A white horse is not a horse, of course

I’m at the point in my book where I can’t fit everything in. So, it can overflow here! The “School of Names” (mìngjiā) is one of the also-rans of ancient Chinese philosophy— they didn’t make a big splash at the time, and unlike (say) the Mohists, they don’t appeal any better to modern tastes.

Anyway, perhaps their best known piece is 白马论 Bái mǎ lùn (White Horse Essay), by 公孙龙 Gōngsūn Lóng, which attempts to prove that a white horse is not a horse. It’s a little reminiscent of Zeno proving that movement is impossible: one can admire the argument and even be perturbed by it, but feel that surely if the dude believes it for reals, he’s confused at best.


Anyway, I decided to attempt a translation, since the Old Chinese (OC) here is not (generally) too hard, and because at least half of it is pretty amusing. It’s written as a dialog; to simplify things I’ve divided the lines into blue and red. My comments are in black. The original text and Donald Sturgeon’s translation are here.

If anyone wants to criticize my translation I’d be happy to take corrections!

Bái mǎ fēi mǎ, kě hū?
white horse not horse, can Q
Can it be said that a white horse is not a horse?

OC has no copula, but it does have a negative copula, fēi. (Wikipedia makes a big deal of OC not having a separate adjective class— words like bái are more like verbs— but nothing in the essay depends on this; bái mǎ works just like “white horse”.


It can.

Hé zāi?
what EXCL
How so??

Mǎ zhě, suǒyǐ mìng xíng yě; bái zhě, suǒyǐ mìng sè yě. Mìng sè zhě fēi mìng xíng yě. Gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
horse NOM / whereby name shape PT / white NOM / whereby name color PT / name color NOM not name shape PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
“Horse” names a shape. “White” names a color. What names a color does not name a shape. Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse.”

Zhě is a nominalizer, so if you see something like mǎ zhě you can take it as “horsiness”, or “being a horse”, or (as is probably meant here) “the concept ‘horse'”. You’ll notice  a lot here; it’s a factual evidential, but (I think) pretty weak in meaning.

Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ yě. Bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, fēi mǎ yě? Yǒu báimǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, bái zhī, fēi mǎ hé yě?
exist white horse / not can call not.exist horse PT / not can call not.exist horse NOM / not horse PT / exist white horse call exist horse / white SUB / not horse what PT
Having a white horse, that can’t be called having no horses. The state of not having no horses, is that not a horse? Having a white horse means having a horse; a white one, how is it not a horse?

Blue doesn’t bother to address Red’s first sally.  He makes the common-sense argument that having a white horse certainly means having a horse.

Qiú mǎ, huáng, hēi mǎ jiē kě zhì; qiú báimǎ, huáng hēi mǎ bù kě zhì.
request horse / yellow black horse each can send / ask white horse / yellow black horse not can send
If you ask for a horse, a yellow or black one can be sent; if you ask for a white horse, a yellow or black one cannot be sent.

Shǐ bái mǎ nǎi mǎ yě, shì suǒ qiú yī yě.
make white horse be horse PT / this number request one PT
Making “white horse” the same as “horse” makes both requests the same.

Suǒ qiú yī zhě, bái mǎ bù yì mǎ yě; suǒ qiú bù yì, rú huáng, hēi mǎ yǒu kě yǒu bù kě, hé yě?
number request one NOM / white horse not different horse PT / number request not different / if yellow black horse exist can exist not can / what PT
If the requests are the same, then a white horse is not different from a horse; if what is requested is no different, why is that a yellow or black horse is possible in one case but not the other?

Kě yǔ bù kě, qí xiāng fēi míng.
can and not can / it together not clear
Possible and not possible, clearly these are different!

Gù huáng, hēi mǎ yī yě, ér kěyǐ yīng yǒu mǎ, ér bù kěyǐ yīng yǒu bái mǎ.
thus yellow black horse one PT / and can should exist horse / and not can should exist white horse
Thus yellow and black horses are the same, in that one can say that there is a horse, but not that there is a white horse.

Shì bái mǎ zhī fēi mǎ, shěn yǐ!
correct white horse it not horse / indeed PFV
Indeed we have shown that a white horse is not a horse!

The quickest route to success is to show that “horse” and “white horse” are not the same thing. And they’re not; Red gives a real-world example where the two are not equivalent at all.  They refer to different sets.  In one sense she’s won: she’s shown that “white horse” is not identical to “horse”.

Yǐ mǎ zhī yǒu sè wéi fēi mǎ, tiānxià fēi yǒu wú sè zhī mǎ yě. Tiānxià wú mǎ kě hū?
so horse it exist color make not horse / heaven-under not exist not color it horse PT / heaven-under not horse can Q
If a colored horse is not a horse, then since the world has no colorless horses, do you say that the world has no horses?

Mǎ gù yǒu sè, gù yǒu báimǎ.
horse firm exist color / thus exist white horse
Horses definitely have colors; thus there are white horses.

Shǐ mǎ wú sè, yǒu mǎ rú yǐ ěr, ān qǔ bái mǎ?
correct horse no color / exist horse if stop only / safe seek white horse
If horses had no color, then only “horses” exist; how could you look for a white horse?

Gù bái zhě fēi mǎ yě.
then white NOM not horse PT
Thus a white one is not a horse.

Bái mǎ zhě, mǎ yǔ bái yě; mǎ yǔ bái mǎ yě, gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ yě.
white horse NOM / horse give white PT / horse give white horse PT / thus say / white horse not horse PT
A white horse is horse-and-white, horse-and-white-horse. Thus I say, a white horse is not a horse.

Blue doesn’t seem to understand (or just ignores) Red’s point. He keeps insisting on the point that if you have a white horse, you have a horse.  But that doesn’t prove much— you could equally say that if you have a white horse, you have a mammal.  A horse is-a (is a member of the category) mammal, but “horse” and “mammal” are different concepts.  Red says as much in the last line— “white-horse” and “horse” are two different concepts.

Neat word derivation: Tiānxià “(what is) under heaven” = “the earth”.

Translators: always remember OC is trying to play gotcha with you. In this case it uses 耳 ěr which is usually ‘ear’, but in this case means ‘only’. Similarly 足 zú is normally ‘foot’ but sometimes means ‘enough’.

Mǎ wèi yǔ bái wéi mǎ, bái wèi yǔ mǎ wèi bái.
horse not.yet with white make horse / white not.yet with horse make white.
A ‘horse’ not yet with ‘white’ makes a horse; ‘white’ not yet with a ‘horse’ makes white.

Hé mǎ yǔ bái, fù míng bái mǎ.
join horse with white / double name white horse
Combining horse and white is the compound name “white horse”.

Shì xiāng yǔ yǐ bù xiāng yǔ wéi míng, wèi kě.
this appear and with not appear with make name / not can
(This is to use an uncombined name for a combined thing, and is inadmissible.)

Gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ wèi kě.
thus say / white horse not horse not can
Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse” cannot be.

I give Sturgeon’s translation for one sentence as I couldn’t figure it out.  I’m also not sure what Blue is saying, except that he’s trying to point out that “white horse” is a combination of concepts.  What we’d like him to say is that A^B implies A, but he still wants to deny Red’s contention.

Yǐ “yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ”, wèi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu huáng mǎ, kě hū?
with “exist white horse make exist horse” / mean exist white horse make exist yellow horse / can Q
Given “having a white horse is having a horse”, does that mean having a white horse is having a yellow horse?

Wèi kě
not can.
It isn’t.

Yǐ yǒu mǎ wèi yì yǒu huáng mǎ, shì yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ yě; yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ, shì yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ.
use exist horse make use exist yellow horse / this different yellow horse to horse PT / different yellow horse with horse / this with yellow horse make not horse
Given “having a horse is having a yellow horse”, then a yellow horse is different from a horse; if a yellow horse is different from a horse, then a yellow horse doesn’t serve as a horse.

Yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ, ér yǐ bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, cǐ fēi zhě rù chí ér guān guǒ yì chù, cǐ tiānxià zhī bèi yán luàn cí yě.
use yellow horse make not horse / and use white horse make exist horse / this fly NOM enter pond and coffin outer.coffin different place / this heaven-under it perverse speak disorderly phrasing PT
To take yellow horses as not horses, and yet take white horses as being horses, is to have flying things in the water and the inner and outer coffins in different places; this is perverse and random speaking.

To be honest I’m kind of tired of Red and her horses.  She is perfectly willing to make deductions about horses and colored horses like a normal person (note that she never says that yellow and brown horses are not horses).  It’s clear that the classes are different, but let’s move on and understand how they’re related. (To put it another way: if you point out that there are problems with ‘(not) be’, you’re probably right, and the solution is to be more precise.)

Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, lí bái zhī wèi yě.
exist white horse / not can name not horse NOM / leave white it call PT
Having a white horse cannot be called having no horses; this is called separating out whiteness.

Bù lí zhě yǒu bái mǎ bù kě wèi yǒu mǎ yě.
not leave NOM exist white horse not can call exist horse PT
Without separating it, having a white horse can’t be called having a horse.

Gù suǒyǐ wéi yǒu mǎ zhě, dú yǐ mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ ěr, fēi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ.
thus thereby make exist horse NOM / alone with horse make exist horse only / wrong exist white horse make exist horse
Thus why it’s taken as having horses, it’s only because horses make for having horses, and it’s incorrect to say that having a white horse makes for having horses.

Gù qí wèi yǒu mǎ yě, bù kěyǐ wèi mǎ mǎ yě.
thus it make exist horse PT / not can make horse horse PT
Thus if it’s taking as having horses, you can’t call a horse a horse.

