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The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an Introduction

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Detail of the Long Corridor in Summer Palace: Zhuge Liang explaining the Longzhong plan to Liu Bei, taken by 未知 © shizhao (talk)拍摄/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

China, as a living political entity, can boast around four to five thousand years of existence. Such a unique historical background was not always a straight and bump-free road. In fact, the various dynasties and kingdoms often went through periods of instability and internal warfare (Allan, 1984). These, often huge, conflicts originated stories and myths among the people, and sometimes these folklore stories came to the ears of court scholars who decided to use their skills to create something out of those tales. This has been the case for the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Sanguo yanyi 三国演义, one of the four ancient chinese classics, written by Luo Guanzhong 罗贯中 between the thirteenth and fourteenth century.

The book

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is basically a historical novel, famously referred to as 70% history and 30% fiction, encompassing the last years of the Han dynasty (168-220 A.D.) and a period of turmoil and struggle between various warlords which divided China into three states 三国, also known as Three Kingdoms (220-280 A.D.). This ended with the restoration by the Western Jin dynasty.

Luo Guanzhong used two main sources for his work: the official records: the Sanguo zhi 三国志, written right after the end of that period by Chen Shou, and the tales coming from the people who had taken account of events throughout the centuries (Roberts, 2001). The reason tales from this period were able to endure over a thousand years without being recorded is inherently the biggest strength of the Romance itself: the characters, the battles, and the events look like they were staged by the best storytellers humanity has ever had. This was so much so that almost everyone in China, including neighbouring areas such as South-east Asia, Japan and Korea, knew about the story.It is not uncommon to hear western people compare the Romance to Homer’s Iliad, yet the amount of information, details and most importantly the impact on modern society make the Sanguo yanyi a unique work in its own right.

Its final version, the one which took the official name, was edited in the seventeenth century by the Father-Son duo, Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang, and it is organised in one hundred and twenty chapters, seven hundred fifty thousand words. Before that, the book written by Luo Guanzhong was called Sanguo zhi tongsu yanyi 三国志通俗演义, which roughly translates as Common Stories of the Records of the Three Kingdoms. (Roberts, 2001).

Map of Three Kingdoms period of China, as of 262 A.D. © SY / Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

The story

In 168 A.D, the imperial court of the Han dynasty was dominated by corrupt eunuchs, which kept the emperor from exerting real power. This brought an unprecedented famine until 184 A.D, when a daoist cult led by three brothers, Zhang Jiao, Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang, had claimed that the house of Han lost their right to rule (known as the Mandate of Heaven 天命). They later staged an uprising which famously became known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion (Roberts, 2001). The imperial armies sent to quell the rebellion were soon brought to their knees, so the court was forced to seek the aid of local warlords.

Despite their ultimate failure, the Yellow Turbans highlighted a major flaw in the government: as warlords were growing stronger, central power was becoming weaker. In 189 A.D, the emperor died and left only two child heirs. Factions were created in support of each of the heirs and thus internal turmoil sparked at the palace, with many losing their heads or being forced into exile. At the end, in the capital Luoyang, a cruel warlord named Dong Zhuo 董卓, aided by the strongest warrior, Lü Bu 吕布, managed to take hold of power and placed the puppet emperor Liu Xie, later named Emperor Xian 宪皇帝, on the throne.

In the rest of China, the other warlords deeply resented Dong Zhuo 董卓, so they decided to form a coalition to overthrow him and to save the puppet emperor from being…puppeted (Roberts, 2001). Among them we find the protagonists of this story, which will eventually lead to the creation of the Three Kingdoms, such as Cao Cao 曹操, Liu Bei 刘备, and Sun Jian 孙坚. The coalition shaked the power of Dong Zhuo, but didn't manage to restore cohesion to the empire and this started a period going from 190 A.D. to 220 A.D in which hundreds of warlords fought and betrayed each other for power and lands. Here we have records of huge battles involving thousands and thousands of soldiers, epic duels between heroes, Game of Thrones-like intrigues and even some love stories.

In 220 A.D., Cao Cao 曹操 was the most prominent and powerful warlord. Soon after his death the same year, Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi 曹丕, declared himself Emperor of Wei 魏, putting an end to the 400 years-long Han dynasty. As a reaction to this, Sun Jian’s son, Sun Quan 孙权, takes the title of Emperor of Wu 吴 , and Liu Bei 刘备, being a distant relative of the imperial house of Han, declares himself the emperor of the restorationist Shu-Han 蜀汉 dynasty, thus kickstarting the Three Kingdoms period (Roberts, 2001). The creation of the Three Kingdoms goes alongside a generational shift: the main heroes and villains slowly begin to die in battle or because of old age, making way for their heirs. After a substantial term of balance, all three kingdoms begin suffering the same illness which doomed the Han dynasty: incompetence and corruption.

