Romance of the Three Kingdoms: An Excerpt and Thoughts

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: An Excerpt and Thoughts

Darren Duan, Social Media, Podcast

Throughout all of history, it has stood true that an empire long divided must unite, and one united must divide. As such, kingdoms shift, borders align, and promises are broken. The great men in times long past have shaped history to their will. At their word, kingdoms will follow, rise, and fall. This is the tale of the Three Kingdoms, and of these men who would attempt to etch their names into the stones of time. 


//Such begins the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, an epic tale following multiple legends across China after the fall of the Han dynasty. It is a classic story that most people in China have knowledge about, and I have rewritten this section of the book based on my knowledge of the plot and nothing else— so if you want a better written and more in-depth read, buy or check out the book at the library.  The beginning lines you just read are all my own invention except for the very first, which is my version of the translation. Another “professional” translation will be talked about after the excerpt. 

The first goal of this “article” is to inform people of its existence and how awesome it is. The second, and arguably the more important goal, is to satisfy my selfish desire to try and capture this story the way I heard it. I try my best to do the tale justice, but ultimately if you are interested, try and get a hold of the book at the library or elsewhere.

Some context is needed before reading this excerpt, as I found when conversing with my friend about this story. I thought I didn’t need to write that there were three kingdoms, but he apparently had not made the connection between the title and the plot. Anyways,  there are three kingdoms that have formed at this point in the story, the Wei, Shu, and Wu. Each kingdom is led by Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan respectively (the names are not like first and last names in the U.S., you say the entire thing when referring to the person.) Cao Cao has the largest kingdom, overwhelmingly powerful, said to be cunning and devious. Liu Bei has the least land and is an equally cunning and devious man- in a very different way. He doesn’t appear in this story though, so I won’t elaborate. Sun Quan is unimportant. And of course, every kingdom needs its strategist! This role is played by Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu, the first an absolutely amazing strategist for the Wei, and the latter is a sort of rival- the strategist of the Wu kingdom. 

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that pride is important to these characters. Chinese people (I’m Chinese, I can say this) talk in circles, and here, their true intentions are kept hidden under layers of words. Each tries to outsmart the other in a battle of wits through talking, and actual goals and understanding are for one to achieve and another to hide.

Hope you enjoy it!


A lone horse was seen galloping up to the main gate of the kingdom, a cloud of dust slowly rising behind it. Atop rode a bright figure, with a flowing yellow robe that caught the light of the sun. Sentinels atop the walls began calling out, and soon the great gates were opened to allow the man entrance. He was Zhuge Liang, one of the most skillful strategists in the Shu kingdom, sent to make a deal with an emperor.

Zhou Yu threw the pages onto the table, frustrated. A letter had arrived from the powerful Wei kingdom, and it had offered quite the veiled ultimatum. 

“Zhou Yu, I propose a plan that will benefit the both of us. I have prepared for you 80,000 good troops with which I am to arrive at your kingdom in around a month’s time. The plot is this: Your kingdom (Wu) will ally with ours (Wei) against Liu Bei. Together, it will be easy work to take care of him, and fewer men will be killed at the end of it. Would you agree to an alliance for the good of the livelihood of our kingdoms?

Cao Cao”

Zhou Yu sat down near a window, feeling the carvings on his chair. How nice were these carvings. So cool and precise. He knew very well the twisted way in which Cao Cao talked, and could easily see the meaning behind his words. There was barely any choice here. Choosing to side with him would be tantamount to surrender, and the struggles he had taken to get where he was would be for naught. Refusing, however, would bring destruction. His kingdom would not stand an attack of this size, and he saw that army numbering 80,000 looming on the horizon in his mind. This was a threat, and he would have to make a decision. 

Outside was the peaceful chirping of birds flying overhead, and the clear sky showed no sign of danger or worry. Only the noises below alerted him to the arrival of a guest. He glanced down below the window, seeing the opening gates and bowing guards. Zhou Yu knew what the man had come to bargain for, and had hoped for this development. He couldn’t afford to let his desperation be noticed, however, and the pride of the kingdom would have to be protected. 

