Romance of the Three Kingdoms


Romance of the Three Kingdoms (sānguó yǎnyì), written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, is a Chinese historical novel based upon events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era of China, starting in 169 and ending with the reunification of the land in 280.[1]

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)[2] in 120 chapters. It is arguably the most widely read historical novel in late imperial and modern China.

Story

One of the greatest achievements of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the extreme complexity of its stories and characters. The novel contains numerous secondary stories. The following consists of a summary of the central plot, and well-known highlights in the story.
Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, silk painting by Sekkan Sakurai (1715–1790), depicting Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. This painting is usually hung in the offices of businessmen to show that they are trustworthy, just as these brothers were to each other.
Yellow Turban Rebellion

In the final years of the Han Dynasty, incompetent eunuchs deceive the emperor and persecute good officials, and the government becomes extremely corrupt on all levels, leading to widespread deterioration of the empire. During the reign of the penultimate Han emperor, Emperor Ling, the Yellow Turban Rebellion breaks out under the leadership of Zhang Jiao.

The rebellion is barely suppressed by troops under the command of He Jin, the Commander-in-Chief of the imperial armies. Fearing his growing power, the eunuchs led by Zhang Rang lure He Jin into the palace and murder him. He Jin’s stunned guards, led by Yuan Shao, respond by charging into the palace to kill all eunuchs for revenge, which turns into indiscriminate slaughter. In the ensuing chaos, the child Emperor Shao and the Prince of Chenliu disappear from the palace.

Dong Zhuo’s reign of terror

The missing emperor and prince are found later by soldiers of the warlord Dong Zhuo, who proceeds to seize control of the capital city Luoyang under the pretext of protecting the emperor. Dong later deposes Emperor Shao and replaces him with the Prince of Chenliu, who becomes known as Emperor Xian. Dong usurps state power and starts a reign of terror in which innocents are persecuted and the common people suffer. Wu Fu and Cao Cao attempt to assassinate Dong Zhuo but both fail.

Cao Cao manages to escape and issues an imperial edict in the emperor’s name to all regional warlords and governors, calling them to rise up against Dong Zhuo. Under Yuan Shao’s leadership, eighteen warlords form a coalition force in a campaign against Dong Zhuo, but undermined by poor leadership and conflict of interest, they only manage to drive Dong from Luoyang to Chang’an. Dong Zhuo is eventually betrayed and killed by his foster son Lü Bu in a dispute over the beautiful maiden Diao Chan.
Conflict among the various warlords and nobles

In the meantime, the empire is already disintegrating into civil war. Sun Jian finds the Imperial Seal and keeps it secretly for himself, further weakening royal authority. Without a strong central government, warlords begin to rise and fight each other for land, plunging China into a state of anarchy. In the north, Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan are at war, and in the south, Sun Jian and Liu Biao. Many others, even those without title or land, such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei, are also starting to build up power.

Cao Cao rescues Emperor Xian from Dong Zhuo’s followers and establishes the new imperial court in Xuchang. Cao Cao proceeds to defeat his rivals such as Lü Bu, Yuan Shu and Zhang Xiu before scoring a tactical victory over Yuan Shao in the Battle of Guandu despite being vastly outnumbered. Through his conquests, Cao unites the Central Plains and northern China under his rule, and the lands he controlled would serve as the foundation for the state of Cao Wei in the future.

Sun Ce builds a dynasty in Jiangdong

Meanwhile, an ambush had violently concluded Sun Jian’s life in a war with Liu Biao, fulfilling his own rash oath to heaven. His eldest son Sun Ce delivers the Imperial Seal as a tribute to the rising royal pretender, Yuan Shu of Huainan, in exchange for reinforcements. Sun secures himself a state in the rich riverlands of Jiangdong, on which the state of Eastern Wu will eventually be founded. Tragically, Sun Ce also dies 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 and executed in jealousy. However, his younger brother Sun Quan, who succeeds him, proves to be a capable and charismatic ruler. Sun, assisted by skilled advisors Zhou Yu and Zhang Zhao, inspires hidden talents such as Lu Su to join his service, and builds up a strong military force.
Liu Bei’s ambition
Liu Bei recruiting Zhuge Liang. Ming Dynasty painting

Liu Bei, along with his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, swear allegiance to the Han Dynasty in the famous Oath of the Peach Garden and pledge to do their best for the country. However, their goals and ambitions are not realized until the later part of the novel. Liu is not recognized for his efforts in quelling the Yellow Turban Rebellion and is merely appointed as a junior magistrate. They join Gongsun Zan and participate in the campaign against Dong Zhuo. Liu Bei becomes the governor of Xu Province after Tao Qian passed on the post to him. Liu loses the province when Lü Bu seizes control of it with the help of a defector and he joins Cao Cao in defeating Lü at the Battle of Xiapi. While Cao Cao subtly reveals his intention to usurp state power, Liu Bei is officially recognised by Emperor Xian as the Imperial Uncle and seen as a saviour to help the emperor deal with Cao.

