The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of China’s greatest and most influential works of literature. It is an epic tale of war and heroes, loyalty, betrayal and cunning plans; of beleagured morality versus cruel political reality; and of what men are capable of doing in the pursuit of power.
For Chinese culture, Three Kingdoms is a bit like Homer and Shakespeare rolled into one. It’s also very, very long and complicated. So I’ve written brief summaries of each of its 120 chapters, for people who want to follow the plot but who don’t have time to read more than 2000 pages and keep track of hundreds of characters.
Three Kingdoms is a historical novel set between AD 184 and AD 264, and based on real people and real events. It is attributed to a mysterious fourteenth-century writer called Luo Guanzhong. The novel charts the bloody collapse of China’s Han Empire; the emergence of three successor kingdoms; and the ultimate fate of those kingdoms as their rulers battle each other to reunify all of China. It was substantially edited by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang in the 1660s, and this became the standard version (I read it in translation by Moss Roberts). I’ve divided my chapter summaries into four parts, because, well, there’s a lot of chapters.
The first part of the story details the splintering of power, as a puppet child emperor is installed and the empire’s central control crumbles. The heroes, noble-hearted Xuande and his two oath-brothers, find themselves entangled in a deadly web of fear and ambition as every provincial governor has to fend for himself. Imperial courtiers transform into villainous and ambitious warlords – such as Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao, the Yuan brothers, and Lü Bu. This first round of warfare is fluid and dangerous: by the end of Part 1, only one man on this list is still alive.
The Empire’s slide into chaos
In a time of turbulence and imperial weakness, the Yellow Turbans rise up in revolt. The impoverished and insignificant Liu Bei (XUANDE) meets ZHANG FEI and Guan Yu (LORD GUAN), and the three gather in a peach garden to swear an oath of brotherhood and pledge to defend the Empire. The three fight the Yellow Turbans, as does the heroic commander Sun Jian. But court machinations see the incompetent and ungrateful Dong Zhuo promoted; he offends the heroes.
- Xuande: the hero. He has the potential to someday become a legitimate emperor, because he is a deeply virtuous man; but he faces the impossible destiny of trying to stay true to this virtue (and therefore legitimacy) in a ruthless world that rewards treachery and violence
- Lord Guan: his greatness as a warrior and leader, and his undying loyalty to his oath-brothers, only has one weakness: a keen sense of his own reputation, born from his consciousness of his own great worth
- Zhang Fei: a rough diamond: he comes across as violent and reckless, but underneath he is a deeply loyal man with great potential. Prone to short-temperedness and drunkenness, he is nevertheless a true hero and worthy oath-brother
- Sun Jian: a hero whose actions will lead to the founding of the Southland Kingdom, the third of the Three Kingdoms
- Dong Zhuo: a thoroughly bad piece of work whose worst tendencies quickly become apparent as the empire descends into disorder
Xuande is passed over for promotion after the war, then finally promoted only to subsequently be demoted again, prompting the short-tempered Zhang Fei to whip the government inspector who brings the news. All this is a result of the corruption at court due to the dominant faction of Ten Eunuchs. When the Emperor dies, there is a power struggle to control his two young sons. The Ten Eunuchs are set against the Regent, whose most competent followers are Yuan Shao and CAO CAO.
- Cao Cao: an immensely capable, ambitious and ruthless man whose generalship and cunning make him the great villain of the novel. He will stop at nothing to achieve his aims – and he will prove to be the most dangerous of all the lords in the empire
- Yuan Shao: at this point, he is on the side of the Emperor and of the rightful order of things. But once given the opportunity, the worthy Yuan Shao will turn into a scheming warlord, as blood-soaked and unscrupulous as the rest
The Regent foolishly calls in Dong Zhuo to kill the eunuchs, who summon and kill the Regent instead. Yuan Shao attacks and kills the eunuchs. Dong Zhuo arrives and announces his plan to replace the elder prince (now Emperor) with the younger. Ding Yuan challenges Dong Zhuo and gets the better of him in battle. But Dong Zhuo wins over Ding Yuan’s adopted son, Lü Bu, who treacherously murders Ding Yuan.
