Romance of the Three Kingdoms

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The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, is a historical novel set in the turbulent years towards the end of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, starting in 169 and ending with the reunification of the land in 280.


English translations are taken from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, trans. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1925), unless otherwise noted.
We three will swear brotherhood and unity of aims and sentiments.
  • 話說天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分。
    • The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
    • Chapter 1, opening lines (trans. Moss Roberts)
    • Variant translations:
      • Unity succeeds division and division follows unity. One is bound to be replaced by the other after a long span of time. This is the way with things in the world.
        • trans. Yu Sumei
      • The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity.
  • "The peach trees in the orchard behind the house are just in full flower. Tomorrow we will institute a sacrifice there and solemnly declare our intention before Heaven and Earth, and we three will swear brotherhood and unity of aims and sentiments: Thus will we enter upon our great task."


We ask not the same day of birth, but we seek to die together.
  • "We three—Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei—though of different families, swear brotherhood, and promise mutual help to one end. We will rescue each other in difficulty; we will aid each other in danger. We swear to serve the state and save the people. We ask not the same day of birth, but we seek to die together. May Heaven, the all-ruling, and Earth, the all-producing, read our hearts. If we turn aside from righteousness or forget kindliness, may Heaven and Human smite us!"
    • Chapter 1; the Oath of the Peach Garden.
    • Wikisource translation: "When saying the names Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, although the surnames are different, yet we have come together as brothers. From this day forward, we shall join forces for a common purpose: to save the troubled and to aid the endangered. We shall avenge the nation above, and give peace to the citizenry below. We seek not to be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. We merely hope to die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. May the Gods of Heaven and Earth attest to what is in our hearts. If we should ever do anything to betray our friendship, may heaven and the people of the earth both strike us dead."
They are many and we but few. We can only beat them by superior strategy.
  • "They are many and we but few," said Yuan-te to his brothers. "We can only beat them by superior strategy."
    • Chapter 1
  • 運籌决算有神功,二虎還須遜一龍。
    • Though fierce as tigers soldiers be,
      Battles are won by strategy.
      A hero comes; he gains renown,
      Already destined for a crown.
    • Chapter 1
  • 子治世之能臣,亂世之奸雄也。
    • In peace you are an able subject; in chaos you are a crafty hero!
    • Chapter 1; Xu Shao to Cao Cao.
  • 欲除君側宵人亂,须聽朝中智士謀。
    • To get rid of wicked men from your king's side,
      Then seek counsel from the wise men of the state.
    • Chapter 2 (trans. Yu Sumei)
  • 揚湯止沸,不如去薪;潰痈雖痛,勝於養毒。
    • Now to stop the ebullition of a pot the best way is to withdraw the fire; to cut out an abscess, though painful, is better than to nourish the evil.
    • Chapter 3
  • A fierce wild beast: If he comes, his prey will be humans!
    • Chapter 3


The clever bird chooses the branch whereon to perch; the wise servant selects the master to serve.
  • "If I could only find a master to serve," said Lu Bu.
    "The clever bird chooses the branch whereon to perch; the wise servant selects the master to serve. Seize the chance when it comes, for repentance ever comes too late."
    • Chapter 3
  • 天地易兮日月翻,棄萬乘兮退守藩。
    • The heaven and earth are changed,
      Alas! the sun and the moon leave their courses,
      I, once the center of all eyes, am driven to the farthest confines,
      Oppressed by an arrogant minister my life nears its end,
      Everything fails me and vain are my falling tears.
    • Chapter 4
  • 皇天將崩兮后土颓;身為帝姬兮命不随。
    • Heaven is to be rent asunder, Earth to fall away,
      I, handmaid of an emperor, would grieve if I followed him not.
      We have come to the parting of ways, the quick and the dead walk not together;
      Alas! I am left alone with the grief in my heart.
    • Chapter 4
  • 燕雀安知鴻鵠志哉?
    • How can swallows and sparrows understand the flight of the crane and the wild goose?
