History vs. Fiction in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

History vs. Fiction in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By Steven A. Vaughn-Lewis

Sino-Platonic Papers, No.193 (2009)

Introduction: “History is written by the victors,” said Winston Churchill. This makes intuitive sense, because we know that the winners of any major conflict are in control, at liberty to recount past events as they see fit.

But what happens when history turns into legend? Let us take a look at the Three Kingdoms period of China, a tumultuous era that encompasses the fall of the Han dynasty. Many heroes rise and fall during this time, some glorified and others vilified. The historical events of this period were recorded officially in The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms by the historian Chen Shou, but that is not the only source in which this historical period was interpreted. It also was told through the rich oral storytelling tradition of the people over centuries, which culminated in the writing by Luo Guanzhong of the historical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. C. T. Hsia reports, in The Classic Chinese Novel, that “its major characters and events had been romanticized by poets, storytellers, and playwrights so that their influence could not but be felt in his work.”

I attempt in this study to reconcile Luo Guanzhong’s fictionalization with the actual historical records of the Three Kingdoms period by comparing The Romance of the Three Kingdoms with the historical account written by Chen Shou (in the translation by Achilles Fang). In making this comparison, I found three main points of interest: biases toward certain characters in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms arise from actual historical biases present in The Chronicle of the three Kingdoms; some fictional accounts in The Romance serve to reinforce the historical accuracy of The Chronicle; and some parts of The Romance have no historical backing whatsoever.

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