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in 2007, based on about 100 chapters of the story; it has solid points that are still relevant, but also possibly outdated commentary with regard to what Chen Mou tries to express through this work, sometimes a little obliquely in his “Afterwords” commentaries)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.


August 31, 2017

Replay: Battle of Red Cliff in “The Ravages of Time”

Filed under: Ravages of Time — Tags: , , , — merc @ 9:15 pm

original post by 523025473 (王振宁)

Phase 1: Jia Xu’s main strategy

A. The main encampment on the north shore and over the water: Wen Ping vs. Jiang Qin

1. Wen Ping commanded the Wall of Warships to block Jiang Qin’s fire ships.
2. Jiang Qin’s fire attack failed. His troops submerged into the river.
3. Wen Ping ordered a pursuit by small boats.

B. Side flanks of the main encampment on the north shore: Xiahou Yuan, Yue Jin, Yu Jin and Han Hao vs. Lü Meng

1. Cao Pi ordered the burning of an empty camp to lure the Sun naval forces onto shore.
2. Lü Meng’s troop landed, but his retreat route was cut off by Xiahou Yuan, and he was then surrounded Yue Jin, Yu Jin and Han Hao. Lü Meng fought to break through.

C. Haihun at the south shore: Jia Xu and Xun You vs. Lu Xun and Zhou Yu

1. Lu Xun saw that Red Cliff was on fire, so he prepared to circle around to Haihun to take it first, then attack Cao Ren from behind.
2. Jia Xu released Kan Ze’s “corpse”. Lu Xun’s fleet saw the body and realized the enemy has seen through their strategy, so they started to slow down the ships.
3. Jia Xu used catapults to bombard Lu Xun’s fleet just as Xun You’s fleet cut off Lu Xun’s retreat.
4. Lu Xun was forced to make an emergency landing and was attacked by Jia Xun’s main force laying in wait in the woods. Lu Xun’s troops were forced to start swimming.
5. Zhou Yu’s fleet came to rescue Lu Xun and had to engage Xun You’s fleet.

D. Yuzhang at the south shore: Cao Ren, Zhang Liao, and Xu Huang vs. Gan Ning and Cheng Pu

1. Cao Ren had superior numbers, but the Sun army fought back hard.
2. Cheng Pu’s troop pulled out, letting Cao Ren and Xu Huang enter the city.
3. Zhang Liao fought Gan Ning one-on-one.

E. Wulin’s rations depot at the north shore: Xu Chu and Xu Ding vs. Zhao Yun

1. Sima Yi used the real Kan Ze to trade back Hua Tuo from Liu Bei, then told Zhuge Liang that the rations depot is located at Wulin.
2. Zhao Yun infiltrated the Cao army, stole a command token, obtained the secret code for the checkpoints, then prepared to attack Wulin.
3. Xu Chu and Xu Ding laid an ambush in Wulin to take out the man who killed their father.

Phase 2: Zhou Yu’s main strategy

A. The main encampment at the north shore: secret infiltration

1. Huang Gai successfully escaped.
2. Jiang Qin’s troop reached the shore in the dark, then changed into Cao army uniforms to prepare their attack on Wulin.

B. Haihun at the south shore: burning Jia Xu

1. Zhou Yu pretended to be routed, and Xun You gave chase.
2. Zhou Yu retreated to a wider part of the stream and split up his fleet in half. Xun You divided his fleet into three units to pusue each half.
3. Zhou Yu set ablaze the hidden supply ships behind the warships, then let the tailwind and the wide stream carry the burning ships through gaps in Xun You’s blockade- targetting Jia Xu’s troops in Haihun’s shoreside woods.
4. Jia Xu’s troops were smoked out of hiding, and when Lu Xun’s troops swam back to shore to fight them, they were stuck.
5. Xun You used half of his fleet to rescue Jia Xu’s troop (the remainder ships should then be defeated by Zhou Yu), then joined Wen Ping’s troop in the retreat, until they meet up with Zhu Ling’s reinforcement.
6. Zhou Yu took full control of the battlefield on the river.

