Excerpt from Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Published in San kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1925
"As he drew near the throne, a rushing whirlwind arose in the corner of the hall and, lo! from the roof beams floated down a monstrous black serpent that coiled itself up on the very seat of majesty. The Emperor fell in a swoon. Those nearest him hastily raised and bore him to his palace while the courtiers scattered and fled. The serpent disappeared."
The people of China, particularly during the premodern era, tended to have a unique view of history. For many centuries during ancient times, the Chinese believed that theirs was the only civilization in the world. It is understandable why they thought this, because they had no contact with the cultures of India, far away across high mountains to the south; nor did they know of Greece or Rome. All around them, they saw only barbarians, or uncivilized people, threatening their borders. Therefore to the Chinese, China was the world.
Coupled with this idea was the notion that history—Chinese history, that is, which in the view of the Chinese was world history—ran in cycles of about three or four hundred years. A new dynasty, or ruling house, would establish power, and enjoy many years of peace and stability. But eventually, signs would appear that indicated that the rulers had lost the "Mandate of Heaven," or the favor of the gods. These signs took the form of natural disasters, along with diseases, and together they indicated that an age was about to end. Great misfortunes would follow, until a new dynasty arose that possessed the Mandate of Heaven—and then the cycle would repeat itself.
Events seemed to prove this idea: for instance, the Han (HAHN) dynasty, the last before the beginning of the medieval period, lasted just over 400 years, from 207 B.C. to A.D. 220. The period that followed, which lasted until the establishment of the Sui (SWEE) dynasty in 589, was a time of civil war and upheaval; yet thanks to a book called Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it would also be remembered as an age of great glory and adventure.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a novel, or extended work of fiction, based on records kept at the time of the events it depicts. A thousand years later, these stories were compiled and rewritten by Lo Kuan-chung (GWAHN-zhoong; c. 1330–c. 1400) as Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The book is equivalent to works more well known in the West, such as the tales of King Arthur and his knights: in the case of such stories, writers took great liberty with historical facts in order to portray events of the past as glorious and romantic.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- The passage that follows, taken from the opening chapter of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, concerns events leading up to the revolt of the Yellow Turbans in A.D. 184. The Yellow Turbans were a splinter group who had adopted an extremist version of Taoism (DOW-izm). This philosophy was based on the teachings of Lao-tzu (low-DZÜ; c. 500s B.C.), who held that the key to peace was inner harmony and contact with nature. Taoism did not become established as a religion until the time of Chang Tao-ling (chahng dow-LING), who supposedly lived for 122 years, from c. A.D. 34 to 156.
- Spellings of Chinese names vary, and though in the late twentieth century scholars adopted a new system, historians of premodern China tend to use the old-fashioned spellings. Thus in most historical texts, the name of the emperor Xian (ZHAHN; ruled 189–220) would be shown as Hsien (SHEN); however, this translation uses the new spellings.
- In China, a person's first name is their family name. Thus Zhang Jue (ZHAHNG ZHWAY) may have been a grandson of Chang Tao-ling, whose name would be spelled Zhang Daoling according to the new system. The "Book of Heaven" supposedly given to Zhang Jue by a mysterious hermit (someone who lives separate from other people) was probably the Tao te Ching (dow-day-KEENG) or Way of Virtue, a Taoist scripture.
- The city of Luoyang (lwoh-YAHNG), in east central China, served as capital to a number of dynasties. As such it contained the imperial palace, which included areas with grand-sounding names such as the Hall of Virtue and the Dragon Chamber. The dragon was a symbol of Chinese emperors. Imperial eras also received impressive names, such as "Radiant Harmony"; however, there was not necessarily a close relationship between the title and the actual character of the period. Thus the era of "Radiant Harmony," the beginning of the end of the later Han dynasty, was anything but radiant or harmonious.
- The following passage contains numerous references to magic and supernatural occurrences. Not only was Zhang Jue a sort of magician—something that had very little to do with the original teachings of Lao-tzu—but Emperor Ling also witnessed the sudden appearance of a serpent in his palace. It is not important whether such things were "real" or not; what is important is that the people believed that they were real. Much the same could be said about the natural disasters depicted, which the Chinese interpreted as a sign from heaven that the Han dynasty was about to fall. Modern people would probably say that the disasters were not a sign, but that they did hasten the dynasty's fall simply by causing problems in the empire; however, it is important to view these events not through modern and Western eyes, but through the eyes of Lo Kuan-chung's readers.
Excerpt from Romance of the Three Kingdoms
… Han emperors continued their rule for another two hundred years till the days of Emperor Xian, which were doomed to see the beginning of the empire's division into three parts, known to history as The Three Kingdoms.
But the descent into misrule hastened in the reigns of the two predecessors of Emperor Xian—Emperors Huan and Ling—who sat in the Dragon Throne about the middle of the second century.
Emperor Huan paid no heed to the good people of his court, but gave his confidence to the Palace eunuchs. He lived and died, leaving the scepter to Emperor Ling….
It fell upon the day of full moon of the fourth month, the second year, in the era of Established Calm [A.D. 169], that Emperor Ling went in state to the Hall of Virtue. As he drew near the throne, a rushing whirlwind arose in the corner of the hall and, lo! from the roof beams floated down a monstrous black serpent that coiled itself up on the very seat of majesty. The Emperor fell in a swoon. Those nearest him hastily raised and bore him to his palace while the courtiers scattered and fled. The serpent disappeared.
