Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Traditional Chinese: 三國演義; Simplified Chinese: 三国演义; pinyin: sānguó yǎnyì), written by Luo Guanzhong in the fourteenth century, is a Chinese historical novel based upon events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 C.E.). It is acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Written partly in the vernacular and partly in Classical Chinese, the book is based on the earlier [[Chronicles of Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Zhi) compiled by Chen Shou. The oldest existing edition was written in 1494 and has two volumes and 242 chapters.
The epic story begins in the last years of the Han Dynasty and covers the turbulent period during which various warlords and pretenders to the throne waged constant wars and divided China into three separate kingdoms before it was finally reunited under the Jin dynasty in 265 C.E. The novel, distinguished by the extreme complexity of its stories and characters, is two-thirds historical fact and one-third realistic fiction. It reflects the Confucian values which were prominent in China at the time, according to which loyalty to family, friends, and superiors was a measure of moral character. Many of the episodes could serve as material for full-length novels in their own right and have provided material for Asian popular literature, drama, Beijing opera, and poetry for centuries.
Stories from the Three Kingdoms period existed as oral traditions before any written compilations. In these popular stories, the characters typically took on exaggerated and mythical characteristics, often becoming immortals or supernatural beings with magical powers. With their focus on the history of Han Chinese, the stories grew in popularity during the reign of the foreign Mongol emperors of the Yuan Dynasty. During the succeeding Míng 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 Sān Guó Zhì Píng Huà (三國誌評話), literally "Story of Sanguozhi" (Chronicles of Three Kingdoms), published sometime between 1321 and 1323. This version combined themes of magic, myth, and morality to appeal to the peasant class. Elements of reincarnation and karma were woven into this version of the story.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms as we know it today is attributed to Luo Guanzhong, and was written between 1330 and 1400 (late Yuán to early Ming period). It was written partly in Vernacular Chinese and partly in Classical Chinese, and was considered the standard text for 300 years. Luo made use of available historical records, including the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms compiled by Chen Shou, which covered events from the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184 C.E. up to the unification of the three kingdoms under the Jìn Dynasty in 280 C.E.. Luo combined this historical information with a gift for storytelling to create a rich tapestry of personalities. About two-thirds of the content is historical fact, the rest is realistic fiction. The oldest existing edition was written in 1494 and has 2 volumes and 242 chapters. During Kangxi's reign in the Qing Dynasty, Mao Zonggang (毛宗岗) significantly edited the text, fitting it into 120 chapters. Today, Mao's version is the most common.
This novel reflects the Confucian values which were prominent in China at the time it was written. According to Confucian moral standards, loyalty to family, friends, and superiors was a measure of moral character. In the novel, characters who were not loyal to the collapsing Han Dynasty were portrayed as bad people.
One of the greatest achievements of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the extreme complexity of its stories and characters. The novel is studded with numerous "mini-stories," such as the Battle of Red Cliffs and the treatment of Guan Yu by Hua Tuo, which could serve as material for full-length novels in their own right.
The story begins in the last years of the Han Dynasty when the government had become extremely corrupt on all levels, leading to widespread deterioration of the empire. During the reign of the penultimate Han emperor, Emperor Ling, the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out under the leadership of Zhang Jiao, who allegedly practiced Taoist wizardry and held immortal powers. Zhang traveled the country, pretending to be a healer while secretly inciting the people to revolt. Many of the major characters in the novel, including Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Cao Cao, are introduced during the account of this period.
The rebellion was barely suppressed by imperial troops under the command of He Jin, Emperor Ling’s brother-in-law and the Supreme Commander of the armies of the Central Government. Following Emperor Ling's death, He Jin was lured into the palace alone and murdered by his rivals, the eunuchs under Zhang Rang, who feared his growing power. His stunned bodyguards, led by Yuan Shao, responded by charging into the palace and slaughtering its inmates indiscriminately. In the ensuing confusion, the child Emperor Shao and the Prince of Chenliu (later Emperor Xian) disappeared from the palace.
The Emperor and the Prince were soon discovered by soldiers under the warlord Dong Zhuo from Western Liang, who proceeded to seize control of the capital under the pretext of protecting the emperor. Dong later had Emperor Shao deposed and replaced him with the Prince of Chenliu, who became Emperor Xian. The people suffered greatly under Dong Zhuo’s violent rule, and both the court physician Wu Fu and Cao Cao attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate him.
