Romance of the Three Kingdoms

by Luo Guanzhong

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

Through his fictionalized history of China, Luo Guanzhong traces the ascent of Ssu-ma Yen, ending with his becoming the first emperor of a unified nation. The book begins soon after the Yellow Turban rebellion failed and follows those of its adherents who vowed to continue their struggle. Among these is Ts’ao Ts’ao, who defeats numerous rivals to become the king of Wei in the north, challenging the Han empire. In addition, Liu Pei, aided especially by Chu-ko Liang, becomes the Szechwan ruler as king of Shu.

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Ts’ao Ts’ao does not progress unimpeded, however; in particular, Sun Ch’üan of the southern kingdom of Wu challenges him. After Sun Ch’üan allies with Liu Pei, their combined forces defeat those of Ts’ao Ts’ao at the Battle of Red Cliff. This event initiates the establishment of a delicate, short-lived balance among the powers of the Three Kingdoms. Kuan Yü, who governs the Hupeh province that borders Wu, dies in battling Sun Ch’üan’s forces. Liu Pei is soon defeated when he tries to conquer Wu. After Liu Pei dies, the leadership is left in the hands of his incompetent son.

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To compensate, the military leader Chu-ko Liang assumes a stronger role; his combined diplomatic and bellicose efforts finally generated a strained, temporary peace between Shu and Wu; however, his strength gives out and he dies. After Ts’ao Ts’ao also dies, Ssu-ma I assumes command of the Wei forces; he and his followers vigorously punish and finally push out Ts’ao Ts’ao’s descendants. Chiang Wei directs the opposing Shu forces but are no match for the stronger Wei forces that invade under the command of T’eng Ai and Chung Hui. Chiang Wei also dies, leading the Shu and Wu forces to surrender. The combined territories will now be ruled by a new emperor Ssu-ma Yen, who is Ssu-ma I’s grandson.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

When the Yellow Turban rebellion is finally quashed, the many soldiers of fortune who take part in its suppression seize power for themselves, thus precipitating the downfall of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Among these the most shrewd and successful politician is Ts’ao Ts’ao, who already attracted a large following of able strategists and warriors. After the systematic elimination of his many rivals, such as Tung Cho, Lü Pu, Yuan Shao, and Yuan Shu, he rules over North China as the king of Wei, subjecting the Han Emperor and his court to great indignity.

Liu Pei, who also rose to fame during the Yellow Turban rebellion, is for a long time doing very poorly, despite the legendary prowess of his sworn brothers, Kuan Yü and Chang Fei. It is not until he seeks out Chu-ko Liang and makes him his chief strategist that his fortunes begin to improve. In time he rules over Szechwan as the king of Shu.

While Liu Pei is beginning to mend his fortunes, the only man who blocks Ts’ao Ts’ao’s territorial ambitions is Sun Ch’üan, who inherited from his father and older brother the rich kingdom of Wu, south of the Yangtze. When Ts’ao Ts’ao finally decides to cross the Yangtze and subdue Wu, Sun Ch’üan and Liu Pei form an alliance, and the combined strategy of their respective military commanders, Chou Yü and Chu-ko Liang, subject Ts’ao Ts’ao’s forces to a crushing defeat in the Battle of Red Cliff. After this victory Liu Pei goes to Szechwan, and the precarious balance of power of the Three Kingdoms is established. The friendly relationship between Shu and Wu does not last long. Kuan Yü, entrusted with the vital task of governing the province of Hupeh, adjacent to the Wu territory, antagonizes Sun Ch’üan, and in the subsequent military struggle he is killed. Liu Pei now vows to conquer Wu; against the sage advice of Chu-ko Liang, who wants to conciliate Wu so as to counter their more dangerous common enemy, Wei, he leads a personal expedition against Wu and suffers a disastrous defeat. Liu Pei dies soon afterward.

Liu Pei’s son and successor is a moronic weakling. Out of loyalty to his late master, however, Chu-ko Liang is determined to serve him and to improve the fortunes of Shu. He makes peace with Wu and leads several expeditions against Wei. These campaigns end in a stalemate. Overburdened with work and handicapped by the lack of able generals (of the “Five Tiger Warriors” of Liu Pei’s day, only Chao Yün remains, an old fighter as intrepid as ever), Chu-ko Liang can no longer direct his campaigns with his usual brilliance. Moreover, the Wei commander, Ssu-ma I, whose family becomes increasingly powerful in the Wei court following the death of Ts’ao Ts’ao, is in many ways his match. Finally Chu-ko Liang dies of physical exhaustion.

By that time the Ssu-mas usurp the power of Wei and subject Ts’ao Ts’ao’s descendants to as much cruelty and torture as Ts’ao Ts’ao and his immediate successor subjected the Han emperors. Wu and Shu weaken. Although Chiang Wei, the Shu general, try bravely to stem the tide, he is overwhelmed by the numerical strength of the invading Wei forces, under the command of T’eng Ai and Chung Hui. Soon after the death of Chiang Wei, the kings of Shu and Wu surrender. Ssu-ma Yen, Ssu-ma I’s grandson, now rules as the first Emperor of China.

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