Event (SGYY): Peach Tree Garden Oath

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Three Brothers’ Oath in the Peach Tree Garden
First Year of Zhong Ping (AD 184)
Novel Chapter: 1

Author Notes in Blue
Authored by James Peirce
Story translation by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor

Three Brothers--Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei--swear an oath in the Peach Tree Garden

The Later Han Dynasty (AD 23-220) had long been in decline due to the influence of eunuchs in court affairs, even running the government, and corruption which spread as a result of meddling from other corrupt officials. As time passed, good men were driven from office, or retired on their own accord, while the corrupt continued to gain office for their own family and friends to increase their power.

Zhang Jue (AD 140-188) and his two brothers, Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang, would later begin a band which became known as the Yellow Scarves, his objective being to usher in a new era of peace and tranquility through the destruction of the corrupt Han government. His men would lose track of such lofty goals, however, taking on much more base interests more fitting of bandits. China now faced a bandit uprising of strength beyond that of its imperial troops. Recognizing the impending danger, districts were urged to recruit volunteer forces and soldiers to put down the rebellion and defend the Han lands and government.

Three men who would become distinguished generals of the Three Kingdoms era were in Youzhou when the governor, Liu Yan, began to search for his own volunteer forces and soldiers to defend against the upcoming danger. This story begins with the tale of one of these three men, Liu Bei. It was then the First Year of Zhong Ping (AD 184).

This man was no mere bookish scholar, nor found he any pleasure in study. But he was liberal and amiable, albeit a man of few words, hiding all feeling under a calm exterior. He had always cherished a yearning for high enterprise and had cultivated the friendship of humans of mark. He was tall of stature. His ears were long, the lobes touching his shoulders, and his hands hung down below his knees. His eyes were very big and prominent so that he could see backward past his ears. His complexion was as clear as jade, and he had rich red lips.

He was a descendant of Prince Sheng of Zhongshan whose father was the Emperor Jing (reigned BC 157-141), the fourth emperor of the Han Dynasty. His name was Liu Bei. Many years before, one of his forbears had been the governor of that very county, but had lost his rank for remissness in ceremonial offerings. However, that branch of the family had remained on in the place, gradually becoming poorer and poorer as the years rolled on. His father Liu Hong had been a scholar and a virtuous official but died young. The widow and orphan were left alone, and Liu Bei as a lad won a reputation for filial piety.

At this time the family had sunk deep in poverty, and Liu Bei gained his living by selling straw sandals and weaving grass mats. The family home was in a village near the chief city of Zhuo. Near the house stood a huge mulberry tree, and seen from afar its curved profile resembled the canopy of a wagon. Noting the luxuriance of its foliage, a soothsayer had predicted that one day a man of distinction would come forth from the family.

As a child, Liu Bei played with the other village children beneath this tree, and he would climb up into it, saying, “I am the Son of Heaven, and this is my chariot!” His uncle, Liu Yuanqi, recognized that Liu Bei was no ordinary boy and saw to it that the family did not come to actual want.

When Liu Bei was fifteen, his mother sent him traveling for his education. For a time he served Zheng Xuan and Lu Zhi as masters. And he became great friends with Gongsun Zan.

Liu Bei was twenty-eight when the outbreak of the Yellow Scarves called for soldiers. The sight of the notice saddened him, and he sighed as he read it.

Suddenly a rasping voice behind him cried, “Sir, why sigh if you do nothing to help your country?”

Turning quickly he saw standing there a man about his own height, with a bullet head like a leopard’s, large eyes, a swallow pointed chin, and whiskers like a tiger’s. He spoke in a loud bass voice and looked as irresistible as a dashing horse. At once Liu Bei saw he was no ordinary man and asked who he was.

“Zhang Fei is my name,” replied the stranger. “I live near here where I have a farm; and I am a wine seller and a butcher as well; and I like to become acquainted with worthy people. Your sighs as you read the notice drew me toward you.”

