classes in a backward, feudal society.

Familiar cover of Part Three of the 1970s edition of Li Zicheng.

The revisions were undertaken by Yu Rujie, a literary theorist at the Hubei Academy of Social Sciences who served as Yao's assistant between 1977 and 1985. The Shanghai Evening Post spoke with Yu last week about the abridgement process:

Shanghai Evening Post: Why are you issuing the Condensed, Augmented Li Zicheng? Whose idea was the "condensed, augmented edition"?
Yu Rujie: The "condensed, augmented edition" is basically an abridgement with revisions and additions made. Because of the sheer number of volumes, the historical novel Li Zicheng is well able to be abridged; because of its errors and omissions, it needed to be supplemented. Back in the early 1980s, many publishers suggested putting out an abridged edition. At that time, Yao Xueyin's attitude was that he would have to do the abridgement himself, "because only I know how to abridge it." But he could not find the time. In May 1986, Wu Yue, editor of Baowentang Books, recommended to Yao that he put out an abridged edition. Yao was interested and he hoped that I would take on that mission. I was happy to do it, but because the abridged version had to be an abridgement of the entire book, the project had to wait until Part Five of Li Zicheng came out. So it was postponed once again. Unfortunately, Yao was unable to finish the book because of a degenerative brain condition that afflicted him in his later years, so the abridgement was never able to take place. Finally, a few years ago, Yao's son Haitian brought up the subject and we were able to stick it on the schedule again.

SEP: Did you ever talk with Yao about how to go about abridging the book?
Yu: I was Yao's assistant from Fall, 1977, through Spring, 1985. My main job was to transcribe his audio recordings into the first draft of the novel and to help him dig up relevant historical materials at the library. Every Saturday afternoon, I would visit him at home and chat for a few hours. Our discussions were far-ranging, and they naturally included the question of the abridged version. We also discussed the topic in letters.

I suggested to Yao that the chapter structure of Li Zicheng could be kept, but that language, details, and plot elements could be excised. At the same time, imperfections like anachronisms, internal plot contradictions, redundant details, and historical oversights in the original work could all be resolved. Yao agreed entirely; he hoped that I would record any problems I found and give them to him for reference use. He also kept letters from readers regarding the novel's language in a special file that he labeled with a brush pen, "valuable suggestions on language"; he gave it to me for safe-keeping.

The abridgement that the "condensed, augmented version" of Li Zicheng performs on the original uses the techniques I discussed with Yao back then. The chapters and sections of the new edition are practically identical with the original work except for a few places where chapters have been combined. But looking at the character-count, the more than 3 million characters of the original have been condensed to below 2 million. That means that while the skeleton has not been touched, the over-all volume has been substantially compressed. Deletions involving language, detail, and plot elements were hashed out sentence by sentence and character by character.

SEP: What details are omitted in the new edition?
Yu: Yao said that he wanted to illustrate his characters' depth through the use of unique details in their lives. But the original novel has places where details are quite similar. When I was helping Yao transcribe his recordings, I told him that there were two types of details that should be avoided as much as possible. First, Yao was an excitable person, easily moved to tears, and as a result, his characters all cried frequently. Second, two people were talking in the novel, they would send the people around them (eunuchs and palace girls, or soldiers and generals, or servants) out of the room. This indicated to everyone that they were discussing something highly confidential. But people who know how to keep secrets mask their hardness under a soft exterior and hold confidential conversations when others are completely unaware. Yao had to laugh when he heard this. But in the "condensed, augmented version," the two types of details are all eliminated, save for the ones that had to remain.

How will the new edition be received? Recalling another famous instance in which a later editor completed an ambitious masterpiece, historian Feng Tianyu heralded the new Li Zicheng as "akin to the achievements of Gao E." High praise, to be compared to Dream of the Red Mansions.

But then again, we all know how well-regarded Mr. Gao is these days.

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