The third example I would like to share with you is the historical novel Three Kingdoms, written in the tradition of the Spring and Autumn Annals which are attributed to Confucius. The historical novel of the Three Kingdoms is so important because it describes China’s tradition of political culture and the struggle to define its political form, transporting the reader from the highest councils of dynastic power to the lowest fringes of society, from the capital and key provinces to the edges of the empire and beyond. The novel offers a startling and unsparing view of how power is wielded, how diplomacy is conducted, and how wars are planned and fought. The novel has in turn influenced the ways that the Chinese think about power, diplomacy, and war. It is a tale of Chinaitself in its infinite variety.
While ‘preserving moral judgment’ in every turn of phrase the novel marks the ‘rise and fall of kingdoms’ in a grand sweep of time. The novel has added to this tradition by reaching the broadest possible public with its message. This challenges a reader to reflect on how his own conduct measures up to the standards of loyalty and filial piety as they are fulfilled or betrayed in the novel. As Jiang Daqi said in the preface to the novel ‘merely to read it but not apply [its lessons] vigorously in one’s own life, is inferior to [real] study.’
Three Kingdoms is placed in a time of dynamic transition. ‘Virtue’ (Dé), comes to force in the novel as the main qualification of a new ruler. Virtue, “a sine qua none” of rule, is ascribed to every emperor. But the word describes his character rather than the manner of his accession. If he comes to power by filial right or by election within the royal family, he will claim that his predecessors’ virtue flows in him. If he comes to power by abdication, usurpation or conquest, his spokesmen will contend that he possesses his own virtue and is thereby entitled to found a new dynasty because the sovereign he supplants has lost his virtue.
In the novel the main character Liu Xuande has been developed through his claim to succeed Emperor Xian. This claim originates from his lineage and his virtue. Liu Xuande bears the imperial surname, but he is not the only leader with the same name. To reinforce his claim to legitimacy, Xuande traces his ancestry back to Emperor Jing and his successor Liu Xiu. Liu Xuande’s link to the royal house opens the way to his advancement, especially after Emperor Xian acknowledges Xuande as his uncle. Additionally, Xuande has appropriate leadership qualities: a natural charisma, magnetism, called Dé. The force of his persona attracts and holds the allegiance of his associates, his armies, and the population he governs. He simply wins men’s hearts. And Xuande’s virtue is the higher reason why he deserves to rule, a reason transcending lineage or possession of territory.
The entire novel is a study of what kind of leadership is necessary to lead people through the times of trouble on a way to reform court and reunify empire. The moral of the novel explains that a superior leader is like water: it is not destructive, but slowly and gradually employs one’s energy to mold and steer people he or she leads.