From this, a new faction begins brewing inside the kingdom of Wei 魏 (which was the strongest among the three): the emperor's advisor Sima Yi 司马懿 and his sons usurp the throne and replace Wei 魏 with the Kingdom of Jin 晋.Their cunning and military strength allowed them to firstly conquer the kingdom of Shu-Han 蜀汉, and then, by the year 280 A.D., to capture the kingdom of Wu 吴, thus reuniting the entirety of China under the Jin dynasty. (Roberts, 2001).

Battle painting at Xuchang City Museum, Henan (first capital of Wei 魏) © Gary Todd/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Ancient propaganda

The language used for telling the tales had a precise task: become a political weapon.

In fact the Records of the Three Kingdoms, written by Chen Shou, were commissioned by none other than the new Jin 晋 dynasty. In those Records much emphasis and praise was given to the figure of Cao Cao 曹操, the "progenitor" of the kingdom of Wei 魏, an intelligent and meritocratic man. This happened because the Jin 晋 dynasty needed to remark the legitimacy of their claim on the empire, given that they came about after replacing the kingdom of Wei 魏. This narrative of Cao Cao 曹操 being ‘the good guy’ went on until the Yuan dynasty (1360s). It was during this time that Luo Guanzhong wrote the Romance at court. The emperor needed something to create distance with the past: Liu Bei 刘备 and the kingdom of Shu-Han 蜀汉 proved to be perfect for the job. (Mclaren, 2006). In fact, while the official records favoured Cao Cao 曹操, the folklore used to show some favour to Liu Bei's. This is because at the beginning, Liu Bei, though being of royal blood, sold straw sandals to earn the money to live and this humble condition caused him to be looked down upon by the other warlords during the first phases of the story. It’s only nearer the second half of the Romance, when he's almost an old man (by third century standards), that he manages to be successful, after being disregarded for his entire life. Being the symbol of social redemption, the commoners took more sympathy toward him compared to the other noble, rich, and powerful warlords. (Mclaren, 2006).

Statue of deified Guan Yu, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei at Guan Lin Temple in Luoyang, Henan © Riccardo Ceccarelli/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Values and characters

In a novel with more than one thousand named characters, not only the main warlords were paragons of qualities or particular features. The emperor of the third state, Sun Quan 孙权 of Wu 吴, is the embodiment of the filial piety, and the confucian dilemma between righteousness and legitimacy. The Sun family (Sun Quan 孙权, his older brother Sun Ce 孙策 ,and his father Sun Jian 孙坚), though strong, is often caught in the middle of power struggles. Until the end, they juggle between being allied with Shu-Han 蜀汉, which is weaker but more righteous, and being allied with Wei 魏, which is stronger, but trying to subvert the Han empire. (Xiaofei, 2018)

Another key character is Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮, the sleeping dragon. This is probably one of the most famous chinese historical figures, as he’s renown as a statesman, military strategist, politician, but also an inventor (the wheelbarrow, the flying lantern, and even the mantou are created by him in the Romance), he was able to predict the division of China into three kingdoms twelve years in advance. His genius is the key for the rise of Liu Bei 刘备: after humbly paying him three visits at his secluded cottage, Liu Bei 刘备 manages to get his services as main advisor and later as prime minister of Shu-Han 蜀汉. Back then and even nowadays, being compared to Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮 means that a person possesses exceptional talent and skills. (Roberts, 2001)

Brotherhood is another important quality in the novel: in the first chapter, Liu Bei 刘备 swears an oath with two other warriors, whose names are Guan Yu 关羽 and Zhang Fei 张飞. The three of them swore to protect the empire at all costs and even to die the same day (spoiler; they won’t).

In popular culture these two are the ultimate example of loyalty and sacrifice for the loved ones, so much so that today Guan Yu 关羽 is revered as saint, with shrines all across Asia. (Besio & Tung, 2008)

However, the characters do not only show positive feelings. Zhou Yu 周瑜, the grand commander for the kingdom of Wu 吴, while being loyal to his state, also shows a profound envy towards Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮, because no matter his skills and prowess, he was never able to outsmart the genius, eventually falling ill and dying from anger.


