Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Showing the development of China’s Han rulership, Luo Guanzhong creates a memorable tale in which skilled leaders and brave warriors compete—often through bloody battles—for control of separate regions and ultimately the unified empire. Virtue is pitted against villainy as the author supports the final triumph of the Ssu-ma lineage. While many of the stories emerged from traditional folktales, Luo Guanzhong is credited with putting his unique spin onto combining them into a coherent narrative.
What became known as the Yellow Turban rebellion had severely damaged prospects at unity. While some leaders were killed or punished, remnants of the rebels picked up new followers and China was once again rocked with turmoil. One strong leader who emerged, Liu Pei, is shown having greatest legitimacy as well as gaining his followers' respect. The true leaders, as the author presents them, have a combination of level-headed judgment and tremendous prowess in battle, as well as good judgment in retaining advisers. An appropriate amount of learning—or at least respect for history and heritage—is another valued attribute. All of these can compensate for low birth, as in Liu Pei’s case. Family loyalty is likewise a positive value, as brothers support each other or take vows of fraternal-type allegiance. Here, Kuan Yü exemplifies this key role as his special talent for strategy enables decisive victories.
Although Luo generally tries not to stray too far from the established versions, when he presents a villain he does so in conventional ways. Cruelty toward his subjects and usurpation of power go hand in hand and undermine the tyrant’s claims to authority. In this narrative, Ts’ao Ts’ao fills this role. The alliance between Liu Pei and Sun Ch’üan strengthens their forces considerably, which is the main reason they win the Battle of Red Cliff over Ts’ao Ts’ao’s Wei fighters. Ts’ao Ts’ao legendary abuses, however, are underscored as a further rationale for his ultimate downfall. Nevertheless, further threats from other areas cut into the allies’ control. Liu Pei attempts to conquer Wu, but suffers a devastating defeat. After his death, poor leadership on the part of his son also accounts for his lineage’s failures.
Given the atmosphere of almost constant warfare, truces and alliances seem fated to be short-lived. As the members of the older generation die without seeing their dreams fulfilled, dynamic younger counterparts take their place. Ssu-ma I steps up to lead Wei’s forces and finally triumph over those who come after Ts’ao Ts’ao following his death. Ssu-ma Yen, the grandson of Ssu-ma, at last takes on the role of emperor of the combined kingdoms.