Alternative Names (異名):
三國演義, 三国演义, Sānguóyǎnyì, Romance of Three Kingdoms
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 14th century, is a Chinese historical novel based upon events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era, starting in 168 and ending with the reunification of the land in 280.
It is acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels (四大名著) of Chinese literature, with a grand total of 800,000 words, 1191 characters, and 120 chapters.
Myths from the Three Kingdoms period existed as oral traditions before any written compilations. In these popular stories, the characters typically took on exaggerated 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 (元朝). 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 Sanguozhi Pinghua (三國誌評話，三国志评话; Sānguózhì Pínghuà), literally "Story of Sanguozhi", 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.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms as we know it today is attributed to Luo Guanzhong, written between 1330 and 1400 (late Yuan to early Ming period). It was written in partly vernacular and partly Classical Chinese and was considered the standard text for 300 years. Luo 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 AD 184 up to the unification of the three kingdoms under the Jin Dynasty in AD 280. Luo Guanzhong also included material from Tang Dynasty poetic works, Yuan Dynasty operas and his own personal interpretation of elements such as virtue and legitimacy. Luo combined this historical knowledge with a gift for storytelling to create a rich tapestry of personalities, and initially published it in 24 volumes. During Kangxi's reign in the Qing Dynasty, Mao Zonggang (毛宗岗) significantly edited the text, fitting it into 120 chapters. Nowadays, Mao's version is the most common.
This novel reflects the Confucian values which were prominent at the time it was written. According to Confucian moral standards, loyalty to one's family, friends, and superiors were important measures for distinguishing good and bad people. In the novel, characters who were not loyal to the collapsing Han Dynasty are portrayed as bad people; on the contrary, modern mainstream ideology in Communist China would say that the deeply suffering masses were trying to overthrow the ruling feudal lords.
It must be understood that 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", many of which could be developed into full-length novels in their own right (the Battle of Red Cliffs and the treatment of Guan Yu by Hua Tuo being two examples). As such, the following effort only serves as a very high level summary of the entire story:
The Yellow Turban Rebellion
The story begins in the last years of the Han Dynasty when incompetent eunuchs deceived the emperor and banished good officials. 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 pretended to be a traveling healer curing people of sickness while secretly inciting them to revolt. In this time of turmoil, many of the major characters are introduced; Liu Bei (劉備), Guan Yu (關羽), Zhang Fei (張飛), Cao Cao (曹操), Sun Jian (孫堅), etc.
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. Fearing his growing power, the eunuchs under Zhang Rang lured He Jin alone into the palace following Emperor Ling's death and murder that was orchestrated by his rivals. His stunned guards, led by Yuan Shao, responded by charging into the palace, which turned into an indiscriminate slaughter. In the ensuing confusion, the child Emperor Shao and the Prince of Chenliu (later Emperor Xian) disappeared from the palace.
Dong Zhuo's tyrannical rule
Soon, the Emperor and the Prince were discovered by soldiers belonging to the warlord Dong Zhuo from Western Liang, who proceeded to seize control of the capital under the pretext of protecting the emperor. Dǒng later had Emperor Shao deposed and replaced with the Prince of Chenliu, who became Emperor Xian. Under Dong Zhuo’s violent rule, the people suffered greatly. There were assassination attempts on him by both the court physician Wu Fu and Cao Cao but both attempts failed.
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. Under general Yuan Shao, 18 governors and nobles joined forces in a campaign against Dong Zhuo, but undermined by poor leadership and conflict of interest, they only managed to drive him from the capital Luoyang to Chang'an. However, Dong Zhuo was later betrayed and murdered by his own foster son Lü Bu, from a dispute over the beautiful Diaochan (貂蟬), in a scheme orchestrated by minister Wang Yun (王允).
Conflict among the various warlords and nobles
In the meantime, however, 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.
Cao Cao took Emperor Xian from Dong Zhuo’s former subordinates Li Jue and Guo Si and established the new court in Xuchang. Even more powerful now with the emperor in his control, Cao Cao quickly subdued his rivals such as Yuan Shu, Lu Bu and Zhang Xiu, culminating in his greatest military victory, over Yuan Shao in the famous Battle of Guandu despite being outnumbered 10-to-1. Cao Cao pursued the defeated Yuan clan and finally united northern China, which later served as the foundation for the Kingdom of Wei.