    • Chapter 4


Rather we let down the world than the world let us down!
  • 寧教我負天下人,休教天下人負我。
    • Rather we let down the world than the world let us down!
    • Chapter 4
  • Lu Bu stood forth and said, "Do not fear, my father. I look upon all the lords beyond the Pass as so much stubble. And with the warriors of our fierce army, I will put everyone of them to death and hang their heads at the gates of the capital!"
    "With your aid I can sleep secure!" said Dong Zhuo.
    But someone behind Lu Bu broke in upon his speech, saying, "An ox-cleaver to kill a chicken! There is no need for the General to go: I will cut off their heads as easily as I would take a thing out of my pocket!"
    • Chapter 5
  • 吾有上將潘鳳,可斬華雄。
    • I have a brave warrior among my army. Pan Feng is his name, and he could slay this Hua Xiong.
    • Chapter 5
  • 人中呂布,馬中赤兔。
    • Lu Bu was the man among humans, as Red Hare was the horse among horses.
    • Chapter 5
  • 天下動之至易,安之至難。
    • It is easy to alarm them but difficult to pacify them.
    • Chapter 6
  • 豎子不足與謀!
  • Those unworthy people cannot discuss worthy thing!
    • Chapter 6
  • Just then a horseman came, riding at full speed and whirling his sword up, cut down both the captors, and rescued Cao Cao. It was Cao Hong.
    Cao Cao said, "I am doomed, good brother. Go and save yourself!"
    "My lord, mount my horse quickly! I will go afoot," said Cao Hong.
    "If those wretches come up, what then?" said Cao Cao.
    "The world can do without Cao Hong, but not without you, my lord!"
    • Chapter 6
  • Thy handmaid has promised not to recoil from death itself. You may use my poor self in any way, and I must do my best.
    • Chapter 8; spoken by Diao Chan.
  • When the guest was very mellow, Wang Yun suddenly said, "Let her come in!"
    Soon appeared two attendants, dressed in white, leading between them the exquisite and fascinating Diao Chan.
    • Chapter 8
  • "When one is born great, one cannot be patient for long under another person's domination," said Lu Bu.
    • Chapter 9
  • Tao Qian reluctantly sent the army out. From a distance he saw Cao Cao's army spread abroad like frost and rushed far and wide like snow. In their midst was a large white flag and on both sides was written "Vengeance."
    • Chapter 10
  • 舉杯暢飲情何放,拔劍捐生悔已遲!
    • He raised the cup in pledge,
      None might say nay;
      Remorseful, drew the sword,
      Himself to slay.
    • Chapter 14
  • 兄弟如手足,妻子如衣服。 衣服破,尚可縫;手足斷,安可續?
    • Brothers are as hands and feet; wives and children are as clothing. You may mend your torn dress, but who can reattach a lost limb?
    • Chapter 15; spoken by Liu Bei.
  • 屈身守分,以待天時,不可與命争也。
    • One must bow to one's lot. It is the will of Heaven, and one cannot struggle against fate.
    • Chapter 15
  • 溫侯神射世間稀,曾向轅門獨解危。
    • O Lu Bu was a wonderful archer,
      And the arrow he shot sped straight;
      By hitting the mark he saved his friend
      That day at his camp gate.
      Hou Yi, the archer of ancient days,
      Brought down each mocking sun,
      And the apes that gibbered to fright Yang Youji
      Were slain by him, one by one.
      But we sing of Lu Bu that drew the bow,
      And his feathered shaft that flew;
      For one hundred thousand soldiers could doff their mails
      When he hit the mark so true.
    • Chapter 16
  • Your rival has ten weak points whereas you have ten strong ones, and, though his army is large, it is not terrible.
    • Chapter 18; Guo Jia to Cao Cao.
