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Three Kingdoms

Posted in Personal on 2006-08-21 00:05

Three Kingdoms is a Chinese "novel" written in the 12th century based on the events of the so-called "Warring States" period of Chinese history (that is, the 3rd century). It is extremely famous in China, in fact, the Rough Guide to China claims pretty much every Chinese knows the story. Personally, I'd never heard of it before I started preparing for a holiday there in 2004. (Yes, this is also a posting that's been sitting around and suddenly got posted now.)

The Chinese clearly take a long view of history, and you can see this right from the famous first sentence of the book, which (in the translation I read) goes: "Long united, the empire must divide. Long divided, it must unite." There you have it; the ebb and flow of Chinese history through the millennia, captured in two brief sentences. The eternal pattern of Chinese history is the establishment of a strong dynasty, which slowly decays over the generations, until the empire breaks apart into smaller, squabbling kingdoms. Eventually, some strong figure emerges to unite the kingdoms into a new empire, and the cycle starts over. (There is nothing specifically Chinese in this; you can see it elsehwere, too.)

The story begins at the end of such a cycle, as the empire is falling apart under a weak emperor. Palace eunuchs rule through intrigue, and peasant rebellions threaten. The novel follows a bewildering profusion of characters over two-three generations until the empire is secured under a new emperor. The consequence is that by the time you are two thirds through the book, all the initial characters are dead, which makes it a little hard to decide who might be the main character.

Most of the way through the book the focus is on Liu Bei, a nobleman who swears an oath to unite the empire together with two friends at the beginning of the book. He eventually establishes a kingdom of his own, which after his death swallows the rest of the empire, and Liu Bei then becomes known as founder of the new dynasty, and, the author implies, the cycle is ready to start over.

I find it curious that while I thought Liu Bei was the main character, and Cao Cao simply one villain among many, my hosts in Beijing considered Cao Cao the main character. Given that they are Chinese and have a Chinese education they probably reflect the Chinese consensus much better than my opinion after a single read of the book.

The book is an interesting read in many different ways, both as a story in its own right, and because of the light it sheds on ancient Chinese culture. For the most part, this light is indirect, in the sense that the author clearly assumes that the reader is a contemporary (ie, 12th century) Chinese, with often startling results for present-day readers. To take one example, at the beginning of the book, one of the eunuchs responsible for the current misrule is fleeing from a revolt, and winds up spending the night with a farmer who has no food to give him. Desperate to serve this high official the farmer slaughters and cooks his own wife, and serves her to the eunuch. This is, as far as I can tell, considered highly laudable by the author, though modern audiences might feel differently.

Another thing that stands out very clearly is the military sophistication of the Chinese compared with, say, contemporary Europe. The plot is full of complicated tactical stratagems, high-tech weaponry, and the reader is clearly expected to have some understanding of the logistics of contemporary warfare. In fact, good tacticians and advisors were clearly highly prized in 12th century China. At the same time it must be admitted that this is not exactly a realistic history. In at least one case, a single person (one of Liu Bei's two friends) scares away an entire army simply by shouting very loud...

Anyway, the book is highly recommended, even though it is definitely a substantial read (my edition is 2400 pages). I liked it enough to try buying Water Margin, another "novel" in the same vein, and apparently Mao's favourite book, during my last visit in Beijing. It's about as long as Three Kingdoms, and I could only find a 6-volume hardback edition which had alternating Chinese and English pages. This is useful for those who want to learn Chinese (or English), but would have messed up my luggage allowance on the flight home completely, so I had to leave it.

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Anthony - 2006-12-25 03:59:44

Actually Liu Bei's kingdom did not survive long and met its demise shortly after Liu's death. Neither did Cao Cao's kindom last. Within a few generations, Cao's kingdom was usurped by a subordinate, Sima Yan, who eventually united the three kingdoms under a short-lived empire. Despite Liu's failure, the group he led is louded for their moral integrity and adherence to Confucian principles. I do not have the stamina to read through the novel and really admire you for doig it.

