Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a book with a long and impressive history. Nevertheless, this novel concerning the history of 1800 years ago is still acknowledged as a literary masterpiece today.
The novel covers one hundred and thirteen years of Chinese history, starting in 168 A.D. and ending with the reunification of the land in 280 A.D.
Three Kingdoms describes a fascinating dynastic-cycle: the fall of the Han Dynasty under Emperor Ling due to the Yellow Scarves rebellion, the division of the Empire into the three kingdoms – Shu, Wei, and Wu – and the reunification of the empire by the Jin Dynasty.
The first eighty chapters of the novel are dedicated to the reign of the last Han Emperor, Xian (A.D. 189-220). It describes in detail the crisis that causes the end of a four-hundred- year dynasty. The Cao family replaced the ruling house of the Liu eventually, when Cao Pi forced the abdication of Emperor Xian.
The last forty chapters deal with the division of the land into the Three Kingdoms or Three Dynasties. We call this the Sanguo period in Chinese. This period ended when the house of Jin finally united the land.
The first sentence of the novel explains the aforementioned Dynastic Cycle: “The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide.”
The recording of this history starts when Chen Shou (a scholar of the late Sanguo period) compiled the biographies of officers and rulers into three books. This amazing piece of work, Sanguo Zhi (SGZ), literally means Records of Three Kingdoms.”
Ninety years after Chen Shou’s death, an official of both the Eastern Jin and Liu-Song Dynasties named Pei Songzhi added a large amount of notes to Chen Shou’s original work. The notes (Zhu) came from hundreds of different sources. Some officials said he added too many notes, but with the permission of the Liu-Song Emperor, Pei Zhongzhi continued his work. The authenticity of the notes remained unclear; the Liu-Song Emperor criticized Pei Zhongzhi for this, and said his work had “occasional mistakes due to neglect.”
It might be said that Pei Zhongzhi became the first person who introduced fiction into Chen Shou’s bureaucratic and factual report (SGZ).
In 429 A.D. the Liu-Song Emperor accepted Pei Zhongzhi’s work, and the revised Sanguo Zhi, integrated with the Zhu (notes), was then established as the official history of the Three Kingdoms era. The Chinese name for this work became Sanguozhi Zhu.
Some 1200 years later, Luo Guanzhong used the material in Sanguo Zhi Zhu to write his own novel, Sanguozhi Tong Shu Yan Yi. Luo Guanzhong also included material from Tang Dynasty poetic works, Yuan Dynasty operas and his own personal interpretation of elements such as virtue (De) and legitimacy (Zhengtong).
The Qing scholar Zhang Xuecheng noted that if the novel Journey to the West (Xi You Ji) was purely fictional and the Chronicles of the Kingdoms (Lie Guo Zhi) was purely factual, then Sanguozhi Tong Shu Yan Yi was seven parts of fact, and three parts of fiction.”
Luo Guanzhong could also have consulted Zizhi tongjian (ZZTJ), a historical record of 1,362 years of Chinese history (403 B.C. to A.D. 959), written by Sima Guang during the Northern Song reign.
Summarizing, SGZ formed the basis for Sima Guang’s narration on the Sanguo period. SGZ and ZZTJ were then used by Luo Guanzhong to write Sanguozhi Tong Shu Yan Yi.
Later on during the Yuan-Ming transition period (A.D. 1600 – 1700), Mao Lun and his son Mao Zhong Gang edited Sanguozhi Tong Shu Yan Yi and renamed it to Sanguo yanyi (SGYY). This version became known as the Mao edition.
C.H. Brewitt-Taylor provided the first complete English translation of SGYY. However this translation did not have an explanation on the Zhu (notes) that Pei Zhongzhi added. The Moss Robert translation gives more insight in the notes and political influences involved with all the rewriting of the original history.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms gives us a great opportunity to discover the nuances and diversity of Chinese culture, by describing the Dynastic powers of the Imperial court and the gruesome conditions of the suffering populace.
From Kings and Emperors, to scholars and peasant rebels, all play their part in this amazing story of great importance.
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