Romance of the Three Kingdoms

by Luo Guanzhong

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

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.

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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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

Wei kingdom

Wei kingdom. First among the three kingdoms in northern China, under the control of Ts’ao Ts’ao. The first sections of the work are narratives that chronicle various battles as Ts’ao Ts’ao conquers, then eliminates, numerous political rivals. The most important conquest is that of the Han empire.

Shu Han kingdom

Shu Han kingdom. Kingdom in which Liu Pei eventually succeeds in ruling from his throne in Szechwan and in which a second thread of narratives interwoven in the novel is set.

*Wu kingdom

*Wu kingdom. Third and most wealthy kingdom, located south of the other two kingdoms, along the banks of the Yangtze River. This kingdom is controlled by Sun Ch’uan, who joins forces with Liu Pei to defeat Ts’ao Ts’ao. Thus the three kingdoms are for a while at peace. Later chapters in the work tell of military imbroglios between Kuan Yu, governor of a territory known as Hupeh, and Sun Ch’uan. Ultimately, Liu Pei conquers both Kuan Yu and Sun Ch’uan. However, the peace is unstable and various power struggles continue for another two generations until Ssu-ma Yen establishes control over the various kingdoms to make them into one nation.

As a novel that is both “historic” and “romantic,” Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not always necessarily given to geographic accuracy; moreover, the novel was written more than one thousand years after the events it purports to record. Therefore, while most of the main characters are historical figures whose lives can otherwise be validated, many of the geographical settings cannot. Dozens of villages and cities, several rivers, numerous mountain ranges and lakes provide the backdrop for battles or other activities of the plot. In writing the story, Lo Kuan-chung generally sets these events in cities of his own time. Generally, these correspond to names of places that were in use a millennium earlier.

Wen-te Hall

Wen-te Hall. Residence of Emperor Ling, in the period immediately preceding the beginning of the narrative. This residence is the scene of supernatural occurrences, such as monstrous black snakes floating down from the heavens as a warning that the divine powers are displeased and that changes will occur in the royal family, and provides the setting for the opening chapter of the novel.

Wuch’ang palace

Wuch’ang palace. Residence of the evil emperor Sun Hao and the location of his wicked life and corrupt management of government affairs. Given to every kind of debauchery, it is Sun Hao who is finally overthrown. Ssu-ma Yen then takes over the throne at Wu to complete unification of the Chins into one country; that is, it becomes the country of China as it has continued to be known since that time.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 204

Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. Contains an introductory analysis of Romance of the Three Kingdoms that is the best starting point for appreciation of this novel. Insightful regarding the conflict between the claims of statecraft and of personal loyalties.

Lu Hsün. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976. The section on Romance of the Three Kingdoms includes an interesting comparison of the early version of the novel with the finished version.

Plaks, Andrew H., ed. Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Two essays compare Romance of the Three Kingdoms with other Chinese literary masterpieces.

Plaks, Andrew H. The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Insightful and in-depth interpretations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the other three novels of the Ming dynasty.

Rolston, David L., ed. How to Read the Chinese Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. A pioneering collection of translated essays by major premodern Chinese critics. The essay on Romance of the Three Kingdoms provides a vivid sense of how the Chinese interpreted this novel centuries ago.

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Critical Essays