Not sure I follow Blue’s point, but let me point out the interesting word 为 wéi. The root meaning is “make, do”; in Dàoism they highly value 无为 “not-doing”.  You can also use it in the sense of “act as, fulfill a role”, which is how I think it’s being used here.  And that in turn is not far from being a copula “be”.  Though in fact that’s not where Mandarin’s copula comes from… it comes from 是 shì ‘this’.

Bái zhě bù dìng suǒ bái, wàng zhī ér kě yě.
white NOM not settle SUB white / forget it and can PT
Whiteness does not determine what is white— this can be neglected.

Bái mǎ zhě, yán bái dìng suǒ bái yě.
white horse NOM / speak white settle SUB white PT
“White horse” speaks of whiteness determining what is white.

Dìng suǒ bái zhě, fēi bái yě.
settle SUB white NOM / not white PT
What determines what is white, is not whiteness.

Mǎ zhě, wú qù qǔ yú sè, gù huáng, hēi jiē suǒyǐ yīng.
horse NOM / not go take to color / thus yellow black all therefore accept
“Horse” does not specify a color; thus a yellow or black horse is acceptable.

Bái mǎ zhě, yǒu qù qǔ yú sè, huáng, hēimǎ jiē suǒyǐ sè qù, gù wéi bái mǎ dú kěyǐ yīng ěr.
white horse NOM / exist go take to color / yellow black all therefore color leave / therefore only white horse alone can accept only
“White horse” does specify a color; thus yellow and black are removed by their color; only a white horse can be accepted.

Wú qù zhě fēi yǒu qù yě; gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
not go NOM not exist go PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
What is not excluded is not what is excluded; therefore I say “A white horse is not a horse.”

Again pointing out differences in behavior or implication between “white horse” and “horse”.  I thought we’d established that a few bamboo strips ago, but you can never have enough supporting arguments in philosophy.  Blue apparently backs away slowly at this point— we never learn if he was convinced.


Neptune’s Brood

Charles Stross is my favorite living sf author, so I was happy to finally get a copy of Neptune’s Brood. In fact I foolishly decided to finish it last night, so I ended up with four hours of sleep, countered by buckets of caffein.


It’s a sequel to Saturn’s Children, but set something like 4000 years later… which means it’s effectively a new creation. The characters are no longer androids but metahumans— the difference between machine and human has greatly eroded. The heroine, Krina, is made of metal and computers, but she breathes and eats and presumably excretes, she certainly has no problem with emotions, she can have sex, and though Stross has fun with the details of non-biological life, little in the plot depends on them (unlike the earlier book).

What the book turns out to be about is debt. It begins with a quote from David Graeber and this is not accidental. Stross talks about “fast money”, “medium money”, and “slow money”. Fast money is liquid cash and credit as we know it. Medium money is basically land and other long-term stores of value. Slow money is, well, even more long-term. It’s a currency designed an interstellar civilization that doesn’t have FTL. As transactions have to be confirmed by two interstellar banks, it’s very long-term, non-liquid, stable, and safe. Slow money is essentially an artifact of space colonization: the process is so expensive that a colony starts out in enormous debt, which can generally be paid off only in millennia— or by starting a colony of one’s own.

Krina is a banking historian, with a specialty in fraud. She moves to a system named Dojima (this is done by beaming her brain-state and downloading it into a new body) to do research and find out what happened to her missing sister, and almost immediately get caught up with a) a stalker trying to kill her, b) the Church of the Fragile, an organization dedicated to preserving biological humans, despite their comic in adaptation to modern life; c) an association of pirate underwriters. The last group is the most interesting… they do things like aggressively investigate insurance fraud, and audit cargos not to steal them but to do market interventions based on them. (Within a system, travel takes months but information travels in hours, so knowing what’s on a ship is valuable information.)

More details would either be spoilery or confusing. The plot is headlong and twisty. It all fits together pretty well, even if Krina is a bit more passive that the usual Stross protagonist.

As world building, it’s fantastic. Stross calls the book a “space opera”, which more or less means that he doesn’t want to be hassled if the science isn’t 100% plausible; but in fact there’s really nothing magical about his tech. He creates one exotic and fascinating environment after another, and Krina has to adapt to each one in turn. (At one point she become a mermaid. That might be a bit of a spoiler, but it’s on the damn cover.)

You can see why Stross is Paul Krugman’s favorite sf author: he takes problems of economics, money, and debt seriously. Krina, for instance, is instantiated as a slave— that is, she’s basically a clone of her mother, and forced to work for years to earn her freedom. This isn’t simply a bit of far-futuristic oomph; it’s actually straight Graeber, and relates to the main theme of the book: what debt does to people and societies.

