Romance of Three Kingdoms: Male Bonding as Sanctity

Confucius was a man of great statue and physical prowess but chose to rely on the power of his words to change the world. There were, however, many who tried to change the world through the power of swords rather than through words. Though these men of swords did regard ren as the highest human virtue, they did not see ren in the same way as Confucius did. They regarded ren first and foremost as the matter of brotherly bond, of love for their warrior brethren. Romance of Three Kingdoms is the epitome of such warrior brand of ren.


Romance of Three Kingdoms, attributed to the fourteenth century literati Luo Guanzhong, is not only one of Four Great Novels of China but has been the most loved and influential of popular Chinese novels. Romance of Three Kingdoms is said to embody the essence of being Chinese: being political, relying on personal relationships based on trust. More than half of Beijing operas, the most popular form of entertainment before the advent of radio, movie, and TV, are based on it. The founder of the Manchu Qing dynasty, Hong Taiji (r. 1626-1643) ordered a Manchu translation of this novel to be created so that his Manchu subjects could understand the Chinese people better. Chairman Mao Zedong was an avid fan of Romance of Three Kingdoms. Like many others before and after him, Mao Zedong learned strategies and tactics from the ancient heroes of Romance of Three Kingdoms. The official China Central Television made a TV series (1991-1995) of Romance of Three Kingdoms, using 100,000 extras.  The set is now the popular Three Kingdoms theme parkIdioms based on Romance of Three Kingdoms’ episodes are still widely used. New retelling and translations, and games, animations, comics, and business books based on Romance of Three Kingdoms appear every year.  John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008) loosely based on Romance of Three Kingdoms was a blockbuster in Asia and sent this classic novel back to the top of best-seller list in Japan.


Romance of Three Kingdoms recounts the history of  Three Kingdoms period where the power of the ruling Han Dynasty waned, and through years of civil war, the empire came to be divided into three kingdoms of Shu, Wei, and Wu; after a long power struggle, the Sima family who held the top political offices in Wei reunited China, and founded the Jin Dynasty. Making extensive use of ten centuries’ worth of popular stories that sprung up around this dramatic warring period’s heroes, Romance of Three Kingdoms colorfully retells the history with anecdotes of heroes and villains, of battles and political intrigues, and of intricate war strategies and tactics. Since It includes so much history and strategies, even Confucian intellectuals who considered novels as the entertainment of the uneducated masses found Romance of Three Kingdoms a worthy read.

I introduce a summary of the story below, emphasizing the most famous episodes.  Asian epic movies are made on the assumption that you know these episodes.


Romance of Three Kingdoms starts:

            Here begins the story. If divided for long, the empire will unite; long united, it will divide. This has long been the case. In the last years of Zhou dynasty, seven kingdoms warred against each other until the kingdom of Qin emerged triumphant and conquered others. But Qin soon fell, and in its ruin two kingdoms of Chu and Han emerged and fought until the kingdom of Han emerged triumphant and conquered the other, as Qin had done. Han’s rise to power began when the Supreme Ancestor (the founder of the Han dynasty) killed a white snake, inspiring an uprising that concluded with Han ruling the reunified empire.

Two hundred years later, after Wang Mang’s coup, Emperor Guang Wu restored the dynasty, and the Han dynasty ruled for another two hundred years until Emperor Xian, after whose reign the empire split into three kingdoms. The house of Han’s fall traces its cause from Emperor Xian’s two predecessors, Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling. Emperor Huan sent away and even persecuted able officials of integrity and trusted only eunuchs. After Emperor Ling succeeded Emperor Huan, Regent-Marshal Dou Wu and Imperial Guardian Chen Fan, joint custodians of the throne, planned to eliminate eunuchs Cao Jie and his cohorts who were abusing their power. But the plan was exposed early, and Dou Wu and Chen Fan were executed. From them on, the eunuchs had their way at the court.(Chapter 1)

Romance of Three Kingdoms shows no interest in the mythical beginning of the world and solely focus on the dynasties’ rise and fall. Based on the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, Romance of Three Kingdoms  places the blame for the fall of Han dynasty squarely on the reigning royal family’s lack of virtue (ren). Emperors Huan, Ling, and Xian let eunuchs rule the government, which pushed the common people’s minds toward rebellion that manifested as Yellow Scarves Rebellion.


Romance of Three Kingdoms tells how the leader of the Yellow Scarves Rebellion, Zhang Liang, rose to power. Having failed civil service examinations, Zhang Liang resigned himself to the countryside. When he was gathering medicinal herbs in the hills, a Daoist master appeared and gave him three sacred books so that he could learn secret knowledge and save the people. Zhang Liang became quite adept at summoning wind and invoking rain and grew famous. He gained more than five hundred disciples who spread his fame throughout the empire. After he had gained numerous followers, he decided to claim that he received the Mandate of Heaven to replace the Han dynasty. His followers enthusiastically joined his cause, and his army swelled to half a million strong.


Faced with the news of this serious rebellion, Emperor Xian ordered the local governors to raise armies. Governor of the Zhou province, not having enough men at hand, issued a call for volunteers. This call occasioned the meeting of three central heroes of the story, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei are recorded in history books as Liu Bei’s most trusted generals, but their details are obscure. Popular imagination made these obscure figures into heroes.


Liu Bei met Zhang Fei in front of the notice board:

…Liu Bei was 28 when the governor issued the call for volunteers. Reading the notice, he sighed heavily. “Hey, why a grown man like you waste time sighing?”, a big voice boomed. “A real man should be serving the country.” Xuande turned and faced the owner of the voice. He was eight spans tall, with a head shaped like a panther’s, huge round eyes, a jaw shaped like a swallow’s, beard like a tiger’s, a voice like a thunder, and energy of a runaway horse. Impressed by his unusual looks, Liu Bei asked his name.

“My family name,” the man answered, “is Zhang, given name, Fei, and style name, Yide. My family’s lived in this county for generations, and owns a house and farm. We trade wine and pork. I seek to befriend heroic men. When I saw you sighing reading the call for volunteers, I decided to address you.” Liu Bei answered, “I am related to the imperial family. My family name is Liu, given name, Bei, and style name, Xuande. I want to quell the Yellow Scarves rebellion and save the people, but I have no means to carry it out. That is why I was sighing.” “I have some,” said Zhang Fei, “How about we use it to recruit some men and work together for the cause?” Liu Bei was delighted. They headed to a local tavern. (Chapter 1)


            At the tavern, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei met the third hero, Guan Yu:

While they were drinking, they saw a man of great statue came, pushing a cart. He stopped at the entrance of the tavern. He ordered the waiter, “Some wine, quickly! I am going to the city to volunteer.” Liu Bei observed him. An extremely tall man, good nine spans tall, with a two-foot-long beard. His had ruddy cheeks, rich red lips, shapely eyes like those of the crimson phoenix, and eye brows like nestling silk worms. His statue was imposing, and his demeanor dignified. Xuande invited him to join their table and asked his name.

