Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I was recently reminded of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Maybe it was because Game of Thrones ended, and somehow I started comparing the two. And frankly, A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t hold a candle to the level of intrigue and the vast and vivid cast of characters in Three Kingdoms.
Since its composition in the 14th century, Three Kingdoms has always been counted among “the Four Astonishing Books,” the most significant works of prose fiction ever produced in the language. The others are the Proustian Dream of the Red Chamber; the picaresque Journey to the West; and The Water Margins, a kind of Western featuring outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only there are 108 desperadoes, not two.
The Western work that has always struck me the most direct parallel of Three Kingdoms, however, is not A Song of Ice and Fire. It is Homer’s Iliad.
Set during the second and third centuries as the Han Dynasty unravelled, Three Kingdoms fictionalized over a thousand historical figures in portraits so sharp that, even today, its protagonists remain household names. One is worshipped as a god: Look closely next time you stop in a Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world: You may well spot the red-faced and long-bearded figure of Guan Yu in a shrine in the corner; one of the most striking figures from the novel, he is now considered the god of war — and for some reason of wealth, hence his pride of place in small businesses. And it’s not just the novel’s characters: Its episodes are touchstones of Chinese culture. Everyday expressions refer to both people and plot points from the novel.
Both Three Kingdoms and the Iliad are epic tales of wars, cataclysmic wars that consume entire societies as they verge on collapse. The Han Dynasty ends in ashes as do all three of the eponymous kingdoms, just as Aeneas in the end escapes a burning Troy, just as most of the Greek kings and captains end up in Hades.
Specific episodes from the two epics mirror each other. Kong Ming, the brilliant strategist at the heart of much of the action, travels on behalf of his king to a rival kingdom and debates its courtiers one by one to convince them to fight a common threat. So it is that Agamemnon sends wily Odysseus, along with Ajax and Phoenix, to convince Achilles to return to the battle.
Sexual jealousies between men drive both stories: For the Greeks, Paris whisking Helen away from Menelaus starts the war, and Agamemnon taking Briseis from Achilles almost ends it; for the Chinese, the corrupt old warlords Dong Zhuo and Cao Cao claiming famous beauties for themselves only motivates the women’s dashing young lovers into bloody action.
Stratagems determine outcomes in both books. At the Battle of Red Cliff, the grand confrontation that takes up some fifteen chapters in the middle of Three Kingdoms, Kong Ming wins the day by tricking his enemies to link up their ships and then setting them ablaze. On the shores of Ilium, Odysseus wins the war by convincing the Trojans to take the famous wooden horse within their walls.
That Three Kingdoms is a monumental work of literature written in any language is reason enough to read the book. It is also a part of that corpus of strategic thinking that the Chinese produced that is likely unrivaled by any other culture, and it is far more entertaining than Sun Tzu.
One can’t be a self-respecting sinologist and not read it. The novel’s opening line — “When the country is long divided, then it must reunite; and when it is long united, then it must divide” — is as well known to educated Chinese as the rage of Achilles is to educated Westerners. And it must surely inform how we understand the delicate and dangerous political dance between Beijing and Taipei.
Similarly, the beginning of the end of the Han Dynasty, recounted in the novel, was the “Yellow Turbans” religious movement. And that helps to explain the Chinese government’s attitude today toward religion.
But recognizing that the two foundational texts from archaic Greece and 14th-century China track each other must underscore the commonality of humanity. There are patterns of thought specific to cultures, and then there are the struggles that we all share. The central question of both Three Kingdoms and the Iliad — how does a society hold itself together when inexorable forces would tear it apart — is fundamental to any human society anywhere. And it’s a question that is more relevant than ever.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."