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Four great classical novels 四大名著 (sìdàmíngzhù) are commonly regarded as the most influential of pre-modern Chinese fiction. Dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, they are well known to most Chinese readers. In chronological order, they are:

  • 《水浒传》(shuǐhǔ zhuàn) Outlaws of the Marsh (14th century)
  • 《三国演义》(sānguó yǎnyì) Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel (14th century)
  • 《西游记》(xīyóu jì) Journey to the West (16th century)
  • 《红楼梦》(hónglóu mèng) A Dream of the Red Mansions (18th century).

Link: Texts in this unit also link to the Social Sciences area of study, unit The Grandeur of China as they are famous literary works about the glories of nature.

Unit: The Art of War (Times of crisis)

1. Empty fort strategy 《 空城计》

Adapted from Three Kingdoms: A historical novel.

Synopsis: Commander Zhuge Liang, also known as Kongming (诸葛亮,字孔明), was in an untenable position after a significant defeat. He needed to defend the town of Xicheng, with only a few officers and 2500 soldiers, against the Wei commander Sima Yi’s superior force of 150000 men. So Zhuge Liang employed a strategem.

He ordered all banners and flags to be hidden, and the soldiers to stay still and quiet. He also ordered the four gates to be opened and had some soldiers disguised as civilians sweeping the streets while he sat high on a platform of the fortress calmly playing his zither with two children beside him.

Sima Yi was puzzled by this scene. Knowing Zhuge Liang to be an extremely prudent military tactician who rarely took risks, he suspected that entering the apparently empty city would draw his troops into an ambush. So he retreated, rather than risk being set up.

Thus Zhuge Liang single-handedly fended off 15000 soldiers with just his zither and an empty fort. Later, this strategy became known as 空城计 (Empty Fort Strategy)

Text: 《空城计》《中文》教材第十册第十课第100页

Alternative text 1: Kong Ming’s ingenious scheme for Sima Yi’s retreat
人教版课标本《语文》第十册选读课文7 鲁教版五年级上册《语文》第四组课文的补充阅读教材

Alternative text 2: 《空城计》
Resources: 罗贯中和《三国演义》

Link: This resource is also part of The Arts area of study, unit Beijing Opera.

2. Yang Zirong seized on the issue 《杨子荣借题发挥》

Adapted from Tracks in the Snowy Forest / “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”

Tracks in the Snowy Forest is the original novel for the 1970 Beijing opera film “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”, directed by Xie Tieli. As one of the key works of the Cultural Revolution, this is one of the most watched films of all time. Official Chinese government statistics claim a total audience of 7.3 billion to the end of 1974, which suggests that every man, woman and child in China saw the film over seven times.

Synopsis: Yang Zirong ventured undercover into the bandits’ lair and was accepted. However, the cunning and suspicious bandit Zuo Shandiao (Vulture) was not completely assured of his loyalty and decided to test him further …

At dawn Yang Zirong suddenly heard gunshots and yelling coming from the northeast hills. He and seven of the bandit chiefs ran outside. Zuo Shandiao was ahead of all of them, and two ordinary bandits were shouting: "The enemy is coming!"

Yang Zirong thought it could be his troops attacking recklessly, though the result would be disastrous. But he also wondered if the Vulture had ordered military exercises to increase the vigilance of the bandits, or to further test Yang himself. So he decided to perfect his cover. As another round of intense gunfire sounded, Yang Zirong told Zuo Shandiao: “I will go ahead to take command”. He strode toward the gunfire, and could soon see that it was indeed an exercise. He therefore decided to kill a few bandits to show off his ability in front of Zuo Shandiao and to gain his trust.

Text: 《杨子荣借题发挥》语文S版第九册第六单元第28课

Beijing Opera film excerpts (audio only):

Advice for teachers: “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” has always been very popular in the classic Beijing Opera repertoire. Teachers may also like to search for video clips of “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” and make sure to locate the Xie Tieli film, not clips for the Brian Eno song.

Link: This resource is also part of The Arts area of study, unit The Arts Unit: Beijing Opera.

3. Jingyang Ridge 《景阳冈》

Adapted from Outlaws of the Marsh.

Synopsis: Wu Song stopped at a tavern near Jingyang Ridge, where a large sign read "Three Bowls Do Not Cross Ridge" (三碗不过岗). The waiter explained that their strong wine makes people drunk after only three bowls, and then it is not safe to cross the ridge as there is a man-eating tiger there. Wu Song remained sober after drinking three bowls, but he continued drinking and after 18 bowls of wine was no longer sober. Despite the waiter’s warnings, Wu Song set off to cross Jingyang Ridge.

On the road he saw an official warning sign, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to turn back. He encountered a ferocious tiger, broke his staff early in the fight, and finally killed the beast by pinning it to the ground and bashing its head repeatedly with his bare fists. Wu Song made his name by this heroic deed.

Text: 《景阳冈》  人教版课标本第十册第20课  浙教版第十二册第16课  鲁教版第九册第15课  语文A版第十二册第17课  人教版第十二册第13课

Alternative text: Wu Song Killing the Tiger 《武松打虎》  沪教版第七册第21课  语文S版第九册第29课   长春版第十一册第八组

Advice for teachers: In “Jingyang Ridge”, Chinese folk hero Wu Song was forced to kill a tiger in self defence. In the film, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” (in an incident preceding Extract 1, “Yang Zirong seized on the issue”), Yang Zirong had to kill a tiger while disguised as a bandit and making his way to the bandits’ headquarters.

Why do the heroes have to battle with the tigers? Readers, especially advocates of the protection of wild animals and endangered species, face challenges in appreciating the two Chinese works on killing tigers. Students can reflect on their own positions on the issue and on whether they share beliefs with the authors.

4. Borrow arrows with thatched boats 《草船借箭》

Adapted from Three Kingdoms: A historical novel

Synopsis: The story is about the stratagem behind one of the greatest military upsets in history. Zhou Yu, commander-in-chief of Wu, ordered his subordinate, Zhuge Liang, of whom he was jealous, to make 100,000 arrows within ten days. Zhuge Liang, also known as Kongming (诸葛亮,字孔明, committed to make them within three days, but Zhou undermined his ability to complete the task by giving instructions not to prepare any arrow-making materials for Zhuge Liang.

Zhuge Liang, however, borrowed 20 boats from another part of the army, outfitting them with straw bunchesalong both sides. Under cover of darkness, the boats, each with 30 soldiers, sailed toward the enemy (Cao Cao) camp, then the soldiers shouted and beat drums to fake a pre-dawn attack. With thick fog on the river, the Cao gathered their archers and shot towards the noise. When the straw bunches were thick with arrows, Zhuge Liang and his soldiers returned to port laden with arrows.

Text: 《草船借箭》  人教版课标本第十册第19课  语文A版第九册第23课  鲁教版第九册第14课  人教版第十二册第11课  浙教版第十册第2课; 改编自罗贯中《三国演义》第四十六回

Audio text (mp3 format): 《草船借箭》——语文A版五年级上册课文朗读 mp3格式,语文音像出版社提供

Alternative text: Kongming borrowing arrows 《孔明借箭》 语文S版第十册第六单元第28课 f٘教版第十一册第6课 节选自罗贯中《三国演义》第四十六回“用奇谋孔明借箭,献密计黄盖受刑”的前半部分,有删改。

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