A Thousand, Thousand Churning Waves- The Legendary Red Cliff Heritage

Tags: art | Battle of Red Cliff | calligraphy | literature | painting | poetry

The Battle of Red Cliff, one of the most famous campaigns in Chinese history, is a prime example of how ingenious tactics can result in a brilliant victory out of an outnumbered situation. From the initial marshaling of forces on both sides, to the final decisive pitched battle, the whole sequence of events lasted mere several months, but has since then inspired people's imagination for over a thousand years, and even well into today. Poets, painters, calligraphers, playwrights, novelists, and many others, all in their various creative ways, join to extol this historical and historic romance of the legendary battle, as well as its constellation of heroes and heroines.
The intrigue games plotted by all three camps involved to outwit one another prior to the battle, the dramatic twists and turns during the course of battle, as well as the impacts and developments after the battle, are so fascinating as to have triggered much discussion and study among posterity. On the whole, the battle set the stage for the ultimate partitioning of the then nominal existence of a weak Empire into three independent kingdoms, Wei, Shu, and Wu. Yet the subsequent and culminating reunification of the whole China once again as an empire, was not effected by any of the three original aspiring camps. History does have a life of its own.
Contributing no less to the Red Cliff legend's everlasting popularity are the players and stakeholders starring in this remarkable performance. Hardly can any other times throughout Chinese history rival this brief period in such a sublime showing of a galaxy of talents. Across all three camps, there was no shortage of a gifted persona: intelligent strategists as well as valiant warriors emerging and rising all at the same time. Facilitated by human's habitual choosing of sides, reinforced or incited further by fictionalized rendering in the popular novels and dramas, generations of enthusiastic fans cheer their favorite figures of their choice while perusing this part of history.

Rivalries: The Historical Narratives
It was an age of confrontation and rivalry among heroes. They were all best of the best. Their vivid persona and dynamic talents marked an era full of great tension, momentum, and drama. Before and after the Battle of Red Cliff, and into the times of the Three Kingdoms, the leaders of Wei, Shu, and Wu did all they could to entice the best over to their camps from all possible sources, to the extent that Cao Cao once made three consecutive "Talent Scout" announcements explicitly looking for talents regardless of the candidates' character. It was a controversial move; however, the motivation was really no different from Liu Bei's paying three persistent visits to Zhuge, both indicative of an urgent "thirst" for talents.
The roll call reveals a list of unforgettable names: Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Zhuge Kongming, and Zhao Yun from Shu; Sun Quan, Zhou Yu, Lu Su, and Lu Xun from Wu; Cao Cao and his sons, Xun You, Jia Xu, and Sima Yi from Wei. These larger-than-life historical figures, either in their dashing, heroic acts, or poetic mood of utterances, each with his unique talents exemplified classical paragons for us to admire. Is it the Times itself helping perpetuate the Heroes, or the Heroes themselves helping glorify the Times? In Three Kingdoms we might divine some inspirations.
Profound and grand are the crossroads of history, a feast of epics and legends. Tidal waves of talent. Enter the heroes. 

Liujia wenxuan (Anthology of Six Great Writers)
Compiled by Xiao Tong (501-531) of Liang dynasty
Annotated by Li Shan, et al. of Tang dynasty (618-907)
Ming imprint by the Yuan family's Jiaqutang of Wu county in the 28th year of Jiajing reign (1549)

Generally referred to as the "Anthology of Six Great Writers", and is the earliest selection of poetry and literature still existing today. It was jointly compiled by Xiao Tong, the Prince Zhaoming of the Liang Period, with his literary officials, and included more than 130 authors and 700 works from the East Zhou to South Liang Period. It was subsequently annotated by numerous commentators, amongst whom the "Six Great Writers" were the most notable. The "Six Great Writers" referred to Li Shan, Lü Yenqi, Liu Liang, Zhang Xian, Lü Xiang and Li Zhouhan of the Tang dynasty. Li Shan's annotations were particularly revered by the academia, however the annotations by the other five masters are appreciated for their interpretation of the text.


"The Red Cliff Mountains"
Mingshanshengaiji fumingshantu (Illustrated Travels among Mountains)
Edited by He Tang of Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Ming imprint during the Chongzhen reign (1628-44)

This is an illustration from the "Illustrated Travels among Mountains", in the style of ancient records. The top of the volume was annotated by Mohui Printhouse of Hanzhou in 6th Year of Chongzhen (1633), stating "Red Cliffs and Fucha was painted by Lan Tiensun and Sun Zizhen". Lan and Sun are both landscape artists of the Ming dynasty. In the illustration the rapids flow between steep cliffs that seem to be implanted in the waters like a giant nose; two small fishing vessels hover by the stone cliffs. This illustration adopts stronger and thicker strokes that are not as delicate as the "Compilations".


