When living in China, one of my great joys was to go to the bookstore and peruse the tiny shelf of works available in English. (You just never knew when some locally translated text would pop up unavailable anywhere else in the world.) My education entirely lacking in anything resembling Asian culture, discovering lesser known Daoists like Liezi, new material from major poets like Tao Yuanming, Li Bai, and Du Fu, and, of course, the four major novels of the Chinese canon was like a thousand breaths of fresh air. Not put off by the size of each novel (each is in excess of 2,500 pages—yes, 2,500) ,I set about discovering what the Chinese sense of “novel” meant. I ended up reading each twice.
I won’t say that Romance of the Three Kingdoms stands out from the other three; each is utterly unique, and therefore comparable only in general terms. What I can say is that The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the one that had that power center in my male brain most engrossed. Literally kingdom sweeping, it features the hallmarks of epic literature (and has been rightfully called the Chinese Iliad by the West). Emperors, wars, grand expanses of time, honor, heroism, glory, wisdom—all begin to scratch the surface of the multi-threaded and multi-generational story that novelizes the real-world transition from Han to Jin dynasty China. The country splitting apart amidst civil war and forming itself into three loose factions, more than a century of time passed until the day they were united into a Chinese whole, again. But the story lies between.