Book Review: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Volume 1” by Luo Guanzhong, translation by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor

Okay, this is a little different.

I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.

And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.

Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?

The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.

7th century depiction of Liu Bei. Via Wikipedia.

Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.

There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.

Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.

Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.

The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.

The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.

As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”

This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”

The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.

That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:

“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”

The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.

However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.

9 Comments

  1. Re Machiavellian: Sure, you can apply the term to any period. See Dict.com: “characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty.” It’s a set of qualities and actions, not restricted to a single person. My termite villain Mo’gri’ta’tu in The Termite Queen is definitely a Machiavellian character.
    Great review!

  2. I’ve come across this story mentioned in other articles I’ve read and it’s piqued my interest but I’ve never gone beyond reading a summary of the history behind it though even the summary is long! The boys have mentioned it in relation to a game they were looking into but haven’t played, ‘Dynasty Warriors’, as it sounds similar to one they’re big fans of, ‘Sengoku Basara’, based on Japanese history.
    Thanks to your review, this is now going on my (still-teetering) TBR pile 🙂

    1. It’s an interesting read for sure, but a big time commitment, too.

      BTW, I’m just starting reading “The Spellbound Spindle” now, and am enjoying it very much.

    1. It took me about a month to read it. Normally, I prefer books I can get through in about a week of reading an hour a day.

      I hope to finish “Spellbound Spindle” this week and hopefully be able to post a review in the next week or two. 🙂

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