Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Illustrations


Sanguo yan yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), written by Luo Guanzhong (circa 1330–1400), a late-Yuan and early-Ming author, is a historical novel set in the third century, in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. The part-historical, part-legendary, and part-mythical story chronicles the lives of feudal lords and their retainers, who vied with each other to restore or replace the declining Han Dynasty. The novel follows literally hundreds of characters, with plots, personal and army battles, intrigues, and struggles, but its focus is mainly on the three power blocs that emerged from the remnants of the Han Dynasty and eventually formed the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu. With a total of 800,000 words and nearly 1,000 dramatic characters, in 120 chapters, it is acclaimed as one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature and is widely read in China. There have been numerous editions, and during the Ming and Qing dynasties book merchants brought out illustrated versions to boost sales. At the time, few people could read, even among the middle class, and illustrated books thus were highly popular. The 240 illustrations in this 120-chapter work are exquisitely produced. Each chapter has a two-sentence title, which is also the title of the illustration. The book was printed with the woodblocks of Dakuitang workshop. The title is placed above the frame and the chapter number in the middle portion. Preceding the illustrations is a preface written in 1644 by Jin Renrui (1608–61), a late Ming and early Qing literary critic who changed his name Renrui to Shengtan (Deep sigh) after the fall of the Ming dynasty. Mao Shengshan, Jin’s contemporary and a fellow literary critic, added commentaries and punctuation. Jin greatly admired ancient books and often referred to them as works by and for men of genius. Together with others, he was executed in 1661 for “treasonous conduct,” his property confiscated, and his family banished to Manchuria.

Last updated: March 8, 2016