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Breaking down the lore of Total War: Three Kingdoms

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Pursue historical knowledge, but do not pursue not Lu Bu

If I haven't been clear before, I'm Asian. Filipino to be exact. I'm also an absolute dork when it comes to history. Why do you think I write about Timeless so much? Hand me a book about the Crusades, the Byzantine Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Sengoku Jidai, and I'd probably devour them whilst ignoring the world.

It just so happens one particular story heavily influenced me in my youth, pushing me into more historical discoveries. The story? Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Sanguo yanyi and Sanguozhi

I was a kid when my dad bought Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms II for the SNES. I couldn't understand the strategy and management sim mechanics at first, but I grew to love the story and the characters. I found out it was based on a novel. I knew I had to get it so my mom and I roamed around Manila to look for a copy. We eventually found one in a dingy mall. It was an old copy complete with frayed edges and stained pages. It didn't matter, 10-year-old me teared up when I got the book.

That book is called "Sanguo yanyi” (The Three Kingdoms Narrative / Romance of the Three Kingdoms), written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century. It became a cultural phenomenon, considered as one of the "Four Pillars of Chinese Literature" alongside Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Water Margin; the latter of which is rumored to be another of Luo Guanzhong's works.

I believe the reason why Three Kingdoms captured my imagination was because it blended historicity and fantasy. Characters did exist during that time period, but at the same time, Guanzhong gave some superhuman strength, preternatural senses, and awe-inspiring intellect. It's part history encyclopedia, part soap opera, part myth. It's like if the Odyssey and the Iliad were melded with the War of the Roses and was set in China. Mix in some comic book bravado, cartoonish humor, battle reports, traditional folklore, and moral lessons -- that’s the wildly imaginative result Three Kingdoms is.

In contrast to the fictional recounting of "Sanguo yanyi," the "Sanguozhi" (Records of the Three Kingdoms) has a more straightforward description of historical events and characters. It's more realistic and grounded, which means it cuts down the myths and legends of the time. "Sanguozhi" is highly different from Guanzhong's vision -- after all, the man was a known "Han Dynasty fanboy" which meant that he painted characters in a certain shade due to his political leanings.

It's a prolific story, one that has been told time and time again in a variety of video games, most notably the aforementioned Romance of the Three Kingdoms series and Dynasty Warriors. Next year, for the first time, the Total War franchise will take its turn at adapting Guanzhong's masterpiece, potentially opening it up to a new player base who have yet to experience the saga of Lu Bu, Cao Cao, and the rest of the figures who warred across China. So for those unfamiliar with this tale, I've put together a lore guide to help prepare you for what is to come.

The Story Begins

The novel’s central theme is “A land united must divide; a land divided must unite.” An empire which enjoyed centuries of prosperity will fragment into various fiefdoms ruled by warlords and clans until such time that only three kingdoms remained. From there, these three factions would experience their own internal and external strife until the land is united once more.

The story takes place in China from 169 to 280 AD. That aforementioned empire is the Han Dynasty whose power slowly waned. The "Mandate of Heaven," which the Chinese believe to be the divine right to rule by the emperor, was in doubt. Storms, earthquakes and strange omens precipitated an impending doom. It was in the form of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, led by a mystic known as Zhang Jiao. He believed himself to be the bringer of a righteous and just rule for the people. The masses flocked to him due to his miracles and soon Zhang Jiao had an army.

This gathering storm also introduced us to the personalities who would shape the land in the decades to come. Arrayed against Zhang Jiao and thousands of frenzied peasants and vagabonds was the might of the Imperial Army and various commanders -- Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Sun Jian, Dong Zhuo, and Lu Bu. Against the greatest people of the age, Zhang Jiao and his Yellow Turbans could do nothing but perish. Unfortunately, this great upheaval was but the first of many that would follow.

Liu Bei: The Scion of the Han

When a sandal-maker saw innocents were suffering, he swore an oath with two other men to become brothers in fighting to give the people a better future. This man was Liu Bei, a descendant of the founder of the Han Dynasty. His two sworn brothers were the ferocious Zhang Fei and peerless Guan Yu.

Liu Bei’s journeys would take him across China fighting revolts and bandits, or leading the peasantry away from war-torn territories. He would eventually meet Zhuge Liang, the Sleeping Dragon, considered as the greatest mind in the land and an equal to strategists such as Sun Tzu -- the bloke who wrote The Art of War. Through trials and tribulations, Liu Bei finally found a land of his own in the mountainous western regions of China.

This became known as the Kingdom of Shu-Han. Liu Bei's men believed him to be the continuation of the dying Han bloodline. For a time, the scion of the dynastic house was happy. His army had grown and his men were loyal. The mountains were almost impassable and guarded by crack hill troops. In previous decades, he was rarely a master of his domain, oftentimes just a subordinate or a minor lord serving his benefactor. One of those old benefactors was Cao Cao, a good friend, and an even greater enemy.

