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Three kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo

Three kingdoms (edition 1997)

by Guanzhong Luo

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664814,446 (4.12)1 / 42
Title:Three kingdoms
Authors:Guanzhong Luo
Info:Beijing : Morning glory publishers, 1997.
Collections:Your library
Tags:literature, china, comics

Work details

Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong



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Three Kingdoms, also known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is basically a novelization of the century of Chinese history between 180 and 280 AD. By focusing on this period Luo Guanzhong is able to provide a story encompassing a complete cycle of division and reunification in ancient China. As the opening chapter and the closing chapter state, "[t]he empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been." For better or worse, to capture the entire cycle in this epic takes over 2,000 pages, and while the central goal of portraying this period of history is achieved, there are some serious flaws with the work. Luo Guanzhong accomplished what he was trying to accomplish, but little else. Whether that makes this work worth reading depends on what you're looking to get out of it.

Starting in a period of rebellion and turmoil, the first volume of this four-volume (at least the Moss edition is four volumes) epic establishes most of the important characters of the piece. We are first introduced to Liu Bei (Xuande), a minor member of the royal family and a virtuous warrior and leader- at times perhaps too virtuous. Alongside him are his two sworn brothers Guan Yu (a fierce warrior whose skill in battle is almost without peer) and Zhang Fei (a hotheaded warrior who attacks without thinking, but still a formidable warrior). These are painted as the protagonists for much of this long tale, and for the first few volumes their exploits receive the most attention in the narrative. Fighting with them at first, and later opposing them, is Cao Cao. Cao Cao is a villain or antihero depending on how you interpret the story. He's clever but stubborn at times, willing to do anything to advance his position, but petty and brutal once he gets to be in charge. His vision of a unified empire is what drives Three Kingdoms more than any other factor. Volume 1 also introduces us to the characters of the Southland (Wu), though none of them last as long or have as strong an influence on the story as the characters I just mentioned. With Liu Bei and his kingdom of Shu being the heroes and Cao Cao and his kingdom of Wei being the villains, Wu and its leaders (the Sun family) often seem like the third wheel of this story, and at times they are not even mentioned for long spans of the book. Nevertheless their kingdom is a key player in many of the most important battles of the epic, making them an essential element of the tale.

Despite the fact that I outlined the three main kingdoms above, and the fact that this massive tome is called Three Kingdoms, these three nations don't coalesce until well into the second volume. Most of the first volume is spent with Liu Bei wandering from place to place with a growing band of followers and with Cao Cao playing warlord-whack-a-mole. By the end of the first volume most of the minor players have been cleared away, but some key characters haven't even made an appearance yet (like Zhuge Liang [Kongming], Liu Bei's chief strategist, is only introduced at around page 650).

The second volume sees the introduction of Zhuge Liang and the Battle of Red Cliffs, the major battle of the period that cemented the tripolar balance of power. The Battle of Red Cliffs makes a good central set piece to volume two, as all three nations and every major character still alive at that point are involved, and the preparations and strategies for the battle are more fully developed than usual (the Battle of Red Cliffs takes about one hundred pages, whereas most battles take about two). By the tail end of the second volume ancient China is divided in the way that you typically picture when you think of the Three Kingdoms period.

Volume three continues the struggle between the three kingdoms, with many battles fought but little change in the dynamic between countries. One nation attacks another, and then that second nation uses the threat of the third nation to make the first nation back off. This happens many times. Over a 100-150 page segment in the middle of volume three nearly every character of interest is killed off, some given deaths in battle, others written off with a sentence. With the loss of so many big names you might expect a major change in the story, but largely everything keeps going as it did before, except with new characters. The end of volume three and most of volume four covers attempts by Shu to strike at the heartland of Wei, I believe there are a total of 14 military campaigns conducted.

Volume four, besides dealing with the Shu-Wei battles, covers Wei court politics extensively, giving you a chance to get to know the Wei characters far better than characters from the other two kingdoms. Eventually, after 14 failed campaigns by Shu, Wei strikes back. The two kingdoms of Shu and Wu fall to Wei, not because of any especially brave or brilliant Wei commander, but because of the internal corruption of the other two kingdoms. With the victory of Wei China is once again unified, and the Three Kingdoms period comes to a close.