Lars Marius - 2006-12-29 18:45:17

You are of course right, Anthony. Thank you for correcting me on this. The novel is long and complicated, and I have to admit I remember little episodes here and there better than the overall plot. My memory of the plot is OK up until Liu Bei dies, but I can't really remember what happened after that. (I may have been a bit confused. "The main character is dead! So why is there another 250 pages to read?!?" :-)

steffi - 2007-02-20 13:56:50

Actually, Zhuge Liang is the main character in the story. Although he was never the leader in the 3 kingdoms, this book was based on his strategies used in order to defeat the other 2 kingdoms. He was most remembered for his loyalty towards Liu Bei. If you want to find out more about this amazing person, you might like to take time off to visit his shrine in Chengdu, China. I have been there before and it was really a knowledgeble trip for me. There, you can learn many interesting facts about Zhuge Liang and the important people in the Three Kingdoms. This is all I have to say. Cheers :D P.S. And continue to read after Liu Bei and Cao Cao died, there is more feats that Zhuge Liang performed. You would be even more impressed(:

Lars Marius - 2007-02-20 14:30:27

I'm interested to hear there are more opinions about who the main character is. It's tempting to conclude that maybe there isn't a single main character. :)

Thanks for the tip about the shrine, by the way. I don't know if I'll ever return to China, but I'll bear it in mind.

I did read on after Liu Bei died, all the way to the end. I just meant that my memory of the story after that point is a bit muddled. Maybe I should just read the whole thing again.

Steffi - 2007-02-22 08:29:32

Hmm.Interesting.I mean are you going to finish reading all the four famous books in China.They are all very nice actually.I have not finished reading all of them.But just the Three Kingdoms already amazes me.And the other one called Red Hill Mansions.Its quite nice too.Cheers:D

Lars Marius - 2007-02-22 08:39:23

I might read all of them, but I have no plans to right now. I wanted to start on Water Margin because I was in China again, and if I ever go back I'll probably read another of the four.

My next project of this type will probably "The Tale of Genji", since we're going on holiday in Japan in April.

Steffi - 2007-03-02 12:15:41

Japan? Which part? You seem to like travelling. I've been to tokyo and aichi before. :D

Lars Marius - 2007-03-05 09:37:25

We'll start in Tokyo and move southwest from there. Probably we'll go to the area around Nagano, then to Kyoto/Nara, and finally down to Hiroshima. Or something like that. We'll see. We have three weeks.

Yes, I do like to travel. :)

Steffi - 2007-03-06 11:43:56

Hiroshima is often known as the bomb city, isn't it? I have been there once during my two trips there. Japan really is a very nice place. I would really like to go there another time. Next time, I am going to Hokkaido:] It is very famous for its maple leaves in Autumm like Cananda, I suppose.

Lars Marius - 2007-03-06 15:12:56

Yes, I guess the bomb is the only thing Hiroshima is really known for outside Japan. I've been there before (for1 a conference) and found it a very pleasant place, and well worth visiting. So probably we'll go back there.

I think Hokkaido is great if you like nature scenery and hiking and so on. If not it's probably not exactly the most exciting part of Japan. :)

Steffi - 2007-03-08 02:00:55

Well, actually, besides Japan, I would like to go to Germany. I am currently learning the German language. I thought it would be nice to make a trip there to find out exactly how germans lead their lives in their own country:D

Lars Marius - 2007-03-08 10:11:23

I've spent a couple of months in Germany altogether, and can definitely recommend it as a place to visit. Remember to try the local beer and food specialties! :)

Steffi - 2007-03-08 10:31:51

Oh I would definitely try it. You were in Germany for a couple of months? Why? Which places should I put on my must-visit list? :D

Lars Marius - 2007-03-12 10:57:59

The time I've spent in Germany adds up to a couple of months if you put it all together, but it's been several trips. At least three of the trips, each one roughly a week, were for conferences. Then we spent three weeks on holiday, bicycling in Franconia. Plus I've spent some weeks working for a German software company in Würzburg (also Franconia).

It's hard to make recommendations without knowing what you are looking for, but I really liked Franconia. It's rural, quiet, has nice scenery, good beer and wine, and the people are really friendly. I also quite liked Berlin, which is more your hypermodern, hectic major European city.

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