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"Should you wish to take the overlordship, you will yield the Heaven's favor to Cao Cao in the north, and you will relinquish the Earth's advantage to Sun Quan in the south. You, General, will hold the Human's heart and complete the trinity."
— Zhuge Liang, to Liu Bei
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó Yǎnyì, 三國演義) is a 14th-century Chinese epic novel about the century of war, turmoil, and bloodshed known as the Three Kingdoms Period (188-280 AD). It is considered one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese literature — for good reason. This epic is renowned for its beautiful style, complex and heroic characters, and enduring motifs and themes that remain relevant even in modern society. It not only left its influence throughout the Chinese culture, language, and literature, but also spawned many, many derivative works in various media (some more derivative than others) throughout the world.The tale begins in the last days of the corrupt Han Dynasty, showing how the government and Emperor lost the "Mandate of Heaven" (天命), and the land fell into anarchy, with various warlords carving out their own territories in a struggle for supremacy. Gradually, out of the chaos, three kingdoms take shape: the kingdom of Shu, led by the virtuous Liu Bei (a distant cousin of the Emperor) and his sworn brothers, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei; the kingdom of Wei, led by the scheming Cao Cao; and the kingdom of Wu, led by the ambitious Sun family. All seek to unify the nation for one reason or another, and claim the right to rule for their own. And so the three kingdoms contend with one another over the century, and heroes rise and fall in the strife, until the nation is finally reunified.And, as you'd expect from a pivotal work like this, it's managed to gather quite a collection of tropes. Interested tropers can find the full text of an older English translation, now in the public domain, here; the site has added some annotations to help readers keep track of events and characters.
Dramatization: One early editor referred to it as 70% fact and 30% fiction, which is more or less accurate: Luo Guanzhong's sources included not only historical records, but period Chinese operas, poetry and folktales as well. Some of the most memorable scenes in the book never really happened; That Other Wiki has a list, of course.
Even 70% fact and 30% fiction is probably being overly generous. As a guideline: the actual events, characters, and battles are true. What the characters are like... Not so much.
Abusive Parents: Liu Bei's infant son, Liu Shan, was lost at Chang Ban, so Zhao Yun made a selfless charge into enemy lines to bring the kid back. So what does Liu Bei do? He throws his kid to the ground, pissed that he nearly lost a great general. The kid later grows up and loses the kingdom, and is considered by most readers to be completely useless. Probably because he was dropped on his head as a kid. In a major example of Values Dissonance, no one in the story calls Liu Bei out on this. Then again, he's the one who quoted lore as saying that "[b]rothers are as hands and feet; wives and children are as clothing. You may mend your torn dress, but who can reattach a lost limb?"
Zhurong is the only female character to actually fight. She manages to capture a couple of Shu generals, then gets captured herself several times, but compared to the other female characters (who sometimes regard themselves as disposable) she does pretty well.
Sun Quan's sister (named Sun Shang Xiang in most opera adaptations - and Dynasty Warriors) who practices swordplay, has an entourage of a hundred maids decked out in armor and weapons, scares Liu Bei half to death on his wedding night, and scolds her brother's generals into submission when she eventually elopes with her husband. Historically, she raised havoc on a regular basis and had to be monitored by Zhao Yun. Not that she ever does any fighting, but that's enough ...
Lady Wang, Zhao Ang's wife, also fought, both historically (in fact, she was the only woman to actually historically be recorded as fighting in that period, when she took up arms and attempted to murder Ma Chao after he slaughtered her husband) and in the novel, though that part's far less prominent.
Alas, Poor Villain: Cao Cao receives one of the longest poems in the book upon his death, almost entirely complimentary. The final lines run:
Ah! The ancients' splendid deeds or secret thoughts
We may not measure with our puny rule.
But criticize them, pedants, as ye may
The mighty dead will smile at what you say.
Always Chaotic Evil: When you find an eunuch, they're never going to be portrayed as decent. Case in points: Huang Hao (the one who brought downfall to Shu by influencing the already Suck Sessor Liu Shan) or Cen Hun (stated to be the 'Huang Hao' for Wu's last emperor Sun Hao, although this is novel-exclusive).
An Aesop: The first part of Romance that any Chinese-language elementary student will learn in school is the "Seven Steps Poem", a story about Cao Cao's successor Cao Pi and his more popular son Cao Zhi. It's often presented as an anvilicious fable about sibling rivalry.
