Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (traditional Chinese: 三國演義; simplified Chinese: 三国演义; pinyin: Sānguó Yǎnyì) is a 14th-century historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. It is set in the turbulent years towards the end of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, starting in 169 AD and ending with the reunification of the land in 280 by Western Jin. The novel is based primarily on the Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志), written by Chen Shou.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms
新刊校正古本大字音释三国志通俗演义 明万历十九年书林周曰校刊本 002.jpg
Pages from a 1591 printed edition of the novel
AuthorLuo Guanzhong
Original title三國演義
LanguageWritten vernacular Chinese
SubjectAncient China
GenreHistorical fiction
Set inChina, AD 169–280
Publication date
14th century
Published in English
Media typePrint
LC ClassPL2690.S3 E53 1995
Original text
三國演義 at Chinese Wikisource
TranslationRomance of the Three Kingdoms at Wikisource
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Chinese characters).svg
Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese三國演義
Simplified Chinese三国演义

The story – part historical, part legend, and part mythical – romanticises and dramatises the lives of feudal lords and their retainers, who tried to replace the dwindling Han dynasty or restore it. While the novel follows hundreds of characters, the focus is mainly on the three power blocs that emerged from the remnants of the Han dynasty, and would eventually form the three states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The novel deals with the plots, personal and military battles, intrigues, and struggles of these states to achieve dominance for almost 100 years.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature; it has a total of 800,000 words and nearly a thousand dramatic characters (mostly historical) in 120 chapters.[1] The novel is among the most beloved works of literature in East Asia,[2] and its literary influence in the region has been compared to that of the works of Shakespeare on English literature.[3] It is arguably the most widely read historical novel in late imperial and modern China.[4] Herbert Giles stated that among the Chinese themselves, this is regarded as the greatest of all their novels.[5]

Origins and versionsEdit

Stories from the heroes of the Three Kingdoms was the basis of entertainment dating back to the Sui and Tang dynasty (6th–10th centuries). By the Song dynasty (10th–13th centuries), there were several records of professional oral storytellers who specialized in the Three Kingdoms hero cycles. The earliest written work to combine these stories was a pinghua, Sanguozhi Pinghua (simplified Chinese: 三国志平话; traditional Chinese: 三國志平話; pinyin: Sānguózhì Pínghuà; lit. 'Story of Records of the Three Kingdoms'), published sometime between 1321 and 1323.[6]

Expansion of the historyEdit

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is traditionally attributed to Luo Guanzhong,[7] a playwright who lived sometime between 1315 and 1400 (late Yuan to early Ming period) known for compiling historical plays in styles which were prevalent during the Yuan period.[8] It was first printed in 1522[8] as Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi (三國志通俗演義/三国志通俗演义) in an edition which bore a perhaps spurious preface date 1494. The text may well have circulated before either date in handwritten manuscripts.[9]

Regardless of when it was written or whether Luo was the writer, the author made use of several available historical records, primarily the Records of the Three Kingdoms compiled by Chen Shou. The Records of the Three Kingdoms covered events from the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184 to the unification of the Three Kingdoms under the Jin dynasty in 280. The novel also includes material from Tang dynasty poetic works, Yuan dynasty operas and his own personal interpretation of elements such as virtue and legitimacy. The author combined this historical knowledge with a gift for storytelling to create a rich tapestry of personalities.[10]

Recensions and standardised textEdit

Several versions of the expanded Sanguozhi are extant today. Luo Guanzhong's version in 24 volumes, known as the Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi, is now held in the Shanghai Library in China, Tenri Central Library in Japan, and several other major libraries. Various 10-volume, 12-volume and 20-volume recensions of Luo's text, made between 1522 and 1690, are also held at libraries around the world. However, the standard text familiar to general readers is a recension by Mao Lun and his son Mao Zonggang.

In the 1660s, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor in the Qing dynasty, Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang significantly edited the text, fitting it into 120 chapters, and abbreviating the title to Sanguozhi Yanyi.[11] The text was reduced from 900,000 to 750,000 characters; significant editing was done for narrative flow; use of third-party poems was reduced and shifted from conventional verse to finer pieces; and most passages praising Cao Cao's advisers and generals were removed.[12] Scholars have long debated whether the Maos' viewpoint was anti-Qing (identifying Southern Ming remnants with Shu-Han) or pro-Qing.[13]

The famous opening lines of the novel, "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been" (话说天下大势.分久必合,合久必分 Huàshuō tiānxià dàshì. Fēnjiǔbìhé, hé jiǔ bì fēn),[14] long understood to be Luo's introduction and cyclical philosophy, were actually added by the Maos in their substantially revised edition of 1679.[15] None of the earlier editions contained this phrase. In addition, Mao also added Yang Shen's The Immortals by the River as the famous introductory poem (which began with "The gushing waters of the Yangzi River pour and disappear into the East") (滚滚长江东逝水) to the novel.[16] The earlier editions, moreover, spend less time on the process of division, which they found painful, and far more time on the process of reunification and the struggles of the heroes who sacrificed for it.[17]


One of the greatest achievements of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the extreme complexity of its stories and characters. The novel contains numerous subplots. The following consists of a summary of the central plot and some well-known highlights in the novel.

Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, silk painting by Sekkan Sakurai (1715–1790), depicting Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.

Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Ten AttendantsEdit

In the final years of the Eastern Han dynasty, treacherous eunuchs and villainous officials deceived the emperor and persecuted good officials. The government gradually became extremely corrupt on all levels, leading to widespread deterioration of the Han Empire. During the reign of Emperor Ling, the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out under the leadership of Zhang Jiao.

The rebellion was barely suppressed by imperial forces led by the general He Jin. Upon Emperor Ling's death, He Jin installed the young Emperor Shao on the throne and took control of the central government. The Ten Attendants, a group of influential court eunuchs, feared that He Jin was growing too powerful, so they lured him into the palace and assassinated him. In revenge, He Jin's supporters broke into the palace and indiscriminately slaughtered any person who looked like a eunuch. In the ensuing chaos, Emperor Shao and his younger half-brother, the Prince of Chenliu, disappeared from the palace.

Dong Zhuo's tyrannyEdit

The missing emperor and the prince were found by soldiers of the warlord Dong Zhuo, who seized control of the imperial capital, Luoyang, under the pretext of protecting the emperor. Dong Zhuo later deposed Emperor Shao and replaced him with the Prince of Chenliu (Emperor Xian), who was merely a figurehead under his control. Dong Zhuo monopolised state power, persecuted his political opponents and oppressed the common people for his personal gain. There were two attempts on his life: the first was by a military officer, Wu Fu (伍孚), who failed and died a gruesome death; the second was by Cao Cao, whose attempt went awry and forced him to flee.

Cao Cao escaped from Luoyang, returned to his hometown and sent out a fake imperial edict to various regional officials and warlords, calling them to rise up against Dong Zhuo. Under Yuan Shao's leadership, 18 warlords formed a coalition army and launched a punitive campaign against Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo felt threatened after losing the battles of Sishui Pass and Hulao Pass, so he evacuated Luoyang and moved the imperial capital to Chang'an. He forced Luoyang's residents to move together with him and had the city set aflame. The coalition eventually broke up due to poor leadership and conflicting interests among its members. Meanwhile, in Chang'an, Dong Zhuo was betrayed and murdered by his foster son Lü Bu in a dispute over the maiden Diaochan as part of a plot orchestrated by the minister Wang Yun.

Conflict among the various warlords and noblesEdit

In the meantime, the Han Empire was already disintegrating into civil war as warlords fought for territories and power. Sun Jian found the Imperial Seal in the ruins of Luoyang and secretly kept it for himself. Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan were at war in the north while Sun Jian and Liu Biao were battling in the south. Others such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei, who initially had no titles or land, were also gradually forming their own armies and taking control of territories.

During those times of upheaval, Cao Cao saved Emperor Xian from the remnants of Dong Zhuo's forces, established the new imperial capital in Xu and became the new head of the central government. He defeated rival warlords such as Lü Bu, Yuan Shu and Zhang Xiu in a series of wars in central China before scoring a decisive victory over Yuan Shao at the Battle of Guandu. Through his conquests, Cao Cao united central and northern China under his control. The territories he conquered served as the foundation of the state of Cao Wei in the future.

Sun Ce builds a dynasty in JiangdongEdit

Meanwhile, an ambush violently concluded Sun Jian's life at the Battle of Xiangyang against Liu Biao. His eldest son, Sun Ce, delivered the Imperial Seal as a tribute to the rising pretender, Yuan Shu, in exchange for reinforcements. Sun Ce secured himself a state in the rich riverlands of Jiangdong (Wu), on which the state of Eastern Wu was founded later. Tragically, Sun Ce also died at the pinnacle of his career from illness under stress of his terrifying encounter with the ghost of Yu Ji, a venerable magician whom he had falsely accused of heresy and executed in jealousy. However, Sun Quan, his younger brother and successor, proved to be a capable and charismatic ruler. With assistance from Zhou Yu, Zhang Zhao and others, Sun Quan inspired hidden talents such as Lu Su to serve him, built up his military forces and maintained stability in Jiangdong.

Liu Bei's ambitionEdit

Liu Bei recruiting Zhuge Liang, from Visiting the Thatched Hut Three Times, a Ming dynasty painting by Dai Jin (1388–1462).

