Literature: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

"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.

Tropes pertaining to the novel itself:

  • Divided for Publication: Most publishers break the novel up into multiple parts, thanks to its length: at 800,000 words and 120 chapters, it's a Doorstopper.
  • Stealth Parody: Despite having been written to satisfy the Imperial guidelines, Luo Guanzhong managed to sneak in a few subversions on the nature of loyalty. Blink and you'll miss them, though.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: One early editor referred to it as 70% fact and 30% fiction, which is a generous estimation: 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.

Tropes within the novel:

  • Abnormal Limb Rotation Range: Sima Yi could supposedly turn his head 180° to look behind him.
  • 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?"
  • Action Girl:
    • Zhurong, Meng Huo's wife, goes into battle against Shu and manages to capture a couple of Shu generals before getting captured herself - which is a pretty good record for the Nanman.
    • 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.
    • Lady Wang, Zhao Ang's wife, was the only woman to actually be historically recorded as fighting in that period, when she took up arms and attempted to murder Ma Chao after he slaughtered her husband.
  • 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.
  • All Just a Dream: Dong Cheng summons his servants, gathers his co-conspirators, marches on the Prime Minister's palace, and runs Cao Cao through with his jeweled sword...
    And just then he woke up and found it was all a dream, but his mouth was still full of curses.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: When you find an eunuch, they're never going to be portrayed as decent:
    • In the very first chapter, the Ten Regular Attendants abuse their power, leading to the uprising of the Yellow Scarves.
    • Huang Hao is regarded as the one who brought downfall to Shu by influencing Liu Shan, Liu Bei's Sucksessor.
    • Cen Hun was 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 organise it as a pretext to capture Liu Bei, only for Zhuge Liang to turn the entire situation around into a Humiliation Conga for Zhou Yu instead.
  • Arrow Catch: Jiang Wei. See below for more details.
  • Arrows on Fire: A staple of any fire attack.
  • 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.
  • Ass in Ambassador: Mi Heng, a talented but rude scholar, came out swinging in his only appearance and manages to insult the courts of Cao Cao, Liu Biao and Huang Zu, all in a single chapter. So how did anyone think he'd be a good ambassador? Afraid of directly executing a popular figure, Cao Cao hoped that Liu Biao would execute Mi Heng for him; Liu Biao saw through Cao Cao's trick and sent him to Huang Zu with the same intent.
  • Automatic Crossbows: Zhuge Liang is credited in-novel with inventing these.
  • Badass Grandpa:
    • Huang Zhong's first appearance in the novel is at the age of 60 - and tellingly, when his horse suddenly keels over in his fight against Guan Yu, his excuse is that "The horse is too old." He served Shu as a top general for 15 whole years after that. Unfortunately, in his attempt to prove that he can still kick ass with the next generation of generals, he gets lured into a Wu ambush and dies from his wounds.
    • 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. 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.
  • Beardness Protection Program: Cao Cao loses his cape and beard in quick succession after Ma Chao's men start looking for "that guy in the red cape" and (soon after) "that guy with the long beard". And then they start looking for "that guy with the shaved beard"... whereupon he decides to give up on the disguises and just run.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: Several examples. Notably, Guan Yu's subordinates Zhou Cang and Wang Fu after Guan's capture and execution.
  • 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 there's Zhao Yun, who turned down an offer to marry a beautiful woman in favor of serving his lord. Of course, what complicated matters was: 1.) She was the widow of the brother of 2.) a recently conquered vassal who 3.) had recently sworn brotherhood with him. Though it is not depicted in the novel itself, that move paid off later when said recently conquered vassal fled from Liu Bei, and Zhao Yun avoided considerable trouble.
    • 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.
    • Another 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:
    • 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.
    • Liu Bei: 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.
  • Combat by Champion
  • Cool Horse: Red Hare, said to be faster and stronger than the horses of its day (the Chinese term is "thousand-li horse"), and whose body and hair are entirely "glowing-sun red." May or may not go three times as fast as a regular horse.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu : Woe betide any soldier not identified by name.
  • 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. 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? None of them. It's 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.
