Remaking History: The Shu and Wu Perspectives in the Three Kingdoms Period

Abstract

Of the three powers—Wei, Shu, and Wu—that divided China for the better part of the third century, Wei has received the most attention in the standard literary historical accounts. In a typical book of Chinese literary history in any language, little, if anything, is said about Wu and Shu. This article argues that the consideration of the literary production of Shu and Wu is crucial to a fuller picture of the cultural dynamics of the Three Kingdoms period. The three states competed with one another for the claim to political legitimacy and cultural supremacy, and Wu in particular was in a position to contend with Wei in its cultural undertakings, notably in the areas of history writing and ritual music. This article begins with an overview of Shu and Wu literary production, and moves on to a more detailed discussion of Wu’s cultural projects, both of which were intended to assert Wu’s legitimacy and cultural power vis-à-vis Wei and Shu’s claims to cultural and political orthodoxy. Ultimately, this article implicitly asks the question of how to write literary history when there is scant material from the period under question, and suggests that we perform textual excavations and make use of what we have to try and reconstruct, as best as we can, what once was. A good literary history of the Chinese medieval period, the age of manuscript culture and that of heavy textual losses and transfigurations, should be written with the awareness of the incomplete and imperfect nature of the data we do have, and incorporate the phenomenon of textual losses and transfigurations as well as some reflections on the underlying reasons into its narrative and critical inquiry.

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