Romance of the Three Kingdoms (and Red Cliff)
A few weeks ago, I set myself the task to challenge my apathy towards historical fiction. The first novel in my challenge is a revisit. I first tried to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great Chinese novels, years ago. I couldn’t get into it and returned it to the library disappointed. But I’ve always wanted to give the novel a second look in the hopes that I will come to appreciate if not actually enjoy Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Damn, I’m glad I did. I love this freaking book. Even if it is too damn long at nearly 1400 pages spread out over two volumes. It is, despite its size, an addictive read.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms reads like a chronicle. A heavily fictionalized chronicle that tells the tale of the dissolution of the Han dynasty into three competing kingdoms and the eventual reunification of the empire under the Jin. This approach strips away all but the essentials. Given that the the Three Kingdoms lasted about a century, there is still a lot of material to cover. But this approach does have its problems. Characterization is limited to only a few major characters. And even then, the focus is on single character traits (the hot headed Chang Fei comes to mind).
What I find so interesting about Romance of the Three Kingdoms is how much it explores the strategy of the myriad conflicts surrounding the dissolution of the Han dynasty. So often in fantasy fiction, the hero (or his army) blindly rushes into battle with no plan, no strategy, and wins the day. Here, the reader sees how the generals plan to attack, defend, and trap each other. It is freaking cool.
But at the same time, Romance of the Three Kingdoms does have major problems, especially for a modern audience. Women are by and large non entities explicitly compared to clothing (so are children) by the designated hero Liu Bei. There are a few exceptions like Diaochan and Lady Sun, but their impact is relatively limited to single episodes in the larger epic. But it must be noted that many of these women are given expanded roles in adaptations.
Which leads me to Red Cliff, the film of one of the most pivotal battles of the entire saga. I’ve been meaning to watch this film for months. I finally took the opportunity after reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms and damn it all, I love this movie.
In 208 C.E., Cao Cao has consolidated his position as Prime Minister to the puppet emperor Xian (the last Han emperor) by defeating the northern warlords. To reunify China under his rule, he must conquer the last remaining opposition in the south led by Liu Bei and Sun Quan. To prevent this, Kongming advises an alliance between Liu and Sun. Thus the stage is set for the decisive Battle of Red Cliffs.
It is freaking gorgeous. The visuals are amazing. The battle scenes are great. The acting is wonderful. How the hell did the film makers accomplish all of this for only 80 million?
What I especially like is how the film gives equal weight to heroic fights and to the strategy that leads to victory. While many of the characters are portrayed as near super human, like Zhao Yu and Liu Bei and his companions, it is the competing strategies of Cao Cao and Kongming that make the film so amazing.
Women play a pivotal role in the movie. Lady Sun, the sister of Sun Quan, with her body guard of women warriors prove key in early skirmishes and as a spy in Cao Cao’s camp. And it is the wife of Zhao Yu, Xiao Qiao, who proves essential to victory as she distracts Cao Cao. This, honestly, is an improvement on the source material.
All in all, I love Red Cliff and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Maybe I was wrong about historical fiction after all?