Liu Bei and his oath brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei swore allegiance to the Han Empire in the Oath of the Peach Garden and pledged to do their best for the people. However, their ambitions were not realised as they did not receive due recognition for helping to suppress the Yellow Turban Rebellion and participating in the campaign against Dong Zhuo. After Liu Bei succeeded Tao Qian as the governor of Xu Province, he offered shelter to Lü Bu, who had just been defeated by Cao Cao. However, Lü Bu betrayed his host, seized control of the province and attacked Liu Bei. Liu Bei combined forces with Cao Cao and defeated Lü Bu at the Battle of Xiapi. Liu Bei then followed Cao Cao back to the imperial capital, Xu, where Emperor Xian honoured him as his "Imperial Uncle". When Cao Cao showed signs that he wanted to usurp the throne, Emperor Xian wrote a secret decree in blood to his father-in-law, Dong Cheng, and ordered him to get rid of Cao. Dong Cheng secretly contacted Liu Bei and others and they planned to assassinate Cao Cao. However, the plot was leaked out and Cao Cao had Dong Cheng and the others arrested and executed along with their families.

Liu Bei had already left the imperial capital when the plot was exposed. He seized control of Xu Province from Che Zhou, the new governor appointed by Cao Cao. In retaliation, Cao Cao attacked Xu Province and defeated Liu Bei, forcing him to take shelter under Yuan Shao for a brief period of time. Liu Bei eventually left Yuan Shao and established a new base in Runan, where he lost to Cao Cao again. He retreated south to Jing Province, where he found shelter under the governor, Liu Biao.

Battle of GuanduEdit

In 200, Dong Cheng, an imperial relative, received a secret edict from Emperor Xian to assassinate Cao Cao. He collaborated with Liu Bei and some other high ranking officials on this effort, but Cao Cao soon found out about the plot and had Dong Cheng and his conspirators executed, with only Liu Bei and Governor of Liang Province Ma Teng surviving. With Liu Bei fleeing to join Yuan Shao in the north and Ma Teng returning to his own province.

After settling the nearby provinces, including a rebellion led by former Yellow Turbans, and internal affairs with the court, Cao Cao turned his attention north to Yuan Shao, who himself had eliminated his northern rival Gongsun Zan that same year. Yuan Shao, himself of higher nobility than Cao Cao, amassed a large army and camped along the northern bank of the Yellow River.

In the summer of 200, after months of preparations, the armies of Cao Cao and Yuan Shao clashed at the Battle of Guandu (near present-day Kaifeng). Cao Cao's army was heavily outnumbered by Yuan Shao. Due to a raid in Yuan's supply train, Yuan's army fell into disorder as they fled back north.

Cao Cao took advantage of Yuan Shao's death in 202, which resulted in division among his sons, and advanced to the north. In 204, after the Battle of Ye, Cao Cao captured the city of Ye.

By the end of 207, after a victorious campaign beyond the frontier against the Wuhuan culminating in the Battle of White Wolf Mountain, Cao Cao achieved complete dominance of the North China Plain. He now controlled China's heartland, including Yuan Shao's former territory, and half of the Chinese population.

Battle of ChangbanEdit

Since 200, Liu Biao put Liu Bei in charge of Xinye, where Liu Bei visited Zhuge Liang thrice and recruited him as an adviser. He also built up his forces in preparation for war against Cao Cao.

Following his unification of central and northern China under his control, Cao Cao, having been appointed Imperial Chancellor by Emperor Xian, led his forces on a southern campaign to eliminate Liu Bei and Sun Quan.

In 208, although Liu Bei managed to repel two attacks by Cao Cao at Xinye, he was eventually forced to flee due to the overwhelming strength of the enemy forces. Cao Cao and his cavalry caught up to Liu Bei's congregation at Changban, Dangyang, and Liu Bei had to flee for his life, galloping away south with Zhang Fei, Zhao Yun and Zhuge Liang, while leaving his family and the populace behind. Cao Cao's forces captured most of the unarmed civilians and Liu Bei's baggage. In the chaos, Zhao Yun disappeared to the north, but he came back with Liu Bei's infant son Liu Shan along with Lady Gan.

Turning east from Changban, Liu Bei and the remnants of his party had crossed the Han River to the east where Liu Qi, Liu Biao's elder son, still held control of Jiangxia Commandery. They met Guan Yu's fleet and over 10,000 men led by Liu Qi at Han Ford. Together, they sailed down the river to Xiakou.

Cao Cao did not follow up in immediate pursuit. The main objective of his drive to the south had been the base at Jiangling County, and he pressed on south to secure that base first.

Battle of Red CliffsEdit

In 208, After the Battle of Changban. Liu Bei sent Zhuge Liang to meet Sun Quan and discuss the formation of a Sun–Liu alliance to counter Cao Cao. Sun Quan agreed and placed Zhou Yu in command of his army in preparation for war with Cao Cao. Zhuge Liang remained temporarily in Wu territory to assist Zhou Yu. Zhou Yu felt that Zhuge Liang would become a threat to Sun Quan in the future and attempted to kill him on a few occasions but ultimately failed and ended up having no choice but to cooperate with Zhuge Liang. The Sun–Liu forces scored a decisive victory over Cao Cao at the Battle of Red Cliffs.