"The Sovereign and His Ministers: a Happy and Compatible Company"
Dijiantushuo (Illustrated Sayings on the Mirror of Ruling)
Edited by Zhang Juzheng (1525-1582) and Lü Diaoyang (1516-1580) of Ming dynasty
llustrated by Shen Zhenlin with additional text by Pan Zuyin, Ouyang Baoji, Yang Sisun, and Xu Pengshou, Qing dynasty (1628-1644)
Qing court painted manuscript edition in red-lined columns

Written by the Ming dynasty imperial scholar Zhang Juzhen, this book is a compilation of examples of moralistic and conscientious acts by emperors of past, as well as examples to the contrary, which were prepared for study by the Emperor Shenzong of the Ming dynasty. This chapter entitled "The Sovereign and his Ministers: a Happy and Compatible Company" refers to the story of Liu Bei visiting Zhuge Liang's straw cottage three times in order to win Zhuge's cooperation, and Zhuge reciprocates by giving "Suggestions in Longzhong". Liu Bei treated ZhuGe Liang as a most honoured guest, which attracted the disapproval of Liu's two sworn brothers, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Liu Bei advised Chang and Guan not to persecuted with Zhuge. Zhuge ultimately gave his life in thanks for Liu Bei's trust.


Reminiscences: the Artistic Narratives
In the fifth year of Emperor Shenzong's Yuanfeng reign in the Northern Song period (1082), more than 800 years after the epic Battle of Red Cliff, the famous poet-official Su Shi (Dongpo) and friends made two trips to Red Nose Cliff (Chibiji) west of the town Huangzhou. To commemorate these trips, Su wrote two rhapsodies that would earn him universal praise in the annals of Chinese literature: "Odes to the Red Cliff." Afterwards, Red Nose Cliff at Huangzhou became known as "Dongpo's Red Cliff."
For Su Shi, this was also a time when he had to endure the hardships of exile from court that resulted from the Wutai Poem Incident. In his rhapsodies Su yearned nostalgically for the daring bravura of heroes who fought at Red Cliff centuries earlier, while also facing the realities of life's brevity and the hypocritical nature of people. Consequently, he was able to develop a clear and philosophical form of critical self-examination on the aspects of change and permanence. It was exactly the predicaments of his personal difficulties at this time that made it possible for Su to see through the veil of history and make the trips to his Red Cliff passed down and commemorated through the ages. For example, dramas based on stories revolving around Su Shi and Red Cliff were produced in great numbers during the following Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Countless calligraphers also repeatedly transcribed Su's two rhapsodies on Red Cliff, which likewise became popular among painters wishing to illustrate and celebrate Su Shi and Red Cliff.
This section of the exhibition begins with an extremely precious rendering of Su Shi's "Former Ode to the Red Cliff" calligraphed in the author's own hand. The display then goes on to show how Red Cliff became a common motif in the vocabulary of painting and calligraphy by various literati over the centuries. It also demonstrates how literati of different eras each interpreted the historical, literary, and emotional facets of Su Shi's Red Cliff in different ways. Finally, this section reveals the spread of this subject matter and how even professional artists came to incorporate the theme into their works, revealing its depth and richness over the ages. Certain ideas of the Three Kingdoms period inspired by Su Shi's rhapsodies on Red Cliff may seem remote from actual history. Nonetheless, the land remains as before, the emotions they aroused having long since changed. Yet each time they inspire new generations of painters and calligraphers to revisit Red Cliff and the Three Kingdoms through the medium of Su Shi, illustrating their own images and ideas on Red Cliff for posterity.