Cao Cao managed to escape and issued an edict in the emperor's name to all governors, calling them to remove Dong Zhuo from power. Eighteen governors and nobles joined forces under general Yuan Shao in a campaign against Dong Zhuo, but undermined by poor leadership and conflict of interest, only managed to drive him from the capital Luoyang to Chang'an. Later, in a scheme orchestrated by minister Wang Yun, Dong Zhuo was betrayed and murdered by his own foster son Lu Bu, in a dispute over the beautiful courtesan Diao Chan.
The empire was already disintegrating into civil war. Sun Jian, governor of Changsha, found the Imperial Jade Seal at the bottom of a well in the ruins of Luoyang, but secretly kept it for his own purposes, further weakening royal authority. Without a strong central government, warlords began to rise up and fight each other for land and power. In the north, Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan were 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, were also starting to build up power bases of their own.
Cao Cao took Emperor Xian from Dong Zhuo’s former subordinates Li Jue and Guo Si and established a new court in Xuchang. With the emperor in his control, Cao Cao quickly subdued rivals such as Yuan Shu, Lu Bu and Zhang Xiu, culminating in his greatest military victory, despite being outnumbered ten-to-one, over Yuan Shao in the famous Battle of Guandu. Cao Cao pursued the defeated Yuan clan and finally united northern China, creating a foundation for the later Kingdom of Wei.
Meanwhile, Sun Jian's life had ended violently in an ambush during a war with Liu Biao, fulfilling his own rash oath to heaven. His eldest son Sun Ce then delivered the Imperial Jade Seal as tribute to rising royal pretender Yuan Shu of Huainan, in exchange for much needed reinforcements. He soon secured himself a state in the rich riverlands of Jiangdong, on which the Kingdom of Wu would eventually be founded. At the height of his career, Sun Ce died tragically from an illness caused by the stress of a terrifying encounter with the ghost of Yu Ji, a venerable magician whom he had falsely accused and executed in jealousy. However, his successor and younger brother Sun Quan, led by skilled advisors Zhou Yu and Zhang Zhao, proved to be a masterful and charismatic ruler, recruiting talented administrators such as Lu Su to join his service, while raising a strong military which would later be engaged in Cao Cao’s great southern campaign.
Liu Bei, along with his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei had pledged allegiance to the Han Dynasty in the famous Oath of the Peach Garden and promised to do their best to serve the emperor and the common people. However, their goals and ambitions were not realized until the later part of the novel. Liu Bei, though he had successfully quelled the Yellow Turban Rebellion, was not recognized for his efforts and was made only the magistrate of a small county. Later, Liu Bei joined Gongsun Zan and participated in the war against Dong Zhuo. On one occasion, Cao Cao invaded Xuzhou to avenge the death of his father at the hands of a subordinate of Tao Qian, the governor of Xuzhou. Liu Bei led his troops from Pingyuan to help Tao Qian, and Tao bequeathed his post as Governor of Xuzhou to Liu Bei before he died. At that same time, Lu Bu, who had longed to dominate China since he had killed Dong Zhuo, was at war with Cao Cao as he also. Defeated by Cao Cao, Lu Bu sought refuge under Liu Bei, but repaid Liu Bei’s kindness with evil and seized control of Xuzhou. Liu Bei was forced to join forces with Cao Cao and together they defeated Lu Bu. Lu Bu was executed and Liu Bei was officially recognized by Emperor Xian as the Emperor’s Uncle.
Convinced that Cao Cao wielded too much power and had the intention of usurping the throne, Liu Bei plotted with some officials to kill him. The plot was exposed and Liu Bei failed to kill Cao Cao. He seized control of Xuzhou but was routed by Cao Cao and his troops. Liu Bei then gained control of Runan with help from some former Yellow Turban rebels, but was defeated once again by Cao Cao in battle, and had no choice but to move to Jingzhou to seek Liu Biao’s protection. Liu Biao treated Liu Bei with respect and put him in charge of Xinye. At Xinye, Liu Bei personally recruited the talented Zhuge Liang and slowly built up his forces.
After uniting the north, Cao Cao, who had declared himself the Prime Minister, led his troops to attack southern China. At Xinye, he was defeated twice by Liu Bei’s forces, but Liu Bei lost Xinye and had to move to Jingzhou. By then, Liu Biao’s death had left Jingzhou split between his two sons Liu Qi and Liu Cong. Liu Bei led the civilians of Xinye to Xiangyang, where Liu Cong ruled, but was denied entry. Liu Cong later surrendered to Cao Cao, and Liu Bei moved to Jiangxia where Liu Qi ruled. On the way, Liu Bei and the civilians were pursued by Cao Cao’s troops and several innocent civilians were killed. Liu Bei and his men managed to reach Jiangxia, where he established a strong foothold against Cao Cao’s invasion.