    • 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 him to set up. This wound up being the thing that finally pushes Zhuge Liang's already fragile health at the time over the edge.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Huang Zhong, Xu Chu, and Taishi Ci amongst others.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: If you think you're winning against Zhuge Liang, that means it's time for the ambush to come out. Other characters use this as well.
  • Disposable Woman: Thanks to a colossal helping of Values Dissonance, female characters tend to end up as collateral damage, examples to discourage others, or, in one case, emergency rations.
  • 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.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: Sun Ce crushed Yu Mi to death while trying to take him prisoner.
  • 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.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Dong Zhuo. That's pretty much his only positive trait.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Xiahou Dun gets hit in the eye with an arrow - and eats it.
  • Eye Scream: Xiahou Dun. See the above.
  • Faking the Dead: Played straight by Cao Cao against Lu Bu, and by Sun Ce against Liu Yao. Invoked and subverted by Zhuge Liang: he really was dead, but manages to convince Sima Yi that he was only Faking the Dead to cause him to retreat.
  • False Flag Operation: Done several times by various sides. Cao Cao's raid at Wuchao is a particularly important one.
  • Fear of Thunder: Inverted: Liu Bei uses it as an excuse to cover up his shock when Cao Cao predicts that the two of them are the only true heroes of the age.
  • Flanderization: EVERYBODY. The scary thing is, it's not clear which is more deviant from the historical account: this or Dynasty Warriors.
  • 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 - for each strategist that's shown developing a plan, odds are that the next scene will be another strategist developing a countermeasure to it.
  • 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.
  • Grievous Harm with a Body: Dian Wei's last stand had him using enemy soldiers as bludgeons.
  • Historical Downgrade:
    • 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. However it still applies with the real life Zhang Fei being nowhere near heroic.
    • Liu Bei himself 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.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • Guan Yu, although this is more of the fault of traditional opera and certain biased emperors. Most of the heroic deeds attributed to him in Romance were either performed by other people or completely fabricated, not to mention his apotheosis.
    • Zhuge Liang was historically 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.
    • 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 it's hard to say if anyone was a true villain in history, 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.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Chen Gong, who believes that first Cao Cao, then Lü Bu are righteous heroes worthy of ruling the land.
  • 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. Liu Bei 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.
  • Important Haircut: It should be noted that it was against the filial piety values of the time to cut one's hair.
    • 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.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: The most common excuse for changing your mind about executing people/handing your concubine to your adoptive son/threatening to expose an assassination plot. Honestly, they need to work on their routine a little.
  • Kill 'em All: Redundant, but all the famous characters are dead by the end of the novel. It lasted a hundred years - should you be surprised?
  • Laser-Guided Karma: It doesn't take long for Sun Jian to reap the consequences of lying about the Imperial Seal. He dies in the very next chapter.
    Sun Jian pointing toward the heavens as an oath said, "If I have the Imperial seal and am hiding it myself, may my end be unhappy and my death violent!"
  • Love Ruins the Realm:
    • Played with 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.
  • Mooks: Galore, of course, with special mention going to the poor messengers. Those poor, poor, messengers...
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Lu Bu eventually kills his patron and adoptive father, Dong Zhuo, for the sake of Diao Chan.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Cao Cao had several:
      • When Cao Cao was on the run following a failed assassination attempt against Dong Zhuo, his father's sworn brother gives him shelter. Due to a series of misheard statements, Cao Cao mistakenly assumes that his hosts plan to kill him and slaughters the entire household. 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!note 
      • He had one 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!")
      • He had another when his leading admirals were executed for treason during the campaign against Sun Quan, only to realize right afterward that he'd been had.
    • 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. Since he was up against Zhuge Liang, the boat was predictably manned by Shu troops.
  • Off with His Head!: Many characters, notably Guan Yu, both committing (with the most named victims!) and falling victim to this trope. His ghost is admonished: "[W]ho will also return the heads of your several victims— Yan Liang, Wen Chou, and the commanders of the five passes?" He 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 Lu Bu's death - Guan Yu 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?
