Three Kingdoms: Chapter Summary 2

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is full to the brim with battles, stratagems and memorable moments – no summary can do it real justice. Condensing a twenty-page chapter into a short paragraph involves leaving out most of the good bits, so do read the original – but on the flip side, this chapter-by-chapter summary is the only way you can read the entire plot in about an hour.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Part 1 (Chapters 1-33)

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Part 3 (Chapters 66-90)

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Part 4 (Chapters 91-120)

The rules I’ve set myself: the first time a major character appears in this chapter summary, I put in a brief note about them – but that often isn’t the first time that character appears in the original novel. Normally I also note when a major character dies. Other than these major characters, I’ve tried to keep names to a minimum. I number the individuals whom I consider to be the eight main characters  (Xuande, Zhang Fei, Lord Guan, Cao Cao, Zhao Zilong, Sun Quan, Kongming and Jiang Wei), so that they stand out a bit more when they first appear. I’ve followed the naming conventions in the translation I read (for example, Xuande and Kongming instead of Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang). Likewise, I sometimes call the book Three Kingdoms, rather than The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, because that is what the translation called it. All the text, and the chapter groupings (like “Cao Cao sweeps all before him”), are my own.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms - Kongming
Kongming (centre) leaving the mountains to serve Xuande (right) (Chapter 38)

Part 2

This section of the story follows three interconnected turning-points: the ingenious Kongming joins Xuande’s cause, and will prove to be its greatest asset; Xuande, Kongming and the Southland attempt to halt Cao Cao’s efforts to conquer all of China, leading to a climactic battle at the Red Cliffs; and Xuande gains a realm of his own by capturing a province and subsequently becoming master of the Riverlands. This is the period when the three eponymous kingdoms take shape, and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has some of its most iconic moments.

Xuande meets Kongming

Chapter 34

The year is AD 207. Xuande, hiding from the machinations of the wicked Cao Cao, is living at the court of the kind-hearted Liu Biao (see Ch.7). Liu Biao’s in-laws plot the fall of Xuande, fearing his influence. Failing to win over Liu Biao, who likes Xuande, they take matters into their own hands – but Xuande escapes over a river in torrent on the back of a horse. The horse is supposed to be unlucky, but on this occasion it saves Xuande’s life.


Chapter 35

Before he can meet up with Zhao Zilong, Xuande spends the night at the house of a sage who urges him to find worthy advisors who can bring his potential to fruition. Not long after, Xuande begins to follow the sage’s advice when he acquires the services of the wise strategist Shan Fu. Liu Biao is mortified and apologetic after the plot of his in-laws against Xuande: he has a good nature but is unable to control his own followers. Shan Fu helps Xuande defeat an attack on Liu Biao by Cao Cao.


Chapter 36

Xuande takes a shine to a young man and adopts him, naming him Liu Feng – although Lord Guan objects, as Xuande already has a young son. Meanwhile Shan Fu’s advice leads to further successes against Cao Cao, but when his identity is uncovered Cao Cao takes his mother hostage. An emotional Xuande lets Shan Fu go to save his mother – and Shan Fu repays him with the name of an even greater scholar, Zhuge Liang (KONGMING).

  • Liu Feng: Xuande’s adopted son. The mistrust between Liu Feng and Lord Guan will one day have cataclysmic consequences for the oath-brothers
  1. Kongming: along with Xuande and Cao Cao, Kongming is one of the three central characters of Three Kingdoms. He is a scholar and strategist of unparalleled brilliance, a grandmaster of the political and military chess games of Three Kingdoms and always able to see several steps ahead. With Kongming by his side, Xuande is less hapless in the face of his many enemies, and for the first time, his faction has a viable chance of real success.


Chapter 37

On learning that her son has abandoned Xuande, Shan Fu’s mother berates him and kills herself. Twice, Xuande and his oath-brothers call at the house of Kongming, but he is away.