I have a few quibbles, mostly related to narrative. It’s a long convention in first person novels that no one really explains why they’re writing out their story, but I think Krina is particularly messy here. She explains things that should be obvious in her world, she talks as if she’s researched her own story but doesn’t really give any metanarrative on why, the book changes to third person in a few spots, a few things are sometimes told in a weird order, as if Stross suddenly realized he needed to give some backstory to an event but didn’t feel like rewriting earlier bits.

Except in the Laundry novels, I think Stross has an ongoing problem making his antagonists smart enough. Of course we want the heroine to be smarter and later threats to be larger than earlier ones, but some of the antagonists here end up being just not very clever or dangerous.

It could be argued that Stross underestimates “Fragiles”— biological life— and overestimates how stable and durable metal and electronics are. Once you can play with genes like Javascript, who knows what limits biological transhumans have? But of course this isn’t a prediction of future development; it’s just a given of this universe that civilization has become non-biological, while (as systems do) retaining the traces of its origins.

But these aren’t biggies. It’s a fun book, it goes fast, and I wish there was a Volume Three…

Three Kingdoms

This week’s achievement is that I finished the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This is Moss Roberts’s translation of 三国演义 Sānguó Yǎnyì, attributed to Luó Guànzhōng, one of the four great Míng novels. The Míng novelists had time on their hands and a dense writing system, so their novels are tomes; this one is over 1400 pages.

The title is a bit of a spoiler— the three kingdoms don’t settle down as such until chapter 98 (of 120). But the overall story is how the unified 汉 Hàn empire broke up, a dozen or more generals taking power in various regions, finally consolidating in a threefold division:


  • Wèi in the north, where 曹操 Cáo Cāo claimed to act for the Hàn emperor. His son Cáo Pī deposed the puppet emperor in 220 and seized the throne.
  • 蜀汉 Shǔ Hàn, declared in the southwest by 刘备 Liú Bèi the next year, claiming to continue the Hàn line.
  • in the southeast, where the cautious or indecisive 孙权 Sūn Quán did not declare himself emperor until 229.

If you look at the map, you’ll notice that the kingdoms don’t extend to the southern coast. The book has a wide geographical scope, but very little happens south of the Yangtze. This is because, at the time of the book, the far south was non-Chinese territory, unhealthy and occupied by barbarians.

For Western readers, the book is a little like all of these:

  • Herodotus’s account of the Persian war, concentrating on the intrigues and cruelties of dozens of monarchs
  • Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, where brawny knights ride around beating the hell out of one another
  • Lord of the Rings, which after all is the moralized story of a war, with light supernatural incursions
  • Shakespeare’s history plays— national drama turned into the literal kind
  • The Three Musketeers, also a story of a cunning but ultimately amoral prime minister, and a relatively lowly group which has sworn to defend each other and the King

What three kingdoms?

The book covers a span of 96 years, beginning in 184 with the rebellion of the Yellow Scarves; the emperor asks for assistance in putting down this bandit rebellion, and many of the later contenders for the realm were at first allies in this common struggle. It ends with Wèi’s conquest of the two southern states, and the usurpation of Wèi by the Sīmǎ clan, reuniting China under the 晋 Jìn dynasty. “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has even been,” the novel proclaims.

The novel is closely based on history, especially the Sānguózhì, written soon after the Jìn unification. But a thousand years had produced more histories and commentaries, and above all the development of legends and plays based on the Three Kingdoms. The novel is far longer than the Sānguózhì and, though it tones down the supernatural elements of the plays, retains what had become the received interpretation of the period: Cáo Cāo was a cunning traitor, Liú Bèi was virtuous hero and an ideal Confucian ruler.

(Why did popular culture, and thus the novel, favor Liú Bèi? He was a natural favorite of southerners, and this achieved a particular resonance during the Sòng dynasty, when the Jurchens had conquered the north and a valiant resistance from the south was a matter of Chinese pride. The Jurchens played along by favoring Cáo Cāo, which helped turn him into a villain.)

Now, how do you reduce a sprawling century of war and intrigue to a novel people can actually follow? Well, in part, you let it sprawl. Roberts’s notes include a list of “Principal Characters” that runs to 115 names, and there are literally hundreds more minor characters. Whenever there’s a major expedition, Luó doesn’t just tell you the generals, but their lieutenants and the defenders of key towns. It’s the opposite of most fantasy novels, which reduce a major war to no more than a dozen personalities, ideally all related. But it’s effective— you’re not going to remember all those names, but you get a picture of the immensity of the historical canvas that few other works can provide.

The novelist excels at lapidary little portraits of the characters. Though they’re mostly defined by action, you get a strong sense of personality from even the minor characters.  (I also have to say, not a word is wasted. The book is long but nothing is irrelevant to the overall story.)

Heroes and villains

But beyond that, to make the story manageable, you identify heroes and villains. The majority of the book concerns the developing struggle between Cáo Cāo and Liú Bèi (who is normally called by his style, 玄德 Xuándé). As Roberts points out, the quintessential Cáo Cāo moment has him smiling coldly as he elucidates some point of strategy, or executes a rival; the prototypical Xuándé by contrast is weeping over the state of the kingdom, or the loss of a general.