“My family name is Guan, given name, Yu, style name was originally Changsheng but was later changed to Yunchang. I am from Jielang in the Hedong province, but I left home after killing a local bigwig who was exploiting the villagers and have been on the move these five or six years. So when I heard about the recruitment, I rushed to volunteer.” Liu Bei told Guan Yu his own ambitions, to the latter’s delight. Together the three went to Zhang Fei’s farm to discuss their plan further. Zhang Fei said, “My farm has a peach garden which in full bloom. Let's offer sacrifice there tomorrow to Heaven and earth to pledge ourselves as sworn brothers. Then we can be of the one heart to accomplish our plan together.” Liu Bei and Guan Yu agreed with one voice, “Good.” (Chapter 1)


Three heroes made an oath known as the Peach Garden Oath, which said:

 “We three, though born to different families, swear here to be brothers, in one mind and strength, to resolve this upheaval. We will serve the country and protect the people. Though we were not born on the same day, we will all die on the same day. Heaven and Earth, be the witnesses to our pledge! If any of us ever be ungrateful or unrighteous, let Heaven’s and Earth‘s curse fall upon us!” (Chapter 1)


This oath, which places their sworn brotherly bond above that of natural familial bond, is the driving force of this novel. The idiom, the Peach Garden Oath, defines the ideal form of male friendship in the Chinese cultural tradition. Male bonding is still a popular theme in today’s Asian movies, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) and its squeals, and Johnny To’s Exiled (2007), to name a few. In the multiple award winner period movie The Warlords (2007), three heroes swear an oath very similar to the Peach Garden Oath and test their bond against the backdrop of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). (Taiping Rebellion leaders used Romance of Three kingdoms and Water Margin as their strategy and organizational guide books.)


            The elder of the brotherhood was Liu Bei. His elder status is based on his claimed royal lineage rather than physical age. Romance of Three Kingdoms describes Liu Bei as follows:

…He did not like reading, but was genteel in nature, of few words, and did not show his emotions. He was ambitious, and loved to cultivate friendship with the boldest souls of the empire. He was seven and half spans tall. His ear lobes were so elongated that he could see his own ears. His arms reached below his knees. His face was as smooth as white jade, and his lips were bright red as if rouged. He was a descendent of Liu Sheng, Prince Jing of Zhongshan, who was a great-great-grandson of the fourth emperor of the Han dynasty, Jing. His family name was Liu, given name, Bei, and his chosen name was Xuande....

 …Liu Bei’s father died young. Orphaned, Xuande served his widowed mother with singular devotion. They were so poor that he had to weave and sell sandals and mats to survive. Their house was in a village called Mulberry Tower, and had a mulberry tree of some fifty spans near its southwest corner. Seen from a distance, the mulberry covered the house like a carriage canopy. ”This house will produce an eminent man,” a feng shui (geomancy) reader said. While playing beneath the tree with other boys, young Liu Bei declared, “When I become the Son of Heaven, I will ride a chariot with canopy like this.” These bold words impressed his uncle Liu Yuanqi, who commented, “This is no ordinary child.” Since then, Liu Yuanqi often helped Liu Bei and his mother financially. At fifteen Liu Bei was sent away by his mother to study… (Chapter 1)


Romance of Three Kingdoms, thus, tells that that Liu Bei was a descendant of a Han emperor. This claim is actually not as impressive as it sounds. Prince Jing of Zhongshan who is named as Liu Bei’s ancestor is said to have had 120 sons (as well as unknown number of daughters). So there must have been quite a number of men who could claim the same linage. However, in Romance of Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei gets a lot of mileage out of this imperial lineage. This claim entitles him to preferential treatments and favors from different warlords and even earns him the official title of Imperial Uncle. In fact, this claim of imperial lineage is central to Romance of Three Kingdoms which tells that, even though it was later absorbed by the Jin dynasty, Liu Bei’s kingdom, Shu was the legitimate successor to the Han Dynasty.


While Creation of Lesser Gods is the story of a tyrant emperor's fall and the righteous emperor's rise, Romance of Three Kingdoms is the story of the rightful successor to the imperial throne eclipsed by a villainous foe, which gives a sense of tragedy to this novel.


Emphasizing his imperial lineage, the authors of Romance of Three Kingdoms made Liu Bei a prince in exile, stylizing him into a junzi whose ren qualifies him to be the emperor. Liu Bei is described as genteel by nature, of few words, and did not show emotions. He is also described to have elongated ear lobes. Elongated ear lobes are considered as the sign of good fortune, and a fixed feature of Buddhist deities. So having elongated earlobes indicates that Liu Bei was a man of high moral quality. 

Stylized as junzi, Liu Bei of Romance of Three Kingdoms is not much of a warrior but shows keen appreciation of great warriors. When his general Zhao Yun risked his life to save his only son Ah Dou in the middle of an enemy attack, Liu Bei threw the infant aside, and declared, "I nearly lost a great general because of a worthless kid!", which moved Zhao Yun to tears. (Chapter 14)  The combination of the aura of an imperial lineage and his sincere appreciation of talented men was what attracted men such as Zhao Yun, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei to Liu Bei.


Guan Yu personifies the hero quality. Even among many excellent warriors described in this story, Guan Yu ranks as one of the very best. Guan Yu is magnificent in his appearance. (Homer also endowed Achilles and Hercules with brilliant good looks.) He is of imposing height—nine spans converts to about six foot eight inches—with two feet long beard, for which he was nicknamed Lord Beautiful Beard. He is a mighty warrior who yields a huge long handled saber named Green Dragon Crescent Blade that weighs some 40 pounds. Though he lacks the prestige of lineage Liu Biao boasts, Guan Yu is still a man of aristocratic learning and has a particular fondness for Annals of Spring and Autumn attributed to Confucius. As many martial men, even generals, were at best semi-literate, for one, Liu Bei did not like reading—this description distinguishes him as a man of dual talent. 


Zhang Fei who sports fearsome looks and thunderous voice is an earthy macho guy. He lacks the learning and consequently acts upon emotion rather than reason. Zhang Fei who wields a thirteen feet long spear is recklessly brave and powerful, and rumored to be able to defeat an army of ten thousand single-handedly. Zhang Fei whose family business was butchering pigs and trading wine was a folk hero whom the uneducated common people could  easily relate to. In the more oral tradition of the Three Kingdoms story, Zhang Fei is something of a superman who can make e a bridge collapse with his thunderous roar. 


Let’s follow the progress of the three sworn bothers. They happened to rescue two wealthy merchants who were chased by bandits. Grateful merchants offered money and horses to the three. They gathered men, had their weapons made, joined the fight against the Yellow Scarves. Here they met their latter day competitors Cao Cao and Sun Jian.


Cao Cao, who is the main villain of the story, is described as seven span tall, narrow-eyed, with a long beard. Romance of Three Kingdoms tells:

His family name was Cao, given name, Cao, style name, Mengde. Cao Cao’s father Cao Song’s family name was originally Ziahou. When he became the adopted son of eunuch Cao Teng his family name became Cao. Cao Song was Cao Cao’s natural father. Cao Cao had child-hood name Ah Man and sometimes also called Jili.

Since childhood, Cao Cao had loved hunting, song and dance, and good at scheming and playing tricks. An uncle of Cao Cao got upset by the boy’s unruliness, and complained to Cao Song. Cao Song scolded Cao Cao. Cao Cao hatched a scheme. When the boy saw his uncle coming, he fell to the ground, imitating a fit. The uncle told Cao Song, who rushed to his son. The boy was perfectly fine. Cao Song said, “Your uncle said you’d had a fit. Is it over?” “I never had such illness. Uncle doesn’t like me so mistook something for a fit,” was the boy’s reply. The father believed the son’s words. Since then, the father stopped heeding the uncle’s complaints. Cao Cao continued his unruly ways.

A man named Qiao Xuan said to Cao Cao, “The Empire is near chaos. Only the extraordinarily talented man can save the situation. You might be the one.” He Yu of Nanyang saw Cao Cao and said, “The house of Han is doomed to fall. I am sure that this is the man to unify the empire.” Xu Shao of Runan was famous for reading people. Cao Cao asked, “What kind of person am I?” Xu Shao refused to answer. Asked repeatedly, Xu Shao said,”You would make a great statesman in a time of peace and a treacherous villain in a time of chaos.” These words greatly pleased Cao Cao.

