The aim of these notes is to provide both my own observations, jottings and thoughts on
Three Kingdoms as well as some academic prompts and thoughts and literary critiques.
Our forum is quite full of things, but I have not actually seen a topic like this. I encourage all our membership to partake and offer their own responses, opinions, etc as I explore the “standard” version of the novel. As I am not writing an academic paper here so I will limit most of my writing to the novel, with exceptions to major historical figures and incidents of the novel, ex The Yellow Scarves Rebellion.
Some chapters, such as the 1st one, I have only written general notes, but more integral parts of the novel where few things are occurring in one chapter will be given more technical looks at.
The notes follow the novel format and chapter respectively, all page numbers and chapters are respective to the Moss Roberts Translated Edition of The SGYY. (If your edition has a different event or an event not being told or something wildly different, it would be interesting to compare.)
Edit:Citation of General Event and Year or period will be posted at each note where possible along with citation of page number and paragraph relevant in the chapter. General Event of the note will be italicized Ex. The Oath in The Peach Garden.
Responses to the chapter notes (at the back of each book) will be placed with Chapter and note number it has.
Quotations and or responses to specific dialogue will be cited similarly. I believe this will allow our fellow Historians and people with different editions to more easily access the topic in reference. Actual Chapter Titles will be bolded and italicized.
Chapter 1: Three Bold Spirits Plights Mutual Faith in the Peach Garden,
Heroes and Champions Win First Honors Fighting the Yellow Scarves
(1) Note to Pages 1-4 Chapter 1 170-184A.D Fall of The Han, The Reign of Emperor Ling, Portents and Omens, The Yellow Scarves Rebellion
Due to the novel setting the stage for the characters versus events, as the entire work is character driven the opening stage is glossed in, the reader is being told what is going on. Portents and omens do play a role throughout the novel, as they did anywhere in the ancient world of 180 A.D. The portents described such as a “secondary rainbow”, and “chickens to hens,” here in the novel's opening can have decidedly scientific or even practical explanations, the latter notably could have been a plant by a chicken farmer simply wanting to make news.
The most notable implication of the opening of the novel, which took me some time perceive was the idea of common consciousness. What I mean by this is the idea that, all the people, the average everyday persons of the nation, are all somehow very in tune, convinced or aware of each other's troubles in a large, spacious, and disconnected world. This is less a modernist error and more one of asking the question ,“Does the masses exist?”. Three Kingdoms at least would have us believe the masses do exist. Only one character however seems to regard the masses throughout the novel in benevolent and kind terms.
Was the Yellow Scarves Rebellion due to Zhang Jiao's organizing and fanaticism, possibly. Did the people have justifiable grievances and problems, certainly. Half a million peasant rebels spread out over China however, is much easier to deal with than half a million peasant rebels in front of the imperial capital. How much was the rebellion due to Zhang Jiao, or mostly just people taking advantage of the situation to cause chaos and theoretically enrich themselves? Are the people that easily blinded, scammed, and misled, and then fired at an enemy that humanity has been continuous repeating this cycle throughout history, that is the question.
We tend to believe what happens in our lives happen in some kind of individual vacuum directed solely and specially at or around us regardless of our awareness. Yet without knowing the general thoughts of the masses, their verifiable and direct intentions, (regardless of say modern technology) historians always feel shaky, never being able to give a perfect answer to certain historical events, especially ones like the Yellow Scarves Rebellion. Was there a break down in Imperial Administration of the Han Dynasty, yes, do we know for certain how much de facto control they had over the everyday lives of the common people, not really, we can only imply based on the historical data.
(2) Notes to The Oath in The Peach Garden184 A.D Spring, Character Introductions of The Three Brothers Chapter 1 Pages 6-12
The first character driven event of the novel is very straightforward and moving, we are introduced to our first three principal characters, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, “The Three Brothers.”
Any first time reader is almost immediately going to point to that these are the “good guys”, that could reflect the author Luo Guanzhong's bias, or just the general intention that these three have to be the good guys. Liu Bei's entry in the Sanguozhi (One of the novel's sources for material)at the opening is also very flattering, however that could also be simply because its author Chen Shou had both a personal motivation (is ex-Lord's father/Emperor was Liu Bei) and was quite possibly directed by the Jin court to write positive rendition of the three major dynastic founders of the Three Kingdoms. A normal reader has no reason to doubt this section of the novel and yet because of that lack of doubt in the portrayal, a problem is created. If one reads the novel in a manner of rooting for a character, or a team, then the good team, qualitatively has already been defined.
