Book Review: "Three Kingdoms," by Luo Guanzhong

3년 전

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How much hubris does it take to write a critical review of a 600-year-old classic? Apparently this much, because that's what I'm about to do.

Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi, commonly mistranslated as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," (1) is almost undoubtedly THE single most definitive work of Chinese ancient literature. Together with Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Mansion, it makes up what are known (not very originally) as "the Four Books," literary staples which once formed the entirety of many Chinese students' years of literary study. I suppose "historical fiction" would be the best classification for it if one wanted to peg it to a genre. Written in the 15th century to depict the events of the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, it is regarded as "7 parts history and 3 parts fiction (foreword, p. 2250)," but I wonder if this is an actual estimate or if the figure of 7 and 3 is merely a symbolic number, given that it is the same figure the CPC uses to describe Mao Zedong (seven parts right, 3 parts wrong).
Regardless of these minutiae, if there is a book that gives a clearer look at the way China views the world in terms of war, politics, and diplomacy (which seem to be three forms of the same art, when viewed from China's perspective), then this 120 chapter epic (this translation comes to roughly 2,100 pages if you omit the footnotes) is it.

Reading it took most of the summer (the time it would normally take me to read about 10 books), and there were times during volumes 3 and 4 when I found myself falling asleep after reading only a page or two because the narrative style is roughly as engaging and suspenseful as 2 Chronicles, but all I can say after having finished it is "I really wish I'd read this before coming to China." The insight it gives into the Chinese psyche is invaluable for any Sinologist (or anyone who has to endure the nightmare of living among the Chinese), and it is not flattering to them.

The Characters

The three main characters of the novel are a nobleman named Liu Bei (a distant relative of the emperor of China at the time), a stoic fugitive named Lord Guan, and a Short-tempered hotheaded warrior named Zhang Fei whose courage surpasses his good sense for most of the novel. The earliest major event in the story is during a rebellion by brigands known as the "Yellow Scarves," these three men make a vow to each other on their way off to fight for their empire: that they will all die on the same day, and this oath propels them into a chain of events that eventually sees Liu Bei as the emperor of one of the titular 3 Kingdoms, nations competing for rule over China after the Han Dynasty collapses. These three are all dead by the end of the novel, but none of their successors can really be called main characters.
Beginning about a quarter of the way through the book, the three are joined by a tactician named Zhuge Liang (AKA Kongming), whose seeming infallibility lends a definite air of mythology to what brands itself a historical novel. And of course, the antagonist is the legendary general Cao Cao, whose portrayal suffers from a similar flaw in its believability to that of Kongming. He is what modern writers would call a "Gary Stu" character, who is never defeated except when the plot requires it as a way to show off his arrogance. It is worthy of note that while Cao Cao is historically remembered for his brilliance in combat and his statecraft, the novel casts him as an utterly unscrupulous villain. I won't presume to speculate on whether history or this novel is a more accurate portrayal of the man.

The Plot

The Han Dynasty is crumbling.
The emperor rules in name alone, and every local warlord is out for himself. This is significant because, with the exception of the 22-year-long Qin Dynasty, Han was the first dynasty to ever rule most of the core of what is now China under a single banner (I say the core because Tibet, Xinjiang, Nei Mongguo and most of Dongbei [AKA Manchuria] were most definitely beyond its borders). Three factions emerge: one that wants to usurp it (Cao Cao, whose kingdom is called "Wei"), one that claims to be fighting to preserve it (Liu Bei, whose kingdom is called "Shu" and which has a bit of legitimacy as the only one of the three whose sovereign is actually a blood-relative of the deposed Han Emperor), and a neverending succession of short-lived men surnamed Sun (whose kingdom is at first known only as "the Southland" but comes to be called "Wu," and who are lent a bit of gravitas by being descended from Sun Zi [Sun Tzu] and having found the first Emperor Qin Shihuang's jade seal on p. 102 & 103) who are rather open about their secessionist intent (what is it about Southerners and secession anyway?)
The plot doesn't really have the three-act (rising action, climax, falling action) structure of a Western Novel, but the first major events seem to be the enthronement of the three emperors (thus formally drawing the Battle Lines of the 3 kingdoms), which does not happen until chapter 38 (p. 680, Vol. II). This means it is preceded by an entire volume of nothing more than stage-setting, basically consisting of "so-and-so tricked so-and-so into joining him in battle against so-and-so, then betrayed him and submitted to so-and-so, only to betray him in turn and be avenged by so-and-so."
Did I mention that the narrative style sounds more like 2 Chronicles than a novel? I did, didn't I?
Anyway, the next two volumes consist of these 3 factions trying to destroy each other but never succeeding because each time one is about to fall, one of the two that is allied against it decides the other will be too powerful when the third falls.
Basically, think of Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania from 1984, but a few thousand years earlier.
The next major event is when Liu Bei decides to attack the Southland to avenge Lord Guan's death, rather than fulfill what most perceive as his duty to the Han Line by destroying Cao Cao (p. 1432). This is a turning point for 2 reasons: one, it is the first time the character of Liu Bei EVER puts his own interests before duty, and two, the resulting defeat weakens him enough that he is never again able to effectively challenge Cao Cao's Northern Kingdom, which would have been the key to fulfilling his goal of reuniting the empire under the Han line.
The only thing that comes across as a literary theme is when Cao Cao's ancestral throne is finally usurped by a general named Sima (p. 1984-1990, 2141, 2145, Vol. III), in a series of events that perfectly echoes Cao's usurpation of the Han throne. Thus is born the Kingdom of "Jin," which ends up conquering the other two and becoming the Jin Dynasty of China.

