In Our Time: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a Chinese novel written around 1400 AD which is one of the great works of Chinese literature. It is a part historical, part fantastical story of the events of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, which was in the 3rd Century AD. It’s still very popular and an important part of general culture in China today, and many films and video games are based on the book. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Frances Wood (British Library), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Margaret Hillenbrand (University of Oxford).

As usual the programme started off by setting the topic in context – in this case there were multiple historical contexts we needed. The first of these was a very brief overview of the Three Kingdoms period. This is the name given to the period in the imediate aftermath of the Han Empire. The time when the Han ruled China (from ~220BC to ~200AD) is still regarded as a high point of Chinese history, and as the source of many of the bureaucratic systems that persist throughout Chinese history. Han rule of China began to fall to pieces in the late 2nd Century AD, partly driven by weakening power in the centre & their devolving of greater power to military leaders on the peripheries of the empire (so that they could put down rebellions more effectively). Eventually the state fractured, and three kingdoms emerged from the chaos. This was a time of conflict, but it was also a time of artistic and cultural vibrancy. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not the only artistic work to be inspired by this period in later generations.

The novel is normally said to be written by Luo Guanzhong, who was active in the late 14th Century AD (the first copy still in existence dates back to 1522, so the dates and attribution are a little vague). So the time of writing is thought to be at the end of the Yuan dynasty – which is the second of our historical contexts. The Yuan were the descendants of Genghis Khan and had ruled China for around a century. Around the time that Guanzhong was active the Chinese state was beginning to disintegrate into civil wars, and so the parallels with the end of the Han are obvious.

And the third of our historical contexts is the later Ming dynasty when the novel really becomes popular and enters the canon of Chinese literature. There’s a couple of different things that drive this. One is that it’s during this part of Chinese history that printing technology really takes off – whilst there’s nothing technically new the scale of operations changes. More books are published in larger numbers, and the growing merchant classes are increasing the literacy percentage of the population. The other thing that changes is that novels become more respectable – prior to this period novels were something for women or lower class people, members of the literati elite wouldn’t admit to reading them. They were concerned with higher art forms like poetry. But in the early 16th Century this is changing and novels are being taken more seriously.

Having put us into context the experts moved on to discuss the novel itself. One of them (Hillenbrand, I think) described it as being 70% history, 30% fiction. Clunas pointed out that when we say 70% of it is historical what’s actually meant is that it’s clearly based on a historical text (Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms) written shortly after the period ended by an official in the court of one of the Kingdoms in question. So we don’t know that the historically “accurate” parts of the novel matched the actual events, but they do match a probably quite biased contemporary text. But as well as the historical parts where different dukes lead troops into battles etc, there’s also place where the text takes off into a flight of fancy – someone gets deified or something like that.

There is a large cast of characters (men, mostly) and the primary protagonists are the rulers of two of the Kingdoms. One is somewhat of a villain, the other is a man who was loyal to the Han Dynasty and is doing his best for China. Among other important characters are the loyal man’s sworn blood brothers. And there is also an advisor/strategist whose talents are thinking outside the box – one of the experts said this was her favourite character. The stories about him are often part of the fantastical side of the story – like an occassion where he’s short of arrows for his army, so he devises a scheme to “borrow” some. He sends a boat padded with straw bales to sail up and down the river baiting the enemy into firing at it – when it returns it has all the arrows he needs stuck in its straw bales!

There are several themes to the novel, but the one that they spent some time talking about was that of loyalty. As it’s a novel about the disintegration and reintegration of a vast empire who is loyal to whom obviously drives a lot of the plot. The three sworn brothers and their loyalty to each other (and the Han) are particularly noteworthy. Chinese culture places a lot of importance on kinship, and loyalty to one’s family and ancestors. So swearing loyalty to the state and to other non-kin who are loyal to the state is notable. They suggested that one reason for the growing popularity of the novel in the later Ming dynasty was that this theme spoke to the new middle classes. These people didn’t come from the lineages that the upper classes did, and they had often moved from their ancestral homes to cities to become merchants and tradespeople. So this novel spoke of how to navigate the world when your kinship ties weren’t the answer.

They also discussed the prose of the novel. Previous literature was written in classical Chinese, and tended to be very elliptical and allusive. But Luo Guanzhong used a lot of vernacular expressions in his writing, and this made it more direct and visceral. Another note here about authorship – they compared the novel’s status in China to Homer’s cultural legacy in the West but there’s another point of comparison. There are indications in the style of different bits of the novel that imply that Luo Guanzhong might’ve been collecting together already existing oral traditions.

There was also some discussion of the impact of the novel outside China, which has been relatively small. The first English translation of it doesn’t come until the early 20th Century (worked on by a customs officer in his spare time). However there were some copies that made it out of China to European libraries – one in the Spanish royal library, and one split into sections and sold seperately to a variety of collectors across Europe (before anyone could read Chinese to know it was one book).