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Classical Chinese Novels 101: Romance of the Three Kingdoms


For centuries, the literati of China wrote in Literary Chinese, crafted rigidly-structured essays, delighted in allusive poetry—and looked down on fiction as a lesser form of writing. Despite this, the stories and characters of China’s traditional novels have long influenced popular culture, and they are still readily apparent in both modern Chinese and East Asian culture.

This 101 series will serve as a basic introduction to China’s Four Great Classical Novels, as well as the entertainingly divergent (and often banned) Ming classic, Plum in the Golden Vase. In addition to discussing the development of Chinese long-form vernacular fiction, these articles will seek to present different critical interpretations of each novel, as well as highlight the insights that they offer into Chinese culture. As this series is designed for those without knowledge of Chinese or just beginning their studies of the language, Chinese names will be given in English, Chinese pinyin, and characters for the first appearance, and all subsequent references will use the English.

Classical Chinese Novels 101 is divided into six chapters:

2. Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

3. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Water Margin

4. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Journey to the West

5. Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Plum in the Golden Vase

6. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Dream of the Red Chamber

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

Kongming sits on a city wall playing the traditional guqin instrument. The city gates are open, inviting Sima Yi's attack. Wary of ambushes, Sima Yi flees on horseback instead of attacking.
Figure 1: "Kongming zhi tui Sima Yi" Kongming tricks Sima Yi into retreating with the Empty Fort strategy.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Sanguo yanyi (三国演义), is often considered to be the greatest of early Chinese novels. A work of historical fiction attributed to Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on the events of the Three Kingdoms period, a century of Chinese history (169 CE to about 280 CE) that witnessed the fall of the Han Dynasty, the rise of three kingdoms which each attempted to replace it, their subsequent decline, and the establishment of the Jin Dynasty. The name of the novel directly translates to “Elaboration of the Meanings of the [Records of the] Three Kingdoms” (Mair, 2010, p. 622).

Through its direct reference to the official history of the Three Kingdoms period, the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi, 三国志) by Chen Shou, the very title of Romance of the Three Kingdoms demonstrates the key role of history in this preeminent example of early Chinese fiction. Chen Shou’s historical chronicle served as the basis of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, though Luo Guanzhong also drew from other official and popular historical records and their commentaries. The well-known literary scholar C. T. Hsia writes that “hardly a single character in the book is ahistorical” and notes that many scholars have considered the novel to be “neither sufficiently truthful to be good history nor sufficiently fictionalized to be good literature” (Hsia, 1968, p. 33).

The 120-chapter version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, edited by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang and published in 1679, is the most widely-read version of Luo Guanzhong’s novel. It begins with a line (not present in the earliest extant 1522 edition) that embodies both the Chinese perception of and reverence for history: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has always been” (Three Kingdoms, chapter 1). To further demonstrate this relentlessly cyclical view of history, Luo recounts the civil wars that marked the fall of the Zhou Dynasty, the rise and fall of the Qin, and the civil wars which eventually led to the Han Dynasty.

Figure 2: Illustration of the Peach Garden Oath of Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei.

Continuing in relatively terse language that mirrored the concise classical Chinese of historians, Luo goes on to describe the civil unrest that precipitated the fall of the Han Dynasty and introduces three of the main characters of his novel: Liu Bei, courtesy name (a name adopted in adulthood) Xuande, is purported to be a descendant of a Han Dynasty emperor; Zhang Fei, courtesy name Yide; and Guan Yu, courtesy name Yunchang. (In accordance with Chinese naming traditions, these men are referred to by their given names or their courtesy names depending on the circumstances, so it is often important to recognize both styles of key characters' names.) In one of the most famous scenes of the novel, Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu meet in a peach garden in the first chapter. They pledge themselves to each other as sworn brothers, and this oath of brotherhood becomes part of the driving motivation for each of these three characters.

As the novel spans about a century of history, it includes a vast cast of characters, some major and others minor. The first part of the novel details the court intrigue and battles between various warlords and officials during the weak rule of an incompetent Han emperor; Cao Cao, the future ruler of one of the titular Three Kingdoms, and Sun Quan, another future ruler, eventually distinguish themselves as major powers. Meanwhile, Liu Bei, the future ruler of the third of the Three Kingdoms, and his sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, prove themselves to be fearsome fighters and intelligent commanders. A relative of the imperial army, the narrative sets Liu Bei up as the most legitimate claimant to the imperial throne, sometimes referring to him as "Royal Uncle." His Confucian qualities of dignity, benevolence, education, and devotion towards family are strongly emphasized. In Liu Bei’s case, devotion to family includes loyalty to the Han Dynasty, which is demonstrated in his supposed reluctance to take up positions of power and claim the Han throne. The strength of Liu Bei’s character is also reflected in his ability to inspire loyalty and love in the great heroes who pledge themselves to his cause (Mair, 2010; Hsia, 1968).

Figure 3: Cao Cao recites a poem on the eve of the Battle of the Red Cliffs.

While Cao Cao and Sun Quan consolidate their power in the north and south respectively, Liu Bei seeks help in establishing his own significance. This leads to another of the great, well-known scenes of Romance of the Three Kingdom: Liu Bei’s three visits to the famed scholar and recluse Zhuge Liang, courtesy name Kongming, and his eventual success in winning Kongming’s support and counsel. With Kongming as his chief advisor, Liu Bei then allies with Sun Quan against Cao Cao and wins the epic Battle of the Red Cliffs. Cao Cao only escapes death due to Guan Yu’s nobility, Kongming’s belief in the necessity of balance between powers, and the will of heaven which dictates the course of history.

