Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, is a historical novel based on the events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, starting in 169 and ending with the reunification of the land in 280.
The story (part historical, part legend, and part myth) chronicles the lives of feudal lords and their retainers, who tried to replace the dwindling Han Dynasty or restore it. While the novel actually follows literally hundreds of characters, the focus is mainly on the three power blocs that emerged from the remnants of the Han Dynasty, and would eventually form the three states of Wei, Shu, and Wu. The novel deals with the plots, personal and army battles, intrigues, and struggles of these states to achieve dominance for almost 100 years. This novel also gives readers a sense of how the Chinese view their history in a cyclical lense. The famous opening lines of the novel summarize this view: It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide ( ).
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature; it has a total of 800,000 words and nearly a thousand dramatic characters (mostly historical) in 120 chapters. The novel is among the most beloved works of literature in East Asia, and it is arguably the most widely read historical novel in late imperial and modern China.
Myths from the Three Kingdoms era existed as oral traditions before written compilations. With their focus on the history of Han Chinese, the stories grew in popularity during the reign of the Mongol emperors of the Yuan Dynasty. During the succeeding Ming Dynasty, an interest in plays and novels resulted in further expansions and retelling of the stories.
The earliest attempt to combine these stories into a written work was Sanguozhi Pinghua (), published sometime between 1321 and 1323. This version combined themes of legend, magic, and morality to appeal to the peasant class. Elements of reincarnation and karma were woven into this version of the story.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is traditionally attributed to Luo Guanzhong, who lived sometime between 1315 and 1400 (late Yuan to early Ming period). This theory is extensively developed in Andrew Plaks' Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. It was written in partly vernacular and partly Classical Chinese and was considered the standard text for 300 years. The author made use of available historical records, including the Records of the Three Kingdoms compiled by Chen Shou, which covered events from the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184 to the unification of the Three Kingdoms under the Jin Dynasty in 280. The novel also includes material from Tang Dynasty poetic works, Yuan Dynasty operas and his own personal interpretation of elements such as virtue and legitimacy. The author combined this historical knowledge with a gift for storytelling to create a rich tapestry of personalities, and initially published it in 24 volumes. It was copied by hand in manuscripts until first printed in 1522 as Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi. In the 1660s, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor in the Qing Dynasty, Mao Lun () and his son Mao Zonggang () significantly edited the text, fitting it into 120 chapters, and abbreviating the title to Sanguozhi Yanyi. The text was reduced from 900,000 to 750,000 characters; significant editing was done for narrative flow; use of third party poems was reduced and shifted from conventional verse to finer pieces; and most passages praising Cao Cao's advisers and generals were removed. Scholars have long debated whether the Maos' viewpoint was anti-Qing (identifying Southern Ming remnants with Shu-Han) or pro-Qing.
This novel reflects Confucian values that were prominent at the time it was written. According to Confucian moral standards, loyalty to one's family, friends, and superiors are important measures for distinguishing good and bad people.
One of the greatest achievements of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the extreme complexity of its stories and characters. The novel contains numerous secondary stories. The following consists of a summary of the central plot, and well-known highlights in the story.
Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, silk painting by Sekkan Sakurai (1715 1790), depicting Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. This painting is usually hung in the offices of businessmen to show that they are trustworthy, just as these brothers were to each other.
Yellow Turban Rebellion
In the final years of the Han Dynasty, incompetent eunuchs deceive the emperor and persecute good officials, and the government becomes extremely corrupt on all levels, leading to widespread deterioration of the empire. During the reign of the penultimate Han sovereign, Emperor Ling, the Yellow Turban Rebellion breaks out under the leadership of Zhang Jue (a.k.a. Zhang Jiao).
The rebellion is barely suppressed by troops under the command of He Jin, General-in-Chief of the imperial armies. Fearing his growing power, the eunuchs led by Zhang Rang lure He Jin into the palace and murder him. He Jin's stunned guards, led by Yuan Shao, respond by charging into the palace to kill all eunuchs for revenge, which turns into indiscriminate slaughter. In the ensuing chaos, the child Emperor Shao and the Prince of Chenliu disappear from the palace.
Dong Zhuo's reign of terror
The missing emperor and prince are found later by soldiers of the warlord Dong Zhuo, who proceeds to seize control of the imperial capital Luoyang under the pretext of protecting the emperor. Dong later deposes Emperor Shao and replaces him with the Prince of Chenliu, who becomes known as Emperor Xian. Dong usurps state power and starts a reign of terror in which innocents are persecuted and the common people suffer. Wu Fu and Cao Cao attempt to assassinate Dong Zhuo but both fail.