Liu Bei leaves Cao Cao eventually and seizes Xu Province from Cao’s newly-appointed governor Che Zhou. In retaliation, Cao attacks Xu Province and defeats Liu, forcing Liu to seek refuge under Yuan Shao for a brief period of time. Liu finds a new base in Runan after leaving Yuan but is defeated by Cao Cao’s forces once again. He retreats to Jing Province to join Liu Biao and is placed in charge of Xinye. At Xinye, Liu recruits the genius strategist Zhuge Liang personally and builds up his forces.

Battle of the Red Cliffs

Cao Cao declares himself Prime Minister and leads his troops to attack southern China after uniting the north. He is defeated twice at Xinye by Liu Bei’s forces but Liu loses the city as well. Liu leads his men and the civilians of Xinye on an exodus southwards and they arrive at Jiangxia where Liu establishes a foothold against Cao Cao.

To resist Cao Cao, Liu Bei sends Zhuge Liang to persuade Sun Quan to form an alliance. Zhuge succeeds in his diplomatic mission and remains in Jiangdong as a temporary advisor to Sun Quan. Sun places Zhou Yu in command of the armies of Jiangdong (Eastern Wu) in preparation for an upcoming war with Cao Cao. Zhou feels that Zhuge will become a future threat to Eastern Wu and he tries to kill Zhuge on a few occasions but he fails and decides to co-operate with Zhuge for the time being. Cao Cao is defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs by the allied forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei and he is forced to retreat north.
Traditional site of the Red Cliff

Sun Quan and Liu Bei begin vying for control of Jing Province after their victory and Liu seizes the province from Cao Cao after following Zhuge Liang’s strategy. Sun Quan is unhappy and sends emissaries to ask Liu Bei for Jing Province, but Liu dismisses the envoys each time with different excuses. Sun uses some strategies proposed by Zhou Yu to take the land, of which the most famous is the “Beauty Scheme.” Sun intends to lure Liu Bei to Jiangdong to marry his sister Lady Sun and hold Liu hostage to exchange his freedom for Jing Province, but the plot fails and the newly-wed couple return home safely. Zhou Yu tries to take Jing Province repeatedly but his plans are foiled three times by Zhuge Liang. Zhou Yu is so infuriated the last time that he coughs blood and dies.
Liu Bei’s takeover of Yi Province

After Zhou Yu’s death, relations between Liu Bei and Sun Quan gradually deteriorate but not to the point of open conflict. In accordance with Zhuge Liang’s Longzhong Plan, Liu Bei leads his troops into Yi Province in the west and takes over the land from the incompetent noble Liu Zhang. By then, Liu Bei rules a vast area of land from Jing Province to Yi Province in the west, which will serve as the foundation for the future state of Shu Han. He proclaims himself “King of Hanzhong” after his victory over Cao Cao at the Battle of Hanzhong.

At the same time, Cao has also been granted the title of “King of Wei” by the emperor while Sun Quan is known as the “Duke of Wu”. In the east, Sun Quan and Cao Cao’s forces clash at the Battle of Ruxukou and Battle of Hefei with victories and defeats for both sides. The situation among the three major powers reaches a stalemate after this until Cao Cao’s death.
Death of Guan Yu

Meanwhile, Sun Quan plots to take Jing Province after tiring of Liu Bei’s repeated refusals to hand the land over. He makes peace with Cao Cao and becomes a vassal of Cao with the title of “King of Wu”. Guan Yu, who is in charge of Jing Province, leads his troops to attack Cao Ren in the Battle of Fancheng. Sun Quan sends Lü Meng to lead his troops to seize Jing Province while Guan is away, as part of his secret agreement with Cao Cao. Guan is caught off guard and lost Jing Province before he knew it. He retreats to Maicheng, where he is heavily surrounded by Sun Quan’s forces, while his army gradually shrinks in size as many of his troops desert or surrender to the enemy. In desperation, Guan attempts to break out of the siege but fails and is captured in an ambush. He is executed on Sun Quan’s orders after refusing to renounce his loyalty to Liu Bei.