(3) Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei fight The Yellow Scarves, Their First Battle.184 A.D Notes to Chapter 1 Pages 13-15
Fighting men who actually know how to fight is enormously more difficult than slaughtering defenseless peasants, as the Yellow Scarves find out. Of note, being for the masses and then proceeding to slaughter the masses, is a good way to say you actually aren't for the people but are simply manipulating them. This would lean the argument of “mass-consciousness” on its more negative aspects. What was running through the mind of the average Yellow Scarves rebel soldier, who wasn't devoted to slaughtering the average other commoners, or who felt like if they wanted revolution, why slaughter all the rest of the people and automatically make enemies of them? Leaving the army was probably not an easy option depending on their comrades and officers, who may kill them, or be able to coerce them by force to stay. In that case, the average scarve could be said to have been stuck into being a Yellow Scarve.
Very conveniently, Lu Zhi who is introduced here as a commanding military general also happens to be one of Liu Bei's teachers when he was younger, how convenient!, yet nothing seems to really come of that connection, why? Later on Lu Zhi will be removed from command, yet that does not make him a less influential person, either at court or in the army.
(4) Character Introduction of Cao Cao, Cao Cao the Han Official early years, Participation against the Yellow Scarves Notes to Chapter 1 Pages 15-17
Here we are introduced to Cao Cao, in very neutral terms, government general, capable commander, brilliant person, lies to his father! In Chinese culture this would be considered most wrong for a dutiful son, a good Confucian etc. Even then this particularly lacks context against Cao Cao's familial relationships which appear otherwise sound. The only alarming part to Cao Cao's character is Xu Shao's character judgment of him:
However, the next paragraph details his handling of an uncle of the Palace eunuch Jian Shuo, with no repercussions except to possibly have hived Cao Cao off to an appointment outside the capital district and none too far away regardless. A normal reader however, lacking context for the villainy and seeing the Yellow Scarves and or the eunuchs as the bigger enemies will probably ignore Cao Cao or even consider him necessary and probably justified, even sympathetic and useful, is he a hero?treacherous villain in a time of chaos.
(5) Note #30 to Chapter 1 (Mao Zonggang's take on Cao Cao's character Introduction)
Mao Zonggang, who later annotated, critiqued, edited and published a more standard form of the Three Kingdoms novel in Chinese, critiques Cao Cao for being a deceiver, (notes 29 and 30), maybe in this one instance, but a good reader could look for where Cao Cao patently lies to someone in the novel, and actually find it difficult. Some of Mao's notes need to be taken with some hesitation on the part of a reader.
(6) Cleaning Up The Yellow Scarves, Arrest of Lu Zhi and his replacement by Dong Zhuo 184A.D Notes to Chapter 1 Pages 17-19
Liu Bei and his brothers head back to help Lu Zhi, after being moved around from battle to battle, camp to camp, they run into Lu Zhi under arrest, and Dong Zhuo the general sent to replace him, already causing a problem for them, being ungrateful for their help in battle. Zhang Fei wants to immediately kill Dong Zhuo. The first time reader is being told to agree with this, as there is a general lack of context. Zhang Fei's bloody response though, almost feels correct, too, we later find out that this pattern will repeat with both brothers in the novel, as Liu Bei will prevent Zhang Fei from killing Dong Zhuo and freeing Lu Zhi here.
One should note a very simple fact that tends to be lost on the modern reader : the only barrier to killing a person back in ancient times, was could you get away with it/ were you skilled enough to do it. Zhang Fei feels no compunction over law, order, rank or army, he sees something unjust, is unhappy, and wants to deal with the problem, and distinctly feels he can get away with it. Weapons were all sword, spear, bow and arrow, nobody was technically unequal, and the demonstration of power and authority was almost always at the point of a sword, or fist. This then makes the warrior the standard, and the intellectual the secondary in terms of characters in the novel. A reader will always wish to follow what the martial character is doing and less so the intellectual one, this will be abruptly reversed later on.
(7) General Note to Chapter 1:
, or some such variation (I.e realm for land, or to all vs all who live in it )of this line occurs six times throughout the novel and is struck out six times throughout the novel. Mao Zonggang disliked this line and threw it out, and the English translator did not re-add them.The Land belongs to no one man, but to all who live in it”
Oddly, this is a populist sounding line, that definitely contrasts heavily in a reader's mind with the idea of China, Emperors, All under Heaven etc. If the line was not tossed, the Yellow Scarves could be seen sympathetically. If the line was not tossed, fighting over the land of Han would not seem justifiable. If the line was kept, the reader may have a different take on a good number of figures, events and politics as told by the novel. Case and point, the Yellow Scarves are a very large chunk of “all who live in it”, do they not belong in the land, of course after destroying the general livelihoods of a large section of fellow commoners, they do not, but what about if they did not do that, or before they rebelled?