Qianchibifu (Former Ode on Red Cliff)
Su Shi (1036-1101), Song dynasty
Handscroll, ink on paper

Su Shi (1036 ~ 1101), also known as Zhizhang and Resident of Tong Po, is native of Meishan of Shichuan, and was an imperial scholar in the 2nd Year of Chia You (1057). He holds a particularly revered position in Chinese literary history, and ranks as one of the Four Song Masters in calligraphy, while being the first scholar to create the scholar painting in Chinese painting history. He is one of the most important literary masters in the Northern Song period.
Su had a very unstable career as a government official, and was exiled from court that resulted from the Wutai Poem Incident to Huangzhow in the 2nd Year of Yuan Feng (1079). This marked a turning point in his life and work, and the Former and Latter Odes to the Red Cliff were representative works from this period. This "Former Ode to the Red Cliff", personally written by Su Shi, is particularly rare masterpiece in literary and art. The Ode depicted Su and his friends travelling on a small boat to visit the Red Nose Cliff just outside Huangzhow city on July 16 in the 5th Year of Yuan Feng (1082), and recalled the Battle of Red Cliff when Sun Quan won victory over the Cao army during the times of the Three Kingdoms; through this Ode, Su expressed his views about the universe and life in general.
This Ode was written upon the invitation of his friend Fu Yao-yu (1024 ~ 1091), and from the phrase "Shi composed this Ode last year" at the end of the scroll, one deduces that it was probably written during the 6th Year of Yuan Feng, when Su was 48 years of age. From Su's particular reminders of "living in fear of more troubles", and "by your love for me, you will hold this Ode in secrecy", one has a sense of Su's fear as a result of being implicated in the emperor's displeasure over writings.
The start of the scroll is damaged and is missing 36 characters, which were supplemented by Wen Zhengming (1470 ~ 1559) with annotations in small characters, although some scholars believe that the supplementations were actually written by Wen Peng. The entire scroll is composed in regular script, the characters broad and tightly written, the brushstrokes full and smooth, showing that Su had achieved perfect harmony between the elegant flow in the style of the Two Wang Masters that he learned from in his early years, and the more heavy simplicity in the style of Yen Zhenqing that he learned in his middle ages.


Chibitu (Red Cliff)
Wu Yuanzhi (fl. 1190-1196), Jin dynasty
Handscroll, ink on paper

Wu Yuanzhi was a notable scholar during the Ming Chang Period of the emperor Jin Zhang (1190~1195), and was an expert in landscapes painting. This painting depicted Su Shi and his friends travelling the Red Cliff, and Su is shown wearing a head scarf, "passing through this enormous universe on a tiny leaf" with two visitors and a boatman. The red cliff across the river towered over them, and the pine branches on the shore bowed slightly; the delicately painted waves spread gently, seeming to represent that "the waters were calm in the gentle breeze" that evening.
Although the trees and rocks in the foreground are painted in the Lee Kuo style popular in the north, the main mountains were composed in simple short and vertically turned strokes, and the entire scroll is shaded in light ink, without the usual dramatic heavy ink and atmosphere of the Lee Kuo style. The entire work was painted on paper, and the plain, elegant spirit reflected the literary paintings made popular by Su Shi and other literati during the late North Song Period. This showed that paintings of the Jin period are merging the traditions of the north with the newly popular literary painting trend.
This scroll was originally not annotated by the author, and the end of the scroll was annotated by the famous scholar Zhao Pingwen in the 5th Year of Zhenda during the Jin dynasty. The collector Xiang Yuanbian of Ming dynasty believed the scroll to be painted by Zhu Rui of the Song dynasty, but based on more recent studies of Zhao Pingwen's work, this scroll is now attributed to the painter Wu Yuanzhi of Jin dynasty.


Fangzhaobosu houchibitu (Imitating Zhao Bosu's Latter Ode on Red Cliff)
Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Ming dynasty
Handscroll, ink and color on silk

The given name of Wen Zhenming (1470~1559) was initially "Bi", but he later went by the self-given name "Zhenming". He was the most influential painter of the Wu-style during the 16th century. This scroll is based on Su Shi's "Latter Ode on the Red Cliff", and is divided into eight sections, depicting Su Shi and his two friends returning to the Red Cliff with wine and fish. The fundamental colour of the entire scroll is light green, and although it is said to be an imitation of Zhao Boju's style, the lines and strokes visible under the paint seems transparent and more layered, appearing to be closer to the light green traditions of the literati Zhao Mengfu during the Yuan dynasty. The visitors themselves are depicted in simplistic lines, while the mountains and rocks are stacked closely and variable, demonstrating the leisurely spirit of the literati in the face of such wondrous scenery. The year annotated on the work is the 27th year of Jia Jing reign (1548), and Wen was by then 79 years of age. This is clearly one of his later works. The back of the scroll contained an annotation by Wen's son, Wen Jia (1501~1583), describing the origins of this painting.


