An introduction to an excellent podcast on the Chinese Classic 'A Romance of Three Kingdoms' and is relevancy to Korea.
Introducing a Romance of Three Kingdoms Podcast | Sundays in Peking
The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been. — The opening lines of A Romance of Three Kingdoms
If you’re a ‘North Korea watcher’, interested in inter-Korean affairs, or international affairs in the wider East Asia and haven’t read A Romance of Three Kingdoms (三國演義 ｜삼국연의), then stop whatever you are doing. You probably shouldn’t be commenting on East Asia or North Korea unless you have read it. And get reading! You’ll be reading for a while, since Three Kingdoms or ROTK — as it is commonly abbreviated in English — in translations the story is over 2000 pages long and jam-packed with palace intrigue, wars, strategy, subterfuge, power politics, heroism, betrayal, and much more!
Three Kingdoms is one of China’s six Classic Novels, which also include the fantastic Journey to the West featuring the Monkey King; A Dream of the Red Mansion, the penultimate precursor to the modern East Asian drama; and The Plum in the Golden Vase, a massive medieval pornographic novel in which the main character dies from too much sex (it also gives important insight into commercial life during the Ming Dynasty). Remember there is something for everyone among the classics.
ROTK is perhaps the most famous of the six classic novels. It depicts in dramatic fashion the waning years of the Han Dynasty and its collapse into three contending kingdoms — Wei, Wu, and Shu — which vied for control of China from 220-280 AD, a period known as the Era of Three Kingdoms (三國時代 | 삼국시대 ). A similar era of three kingdoms existed on the Korean peninsula from the first century BC to the mid-seventh century. Modern phrases like ‘One country, two system’ and ‘Korea is One’ summon these bygone eras.
Popular among generation of young boys in China, Korea, and Japan, ROTK is more than just a basis for numerous offshoot cartoons, card games, and video games (of which there are many) and more than just an exciting story. It is a primer to power politics and Mao Zedong is said to have kept a copy by his bedside and often quoted from the novel.
North Korea’s Kim Il Sung was no doubt familiar with ROTK. A worn copy of the novel said to be owned by Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Bang Sok, is on display at the Chilgol Revolutionary Site in Pyongyang. The novel is also available in translation in North Korea, including on tablets and cell phones.
Like Shu, the smallest of the Three Kingdoms, North Korea (and South Korea too) has and continues to navigate its way among a sea of global and regional powers — ‘a shrimp among whales’ as the oft-quoted Korean proverb goes. ROTK is full of lessons for playing your rivals off against each other, making and breaking alliances for political or economic gain, and mobilizing your people for long-term struggles. Sound familiar?
ROTK is a world in itself and one that will entice, charm, and inspire you. Imagine a cross between King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, Homer’ s Iliad, and Machiavelli’s Prince. Taking on the novel can be a daunting task with its myriad of characters, place names, campaigns, and dramatic scenes. I recommend first reading the abridged version translated by Moss Roberts for context before taking on the unabridged version in four volumes.
There is also an amazing podcast — The Romance of Three Kingdoms Podcast | Retelling a Chinese Classic — put together between 2014-2018 by John Zhu, a communications professional out of North Carolina, as a hobby. The ROTK Podcast aims to make the classic story accessible to an English-speaking audience and retells all 120 chapters of the novel in roughly half-hour episodes. Zhu has also produced twenty supplemental episodes related to characters in the novel. This is truly a titanic and worthwhile effort and comes highly recommended.
In our next post, we’ll post we’ll catch up with John Zhu with some specific questions about his experience making the podcast and some thoughts on the classic that is the Romance of Three Kingdoms.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.