C. Yuzhang at the south shore: counter-siege

1. Han Dang, Zhu Zhi and Ling Tong’s twenty-thousand reinforcement troop counter-attacks Yuzhang. The Cao army had more men but they were running out of stamina. Plus the damaged city wall of Yuzhang made it too weak to defend with.
2. Cao Cao’s reinforcement (possibly led by Li Dian) was blocked (possibly by Cheng Pu).
3. Cao Ren had no choice but to withdraw from Yuzhang, and when he received news from Jia Xu along the way, he directed his troop to retreat to Jiangling.

D. Wulin’s rations depot and the side flanks of the main encampment at the north shore: full counter-strike

1. Xu Chu and Xu Ding were lured away by Zhao Yun. Jiang Qin’s troop then infiltrated the Wulin camp to burn the rations.
2. The news of Wulin on fire spread, and various troops (Yu Jin, Yue Jin) of the Cao army began to retreat.
3. Lü Meng’s army began to counter-attack. With the aid of easterly wind his troop set fire to the woods, forcing the Cao army to take the Huarong path.
4. Reinforcements under Sun Quan’s command landed at Red Cliff to pursue Cao Cao.

E. Huarong Path: cannon fodder Liu Bei

1. Prior to the battle, [Zhou Yu] allowed Zhuge Jin to release Zhuge Liang prior to the battle.
2. During the battle, [Zhou Yu] allowed Liu Bei to go to Red Cliff so that he and Cao Cao can wear each other down.

Phase 3: Zuo Ci’s main strategy

A. Collude with Sima Yi
He joined the Cao army through Sima Yi and was responsible for predicting the weather.

B. Use Kan Ze
He pretended to see through Kan Ze’s lies in order to win Cao Cao’s trust. But he secretly made a realistic corpse of Kan Ze so that he could release the real person.

C. Kill all the physicians in the army
Many of Cao Cao’s men were infected by the plague. Zuo Ci then killed all the army doctors during the chaotic retreat.

D. Assassinate Cao Cao

1. Cao Cao became sick from the plague but could not find a doctor. Zuo Ci then offered his service.
2. Zuo Ci used hallucinogenic incense to cause Cao Hong and the other officers to see things, while he prepared to strangle Cao Cao.

E. Four troops to attack the Xu capital
Zuo Ci assigned four disciples prior to the battle to infiltrate four troops made of Yuan Shao’s surrendered soldiers. They planned to cause trouble when they arrive at the capital to receive supplies.

Phase 4: Zhuge Liang’s main strategy

A. Wulin’s rations depot at the north shore: Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Zhao Yun vs. Xu Chu and Xu Ding

1. Liu Bei and Zhang Fei came to Zhao Yun’s aid and fended off the Xu brothers.
2. Liu Bei’s army headed to Huarong Path to aid Guan Yu.

B. Huarong Path: Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu and Guan Ping vs. Cao Cao, Sima Yi, Cao Hong and CHeng Yu

1. [Zhuge Liang] predicted the snow storm that cycled once every eleven years, so he distributed the rain boots, invented by Liu Bei, ahead of time.
2. He predicted that the Cao army will retreat through the Huarong Path, so he led Guan Yu’s troop to occupy the peaks of Mount Huarong that overlooked the exit.
3. He predicted that Zhou Yu’s army dare not pursue Cao Cao into the Huarong Path after the rain.
4. He predicted that many of Cao Cao’s men will surrender because of the cold and the hunger.

C. Diving the world in three

1. Find an excuse to let Cao Cao escape and abandon Liu Xie.
2. While Zhou Yu wages war on Jiangling, march south to conquer the four Commanderies in the Province of Jing.
3. Invade Shu from Jing to realize the tripartite.

Phase 5: Zhou Yu’s contingency plan

A. Completely abandon the pursuit and direct their momentum toward Jiangling.

B. At the same time, send a force (Lü Meng?) to take Yiling and apply pressure on the Province of Yi.

C. Use Jiangling as the base to attack the three commanderies in the Province of Jing.

D. Use Yiling as the base to invade the Shu territory and unify the southern region, such that he and Zhuge Liang each take half of the world.

