““What was long united must be divided; what was long divided must be united” —the first sentence in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong
What is this “Three Kingdoms”?
The Chinese Three Kingdoms refers to a sixty years era from 220 AD to 280 AD between the end of the Han dynasty and the Eastern Jin dynasty when China was divided into three kingdoms: Cao Wei, Shu-Han and Eastern Wu (Dong Wu). It also refers to the wider stories–part historical, part folk tales, part fiction–that came out of the events during that era and around 20 or 30 years immediately before it.
For a relatively brief era in an otherwise long Chinese history, the stories based on the events and characters who lived during this era have captured the imagination of many people across time and space. You might have heard of the names Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi, for they have been immortalised in East Asian culture and frequently referenced in today’s pop culture. They were but four of the many amazing legendary figures who made up the Three Kingdoms era.
TK is full of events and tragic heroic figures choked full of tropes that Tumblr would love. I guarantee that it has many things worth writing long meta tags for, and also,
most importantly, it is full of very close intimate male-male relationships that have long formed part of Chinese culture, and which modern audiences can easily interpret as queer.
““Only in times of chaos can heroes rise”—Cao Cao.
What is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms?
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (ROTK; ?????? sanguo yanyi) is a novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong that was written more than half a millenia ago, and is one of the four Great Classical Novels of China. It is, as its name suggests, a romanticised retelling of the Three Kingdoms era that is “seven parts facts; three parts fiction”. It is incredibly influential in how most people understand the three kingdoms period, and for good reason too: even until today it is still a gripping read of war, politics, virtues, brotherhod and heroism.
Most retellings of the Three Kingdoms are usually largely based on stories from ROTK.
How do I start with this Three Kingdoms thing?
? READ ROTK
For starters, you can read the book! It is a damn good read and billions of people across half a millenia would back me up on this. The oldest English translation (by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor) is available for free online HERE! (The website also has footnotes to explain aspects of Chinese culture or history mentioned in the novel).
If you don’t mind buying a hard copy, I highly recommend Robert Moss’s translation, which is the best I have read.
? PLAY THE GAME?
There are a gajazillion tons of games out there based on the Three Kingdoms, be it tactical RPGs, card games, online MMORPGs, dating sims, or even arcade games, but arguably the most famous series is KOEI’s Dynasty Warriors (Sangoku Musou).
A lot of people get their first acquaintance with Three Kingdoms figures and stories through any one of the Dynasty Warriors game (now in its eight installment). It isn’t a hard or complicated game, and it has pretty graphics and character designs, and every new installment repeats the same story (there is only one Three Kingdoms body of stories after all), so you don’t have to worry about picking it up from the start.
I would recommend to start from the seventh or eighth installment: from the seventh installment onwards, KOEI has been trying its hardest to stick to the Three Kingdoms story and saw it from finish to end (ie from the Yellow Turban Rebellion to the founding of the Jin Dynasty, which reunified China).
Note that every installment of Dynasty Warriors has two spin-off/expansion games, excluding the main title itself.For example, we have Dynasty Warriors 8, a recently released Dynasty warriors 8: Extreme Legends, and an upcoming Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires. You don’t have to get the latter two games if you have the main title unless you’re a hardcore DW fan and/or you’re invested in the characters.
? WATCH THE THING!
There have been two epic-scale Chinese TV productions of TK. The first one was released in 1994; the other one in 2010.
I highly recommend watching the 2010 TV series as a TK beginner–it has high production value, and it totally shows in the set productions, costumes and special effects.
(Also it has a lot of good looking people in the cast ). If you’ve always liked Chinese martial arts/wuxia movies, you’ll be in for a treat. If you like war movies, then oh boy, hang on to your hats. Politics? Oh man!
Someone recently described TK2010 as China’s answer to the “Game of Thrones” (which is highly inaccurate since the story itself is 1800 years old), but if that’s what it takes to pique your interest, then by all means, run with that description.
It has been fully translated into English and can be easily found on YouTube
? WATCH THE FIRST SUBBED EPISODE HERE
There are also movies inspired by the Three Kingdoms (fun fact: the first Chinese movie ever is a black-and-white recording of Mount Dingjun, a Beijing opera rendition of an important battle between Shu and Wei). You might have heard of the most famous ones: Chibi, or Red Cliff, which is loosely/somewhat based on the ROTK version of the famous battle of Chibi. Chibi was released in two parts in Asia, but condensed into one abridged version for Western release. Watch the two parts with English subtitles here:
? Chibi I (YouTube)
? Chibi II (YouTube)
There are three other big-budget movies, the first of which, released in the same year as Chibi, is Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, featuring Andy Lau as Zhao Yun and Maggie Q as the main antagonist. Released in 2011 was Donnie Yen’s The Lost Bladesman, a retelling of how the famous general and God of War Guan Yu escaped from Cao Cao’s camp to return to his sworn brother Liu Bei. There is also 2012's Assassins that has Cao Cao as a character (played by Chow Yun Fat), but the story isn’t based on ROTK. I … would recommend to not watch them unless you find that you just don’t have enough Three Kingdoms stuff to consume. .
