Skip to main content

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Popular Chinese Political Thought

  • Peter R. Moody

In recent years, scholars have been increasingly applying “behavioral” approaches to the study of Chinese politics. One interesting strain of this is the work of Lucian Pye and Richard Solomon, who stress the study of Chinese “political culture” analyzed mainly in terms of an “authority crisis.” Solomon's explication is the more detailed and elaborate. Part of his thesis is that harmony and peace are “basic and enduring political values in the Confucian tradition,” and therefore “questions of the handling of social conflict constitute a major area of tension in the Chinese political culture.” The Chinese hopes for order and believes that this comes about only through strong authority; without such authority there is luan, “chaos.” But the means required to exercise authority create resentment, and resentment becomes the basis for more luan.

Hide All

1 Pye, Lucian, The Spirit of Chinese Politics: A Psychocultural Study of the Authority Crisis in Political Development (Cambridge, Mass., 1968); Solomon, Richard H., Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture (Berkeley, Calif., 1971).

2 Solomon, , Political Culture, pp. 23.

3 Ibid., pp. 135–153. These attitudes, of course, are traced back to the child-rearing process.

4 For this distinction, see Popper, Karl R., The Poverty of Historicism (Boston, 1957), p. 151.

5 Solomon, , Political Culture, pp. 524525.

6 Almond, Gabriel and Verba, Sidney, The Civic Culture, abridged edition (Boston, 1965), ch. 7.

7 Pye, Lucian, Warlord Politics: Conflict and Coalition in the Modernization of Republican China (New York, 1971).

8 Mote, F. W., “China's Past in the Study of China Today: Some Comments on the Recent Work of Richard Solomon,” Journal of Asian Studies, 32, 1(11, 1972), 107120, 111; also Thomas A. Metzer, “On Chinese Political Culture,” idem., 101–105.

9 I am using here the edition (hereafter referred to as Romance) put out by the Ta-chung Shu-chü (Taipei, 1969). This particular edition omits most of the less important poems scattered throughout other editions. For the convenience of those with other editions, however, citations to the work will contain both page and chapter numbers. There is an English translation by G. H. Brewitt-Taylor (Tokyo, 1959; first published, 1925). This contains numerous errors, and at least one crucial one.

10 For examples of this sort of thing—something of a fad a few years ago —see Jaffa, Henry V., “The Limits of Politics: An Interpretation of King Lear, Act I, Scene 1,” American Political Science Review (APSR), 51, 2 (06, 1957), 405427; Bloom, Alan D., “Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community: An Interpretation of Othello,” APSR, 54, 1 (03, 1960), 130157; also Egger, Rowland, “The Administrative Novel,” APSR, 53, 2 (06, 1959), 448457. Kariel, Henry S., Open Systems: Arenas for Political Action (Itasca, 1969), draws on examples from literature, but does not engage in much detailed analysis. For the need for caution in this type of analysis, see Buckhardt, Sigurd, “English Bards and APSR Reviewers,” APSR, 54, 1 (03, 1960), 158166, whose criticisms, in their specifics, I find convincing. See also the exchange between Bloom, and Buckhardt, , APSR, 54, 2 (06, 1960), 457473.

11 Yao, Meng, Chung-kuo Hsiao-shuo Shih (Taipei, 1969), p. 313. It would be wrong to think of the Romance as in any sense a “folk” work; the fact of its popularity is enough to justify its use here. The novel, I suspect, has done much to create the cluster of attitudes identified by Solomon.

12 “Introduction,” in Brewitt-Taylor, , p. v.

13 For a general treatment of the novel, see Yao, Meng, Chung-kuo, pp. 304345.

14 Ruhlmann, Robert, “Traditional Heroes in Chinese Popular Fiction,” in Confucianism and Chinese Civilization, ed. Wright, Arthur (New York, 1964), pp. 122157.

15 Cf. Han Fei-tzu, “Nan Shih,” for a relatively systematic discussion of the concept, purporting to prove that effective rule depends entirely upon the shih, and not upon the moral qualities of the ruler.

16 Romance, ch. 1, p. 2.

17 Skinner, B. F., Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York, 1971), p. 110.

18 [Yu-lan, Feng], Chung-huo Che-hsueh Shih (n.p., n.d.—I have a pirated edition printed in Taiwan, which omits even the author's name, as he chose to remain behind in 1949), pp. 546ff; Creel, H. G., Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung (Chicago, 1953), pp. 145147.

19 Romance, ch. 1, pp. 1–2.

20 Levenson, Joseph, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy (Berkeley, Calif., 1968), pt. 2, pp. 6162.

21 Romance, ch. 50.

22 Ruhlmann, , “Chinese Popular Fiction,” p. 156. Technically, this is not a conflict of loyalties. Ts'ao has shown en—“grace”—to Kuan, and Kuan feels bound in “honor,” i, to repay this. But the general point remains the same.

23 Romance, ch. 85, p. 525.

24 Ruhlmann, , “Chinese Popular Fiction,” p. 140.

25 Romance, ch. 1, p. 3.

26 Meng-wu, Sa, Shui-hu Chuan yü Chung-kuo She-hui (Taipei, 1970), p. 10. Liu-mang is a somewhat offensive term. A more polite and more traditional term would be be lü-lin hao han—“good fellows of the green wood.”