Liu Bei replied, “I am of the Imperial Family, Liu Bei is my name. And I wish I could destroy these Yellow Scarves and restore peace to the land, but alas! I am helpless.”

“I have the means,” said Zhang Fei. “Suppose you and I raised some troops and tried what we could do.”

This was happy news for Liu Bei, and the two betook themselves to the village inn to talk over the project. As they were drinking, a huge, tall fellow appeared pushing a hand-cart along the road. At the threshold he halted and entered the inn to rest awhile and he called for wine.

“And be quick!” added he. “For I am in haste to get into the town and offer myself for the army.”

Liu Bei looked over the newcomer, item by item, and he noted the man had a huge frame, a long beard, a vivid face like an apple (1), and deep red lips. He had eyes like a phoenix’s and fine bushy eyebrows like silkworms. His whole appearance was dignified and awe-inspiring. Presently, Liu Bei crossed over, sat down beside him and asked his name.

1: Qin Zhengsheng traces Guan Yu’s red face to a Song dynasty legend: after slaying a corrupt magistrate and freeing his victims, Guan Yu took refuge in a Taoist temple. There, a sorceress bade him wash his face in a spring, and upon doing so his face turned red. This prevented authorities from identifying him.

“I am Guan Yu,” replied he. “I am a native of the east side of the river, but I have been a fugitive on the waters for some five years, because I slew a ruffian who, since he was wealthy and powerful, was a bully. I have come to join the army here.”

Then Liu Bei told Guan Yu his own intentions, and all three went away to Zhang Fei’s farm where they could talk over the grand project.

Said Zhang Fei, “The peach trees in the orchard behind the house are just in full flower. Tomorrow we will institute a sacrifice there and solemnly declare our intention before Heaven and Earth, and we three will swear brotherhood and unity of aims and sentiments: Thus will we enter upon our great task.” (2)

2: The oath of brotherhood shared by the three brothers did not actually take place in history, but due to folklore and stories which have been passed down through the generations, it has become a staple of the Three Kingdoms story; so much so that it has been recorded in historical works written after the era.

Both Liu Bei and Guan Yu gladly agreed.

All three being of one mind, next day they prepared the sacrifices, a black ox, a white horse, and wine for libation. Beneath the smoke of the incense burning on the altar, they bowed their heads and recited this oath:

“We three—Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei—though of different families, swear brotherhood, and promise mutual help to one end. We will rescue each other in difficulty; we will aid each other in danger. We swear to serve the state and save the people. We ask not the same day of birth, but we seek to die together. May Heaven, the all-ruling, and Earth, the all-producing, read our hearts. If we turn aside from righteousness or forget kindliness, may Heaven and Human smite us!”

They rose from their knees. The two others bowed before Liu Bei as their elder brother, and Zhang Fei was to be the youngest of the trio. This solemn ceremony performed, they slew other oxen and made a feast to which they invited the villagers. Three hundred joined them, and all feasted and drank deep in the Peach Garden.

The three brothers, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, would proceed to raise an army which would only grow in strength. With the aid of two wealthy merchants from Zhongshan, Zhang Shiping and Su Shuang, who provided them with horses, gold, silver, and iron with which to forge weapons and armor, they would outfit their army before reporting to Commandant Zhou Jing in Liu Yan’s service. Liu Bei, upon mention of his name, was received as a nephew.

The government and its forces would grow in power, eventually destroying the rebellion born of the ambition shared by Zhang Jue and his brothers, and during this war Liu Bei would distinguish himself. It was the beginning of what would be a long struggle on his part across the lands of China to unify the land under the Han Dynasty once again, though later when the collapse of the Han became imminent he would become an emperor himself, lord of one of the Three Kingdoms, Shu.

Link: Read the unabridged Brewitt-Taylor translation online (external).
Link: Learn about which translation and edition might be best for you.

Original Content Copyright © 2004 James Peirce
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong
Sources: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Moss Roberts; C.H. Brewitt-Taylor)