What Makes It Stand Out

The first thing I noticed about the novel (other than the fact that six-figure death tolls seem to appear no less frequently than once every 5 pages... so much for China's claims of a pacifist history) is how often betrayal is lauded as wisdom, and on a few occasions is even praised as a virtue in itself. Indeed, the only character who habitually keeps his word is Liu Bei, and he is frequently rebuked for it by Kongming. The author also repeatedly portrays Liu Bei's willingness to trust others to be as honorable as he is, as naivete and weakness (most notably p. 646 & 793, Vol. II). The author's message is clear: trust and trustworthiness are both character flaws, and tragic ones at that. This is a sobering realization to make when analyzing the novel's relevance to Chinese culture.
Another thing that stood out was the way every self-styled emperor refers to everyone who is not one of his own vassals as "rebels." The term "rebel" implies rejection of rightful authority, so this term carries with it the implication that one's rightful authority covers the entire Earth, but we'll get to that later. Suffice it to say, it foreshadows the way China today insists on referring to Taiwan (which it has almost never ruled) as a "rebel" province.
Perhaps the hardest thing to take though, was the way the "heroes" depicted herein frequently scorn their own wives and children. No example is more obvious than Chapter 42, where Zhao Zilong (one of Liu Bei's generals) risks his life saving Liu Bei's infant son (though he is unable to save the boy's mother), and Liu Bei's response when the boy is brought to him is to toss him aside like trash.

Still breathing hard, Zhao Zilong said "Ten thousand deaths could not redeem my offense. Lady Mi was wounded so badly that she refused my horse and threw herself down a well. I could do nothing but knock over an earthen wall to cover her body. Then, holding the young master on my chest, I broke through the enemy's lines, and by the favor Heaven bestows upon you, my lord, I survived. A moment ago the young master was crying. But he's stopped moving now, and I fear..." Zilong untied his armor and looked inside. The infant was asleep. "Fortune smiles." He handed Ah-Dou carefully to Xuande, who flung him to the ground the instant he received him.
"For the sake of a suckling like you," Xuande cried, "I risked losing a great commander!"
(p. 742)

Of course, among China's other "virtues" on display in the novel are:

  • The status of women as chattel, and not even very valuable chattel at that (p. 65, 778, 780, 839, 910, 2118, among numerous others). The way Liu Bei is moved not with indignation but with gratitude when a peasant, finding no food in his house to feed Liu Bei, slaughters his own wife and serves her to him as a meal (p. 313 & 314) is probably the most extreme example, given that this Liu Bei (who finds this action praiseworthy) is what passes for a hero in the novel.

  • The lives of commoners are meaningless next to the value of the elite, most notably on p. 1264 when it is rather flatly stated that "An army is easy to get, a general is hard to find, as they say. Despite his offense, Zhang He stands high in the king's favor. He cannot be killed." This same distinction between the lives who matter and lives that don't comes on p. 1005 when a king's Prime Minister chops off the fingers of his own sailors who are trying to get into a boat, for fear that they will drag the boat down and prevent its main passenger, his sovereign, from escaping.

  • Nepotism, cronyism and extortion are perfectly normal and even acceptable, as the ability to engage in them would not come without Heaven's favor. (p. 28)

  • The belief that China (or rather, its head of state) has a "Heaven-mandated" authority over the whole Earth (p. 52, among others).

