First, I should point out that I am writing this post six months after finishing the novel; and while I took some notes when reading it, details are starting to get a bit hazy and I apologise if what follows is even more vague than usual. As with the previous Great Chinese Classics, both date of composition and author of The Three Kingdoms (also known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms) are not known with certainty. It is generally assumed that it was written by Luo Ghuanzong (who also may have edited and maybe even written parts of Outlaws of the Marsh) and assumed to have been written in the latter half of the 14th century, but neither of those appears to be quite uncontested.
After having read three of the Six Classic Chinese novels before, several things about The Three Kingdoms struck me as immediately familiar, namely its length, the huge number of its characters and that it is set in the past. Two of these three items, however, also mark where The Three Kingdoms differs from the other novels: its cast of characters is insane even by Classic Chinese Novel standards, going literally into the hundreds. Admittedly, very many of those characters (again, to a much greater degree than in the other novels, even The Outlaws of the Marsh) are introduced only to be killed off a sentence or two later – if this novel is the one with the largest number of characters, it is also the one with the highest body count. The reason for this relates to the third point, namely the time the novel is set in: While the other novels back-dated their events in order to be able to write freely about the present, placing (mostly) fictional characters in a (vaguely) historical period, The Three Kingdoms is a proper historical novel. It takes place during an identifiable time span, namely the periods during which the Han dynasty empire fell apart into three separate kingdoms (hence, obviously, the title), to be reunited again under the Ji dynasty only after 113 years of almost constant strife and warfare between the kingdoms.
The Three Kingdoms, then, is mostly about warfare and battles; but one of the interesting features about this novel is the way the author pays attention to the administration of war, i.e. things like supply lines and communication between troops. This marks a major difference to Outlaws of the Marsh which also featured a lot of military action (chiefly in its final parts), but there it usually took the shape of the armies’ leaders meeting in single combat, and the battle was decided by which individual had the greater fighting prowess. There are scenes like this in The Three Kingdoms as well, but they are quite rare and often accompanied by comments like “X is a great fighter but he knows nothing about strategy, therefore he is no danger.” Throughout the novel there is as much emphasis in strategy as on actual fighting – actually, even more emphasis, to the point where the importance of strategy appears as the overarching theme.
In the first volume, this mainly takes the form of the relationship between rulers and their counselors – Luo Guanzhong shows us the Han empire falling apart into a large number of warring factions, due to either rulers not listening to their good counsellors or indeed listening to their bad counsellors. One gets the impression here that being a counsellor during this period was a far more dangerous job than being a soldier as the leaders of the various faction tend to execute anyone who gives them advice they do not want to hear. This also leads to a vast array of characters passing by the reader at truly dizzying speed.
By the second volume, things have consolidated somewhat and we finally get the three kingdoms of the novel’s title. That volume also sees the introduction of what is arguably the most fascinating character, namely master strategist Zhuge Liang. With his arrival, military conflicts become even more of an intellectual endeavour and battles between armies turn into battles of wit. Admittedly I have not read all that much military fiction, but have come across quite a lot of battle descriptions in my time, but I can’t think of any other example (not any in a realistic framework, that is), where the mind is consistently presented as the most fearsome weapon.
In the final volume, the circle closes, and China becomes a unified Empire again – but now not under the Han but the Jin dynasty – which, in the context of the novel which has consistently been lauding the Hans and has had all the likeable characters strive to bring them back to power – essentially means that the good guys lose.
On the one hand, there is a lot of repetition in The Three Kingdoms – there is after all only a limited arsenal of tricks to play on your enemy, and some strategies are employed again and again over all three volumes. (It is astonishing how almost everyone keeps falling for the old “fake a retreat to lure your enemy into an ambush” trick. You’d think people grow wary at some stage, but in this novel, they almost never do.) On the other hand, I did not find this at all troublesome and the repetitions in no way diminished my enjoyment of the novel. The reason for this, I think, is that the novel is not centered around those parts, but that they establish a kind of rhythm, form a kind of pattern which serves as the background as in an embroidery on which a variety of colourful scenes are stitched.
Scenes like this one:
One day they sought shelter at a cottage. A young hunter named Liu An came out and bowed low to him. Hearing who the visitor was the hunter wished to lay before him a dish of game, but though he sought for a long time nothing could be found for the table. So he came home, killed his wife, and prepared a portion for his guest. While eating, Liu Bei asked him what meat it was. The hunter told him it was wolf. Liu Bei believed him and ate his fill. The next day at daylight, just as he was leaving, he went to the stables in the rear to get his horse, and passing through the kitchen, he suddenly saw the dead body of a woman lying on the ground. The flesh of one arm had been cut away. Quite startled, he asked what this meant, and then he knew what he had eaten the night before. He was deeply affected at this proof of his host’s regard for him, and tears rained down as he mounted his steed at the gate.
I don’t usually quote here, but I just had to share this. Also, it gives me occasion to wonder why cannibalism in one form or another has shown up in every single Chinese classic I have read so far. It seems like the Chinese have some kind of obsession with eating human flesh – from the book on Chinese history which I read recently I have learned that cannibalism apparently did occur during several really bad famines, but I’m not sure this really explains things. And I am not the first to notice this either – there even is a Wikipedia article about it (but check out that article’s “Talk” page while you are there).
This is one of the more extreme – even outright shocking episodes – but that apart it is not atypical for the kind of narrative one encounters in Three Kingdoms – tales that are on a smaller scale than the battles and power struggles but that, taken together, like colourful beads connected by the string of the historical main plot, which, as they pass in front of the reader present a parade of the society and people of 3rd century China, or at least Luo Ghuanzong’s version of it. Overall it is yet another surprisingly entertaining novel which I had a lot of fun reading despite its length, age and cultural distance.
It’s not however, as the book’s blurb claims very likely to “appeal to readers of George R.R. Martin” which is just silly. And that is not even the most outlandish claim the edition I read makes, that would be that “many Chinese view it as a guide to success in life and business as well as a work that offers great moral clarity.” Regarding moral clarity I refer you to the episode I quoted above, as for the rest you will have to take my word that it appear fairly bizarre claims to make. One really would have liked to find out what led editor Ronald C. Iverson to them; one also would have liked some information as the genesis of the novel, or explanations as to how far its presentation of events is historically correct. Instead what we get is – nothing. No introduction, no afterword, no explanatory notes – I really have no clue what the supposed editor was actually editing. In this respect this edition was a vast disappointment, but at least the translation by Yu Sumei made up for it. As usual, I’m not really competent to judge it, not knowing any Chinese, but it is supposedly the first English translation by a Chinese native speaker. It has some unexplained idiosyncrasies (like the consistent use of “worsted” where one would have expected “bested”) but it reads well and is free of pseudo-Oriental floweriness.