As the video game, Total War: Three Kingdoms, gains popularity since its launch in May 2019, the topic of Three Kingdoms triggers the heated discussion again. As there are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes, numerous players also control their own favorite historical characters in the game to unify the ancient China. For most people who have read the novel Romance of Three Kingdoms before, Liu Bei is probably a likeable warlord for them. After all, he is definitely the protagonist in the novel, dedicating a host of space to depicting him and many other well-known characters under his might, such as Guan Yu, Zhuge Liang, and others.
In the game, of course we could control Liu Bei to rewrite the history. Let’s say we control Guan Yu to carefully garrison Jing Province, to prevent Lü Meng from seizing the control of this key strategic location. According to the Longzhong Plan, then we could send Zhuge Liang to lead the army to attack Cao Cao’s territory in the north, forming the tripartite confrontation. When the opportunity arises, Guan Yu could also lead troops from Jing Province to attack Wancheng and Luoyang. By doing so, we will be able to fulfil Liu Bei’s ambition, and the Han dynasty will be revived in the game.
Well, that is the end for our imagination. Next, I would like to talk about some cruel historical facts.
The historical facts are obviously self-evident: Liu Bei died at Baidi Fortress, and Zhuge Liang ended his life at Wuzhang Plains, who never succeeded in unifying the ancient China. The one who made it was the Family of Sima Yi, stealing the power of control from Cao Wei Dynasty. It seems that Sima Yi was the most intelligent and capable character during that period, because his family unified the three kingdoms ultimately. But in my opinion, that’s not true.
Indeed, Sima Yi excelled in the military affairs and politics. But the reason behind his success is the great support from the aristocracy and elite class at that time. According to the aristocracy tradition, the nobles could inherit their official posts directly to their offspring, leaving the ordinary citizens little chance of being an official. You may wonder why the emperor of Cao Wei didn’t do something to suppress these ancient elites. But the problem is even the emperor himself must take into account their interests when he ruled over his territory, because the power of aristocracy reached its climax exactly during the period of three kingdoms. The tradition of aristocracy in ancient China could date back to the beginning of Han Dynasty, and transformed to an irresistible force at three kingdoms. The situation continued until the Tang Dynasty when the Emperor Gaozu of Tang created the imperial examination system, according to which, everyone must pass the imperial examination to get a position of official, giving the common people the opportunity of fulfilling their political-career dreams. Thanks to his effort’s, the aristocracy and elite class no longer monopolized the social and economic resources since the Tang Dynasty, giving them no choice but to withdraw from the historical stage.
Although Cao Cao and Zhuge Liang served at different camps, the actions they took were similar. They all advocated for Fajia or legalism, resorting to the very strict rules and laws to consolidate the wealth and power of the state, and cracked down upon the aristocracy class, with the goal of achieving increased order, security and stability. The reason for their similar strategies is simple: they well fully aware the nobles would make some troubles sooner or later. They all dreamed to restore the law-based governance in the Western Han Dynasty. Unfortunately, the trend of history can never be changed by a single person.
When we look back at the history of three kingdoms, I think the history may not be altered even if Guan Yu did not lose Jing Province, Zhuge liang defeated Sima Yi’s forces, and Liu Bei succeeded in unifying the three kingdoms. Because there will still be someone else like Sima Yi, winning the support from aristocracy class and then usurping the power of Shu Dynasty from the hands of Liu Bei’s offspring. In other words, different people, but same story. That’s the interesting part of history. No matter what method is used, it’s still the same ending. You can go beyond everyone, even yourself, but you will never go beyond the limits of your era. The trend of aristocracy during Three Kingdoms cannot be altered by Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, or anyone else, no matter how hard we create a variety of conditions for Liu Bei in the video game. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus, it has ever been.