- Lü Bu: an extraordinary fighter, a shallow, thoughtless man and a dangerous liability: Lü Bu quickly develops into a serious problem for the lords – a mad dog that they all struggle to contain
The new Emperor, Emperor Xian, is Dong Zhuo’s puppet; the old Emperor and his mother are killed. Yuan Shao flees from the court and foments revolt; Cao Cao fails to assassinate Dong Zhuo and flees as well. Cao Cao is given shelter by a kindly relative. Mistaking the relative’s actions for an attempt on his life, Cao Cao kills the man and his whole family.
- Emperor Xian is an unfortunate puppet: a good man with very little actual power, the captive of warlords who fight to control him
The War Against Dong Zhuo
Cao Cao gathers a faction, including the fierce warrior Xiahou Dun. At the same time, he raises eighteen lords against Dong Zhuo. Yuan Shao takes command of this uneasy coalition; Xuande, Zhang Fei and Lord Guan join it, in the service of Gongsun Zan. Dong Zhuo’s general holds them off at a pass. Sun Jian, hero of the war of the Yellow Turbans, tries to clear the pass – but Yuan Shao’s brother, Yuan Shu, doesn’t trust him; he denies Sun Jian resources and Dong Zhou’s general drives him back. Lord Guan engages and kills Dong Zhuo’s general. In the next battle, all three heroes take on the mighty Lü Bu, who escapes.
- Xiahou Dun: a terrifying fighter and one of Cao Cao’s greatest commanders, he is central to all of Cao Cao’s subsequent military plans.
- Gongsun Zan: a good man and a mediocre warlord, he is unsuited to this new, more violent world. He lacks the cutthroat instinct of many of his peers
- Yuan Shu: much like his brother, he proves to be another treacherous warlord who is willing to use violence and betrayal to further his cause
Dong Zhuo, still presenting himself as the lawful regent for his captive Emperor but now nothing more than a murderous despot, abandons the capital. Cao Cao gives chase, straight into a disastrous ambush from which he barely survives. Sun Jian discovers the imperial seal, a key marker of imperial legitimacy, dropped during Dong Zhuo’s retreat. Alienated by Yuan Shu’s suspicions, Sun Jian heads home with the seal, betraying the rebellion. Without him, the alliance falls apart, disheartened by lack of momentum and differing interests.
Sun Jian escapes home to the Southlands, though Liu Biao tries to cut him off and earns his enmity. Centralised power is gone. The Yuan brothers, Shao and Shu, both show a tendency towards unscrupulous double-dealing. Yuan Shao exploits Xuande’s lord, Gongsun Zan: he gets him to threaten a province which Yuan Shao wants, and then convinces the province to surrender to him out of fear of Gongsun Zan. Outraged at being tricked, Gongsun Zan declares war on Yuan Shao. A battle on a bridge between the two sides twists and turns, and Gongsun Zan is only saved by Xuande – and by another hero, ZHAO ZILONG, who greatly impresses Xuande. Dong Zhuo brokers a peace. Meanwhile Yuan Shu, angry with his brother and with Liu Biao, gets Sun Jian to attack the latter. Sun Jian has great success until he is drawn into an ambush and killed.
- Liu Biao: as the warlords go, he is a decent man. A competent ruler, he relies – like Xuande – on integrity and force of arms rather than treachery and annexation. Unfortunately, over time, he slowly loses control over his ambitious in-laws
- Zhao Zilong: he ranks alongside the three oath-brothers – Xuande, Lord Guan and Zhang Fei – as one of the novel’s greatest heroes. He is a good and loyal man and a remarkable warrior; he shares a very close bond with Xuande from this first meeting.
- Death of Sun Jian
Liu Biao lets go the chance to take Sun Jian’s Southlands, because he is too keen to recover his friend, who is held hostage by Sun Jian’s son Sun Ce. Meanwhile, a nobleman called Wang Yun, disgusted by Dong Zhuo’s excesses, sets his adopted daughter as a snare to seduce Dong Zhuo and his mighty lieutenant Lü Bu, who discover that they are love rivals and come to hate each other.