At 20, Cao Cao was recommended by the district to become a secretary, and later made the chief of security in the northern half of district. Upon arrival, he had ten or so five-colored cudgels placed at the four gates of the city, and severely punished every violator of the law, even rich and mighty. One night an uncle of eunuch Jian Shuo was walking the streets carrying a broadsword. Cao Cao, on his nightly rounds, arrested him and beat him with the cudgel. Since then, no one dared to break the law and Cao Cao’s fame rose. Later he was appointed for Governor of Dunqiu. When the Yellow Scarves uprisings started, Cao Cao was promoted to the rank of cavalry commander…(Chapter 1)


Cao Cao belonged to the house of a eunuch. Though they were powerful as personal servants of the emperor, eunuchs were despised as men who were not really men. Respectable families did not agree to make their sons adopted by a eunuch. By mentioning his grandfather was a eunuch, albeit a famous and powerful one, Romance of Three Kingdoms places Cao Cao’s social status as lowly, in contrast to Liu Bei’s much touted imperial lineage. 


Cao Cao is described as scheming and cunning, and strict disciplinarian. This does not conform to Confucian ideal of the rule by ren. Romance of Three Kingdoms, thus, places Cao Cao socially and morally lesser to Liu Bei. It also describes Cao Cao as far less impressive looking—only seven spans tall and narrow eyed—than the three sworn brothers. However, Cao Cao, the founder of the kingdom of Wei, is not a one-dimensional villain.  As the evaluation, “You would make a great statesman in a time of peace and a treacherous villain in a time of chaos,” shows, maligned Cao Cao shows hero qualities, too.


The three brothers also met another of their future competitor, Sun Jian. Sun Jian’s son, Sun Quan later became the founder of the kingdom of Wu. Sun Jian is described as:

…a man of broad forehead and big face, with a body like tiger’s and a girth like bear’s. This man was from Fuchun in the Wu province. His name was Sun Jian, his chosen name was Wentai.  He was descended of the author of Sunzi, Sun Wu (Chapter 2).


With all these warriors weighing in, the Yellow Scarves were contained. While Cao Cao and Sun Jian who had connections to the central government received due rewards, Liu Bei received no reward because he lacked connections. After petitioning, Liu Bei received a measly reward of appointment as a county governor. Liu Bei, accompanied by his sworn brothers, worked honestly and diligently, and earned the people’s trust. One day, a regional government inspector came to his county. The inspector accused Liu Bei of occupying the post undeservingly and being corrupt. Since Liu Bei refused to pay bribe to placate him, the inspector arrested one of local officials and interrogated him at his lodging, trying to make him confess that Liu Bei was exploiting the local populace. Liu Bei tried to get him released, but in vain. It was not genteel Liu Bei but Zhang Fei who resolved the situation.

Angry Zhang Fei gulped down several cups of wine. When he rode by the inspector’s lodging, he saw dozens of old men weeping. Zhang Fei asked them why. They said, “The government inspector is torturing an official, trying to frame up Governor Liu. We came to petition the inspector but the gate keepers beat us away.” Zhang Fei exploded in anger. Glaring his huge eyes and gnashing his teeth, he jumped off the horse and shoved his way in. The gate keepers did not dare stop him. Zhang Fei crushed into the inner hall to find the inspector seated, and the local official on the floor, tied up by a rope.

 Zhang Fei yelled, “You, the thug who harm the people! Do you know who I am!” Before the inspector could open his mouth, Zhang Fei grabbed him by the hair, dragged him all the way to the front of the county governor’s office, and tied him up to a hitching pole with a rope. Ripping off the branches from a nearby willow tree, Zhang Fei whipped the inspector on his thighs, breaking dozens of branches.

Inside the county governor’s office, Liu Bei sat worried. All of sudden, a rancor started outside the gate. Liu Bei asked and got the answer that Zhang Fei had bound up someone and was whipping him. Liu Bei rushed to the gate to find the inspector bound. Liu Bei cried to Zhang Fei, “What are you doing!” “What’s the good reason to let a thug like this stay alive!” was the answer. The inspector pleaded for his life, and Liu Bei, being of genteel nature, ordered Zhang Fei to release him. Guan Yu came and said, “You did so much in quelling the Yellow Scarves uprising. Now you are held in the menial office of a county governor and suffer insults by a guy like this. A phoenix cannot live in a bush. It is better to kill him, leave the office, and seek a better opportunity.” Liu Bei took off his county governor’s seal from his neck, hanged it around the inspector’s neck, saying, “A thug like you who harms the people deserves to die. However, I let you go today. I return the seal and leave the post.” (Chapter 2)


This episode titled “Zhang Fei Whips the Government Inspector” is typical of Zhang Fei of Romance of Three Kingdoms. He often gets angry at perceived insult against his brother Liu Bei and acts violently upon that impulse. Here, Zhang Fei, a commoner with no official power, whips the arrogant government inspector into tears. The scenario is so emotionally satisfying that this has been one of most popular episodes of the novel.


The meeting of thee brothers and whipping of the inspector occurred in 184. (I follow the chronology given in Romance of Three Kingdoms, which does not always coincide with that of the official history book Annals of Three Kingdoms.)  In 189, the reigning emperor Ling passed away, which caused a power struggle at the court. In confusion, the child emperor Shao and Prince Chenliu were led away from the court. A general named Dong Zhuo, whom the three brothers once saved during the battle against the Yellow Scarves, happened to secure Emperor Shao and seized power under the pretext of protecting the emperor and prince. Dong Zhuo forced Emperor Shao to abdicate and installed the prince as Emperor Xian. Cao Cao, who was then in service of Dong Zhuo, tried to assassinate Dong Zhuo, but failed and fled. Cao Cao then issued an edict in the name of the emperor, calling governors to destroy Dong Zhuo.


In 190, the anti-Dong Zhuo campaign force gathered under the leadership of General Yuan Shao. Liu Bei and his brothers, Cao Cao, Sun Jian, and many others joined the battle against Dong Zhuo. During the battle, Guan Yu deeply impressed Cao Cao by taking the head of enemy general Hua Xiong who had beaten two of their best generals.

…The assembly began to panic. Yuan Shao exclaimed, “It’s a pity my generals Yan Liang and Wen Zhou are not here! Either one can defeat Hua Xiong!” A booming voice from the back answered, “I will get Hua Xiong’s head for you!”

            The assembled lords turned to the voice. There stood a man of over nine spans, with a great beard flowing from rich ruddy cheeks, eyes like those of the crimson phoenix, brows like silkworm cocoons, voice like a tolling bell. “Who is this man?” demanded Yuan Shao. “Gun Yu, sworn brother of Liu Bei,” answered Gongsun Zan. “His position?” inquired Yuan Shao. “Mounted archer under Liu Bei,” was the reply. Yuan Shao’s brother, Yuan Shu, exploded, “Are you insinuating that we have no warriors? How a mere archer dares such big boast! Get him out of here!” But Cao Cao said to Yuan Shu, “Please hold your temper. This man has made a grand boast. He is brave. Let him go at it. You can punish him if he fails.” “But to send out an archer!” Yuan Shao protested. “Hua Xiong will scoff at us!” Cao Cao replied, “He looks impressive. Hua Xiong wouldn’t think that he is an archer.”  Guan Yu added, “If I fail, you will have my head.” Cao Cao offered Guan Yu a cup of heated wine. “Please keep it for me,” said Guan Yu. “I will be back shortly.” He left the tent, grabbed his halberd, jumped on his horse, and was gone. Inside the tent, the lords heard the rolling of drums and clamor of voices outside. It sounded as if the heaven was splitting open and the earth buckling, and as if the hills were shaking and the mountains moving. Anxious, they were about to send a scout out, when the jingling of bridle bells approached. Guan Yu entered the tent and tossed Hua Xiong’s head onto the ground. His wine was still warm. (Chapter 5)


The main purpose of this episode is to introduce Guan Yu as an exceptional warrior. However, this episode also describes General Yuan Shao’s smallness—unlike Cao Cao, he cannot see nothing beyond the present rank and position—, to lead up to his later demise.


