The game for China’s throne continues, even after the end of this book

So I’ve finally managed to finish Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and also completed the challenge of reading the four classical novels of Imperial China. This is certain a tome that makes you marvel at history, and wonder just what might have been if one side had triumphed over another. I suspect that history might not be too different either way.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms concludes with the conquering of the states of Wu and Shu by the new state of Jin from the north by Sima Yan, who was the descendant of Sima Yi, one of the former Cao Dynasty’s great military strategists. In any event, this was accomplished with the advantage of chaos and bad governance of the leaders of Wu and Shu. The Jin Dynasty would rule China for another 150 years.

One of the questions that were posed before the book began was whether any of the three houses of Cao, Liu and Sun (the leaders of the tripartite) were the “legitimate” rulers of China, after the collapse of power of the ruling Han Dynasty. I think that the book essentially rules out any particular legitimacy of the three contenders, considering it concludes with someone who nobody saw as a contender winning the throne.

What Romance of the Three Kingdoms showed is that “legitimacy” is about power, not heritage or perceived mandate from heaven. It is competence, political nouse and might that wins the day when you’re setting out to conquer a great empire. Either way though, this is a great story, albeit not technically or literally accurate. The people and characters though, did exist in history, not in that romanticised way we all imagine great heroes and villains, but as normal people with wants and needs.

I can see how Romance of the Three Kingdoms is widely regarded as such a masterpiece. It explores and informs the reader of history in an entertaining way, it’s complex, but not in any minute details, but rather in political machinations and use of military strategy. It’s just such a wonderful book.


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