The Kitchen Table #190 — More Stories From The Three Kingdoms
A few months ago I wrote an article about Portal cards that I thought might interest the casual audience. Among my card evaluations were a few stories and evaluations of cards from Three Kingdoms that I though would amuse the audience. It was a well-reviewed piece, and I received many compliments, specifically about sharing bits and pieces of the Three Kingdoms storyline through the Magic cards.
As you may already know, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the classic works of Chinese literature. It was written about the same time that Chaucer was penning The Canterbury Tales. You might know the Three Kingdoms through the Portal set, or electronic games that have been ported from the East like Dynasty Warriors. Three Kingdoms is to China what the Odyssey and the Iliad are to Europe. They are bedrock tales that the culture is, in part, built upon.
After discussing the Three Kingdoms with a coworker who lived in China for three years, she said that Cao Cao is often used in the same way that we might use the devil — in curses, stories to frighten children, and so forth. Liu Bei, on the other hand, is used as an example of what children should grow up to be.
If you have read the Canterbury Tales, then you know that although written in English, it can be hard to figure out. The verbiage is often confusing. However, a translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms into English, which should have even more problems, is much easier to read. A story written in another language centuries ago is more readable after translation into English than an English one. That’s crazy.
I set out to read the Three Kingdoms this past year. Unabridged, it is a four volume set around 2000 pages in length — about the size of a modern day Clancy book. It’s a lot of fun to read, and I advise everyone interested in world fiction to read it. If your education was like mine, you never read any books outside of those written in English. Your teachers would rather spend time making you read some seriously screwed up romance novel two centuries old (Wuthering Heights, in my case) which was too long and too wordy with two-dimensional characters at best. Or you may have been forced to read a book that is a mere favorite of the teacher and not one worthy of study. (I head to read Cry, the Beloved Country and, I kid you not, The Princess Bride). Instead of learning about Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you are learning about bad romances the teacher likes.
That is, if your education was like mine. [Both Wuthering Heights and The Princess Bride are fantastic books, Abe. You know nuuthiiing. — Craig, amused.]
I encourage you to pick up a copy of Three Kingdoms and devour it. You’ll understand more about the world when you do, and you’ll have a lot of fun reading it.
Today I want to reopen the old article and merely discuss some cards from Three Kingdoms. I will give you all new stories on the cards, and occasionally critique how well the card captured the story. I hope you will enjoy it, and hopefully it will give you a taste of the characters of Three Kingdoms.
Cao Cao, Lord of Wei — In the previous article, I told a story of Cao Cao. I am not sure that I would have made him mono-Black were I to print him in a modern set. I would have made him Black and White. As one of the central characters of the beginning and middle of the tale, there are a lot of stories about him. I will choose one that shows his White side, and one his Black.
Cao Cao was riding with his army through a field of grain at harvest time. When he sees the peasants panicking, he promises them that his army will not trample through their grain. He orders his army to cross the fields carefully, pushing the grain aside as they go, so as not to destroy the harvest for these peasants. The punishment for a person who destroyed some of the grain was death. As he was riding across the field, a bird from the grain flew out suddenly and scared his horse. His horse lurched and leaped out across the field, and it took some time to stop him. By that time, some of the grain had been destroyed. Without hesitation Cao Cao drew his own sword and made to kill himself with it. His advisors cried out and asked him to stop. He told that that he had to abide by the same laws as his men. They remind him that Confucius once stated that the leader of men cannot be held to the same standard. Cao Cao relented but cut off his hair as punishment.
Can you imagine a Black character doing that? A character solely Black would have at least argued that since the bird flying in front of his horse was an accident, that he should not be held responsible, and that his men would have understood this. Instead he sought to punish himself, and he still does so, despite the arguments by his advisors. Abiding by the same law you pass for your troops is very White.
Here’s a Black story. While fighting against the troops of Dong Zhou, Cao Cao and his men were running out of grain. For several days, he fed them practically nothing at all. He let this go on until his men were about to revolt, and then he killed his trusted advisor, who was in charge of grain distribution. He then displayed the body of his advisor and told the men that the advisor was guilty of keeping the grain from the men for his own use. He then upped their ration to the most he could afford, and they were happy. Cao Cao knew that if he just diminished the men’s rations, they would rebel and leave, and he would not be able to take out the tyrant Dong Zhou. By cutting their rations almost entirely, then raising them and providing them with a scapegoat, his army stayed together. It was cruel, and yet wise at the same time. It was very Black.
Therefore, I’d make Cao Cao a Black and White legend. Of course, they wouldn’t introduce gold cards to a Portal set, but I still think that’s where he belongs.