In the end, the anti-Dong Zhuo campaign, rife with insider rivalry, only managed to drive Dong Zhuo and his force from the capital Luoyang to Chang-an which became the new capital. Dong Zhuo was tyrannical, exploiting the people for his own gain. Dong Zhuo was finally killed by his adoptive son Lü Bu in 192.


While the struggle to destroy Dong Zhao raged on in the capital, the empire had disintegrated into the state of civil war. In 193, Cao Cao invaded the Xuzhou province in order to avenge his father who was killed by a henchman of Governor of Xuzhou, Tao Qian. In 194, Liu Bei decided to help Tao Qian and proposed a truce to Cao Cao. Tao Qian died and passed on the governorship to Liu Bei. At this time, Bu, the killer of Dong Zhuo, was also at war with Cao Cao. In 195, Bu lost to Cao Cao and sought refuge under Liu Bei.


In 196, Cao Cao took Emperor Xian from Dong Zhuo’s men and established a new court in the northern city of Xuchang. With the emperor under his thumb, Cao Cao set out to realize his ambition to reunify China. In the same year, Bu stole control of Xuzhou from Liu Bei. Liu Bei, then, sought refuge under Cao Cao. In the meanwhile Sun Jian, now Governor of Changsha, was curving out his power base in the southwestern China.


In 198, Cao Cao and Liu Bei defeated and executed Lü Bu. Lu Bei was allowed to see Emperor Xian who made him a general of the imperial army and gave him the honorary title of Imperial Uncle in recognition of his lineage.


In 199, Liu Bei, who was still living as a guest of Cao Cao, was recruited to join the plot to assassinate Cao Cao. The emperor was fearful that Cao Cao might usurp him and made a secret request for assassination. Cao Cao did not suspect Liu Bei and treated him friendlily. When they heard the news that General Gongsun Zan lost a battle and was killed, Liu Bei volunteered for a revenge battle, partly to repay Gongsun Zan’s past kindness, and also to make a break with Cao Cao. When Cao Cao’s advisors found out that Cao Cao had let Liu Bei go, they insisted to call him back. Liu Bei refused to go back to Cao Cao and moved back to Xuzhou to become an independent warlord.


In early 200, the assassination attempt on Cao Cao failed. Cao Cao executed the plotters, including the emperor’s mother. Cao Cao then invaded Xuzhou. Liu Bei lost badly and sought refuge under Yuan Shao who was organizing an anti-Cao Cao campaign.


When Liu Bei fled Xuzhou, Guan Yu was left behind, guarding Liu Bei’s two wives. Cao Cao, who was a keen collector of talents, greatly appreciated Guan Yu’s hero qualities. He was therefore unwilling to attack him but wanted him to become his own retainer, even though Guan Yu’s loyalty to Liu Bei was well known and his changing side was extremely unlikely. Zhang Liao, who was a friend of Guan Yu, offered to negotiate with Guan Yu, hoping to save Guan Yu’s life.  


When Cao Cao’s army marched into Xushou, Zhang Liao maneuvered to have Guan Yu and his troop get stuck up on a hill, and next morning paid a visit to Guan Yu. Guan Yu was fully intending to die in battle. Zhang Liao told Guan Yu that dying then and there would be committing three offences.

Zhang Liao said, “When you bound yourself to Lord Liu as brother, you swore to share life and death. Now your brother has been defeated, and you intend to die in combat. If Xuande (Liu Bei) comes back and seeks your aid but cannot find it, won’t you have betrayed your oath? That is your first offence. Lord Liu’s family is entrusted to your care. If you die now, the two ladies will have no one to defend them, and you will have betrayed his trust. That is your second offence. You are not only incomparable warrior but also are well learned in classics and histories. If you forget your oath to uphold the house of Han, and instead rush into fool’s valor and jump into boiling water, or step into fire, how can you justify your action?  I am obliged to tell you that you commit these three offences.” (Chapter 25)


Guan Yu could not refute Zhang Liao’s reasoning, so asked him what to do. Zhang Liao answered, “Lord Cao’s troops are on all sides. If you refuse to submit, you will die. Dying serves no purpose. Submit to Lord Cao and seek the news of Lord Liu.  When you learn his whereabouts, you go to him immediately. This way you will ensure the safety of two ladies, uphold the Peach Garden Oath, and preserve your most useful life.” Guan Yu basically agreed but demand three conditions be met before surrendering. First, he would surrender to the emperor, not to Cao Cao. Second, two wives of Liu Bei should be treated with respect and dignity befitting their status as Imperial Uncle’s wives and no one approach their gate. And third, the moment he learned Liu Bei’s whereabouts, no matter how far he might be, Guan Yu would depart.


Cao Cao had no qualms about the first two conditions but balked at the third condition. Clever Zhang Liao persuaded Cao Cao by saying, “Liu Bei treats Lord Guan simply with generosity and consideration. If Your Excellency show greater generosity and consideration, his loyalty could be won over.” Cao Cao accepted the third condition.


Guan Yu surrendered and Cao Cao warmly welcomed him and showered him with gifts. Only gift that pleased Guan Yu was Red Hare, a rare blood-red furred horse that was reputed to be able to run thousand miles a day. Though Guan Yu appreciated all the favors bestowed upon him, his loyalty did not waver. When Zhang Liao inquired about his intentions, Guan Yu told him that he intended to repay Cao Cao’s favor before going back to Liu Bei.  If Liu Bei turned out to be dead, he would follow his brother to the underworld. Hearing this from Zhang Liao, Cao Cao was deeply impressed by the depth of Guan Yu’s devotion.


In the meanwhile, Liu Bei talked Yuan Shao into starting the campaign against Cao Cao. Yuan Shao’s best general Yan Liang led the advance guard of one hundred thousand and set up the camp at Baima. Cao Cao himself led an army of fifty thousand to face the enemy. Cao Cao sent two of his best warriors to challenge Yan Liang, but both got slain. The third warrior, Xu Huang, was also beaten back. Cao Cao decided to withdraw and Yan Liang also withdrew.


Cao Cao’s men decided it was only Guan Yu who could beat Yan Liang. Not knowing Liu Bei was with Yuan Shao, Guan Yu agreed to challenge Yan Liang. Romance of Three Kingdoms describes Guan Yu’s battle as follows:

Resolutely, Guan Yu mounted. Keeping his halberd blade toward the ground, he raced downhill, his phoenix eyes glaring and his silkworm brows bristling, and dashed to into the enemy line. The enemy army parted like ocean waves as Guan Yu charged straight toward Yan Liang. Yan Liang was still under his canopy. Yan Liang saw Guan Yu coming and tried to say something, but speedy Red Hare was already before his face. Yan Liang had no chance. The halberd blazed, and Yan Liang was dead and fell from his horse. Guan Yu jumped off, severed his head, and tied it to Red Hare’s neck. He jumped back on the horse, left the enemy line as if he were on an empty field. (Chapter 25)


When Guan Yu took Hua Xiong’s head, the scene was described through sounds. Here his glorious feat is described visually. When Cao Cao praised Guan Yu, Guan Yu astonished him by saying that his brother Zhang Fei could fetch the chief general’s head of an army ten times bigger. Cao Cao told his aids that if they should encounter Zhang Fei, they should not risk engaging him.