Chapter 38

On his third visit, Xuande meets Kongming, who tells him that he must form the third of the Three Kingdoms – alongside Cao Cao’s realm in the north and Sun Quan’s realm in the south. Kongming agrees to become Xuande’s advisor. In the Southland, Sun Quan’s brother is murdered but his widow avenges him. Sun Quan fights against Huang Zu, Liu Biao’s general, continuing the enmity between Liu Biao and the Sun family (see Ch.7). One of Huang Zu’s men, Gan Ning, defects to Sun Quan and helps the Southlanders defeat Huang Zu.


Chapter 39

Gan Ning kills Huang Zu. Xuande refuses Liu Biao’s offer to replace Huang Zu on the eastern frontier and become Liu Biao’s heir; this keeps Xuande safe from court intrigue and also means he does not begin an enmity with Sun Quan, who is a potential future ally. Instead, Xuande gets assigned the northern front to defend against Cao Cao. In his new role, Xuande appoints Kongming as his chief military advisor. Xuande’s oath-brothers, Zhang Fei and Lord Guan, both chafe against Kongming’s meteoric elevation – until Cao Cao’s vast army is resoundingly defeated by Kongming’s ingenious stratagems.

China in AD 207

Cao Cao sweeps all before him

Chapter 40

Cao Cao executes Kong Rong, a political opponent, thus cementing his absolute power in his realm. Liu Biao dies and his wife’s family immediately stages a coup; they then surrender the province to Cao Cao. Refusing to seize the state because it would be dishonourable, Xuande retreats to a city called Fan. The route of the retreat is protected by a succession of traps and ambushes which Kongming sets for Cao Cao’s advance army.

  • Death of Liu Biao


Chapter 41

Cao Cao accepts the surrender of Liu Biao’s province – and then, with ruthless pragmatism, has Liu Biao’s widow and son killed, even though they invited him in. The fleeing Xuande is slowed down by a horde of refugee civilians whom he refuses to abandon, and Cao Cao’s forces shatter Xuande’s. In the confusion, Zhao Zilong rescues Xuande’s son Ah Dou and his two wives, but one of the wives is wounded. Zhao Zilong refuses to leave her, so she throws herself down a well to give Zhao Zilong a fighting chance to rescue the other two. Xuande’s overdeveloped sense of honour has now cost him the province, the battle and his wife in quick succession.

  • Ah Dou: Xuande’s son and heir, still just a small child at this time. He has a weak character: he will not be a worthy heir to his great father.


Chapter 42

Zhang Fei holds a bridge to buy some time. He frightens away Cao Cao and his officers, who remember Lord Guan’s exaggerated warnings about Zhang Fei’s power (see Ch.25). Liu Qi, Liu Biao’s surviving son, arrives with ships to rescue Xuande’s party. Xuande realises that he must ally with Sun Quan and the Southlands, as this is the only way to stop Cao Cao from reunifying the Empire under his tyranny – and at this point the Southland official Lu Su (see Ch.29) arrives from Sun Quan to make overtures. Kongming leaves with Lu Su to negotiate.


Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Mengchong
A warship used in the Battle of the Red Cliffs

Zhou Yu and the Campaign of the Red Cliffs

Chapter 43

At the Southlands court, only Kongming and Lu Su advocate war to Sun Quan, but Kongming brilliantly defeats his opponents in debate and the pair insist that Sun Quan should not submit.


Chapter 44

Sun Quan is reminded of his brother Sun Ce’s last advice, to trust Zhou Yu (see Ch.15) on foreign policy, so he decides to go with whatever Zhou Yu advocates. Everyone petitions Zhou Yu. Kongming and Zhou Yu are playing power games with each other: both want the other to ask for help first, so at first – to Lu Su’s consternation – they both advocate peace. Kongming gets the upper hand by suggesting that Cao Cao can be placated by being sent two maidens he desires – an idea which stirs Zhou Yu to open anger against Cao Cao, as one of the maidens is now Zhou Yu’s wife. Xuande joins his forces to Sun Quan’s, and the Southlands commit to war: the greatest war of their lifetimes, between the two most powerful adversaries of the era. Zhou Yu is made field marshal, but perceiving Kongming’s brilliance, he starts plotting against him.


Chapter 45

The campaign against Cao Cao begins with a Southland victory. Afterwards, Kongming wriggles out of a suicide mission that Zhou Yu sets him. The trusting Xuande then attends a banquet where Zhou Yu plans to kill him – but Lord Guan’s presence terrifies Zhou Yu into inaction. To dispose of Cao Cao’s best naval generals, including Liu Biao’s nefarious brother-in-law who had plotted so much against Xuande, Zhou Yu frames them so that Cao Cao executes them for treachery.


Chapter 46

The two vast armies face each other across the Yangtze River, by the Red Cliffs. Cao Cao’s army is much bigger: if he wins here, nothing will stand in his way. Zhou Yu continues to plot against Kongming, though: he plans to execute him if and when he fails to procure 100,000 arrows in three days, but Kongming uses a fog and Lu Su’s help to collect arrows in bundles of straw covering boats that Cao Cao mistakenly fires upon. Lu Su, the go-between, is repeatedly confounded by the subtleties of Kongming and Zhou Yu; Zhou Yu, meanwhile, can get nothing past Kongming. Cao Cao sends across false defectors, but their families are still in Cao Cao’s hands, so even Lu Su knows them for fakes. This gives the Xuande-Southland coalition the opportunity to feed false information to Cao Cao via these spies, who do not know that they have been detected. Zhou Yu agrees to send a Southlander called Huang Gai as a fake deserter to Cao Cao – first beating him in front of the army, including Cao Cao’s spies.


Chapter 47

Huang Gai sends Kan Ze with a letter to Cao Cao, offering to defect. Kan Ze and Gan Ning (see Ch.38) “accidentally” expose themselves as traitors to the real traitors, who pass the information on to Cao Cao. Zhou Yu is winning the misinformation game, and doubles down on this by getting Cao Cao to recruit the wise strategist Pang Tong. Cao Cao is unaware that Pang Tong is in fact already in Sun Quan’s service, and Pang Tong advises him to rope his ships together.

  • Pang Tong: the only strategist of comparable ability to Kongming himself, he is a formidable asset and will soon prove his worth


Chapter 48

Pang Tong’s plan is divined by the strategist Shan Fu, who is unhappy that he is on Cao Cao’s side (see Ch.35-7) and agrees to Pang Tong’s plan to create a rumour which gives him a chance to be redeployed elsewhere. Cao Cao is bullish, and the defeat of some rash volunteers only confirms his trust in Pang Tong’s tactics to keep the ships bound together.


Chapter 49

Kongming invokes the wind that Zhou Yu needs, then flees with Zhao Zilong back to Xuande before Zhou Yu’s assassins can kill him. Huang Gai tells Cao Cao to expect his defection – instead arriving with fireships that devastate Cao Cao’s vast fleet at the Red Cliffs. Zhang Liao (see Ch.19) rescues Cao Cao, wounding Huang Gai. It is a massive victory for the Southlanders.


Chapter 50

Cao Cao’s army is destroyed. He flees, blundering into a series of ambushes that reduce his force to 300 wounded, exhausted and hungry men. However, Lord Guan, guarding the last pass, lets him go to repay his earlier kindness (see Ch.26), and then lets the soldiers pass as well because of his friendship with Zhang Liao (see Ch.25). Kongming had predicted the exact line of Cao Cao’s retreat, and also that Lord Guan would spare Cao Cao – who remains as a counterweight to the Southland.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Zhou Yu
Zhou Yu: the military genius behind the victory at the Red Cliffs, who is also Kongming’s bitter enemy

Xuande finally establishes a domain

Chapter 51

Zhou Yu is eager to follow up his victory at the Red Cliffs. Kongming gets him to promise that if he fails to take the key city of Nanjun, Xuande is welcome to try. Zhou Yu is tricked and wounded on the first attempt, but routs the northerners on the second try – only to find Zhao Zilong already holding Nanjun. He, Zhang Fei and Lord Guan had captured credentials which let the three of them trick their way into three of Cao Cao’s cities. Xuande’s faction is profiting off Kongming’s genius to steal Zhou Yu’s successes.


Chapter 52

Lu Su visits Kongming to protest on Zhou Yu’s behalf. Kongming says he and Xuande are merely holding their gains for Liu Qi (see Ch.42), son of Liu Biao and the rightful heir. Kongming captures another district and sends Zhao Zilong to capture one more. Zhao Zilong is presented with the opportunity to marry a uniquely beautiful woman, but honour and politics are not in favour of it; he is easily able to rise above the temptation.


Chapter 53

Zhang Fei and Lord Guan each take a province – Lord Guan after Wei Yan leads an uprising and turns the city over to him. Kongming urges Xuande to execute Wei Yan, but he refuses. Cao Cao’s forces, led by Zhang Liao, are fighting Sun Quan’s victorious forces, including the Southland hero Taishi Ci (see Ch.15). Zhang Liao’s prudence enables him not only to survive an attempt on his life, but actually turn the tables and kill Taishi Ci himself. Xuande receives news that Liu Qi, son of Liu Biao, has died naturally.

  • Wei Yan: a talented general who hides a slippery inner nature. He has a long and successful career serving Xuande and Kongming, but Kongming never entirely trusts him.
  • Death of Taishi Ci


Chapter 54

Lu Su requests that, now Liu Qi is dead, Liu Biao’s old territory be handed over to Sun Quan. But he is fobbed off with the promise that it will be handed over when Xuande has captured the Riverlands, which lie further to the west. Zhou Yu arranges a false marriage proposal between Xuande, whose wife has just died, and Sun Quan’s sister; but Sun Quan’s aunt refuses to go along with it so a genuine marriage takes place instead. Lady Sun is a martial princess: a good match for Xuande. Xuande rides and competes with his new brother-in-law, Sun Quan: this marks the start of the true Three Kingdoms era.


Chapter 55

Sun Quan resolves to weaken Xuande through pleasure. But Kongming has put measures in place to rescue Xuande. Zhao Zilong is with Xuande, and, acting on Kongming’s instructions, he tells Xuande that his province is in imminent danger. Lady Sun chooses her husband over her brother and they flee, outwitting the pursuers sent by Zhou Yu and Sun Quan.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Zhang Fei and Ma Chao
Zhang Fei and Ma Chao duel (Chapter 65)

Cao Cao returns to the fight

Chapter 56

Cao Cao’s hopes of uniting China have been dealt a severe blow, but he is still very much in control of his own realm. He is hosting a feast when an envoy from Sun Quan arrives, requesting that the Emperor confirm Xuande in his territories. This is an attempt to play off Cao Cao against Xuande. Cao Cao responds by officially giving the land to Zhou Yu, who is now even keener to defeat Xuande. After Lu Su fails again to make Xuande give up the land, the Southland offers to conquer the Riverlands as a wedding gift for Xuande. Zhou Yu’s real aim is to get permission for his army to pass through Xuande’s territory, then catch Xuande unawares and kill him – but Kongming is ready and sets a trap for him. Zhou Yu is defeated and badly wounded.


Chapter 57

Zhou Yu dies of his wounds, recommending Lu Su to replace him. Pang Tong (see Ch.47), rebuffed by Sun Quan, defects to Xuande with Lu Su’s backing. Xuande gives him a minor appointment but realises his error and promotes him to Kongming’s deputy. To secure his west flank, Cao Cao summons the loyalist Ma Teng, intending to murder him. Ma Teng was, along with Xuande, the only prominent survivor of Dong Cheng’s plot against Cao Cao (see Ch.20-24); Ma Teng fled from the court at that time, but he still intends to complete the mission. Ma Teng’s plot to assassinate Cao Cao is exposed by his confidant’s concubine and they are executed.

  • Death of Zhou Yu


Chapter 58

Ma Chao, Ma Teng’s surviving son, takes up arms against Cao Cao, storming the Tong Pass and having the best of the subsequent fighting. To escape, Cao Cao resorts to shedding his cloak and cutting his beard: a symbolic disgrace for his treachery to the Emperor.

  • Ma Chao: a loyalist to the Emperor, a vengeful son, an honourable hero – he is one of the last independent warlords, as the Three Kingdoms (Cao Cao’s, Sun Quan’s and Xuande’s) take shape across the rest of China


Chapter 59

The subtle and manipulative Cao Cao sows suspicion between Ma Chao and his deputy Han Sui, until Han Sui is driven to join Cao Cao for real; in a confrontation, Ma Chao chops off Han Sui’s hand but barely escapes and loses his army. Fearing to be Cao Cao’s next victim, the independent theocrat Zhang Lu moves against Liu Zhang, governor of the Riverlands.

  • Liu Zhang: a trusting man who is not a good enough leader for these troubled times. The harsh political reality is that Xuande would be a better ruler of the Riverlands – a reality that neither of them want to face
Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Sun Quan
Sun Quan, ruler of the Southland

Xuande’s struggle for the Riverlands

Chapter 60

Liu Zhang, a good but weak man, sends Zhang Song to Cao Cao to ask for help. Cao Cao ignores and rebuffs Zhang Song, because his pride blinds him to the danger of such behaviour. Zhang Song determines that Cao Cao is an evil man, but is greatly impressed by Xuande, whom he meets on the way back. He determines to betray the Riverlands to Xuande and persuades a delighted and unsuspecting Liu Zhang to invite in Xuande’s forces for help against Zhang Lu. Advisors warn Liu Zhang not to trust Xuande or Zhang Song, and one of them even kills himself in protest, but Liu Zhang fails to listen. Xuande goes to the Riverlands, with Pang Tong as the only important commander that he takes with him.


Chapter 61

Once again, Xuande’s honour is his weakness: he refuses to do the pragmatic thing and depose or assassinate his kinsman Liu Zhang. While he is in the Riverlands, the Southlanders tell his wife, Lady Sun, that her foster-mother is dying, in an attempt to get her into their power. She sets off by boat with Xuande’s son Ah Dou, but Zhao Zilong and Zhang Fei give chase. Zhao Zilong heroically manages to board the Southland craft and rescue Ah Dou for a second time (see Ch.41), but he and Zhang Fei let the princess go on to the Southlands. Now that he has his sister back, Sun Quan plans to cut off Xuande, but this is delayed by a failed campaign sent against him by Cao Cao. Cao Cao is awarded the Nine Dignities, and one of his most loyal and important followers – Xun Wenruo, who has been with him since the very beginning – voices an objection; Cao Cao responds by forcing him to commit suicide.


Chapter 62

The trusting Liu Zhang and the honourable Xuande are finally persuaded to move against one another. Xuande is slowly learning the hard way that total integrity is fatal in troubled times. Zhang Song’s treachery is uncovered and he is executed.


Chapter 63

In the fighting against Liu Zhang, Pang Tong is killed in an ambush because he is riding Xuande’s unlucky horse (see Ch.34). Kongming leaves Jingzhou in Lord Guan’s hands and comes to Xuande’s rescue with Zhang Fei. Zhang Fei’s temperamental character remains the same, but he has matured into an excellent general with sound judgement. Leading Kongming’s advance party, Zhang Fei tricks, captures and frees an elderly Riverlander called Yan Yan, who in return offers to help.

  • Death of Pang Tong


Chapter 64

Yan Yan gets his former soldiers manning the passes to defect to him from Liu Zhang. With his help, Xuande, Zhang Fei and Kongming defeat Pang Tong’s killer, who refuses to submit and is executed. Ma Chao (see Ch.58-9) has built up a fiefdom but loses it in a bloody campaign, so he joins the theocrat Zhang Lu, Liu Zhang’s other enemy. Liu Zhang, desperate in the face of Xuande’s armies, is driven to appeal to Zhang Lu and Ma Chao for help.


Chapter 65

Ma Chao marches on Xuande, but a bribed official turns Zhang Lu against him. Cornered and cut off by Zhang Lu, Ma Chao submits to Xuande and gets Liu Zhang to do the same. Xuande consolidates his new Riverland holdings: he now at last rules a fully-fledged realm of his own.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: oath-brothers
The oath-brothers: Xuande, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu

Continue to part 3 of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

–Also on Randall Writing: Roundup of the Year–

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