Table of contents

Red Cliff 4

The heroes of the Three Kingdoms

We see Zhou & Zhuge talking about the war to come between them. They have no illusion that the alliance can last. They are alike as strategists, but they serve different princes. Indeed, Zhuge’s older brother served together with Zhou. We see them play music together, & their music is a call to war, yet full of the confidence that melody & rhythm prophesy victory.

They make their promises & agree on the penalty each would incur for failing: Execution at the other’s hands. But if they fail, do not they lose the war? If they lose, do not they die anyway? We realize they had already agreed on the rules for princely competition, which is why they think Cao a tyrant or usurper. Because now we realize the rules are simply not enough to generate trust or victory. This completes the hero’s self-knowledge. This generates trust.

Cao had lost his great strategist before the campaign, but the other two princes had great heroes in their service. Liu is the more remarkable prince, because he lost many battles, yet survived & retained his heroes. He decided when to obey another prince & when to fight. His captains never doubted that he decided for himself. They knew he would prefer to acquire for himself than to serve another. Liu thrived by bowing to necessity.

Zhao Zilong, Guan Yu, & Zhang Fei are the heroes most famous for deeds of war. They fought for him all their lives. All the heroes started as volunteers enforcing imperial order against the Yellow Turbans rebels. Liu’s alliance with Sun helped him conquer a kingdom for himself. But Liu then broke the alliance & attacked Sun, who had been too trusting with land & military support, against Zhou’s cautious hostility.

Sun was nevertheless the most successful of the three princes, because he chose great generals & advisers. A mere boy when his warlike brother was assassinated, he was served by his brother’s war & peace advisers because they believed he could rise to rule. He learned he could rule by them. He shared all his powers with the great Zhou, but the hero died soon after the battle that created the three kingdoms, preparing a war north of the Yangtze, to destroy Cao.

Zhou was replaced by a very competent general, who defeated Liu & brought him to his death, & himself took the heads of Guan & Zhang. Zhuge alone survived in Liu’s state; he prudently avoided war with Sun. He taught Liu’s heir to make peace again with Sun & rather turn to attack Cao’s heirs in the North. He never acquired much land, but he kept his losses small & his armies strong.