The Romance of the Three Kingdoms - A Well-Loved Chinese Classic
When saying the names Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, although the surnames are different, yet we have come together as brothers. From this day forward, we shall join forces for a common purpose: to save the troubled and to aid the endangered. We shall avenge the nation above, and pacify the citizenry below. We seek not to be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. We merely hope to die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. May the Gods of Heaven and Earth attest to what is in our hearts. If we should ever do anything to betray our friendship, may heaven and the people of the earth both strike us dead.
- ‘Peach Garden Oath’, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a well-known Chinese historical novel. Written during the 14th century, this piece of literature is based on the historical Three Kingdoms period, which lasted from the latter part of the 2nd century AD to the second half of the 3rd century AD. Whilst the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on historical figures and actual events, these characters and incidents are also partly romanticized and dramatized. The result of this is a well-loved piece of literary work that has had a strong impact on generations of readers, as well as on Chinese culture, even till the present day.
Statues of (from left) Zhang Fei, Liu Bei and Guan Yu at Haw Par Villa, Singapore. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
A Historic Novel: Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The authorship of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is traditionally attributed to Luo Guanzhong, a Chinese writer who lived during the late Yuan and early Ming Dynasties. This novel is regarded as one of the Four Great Classic Novels in Chinese literature, the other three being the Water Margin , Journey to the West , and the Dream of the Red Chamber . The Romance of the Three Kingdoms consists of 120 chapters, and over 800,000 words. Additionally, over a thousand characters, the majority of whom are historical, are mentioned in the novel.
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The Rebellion Begins
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms begins with the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which was a peasant revolt whose leaders were inspired by Taoist teachings. Although the Han Dynasty succeeded in putting down the rebellion, it eventually suffered from a breakdown in central authority, as the last two emperors were mere puppets, first under Dong Zhuo, and then under Cao Cao, both of whom were warlords. Whilst Dong Zhuo became the most powerful man in China for a brief period of time, his tyrannous reign came to an end when he was assassinated by one of his subordinates.
Qing Dynasty Romance of the Three Kingdoms illustration of Dong Zhou. ( Public Domain )
Tyrannical Cao Cao
Cao Cao is one of the main characters in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms . Although Cao Cao served as the chancellor of the Han emperor, he was posthumously honored as Emperor Wu of Wei, as the state of Wei was established by his son, Cao Pi. The capital of this state was Luoyang (also the capital of the Eastern Han) and it controlled the northern part of China. In the novel, Cao Cao is generally portrayed as a cruel and ruthless tyrant. Nevertheless, he was also a brilliant strategist, and a capable administrator. In addition, he is noted for being an accomplished poet.
Mask of Cao Cao, Qing Dynasty, produced at Anshun, Guizhou; photographed by Mountain, at Shanghai Museum. ( Public Domain )
The Young Sun Quan
Another main character in the novel is Sun Quan, the ruler of Wu, which had been founded by his elder brother, Sun Ce. This state controlled much of southern and eastern China. When Sun Ce was assassinated, Sun Quan, who was only 18 years old at the time, became the new ruler of Wu. Despite his young age, Sun Quan proved himself to be a formidable ruler, which allowed him to turn the state of Wu into one of the Three Kingdoms. Sun Quan’s most important military victory was at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 209 AD. Cao Cao had planned to extend his power to the areas south of the Yangtze River. Although possessing numerical superiority, Cao Cao was defeated by an alliance formed between Sun Quan and Liu Bei.
Statue of Sun Quan, founding emperor of the state of Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period of China. (Dhugal Fletcher/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
The Benevolent Liu Bei
Liu Bei was the ruler of Shu, which controlled the southwestern part of China. As a distant member of the Han imperial family, Liu Bei is regarded to be the most legitimate contender to the throne. Moreover, he is perceived to be the most deserving as well. Unlike Cao Cao, Lu Bei is depicted as a benevolent ruler, and, unlike Sun Quan, who sided either with Wu or Shu depending on which benefitted him most, Liu Bei was a principled individual. It is due to his force of character that Liu Bei was able to attract such highly capable individuals as his sworn brothers Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, as well as the brilliant strategist Zhuge Liang.
The painting ‘Kongming Leaving the Mountains’ (detail), depicting Zhuge Liang leaving his rustic retreat to enter into the service of Liu Bei (both seen on horses). ( Public Domain )
The End of the Three Kingdoms
Although the states of Wei, Wu, and Shu were constantly at war with each other, none of them were able to gain complete control over China. As colorful as the maneuverings the three kingdoms may be, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms ends with fact that all three states were eventually conquered by the Sima family, who managed to unify China under the Jin Dynasty.
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The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has had a lasting impact on generations of readers and on Chinese culture. For instance, some of the stories in the novel are included in the repertoire of the Beijing opera, and adaptations have also been made in more modern media, such as films, television series, and video games. Additionally, many popular Chinese sayings have their origins in the novel, including ‘speak of Cao Cao, and Cao Cao arrives’ (the equivalent of ‘speak of the devil’), and ‘losing the lady and having the army crippled’ (meaning ‘to make double losses’).
‘Borrowing arrows with straw boats’ ( 草船借箭), portrait at the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing. (Shizhao/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top image: "Three visits to the thatched cottage" ( 三顧茅廬), the second visit is depicted here. Portrait at the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing. This is a scene from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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