Sanguo Zhi

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The Sāngu Zh (Chinese 三国志, or 三國誌), variously translated as Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Records of the Three States and Records of the Three Kingdoms, was the official and authoritative historical text on the Three Kingdoms Period compiled by Chen Shou during the Jin Dynasty (265-420). The work collects the smaller histories of the rival states Wei, Shu and Wu into a single text and provided the basis for the later more popular historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


Origin and structure of Sanguo Zhi

Together with the Shi ji (Book of History), Han Shu (Book of Han) and Hou Han Shu (Book of the Later Han), Sanguo Zhi is part of the 'Four Histories', as well as the canon of histories known as the Twenty-Four Histories. The work contains sixty five volumes in all, broken into three books, one on each kingdom. The Book of Wei contains thirty volumes, the Book of Shu contains fifteen volumes and the Book of Wu contains twenty volumes. Each volume is organised in the form of one of more biographies. The amount of space a biography takes up is dictated by the importance of the figure. For example, Sun Quan's life occupied one volume whilst the profiles of Zhou Yu, Lu Su and L Meng were pushed into another.

The original author was Chen Shou (233-297), who was a native of Anhan of Western Ba. After Jin conquered Shu, Chen became the Gentleman of Works, and was assigned to creating a history of the Three Kingdoms. After the fall of Wu, Chen Shou's Sanguo Zhi received the acclaim of senior minister Zhang Hua, who suggested assigning him to the creation of the history of Jin. It cannot be specified the year the work was completed. At the time Wei and Wu both had their own histories and it was with these works as basis that Chen Shou began work. Since Shu lacked a history of its own, data was compiled by Chen himself. The Sanguo Zhi used the dates of Wei kingdom as standard after the fall of Han. That is, years are quoted by eras set out by Wei rulers (eg. year of Huangchu: 220 AD). The Wei volumes always name Cao Cao, Cao Pi and Cao Rui as emperors whilst rulers of Shu were called zhu (lord) and rulers of Wu only by their names. This is to uphold the legitimacy of Jin as inheritor of the Mandate of Heaven from Wei. The use of "lord" titles for Shu rulers shows in part Chen's sympathy towards his native land.

Pei Songzhi's Annotations

In the fifth century, Sanguo Zhi was annotated by Pei Songzhi (372-451), a native of Wenxi, Hedong (present day Shushan, Shanxi). After he moved to Jiangnan, he became Gentleman of Texts under Liu Song of the Song Kingdom (420-479), and was given the assignment of editing the Sanguo Zhi, which he completed in 429. Pei went about providing detailed explanations to some of the geography and other elements mentioned in the original. More importantly, he made corrections to the work, in consultation with records he collected of the period. In regard to historical events and figures, as well as Chen Shou's opinions, Pei added his own commentary. From his broad research Pei was able to create a history which was relatively complete, without many of the loose ends of the original.

Sanguo Zhi as historical record

The romantic and historical traditions of Three Kingdoms have been so confused in the centuries after the period that the Sanguo Zhi is an invaluable resource. Its information, although full of errors itself, is nevertheless much more accurate than the embellishments of later writers. Many of the political, economic and military figures of the Three Kingdoms are included in the work as well as those who contributed to the fields of culture, arts and science. In its nature the work is indeed a chronicle, much like those of early Medieval Europe. The text is bland and little more than a collection of historical facts. A typical extract: "In the twenty-fourth year, the Former Lord became King of Hanzhong, and made Guan Yu General of the Vanguard. In the same year, Guan Yu attacked Cao Pi at Fan with his followers. Lord Cao sent Yu Jin to aid Cao Pi. In the autumn, great rains caused the Han River to flood, Yu Jin and the seven armies were lost." From this we can establish reasonably accurately the flow of events and how history unfolded but almost nothing about society or elements of institutions or policies.

The amount of creative imagination used in ancient Chinese historical narratives - of 'fictionalising', is impossible to estimate precisely; but it is obviously considerable. The great historian Sima Qian employed this devise greatly and it can be assumed that Chen Shou also did this in his text. It is highly unlikely that various remarks which leaders or soldiers are supposed to have made in the heat of battle could have been taken down stenographically and thus many of them may be false. Take the description of Gongsun Zan's early campaign against the Xianbei, for instance. After a defeat he supposedly said "If we don't charge today, then it will be a offense until death" and charged into the enemy ranks. Nevertheless, some of the dialogue seems to be at least credible.

See also

ko:삼국지 ja:三国志 (歴史書) zh-cn:三国志


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