To resist Cao Cao’s invasion, Liu Bei sent Zhuge Liang to persuade Sun Quan in Jiangdong to form an alliance. Sun Quan agreed to the alliance and Zhuge Liang stayed in Jiangdong as a temporary advisor. Sun Quan placed Zhou Yu in command of the forces of Jiangdong (East Wu) to defend against Cao Cao’s invasion. Zhou Yu felt that Zhuge Liang would become a future threat to East Wu and tried several times to kill Zhuge, but failed. In the end, he had to co-operate with Zhuge Liang for the time being as Cao Cao’s armies were at the border. Cao Cao was defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs by the combined forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan and forced to flee back to Jingzhou.
After the great battle at the Red Cliff, East Wu and Liu Bei contested with each other for control of Jingzhou. Zhou Yu led the troops of East Wu to attack Jingzhou and gained a victory, but Zhuge Liang advised Liu Bei to seize Jingzhou while Zhou Yu was at war with Cao Cao’s forces. Zhou Yu was extremely unhappy about this and reported the matter to Sun Quan. Sun Quan dispatched Lu Su to Jingzhou to negotiate with Liu Bei for Jingzhou, but, again and again, Liu Bei refused to hand over Jingzhou to East Wu. Sun Quan used new strategies suggested by Zhou Yu to take Jingzhou. One of these was the Beauty Scheme, in which Sun Quan lured Liu Bei to Jiangdong by offering him marriage to his younger sister, plotting to hold Liu Bei hostage and exchange his freedom for Jingzhou. Liu Bei went to Jiangdong, following Zhuge Liang’s instructions. No harm befell him and he married Sun Quan’s sister, and returned to Jingzhou safely with his newly-wed wife. Zhou Yu, fuming with anger, tried to come up with other strategies to take Jingzhou, failed time and time again. After being foiled twice by Zhuge Liang’s strategies, Zhou Yu coughed up blood. The third time, he hemorrhaged even more, and died unconscious.
In the northwest, Ma Chao started a campaign against Cao Cao to avenge his father, Ma Teng, who had been killed by Cao Cao. Ma Chao’s forces were formidable, as he had the support of Han Sui and troops from the Qiang minority. Cao Cao defeated Ma Chao’s forces by using cunning strategies to make Ma Chao and Han Sui turn against each other. Han Sui defected to Cao Cao, and left Ma Chao stranded. Ma later sought refuge under Zhang Lu of Hanzhong, and eventually joined Liu Bei.
After Zhou Yu’s death, relations between Liu Bei and Sun Quan became tense, but neither side waged war. Zhuge Liang advised Liu Bei to invade Xichuan, which was rued by the incompetent noble Liu Zhang. Liu Bei conquered Xichuan, as well as Hanzhong, which was in Cao Cao’s control, and proclaimed himself Prince of Hanzhong. Cao Cao was promoted from the rank of Prime Minister to Prince of Wei, and Sun Quan became known as the Duke of Wu. Liu Bei now ruled a vast area of land from Jingzhou to Sichuan in the west, which later served as a strong foundation for the founding of the Kingdom of Shu-Han. Sun Quan and Cao Cao were also at war resulting in defeats and victories for both sides at the battles of Ruxu and Hefei.
The situation among the three major powers had almost reached a stalemate when Cao Cao died of a brain tumor. The following year, Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate, ending the Han Dynasty which had lasted for centuries. Cao Pi proclaimed himself emperor and renamed his dynasty Cao Wei. In response to this, Liu Bei declared himself Emperor of Shu-Han to signify that he still carried on the bloodline of the Han royal family, but was based in Shu.
Sun Quan tired of Liu Bei’s repeated refusals to hand over Jingzhou to him, and planned to take Jingzhou by force. He made peace with Cao Pi and was given the title of Prince of Wu. Liu Bei had left his sworn brother Guan Yu in charge of Jingzhou, and Guan led the Jingzhou troops to attack Cao Pi. Sun Quan took advantage of the situation and sent Lu Meng to seize Jingzhou. Lu Meng’s troops, disguised as commoners, sneaked into Jingzhou and attacked Guan Yu from the rear, as Guan was launching an attack on the Wei general, Cao Ren, and routed his army with ease. During the retreat after his army had been scattered, Guan Yu was captured by Lu Meng and brought before Sun Quan, who ordered him to be executed. Liu Bei was deeply grieved at the loss of Jingzhou and the death of Guan Yu. He was planning to avenge Guan Yu when he heard that his other sworn brother, Zhang Fei, had been murdered in his sleep by his subordinates, who had fled to Eastern Wu. Upon hearing the news, Liu Bei fainted, and swore to avenge them. Zhuge Liang advised Liu Bei not to attack Sun Quan yet, as the time had not come, but Liu Bei refused to listen and led a formidable army to attack East Wu.