Cao Cao manages to escape and issues an imperial edict in the emperor's name to all regional warlords and governors, calling them to rise up against Dong Zhuo. Under Yuan Shao's leadership, eighteen warlords form a coalition force in a campaign against Dong Zhuo, but undermined by poor leadership and conflict of interest, they only manage to drive Dong from Luoyang to Chang'an. Dong Zhuo is eventually betrayed and killed by his foster son L Bu in a dispute over the beautiful maiden Diaochan.
Conflict among the various warlords and nobles
In the meantime, the empire is already disintegrating into civil war. Sun Jian finds the Imperial Seal and keeps it secretly for himself, further weakening royal authority. Without a strong central government, warlords begin to rise and fight each other for land, plunging China into a state of anarchy. In the north, Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan are at war, and in the south, Sun Jian and Liu Biao. Many others, even those without title or land, such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei, are also starting to build up power.
Cao Cao rescues Emperor Xian from Dong Zhuo's followers and establishes the new imperial court in Xuchang. Cao Cao proceeds to defeat his rivals such as L Bu, Yuan Shu and Zhang Xiu before scoring a tactical victory over Yuan Shao in the Battle of Guandu despite being vastly outnumbered. Through his conquests, Cao unites the Central Plains and northern China under his rule, and the lands he controlled would serve as the foundation for the state of Cao Wei in the future.
Sun Ce builds a dynasty in Jiangdong
Meanwhile, an ambush had violently concluded Sun Jian's life in a war with Liu Biao, fulfilling Sun's own rash oath to heaven. His eldest son Sun Ce delivers the Imperial Seal as a tribute to the rising royal pretender, Yuan Shu of Huainan, in exchange for reinforcements. Sun secures himself a state in the rich riverlands of Jiangdong, on which the state of Eastern Wu will eventually be founded. Tragically, Sun Ce also dies at the pinnacle of his career from illness under stress of his terrifying encounter with the ghost of Yu Ji, a venerable magician whom he had falsely accused and executed in jealousy. However, his younger brother Sun Quan, who succeeds him, proves to be a capable and charismatic ruler. Sun, assisted by skilled advisors Zhou Yu and Zhang Zhao, inspires hidden talents such as Lu Su to join his service, and builds up a strong military force.
Liu Bei's ambition
Liu Bei recruiting Zhuge Liang, from Visiting the Thatched Hut Three Times, a Ming Dynasty painting by Dai Jin (1388-1462).
Liu Bei, along with his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, swear allegiance to the Han Dynasty in the famous Oath of the Peach Garden and pledge to do their best for the country. However, their goals and ambitions are not realized until the later part of the novel. Liu is not recognized for his efforts in quelling the Yellow Turban Rebellion and is merely appointed as a junior magistrate. They join Gongsun Zan and participate in the campaign against Dong Zhuo. Liu Bei becomes the governor of Xu Province after Tao Qian passes on the post to him. Liu loses the province when L Bu seizes control of it with the help of a defector and he joins Cao Cao in defeating L at the Battle of Xiapi. While Cao Cao subtly reveals his intention to usurp state power, Liu Bei is officially recognised by Emperor Xian as the Imperial Uncle and seen as a saviour to help the emperor deal with Cao.
Liu Bei leaves Cao Cao eventually and seizes Xu Province from Cao's newly appointed governor Che Zhou. In retaliation, Cao attacks Xu Province and defeats Liu, forcing Liu to seek refuge under Yuan Shao for a brief period of time. Liu finds a new base in Runan after leaving Yuan but is defeated by Cao Cao's forces once again. He retreats to Jing Province to join Liu Biao and is placed in charge of Xinye. At Xinye, Liu recruits the genius strategist Zhuge Liang personally and builds up his forces.
Battle of Red Cliffs
Cao Cao declares himself chancellor and leads his troops to attack southern China after uniting the north. He is defeated twice at Xinye by Liu Bei's forces but Liu loses the city as well. Liu leads his men and the civilians of Xinye on an exodus southwards and they arrive at Jiangxia (present-day Yunmeng County, Hubei) where Liu establishes a foothold against Cao Cao.