He gestured to an attendant. “Bring him to me.” The man nodded and hurried off.

“Zhuge Liang! Welcome, welcome. Come on in.” A large, towering man greeted him as he entered, ushering him into a large building. Following him, they weaved through a series of winding hallways, until they stopped in front of a large doorway. The man knocked, and the doors were pulled open from the inside. 

The room was filled with the strongest generals in the kingdom, arranged around a rectangular table that sat in the middle of the room. It smelled of smoke and sweat, and the dimly lit light made it feel suffocating. 

“How welcoming.” Zhuge Liang said, dryly. 

He patted the broad shoulders of the man next to him, smiling. “What a show! Impressive! I would have preferred a more hospitable welcome, however.” The man frowned, and pushed him towards a seat. He sat. 

The smoke caught the light of the lamps, and the flames seemed to be dancing all around them. It was obviously meant for intimidation, but Zhuge Liang simply began to laugh. 

The generals looked at each other in confusion at this reaction, but proceeded nonetheless. “What have you come for, Zhuge Liang?” Said a man across from him.

“Why, I’ve come to give you advice! I hear you’ve gotten a message from Cao Cao a few weeks ago, and that perhaps you are having issues with your decision?” 

The man frowned. “Yes indeed, would you like to give your opinion now, since you seem so confident?”

“Ah, well, Cao Cao wishes to frighten you into surrender, yes? I say you take the deal. You would never be able to beat them by yourselves, and at the very least maybe you’ll get to be a governor or something once he takes over your kingdom! It’s not the worst, and I think it’s very fitting.” 

“Fitting? What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean, of course our kingdom would never surrender to the likes of Cao Cao. We have our pride after all, and Liu Bei is a great man who couldn’t afford to take such actions. But you-

The man stood up in rage, and his chair shifted loudly with the suddenness of his movement. The two men next to him quickly quieted him, attempting to calm him down. He sat back down with narrowed eyes, and anger was apparent across the faces of many in the room. Zhuge Liang simply smiled, waiting for the whispering to die down.

A man on the left addressed him, “Why do you think you have the right to talk of us like that? After all, everyone in our kingdoms knows that ever since you joined Liu Bei’s army, all you’ve been doing is losing. Before you, Liu Bei swept the land with few men, and took so many victories- and now look. Who are you to talk of our kingdom in such a demeaning fashion?”

A man on the right began talking as well. “After all, we know the true purpose of your visit. You wouldn’t make such a long journey unless it was to make an alliance with us, or at least something of the sort. I ask you, what do you have to offer? Our kingdom has more men, fewer losses, and all you promise is the opposite.” 

Zhuge Liang laughed. “My dear sir, what we have is experience. We have fought with Cao Cao countless times, and have had many losses. However, we know how he does battle and the strategies he uses. Only with our knowledge would you stand even a slight chance of victory!” He nodded to himself while the generals began to whisper amongst themselves. 

Zhuge Liang continued. “And even if we have less men, we have at least done more than your kingdom. We have been fighting bravely, providing the only resistance to Cao Cao’s take over. What do you do? Sit and twiddle your thumbs, running at the slightest whiff of danger? No wonder you consider surrender.”

The room broke out in shouts of outrage. A general pounded the table with his fist preparing, no doubt, to lecture Zhuge Liang on exactly how wrong he was when the doors opened once again. An attendant entered the room, calling for him to leave and meet Zhou Yu.

“Well, that’s my signal to leave. Have a nice day gentlemen.” Zhuge Liang bowed mockingly in a grave manner, and followed the attendant out to a roomful of menacing glares. The door shut behind him, and silence took over in the hallway. 


// This following section has a lot of jokes and points that don’t exactly translate across from Chinese. Also, some context is needed for the plot here since this story takes place in the middle of the book. 

