Review: Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

As I mentioned yesterday, I have finally finished the Chinese epic:


Three Kingdoms:  A Historical Novel  (三国演义)
attributed to Luo Guanzhong  (罗贯中)
Translated by Moss Roberts
1690 pages
Foreign Language Press, Beijing,1994

The pages had begun to yellow with age before I finally picked up this, the great classic of the waning years of the Han dynasty. At fourteen and a half years, this tome has held its secrets longer than any other work on my shelves.

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

The Emperor has fallen under the influence of corrupt officials.  While performing ancestral rites, the courtiers witness omens, the likes of which will become key features in the story. The Yellow Scarves Rebellion breaks out, sending the Empire into turmoil. Imperial powers are usurped by ambitious officials, leaving the Emperor a virtual prisoner. The Empire would eventually be fractured into three separate kingdoms.

The story unfolds with a Peach Garden Oath wherein three heroes pledge brotherhood. The eldest brother, Liú Bèi (刘备), is a relative of the imperial family.  His brothers would help him in the struggle to restore the Han dynasty. The third brother, Zhāng Fēi (张飞), is of fierce visage and terrible temper. While you may have seen these two depicted in paintings, you have almost certainly seen the second brother, Guān Yǔ (关羽). He is depicted with a flowing beard, carrying a great halberd known as the Green Dragon Crescent Blade. The Peach Garden Oath and the three brothers would become ubiquitous in East Asian art and literature for centuries. Liú Bèi, Sūn Quán (孙权), and Cáo Cāo (曹操), would come to found three separate kingdoms. Each (or his progeny) would eventually declare himself Emperor.

The reader is introduced to the great warriors from Lǚ Bù (吕布), to Mǎ Chāo (马超), the crafty villain in Cáo Cāo, the brilliant strategist in Zhūgě Liàng (诸葛亮), and a vast array of characters known throughout East Asia. From several vignettes, the reader can see how profoundly Eastern philosophy differs from Western philosophy. Murder, sacrifice, betrayal, loyalty, torture, humanity, and all the trappings of political intrigue are seen as the the fortunes of the three kingdoms ebb and flow.

The events depicted take place from C.E. 168 to 280. This is a true epic in the grandest sense of the word. In the forward, John S. Service describes traveling through China during the war with Japan. Therein, he finds his traveling colleagues excitedly pointing out events from Three Kingdoms, denoting the difference between this novel and Western epics. This one is real. Covering an area larger than Europe, the leaders and battles in the book reflect events and people drawn from history, rather than fantasy. I should say it it mostly not fantasy. As is to be expected of books of ancient times, an unsettling amount of superstition and wizardry mars the pages. These sojourns into astrology, and magic do not generally amount to much more than plot points, but the author does take pains to punish any skeptics or naysayers ironically. Aside from the magic, the translator informs the reader of the uncertain pedigree of the complete work. How much is historical and how much is real? We will certainly never know. Gazing back longingly at the sepia-toned days of yore is apparently an ancient and universal pastime.

The text is laced with poetry written in the centuries after the events took place, expounding on the ideals representing a mixture of Confucian and Daoist philosophy with a reverence to the past. The more I read, the more important I found it in understanding the modern Far East.

In the notes, the translator lists over one hundred major characters. For each major character, there are several minor characters. This, in addition to the number of place names gives reason for intimidation in the reader. The afterward and notes amount to an astonishing 231 pages.