There are countless mangas and animes retelling/inspired by/parodying/referencing the Three Kingdoms. I will only list down the most famous ones, but you’re welcome to search the far corners of the Internet for translated yaoi/yuri (sometimes explicit sometimes not) Three Kingdoms animanga and marvel at the beauty of human creativity.
Sangokushi(?????) is a 1960s manga by Mitsuteru Yokoyama which I find to be a very good introduction to the ROTK story. It surprisingly offers a lot of characterization gems building upon what we are given in ROTK!
? READ IT IN ENGLISH HERE @ MANGAFOX
Souten Kouro (??????) is a very famous manga by King Gonta retelling the Three Kingdoms era through the eyes of Cao Cao. The art is ah-maazzinngg (even though it might take you some time to get used to the art; once you do, you won’t settle for anything less), and the storytelling and characterisations are incredible. If you read ROTK before reading this manga (which I recommend), you might be taken aback by how King Gonta has chosen to write characters you thought you were familiar with, but just go along with it, it’d be worth it!
WARNING: MATURE CONTENT, contains physical and sexual violence, nudity and gore
? READ IT IN ENGLISH HERE @ MANGAFOX
NOTE The scanlation group has decided to drop the manga beyond what you see there. I have translated and uploaded a few panels and pages from the volumes beyond in my SK tag if you’re curious here.
Souten Kouro was recently made into a 26-episodes-long anime and you can watch it here.
The Ravages of Time (??????) is an ongoing manhua by Hong Kong artist Chen Mou and is a Big Thing in TK fandom. It is also a retelling of the Three Kingdoms story, this time centered around Sima Yi, the legendary strategist and rival of Zhuge Liang, and a boy who would be the famous Shu general Zhao Yun, but with a twist. Well, with maybe a thousand twists in each arc. I highly recommend reading ROTK before reading this manga to get very delicious payoffs, but you can read it on its own. It is a masterpiece, and if you think TK2010 which still very closely follows ROTK is “China’s answer to The Game of Thrones”, you’re going to be blown away once you read RoT.
RoT also has a bunch of light novels building upon some of the beloved characters of the series, but as far as I know, they haven’t been translated into English anywhere :(
? READ IT IN ENGLISH HERE @ MANGAFOX
San: Three Kingdoms Comic is a classic spoof/parody webcomic that was a crucial part of the TK formative experience for many (cough older cough) English-speaking TK fans. It based the character designs on Dynasty Warriors (from the third to the sixth installment). Unfortunately, it has been discontinued, but you can still find it here.
Want to know more?
The Three Kingdoms world is so expansive and vast the above books and comics and films only form the tip of the iceberg as to the kinds of Feels and Metas you can get from TK.
A lot of people don’t stop with ROTK–it is after all, only ONE retelling of the Three Kingdoms story, albeit a very famous one. ROTK is (in)famously Shu-biased, and many people try to balance this out by reading, for example, Souten Kouro, or finding more historical sources.
The bulk of the historical account is found in The Records of the Three Kingdoms (?????Sanguozhi, or SGZ for short), compiled by Chen Shou of the Jin dynasty. It hasn’t been officially translated into English, although you’ll easily find fan-translations online.
I think it’s worth mentioning that even though SGZ is a Historical Account, one should always keep in mind that history is always political and cannot be truly objective. Western Jin derived its legitimacy (the Mandate of Heaven) from Cao Wei, and therefore as far as it was concerned, the other two kingdoms of Shu and Wu were faux-kingdoms set up by rebels. Still, SGZ does cross-reference its stories to other sources, and it has been annotated and edited by many other historians of that era, so one can be rest assured that it is indeed a highly valuable historical source and is nowhere as biased as, say, ROTK.
Confused by the naming convention of that era? Why is Cao Cao also called Mengde, and also sometimes Ah-Man? Fear not! Here is a handy primer from Arakawa Cow’s Three Kingdoms: Spirits that explains it very well!
For the best info and discussions on Three Kingdoms in English, kongming.net and Scholars of Shen Zhou! Kongming.net is a one-stop shop of what you need to know about TK while the latter has English translations of historical biographies, and also intense discussions by scholars and fans on diverse TK topics.