To resist Cao Cao, Liu Bei sends Zhuge Liang to persuade Sun Quan to form an alliance. Zhuge succeeds in his diplomatic mission and remains in Jiangdong as a temporary advisor to Sun Quan. Sun places Zhou Yu in command of the armies of Jiangdong (Eastern Wu) in preparation for an upcoming war with Cao Cao. Zhou feels that Zhuge will become a future threat to Eastern Wu and he tries to kill Zhuge on a few occasions but he fails and decides to co-operate with Zhuge for the time being. Cao Cao is defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs by the allied forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei and he is forced to retreat north.
Traditional site of the Red Cliff
Sun Quan and Liu Bei begin vying for control of Jing Province after their victory and Liu seizes the province from Cao Cao after following Zhuge Liang's strategy. Sun Quan is unhappy and sends emissaries to ask Liu Bei for Jing Province, but Liu dismisses the envoys each time with different excuses. Sun uses some strategies proposed by Zhou Yu to take the land, of which the most famous is the "Beauty Scheme." Sun intends to lure Liu Bei to Jiangdong to marry his sister Lady Sun and hold Liu hostage to exchange his freedom for Jing Province, but the plot fails and the newly-wed couple return home safely. Zhou Yu tries to take Jing Province repeatedly but his plans are foiled three times by Zhuge Liang.
Liu Bei's takeover of Yi Province
After Zhou Yu's death, relations between Liu Bei and Sun Quan gradually deteriorate but not to the point of open conflict. In accordance with Zhuge Liang's Longzhong Plan, Liu Bei leads his troops into Yi Province in the west and takes over the land from the incompetent noble Liu Zhang. By then, Liu Bei rules a vast area of land from Jing Province to Yi Province in the west, which will serve as the foundation for the future state of Shu Han. He proclaims himself "King of Hanzhong" after his victory over Cao Cao in the Hanzhong Campaign.
At the same time, Cao has also been granted the title of "King of Wei" by the emperor and Sun Quan became known as the "Duke of Wu". In the east, Sun Quan and Cao Cao's forces clash at the Battle of Ruxukou and Battle of Xiaoyao Ford with victories and defeats for both sides. The situation among the three major powers reaches a stalemate after this until Cao Cao's death.
Death of Guan Yu
Meanwhile, Sun Quan plots to take Jing Province after tiring of Liu Bei's repeated refusals to hand the land over. He makes peace with Cao Cao and becomes a vassal of Cao with the title of "King of Wu". Guan Yu, who is in charge of Jing Province, leads his troops to attack Cao Ren in the Battle of Fancheng. Sun Quan sends L Meng to lead his troops to seize Jing Province while Guan is away, as part of his secret agreement with Cao Cao. Guan is caught off guard and loses Jing Province before he realizes it. He retreats to Maicheng, where he is heavily surrounded by Sun Quan's forces, while his army gradually shrinks in size as many of his troops desert or surrender to the enemy. In desperation, Guan attempts to break out of the siege but fails and is captured in an ambush. He is executed on Sun Quan's orders after refusing to renounce his loyalty to Liu Bei.
Shortly after Guan Yu's death, Cao Cao dies of a brain tumor and his son Cao Pi usurps the throne, effectively ending the Han Dynasty and Cao renames his new dynasty "Cao Wei". In response, Liu Bei proclaims himself emperor, to carry on the bloodline of the Han Dynasty. While Liu Bei is planning to avenge Guan Yu, his other sworn brother Zhang Fei is assassinated in his sleep by his subordinates, who have defected to Sun Quan.
Battle of Xiaoting
As Liu Bei leads a large army to attack Sun Quan to avenge Guan Yu, Sun attempts to appease Liu by offering him the return of Jing Province. Liu's advisers, including Zhuge Liang, urge him to accept Sun's tokens of peace, but Liu persists in vengeance. After initial victories, a series of strategic mistakes due to the impetuosity of Liu leads to the cataclysmic defeat of Shu Han in the Battle of Xiaoting. Lu Xun, the commander of Sun Quan's forces, refrains from pursuing the retreating Shu Han troops after encountering Zhuge Liang's Stone Sentinel Maze.
An artist's impression of Zhuge Liang holding his trademark feather fan.
Liu Bei dies in Baidicheng from illness shortly after his defeat. In a moving final conversation between Liu on his deathbed and Zhuge Liang, Liu grants Zhuge the authority to take the throne if his successor Liu Shan proves to be an inept ruler. Zhuge refuses and swears that he will remain faithful to the trust Liu Bei had placed in him.
