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Book Review: Romance of the Three Kingdoms [Jan. 6th, 2013|11:29 pm]
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[Spoiler Warning | Predictably, some spoilers for Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Less predictably, some spoilers for Game of Thrones, especially the first book/TV season.]

Herodotus once said: "Some things do not happen the way they should, and most things do not happen at all. It is the duty of the conscientious historian to correct these defects."

Luo Guanzhong, the supposed but shadowy author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, shared Herodotus' philosophy of history. Here was a man who was not above occasionally livening up the boring parts of historical records by inserting wizards into them. Here was a man so devoted to chronicling the lives of his characters that he includes detailed records of what happened to their souls after their deaths. Here was a man so devoted to sketchy fantastic pseudo-history that he himself is a larger-than-life figure who may not have actually written the book attributed to him.

The book itself helped confirm some interesting stereotypes about China I had been hearing, especially its focus on intellectual rather than physical prowess. Imagine the Iliad, except that instead of being about the bold deeds of the warriors involved, it pretty much took the warriors as a given and focused on the scholars of both sides coming up with brilliant military or even logistical strategies. Although there was the occasional scene with two big brawny guys dueling, this was clearly a side show to the real glory of war, which was ministers sitting in a room, debating strategies, and calling each other out on biased or unworkable ideas. It kind of gave me the feeling that if Nate Silver got warped back in time to Han China, he would be Emperor within three months.

His only real competitor would be Zhuge Liang, nicknamed "Crouching Dragon" in what would no doubt be considered a racist exoticization of Chinese culture if it hadn't been his actual nickname for centuries. In the same way that Achilles won practically all his battles, Zhuge was practically always right. Aside from his work predicting everything with 100% accuracy, he apparently had enough free time to invent the wheelbarrow, the land mine, and the steamed bun, which I previously would not have predicted all came from the same person. As you can imagine, this sort of mind makes him pretty broken as a character, amnd occasionally the book devolved into a medieval version of Ender's Game as Zhuge confounds vastly more powerful generals in hilarious ways.

In one episode, Zhou Yu, a more powerful general who is supposedly his ally, has realized Zhuge is dangerous and is plotting to kill him. He confronts Zhuge, complains that they are desperately lacking arrows, and says if he's so smart, why can't he figure out some way to get them a hundred thousand extra arrows? Zhuge says he'll try; Zhou says he must produce the arrows within three days, hoping to take advantage of a custom that if your inferiors fail you in any way you can just kill them and everyone will agree it's justified.

So Zhuge gets some ships, mans them with straw dummies, and sails them right past the enemy's camp. The enemy shoots all their arrows at the ship, and the arrows are caught by the straw dummies. He repeats until he has 100,000 arrows for Zhou within three days.

Also, this book sort of HPMoR-ifies astrology. Most of the great scholars are also great astrologers, and can read the heavens to get news of far-off events. This works perfectly (okaaay) until Zhuge discovers a ritual by which he can change the stars (okaaaaaaay), leading enemy astrologers to get completely screwed up results. It is as effective as it is implausible.

...and then he dies kind of randomly. Actually, everyone dies kind of randomly, including the people you expect to be the main characters. They don't even die in glorious battle. Cao Cao, the main villain and one of the greatest warlords in Chinese history, just kind of dies of disease in the middle of the epic campaign to vanquish him.

The entire story kind of reminds me of Game of Thrones. In fact, it suspiciously reminds me of Game of Thrones. After the decline and fall of an ancient dynasty whose symbol is the dragon (Han/Targaryen), the capital is occupied by a family of evil connivers (Lannisters/Cao). The main resistance comes from a scrupulous-to-the-point-of-insanity father-son team (Stark/Liu) but there's also a bunch of other resistance as well, including from the south (Renly/Sun Quan) and the Riverlands (actually just called "the Riverlands") in both books. Lots of feudal families occupying little kingdoms get involved in a big fight for the crown. Everyone changes sides a few times, there are some cool strategems and tricks, and eventually all the cool characters die, including one by a very unexpected beheading (Ned/Guan). And this whole time, they're blind to the greater peril massing beyond a wall to the north (White Walkers beyond the Wall/Huns beyond the Great Wall).

So I googled it to see if anyone else had noticed this, and...apparently I went this long without knowing that Game of Thrones is actually based on the Wars of the Roses in England. So much so that House Lannister = House Lancaster and House Stark = House York (HOW DID I MISS THAT?). The Targaryens are the Norman descendants of William the Conqueror. And the barbarians in the north aren't Huns beyond the Great Wall, they're Scots behind Hadrian's Wall.

I guess the Romance connection just provides me with even more proof of how easy it is to form very compelling theories that are absolutely false.