Annoying Arrows: Guan Yu and Xiahou Dun - but averted by the large number of characters who actually do get killed by arrows. And while even Guan Yu plays this trope straight most of the time, he does get knocked off his horse by an arrow, requiring extensive surgery to heal the wound.
Arranged Marriage: A staple of the times, not uncommonly forced, but Liu Bei's marriage to Sun Quan's sister is a hilarious subversion of the trope: Zhou Yu convinces Sun Quan to do it as a pretext to capture Liu Bei. Liu Bei makes an attempt to get out of it since he's bright enough to realize the danger, but is compelled to agree on grounds of political expediency (and since Zhuge Liang promises to protect him). When he arrives, it turns out that the Sun family's queen mother hadn't been told — and Zhuge Liang, having predicted that, got Zhao Yun to publicize the proceedings before the whole town. The mother of the bride is prepared to exercise her Parental Marriage Veto (by letting the groom be attacked) despite Liu Bei's high reputation, until she and the "State Patriarch" (father of the Qiao sisters and thus Zhou Yu's father-in-law) actually meet Liu Bei and change their minds, blessing the marriage. In the meantime, Liu Bei is scared to death of his new Action Girl wife, and is stuck in Wu for a whole year after Sun Quan and Zhou Yu switch plans (deciding to keep him "drunk and happy" in hopes of dissolving his force)... When he decides to return, his wife is the one who proposes the idea of eloping, and then scolds four Wu generals into backing down in the course of their escape. And throughout the whole proceedings, Sun Quan and Zhou Yu are put through a massive Humiliation Conga: 1.) Sun Quan's mother and Zhou Yu's father-in-law curse them for ruining the girl, since if the plan succeeds the story will follow her ("what man would want her now?!") 2.) Then they curse them for trying to kill Liu Bei after meeting him and giving their approval (despite Sun Quan's mother having been prepared to allow the plot). 3.) Then the bride curses them — her brother and brother-in-law — for trying to stop her escape. 4.) And just when Liu Bei and his bride escape, Zhuge Liang's chorus line of soldiers is conveniently lined up on the other side of the river just to mock Zhou Yu. Of course, Liu Bei (somewhat), Zhou Yu and Sun Quan are all left holding the Idiot Ball, and Zhuge Liang wins... yet again.
Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Following Guan Yu's death, he gets promoted to minor deity by a later emperor. But not before scaring Sun Quan by possessing and killing Lu Meng... who "fell over dead with blood gushing from the seven orifices of his body." To this day, you can still find altars to Guan Yu in many Chinese-speaking areas... and he's even in the Celestial Bureacracy pantheon in Scion.
Clarification, he's the head deity in the Celestial Bureacracy pantheon in Scion
Ass in Ambassador: Mi Heng manages to take this to the next level. Until he crosses the line and gets executed.
Huang Zhong gets singled out for his advanced age, despite the fact that he can still kick ass with the best of them - and you have to be able to do that to stay alive for that long. Lampshaded when, in his first fight against Guan Yu, his horse suddenly keels over and Guan Yu lets him retreat. His excuse? "The horse is too old."
Later on, Zhao Yun at age 70 when he personally kills three generals and captures one, all of them brothers, in the same engagement and rendering an army of 80,000 Qiang tribesmen (working for Wei) frozen with fear, then kills their father in a second engagement and winning that skirmish too. The reason? "[T]he Prime Minister thought me too old and did not wish to employ me. I had to give him a proof."
Zhang He fought the Yellow Turban Uprising, which began in 184. During Zhuge Liang's fourth Northern Expedition in 231, he decides that Zhang He (fighting for the other side) is too dangerous and must die, and arranges for this to happen. Zhang He must have been close to seventy by then, if not even older.
Badass Cape: The "battle gown" worn with the armor of the time, wide enough to cover the arms.
Balance of Power: The kingdoms of Wei and Shu develop a rivalry, while Wu functions as the Wild Card, allying with one or other of the realms as is convenient to keep either of them from getting powerful enough to overwhelm Wu.
Batman Gambit: Zhuge Liang, who shows a near-psychic ability to predict people's actions based on their character.
Big Book of War: The Art of War, and various contemporary texts, naturally. Oddly enough, it's treated somewhat sceptically - while a worthwhile strategist will study the texts, he should also be able to improvise. Meanwhile, characters who rely exclusively on theories and ideas they derive from ancient texts are more likely than not to be General Failure.
Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: Mi Zhu picked up a woman in his carriage who was actually a spirit of fire, sent to burn his house down. His kindness towards her caused her to warn him of this, however, early enough that he was able to hurry home and save his valuables and his family's lives.
Blade on a Stick: TONS of warriors in the book are decked with such weapons. From the average spears and halberds (the mainstay battlefield equipment of the time) of your average Mooks, to those big fancy pole-blades used by generals (Zhang Fei's spear with a snake-shaped blade, Lu Bu's halberd, and Xu Huang's battle-axe to name a few) used by the author as a symbol of each character's personalities and as making action scenes appear more flashy to the readers, since most of those weapons didn't even exist at the time. But among these, the most famous would be Guan Yu's "Green Dragon Crescent Blade". He's the reason why the Chinese glaive is called the "Guan Dao".
Blood Brothers: The Oath at the Peach Garden between Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu is one of the most famous incidents in the novel. Note though that they're not the only such brotherhood (Sun Ce and Zhou Yu are as well), just the most famous and celebrated.
Boisterous Bruiser: Zhang Fei - and subverted when he used his enemies' knowledge of his love for wine to lure them into a trap. (Unfortunately both before and after this, his love for wine — or rather, the Unstoppable Rage that could come about — did cause negative consequences for Liu Bei, the last one being his death when his last two victims had their revenge. That, and there's the time that in stealing Lu Bu's war horses, he single-handedly broke an alliance that Lu Bu might have actually kept.)
Burn the Witch!: Taoists. Sun Ce hates superstitions, and Cao Cao just hates people who speak against him. As seen later on, things don't turn out too well for either of them.
Call to Agriculture: Subverted, when Liu Bei had to share temporary lodging in the same city as Cao Cao, he deflected suspicion from himself by taking up gardening in his yard as a disguise.
Catch and Return: Jiang Wei (having accidentally spilled his quiver) catches an arrow fired at him by Guo Huai and then fires it back at the shooter, killing him.
Chaste Hero: Multiple characters either directly or by proxy in ensuring that their charges aren't violated.
The most fortunate to do so may have been civil official Mi Zhu (who served Tao Qian and Liu Bei)... since the woman revealed herself to be the Goddess of Fire and that she had a command to burn his house down that night. Thanks to her early warning, he kept his life, health, and his valuables.
And Liao Hua, who refused to take Liu Bei's captured wives for himself, killed his partner (who did want to take them) and then promptly turned himself and his partner's head over to Guan Yu. An excellent career choice, as he outlives most of the other characters — an accomplishment for one who turns up that early in the novel.
The probably most famous example is Guan Yu refusing to sleep with Liu Bei's wives while in Cao Cao's custody, as one of his three conditions for surrendering to Cao Cao was the protection of Liu Bei's wives. Then again, the incident — and all of his privileges — were attempts to sway his loyalty to Liu Bei, and Guan Yu was probably aware of this. (Later, when presented with ten maids Guan Yu turned them over to his sisters-in-law.)
Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Multiple characters, but Lu Bu stands out among them. Lu Bu's penchant for treachery was well-known, having betrayed his two adoptive fathers Ding Yuan and Dong Zhuo. This eventually comes back to haunt him, courtesy of Liu Bei. Lu Bu once saved Liu Bei from an encroaching invasion and told him, "I hope you will not forget that when you come into your own." But when Lu Bu was captured by Cao Cao, Liu Bei pointed out Lu Bu's past betrayals, and as a result, Lu Bu got the rope while Liu Bei got off scot-free... for a while.
Liu Bei also stands out. Not repaying Lu Bu, planning to assassinate Cao Cao, claiming he had no interest in Yi province, backstabbing Liu Zhang who asked for Liu Bei's help in fighting Cao Cao to take over Yi province, refusing to return the cities Sun Quan lent him...
Cliff Hanger: Every single chapter ending, which fits with the oral tradition similarly to the Arabian Nights - so that the storyteller could keep the audience hooked and coming back for more.
