三國志 (Sānguózhì)


Alternative Names (異名):
三國志, 三国志, Sānguózhì, Records of Three Kingdoms

The Records of Three Kingdoms (traditional Chinese: 三國志; simplified Chinese: 三国志; pinyin: Sānguó Zhì), is the official and authoritative historical text on the period of Three Kingdoms covering from 189 to 280, that was composed by Chen Shou in the 3rd century. The work collects the smaller histories of the rival states Wei, Shu and Wu of the Three Kingdoms into a single text and provided the basis for the later more popular historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the 14th century.

Origin and structure

Together with the Records of the Grand Historian, Book of Han and Book of Later Han, the book is part of the early four historiographies of the Twenty-Four Histories canon. It contains 65 volumes and about 360,000 words which are broken into three books. The Book of Wei contains 30 volumes, the Book of Shu contains 15 volumes while the Book of Wu contains 20 volumes. Each volume is organised in the form of one or more biographies. The amount of space a biography takes up is dictated by the importance of the figure.

The original author was Chen Shou, who was born in present day Nanchong, Sichuan, in Kingdom of Shu. After the fall of Shu in 263, he became the Gentleman of Works, and was assigned to create a history of the Three Kingdoms. After the fall of Wu in 280, his work received the acclaim of senior minister Zhang Hua. Earlier to the period, the state of Wei and Wu both had their own histories and it was with these works as basis that he began his work. But since the state of Shu lacked a history of its own, the data was composed by him according to what he could remember. The book used the date after the fall of Han Dynasty in 220 as standard for the state of Wei. The Book of Wei referred the rulers of Wei as emperors, whilst the rulers of Shu were called as lord, and rulers of Wu only by their names or with the title 'the Wu ruler'. This is to uphold the legitimacy of the court of Jin as inheritor of the Mandate of Heaven from Wei. The use of lord for the rulers of Shu shows in part of his sympathy towards his native land.

Annotations from Pei Songzhi

In the 5th century, the work was further annotated by Pei Songzhi (裴松之), who was born in present day Yuncheng, Shanxi. After leaving his native land, he became the Gentleman of Texts under Song of Southern Dynasties, and was given the assignment of editing the book, which was completed in 429. He went about providing detailed explanations to some of the geography and other elements mentioned in the original. More importantly, he made corrections to the work, in consultation with records he collected of the period. In regard to historical events and figures, as well as Chen Shou's opinions, he added his own commentary. From his broad research, he was able to create a history which was relatively complete, without many of the loose ends of the original.

Records of Three Kingdoms as historical record

The romantic and historical traditions for the period of Three Kingdoms have been so confused in the centuries that the Records of Three Kingdoms is often regarded as an invaluable resource. Its information, although full of errors itself, is nevertheless much more accurate than the embellishments of later writers. Many of the political, economic and military figures from the period of Three Kingdoms are included in the work as well as those who contributed to the fields of culture, arts and science. In its nature the work is indeed a chronicle, much like those of early Medieval Europe. The text is bland and little more than a collection of historical facts. A typical extract:

In 219, the Former Lord became King of Hanzhong, and made Guan Yu General of the Vanguard. In the same year, Guan Yu attacked Cao Pi at Fan with his followers. Lord Cao sent Yu Jin to aid Cao Pi. In the autumn, great rains caused the Han River to flood, Yu Jin and the seven armies were lost.

From this we can establish reasonably accurately the flow of events and how history unfolded but almost nothing about society or elements of institutions or policies.

The amount of creative imagination used in ancient Chinese historical narratives - of 'fictionalising', is impossible to estimate precisely; but it is obviously considerable. The great historian Sima Qian employed this device greatly and it can be assumed that Chen Shou also did this in his text. It is highly unlikely that various remarks which leaders or soldiers are supposed to have made in the heat of battle could have been taken down stenographically and thus many of them may be false.

A criticism against the book was that Chen Shou, as a former subject of Shu, had a bias for his own state in the work, and while he was forced by political practicalities (after all, Jin Dynasty, under which he served, was a successor state to Wei) into acknowledging authorities of the state of Wei in his history, he appeared to have a contemptuous view for the state of Wu. For example, he referred to the Shu emperors as lords, while referred to the Wu emperors by name or 'rulers', and never referred to their wives as empresses, instead referring to them as ladies.

The book is also important to the research of Japan's history, for its volume on the Wa people is the first historical document to make explicit mention of Japan. It describes the ancient country of Yamataikoku and its queen, Himiko.

Chinese history texts | Three Kingdoms |

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