An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Sanguo yanyi 三國演義

Dec 23, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Sanguo yanyi 三國演義, also called Sanguozhi yanyi 三國志演義, is China's most famous book of historical fiction. It describes the transgression from the Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE) to the Three Empires 三國 (220~280 CE) and is based on historiographical writings like the Sanguozhi 三國志, Houhanshu 後漢書, Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑒 or Tongjian gangmu 通鑒綱目, but enriches historical facts with fictitious events and tales. Authorship is usually attributed to Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中 (c. 1330-c. 1400). The novel belongs to the "four great novels" in traditional Chinese literature, the others being Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳, Xiyouji 西遊記, and Hongloumeng 紅樓夢.

The novel had precursors in the shape of tale collections (pinghua 平話) based on orally transmitted stories like Sanguozhi pinghua 三國志平話 or promptbooks for storytellers like Quanxiang Sanguozhi pinghua 全相三國志平話, and took shape in the course of the Yuan period.

The earliest edition dates from 1522 (preface dated 1494), with the title Sanguo zhizhuan 三國志傳. The earliest surviving edition dates from 1549. Editions from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) differ only in details like the chapter arrangement or the inclusion or omission of the one or other minor character. In the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911), Mao Lun 毛綸 and his son Mao Zonggang 毛宗崗 (1632–1709) made changes in the arrangement of the text, but also altered substantial parts of it by adding or eliminating texts they deemed interesting or not relevant. The result is the common 120-chapter version. They also gave the novel a slight moralistic tendency by portraying figures of the Shu-Han Empire 蜀漢 (221-263), which they deemed to be the rightful heirs of the Han dynasty, a somewhat more positive standing. The Maos also added commentaries to their 1679 edition which help to understand the background of some facts.

The story begins with the famous oath in the Peach Garden (Taoyuan 桃園) made by Liu Bei 劉備 (161-222), Guan Yu 關羽 (d. 219, heroized as Guan Gong 關公), and Zhang Fei 張飛 (d. 221), swearing to put down the Yellow Turban rebellion (Huangjin qiyi 黃巾起義) against the Han dynasty. It tells the emergence of various warlords and the disintegration of the Han dynasty until the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220) took the young emperor under his wings. Cao has to fight against other warlords, and in particular Sun Quan 孫權 (182-252), who dominates the southeast and eventually established the empire of Wu 吳 (222/229-280), and Liu Bei, who takes refuge in Shu 蜀 (Sichuan), where he also founds his empire. The contenders fight in different areas, but after the Battle of the Red Cliff (Chibi zhi zhan 赤壁之戰), their areas of domination were cemented. Cao Cao's son founds the empire of Wei 曹魏 (220-265). The Three Empires continue their enmity, but shortly after Shu is conquered by Wei, the latter is overthrown from within. In this way, the cycle of integration and disintegration which is highlighted at the very beginning of the novel, substantiates. The gist of the whole novel is thus tragedy, not victory.

天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分。 The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.

While many popular versions of the story make a clear moral distinction between Liu Bei (Empire of Shu) as the rightful successor of the Han dynasty and Cao Cao (Empire of Wei) as a "usurper", the novel tries to balance out such judgments - not always successfully, mainly after the Maos revised the text and went over from the ancient preference for Wei to Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130-1200) favouring of Shu. The concept of "righteousness" (yi 義) does, however, play a role in describing the intention of the actions and decisions of individual characters in the novel. The term yanyi 演義 "evolvement of righteousness" (as a literary genre, usually translated as "elaboration of meanings") hints at such traditional types of "moral" behaviour like loyalty, filiality, sincerity, trustworthiness in sworn brotherhood, and so on. In the early phase of the novel, the three sworn brothers even show similarities to the bandits of the novel Shuihuzhuan - which might be due to mutual influence of the two works.

Many episodes of the Sanguo yanyi were rearranged for theatre plays, and the tactical plans, stratagems and dodges of the master strategist Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234) are immensely popular, just as the plots of his counterpart are, the ruthless warlord Cao Cao. In fact, however, the novel is strong enough to liaise Cao Cao's machiavellian character with his heroic and sometimes even empathic side. Guan Yu, who was even deified as the God of War, represents not just loyalty and courage, but also personifies vanity and misjudgments. Even the super-hero Zhuge Liang, symbol of a loyal and paternal chief minister, resorts to supernatural powers and wizardry, which originate in the Daoist realm of superstition rather than in the world of Confucianism.

The most important translations are Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor (1925), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Singapore: Tuttle); Moss Roberts (1991), Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press; Beijing: Foreign Languages Press); Yu Sumei, ed. by Ronald C. Iverson (2014), The Three Kingdoms (Singapore: Tuttle).

Li, Wai-Yee. 2001. "Full-Length Vernacular Fiction", in Victor H. Mair, ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, 621-627. New York: Columbia University Press.
ALo. 1986. "Hung-lou meng", in William H. Nienhauser, Jr., ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 668-671. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.