Obviously a whole lot more happens over the course of the books, but that's a brief outline. Tracing all the major players of the day, Luo Guanzhong gives us an entire era of Chinese history in a single epic. The problem is that, while Three Kingdoms serves as a decent novelization of history, it isn't as impressive a work of literature. First, a few minor complaints: as I already discussed above, Wu gets less focus than the other two kingdoms by a fair margin, which results in less investment in those characters. Even Wu's defeat is wrapped up in 25 pages or so, making it feel as though Wu was the also-ran of the epic. Another minor complaint is the length: while it was inevitable that a book trying to do what this one does would be long, there are parts that could have been cut to slim down the epic a bit. There are 4 chapters devoted almost entirely to Zhuge Liang's seven captures of the tribal leader Meng Huo, for instance, that could have been cut. The chapters reestablish for the umpteenth time that Zhuge Liang is a brilliant strategist, but outside of a more exotic locale the chapters do nothing new, and it feels like an aside from the main action between the three kingdoms. A cut here and a cut there could have streamlined the book at the cost of some anecdotes, and while you may disagree I think that the tradeoff would have been beneficial to the book overall.

Speaking of anecdotes, my first major complaint with this book is that it has very, very few actual characters. It has plenty of named characters, but almost none of them are distinct. Even among major characters who last an entire volume you are lucky to get a single anecdote to establish characterization. Xiahou Dun gets shot in the eye with an arrow and eats the eye, Dian Wei uses the corpses of men he's killed as clubs to kill even more enemies, and those scenes are great, but ultimately they are anecdotes that establish only a single character trait. Most characters don't even get an anecdote: looking at the glossary of major characters there are over a hundred, and most don't have an identifying characteristic. Besides who they fight for, what is one thing that distinguishes Han Dang from Liao Hua? Or Jian Yong from Lu Fan? Almost all the characters in this book can be reduced to "brave warrior" or "clever commander" or "leader of X army" and nothing distinguishes them from all the other characters in that position. Even major characters are often given only a single character trait. Besides Xiahou Dun being loyal and fierce, or Dian Wei being strong, as the above anecdotes indicate, they have no other characteristics. Dian Wei is entirely "strong bodyguard" and Xiahou Dun is almost always "loyal battlefield commander." Of characters that get more than one trait, their character is sometimes not even consistent. Zhuge Liang is a master at reading the heavens- except when he ignores them and calls people who talk of them silly. Cao Cao is the most dynamic character in the epic, and he actually seems to lose depth as the story progresses, becoming more of a mere petty tyrant as the story goes on. Most characters have no depth. The few exceptions are relatively shallow. This makes it difficult to care about their battles, or to invest in the success of their kingdoms. "Oh no, Xu Sheng died! Wait, who was Xu Sheng again?" It wouldn't have been feasible to give every single character depth, as there are more than a hundred characters of importance and probably a couple thousand named characters in all, but this really just begs the question of why introduce the minor characters at all? Why spend the space saying "A rode out with his advisor B to the city of X, where he faced off against C and cut off his head in one pass, then D surrendered the city" instead of saying "city X was taken?" The historical nature of the book might weigh in favor of naming all these minor characters, but the history is fictionalized enough that such details seem pointless: this isn't where you go to get accurate information about every minor battle. The detailing of the identities of these extremely minor characters comes at the cost of the more important characters, as the space would have been better spent making those characters less shallow.

Another major complaint is that this epic is incredibly repetitive, both in terms of events and in terms of writing. The number of times that a commander clashes with an enemy commander, then feigns defeat, gets chased a certain number of li, then bombards sound and the enemy commander is caught in an ambush is ridiculously high. It happens at least a hundred times. All of the battles quickly become repetitive, the court intrigue becomes repetitive, even the clever strategies used by the smart commanders become repetitive. On a page by page basis this is a monotonous book. The writing is equally repetitive. Here's a drinking game: take a shot every time the word "delighted" is used. Except don't actually do that, because you'll die. Every time an enemy surrenders, the commander is delighted. Any time someone volunteers, the commander is delighted. Most of the time when someone offers advice, the commander is delighted, followed by the commander saying some variant of "that's just what I was thinking!" While it is possible that this is a translation issue, I'm almost certain that it's not, because Moss Roberts would have to have been insane to take a varied selection of words and translate them all as "delighted." It's pretty clearly the original text that is repetitively written.

