The Han Empire is dying, beset by insurrection from marauding Yellow Turbans. Three noble men meet by chance and find common purpose in resisting the threat of tyranny and ruin. Amidst peach trees, the men swear an oath to unite unto death in the service of the downtrodden. So begins the celebrated Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the fictionalised account of the real life founder and generals of the Shu Kingdom.
The man destined to rule the Kingdom of Shu was marked out for greatness from infancy. Those passing the garden of Liu Bei’s family home would find him playing beneath an outsized mulberry tree – the stature of the tree itself already having convinced the local community that this was no ordinary family. The precocious Liu Bei would compare the leafy tree to the feather-canopied chariot of the emperor and claim that he would one day ride in it. Coupled with a prophecy that the family would produce ‘an estimable man’, the mantle of authority seemed firmly on his young shoulders. In popular thought, the historical Liu Bei enjoys the reputation of being a benevolent Confucian ruler, largely thanks to his depiction in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Zhang Fei bursts onto the scene in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms after he hears Liu Bei breathing a sign, and immediately challenges him. “You’re not out there serving your country, so what are you sighing for?”. Zhang Fei certainly makes an impression: the novel describes his panther-head, round eyes, swallow-chin, tiger-beard, a thunderous voice and the force of a galloping horse. In the novel, Zhang Fei has a reputation for harshness among the rank and file, meting out draconian punishments. He is also a heavy drinker, which sometimes affects his judgement. Yet his martial valour and fighting prowess are never in doubt. One iconic scene from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms sees Zhangfei covering Liu Bei’s retreat by standing on the banks of a river and challenging the entirety of Cao Cao’s army to face him in battle. Cao Cao’s troops are suitably cowed and Liu Bei’s armies are able to get away.
Guan Yu would become one of Liu Bei’s generals, both in the novel and in real life. Celebrated for his military nous, Guan Yu passed into popular religion as a god of war. In The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he is spotted by Liu Bei pushing a cart along the road, before entering the tavern where Liu Bei and Zhang Fei sit and demanding a drink, as he’s off to join the army. Physically imposing, with a long beard, he is also described in the novel as having distinctly reddish colouring, with skin the colour of a dark date, red lips, and eyes like a red phoenix. This may account for the fact that he is often depicted with a bright red face in statues and opera. Guan Yu is often shown wielding a two-handed pole weapon known as a guan dao (關刀) that he is said to have invented, but this may well be an anachronism. Whatever the truth, Guan Yu’s guan dao had the distinctly cool name of Green Dragon Crescent Blade (青龍偃月刀).