Cycles of stories from the Three Kingdoms period existed in oral form before any written compilations. In these popular stories the characters typically took on exaggerated and mythical characteristics, often becoming immortals or supernatural beings with magical powers. With their focus on the rich history of the Han Chinese, the stories grew in popularity during the reign of the foreign Mongol emperors of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1279-1368). During the succeeding Ming Dynasty an interest in plays and novels resulted in further expansions and retelling of the stories.
The earliest attempt to combine these stories into a written work was the San Guo Zhi Ping Hua (三國志平話 pinyin san1 guo2 zhi4 ping2 hua4), published during the Zhizhi (至治 pinyin zhi4 zhi4) era of the Ying Zong emperor[?] of Yuan Dynasty between 1321 and 1323. This version combined themes of magic, myth, and morality to appeal to a peasant-class readership. Elements of reincarnation and karma are woven into this version of the story. The decline of the Han Dynasty is therefore traced to the sins of its founding emperor, Han Gao Zu, who unjustly executes his three able generals Han Xin[?], Pang Yue[?] and Ying Bu[?]. The cruel emperor is later reborn as the last Han emperor, Han Xiandi[?], and the three generals are reincarnated as rulers of the three kingdoms: Han Xin becomes Cao Cao, the ruler of the kingdom of Wei; Peng Yue becomes Liu Bei, ruler of the kingdom of Shu-Han; and Ying Bu becomes Sun Quan the ruler of the kingdom of Wu. This time the emperor is the victim, and his sentence is to suffer endless torment at the hands of Cao Cao.
A later version, San Guo Zhi Tong Su Yan Yi (三國志通俗演義 pinyin san1 guo2 zhi4 tong1 su2 yan3 yi14), was written by Mao Tsung-kang and Mao Lun. This version expands on the story of the Romance of Three Kingdoms.
The most well-known version of the novel was written by Luo Guanzhong sometime between 1330 and 1400 (late Yuan to early Ming period). His novel was written in plain Chinese and was considered the standard text for three hundred years. Luo Guanzhong made greater use of available historical records including the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms compiled by Chen Shou[?], which covered events from the time of the Yellow Turban Rebellion in AD 184 up until the unification of the three kingdoms under emperor Wu Di[?] of the Jin Dynasty in AD 280. Luo combined this historical knowledge with a gifted story-telling ability to create an heroic tapestry of personalities displaying power, courage, ambition, rashness, faith, love, stupidity and wisdom. An important character in this version is Liu Bei's loyal and courageous general, Guan Yu, who resists the evil machinations of Cao Cao.
The novel incorporates an unusual naming convention of including a style name for many characters. Each character introduces themselves with a three part name: surname, given name, and style name. For example, Liu Bei's style is Xuande, and he is alternately referred to as Liu Bei, Liu Xuande, or simply Xuande. Whether a character is referred to by his style or his given name and surname seems to depend on the nobility of the character. The more noble the more often the style name is used, rather than given name and surname. Zhuge Liang is nearly always Kong Ming and Liu Bei almost always Liu Xuande, but Zhang Fe and Lu Bu always go by their given names and surnames.
The rich storyline of the Romance of Three Kingdoms continues to generate new versions to the present day. Recent years have seen the introduction of several popular computer games and a Chinese TV series based on the epic.
The novel begins with the sworn brothers Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei[?]. The eldest, Liu Bei, is the son of a minor official in Zuozhou county, Hebei and a very distant relative of the royal family. His father dies young so it falls to Liu Bei to take care of his family by selling straw mats and sandals. Guan Yu, the middle brother, is a fugitive from another county. Zhang Fei, the youngest of the three brothers, supports himself by butchering pigs.
The trio finds they share the same ideal: a desire to help the Emperor put down the Yellow Turban Rebellion. In the famous scene of the Oath of the Peach Garden[?] they make their oath of brotherhood. They promised to enjoy happiness as well as enduring hardship together, quoting, "Brothers with the same heart supporting each other can achieve anything."
After the Yellow Turbans are defeated the brothers struggle in an era of warlords. Without enough support, they merely observe many historical events. The emperor[?] dies, leaving his nine-year old son[?] to rule. The plot deepens as Cao Cao, an ambitious prime minister, makes plans to steal the imperial throne.
The three brothers remain loyal to the young Han emperor. A hermit from Jinzhou, Kong Ming[?], enters the story when Liu Bei goes to Nanyang to seek his advice on defeating Cao Cao. The hermit, reputed to have the power to foretell the future, is initially reluctant to help, but Liu Bei humbly persuades him to aid his quest.
After Cao Cao's death, his son Cao Pi forces the emperor Han Xiandi[?] into abdication and subsequently proclaims himself Emperor of Wei. Kong Ming encourages Liu Bei to declare himself as successor to the Han Dynasty. Once in power Liu Bei starts a campaign of revenge for the deaths of his beloved brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. He holds Sun Quan, the founder of the rival Kingdom of Wu, responsible for their deaths and declares war. Liu's vision is clouded by the death of his brothers and he is somewhat rushed in his decisions. As a result his invading forces are almost annihilated in the Battle of Yi Ling and thus the Shu-Han kingdom begins its slow decline despite Kong Ming's efforts at restoring it during his Six Northern Expeditions[?].
Luo Guanzhong's re-telling of this story also give us a window into the politics of his time. The contemporary Ming Emperor Wanli[?] had officially elevated Guan Yu to the position of a god, Guan Di, to emphasize Guan Yu's characteristics of bravery and extreme fidelity (characteristics the emperor no doubt wanted to promote in his subjects). Luo Guanzhong, however, gives us a more subtle Guan Yu who dies a shattered idol, deserving pity because of his overconfidence. This dissonance was overlooked in traditional commentaries on the text but recent research finds in Luo Guanzhong's Guan Yu a fascinating reflection of Chinese culture under Ming rule, the author complying with the program of imperial propaganda while also subtly subverting it.
Besides the famous oath, many Chinese proverbs in use today are derived from the novel: