Lessons from Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Early this month, I finished reading the first volume of Lo Kuan-chung’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is touted as China’s oldest novel. The book combines oral stories and written histories about the period (c.200 CE) when the decaying Han Dynasty fell apart under the influence of rival warlords and eventually split into three rival kingdoms. Dated translation aside, the text is fairly dry and repetitive as people run, walk, ride, and march from place to place (without a map, for those of us unfamiliar with large swathes of Chinese geography), with duels generally consisting of two heroes waging bouts against each other on horseback until one dies or flees. In this regard, the video game series Dynasty Warriors largely captures the essence of the romance. At the heart of the conflict in the story is the struggle between the clever and ruthless minister Cao Cao and the virtuous and royal Liu Bei [these are not the transliterations used by my text, but are those in Dynasty Warriors, and the ones I am most familiar with]. In the time honored tradition of reading classic Chinese texts and extracting lessons for westerner audiences, I have found a few.

  1. Every stratagem has been used before and has a name. Usually this name will be a literal rendition of the trick and, sometimes, the end objective.
  2. If a man you respect comes into your house, you should feed him meat. If you have no animal meat, you should still try to feed him meat, but if the choice comes down to serving him your wife or mother, you should kill and serve your wife, because you will likely be compensated with cash to purchase yourself a new wife. However, a reputation for this behavior will have a deleterious effect on getting local women to marry you.
  3. Unless you are going for sympathy points with your guest, do not just leave your butchered wife on the kitchen table overnight because your guest will likely stumble upon the body. If the guest finds out, though, this is the surest way to be compensated for your loss.
  4. If you happen to be a guest at a dinner like this, do not be overly alarmed at the possibility of cannibalism and make sure to pay the host for his loss. If possible, get your rival to actually make the payment.
  5. Wives are expendable, but less so than peasant soldiers. A single hero can trump hundreds of peasants, and one of the most effective forms of misinformation is to thrash peasants within an inch of their life and then release them to the enemy.
  6. Children are replaceable, talented subordinates are not. If subordinates risk their lives for your children before the children grow up and amount to anything, they should be rebuked.

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