Cao Cao: Ambition, Pragmatism, Progress

A son of a minor government official, Cao Cao could have been a paper-pusher all his life had it not been for a stroke of luck. He had distinguished himself during the Yellow Turban rebellion and many capable men joined his band. In the years that followed, the chaos of the land allowed him to practice his wily schemes and plots. He would gobble territory after territory, whittling down every lord he faced.

He had met Liu Bei on various occasions. At times the two were allies, even sharing a meal and a drink, despite knowing that they would become bitter rivals in the years to come. Cao Cao would earn the Han descendant’s ire when his boundless ambitions stepped on the interests of the faltering dynasty. This was seen as a manifestation of pride and ruthlessness. Pragmatism was more coldness and a lack of empathy, and progress meant crushing long-held traditions.

Those ambitions led to his control of northern and central China decades later. The vast plains, fertile fields, and deserts became his power base -- the Kingdom of Cao-Wei. Out of the remaining factions that still vied for control, Cao-Wei was the strongest, incorporating heavy cavalry and armored troops in its near limitless armies. However, there remained a nagging problem, he was still unable to take over the Southlands.

The Sun Family: Lords of the Southlands

While Cao Cao and Liu Bei had humble beginnings, the Sun family maintained an important role governing the lands south of the Yangtze River. Their patriarch at the time, Sun Jian, managed to obtain The Imperial Seal after chaos erupted in the capital. The item was an important mark of rulership and a harbinger of destiny.

The Imperial Seal was bartered off by his son, Sun Ce, after Sun Jian's passing. This item was exchanged for a handful of soldiers which Sun Ce, now known as "The Tiger of Jiangdong," would lead to capture more territory. Although Sun Ce died just a few years later, his little brother Sun Quan would succeed him. Sun Quan would eventually lead the Southland in a long and prosperous reign, the mighty river defended by expert sailors and vile pirates.

This reign would see his beloved land of Eastern Wu compete in the three-way war for China. There were times when he fought alongside Liu Bei against Cao Cao, and there were times when he was buddies with Cao-Wei while dicking around with Shu-Han. Eastern Wu was basically that best friend you had whom you were always wary of in case you messed up and they’d backstab you.

Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu: The Tyrant and his "Son"

Every story needs a good villain, and Dong Zhuo plays the role perfectly. He's cartoonishly obesetyrannical and corrupt; a real pussy grabber of a human being. He has no redeemable qualities and nobody likes him.

After the Imperial victory against the Yellow Turban rebels, a regent attempted to cleanse the corruption in the court by eliminating the eunuchs. He enlisted the help of Dong Zhuo. Unfortunately, before the plan could come to fruition, the regent was assassinated by his would-be victims. Dong Zhuo happily marched in with his army. He took part in the saving of the capital by killing men without balls. Dong Zhuo managed to "rescue" the emperor, only to depose him with a puppet of his choosing years later. The madman knew no bounds, slaying entire families and abusing the emperor and his family.

Standing beside him was his adopted son, Lu Bu, considered the mightiest warrior in all of China. It was said that Lu Bu was equal to thousands of warriors, and he was gifted the finest steed, Red Hare -- "Among men, Lu Bu; among horses, Red Hare." Dong Zhuo consolidated his power base by placating Lu Bu and having him do the dirty work. No one could match Lu Bu in combat, not even those sent out by Liu Bei and the others. Since Lu Bu was nigh unbeatable, Dong Zhuo had the land in a vice grip.

Cultural significance

As a pillar of Chinese literature, and by extension, East Asia’s, Three Kingdoms lore has become ingrained in socio-cultural consciousness. The ideals of serving the dynastic house, being in-tune with the needs of the people, the right to rule, views on foreign barbarians, the flaws of indecision, the dangers of ambition and pride, and the sense of wonder at every turn captured hearts, minds, and imaginations of countless folk throughout the centuries. Remember, the Chinese are known as “People of the Han” and the events that transpired during the time of the Han Dynasty are held in high regard even today.

Certain personalities were larger-than-life. They influenced common sayings and tropes. For instance, in the novel when characters were talking about Cao Cao and he walked in on them, the phrase "Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives" was coined. It's the Chinese version of "Speak of the devil." Oh, and if someone were to display sheer genius, he would probably be called a "Kongming" -- the style name of Zhuge Liang, the Sleeping Dragon and Shu-Han's great strategist and minister.

However, no other figure casts quite a shadow more than Guan Yu, one of the three sworn brothers along with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei. Guan Yu's exploits in the novel -- killing mighty enemy generals, refusing Cao Cao's entreaties, going through a pass and facing commanders just to return to his bros, accepting death rather than surrender, etc. -- made him a paragon of loyalty and righteousness.

He was deified centuries later and became China's God of War, revered by millions. Because he was an exemplary model character, there were monuments were erected in his honor. It was also common to find statues of "Emperor/Lord Guan" in police stations and government offices. The Triad and other gangs also worshipped him as a symbol of brotherhood and not snitching out your gangmates. Oh, and if people were protesting on the streets, they offered obeisance so he can lend his martial might and bravery. That's pretty much why he's also one of the gods in the MOBA game SMITE, and why his name is one you should remember for Total War: Three Kingdoms.