And of course, perhaps my personal favorite, especially in light of China's recent pretensions about having not only achieved Rule of Law but having allegedly pioneered it millennia ago, is the rather casual and open way it is asserted that law does not apply to the elite. What's more is that this assertion is made by quoting it from an older Chinese classic. During an incident when Cao Cao unwittingly breaks one of his own edicts, he summons his Provost Marshall to ask for the penalty and finds that his offense is a capital one. In a rare moment of honor he is about to fall on his sword when he is stopped.

Guo Jia said, "According to to Confucius' Spring and Autumn Annals, 'the law shall not apply to those in the highest positions.' " (p. 298)

So he cuts off a lock of his hair, tells the men that it will serve in lieu of his head, and his men all cheer (presumably because they fear that if they don't they aren't high-ranking enough to let their hair take the place of their heads).

All-in-all, the book is a rather damning indictment against the barbaric and primitive nature of China's entire culture.

So Is It Worth Reading?

For one whose work (or life) requires them to understand how the Chinese think, then the answer is an unequivocal "yes." For anyone else, I find myself torn. It's useful as an insight into this hostile power that is rising in Asia, but I am forced to admit that few readers have the time for a historical epic that is longer than the Old Testament (that's not a hyperbole either). Still, even if one does not have the time to read it in its entirety, reading the first 60 chapters or so (slightly less than the first two volumes of the edition I'm reviewing here) would not be a bad summer reading project, as this gives a feel for the story while stopping before the story gets too inanely repetitive.
At the very least, I don't regret reading it, which is more than I can say for some of the literary slop I've forced myself to slough through in my study of China.

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(1): The origin of this mistranslation is most likely C.H. Brewitt Taylor, who, in 1925, first translated the work into English and interpreted "Yanyi" as "Romance," though the translation being reviewed here eschews this rendering, citing the fact that it "denotes a world removed from reality (p. 2230)

Postscript:

A response to this article, challenging some of it, was written by Silvergrifin007 here. It's definitely worth reading.

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I will write an answer to your article. Just come to my blog.

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I certainly will.

hi dear @patriamreminisci, great review! I don't like to read things that are too long, I lose myself ... but you have given a great description of this volume and some significant details that certainly deserve attention. Do you write reviews for work or as a hobby?
congratulations on your work and on the curie vote

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Thanks for your congratulations!
I actually only do it as a hobby (my main work is teaching and the main focus of my blog is political commentary), and this is the first fictional work I've reviewed. I've posted some reviews on my blog here, but they're all China-related.
Given the attention this one has gotten, I may start focusing on more reviews and less political commentary. They seem to be more popular.

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how nice, what do you teach?
I think that politics is a difficult topic, even the most interested people soon get tired of talking or listening about it, because often the problems are always the same while no solution comes in to help the citizen. it takes real passion !!
on the other hand, reviews on books or films always give a hint, make people curious and they too can make people aware of some important issues! keep on

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For my day-job (and according to my Visa) I teach what is listed as "Oral English," which is basically a class where Chinese public schools expect a foreign teacher (who they automatically assume has no credentials or any idea how to teach, because I'm foreign - never mind either of my twin Masters Degrees in Ed or my 440 hours of post-certification instruction) to keep what is laughably called an English class entertained and out of the way for an hour each day.
The bulk of my income (and my only real job satisfaction) comes from tutoring after school, where I teach beginner Karate, voice, saxophone, Western Literature, theater, and Cambridge Test Preparation (about two classes of each per week).
I also find time to be a student: I'm studying more advanced Karate (the black belt exam is about a year off) as well as studying the Tagalog language (my children's first-language) and Russian, though I'm not very good at foreign languages.

Anyway, yes I do seem to notice that reviews are more popular. I definitely will be dropping more of them here. It takes a week to write a political analysis (at least with the number of sources I like to cite) and only about an hour or two to write a book review, so it will be a good way to get a little more exposure.


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I would love to read this book but I doubt I will ever be able to commit that amount of my reading tome to complete it. It would be nice if there were a modern novel telling the same story that covers as much of the detail as possible in this book. I'd read that for sure!

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There are novelizations of individual stories from it, but trying to give the highlights of a novel which, even at its length, finds itself rushed to cover a span of nearly a century of time, would be difficult.
Basically, if you find any Chinese movie about "the Battle of Red Cliffs," that covers the most pivotal battle and it captures the type of subterfuge and intrigue that run throughout the rest of the book.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the most famous historical novel in East Asia.
It is a work in which Chinese nationalism and imperialistic superiorism are revealed. The Chinese now want to rule the world like the ideas in this novel.