Tihong chibitu chaping (Screen depicting the Red Cliff)
Qing dynasty, QianLung reign (1736-95)
Incised red lacquer. h.63.6cm, w.16.5cm, l. 59.9cm

Red carving in lacquerware is created by using delicate carving work to etch out patterns of varying depths on thick lacquered boards painted in multiple layers, and through variations in the carving angle, the differences in reflections of the light created vivid variations in the subject depicted. This is the most amazing aspect of carved red lacquerware.
The instant carved fan on the Red Cliff is carved upon a board 46.3cm wide and 40.3cm tall. Clouds in the sky, tall pines and the steep cliffs towered over the upper left corner of the fan, while the right of the screen is filled with the wide surface of the river. The mountain ranges stretched into the distance, and a few reeds are spread over the foreground. The small boat drifted slowly, and one can seemingly hear the happy voices of Dongpo and his guests, the rowing of the paddles, and the sounds of young servants boiling tea. The powerful imagery takes us to this relaxing scene.
The other side of the fan depicts cloudy dragons rising out of the water, with three dragons fighting for a ball amongst the water vapours. Dragon patterns of this kind are highly popular during the reign of Qinglong, and represent the nobility of the emperor. It being carved on the other side of a fan on the subject of "Red Cliff" perhaps symbolized the powerful emperor's secret longing for the more relaxed life of Su Dungpo and his guests on the river!


Jixieshi chibitu boyi (Seal depicting the Red Cliff, stamp uncut)
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Bas relief on ShouShan Blood Stone. seal section 4.2x4.3cm, h. 9cm

Making of seals by the literati first began in the late Yuan dynasty, and gradually became popular during the Ming dynasty with many different schools. It later gained status as one of the four arts of the literati, with the others being poetry, calligraphy and painting.
Chicken-blood stone from Changhua in Zhejiang Province and tian-huang stone from Shoushan in Fujian Province are both excellent stones preferred by chop makers from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The former attracted the viewer with its bright coloring, while the latter had more gentle and warm nature. In order to increase the aesthetic beauty of the seal, the maker often carved a little embossment or skilfully carved the entire chop, to make appreciation of the seal more interesting.
The natural color of this particular chicken-blood stone is carved into spectacular clouds and cliffs, and the out-stretched pines over the wide river as well as the small boat told the annotated story:
"The moon rises over the eastern mountain and hovers amongst the stars. The white dews covered the river, and the light and water are connected to the sky. One marvels at the enormity of the universe. Ke Zhai."
This brought out the "Red Cliff" theme in the carving, and the running script appears to be taken from the "Ode on the Red Cliff" written by Zhao Mengfu. The entire stone is skilfully carved, and can be considered an outstanding work from the early Qing dyansty.

Resonances: the Literary Narratives

 The Ming novelist Luo Guanzhong's dexterous mix of facts and fiction, coupled with his imaginative characterization of the individuals and their ingenuity, has played a key role in making the Battle of Red Cliff wonderfully impressive and remarkable. Yet he was not the first one to have told the story of the Three Kingdoms and Red Cliff. The narrative tradition started with Cheng Shou's History of the Three Kingdoms, a historian's account written in the Jin dynasty when China was reunified by the house of Sima. This in combination with oral storytelling scripts later from the Song and Yuan dynasties, formed a rich source of materials from which Luo was able to derive and create his historical novel, the ever popular masterpiece the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Printers of the Ming and Qing dynasties, cognizant of the appealing charm of the Three Kingdoms story, promoted it further with illustrated editions. Some even engaged renowned writers such as Li Zhi, Zhong Xing, Li Yu, and Mao Zonggang for annotation, boosting the social status of the novel and its reading. In the mind of the Ming and Qing literati, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms reigned alone in the novel category. It won such rave review and was so enthusiastically received that Li Yu and Jin Shengtan ranked it as the "Top of the Four Wonder Books", and a "Most Brilliant Writing of Talent and Taste".
The legend of the Three Kingdoms and Red Cliff, a bygone era yet with staying power, as well as its vicissitudes and resonances, are forever related and remembered.

