The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a bit of a slog for the final thirty chapters. The Three Kingdoms, locked in a stalemate, have replaced the dynamic rises and falls of earlier power bases. The age of romance and heroic deeds is passing, and most of the interesting heroes and villains are dead (sorry, Jiang Wei…). But Xuande’s quest lives on, and for as long as it does so, there is still something worth fighting and dying for.
The oath-brothers are dead; Cao Cao is dead. But Kongming and his disciple Jiang Wei will not give up the cause. They can restore order and unity to the Empire, if only they can conquer the Kingdom of Wei…
Kongming’s first campaign against Wei
The year is AD 225. Emperor Cao Pi rules the northern Kingdom of Wei; King Sun Quan rules the Southlands; and the weak Emperor Ah Dou, son of the hero Xuande, is on the throne of the Riverlands to the west. Ah Dou’s great hope is his advisor Kongming, who has been away from the kingdom pacifying the Man people in the south. Kongming makes peace with the spirits of the fallen in order to get home. Cao Pi dies; his son, Cao Rui, inherits. Riverland spies spread misinformation which causes Cao Rui to demote the loyal and talented Sima Yi, so Kongming it is finally time to invade and complete Xuande’s mission by reuniting the Empire. The elderly Zhao Zilong, the last of Xuande’s five Tiger-Generals (Ma Chao having died of natural causes), demands that Kongming overlook his age and use him in the invasion.
- Cao Rui: Cao Cao’s grandson and the second Emperor of Wei
- Sima Yi: a brilliant commander who becomes Kongming’s last great rival – and an existential threat to his overlords, the Cao family
As against the Man, Zha Zilong and Wei Yan (see Ch.53) are Kongming’s chief generals. Zhao Zilong, aged seventy, fights heroically; drawn into a trap, he is saved by Zhang Bao and Guan Xing (see Ch.82), and the three champions then defeat the foe. Kongming’s tricks capture two cities, but the third is saved when a man called JIANG WEI sees through Kongming’s deceit.
- Jiang Wei: he will become the final major character, taking central stage for the end of the novel. He is a good man and a cunning strategist, and Kongming makes him his disciple. Although he features in a smaller span of the novel than the other main characters, Jiang Wei becomes the last remaining protagonist and has a starring role in the final chapters.
Jiang Wei defeats Zhao Zilong, but Kongming outmaneouevres him and gets him to defect. At a parley, the 75-year-old enemy commander drops dead with outrage at Kongming’s righteous invective. Kongming wins a night victory.
The Qiang people attack Kongming’s rear; Guan Xing is only saved by the supernatural intervention of his father’s spirit (see Ch.77). Kongming defeats the Qiang people and then the Wei army. Emperor Cao Rui recalls Sima Yi, who learns that Meng Da (see Ch.79) plans to defect back to the Riverlands. Sima Yi thus earns Cao Rui’s complete trust, because without him, Meng Da’s attack would have been fatal for the dynasty. Sima Yi defeats and kills Meng Da before he can coordinate effectively with Kongming.
Kongming entrusts his friend Ma Su with the vital job of holding the strategic town of Jieting, but Ma Su foolishly camps on a hill and lets himself get isolated and defeated by Sima Yi. With Jieting fallen, Kongming knows that the campaign must be aborted and his gains abandoned. The only thing that saves the fleeing army is a series of bold bluffs by Kongming, Zhang Bao, Guan Xing and Zhao Zilong, which cause Sima Yi to proceed with unnecessary caution.
Mortified at his defeat, Kongming regretfully executes Ma Su. A false defector from the Southland tricks a Wei force into marching south, where Lu Xun (see Ch.83-4) defeats it.
Kongming’s later campaigns against Wei
Zhao Zilong dies of old age – a severe blow to Kongming and to his Emperor, whose life he twice saved (see Ch.41, 61). Consumed by his quest against Wei and sure that passivity would lead to the fall of Ah Dou’s kingdom, Kongming launches another invasion but fails to get anywhere until Jiang Wei pretends to defect to the enemy and lures them into a trap.
- Death of Zhao Zilong
The Wei troops attempt to starve Kongming into retreating. He sees through their trick of disguising fire-wagons as grain carts and sets light to them, causing the enemy to attack and fall into Kongming’s counter-ambush. Kongming escapes back to the Riverlands with his army before the enemy can regroup. Sun Quan becomes Emperor of the Southlands and agrees with Ah Dou on a joint attack on Wei. Kongming makes swift gains and Sima Yi accepts the command against him.
Three times, Kongming outwits even Sima Yi and inflicts defeats on his army, but the death Zhang Bao makes Kongming seriously ill and he has to retreat to the Riverlands. Sima Yi tries to attack, but heavy rains hold him off until Emperor Cao Rui orders him to give up and retreat.