After several initial victories against Wu, Liu Bei’s impetuosity led to a series of strategic mistakes and the cataclysmic defeat of Shu troops in the Battle of Yi Ling. Lu Xun, the commander of Wu refrained from pursuing Liu Bei’s defeated troops, and was vindicated when Cao Pi launched an invasion against Wu, thinking that Wu forces would still be abroad. The invasion was crushed by strong Wu resistance, coupled with an outbreak of plague.
In Baidicheng, Liu Bei died of sickness, leaving his young and weak-willed son Liu Shan in the care of Zhuge Liang. In a moving final conversation between Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei asked Zhuge Liang to assume the imperial throne himself in place of Liu Shan, if Liu Shan proved to be inept. Zhuge Liang refused to do so, and swore that he would remain faithful to the trust that Liu Bei had for him.
In Wei, following Sima Yi’s advice, Cao Pi tried to bribe several forces including Sun Quan, turncoat Shu general Meng Da, Meng Huo of the Nanman, and the Qiang tribe, to attack Shu, along with the main army of Wei itself. Zhuge Liang successfully deployed the Shu troops and caused the five armies to retreat without shedding a single drop of blood. An envoy from Shu-Han named Deng Zhi eventually persuaded Sun Quan to reaffirm its alliance with Shu-Han.
In one of his final strokes of brilliance, Zhuge Liang personally led the Shu troops to subdue the southern barbarian king Meng Huo of the Nanman tribe. The barbarian troops were no match for the Shu troops and Zhuge Liang captured Meng Huo seven times by using cunning strategies. The first six times, Meng Huo complained that he had been captured by trickery, and had no chance to fight a real battle with the Shu troops. Zhuge Liang agreed to let him go every time, allowing him to come back again for another battle. The seventh time, Zhuge Liang wanted to release Meng Huo once again but this time Meng Huo refused. Meng Huo was ashamed of rebelling against Shu-Han and was so deeply touched by Zhuge Liang’s benevolence that he swore eternal allegiance to Shu-Han.
At this time, Cao Pi also died of illness and was succeeded by Cao Rui. In Jiangdong, Sun Quan declared himself Emperor of East Wu. Zhuge Liang then turned his eyes northwards, and made plans to attack Wei and restore the Han Dynasty, as he had promised Liu Bei on his deathbed. However, his days were numbered and Shu was far too weak to overcome the material superiority of Wei. Zhuge Liang’s last significant victory against Wei was probably the defection of Jiang Wei, a young Wei general whose brilliance paralleled his own.
Zhuge Liang had always suffered from a chronic illness, which was compounded when he worked into the early hours of the morning, completing his analysis of the battlegrounds or formulating his next plan. He finally died of his illness at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains, while leading a stalemated battle against the vastly superior force of the Wei commander, Sima Yi. As a final ploy, he set up a statue of himself to scare off Sima Yi in order to buy time for the Shu army to retreat.
The long years of battle between Wei and Shu saw many changes in the ruling Cao family of Wei, which gradually grew weak after the death of Cao Rui, and Sima Yi slowly plotted to usurp the throne. Sima Yi used a cunning strategy to remove Cao Shuang, a powerful noble of Wei, from power and take control of Wei. After Sima Yi’s death, his sons Sima Shi and Sima Zhao continued ton control Wei. Sima Zhao had Cao Fang removed from the throne and replaced him with Cao Mao. Later, Cao Mao tried to assassinate Sima Zhao, who intended to usurp the throne, but was killed by Sima Zhao’s subordinate. Sima Zhao pretended to grieve and mourn Cao Mao’s death and even had the subordinate, whom he had ordered to kill Cao Mao, executed for committing regicide.