27 Benedict, Ruth, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston, 1946), pp. 99117.

28 Romance, ch. 5, p. 29.

29 Ibid., ch. 5, p. 30.

30 Ibid., ch. 7, pp. 37–39.

31 Ibid., ch. 7, passim.

32 Pye, , Warlord Politics, pp. 77, 167; quote on p. 167.

33 This was the Confucian version of wu-wei, “nonaction.” See Kracke, E. A., Civil Service in Early Sung China, 960–1067 (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), p. 29.

34 Despite his general decency, however, to most readers, Chinese and Western, his reaction to an inadvertent case of cannibalism might seem rather repellent: Liu Pei, on the lam, meets a hunter, and the hunter, having no food to offer him, slaughters his (the hunter's) own wife and serves her up. Liu Pei, of course, does not realize that he is eating human flesh, but when he accidentally discovers this in the morning, he is moved to tears by the kindness of his host! Romance, ch. 19, p. 120. Cannibalism forms a minor but rather disturbing motif in Chinese culture, and this seems to form the basis for the theme of Lu Hsun's “Diary of a Madman.” See Lyell, William A. Jr, A Lu Hsun Reader (New Haven, 1967), pp. 717; also Tse-tsung, Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China (Stanford, 1967), p. 308n.

35 Ruhlmann, , “Chinese Popular Fiction,” p. 140.

36 Romance, ch. 21, p. 135.

37 Ibid., ch. 1, pp. 2–3.

38 The ruling family in the Han dynasty had the surname “Liu,” and this seems to be about the only reason Lo Kuan-chung grants legitimacy to Liu Pei and to Shu. Liu Pei is a very remote relative of the ruling house.

39 E.g., Romance, ch. 39, p. 245.

40 Ibid., ch. 60, p. 376.

41 See especially ibid., ch. 63, the story of Chang Fei's battle against Yen Yen.

42 Throughout this essay, of course, I am talking about the fictional character Ts'ao Ts'ao, not the historical personage who bears the same name—as, indeed, I am talking about the fictional Liu Pei. The real Ts'ao Ts'ao, while certainly no bodhisatva, was not as bad as he is depicted in the novel, and apparently no more bloody-minded and considerably more competent than the historical Liu Pei. In addition to his political accomplishments, Ts'ao was an outstanding poet and military theoretician (both traits of the fictional Ts'ao as well). Balazs, Etienne, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy (New Haven, 1964), pp. 173179. Ts'ao also enjoys some favor among communist historians, partly a reflection of adherence to historical fact, partly for doctrinal considerations, partly for reasons of the “new morality,” and partly because Chairman Mao finds Ts'ao sympathetic. See Mo-jo, Kuo, People's Daily, 23 03 1959, p. 7. There is some irony in the communists' sympathy for Ts'ao, since of all the characters Liu Pei is the most nearly “proletarian” in his background, and the only one with an honest trade (he weaves sandals and mats out of straw).

43 Romance, ch. I, p. 5. Brewitt-Taylor, renders the last prophecy, “You are able enough to rule the world, but wicked enough to disturb it” (p. 9). As this is one of the key sentences in the whole book, the error is extremely serious.

44 Ibid., ch. 4, p. 26.

45 Ibid., ch. 17, p. 113.

46 Ibid., cb. 17, p. 114.

47 Ibid., ch. 47, p. 298.

48 Ibid., ch. 106, p. 669.

49 Ibid., ch. 119, p. 741.

50 Ibid., ch. 80, p. 495.

51 Ibid., ch. 9, p. 55.

52 This view of the function has also been shared by some Western historians. “The very fact that there existed a man named Tacitus, who recorded the wickedness of his times, is for Gibbon sufficient reason for optimism” (Jordan, David P., Gibbon and His Roman Empire [Carbondale, I11., 1971], p. 81).

53 Dahrendorf, Ralph, Essays in the Theory of Sociology (Stanford, 1968), p. 227.

54 Ibid., p. 148. Machiavelli, Discourses, First Book, ch. IV.

55 An exception to this last point is perhaps “modern industrial society,” in which the state may be able to retain its coercive ability despite any “moral” collapse. In these societies, the only ones to suffer from “unofficial violence” would seem to be the perpetrators and the innocent.

56 Hebrew history recorded in the Bible may also indicate the limits of the theory: things do not seem to have improved much once there was a king in Israel.

57 Chadwick, H. Munro, The Heroic Age (Cambridge, 1925; first edition, 1912), p. 462.

58 Bloc, Marc, Feudal Society (Chicago, 1961), vol. I, 123, 136ff. Couborn, Rushton, Feudalism in History (Princeton, 1956), pp. 7, 236ff., 255. It would probably be an error to identify “feudalism” with the politics of “chaos,” as chaos is not limited to feudal situations, and institutionalized feudalism is one way out of chaos. But it does seem to be a weak solution to the problem.

59 Duus, Peter, Feudalism in Japan (New York, 1969), esp. pp. 56ff. It will be recalled that the ethical system in the Romance is rather similar to the ethical system discussed by Miss Benedict in her Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

60 Skinner, Beyond Freedom; Kariel, Open Systems, in many of his implications. More innocuously, Huntington, Samuel P., Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven, 1968); more innocuously still, Lowi, Theodore, The End of Liberalism (New York, 1969).

61 Agassi, Joseph, “The Nature of Scientific Problems and Their Roots in Metaphysics,” in The Critical Approach to Science and Philosophy, ed. Bunge, Mario (London, 1964), pp. 189211, 203.

62 Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 2nd ed. rev. (Chicago, 1970).

63 Cf. the critique of Huntington, by Kesselman, Mark, “Order or Movement? The Literature of Political Development as Ideology,” World Politics, 26, 1 (10, 1973), 139154.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed