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...
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