The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

gx_print7By Lo Kuan-Chung
Translated by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor
Tuttle 1200+ pages

Available through Plum Publications: no

It’s an old saw among martial artists that people who are “into” the arts should read San Guo – The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The reasons given are – as in the case of almost all classics – completely bogus: “There’s a lot of martial arts and fighting in it.” “There’s General Kuan Yu and all those famous portraits.” “It’s based on real events.” People tend to lie about classics, “Romeo and Juliet is just a love story, yuhknow.” “Crime and Punishment, that’s the one about the ax murder, isn’t it?” We are so desperate to get our kids to read the great books that we lie to them about their contents.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a novel based on historical events. Though written over 1000 years later than these events the word “chronicle” is a perfect description because San Guo (Three Kingdoms) does indeed chronicle the true split of Han China into three separate and competing kingdoms.

Before the time of San Guo China was unified under the Han Dynasty. But conditions conspire to create three distinct kingdoms which, by the book’s end, have been re-united. During the decades this takes to occur (roughly 220 to 265 .c.e.) warfare is constant; thousands die; characters flip allegiance; kingdoms are created and destroyed. Yet throughout these huge events personalities arise distinct and unforgettable: the genius tyrant Ts’ao Ts’ao; the loyal and sentimental Han uncle Liu Pei; the noble Kuan Yu; the fiery Chang Fei.

Why would anyone but a war buff read San Guo at over 1000 pages? Because, despite the stratagems and conflicts, the bombs and ambushes, it is really one of the most beautiful illustrations of the Chinese view the relationship of human beings to Fate.

That’s right, Fate. But a very different Fate from the Western kind which implies a result. The brilliance of San Guo is that it shows a vast variety of men dealing with their fates while showing that, conversely, the Fate of Nations is comprised of human actions as well as Nature’s influence. Characters stand out: Kung-Ming (Chu-kuo Liang), the scholar strategist comes across as an authentic genius yet fails six times because Heaven so wills it. Liu Pei is declared emperor almost against his will having succeeded not in unifying China but actually dividing it; then he rules only three years. There is something of the Western sense of tragedy here but in some ways even nobler. Unlike Oedipus who discovers his tragic fate then has to acclimate to it, these characters are well aware in advance that Nature is fickle yet proceed anyway. To Chinese thinkers our much vaunted philosophical quandary between Free Will and Predestination would seem simplistic because either side of the argument implies a separate answer. To them there is no single conclusion because Fate does not derive from a God ( or a god) determining a result for each soul: “You will die. You will be crowned king.” There is only the Tao, and the Tao is everywhere represented in each thing large or small. Thousands die in battle because a king spends too much time with his concubine and the loss of this particular battle happens to spare a child who grows up and changes history. Like the calculus as Tolstoy shows in War and Peace, every moment of history had the potential to fly into a tangent of alternate reality. Only in San Guo there are a multitude of personal and natural curves lapped over one another each with a plethora of tangential possibilities.

You’ve got to know this going in because at first you are overwhelmed by details. So many names! Who should I remember! Who forget! So many uprisings, rebellions, reversals, battles. Chinese generals line up their armies then challenge each other like the ending of The Postman and the battle never begins because of the outcome often determined by a lucky shot. Wives are jealous and nations quake. Victor and vanquished end up drinking together because they know, after all, they are all destiny’s chickens. 1200+ pages is an investment but rarely has a single mural shown this much detail yet retained its proportions and perfect realization of theme while calling up the details of flying dust and flapping banners.

Commentary in English on San Guo is scarce: A new book entitled How to Read the Chinese Novel edited by David L. Rolston from Princeton translated one important essay by Mao Tsung-Kao who wrote at the very beginning of the Ching Dynasty. In it he lists pages and pages of reasons for San Guo’s greatness. Here are just a few from a Chinese scholar’s standpoint:

“There is a poem by Tu Fu that says, ‘The floating clouds in the sky are like white garments/But in a moment they have change to gray dogs.’ These lines allude to the unpredictability of events in this world. The writing in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is of the same nature.”

“On the one hand the component parts of this work are interrelated in such a way that one cannot read the beginning without some presentiment of the end; yet, on the other hand, the reversals that characterize it are so unpredictable that one cannot anticipate what will happen from one passage to the next. The fact that such presentiments arise shows that the writing in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is finely wrought, while the fact that the reader cannot anticipate what will happen next shows that it is also magical in its effects.”

“Everyone knows that The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is about the struggle for power of dragons and tigers, but not everyone realizes that it is also replete with the deeds of lady phoenixes, orioles, and swallows. As a result, the reader periodically catches a glimpse of a red skirt through the phalanxes of marching men or spots a powdered face in the shadows of the battle pennants. This effect is achieved by presenting stories of heroic men and tales of beautiful women in a single book.”

Quite a contrast to this damning praise form the wrap around band of Tuttle’s own double volume set:

“For large libraries and those interested in Oriental literature.” – Library Journal

“The Chinese themselves regard this work as their greatest novel.” -Robert Klaverkamp United Press International

“It remains a Chinese classic!” -The Book Exchange

Despite what? The video game? We are particularly impressed with Library Journal praise that, should you want a large library, you should get this nicely bound set. What is the difference here, obviously NOT READING THE BOOK. That is, and remains, the only crime really against a book – opinion without the commitment of reading. Try a few pages of San Guo and enter a time game of fate that was both real and artistic.


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