A historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong covering the end of the Han dynasty in China (about 220 ce). Its principal characters are Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, who swear brotherhood in a peach garden and agree to protect the Han dynasty from its enemies. Zhuge Liang emerges from his hermitage to provide tactical guidance. Extremely well known as isolated stories and anecdotes, it is an epic story of loyalty and betrayal, conquest and loss.

A story chock-full of hubris and tragedy, triumph and sacrifice, winner(s) and losers.

Named "romance" rather than "records" because the novel has some fictional aspects (eg. the use of magic). It is apparently the second most read story in the world, lagging slightly behind the Bible.

The three kingdoms were Wei, established by Cao Cao; Wu, by Sun Quan (debatably); and Shu, by Liu Bei. In the end, Wei won out. However, no family of Cao Cao ever sat on the throne as emperor. There are no heroes, but there are some awesome characters: honourable Guan Yu, deathless Zhao Yun, treacherous Lu Bu, and headstrong Zhang Fei; illustrious Zhuge Liang, shrewd Sima Yi, and unfortunate Pang Tong; ambitious Cao Cao and the scion of destiny: Liu Bei. There are also hundreds of others.

It's a pretty long story separated into 120 chapters, spanning almost 100 years (184AD to 280AD). Those interested in reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms can find it in html formatted, in English, at www.threekingdoms.com. You can also pick up various translations at your local bookstore.

As well, there is a series of strategy games by Koei about Romance. They're popular in both the east and west, and are translated into many different languages.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Sanguo Yanyi in Chinese, is the classic historical romance recounting the events following the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). Written in 14th century during the transition between the Yuan and Ming dynasties by Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms serves as the first major chapter-divided novel in Chinese history.

In the six centuries it has survived, the tales told in Romance of the Three Kingdoms have spread throughout first through Asia and later the whole of the world. The classic tales and themes presented in Romance of the Three Kingdoms continue to captivate in the modern era, with the variations and translations of Guanzhong's masterpiece appearing as graphic novels, video games(e.g. KOEI's Romance of the Three Kingdoms being an example), numerous translations, and characters who's virtues are so extolled that their likenesses maintain a place on many a mantle.

Luo Guanzhong and the writing of Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Guanzhong's fictionalization of the Three Kingdoms period was based in large part on Chen Shou's Annals of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Zhi). This text, written during the Jin dynasty gives as near to a complete record of the factual events of the period as remains in existence. Further, plays, songs, and stories retelling the events of the Three Kingdoms period were popular throughout the northern and southern provinces during the late Yuan dynasty. Luo Guanzhong took these historical events and in the words of Gau Ru's Hundred River Bibliography:

It is based on historical facts, but it also incorporates fictional elements. The language is elegant and it upholds righteousness. It is easy to read, while avoiding vulgarity and triviality. It is not written in the pedantic style of the historian, but it eschews careless chatter and jocularity. It is a panorama of 100 years.
- translation Moss Roberts

Guanzhong's fictionalization, as one might expect, introduces character, conflict, and, particularly, themes of righteousness and loyalty into the work. Romance of the Three Kingdoms places the greater righteousness with Liu Bei and his kingdom of Shu and injects Cao Cao and the central state of Wei with more villainy than is historically verifiable. This particular bit of emphasis may be attributable to Liu Bei's relation to the Han Emperor and Liu Bei's desire to restore the Han to power. Such a theme would likely be very resonant both with Guanzhong and his audience at the close of the Yuan dynasty. Additionally, it is most significant, with respect to the history of Chinese fiction that Guanzhong places the chief importance on the plot, narrative and themes than on simple the events that took place.

An Introduction to the Groups of the Three Kingdoms Period

At the close of the Han dynasty, a series of peasant revolts draw the brave and courageous from across the land. All are men of ambition, but only a few will emerge as true heroes of the era. Among these, significant factions arise, brotherhoods are established, and the land is divided into three.


A distant uncle of the Emperor, so far removed that he was forced to sell sandals and mats in order to survive, Liu Bei swears brotherhood with Zhang Fei the pig butcher and the deposed noble Guan Yu. With the help of the Taoist magician and master strategist Zhuge Liang, they establish the kingdom of Shu.


The adopted son of a court eunuch, Cao Cao is already born close to power. With his driving ambition and the aid of his adopted brothers Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan, raises the state of Wei and attempts to unite all under Heaven.


The Sun family controls much of the southern river lands. First uniting the south into the kingdom of Wu, Sun Jian the Tiger of Shandong and his sons Sun Ce, the "Little Conquerer", and Sun Quan, the family makes a bid to unite the whole of the nation.

Significant Stories of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Collapse of the Han and the Revolt of the Yellow Scarves
Dong Zhou Deposes the Emperor, Yuan Shao Vies for Power
Sun Ce Unites the Kingdom of Wu
Guan Yu Leaves Cao Cao's Service, Yuan Shao's Bid for Power Ends
Liu Bei Establishes Himself, Zhuge Liang Finds a Master
Liu Bei Flees Steepslope, Zhao Yun Displays his Heroism
At Chi Bi, Wu and Shu Unite Against Wei
Ma Chao Avenges Himself Against Cao Cao, Liu Bei Makes his Way to the Mountains
Cao Cao and Liu Bei Battle in the North
Cao Cao Passes from the Mortal World, Wei Usurps the House of Han and Moves Towards Wu
Zhuge Liang Quells the Nanman Seven Times
Zhuge Liang Mounts a Great Assult on the Kingdom of Wei
The House of Wei Passes to the Sima Clan, A New Dynasty is Established

Reading the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Translation

For those wishing to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms themselves, the two most popular English translations are typically considered to be Moss Roberts current translation and an older Pinyin translation by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor. Both translations are readily available through most online booksellers, though are often difficult to find in unabridged form at local stores.

sources: Three Kingdoms - Luo Guanzhong, Translated by Moss Roberts

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