Posted by Joel Martinsen on Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 10:15 AM
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.
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:
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.
Links and Sources
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!