E. Defeat Zhuge Liang, who would have taken on the ill reputation of controlling the Emperor [after Cao Cao’s death], as well as the man who would be worn down by the attempt to unify the northern region.
<font color=”#999999″>(at first I thought it was a typo to say Zhuge Liang, but <a href=”https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/28642254″>he clarified that he thinks Zhou Yu would expect Zhuge Liang to follow in Cao Cao’s footstep</a>)</font>

Phase 6: Guo Jia’s contingency plan

A. Zhu Ling

1. Assigned Zhu Ling to take a fleet to aid Xun You’s troop.
2. Sail to the rear of Huarong Path to save Cao Cao by surrounding Liu Bei’s main force.

B. Yang Xiu
Assigned Yang Xiu to frame Xun Yu.

C. Sima Yi
Allowed Sima Yi to take full control of army redeployment.

Phase 7: Jia Xu’s contingency plan

A. Rush to control Jiangling

1. Let part of his troops go with Xun You but ordered the rest to defend Jiangling.
2. Notify Cao Ren to regroup at Jiangling.
3. Convince Cao Ren to give up trying to save Cao Cao and go defend Yiling instead, while he himself would dig in at Jiangling.

B. Conserve his full strength and support Cao Pi

Phase 8: Sima Yi’s main strategy

A. Use Zuo Ci

1. Pretended to help Zuo Ci oppose Cao Cao and betray his teacher Kan Ze.
2. Gave Zuo Ci’s fake intel of insiders to Xun Yu, luring the latter to capture the wrong people and cause delays in operation. (speculation)
3. Gave real intel of insiders to Yang Xiu so as to use Cao Zhi’s influence to oppress Xun Yu. (speculation)
4. Killed Zuo Ci to rescue Cao Cao at the key moment, thus winning the trust of Cao Hong and the rest.

B. Trade back Hua Tuo

1. Save the real Kan Ze to trade back Hua Tuo from Liu Bei’s house-arrest.
2. Let Hua Tuo save Cao Cao after killing Zuo Ci.

C. Handshake with the Crouching Dragon

1. He knew Zhu Ling and Xun You’s fleet will use the rising water to surround Liu Bei from behind Guan Yu’s troop.
2. Pointed out the real goal behind Zhuge Liang’s tripartite, and agreed to support each other.
3. Retreated along with Zhu Ling and Xun You. Won Xiahou Dun’s trust after meeting up with him.

battle's initial deployment

battle’s initial deployment

fighting starts

fighting starts

ending stage of battle

battle deployment near the end

Addeundum: Differences with real geography

1. Red Cliff is on the south side of the river, not north
Chapter 414 stated that Cao Ren, Zhang Liao and Li Dian were on the other shore. Chapter 417 stated that Jia Xu was on the other shore. In the easterly wind, Lü Meng’s westward fleet landed from the starboard side while Lu Xun’s westward fleet looked at Red Cliff on their right. Hence both Red Cliff and Wulin must be on the north side of the Long River. But in reality, Red Cliff and Wulin faced across from each other, on the south and north side of the Long River, respectively.

2. Lu Xun couldn’t see the fire at Red Cliff when he’s at Haihun
In Chapter 414, Lu Xun saw the flames at Red Cliff as he prepared to sail past it and land at Haihun to attack Cao Ren from behind. But the distance between Haihun and Red Cliff is over two hundred kilometers, and Haihun is directly south of Sun Quan’s main camp at Chaisang. Therefore Lu Xun couldn’t land at Haihun by ships, nor could he see the fires at Red Cliff.

3. Jia Xu and Cao Ren couldn’t reach Jiangling
Jia Xu went to Jiangling right after being smoked out of Haihun by Zhou Yu. Cao Ren headed there too after his withdraw, then Jia Xu sent him to Yiling. But both Jiangling and Yiling are located north of the Long River, while Jia Xu and Cao Ren are on the south shore. Without ships to cross the river, it was impossible for them to reach Jiangling and Yiling.

