Book Review: Romance of the Three Kingdoms
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.