Traditional site of the Red Cliffs.

Sun Quan and Liu Bei started vying for control of southern Jing Province after their victory, but Liu won and took over the territories from Cao Cao's general, Cao Ren. Sun Quan, unhappy over having gained nothing, sent messengers to ask Liu Bei to "return" the territories to him, but Liu dismissed the messenger each time with a different excuse. Sun Quan was unwilling to give up, so he followed Zhou Yu's plan to trick Liu Bei to come to his territory and marry his sister, Lady Sun. He would then hold Liu Bei hostage in exchange for Jing Province. However, the plan failed and the newlywed couple returned to Jing Province safely. Zhou Yu later died in frustration after Zhuge Liang repeatedly foiled his plans to take Jing Province.

Liu Bei's takeover of Yi ProvinceEdit

Relations between Liu Bei and Sun Quan deteriorated after Zhou Yu's death, but not to the point of war. Following Zhuge Liang's Longzhong Plan, Liu Bei led his forces westward into Yi Province and seized control of the territories from the governor, Liu Zhang. By then, Liu Bei ruled over a vast stretch of land from Yi Province to southern Jing Province; these territories served as the foundation of the state of Shu Han later. Liu Bei declared himself King of Hanzhong after defeating Cao Cao in the Hanzhong Campaign and capturing Hanzhong Commandery.

At the same time, Emperor Xian awarded Cao Cao the title of a vassal king – King of Wei – while Sun Quan was known as the Duke of Wu. In eastern China, Sun Quan and Cao Cao's forces fought in various battles along the Yangtze River, including the battles of Hefei and Ruxu, but neither side managed to gain a significant advantage over the other.

Death of Guan YuEdit

Shadow puppets in the Sichuan Provincial Museum depicting Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.

Meanwhile, Sun Quan plotted to take Jing Province after growing tired of Liu Bei's repeated refusals to hand over the province. He secretly made peace and allied with Cao Cao against Liu Bei. While Guan Yu, who guarded Liu Bei's territories in Jing Province, was away attacking Cao Ren at the Battle of Fancheng, Sun Quan sent his general Lü Meng to launch a stealth invasion on Jing Province. Guan Yu was unable to capture Fancheng so he retreated, but was caught off guard by Lü Meng and had already lost Jing Province before he knew it. With his army's morale falling and the troops gradually deserting, Guan Yu and his remaining men withdrew to Maicheng, where they were surrounded by Sun Quan's forces. In desperation, Guan Yu attempted to break out of the siege but failed and was captured in an ambush. Sun Quan had him executed after he refused to surrender.

Shortly after Guan Yu's death, Cao Cao died of a brain tumour in Luoyang. His son and successor, Cao Pi, forced Emperor Xian to abdicate the throne to him and established the state of Cao Wei to replace the Han dynasty. About a year later, Liu Bei declared himself emperor and founded the state of Shu Han as a continuation of the Han dynasty. While Liu Bei was planning to avenge Guan Yu, Zhang Fei was assassinated in his sleep by his subordinates.

Battle of YilingEdit

As Liu Bei led a large army to avenge Guan Yu and retake Jing Province, Sun Quan attempted to appease him by offering to return him the territories in southern Jing Province. Liu Bei's subjects urged him to accept Sun Quan's offer but Liu insisted on avenging his sworn brother. After initial victories against Sun Quan's forces, a series of strategic mistakes resulted in Liu Bei's calamitous defeat at the Battle of Xiaoting/Yiling by Sun Quan's general, Lu Xun. Lu Xun initially pursued Liu Bei while the latter retreated after his defeat, but gave up after getting trapped inside and barely escaping from Zhuge Liang's Stone Sentinel Maze.

An artist's impression of Zhuge Liang.

Liu Bei died in Baidicheng from illness a few months later. On his deathbed, Liu Bei granted Zhuge Liang permission to take the throne if his son and successor, Liu Shan, proved to be an inept ruler. Zhuge Liang firmly refused and swore to remain faithful to the trust Liu Bei had placed in him.

Zhuge Liang's campaignsEdit

After Liu Bei's death, Cao Pi induced several forces, including Sun Quan, a turncoat Shu general Meng Da, the Nanman and Qiang tribes, to attack Shu, in coordination with a Wei army. However, Zhuge Liang managed to make the five armies retreat without any bloodshed. He also sent Deng Zhi to make peace with Sun Quan and restore the alliance between Shu and Wu. Zhuge Liang then personally led a southern campaign against the Nanman, defeated them seven times, and won the allegiance of the Nanman king, Meng Huo.

After pacifying the south, Zhuge Liang led the Shu army on five military expeditions to attack Wei as part of his mission to restore the Han dynasty. However, his days were numbered because he had been suffering from chronic illness and his condition worsened under stress. He would die of illness at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains while leading a stalemate battle against the Wei general Sima Yi.