Sun Ce builds a dynasty in Jiangdong
Meanwhile, an ambush had violently concluded Sun Jian's life in a war with Liu Biao, fulfilling his own rash oath to heaven. His eldest son Sun Ce (孫策) then delivered the Imperial Jade Seal as tribute to rising royal pretender Yuan Shu (袁術) of Huainan, in exchange for much needed reinforcements. Now, like the proverbial tiger that has been given claws, he soon secured himself a state in the rich riverlands of Jiangdong, on which the Kingdom of Wu (吳) would eventually be founded. Tragically, Sun Ce also died at the height of his career from illness under stress of his terrifying encounter with the ghost of Yu Ji (干吉), a venerable magician whom he had falsely accused and executed in jealousy. However, his successor and younger brother Sun Quan (孫權), led by skilled advisors Zhou Yu (周瑜) and Zhang Zhao (張昭), proved to be a masterful and charismatic ruler, inspiring hidden talents from across the land such as Lu Su (鲁肃) to join his service, while raising a strong military which would truly receive a trial by fire in Cao Cao’s great southern campaign.
Liu Bei's unrealized ambition
Liu Bei, along with his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei had sworn allegiance to the Han Dynasty (in the famous Oath of the Peach Garden) and pledged to do their best to serve the emperor and the common people. However, their goals and ambitions had not been realized till the later part of the novel. Liu Bei, ever since 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. Cao Cao invaded Xuzhou (徐州) as a revenge against Tao Qian (陶潛), the governor of Xuzhou who unknowingly allowed his subordinate to kill Cao Cao’s father. Liu Bei led his troops from Pingyuan to help Tao Qian and Tao passed on his post as Governor of Xuzhou to Liu Bei before he died. At that same time, Lu Bu was at war with Cao Cao as he also longed to dominate China ever since he had killed Dong Zhuo. Lu Bu was defeated by Cao Cao and he sought refuge under Liu Bei. Later, Lu Bu repaid Liu Bei’s kindness with evil and seized control of Xuzhou. Liu Bei was forced to join forces with Cao Cao and they defeated Lu Bu. Lu Bu was executed and Liu Bei became officially recognized by Emperor Xian as the Emperor’s Uncle. Liu Bei plotted with some officials to kill Cao Cao as Cao Cao wielded far too much power and had the intention of usurping the throne. Liu Bei failed to kill Cao Cao as the plot was exposed. He seized control of Xuzhou but lost to Cao Cao when Cao Cao led his troops to conquer Xuzhou. Liu Bei got control of Runan with help from some former Yellow Turban rebels but was defeated once again by Cao Cao in battle. Liu Bei 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 (新野). At Xinye, Liu Bei recruited the talented Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮) personally and slowly built up his forces.
Battle of the Red Cliffs (赤壁之戰)
Cao Cao, who declared himself the Prime Minister, led his troops to attack southern China after uniting the north. At Xinye, he was defeated twice by Liu Bei’s forces but Liu Bei lost Xinye and had to move to Jingzhou. Unfortunately, Liu Biao had died by then and left Jingzhou split between his two sons Liu Qi (劉琦) and Liu Cong (劉琮). Liu Bei led the civilians of Xinye to Xiangyang (襄陽), where Liu Cong ruled but Liu Bei was denied entry. Liu Cong later surrendered to Cao Cao, and Liu Bei had no choice but to move 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. Zhuge Liang managed to persuade Sun Quan to form an alliance with Liu Bei against Cao Cao and 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 the talented Zhuge Liang would become a future threat to East Wu and tried several times to kill Zhuge, but failed. In the end, he had no choice but 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 (赤壁之戰) by the combined forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan and forced to flee back to Jingzhou.
Tension between Liu Bei and Sun Quan
After the great battle at the Red Cliff, East Wu and Liu Bei vied for control of Jingzhou. Zhou Yu led the troops of East Wu to attack Jingzhou and gained a victory, but eventually Jingzhou ended up in Liu Bei’s hands, as Zhuge Liang had advised Liu Bei to seize Jingzhou while Zhou Yu and Cao Cao’s forces were at war. Zhou Yu was extremely unhappy and reported the matter to Sun Quan. Sun Quan dispatched Lu Su to Jingzhou to negotiate with Liu Bei for Jingzhou. Again and again, Liu Bei refused to hand over Jingzhou to East Wu. Sun Quan had no choice but to use 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 (where he intended to hold Liu Bei hostage in exchange for Jingzhou) by pretending to betroth his younger sister to Liu Bei. However, Zhuge Liang outwitted Zhou Yu, and Liu Bei returned to Jingzhou safely with his new wife. Zhou Yu tried and failed repeatedly to take Jingzhou. After being infuriated by Zhuge Liang twice, Zhou Yu eventually coughed out blood. The third time, he coughed out even more, and died unconscious.
Ma Chao (馬超)
In the northwest, Ma Chao (馬超) started a campaign against Cao Cao to avenge his father, Ma Teng (馬騰), who was killed by Cao Cao. Ma Chao’s forces were formidable as he had the support of Han Sui (韓遂) and troops from the Qiang (羌族) minority. However, Cao Cao managed to defeat 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 Ma Chao was left stranded. Ma Chao later sought refuge under Zhang Lu (張魯) of Hanzhong, and eventually joined Liu Bei.
