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Series / Three Kingdoms

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Three Kingdoms (Original title "三国", or San Guo) is a Chinese TV series made in 2010 and yet another work based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, though it also adapts personalities closer to the actual historical Three Kingdoms.

Probably the most expensive project ever made for Chinese TV, Three Kingdoms is a milestone of the Chinese media industry. Even longer than the much-praised 1994 TV series (95 episodes compared to its predecessor's 86) it tells a more character-driven story of the political intrigues, multiple betrayals, and fleeting loyalties of the turbulent Three Kingdoms era, and often strays from the original novel's (limited) characterization to humanize its main characters.

While the story begins with a focus on Cao Cao's ambitions and military rise, the other two factions - the honor-bound Sun family and the idealistic Liu Bei and his followers - are soon introduced, and their sides of the story told as well. The end result is an RoTK adaptation with a more balanced focus and carefully crafted characters which should appeal to newcomers and old fans alike. Of course, this is still RoTK; those who want to watch legendary heroes kicking ass Dynasty Warriors-style won't be disappointed either.


While the official release has fairly shoddy English subtitles, a fansub group has released the entire series subbed and downloadable by torrent.

Three Kingdoms contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Badass: Compared to previous depictions as a morals-bound weepy idiot, Liu Bei is shown as much more perceptive, honorable, and capable. Lu Su gets an even stronger boost; no longer a hapless go-between for Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu's squabbling, he's now a skilled politician in his own right who still manages to be kind, just, and loyal. Furthermore, he's the only person in the series who can hold his own against Zhuge Liang in a verbal sparring match.
    • Instead of being taken hostage by Guan Yu to escape an ambush set by Lü Meng, Lu Su informs Guan Yu of the ambush, which was against his wishes, and offers himself as a "hostage" so Guan Yu can safely escape the banquet. This impresses Guan Yu so much that he calls Lu Su "the only gentleman of Wu", and agrees to hand over the three commanderies of Jingzhou that he'd been refusing to earlier.
    • Sun Quan's sister matches Liu Bei in a swordfight, and nearly stabbed him in the throat before he ostensibly "won" by removing her veil.
    • Ma Su, known in the original novel as 'that idiot that lost Jieting', got upgraded to being Zhuge Liang's most loyal student and ends up pulling off a dangerous diplomatic mission to Wu with aplomb. Unfortunately, he still loses Jieting for the same reasons as in the novel.
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  • Affably Evil: If you consider Cao Cao evil, he's this. He laughs and executes people in the same breath, then tells them he'll provide for their families - and means it too. He also holds tea parties to discuss the state of the world with his main rivals, Liu Bei and Yuan Shao, in both cases soon before he curbstomps them in battle. He often comes across as a genial, yet huge Troll, with Lü Bu, Yuan Shao, Xu Shu, and even Sima Yi not exempt from his antics.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: In a carryover from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao's death. The episode centred on his final moments is one of the most sombre in the series, with the 'Hero of Chaos' spending his last days as a tired, ill old man depressed at how all his schemes to unite the realm have come to naught, and finally facing his death with calm dignity and naming Cao Pi his heir.
  • Ambadassador: Zhuge Liang and Lu Su are the most prominent examples.
    • Although he's (at the time) young and inexperienced and representing a lord with no troops and a record of mostly losses, Zhuge Liang verbally destroys Southland ministers disparaging Liu Bei's cause and helps ensure the formation of the Sun-Liu coalition against Cao Cao.
    • While Lu Su doesn't retrieve Jingzhou by himself, each of his diplomatic visits gains a little more for Wu; he ends up forcing Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang to concede that they are only "borrowing" Jingzhou from Wu, and that they'll return it as soon as they have other lands.
    • Ma Su gets some glory as well for convincing Wu to stay out of Wei's five-pronged attempted invasion of Shu.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Discussed heavily by several characters, and played straight by Cao Cao. Ambition is considered to be an evil, but necessary ingredient or "spark" to leadership, changing the status quo and becoming a true "hero" of the realm. Lü Bu is considered to be a man of great power but little ambition, holding him back from greatness. Liu Bei is idealistic, but that idealism is, by the end, considered to be secondary to his ambition. In the end, Cao Cao's heirs lose their entire kingdom by underestimating Sima Yi's ambition.
  • Animal Motifs: The phoenix is Pang Tong's, the dragon Zhuge Liang's. Since the dragon is also the symbol of the Emperor, this becomes an issue later when Zhang Fei tries to cast aspersions on Zhuge Liang's loyalty to Liu Bei by claiming he has greater ambitions.
