Romance of The Three Kingdoms Might as Well be China’s Game of Thrones

8 min read 

When I first thought of comparing Game of Thrones to the Three Kingdoms, it seemed pretty ridiculous. One story takes place in the fictional land of Westeros, an imaginary world where dragons, sorcerers and walking dead exist. Another is a romantic version of real Chinese history, with rivalry, reunions and scheming between three ancient kingdoms at a time when the rule of Han dynasty was at its lowest around 220 A.D.. However, both are epic and legendary stories, and just like the old Chinese saying goes, “heroes emerge in troubled times.” It is in times of chaos and war that heroes rise, and history, as cyclical as it is, proves that there can’t be everlasting peace, just as there can’t be everlasting conflicts.

The first page of the Chinese classic reads, After long periods of division, domains under heaven, tend to unite; after long periods of union, they tend to divide. This has been so since antiquity. When the rule of the Zhou Dynasty weakened, seven contending kingdoms sprang up, warring one with another until the kingdom of Qin prevailed and possessed the empire.

Other than having the Seven Kingdoms in common, both stories begin at a time of diminishing power. A king, who once held control over the whole realm starts to lose his sanity and resorts to cruelty to show his force. In Game of Thrones, Aerys II Targaryen, the last king of the Targaryen blood line, grew ever more capricious and sullen by the later years of his reign. He developed an obsession with burning people to death and coined the pretty unsettling catchphrase “burn them all”. Now take a look at the Three Kingdoms, by the end of the Eastern Han dynasty, Liu Hong, the last emperor spent his days indulging in alcohol and women, with no concern over the fate of his people. Numerous uprisings took place at this time across the kingdom, until later three military leaders simply divided the country into three.

Aerys II Targaryen (source: youtube.com)

Tywin Lannister and Cao Cao

While the War of the Usurper ends with Robert Baratheon on the throne, the story as a whole is still far from climaxing. Relatives of the king, the Lannister family, keep garnering political power and Tywin Lannister, the hand of the king, becomes the de facto ruler. He is the person that had it in his guts to lecture Joffery, the rightful heir, throwing in a wise though every now and then, “Any man who must say ‘I am the King’ is no true king.”

Tywin Lannister (source: wired)

Essentially, he is not much different from Cao Cao in the Three Kingdoms. As Han’s chancellor who later gains control over the emperor, he is often portrayed in literature as a cruel and merciless tyrant. However, history books describe him as someone who “can either be an able minister in peaceful times, or an evil hero in troubled times.”

Cao cao (source: koei.fandom.com)

Tywin Lannister and Cao Cao could as well be twins. Both cruel, in the way that they wouldn’t even bat an eye when it comes to removing potential threats.

In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
a lion still has claws,
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that lord of Castamere,
But now the rains weep o’er his hall,
with no one there to hear.

The song Rain of Castamere tells the story of House Reyne being obliterated by Tywin Lannister for not bending their knees to the Lions. The whole house was slaughtered, castles burned in the fire with the red and gold Lannister flag waving in the background. After that the rains would weep over the hall “with no one there to hear”. A similar butchery went down at the Red wedding. At Riverun, Jaime, son of Tywin, asked Tom of Sevenstreams to play this song for Edmund Tully, as a reminder of what would happen to his family if he didn’t hand over the city.

Tywin and Jaime (source: reddit.com)

Cruelty, in a sense, might indeed be one of the indispensable traits of a capable ruler in times of turmoil. The romance of the Three Kingdoms recounts an anecdote that is interpreted as proof of Cao Cao’s cruel and suspicious nature. Trying to escape from a warlord, he went to his friend’s place to spend the night. He heard the sound of a knife being sharpened next door. Cao suspected he was about to be killed. Out of paranoia and fear, he slaughtered the whole family only to find out that it had just been his friend’s son killing pigs to prepare for a feast in celebration of their honored guest. Explaining his actions Cao Cao said “I would rather that everyone was betrayed by me, instead of me being betrayed by everyone.”

Daenerys Taragryen and Liu Bei

As the only daughter of Aerys II Targaryen and last heir of the house (at least that is what she believes), Daenerys Targaryen has a rightful claim to the throne. Unlike other members of the House of Dragon, she showed mercy and love to her followers and dedicated herself to freeing slaves before losing her mind in an all too sudden turn of events. Throughout her conquest, her followers like the banished knight Jorah Mormont and one of the greatest knights of all time Barristan Selmy came to believe in her cause and stayed loyal to her until the end. Wise minds like Tyrion joined her side as well.

Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones (source: BBC.com)

It is interesting how she would call all the other military leaders from the opposing side usurpers, implying that the throne of Westeros was hers in the first place.

In the romance of the three kingdoms, Liu Bei, also claims to be a descendant of Han’s founding emperor and the rightful ruler, the novel depicted him as a modest and merciful warlord who cherished all of his followers. He would pay three visits to a cottage just to win the heart of an advisor who at that time was just living an ordinary peasant life. His followers firmly believed that he was going to “restore the Han Dynasty with a triumphant re-entry into the lost capital”.

Liu Bei in the TV series Romance of the Three Kingdoms (source: hanchao.baike)

Western audiences might have not heard of Liu Bei, but there’s a slightly higher chance they know about Guan Yu, Bei’s loyal general and sworn brother. Apart from being a legendary historical figure Guan Yu is also one of the most beloved and unstoppable characters in the latest instalment of the Total War game series titled Three Kingdoms. He was great enough of a character to be virtually deified. His stories “riding alone a thousand li (Chinese unit of distance) to reunite with Bei” became a huge inspiration for many a future generation. He, as the god of war, is the best warrior in history and embodies such traditional Chinese virtues as loyalty and honor.

Guan Yu, the god of war in the three kingdoms (source: w3guo.com)

You don’t need to try hard to find other similarities either, almost all characters somehow have a parallel in the other story.

The heroes of our time

My favorite scene in the Three Kingdoms will always be the one where Cao Cao and Liu Bei sit down to have an “epoch-making” conversation. “Who do you think are the heroes of our time?” Cao asks, while sipping liquor and enjoying green plums. Bei listed a few army leaders and warlords randomly, which were all disregarded by Cao.

“These “nobodies”, why mention them?” Cao says scornfully.

“Who can be called heroes then?” Bei asks. Cao points his fingers at Bei first, and then to himself, “The heroes of our times are only you and me!” At that very moment, rain starts to pour down accompanied by lightening and thunder.

Cao cao and Liu Bei (source: internet)

Similarly, Game of Thrones left me in awe after the scene where Jaime finally meets the dragon queen. The scene feels bizarre, to say the least. I found myself wondering, if these opposing sides had it in them to put their allegiances aside, and discuss more pressing matters like, say, the survival of the human race, rather than fixating on old family grudges. Indeed, he stayed her father, but they were going to join forces in the greater war anyway.

Tyrants, usurpers, heroes – no matter who has the righteous cause, there has to be one winner. In the end, as the TV show goes, the dragon queen realizes her great ambition of recovering her father’s legacy, but fails to stay sane dealing with so much power. Yet, in the romance of the Three Kingdoms, all three great military leaders, Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan all die consecutively, with Cao’s chancellor Sima Yi under Cao’s regime betraying his lord and taking the power. There is no such thing as a conclusive win or loss.

After long periods of division, domains under heaven, tend to unite; after long periods of union, they tend to divide”. To me, Games of Thrones is more of a romanticized depiction of European history. What is west of Westeros, the characters don’t know, we don’t know, but the world’s history, at some point, shares similarities in different continents. History will keep repeating itself, just in different ways.

Featured photo credit to pinterest

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