Still, I would recommend Romance of the Three Kingdoms to anyone who liked Herodotus, anyone who likes Game of Thrones, and anyone who wants a readable and quite frankly awesome introduction into Chinese culture. But be smart like I was and go for the Abridged Edition - because walls in the north are not the only Game of Thrones series parallel, if you get my drift.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2013-01-07 07:51 am (UTC)

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I tried reading RoTK a couple of times, but being more used to modern prose, found it to be a pretty tough read as it was lacking most of the literary devices that make modern fiction interesting and captivating. (E.g. it felt like practically none of the descriptions conveyed any emotion.) Admittedly, given that it was one of the first Chinese novels ever, it's only to be expected that it didn't have the benefit of later literary innovations... but that doesn't make it any easier to read.
[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2013-01-07 11:57 am (UTC)

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Same with me. I thought the plot was great - and GoT-ish, so Scott, you're not the only one who thinks so - but the prose had me giving up after a few hours.

Of course, being me, I was plowing through the unabridged. Perhaps the abridged edition also has more interesting prose?

[User Picture]From: widgetfox
2013-01-07 09:07 am (UTC)

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Think I missed the spoiler warning so apologies for my earlier comment.
[User Picture]From: snysmymrik
2013-01-07 03:12 pm (UTC)

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>>>Herodotus once said: "Some things do not happen the way they should, and most things do not happen at all. It is the duty of the conscientious historian to correct these defects."

from wikiquote: This statement is not to be found in the works of Herodotus. It appears in the acknowledgements to Mark Twain's A Horse's Tale (1907) preceded by the words "Herodotus says", but Twain was simply summarizing what he took to be Herodotus' attitude to historiography.
From: danarmak
2013-01-07 03:39 pm (UTC)

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Now apply the quote to itself.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2013-01-07 04:12 pm (UTC)

HOW DID I MISS THAT?

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Err -- because it didn't start with an exiled nobleman related to the king invading and deposing him because the king had seized his inheritance? Because there is not one royal house from which all claimants to the throne are descended? There is, in fact, a royal line, not just king, that was deposed in the backstory and only one claimant to the throne claims descent from? Because when the questions of illegitimate heirs arise, it's because the queen is having an affair with her brother, not because the king had entered a pre-contract before his marriage, or because a prince had married his mistress and had their children legitimated?

Because the Starks and the Lannisters are not descendents of two royal brothers? Within four generations at most?

The War of the Roses was a violent time and could easily be the inspiration in the loosest sense, but as you observe, it's not very different from other pre-modern eras of civil war.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2013-01-08 08:33 am (UTC)

Re: HOW DID I MISS THAT?

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I'm more thinking the name similarities than the time period in general.
[User Picture]From: maniakes
2013-01-07 07:08 pm (UTC)

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ASoIaF has a lot of mix-and-match historical analogues. After I first read the first four books, I did a post analyzing the War of the Rose parallels, and I've thought a fair amount about other parallels since then.

GRRM has said that the Red Wedding was inspired by the Black Dinner.

The Targaryens seem to be a combination of several elements. Before Robert's Rebellion, they map pretty well to the main line of Normandy/Plantegent, with Mad King Aerys II = Richard II, but there was no equivalent to Viserys, Daenerys, or Aegon. Daenerys could be Henry VII (exiled claimant, positioned to sweep in an mop up after everyone else finished killing each other, dragon symbology) or the Empress Matilda (userped, long exile in Europe, married for an army). Viserys feels more like a Jacobite pretender. Aegon could be Perkins Warbeck if he's an impostor, or either Henry VII or Bonny Prince Charlie if he's legit.

Dorne seems to be a mix of Wales and Scotland. The Wildlings seem much more like Picts than Scots.

There's no clear parallel I'm aware of in the War of the Roses (or elsewhere in English history) for Renly or Stannis. The Three Kingdoms analogue is the best I've heard for Renly. I'm kinda seeing Stannis as an analogue for Oliver Cromwell: hard and unbending, Lawful Asshole alignment, motivated by a strong sense of duty, excellent military leader, follower of a religion that maps pretty well to Calvinism.
From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-08 12:10 am (UTC)

Ah, the three kingdoms

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I'd like to know more about its popularity in China, and indeed each of the four classics of their literature. I greatly enjoyed Monkey: Journey to the West (Penguin Classics); spoke to a friend who I thought well-read and indeed is a decided (hate the phrase) Sinophile, but he professed a complete lack of knowledge of either. I think he knew OF the story you review, Scott, but hadn't read it. I on the other hand am well versed in a (highly dramatised, if that's possible) version of it via the Dynasty Warriors series of video games, and the great movie Red Cliff about the Battle of Chi Bi. I hope Zuo Ci was as bizarre a character as Dynasty Warriors IV presented him (magic, utterly pragmatic, stalks Cao Cao, turns into a crane or something).
-Benkern
[User Picture]From: squid314
2013-01-08 08:36 am (UTC)

Re: Ah, the three kingdoms

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I read the abridged version (ONLY 400 pages) and...I don't think it even mentioned Zuo Ci. Now I'm disappointed.
From: cronodas
2013-01-10 01:52 am (UTC)

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When it comes to this kind of thing, a lot depends on the skill of the translator and how they want to approach it. I'd probably want to compare different English versions to see which one I wanted to read.
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