Cycle of Revenge: Guan Yu gets executed by the kingdom of Wu. Liu Bei, enraged, renews hostilities with Sun Quan leading to a disastrous military campaign and his eventual death after the failure. In the meantime, Guan Yu's ghost comes back to kill Lu Meng, the general who planned the trap that caused Guan Yu's death. And Liu Bei's wife - who is also Sun Quan's sister - drowns herself on hearing the news.
Dark Horse Victory: The eventual unifier of the Three Kingdoms? The Jin Dynasty, founded by the descendants of Sima Yi - Cao Cao's strategist.
Death by Despair: Zhuge Liang managed to irritate Zhou Yu to death. He managed to Hannibal Lecture two other Wei officials into a fatal fit later on as well. Happens to others as well. Ironically, Zhuge Liang himself is victim to this at the very end, after the freak rainstorm at Mount Qi that saved Sima Yi's butt from a trap that quite literally took ten years for Zhuge Liang to be able to force him into. This wound up being the thing that finally pushes Zhuge Liang's already fragile health at the time over the edge.
Disproportionate Retribution: When his father is robbed and killed by one of Tao Qian's officers who went bandit, Cao Cao raises an army and ravages Tao Qian's territories. Tao Qian only managed to escape personal injury thanks to Cao Cao withdrawing his armies when his home territories came under attack by Lu Bu.
The Dragon: Basically Lu Bu while in Dong Zhuo's service, as his defection eliminates the last check on Dong Zhuo's rise to power and he's recognized as the linchpin that holds the regime together even moreso than the army and other officers.
Driven to Suicide: Xun Yu opposed Cao Cao's ascension to the rank of Duke. When Xun Yu pled illness to get out of being sent on an expedition, Cao Cao sent him a box like those that normally hold presents. Opening the box to find it empty, Xun Yu took the hint and committed suicide.
First Name Basis: It was common practice for men to take "style names": Guan Yu was Yunchang ("Long Cloud"), Zhao Yun was Zilong ("Young Dragon"), Zhuge Liang was Kongming, Zhang Liao was Wenyuan, and so on. Relationship titles may also be substituted for names. How one character addresses another one can indicate a great deal about their relationship.
Four-Star Badass: Too many to count — generals routinely lead their troops from the front and meet on the battlefield. Probably the best example is Lu Bu, whose knowledge of military tactics and strategy, and in fact any talent he may have as a military leader, is dwarfed by his personal combat ability.
Gambit Pileup: With that many factions opposing each other, this is unavoidable.
Gentle Giant: Xu Chu. He was at least 6 foot 5, with a 52 inch belly, but he was known by names such as Sleeping Tiger, Tiger Fool, etc because while in battle, Xu was like a tiger, while outside of battle he was known as being simple-minded and honest.
Good Hair, Evil Hair: Guan Yu's beard was reputedly fabulous to the point where Cao Cao gave him a beard bag. Oh, and when confronted by bandits, his taking off the bag caused them to promptly surrender and their leaders to beg to join him — albeit this was probably also because they recognized him for the Bad Ass that he was.
Guan Yu, although this is more of the fault of traditional opera and certain biased emperors.
Likewise Liu Bei... and Zhuge Liang to a point. (It's actually a historical inversion, as Zhuge Liang was considered the top political and domestic administrator, not the supreme tactician and strategist he is in the novel... on top of his political and administrative prowess. Liu Bei himself is also a slight inversion; he was actually a competent commander and not the weeping wreck we most often see, and some of the strategies in the novel attributed to Zhuge Liang were actually his own.)
Zhang Fei gets hit with a Historical Hero Downgrade, going from historically being the most strategically accomplished of Liu Bei's main generals to a blundering drunkard. While he's still smart enough to utilize some war strategies such as during the battle to take Cheng Du, he's portrayed as more of a Boisterous Bruiser Battle God in the novel.
Guan Yu and Zhang Fei's sons Guan Xing and Zhang Bao are portrayed in the novel to be some of the greatest warriors of Shu in their later years. In reality, Guan Xing never entered a battlefield, and Zhang Bao died young without proving himself - he got outlived by his father.
Historical Villain Upgrade: While historically, it's hard to say if anyone was the real villain, Cao Cao and the kingdom of Wei end up being cast as the main villains, while the kingdom of Wu is relegated to a secondary position because they're fighting the Designated Villain half the time and the Designated Hero the rest of it.
Han Xuan gets turned into a loud, rude and cruel person, while he historically was known to be quiet and kind... and he gave up instead of getting slain.
Hollywood Healing: Huang Gai, who had himself whipped as part of a plot against Cao Cao as a Fake Defector. He healed fast enough to participate in the battle... only to get wounded again!
Honey Trap: Diao Chan, with Lu Bu and Dong Zhuo, the latter eventually coming to his downfall because of her.
Honor Before Reason: Following the battle at Chi Bi, Guan Yu trapped Cao Cao in one of Zhuge Liang's ambushes. But because Cao Cao had treated him well previously when he was in service, Guan Yu lets him go. (Supposedly Zhuge Liang had actually accounted for this when he sent Guan Yu, though.)
Humiliation Conga: Meng Huo's seven defeats and Cao Cao's retreat from Chi Bi, among others.
Hypocritical Humor: Perhaps unintended. But for some reason every time one of the characters plots a conspiracy or a civil war, or other such things, it is "for the good of the State".
I'm a Humanitarian: Liu Bei, on the run and starving, is given some meat by a local peasant. The source? The peasant's wife. (He is ignorant at the time, but ''grateful'' when he finds out... not to mention the fact that when he tells Cao Cao about it, Cao Cao rewards the peasant with a hundred ounces of silver.)
Played straight by Cao Cao, cutting his hair to show loss of face after he lost control of his horse, which trampling over some crops after he'd issued an edict that any soldier who trampled over crops would lose his head.
Subverted by Zhou Fang, who cut off his hair to impress Cao Xiu with his trustworthiness. He was lying, and it really shows how far he's willing to go for his true lord, Sun Quan.
Incendiary Exponent: Most famously, the Fire Ship attack at the battle of Chi Bi. Legendary and effective.
Ironic Echo: "I trust you have been well since we last parted?" First spoken by Guan Yu, taunting Cao Cao about his escape back to his sworn brothers. Later Cao Cao says it upon being presented with Guan Yu's severed head.
I Shall Taunt You: Zhou Yu, Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi were all fond of doing this... and usually with each other. Zhuge Liang, however, kills people via taunting.
Love Ruins the Realm: Inverted by the whole Diao Chan incident, where the realm was at a nadir anyway and getting rid of the tyrant was an attempt at making things better. (Unfortunately, it inadvertently trades the tyranny of Dong Zhuo for the chaotic rivalries of the regional warlords, while his puppet emperor simply comes "under new management.") Invoked in the buildup to the battle of Chi Bi, where Zhuge Liang provokes Zhou Yu (and the kingdom of Wu) into fighting by claiming that Cao Cao was lusting after the Qiao sisters, one being Zhou Yu's own wife and the other, his late best friend and sworn brother Sun Ce's widow.
MacGuffin: The Imperial Seal is supposed to signify the Mandate of Heaven and the right to rule the land. People fights for it, Sun Jian dies on account of it, and then its use is subverted when Sun Ce trades it off for an army which he uses to found the kingdom of Wu, although Yuan Shu (who had made that trade with Sun Ce) ended up using it as the basis for founding his stillborn dynasty. The seal eventually passes to the kingdom of Wei, and while it's still used to claim the right to rule, nobody really cares at that point.
Made of Iron: Several characters, including Zhou Tai (who takes twelve wounds defending Sun Quan from bandits when Quan was a child) and Dian Wei.
The Magnificent: Sun Ce became known as the "Little Conqueror", after scaring one enemy officer to death and crushing another one between his arm and torso.
Make Me Wanna Shout: While Zhang Fei's shout wasn't superpowered, it reputedly killed at least one general at Chang Ban. From fright. Sun Ce managed to pull this off as well.
Manly Tears: If Xuande is in a chapter, odds are somebody is going to weep in gratitude.
It's not just him either though. Whenever you read any given chapter in the book, chances are someone is going to 'weep' or 'cry', and sometimes more then once. Heck, you can probably make a drinking game out of it. Every time you seed any of the words 'Weep', 'wept', 'shed', 'tear(s)', or cry/cried, take a shot. Of course if you did do that, you'd probably die of alcohol poisoning.
