Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Luo Guanzhong’s romance traces the history of China’s Han Dynasty through multiple lineages. The author draws on traditional tales but creates a unique synthesis, focusing on heroic characters as they vie for power, form alliances, and battle each other’s armies for control.
As the founder of one kingdom of the three, Liu Pei is one protagonist. Luo Guanzhong portrays him as a great lord, worthy of popular respect, who was the Han Dynasty’s legitimate heir. His legendary prowess includes not only his incredible skill as a warrior and fierceness in battle but also dignified and calm under pressure. The author emphasizes his good judgment and nobility, clearly positioning him as a noble hero. Liu Pei’s background was humble but also learned; earning his way by making shoes, he also studied to improve his mind. Ultimately he conquers two kingdoms and is the driving force for the union of all three.
Kuan Yü, Liu Pei’s sworn brother, is his devoted right-hand-man. A very learned man, specializing in military strategy, he is dignified and good-looking. From his administrative position as provincial governor, however, Kuan Yü's conflict with an opponent leads to his death. Vengeance over this killing brings Liu Pei and Chang Fei into a precarious position that threatens their key alliances.
Of the three leaders, Chang Fei is the most mercurial and least scholarly. Coming from the merchants and artisans, this powerfully built, short man is fearless in combat but also clever at fooling his enemies. Chang is assassinated for trying to exact vengeance for Kuan’s death.
Chu-ko Liang or Chuko K’ung-ming becomes the prime minister. Beyond being the consummate politician, willing to engage in deceit if it means winning, he is also a sorcerer. He also writes a book about military strategy and the occult. Chu-ko triumphs by uniting the kingdom, after surviving long enough to begin forming a coalition.
Although a great leader, Ts’ao Ts’ao, the king of Wei, is cruel and ruthless. His malevolent disposition undermines his potential success as an administrator. Luo’s portrayal is somewhat more sympathetic than other versions, which emphasize his evil nature.