4. Cao Pi and Yue Jin couldn’t reach Xiangyang
In chapter 414, Cao Pi was commanding troops at Red Cliff, then he withdrew to Xiangyang once the rain started pouring. In chapter 432, Yue Jin was in charge of defending the entrance of Huarong Path during Cao Cao’s retreat. In chapter 438, both Cao Pi and Yue Jin are in Xiangyang. In reality, a straight line between Wulin and Xiangyang would be over two hundred and seventy kilometers long, while one between Huarong and Xiangyang would be over two hundred and fifty kilometers long. It’s impossible for them to get there with the mobility of a routed Cao army at the time.

===== mini rant by the same poster =====

Who was key to the success of Zhou Yu’s plan? It’s Jiang Qin.
Prior to Zhou Yu’s landing, the only troops at the north shore belonged to Lü Meng (as bait) and Jiang Qin (to burn the rations).
Even if Lü Meng couldn’t last until Jiang Qin succeeds, as long as Wulin is set on fire, Cao Cao’s troops at the north shore would still retreat and allow Zhou Yu and Sun Quan’s troops to land.
But if Jiang Qin failed, Lü Meng’s troop would have been useless. His ships were cut off by Xiahou Yuan, so he couldn’t return to the water. His troop would be wrapped up like a dumpling by Yue Jin, Yu Jin and Han Hao, or be scattered and has to flee to Jiangxia or something. Even if Zhou Yu reclaims Haihun from Xun You and Jia Xu, and that Ling Tong and Han Dang secure Yuzhang from Cao Ren, it would have been a stalemate. The region north of the river would still be under Cao Cao’s total control, while the Sun army controls the rest, maintaining more or less the same power dynamic as prior to the battle.
And then Zhou Yu proceeded with his contingency plan to wipe out the straggling forces of Jia Xu, Cao Ren, Zhang Liao and Xu Huang at the south shore. And Cao Cao spared no effort to rescue his troops in the southeast.

Based on the plot of the comic, Jiang Qin succeeded because of three points.

One, Chen Mou hid the story design that the people of the southeast are skilled divers.

Two, Chen Mou nerfed the Cao army.

Three, he forgot about Zhang He.

The first point is kind of cheap/stingy, but it didn’t exceed the readers’ common expectation of a pleasant surprise. He foreshadowed Jiang Qin’s divers with Lu Xun’s divers and Huang Gai. So the reveal of Jiang Qin’s diving troop didn’t feel too sudden.

But point two and three feel overpowered/broken/preordained (?).
<font color=”#999999″>(I don’t understand 钦定 in this context)</font>
So Cao Cao knew Wulin’s position has been leaked, yet he still only assigned the Xu brothers to lay an ambush for Liu Bei’s troop. Xu Chu was good at melee while Xu Ding was good at surprise attacks; neither was commander material. Several of Cao Cao’s troops in the comic had unclear movements, like Cao Chun (appeared during the pre-battle meeting), Cao Hong (followed Cao Cao in the Huarong Path), and Xiahou Dun (went searching for Cao Cao in the hills). There was no explanation of their movement in the start of the battle. They didn’t appear in the siege against Lü Meng, nor anywhere else. Were they eating barbeque the whole time?

Cao Cao would use Yuan Shao’s surrendered troops as his reinforcements when he had Zhang He, Gao Lan and Zang Ba at his disposal. Other than Gao Lan, the historical record did include accounts of Zhang He and Zang Ba’s achievements after they submited to Cao Cao, who came to trust them. The historial records didn’t mention Zhang He, Gao Lan and Zang Ba at Red Cliff, but neither did it say they weren’t there. And since you’re a comic, there’s no need to make every detail historically accurate. Not to mention “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” already put Zhang He at Red Cliff. Had the commander of the reinforcements been Zhang He, Gao Lan or Zang Ba, Xun Yu would never have suspected them and ordered the wrong people in Cao Pi’s faction to be arrested, tripping over his own foot.

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