Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, and Guan YU: The History and Legends of the Three Kingdoms
The study of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) in Chinese history presents numerous problems for the non-Chinese historian. Since the Jin dynasty (265-420 CE), the events of the period have been ensconced in legend, and since the primary historical documents still await translation into English, it is difficult to untangle the history of the period from the myths it has spawned. Doing so, however, provides a two-fold insight: how the events of the period influenced Chinese history, and how Chinese historical development influenced the constant re-telling of the story of the Three Kingdoms. As there are far too many heroes and stories to examine everything transmitted concerning the period, this study will focus on three particularly notable individuals, Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, and Guan Yu. These three heroes are at the heart of all stories told about the period, and the way that they have been viewed changed dramatically over time. But why study the Three Kingdoms? Is there anything that one can learn, from examining the history of these men's lives and the myths that developed around them, that applies to the modern world? I would argue that indeed, there is. The Three Kingdoms, and the legends about them, are of such great cultural significance in China that it is difficult to draw a comparison to any other cultural icon. Furthermore, they have had this status for such a long time that it is possible to see many changes in the way that they are portrayed. To track a story of such great interest and import to Chinese throughout its changes over time allows the scholar to make some telling observations about Chinese society. But, also, it allows the scholar to cut through the shroud of myth surrounding the Three Kingdoms, and discover who the heroes and villains really were in life, rather than later imagination.