The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fictionalized retelling of the history of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, is described as "Seven Parts Fact, Three Parts Fiction". Some parts of the book are cynically realistic, as chapter after chapter details massacres, treachery, and figurative and literal backstabbing. Some parts of it are more fanciful, but even the seemingly fanciful parts are quite possibly true, or close to true.
In Chapter 68, a Taoist magician named Zuo Ci (左慈) appears, has a hilarious and amazing time provoking Cao Cao, and then disappears from the narrative. The episode with Zuo Ci is unrelated to the main plot of the book, and takes place in somewhat of a lull in the narrative progression. The status quo amongst the Three Kingdoms has been, as much as possible, set, and Cao Cao is back in his capital, home from campaigning in the south. It is during his feasting that Zuo Ci, a hermit, appears and causes problems.
Zuo Ci is first seen offering to carry carts heavily laden with oranges from the south. He does so, but when the oranges are later opened, they are found to be empty. He then shows up at a banquet, and tries to convince Cao Cao (then the most powerful figure in China) to go into retirement and study the Tao. He recommends that Cao Cao let his rival, Liu Bei, take over the empire. Naturally, this provokes Cao Cao to throw Zuo Ci in jail, where he is locked in a cangue and beaten and starved. After seven days of this treatment, they find him in his cell, unharmed, well nourished, and free of the cangue. He then appears at another banquet, and in quick succession draws a dragon on the wall and then removes its liver as a delicacy, makes a peony grow out of nowhere, and makes a foreign type of perch appear. He then divides a cup of wine in half with a hairpin and presents half of it to Cao Cao to drink. He then throws the cup into the air where it is turned into a turtledove. He then flees, and when the royal guard finds him amongst a flock of sheep, they kill all the sheep...after which Zuo Ci appears, and puts the sheep back together again, fully alive. For his final trick, the royal guard rounds up several hundred men looking exactly like Zuo Ci, executes them all, and then...watches as they turn into vapor, turn into a single Zuo Ci, who flies away on a passing crane.
So is this episode made up out of whole cloth to add a dash of fantasy into a narrative that has bogged down in diplomatic squabbles? Or is this something that could have possibly happened? I am going to describe why I think that at least parts of it could have actually happened.
- The trick with the orange carts could be arranged. We could assume that he had training that made him be physically stronger than he looked, and at some point he traded the full cart with a prepared cart filled with empty oranges. It would take a lot of preparation, but magic always does.
- Surviving beatings, starvation and escaping from a cangue are all easily done with enough training. Or, even less esoterically, he could have bribed or arranged something with people working inside the palace.
- Drawing a dragon on a wall and removing its liver: I don't know how this would be done, but David Blaine has a very similar trick.
- Making a peony grow out of nowhere: I have seen a stage magician do this trick as well, and it was not the greatest stage magician ever, either.
- Finding a foreign perch in the palace fishing pools would have been easy to do with preparation.
- Turning the water solid. I've personally done this trick. Helped me get my Master's Degree, in fact! Of course, the methods that I used were not available 1800 years ago, but some other method could have been employed.
- Turning the cup into a turtle dove seems like a fairly standard act of stage magic.
- The sheep in the field seem more improbable, but again I have seen a similar trick performed by David Blaine.
- The final execution and reformation followed by escape on a crane seems the most improbable, but who knows what could have happened? There could have been a similar incident that was just exaggerated for literary purposes.
Therefore, I wouldn't write this entire episode off as fictional. I find it very likely that there could have been someone skilled in what we now call "stage magic", who could have through careful preparation appeared before Cao Cao to try to show him the error of his ways through what would have seemed to be control of the supernatural. However, we will never know for certain.