The Chinese language has particular kinds of idioms called chengyu, which are usually ancient formulas or popular sayings, commonly expressed with a brief group of words. Chengyu are really important for Chinese culture as they usually serve as a sort of collective wisdom. As we just saw, characters playing an important role in the Romance often find their way in Chinese people's everyday life. Their stories and deeds proved to be perfectly fitting for describing common situations. For instance, the western saying “speak of the devil and he shall appear” in chinese is translated and used as “shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao jiu dao 说曹操,曹操就到”, literally “as soon as you say Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives”. This comes from a passage of the Romance in which the emperor was besieged, and one of his subordinates suggested sending a messenger to Cao Cao 曹操 to ask for help. However they didn’t even finish speaking when Cao Cao 曹操 and his army arrived and saved the emperor, all thanks to Cao Cao’s military skill and foresight. (De Crespigny, 2010)

Another example is “Zhou Yu da Huang Gai, yi ge yuan da, yi ge yuan ai 周瑜打黄盖,一个愿打,一个愿挨”, which translates as “Zhou Yu beats Huang Gai, one beats, the other agrees to be beaten”. This idiom is commonly used when two parties look like they are having a dispute and one of them appears to be losing it, but actually both are secretly agreeing to some conditions.The idiom is based upon a famous event which led to the victory of the biggest battle of the era: commander Zhou Yu 周瑜 and his general Huang Gai 黄盖 pretended to argue and Zhou Yu 周瑜 had Huang Gai 黄盖 beaten. This was to make the enemy spies believe that Huang Gai 黄盖 was unhappy and wanted to defect. However the fake defection led to Huang Gai 黄盖 setting the enemy fleet on fire and to win the battle. (Cho, 2020).

Photo of Cao Cao in Beijing Opera, CC BY 3.0 © Shizhao/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Popular culture

The Romance’s impact on popular culture in China and the adjacent countries is reflected on various levels. From religion (as the cult of Guan Yu 关羽 we saw in the previous paragraph) to arts, from cinema to videogames, and even cooking. The first example is the Beijing Opera, which is a form of representative arts, including music, vocal performance, dance and acrobatics, invented during the later Qing dynasty (nineteenth century). The Opera is one of the most important artistic expressions in modern China as it portrays the events narrated in many of the classical stories and novels, including the Romance (Bettinelli, 2017).

Other than the Beijing Opera, many filmmakers and authors took inspiration from the Romance.

The movie Chi Bi 赤壁 or Red Cliffs, directed by John Woo, tells the story of the most important battle of the period. Back in 2008, it was the most expensive movie ever produced in China (Hale, 2009). Other than the most expensive one, the Romance was the inspiration for the very first movie ever made in China, Dingjunshan 定军山 or Mount Dingjun released in 1905.

Mao Zedong on an aeroplane, 1957 © 侯波/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Modern Politics

Such a great work, imbued with philosophy and warfare, gained quite a few fans over the course of the centuries. The most famous among them is PRC Chairman Mao Zedong. Having read and studied the book since his childhood, he was deeply influenced by it, as it was shown both during the civil war and during the first phases of the People’s Republic. Certainly, Mao loved the depiction of battles and wars in the Romance and he used them to exalt his own soldiers, however, in his opinion, the most significant part of the book is the balancing of power between three states. Once again, the genius Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮, when he first joins Liu Bei 刘备 in 207, devises a plan called the Longzhong Plan. This plan has the goal to give the weaker faction, Liu Bei 刘备, the ultimate victory, but to do so at first there will be the need to share the control of China with the other two rulers, Cao Cao 曹操 and Sun Quan 孙权. After creating a balance, the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei of Shu-Han 蜀汉 would have needed to cooperate with the other weak faction, Wu 吴, to destroy Cao Cao 曹操 of Wei 魏 and expand his own power to unify the nation. (Lai Sing, 2011). Needless to say, China had to be one of three powers, while the other two were the United States and the Soviet Union. Mao, at first, became close to Stalin and the Soviets, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s, their relations cooled as the USSR president Brezhnev threatened the Chinese border. China then “opened the door” to the US and Nixon with the so-called ping-pong diplomacy. (Lai Sing, 2011). Up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mao’s successors managed to maintain the balance between the other two superpowers, as Mao’s idea even outlived him after having formulated it in October of 1935 with his poem “Kunlun” 昆仑, in a fashion not so far from Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ style:

“[...] I'd cleave you in three:

One piece for Europe,

One for America,

One to keep in the East.

Peace would then reign over the world

[...]” (Zedong, 1935)

Riccardo Ceccarelli is a Master graduate in Language and Management to China at Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice. Before Venice he lived in Xi’An, Shaanxi as an exchange student. His Master’s thesis dealt with a comparison between the leisure yacht industry and its consumers in Italy and China, while his Bachelor’s thesis was about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As a child, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms sparked his passion for Chinese culture and eventually prompted him to study the language. In september 2021 he started to produce and perform the first italian podcast on the Romance, called Il Romanzo dei Tre Regni, published on Spotify and YouTube and supported by digital resources on Instagram, You can also find him on Linkedin.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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