Xinkanjiaozheng gudaziben yinshi sanguozhi tongsuyanyi (A Newly Proofed Edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms)
Written by Luo Quanzhong of Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Ming imprint and proofed by Zhou Yuejiao of Shulin in the 19th year of Wanli reign (1591)

This book is the version edited by the owner of the Wanjuanlo Bookshop, Zhou Yue, of the Jinling area during the Ming dynasty. The printing process was extremely careful, having particularly procured ancient editions, made corrections and annotations and cross-checked the references, as well as commissioned the famous type cutters of Nanking - Wan Xiyao and Wei Shaofeng - to cut the type. It can be said to be the highest quality edition of the bookshop.
The book consists of 250 chapters in 12 volumes, and the chapters are set out in accordance with the order adopted in Luo Kuanzhung's original work. The text was then slightly edited to seem more elegant. The preamble "History of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms" set out biographies of the main characters in book, so that readers would better understand their family backgrounds.
Each chapter contains an illustration, so that the total printed illustrations are 240 and are portrayed across the two pages. The illustrations identify the chapter, and on each side of the drawing is a short rhyme composed on the subject of the chapter, which are all written by literati. The function of these rhymes is rather like a theatrical show, where antithetical couplets are used as a hint to the audience. It is worth noting that the lines of the illustrations are energetic, the characters clearly outlined, with vivid and dynamic depictions of action, especially for those climatic chapters. Chapter 36 "Xia Hozun Pulls Out and Eats His Eye", for example, depicted Xia Hozun being injured by a surprise attack by Cao Xing, one of Lü Pu's generals. After he was shot in the left eye, he pulled out the eye with the arrow and called: "One must not waste any drop of blood or essence given by one's parents!" And he promptly put the eye into his mouth and ate it. Luo Kuanzhong used exaggerated, theatrical means to depict Chen Shou's two - dimensional character - the Blind Xia Ho - as a heroic three-dimensional figure, giving the space of imagination for the readers.
Chapter 54 "Guan Yunchang Kills Generals Across Five Barriers", Chapter 94 "Pan Tong Offers the Serial Trick" relating to the Battle of Red Cliff, and Chapter 98 "Zhou Kongjin Wins Battle of Red Cliff" are all vividly depicted by the skillful etching and dramatic style of the Jinling prints. It could be said to be the most popular version of the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" in Nanking at the time.


Sidaqishu diyizhong sanguozhi (First of the Four Wonder Books: History of the Three Kingdoms)
Annotated by Luo Quanzhong of Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang of Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Qing imprint in the 14th year of Guangxu reign (1888)

This is the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" critiqued by Mao Lun and Mao Zhonggang, of the Qing dynasty, and is commonly referred to as the "Mao Critique Edition". The front of the volume was entitled "Top of the Four Wonder Books", while the front page and center of the folio are both annotated "Most Brilliant Writing of Talent and Taste", showing that both titles have been adopted by bookstores in general and are used to market the books. In fact, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" was named "Top of the Four Wonder Books" by Li Yu of the late Ming dynasty, with the other three books, "Water Margin", "Journey to the West" and "Jin Ping Mei"; Mao Zongkang named "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as the "Most Brilliant Writing of Talent and Taste" in imitation of the late Ming literary talent Jin Shentan's critique of the six masterpieces.
Therefore the front page of the book was printed with the brand of the famous Shanghai bookstore, Saoye shanfang, during the reign of Guangxu period, and was entitled "Mao Shenshang's Critique of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms/ Most Brilliant Writing of Talent and Taste/ Saoye shanfang edition". At the top it was annotated "Masterpiece lost by Jin Shengtan", and at the bottom it was impressed in red seal with the words "Published and supervised by Saoye shanfang". Mao Lun, also known as Teyin and Shenshan, and Mao Zongkang, known as Xushi and Juean, both were native of Changzhou in Jiangsu. This brand shows that the Saoye shangfang of Shanghai was using the most popular Mao Critique Edition, and it was the commonly seen printed edition in bookstores at the time.
The entire book consisted of 120 chapters in 19 volumes, and at the commencement of the main volume the individual portraits of the 40 male and female characters appeared in the story, including Liu Bei, Guan Zhuangmo and Zhang Huanho, were depicted; these were followed by a single full page of the illustration of "Three Honorary Brothers in the Peach Garden", and finally the preface by the bookstore upon the reprint. This edition was in line with Li Zhuowu's practice of revising the 240 chapters into 120 chapters, but the main text had been edited by the Maos, not only to make the story more elegant and easier to read, but also added their own critiques and included poetry from the Tang, Song and Qing dynasties. The main text began with the Ming poet Yang Shen's poetic phrase: "The Yantze River rolls east" from "God by the River". All readers praised this edition as being elegant and easy to read, making it the most popular edition to this date.

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