The first thing you need to realize is that these warlords and emperors are all very high class. As such, they all are not only wonderful at war, but also with the quill. Cao Cao, while amassing huge amounts of power, also enjoys writing poems, and the poem that appears is one of his. 

Secondly, the word “Qiao” is the last name of two sisters who are said to be very beautiful. One sister is married to Sun Quan, emperor of the Wu kingdom, where this story takes place. The other sister is married to Zhou Yu, who is enraged when Zhuge Liang reveals his fake meaning for Cao Cao’s poem. The joke is that the poem written by Cao Cao refers to two “qiao”, whose pronunciation is shared with the Chinese word for bridge. Zhuge Liang brings up this poem as proof of Cao Cao’s want to take the two as wives, when in reality he was literally just talking about some nice bridges.

Final thing- Zhuge Liang recites a poem that was completely fabricated by me- I couldn’t find the actual poem or translation of the text (though it does actually exist, I just can’t find it online), so I made it up based on the bare minimum of knowledge about the guy. Anyways, read the fake poem once and understand Cao Cao’s meaning. Then, read it again, pretending that each time the word “bridge” shows up he’s referring to your wife. 

Thanks, and please continue reading.


Once again, the winding hallways were passed through with haste, and they arrived in front of a more ornate set of doors. This time, however, Zhuge Liang pushed the doors open himself. There was no smoke, no fire. Zhou Yu sat in front of a wide window, with the sunlight pouring in. 

On his entrance, Zhou Yu stood up to greet him. “Zhuge Liang! How are you?” 

“Very well, thank you. I hear you’ve been having some issues?”

“Issues? I’ve got plenty. Perhaps you would like to offer some solutions?”

Zhou Yu gestured to a chair next to the one he had sat in. Zhuge Liang shook his head, continuing to stand. Zhou Yu frowned, and continued standing as well. 

“I hear you do not wish to go to war?” Zhuge Liang asked.

“Why, going to war means destruction, you know that.” Scoffed Zhou Yu. 

“I know a way to avoid this destruction you speak of, without lost lives or lost honor.”

“Pray tell.” 

The two were both high intellectuals of their respective kingdoms, and men who history would mark as each geniuses in their own right. Both had quick minds, and wits that led armies into victory and kingdoms into power. Now, placed with these two men in the same room, an open window was nothing to vent the tension that built up. 

Zhuge Liang smiled widely, his teeth showing and glinting in the sunlight. Zhou Yu contemplated how the sunlight illuminated the man, so that his yellow robe glowed bright. How the sunlight behind himself cast his own face in shadow, and Zhuge Liang’s in glory. A small shiver ran down his spine, despite the warmth of the room. 

“Why, we send them the two Qiaos!” Zhuge Liang said smoothly.

“The two Qiaos? What do you mean?” Zhou Yu asked with confusion.

“Why, you know Cao Cao’s famous poem, Ode to the Bronze Sparrow Platform?” Zhuge Liang began to recite the poem in a flowing manner:


“I stand in darkness, looking at the stars

In the garden I watch, the greenery calming.

War has been fought, and the earth is charred,

In the silence, only night is watching.

Majestically standing, bridges beautiful,

Near my side, giving strength and beauty.

Oh if I could have you, my heart would be full…”


Zhou Yu frowned, and a moment passed between them as Zhuge Liang finished up the stanza. As the last words slid from his lips, Zhou Yu, noticeably enraged, grabbed Zhuge Liang forcefully.  

Startled, Zhuge Liang exclaimed, “Why, what’s the matter?”

Completely forgetting that he had meant to conceal his intentions to ally with the Shu kingdom for pride’s sake, Zhou Yu growled in anger, “Why, this Cao Cao! I’ll show him what happens when he lusts for my wife! If I wasn’t already going to knock some sense into him, this time I’ll beat him through and through!”

“So the alliance?” A cool remark.

“Yes, of course! Let us thrash this bastard back to the border!” Zhou Yu shook Zhuge Liang by the shoulders, both enraged and excited for what was to come. Clapping him on the back, he left the room, with just the slight feeling that he had forgotten something.