  • Now the division of Cao Cao's army under Xiahou Dun, having marched out in advance, first came into touch with Gao Shun. Xiahou Dun at once rode out with spear set and offered a challenge. It was accepted and the two leaders fought half a hundred bouts. Then Gao Shun began to weaken and had to turn back. He rode round to the rear of his array. Xiahou Dun was not the man to quail, so he followed right into the enemy's country. Then Cao Xing, one of Lu Bu's generals, secretly strung his bow, fitted an arrow and, when Xiahou Dun had come quite near, shot at him. The arrow hit Xiahou Dun full in the left eye. He shrieked, and putting up his head, pulled out the arrow and with it the eye.
    "Essence of my father, blood of my mother, I cannot throw this away!" cried Xiahou Dun, and he put the eye into his mouth and swallowed it.
    Then resuming his firm grip of his spear, Xiahou Dun went after this new enemy. There was no escape for Cao Xing. He was overtaken and fell with a fatal spear wound full in the face. Both sides were stricken dumb with amazement.
    • Chapter 18
  • 今天下英雄,惟使君與操耳!
    • The only heroes in the world are you and I.
    • Chapter 21; Cao Cao to Liu Bei.
  • Guan Yu quickly mounted, turned down his mighty weapon, and galloped down the hill, his phoenix eyes rounded, and his silkworm eyebrows fiercely bristling. He dashed straight into the enemy's array, and the northern soldiers opened like falling waves and dissolving storms. He made directly for the commander.
    • Chapter 25
  • He who wins people, prospers; he who loses them, fails. Your present plan should be to seek people of high aims and farseeing views, and you can establish yourself firmly.
    • Chapter 29; Zhou Yu to Sun Quan.
  • 勢弱只因多算勝,兵强却為寡謀亡。
    • In feeling over confident, that's where one's weakness lay;
      The other bettered him by plans which never went astray.
    • Chapter 30
  • The last night he spent in Jizhou, Cao Cao went to the eastern corner tower and stood there regarding the sky. His only companion was Xun You.
    Presently Cao Cao said, "That is a very brilliant glow there in the south. It seems too strong for me to do anything there."
    "What is there that can oppose your heaven-high prestige?" said Xun You.
    • Chapter 33
  • 勝負兵家之常,何可自隳其志!
    • Victory and defeat are but ordinary events in a soldier's career, and why should you give up?
    • Chapter 31
  • "He will not condescend to visit you. You must go to him. But if he consents, you will be as fortunate as the Zhou when they got the aid of Lu Wang, or the Han when Zhang Liang came to help."
    "How does the unknown compare with yourself?"
    "With me? Compared with him I am as a worn-out carthorse to a palomino, an old duck to a phoenix. This man often compares himself with the ancient sages Guan Zhong and Yue Yi but, in my opinion, he is far their superior. He has the talent to measure the heavens and mete the earth. He is a man who overshadows every other in the world.
    • Chapter 36
  • 淡泊以明志,寧静而致遠。
    • By purity inspire the inclination;
      By repose affect the distant.
    • Chapter 37
"If you will not, O Master, what will become of the people?"
"General, if you will accept me, I will render what trifling service I can."
  • "Though I be of small repute and scanty virtue," said Liu Bei, "I hope, O Master, you will not despise me for my worthlessness, but will leave this retreat to help me. I will assuredly listen most reverently to your words."
    Zhuge Liang replied, "I have long been happy on my farm and am fond of my leisure. I fear I cannot obey your command."
    Liu Bei wept. "If you will not, O Master, what will become of the people?"
    The tears rolled down unchecked upon the lapel and sleeves of Liu Bei's robe. This proved to Zhuge Liang the sincerity of his desire.
    Hence, Zhuge Liang said, "General, if you will accept me, I will render what trifling service I can."
    • Chapter 38
The plans elaborated in a little chamber decide success over thousands of miles.
  • Do you not understand that the plans elaborated in a little chamber decide success over thousands of miles?
    • Chapter 39; spoken by Liu Bei.
  • Yu Jin rode forward shouting at the top of his voice, "Halt the train!"
    Xiahou Dun saw him coming up and asked what was the matter.
    Yu Jin said, "The roads here are narrow and difficult. Around us are thick forests. What if they use fire?"
    Xiahou Dun's ferocity had then somewhat abated and he turned his steed toward his main body.
    Then there arose a shout behind him. A rushing noise came from in the reeds and great tongues of flame shot up here and there. These spread and soon the fire was in "the four quarters and the eight sides," and fanned by a strong wind.
  • As the men of Cao Cao came pressing on, Zhao Yun drew Cao Cao's own sword to beat them off. Nothing could resist the blue blade sword. Armor, clothing, it went through without effort and blood gushed forth in fountains wherever it struck. So the four generals were soon beaten off, and Zhao Yun was once again free.
    • Chapter 41
  • 亮借一帆風,直至江東,憑三寸不爛之舌,說南北兩軍互相吞併。
    • I shall borrow a little boat and make a little trip over the river and trust to my little lithe tongue to set north and south at each other's throats.
    • Chapter 42; spoken by Zhuge Liang.
  • 豈亦效書生,區區於筆硯之間,數黑論黃,舞文弄墨而已乎?
    • Would you liken them to your rusty students of books, whose journeyings are comprised between their brush and their inkstone, who spend their days in literary futilities, wasting both time and ink?
    • Chapter 43
  • I hold a sacred trust from my late lord, Sun Ce. I would not bow the knee to any such as Cao Cao. What I said just now was to see how you stood. I left Poyang Lake with the intention of attacking the north, and nothing can change that intention, not even the sword at my breast or the ax on my neck.
    • Chapter 44; Zhou Yu to Zhuge Liang.


"We thank you, Sir Prime Minister, for the arrows!"
  • The naval forces were then lined up shooting on the bank to prevent a landing. Presently the soldiers arrived, and ten thousand and more soldiers were shooting down into the river, where the arrows fell like rain. [...] The whole twenty boats were bristling with arrows on both sides. As they left, Zhuge Liang asked all the crews to shout derisively, "We thank you, Sir Prime Minister, for the arrows!"
    • Chapter 46
  • Your troops from the north are unused to ships, and the motion makes them ill. If your ships, large and small, were classed and divided into thirties, or fifties, and joined up stem to stem by iron chains and boards spread across them, to say nothing of soldiers being able to pass from one to the next, even horses could move about on them. If this were done, then there would be no fear of the wind and the waves and the rising and falling tides.
    • Chapter 47; Pang Tong to Cao Cao.
  • 欲破曹公,宜用火攻;
    • To defeat Cao Cao
      You have to use fire;
      All are in your wish,
      But wind from the east.
    • Chapter 49
  • Huang Gai took his place on the third ship. He merely wore breast armor and carried a keen blade. On his flag were written four large characters "Van Leader Huang Kai". With a fair wind his fleet sailed toward the Red Cliffs.
    • Chapter 49
  • You see before you one Cao Cao—defeated and weak. I have reached a sad pass, and I trust you, O General, will not forget the kindness of former days.
    • Chapter 50
  • Soon Lu Su came in, to whom Zhou Yu said, "I simply must fight Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang till it is decided which shall have the upper hand. I must also recapture the cities. Perhaps you can assist me."
    "It cannot be done," replied Lu Su. "We are now at grips with Cao Cao, and victory or defeat is undecided. Our lord has not been successful in overcoming Hefei. Do not fight near home, or it will be like people of the same household destroying each other. Should Cao Cao take advantage of this position to make a sudden descent, we should be in a parlous condition. Further, you must remember that Liu Bei and Cao Cao are united by the bonds of old friendship. If the pressure becomes too great, Liu Bei may relinquish these cities, offer them to Cao Cao, and join forces with him to attack the south. That would be a real misfortune."
