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Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Historical Thinking

July 30th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · History

There’s now a demo for the PC version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI, Koei’s strategy/RPG set in the declining Han Empire.

I started Luo Guanzhong’s epic novel while traveling back and forth to E3. I just finished one volume and have three more to go.

I’ll admit to not quite getting the popularity of the book, but this could be a cultural thing. There are a lot of characters going on and off stage, and ancient Chinese geography isn’t my strong suit; getting a sense for who is marching where isn’t easy given the scarcity of maps in my versions. Plus, I would much prefer footnotes to endnotes for a lot of the historical or literary context.

But the richness of the characters can’t be denied. Yes, Liu Bei, the hero of the piece, is a little too perfect an exemplar of Confucian duty for my tastes. Western epic heroes are people like Achilles, Gilgamesh, Aeneas or David – all divinely chosen and all models for their audience, but all terribly flawed.

But Liu Bei’s two compatriots in the Peach Garden Oath are vigorous men. Cao Cao is a military hardass with ambitions that lead him away from his natural virtues. The continual tension between staying loyal to the decaying Han Dynasty and establishing a new realm gives every new alliance or revived rivalry a plausibility that justifies Guanzhong’s literary license with history.

When I last played at RoTK game a million years ago, none of this really mattered to me. It was an historical strategy game and that was enough. That Lu Bu and Yuan Shao had a deep cultural meaning for a few hundred million people didn’t really figure into it.

But this time will be different, I think. The characters, their stories and their personalities will take on an added importance to me when the game finally comes out.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Yan

    The story really picks up when Zhuge Liang enters the game. Be warned – he is basically a perfect character.

    Of course, if you are into postmodernist realism where all good characters need to have personal flaws and all bad characters need to have redeeming qualities, you are reading from not only the wrong era, but also from the wrong culture. =P

    Enjoy the trip. If not the game (many of us think the games peaked at RoTK5, maybe RoTK9), at least the novel.

    P.S. as for having meaning for a hundred million people… well, most of these black-haired folk will recognize and nod to Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, Guan Yu, Zhao Yun, Zhuge Liang, and Cao Cao. Lu Bu probably, but not Yuan Shao as much =)

  • Eduardo Gabrieloff

    I read the first volume of RotTK and got really bored with it. I stopped at that point.

    However, I’d just gotten done reading Outlaws of the Marsh, aka Water Margin, aka All Men Are Brothers, and found it to be much more engaging and fun. Now THAT would make a great game. Again.

  • Troy

    I don’t think that it’s post-modern realism to prefer heroes with some flaws – few ancient European heroes, after all, get by without major flaws.

    But it is certainly cultural. A lot of it has to do with anthropomorphic deities in the West that are constantly trying to trip up humans aspiring to godhood, preying on their weaknesses and the like.

    Since Asian religions don’t work like that, but are, in their purest forms, ethical codes, it makes sense that the revered literary heroes aren’t those that defy the gods, but those that best emulate the Confucian and Daoist lifestyles.

    (The best parallels from the West, I think, would be the Lives of the Saints that arise in the early Christian church; embodiments of a martyr or ascetic philosophy to be held up as role models. But they would make for terrible games.)

    I think many of the “villains” of RotTK – so far – do have redeeming qualities. Even the putative villain Cao Cao is often a man of his word and has what Machiavelli would call virtu. And most of the heroes are fairly well rounded, which makes Liu Bei’s Avatar like perfection all the more wearying.

    I have a good friend who teaches Imperial Chinese art and cultural history… I should really get her opinion on this.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    (The best parallels from the West, I think, would be the Lives of the Saints that arise in the early Christian church; embodiments of a martyr or ascetic philosophy to be held up as role models.)

    Or maybe the chansons de geste of the early medieval era, whose heroes are generally as pure as the driven snow?

  • Troy

    Ooh, yeah. Nice work, Jason. Roland and Huon de Bordeaux bug me, too.

    And I don’t mean to suggest that the West is devoid of these types of heroes. Robin Hood, Superman, the literary El Cid, Captain Janeway. But I think that those heroes that resonate most strongly are the ones who, at the very least, confront the ill-borne fruits of their virtue – Arthur and Lancelot, Siegfried, Hercules. It is entirely certain that China and Japan are full of flawed heroes; it’s just that in a drama as character rich as RotTK, the dull Liu Bei who stumbles in and out of alliances isn’t very compelling. Yet.

    I’m only one quarter through, after all.

  • Yan

    I totally agree with your analysis on the culture. As for my jab at “post-modernism”, it was a half-tongue-in-cheek remark at the ubiquitous tidbits of today’s entertainment media. The religious (well, I usually hear it as more “ethical”) reasons you give is the consensus in current literary criticism, I think.

    As for boring villains, I was not thinking about Cao Cao (you can read him as a hero or a villain, depending on taste. Even though Mr. Luo had to, by the culture of the times, paint him as a “bad” character, there is unmistakable admiration for Cao Cao’s abilitity in his words). More like someone like Dong Zhuo.

    I do not think Liu Bei is considered perfect. You’ll see more of this about 70% through the novel, and I think many people agree he is considered a “weak” character, as his flaws have resounding consequences. Maybe your judgment will change by the end of the book?


  • Troy

    You commented as I was editing my comment!

    Dong Zhuo is a clear villain, but I bet he would be fun to play.

  • Yan

    Outlaws of the Marsh is considered more “exciting” in terms of an “action” novel, but less interesting in terms of the politics/strategy/etc.

    Regardless, I don’t think there has been a good game about the series. Both of KOEI’s efforts were very weak. If anyone wants to write one, I’d be happy to help.


  • Chris Nahr

    I wield my historical strategy game in the name of justice! Thanks for the reminder, I just preordered.

    If you want an entertaining introduction to the Three Kingdoms you could play Dynasty Warriors 6 on the 360 or PS3. There are 17 campaigns, each slightly twisting history from a specific character’s perspective, with lots of gloriously cheesy CGI cutscenes.

    Of course you’d have to like the peculiar Dynasty Warriors mix of tactics and brawling…

  • jason

    RotK is a great book, but it takes a while to get going. It’s also one of those books that takes forever to get to the ending (which makes sense when it’s all done, trust me).

    As for the game, I have one of the PS2 ones lying around and couldn’t get into it. I think it probably works better on PC.