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Christopher Bradley

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A touch of Three Kingdoms [Jul. 13th, 2010|04:04 pm]
Christopher Bradley
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I just got done reading Three Kingdoms - all 2000 pages in microscopic type - and here's the short verdict: it is one of the greatest novels ever written. In terms of scope, drama and economy of language, there is probably none finer, and is populated with wonderful characters: Zhuge Liang (aka Kongming) and Cao Cao at the top of the list, but also Sima Yi, Deng Ai, Zhao Zilong, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu.

I'm afraid I didn't get the various message of the book, save in a remote intellectual sense. I could see, and it is quite clear, that the book is deeply Confucian, with the bonds of filial and fraternal piety (or lack of same, in Cao Cao's case) being the primary forces driving the action. I understand that Liu Bei is idealized as a man of virtue, which is why he's got so many cool people around him - Kongming, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Zhao Zilong, the list just goes on and on - whereas Cao Cao is more or less alone. Cao Cao, lacking Liu Bei's virtue, is unable to draw people of real talent to his cause.

Still, from my place, I didn't feel that. What I felt is that it was a group of warlords chopping up China and fighting over its remains. I don't think that Liu Bei had some particular honor or virtue, though the author repeats that he does and at great length; he stole a province from his cousin's son, he betrayed his allies to secure it, and then created himself emperor on a farcical genealogy. I don't mind any of that, but I saw it and couldn't see Liu Bei as anything other than yet another opportunistic warlord, merely one who lacked Cao Cao understanding that empires are built and maintained through force and treachery. I see Liu Bei as being as treacherous as Cao Cao - particularly in how Liu Bei acquired and secured the Riverlands - but less honest about it, which was eventually disastrous for the Riverlands.

But even more than that, the novel confirms something I've long known: emperors can't afford to lose control of the military. But it adds an addendum to my thoughts - if the emperor has lost control of the military, whomever has control of it should not stand on ceremony to depose the now useless emperor. So, the last Han Emperor lost control to Cao Cao, who held the Emperor captive and who Cao Pi removed from power - Wei was successful. The Simas held captive and removed the Caos when they had become useless, and conquered China. Kongming did not stop Liu Bei from attacking the Southlands after Guan Yu died, even though Kongming knew Liu Bei was crippling any chance of the Riverlands to unify the Empire. Jiang Wei did not depose Liu Shan and doomed the Riverlands to conquest. The sentimentality towards imperial persons shown by Kongming and Jiang Wei doomed the Riverlands to conquest; the lack of sentiment of Cao Cao and Sima Zhao towards imperial persons secured success for Wei. So my interpretation of the moral of the story is - if an emperor is weak and no longer has control of the military, the person who deposes the emperor is doing the country a great favor. Nothing is worse for an empire than a weak emperor.

Which is all very academic to me, of course. I think empire and emperors are a deeply outdated political concept. The technology of government has come a very long way since the 3rd century, shall we say. The idea that the person who deposes a weak emperor is a hero is interesting for purposes of historical analysis and fiction but doesn't have too much meaning in the modern world. Even countries that are kinna sorta empires - like the United States or, well, China - have radically different forms of government, both ideologically and in practice, than anything in The Three Kingdoms. (So, in the US, the driving agency of empire - which I take as a given is both a political and moral error - is capitalism. Removing the President from office would simply not help, he'd be replaced by someone else just like him. To stop American imperial ambitions would require changing our economy and whoever did that would be a great hero.)

Nevertheless, the novel is great. It might not be for everyone - it's nearly entirely about court intrigue and war, told from the point of view of the chief commanders and leaders - but there is a great deal to recommend it.