1001 Reads

Regularly updated blog charting the most important novels of the last 2000 and something years

Thursday, November 08, 2007

4. The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (sānguó yǎnyì - 三國演義) (14th Century)


Francisco: Sorry this is another one which took so long, but it is about 1500 pages long, of pretty hard going stuff. The main problem with this book is the sheer amount of characters and how much the focus of the action shifts in the book. Very rarely do you get to know any character to any level of depth, except for the three main characters of Liu Bei, Chang Fei and Kuan Yu and some secondary ones like Cao Cao, Zhuge Liang and Lu Bu for example. But the book is populated by thousands all of which have more than one name, there's at least two names for each character all of which hard to memorise unless you are Chinese and are used to those names.

This is definitely a case of a book which works much better in the context of China, everyone grew up with these stories over there. They know the characters and their actions and are therefore harder to confuse. Of course the translation might not be very helpful.

There are however fun things about the book, and I was really liking it before I got too bogged down in the story. Firstly it is extremely violent and gory and that's fun, it also has quite a sense of humour, sometimes brutal and sometimes gentle, and you are often surprised at how smart (Zhuge Liang) or how stupid (Chang Fei) some of the characters are. It is however difficult to keep paying much attention to the book after the three main characters die about two thirds into the thing. After the ghost of Kuan Yu takes revenge, Chang Fei dies, Cao Cao dies and Liu Bei dies and are avenged there is little of interest to keep you going except for Zhuge Liang.

Another problem with the book is simply the scale of it, it is epic in content as well as size, there are so many battles, so many opposing sides, so many generals and so many references to a geography that I know nothing about, measured in distances that I am not familiar with (by the way a li is about half a kilometre) that you soon lose interest. Still it gripped me for much longer than Genji.

Vanda: Sorry couldn't do this one either, next.

Final Grade

Francisco: 6/10
Vanda: n/a


From Wikipedia:

Regarding this novel and another Chinese classic Water Margin, there is a popular saying in China that goes: "少不讀水滸, 老不讀三國", translated as "The young shouldn't read Water Margin while the old shouldn't read The Three Kingdoms." The former depicts the lives of outlaws and their defiance with the established social system. Along with the frequent violence, brawls, passionate brotherhood and an emphasis on machismo, it could easily have a negative influence on young boys. The latter presents all kinds of sophisticated stratagem, deceptions, frauds, trickeries, traps and snares employed by the three kingdoms and their individual characters to compete with each other, which might tempt the experienced old readers (the elderly are traditionally well respected, trusted and considered wise and kind-hearted in Chinese society) to use them to harm other people. Also, old people are supposed to "know the will of the heavens" (says Confucius). They shouldn't exhaust or strain themselves with always having to consider how to deceive others.

Here you go the first bit of an anime based on the book... loosely based:


  • At 5:20 AM, Blogger Rod McBan said…

    I've been wanting to read this for a while now. I got a bit of the way into the Water Margin but all in all my knowledge of Chinese classics is sorely lacking.

  • At 5:48 AM, Blogger Francisco Silva said…

    Well it is worth dipping into it, but don't force yourself. After about half-way through it starts getting harder and harder to keep up.

    The Water Margin which I am reading now is vastly easier to keep your bearings in.

  • At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well written article.


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