Finally, this epic lacks all subtlety. This is a book full of betrayals and surprise attacks, but largely devoid of excitement. That's because any time there is going to be a betrayal or a surprise attack the book tells you about it beforehand. And not in a way that's open to interpretation. Kongming will say "watch out for that guy, he's going to betray you someday!" and then in a few chapters that guy betrays them. Or the astronomers will look to the stars and say "watch out, a commander will die tomorrow," and then that will happen. Or a commander will whisper a plan into another commander's ear, and then in the battle immediately following they will use that plan to defeat the enemy, and then they explain what the plan was afterward even though you've already seen how it has played out. The book could just as easily have had subtlety or some dramatic tension in these scenes, but instead deliberately undermines it. One example stands out in particular:

When Guan Yu is killed his sworn brothers hunger for revenge. The loss hits Zhang Fei especially hard, his temper is shorter than ever, and he is drinking heavily. It is established earlier in the story that when he drinks he beats his men. He is finally assigned to go fight the southland and take revenge, but when he gets drunk he beats his men and treats them terrible, finally threatening to have a couple of them killed the next day. The men decide it's better to assassinate Zhang Fei than die themselves, and so they kill him. This would be a perfectly fine course of events, but Luo Guanzhong feels the need to have Liu Bei tell Zhang Fei right before this happens "hey Zhang Fei, you probably shouldn't get drunk and beat your men. That's a good way to get yourself killed!"

Thanks, Luo Guanzhong, for stripping all surprise from the situation and making the events feel completely inorganic. There's a line between foreshadowing and undermining the impact of the narrative, and Luo Guanzhong consistently crosses it in Three Kingdoms. The reader is never trusted to understand things on their own, nor to experience things without being forewarned. The story is weaker for all the coddling, and at times the condescending nature of the text was downright annoying.

I would much rather read Three Kingdoms' partially-fictionalized account of the period than a textbook on Chinese history, but the "fictionalized" aspect of the book isn't particularly impressive. The book is overlong, the vast majority of characters either have no characterization or the most shallow characterization imaginable, the language used and the events described are all extremely repetitive, and there is no subtlety even where there could have been. If you are interested in the period, or want a war epic that really focuses on war, or are just trying to read all the Chinese classics, then go ahead and give this one a read. Really, though, there's only the novelized history here. If you are expecting anything else, I fear you'll be left disappointed. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
This book has a heavy load of historical content. It tells the History of China back in the Three Kingdoms period since the beginning of times, during the Yellow Turbant Rebellion. If you already know a couple of characters, you'll feel more confortable with the story itself, otherwise the book will be slightly confusing, since there are LOTS of characters.

The language itself is fluid, but detailed at the same time. It's hard to get lost in the story. This "box" edition, however, contains several grotesque typos. Ok, they don't change anything in the story itself, but a more careful revision would be an option. And if the total number of pages might seem scary, it is justified by book's swift ending.

In general terms, an excellent book. Definitely worth a re-reading. ( )
  aryadeschain | Aug 26, 2014 |
'Three Kingdoms is not just a vivid picture of a particular period in history. It teaches us about human nature, philosophy, morality, and the underlying patterns of human history’
Three Kingdoms 4
In Chinese culture, the era of the Three Kingdoms (AD 168–280) has achieved the status of legend. Retold in novels, celebrated in operas and echoed in modern media, from television to video games, it permeates Chinese consciousness like no other. It was an era of chaos, of conflicts so bloody that the country’s population fell by almost 50 million. But it was also a time of ideological change, with the rise of Buddhist ideals and Taoist principles that rejected the tumult and violence of the warring dynasties. And it produced the country’s first professional painters, such as Cao Buxing, often called ‘the father of Buddhist painting’. It is from this rich strand of history that Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms emerged.

Written in the 14th century, this remarkable novel is one of the great classics of Chinese literature. It is among the most beloved works of literature in East Asia, with an influence in China comparable to that of Shakespeare in the British Isles. While attributed to Guanzhong, it is as much the product of 11 centuries of oral tradition as the fruit of one author’s labour, encompassing and cementing the quasi-mythical status of the era. Introducing this edition, Chinese author-in-exile Ma Jian describes Three Kingdoms as 70 per cent history and 30 per cent fiction.

