Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Book 1 by Luo Guanzhong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
THE CHINESE THREE MUSKETEERS—-FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
“The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” by Luo Guanzhong is one of the timeless Classics of World Literature and may be approached initially by thinking of it as a Chinese equivilant of the “Three Musketeers” saga of Alexandre Dumas. When we think of Dumas’ classic we immediately call to mind from the book or film the immortal oath of brotherhood of D’Artagnan, Porthos, Athos and Aramis: “All for One, and One for All!” This becomes an archetype and ideal of Universal Brotherhood in Dumas’ work and this universal archetype is echoed in Luo’s famous “Oath of the Peach Garden,” sworn to by the three great protagonists of the Romance, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei:
“When saying the names Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, although the surnames are different, yet we have come together as brothers. From this day forward, we shall join forces for a common purpose: to save the troubled and to aid the endangered. We shall avenge the nation above, and pacify the citizenry below. We seek not to be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. We merely hope to die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. May the Gods of Heaven and Earth attest to what is in our hearts. If we should ever do anything to betray our friendship, may heaven and the people of the earth both strike us dead.”
This oath of fraternity and fidelity remains at the core of both sagas, alongside exciting adventure and thrilling action, as they respecitvely unfold across the panoramas of their disparate historical settings. The setting of the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is the disintegration of the classic Han Dynasty in China (206 BC – 220 AD), a close equivilant of the unified West under the Roman Empire of the same time, following the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the corruption and intrigues of the Eunuch faction, leading to the warring period of the Three Kingdoms, Wei, Shu and Wu which spelled the breakup of a unified China. Just as Dumas’ heroes remain faithful to the French King and seek to strengthen the King and nation against internal and external threats, so Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei strive not only to be true to one another as brothers, but also to restore the unity and authority of a united nation and Emperor, retrieving one golden age with another, while in passing succoring the oppressed and endangered in noble fashion.
The events of The Romance, as do those of the extended saga of the Three Musketeers including its sequels “Twenty Years After,” “The Vicomte d’Bragelone,” “Louise de la Valliere,” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” stretch across the lifetime of an entire generation and encompass several eras of history. In both cases the story is closely based on true history, with the embellishment and fictionalizing of a number of the main characters to add depth and melodrama.
The Romance commences with the corruption of the fabric of the Imperial Court and society accompanying the fall of the Han Dynasty, unfolding with the suppression of the Yellow Turban Rebellion by General He Jin, Jin’s murder by the Eunuch Faction jealous of his accumulating power, the reprisal of his troops by their invasion of the Imperial Palace and the slaughter of the Eunuchs, and the abduction of the child Emperor Xian with its ensuing chaos and anarchy, accompanied by the rise of various Warlords.
Thereafter we see the rise of the arch-villan of the melodrama, Cao Cao, who plays a role parallel to that of Cardinal Richelieu, Mazarin and Colbert in the Musketeers saga, always the consummate Machiavellian political manipulator at odds with the sworn brother heroes loyal to king and country. As in the case of Dumas’ tale, Cao Cao uses the child emperor as a captive pawn to consolidate his own dictatorial power behind the throne as did Richelieu and Mazarin, who made the child-King Louis XIV his pawn on the heels of the Fronde Rebellion in France which almost toppled the French monarchy around the same time as the Puritan Revolution and Cromwell in England resulted in the toppling of Charles I.
From thence a long struggle for power ensues, with Cao Cao declaring himself Chancellor, seizing power over the north of China, then attempting to finish the job with an invasion of the south. Liu Bei, one of the “Chinese Three Musketeers,” however, with the help of his sworn brothers and the recruitment of the archetypal military genius General Zhuge Liang, stops his plan by defeating him at the famous Battle of Red Cliff, featuring such episodes as “Borrowing the Arrows.” From there an endless struggle follows, pitting Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, aided by Zhuge Liang against the ever wily Cao Cao, and leading to dramatic episodes such as the Stone Sentinel Maze and the Empty Fortress in which Zhuge Liang’s military cunning and genius is consummately demonstrated. In the course of the struggle Liu Bei emerges as the type of the ideal Lord and Zhuge Liang as the ideal general and military genius, just as Cao Cao proves himself the consummate evil political genius. Eventually, China is reunited, ending the Three Kingdoms under the new Jin Dynasty, but, Moses-like, the three sworn brothers do not live to join the triumph, nor do they succeed in the aim of their oath to die together on the same day fighting for one another, just as Dumas’ heroes meet their separate deaths and their “eternal brotherhood” corrodes in disparate directions while still enduring in spirit.
In both cases, the author and the narrative imaginatively reconstructs and fictionally embellishes the true history of a long-bygone era from a remote historical vantage point. Dumas’ wrote in the 1840’s after the time of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon about the period of the consolidation of the French autocratic state from the time of Louis XIII, the Fronde Rebellion and the rise of Louis XIV in the 1600’s, before and afterthe rise and fall of the Puritan Revolution and Cromwell in England. Luo Guanzhong wrote from an even remoter vantage point, composing The Romance of the Three Kingdoms around 1400 or so, making him a contemporary of Chaucer in England, and during the time of transition from the Yuan Mongol Dynasty back to the resurgent Han Chinese Ming Dynasty. At that time a resurgence of native Han Chinese national feeling revived the classic tales of Chinese history after suppression under the Mongol dynasty, just as French nationalism and interest in French national history revived following the decline of the foreign-imposed Bourbon restoration and the rise of the Second Empire. Luo Guanzhong stated that The Romance was 70% fact amd 30% fictional enhancement. Dumas’ tale of the Three Musketeers, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, was based also on the factual hisorical record derived from Gatien de Courtilz’s history of the Musketeers, though the fictional embellishment and dramatization might be found in similar proportions.
Both the Three Musketeers saga and the saga of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms are well worth reading for their literary and enjoyment value, beyond their historical educational function. Both have acheived the status of “Classics” in the sense not only of being masterpieces, but also having become part of the canon and, indeed, become works themselves constituative of the culture of their nations and cultures.
A mature canon and institution of World Literature must be much more than a simple buffet of recent international titles or airport-lobby bestsellers from around the world. As T.S. Eliot observed, each new work of literature takes its place and meaning within a Tradition, and such tradition evolves organically and historically and must be understood as such. It is the task of World Literature not only to call attention to good books from around the world, but to forge a canon of “world tradition” that includes the major “Classics,” led by the world-recognized Western Classics no doubt, but expanded in Goethe’s ideal of “Weltliteratur” to include the “Classics” of other non-Western traditions, such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West from China, the Ramayana of India and the Arabian Nights, Attar and Rumi, amoung many others from the Islamic heritage and beyond. Every educated person in the world should have some familiarity with the Chinese classics, Indian classics, Islamic classics as well as the great Western Classics, amoung others to even begin to understand the world they live in and its peoples and living cultures. In this spirit we recommend to every member of the “Global Republic of Letters” to look into the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as well as other Chinese classics such as the Water Margin, the Journey to the West and the Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng).
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