The long-lived Han dynasty is finally succumbing to effects of a weak Emperor and corrupt government that is cause injustice throughout China resulting peasant revolts while nobles strive to reform the court. Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, probably, dramatizes the 112-year history of the end of the Han dynasty as the empire divided into the titular three kingdoms before being reunified under the Jin while being true to history for nearly the entire text.
The weakness of the Emperor Ling and his corrupt court results in the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Emperor asks all loyal subjects to come to arms to fight the rebels. Among that answering the call is Liu Bei, a scion of the Imperial clan, who befriends and joins in a sworn brotherhood Lord Guan and Zhang Fei, Cao Cao a member of a long servicing Han bureaucratic family, and Sun Jian an accomplished general. The numerous warlords crush the rebellion but remain in charge of various districts when the Emperor dies thus setting the stage for the warlords vying for power by controlling the child Emperor and then his young brother when Ling’s immediate successor is deposed (then murdered). Sun Jian heads to the Southlands and founds a dynasty that is cemented by his son Ce that eventually becomes the Kingdom of Wu. Cao Cao’s Machiavellian political acumen and military success results in him getting control of the last Han Emperor, Xian, and control of the northern heartland that eventually becomes the Kingdom of Cao-Wei. Liu Bei and his sworn brothers bouncing from district and district trying to restore the independence and good governance of the Han but the warlords that they serve under continue to fight for their own power. Then the brotherhood is joined by a military-political advisor Kongming that uses Bei’s connection to the Imperial house to establish power in the Riverlands, in the west of the empire, to establish the kingdom of Shu-Han. Yet if not for the alliance between the Riverlands and Southland against Cao Cao in the battle of Red Cliffs, the three-fold division of the empire would not have happened. After the death of Liu Bei and his sworn brothers, Kongming becomes takes up their cause by his six campaigns against Cao-Wei are not successful in conquering the whole of the Northern Heartland. Upon Kongming’s death, the Sima family rises within the ranks of the Cao-Wei that they eventually usurp and reunify the Empire as the Jin dynasty.
Though Luo Guanzhong wrote his masterpiece roughly 1200 years after the events of the novel, he used extensive historical records plus numerous legends and popular stories from the period to enhance Three Kingdoms. The resulting novel is considered seven parts history and three parts fiction, the later portions surround the adventures and actions of Lord Guan and Kongming respectfully whose impact on history was either enlarger or their effectiveness increased. On top of that Luo Guanzhong, along with Mao Gonggang who edited the text a century later, had a political agenda to favor Liu Bei over Cao Cao that giving the former great virtue while the latter is considered a usurper. The four-volume 2339-page novel is an engaging piece of historical fiction with a lot of annotation, by Mao Guanzhong and translator Moss Roberts, though it isn’t perfect. From the text itself, there are hundreds of named characters though most of them are minor characters that are hard to keep straight through the major and secondary characters are easy to keep straight. The Chinese name convention of surname given name is followed throughout and after a while it’s easy to get use to; however one of Luo Guanzhong’s decisions was to have some individuals have multiple names, most notably Liu Bei (Xuande) and Kongming (Zhuge Liang) that at times confuses the reader. The majority problem with the novel is unfortunately the Foreign Language Press edition that I read had grammatical and spelling errors on almost every page that too be fair was easy to read through but was a tad annoying.
Three Kingdoms is a Chinese historical classic novel that I found to be a very readable novel thanks to the true to original translation approach of Moss Roberts that gave Luo Guanzhong’s masterpiece it’s full meaning. Though most of my issues are due to the publisher’s grammatical and spelling errors, they didn’t takeaway from the great historical story that was presented and gives the reader an insight into Chinese history and cultural thought.