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Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture

Kimberly Besio, Constantine Tung

Publication Year: 2007

This is the first book-length treatment in English of Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), often regarded as China’s first great classical novel. Set in the historical period of the disunion (220–280 AD), Three Kingdoms fuses history and popular tradition to create a sweeping epic of heroism and political ambition. The essays in this volume explore the multifarious connections between Three Kingdoms and Chinese culture from a variety of disciplines, including history, literature, philosophy, art history, theater, cultural studies, and communications, demonstrating the diversity of backgrounds against which this novel can be studied. Some of the most memorable episodes and figures in Chinese literature appear within its pages, and Three Kingdoms has had a profound influence on personal, social, and political behavior, even language usage, in the daily life of people in China today. The novel has inspired countless works of theater and art, and, more recently, has been the source for movies and a television series. Long popular in other countries of East Asia, such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, Three Kingdoms has also been introduced to younger generations around the globe through a series of extremely popular computer games. This study helps create a better understanding of the work’s unique place in Chinese culture.

Published by: State University of New York Press

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Foreword: The Language of Values in the Ming Novel Three Kingdoms

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pp. vii-xiv

Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi) can be read as a study of values in conflict, such as righteousness (yi) against loyalty (zhong), and filial piety (xiao) against brotherhood (xiongdi). In a time of peace and stability, these ideals should coexist and enhance one another; in a time of crisis they may become incompatible. The word yi, a key term in the novel, can be rendered widely in...

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pp. xv-xvi

The essays collected in this volume are the output of the conference “The Historical, Fictional, Theatrical, and Artistic Three Kingdoms: A Sino-American Colloquium.” Held in Chengdu and Nanchong (both in Sichuan Province, PRC) from May 28 to June 1, 2001, the colloquium was followed by a three-day excursion to Langzhong, a beautiful city over which Zhang Fei once presided as magistrate, and where...

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pp. xvii-xxvi

The title of the colloquium for which the essays in this volume were first produced was “The Historical, Fictional, Theatrical, and Artistic Three Kingdoms: A Sino- American Colloquium.” The Chinese equivalent for this title was simply “Three Kingdoms Culture” (Sanguo wenhua), a phrase that encompasses a wide range of meanings requiring more elucidation for a Western audience. The...

I. Three Kingdoms and Chinese Values

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1. Cosmic Foreordination and Human Commitment: The Tragic Volition in Three Kingdoms

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pp. 3-13

Three Kingdoms is a great tragedy that depicts the hero’s fabulous defiance of cosmic foreordination. Linkages between the human world, cosmic design and the cyclical movement of the Five Agents (wuxing)—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—play a decisive role in the hero’s life in Three Kingdoms. The cyclical movement of the Five Agents manifests itself in history and in dynastic successions. A man’s...

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2. Essential Regrets: The Structure of Tragic Consciousness in Three Kingdoms

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pp. 15-25

Before mentioning the historical truth of “[T]he empire long divided, must unite, long united, must divide” that predicts the momentum of Chinese history, Three Kingdoms commences with sighs of regret. The opening poem, “West River Moon,” imbues the tone of the novel with a consistent motif of vainglory, transient life, and fleeting time. Using the metaphor of the...

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3. The Notion of Appropriateness (Yi) in Three Kingdoms

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pp. 27-40

Appropriateness (yi, also translated as “righteousness,” “duty,” or “morality”) means “what is suitable,” or “what is appropriate.” It is one of the major values that Three Kingdoms seeks to embody. “Forming appropriateness in the Peach Garden” (Taoyuan jieyi, also known as the “Peach Garden Pledge”) is one of the best-known stories in Chinese literature. Appropriateness is also a central...

II. Three Kingdoms and Chinese History

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4. The Beginning of the End: The Fall of the Han and the Opening of Three Kingdoms

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pp. 43-51

Well before the formal beginning of the Three Kingdoms era upon the close of the Latter or Eastern Han in 220, the three kingdoms were already taking shape in the persons of Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei. The tripartite fragmentation of the Han itself was the formation of an uneasy balance of power, a settling of a more chaotic condition resulting from the loss of imperial authority and...

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5. Selected Historical Sources for Three Kingdoms: Reflections from Sima Guang’s and Chen Liang’s Reconstructions of Kongming’s Story

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pp. 53-69

Attention is often drawn to performance literature (like dramas and plays and storytelling) as the principal sources for Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi); without minimizing the relevance of those sources, I would like to highlight two historians’ contributions to reconstructed images of heroes from the Three Kingdoms era in the third century. The particular hero chosen for this case study...

III. Three Kingdoms in Chinese Drama and Art

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6. Zhuge Liang and Zhang Fei: Bowang shao tun and Competing Masculine Ideals within the Development of theThree Kingdoms Story Cycle

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pp. 73-86

As sweeping in scope as the classic novel Three Kingdoms is, it actually represents only a select portion of the Three Kingdoms story cycle—that is, the complex of literary and popular traditions that accreted around historical figures and incidents from the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220–265). By the time the novel made its appearance, the Three Kingdoms story cycle comprised materials from...

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7. The Theme of Three Kingdoms in Chinese Popular Woodblock Prints

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pp. 87-109

Chen Shou’s (233–297) Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi), the third-century record of events involving the political and military conflicts between the rival kingdoms of Wu, Shu, and Wei from AD 168 to 265, has maintained a strong and enduring presence in Chinese culture, inspiring one of China’s most influential novels, the fourteenth-century Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi yanyi) by Luo...

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8. Three Kingdoms at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century The Shanghai Jingju Company’s Cao Cao and Yang Xiu

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pp. 111-122

Theatrical versions of Three Kingdoms events are among the most vivid and pervasive in popular Chinese culture. Arguably, even today Three Kingdoms characters are “perhaps better known through stage-performances than by actual reading.”¹ The Shanghai Jingju Company’s Cao Cao and Yang Xiu, originally mounted in 1988 and significantly revised and restaged in 1995, is one of the most recent...

IV. Three Kingdoms in Contemporary East Asia

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9. From Three Kingdoms the Novel to Three Kingdoms the Television Series: Gains, Losses, and Implications

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pp. 125-141

Over the last several decades, the revolutionary advancement of communication technology has not only promoted the formation and dissemination of popular culture, but has also made traditional and high cultures more dependent on these effective new communication technologies for diffusion, inheritance, and even survival. In such a process, traditional and high cultures enter various levels...

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10. The Reception and the Place of Three Kingdoms in South Korea

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pp. 143-151

The most valuable aspect of reception studies is that it recognizes the centrality of the reader; the reader is not a passive participant but is as active as the author in maintaining identity and differences within the very space of reading. However minor the transformations wrought by the reader, the reader exercises his or her own will to power, even if not always to subvert otherwise radical...

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11. Studies of Three Kingdoms in the New Century

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pp. 153-165

From the 1980s on, research on Three Kingdoms has made considerable progress. In fact, “Three Kingdoms studies” has become one of the most outstanding subfields within scholarship on the Chinese classical novel. In the short space of twenty years (1980–2000), the Chinese mainland has published approximately one hundred books and monographs on Three Kingdoms research...


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pp. 167-177


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pp. 179-181


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pp. 183-193

E-ISBN-13: 9780791480496
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791470114
Print-ISBN-10: 0791470113

Page Count: 219
Illustrations: 10 figures
Publication Year: 2007