End of the Three KingdomsEdit

The long years of battle between Shu and Wei saw many changes in the ruling Cao family in Wei. The influence of the Caos weakened after Cao Rui's death and state power eventually fell into the hands of the regent Sima Yi and subsequently to his sons, Sima Shi and Sima Zhao.

In Shu, Jiang Wei inherited Zhuge Liang's legacy and continued to lead another nine campaigns against Wei for three decades, but ultimately failed to achieve any significant success. The Shu emperor Liu Shan also turned out to be an incompetent ruler who trusted corrupt officials. Shu gradually declined under Liu Shan's rule and was eventually conquered by Wei forces. Jiang Wei attempted to restore Shu with the help of Zhong Hui, a Wei general dissatisfied with Sima Zhao, but their plan failed and both of them were killed by Wei soldiers. Shortly after the fall of Shu, Sima Zhao died and his son, Sima Yan, forced the last Wei emperor, Cao Huan, to abdicate the throne to him. Sima Yan then established the Jin dynasty to replace the state of Cao Wei.

In Wu, there had been internal conflict among the nobles since Sun Quan's death. The regents Zhuge Ke and Sun Chen consecutively attempted to usurp the throne but were eventually ousted from power and eliminated in coups. Although stability was temporarily restored in Wu, the last Wu emperor, Sun Hao, turned out to be a tyrant. Wu, the last of the Three Kingdoms, was eventually conquered by the Jin dynasty. The fall of Wu marked the end of the near century-long era of civil strife historically known as the Three Kingdoms period.

Historical accuracyEdit

The novel draws from Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms as the main historical source. Other major influences include Liu Yiqing's A New Account of the Tales of the World (Shishuo Xinyu), published in 430,[18] and the Sanguozhi Pinghua, a chronological collection of eighty fictional sketches starting with the peach garden oath and ending with Zhuge Liang's death.[19]

Some 50 or 60 Yuan and early Ming plays about the Three Kingdoms are known to have existed, and their material is almost entirely fictional, based on thin threads of actual history. The novel is thus a return to greater emphasis on history, compared to these dramas.[20] The novel also shifted towards better acknowledgement of southern China's historical importance, while still portraying some prejudice against the south.[21] The Qing dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng famously wrote that the novel was "seven-parts fact and three-parts fiction."[11][22] The fictional parts are culled from different sources, including unofficial histories, folk stories, the Sanguozhi Pinghua, and also the author's own imagination. Nonetheless, the description of the social conditions and the logic that the characters use is accurate to the Three Kingdoms period, creating "believable" situations and characters, even if they are not historically accurate.[23]

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, like the dramas and folk stories of its day, features Liu Bei and his associates as the protagonists; hence the depiction of the people in Shu Han was glorified. The antagonists, Cao Cao, Sun Quan and their followers, on the other hand, were often denigrated. This suited the political climate in the Ming dynasty, unlike in the Jin dynasty when Cao Wei was considered the legitimate successor to the Han dynasty.[citation needed]

Some non-historical scenes in the novel have become well-known and subsequently became a part of traditional Chinese culture.

Literary analysisEdit

An illustration from a Ming dynasty printed edition of the novel from 1591, collection of the Peking University.

In the introduction to the 1959 reprint of the Brewitt-Taylor translation, Roy Andrew Miller argues that the novel's chief theme is "the nature of human ambition",[22] to which Moody adds the relationship between politics and morality, specifically the conflict between the idealism of Confucian political thought and the harsh realism of Legalism, as a related theme.[22] Other dominant themes of the novel include: the rise and fall of the ideal liege (Liu Bei); finding the ideal minister (Zhuge Liang); the conflict between the ideal liege (Liu Bei) and the consummate villain (Cao Cao); and the cruelties and injustice of feudal or dynastic government.[1]

The opening lines of the novel, "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been", added by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang in their recension,[24][14] epitomise the tragic theme of the novel. One recent critic notes that the novel takes political and moral stands and lets the reader know which of the characters are heroes and which villains, yet the heroes are forced to make a tragic choice between equal values, not merely between good and evil. The heroes know that the end of the empire is ordained by this cosmic cycle of division and unity, yet their choices are moral, based on loyalty, not political.[25]

Plaks states the novel deals with the "cyclical theories of dynastic decline," and relates the "breakdown of order" at the end of the Han dynasty to "the improper exercise of imperial authority, the destabilisation influence of special-interest groups (eunuchs, imperial clansmen), the problem of factional and individual idealism carried to the point of civil strife-all of which eventually surface in the body of the narrative." He goes on to say, the "overlapping claims to legitimacy and multiple spheres of power," give the novel a "sense of epic greatness" with its "combination of grandeur and futility."[6]: 385, 403, 495 

Cultural impactEdit

Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Chinese opera
Xiao Qiao and Zhou Yu in Qingyangqiang

Besides the famous Peach Garden Oath, many Chinese proverbs in use today are derived from the novel:

Translation Chinese Interpretation
Brothers are like limbs, wives and children are like clothing. Torn clothing can be repaired; how can broken limbs be mended? simplified Chinese: 兄弟如手足,妻子如衣服。衣服破,尚可缝; 手足断,安可续?; traditional Chinese: 兄弟如手足,妻子如衣服。衣服破,尚可縫; 手足斷,安可續?[26]

It means that wives and children, like clothing, are replaceable if lost but the same does not hold true for one's brothers (or friends).

