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China’s Endless Obsession with The Three Kingdoms

The epic story, "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," may be 700 years old, but China’s still obsessed

10·13·2010

China’s Endless Obsession with The Three Kingdoms

The epic story, "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," may be 700 years old, but China’s still obsessed

10·13·2010

About two hours northwest of Beijing, three carloads of us took a Sunday off to hike the green mountains that surround the capital city. It wasn’t as secluded as I had expected; a legion of fellow Beijingers squatted near the same muddy stream we had sought out.

Six of us sat down to play cards, with beer and chuanr in hand. I expected we’d start a game of poker, but a colorful box of unfamiliar cards was unveiled instead. On its cover, there was an image of the ancient hero Zhuge Liang, from the classic of Chinese literature, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (《三国演义》 Sānguó Yǎnyì).” Appropriately, I learned, the game is called “Three Kingdom Kill (三国杀 sānguóshā).” It’s the latest in a string of “Three Kingdom”-related spin-offs, a country-wide craze.

“Three Kingdom Kill” was first created as a student project at Chinese Media University, but exploded from there. It’s played widely by China’s technically-savvy younger middle class. The game-play is reminiscent of the classic card game “Magic: the Gathering,” the godfather of all nerdy card games. Like Magic, it’s addictive. That is, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Each card from “Three Kingdom Kill” is adorned with quotes from the tale of Three Kingdoms. Players are advised to “Kill with a borrowed knife” (借刀杀人 jièdāo shārén), and “If all else fails, retreat.” (走为上 zǒu wéi shàng).

“We like these games because they force you to think like a true hero,” my friend-turned-opponent said between turns. “Besides, reenacting ancient battles is just really, really cool.”

In all of the recent “Three Kingdom” incarnations—which include films, manga, TV shows, and even food—one might forget that the original story has roots which date back to the 14th century, during the Ming Dynasty. Esteemed as one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” takes place in one of the bloodiest eras in Chinese history—a time of bandits, heroes, religious wars, political upheaval and lots of adventure.

Historians estimate the death toll during this period at 50 percent of the total population—which means over 25 million died in a single generation. The book weaves an engrossing history of it all, featuring a great empire dividing and reuniting, as well as the charismatic characters who fought on both sides.

“The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” takes place almost 2,000 years ago, when there were three powerful rival kingdoms, the Wei, Shu, and Wu, all vying for control of the land. It wasn’t a peaceful time, and “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms “retells these brutal battles and wars in a winding, epic tale. Each kingdom had its own larger-than-life heroes, who fought bravely, and wise generals, renowned for their shrewd strategies on the battlefield.

This enduring tale of adventure has been told and retold for over 700 years. It has inspired books, plays, operas, paintings, video games, card games—both popular and fine art.

In 1993, CCTV spent 170 million RMB, hired 400,000 actors, and shot for four years, producing a made-for-TV series. The animated remake, a joint Sino-Japan CCTV venture, was unveiled last year. On top of that another CCTV live action series was released this year.

In 2008,Hong Kongdirector John Woo took up the “Three Kingdoms” torch with his two-part “Battle of Red Cliff.” It broke the Chinese mainland box office record, set almost a decade ago by James Cameron’s “Titanic.”

Even the iPad, only a few months old, has already gotten involved. “Romance of the Three Kingdoms Touch Plus HD” is the latest addition to the long line of Koei “ThreeKingdom” games that the younger generation has grown up with. Some 18 million copies of these Koei games have been sold worldwide.

My friend Zhang religiously plays QQ’s “Three Kingdoms MMORPG,” one of China’s online multiplayer role-playing games. And while these time-consuming computer games might be regarded as pixilated fluff, Zhang assure me that they are actually based in real scholarship. Though he never paid too much attention in history class, Zhang gives the online RPG his full attention.

But, if you think that the Three Kingdoms marketing craze is confined only to media, think again.

On our way back into the capital city, our group stopped for a meal at the Wooden Bucket Three Kingdoms Restaurant. The restaurant’s fourth branch has just opened; its menu offers historical delicacies for all of the “ThreeKingdom” fanatics.

Tradition tells us that one of the main characters, benevolent warlord Liu Bei’s favorite dish actually inspired his successful rise. Young Liu Bei was poor, hungry, and peddling bamboo mats, when one blessed day his mother brought home a paltry chicken. She cooked the dish as best she could, using what minimal seasonings the impoverished family had. Apparently, the meal made an impression on the budding Liu Bei; he continued eating the dish throughout his life, so he wouldn’t forget his meager roots. And thus, “Liu Bei’s Spicy Fragrant Chicken” (刘备椒香鸡 Liú Bèi jiāoxiāngjī) was born.

We ordered from the wooden menu and each of us chose dishes that were said to have been eaten by our beloved heroes. I got “Zhuge Baked Fish” (诸葛烤鱼 Zhūgě kǎoyú), named after the book’s legendary strategist. We dealt another round of “Three Kingdoms Kill,” and I drew the card of the general Guan Yu. With this valuable character, I stood a chance.

But truth be told, it was all a bit over-the-top, and I was getting a little “Three Kingdomed”-out.

The Storm of Red Mansions

A wave of criticism has exploded across the pages of newspapers and websites of China recently, all about a new TV series that’s based on a 300-year-old novel. And worst of all, it’s only being shown in a few local markets. Who knows what will happen when the show is broadcast to larger markets (including Beijing) over the fall.

“A Dream of Red Mansions,” one of China’s four great classic novels, remains unsurpassed in our literary history. It tells a tragic love story, against the rise and fall of a prestigious family, and was first televised in an extremely successful 1987 series.

But in a recent sina.com survey, 87 percent of respondents don’t expect the new version, which cost a remarkable 118 million RMB, to live up to the old one. Criticisms include casting the wrong actors for the roles, using a lousy script, an illiterate director, and even that the hairstyles reminded viewers of  “copper coins.”

The other three classic novels face the same explosive drama. A new series based on “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” aired this year, and was criticized for having dialogue that sounded too modern. (The appearance of “A Dream of Red Mansions” has saved face for it—popular online sentiment is that “you won’t realize how good ‘Three Kingdoms’ is until you’ve watched ‘A Dream of Red Mansions’.”)

All this excitement should really gear up next year, when new versions of the final two novels, “The Water Margin” and “Journey to the West,” begin broadcasting in 2011. -ZHAO LEI

  • battle
  • zhànyì 战役
  • to reenact
  • zàixiàn 再现
  • strategy
  • cèlüè 策略
  • hero
  • yīngxióng 英雄
  • We need a new strategy.
  • Wǒmen xūyào xīn de cèlüè。 我们需要新的策略。
  • Let’s reenact a battle.
  • Zánmen zàixiàn yī chǎng zhànyì ba。 咱们再现一场战役吧。