Liu Bei controls Xichuan and Jingzhou
After Zhou Yu’s death, relations between Liu Bei and Sun Quan deteriorated, but not to the point of outright war. Following Zhuge Liang's advice, Liu Bei invaded and conquered Xichuan (淅川县), where the incompetent noble Liu Zhang ruled. He also took Hanzhong, which had been in Cao Cao’s control. Liu Bei proclaimed himself King of Hanzhong (漢中), while Cao Cao had himself promoted from Prime Minister to King of Wei; Sun Quan was known as the Duke of Wu. At this time, Liu Bei ruled a vast area of land from Jingzhou to Sichuan (四川) in the west. This would later serve as a strong foundation for the founding of the Kingdom of Shu-Han (蜀漢). Meanwhile, Sun Quan and Cao Cao were also at war, with defeats and victories for both sides at the battles of Ruxu and Hefei.
The situation among the three major powers almost reached a stalemate after this, until Cao Cao died due to a brain tumor. The following year, Cao Cao (曹操)’s son Cao Pi (曹丕) 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.
Death of Guan Yu
Sun Quan, tired of Liu Bei’s repeated refusals to hand over Jingzhou, made plans to retake it. He made peace with Cao Cao and was bestowed the title of Prince of Wu. Liu Bei left his sworn brother Guan Yu in charge of Jingzhou, and Guan led the Jingzhou troops to attack Cao Cao. Sun Quan took advantage of the situation and sent Lu Meng (呂蒙) to seize Jingzhou. Lu Meng disguised his troops as merchants and finessed a quiet entry. As Guan was besieging Wei general Cao Ren (曹仁), Lu Meng's forces attacked Guan from the rear , and routed his army with ease. In desperate retreat, his army scattered, Guan Yu was captured. Sun Quan had him beheaded after he refused to renounce his loyalty to Liu Bei. Liu Bei deeply grieved the death of Guan Yu and the loss of Jingzhou. He was already planning to avenge Guan Yu when he heard that his other sworn brother, Zhang Fei, had been murdered in his sleep by subordinates who then fled to Eastern Wu. Liu Bei was determined to avenge both brothers. Disregarding advice from Zhuge Liang and others, Liu Bei led a formidable army of 750,000 to attack East Wu.
The Battle of Yiling
Sun Quan offered Liu Bei the return of the Jing province and of his sister (Liu's ex-wife Sun Ren). Liu Bei's advisers, including Zhuge Liang, urged him to accept these terms, but Liu persisted. After initial victories, a series of strategic mistakes due to the impetuosity of Liu Bei led to the cataclysmic defeat of Han troops in the Battle of Yiling (猇亭之戰). However, Lu Xun (陸遜), the commander of Wu who spearheaded the war against Shu-Han, refrained from pursuing Liu Bei’s defeated troops. Famous generals from both Wu and Shu-Han forces perished. Lu Xun’s caution 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 a plague outbreak.
Meanwhile, in Baidicheng (白帝城), sixty-two year old Liu Bei, ailing after three years of neglecting his health, died, leaving his young son Liu Shan (劉禪) 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, should Liu Shan prove to be inept. He refused to do so, and swore that he would remain faithful to the trust that Liu Bei had for him. This promise was to be a raison d'être for the rest of Zhuge Liang's life.
Zhuge Liang calmly fends off five armies
Cao Pi, following Sima Yi (司馬懿)’s advice, induced several forces, including Sun Quan, turncoat Shu general Meng Da (孟達), Meng Huo (孟獲) of the Nanman (南蠻), and the Qiang (羌族) tribe, to attack Shu Han, in coordination with a Cao Wei army. Zhuge Liang successfully deployed the Shu Han troops and caused the five armies to retreat without shedding a single drop of blood. An envoy from Shu Han named Deng Zhi (鄧芝) subsequently persuaded Sun Quan to renew its former 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 allegiance to Shu-Han forever.
The battle of wits between Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi
At this time, Cao Pi also died of illness and was succeeded by Cao Rui. Ma Chao died of illness as well, age 48. In Jiangdong, Sun Quan declared himself Emperor of East Wu. Zhuge Liang then turned his eyes northwards, and planned to attack Wei to restore the Han Dynasty as he had promised Liu Bei at the latter’s deathbed. However, his days were numbered and Shu was far too weak to overcome the material superiority of Wei. His last significant victory against Wei was probably the defection of Jiang Wei, a young general whose brilliance paralleled his own.
