There is a historical account on the Three Kingdoms period at Readers say the biographies in this account are more accurate. We agree. But the biographies cannot explain fully the events during Three Kingdoms. As the result, readers for many centuries have embraced the novel approach of ROTK, because fictional elements and conversations in the book not only can put things together like a puzzle, but they also enhance the overall story.

Since the readers will encounter many debates on the biases when you read the novel, we give you some details here about ROTK. Do the authors bias against Wei? You can find out in subsequent chapters.

Traditionally, the Mao Zonggang edition, which we are currently reading, wants the readers to believe Shu is legitimate and Wei is not. Mao even went to great length to tell the readers how to interpret events using Confucian morality system, before chapter 1 begins. In this system, filial to your prince is considered good, and oppressing your prince, for whatever reason, is bad. Due to his clear stance, the Mao edition of ROTK was warmly received and popularized by government officials and learnt people during 17th century. As the result, the Mao edition overtook other more history-oriented versions of Three Kingdoms.

Mao style, of course, clashes with modern readers, who are freer in their interpretation. The modern readers, strong believers in reforms and Darwinism, hate it when they see their heroes get judged by imperial values. Furthermore, many readers come to read ROTK after playing video games, and so they have developed certain affection toward certain leaders in terms of indices like intelligence, strategy, leadership, etc. They do not use legitimacy to view the world; they are only concerned about winning and survival. Some readers even suggest that we should not view things as good or evil, but should judge whether an action is reasonable or paranoid. In this light, Mao's effort to cast Wei and Wu into illegitimacy (or lack of virtues) is no longer convincing.

But what did Mao do in attempting to influence the readers? According to the Afterword of Moss Roberts, Mao edited the novel written by Luo Guanzhong and annotated by Li Zhi (the TS edition): "Mao changed, added, and deleted sometimes whole scenes, sometimes only a few words or phrases... Mao's tendency to remove lines in praise of Cao Cao's advisers and commanders... should be mentioned. According to one scholar, the TS's thirty-four verses in praise of Cao Cao's advisers and commanders were reduced to six by Mao Zonggang..."

And Mao, by all means, is not the only major editor that try to influence the readers' view. If you insist on getting to know the origin of the novel, here is an outline of the development of ROTK:


Sanguozhi (SGZ) or Three Kingdoms History, by Chen Shou (d. 297), an official of Shu-Han (221-263) and Jin (265-316): Written right after the Three Kingdom period ends. Facts and biographies of characters during TK. Gives Wei legitimacy, from which Jin derives. SGZ is the primary historical source for Three Kingdoms period.

Sanguozhi Zhu (SGZZ) or Three Kingdoms History with Notes, by Pei Songzhi (372-451), an official of Eastern Jin (317-420) and Liu-Song (420-478): Adding a vast amount of notes and fictions to SGZ. Denies Wei legitimacy, influenced by "Han Jin Chunqiu" or Han Jin Spring-Autumns (or Han Jin Chronicles), by Xi Zuochi, a writer in Eastern Jin, who supports that Jin legitimacy comes directly from Han.

Early Tang (the first quarter of 618-907) reforms the government, praising Wei. The rebellion of An Lushan (703757) splits the empire and drives the court from Changan into exile in Chengdu; hence, sympathy for Shu-Han rises.

Zizhi Tongjian (ZZTJ) or Historical Records for Government, by Sima Guang: The empire is divided into north and south again. Sima Guang in Northern Song (960-1127) gives legitimacy to Wei. The Three Kingdom portion in ZZTJ serves as the framework that later ROTK novels follow.

Zizhi Tongjian Gangmu (Gangmu) or Historical Records for Government with Headlines, by Zhu Xi of Southern Song (1127-1279): Adding headlines to each chapter, revising certain views in ZZTJ. After the court is forced into exile in Southern Song by Jurchen armies, efforts to recapture the northern capital raise the legitimacy of Shu-Han again; whereas the Jurchen nation in the north continue to link themselves to Wei.

Sanguozhi Pinghua (PH) or Three Kingdoms History, the Plain Tales: A book of theater plays about Three Kingdoms during Yuan (Mongol rule, 1279-1368). During this period of rapid development, theater arts have incorporated many fictions into history, and popular culture has begun to view fictions as part of history. Cao Cao is often portrayed as villain, and Liu Bei as hero, in most of the plays. For the first time, even Wu generals are treated as opponents to the heroic Shu generals. PH covers not only the ending of Han, but also the ending of Jin; hence PH treats Three Kingdom period with complete cause and effect. Surprisingly, the Mongol officials accept the Shu-Han glorification, even though anti-Mongol rebels use Shu-Han generals as their nationalistic symbols. The Mongols raise the status of Guan Yu as a hero, it should be noted.

Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi (Tongsu or TS) or Three Kingdoms History with Popular Explanations, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, a play writer in the end of Yuan and early Ming (1368-1644): TS is the very precursor of our popular novel Romance of Three Kingdoms. We do not know for sure who Luo Guanzhong is, except that he is not a government official, and his nickname is "the Man of All Lakes and Seas". His novel is a combination of both historical facts and popular fictions. TS edition of the year 1522 annotated by Li Zhi is perhaps the most well-known edition of TS.

Sanguozhi Yanyi (SGZYY) or Three Kingdoms History with Explanations, an edition of TS by Mao Zonggang: Mao's edition of 1660s, right after the fall of Ming, is the book we read today. Mao Zonggang and his father Mao Lun edit the TS version of Luo Guanzhong and arrange its contents into 120 chapters. Unlike TS, however, SGZYY tilts more toward political morals. It heaps praises upon Liu Bei's advisers and commanders and gives Shu-Han a decisive legitimacy via Liu Bei's virtues. Twenty years into Qing (Manchu rule, 1644-1911), SGZYY is published with the support of Qing court. If so, what are the purpose of SGZYY in that context? Many scholars point out the elevated treatment of nationalistic symbols such as Guan Yu, Zhuge Liang, and Jiang Wei is a proof that Mao is pro-Ming. On the other hand, other scholars note that Qing has moved swiftly to popularize SGZYY due to its message of legitimate succession. In this context, Qing succeeds the corrupt Ming like Shu-Han replacing the corrupt Han. Furthermore, the Manchu emperors, who always want to maintain good relation with the Mongols, often take oath with the Mongol khans in a Peach Garden fashion. This way, the manchu emperors portray themselves as Liu Bei, and the Mongol khans as Guan Yu, a revered figure by the Mongols. Manchu rulers then bestow many prestigous titles upon Guan Yu.

ROTK is a translation of SGZYY. The online edition corrects many typos and inaccuracies.


As modern readers suspect, the empire conditions have swayed the interpretation of ROTK over many centuries. What editors and writers have done for centuries is to add and delete scenes, or to add and delete praises/critiques. It is a good thing, however, that in doing so they still preserve the historical outcomes of Three Kingdoms. Major events are still there in the novel, and the majority match with the historical source of Sanguozhi (SGZ).

As you read the chapters, you will come across many heated debates on biases by the authors/editors. Here we provide you some information on the origin of ROTK, and you will make your own conclusions. Please enjoy ROTK, a novel of 30% fiction and 70% of history, but where legends and facts have become one among us.