Romance of the Three Kingdoms


This is one of the great works of world literature. It is a shame it is not better known in the West. It is an historical novel written in the 14th century by Luo Guanzhong set in the Three Kingdoms period at the end of the Han dynasty. I have the Moss Roberts translation, which is excellent. It includes maps, notes, list of characters and other helpful material. It is available in a couple different printings—a four volume set or a massive single volume. It is definitely the way to read the book in English.

It doesn’t hurt to have some awareness of the late Han and Three Kingdom periods of Chinese History where the novel is set but it is not necessary. Besides you will learn plenty just from reading it. Also, like any great work of literature (I often refer to Shakespeare’s Histories but my wife always compares it to Tolstoy, particularly War and Peace) it works on so many levels that there is always something for everyone and you could read it several times and see something different each time. We both say dive right in!

About the length, it is huge. Well beyond the length most busy Americans have the time or patience for. You will have to decide for yourself based on your available time, interest and reading habits. One great way to start is with the Moss Roberts abridgement. That’s the way I did it. It may seem like a waste to read an additional 500 pages before starting the 3000 page full version but there are several reasons to do it this way. First, you only have to read 500 pages to get a good idea of the book. You become familiar with the characters and the story and get a good sense of how much you like the book. If you are like us, you will be hooked and want to read the whole thing. But now you have the advantage of knowing the main characters and basic plot. This will help prevent confusion as you meet all the minor characters and their subplots unfold. Either way it is well worth reading and contains ideas, characters and stories that you will think about and refer to for years to come.

Of the other Chinese classic novels I have read Outlaws of the Marsh/Water Margin/All Men Are Brothers/Men of the Marshes/The Marshes of Liang and Return to the West/Monkey/Adventures of the Monkey God. They are very similar in that they are long, can be read on many levels and are full of great stories and characters that will haunt and enchant you for years. I would recommend them all highly, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms is by far my favorite.

I have not read The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Plum in the Golden Vase but hear those are also very good and hope to get to them someday.

It is a shame these books are not better known in the West. They really rank along side of our greatest literature. In addition to the Chinese classic novels the two great Indian epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana are among the greatest art works created by humankind. These should all be part of our basic literary canon and are gradually winning acceptance.


~ by severalfourmany on February 23, 2012.

5 Responses to “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”

  1. I love “Romance,” and am enjoying “Outlaws.” I’m also doing my best to introduce the West to these books, as I’ve written a fantasy version of “Romance.” I’m still marketing it out to literary agents at the moment. We’ll see how that goes.

    I agree, Moss Roberts’ editions are awesome. I couldn’t have done what I did without the abridged version to help me pinpoint what portions of the story I wanted to focus on. Thanks for the tip on the Plum in the Golden Vase! I haven’t looked into it at all yet. ;D

  2. Thank you for posting this; it clarified some of the questions I asked you before, and it’s also just a good, short appreciation of a whole genre of literature that people don’t seem to go for much these days. I find it interesting that the translations of these books seem to be getting rarer, even as translation in general reaches an all time high. It must have something to do with the length. Even serious readers who can handle a 900-page modernist novel seem a bit sundered when approached by 2000+ pages of pure story. (I’m mainly using myself as the test case here). But, sooner or later, if I live long enough, I plan on drinking deep from these wells.

    Kenneth Rexroth has a good article on the Chinese Classics Novels. His writing is a sort of uneven here (the piece was originally for an newspaper in the 1960s), but his insights were pretty helpful :

    Also, if I may continue to inquire, what are your recommended translations for Water Margin and Journey to the West?

  3. I love Romance, though it’s so hard to bring myself to read the last chapters of it, which tell about Zhuge’s death. I have never read Water Margin, but right now I’m dying to read Fengshen Yanyi, which English translation is so hard to get.

  4. I have read parts of Fengshen Yanyi but you’re right, it is hard to find. Also, the full English translation is not very good. It feels very repetitive and mundane. I doubt I could ever get through the whole thing. I don’t know if that is the translation or the work itself. Water Margin, too, can start to drag after while but I have never had that problem with Three Kingdoms.

  5. […] and understand what in previous editions came across as odd or obscure. Guanzhong’s  Romance of the Three Kingdoms Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber […]

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