- Death of Zhang Bao
As Sima Yi retreats, Kongming pursues – his fourth campaign against Wei since the pacification of the Man (see Ch.90). He outwits and defeats the Wei armies, but a spy spreads rumours that he wants to depose Ah Dou. Eunuchs – the downfall of the Han Imperial House and hated by Xuande – now lead Ah Dou astray; alarmed by the rumour, he recalls Kongming before he can capitalise on his victories.
After clearing things up with his Emperor, Kongming invades Wei again. He wins the troops’ love by abiding by their hundred-day rotation at the front even when it endangers his cause, so they volunteer to stay anyway. A report of a potential Southland invasion forces him to withdraw yet again, though once more he succeeds in preventing Sima Yi from attacking his retreating rear.
After three years of peace have passed, and Guan Xing has died of illness, Kongming, unwavering, launches a sixth invasion. He suffers a heavy defeat when Sima Yi anticipates his plan, but Sima Yi in his turn is drawn into a serious defeat at Kongming’s hands. Kongming devises mechanical constructions for moving grain, and is able to confound the enemy by including a secret mechanism which prevents the enemy from rolling them away.
- Death of Guan Xing
Emperor Cao Rui defeats a Southland invasion. Despite Sima Yi’s determination to overcome the threat by maintaining a strict, unbreakable defensive position, Kongming manages to lure him into a trap, where he is sure to burn to death until he is saved by a timely rainstorm. Obsessively overworking but stuck at a stalemate, Kongming’s health declines when he hears his hopes in a new Southland invasion have been dashed. Kongming’s death is near, but he prays for a twelve-year reprieve to complete his work. Wei Yan interrupts the ritual, dooming Kongming.
Kongming passes down his teachings to Jiang Wei. He warns his successor as Prime Minister, Yang Yi, that Wei Yan will go rogue (see Ch.53), and leaves instructions on how to deal with him. Kongming dies and the army retreats, protected by his final strategems. Wei Yan, furious that they are retreating and contemptuous of Yang Yi, moves to cut off their retreat.
- Death of Kongming
Fall of the Cao family
Wei Yan and Yang Yi both petition Emperor Ah Dou, each claiming that the other is a traitor. Yang Yi uses a “password” to activate a sleeper agent who was ordered to by Kongming to stay close to Wei Yan for this purpose: the man kills Wei Yan. Kongming’s funeral is held. Yang Yi does not get the high office he hoped for, complains bitterly, is demoted, and kills himself in shame. Emperor Cao Rui, freed from fear of Kongming, rules more harshly, embarking upon a hubristic and burdensome building spree and forcing his wife to kill herself.
- Death of Wei Yan
Sima Yi puts down a northern rebellion. Haunted by his late wife, Cao Rui dies, leaving Sima Yi and Cao Shuang as regents for Cao Rui’s adopted son Cao Fang. Cao Shuang sidelines Sima Yi and grows ever more powerful and arrogant over the years, while Sima Yi, feigning illness, plots his revenge with his sons.
- Death of Cao Rui
When Cao Shuang and his faction are all out of the capital on a hunt, Sima Yi launches a coup. Cao Shuang surrenders; he and his closest followers are executed and Sima Yi takes charge of Emperor Cao Fang. Horrified, Xiahou Ba, son of Xiahou Yuan (see Ch.71), defects to the Riverlands. Xiahou Ba wants to save the Cao clan whereas Jiang Wei wants to eliminate it, but both hate Sima Yi. Using Xiahou Ba as a guide, Jiang Wei invades Wei but his reinforcements fail to arrive and he suffers a defeat.
- Xiahou Ba: The novel’s last warrior-hero
Sima Yi, Sun Quan and Lu Xun (see Ch.83-4) die of old age. Sun Quan is succeeded as Emperor by Sun Liang, and Sima Yi’s son and heir, Sima Shi, tries to invade while the Southland is in mourning. The Southland is victorious, but its counter-invasion – led by Kongming’s nephew, Zhuge Ke – is a disaster. Humiliated, Zhuge Ke becomes savage and unpredictable, abusing his power, so Emperor Sun Liang’s relative Sun Jun arranges for him to be murdered at a banquet, and his clan is killed.
- Deaths of Sima Yi and Sun Quan
Jiang Wei and Xiahou Ba try another invasion of Wei, but this time they are betrayed by their allies, and again they are defeated. History is bringing retribution for Cao Cao’s treatment of Emperor Xian, and events are mirroring the past: the fearful Emperor Cao Fang, a mere puppet for Sima Shi, plots against the would-be usurper with three Cao loyalists. But the three are discovered and executed and Cao Fang’s wife is strangled; Cao Fang himself is deposed and replaced with Cao Mao.
Sima Shi defeats a pro-Cao Fang prising, but the exertion so soon after an operation on an eye tumour is too much for him and he dies; power in the kingdom of Wei passes to his brother, Sima Zhao. Jiang Wei invades again, determined to complete Kongming’s mission, but after a major victory he is forced to withdraw.
- Sima Zhao: the son of Sima Yi, he will oversee the downfalls of both Xuande’s dynasty and Cao Cao’s dynasty, bringing the novel to its conclusion
Jiang Wei continues the cause
A Wei military genius, Deng Ai, defeats and drives off Jiang Wei, having anticipated his every move. Sima Zhao, in total power over Emperor Cao Mao, thinks about usurping. Finding out that a nobleman called Zhuge Dan is too loyal to the Wei dynasty, he plans to remove him, but Zhuge Dan finds out and revolts, allying with the Southlands.
- Deng Ai: Wei’s greatest strategist who will prove to be Jiang Wei’s nemesis
The Southland withdraws, and Zhuge Dan is defeated and killed. But Jiang Wei has already launched a fifth invasion of Wei, which to his distress he has to abort when he hears that Sima Zhao has pacified his southern frontier.
The Southland Emperor, Sun Liang, is totally in the power of his tyrannical and ambitious guardian, Sun Chen. When poor Sun Liang is found to be plotting against Sun Chen’s life, Sun Chen ruthlessly deposes him and installs Sun Xiu in his place. However, Sun Xiu has more luck and enlists conspirators who kill Sun Chen, liberating the Emperor. Jiang Wei invades Wei a sixth time, and this time his mastery of war is too great for Deng Ai. Deng Ai has to take advantage of a eunuch called Huang Hao and the hold he has over Emperor Ah Dou: rumours are spread of Jiang Wei’s disloyalty, and with Huang Hao’s interference, Ah Dou recalls Jiang Wei.
Emperor Cao Mao leads a brief, futile revolt against Sima Zhao and is promptly murdered in the street. Jiang Wei invades Wei yet again; pretending to accept a false defector, he feels Deng Ai information that draws him into a trap. But the “defector” hears about Deng Ai’s defeat and, rather than flee east to safety as Jiang Wei expected him to, he rampages behind Jiang Wei’s lines, causing infrastructure damage before dying.
Jiang Wei launches an eighth assault on Wei. Initial defeats cost Xiahou Ba (see Ch.107) his life, but Jiang Wei establishes the advantage over Deng Ai – only to be recalled thanks to the meddling of the eunuch Huang Hao. Dismayed, Jiang Wei begs the Emperor to execute Huang Hao, to no avail. The disastrous rise of the eunuchs means that the story has come full circle. Rot has set into the kingdom; Emperor Ah Dou is of no use; the remaining good men are trying to distance themselves from the court; and Jiang Wei has expended his kingdom’s military strength on fruitless campaigns against Wei. Sima Zhao decides the time has come to strike.
- Death of Xiahou Ba
Sima Zhao’s final victory
Sima Zhao’s invasion begins, but the eunuch Huang Hao keeps the Emperor in ignorance and makes sure that no reinforcements are sent to the beleaguered frontier. Huang Hao diverts and reassures Ah Dou with a false prophecy from a sham sorceress. Harried on all sides, Jiang Wei is driven back. Kongming’s ghost gets the invaders to spare the kingdom’s civilians, which is a small consolation.
While his colleague keeps Jiang Wei pinned down, Deng Ai launches a startlingly daring arrack over near-impossible terrain to get into the Riverlands from an unexpected approach. Once inside, nobody can stand against him, except Kongming’s son Zhuge Zan who is eventually killed, loyal to the last. Deng Ai’s way to the capital is open.
Ah Dou surrenders to Deng Ai; the line of Han expires. It is the year AD 263. Ah Dou’s weak character is the ultimate cause of the fall of his father Xuande’s cause: intrigue at court prevented both Kongming and Jiang Wei from capitalising on their victories. Jiang Wei, to his horror, is ordered to surrender. Not giving up yet, he doggedly continues his mission with guile and from within. He counsels Deng Ai’s rival to remove him, aiming to divide the conquering forces. Sima Zhao travels towards the Riverlands, trusting neither of the generals on the scene.
Deng Ai is arrested, and Jiang Wei convinces his Wei “friend” to rebel against Sima Zhao. But they are not ready for Sima Zhao’s rapid approach, and as they hastily try to dispose of the loyal generals, word gets out to all the Wei commanders, who murder them both. The mission begun by Xuande, carried forward by Kongming and continued by Jiang Wei comes to nothing, doomed by a worthless emperor. Deng Ai dies in the disturbance. Sima Zhao, now without rivals, returns to the capital with Ah Dou, who proves too simple, pleasure-loving and spineless to be a threat. Sima Zhao dies; his son Sima Yan deposes the last Wei Emperor, Cao Huan, and founds the dynasty of Jin.
- Deaths of Jiang Wei, Deng Ai and Sima Zhao
The final chapter serves as a postscript, most strands of the story having ended with the death of Jiang Wei. The age of heroes has passed, and the great deeds of the Three Kingdoms period are fading into history. Emperor Sun Xiu dies in the Southland, and is succeeded by the monstrous Sun Hao. Years later, the Jin finally invade; the defences fall, Sun Hao surrenders, and the three kingdoms are finally reconstituted into one Empire under the Jin.