But there followed a terrific tempest, thunder, hail, and torrents of rain, lasting till midnight and working havoc on all sides. Two years later the earth quaked in Capital Luoyang, while along the coast a huge tidal wave rushed in which, in its recoil, swept away all the dwellers by the sea. Another evil omen was recorded ten years later, when the reign title was changed to Radiant Harmony [A.D.179]: certain hens suddenly crowed. At the new moon of the sixth month, a long wreath of murky cloud wound its way into the Hall of Virtue, while in the following month a rainbow was seen in the Dragon Chamber. Away from the capital, a part of the Five Mountains collapsed, leaving a mighty rift in the flank.
Such were some of various omens. Emperor Ling, greatly moved by these signs of the displeasure of Heaven, issued an edict asking his ministers for an explanation of the calamities and marvels. A court counselor … replied bluntly: "Falling rainbows and changes of fowls' sexes are brought about by the interference of empresses and eunuchs in state affairs."
The Emperor read this memorial with deep sighs….
At this time in the county of Julu was a certain Zhang family….The eldest Zhang Jue … was an unclassed graduate, who devoted himself to medicine. One day, while culling simples in the woods, Zhang Jue met a venerable old gentleman with very bright, emerald eyes and fresh complexion, who walked with an oak-wood staff. The old man beckoned Zhang Jue into a cave and there gave him three volumes of the "Book of Heaven."
"This book," said the old gentleman, "is the Way of Peace. With the aid of these volumes, you can convert the world and rescue hu-mankind. But you must be single-minded, or, rest assured, you will greatly suffer."
With a humble obeisance, Zhang Jue took the book and asked the name of his benefactor.
"I am Saint Hermit of the Southern Land," was the reply, as the old gentleman disappeared in thin air.
Zhang Jue studied the wonderful book eagerly and strove day and night to reduce its precepts to practice. Before long, he could summon the winds and command the rain, and he became known as the Mystic of the Way of Peace.
In the first month of the first year of Central Stability [A.D. 184], there was a terrible pestilence that ran throughout the land, whereupon Zhang Jue distributed charmed remedies to the afflicted. The godly medicines brought big successes, and soon he gained the title of the Wise and Worthy Master. He began to have a following of disciples whom he initiated into the mysteries and sent abroad throughout all the land. They, like their master, could write charms and recite formulas, and their fame increased his following.
Zhang Jue began to organize his disciples. He established thirty-six circuits, the larger with ten thousand or more members, the smaller with about half that number. Each circuit had its chief who took the military title of General. They talked wildly of the death of the blue heaven and the setting up of the golden one; they said a new cycle was beginning and would bring universal good fortune to all members; and they persuaded people to chalk the symbols for the first year of the new cycle on the main door of their dwellings.
With the growth of the number of his supporters grew also the ambition of Zhang Jue. The Wise and Worthy Master dreamed of empire. One of his partisans … was sent bearing gifts to gain the support of the eunuchs within the Palace. To his brothers Zhang Jue said, "For schemes like ours always the most difficult part is to gain the popular favor. But that is already ours. Such an opportunity must not pass."
And they began to prepare….
What happened next …
Zhang Jue led the revolt of the Yellow Turbans, so named because he and his followers wore headdresses of gold—a color reserved for the Chinese emperor. The revolt broke out in 184, and spread throughout China. In 189 a military leader named Ts'ao Ts'ao (DZOW-dzow; c. 150–230) suppressed the uprising. Ts'ao Ts'ao became the effective ruler of the Han dynasty, and in 220 he established a new dynasty called Wei (WAY).
The years from 221 to 265 became known as the time of the Three Kingdoms. The Wei dynasty ruled in the north, in areas once controlled by the Han dynasty; to the south was the kingdom of Wu, ruled by the Sun dynasty; and to the west was the third kingdom, Shu. This period might be compared to the Civil War in America (1861–65): both events represented painful times in the history of their respective nations, and they would be remembered with a great deal of emotion. In America, novels such as The Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane and Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell would keep the Civil War's memory alive, and Mitchell at least—like Lo Kuan-chung before her—portrayed the war as a romantic struggle. Crane and Mitchell, however, were depicting events of the recent past, whereas Lo Kuan-chung was writing about something that had happened a thousand years before his lifetime.
It is understandable why Lo Kuan-chung would have wanted to portray the Three Kingdoms era in glowing terms. Despite the problems caused by the near-constant warfare of the period, the era also saw great advances in Chinese learning and culture. Taoism and Buddhism took hold as new religions in the country; Chinese doctors made significant progress in the study of medicine; and during this time, kites, coal as a means of heat, and encyclopedias all made their first appearance in China. Stability returned in 581, as Yang Chien (YAHNG jee-AHN; ruled 581–604) seized the throne in one of the many small states that controlled China during the period; after eight years spent consolidating his power, he took the imperial throne and founded the Sui dynasty.
Did you know …
- The American writer Pearl Buck (1892–1973), who lived in China for many years, translated the Romance of the Three Kingdoms as All Men Are Brothers (1933). She also translated Story of the Water Margin.
- Mao Zedong (MOW zhay-DAWNG, 1893–1976), China's most important leader during the twentieth century, was an avid reader of medieval Chinese romances during his boyhood. Among his favorite books were Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Story of the Water Margin.
For More Information
Lo Kuan-chung. San kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Translated by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1925.
Schafer, Edward H. Ancient China. New York: Time-Life Books, 1967.
Bu-Ching's Three Kingdoms. [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Garden/2744/StartFrame.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"Romance of the Three Kingdoms Home Page." [Online] Available http://w3.one.net/~linch9/rtk_idx.htm (last accessed July 28, 2000).
ThreeKingdoms.com [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/8100/index.htm (last accessed July 28, 2000).