Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
Instead of maintaining a single imperial family line from millennium to millennium, as in Japan, China traditionally had a succession of ruling houses, or dynasties, which rose and fell in a cyclical pattern. Whenever a dynasty reached the point of collapse, the field was thrown open for the era’s most talented and ambitious soldiers of fortune to form alliances and fight with rival camps in struggles that led to the establishment of a new dynasty. Periods of dynastic change occasionally stretched into decades if no single camp could prevail over all its competitors, as was the case in the time in which this story is set. Ironically, the highly talented first generation of contenders witnessed a protracted stalemate in the struggle. Its members eventually died off, while the much weaker second generation blundered its way into the reunification of the empire.
The bulk of Romance of the Three Kingdoms deals with the extraordinary accomplishments and tragic shortcomings of the first generation of strategists and warriors. Epic grandeur suffuses Luo Guanzhong’s novelistic synthesis of historical accounts and folk story cycles. For reasons about which scholars can only speculate, China lacked the sort of grand verse epic found in most of the great ancient civilizations. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, however, emerged to an ascendant position as the nation’s enduring epic in prose. The epic warrior hero, Kuan Yü, even achieved the status of a deity in the popular mind. By the late imperial age, China housed more temples devoted to the worship of Lord Kuan Yü, god of war, than to any other deity aside from the local earth god.
Long before his ascent to the throne as the ruler of Shu Han in the southwest, Liu Pei emerged as the most sympathetic contender in the grand struggle. As a humble provincial member of the Liu clan that produced all of the Han Dynasty emperors, Liu Pei entered the fray not out of personal ambition but rather as a result of an altruistic yearning to thwart the Machiavellian usurper, Chancellor Ts’ao Ts’ao, and thereby restore the house of Han. Unlike Ts’ao Ts’ao of Wei and Sun Ch’üan of Wu, Liu Pei repeatedly placed the imperative of virtue and benevolence above the dictates of expediency, even when this prevented him from securing various important military objectives. Although the loss of these military objectives resulted in temporary setbacks for Liu Pei from time to time, his principled conduct strengthened the ties of loyalty and dedication that bonded him with his sworn brothers, scholarly military advisers, rank-and-file soldiers, and civilian subjects.
At the levels of elite and popular culture in China, Liu Pei has long been revered as a model of kingly virtue and benevolence. Liu Pei’s sworn brothers Kuan Yü and Chang Fei have similarly been celebrated as beacons of martial courage and loyalty, while the military strategist and ministerial adviser Chu-ko Liang has long fired the imagination of Chinese readers and theatergoers as an embodiment of wisdom and of shrewd statecraft. These men, however, were not the stick figures of a morality play, but characters whose failings loomed almost as large as their strengths. Kuan Yü’s fame for bravery often went to his head, and his arrogant dismissal of Sun Ch’üan’s proposal to strengthen the ties between the Shu and Wu with intermarriage led to the deterioration of relations between the two states and to his eventual capture and decapitation at the hands of Sun Ch’üan. Liu Pei placed his personal oath of sworn loyalty to Kuan Yü above the long-term collective interests of restoring the Han Dynasty, and, over Chu-ko Liang’s strong objections, he led an abortive attack on Wu simply to avenge Kuan Yü’s execution. After the ensuing military debacle and chaotic retreat back to Shu, Liu Pei’s health failed. When he expressed his deathbed wish that Chu-ko Liang ascend the throne of Shu rather than let it pass to Liu Pei’s moronic son, Chu-ko Liang doggedly insisted on serving as the foolish son’s adviser, even though he knew that the son’s succession would lead to the rapid and irreversible decline of Shu as a serious contender in the struggle to reunite China. Chu-ko Liang thus epitomizes the unwavering dedication to a noble but unrealizable enterprise of the sort that Confucius had long ago linked to the life of virtue.