The journey through far eastern literature continues with ”Three Kingdoms”, a work so classic for the Chinese that no introduction is necessary, but largely unknown in the west. At least I had never heard of it before I found it on the List.
“Three Kingdoms” is an epic tale of a period considered particularly heroic in Chinese history, namely the transition period between the Han and the Jin dynasty, roughly the period from 170 to 280, where China was divided in three kingdoms constantly fighting each other for supremacy. We follow a fellow called Liu Xuande who starts out as a militia leader with his two brothers-in-oath Lord Guan and Zhang Fei. They are some mighty fellows and quickly they make a name for themselves in the various battles caused by the decline and fall of the Han emperor. Through the first third of the story all sorts of disasters befalls the throne as various fractions fight over the waning imperial power. Xuande is sometimes belonging to this sometimes to that fraction and when Cao Cao emerges as the de facto leader of at least the northern heartland Xuande finds himself opposed to Cao Cao since the last of the Han emperors has asked Xuande for help against Cao Cao.
Xuande and his band of merry men are wandering around China and finally settles in a province nestled between Cao Cao’s northern provinces and Sun Quan’s southern provinces. Here Xuande finds a supreme advisor, Kongming, who is administrator, tactician, scientist and wizard in one person. A truly valuable fellow. Together they ally with the south and successfully repel an attack from Cao Cao, which takes up about another third of the story, and finally settles in the western Riverlands area (modern Sichuan) where Xuande replaces the local leader.
When Cao Cao’s sons finally dethrone the last Han emperor and claim the title for themselves, Xuande does the same, claiming to be a scion of the Han. Thus we end up with the three kingdoms of Wei (north), Shu (west) and Wu (south).
Ultimately all those wars wear out these three dynasties and so the story fizzles out and a fourth party, the Sima family takes over the whole thing.
The above summary is a bit unfair because this is actually a both complex and engrossing affair and resembles nothing so much as “Games of Thrones”. In fact I am convinced George R R Martin read and was inspired extensively by “Three Kingdoms”. There is everything here: Feuding families, heroic battles, cunning wizards, epic scales and struggles that just never seem to end. Frankly I found it the most entertaining read so far on the List.
“Three Kingdoms” is actually a story that has developed over the ages. Much of what is told in the story actually happened back then, but as the history has been handed down through the ages it has taken a life on its own so that the final version is an odd mix of history and fiction. A fellow called Luo Guanzhong is credited for writing it sometime in the fourteens or fifteenth century, but I guess it was more a matter of compiling it. As much as one can complain about historic distortion, he or whoever is responsible made this a very readable text and one that inspires the reader to read on. Read as a novel I do not really care about historic precision anyway.
Given the backstory of this novel it is no wonder that there are countless versions floating around. My copy was an abridged version (yes, I have not read the complete version, shame on me) translated and commented by Moss Roberts and though it is obvious that entire passages are left out of such a version I also get the feeling that the editing is well done and I am especially grateful for the modern flow of the language. What could have been a drag was in fact an easy read.
I liked a lot of the drama involved and the sheer scale of the story. Fans of “Game of Thrones” will find a lot to love here. What I liked less was the resolution to the story. When Xuande dies a lot of the air goes out of the balloon and when Kongming is gone as well it is barely keeping afloat. I guess there is some Chinese logic to this, but I cannot help feeling that the story is somewhat unfulfilled.
Part of the book I read on a visit to Beijing and that made it quite special. I was unable during my short stay to find any exhibitions relating to the period, but it does make the story more vibrant and real and lends depth to such a visit. Highly recommended.