Ravaging Times

November 27, 2017

reader Hsu Li-Heng’s 2007 critique on “The Ravages of Time”

Filed under: Ravages of Time — Tags: , , , — merc @ 12:01 pm

original blog post
(note: a reader asked me to translate this really old critique of Ravages, written in 2007, based on about 100 chapters of the story; it has solid points that are still relevant, but also possibly outdated commentary with regard to what Chen Mou tries to express through this work, sometimes a little obliquely in his “Afterwords” commentaries)

“The Ravages of Time” is a graphic novel series that upends the traditional Three Kingdoms lore. The author makes powerful forces that are hidden behind the scene as the lead, and makes Sima Yi the main character (even though he has very little screen time). With that setup, the author brings out the ingenious strategies of various factions to re-interpret the history of the Three Kingdoms.

I started reading it from its inception. I’ve also read his previous works- how the short stories in “Not Human” upended portrayals of Sir Guan and Wei Yan, or how the failed series “God Pretenders” was unnecessarily complex and unintelligible. I’m very aware of Chen Mou’s tendency, which is to make every character ultra smart, crazy powerful, full of schemes, and never how they appear on the surface. This became his view on history, the innovative idea in his work, and inevitably created his myth.

In Chen Mou’s imagination, every wise man, strategist, officer, and warlord thinks through their plans and understands what power (and related theories) is about; Lü Bu and Wen Chou are top-of-the-line thinking Generals, where the reputation of being “brave but brainless” was merely a cover. Of course, some of these people could calculate further than others, or be at a higher tier, which means any mistake will lead to death. Consequently, the author makes every battle of wits as complicated as possible, leaving readers who don’t think as deeply in the dust.

However, does that make this creative work brilliant? Maybe a little bit. I think once the novelty wears off, repeating this trope can be exhausting to read. The author wears himself out to come up with new tricks and schemes, or turns possible coincidences in history into the result of N-rounds of a game between masterminds. He ends up exhausted, and we feel exhausted reading it. And I want to ask: Why do you choose to craft a series like this?

Chen Mou’s view on history has a fatal flaw- that he uses his own view to frame history. In other words, it’s like how the trendy “use theory to bring along history” idea of the previous century led to “use theory to replace history”. Marxism and Leninism of that generation were eventually rejected because of it. Those of us who use history to create literature or art should put it at the same level as us or just above, so it’s from historical facts that we develop our viewpoint; to make characters approachable and let them help us grow, instead of willfully remain steeped in one’s own fantasy.

Of course you can create your own world and let characters roam free in it. But why should I pay attention to your unilateral dreamland? How will it benefit me? If it was just “for fun”, fine; but Chen Mou’s graphic novels are never just read for fun. His ambition is enormous. Through his upended history, he wants to expose the deeply ingrained ambition within human nature. We can be certain of such an avarice, for it’s a great motivator. However, people like that are also prone to straying off course or going off the deep end.

“The Ravages of Time” has reached over thirty volumes by now, right? I haven’t really stayed with it after a hundred chapters. It’s not because of the inconsistent release schedule, but that Chen Mou keeps making the same old mistake: expanding the scope so much that he loses control of it. Hundreds of pages later the timeline is still prior to Lü Bu’s death (I don’t know where the story is now). The finale that was revealed in chapter one depicts the emptiness of an old Sima Yi who knows all and controls all. I don’t know how many years it’ll take for the graphic novel to reach that point. Without new breakthroughs, it’s rare for an author to maintain the passion for a long series.

The historical view in “The Ravages of Time” does have a commendable quality: it illustrates the influential power of clans, especially those of royalty and deep lineage. Back then that was the basic structure within which power struggle was conducted. In the past we had Wang Fu Zhi‘s “Reading Zi Zhi Tong Jian” (this is so esoteric that it’s probably rare for anyone who is not a history major like me to have read it; even I was introduced to it by a professor), Fan Wen Lan’s “The Concise Edition of General History of China,” Lü Si Mian‘s “The Story of the Three Kingdoms;” average readers of this day and age would have heard of Yi Zhong Tian (and history buffs like me think his work is all right; flawed, but not enough to overshadow its brilliance); overall the general population has a higher understanding of Three Kingdoms period than past generations. Therefore if you want our attention, Chen Mou, you better bring out something of higher level, a historical view more comprehensive, and intellects that are more abnormal – but why torture yourself thus?

Someone whose name I can’t remember said, “Guan Ning in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the best character.” And Guan Ning is a hermit living in Liaodong (east Liao). What does that tell us? It tells us that there is a yearning for morality and sentimentality. Some people in times of chaos would abandon moral principles, while others would long for them. Not to mention that virtues were still celebrated values among the men of class near the end of East Han dynasty (despite it turning hypocritical). Confucianism was also the mainstream belief system (despite having produced “renowned literati” like Kong Rong and Mi Heng, who were only full of talk). But this seems to be a blind spot for Chen Mou. Or maybe Chen Mou only focuses on its negative side- the commonly criticized hypocritical and preachy side, without seeing the positive and other various sides to it. As a result, you have neglected a very important human mentality in the historical context.