  • Antagonist in Mourning: Zhuge Liang to Zhou Yu, even after indirectly causing his death. While this mourning is completely for show in most adaptations, in this case Zhuge Liang seems to actually mean it, referring to Zhou Yu afterward as a worthy adversary and "a kindred spirit".
    • Sima Yi mourns Zhuge Liang after his death, using Zhuge Liang's wooden statue as a stand-in for his actual body.
  • Anti-Hero / Anti-Villain: Depending on who you talk to, Cao Cao can be either; is he a hero who wants to overhaul a broken system by putting himself in power, or a villain for aspiring to power he has no right to?
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Incompetent, rather. Yuan Shao has an illustrious family name, but it and the armies it gets him can't save him from his own indecisiveness. For imperial relatives, Liu Biao dodders while his own wife and brother-in-law scheme against him, and Liu Zhang is too busy painting pretty women to handle ruling Yizhou properly.
    • In contrast, all three kindgoms' rulers — and Zhuge Liang — were men who rose from fairly low birth; in particular, although Sun Quan had the help of a brother who "founded" the kingdom and thereby set up a really good foundation, Sun Quan knew enough to recognize this advantage for what it wasnote  and therefore to let his talented subordinates get on with things without his interference for the most part.
  • Armor Is Useless: Even being in anachronistic full iron armor doesn't prevent soldiers from dying from armor-piercing arrows and blades.
  • Arranged Marriage: This is a major subject of the Jingzhou arc, occurring between Liu Bei and Sun Quan's sister and used by Zhou Yu as a scheme to capture Jingzhou, kill Liu Bei, or both.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: This is the case for most of Liu Bei's generals, including his two sworn brothers. Zhuge Liang points out though that while Guan Yu and Zhang Fei are be good fighters, they both lack the humility and patience needed to be good leaders of men, which is why he favors Zhao Yun.
  • Authority in Name Only: Even once he grows to adulthood, Emperor Xian is little more than a figurehead under the thumb of those who hold the real power at court, most notably Cao Cao.
  • Bad Boss: Yuan Shao harshly punishes his advisor, Tian Feng, for giving unwanted advice. The first time he does it, Yuan Shao demotes him to a stableboy. The second time, Yuan Shao imprisons him and tells him that he'll execute him sooner or later. His Bad Boss habits come back to bite him in the ass when Xu You defects to Cao Cao after he's accused of committing a crime. Xu You tells Cao Cao the location of Yuan Shao's war supplies.
    • Zhang Fei has a bad habit of punishing his subordinates far too harshly for failing to carry out his orders, even if said orders are impractical. Zhuge Liang tries to get him to move past this. Ultimately it's for naught, and he winds up being killed by two of his own officers when he goes too far in his demands and punishments.
  • Badass Baritone: Cao Cao and Zhang Fei are the most notable.
  • Battle of Wits: Zhuge Liang vs. Zhou Yu, from the moment they meet until Zhou Yu's death, which was itself caused by Zhuge Liang winning so many of these.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Averted, although Zhuge Liang and Pang Tong illustrate two ends of this trope. Both are intelligent and loyal to the death, but the former's an elegant white-robed sage and the latter has a face like a potato.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Cao Cao is this to Cao Ren. Liu Bei tried to be this to Zhang Fei, always encouraging him to control his temper. It doesn't work. Zhang Fei's temper eventually gets him killed by his own men.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Cao Cao's kids scheme against each other constantly for the sake of being named Cao Cao's heir, to the point that Cao Pi has to murder his youngest brother to both obtain Sima Yi's assistance and thin out the competition. Cao Cao's own reaction to this is a good reminder that even the "hero of chaos" is only human when confronted with family.
    • Yuan Shao's children vying to be named Leader of the Vanguard before Guan Du. Xu You and Guo Tu lampshade they're actually vying to be named Yuan Shao's heir. Yuan Shao does not know what to do so he solves this by appointing himself.
    • Also Liu Biao's family with his scheming second wife, her brother Cai Mao, and his first son Liu Qi. Lady Cai and Cai Mao want Liu Qi dead so Liu Biao - an old man by this time - names her child as his successor.
  • Boss Subtitles: Every important character gets them, every episode. It's practically a necessity, given the Loads and Loads of Characters present.
  • Blood from the Mouth: This is the main indicator of illness, severe injury, poisoning, shock, and every other ailment that results in a character collapsing or dying shortly afterward.
  • Break the Haughty: Being from a long and illustrious noble family, Yuan Shao never viewed the lowborn Cao Cao as a credible threat until Cao Cao destroyed his army at the Battle of Guandu. Cao Cao in turn got a hot dose of this upon underestimating the Sun-Liu coalition and being soundly defeated at Chibi.
    • Wang Yun thought he could easily crush the remnant of Dong Zhuo's generals after having Dong Zhuo killed. It ended in his own death.
    • Liu Bei's final loss at Yiling ended his growing arrogance after becoming emperor.
  • The Cassandra: Xu You is shown giving Yuan Shao sound and correct advice on multiple occasions, only to be ignored each time, despite Yuan Shao admitting regret at not listening to his advice to receive Emperor Xian. He doesn't have the heart to leave Yuan Shao until being wrongly accused of embezzlement during Guandu, after which he finally defects to Cao Cao.
    • Poor Chen Gong. He warned Wang Yun that not pardoning Li Jue and Guo Si would make them desperate. Wang Yun didn't listen, Chang'an was lost, and Wang Yun ended up dead (and the Emperor a hostage again). Later he warned Lü Bu that he should attack Cao Cao before the rainy season began at Xia Pi. Lü Bu didn't listen, Xia Pi was lost, Lü Bu ended up dead.
  • The Cavalry: Just as Liu Bei's ragtag band is trapped on the riverbank and preparing for a final stand against Cao Cao, Liu Qi's fleet sails down the river and carries them to safety at Jiangxia.
  • The Chessmaster:
    • Cao Cao, often. Wang Yun, with the plot against Dong Zhuo, although that ended up being his single stroke of brilliance, and his subsequent arrogance from that achievement proved his downfall.
    • More appropriately later, Zhuge Liang. Some of his battles are plotted out in such detail in advance that the show doesn't even give them screentime, because they happened Exactly As Planned.
    • Wu has Lu Xun, who first escaped the danger of having Sun Quan suspect him after Lü Meng's death note  by suggesting not to appoint another Grand Commander, as Sun Quan wished to be free from his Grand Commanders' control, and later acting insane by "prophesizing" Wu's defeat in the war against Shu knowing that Sun Quan would name him Grand Commander.
    • Sima Yi starts by sleeping during Cao Cao's speech after the Red Cliffs, knowing Cao Cao would imprison him so he could investigate Sima Yi's conduct. Later in the series, he successfully deceives every Cao ruler after Cao Pi's death, feigning illness before Cao Rui so that they wouldn't think of him as a threat, and showing how much Wei needs him after the Cao commanders turn ineffectual. He kills his maidservant/wife Jingshu on learning she's been spying on him and appears griefstricken and on the verge of death... only to ambush Cao Shuang with Emperor Cao Fang mere days after.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Poor Lü Bu, his CBD is so bad even other characters in-universe notice it. Cao Cao finally decides not to extend the chain and executes him.
    • Zhang Fei notes that Lü Bu brought terrible luck to all of his adoptive fathers, including Wang Yun (his father-in-law), to which Liu Bei (intending to receive Lu Bu as a guest) has to remonstrate, "I only want to be his friend, not his father!"
    • Liu Bei lampshades this after Lü Bu pleads to him to speak in his favor to Cao Cao: "Lü Bu has called three men his adopted fathers. The first was Ding Yuan. The second was Dong Zhuo. The third was Wang Yun. All of them have much to thank Lü Bu for. Today I dare, lord Cao Cao, to plead for you to be Lü Bu's fourth adopted father." Cao Cao laughs and pats Liu Bei's shoulder, then sends Lü Bu to die.note 
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: As the series progresses, the armies of each of the Three Kingdoms end up uniformed in distinct colours: Wei troops use black and grey, Wu troops dress in maroon tunics with white plumes while their commanders are all in white, and Shu troops dress predominately in dark blue with bronze/gold armour.
  • Combat by Champion: Used to raise the morale of the troops behind the winning champion. Generally a foregone conclusion if one of the champions involved is a big-name character.
  • Composite Character: Some characters have this happen to them because of the Compressed Adaptation, such as Xun Yu and Sima Zhao. In the original novel, Guo Jia gives the "10 reasons Cao Cao is better than Yuan Shao speech", in the show it's Xun Yu. Sima Zhao also has this happen with his brother Sima Shi, in the novel Sima Shi fought alongside Zhao and Yi, but in the show, Sima Shi and Sima Zhao become one character during the Northern Campaigns. Interestingly, Sima Shi DOES appear, but it's only in the final episode.
  • The Consigliere: Every ruler has a trusted military advisor who serves in this capacity. Zhuge Liang is Liu Bei's, Xun Yu was Cao Cao's until he began disagreeing with Cao Cao's authority, and Lu Su was Sun Quan's until his death.
  • Darkest Hour: After Cao Cao conquers Jingzhou, Liu Bei is confined to Jiangxia with few forces and little land, and stuck between a southward-looking Cao Cao and Eastern Wu. Zhuge Liang, however, points out that "now that we are at our lowest point, we have nowhere to go but upward."
  • David Versus Goliath: The leader of every faction has been 'Goliath' at least once, and lost accordingly.
    • Yuan Shao ended up as the first Goliath when his much larger army was annihilated by Cao Cao's forces at the Battle of Guandu.
    • Cao Cao got cast as Goliath himself at the Battle of Chibi, when his much larger fleet was decimated by the tiny Sun-Liu coalition and a lot of fire.
    • Sun Quan was next, having his army of ten thousands soundly routed at the Battle of Hefei by Zhang Liao's tiny squad of a few hundred defenders.
    • Finally, Liu Bei's vengeful crusade against Wu with hundreds of thousands of soldiers was ended by a 'mere bookworm', Lu Xun, at the Battle of Yiling.
  • Decomposite Character: Happens to Sima Yi's wife, Zhang Chunhua with an exclusive character to this show, Jingshu. In history, Sima Yi starts his coup under the guise of mourning his wife's death, in the show it's Jingshu's. Sima Yi's wife does seem to be a thing, but she is not seen onscreen, and we know this because before Cao Pi introduces Jingshu to Sima Yi, he already has two sons.
  • Despair Event Horizon:
    • Liu Bei nearly crosses this twice in quick succession. First, after losing battle after battle against Cao Cao and being confined to a small town in Jingzhou, and upon finding that Cai Mao was approaching to kill him, he merely sighs and asks, "must I keep running?" Luckily, Liu Qi convinces him to escape, and he acquires Xu Shu's aid soon thereafter. However, he would have nearly crossed this again when Xu Shu is forced to leave due to Cao Cao threatening his mother, but for Xu Shu telling him at the last moment that a certain Master Sleeping Dragon lived nearby.
    • Zhuge Liang, after six northern campaigns, finally succumbs to despair after a sudden rainstorm destroys the fire trap he had just barely forced Sima Yi into.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Guan Yu. Rather than being captured and executed by Wu, here, on being surrounded by Wu troops, he chooses to cut his own throat with his sword.
  • Disease Bleach: On learning of the loss of Jingzhou, being forced to retreat from Fancheng, and the pain of his wound continuing to weaken him, Guan Yu's hair and beard turn white, seemingly overnight.
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Zhou Yu to Sun Quan. The former hates Zhuge Liang with every fiber of his being, is willing to go to war with Liu Bei over the slightest provocation (and likely get both Sun and Liu factions wiped out by Cao Cao), and controls the majority of the Southland's soldiers, so Sun Quan only controls them through Zhou Yu, so Sun Quan ends up having to ensure Zhou Yu's obedience through extremely delicate maneuvering.
    • But it turns out Zhou Yu was mostly doing it for the good of the Southland, at least in his own somewhat-biased way... nevertheless, upon the death of Zhou Yu's protege Lü Meng and Lu Xun's subsequent suggestion to not appoint another Grand Commander, Sun Quan admits to his civil advisor Zhang Zhao that he's relieved at finally being free of his Grand Commanders' control after almost twenty years of themnote .
    • Lü Meng deserves a special mention, as despite orders not to pursue Guan Yu, he ended up cornering him and having Guan Yu commit suicide. It is hinted in his death scene that the "illness" he succumbed to was due to "the will of Heaven". Thankfully, Lu Xun takes the hint and advises Sun Quan not to appoint another Grand Commander, at least for the time being.note 
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Sima Yi seems to hold genuine affection for his maidservant, Jingshu, and when the two eventually marry, he appears to be nothing but sincere in his love for her. It's not enough to stop him murdering her and their unborn child - in such a way to appear she dies in childbirth - when he learns his enemies have had her spying on him. Ultimately the trope is played with as he's seen to continue mourning her even years after her death.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The gatekeeper who turned in his cousin as one of Ma Teng's conspirators, thereby saving Cao Cao from Ma Teng's revolt, did so because he was having an affair with his cousin's concubine. Upon hearing this, Cao Cao immediately orders the gatekeeper's execution, stating that given how many wives and concubines he had, there was no way he could trust someone willing to betray his own family for a woman.
  • Evil Chancellor: Dong Zhuo executes ministers at the slightest suspicion, rapes imperial concubines at will, and enforces his self-appointed rule as Chancellor with a Xiliang army apparently just as bad as he is.
    • Most of Cao Cao's rivals consider him to be this, although aside from murdering the Imperial Consortnote  and treating the Emperor like a pawn, his rule as Chancellor was actually fairly beneficial to the realm.
  • Evil Laugh: Sima Yi is prone to an incredibly creepy, wheezing laughter.
  • Fake Defector: Huang Gai used this ploy to get Cao Cao to let down his guard before the Battle of Chibi, as per the novel.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: With Lü Bu as the viper and his string of masters culminating in Liu Bei as the farmers. Interestingly enough, Liu Bei gets accused of this by quite a few people as well in the years after.
  • Fatal Flaw: In the blink-and-you'll-miss-it sense, but Zhuge Liang was not much of a people person when he was younger. Where Xu Shu would patiently explain his actions to skeptics, and Pang Tong would go drinking with Guan Yu and Zhang Fei to cement his position as "one of the bros", Zhuge Liang preferred to use his intelligence to wow critics into submission. Unfortunately, this made people more resentful and suspicious of him in the long run, with Guan Yu and Zhang Fei never fully trusting him and eventually infecting Liu Bei with this mentality, leading to disaster after Liu Bei refused to listen to Zhuge Liang and marched on Wu.
    • Guan Yu's is his arrogance, which slowly but surely grows over the course of the show. It becomes especially notable during the Fancheng campaign wherein he dismisses warnings and negative reports and commits several crucial blunders that ultimately end in the loss of Jingzhou and his death, as well as the death of his son.
  • Generic Doomsday Villain: Lü Bu. Everyone fears him as an undefeatable warrior in melee combat, yet he doesn't seem to have any ambitions or motivations aside from his love for Diaochan, and his would-be conquering is mainly thanks to Chen Gong's direction; Lü Bu's actor Peter Ho confirmed in an interview that this was the director's intent.
  • Heads I Win, Tails You Lose: When Zhao Yun and Zhang Fei were arguing who would attack Guiyang, Zhuge Liang suggested that they draw slips to choose. The impulsive Zhang Fei grabbed his slip first to find that it said "stay", so Zhuge Liang promptly declared Zhao Yun the winner... even though Zhao Yun's slip also said "stay." When Zhao Yun privately voiced his concern of favoritism despite being the beneficiary, Zhuge Liang pointed out that the trick only simply revealed Zhang Fei as too impulsive and brash for the task in the first place.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Liu Bei's morals prevent him from conquering Xichuan from its inept ruler, Liu Zhang. Pang Tong solves this problem by provoking Liu Zhang into setting an ambush and knowingly walking into it, so Liu Bei could use his death as an excuse to attack. Also doubles as one heck of a tear jerker
  • Honor Before Reason: Most of Liu Bei's problems are caused by his being unable to overcome personal honor for a greater goal, whether by refusing to wrong his "relatives" by conquering their lands, refusing to abandon peasants while fleeing from a larger force, or refusing to accept Wu's peace terms without fully avenging his brothers.
  • Hope Spot: After five Northern Expeditions, Zhuge Liang has finally trapped Sima Yi in an inescapable firestorm and eliminated his last barrier to reconquering the Central Plains... and then it rains. Notably, this is portrayed from both sides, with the scene from the Sima side essentially treating the rain like a case of Big Damn Heroes.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Liu Bei views his son, Liu Shan, as this, describing the kid as 'mediocre' and clearly not having high hopes for him as a future ruler. When Liu Shan inherits the throne after Liu Bei's death, he indeed starts out weak-willed, unsure and even painfully naïve, and it's up to Zhuge Liang to do the bulk of the heavy lifting of ruling Shu.
    • However, this trope is eventually downplayed as Liu Shan also has moments of being a Reasonable Authority Figure note  and even shows signs of being The Good King note . In his last appearances, he conducts himself with more maturity and authority than he had previously, demonstrating his own Character Development. note 
  • Infant Immortality: Averted. Dong Zhuo likes to order the wholesale slaughter of the families of disloyal retainers (or those simply more loyal to the Han than to him), including women and children.
  • Info Drop: It would take far too long to show how Lu Su came to be so trusted by Sun Quan that he's considered the third most important person in Wu; let's just have Zhuge Liang tell Liu Bei all about it. We can assume he got the info by gossiping with Zhuge Jin.
  • Join or Die: The Sun-Liu alliance began and continued out of a mutual fear of invasion by Cao Cao.
  • Kangaroo Court: In the imperial hierarchal sense, not the judicial sense; while Emperor Xian nominally has final say over all issues raised at court, Cao Cao's power as the Chancellor lets him "strongly discourage" any decisions not advantageous to himself.
  • Kill Me Now, or Forever Stay Your Hand: Liu Bei to Lü Meng, over Lü Meng's participation in an assssination plot against Liu Bei due to outrage at Liu Bei's land grab. Subverted, since Lü Meng actually does take a swing at him, but thank goodness for Zhao Yun's kung fu skills!
  • Kingmaker Scenario: To protect its own survival, Wu sides with whichever of the other two kingdoms is weaker at the moment.
  • Laughably Evil: Dong Zhuo might be the most clearly villainous character in the series, but that doesn't mean he's good at it; all of his military plans fail dramatically, forcing him to abandon the capital, and he only succeeds for as long as he does because everyone's afraid of Lu Bu, while the coalition against him has enough trouble keeping its own members off each others' throats.
    • In asking Wang Yun for Diaochan's hand, even Lü Bu outright admits that he's only with Dong Zhuo for political expediency, and for the sake of Diaochan's hand he'll consider Wang Yun his real adoptive father. (Unfortunately for him after his capture at Xiapi, Liu Bei implicitly points out to Cao Cao how temporary Lü Bu's loyalties were by naming both Dong Zhuo and Wang Yun, and Ding Yuan before them, culminating in Liu Bei sarcastically asking Cao Cao to be the fourth adoptive father.)
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: By any reasonable measure played straight, but actually averted when compared to the original source material, which had several hundred named characters. In the show many minor characters' actions were condensed, glossed over, or attributed to more memorable major characters instead.
  • Long Runner: At 95 45-minute episodes, and originally speculated to be 120 episodes given how many scenes and story events were still left out, this series is the longest show adaptation of RoTK to date.
  • Mama Bear: Lady Wu is not letting her 17-year-old daughter be married to a man three times her age without a damn good explanation.
  • Manchild: Zhang Fei at times comes across as this, with his boisterousness, wild emotions and fierce temper sometimes more suited to a big kid than a fully-grown man. It ends up being his Fatal Flaw as, after Guan Yu's death, he's so deep in grief that he begins to act ever-more erratically and sincerely doesn't seem to understand that he can't beat his officers half to death, then expect them to laugh it off with him over drinks. It winds up costing him his life.
  • Meaningful Echo: Compare Cao Cao's "I'd rather betray the world than let the world betray me" to Liu Bei's "Let the people flee me when the battle starts, but I'll never forsake the people."
  • Never My Fault: Among his other gifts, Cao Cao demonstrates a staggering talent for refusing to take the blame for his acts of villainy, starting with his murder of Lü Boshe, which he spins as not being murder at all, but a tragic death resulting from the chaos engulfing the realm. He dips into it again when standing before Xun Yu and Guan Yu's graves, but this time it comes across as more of a psychological coping mechanism.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Zhuge Liang lays out a complex plan to lure Cao Cao's troops into a firetrap in Xinye. The next mention of the battle shows Cao Ren, looking sooty and depressed, getting chewed out by Cao Cao for losing so badly.
    • Were you looking forward to Zhuge Liang's seven defeats of Meng Huo? "Now that you've defeated the Nanman and pacified the south, Prime Minister..."
    • Were you looking forward to Dian Wei's Heroic Sacrifice for Cao Cao? You'll have to settle for a conversation between Xun Yu and Xu Chu about Cao Cao's fondness for other men's wives costing the life of Dian Wei. This happens when discussing Cao Cao's intent to keep Diaochan.
  • Off with His Head!: Preferred method of execution; throwing a head into the hall is a nice dramatic way of showing the death of an enemy general.
  • Old Retainer: Zhang Zhao, who spends all of his entire 20+ years in-series looking 70.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted due to linguistics. Most names in this series are two-syllable, there are only so many syllables in Chinese, and there are even fewer allowed in names or style names. Good luck remembering all of the Lius (not all of whom are related to the Imperial family) or distinguishing between the style names Wenchang, Wenyuan, Youchang, and Yunchang (Wei Yan, Zhang Liao, Ma Su and Guan Yu respectively).
  • Parental Favoritism: Cao Cao to... pretty much every son that isn't Cao Pi, at least until Cao Pi starts trying to prove both his abilities as a schemer and his loyalty to Cao Cao.
  • Passing the Torch: Knowing he has little time remaining after his collapse at Shangfang Valley, Zhuge Liang passes on to Jiang Wei both his books of military strategy and his vision of restoring the Han.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Happens very frequently to people who are threatened with execution, and often times their associates would beg their superiors to spare their lives.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Zhang Fei wobbles between being this and a drunken lout when off the battlefield, and often does both in rapid succession around Zhuge Liang.
    • This is best shown soon after Liu Bei ascends the throne, with Zhang Fei visiting him at night and railing against Zhuge Liang's strong advice against going to war with Wu.
    • Xu Chu for Wei. Even when Cao Cao is angry at him for killing his old friend Xu You, for making disparaging remarks about Cao Cao while drunk. Cao Cao screams "Unacceptable!", and Xu Chu simply answers "Just replace his head with mine!" without batting an eye.
  • Pyrrhic Villainy: Just as in history and in the Romance, Sima Yi is the ultimate victor of the series, ending with his family effectively in control of the state of Wei and all those who could stand against him - notably Zhuge Liang - either dead or powerless. However, he's forced to murder his concubine Jingshu (and while she was pregnant with his child, no less) despite his apparent genuine love for her. The death of Zhuge Liang leaves him without a Worthy Opponent to measure himself against and he admits, in private, that he now feels truly lonely. His advanced age means that he dies not long after his usurpation, and his last scene shows how in old age even his remarkable intellect has left him, as he's so deep into senile dementia that he can barely follow a conversation.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Tian Feng is one of many characters demoted to menial positions for getting on the boss' bad side.
  • Refusal of the Call: Xu Shu notes that Zhuge Liang has done this consistently even as all of his friends went off to serve different lords, but hopes that Liu Bei will be the one to end it. He's right.
  • Regent for Life: Although officially Chancellor, Cao Cao successfully becomes this to Emperor Xian.
  • Revenge Before Reason: While Liu Bei was still mostly reasonable after Guan Yu's death from Wu's conquest of Jingzhou, Zhang Fei's death finally pushes him completely over the edge. He tries to execute an official who warns him against the invasion, discards the advice of Zhao Yun and Zhuge Liang (who he had formerly trusted greatly), and even rejects a plea for peace from Wu which would have returned Jingzhou and his wife to him.
  • Royal Blood: Liu Bei is a distant descendant of the imperial line and takes it, and the duty it imposes on him, very seriously.
  • Rule of Three: The three Peach Garden Oath brothers and the three kingdoms themselves.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Averted. Banquets are a great place for ambushing or poisoning someone unawares.
  • Say My Name: Sima Yi roars Cao Cao's name when he thought that Cao Cao had died from head pain after charging Sima Yi with the upkeep of his legacy. Cao Cao got better.
  • Scenery Porn: Zhuge Liang's cottage in Longzhong, built over a still pool running over a waterfall and surrounded by lush greenery.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Cao Zhi is the educated and cultured scholar, and Cao Zhang the muscleheaded and brash warrior. Cao Pi falls squarely between them and has a bit of an inferiority complex about it; in history, he was as cultured a poet and scholar as Cao Zhi.
  • Smart People Play Go: Go, or weiqi, seems to be Zhuge Liang's game of choice; he's seen playing it with both Liu Bei and Ma Su, but the only time Ma Su ever beats him is when he's distracted.
  • The Starscream: Sima Yi to the Wei emperors after Cao Pi, although by overthrowing them he's effectively made himself Cao Cao's spiritual successor.
    • At least a few characters insinuate to Liu Bei (and then Liu Shan) that Zhuge Liang might be this. He's not.
  • Tempting Fate: Watching on as Sima Yi seems about to succumb to a well-placed fire trap in Shangfang Valley, Zhuge Liang comments, "even Heaven can't save him now." Cue sudden rainstorm.
  • The Stoic: Liu Bei in the first third of the series, to such an extent that the Chinese fandom took to calling him "Mister Facial Paralysis." Granted, he had good reason for concealing his emotions and ambitions around both Yuan Shao's coalition and Cao Cao, and he got much better after meeting Xu Shu and then Zhuge Liang.
    • Lu Xun after he's named Grand Commander, and has to deal with his own generals who resent his repeated orders to retreat. He maintains the same expression even when executing Fu Jun for continually disobeying orders and jeopardizing his strategies, despite the generals' cautions that he is Sun Quan's brother-in-law. He snaps out of it with an emotional reaction after Sun Quan publicly signals his support by burning every written protest against him in front of him.
    • Sima Yi as well, in a way that makes him unnerving and appear endlessly calculating and legitimately sociopathic.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Despite being 'absolutely terrible at swordsmanship' in his father's own words, Cao Pi manages to hold his own alongside his more martial brother, Cao Zhang, while defending Cao Cao from rebels at Wufeng Tower. This (as a clear show of loyalty to boot) impresses Cao Cao enough to decide to make Cao Pi his heir.
  • Undying Loyalty:
    • Practically everyone who ends up joining Liu Bei, including nameless peasants. Liu Bei was so respected in Xu province that the commoners, when given money and food to flee for their lives from Cao Cao's invading army, instead chose to follow Liu Bei's forces in their retreat.
    • Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei to each other. While this is usually heartwarming, it also leads to Liu Bei's ill-fated crusade against Wu for being responsible for his brothers' deaths.
      • When Lu Su calls out Guan Yu for releasing Cao Cao at Huarong Road, Zhuge Liang is obligated to order Guan Yu's execution — however, Liu Bei then vows that he must die alongside his brother, at which point both Guan Yu and Zhang Fei offer their lives in trying to talk Liu Bei out of it. Lu Su privately admits to seeing this scene as being all an act — at least on Liu Bei's part, if not his brothers' — but having gone along with it anyway.
    • During Guan Yu and Zhang Fei's near-coup in Jingzhou in Liu Bei's absence, Zhuge Liang states his willingness to die if it would prove his loyalty to his lord. This is averted by Liu Bei's timely return, but later fulfilled anyway as Zhuge Liang devotes the rest of his life to carrying out Liu Bei's last wishes of reviving the Han.
  • Verbal Tic: Dong Zhuo constantly says "Hao, hao," or "Good, good," when he's excited.
    • Cao Cao: "Heh heh heh.", and "Huh?" mid sentence.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Parts of the story aren't given nearly as much detail as they are in the novel, as their imagery is supposed to be so iconic for Chinese audiences that they're expected to be aware of what's referenced.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Cao Cao is so incensed by Liu Bei's 'easy' occupation of Xuzhou — a direct result of all the blood and effort expended by Cao Cao's own attempts to conquer it — that Cao Cao briefly goes into a rage comanote .
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to Xu Chu, Cheng Yu, and the rest of Cao Cao's surviving old guard after his death? Pretty much the only familiar face in Wei during Cao Pi's reign was Sima Yi.
    • Yuan Shu's main advisor was a white-bearded sage who, despite his distinctive character design, is never named or mentioned again after Yuan Shu's ignominious death.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Sun Quan and Cao Chong, although the latter isn't quite wise enough to hide his cleverness in front of his ruthless eldest brother...
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Zhou Yu towards Zhuge Liang, though it's often obscured by Zhou Yu's jealousy. Zhuge Liang later reveals to Pang Tong that he reciprocated this and considered Zhou Yu to be a kindred spirit.
    • Cao Cao to Liu Bei. While the two were still on the same side in Yuan Shao's coalition, Cao Cao had already realized that Liu Bei was no ordinary man, and tried to sway Liu Bei's loyalty from the Han to him. After his failure, he came to regard Liu Bei as this.
    • In the end, Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi held this towards one another — in their final encounter, Sima Yi resolved himself to death with such composure that Zhuge Liang (out of earshot of Sima Yi) called him admirable, heroic and honorable. After Zhuge Liang's death, Sima Yi ordered his son Sima Zhao to retrieve Zhuge Liang's wooden statue and privately mourned him, stating that they were "a match not made in a thousand years".
  • You Have Failed Me / You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Lü Meng suddenly 'falls ill' after a feast, and dies soon after. It's heavily implied that Sun Quan had him removed due to the headstrong general ignoring and disobeying his orders not to pursue or slay Guan Yu.


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