Zhuge Liang chuckled by himself in the empty chamber. 

“Oh what fun this is turning out to be!”

Soon his footsteps too echoed across the halls as the sunlight streamed into the vacant room. The birds cocked their heads funnily at each other outside, and they did not understand what had happened. Of what this alliance would mean, or what it would achieve.


//And that’s the section I tried to focus on. On finishing, I realize that perhaps I should’ve checked out other translations to see how they handled getting across that subtle bridge joke across the language barrier. I didn’t, so the best I could do was a note in the middle of the passage (Sorry about that). 

The thing about this book is that I think it more befits storytelling than reading. I had this story told to me by my father, and hearing the story from someone who knows the characters, and gives each their own charm in voice, it is something that cannot be replicated reading by your lonesome. The relationship of the storyteller and listener makes the experience more enriched in many ways, and allows total immersion in a story. The teller is allowed to bend and shape the story as he wants, raise and lower his voice for effect, gesture about, surprise, and entertain. They have more control over how you experience the story than a book does, and arguably it can be the better experience overall. For an epic tale such as this one, I am convinced that is the best way- for it to be told. Of course, that’s impossible for almost everyone. I don’t mean an audiobook, although I suppose it could be a better experience than reading it. That comes down to personal preference at that point. I mean having a person near you actually telling the story and responding to your reactions. If you somehow have this person available, I would be amazed. Try and keep that person near you so you can have access to a good storyteller. They’re getting rarer these days, I swear. 

One other thing is that every language offers something different to storytelling, and certain lines can come across very differently depending on it. Obviously, translating a line will alter it in many ways- it’ll change the length, sound, and depth of the line. In many ways, parts of the line are lost, even if the meaning remains. Take the first line for example: “话说天下大势.分久必合,合久必分”. Alternatively, the translation reads, “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” Now, whether this is due to personal bias, which I must say there is much of, or objective reasoning, I prefer the Chinese line massively to the translated version. Because of the way Chinese sentences can be constructed, the line is more succinct, more concentrated and intense. The translation tries its best to imitate it, but there is a certain quality there that does not transfer. To many readers, this may seem very obvious, and it is. However, it is still interesting how much detail can be felt when reading words in the author’s original language- the design and care is still there, and it shows. A translator does his best to replicate the diction and work of the author, and in general, you may not realize that you are missing anything. Ideally, you may actually not be missing anything if the work is good enough. 

This can be compared with the act of the transcription of music across different instruments. One composer, Liszt, excels at this, taking orchestral works and transforming them utterly onto the piano. When a person such as him does this, the piece takes on a new character, and becomes its own piece. The music retains its identity, yet loses things that would’ve been heard as poor replication. In the process, Liszt adds to the music, replicating through different methods, and recreates the song in what he sees fit. Similarly, the same can be seen with translation. When a good translation is read, there is no notice of strange wording and halting diction- it is completely at home, yet retains its character, what made the book itself.

However, as someone who has heard the story told in Chinese, I found the translation to be much drier than I expected. Don’t let me put you off, however- I may have been a poor translation, or my own personal bias. In any case, I found the writing to feel more laborious and less flowing as the Chinese version. Again, there are so many variables here that weren’t controlled that no one in their right mind could say this was a fair comparison. 

It seems I’ve gone off track. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a very detailed and broad tale which covers the lives of some of the most famous heroes in Chinese history. The experience of this tale will vary depending on how you experience it, but in the end, the story will lay itself out before you. It is a much exaggerated tale full of impossibilities, men turned into heroes, and heroes into legends. Beneath the glorious conquests are seething lies and jealousies, and alongside clamorous battle there is silent espionage. Could mere men really act as they do? Of course not. These are geniuses characterized by an author. But the joy when reading about their adventures is the silent hope that perhaps these people could’ve really existed, and that this epic tale and the heroes within really were true. 


Cited Book:  Luo, Guanzhong. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He compiled the story from the previously spoken story.