Context: While reading this I started wearing reading glasses and… boy!… they really took some getting used to!
Battles, rivalry, espionage, subterfuge, love, filial honour, tradition, strategies, mysticism, kingdoms, suicide, plots, intrigue, betrayal, loyalty, cunning, wisdom, wealth, corruption, conquest, weaponry, tactics, plots, debauchery, virtue, memorials, poetry… if any of these are what you’re looking for in a novel then The Romance of the Three Kingdoms might interest you.
Most of those do interest me and Romance did not disappoint. For the most part, this 1360 page epic held me in its grasp not too loosely at all. At times, yes, it was all a bit much, but the story ebbs and flows as unpredictably as the fates of the three kingdoms. Just hanging in there for a couple of the brief chapters and I was back into it again.
The writing is amazing for being nigh on 500 years old. The translation isn’t perfect, but it certainly isn’t as laborious as I’d have expected in an ancient epic. It’s very readable. The first line (below) sets the stage masterfully. Structurally, it’s a vast saga of the Shu (Han), Wu and Wei kingdoms who vie for power right until the very last 100 pages. But within this huge storm of power, there are literally hundreds of smaller stories that range from the fantastic, to the criminal, to the romantic, to the downright gruesome.
And some of the characters I won’t forget in a hurry: Liu Pei (also, confusingly, known as Yuan Te) the spurned Han Emperor; his fantastically wise advisor Kung Ming (also, confusingly, known as Chuko Liang) who no one can outwit in battle or in magic; the tryannical and traitorous Tsao Tsao who plays a central role in making the Wei kingdom a real player in the political realm; Kuan Yu who is so innured to fear that he plays a board game while a surgeon scrapes an infection off a bone in his arm. That some of these are not more well-known in the west is a telling sign of our ethnocentricity.
In terms of its influence it ranks up there alongside Shakespeare, the Bible and Harry Potter. You can’t interpret any subsequent text in Chinese culture without reference to it and that goes for a large part of East Asian literature too. In fact, there’s a Korean proverb that says something like you can’t talk about life until you’ve read it. Well, I have now so…
I’ve rated it “superb” because of this legacy of influence and also because it has given me a completely new perspective on China, revealing the nation to me like nothing I’ve ever read from there. I now want to watch some films or read other novels that have been influenced by or based on it. And next time I meet someone from China, I’m looking forward to talking about it and its influence in their country.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea though. Unless you are really into military history, you’ll probably find the endless descriptions of battles and conflict quite tedious. There are so many characters you have to just abandon any hope of remembering any more than a handful and that may prove daunting. And there’s a fair bit of gore: “The arrow hit Hsiahou Tun full in the left eye. he shrieked, and putting up his head, pulled out the arrow and with it the eye. “Essence of my father, blood of my mother, I cannot throw this away,” cried he, and he put the eye into the mouth and swallowed it.”
Finally, my translation (Brewitt-Taylor) is cram full of typos: “I have been slam [slain] by that dastard [bastard] Sun Hsun” and “Lu Hsun knows the rat [art] of war even as did Sun Wu.” Many of these seem to be because the editors seems to have relied on OCR of the text at some point which could interpret an unclear “slain” as “slam.” They probably scanned the original translation, which was done in the ’20s, did the OCR and ran a spell-check and thought, that’ll do. Shame they didn’t actually read it.
Glad I did though.
Empires wax and wane; states cleave asunder and coalesce.
If you attempt more things… you will only add legs to your sketch of a serpent.
Our days flash by as the glint of a white horse across a chink in the door.
to contend with a man so strong is to try to smash stones with eggs
The kingdoms three have vanished as in a dream,
The useless misery is ours to grieve.
rubbish | poor | mediocre | okay | good | very good | excellent | superb