Liu Bei "borrows" Jing Province – borrowing without returning. simplified Chinese: 刘备借荆州——有借无还; traditional Chinese: 劉備借荆州——有借無還
simplified Chinese: 刘备借荆州,一借无回头; traditional Chinese: 劉備借荆州,一借無回頭
This proverb describes the situation of a person borrowing something without the intention of returning it.
Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives. simplified Chinese: 说曹操,曹操到; traditional Chinese: 說曹操,曹操到
simplified Chinese: 说曹操曹操就到; traditional Chinese: 說曹操曹操就到
Equivalent to speak of the devil. Describes the situation of a person appearing precisely when being spoken about.
Three reeking tanners (are enough to) overcome one Zhuge Liang. simplified Chinese: 三个臭皮匠,胜过一个诸葛亮; traditional Chinese: 三個臭皮匠,勝過一個諸葛亮
simplified Chinese: 三个臭皮匠,赛过一个诸葛亮; traditional Chinese: 三個臭皮匠,賽過一個諸葛亮
simplified Chinese: 三个臭裨将,顶个诸葛亮; traditional Chinese: 三个臭裨将,頂個諸葛亮
Three inferior people can overpower a superior person when they combine their strengths. One variation is "subordinate generals" (simplified Chinese: 裨将; traditional Chinese: 裨將; píjiàng) instead of "tanners" (皮匠; píjiàng).
Eastern Wu arranges a false marriage that turns into a real one. simplified Chinese: 东吴招亲——弄假成真; traditional Chinese: 東吳招親——弄假成真 When a plan to falsely offer something backfires with the result that the thing originally offered is appropriated by the intended victim of the hoax.
Losing the lady and crippling the army. simplified Chinese: 赔了夫人又折兵; traditional Chinese: 賠了夫人又折兵 The "lady" lost here was actually Sun Quan's sister Lady Sun. Zhou Yu's plan to capture Liu Bei by means of a false marriage proposal failed and Lady Sun really became Liu's wife (see above). Zhou Yu later led his troops in an attempt to attack Liu Bei but fell into an ambush and suffered a crushing defeat. This saying is now used to describe the situations where a person either makes double losses in a deal or loses on both sides of it.
Every person on the street knows what is in Sima Zhao's mind. simplified Chinese: 司马昭之心,路人皆知; traditional Chinese: 司馬昭之心,路人皆知 As Sima Zhao gradually rose to power in Wei, his intention to usurp state power became more obvious. The young Wei emperor Cao Mao once lamented to his loyal ministers, "Every person on the street knows what is in Sima Zhao's mind (that he wanted to usurp the throne)." This saying is now used to describe a situation where a person's intention or ambition is rather obvious.
The young should not read Water Margin, and the old should not read Three Kingdoms. simplified Chinese: 少不读水浒, 老不读三国; traditional Chinese: 少不讀水滸, 老不讀三國 The former depicts the lives of outlaws and their defiance of the social system and may have a negative influence on adolescent boys, as well as the novel's depiction of gruesome violence. The latter presents every manner of stratagem and fraud and may tempt older readers to engage in such thinking.

The writing style adopted by Romance of the Three Kingdoms was part of the emergence of written vernacular during the Ming period, as part of the so-called "Four Masterworks" (si da qishu).[27]

Buddhist aspectsEdit

Romance of the Three Kingdoms recorded stories of a Buddhist monk called Pujing (普净), who was a friend of Guan Yu. Pujing made his first appearance during Guan's arduous journey of crossing five passes and slaying six generals, in which he warned Guan of an assassination plot. As the novel was written in the Ming dynasty, more than 1,000 years after the era, these stories showed that Buddhism had long been a significant ingredient of the mainstream culture and may not be historically accurate.[clarification needed] Luo Guanzhong preserved these descriptions from earlier versions of the novel to support his portrait of Guan as a faithful man of virtue. Guan has since then been respectfully addressed as "Lord Guan" or Guan Gong.