- Sun Ce: a bold warrior worthy of his father, but youthfully headstrong
Together, Wang Yun and Lü Bu plot and achieve Dong Zhuo’s murder. Dong Zhuo’s generals attack; Lü Bu flees, but Wang Yun stands his ground and perishes.
- Death of Dong Zhuo
Cao Cao gets hold of the Emperor
After Dong Zhuo’s death, there is a struggle to control the Emperor and the legitimacy that he bestows. Dong Zhuo’s generals defeat an army come to relieve them of their captive Emperor, and kill some traitors. Cao Cao’s father is murdered by an escort meant to him by the well-meaning Tao Qian; the vengeful Cao Cao invades Tao Qian’s lands.
Tao Qian sends for help from Kong Rong, who is attacked by Yellow Turbans and has to be rescued by Xuande, his oath-brothers and his friend Zhao Zilong (see Ch.7). They march to Tao Qian’s aid; he offers the governorship to Xuande, who refuses. Cao Cao is forced to retreat as his homeland has been captured by Lü Bu, who has been on the move to survive, relying on benefactors, the latest of whom has send him here. Lü Bu defeats Cao Cao.
Cao Cao rides into his old capital, informed that it has betrayed Lü Bu – but it is a trap and he narrowly escapes. Tao Qian dies, making Xuande his reluctant heir. Cao Cao and his able general Dian Wei fight rebels. Cao Cao’s counterattack tricks Lü Bu with cunning ambushes: he regains his land and captures that of Lü Bu’s benefactor.
Lü Bu comes to the domain where Xuande is the new governor. Xuande accepts him as an ally – to Zhang Fei’s horror. Loyal men at court manage to turn Dong Zhuo’s generals against each other, but this just causes a bloody struggle in which the Emperor is a pawn. The noble-hearted officer Yang Feng betrays his general and, with the help of Dong Cheng, an imperial in-law, and some rebel bands, the Emperor is narrowly rescued. But he is betrayed by a rebel-leader, who sides with Dong Zhuo’s reconciled generals.
- Dong Cheng: an imperial in-law, he is extremely loyal to his Emperor. This soon leads him down a dangerous road…
Yang Feng’s man Xu Huang kills the rebel-leader. Cao Cao is called to aid the Emperor, and he defeats Dong Zhuo’s generals. Yang Feng and the surviving rebel-leader, Han Xian, fear Cao Cao and get out of his way when they try to stop Cao Cao from moving the court to Xuchang, Xu Huang is induced to defect and the pair are soundly defeated. Cao Cao sets about playing off Yuan Shu, Lü Bu and Xuande against each other. Xuande refuses to kill Lü Bu when ordered to, but Cao Cao manages to set him against Yuan Shu. While Xuande is away fighting, Zhang Fei’s drunkenness leads to Lü Bu taking the city and capturing Xuande’s wives.
Xuande in the service of Lü Bu
Lü Bu accepts Xuande as his dependant in the same post he recently occupied under Xuande. Sun Ce, the son of Sun Jian and new lord of the Southlands (see Ch.7-8), gets troops off Yuan Shu – giving him the imperial seal as surety – and defeats a warlord called Liu Yao. Sun Ce wins over Taishi Ci, the warlord’s best warrior, by capturing, then freeing and promoting him. With Taishi Ci and Zhou Yu, Sun Ce rides a wave of success, establishing the future Southland kingdom. But Yuan Shu refuses to give the seal back to his former vassal.
- Taishi Ci: hereafter, he is the greatest warrior in the Southlands
- Zhou Yu: a brilliantly cunning advisor who will play a pivotal role in the story later on. He is loyal to the Southlands – but not entirely to be trusted
Unscrupulous opportunism rules the day. Yuan Shu tries to attack Xuande but Lü Bu gets Yuan Shu’s army to withdraw. To isolate Xuande, Yuan Shu proposes a marriage alliance with Lü Bu, who sees through the trick at the last minute and calls back his daughter. Zhang Fei the reckless oath-brother steals horses from Lü Bu, who attacks Xuande, who flees to Cao Cao. The general Zhang Xiu turns against Cao Cao when he learns that Cao Cao is sleeping with his uncle’s widow; he carefully plans a night-time betrayal which kills Cao Cao’s son and also Dian Wei (see Ch.12), but Cao Cao escapes, counterattacks, and drives Zhang Xiu to Liu Biao (see Ch.7).
