Women in Romance of Three Kingdoms: Seductress, Warrioress, and Wise Mothers

Though Romance of Three Kingdoms centers upon brotherly bond, it also tells of many impressive women. Though they are often recorded not by their personal name but only as the mother, wife, daughter, or sister of so-and-so, women in Romance of Three Kingdoms prove their worth through their actions.

The most famous female in Romance of Three Kingdoms is Diaochan (貂蝉). Though a fictional character, Diaochan is counted as one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient China. (Other three beauties are: Xi Shi (西施), whom Gou Jian of Yue sent to his arch-enemy Fu Chai of Wu with the mission to seduce Fu Chai away from the governance of his kingdom (fifth Century BCE); Wang Zhaojun (王昭君), an imperial court lady who was sent in 33 BCE to the Western Territory (Central Asia) as the bride to a mighty nomadic tribal king; and Yang Guifei (楊貴妃), whose beauty made Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) forget the governance of the country.)


 Diaochan is described as a beauty who sacrificed herself for the greater good of the society. After Emperor Lin passed away, the imperial court was embroiled in power struggle over the Child emperor Shao and Prince Chenliu. A general named Dong Zhuo happened to secure Emperor Shao and seized power under the pretext of protecting the emperor and prince. Diaochan’s adoptive father, Minister Wang Yun was deeply disturbed by Dong Zhuo's tyrannical rule and extravagance. Seeing him in distress, sixteen years old Diaochan—sixteen is traditionally considered as the peak blossom of a young woman’s beauty—and well trained as a musician and entertainer, offered to help him in any way she could. Wang Yun actually already had a plan in mind which involved Diaochan. Wang Yun thanked her and begged her forgiveness, saying that he felt wretched to use her, but he could think of no other way to bring down the tyrant Dong Zhuo.


The plot went thus. First, Wang Yun presented Diaochan to Dong Zhuo’s adoptive son, young and mighty general Lü Bu, and offered to make her his wife. Several days later, Wang Yun gave away Diaochan to Dong Zhuo as a concubine. Wang Yun, then, told furious Lü Bu that Dong Zhuo took Diaochan, saying that he would take Diaochan to Lü Bu; Dong Zhuo being Lü Bu’s adoptive father, Wang Yun could not find any excuse to stop him.


Diaochan made a show of devotion to Dong Zhuo to win his trust. On the other hand, she sent signals to Lü Bu of her unhappiness and her longing for him at every opportunity she could find. Lü Bu resented Dong Zhuo, believing that Dong Zhuo had stolen Diaochan from him. Noticing Lü Bu’s interest in Diaochan, Dong Zhuo became suspicious of Lü Bu. One day, Lü Bu and Diaochan managed to meet in the garden pagoda while Dong Zhuo was off to the imperial palace. Diaochan begged Lü Bu to rescue her from Dong Zhuo. On his way to the imperial palace, Dong Zhuo got suspicious because Lü Bu did not accompany him. Dong Zhuo returned home to find Lü Bu and Diaochan in embrace. He struck at Lü Bu. Lü Bu had no choice but to run.


Wang Yun sought out Lü Bu. Wang Yun told Lü Bu that Dong Zhuo was worse than a dog to steal his adoptive son’s betrothed; As Diaochan’s father, he, Wang Yu, had to right the wrongs; Would Lü Bu help? Lovesick Lü Bu decided to throw his lot in with Wang Yun and successfully assassinated Dong Zhuo. (Chap. 8-9) Lü Bu secured Diaochan and embarked on the life of a fugitive as a wanted murderer. Diaochan accompanied him through many battles until Lü Bu was finally captured and killed by Cao Cao.(Chapter 19) Romance of Three Kingdoms does not tell what happened to Diaochan after this. There is a folk tradition that claims that Diaochan was given as a wife to Guan Yu who was with Cao Cao at this time.


While Diaochan is a filial (adoptive) daughter who sacrifices herself, another female in Romance of Three Kingdoms is a warrioress who makes men tremble in fear. She is Lady Sun of Wu, a younger half-sister of the king of Wu, Sun Quan. Lady Sun was given to Liu Bei in marriage as a part of Sun Quan's ploy to steal the Jiangzhou province from Liu Bei. To his surprise, Liu Bei, who was pushing 50, found his young (around 20) bride to be a martial art fanatic who decorated her rooms with weapons and made all her maids serve fully armed. (Chap. 54-55)


After the wedding held at the Sun mansion,  Liu Bei was a de fact captive of Sun Quan. Cao Cao took this opportunity to mobilize his army of half a million to attack Jiangzhou. Knowing that Liu Bei needed to go home to defend his territory, Lady Sun devised a plot for Liu Bei and her to safely leave the Sun mansion. She asked her mother, Lady Wu, who was the matriarch of the household and whom even Sun Quan could not disobey, to permit her to accompany Liu Bei to the river. (She deliberately did not specify which river.) She said, this way, when Liu Bei paid respect to his ancestors on the occasion of New Year, she could fulfill her duty as his wife to pay respect to his ancestors. Lady Wu approved the request, and Liu Bei and Lady Sun left the mansion. When Sun Quan learned of their departure, he got upset and ordered commanders Chen Wu and Pang Zhan who had five hundred soldiers each to capture them. To irate Sun Quan:

…Chang Pu said, “My lord, your anger is wasted. Chen Wu and Pang Zhan won’t be able to capture him.” “Would they disobey me?” demanded Sun Quan. “Lady Sun,” Zhang Zhao replied, “has practiced martial arts since childhood. She is severe and stern. All the commanders fear her. Since she is already with Liu Bei, she does intend to go. When the pursuers face her, they won’t be able to do anything.” Enraged, Sun Quan grabbed his sword and summoned Jiang Qin and Zhou Tai. “Take this sword,” he ordered, “and bring me the heads of my young sister and Liu Bei—or lose your own!” The two, with one thousand men, rode off. (Chapter 55)


Liu Bei and Lady Sun encountered a blockade by soldiers under the command of Xu Sheng and Ding Feng who had been posted in case Liu Bei tried to escape. Liu Bei asked Lady Sun to protect him from Sun Quan who intended to kill him. Lady Sun got angry at her brother.

…”My brother does not know how to treat his own flesh and blood! I don’t want to see him ever again! I will take care of this!” She ordered her carriage brought forward. Rolling up the curtain, she shouted to Xu Sheng and Ding Feng: “Do you two revolt?” Xu Sheng and Ding Feng dismounted in a hurry, threw down their weapons, and groveled before the carriage.  “How would we ever dare? Chief Commander Zhou Yu sent us here to wait for Liu Bei.” Lady Sun exploded. “Zhou Yu! That traitor! I have treated you so well, and now you betray me? Xuande (Liu Bei) is an imperial uncle of the great house of Han. And he is my husband. I told my mother and brother that I would leave to Jiangzhou. Dressed like that and stop us, what, are you two intending to rob us?” Xu Sheng and Ding Feng groveled lower. “Would we ever dare? Please calm down, my lady! This is not our doing. We are only following the orders from Chief Commander Zhou Yu.” Lady Sun taunted them: “So you fear Zhou Yu more than me? Zhou Yu can kill you, but I can kill him.” She cursed Zhou Yu roundly and then ordered her carriage go forward. Xu Sheng and Ding Feng thought, “We are only underlings. What can we do?” Noticing (Liu Bei’s general) Zhao Zilong’s menacing face, they ordered the soldiers, “Halt!” to let the party pass. (Chapter 55)


Commanders Chen Wu and Pan Zheng arrived after Liu Bei and Lady Sun had left. Four commanders jointly pursued Liu Bei and Lady Sun. When they heard the pursuers, Lady Sun sent Liu Bei ahead and remained in the rear. With general Zhao Zilong on horseback aside her carriage, and with soldiers flanking behind, Lady Sun faced off the pursuers.


When the four commanders saw Lady Sun, they slipped off their horses and stood at attention. “Chen Wu! Pan Zheng!” she cried, “what are you here for?” “We bear our lord’s order to request that you and Xuande return.” Lady Sun got furious. “It is you, scams, who tear brother and sister apart! I am married, so my leaving today is not an unsanctioned affair. My dear mother instructed me to accompany Xuande back to Jiangzhou. Even my brother himself comes here, he still has to observe proper manners. You two confront me with the soldiers and weapons. Do you mean to murder me?” The four commanders could only nervously look at each other. They all thought: “Lord Sun and Lady Sun are, after all, brother and sister. And she has Lady Wu’s sanction. Lord Sun is a man of filial devotion. Would he disobey his mother’s wishes? Tomorrow he’ll change his mind and we’ll end up the villains! It’s better to tread softly.” The four commanders noticed that Liu Bei was nowhere to be seen. Instead Zhao Zilong stood there battle-ready, eyes glaring menacingly. The four commanders withdrew bowing and lady Sun ordered the carriage forward. (Chapter 55)


By the time Jiang Qin and Zhou Tai, carrying Sun Quan’s sword, caught up with the four, Liu Bei was long gone. Jiang Qin and Zhou Tai still pursued Liu Bei. At the river shore, Liu Bei and Lady Sun were welcomed by Kongming who had boats ready. Thus, Liu Bei returned to Jiangzhou safe and sound. Two years later, Lady Sun fell for the classic ruse of a letter claiming that her mother was gravely sick and wanted her come back. She hurried home and thus became separated from Liu Bei. (Chapter 61)  Romance of Three Kingdoms unfortunately does not report what happened when she discovered that she was duped. However, it does report that ten years later, during Liu Bei’s revenge battle over Guan Yu’s death against Sun Quan, Sun Quan’s advisor Zhuge Jin mentioned in his peace negotiation that Lady Sun still wanted to be with Liu Bei. (Chapter 82)

Lady Sun is a sister to Sun Quan who is described as having green eyes and purple (reddish) beard and had the power base in the south. The ethnic groups in the south had different customs from that of the central planes where Liu Bei held power. In general, the nomadic tribes of the north and west, and the agrarian groups in the south gave women more freedom. Some tribes in the present day Yunnan (in the coastal southwest) are matriarchal. Lady Wu's story reflects such social background.


Even in the Han culture dominant central planes, women could make name for herself. Liu Bei’s wizard advisor Kongming' wife is one. She is said to have been exceedingly ugly, but to have possessed extraordinary intelligence and mastered many arts including astrology, geography, war strategy and tactics, and even Daoist magic. Some rumored that Kongming’s leaning was greatly enhanced by her help. (Chap. 117) 


Liu Bei’s second wife, Lady Mi distinguished herself by sacrificing herself to save Liu Bei’s son (by the other wife, Lady Gan). When Cao Cao raised army to conquer Jiangzhou, the evacuation of the general populace was ordered. Lady Mi tried to escape together with Liu Bei’s first wife, Lady Gan, and her infant son, Ah Dou. In the chaos and confusion of evacuation, Lady Mi and Ah Dou were separated from Lady Gan. Lady Mi also suffered a severe wound in her thigh and was forced to stop. When Zhao Yun, one of Liu Bei’s trusted generals, came looking for them, she asked him to take Ah Dou but leave her so that Ah Dou, who was then Liu Bei’s only son, would have a better chance of survival. Zhao Yun refused to leave her and insisted that she took his horse. Knowing that Zhao Yun needed his horse to escape with Ah Dou, and hearing the enemy army approaching, she threw herself into a nearby empty well.(Chap. 41) Regrettably, her brave sacrifice was wasted on Ah Dou who later proved to be an idiot.


Two other women die fiery deaths in Romance of Three Kingdoms. One is the mother of Shan Fu who was once an advisor to Liu Bei. One day, Shan Fu received a letter purportedly from his mother, which said that Cao Cao had arrested her because of Shan Fu’s treason, and that her life was at risk unless Shan Fu agreed to serve Cao Cao. Shan Fu tearfully begged a leave from Liu Bei so that he could save his mother’s life. Liu Bei, overriding objections from his other advisors, let Shan Fu go so that he could fulfill his filial duty. When Shan Fu, after surrendering to Cao Cao, went to see his mother, the mother got furious:

            Mother Xu banged on the table in fury. “You idiot!” she cried. “With you spending several years in Xinye, I thought you must be making progress with your studies. Just the opposite! As a scholar, you should know that loyalty and filial devotion may conflict. Don’t you know that Cao Cao is a traitor who has betrayed the country? Liu Xuande is famous for his virtue and righteousness, and of an imperial lineage. You found yourself a perfect master. Now, then, fooled by a forged letter, which you could not even see through, you left the perfect master and submitted to traitor Cao Cao. You, fool! I don’t want to see you!”

During his mother’s tirade, Shan Fu groveled before her, daring not to even lift his face. She vanished behind a screen. Shortly afterwards, a house servant called out, “The lady has hanged herself!” Shan Fu rushed to her, only to find her dead. (Chapter 37)


Shan Fu wailed and fainted. Once regained consciousness, Shan Fu held a proper funeral for her, and devoted himself to mourning his mother. Though Cao Cao visited him and offered many gifts, he refused to accept them. A poem follows the story, lauding her as a great and wise mother. This episode shows that having a great and wise mother can make your life difficult.   


The other is the mother of a court official of Wei, Wang Jing. After Cao Cao’s death, his wizard advisor Sima Yi grabbed the power in the kingdom of Wei. After Sima Yi’s death, his son Sima Shi, and then his brother Sima Zhao took the power. Sima Zhao was plotting to claim the imperial throne for himself. The powerless, nominally reining emperor asked Wan Jing and two other court officials to help him take the power back from Sima Zhao. Wang Jing tried to talk the emperor out of such hopeless plot, but in vain. Fearing the consequences, the other two officials tried to persuade Wang Jing to betray the emperor. Wang Jing refused. The two betrayed the emperor’s plot to Sima Zhao. Wang Jing was arrested, along with his entire family.

            Wang Jing was bound and held in the court. Then he saw his mother brought in, also bound. He dropped to the floor and cried, “Mother! Please forgive this unworthy son who has dragged you down to this!” His mother laughed aloud and said, “We all must die. What to fear is not death but finding no good occasion to die. Giving up my life for this, I have no regret.” The next day Wang Jing’ entire family was marched to the execution field in the eastern part Luoyang city. The mother and son met their deaths smiling. There was none in the city who did not shed tears.” (Chapter 114)

A long poem lauds the mother and the son as martyrs.


Mother Wang personifies the idea of martyrdom in the popular Confucian tradition. There is a principle people must follow. Death is preferable to living in disgrace of not following the principle. The right way for a person to behave has always been and will always be the same. Therefore, if you act righteously and meet an untimely death, there will always be people who will understand and appreciate your righteousness. Wang Jing and his mother died smiling, not because they believed in their reward in heaven, but because they believed that people would understand and remember them, so as to make them immortal as a part of people’s remembered history.




Tomoyuki Murakami, trans., Sangolushi ( Romance of Three Kingdoms), vol. 5  (Tokyo: Shakai Shiso-sha, 1981).                                                

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

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