Strategies used in battlesEdit

Create Something from Nothing: A strategy to make an audience believe of something's existence, when it in fact does not exist. On the flip side, it can be used to convince others that nothing exists, when something does exist. (Ch. 36)

Beauty Trap: Send the enemy beautiful women to cause disorder at his site. This trick can work in three ways: firstly, the ruler can become so entranced with the feminine allure that he neglects all else. Secondly, the men will start competing for the females' attention, which will cause friction and rifts, and hinders cooperation and eradicates morale. And lastly, other women motivated by jealousy will begin to plot, only worsening the entire situation. Also known as the "Honey Trap". (Ch. 55–56)

Empty City: When the enemy is superior in numbers and you are expecting to be attacked at any moment, drop all pretenses of seeming like you're preparing something militarily and act calm, so the enemy will think twice and will think you're setting a trap or an ambush. It is best used sparingly, and only if one has the military aptitude to do so. It's also best used if one's enemy is an over-thinker. (Ch. 95)

The Jurchen chief and Khan Nurhaci read the Chinese novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin learning all he knew about Chinese military and political strategies from them.[28][29][30]


A translated version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Javanese, from early 20th-century Indonesia
The cover of a 1928 Thai language appendix of the novel titled History of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with notes by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, from the Royal Society of Thailand.

The book was translated into Manchu as ᡳᠯᠠᠨ
Möllendorff: ilan gurun-i bithe.[31][32][33][34][35] During the Qing dynasty, Chinese military manuals were eagerly translated by the Manchus, who were also attracted to the military content in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.[34]

English translationsEdit

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been translated into English by numerous scholars.


The first known translation was performed in 1907 by John G. Steele and consisted of a single chapter excerpt that was distributed in China to students learning English at Presbyterian missionary schools.[7] Z. Q. Parker published a 1925 translation containing four episodes from the novel including the events of the Battle of Red Cliffs, while Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang published excerpts in 1981, including chapters 43–50.[7] In 1976, Moss Roberts published an abridged translation containing one fourth of the novel including maps and more than 40 woodblock illustrations from three Chinese versions of the novel.[7] Roberts' abridgement is reader-friendly, being written for use in colleges and to be read by the general public.[7]


  1. A complete and faithful translation of the novel was published in two volumes in 1925 by Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor, a long time official of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service.[7] The translation was well written, but lacked any supplementary materials such as maps or character lists that would aid Western readers; a 1959 reprint was published that included maps and an introduction by Roy Andrew Miller to assist foreign readers.[7]
  2. After decades of work, Moss Roberts published a full translation in 1991 complete with an afterword, eleven maps, a list of characters, titles, terms, and offices, and almost 100 pages of notes from Mao Zonggang's commentaries and other scholarly sources.[7] Roberts' complete translation remains faithful to the original; it is reliable yet still matches the tone and style of the classic text.[7] Yang Ye, a professor in Chinese Literature at the UC Riverside, wrote in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English (1998) that Roberts' translation "supersedes Brewitt-Taylor's translation and will no doubt remain the definitive English version for many years to come".[7] Roberts' translation was republished in 1995 by the Foreign Languages Press without the illustrations.[36]
  3. In 2014, Tuttle published a new, three-volume translation of the novel, translated by Yu Sumei and edited by Ronald C. Iverson (ISBN 978-0804843935). According to its publisher, this translation is an unabridged "dynamic translation" intended to be more readable than past English translations of the novel.[37]