Zhang Fei, Fierce Warrior — Zhang Fei is one of the three Oathbrothers, and a main character for a long time in the stories. He is another character that should have had a different color. At least, he should have been Red/White, and maybe he should have been completely Red.
Zhang Fei was inclined to anger. In the early stages of the storyline, he was regularly plunged into battle, and one of the other Oathbrothers had to restrain him or go in and save him. Later, after being given command, he allowed his anger to be even worse.
While controlling a strategic city, he began to get drunk. One night, he got really drunk, and ordered all of his officers to drink with him. One, disgusted by Zhang Fei’s behavior, refused to drink. Zhang Fei ordered him killed. Other officers pleaded on the offender’s behalf, to no avail. Zhang Fei had the officer killed. That officer was Lu Bu’s family. Lu Bu was one of the greatest warriors of his day, and currently on Zhang Fei’s side. His hand was forced to attack Zhang Fei, despite their mutual alliance with Liu Bei, because of this insult. Lu Bu attacked and took the city. Zhang Fei’s anger and drunkenness caused the loss of the very city he was supposed to hold.
This is not an isolated incident, happening again and again throughout the tales. Would a mono-White character allow their emotions to control them over and over like that? That sounds more Red to me.
Liu Bei, Lord of Shu — Arguably the main character of the storyline until his death, Liu Bei is praised by many, both in the story and in real life. However, I question whether or not Liu Bei is as praiseworthy as you might think.
Allow me to tell you two tales of Liu Bei, and you tell me.
Liu Bei is separated from his army and his generals after suffering a major defeat. He doesn’t even know who is alive and who has perished in the battle. Fleeing, he spies upon a house. He introduces himself to the hunter and finds out that hunter is a member of the Liu family too. (In translating Chinese names, the family name is first followed by the given name. Sun Jian, for example, is the father of Sun Ce and Sun Quan.) The Liu hunter allows Liu Bei to stay the night, and prepares a meal with a tasty meat. Liu Bei asks where the tasty meat came from, and the hunter replies that he killed a wolf. In the morning, Liu Bei awakens and goes out to wash up. He passes through the kitchen and finds the corpse of a woman, missing her arm. He cries out and the hunter arrives. The hunter admits to killing his wife so that he could feed Liu Bei meat. Liu Bei cries in gratitude and blesses his kin for this sacrifice.
Zhao Zilong, who has his own card, is at another of Liu Bei’s defeats. Liu Bei lost more battles than he won until Kongming came into his service. Liu Bei’s family was being transported when the enemy attacked. Zhao Zilong plunges into the enemy and finds Liu Bei’s baby boy. He takes the baby with him in one arm, and then cuts his way with his sword through soldier after soldier. Killing many in his wake despite being one-handed, eventually Zhao Zilong fights his way back to Liu Bei and yields the babe. In a fit of anger, Liu Bei grabs the baby above his head, and moves as if to throw it on the ground. He curses it, saying something to the effect of “How dare you endanger one of my generals. I can have many babies, I can only have one Zhao Zilong.” Zhao stops him from dashing his own child on the rocks, but is weeping in gratitude.
It's obvious that family, loyalty, and honor meant something different to Liu Bei than it does to us.
Capture of Jingzhou — According to the card, you already know that Jingzhou was an important province in the relative middle of the Three Kingdoms, and that they all controlled it at one time or another. Liu Bei takes it and uses it as a base to capture the Riverlands (Shu). He promises to yield it to the Southlands (Wu) after he has captured the Riverlands, but he reneges his promise to do so by sending Guan Yu to control it, and having Guan Yu deny its return to Wu. Thus, Liu Bei saves face.
Later, while Guan Yu is attacking the Wei, Lu Xun (another character who has a card), who is really young, comes up with a plan to recapture it. The current Wu general will claim sickness and resign his post. The young Lu Xun will be given the post. Meanwhile, the Wu general will sneak across the river and take Jingzhou. Because he doesn’t fear the new general, Guan Yu withdraws most of his troops from Jingzhou and brings them to his war against the Wei. The Wu general captures the main city and the rest of the province falls, all with nary a drop of blood spilt.
When Guan Yu realizes what happens, he’ll charge back in, and allow himself to be outfoxed by the Wu again and again until he is ultimately killed by Sun Quan (another card) after being captured.
Zuo Ci, the Mocking Sage — One of the more interesting characters in the story. He appears before Cao Cao and demands he convert and study Taoism, leaving behind his responsibilities. He will openly mock Cao Cao in court, and will be unharmed by any torture and punishment that Cao Cao orders his way. Ultimately, Cao Cao will order his death, but Zuo Ci disappears. Hundreds of men in the city are found to match Zuo Ci’s description, and Cao Cao orders them all killed. When each dies, they let off black smoke that forms an image of Zuo Ci.