Jiang Wei, who inherited Zhuge Liang’s brilliance, carried on Zhuge Liang’s campaign against Wei for a bitter three decades. However, Liu Bei’s incompetent son Liu Shan did not heed Jiang Wei’s advice and listened to the evil eunuch Huang Hao instead. In order to escape from the evil officials in the court, Jiang Wei decided to surrender his military power and went off to Tazhong. The Wei general Deng Ai, who was at war with Jiang Wei, took this opportunity to attack Shu-Han. Deng Ai and his troops took a shortcut and arrived unexpected in front of Chengdu, the capital city of Shu-Han. Liu Shan surrendered without a battle, ending the Kingdom of Shu-Han. Jiang Wei made plans to rebuild Shu-Han by uniting forces with a Wei general, Zhong Hui, who was at odds with Deng Ai. However, he was not able to see it through. His heartache grew intolerable in the midst of the final battle, and he killed himself with a sword, marking the last stand of Shu.
In East Wu, there had been internal conflict among the nobles ever since the death of Sun Quan. Zhuge Ke tried to usurp the throne of East Wu but was successfully assassinated by Sun Chen. Later, Sun Chen himself also lusted for power and had the emperor of East Wu Sun Liang deposed and replaced with Sun Xiu. Sun Xiu sought help from the old veteran general Ding Feng and had Sun Chen assassinated, and control of East Wu briefly returned to Sun Xiu.
In Wei, Sima Yan, son of Sima Zhao, finally forced the last Wei emperor Cao Huan to abdicate, and declared himself emperor of the new Jin Dynasty in 265 C.E.. Thus the Kingdom of Wei came to an end. Sima Yan led the Jin troops to attack East Wu and, after a long period of struggle, the last tyrannical emperor of East Wu, Sun Hao surrendered. The Three Kingdoms period concluded after almost a century of civil strife.
Luó Guànzhōng's re-telling of the story of the Three Kingdoms also gives us a glimpse at the politics of his time. The contemporary Míng Emperor Wànlì had officially elevated Guān Yǔ to the position of a god, Lord Guan, in order to promote Guān Yǔ's characteristics of bravery and extreme fidelity among his subjects. Recent research finds in Luó Guànzhōng's portrayal of Guān Yǔ an illuminating reflection of Chinese culture under Míng rule, with the author complying with the program of imperial propaganda while also subtly subverting it.
Besides the famous "Oath of the Peach Garden," many Chinese proverbs in use today are derived from the novel:
Romance of the Three Kingdoms included stories of a Buddhist monk, who was a friend of the renowned general Guān Yǔ and warned him of an assassination attempt. As the novel was written in the Míng Dynasty, more than one thousand years after the Three Kingdoms era, these stories demonstrated that Buddhism had long been a significant ingredient of the mainstream culture, but this may not be historically accurate. Luó Guànzhōng preserved these descriptions from earlier versions of the novel to support his portrait of Guān Yǔ as a faithful and a man of virtue. Guān Yǔ was, from then onwards, known as Guān Gōng.
Regarding this novel and another Chinese classic Water Margin, there is a popular saying in China that goes: "少不讀水滸, 老不讀三國," translated as "The young shouldn't read Water Margin while the old shouldn't read The Three Kingdoms. Water Margin depicts the lives of outlaws and their defiance of the established social system. Its themes of frequent violence, brawls, passionate brotherhood and an emphasis on machismo could easily have a negative influence on young boys. The latter presents all kinds of sophisticated strategies, deceptions, frauds, trickeries, traps and snares employed by the three kingdoms and their individual characters to compete with each other, which might tempt experienced older readers to use them to harm other people. (Chinese society generally considers the elderly to be respectable, trustworthy, wise and kindhearted.) According to Confucius, old people are supposed to "know the will of the heavens" and should not exhaust or strain themselves in considering how to deceive others.
Episodes from Romance of the Three Kingdoms have provided material for popular literature, drama, Beijing opera, and poetry for centuries. The story has also been made the subject of modern entertainment media, including manga, television series, and video games.
A number of television series have been based on this tale. An 84-episode TV serial Romance of the Three Kingdoms was aired by CCTV, while the Japanese anime series Yokoyama Mitsuteru Sangokushi ran for 47 episodes on TV Tokyo between 1991 and 1992, focusing on the stories before the Battle of Chi Bi.
The Ravages of Time is a Chinese manhua which retells the events of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The drawing style is dark and grim, and while it keeps the main plot intact, the finer details are dramatized. Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted into several comic versions in Japan, varying in levels of historical accuracy and loyalty to the original novel and popular tradition. Some of the most widely read in Japan are Sangokushi (which is also the Japanese reading for "Romance of the Three Kingdoms") by Yokoyama Mitsuteru (Ushio), Souten Kouro by King Gonta (Kodansha), and Tenchi o Kurau by Motomiya Hiroshi (Shueisha).
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