The story of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been retold in numerous forms including television series, manga and video games.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Roberts 1991, pg. 940
  2. ^ Kim, Hyung-eun (11 July 2008). "(Review) Historical China film lives up to expectations". Korea JoongAng Daily. Archived from the original on 25 December 2011. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is comparable to the Bible in East Asia. It's one of the most-read if not, the most-read classics in the region.
  3. ^ Shoji, Kaori (6 November 2008). "War as wisdom and gore". The Japan Times. In East Asia, Romance is on par with the works of Shakespeare... in the same way that people in Britain grow up studying Hamlet and Macbeth.
  4. ^ Ng, On-cho; Wang, Q. Edward (2005). Mirroring the Past: The Writing and Use of History in Imperial China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. p. 86. ISBN 0824829131.
  5. ^ Herbert Giles (1901). A History of Chinese Literature. London: W. Heinemann. p. 277. If a vote were taken among the people of China as to the greatest among their countless novels, the Story of the Three Kingdoms would indubitably come out first.
  6. ^ a b Plaks, Andrew (1987). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch'i-shu. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 368–369. ISBN 9780691628202.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English. Taylor & Francis. 1998. pp. 1221–1222. ISBN 1-884964-36-2. Retrieved 22 September 2011.
  8. ^ a b Lo, Kuan-chung (2002). Romance of the Three Kingdoms. 1. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (Translator), Robert E. Hegel (Introduction). Tuttle. pp. viii. ISBN 978-0-8048-3467-4.
  9. ^ Moss Roberts, "Afterword," in Luo, Three Kingdoms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 938, 964.
  10. ^ Roberts, pp. 946–53.
  11. ^ a b Roberts 1991, pg. 980
  12. ^ Roberts 1991, pg. 965
  13. ^ Roberts 1991, pp. 967–971
  14. ^ a b Luo (1991), p. 5.
  15. ^ Hegel 2002, p. ix
  16. ^ "The Immortals by the River (楊慎 臨江仙) 滚滚长江东逝水". Vincent's Calligraphy. Retrieved 2 August 2016.
  17. ^ Bojun Shen, translated by Kimberly Basio, "Studies of Three Kingdoms in the New Century," in Besio and Tong, eds., Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture, p. 154
  18. ^ Roberts 1991, pg. 981
  19. ^ Roberts 1991, pg. 954
  20. ^ Roberts 1991, pp. 958–9
  21. ^ Roberts 1991, pp. 959, 983
  22. ^ a b c Moody Jr., Peter R. (April 1975). "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Popular Chinese Thought". The Review of Politics. 37 (2): 178–179. doi:10.1017/s0034670500023238.
  23. ^ Luo 2006, pg. 14
  24. ^ Hegel 2002, p. ix–x;
  25. ^ Constantine Tung, "Cosmic Foreordination and Human Commitment: The Tragic Volition in Three Kingdoms", in Kimberly Ann Besio, Constantine Tung. Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), p. 4.
  26. ^ Luo Guanzhong. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Chapter 15.
  27. ^ Liangyan Ge, "Out of the margins: the rise of Chinese vernacular fiction", University of Hawaii Press, 2001
  28. ^ Parker, Geoffrey (2013). Global Crisis: War, Climate and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (illustrated ed.). Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300189193.
  29. ^ Swope, Kenneth M. (2014). The Military Collapse of China's Ming Dynasty, 1618–44 (illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 978-1134462094.
  30. ^ Mair, Victor H.; Chen, Sanping; Wood, Frances (2013). Chinese Lives: The People Who Made a Civilization (illustrated ed.). Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0500771471.
  31. ^ Crossley, Pamela Kyle; Rawski, Evelyn S. (June 1993). "A Profile of The Manchu Language in Ch'ing History". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 53 (1): 93. doi:10.2307/2719468. JSTOR 2719468.
  32. ^ Cultural Hybridity in Manchu Bannermen Tales (zidishu). 2007. pp. 25–. ISBN 978-0-549-44084-0.
  33. ^ West, Andrew. "The Textual History of Sanguo Yanyi: The Manchu Translation". Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  34. ^ a b Durrant, Stephen (1979). "Sino-manchu Translations at the Mukden Court". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 99 (4): 653–61 [654–656]. doi:10.2307/601450. JSTOR 601450.
  35. ^ Cultural Hybridity in Manchu Bannermen Tales (zidishu). 2007. pp. 25–. ISBN 978-0-549-44084-0.
  36. ^ "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". Chinese Bookshop. Archived from the original on 15 June 2012. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
  37. ^ Template, Madwire Media, MADwhite Wireframe BC. "The Three Kingdoms, Volume 1: The Sacred Oath". Tuttle Publishing. Retrieved 27 February 2016.

References and further readingEdit

  • Luo, Guanzhong, attributed to, translated from the Chinese with afterword and notes by Moss Roberts (1991). Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. Berkeley; Beijing: University of California Press; Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 0520068211.
  • Hsia, Chih-tsing,"The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," in The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction (1968) rpr. Cornell East Asia Series. Ithaca, N.Y.: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1996.
  • Luo, Guanzhong (2002) [1925]. Romance of the Three Kingdoms. 1. English translation by Charles H. Brewitt-Taylor, Introduction by Robert E. Hegel. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9780804834674.
  • Luo, Guanzhong (2002) [1925]. Romance of the Three Kingdoms. 2. English translation by Charles H. Brewitt-Taylor, Introduction by Robert E. Hegel. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9780804834681.
  • Luo, Guanzhong (2006). Three Kingdoms. English translation by Moss Roberts, Introduction by Shi Changyu. Beijing: Foreign Language Press. ISBN 7-119-00590-1.
  • Li Chengli, Zhang Qirong, Wu Jingyu. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (illustrated in English and Chinese) (2008) Asiapac Books. ISBN 978-981-229-491-3
  • Besio, Kimberly Ann and Constantine Tung, eds., Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. ISBN 0791470113. Essays on this novel's literary aspects, use of history, and in contemporary popular culture.
  • Luo, Guanzhong (2014). The Three Kingdoms. 1. English translation by Yu Sumei, Edited by Ronald C. Iverson. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9780804843935.
  • Luo, Guanzhong (2014). The Three Kingdoms. 2. English translation by Yu Sumei, Edited by Ronald C. Iverson. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9780804843942.
  • Luo, Guanzhong (2014). The Three Kingdoms. 3. English translation by Yu Sumei, Edited by Ronald C. Iverson. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9780804843959.

External linksEdit