Cáo Cāo in general continually moves up: at first one of many generals, he achieves a special position when he rescues the boy emperor Xiàn. He becomes prime minister, and makes the boy into his puppet; yet he retains till his death a scruple against actually seizing the throne himself. The novel always gives him his due as a master strategist; he’s often called a tyrant and usurper, but from his own point of view he is simply doing his best for the realm and reducing one rebel after another. He defeats his major rival in the north, Yuán Shào, and attempts to conquer the south as well— but never succeeds in doing so.

Xuándé, by contrast, goes through a series of elevations, betrayals, and reversals. In the first chapter he finds two allies, the lordly Guān Yǔ and the irascible Zhāng Fēi; they make an oath in a peach garden to support each other as brothers and to maintain the Hàn. Xuándé himself is a remote member of the Hàn imperial house, the Liú, though so long as there is an emperor he supports him. He gains and loses several cities— always being known as a just and kind ruler, but never quite as strong as his adversaries. In early years he is allied with Cáo Cāo, but the intrigues of the warlord conflicts pulls them apart.

Xuándé’s fortunes change— and the novel really hits its groove— when he meets 诸葛亮 Zhūgě Liàng, styled Kǒngmíng. At this point you may well ask, what the heck is a style? It’s an extra name given to males at the age of 21, normally by the parents. Men of the same generation would address each other by their style. In TK the style is used mostly for Xuándé and his associates, apparently a subtle way of indicating that they’re the good guys.

Enter Obi-Wan

A hero needs a wise, curmudgeonly mentor, and that’s Kǒngmíng. He’s living in a hut as a Dàoist, and Xuándé has to come three times to ask for him before Kǒngmíng even deigns to speak with him. (Cáo Cāo would never show that level of courtesy to anyone.) Fortunately they hit it off, and Kǒngmíng becomes his military advisor and eventually prime minister. One of the pleasures of the book is watching Kǒngmíng ply his tricks: an ambush here, a conflagration there, a seemingly vacated camp, a betrayal that it turns out the master has foreseen. Few epics are as concerned with the pithy details of military strategy.

(You’d expect the master to be an old bearded guy, but in fact Kǒngmíng was in his twenties when he met Xuándé.)

The first order of business is an alliance with Sūn Quán against Cáo Cāo. The latter had recently beaten Yuán Shào, consolidating his hold on the north of China; he advanced to the south with an army of 200,000 men. The southern general, Zhōu Yú, had about 50,000. To conquer the south Cáo Cāo had to cross the Yangtze; he had his men on ships, and as they weren’t used to the water the ships were bound together. An enemy commander approached with his fleet to defect. However, the defection was a ruse: his ships were dummies filled with oil and kindling. The sailors set them afire and escaped, letting the wind blow them into the fleet at Chìbì (Red Cliffs). The result was a disaster, and Zhōu Yú and Xuándé heavily harrasssed the retreating northern army. In history, this is a key battle (if you’ve read the PCK, I used it there), effectively ending Cáo Cāo’s hopes of unifying China. The novel improves it by having Guān Yǔ capture and disdainfully release the fleeing Cáo Cāo, and by having Kǒngmíng summon the winds which blew the fire boats into his fleet.

Next Kǒngmíng engineers a new territory for Xuándé— the city of Jīngzhōu. Technically this was part of Sūn Quán’s territory— Kǒngmíng explains that Xuándé needs to borrow it for awhile while they conquer Shǔ to the west, but this sets up a southwest-southeast conflict that would be fateful later. Xuándé proceeds to conquer Shǔ while simultaneously fending off northern attacks by Cáo Cāo. This is a little tricky inasmuch as Shǔ has a lord of its own, Líu Zhāng, a fellow member of the Liú clan; events are engineered such that Xuándé takes over the province without having to break with Líu Zhāng. (Not a few times, Kǒngmíng urges Xuándé to some morally questionable behavior. Though we’d all prefer virtuous monarchs like Xuándé, sometimes we also want a canny bastard like Kǒngmíng on our side.)

During this time, Cáo Cāo becomes more and more tyrannical, is named to higher and higher offices (finally becoming King of Wèi) and reduces what little power emperor Xiàn retains— even killing his wife when Xiàn attempts to incite a rebellion. Cáo Cāo dies in 220, and his son Cáo Pī finally deposes Xiàn and declares himself emperor of a new Wèi dynasty. In history Xiàn lived peacefully as a duke, but in the book it’s rumored he’s been murdered, which leads Xuándé to declare himself emperor of Shǔ Hàn.