    "I cannot help being angry," said Zhou Yu, "to think that we should have used our resources for their benefit. They get all the advant
    • Chapter 52
  • 江山雨霁擁青螺,境界无憂樂最多。
    • From the riverside hills the rain clears off,
      And the black clouds roll away,
      And this is the place of joy and mirth
      And never can sorrow stay.
      And here two heroes of ages past
      Decided their parts to play,
      And the lofty heights flung back wind and wave
      Then, as they do today.
    • Chapter 54
  • [Sun Quan and Liu Bei] stood both entranced by the beautiful scene. And gradually along the vast river the wind whipped the waves into snowy foam and raised them high toward heaven. And in the midst of the waves appeared a tiny leaf of a boat riding over the waves as if all was perfect calm.
    "The northern people are riders and the southern people sailors. It is said quite true," sighed Liu Bei.
    • Chapter 54
  • 既生瑜,何生亮!
    • O God, since you made Zhou Yu, why did you also create Zhuge Liang?
    • Chapter 57
  • 蒼天既已生公瑾,塵世何須出孔明?
    • Since, O Azure Heaven, ye made Zhou Yu,
      Why needed Yellow Earth produce a Zhuge Liang?
    • Chapter 57
  • Ma Chao ground his teeth and cursed Cao Cao, "Rebel! Betrayer of both prince and people! Murderer of my father and brothers! My hate for you is to the death: The same sky shall not continue to cover us, for I will take you captive and satiate my appetite on your living flesh."
    With this he set his spear and rode over toward Cao Cao as if to slay him. But Yu Jin came out from behind and engaged Ma Chao in battle. These two fought some half score bouts, and then Yu Jin had to flee. Zhang He, however, took his place and the two warriors exchanged twenty passes. Then Zhang He, too, ran away.
    Next to come forth was Li Tong. Ma Chao's martial prowess was now at its height, and he made short work of Li Tong, who went out of the saddle at the first blow. Then Ma Chao flourished his spear at the troops behind him as a signal for them to come on, which they did like a flood. They overwhelmed Cao Cao's forces, and Ma Chao, Pang De, and Ma Dai rode forward to try to capture Cao Cao.
    • Chapter 58
  • 良药苦口利于病,忠言逆耳利于行。
    • Good medicine is bitter in the mouth but good for the disease; faithful words offend the ear but are good for the conduct.
    • Chapter 60
  • 人主幾番存厚道,才臣一意進權謀。
    • Their lord, by argument, they tried
      From rectitude to turn aside.
    • Chapter 60
  • 生子當如孫仲謀!
    • That is the sort of son to have!
    • Chapter 61
  • 三軍易得,一將難求。
    • An army is easily raised; a leader is hard to find.
    • Chapter 70
  • 'Chicken tendons' are tasteless things to eat, and yet it is a pity to waste them.
    • Chapter 72; spoken by Yang Xiu.
  • 卿不負孤,孤亦必不負卿也。
    • If you do not turn your back on me, I shall not on you.
    • Chapter 74
  • 治病須分内外科,世間妙藝苦無多。
    • Here as surgeons, there physicians, all boast their skill;
      Bitter few are those that cure one when one's really ill.
      As for superhuman valor rivals Guan Yu had none,
      So for holy touch in healing Hua Tuo stood alone.
    • Chapter 75
  • 玉可碎而不可改其白,竹可焚而不可毀其節。
    • Jade may be shattered, but its whiteness remains; bamboo may be burned, but its joints stand straight.
    • Chapter 76
  • 身雖殞,名可垂於竹帛也。
    • My body may be broken, but my name shall live true in history.
    • Chapter 76
  • 龍游溝壑遭蝦戲,鳳入牢籠被鳥欺。
    • The dragon in a puddle is the sport of shrimps,
      The phoenix in a cage is mocked of small birds.
    • Chapter 76
  • 功首罪魁非两人,遺臭流芳本一身。
    • A man may stand the first in merit; then
      His crimes may brand him chief of criminals.
      And so his reputation's fair and foul.
    • Chapter 78
  • 煮豆燃豆萁,豆在釜中泣。本是同根生,相煎何太急!