Despite the fame of the climactic Battle of the Red Cliffs scenes, the epic defeat of Cao Cao only occurs just before the halfway point of the novel. In the second half of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao establishes the northern kingdom of Wei, Sun Quan creates the southern kingdom of Wu, and finally Liu Bei forms the western kingdom of Shu Han. The three kingdoms continue to struggle for dominance, and in the third quarter of the novel, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Liu Bei, each fall victim to tragic character flaws that lead to their deaths; Cao Cao and Sun Quan also die. In the final quarter of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Kongming demonstrates his brilliance and cements his status as a legendary military strategist and powerful Taoist priest, but even he proves unable to change the “will of heaven” and conquer the Wei kingdom and defeat the general Sima Yi. After a series of failed campaigns against Wei, Kongming also succumbs to a tragic death. Shu Han falls to Wei; the Wei emperors are overpowered and replaced by their advisors, Sima clan. The Sima conquer the troubled Wu kingdom, thus ending the period of the Three Kingdoms and beginning the Jin dynasty.

Figure 4: "Gentoku Miyuki chu Komei wo tazu no zu" - a Japanese print of Liu Bei visiting Zhuge Liang three times to ask for his help.

The concept of the “will of heaven” is often invoked in both Chinese history and literature. In the troubled times between dynasties, the mandate of heaven is lost by decadence, incompetence, and tyranny, and gained through righteousness and just power. This cycle of rise and fall is part of the will of heaven; even the beloved Kongming, arguably the novel’s most celebrated character, is reluctant to join Liu Bei because he knows that despite Liu Bei’s righteousness and just cause, any attempt to preserve the Han dynasty through supporting its most legitimate successor is a doomed effort. As a friend of Kongming’s tries to explain to Liu Bei, “For Kongming to try to reverse the course of events… would be, I am afraid, a futile expense of mind and body. It is said, ‘Adapt to Heaven and enjoy ease; oppose it and toil in vain’” (Three Kingdoms, chapter 37).

The repetition of events and cyclicality of history is also reflected by the structure of the novel and its plot. In his book The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel, Andrew Plaks (2015) highlights how the rise and fall of various warlords, as well as other critical events, seem to occur in periodic cycles of about ten chapters. Li (2010) points out that the decline of the Shu, Wei, and Wu kingdoms mirrors the decline of the Han dynasty, with final kings or emperors who prove unworthy of rule due to weak personalities that lead to incompetence or tyranny. The rise of new rulers, the Sima who establish the Jin Dynasty, is achieved through the same ruthless intrigue and tactics used by the founding rulers of Shu, Wei, and Wu.

Figure 5: Map of the Three Kingdoms.

In addition to the Chinese perspective of history presented in Romance of the Three Kingdom, the novel also embodies other aspects of Chinese history and culture. The narration in the novel is continuously interspersed with poetry, which is considered the most valuable and useful form of Chinese literature. The poem Cao Cao recites on the eve of the Battle of the Red Cliffs is famous in Chinese literature and makes artful allusions to the ancient Book of Songs; Kongming also uses poetry as a diplomatic tool, reciting certain lines at opportune moments which alternately earn him trust and awe, or help him to manipulate others. Kongming also represents the traditions of Taoism and Confucianism in China. He is a consummate Confucian diplomat, educated in literature, governance, and military strategy; while eager to serve the state, this desire clashes with a more Taoist preference for seclusion and reflection. He also represents popular Taoism as a priest who can call on supernatural powers and knowledge, a skill that is critical to Cao Cao's defeat at the Red Cliffs.

Other important themes in Romance of the Three Kingdoms include great men seeking justice in times of disorder, when proper values and manners are perverted, and the popular interest in court intrigues and military battles. Kongming’s Empty Fort strategy (chapter 95), when he delays an attack by a rival general through tricking the general into thinking he has laid an unbeatable ambush in a seemingly empty city (the city is actually empty), is yet another of the highly celebrated scenes in the novel.

Figure 6: Wuhou Temple Museum dedicated to Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, and the Shu Han in Chengdu.

The sprawling epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the most important works of Chinese literature. It is a product of the combination of both the popular, vernacular culture and the literati culture of classical Chinese, and its incredible influence can be seen not only in China as a source of rich stories and daily proverbs, but also in broader East Asian popular and literary culture. Despite its epic length, the narrative deficiencies discussed by literary critics and scholars, and the ambiguity surrounding its date and authorship, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a well-loved classic that deserves its celebrated status. A deeper understanding of China, its culture, and even its language, would be incomplete without knowledge of this classic.

Bibliographical References

Hsia, C. T. (1968). The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction = Zhongguo gudian xiaoshuo. New York Columbia University Press.

Luo, G. (2004). Three Kingdoms, A Historical Novel: Complete and Unabridged (M. Roberts, Trans.). University of California Press.

Luo, G. (2018). The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (M. Palmer, Trans.). Penguin Books.

Li, W. (2010). Full-Length Vernacular Fiction. In V. H. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press.

Plaks, A. H. (2015). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch’i-shu. Princeton University Press.

Image References

Figure 1: Unknown. (1644-1735). Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Illustrations. Library of Congress. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Zhou, J. (1959). The Oath in the Peach Garden [Ink and color on paper]. Ashmolean Museum. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Shizhao. (n.d.). Cao Cao reciting poetry. Beijing Summer Palace. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Utagawa, K. (1853). Gentoku Miyuki chu Komei wo tazu no zu [Woodblock triptych print]. The British Musem. Retrieved from:

Figure 5: SY. (2017). Map of the Three Kingdoms. Wikimedia. Retrieved from:

Figure 6: Unknown. (n.d). Wuhou Ci [Photograph]. Retrieved from:


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