Zhuge Liang had all along had a chronic illness, which was compounded when he refused to rest even into the early hours of the morning, so that he would be able to complete his analysis of the battlegrounds or to formulate his next plan. He finally died of sickness at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains, while leading a stalemated battle against the Wei commander, Sima Yi, with his far superior force. 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 Sima family controls Wei
The long years of battle between Wei and Shu saw many changes in the ruling Cao family in Wei. The Cao family gradually grew weak after the death of Cao Rui and Sima Yi slowly plotted to usurp the throne. Sima Yi removed Cao Shuang, a powerful noble of Wei from power with a cunning strategy and since then the power of Wei had been in the hands of Sima Yi. After Sima Yi’s death, his sons Sima Shi and Sima Zhao continued wielding the power of Wei in their hands. Sima Zhao had Cao Fang removed from the throne and replaced Cao Fang with Cao Mao. Later, Cao Mao tried to assassinate Sima Zhao, who had the intention of usurping the throne, but was killed by Sima Zhao’s subordinate. Sima Zhao pretended to grieve and mourn Cao Mao’s death and even later had his subordinate, whom he ordered to kill Cao Mao, executed for committing regicide.
End of the Three Kingdoms
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 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 for the time being and went off to Tazhong. The Wei general Deng Ai, who was at war with Jiang Wei, took the chance to attack Shu-Han. Deng Ai and his troops arrived in front of Chengdu, the capital city of Shu-Han, by taking a shortcut. Liu Shan surrendered without a battle and ended the Kingdom of Shu-Han. Jiang Wei planned 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 to the end when his heartache grew intolerable in the midst of the final battle. He then killed himself with a sword, marking the last stand of Shu.
In Eastern Wu, there was internal conflict among the nobles ever since the death of Sun Quan. Zhuge Ke tried to usurp the throne of Eastern Wu but was assassinated by Sun Lin. Later, Sun Lin himself also lusted for power and had the emperor of Eastern Wu Sun Liang deposed and replaced with Sun Xiu. Sun Xiu sought help from the old veteran general Ding Feng and had Sun Lin assassinated, and the power of Eastern Wu went back into the hands of the emperor. This did not last for long.
In Wei, Sima Yan, son of Sima Zhao, finally forced the last Wei emperor Cao Huan to abdicate in the same manner as Cao Pi had forced Emperor Xian of Han to abdicate. Sima Yan established the Jin Dynasty in AD 265, declaring himself the first emperor of the new dynasty. The Kingdom of Wei came to an end.
Sima Yan led the Jin troops to attack Eastern Wu and succeeded in conquering Eastern Wu after a long period of struggle when the last tyrannical emperor of Eastern Wu, Sun Hao surrendered. Thus the Three Kingdoms period concluded after almost a century of civil strife.
Luo Guanzhong's re-telling of this story also gives a window into the politics of his time. The later Míng Emperor Wanlì had officially elevated Guan Yu to the position of a god, Lord Guan, to promote Guan Yu's characteristics of bravery and extreme fidelity (characteristics the emperor no doubt wanted to promote in his subjects). Recent research finds in Luo Guanzhong's Guan Yu a fascinating reflection of Chinese culture under Míng rule, the author complying with the program of imperial propaganda while also subtly subverting it.
Besides the famous oath, many Chinese proverbs in use today are derived from the novel:
"Wives and children are as clothing, but brothers are as limbs." (妻子如衣服, 兄弟如手足) (a broken marriage/family can be easily sewn back together, but a damaged friendship can never be repaired or replaced. Some Chinese people also interpret this phrase to mean, A wife can be changed, like laundry, but friendship can never be replaced)
"Speak of 'Cao Cao' and Cao Cao arrives." (一說曹操, 曹操就到) (equivalent to "speak of the devil" in English when a person under discussion suddenly appears)
"Three inept tailors (are enough to) overcome one Zhuge Liang." (三個臭皮匠, 勝過一個諸葛亮, or more colloquially, 三個臭皮匠, 賽過諸葛亮) (Three incapable persons if joined up will always overpower one capable person)
"Losing your wife and your army." (賠了夫人又折兵) (In reference to Lady Sun leaving for Liu Bei. Representing a bad deal in which a person loses on both sides of the deal.)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms recorded stories of a Buddhist monk, who was a friend of the renowned general Guan Yu and informed him of an assassination attempt. 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 Yu as a faithful and a man of virtue. Guan Yu was, from then onwards, known as Guan Gong, "Lord Guan."
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." The former depicts the lives of outlaws and their defiance with the established social system. Along with the frequent violence, brawls, passionate brotherhood and an emphasis on machismo, it could easily have a negative influence on young boys. The latter presents all kinds of sophisticated stratagem, deceptions, frauds, trickeries, traps and snares employed by the three kingdoms and their individual characters to compete with each other, which might tempt the experienced old readers (the elderly are traditionally well respected, trusted and considered wise and kindhearted in Chinese society) to use them to harm other people. Also, old people are supposed to "know the will of the heavens" (says Confucius). They shouldn't exhaust or strain themselves with always having to consider how to deceive others.
Chinese classic novels, Three Kingdoms, Historical novels