History makes the novelist’s task difficult here… with a superhuman mentor, why shouldn’t Shǔ Hàn go on to victory after victory? The narrative dilemma is solved by having Xuándé ignore Kǒngmíng’s good advice— which is to maintain the alliance with Wú. The problem is that Wú had fought a war to get Jīngzhōu back, and during this Guān Yǔ is killed and a defector assassinates Zhāng Fēi. Xuándé feels he must avenge his oath brothers, and carries on the war without Kǒngmíng. It goes well for awhile, but then he loses a major battle and dies, just three years into his reign. That’s what you get for ignoring the master.


Now Luó has lost his main character and his main antagonist, and we’re only up to chapter 85. But he is seeking a thematic unity, so the book goes on, though the pace quickens. Xuándé is succeeded by his son Líu Shàn— who however inherits really none of Xuándé’s fine points, except for his deference to Kǒngmíng, who runs the government.

Kǒngmíng wages a major campaign against the Mán, the southern barbarians. This is a strange interlude. Westerns are sometimes purveyors of “Orientalism“— positing eastern states run by ugly primitive peoples who have a rude warrior culture, where the women are more sexually available, but who are easily mastered by Westerners. Well, the Mán are treated exactly that way. Theirs is a land of “rampant pestilence”; they have access to shamanistic arts and can control wild animals; women and men “mixed freely and coupled without parental prohibition”. In this section the novelist feels free to include more supernatural and fantastic elements on both Hàn and Mán sides. (It also features the only female warrior in the story.) Kǒngmíng has to capture the Mán king seven times before he submits.

(The Mán are not a real group— “蛮 Mán” is a geographical term, the barbarians to the south. The people to the south of the ethnic Chinese were, then as now, a mixed bag: Tai, Miao-Yao, Mon-Khmer, Austronesian. The campaign reaches into Yúnnán, which even today isn’t entirely sinified.)

He then makes several campaigns against the Wèi. He is full of tricks and victories, and yet makes two major mistakes. In one campaign he trusts a rash general who loses a major city (and with it the chance to threaten the Wèi capital). And in another he is outmaneuvered, becomes sick, and dies (234, or chapter 105).

As Liú Bèi is succeeded by a lesser son, Kǒngmíng is succeeded by a lesser general, Jiǎng Wǎn. He too attempts to conquer Wèi, meets with initial success, and fails to seal the deal. But things are not static in the northland. Cáo Cāo’s successors are each weaker than the last, and the general Sīmǎ Yì accumulates more and more power.

The end is anticlimactic, but thematically apt. A eunuch, Huáng Hào, was his favorite official, and he abandoned the careful and virtuous administration of Kǒngmíng. The realm is described as descending into poverty as corrupt officials rise and emperor Líu Shàn cares about little but pleasures organized by Huáng Hào. Jealous of the general, the eunuch succeeds in sidelining him. As a result, the Wèi are able to push into Shǔ Hàn, and a detachment takes difficult back roads to reach the capital, Chéngdū. Líu Shàn surrenders, in 264— chapter 118.

Now all that’s left is for the current Sīmǎ leader, Sīmǎ Yán, grandson of Sīmǎ Yì, to depose the last Wèi emperor, Cáo Hùan, in 265, declaring the Jìn empire. In 280 Jìn forces walk over the similarly declined kingdom of Wú, and China is united again.

The book thus makes a neat thematic circle: from unity to disorder to unity. Moreover, though the northerners triumph, the line of Cáo Cāo does not: as it had usurped power from the Hàn, it was in turn usurped by the Jìn.

(History marches on, of course. The Jìn did not last long— they lost northern China only thirty years later, and this time the period of disunity would last nearly three hundred years.)

Linguistic sidebar

Would it help if all these names had meaning?

Cáo is ‘class, company’, but mostly just a surname. Cāo is ‘manage’. Sīmǎ means ‘manage-horses’.

Liú has an old meaning ‘kill’, but it’s also mostly a surname. Bèi is ‘perfect, ready’; Xuándé is ‘deep virtue’.

Sūn is ‘grandson’, Quán is ‘power, authority’.

Zhūgě is ‘various-bean’ (possibly a transliteration of a foreign name?); Liàng is ‘bright’; Kǒngmíng is ‘great light’.

All right, maybe it wouldn’t help, but I thought it was interesting.

(Roberts occasionally translates names. E.g. instead of Shǔ Hàn and Wú, he has the Riverlands and the Southlands.)

It’s personal

For Herodotus, every political action in the Persian wars was driven by personal quarrels among the rulers. TK is almost as personal, but it has a greater awareness of logistics and statecraft. After conquering a city, the generals (even the villains) “reassure” the populace— they forbid looting, reestablish order, and confirm minor officials in their posts. The characters are aware that armies are supported by farmers, and that oppressive policies will ultimately undermine warmaking; Confucian morality also, of course, dictated that the virtue of the ruler translated directly into the strength of the state. Generals are very conscious of supply— Cáo Cāo wins his major battle against Yuán Shào by finding and destroying his grain supplies.

