We caught up with with John Zhu about his experience making an epic podcast of a Chinese classical epic
For background on the Romance of Three Kingdoms and its relevance to North Korea, check out this previous blog post.
Here is our interview with John:
In doing this enormous project, you no doubt gained an even greater appreciation for and new perspectives on ROTK. Was there any thing that surprised you that perhaps you hadn't noticed before within the story?
A couple things, and both are related to the passage of time. The first thing that really struck me was how Liu Bei's greatest successes and failures were all packed into the last decade of his life. Even though I knew he was a late bloomer, doing the podcast helped put into focus just how late that was. He didn't conquer the Riverlands until about eight years before his death, and then just a year after he became emperor, he suffered his greatest defeat and then died the next year. It all came and went in the blink of an eye.
The other thing is how much the novel just glosses over the last two decades of the period once Shu was conquered. It was another 17 years after that before Wei managed to conquer Wu, but that was all compressed into one chapter. It was like Luo Guanzhong just lost interest once Shu was gone.
You probably get this question a lot, but I have to ask: among Wei, Shu, and Wu, do you have a preference for particular kingdom? Could you say something you admire about each of the kingdoms or their people?
When I was young, my favorite was Shu because they were supposed to be the good guys. But as I've grown older and over the course of doing this podcast, I must say I've really come to appreciate Wu. They really got downplayed for most of the second half of the novel, popping up only occasionally while the novel focused mostly on the conflicts between Wei and Shu. But Wu actually was the second largest kingdom and played the lead role in turning back Cao Cao at Red Cliff. It also outlasted Shu by a good 17 years. It always seemed like this scrappy kingdom that got no respect but really held its own.
As for the other two kingdoms, I think it was a testament to Zhuge Liang's administrative skills that somehow the people of Shu didn't rebel even though their leaders were waging war year after year. As for Wei, even though most of their officers for the second half of the novel were nameless schmoes, you get the feeling that they actually had the much deeper talent pool, because they kept getting new blood while Shu was trotting the same two or three guys for decades.
ROTK has hundreds of characters, are there any minor characters you think deserve more attention?
As I mentioned above, a number of those Wei officers from the second half of the novel probably played much more significant roles than their presence in the novel indicated. Also, the relationship of mutual admiration that existed between Yang Hu (Jin) and Lu Kang (Wu) near the end of the novel always felt like it merited greater attention, especially since Yang Hu was posted on the border for almost 10 years but got only a page or two in the book.
As I recall, there are some good one-liners and bold dialogue in ROTK, having spent so much time in the story, anything that stands out?
This is tough. There are so, so many to choose from. Just a few off the top of my head:
Dong Zhuo, writing to the court about doing something about the eunuch problem: 'Removing an abscess may be painful, but it’s better than leaving it and nourishing the disease.'
Zhuge Liang, after heaven rained on his plan to burn Sima Yi alive: 'Man may devise, but heaven decides.'
Zhang Fei to Liu Bei: 'This is a treacherous feast. It's best to not go.'
ROTK has spawned countless other media - TV series, cartoons, video games, board games, and, of course, this podcast - would you recommend any in particular?
The 1994 TV series was the first live-action adaptation I saw, so I'm biased for that one, even though its production quality is spotty at times. The 2010 remake took a little too much liberty with some storylines for me, but it has grown on me more on subsequent viewing. If anyone speaks Cantonese, I'd highly recommend the radio pingshu performance from the 1980s by Zhang Yuekai. This is the adaptation I really grew up on and part of the inspiration for the approach and style of the podcast.
I saw you are going to take on the Water Margin next. I'm really looking forward to that. If you take on a third Chinese Classic, which would you go for?
I try not to look too far ahead, so I'm pretty focused on the Water Margin right now. But if I were to attempt another podcast, after doing two lengthy novels, I might want to change it up and do something that's more a collection of shorter stories than one giant narrative.
Header image from Wikimedia Commons.