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.
Opening on the classic line “a kingdom once divided must unite, and a kingdom united must divide”, Luo Guangzhong’s words have become to the Chinese what much of Shakespeare is to the English speaking world. “Say Cao Cao, and Cao Cao arrives” (the English equivalent being “speak of the devil”) just one example, many other idioms and proverbs in modern vernacular derive from the novel. Moreover, every Chinese person knows the name of the wiliest strategist the world has ever known Zhuge Liang, the dark intelligence and power of Cao Cao, the honor and strength of Liu Bei, the loyal ferocity of Zhang Fei, and numerous other characters who play major roles in the epic. Threads of story braided to relate the dynastic collapse and re-coalescence, the transitional period, from the violent opening, through the Battle of Red Cliffs, to the tragic conclusion, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is well known.
It was only later I learned The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on the novel The Three Kingdoms, which is in turn based on historical records. There are certainly readers who prefer as authentic an experience as possible, but this in no way detracted from my experience of Romance. There are parts exaggerated for fictional effect (most notably, there is a wider swathe drawn to create hero and villain), but the concept at the heart of the story remains pure. Telling of a great, sweeping cycle in the history of the Chinese, it confirms the cyclical tenets of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism—the three main philosophies/beliefs of China—all the while binding actual history into a narrative that lives on to this day.
2,500 pages is a tough barrel of nuts to swallow. But for those with time and inclination, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (or just The Three Kingdoms if you are more interested in the version better approximating real history) is a major piece of world literature worth the month or so it will take to read. Oozing character, telling a fast, engaging story, loaded with perennial wisdom, exemplary of Chinese culture, possessing grand battles of wit and will—it’s a rewarding experience. Mankind not yet able to extract itself from the cycle of division/unification, it also lives through the ages for its historical analog. But to further assuage fears regarding length, take Max Gladstone’s comments on the novel:
Because of its scope, and because it was presented by traveling literate storytellers to an eager illiterate listening public, Rot3K doesn’t let itself bog down in angst and soliloquizing. A character plans a grand betrayal? It’s generally executed within three chapters. If she feels bad about it afterward, she commits suicide or confesses or commits a counterbetrayal or something with due haste. Peasants rebel, gather thousands of followers, and overthrow major governments during a chapter break.
It cost me a pretty penny to ship them onward, but to this day the books I bought in China rest on my shelves, including The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Many simply unavailable outside the Middle Kingdom in English (I will cherish Ming Liaozi’s Travels for as long as I live), The Romance of the Three Kingdoms thankfully isn’t one of them. Readily available at major booksellers, it’s a worthwhile investment.