‘A martial epic with an astonishing fidelity to history, which has been translated ... into lively English by Moss Roberts’
New York Times Book Review

With an intricate plot and almost 1,000 dramatic characters, it is a vast work, consisting of 734,321 Chinese characters. The story is one of ferocious battles, revolts and raids – of vengeance, murder and power struggles wrought as three powers fight for the rule of a divided land.

On and on the Great River rolls, racing east.
Of proud and gallant heroes its white-tops leave no trace,
As right and wrong, pride and fall turn all at once unreal.
Yet ever the green hills stays
To blaze in the west-waning day.

But this is not only the history of an embattled era; it is also an exploration of human behaviour, morality and the cyclical nature of Chinese civilisation. It reflects Confucian ethics, which confer on all relationships a set of roles and obligations. Respect for parents, loyalty to government and mindfulness of one’s place in society are paramount.
Three Kingdoms 5
Encircling these values are the ideas of humaneness, kindness and love. As Ma Jian writes, while the novel has been used by some as a manual of war, its overriding message is ‘surely that leaders and oppressors who violate the moral codes of loyalty and benevolence sow the seeds of their own destruction’. Characters who use guile over force – such as Zhuge Liang, who bluffs his enemy into retreat by posing as a simple lute player perched on the battlements of his besieged city – are to be admired above those who rely on violence. Arguably the most widely read historical novel in late imperial and modern China, this extraordinary work is essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand Chinese civilisation.

The only English language illustrated edition in print

This edition features 280 integrated woodcuts from a 19th-century edition, sourced with the kind assistance of Frances Wood, Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library. They were probably created in the workshops that thrived throughout the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911), when the visual arts were prized as a means of reaffirming social values. There are 240 dramatic scenes and 40 character portraits. The books are bound in shimmering cloth, blocked with four key figures redrawn by Neil Gower: Liu Bei (Xuande), Lady Mi, Zuo Ci and Deng Ai. Lady Sun, the daughter of a warlord and third wife of Liu Bei, appears on the slipcase.
  Balnaves | Sep 11, 2013 |
I didn't think I would enjoy a book about power, diplomacy and war, but I did. Not sure whether it was spending long days in a quiet Mexican city with very little in the way of English-language reading material or the narrative itself, but I burned through the book in a week and found that I genuinely enjoyed it (just not enough to lug it to the beach with me). ( )
  VikkiLaw | Apr 4, 2013 |
I tried rather hard to get through the book, but after the first 17 chapters (of over 100), I have to admit defeat. It was interesting at first, especially since I enjoy history, but as things progressed, it got more and more tiresome to read. The book introduces a myriad of characters who fight with each other, plot against one another, and in many cases die. After these 17 chapters, I couldn't reliably tell you what exactly happened and who is who; it's just a mess of seemingly endless battles and plots against the Emperor. I can definitely see the value of reading the book for its historical information and as one of the Chinese classics, but it was just extremely daunting. ( )
  rboyechko | Mar 3, 2011 |
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Luo Guanzhongprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Roberts, MossTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Set in the late Han Dynasty in China. The dynasty is in a state of collapse and ambitious warlords seek to further their own power.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0520215850, Paperback)

Three Kingdoms tells the story of the fateful last reign of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) when the Chinese empire was divided into three warring kingdoms. Writing some twelve hundred years later, the Ming author Luo Guanzhong drew on histories, dramas, and poems portraying the crisis to fashion a sophisticated, compelling narrative that has become the Chinese national epic. This abridged edition captures the novel's intimate and unsparing view of how power is wielded, how diplomacy is conducted, and how wars are planned and fought. As important for Chinese culture as the Homeric epics have been for the West, this Ming dynasty masterpiece continues to be widely influential in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and remains a great work of world literature.
This abridged edition is particularly useful for undergraduate courses. For the complete text, see the unabridged edition, now available in two parts: Part One; Part Two

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:34 -0400)

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Portrays a fateful moment at the end of the Han dynasty. Three young men pledge loyalty to each other and answer the emperor's appeal for help in suppressing a peasant rebellion.

(summary from another edition)

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