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Liu Bei and Lady Sun (at least as far as the novel is concerned).
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Intercession for close friends and relatives was common in the novel, but there were exceptional examples where generals and commanders would appeal on behalf of captured Worthy Opponents.
    • A famous example was 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.
  • Poison Is Corrosive: Cao Cao spills a poison meant for him, and "the bricks upon which it fell were split asunder".
  • 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.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: When Cao Cao is debating whether or not to declare war on Yuan Shao, Guo Jia lays out ten ways in which Cao Cao is better. 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: Exploited 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 the empress dowager 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 - even if you kill them, they inevitably come back to haunt you. Usually to death.
    • 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.
  • 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.
    • Cao Cao attacks Tao Qian when he had other, more serious enemies (such as Lu Bu and Yuan Shao) to deal with, because Cao Cao's father died while in his territory.
  • Rule of Cool: Most of the liberties taken with history in the novel.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Cao Cao does this at Wang Yun's "birthday party" once he and the guests weep at the decline of the Han dynasty, saying that crying isn't going to kill Dong Zhuo.
  • Satellite Character: Whilst even the most minor officers often get their own motives and little details fleshing them out, this is the default personality template for female characters. Female agency wasn't much of a thing in literature back then.
  • Shoot the Messenger: If you were the bearer of bad news in the novel, expect your life to be nasty, brutish and short.
  • Smug Snake: Cao Cao never really gets a chance to shine in the novel, despite being the designated villain of the story.
  • Speak of the Devil: Or, as the Chinese say, "Speak of Cao Cao and he appears."
  • 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.
  • Tender Tears: Characters will cry out of sorrow, happiness or despair at least once per chapter - even the most battle-hardened of generals. If Liu Bei is in a chapter, the odds of someone crying out of gratitude become even higher.
  • Thanatos Gambit: As an old Chinese saying goes, a dead Zhuge Liang scared a live Sima Yi in the battle of Wuzhang Plains.
  • The Horde: The Yellow Scarves are a popular but disorganised uprising led by charismatic mystics, and the early chapters are all about the kingdom's attempt to put their insurrection down.
  • The Strategist: Everyone's got at least one, but Zhuge Liang is the King of Strategists in the novel, routinely outshining all his peers.
  • The Thirty-Six Stratagems: Trope Namer for several; see the trope entry for details.
  • Treacherous Advisor:
    • Chen Deng advised Lu Bu very poorly, as he was plotting to sell him out anyway.
    • Sima Yi and his descendants against Wei after Cao Rui's death. One of his descendants even had the reigning Wei emperor murdered in broad daylight.
    • A rare heroic example: Xu Shu (for Cao Cao) was one by neglect, keeping quiet upon discovering that Pang Tong 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 the more correct-sounding "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 am He 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.
    • A talented Wei official was unfortunate enough to be named Man Chong, but compounded it by taking the style name Boning. Judging from the records of the time, Man Boning was very popular in Wei.
    • 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, your opponents are rebels by extension.
  • 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!" It 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.
  • You Killed My Father:
    • 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.
  • You Shall Not Pass:
    • Dian Wei holding off Zhang Xiu's forces.
    • 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.

Derivative works:

    open/close all folders 

    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.)
  • Anime with Mamoru Miyano as main star:
    • Koutetsu Sangokushi: With Wu as the main kingdom, and have the Cast Full of Pretty Boys ratio dialled Up to Eleven. Main star: Lu Xun (Rikuson).
    • 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.
  • BB Senshi Sangokuden, the latest incarnation of Bandai's SD Gundam model line.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms: A relatively-faithful anime adaptation of the source material.

     Board and Card Games 
  • 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.


    Live Action TV 

    Video Games 
  • From Koei:
    • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (11 in this series of strategy games and counting since 1985)
    • Dynasty Warriors
    • 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.
  • Smite: Guan Yu, the only character in the novel who is deified into a God eventually, is a playable character in this game and gets to duke it out with Gods from other mythologies like Zeus, Thor, Anubis, etc.


Alternative Title(s):

The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms