The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical epic, but there are also strong elements of tragedy. As I have tried to demonstrate in my Three Kingdoms chapter summary, most leaders’ failures in the novel can be traced directly to clear flaws: arrogance, excessive cruelty, recklessness, naivete. This is not prescriptive – luck has a major role as well – but it governs the logic of the story. As Xuande’s faction falls short of its divine mission to restore the rightful Imperial line and return order to all of China, Lord Guan’s pride and Zhang Fei’s hot temper prove to be more than character traits: they are tragic flaws.
As for their oath-brother, Xuande himself, his “flaws” are the very qualities that make him the only man worthy to save the Empire. In the third quarter of the novel, these tensions come to the fore. Xuande has already struggled with the fact that his sense of honour and morality are incompatible with the necessary ruthlessness to triumph in such troubled times. Now, in this third part of my Three Kingdoms chapter summary, his other great quality – loyalty – turns out to be a weakness as well. He adopted Liu Feng out of the goodness of his heart, but this leads to disastrous rivalry within his faction. And the time comes when Xuande has to choose between his loyalty to his oath-brothers and his chance to save the Empire.
The Three Kingdoms are established; their three-way battle for supremacy has begun. And in the climax of the tale of the three oath-brothers and their enmity with Cao Cao, Xuande has the chance to maybe – just maybe – destroy the Cao faction once and for all…
The year is AD 214. Cao Cao – who still controls the puppet Emperor – rules the northern part of the former Empire, and Sun Quan the southern part; and now Xuande rules the western part. The Three Kingdoms have taken shape. Xuande ostensibly agrees to return Jingzhou to Sun Quan, knowing that his oath-brother Lord Guan, Jingzhou’s protector, won’t give it up. Lu Su has finally lost patience with Xuande’s faction. He hosts Lord Guan at a banquet to kill him, but Lord Guan, “drunkenly” leaning on Lu Su, cunningly takes him hostage without appearing to do so. The Emperor’s wife is caught plotting against Cao Cao with her father, their clan is exterminated and Cao Cao makes his daughter the new Empress.
Cao Cao conquers Zhang Lu’s territory and accepts his surrender. Afraid he will now attack the western Riverlands, Xuande returns most of Jingzhou to Sun Quan, urging him to use it as a springboard against Cao Cao’s domain. Sun Quan’s invasion is defeated by Zhang Liao, Cao Cao’s commander on the southern frontier (see Ch.19, 53).
Gan Ning (see Ch.38) leads a night raid on Cao Cao’s camp with just 100 horsemen, mainly for morale purposes. After much fighting, Sun Quan and Cao Cao make peace. Cao Cao makes himself King of Wei, and his son, Cao Pi, manipulates him into being made heir. A magician with incredible powers turns up, shows off, magically escapes all of Cao Cao’s attempts to kill him, and foreshadows his death.
- Cao Pi: Cao Cao’s son and heir, who will one day replace the Emperor himself
Cao Cao, shaken by the magician, summons Guan Lu, a sage of supernatural insight. Guan Lu avoids telling him much, but he does reveal that that Lu Su has just died, Xuande is attacking Zhang Lu’s former lands, and there will soon be fires in the capital. This last comes to pass during an unsuccessful uprising by loyalists, and a retaliatory army moves against Xuande.
- Death of Lu Su
War between Wei and the Riverlands
Zhang Fei, now a far better commander than he once was, tricks the enemy by pretending to indulge his old vice, drunkenness. Kongming incites the elderly general Huang Zhong by pretending to refuse to rely on him. Huang Zhong and Yan Yan (see Ch.63) are underestimated by everyone else because of their age, but they know exactly what they are doing. Mainly thanks to Zhang Fei and the Huang Zhong, Xuande’s men inflict several defeats on Cao Cao’s and press their advantage.
- Huang Zhong: an old man who rapidly rises high in Xuande’s esteem as one of his finest generals
Xiahou Yuan, Cao Cao’s top general – who joined Cao Cao along with his brother, Xiahou Dun, in Chapter 5 – counterattacks, but Huang Zhong outwits and kills him. Cao Cao himself comes for vengeance and traps Huang Zhong, but Zhao Zilong rescues him and turns the tables in the battle.
Xuande and Cao Cao personally take charge of the respective armies. Cao Cao fears Kongming and is keen to avoid underestimating him. Kongming, playing on Cao Cao’s suspicions, spooks him into uncertainty and is then able to defeat him. Cao Cao executes a subordinate, on the pretext that by anticipating the order to retreat he undermined morale, but really because he hates the man’s insightful mind and because he has been meddling in the succession, supporting Cao Zhi, the third son, against Cao Pi, the eldest. Then, injured, Cao Cao gives up and retreats. Cao Cao’s whole kingdom is teetering in the face of Xuande’s victories: Xuande and Kongming are close to smashing his northern powerbase once and for all.
The Fall of Lord Guan
Xuande reluctantly assents to being made King, the better to uphold his never-forgotten mission for the Emperor. He names his top five generals the Tiger-Generals. Lord Guan, who has a massive sense of self-worth, is annoyed that Huang Zhong, whose surrender and defection he once accepted, is made one of the five Tiger-Generals alongside himself, Zhang Fei, Ma Chao (see Ch.64-5) and Zhao Zilong. Compounding this show of pride, Lord Guan makes the fateful decision to refuse a marriage alliance with the Southland, which results in a permanent parting of the ways between him and the Southland. As a result, instead of joining the war on Xuande’s side, Sun Quan allies himself with the struggling Cao Cao. Cao Cao and the Southland agree to a pincer attack against Xuande. Lord Guan is mandated to attack Cao Cao’s kingdom of Wei.
Lord Guan marches on the crucial city of Fan. Fan becomes key turning point: Xuande will succeed if, and only if, it falls, and its garrison, despite nearly despairing, make the fateful decision to hold it against Lord Guan. Cao Cao sends Yu Jin and the fanatical Pang De to rescue Fan. The jealous Yu Jin denies Pang De the chance he needs to kill Lord Guan, and both are captured when Guan floods their camp and wipes out their army. Yu Jin is captured and Pang De is executed, but Lord Guan is wounded in the assault on Fan.
Lord Guan’s very greatness feeds his immense opinion of himself, which now starts to prove a fatal flaw. His wound is healing, and he waits for it to recover sufficiently for the assault on Fan. Sun Quan makes his choice between attacking Cao Cao while he is vulnerable, and betraying the Emperor by sabotaging Xuande’s cause – and now Lu Su is not around to speak for Xuande. Sun Quan is induced to attack Lord Guan’s rear, capturing much of his fief and freeing Yu Jin.
Trapped in a pincer between Cao Cao’s general and Southland troops, Lord Guan, besieged with his last few hundred men, sends for help from the nearest source – Liu Feng, Xuande’s adopted son (see Ch.36). Knowing that Lord Guan urged Xuande to make Ah Dou, his biological son, his heir, Liu Feng offers no help.
Lord Guan and his son are capture and executed on Sun Quan’s orders. In a scene of powerful pathos, Xuande’s distress steadily increases as the stream of rumour and report reaches him piece by piece. Lord Guan’s spirit haunts all three kings.
- Death of Lord Guan
Rise of Cao Pi
Fearful of dark omens, Cao Cao’s health declines and he dies. Cao Cao makes every arrangement for the future, except a conspicuous silence on the imperial house: his last nefarious act is to pave the way for his son to usurp while absolving himself in the eyes of posterity as best he can – subtle and disingenuous to the end. His heir is his eldest son, Cao Pi, who becomes the new King of Wei. Cao Pi’s brother Cao Zhang marches on him with an army.
Cao Pi makes peace with Cao Zheng but demotes the insolent Cao Zhi, Cao Cao’s former favourite. Meng Da, who got Liu Feng to leave Lord Guan to his death, defects to Wei; Liu Feng, loyal to Xuande, takes his chances with his adopted father’s justice after fighting Meng Da and being defeated. Xuande has Liu Feng killed – a regret he will carry for the rest of his life.
Cao Pi deposes Emperor Xian and becomes Emperor himself. Kongming responds by pressuring Xuande into becoming Emperor to continue the legitimate line.
The End of the Oath
In the Riverlands kingdom, there is a debate about whether to strike against Wei or against the Southland. Xuande and Zhang Fei, bound by their oath in the peach garden, are determined to march against Sun Quan and avenge Lord Guan, despite strong objections from Zhao Zilong, Kongming and others, who want to focus their efforts against Wei while it is still weakened. Grief and humiliation at Lord Guan’s death causes Zhang Fei to regress as a character, and his two old vices return: alcohol and a hot temper. He pushes his officers too far, and two of them murder him and flee to Sun Quan. But the oath’s legacy continues in the pact Xuande forms between his oath-brother’s sons.
- Death of Zhang Fei
Sun Quan, older and chastened by mistakes and defeats, has lost his boldness. Hoping for help against Emperor Xuande, Sun Quan submits to Emperor Cao Pi in exchange for confirmation as king. Xuande’s invasion of the Southland begins with successes, thanks to the next generation of heroes, Guan Xing son of Lord Guan and Zhang Bao son of Zhang Fei.
- Guan Xing and Zhang Bao: brave and capable young heroes, they do honour to their fathers’ memory but they are not able to match their greatness
In search of glory and honour, 75-year-old Huang Zhong takes to the field and dies bravely. Xuande has now lost three of his five Tiger-Generals (see Ch.73), leaving only Ma Chao and Zhao Zilong. Xuande, blinded by vengeance, hot-headedly pushes ahead with the campaign, even after all the men immediately responsible for his oath-brothers’ deaths have been killed. A fearful Sun Quan appoints Lu Xun to prosecute the war and change the Southland’s fortunes.
- Death of Huang Zhong
Lu Xun, exploiting how much Xuande’s judgement has been impaired by grief and anger, waits for the perfect moment and inflicts a catastrophic defeat on him. Xuande is only saved by the fortunate arrival of Zhao Zilong. Lu Xun falls into a supernatural trap set by Kongming, but Kongming’s father-in-law relents and frees him; rather than pressing his victory, Lu Xun falls back before Cao Pi can strike against the Southland in his absence. Thinking Xuande is dead, his wife, Lady Sun (see Ch.54), kills herself.
The defeat and the loss of his oath-brothers are too much for Xuande and his health deteriorates. He tells Kongming – whose advice would have avoided the defeat, had he listened – to look after the government and the heir, seventeen-year-old Ah Dou; he says goodbye to Zhao Zilong, and then he dies. Ah Dou is made Emperor and marries Zhang Fei’s daughter. Cao Pi launches a five-pronged attack on the Riverlands, and Kongming sets about nullifying each of the five armies in turn. Kongming’s grasp of character and strategy lets him counter the attacks with guile, shedding no blood: he gives the enemies reasons not to invade, rather than fighting on five fronts. Eventually, only the Southland’s army remains a threat.
- Death of Xuande
Kongming’s War with the Man
Ah Dou does not possess his father’s personal qualities, so it is up to Kongming to take care of the Riverland Kingdom. Kongming engineers a renewed alliance with the Southland. Cao Pi responds by attacking the Southland, and is defeated; Zhang Liao (see Ch.76) is killed.
- Death of Zhang Liao
The Man peoples beyond the Riverlands attack the kingdom, getting three governors to defect. Kongming marches against the threat with Zhao Zilong and Wei Yan (see Ch.53). He tricks one of the rebel governors into killing the other two and then bringing their men over. He then defeats the Man contingents, and frees the prisoners, including their chief, Meng Huo, who is sure to continue the war, because Kongming knows that for lasting victory, he must win the Man hearts and minds.
Twice more, Kongming outwits and captures Meng Huo; twice more, as soon as he is free, Meng Huo vows to continue the fight.
For a fourth and fifth time, Kongming captures and releases Meng Huo, despite the sweltering heat and poisonous and/or supernatural obstacles which characterise the land of the Man. He is undermining Meng Huo by making his followers indebted to Kongming’s mercy.
The Riverlanders push into the savage heartlands of the Man, where Kongming defeats a horde of wild beasts, and Meng Huo’s ferocious wife, to capture him for the sixth time. Then Kongming massacres an enemy army by luring them into a ravine and blowing them up; he has deep misgivings about the act, but this seventh time, Meng Huo surrenders: his resolve is worn down and ashamed to fight Kongming anymore, and the South is finally pacified. Kongming can turn his efforts back to the struggle between the three Kingdoms, in order to continue Xuande’s great mission…