Born in Beijing, Shan Sa published her first poetry collection at the age of 8. She came to France in 1990, and soon began writing in French. Her first novel, Porte de la paix céleste, won the Goncourt prize for first novels, and she went on to impress young people in France with the novel The Girl who played Go (La Joueuse de Go): French high school pupils chose it as the winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Here she invites us into the turbulent, cut-throat world of a Chinese epic...

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Shan Sa: "A great novel reveals part of the architectural plans of world history."

Three men and a war

A good novel offers a moment of relaxation, a beautiful novel refreshes our vision and renews our ideas, a great novel reveals part of the architectural plans of world history.

"The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," "三国演义," is one of the books which count among the heritage of humanity, books such as the Iliad, the Divine Comedy or War and Peace. It stands out due to both its length and its virtuosity. It describes more than one hundred years of war at the end of the Han dynasty and throughout the era of the Three Kingdoms. In the course of the tale, we meet 1798 characters, including 436 warriors, 451 royal officials, and 176 princes, imperial concubines, eunuchs, etc.

Little is known about the author, Luo Guanzhong, other than the fact that he was born in 1330 and died in 1400, and we can deduce that he witnessed the peasants' revolts and the fall of the all-powerful Yuan dynasty of the Mongols. Historians disagree about his birthplace, and it is only known that he travelled throughout China and for this reason gave himself the nickname "The voyager of lakes and seas." For in ancient China, poetry was the noble genre of literature and only the lives of poets were deemed worthy of being recorded by chroniclers. Luo Guanzhong, a lettered man without qualifications, friend of singers and prostitutes, had as his audience the lower class folk who came to sit down at the roadside and listen to his stories told in episodes by narrator-singers.

"The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is set in the 3rd century - that is to say, one thousand years before the birth of its author. As a poor yet literate man of obscure origin, Luo Guanzhong lived between the end of one empire and the beginning of another. Did he use this novel to record the opinions and visions which his contemporaries neglected? Before dying in poverty, did he imagine his posthumous celebrity, and realise that he would become the most-read Chinese author for centuries to come?

"The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is also the story of the three men who wanted to have done with the ancient world ruled by chaos, famine, civil wars and barbarian invasions.

"The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is also the story of the three men who wanted to have done with the ancient world ruled by chaos, famine, civil wars and barbarian invasions. Now, in order to reform the world it is necessary first to overcome conflicts, unify regions and impose oneself as the absolute master with centralised power. But what happens when three men compete in political and military genius and when their confrontations must become triangular duels?

In the North of China, Cao Cao (155-220 AD) was a romantic poet, a cruel politician and a cunning warrior. He made his career in the imperial administration, climbed the ranks of the hierarchy through his intelligence and courage. In the name of the emperor who became his hostage, he battled against all the warlords and the local governors who rebelled against his authority.

The youngest of the three is Sun Quan (182-252 AD). Sun Quan inherited from his father and his older brother a vast independent territory to the South East of China. In contrast to Cao Cao, who had the imposing charisma of an autocrat, Sun Quan was "his father's son," refined, respectful and reflective, who waged war to achieve his ambition of peace.

Illustration: silk painting by Sekkan Sakurai, copyright free
Liu Bei discusses his next plan of action with his allies, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei

Liu Bei (161-223 AD) is the man in the middle. He was a distant uncle of the emperor, born into a family which had fallen on hard times. Liu Bei had nothing, except a band of "brothers" who knew how to fight. Unlike Cao Cao, who was suspicious and who killed those of his advisers who were even so much as suspected of treason, and unlike Sun Quan, who had to listen to the opinions of his father's doddery old ministers, Liu Bei knew how to look after his servants, distribute his favours equitably, trust others and punish. He was a chief who did not use force but judged fairly.

With five thousand soldiers, Liu Bei was sheltering in a small town to the south of the Yellow river and on the northern bank of the river Yangzi, when Cao Cao sent an army of one hundred thousand soldiers to destroy him. Cao Cao's military movement towards the Yangzi alarmed Sun Quan, who lived on the southern bank. He made an alliance with Liu Bei, offering him his sister's hand. After the marriage, Liu Bei realised that his new brother-in-law had no intention of rearming him and that he was hatching a plan to assassinate him...

The battle of the Purple Cliff took place in the winter of 208 AD. Heading an army of two hundred thousand men, Cao Cao thought he could sweep aside the army of the allies Sun Wuan and Liu Bei, which counted only fifty thousand men. Cao Cao the Suspicious was manipulated by Zhu Geliang, the strategist of Liu Bei and trapped by Zhou Yu, the strategist of Sun Quan. He almost died. The staggering defeat of Cao Cao was just the beginning of a war which was to last beyond the deaths of the three protagonists and continue between their heirs.

War between three opponents is a subtle and tedious game of chess. The three sides who oppose each other must engineer the opportune moment in order to checkmate - successively or simultaneously - the two others. Each must be capable of taking the risk of seeing his enemies leading a joint counter-offensive, each must be wary of his ally, who could be the next threat.

"The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" reveals all the unspeakable secrets which are plotted in the courts of the great men of this world.

Translation of Shan Sa's text: Lucy and Emily Duggan

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