There’s a vivid depiction of the relationship between ruler (or general) and his lieutenants. Typically there’s a threat, scouts rush in with the news, and the ruler asks “Who will volunteer to ride out against them?” To lead a successful military action was a quick route upward; on the other hand, losing a battle was grounds for execution.

Or the ruler would ask for advice. If the ruler was truly undecided, it was safe to offer advice to make war or retreat or even surrender; but it was dangerous to offer advice the ruler didn’t want to hear. An advisor whose advice was continually rejected would sicken and withdraw— and that was if he was lucky; leaders felt free to execute someone advocating a contrary plan. (Other leaders could intercede for you and sometimes the leader relented. Xuándé and Kǒngmíng are unusual for listening to all sides without shouting for the executioner. Even they have to execute a few underlings, mostly for treason or inexcusable defeat, but they feel bad about it.)

One of the charming bits is the grandiose titles given to certain generals— e.g. General Who Conquers the South. The wordiness is not present in the Chinese: it’s just 征南将军 Zhēng nán jiāngjūn ‘conquer-south general’.

As TK depicts it, war consists of enormous armies marched to a spot and deployed, then champions riding out from the ranks and engaging in combat with lances. If your man won, your men would be jazzed and rush the demoralized enemy. I assume this is mostly for narrative convenience— as in Malory, personal bravery and strength counted for a lot, but most of the real battle undoubtedly consisted of lowly soldiers whacking at each other. But at least you get a lot of commanders, so it’s not just a personal struggle between the three kings.

Interestingly, it was an accepted principle that a general in the field could disobey his lord’s orders from afar. This undoubtedly reflected a premodern situation where the home base does not have adequate information.

Death and cruelty

Resisting the enemy to the death was highly admired— the enemy general might even bury you with honors. On the other hand, you could change sides honorably, especially if you immediately made a name for yourself by attacking your former overlords. To be caught doing this, however, was unhealthy— the leader would not only execute you but kill all your family.

There’s a fair amount of cruelty and butchery. The normal process for firing people is to behead them, but if the ruler is really annoyed he’ll have them carved up. One of the Cáo emperors, tiring of his empress, issues an edict “giving her permission to commit suicide”. As in Herodotus, I think these things are intended to shock the original readers as they do us. Chinese statecraft posited an absolute monarchy, but one mitigated by Confucian humaneness; tyranny was as despised there as elsewhere.

On the other hand, sometimes a different attitude comes through. One woman, in order to avoid a remarriage, cuts off her own nose and ear; her devotion is praised. Another woman, refusing to surrender to conquerors, bashes her head in against a pillar. There’s a very weird scene where a hunter receives Xuándé and, having no game at hand, butchers his wife. Rather than punishing this psychopath, Xuándé weeps at his sacrifice and rewards him. I don’t think any of these are intended as ‘normal events’— they’re above and beyond the call of duty. (You can of course find similar stories in Western tradition, such as the spy in Herodotus who cuts off his nose in order to make a feigned betrayal more convincing, and there’s a Catholic tradition of self-mutilation.)


There is not a huge role for women in TK, but there are some notable exceptions. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a courtesan who helps drive a wedge between a particular lord and his main lieutenant, by allowing both to think she would marry them; less conventionally, she does this out of patriotism, because the lord has taken over the capital.

Perhaps the most intriguing woman is Sūn Quán’s daughter, who marries Liú Bèi to seal their alliance. She’s depicted as devoted to the military arts, and her retinue of a hundred women are all armed. Liú Bèi is frightened to enter her quarters, but she’s actually rather loyal to him… till her father steals her back.

Lady Sūn doesn’t actually fight, but there is one female warrior, the queen of the Mán tribe— Lady Zhurong, who “had five throwing knives stuck into the gear on her back and an eighteen-span spear in her hand.”

Against kings

TK, while exalting the dedication of those who upheld the Hàn dynasty, makes a strong case against monarchy. Monarchy never works, really. In Chinese history, it’s fair to say that no dynasty succeeded in establishing peace and prosperity for more than 150 years, and even that depended on the luck to have a sequence of able rulers in that period. None of the Three Kingdoms managed it.

The novel (and the official history) blame the eunuchs for the fall of the Hàn. Emperors trusted the eunuchs, as they had grown up with them and they generally had no outside loyalties— so they made trustworthy officials and secret police. They are depicted as duplicitous and corrupt. Ray Huang suggests that the real problem was the landowners. Imperial China is the only nation which, for two thousand years, directly taxed individual peasants. There was never a permanent nobility which interposed between the peasants and the central government. But estates would be consolidated and rich landowners appeared. In theory they owed the land tax as well, but it was not hard for rich men to evade taxes, often with the aid of the eunuchs in the capital, their natural allies against the scholar-officials. (China operated with a very lean bureaucracy, and there was no real possibility of surveying land or even keeping track of changes of title.) The missing taxes would be levied on the remaining small peasants. Eventually the burden would be intolerable, you’d get peasant revolts and then warlords, and the dynasty would fall.

The most pathetic figure in the book is the emperor Xiàn, the symbol of the Hàn for which everyone is fighting. He’s placed on the throne at eight, and at one point has to flee alone from one of the warlords. Cáo Cāo rescues him— but there is little pretense that he will be allowed to rule. He reaches adulthood— he’s 39 when he is finally forced to abdicate— but he’s a prisoner in the palace, and even his empresses aren’t left in peace— Cáo Cāo executes two of them.

But Cáo Cāo’s own descendants end up in the same sorry state. And for that matter, Liú Bèi’s son is a disappointment, and Sūn Quán’s descendants squabble for the throne and weaken the kingdom to the point where a takeover is easy. The book makes a case that the successful ruler has to have the benevolence of Confucius and the canniness of Kǒngmíng— but that this combination is vanishingly rare.


(Edit:) A common trope in adventure stories is that the hero suffers some terrible loss, and that’s their motivation for saving the world.

Interestingly, TK inverts this. Liú Bèi does suffer a loss— the death of his oath brothers. And it arguably leads him to his worst mistake and the one that ultimately dooms his kingdom: he blames it on Wú and ignores the greater threat of Wèi. (This is what makes him ignore Kǒngmíng’s strategic vision.)

Summing up

Should you read it? Of course! I recommend starting with a general history of China, such as the one I’m writing. But the way things work is this: when you begin investigating China, even the dynasty names are exotic, and the individual personalities and events have little meaning. But then you start to make connections, and things start to get interesting. I read TK not because it’s history (a good fraction of it is invented) but because it’s a classic of Chinese literature. But of course it illuminates Chinese history. Names like Cáo Cāo and Liú Bèi become touchstones of familiarity. Plus, the Chinese have been fascinated with this story for centuries— no less than 10% of the Yuán and Míng operas relate to the Three Kingdoms story— and you can now access it in movies, TV series, and video games.

Will you enjoy it? I think so, especially if you like any of the books I’ve compared it to: Herodotus, Malory, Dumas, Tolkien, Shakespeare. Or, so I hear, that George Martin guy.

Judge Dee

One of the things China invented is the detective story, going back to Yuán operas and Ming stories, centuries before Edgar Allen Poe. The Chinese term is 公案 gōng’àn stories– gōng’àn can be translated “case file” and is also the source of the Zen term kōan– a koan was simply a case or story for monks to think about.

The judge pauses for thought.
The judge pauses for thought.

In 1949 Robert van Gulik published a translation of one of these, an anonymous 18C novel, as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. At least I hope he did. He went on to write a series of Judge Dee mysteries in his own name, and he translated at least one of them into Chinese, so could he have been elaborately pulling our legs? If anyone has proof that the text predates van Gulik, I’d love to know.

Anyway, the heroes of gōng’àn stories are not detectives but magistrates– officials in charge of a district, including tax collection, public order, and the legal system. Judge Dee is based on a real magistrate of the Táng dynasty, Dí Rénjié, who ended up as a high official for the empress Wǔ Zétiān (r. 690-705).

People can bring cases to the judge, or he can investigate suspicious incidents himself. He is all at once detective, prosecutor, and judge, can call any witnesses he likes, can torture them if needed, and there are no lawyers. There are checks on his power, though: his cases are tried in public, and the public could and would protest to his higher-ups. As these could be held responsible for his misdeeds, they had a motivation to keep lower-level magistrates in line.

This is not noir; Judge Dee is smart, scrupulous, and honest. In this book he deals with three cases at once: a traveling silk merchant who is found murdered; a woman who seems to have murdered her husband but denies it under torture; and a young woman who dies just after her wedding to a rich scholar-official. The cases are interleaved, which paints a more convincing portrait of the busy life of a magistrate than three short stories would.

Van Gulik tells us that gōng’àn stories often invoke the supernatural, and that he’s chosen this story to translate as it downplays that element. Judge Dee does get some help from a ghost, but this only confirms a suspicion, leaving him to find the evidence himself.

The judge is not above disguising himself to find out more information, but he also has four lieutenants. (The whole city administration reports to him, but they only do their normal jobs– his lieutenants can be assigned anything.) Rather as Kyril Bonfiglioli posited that you can’t get anywhere as an art dealer without your own thug, Dee’s lieutenants are mostly former bandits. They’re happy to work on the right side of the law, but they’re trained in martial arts and can mix with, or mix it up with, the bad guys.

The setting and different legal system make the stories intriguingly different, and I’d say they also work as mysteries. They’re solved with detective work, they’re pretty satisfying in plot and detail, and they offer a nice cross-section of imperial China. (The only case I didn’t quite buy was the poisoned bride. The solution is a clever but bizarre coincidence that doesn’t quite fit the reasonable naturalism of the rest of the book.)