Cao Cao reported Guan Yu’s stunning victory to Emperor Xian who granted Guan Yu the fief of Hanshou precinct. During the next battle, Liu Bei saw Guan Yu from afar and wrote a letter to him, asking him to come back. Guan Yu tried to get Cao Cao’s permission to go, but Cao Cao refused to meet him in order to avoid giving his consent. In the end, Guan Yu wrote a farewell letter to Cao Cao, left all gifts Cao Cao had given him but one (his steed Red Hare), and departed with his soldiers, guarding the two wives of Liu Bei. (Chapter 26)


Cao Cao’s advisors demanded that they pursued Guan Yu. Cao Cao refused and said, “Guan Yu left all the money and even the fief behind. He did not waver over bribe or fame. I deeply respect him for that.” Instead, Cao Cao decided to send him off personally. Cao Cao sent Guan Yu’s old friend Zhang Liao to make him wait until Cao Cao arrived. Guan Yu sent the rest of the party ahead, and waited on the horseback, with his halberd ready to strike (just in case). Cao Cao and Guan Yu exchanged polite greetings. Cao Cao offered some money for the road, but Guan Yu refused. Cao Cao offered a robe, which Guan Yu could not reasonably refuse. He took it with his halberd (to avoid getting off the horse, still on guard), thanked Cao Cao, and rode off.


After parting from Cao Cao, Guan Yu, who had no travel permit, broke through five check points, killing six commanders who were guarding these gates. This is one of most famous episodes of this novel, called “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” (Chapter 27) Guan Yu was traveling with Liu Bei’s two wives and his soldiers. However, Guan Yu was without his sworn brothers, so it is called Riding Alone. Thousands of Miles is not literal, only indicating a very long distance. Cao Cao soon issued him a travel permit so that Guan Yu did not have to crush any more gates.


Though cast as a villain, Cao Cao of Romance of Three Kingdoms has both hero and villain qualities. He is described cruel enough to kill innocents under the motto of “I can wrong the world, but won’t let it wrong me.”(Chapter 4) However, when Cao Cao let Guan Yu go, Cao Cao says, “I seek to win the trust of the entire world. I won’t go back on my word.” These words show his pride in his moral quality, and he did act very honorably toward Guan Yu.


Cao Cao is known as one of Chinese history’s worst villains, along with the Zhou Wang of the Yin dynasty and the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) of the Qin dynasty. Chairman Mao, who reunited China after a long period of civil war, once protested such characterization in an interview in 1965, saying that Beijing opera was wrong to portray Cao Cao as villain; he was an extraordinary man. Cao Cao was indeed a very talented man and was well known in his time as an excellent poet as well as a savvy general. Cao Cao is also known to have edited the war strategy book Sunzi. Sunzi was probably composed in the late Spring and Autumn Period (roughly the same time as Confucius lived). Though highly valued, Sunzi had been transmitted in bits and pieces. Cao Cao collected fragmented pieces and compiled them into one collection, on which our contemporary version of Sunzi is still based. Sunzi holds today an international fame, and renowned personage such as the Bill Gates and former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates read and quote from it.


While Guan Yu was “riding alone,” Liu Bei parted from Yuan Shao and headed to the city of Xunan; he had instructed Guan Yu to meet him there. On his way to Xunan, Guan Yu ran into Zhang Fei who was occupying a fort in the city of Gucheng. Zhang Fei initially accused Guan Yu of being a renegade and challenged him for a battle. After having resolved the misunderstanding, they headed to Xunan together and were reunited with Liu Bei. They, then, moved to the city of Runan.


In the meanwhile, Yuan Shao decided to team up with Sun Ce to fight against Cao Cao. Sun Ce’s father, Sun Jian, whom the three brothers met during the Yellow Scarves rebellion,  had conquered territories in southwestern China. Sun Jian was on such a winning streak that Cao Cao decided to avoid confrontation with him by making his son marry Sun Jian’s daughter. When Sun Jian died, his eldest son Sun Ce succeeded him. Sun Ce had six provinces under his control and had a large army. Sun Ce died suddenly at the age of 25, haunted by the ghost of a Daoist priest he had murdered.  His younger brother Sun Quan, only 18, took over. Sun Quan is described thus:

Sun Quan had a square jaw and huge mouth. His eyes were green and his beard purple. Many years ago, Liu Wan, a Han court envoy came to the south, had met all the sons of the of the Sun family. He told others, “All of them are highly talented, but none is fated to live long, except Sun Quan. He has extraordinary looks. He is no ordinary man. He is destined to eminence. He will live long. No other brothers compare to him.” (Chapter29)


        Sun Quan proved himself to be a capable ruler. He was good at picking right person for right positions, courteous toward them, therefore held loyalty of his men. Later when he was near 40, his senior advisor Zhao Zi described him as “a man of understanding and insight, humanity and wisdom, valor and military judgment.” (Chapter 82) He is described as having green eyes and purple (reddish) beard, which means he was of non-Han ancestry from the central Asia. There are many non-Han warriors in Romance of Three Kingdoms. Though the Han culture has been considered as the norm of Chinese history, many non-Han ethnic groups, including southern agrarian groups (toward the borders with current day Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar) and nomadic groups of the north and west, had regular dealings with and intermarried with the Han-Chinese. More than half of Chinese emperors had some  non-Han blood. The Zhou dynasty, the venerable founder of the agriculture-based Chinese imperial system, was of the central Asian nomadic origin whose native language was not Chinese, but that of Indo-European family. As long as they were willing to respect the Han customs, the non-Hans were accepted as the fellow humans. In that sense, being a Chinese is like being an American; regardless of where the ancestors came from, within a few generations they all become American or Chinese.


Sun Quan received a letter from Yuan Shao, asking him to join forces to defeat Cao Cao. His advisor Zhou Yu recommended against it, and advised to focus on solidifying his power in the southern region instead. In the meanwhile, trying to make Sun Quan to side with him, Cao Cao worked on the emperor to issue the rank of a general to Sun Quan.


Disappointed by Sun Quan’s refusal, Yuan Shao mobilized all the men under his command and marched with his seven hundred thousand strong force to attack Cao Cao. Cao Cao was outnumbered by ten to one. Still, Cao Cao defeated Yuan Shao’s army in the Battle of Guandu (200) by burning and destroying all the food and fodder Yuan Shao had. Yuan Shao was forced to retreat.


Liu Bei also raised an army against Cao Cao. He lost badly and sought refuge under Liu Biao, Lord of Jianzhou (201). Liu Biao treated Liu Bei with respect and put him in charge of the city of Xinye. Though the life was good, Liu Bei found it depressing that he was putting on weight because of the lack of action. (There is an idiom for this episode: Sighing over Soft Thigh). However, while in Xinye, Lie Bei found his wizard military advisor Zhuge Liang Kongming (207).


Zhuge Liang Kongming is one of the most famous wizard military advisors of Chinese history. Though still only 27 when Liu Bei met him, Kongming was already famous for his learning and wisdom. For the appreciation of his brain power and obvious ambition, he was nicknamed Sleeping Dragon. Even though his elder brother Zhuge Jin decided to serve Sun Quan, Kongming decided to wait for someone better to serve. Romance of Three Kingdoms compares him with Jiang Ziya who helped the establishment of the Zhou dynasty and Zhang Liang who guided the establishment of the Han dynasty.


Liu Bei, now 47, had to pay three visits to Kongming’s residence until he finally managed to meet him. Kongming is described as “eight spans tall, with a face like gleaming jade, wearing a woven silken cap and a robe made of crane feathers. He had the air of someone out of this world.” (Chapter 37) (This description signifies his exceptional talent and his mastery of Daoist learning.) Kongming was the one who changed Liu Bei’s fortune and made him a major warlord.