Shortly after Guan Yu’s death, Cao Cao dies of a brain tumor and his son Cao Pi usurps the throne, effectively ending the Han Dynasty and Cao renames his new dynasty “Cao Wei”. In response, Liu Bei proclaims himself emperor, to carry on the bloodline of the Han Dynasty. While Liu Bei is planning to avenge Guan Yu, his other sworn brother Zhang Fei is assassinated in his sleep by his subordinates, who have defected to Sun Quan.
Battle of Xiaoting

As Liu Bei leads a large army to attack Sun Quan to avenge Guan Yu, Sun attempts to appease Liu by offering him the return of Jing Province. Liu’s advisers, including Zhuge Liang, urge him to accept Sun’s tokens of peace, but Liu persists in vengeance. After initial victories, a series of strategic mistakes due to the impetuosity of Liu leads to the cataclysmic defeat of Shu Han in the Battle of Xiaoting. Lu Xun, the commander of Sun Quan’s forces, refrains from pursuing the retreating Shu Han troops after encountering Zhuge Liang’s Stone Sentinel Maze.
An artist’s impression of Zhuge Liang holding his trademark feather fan.

Liu Bei dies in Baidicheng from illness shortly after his defeat. In a moving final conversation between Liu on his deathbed and Zhuge Liang, Liu grants Zhuge the authority to take the throne if his successor Liu Shan proves to be an inept ruler. Zhuge refuses and swears that he will remain faithful to the trust Liu Bei had placed in him. This promise is to be a raison d’être for the rest of Zhuge Liang’s life.
Zhuge Liang’s campaigns

After Liu Bei’s death, as advised by Sima Yi, Cao Pi induces several forces, including Sun Quan, turncoat Shu general Meng Da, Meng Huo of the Nanman and the Qiang tribes, to attack Shu Han, in coordination with a Cao Wei army. Zhuge Liang manage to send the five armies retreating without any bloodshed. An envoy from Shu Han named Deng Zhi subsequently persuades Sun Quan to renew the former alliance with Shu Han. Zhuge Liang personally leads a southern campaign against the Nanman barbarian king Meng Huo. Meng is defeated and captured seven times, but Zhuge releases him each time and allows him to come back for another battle, in order to win Meng over. The seventh time, Meng refuses to leave and decides to swear allegiance to Shu Han forever.

After pacifying the south, Zhuge Liang leads the Shu Han army on five military expeditions to attack Cao Wei in order to restore the Han Dynasty. However, Zhuge’s days are numbered as he had been suffering from chronic tuberculosis all along, and his condition worsens under stress from the campaigns. His last significant victory over Cao Wei is probably the defection of Jiang Wei, a promising young general who is well-versed in military strategy. Zhuge Liang dies of illness at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains while leading a stalemate battle against his nemesis, the Cao Wei commander Sima Yi. Before his death, Zhuge orders his trusted generals to build a statue of himself and use it to scare away the enemy in order to buy time for the Shu Han army to retreat safely.
End of the Three Kingdoms

The long years of battle between Shu Han and Cao Wei sees many changes in the ruling Cao family in Cao Wei. The influence of the Caos weakens after the death of Cao Rui and the state power of Cao Wei eventually falls into the hands of the Sima clan, headed by Sima Yi’s sons Sima Shi and Sima Zhao.

In Shu Han, Jiang Wei inherits Zhuge Liang’s legacy and continues to lead another nine campaigns against Cao Wei for a bitter three decades, but he fails to achieve any significant success. Besides, the ruler Liu Shan is incompetent and places faith in treacherous officials, further leading to the decline of Shu Han. Shu Han is eventually conquered by Cao Wei. Jiang Wei attempts to restore Shu Han with the help of Zhong Hui but their plans are exposed and both of them are killed by Sima Zhao’s troops. After the fall of Shu Han, Sima Zhao’s son Sima Yan eventually forces the last Wei ruler, Cao Huan, to hand over his rulership, effectively ending the Cao Wei dynasty. The new domain is called Jin Dynasty.

In Eastern Wu, there is internal conflict among the nobles ever since the death of Sun Quan, with Zhuge Ke and Sun Lin making attempts to usurp state power. Although stability is restored temporarily, the last Wu ruler Sun Hao appears to be a tyrant who does not make any efforts to strengthen his kingdom. Eastern Wu, the last of the Three Kingdoms, is eventually conquered by Jin after a long period of struggle. The Three Kingdoms period concludes after almost a century of civil strife following that.

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