For a long time, people’s understanding of the Three Kingdoms period mainly come from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (《三國演義》). However, nowadays, not many people spend much time reading the novel. Instead, their knowledge of the Three Kingdoms history comes from video games and TV series. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is well-written with compelling stories that it is easy for readers to mistake it for historical fact.
In fact, many of the famous stories in the novel are purely fictional. One example is “Taoyuan Jieyi” (桃園結義, Oath of the Peach Garden), which has been popular for generations. However, the brotherhood of Liu Bei (劉備), Guan Yu (關羽), and Zhang Fei (張飛) that moves millions of people is not recorded officially as an historical event. There is also no evidence of the fraternal oath ceremony of offering a white horse to heaven and a black bull to earth in that period. In addition, Guan was actually one year older than Liu. He should have been the eldest if they really became sworn brothers. As for the story “Angry whipping of a Corrupt Local Inspector”, it was Liu who did it, not Zhang.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms describes how Cao Cao (曹操) pretended to serve Dong Zhuo (董卓) and planned to assassinate him with a knife when the latter was asleep. When Dong saw Cao pulling out the knife from the mirror, Cao had the quick wits to claim to offer this precious knife to Dong and then fled immediately. The story of offering a knife to Dong by Mengde (孟德, Cao Cao’s courtesy name) was fictional, but it is true that Cao rejected Dong’s invitation to become an official and fled Luoyang (洛陽) after being wanted by Dong. In the novel, Chen Gong (陳宮) held a high opinion of Cao and even gave up his official position to follow Cao. Later, resenting Cao’s killing of Lu Boshe (呂伯奢) and his family members, Chen betrayed him. In fact, Chen did not flee with Cao nor did he witness Cao killing the Lu family. He betrayed Cao for other reasons.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms depicts Wang Yun (王允), the Minister over the Masses, was being dissatisfied with Dong Zhuo for his authoritarian rule. He thus used a series of clever plans, including using the beauty and charm of his adopted daughter Diaochan (貂蟬) to sow discord between Dong and Lu Bu (呂布), ultimately leading to Lu killing Dong. In fact, the official history does not record the identity of Lu’s wife, but it was definitely not Diaochan. The story that Wang seeding conflict between Dong and Lu with Diaochan’s beauty scheme is entirely fictional. “Diaochan” is not a name but the title of a female official working in the Han dynasty (漢代)’s imperial harem (the back palace).
To create a brave and loyal image of Guan Yu, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms vividly describes the story of Guan killing Yan Liang (顏良) and Wen Chou (文醜). After he made great contributions to Cao Cao, Guan learned of Liu Bei’s news and bid farewell to Cao. He underwent countless hardships including passing five passes and killing six generals to eventually reunite with Liu. The truth of history is Yan was indeed killed by Guan, but Wen was actually killed by Cao. While it is true that Guan bid farewell to Cao and all the wealth offered by the latter and returned to Liu, there was no record of him passing five passes and killing six generals. The names of the six generals were fictional. Guan was able to return to Liu smoothly because Cao respected his loyalty and decided not to pursue him.
In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Ren (曹仁) ordered the army to shoot Guan Yu’s right arm with poisoned arrows. The poison entered Guan’s bone, turning his right arm green and swollen and becoming immobile. Hua Tuo (華佗), the famous physician, thus scraped the poison off Guan’s bone in the treatment. Later, Hua was asked to treat Cao Cao’s headache when he recommended the latter to take an anaesthetic decoction called “Ma Fei Tang” (麻肺湯) to undergo a craniotomy. However, Cao suspected that the surgery was Hua’s way of avenging Guan’s injury and killing him. He thus sent Hua to prison, in where the latter died eventually. In fact, Hua never treated Guan, but the former was indeed imprisoned and tortured to death by Cao. This was because Hua ran back to his hometown under the pretext of his wife’s illness to avoid treating Cao. The furious Cao thus had Hua arrested and tortured to death.
In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Battle of Chibi (赤壁之戰, Battle of the Red Cliffs) is the most extensively depicted, intense, and tightly plotted battle in the entire book. However, the official history contains only a brief overview of this battle, and most of what we read about it in the novel is fictional. The so-called “Battle of Chibi” actually took place in Wulin (烏林), rather than Chibi. It was located in the south of the Yangtze River, while Wulin was located in the north. The battle at Chibi was just the prelude, while the fiery battle took place in Wulin. Therefore, the event would be better referred to as the Battle of Wulin than the Battle of Chibi. Why did Cao Cao lose the battle? One overlooked reason is that Cao’s army was infected with schistosomiasis. Other key events related to the battle in the novel, such as Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮)’s verbal battles with the scholars, Jiang Gan (蔣幹) stealing secret letters, the straw boats borrowing arrows and the east wind, Huang Gai’s (黃蓋) self-injury to win Cao’s trust, and Guan Yu releasing Cao at the Huarong Path (華容道), are all fictional. The brilliant plan of “burning the connected boats with fire” was planned and executed by Huang instead of Zhuge. Guan’s release of Cao at the Huarong Path is a pure fiction.
In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei and Madam Sun (孫夫人) are depicted as an affectionate couple, with Liu loving Madam Sun so much that he sometimes even put her ahead of his duties and became disinterested in returning to the state of Shu (蜀). Meanwhile, Madam Sun was also deeply in love with Liu. She shielded him from Eastern Wu (東吳) troops’ pursue, and was willing to stand by him and even die for him. However, the reality was quite the opposite. The marriage of Liu and Madam Sun was not a happy one and they did not live together after their marriage. Eventually, Sun Quan (孫權), Madam Sun’s elder brother, sent a boat to bring her back to Eastern Wu. After pacifying Yizhou (益州), Liu followed the advice of his officials and married Lady Wu, the younger sister of Wu Yi (吳懿). His marriage with Madam Sun was dissolved. There is no historical record of what happened to Madam Sun after she returned to Eastern Wu, but it is impossible for her to die for Liu.
In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhuge Liang anticipated that Wei Yan (魏延) would rebel in the future. Therefore, before his death, he arranged Ma Dai (馬岱) to pretend to submit to Wei's authority and then launched a surprise attack to kill Wei. In fact, there is no record in historical texts that Zhuge believed that Wei had rebellious thoughts and thus this part is fictional. Wei made great military contributions and remained loyal to the court of Shu Han (蜀漢). It was the avenging Yang Yi who falsely accused Wei of plotting a rebellion out of animosity that had the latter killed by Ma.
Frankly speaking, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a fictional work, not a historical record. Although there are parts that do not conform to history, it does not diminish its literary value. To understand the history of the Three Kingdoms period, one must put in effort to read relevant historical classics, including the Records of the Three Kingdoms (《三國志》), Book of the Later Han (《後漢書》), and Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government (《資治通鑑》).