Article by Malcolm Aquino
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th-century historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. It is set in the turbulent years towards the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, starting in 169 AD and ending with the reunification of the land in 280.
The story – part history, part legend and part myth – covers the lives of feudal lords and their retainers, who tried to replace the dwindling Han Dynasty or restore it. While the novel follows 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 Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The novel deals with the plots, personal and military battles, intrigues, and struggles of these states to achieve dominance for almost 100 years.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is acclaimed as one of the “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature. The novel is among the most beloved works of literature in East Asia and its literary influence in the region has been immense. You can’t go two blocks without seeing reference to the novel, whether it’s shrines of Guan Yu or the countless games made using the setting and characters.
There are actually three written accounts of the time period called the Three Kingdoms period. There is the History of the Three Kingdoms, Annotations of the Three Kingdoms, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The first two are factual accounts of the events and people of the tumultuous time period. The third is a fictionalized version of the first two. Written during the Ming Dynasty, the novel takes much of the historical stuff and makes its cool. A perfect example of this is the character Xiahou Dun. During one battle, he manages to get shot in the eye. Rather than retreat or die, Xiahou Dun rips the arrow from his eye socket. Eye still attached to the arrow, he proceeds to eat the eye and return to battle. It is a moment of pure macho badassery and one that I will probably never forget. However, history is not always kind to badassery. The real Xiahou Dun did, in fact, get shot in the eye with an arrow, but he went on to serve as a civil servant and retired from military conquest. It is easy to see why Romance leads in terms of popularity and cultural importance. The blending of historical fact with historical fiction really draws you into the world. Everything that happens can be confirmed, it’s just the “how” that the author took liberties with.
“Every kingdom divided, must unite. Every kingdom united, must divide.” A poignant opening, one that rings true for the four volume, 1500+ page epic that is Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The novel opens up with a conflict called the Yellow Turban Rebellion. The Han emperor calls all of the heroes of China to crush the peasant rebellion and bring peace to the realm. Lords, generals, and commoners alike flock to the emperor’s call. It is here that we are introduced to our protagonists and antagonists. We meet Cao Cao, a famous general known for his cunning and ruthlessness. Liu Bei, a man with imperial blood and without land to rule, and Sun Jian, a lord from south of the Yang Zi River. These three form the bulk of the armies sent to fight the rebels. After many long and hard battles, due in large part to imperial incompetence, a power vacuum is left and the three lords, along with many smaller players, fight to gain control of China.
The novel can be broken down into two kinds of chapters. There are the political intrigue chapters, which usually involve meetings between characters and plotting against enemies. These chapters can get a bit slow if you are not into characters talking. As mentioned before, there are loads of characters so there were times when I couldn’t follow what was happening because I found myself asking “Who are any of these people?” It also doesn’t help that many scenes involve multiple people with the same surname, as politics of the day were nepotistic and family-oriented. The second type of chapter is the action scenes and, boy, are they eventful. Some of the best battles I’ve read have come from this novel, and they make a great payoff for chugging through the other chapters.
The number of characters, as mentioned before, can be daunting, but luckily the author did a great job in characterizing the important ones. You can hear Zhang Fei’s booming voice and see his bushy eyebrows. You know Zhou Yu and his ridiculously great looks (seriously, it takes two pages to describe him!). It’s easy to pick and choose sides based on who you love to read about and makes the novel more fun to read.
Speaking of choosing sides, the author shows a clear bias towards Shu Han. Liu Bei and his retinue are always described in a positive light, Cao Cao and the soldiers of Cao Wei are always described as stern, suspicious, and ruthless. Liu Bei’s actions are always justified, even if they are no different from the things that Cao Cao or Sun Quan do. Eastern Wu also disappears for most of the second half of the novel, until the last two chapters. You can feel the shoulder shrug from the author as you read about them. You can argue that the novel structure always pushes a protagonist vs. antagonist story, and that’s true, but when you are taking real history, it, in a way, takes away from the novel if you know an event happens a little different. Luckily, for the version I own, there are loads of notes and annotations explaining or giving context to scenes in the novel. Romance is a fantasized version of real events, so just keep that in mind when you read. So is Romance of the Three Kingdoms one of the first fantasy novels? I’d say no, because while there are many fantasy elements to the novel, especially anything involving the Taoist priest Zhuge Liang, much of the novel is just a retelling of actual events. As a counterpoint, series like A Song of Ice and Fire, heavily inspired by the War of the Roses that took place in medieval England, and others are inspired by historical events. Tolkien, for all his genius and creativity, and his seminal works are heavily inspired by World War 1 and Norse mythology. Romance of the Kingdoms, unlike those mentioned above, doesn’t change the name, places, or times of the histories. Those all stay intact, just colored in with new details and excitement.
The cultural impact is also something to examine. While certain fandoms, like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, have made a huge cultural impact on many Western countries, you will never find people who actually went to Hogwarts or have seen the Wall, because they are not real. Everything in Romance of the Three Kingdoms is mostly true with tangible records, and as a result, there are statues, shrines, and temples all dedicated to the characters and kingdoms of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There are no shrines built for the Lord of Light. At least not yet anyway…
You can find copies of Romance of the Three Kingdoms at any Xinhua Bookstore or the Qujiang Bookstore.
Malcolm Aquino has been exploring China for the last two years. If there is beautiful scenery and delicious food, chances are he’s been there.