In addition, Chen Mou is mistaken about another aspect of people’s mentality in times of great turmoil: uncertainty. Are those warlords really fully informed, confident, flawless strategists that only ever fail because of their own overconfidence? Chen Mou’s tendency to embellish, to raise characters to god or demon status reduces their believability. And even if he manages to justify it all, what’s so entertaining about a Three Kingdoms setting where it’s just a bunch of crazy strong brains and brawns going back-and-forth? You upended the traditional images from history, folklore, and literature in order to create your own imagery. But if none of that helps the reader to get closer to the reality, to approach better understanding and sympathy, then what’s the meaning of your work of art?

In short, I think Chen Mou’s failing can be summed up as “imbalance”. He is so eager to create super heroes and mysterious extraordinary talents that he and the entire series became a prisoner to this idea- unable to actually let these heroes and extraordinary talents present themselves to us. What a pity. On the other hand, I must still praise Chen Mou’s ambition and creativity. I also have reason to believe that with the ever increasing literacy of historical text by the masses, the widespread of education, the open flow of information, and the liberation in ways of thinking, that there will be creators in the future who may surpass Chen Mou in this regard.

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November 22, 2017

chapter 491 (magazine syndication, not final)

Filed under: Ravages of Time — Tags: — merc @ 9:57 am

To die a martyr or live with a compromise. Which is the better deal?

To be remembered by history texts or to make a comeback. Which is more important?
Everyone has their own definition.

[?]: One.

[?]: For fifteen.

chapter 491 Heroes Share The Same Path

{ch}
{ch}

{ch}
{ch}

[?]: Worth it.

[?]: Four blanks to lure the enemy closer.

[?]: Right?

[?]: Give up my ego for a powerful weapon. It’s worth it for me too.

[?]: Even if you seize it, you won’t be able to replicate this.

[?]: Not in a hundred nor a thousand years!

[?]: The spirit of White Feather is to never…

{stab~}

[?]: Why won’t you retreat?

{rumble~}

[?]: Deputy commander, Zhou Yu has defeated General Cao Ren and his men are heading this way.
[?]: They’re bypassing the mountains like you expected and are coming straight here!
(not sure about 上山, directly translate to “Shangshan”? Or “northern mountain?” Or?)

[?]: Yiling is a vital military position. Even Liu Bei’s army has been lured here.

[?]: This battle is not a simple matter. We must observe more than partake.
[?]: The big picture is more important. Tell the remaining Tiger and Leopard Cavalry to follow me to protect the main army that’s attacking Yiling.

[?]: But the boss is still at the frontline, we mustn’t retreat!
[?]: Have you forgotten “the spirit of Tiger and Leopard”?

[?]: No.

[?]: One who knows when to fight and when not to fight will win.

[?]: My Tiger and Leopard Cavalry is different.

[Cao Zhen]: So is me, Cao Zhen.

That’s why he’s different.
For he is responsible for the fate of the Cao clan.

That’s why Cao Chun knows as well

the difference between a martyr’s death and a compromise.

Perhaps no one knows how powerful Cao Zhen is.

But in the later years he would become the man to keep in check two of the smartest people in the world.

The oustanding talent that makes Cao Chun proud

has arrived without fanfare.
(“quietly…”)

[Chen Dao]: No reinforcements. Call off the ambush.

[?]: Yessir!
{ch}

[?]: How many shots?
[?]: Twenty three or four.

[CD]: You face death like homecoming. You’re indeed the top unit of Cao Cao’s rebel troop.

[?]: Sir! Cao Zhen’s second division has retreated and they’re taking the other men to the back hills!
(“report…”)
[?]: While Gan Ning has defeated the invaders and are coming for us!

[?]: If Zi Dan is safe, we have nothing to worry about.
{note: Cao Zhen’s courtesy name is Zi Dan}

[?]: My brothers, today we get to prove our gratitude and devotion to our kingdom!
(“…repay/render service [to] country…”)
[?]: Anyone who wishes to retreat with the deputy commander can do so without my judgment!

[?]: They’re too far to catch up to.
[?]: Save your breath, old man.

[?]: Haha.

That feeling of foolishness has returned.

That year at the White Gate Tower, there was a man named Gao Shun.

The renowned Chargers are known to every formation commander!

They are the first to die for the rest of the formation.
(not sure, “pioneer of formation unit”???)

They will forever have a place in the hearts of warriors.
(“in warrior’s heart, dismiss it not [able]”)
[Cao Chun]: Huff!

[CC]: Tiger…

[CC]: Tiger…

[?]: Boss, stand up!
[?]: Stand up!

[CC]: Tiger and Leopard…

HOOAH~
(sounds like “huh”)

[?]: The spirit of Tiger And Leopard is to never say defeat!

[CD]: I, Chen Dao,

[CD]: will clear a path for the hero!
(call back to chapter 254)

{chunk~}

——-
magazine-release-only teaser: “Next chapter: Handicapped Warriors Break Through the Siege”

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