Zhuge Liang's campaigns
After Liu Bei's death, as advised by Sima Yi, Cao Pi induces several forces, including Sun Quan, turncoat Shu general Meng Da, Meng Huo of the Nanman and the Qiang tribes, to attack Shu Han, in coordination with a Cao Wei army. Zhuge Liang manages to send the five armies retreating without any bloodshed. An envoy from Shu Han named Deng Zhi subsequently persuades Sun Quan to renew the former alliance with Shu Han. Zhuge Liang personally leads a southern campaign against the Nanman barbarian king Meng Huo. Meng is defeated and captured seven times, but Zhuge releases him each time and allows him to come back for another battle, in order to win Meng over. The seventh time, Meng refuses to leave and decides to swear allegiance to Shu Han forever.
After pacifying the south, Zhuge Liang leads the Shu Han army on five military expeditions to attack Cao Wei in order to restore the Han Dynasty. However, Zhuge's days are numbered as he had been suffering from chronic tuberculosis all along, and his condition worsens under stress from the campaigns. His last significant victory over Cao Wei is probably the defection of Jiang Wei, a promising young general who is well-versed in military strategy. Zhuge Liang dies of illness at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains while leading a stalemate battle against his nemesis, the Cao Wei commander Sima Yi. Before his death, Zhuge orders his trusted generals to build a statue of himself and use it to scare away the enemy in order to buy time for the Shu Han army to retreat safely.
End of the Three Kingdoms
The long years of battle between Shu Han and Cao Wei sees many changes in the ruling Cao family in Cao Wei. The influence of the Caos weakens after the death of Cao Rui and the state power of Cao Wei eventually falls into the hands of the Sima clan, headed by Sima Yi's sons Sima Shi and Sima Zhao.
In Shu Han, Jiang Wei inherits Zhuge Liang's legacy and continues to lead another nine campaigns against Cao Wei for a bitter three decades, but he fails to achieve any significant success. Moreover, the ruler of Shu Han, Liu Shan, is incompetent and places faith in treacherous officials, further leading to the decline of the kingdom. Shu Han is eventually conquered by Cao Wei. Jiang Wei attempts to restore Shu Han with the help of Zhong Hui but their plans are exposed and both of them are killed by Sima Zhao's troops. After the fall of Shu Han in 263, Sima Zhao's son Sima Yan forces the last Wei ruler, Cao Huan, to abdicate his throne in 265, officially ending the Cao Wei dynasty. Sima Yan, having already been proclaimed the Prince of Jin in the previous year, then formally establishes the Jin Dynasty.
In Eastern Wu, there has been internal conflict among the nobles ever since the death of Sun Quan, with Zhuge Ke and Sun Lin making attempts to usurp state power. Although stability is restored temporarily, the last Wu ruler Sun Hao appears to be a tyrant who does not make any efforts to strengthen his kingdom. Eastern Wu, the last of the Three Kingdoms, is finally conquered by Jin after a long period of struggle in the year 280, thus marking the end of the near century-long era of civil strife known as the Three Kingdoms period.
The novel draws from historical sources, including Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms. Other major influences include Liu Yiqing's Shishuo xinyu or A New Account of Tales of the World, published in 430, and the Sanguozhi Pinghua, a chronological collection of eighty fictional sketches starting with the peach garden oath and ending with Zhuge Liang's death.
Some fifty or sixty Yuan and early Ming plays about the Three Kingdoms are known to have existed, and their material is almost entirely fictional, based on thin threads of actual history. The novel is thus a return to greater emphasis on history, compared to these dramas. The novel also shifted towards better acknowledgement of the Southland's historical importance, while still betraying some prejudice against them. Zhang Xuecheng famously wrote that the novel was 70% fact and 30% fiction. The fictional parts are culled from different sources, including unofficial histories, folk stories, the Sanguozhi Pinghua, and also the author's own imagination. Nonetheless, the description of the social conditions and the logic that the characters use is accurate to the Three Kingdoms period, creating "believable" situations and characters, even if they are not historically accurate.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, like the dramas and folk stories of its day, features Liu Bei and his kingdom as the protagonist; hence the depiction of the people in Shu-Han was glorified. The antagonists, Cao Cao, Sun Quan and their kingdoms, on the other hand, were often denigrated. This suited the political climate in the Ming Dynasty, unlike in the Jin Dynasty, when Cao Wei was considered the legitimate successor to the Han Dynasty.
Some non-historical scenes in the novel have become well-known and subsequently became a part of traditional Chinese culture.
