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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Review: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Three Kingdoms - Luo Guanzhong, Moss Roberts

This was a thoroughly interesting novel. I had a brief book-stential crisis in the middle when I tried to wrap my head around the multiple versions of this book even in its original language, as well the mystique surrounding the identity of the author. I quickly got over it though and settled quite nicely into the story, and Roberts's afterward was rewardingly informative.


First, it's important to note that I came to this already having gained a (maybe unhealthy) enthusiasm for Chinese dramas. Especially this one. I'd been told that Three Kingdoms has exerted an influence on Chinese pop culture to equal that of Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and Homer, but having the wave of familiar recognition wash over me was another thing entirely. There are the character archetypes, the themes, the extensive narrative structure that tries to encompass Chinese imperial history as a single story. I thought about Prince of Lanling a lot during my reading.


Righteous central hero: Liu Bei-->Lanling Wang
Michiavillian opponent: Cao Cao-->Yuwen Yong
First failure to unite China: Battle of the Red Cliffs-->Battle of Mountain Mang
China is reunited: Conquest of Wu-->Conquest of Qi


All of which are real historical events and people.


Several readers have tried to pin down a consistent system of morality in this book. I've tried that too, both before, during, and after reading this book, and have come to conclude that it's simply beyond that scope. Ideas about loyalty, honor, and filial piety are questioned on nearly every page. More often than not, they come into conflict. The best, or maybe just the first, example that flashes to mind is when Zhuge Liang and his brother Zhuge Jin find themselves serving two different kingdoms (let's just call it that), each trying to persuade the other to join the same side. Which one takes priority, duty to one's family or duty to one's lord? How does one confront that decision without compromising their moral integrity? A more grey character for me was Cao Cao, whose integrity is almost always under suspicion, but, it seems, never his dignity.


In fact, there were times when I thought that the morality shifted from the eye of the author to the characters themselves. Here's a passage I find myself constantly coming back to, when Cao Cao's forces are besieging that of Liu Bei's:


Zhang Liao attacked the west gate. Lord Guan hailed him from the wall: "why should a man of distinction waste himself on a traitor?" Zhang Liao lowered his head and made no reply. Lord Guan knew Zhang Liao for a man of devotion and loyalty and refrained from defaming him; nor did he come out and fight.

It's highly likely that I'm just picking the ideas that appeal to me and ignoring the ones that don't, but the concept that even enemies can find common ground has become increasingly fascinating to me over the years--unrealistic as it might be historically. This is a story that romanticizes the nobility of heroes during a time when an entire dynasty is breaking down due to corruption. I can't help but think that the reason for that is because somehow, they manage to preserve a psychological ideal. So Guan Yu spares Zhang Liao, because he sees in his opponent the type of moral character needed to uphold an empire. And Cao Cao holds onto hope that Guan Yu will stay with him and become his vassal, despite the fact that it's precisely Guan Yu's devotion to Cao Cao's own rival that convinces him so strongly of Guan Yu's worth. It's also interesting that such a keen recognition of talent and honor is defined as a desirable quality in a leader, despite Cao Cao's playing the role of antagonist.


Of course, trying to make sense of all the ambiguity and depth of ideas in this bit of review space is mostly futile. I will hypothesize that the central theme of this book is the question of unity vs. division. There is a sense of discomfort when the land is not united under a single ruler, but each dynasty must eventually pass its peak and break down as the government becomes detrimental to the people; the cause of the peasant rebellion in the beginning is blamed on the corruption of the central rule. After years of division a common cause will be found to unite the empire once again, until the Mandate of Heaven passes and the cycle repeats.


This philosophy lends an impersonal angle to the story and gives it a strong sense of coherence to tie together its 2000+ pages, however, there's something to be said for the reading experience too, how the narrative emphasizes the scene, the moment.

This is a versatile novel that is constantly shifting between historical exposition, court intrigue, songs of praise, and battles and sieges. You might think that the last one carries most of the story's dramatic tension, but Zhuge Liang's brilliant rhetorical debate with Sun Quan's southern officials has the fate of of an entire empire spinning on his ability to forge an alliance with people who perceive that they have nothing to gain. The scene where Liu Bei drops his chopsticks as thunderclouds flash across the sky stands out in my memory as vividly as Zhuge Liang's extended campaign against Meng Huo. One thing I was only partly prepared for was the role of the supernatural. The snapping of a flag can foretell an ambush, destinies of men are predicted by the stars, and dead characters even reemerge as ghosts to provide guidance to the living or to exact revenge.


My favorite aspect, though, was the use of tactics and strategy, many of which are taken from ancient Chinese military texts as well as history. It was hard to stop shaking my head in amazed disbelief as Zhuge Liang deployed the Empty Fort Strategy, or 空城計, in one of his many moments of spontaneous genius--which, I was intrigued to find out, is the 32nd of the Thirty-Six Strategems, and can only be used sparingly because of its dependence on reverse psychology. All I could think was how much work goes into a story of sufficient scope where not just one, but dozens of set pieces like this are actually believable, pulled off with the requisite skill of pacing, plot complexity, and elegance of literary style.

There is an external benefit to reading this book, however, that has inspired me to start seeking out the other cultural epics of each great civilization--the Shahnameh, the Ramayana, the Tale of Genji, the Aeneid, the Iliad, and of course, the other three of the Four Classical Novels.


Moss Roberts states in the historical afterward that "Three Kingdoms, like all of China's major novels, offers Western readers an understanding of China from the perspective of the Chinese themselves." Which really sums everything up in a nutshell. For me, coming from a Chinese American family, I fall somewhere in the middle. Despite having shelved this under "culture-shock," one of the fun things about reading this was recognizing when the values I was raised with coincided with those in the novel, particularly those pertaining to family loyalty. And yet, this book has two removes in time--the first being the book itself, which was written between the Yuan and Ming Dynasties during a long-building surge of Han nationalism as China sought to throw off the legacy of Mongol power. The second being the story it dramatizes, the fall of the Han Dynasty which happened 1800 years ago. The scale and scope of the story represents an attempt to bring all that under a cohesive narrative that not only captivates, but captures the spirit of a people's cultural identity. It may not force you to like it, but it will at the very least force you to respect it. Luckily for me this ended up inspiring both.