    • They were boiling beans on a beanstalk fire;
      Came a plaintive voice from the pot,
      "O why, since we sprang from the selfsame root,
      Should you press me with anger hot?"
    • Chapter 79; poem attributed to Cao Zhi.
  • You are many times more clever than Cao Pi, and you must safeguard the kingdom and complete the great work. If my son can be helped, help him. But if he proves a fool, then take the throne yourself and be a ruler.
    • Chapter 85; the First Ruler to Zhuge Liang.

  • 勿以恶小而为之,勿以善小而不为。
    • Do not do evil because it is a small evil; do not leave undone a small good because it is a small good.
    • Chapter 85
  • In arms even it is best to attack hearts rather than cities; to fight with sentiment is better than to fight with weapons.
    • Chapter 87; spoken by Ma Su.
  • 皓首匹夫!蒼髯老賊!汝即日將歸於九泉之下,何面目見二十四帝乎!
    • You fool and rebel! Mark you, today is your last day. This day even you descend to the Nine Golden Springs. How will you stand before the twenty-four emperors of Latter Han that you will meet there?
    • Chapter 93
  • Do the unexpected; attack the unprepared.
    • Chapter 98; spoken by Zhuge Liang.
  • I shall strive on to the end, but the final result, whether success or failure, whether gain or loss, is beyond my powers to foresee.
    • Chapter 98; memorial from Zhuge Liang.
  • 朝廷養軍千日,用在一時。
    • The state feeds and trains soldiers a thousand days for one hour's service.
    • Chapter 100
  • 鞠躬盡瘁,死而後已!
    • To achieve this end, he would use the last remnant of his strength and could die content.
    • Chapter 102
  • 謀事在人,成事在天。不可強也!
    • Human proposes; God disposes. We cannot wrest events to our will.
    • Chapter 103; spoken by Zhuge Liang.
  • 伏願陛下清心寡欲,約己愛民。
    • I desire Your Majesty to cleanse your heart and limit your desires, to practice self-control and to love the people.
    • Chapter 104
  • What a pity it is that of ten affairs in the world, one always meets with eight or nine vexations!
    • Chapter 120; spoken by Yang Hu.
  • 紛紛世事無窮盡,天數茫茫不可逃。
    • All down the ages rings the note of change,
      For fate so rules it; none escapes its sway.
      The kingdoms three have vanished as a dream,
      The useless misery is ours to grieve.
    • Chapter 120, Final Poem

Quotes about Romance of the Three Kingdoms[edit]

  • The San kuo chih yen i, attributed to one Lo Kuanchung, is an historical novel based upon the wars of the Three Kingdoms which fought for supremacy at the beginning of the third century A.D. It consists mainly of stirring scenes of warfare, of cunning plans by skilful generals, and of doughty deeds by blood-stained warriors. Armies and fleets of countless myriads are from time to time annihilated by one side or another,—all this in an easy and fascinating style, which makes the book an endless joy to old and young alike. If a vote were taken among the people of China as to the greatest among their countless novels, the Story of the Three Kingdoms would indubitably come out first.
    • Herbert Giles, A History of Chinese Literature (London: W. Heinemann, 1901), p. 277
  • The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is by design a historical narrative rather than a historical novel as we understand the term in the West. Hardly a single character in the book is ahistorical, and there is no plot to speak of beyond the plot of history. Though it borrows from the oral tradition of storytelling, it is clearly far more an epic than a romance. ... It attains the condition of good literature precisely because its slight fictional elaboration of history has restored for us the actuality of history.
    • C. T. Hsia, The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), pp. 34–35
  • The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is an encyclopedia of political tricks in China, collecting all the political schemes, strategies and subterfuges and demonstrating all their forms. All the political, military, diplomatic and social affairs described in the novel are centered on deception and all the tricks are tricks of deception.
    • Liu Zaifu, A Study of Two Classics, trans. Shu Yunzhong (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2012)

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