 At their first meeting, Kongming taught Liu Bei the famous plan of tri-division of the empire. Cao Cao held power in the north, and Sun Quan, in the south. Liu Bei should curve out his power in the central plains, starting with Jiangzhou, spreading into Riverlands. The unification of China would then be the next objective. Impressed by this insight, Liu Bei begged Kongming to become his advisor.


Liu Bei was so happy to have found the great advisor he had long wanted. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei who had been with him now 20 years were not happy to see Liu Bei pay so much respect to this young newcomer. Liu Bei told them, “My discovering Kongming is like fish finding water. Say no more, brothers.” (Chapter 39) Because of these words of his, closest friendship is still called Friendship of Water and Fish. Liu Bei's strength was in his ability to cultivate deep relationships with talented men.


Liu Biao, Lord of Jiangzhou, passed away and Jiangzhou was split between his two sons. In 208, Cao Cao, now Chancellor, attacked the Jiangzhou province. Liu Bei had only five thousand solders and could not defend the city of Xinye. Kongming advised Liu Bei to evacuate the civilians and burn down the city of Xinye, in order to slow down Cao Cao’s army. This was the first time Kongming worked as Liu Bei’s military advisor.


During the defense against Cao Cao's army, Zhang Fei single-handedly scared away Cao Cao’s one million strong army at the Long Slope Bridge:

Zhang Fei’s glaring eyes spotted a blue silk umbrella, luxurious banner, and broadax, signifying the rank of Chancellor. “So Cao Cao is coming,” Zhang Fei thought. He yelled, “I am Zhang Fei of Yan! Who’ll fight me to death?” The voice was like a booming bell. His voice sent a chill down the spine of Cao Cao and his men. Cao Cao ordered the blue umbrella removed. Cao Cao told his attendants, “Once Guan Yu told me that Zhang Fei can take the head of a chief general of one million as easily as picking up a stone. Be careful!” Zhang Fei glared his eyes again and yelled for the second time: “Here I am, Zhang Fei of Yan! I’ll fight anyone who dares, to death!” Feeling Zhang Fei’s mighty spirit, Cao Cao thought of retreating. Zhang Fei noticed the rear lines of Cao Cao’s army shifting. He lifted his spear and bellowed: “Fight or don’t fight? Leave or don’t leave? What will it be? ” The mighty voice still hang in the air when Xiahou Jie, right next to Cao Cao,  fell from his saddle, panic-stricken. Cao Cao turned his horse and ran. All of his generals and soldiers stampeded away. (Chapter 42)


This episode of yelling down Cao Cao’s army is one of most famous episodes of the folk hero Zhang Fei, along with Zhang Fei Whipping the Government Inspector.


This episode is written with intention of making Cao Cao look like a coward. Actually, Cao Cao followed Sunzi’s famous idiom, “If you know yourself and know your enemy, you are safe in one hundred battles.” This idiom is often misunderstood. People tend to think that “you are always safe” means “you always win.” This is not the case. If you know that your chance of winning is low,  not fighting, even running away, is the best course of action. Remembering Guan Yu’s word about Zhang Fei’s prowess, he decided not to risk losing his own head, to be safe. 

Cao Cao studied Sunzi well. Sunzi has much in common with Laozi; it recommends engaging in actual fight only when there are no other options such as diplomacy, negotiation, and other maneuvering achieve the goal, and only when the chance of winning is good. Cao Cao was well known for not fighting and retreating when the circumstances turned out to be unfavorable. He was also proud of learning from his mistakes. This way, he won battles some 80% of the time, while Liu Bei, though Romance of Three Kingdom tries hard to emphasize his victories, won only about 20% of the time.


            Later, the allied force under Liu Bei and Sun Quan defeated Cao Cao’s numerically far superior army at the Battle of Red Cliff on the shore of Yantze River (208). Romance of Three Kingdoms tells that Kongming magically summoned strong southeastern wind so that the fire arrows would spread the fire across Cao Cao’s entire fleet. Cao Cao was forced to retreat.(Chapter 49) John Woo’s 2008 film Red Cliff retold this episode, adding a couple of invented female characters to suit the contemporary movie goers’ taste. (Similarly, Peter Jackson fortified women’s roles in his Lord of Rings trilogy.)


Cao Cao and his men fled, and Liu Bei’s men pursued them. After others failed to capture Cao Cao, Guan Yu, Liu Bei’s best warrior, got the order to capture Cao Cao. By this time, Cao Cao had lost most of soldiers and was accompanied by only some three hundred. All of them were exhausted and drenched in rain, with their horses near collapse; none of them had full gear or ration. And now, they were ambushed by Guan Yu and his men:

…Fire arrows whooshed through the air and five hundred men with their blades in their hands flanked the road. At their head, Guan Yu, with his blade Green Dragon in his hand, riding Red Hare, blocked their way. Cao Cao’s men lost what little spirit they had left. They helplessly looked at one another.

“This is it, then,” said Cao Cao, “We will fight to death!” But his commanders replied, “Men might try, but their horses lack strength. How can we fight?” Chang Yu said, “Lord Guan is known to disdain the high and mighty but show compassion toward the humble. He defies the strong but never beats the weak. He distinguishes obligation and enmity, and has keen sense of justice. In the past, Your Excellency showed him great kindness. If Your Excellency in person negotiates with him, we might still escape.” Cao Cao agreed and moved his horse forward.

Bowing, he greeted Guan Yu: “How have you been, General, since our last meeting?” Lord Guan bowed in return and said, “On the order of Director General, I have been waiting for Your Excellency.” “My army is defeated, the situation is dire, and now we are here,” Cao Cao said, “I hope, General, you will remember how I treated you in the old days.” Guan Yu replied, “I have repaid your ample generosity by eliminating two enemy generals to break the siege at Baima. I cannot let my personal feelings muddle today’s mission.”

Cao Cao said, “Don’t you remember that you slew my commanders at five gates? Heroes value morality. You know the Annals of Spring and Autumn so well. You must remember the story of Yugongzhisi?” Guan Yu was a man of utmost morality, so his could not dismiss Cao Cao’s past kindness or the thought of commanders he had slain from his mind. Guan Yu’s heart ached to see Cao Cao’s men in such misery and near tears. Guan Yu turned away his mount and ordered to his soldiers, “Off the road!” It was to let Cao Cao know his intentions. Cao Cao saw Guan Yu turn aside, he and his men grabbed the opportunity and run. By the time Guan Yu turned back, they were nearly gone.

Guan Yu gave a powerful yell. Cao Cao’s soldiers dropped off their horses, and groveled in the dirt. Guan Yu felt even more pity. Then, Zhang Liao (who once persuaded Guan Yu to surrender to Cao Cao) came racing. Remembering their friendship, Guan Yu sighed deeply and let them go. (Chapter 50)


This tale of warrior’s compassion is the most moving scene of Romance of Three Kingdoms. By mentioning the story of Yugongzhisi, Cao Cao successfully invoked compassion in Guan Yu. The story tells that the famous archer Yugongzhisi was ordered to pursue an equally famous archer, Zizhuoruzi. Zizhuruzi was sick and could not shoot arrows. Yugongzhisi took the arrowhead off his arrow, shot Zizhuoruzi with the headless arrow, declared his mission fulfilled, and left. He showed compassion for his disabled opponent. Similarly, Guan Yu’s compassion made him sabotage his mission. This episode paints Guan Yu as a true noble hero, a warrior with honor and compassion.


            Kongming was furious at Guan Yu for letting Cao Cao escape and threatened to execute him for disobeying the order. However, Liu Bei excused him, pointing out that he and Guan Yu had the vow to live and die together, as one.