Pang De during the Battle of Fancheng. From a Qing Dynasty edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms Dominant themes of the novel include: the rise and fall of the ideal liege (Liu Bei) finding the ideal minister (Zhuge Liang); the conflict between the ideal liege (Liu Bei) and the consummate villain (Cao Cao); and the cruelties and injustice of feudal or dynastic government.
Critics have argued that Luo Guanzhong's initial pronouncement "It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide" epitomizes the main theme of the novel. Taking this as a locus for study of the classic has been disputed, however. Further, "division" and "unity" for Luo are not of equal importance. Though the work shows the journey from unity to division in the final years of the Han Dynasty, that is only the beginning of the book. "The author expended most of his ink on the focal point of his description the difficult transition from 'division' to 'unity' and the great achievements that came out of the bitter struggle by various heroes to reunify the Chinese empire."
Besides the famous oath, many Chinese proverbs in use today are derived from the novel:
|Brothers are like limbs, wives are like clothing. Torn clothing can be repaired; how can broken limbs be mended?
||It means that wives, like clothing, are replaceable if lost but the same does not hold true for one's brothers (or friends).
|Liu Bei "borrows" Jing Province borrowing without returning.
||This proverb describes the situation of a person borrowing something without ever returning it.
|Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives.
||Equivalent to speak of the devil. Describes the situation of a person appearing precisely when being spoken about.
|Three reeking tanners (are enough to) overcome one Zhuge Liang.
|Three inferior people can overpower a superior person when they combine their strengths.
|Losing the wife and having the army crippled. (The "wife" lost here was actually Sun Quan's sister. Zhou Yu's plan to capture Liu Bei by means of a false marriage proposal failed and the women became Liu's actual wife after Zhou's defeat. See the next proverb below.)
||Making double losses in a deal or losing on both sides of it.
|Eastern Wu arranges a false marriage that turns into a real one.
||When a plan to falsely offer something backfires with the result that the thing originally offered is appropriated by the intended victim of the hoax.
|The young shouldn't read Water Margin, and the old shouldn't read Three Kingdoms.
||The former depicts the lives of outlaws and their defiance of the social system and may have a negative influence on adolescent boys, as well as the novel's depiction of gruesome violence. The latter presents every manner of stratagem and fraud and may tempt older readers to engage in such thinking.
The writing style adopted by Romance of the Three Kingdoms was part of the emergence of written vernacular during the Ming period, as part of the so-called "Four Masterworks" (si da qishu).
Romance of the Three Kingdoms recorded stories of a Buddhist monk called Pujing ( ), who was a friend of Guan Yu. Pujing made his first appearance during Guan's arduous journey of crossing five passes and slaying six generals, in which he warned Guan of an assassination plot. As the novel was written in the Ming Dynasty, more than 1000 years after the era, these stories showed that Buddhism had long been a significant ingredient of the mainstream culture and may not be historically accurate. Luo Guanzhong preserved these descriptions from earlier versions of the novel to support his portrait of Guan as a faithful man of virtue. Guan was since then respectfully addressed as "Lord Guan" or Guan Gong.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been translated into English by numerous scholars. The first known translation was performed in 1907 by John G. Steele and consisted of a single chapter excerpt that was distributed in China to students learning English at Presbyterian missionary schools. Z.Q. Parker published a 1925 translation containing four episodes from the novel including the events of the Battle of Red Cliffs, while Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang published excerpts in 1981 including chapters 43 50. A complete and faithful translation of the novel was published in two volumes in 1925 by Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor. The translation was well-written, but lacked any supplementary materials such as maps or character lists that would aide Western readers; a 1959 reprint was published that included maps and an introduction by Roy Andrew Miller to assist foreign readers. In 1976, Moss Roberts published an abridged translation containing one fourth of the novel including maps and more than 40 woodblock illustrations from three Chinese versions of the novel. Roberts's abridgement is reader-friendly, being written for use in colleges and to be read by the general public. After decades of work, Roberts published a full translation in 1991 complete with an Afterword, eleven maps, a list of characters, titles, terms, and offices, and almost 100 pages of notes from Mao Zonggang's commentaries and other scholarly sources. Roberts's complete translation remains faithful to the original; it is reliable yet still matches the tone and style of the classic text. Yang Ye, a professor in Chinese Literature at the UC Riverside, wrote in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English (1998) that Roberts's translation "supersedes Brewitt-Taylor's translation and will no doubt remain the definitive English version for many years to come." Robert's translation was republished in 1995 by the Foreign Languages Press without the illustrations. 
The story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been told in numerous forms including television series, manga and video games.
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