Total War: Three Kingdoms

When Creative Assembly announced Total War: Three Kingdoms earlier this year, I basically called and messaged my friends to tell them how happy I was. They did not share in my enthusiasm as I mostly got "eye-roll" and "new phone, hu dis?" replies. As someone who's a fan of the Total War franchise and Three Kingdoms, this was a dream come true. It's as if the two most beautiful women in the world got it on, had a baby, and they both said I'm the father.

The Total War franchise, known for its historical depiction of various events and time periods before it delved into the world of fantasy with Total War: Warhammer is the perfect playground for exploring Three Kingdoms. History fans need not worry. While the game, by default, has a "Romanticised mode" where generals can take out thousands of lowly soldiers on their own, it still has a "Classic mode." This mode is reminiscent of previous Total War titles like Rome and Medieval where generals are flanked by bodyguards and can die if left defenseless. Although there might be some who worry that the franchise is taking a more "historically inaccurate take," the counterpoint is simply that Total War's sandbox gameplay has been approaching "historically inaccurate territory" since its inception. Plus, I don't think we'll see Three Kingdoms generals juggling two dozen spearmen in mid-air. That would be silly.

The video below depicting the Battle of Xiapi -- pronounced as "CRP" for some reason by the Total War dev trying hard to sound Chinese -- might seem like another regular RTS foray. It isn't. There's some Game of Thrones-level shit going on before that battle even took place!

Why the lore matters

Dong Zhuo was already dead by then, betrayed by Lu Bu who then went on to capture one of Liu Bei's cities that the latter ended up serving him. Cao Cao had to get rid of that mighty thorn on his side so he plotted with Liu Bei. Around this time, another warlord -- the guy whom Sun Ce bartered The Imperial Seal with in exchange for soldiers -- declared himself emperor. That meant Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Lu Bu, and Sun Ce had to ally against the usurper despite having their own grand designs and internal rivalries.

With that campaign over, Lu Bu retired to Xiapi. Cao Cao then sprung his trap along with Liu Bei. Lu Bu was hemmed in and he tried to renew his friendship with that aforementioned usurper only to get thwarted at every turn. Oh, and one of Cao Cao's generals lost an eye so the guy ate his own optic organ before spearing his opponent in the face! In the end, a strategic plan allowed for the invading army to flood the city. The “Sanguo yanyi” says it's one of Cao Cao's tricks; meanwhile, the “Sanguozhi” mentions that it's actually an act of nature. Whatever the case, Lu Bu, dazed and confused, was finally defeated. In the end, he begged for his life but Cao Cao and Liu Bei were both done suffering his betrayals. The strongest warrior in China was strangled.

Another casualty of the battle was Lu Bu's strategist, Chen Gong, who was one of Cao Cao's old friends who helped him escape from his failed assassination of Dong Zhuo many years ago. They found refuge in the home of a sworn brother of Cao Cao's dad. While resting, they overheard people talking about "killing" and "getting the knife ready" so they rushed in and murdered the entire household only to discover that they were getting a pig ready for the feast! Chen Gong was maddened by grief, but Cao Cao simply said that "he would rather betray the world, that let the world betray him." Chen Gong left Cao Cao in abject horror, knowing that he would become a great villain. Ironically, he ended up serving Lu Bu. After the warlord's defeat, Chen Gong asked to be executed and Cao Cao was left in tears since he wanted to spare the life of his dear friend.

Whoa, it looks like I nerded out a bit there with too much information! As you can see, Three Kingdoms helped me fall in love with history when I was younger. I still recall grabbing several games that were based on the setting such as Dynasty Warriors and Kessen just so I could learn more about the time period. I freely admit, to my shame, that I even downloaded some shoddy Three Kingdoms freemium MMO games just because of the name. I also remember checking out various Three Kingdoms fan pages and "debate forums" such as The Scholars of Shen Zhou. Like I said, history dork.

Apart from checking out games, forums, and novels, I also delved into Three Kingdoms depictions in other media such as films and TV shows. For instance, Red Cliff is probably one of the best films I've watched. If you're a fan of history, you'd want to watch the two-part international version which is superior to the US cut. There's also the middling Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon flick which isn't as good but does scratch the itch. There are also several TV series based on the Three Kingdoms which have been uploaded on YouTube.  They range from classic versions to more modern remakes. There are even cartoons and anime such as a Gundam adaptation.

If you're interested in reading more about the wonderful and imaginative lore that’s near and dear to me, here's a free online version of “Sanguo yanyi." If you'd like to compare and contrast it with the purely historical narrative, the "Sanguozhi" has got you covered as well. Oh, and if you prefer to listen rather than read stuff, there's also a podcast that gets regularly updated and has over 150 episodes.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is still months away, delayed until Spring 2019. I don't know if it will be amazing. I don't know if it'll be as bad as Rome II during launch or Dynasty Warriors 9 in its entirety. All I know that the little kid in me who's been a fan for over two decades is extremely excited.

[Image source: Guan Yu statue courtesy of CCTV News China]

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