            With Kongming’s help, Liu Bei conquered the Jiangzhou province. Sun Quan wanted Jiangzhou, too. So, as a part of scheme to take Jiangzhou from Liu Bei, Liu Bei was invited to marry Sun Quan’s sister. After the wedding, Liu Bei was de fact captive at the Sun mansion, but refused to give up Jiangzhou. With the help of his new wife, Lady Sun, Liu Bei safely went back to Jiangzhou with her in 210.


Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan kept expanding their power bases. In 213, Cao Cao was made Duke of Wei. In 215, Cao Cao made the emperor marry his daughter who was declared the empress. This increased Cao Cao’s social prestige. In 216, Cao Cao was proclaimed Prince of Wei. In 219, Cao Cao once again attacked Liu Bei but lost. Liu Bei consolidated his power in central China and proclaimed himself Prince of Hanzhong. Sun Quan was known as Duke of Wu.


Guan Yu was by then the lord of Jiangzhou, a territory which Sun Quan wanted. Kongming’s brother Zhuge Jin who was the advisor to Sun Quan came up with the idea of proposing a marriage between Sun Quan’s son and Guan Yu’s daughter as a way to acquire the territory later. When Zhuge Jin broached this proposal, Guan Yu’s reply came in a burst of anger. “My tiger-lass married off to a mongrel? (The Sun family was non-Han.) I’d have your head if you weren’t Kongming’s brother!”(Chapter 73) Though an exceptional warrior, Guan Yu did have his faults. He was too proud and arrogant. This insult angered Sun Quan so much that he allied with Cao Cao and raised an army against Guan Yu.


Guan Yu made a series of mistakes during this round of battles and lost many soldiers. When he requested help from Liu Bei’s adoptive son Liu Fen, Guan Yu’s request was denied because he had earlier counseled Liu Bei not let Liu Fen succeed him. Guan Yu was forced to flee with few remaining soldiers. After Gun Yu rejected Sun Quan’s invitation to surrender, Zhuge Jin set a trap and captured Guan Yu and his adoptive son Guan Ping. Sun Quan asked Guan Yu to serve him, but Guan Yu harshly replied, “Green-eyed brat! Purple-whiskered rodent! I swore my allegiance to Imperial Uncle Liu in the peach garden in order to uphold the house of Han. I will have nothing to do with a traitor against the house of Han like you! Now that I have blundered into your treacherous trap, only death remains. Words are useless.” Disregarding this insult, Sun Quan still said to his men, “Lord Guan is such a great hero. I appreciate him deeply. I would treat him with utmost courtesy to win him over to us. What do you think?” Only after being reminded that even Cao Cao’s extreme generosity could not sway Guan Yu, Sun Quan regretfully agreed to execute Guan Yu and Guan Ping.


Guan Yu and Guan Ping were beheaded. Guan Yu, who died at 58, refused to fade away. His soul wandered over to Zhenguo Temple at the Jade Spring Hill. The night Guan Yu died, the moon glowed pale, a breeze blew cold, and a voice in the sky called out, “Return my head.” The ghost of Guan Yu, accompanied by Guan Ping and his royal servant Zhou Cang (who killed himself to follow Guan Yu),  appeared to his old acquaintance Abbott Pujing (Universal Purity). The Abbott said,

 “General, today you died at the hand of Lü Ming and called out, “Return my head!” Yan Liang, Wen Chou, Cao Cao’s six commanders at the five gates (you killed)—whom would they demand their heads be returned?” Realizing the great truth in his words, Guan Yu bowed and departed. Thereafter his spirit frequently appeared on the Jade Spring Hill to protect the common people. The grateful locals built a temple to honor Guan Yu on the summit and made offerings each season. (Chapter 77)


Guan Yu became a much venerated figure not only in the locality but also in entire China. On one hand, he is venerated as War God. This veneration goes back at least as early as the early sixth century. During the Song dynasty era in the late twelfth century, Guan Yu started to receive the central government’s official veneration. During the Ming dynasty era in the late fifteenth century, Guan Yu was given the official title of Saintly Emperor Guan, and during the Qing dynasty era in the early seventeenth century, the official title of Great Saintly Emperor Guan, to be treated as the protector god of the empire. On the other hand, Guan Yu has been very popular as a god of wealth. As he was a man of his words and died in order to keep his oath, Guan Yu became particularly popular among merchants who have to rely on other people keeping their words in their daily dealings. Temples dedicated to Guan Yu with the statue sporting his distinctive read face and flowing beard are still popular today in China and China towns around the world. If you see a picture or statue of a man with red face and long black beard in a Chinese restaurant or shop, that is Guan Yu.


Neither people’s veneration nor Abbot Pujing’s enlightening words deterred the ghost of Guan Yu from exacting revenge from those who caused his death. Lü Ming was the chief commander in trapping of Guan Yu. In the middle of the victory celebration, Guan Yu’s ghost possessed Lü Meng. He swore vengeance, grabbed at Sun Quan, and dropped dead, spewing blood all over. Scared, Sun Quan sent Guan Yu’s head to Cao Cao, in the hope of steering the avenging ghost toward Cao Cao. When Cao Cao received and inspected Guan Yu’s head. Cao Cao made the mistake of greeting Guan Yu’s head as if he were still alive, which caused the head to respond by opening and moving eyes, with hair and beard standing on their end. Cao Cao fainted at the sight, and later ordered a grand funeral ceremony to console Guan Yu’s spirit. Though he was not directly responsible for Guan Yu’s death, Cao Cao could not recover from the shock of seeing the severed head opening eyes, and died shortly afterwards in 220, haunted by the ghosts of all those whom he had killed. (Chapter 77)


            Guan Yu’s death was a devastating blow to his sworn brothers. Liu Bei cried his eyes out for days on end, and wanted a revenge battle against Sun Quan. However, because of Kongming’s and other advisors’ strong objections, he could not proceed. He held a great funeral ceremony for Guan Yu.


In the meanwhile, Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi succeeded as Prince of Wei. Soon afterwards, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to hand the imperial throne over to him. Cao Pi’s sister, Empress Cao, tearfully protested that their late father had rejected the suggestions to take the throne, but in vain. Cao Pi was proclaimed the emperor in 220. It was rumored that Emperor Xian was assassinated. Hearing this, Kongming persuaded Liu Bei to be proclaimed as the emperor in 221, claiming that his imperial lineage made Liu Bei the true successor to the Han imperial throne.


 Liu Bei still wanted a revenge battle against Sun Quan. Kongming and other advisors disapproved the idea, saying that Cao Pi who had usurped the throne was the real enemy and should be tackled first. Zhang Fei was also devastated by Guan Yu’s death. He spent days wailing until his eyes bled. His commanders pushed wine for consolation, which only made him ill-tempered and violent. Seeing no revenge battle was planned, Zhang Fei went to see Liu Bei and begged Liu Bei to let him go avenge Guan Yu. Seeing Zhang Fei in such distress, Liu Bei made up his mind. He decided to mobilize an army against Sun Quan, overruling Kongming’s protest.


Zhang Fei ordered his men to obtain white armors and white banners—white is the color of mourning in China—for every soldier of his army within three days. When his commanders, Zhang Da and Fan Qiang, protested that three days was too short of a time, Zhang Fei bound them to a pole and whipped them fifty times. Knowing that they could not of fulfill his demand in three days and fearing that Zhang Fei would kill them for not fulfilling the order, Zhang Da and Fan Qiang assassinated Zhang Fei in his sleep. They fled to seek refuge under Sun Quan, carrying Zhang Fei’s head with them. (Chapter 81)


Now having lost both of his sworn brothers, Liu Bei led the army of seven hundred thousand against Sun Quan. Sun Quan did not want to fight Liu Bei’s army. His military advisor Zhuge Jin recommended that Sun Quan should submit to Cao Pi; Cao Pi would send him troops to aid him. Sun Quan submitted to Cao Pi and was given the title of Prince of Wu. Cao Pi, however, would not aid Sun Quan militarily. Sun Quan proposed a peace talk to Liu Bei. Sun Quan sent back Zhang Da and Fan Qiang who killed Zhang Fei as a gesture of good will.  Zhang Bao, Zhang Fei’s son, promptly executed them.