For Cao Cao, it was when he had Ju Shou executed ("I just killed the one guy who isn't a backstabbing freak... even if his loyalty was for the other guy and he tried to run away!"), and when he had his leading admirals executed for treason early during the campaign against Sun Quan, only to realize right afterward that he'd been had.
Earlier, when Cao Cao was on the run following a failed assassination attempt against Dong Zhuo, his father's sworn brother gives him shelter. Cao Cao and Chen Gong (a magistrate who'd freed Cao Cao) hide in a back room, overhear something about to getting out the knives killed, assumes its him, and jumps out and slaughters the entire household, including the wife and children of the person who promised to give him safety. Turns out that they were talking about killing a PIG as part of the feast they were having to honor Cao Cao. Cao Cao runs, meets the family friend outside, and then stabs him in the back because he didn't want the authorities knowing about him. This is however subverted that shortly after, Cao Cao lets out his famous quote that excuses his actions and defines his character:
Better I betray the world rather than have the world betray me!
This is likely actually the author's misinterpretation of the original quote, "Is it that I wronged the world rather than the world wronged me?"
It seems to run in the family, with two examples in Cao Pi's case:
Trying to execute his poetic intellectual brother Cao Zhi (who at worst was merely a layabout with his drinking buddies), but gives him a chance by challenging him to compose a poem, then another, without using certain words. Both poems reminds him what a Jerkass he's being, and having been called to account, he lessens Zhi's punishment to exile.
When taking his son Cao Rui to a hunt, he kills a deer's mother and tells Rui to kill the child, but Rui asks why he should kill the son when the mother is already killed. This led to Cao Pi possibly remembering about that he'd ordered Rui's mother (Lady Zhen) to commit suicide, and he eventually named Rui his successor.
Not My Driver: Meng Huo, fleeing from Shu forces, jumps on what appears to be a Nanman boat. You can guess what happens next.
Off with His Head!: Many characters, notably Guan Yu, both committing (with the most named victims!) and falling victim to this trope. Subverted when his head starts talking and his ghost starts killing people. In a rather funny lampshading, after he possesses Lu Meng, throws Sun Quan around and sits on his throne before leaving/killing Lu Meng's body, then animates his own head in Cao Cao's presence, his disembodied ghost goes off calling for the return of his head... only for a priest who he met while alive to ask him: "[W]ho will also return the heads of your several victims—-Yan Liang, Wen Chou, and the commanders of the five passes?" Guan Yu takes the hint.
One-Man Army: Zhang Fei scares off an entire army at the bridge of Chang Ban. Also possible Truth in Television, since most fights tended to be decided by duels between the generals.
One Steve Limit: Averted, sort of. There are a lot of characters with similar sounding names, most of which have distinct characters which have the same romanisation. Plus, many character names sound just like place names. Much of the novel is filled with lines like "Zhang Fei fought at Chang Ban". It's easy to get confused after a while.
Only Smart People May Pass: Cao Cao was fond of word games, even going so far to give inconsequential instructions (the disposition of some cheese, his opinion on a door) in codes. Yang Xiu solved both those mentioned, but in a subversion his intelligence (along with his support of one of Cao's younger sons for succession) made Cao fear him and would eventually lead to Yang's downfall.
Only The Chosen May Ride: Red Hare, a huge Cool Horse so named because "it can run fast as a hare and is colored red", only ever allowed Lu Bu and later—after the Lu Bu's disposal— GuanYu to ride him, as no one else could tame him.
Oracular Urchin: Luo Guanzhong liked to put street children in just for the sake of singing ominous songs, usually hinting at subsequent events. However, there's at least one time where it's a character (who needs to steer his mark towards a certain course of action) merely claiming that such children exist and are singing such songs... Genre Savvy, perhaps?
Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Fairly common, the most famous being Guan Yu's and Liu Bei's intercession on Zhang Liao's behalf after the fall of Xiapi Castle, ironically just after Liu Bei had thrown Lu Bu under the bus. (Zhang Liao would end up being the envoy who would convince Guan Yu to surrender to Cao Cao.) Inverted when Zhuge Liang ordered Guan Yu's execution for sparing Cao Cao in Huarong Valley — at which point Zhuge Liang's own lord Liu Bei begged for his sworn brother's life.
Portent of Doom: In the first few chapters, the end of the Han dynasty is seen in some very bad portents (a horrible plague among one of those things), kicking of the chain of events that leads to decades of war.
