Romance of the Three Kingdoms

by Luo Guanzhong

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.

This opening quote sets the stage for this historical novel set in an era a thousand years before its composition. In the novel, which takes place in the early part of the third century, the once powerful Han dynasty has faded and weakened, opening the way for corruption, intrigue, and warfare to tear apart the land. In these turbulent times, ordinary people wish for peace. The rulers Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan share this longing and decide that they must work together to bring unity to the divided kingdom. They are ambitious men with strong personalities. Liu Bei is ruler Shu, Cao Cao of Wei, and Sun Quan presides over Wu, but, as the above quote indicates, each decides that he must aim for the higher purpose of restoring the former empire.

The two quotes below show how the philosophies of unity and individualism contrast in the novel. One stirs the reader's higher instincts, while the other tends to turn the reader away in revulsion.

When saying the names Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, although the surnames are different, yet we have come together as brothers. From this day forward, we shall join forces for a common purpose: to save the troubled and to aid the endangered. We shall avenge the nation above, and give peace to the citizenry below. We seek not to be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. We merely hope to die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. May the Gods of Heaven and Earth attest to what is in our hearts. If we should ever do anything to betray our friendship, may heaven and the people of the earth both strike us dead.

In the above quote, found in the first chapter in the “Oath of the Peach Garden,” ruler Liu Bei and two fighters named Zhang Fei and Guan Yu swear loyalty to each other by asking that they die together, reinforcing the book's theme of the importance of unity in times of disunion. The three men exemplify "yi," a principle that means duty. Yi is expressed through right relationship with other people in one's society. (This concept is found in Confucianism.) It encompasses ideas of loyalty, self-sacrifice, order, and honor. From a dramatic point of view, this is also a stirring and heroic statement of solidarity, perhaps reminding us of Tolkien's fellowship of the ring, adding to the novel's romanticism.

I’d rather betray the world than let the world betray me.

Cao Cao, on the other hand, the leader who makes this statement, shows that he places self interest and individualism ahead of the virtues of yi. Because of this, he makes mistakes and acts with dishonor. For example, at one point, filled with fear that the servants of his father's close friend are about to kill him, he strikes preemptively and kills them first. He then finds they were merely talking about slaughtering a pig to serve to him. To make matters worse, rather than face his father's friend with the news that he murdered his servants, Cao Cao kills his father's friend.

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