Romancing the Three Kingdoms

Well, last night I finished what I have to say is one of the best stories I have ever read. Three Kingdoms (aka Romance of the Three Kingdoms) is one of the great classics of Chinese literature, and now I understand why.

At first when I started to read it, I found it a little tedious because there was so much setup and it was about an era of political chaos so there were a lot of players in the politics of the era. Then once the Empire began to shatter, it turned into what I thought was going to be an endless series of fights, and again I though, do I really want to read 100 more Chapters of this? (The novel is 120 chapters long, roughly 900 or so pages.) But, I persevered because it was interesting, and because each chapter ends on a cliffhanger of some kind which really helps to keep you reading.

Needless to say, I became hooked, eventually the number of political players begins to drop like a rock and there are so many cool warriors and characters to root for on every side. In this setting, battles were often decided by a single general whose prowess against an enemy general in a pre-battle duel could even shatter the enemy’s whole will to fight. Characters switch sides, intrigues are planned, plots foiled, and the story just gets more and more amazing until…

Well, that would be my only complaint.

Because 3 Kingdoms is (as the translator puts it 7/10ths History and 3/10ths fiction) it runs into the problem that what really happened historically isn’t as interesting as what could have happened dramatically. The author is somewhat trapped by history to give the story the ending the real events had, and as such the story ends with something of a whimper, not a bang. The big events occur at the start of the last 3rd of the novel, and everything else is just housekeeping. (Somewhat akin to “scouring the shire” in Lord of the Rings.) That said, it’s still interesting, and the ending is not unsatisfying, just a good example of how history and drama don’t always quite work well together. Drama gives way to History, and story goes on.

But, what a history! This was an exciting era where a single man could go from plowman to Emperor in a matter of years! Armies consisted of tens and hundreds of thousands of men, and…and…I could go on for pages about how cool this story is, but the best choice would be to read it yourselves if you haven’t had the pleasure. You can find an online version at but the best way to read it is to find a good old paper copy of the Moss Roberts translations (there are 2 volumes to it, make sure you get both) entitled “Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel”, which is without a doubt the best translation out there. Not all translations are equal, and Roberts does a beautiful job of turning ancient Chinese into modern English. I learned a lot about Chinese history, thought, and culture from reading this book, and I think my only regret is that I waited so long before reading it.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Robyn Paterson

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