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An Illustrated Book of the Story of Three Kingdoms

(The following is a post by Jeffrey Wang, Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)

Figure-1: The map of the Three Kingdoms in AD 220, an illustration in “Three Kingdoms, China’s Epic Drama,” translated and edited
by Moss Roberts, New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.

The Story of Three Kingdoms” (Sanguo Yanyi), created by Luo Guanzhong (1330-1400), is a historical novel and one of the greatest Chinese literary masterpieces. It is largely based on the historical work “Annals of the Three Kingdoms” (Sanguo Zhi) by Chen Shou (233-297), interlaced with imaginary elements invented by the author. Most Chinese scholars view this creative work as being “seven-part truth to three-part fiction,” meaning that Luo’s work sticks fairly closely to historical facts.  This novel is written partly in vernacular Chinese and partly in classical Chinese. As a creative adaptation of the Chinese tradition of narrative history, this is the first full-length novel with clear chapter divisions to appear in ancient China.

Figure-2: The book cover of “An Illustrated Book of the Story of Three Kingdom.”

Figure-2: The book cover of “An Illustrated Book of the Story of Three Kingdom.”

The narrative of the “Story of Three Kingdoms” covers a period of about a hundred years, from the start of the Rebellion of the Yellow Turbans in 184 (黄巾之亂, a peasant uprising against the Eastern Han ruling dynasty(25-219), which lasted 21 years) to the end of the Three Kingdoms and the establishment of the Jin (晉朝) dynasty in 266. The novel mainly romanticizes and dramatizes the lives of military and political strong men who either tried to replace or, like Liu Bei (劉備), a descendant of Han royal family, were determined to restore the dwindling Eastern Han dynasty.  In chapter one, the author has this emphatic aphorism:

They say the momentum of history was ever thus, the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. (A translation in “Three Kingdoms, China’s Epic Drama,” translated and edited by Moss Roberts, New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.)

Figure 2

Figure-3: Liu Bei (劉備), Guan Yu (關羽) and Zhang Fei (張飛) swore as brothers in a peach orchard.

While the story has hundreds of characters, the focus is mainly on those in the three power blocs that emerged from the remnants of the Eastern Han dynasty which eventually form the three states of Wei (魏), Shu  (蜀), and  Wu (吳) (see figure-1). The novel is full of the political plots, military battles, and power-struggles of the three states. The “Story of Three Kingdoms,” one of the most popular novels in China, was also transmitted to Japan and Korea in the early 17th century. The political and military intrigues and maneuvers have served as a reference source for generations of statesmen and strategists in these two countries.

The term “Yanyi” in the Chinese title indicates that the theme of the novel is “righteousness,” a concept extolled as the highest standard of virtue in ancient China with a deep and wide-ranging impact on Chinese society. For example, the sworn brotherhood between Liu Bei (劉備), the ruler of the Shu (蜀) kingdom, and his two military generals, — Guan Yu (關羽) and Zhang Fei (張飛), who helped Liu establish the kingdom — has been held up as a most revered model of comradeship or fellowship, and Guan Yu has become a permanent literary symbol of loyalty and righteousness. (see figure-3 Oath at the Peach Garden)

Figure-4: Liu Bei (劉備) tried to obtain the service of Zhu-ge Liang who was then famous for his intelligence and capability.

Figure-4: Liu Bei (劉備) tried to obtain the service of Zhu-ge Liang who was then famous for his intelligence and capability.

Figure-5: The illustrated fight scenes of famous generals in the story of Three Kingdoms.

Figure-5: The illustrated fight scenes of famous generals in the story of Three Kingdoms.

The Library of Congress has many printed editions of the “Story of Three Kingdoms.” “Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi” (Popular Historical Novel of the Three Kingdom, 三國志通俗演義), an edition of the first year of the Jiajing (嘉靖) reign period (1522) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), is the earliest edition among them. Of the many editions, however, the “Yixiangtang huixiang Sanguozhi” (An Illustrated Book of the Story of Three Kingdoms, 遺香堂繪像三國志) or “Sanguozhi Yanyi Tu” (三國志演義圖) (see figure-3) is worth special attention. It is an incomplete copy and contains 42 embroidered illustrations that depict the long story of the Three Kingdoms. Embroidered illustrations are special features in most ancient Chinese serial novels and are print-outs of woodblocks engraved by printers, not embroidered with needle and thread as the term suggests. The exquisite embroidered illustrations in “Sanguozhi Yanyi Tu” (三國志演義圖) are the print-outs of woodblocks engraved by printer Huang Chengzhi (黄誠之), who probably lived in the late Ming dynasty (see figure-4 & 5). Thus, even though some collectors believe this illustrated book was printed in the Qing dynasty, this work is considered by others to be a Ming edition, with the earliest style and finest work of Chinese embroidered illustrations that make it a rarity. This valuable collection can be viewed on the World Digital Library website and a digitized copy is available  in the Asian Division Reading Room for reader services.

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