That he can’t be targeted is perfect flavor for him.
Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed — Xiahou Dun is probably the best general Cao Cao has. He is not the best general that Wei has, however. Cao Cao’s grandson, Cao Rui, has a general named Sima Yi. Sima Yi is arguably one of only two generals that can beat Kongming, defeating him in two campaigns. Although Kongming usually defeats Sima Yi, Sima Yi can surprise him. It’s good that there is also a Sima Yi card.
Xiahou Dun will have to do. He was a smart general and fierce. He became one-eyed while leading his men in a charge against the foes. An arrow was shot and hit him in the eye. While still leading the charge, he plucked out the arrow, and his eyeball popped out, attached to the tip of the arrow. He put the eyeball in his mouth and swallowed it, and continued to charge the enemy. Scared by this sight, they fled immediately.
Trip Wire — A trip wire set across the path was used to knock Lady Zhurong, Warrior Queen off her horse and then capture her. Kongming would trade her back to her husband, Meng Huo, for two of his lieutenants. Note that all of the characters named above are cards (Zhurong, Kongming, Meng Huo)
Three Visits — The significance of this event cannot be overstated. Liu Bei, after suffering many defeats, was told that he could achieve greatness with either Young Phoenix or Sleeping Dragon. After he hears that Zhuge Liang, also called Kongming, goes by Sleeping Dragon, he immediately sets off to recruit Kongming to his cause. As a noble and a ruler in Jingzhou, he summons Kongming, but to no avail. He then goes out to Kongming’s house once, but he is not in. He goes a second time, but Kongming is not there. On the third time he goes, and finally he gets a chance to plead with Kongming to come join him. At each step of the way, Liu Bei’s advisors told him that it was unbecoming to go to Kongming’s place, and to pealed with him and to go more than once. Ultimately, Liu Bei recruited Kongming to his cause, which began his rise to power.
Sima Yi, Wei Field Marshal — As I said before, probably the best general the Wei had, but Xiahou Dun was Cao Cao’s best. Sima Yi’s ability doesn’t fit his character at all. He is not more powerful the more land he has or anything like that.
To be fair, Sima Yi did serve Cao Cao, no question, but he came to his own later on. Note that Sima Yi’s grandson will ultimately reunite the Three Kingdoms.
Straw Soldiers — Many tactics of deception and misdirection are used in the battles of Three Kingdoms. One such tactic was employed by Wu. Overnight they built trenches, palisades, and straw soldiers along the banks of the river that bordered them with the Wei. The advancing Wei army, scared off, retreated entirely. That was one of my favorite tactics of deception, but it was not my favorite...
Empty City Ruse — Once, Kongming was caught by Sima Yi with no troops and no generals to defend him. He was at the captured city of Xicheng. Sima Yi had outthought Kongming, who had ordered all of his generals to attack and defend various places away from Xicheng. With no other option, he throws open the gates of Xicheng and has his few remaining soldiers dress as peasants. Meanwhile, he takes his zither to the top of the city wall and begins to play it. When Sima Yi arrives, he smells a trap and retreats. That’s my favorite trick in the story.
Eightfold Maze — Kongming sets a trap for the Wu to cover the retreating Shu army. Lu Xun smells out a trap when he spies various rock formations along the beach. He inspects them, but finding nothing, enters the area with his soldiers, whereupon they are attacked by wind and water. He discovers the trap and is let out only by the intervention of another.
Ghostly Visit — Cao Cao is ultimately killed in part by the specters of those he has killed seeking vengeance. Guan Yu also comes back after death to punish the Wu. Even Zhang Fei will be en-ghosted after death and both him and Guan Yu appear to Liu Bei shortly before he dies.
There is an irony about the card. It expresses how ghosts killed Cao Cao, yet that cannot kill Cao Cao because he’s Black. The card cannot kill the person that it uses as inspiration for the card to begin with.
Kongming’s Contraptions — When beginning an attack against the southlands held by Meng Huo, Kongming anticipated their use of wild animals against his army and he prepared ten wagons. Late in the campaign, after winning battle after battle against Meng Huo, he ultimately turns to another general far to the south who attacks using a variety of war animals like tigers and rides an elephant (the Southern Elephant if you please). Kongming unveils his wagons planned so long ago. Out come contraptions (in the shape of large animals) that breathe fire. The animals are frightened and flee so quickly that they overrun Meng Huo’s troops.
These would most properly be made as artifact creatures, but there were no artifacts in this beginner set.
I hope that gives you a taste of Three Kingdoms! See you all next week.