Yuan Shu declares himself Emperor and attacks Lü Bu, but Yang Feng and Han Xian (see Ch.13-14), now working for Yuan Shu, are induced to betray him as they are both still loyal to the Han Emperor. Yuan Shu is defeated and Lü Bu appoints Yang Feng and Han Xian to commands – only to compel Xuande (with whom he has been reconciled by Cao Cao) to kill them at a banquet for letting their men run riot. Cao Cao enlists Sun Ce, Xuande and Lü Bu against Yuan Shu. Food shortages require Cao Cao to find a scapegoat, so he apologetically kills a loyal officer to re-establish control over his army. He then attacks and besieges Zhang Xiu, who betrayed him in the previous chapter and has now allied himself with Liu Biao.
Zhang Xiu and Liu Biao work together to drive off Cao Cao. Cao Cao orders Xuande, by imperial command, to secretly prepare against Lü Bu, but Lü Bu finds out and attacks. Cao Cao’s reinforcements for Xuande are beaten off. Cao Cao’s general Xiahou Dun (see Ch.5) is struck in the eye by an arrow – he plucks out the wounded eye and eats it in the middle of the battle, striking terror into his enemies.
Cao Cao and Xuande work together to pin down Lü Bu, who – despite a last-minute accord with Yuan Shu – is doomed by his own foolishness and betrayed by three disaffected generals. Lü Bu and his top supporters are executed. However, his general Zhang Liao shows heart, and is contemptuous of Lü Bu’s vain efforts to plead for his life – so Cao Cao spares him and takes him into his faction.
- Zhang Liao: a capable and intelligent general who now serves Cao Cao ably and loyally
- Death of Lü Bu
Dong Cheng’s Plot Against Cao Cao
Cao Cao’s grip on the imperial court is now secure, with command over Xuande and many other lords. His biggest rivals – Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu and Sun Ce – are far away. But Cao Cao’s presumptuousness, particularly on a royal hunt where he uses the imperial bow, triggers the Emperor Xian to pass secret instructions to the imperial in-law Dong Cheng (see Ch.13), who gathers conspirators against Cao Cao.
Dong Cheng recruits Xuande. Xuande has a few nervy moments when invited to drink alone with Cao Cao. News comes that Yuan Shao has killed Xuande’s mentor Gongsun Zan (see Ch.5, 7), and Xuande volunteers to intercept Yuan Shu as he marches to his brother. Yuan Shu is killed, but Cao Cao realises that Xuande has escaped his control and tasks one of his officers with getting rid of him. Lord Guan finds out and kills the officer.
- Deaths of Gongsun Zan and Yuan Shu
Afraid of Cao Cao’s vengeance, Xuande allies himself with Yuan Shao, who publishes a detailed proclamation against Cao Cao. Marching against Yuan Shao, Cao Cao sends two generals to pin down Xuande, but Lord Guan and Zhang Fei each capture one. Xuande releases them and they withdraw.
The warlord Zhang Xiu, Liu Biao’s ally (see Ch.16-18) is won back over to Cao Cao. A loudmouth scholar causes trouble: Cao Cao and Liu Biao are both unwilling to execute him, fearing the bad name it would bring them, but in the end someone else does it. Ji Ping the physician joins Dong Cheng, whose servant deserts to Cao Cao and tells him of the conspiracy. Cao Cao pretends to be ill, tricking Ji Ping into brewing poison for him and calling it medicine. Ji Ping, after much torture, kills himself; Cao Cao arrests the others.
Cao Cao massacres Dong Cheng, his associates and their clans, including Dong Cheng’s sister, an imperial concubine five months pregnant. He places a guard around the Emperor and marches against Xuande and Zhang Fei, who have been separated from Lord Guan. Yuan Shao refuses to join Xuande because his son is very ill. Cao Cao wins the battle, scattering Xuande’s supporters, and Xuande flees alone to Yuan Shao.
- Death of Dong Cheng
The Adventures of Lord Guan
Lord Guan is trapped on a hilltop, and Zhang Liao (see Ch.19) manipulates his heroic sense of reputation and convinces him to surrender rather than throw his life away. Lord Guan surrenders on condition that he may go to Xuande’s side as soon as he has word of his whereabouts. Cao Cao is impressed by Lord Guan, who says that his oath-brother Zhang Fei is ten times greater, in order to make Cao Cao wary of Zhang Fei. Cao Cao tries to win Lord Guan over with lavish gifts, to no avail.
Lord Guan keeps fighting for Cao Cao until he learns of Xuande’s whereabouts, whereupon he leaves Cao Cao, taking Xuande’s two wives with him. Lord Guan has acted with total propriety throughout: he has remembered his oaths and avoided crossing Cao Cao.
Cao Cao regretfully lets Lord Guan go, too concerned for his own reputation for honour to kill or detain him. But he does not give Lord Guan a passport, so the officers he meets take him for an enemy and try to kill him. In order to get himself and Xuande’s wives through, Lord Guan has to deal with various traps, forcing five checkpoints and killing six generals.
The one-eyed Xiahou Dun (see Ch.18) is about to arrest Lord Guan when his colleague Zhang Liao brings Cao Cao’s passport and pardon for the six dead generals. Lord Guan reaches his oath-brother Zhang Fei. But Zhang Fei is convinced that Lord Guan is a traitor until he kills one of Cao Cao’s commanders, who had come on his own initiative to seek vengeance against Lord Guan. Xuande carefully extricates himself from Yuan Shao’s faction and manages to rejoin them, and the oath-brothers are reunited. Xuande’s faction is reconstituted – and they are joined by Zhao Zilong, Xuande’s friend and the hero who served Gongsun Zan (see Ch.7, 21).
The end of Yuan Shao
Sun Ce, the lord of the Southlands (see Ch.15), plans to move against Cao Cao with Yuan Shao. But he is badly wounded by three vengeful supporters of Cao Cao. He is told to rest, but works himself up into a friendly by first killing a sage for sorcery and then being plagued by his ghost. Sun Ce dies in this way, leaving the Southlands to his younger brother SUN QUAN, who gathers good men to him to shore up his position – principally Zhou Yu (see Ch.15) and Lu Su.
- Sun Quan: inheriting the Southlands from his father and brother, he has greater advantages and abilities than most of his contemporaries. One day he will be Emperor of the Southlands, ruling it as one of the Three Kingdoms that emerge from the empire’s wreckage
- Lu Su: a well-meaning senior advisor who is very virtuous but not very suited to the vicious diplomacy of the period. He has a soft spot for Xuande and his faction, but schemers like Zhou Yu see him as a pawn they can manipulate
- Death of Sun Ce
Yuan Shao attacks Cao Cao and pins down his force, which is on the brink of starvation. But Yuan Shao’s faulty leadership ruins everything: he ignores or punishes good advice, fails to seize chances, and causes key defections of leaders who help Cao Cao turn the tables. Cao Cao, who thinks of everything and leads his men brilliantly, proves that Yuan Shao is no match for him. Yuan Shao’s power and his army are shattered.
Yuan Shao regroups back home; Cao Cao presses on against him, and continues to have success. Xuande takes the opportunity to make a move for the capital, but Cao Cao drops back and defeats him. Liu Biao (see Ch.7) grants Xuande sanctuary. Cao Cao turns his attentions back to Yuan Shao.
Worn down by exertion and bad news, Yuan Shao dies, naming his youngest son his heir. His eldest son is jealous, and Cao Cao profits from the power struggle, siding with the elder to oust the younger and take the capital.
- Death of Yuan Shao
Cao Cao finishes off the Yuan faction: the brothers are killed, including the one who previously sided with Cao Cao. His victory in the north is complete.