Liu Bei rejected the offer of peace talk and attacked. During the ensuing war against Sun Quan, Guan Yu’s ghost helped his son Guan Xing to recover his blade Green Dragon from Pan Zhang. Pan Zhang captured Guan Yu in person, and was given the blade in recognition of this. When Guan Xing came across him, Pan Zhang tried to run away. Guan Yu’s ghost blocked Pan Zhang’s way, and ensured that he would be avenged and his beloved blade Green Dragon be held by his own son. (Chapter 83) His other treasure, his steed Red Hare, had refused to eat after Guan Yu’s death and followed his master to death several days later. 


           As he overruled Kongming’s protest and was without his aid, Liu Bei lost the war badly. He fell ill and died at the age of 62 in 223. (Chapter 85) His death marks the end of the time of the first generation heroes of Romance of Three Kingdoms.


Thus, the three sworn brothers died because of their respective weakness. For Guan Yu, it was his arrogance that caused his downfall; for Zhang Fei, his lack of self-control; and for Liu Bei, his lack of military savvy. Before his death, Liu Bei saw the ghosts of Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, who told him that Emperor of Heaven made them gods in recognition of their righteousness. The three brothers are still venerated in the Temple of Three Righteous. Liu Bei and Zhang Fei as gods are nowhere near as popular as Guan Yu. However, their brand of “live and die together” male bonding is still much cherished in the Chinese cultural tradition.


Dying Liu Bei told Kongming, “Your talent exceeds Cao Pi’s by ten to one. You can secure and preserve the country and in the end achieve the goal (of reuniting China under the Han dynasty).  If my son proves worthy, support him. If he proves unworthy, take the kingship of Shu yourself.” Liu Bei’s eldest son, Liu Shan, then eighteen, succeeded Liu Bei as the emperor. Though Liu Shan proved to be unworthy, Kongming still supported him and carried on with his grand plan to reunite the empire. After Liu Bei’s death, Romance of Three Kingdoms focuses mostly on the battle of wits between Kongming and Cao Pi’s military advisor Sima Yi. Their magic battles sometimes exhibit the same kind of flight of imagination seen in The Journey to the West and Creation of Lesser Gods.


Even though Kongming showed his skill in successfully pacifying the rebels in the south, Kongming could not win against wealthier Wei under the command of Sima Yi. While Wei and Shu were warring, Sun Quan of Wu also proclaimed himself the emperor in 229, which created the co-existence of three self-proclaimed emperors. During the sixth war against Sima Yi, Kongming fell ill from exhaustion. Knowing his days were numbered, Kongming ordered a wooden stature of his made. Sima Yi knew Kongming condition and was waiting for him to expire. When his divination reading told him Kongming’s passing, Sima Yi tried to attack, but was surprised by the life–like statue of Kongming and retreated. (Chapter 104) This episode is memorized in the idiom, “Dead Konming makes live Zhongda (Sima Yi’s style name) run.”


Without Kongming to watch over him, Liu Shan, the son of Liu Bei, surrounded himself with brownnosers and spent his days partying, neglecting his duties. With the kingdom of Shu without Kongming no longer posing a threat, Sima Yi got the ample opportunity to consolidate power in the kingdom of Wei. Sima Yi’s grandson Sima Yan forced Cao Pi’s brother and successor, Cao Wei, to hand over the imperial throne to him, in much the same way as Cao Pi did to Emperor Xian. Sima Yan became Emperor Wu and founded the Jin dynasty in 236.


The kingdom of Shu surrendered to Wei in 263. Liu Shan showed no sense of shame or regret, merrily partying as a hostage at the Jin court. This disgusted people so much that his childhood name Ah Dou became a synonym with idiot.  In 264 Sun Hao succeeded the throne of the kingdom of Wu. Sun Hao proved to be an extravagant tyrant, ruined the economy of Wu, which was conquered by Jin in 280. Thus ended the eventful era of three kingdoms.


 The above summary barely begins to describe the richness of this novel. Romance of Three Kingdoms tells tales of many secondary characters. Some of the secondary characters die as martyrs. One such character is Minister Ding Guan. When Dong Zhuo forced the child emperor Shao out and installed Emperor Xian, Ding Guan stood up in righteous rage. “Traitor Dong Zhuo! You dare try to deceive Heaven!  I will kill you with my own hand!” Ding Guan attacked Dong Zhuo with his minister’s ivory staff. A lone voice of righteousness, Ding Guan was arrested and executed. Until the moment of his death, Ding Guan showed no fear and kept cursing Dong Zhuo. (Chapter 4)


Dong Zhuo, then, imprisoned the young emperor Xian and his family. A personal bodyguard of the emperor by the name of Wu Fu took upon himself to try assassinating Dong Zhuo to liberate his master. Dong Zhuo, being a mighty man, blocked Wu Fu’s attack easily:

            “Who is behind this treason?” accused Dong Zhuo. Wu Fu glared and shouted back; “You are not my emperor. I am not your subject. What ‘treason’ are you talking about? Your crimes piles to heaven and everyone wants to see you dead. Shame, I failed to rip you up for the sake of the country!” Furious Dong Zhuo had Wu Fu dragged out and chopped up. Wu Fu kept cursing Dong Zhuo till the moment of his death.” (Chapter 4)  


 These two men’s deaths are honored by poems sung by people. Poems might sound like a poor solace for death. On the contrary, having a poem written and sung about is the greatest honor one can hope for. Poems assure that their heroic deeds are remembered and honored in the collective memory of people; poems award the heroes immortality as a part of remembered history. Zilu of "The Disciple" was not the only one who appreciated standing up for justice, regardless of the consequences. Such appreciation is still seen in the contemporary movies such as Blade of Fury (1993) which commemorates Tan Sitong (1865-1998) who chose to die as a martyr to the failed One Hundred Days' Reform of 1898, and the all star production Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) which commemorates the people who died trying to save Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), Father of the Republic (of China), from an assassination attempt.   





Tomoyuki Murakami, trans., Sangokushi ( Romance of Three Kingdoms), 5 vols. (Tokyo: Shakai Ssisu-sha, 1981).                                                

Moss Roberts, trans, Luo Guanzhong, Three Kingdoms (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1995), 4 vols.

Ritsuko Inami, Sangokushi Engi (Romance of Three Kingdoms) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1994).

Shosuke Tatsuma, Shokatsu Komei: Sangokushi no Eiyu-tach (Zhuge Kongming: Heroes of Romance of Three kingdoms) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1990.

Harrison E. Salisbury, The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng (New York: Little Brown & Co., 1992).

Co Kyo (Zhang Jing), Koi no Chugoku Bunmei-shi (Love in Chinese History) (Tokyo: Chikuma  Shoten, 1993).

Noritada Kubo, Jukyo no Kamigami (Gods of Daoism) (Tokyo: Kodan-sha, 1996).

Hiroshi Moriya, Chugoku Koten no Ningen-gaku (Life Lessons of Chinese Classics) (Tokyo: Shincho-sha, 1984).

Wang Yong, "Suikoden no Bunnka-shi" (Cultural History of Water Margin), Japanology of China.