Power Trio: Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu - at least in tradition. Also, if you want to stretch the definition a little, the Three Kingdoms themselves.
Professional Butt-Kisser: Guo Jia, who lays out the ten ways in which Cao Cao is better than Yuan Shao. Smithers could take lessons in ass-kissing from this guy. However, Guo Jia was also a gifted strategist (smart enough to set off a My Death Is Just the Beginning plot) and not above questioning his boss from time to time (when he let Liu Bei go to take on Yuan Shu, for instance).
Rain of Arrows: Subverted when Zhuge Liang "borrowed" Cao Cao's arrows by sailing out dummy ships laden with straw.
Regent for Life: Between the eunuchs, Dong Zhuo and Cao Cao, emperors had absolutely no power and even less luck. (Heck, Dong Zhuo overtly has one emperor deposed and then forced to drink poison, while his mother is literally thrown out the window.)
Religion Is Magic: As Cao Cao and Sun Ce learnt, do not under any circumstances screw around with Taoist mystics. Subverted by Zhuge Liang who claimed to summon the east wind at the battle of Chi Bi... but really just did the whole ritual to waste time since he'd predicted the change in weather previously. (Historically, Zhou Yu just consulted a local fisherman.)
Revenge Before Reason: Liu Bei marches on Sun Quan to seek revenge for the death of Guan Yu. Everyone besides Guan Yu's immediate relatives and Zhang Fei tries to convince him to focus on Wei, but Liu Bei insists on invading Wu. Even after Sun Quan makes a large number of concessions, he refuses to back off and focus on Wei. The result is a massive defeat for Shu.
Also, Cao Cao attacking Tao Qian, when he had other, more serious enemies (such as Lu Bu and Yuan Shao) to deal with.
Rule of Cool: Most of the liberties taken with history in the novel.
Smug Snake: Cao Cao never really gets a chance to shine in the novel, despite being the designated villain of the story. (Ironically subverted by the eulogy poem that immediately follows his death basically declaring him above good and evil.)
Speak of the Devil: Or, as the Chinese say, "Speak of Cao Cao and he appears." Parodied (by being taken to its logical extreme) here.
Stealth Insult: Cao Cao weeping for Guo Jia's death after his defeat at Chi Bi. All of his advisors realize that he is making fun of the fact that none of them was able to see through the fire attack in time.
Thanatos Gambit: As an old Chinese saying goes, a dead Zhuge Liang scared a live Sima Yi in the battle of Wuzhang Plains.
Chen Deng advised Lu Bu very poorly, as he was plotting to sell him out anyway.
Sima Yi too against Wei after Cao Rui's death, although in Dynasty Warriors 6it's against Cao Cao specifically. One of his descendants even has the reigning Wei emperor murdered in broad daylight.
There's also Xu Shu (for Cao Cao), although he did so by neglect since he had "familial obligation" to leave Liu Bei's service, but promised not to help his new lord Cao Cao, and he keeps quiet upon discovering that Pang Tong (which makes him the heroic - in a sense - version of this trope) was involved in the Liu Bei-Sun Quan alliance's plot leading up to the Battle of Chi Bi.
Unfortunate Names: Cao Cao's given name consists of a character that, when pronounced slightly differently, is also used to write one of the many Chinese words for "fuck," and is the "grass" of the infamous "grass mud horse" meme. The "mud horse" part just sounds similar to "Your mother."
Additionally, "Cao" is usually mispronounced as "Cow" by some english speakers instead of correct "Tsaow". Hence, Cao Cao is refered as "Cow Cow" and his son, Cao Pi, is regrettably refered as "Cow Pee".
In addition, there are some names that are unfortunate for English speakers, such as He Man, who lasts only two or three paragraphs in Chapter 12. (His only line of dialogue: "I amHe Man, the devil who shoots across the sky. Who dare fight with me?" Unfortunately for him, the relatively minor character Cao Hong does, faking retreat before cutting him down.) Note that this name is not pronounced even remotely like the English "He Man", but more like "Huh Mahn".
There is also the case of Du Yu, a Jin general near the end of the book, which leads to many a poor joke. Of course, no list is complete without mentioning the most unfortunate one of all, a very obscure man who served Gongsun Zan: Wang Men.
Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Done several times. Might be the reason for Zhuge Liang's habit of handing his plans to his subordinates in brocade sacks, to be revealed only at the very last minute. The most famous example in the novel would be Zhuge Liang's three instructions to Zhao Yun regarding the Lady Sun affair.
Villainous Glutton: Dong Zhuo. An official lit a wick in his corpse, and it burnt for days.
You Rebel Scum! : Everyone calls everyone else this. It makes sense in an odd way. If you claim to be rightful emperor by extension you claim opponents are rebels.
Warrior Poet: Cao Cao and his sons were renowned poets, and founded one of the major styles of poetry of the time.
Worthy Opponent: When Cao Cao and Liu Bei were both in the capital, they held a famously-depicted "talk of heroes" in Cao Cao's garden where Cao Cao discounted several "heroes" that Liu Bei suggested before declaring that "the only two heroes in the world under heaven are you and I!" Causes Liu Bei to have an Oh, Crap moment as he realizes that Cao Cao just implicitly declared him the only real threat to his rule, and Liu Bei's own famous "afraid of lightning" moment.
Subverted by Ling Tong, who intended to kill Gan Ning for killing his father Ling Cao (before Gan Ning's surrender to Sun Quan). Sun Quan interceded during Ling Tong's attempt and forbade any further attempts, and the two eventually became friendly rivals.
After Ma Teng is executed for his involvement in an assassination plot against Cao Cao, his son Ma Chao declares war for this very reason.
After Cao Cao's father (and many other relatives) are killed by a subordinate of Tao Qian who turned bandit, Cao wages a brutal war of vengeance against Tao, only to be stopped by Lu Bu's attack on his own territory.
Zhang Fei at the Battle of Chang Ban, where he shouts a challenge for anyone in Wei's army to come and pass, and no one comes forward, allowing Liu Bei time to escape.
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Anime and Manga
Fist of the North Star: It turns out that the invincible Hokuto Shinken School of Martial Art has three brother schools that inherit the names of the Sun, Cao and Liu factions that their ancestors served and protected in the Three Kingdoms period, and Fist of the Blue Sky is the story of their rivalry in 1935 Shanghai.
Ikki Tousen (Extremely loosely based, seeing as it has the major characters reincarnated as top-heavy Panty Fighter schoolgirls. However, the story exists in-universe and thus some of the plot revolves around this fact.)
Koihime†Musou: A Gender Flip of just about the entire cast set in a version of Ancient China mainly ruled by women that includes somehow bazookas and maid cafes. Notably light-hearted compared to many adaptations and source materials.
Souten Kouro: Focuses on Cao Cao as a sympathetic protagonist, since it (and the manga it's adapted from) are based on the "Record of the Three Kingdoms" (Sanguozhi), which also portrays Liu Bei even less flatteringly.
Believe it or not, the makers of Magic: The Gathering released a card set based on the novel, Portal Three Kingdoms, as part of an outreach program to players in Asia and the Pacific. It was only released in China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
Dynasty Tactics (More closely related to Kessen than Dynasty Warriors)
Kessen II. Kessen II is extremely loosely tied to the source material. It starts with the Imperial Seal being entrusted to Diao Chan, who falls in love with Liu Bei.
Destiny of an Emperor, an RPG for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Capcom, as well as a Japan-only sequel. These were actually based on the manga Tenchi wo Kurau, which Capcom also adapted into the arcade action games Dynasty Wars and Warriors of Fate.
Sango Fighter, and its sequel, Sango Fighter 2 (1995), a fighting game for DOS by Panda Entertainment Software. The first game pits the Five Tiger Generals of Shu against five generals of Wei (Xiahou Dun, Xiahou Yuan, Dian Wei, Xu Chu, Xu Huang), in addition to Lu Bu and Cao Cao as bosses; while the second game adds in the forces from Wu (Sun Ce, Taishi Ci, Gan Ning, Huang Gai), and Zhang Liao.
Koihime†Musou: Kazuto, an Ordinary High-School Student, is transported to a version of Ancient China where most of the characters from the novel have been genderflipped into cute girls. With his Chick Magnet powers and his foreknowledge of the original novel, Kazuto helps the kingdom he is aligned with unite China. In the original Visual Novel, this was the Kingdom of Shu but subsequent installments in the franchise opened up other playable factions. Kazuto is a victim of Cipher Scything in the animated adaptations.