Looking for the history of Three Kingdoms China

If you are familiar with the era of ancient Chinese history known as the Three Kingdoms, then you are likely to know this through Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This fourteenth century novel, said to be written by Luo Guanzhong, is an immensely popular work in China, and through several translations, has spread to international audiences.

However, it should be remembered that Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical novel - it is based on history, sometimes very closely so, but it incorporates a lot of fictional elements and also has biases in favour of certain characters. It is just as much a product of the fourteenth century as it would be of the third.

What if you want about the real history of Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and the other men and women made famous by the novel? What histories exist about the fall of the Han Dynasty and the emergence of the Three Kingdoms period (roughly 180 to 280 CE)? We can offer some help, at least for English audiences.

There are several sources that historians can use to study the fall of the Han Dynasty and the rise of the Three Kingdoms, but we will just mention three here. The first is the oldest chronicle from the period, known as Records of the Three Kingdoms, which was written by a third century scholar named Chen Shou. Basically, this work is a series of biographies of all the major political and military players from this period - hundreds of men and women.

The second major work is Annotations to Records of the Three Kingdoms, by Pei Songzhi. This was created in the fifth century, with the aim of offering even more anecdotes and sources about the period. Pei Songzhi himself explains:

If there is something that Chen Shou failed to mention, and if it is something that should be remembered, then I have collected other records to fill in the gap. Sometimes there are two accounts of the same incident, though there may be errors or irrelevancies in the text. Sometimes an event is described in two quite different ways and I do not feel that I can decide between them. In all such cases I have put in the variant versions to show the different traditions. If one account is clearly wrong, and what it says is not logically sound, then I note which is right in order to correct the mistake. On occasion, I argue with Chen Shou in his judgment of events or on minor points of fact.

What emerges is a text now twice as long as Chen Shou’s version, and one that has many interesting tales and even contradictory versions of important events.

English versions of Chen Shou and Pei Songzhi’s works have been done online, appearing in websites such as fan forums for Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but the first academic quality translation is only now being done by Yáng Zhèngyuán. You can learn more about his project at Three States Records.

The third work actually dates from several centuries later, but remains very influential for historians of ancient and medieval China. Known as Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance), it was published in the year 1084. This is a monumental work, created under the direction of Sima Guang, after having been ordered by the Emperor almost twenty years earlier to create an official history of China. The completed work, which is contained in 294 volumes, covers 16 dynasties and spans almost 1400 years.

The Zizhi Tongjian includes a section on the Three Kingdoms era, and the historians made use of Chen Shou’s and Pei Songzhi’s works for their own, but also added in more sources that we no longer have. It is also a chronological history, telling us about events from year to year.

The parts of Zizhi Tongjian covering the fall of the Han Dynasty to the end of the reunification of China under the Jin Dynasy have been been translated into English (one of the few parts of the Zizhi Tongjian that has been translated). You can find Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling : being the chronicle of later Han for the years 157 to 189 A.D. as recorded in chapters 54 to 59 of the Zizhi tongjian, which was translated by Rafe de Crespigny in 1989, and The chronicle of the Three Kingdoms (220-265): Chapters 69-78 from the Tzǔ chih t'ung chien, done by Achilles Fang in 1952.

Our understanding of this period has been helped immensely by Rafe de Crespigny. This Australian historian is undoubtedly the most influential expert in the English-speaking world, having written several books and articles about the Three Kingdoms and Chinese history. Some of his material is now online and in open access from the Australian National University, while others like Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD, have come out in recent years.

Top Image: Portrait made by Gu Kaizhi, during the Jin Dynasty, China

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