1 A 3 O R N

Three Kingdoms

by Luo Guanzhong

Created: 2020-06-30
Wordcount: 0.4k

Three Kingdoms is a delightful book.

I should have expected it to be a delightful book, given that it is apparently the most popular work in China. Even so, I enjoyed it a great deal. It is what Game of Thrones attempts to be; a fun romp through the operation of power, the mistakes leaders make, and how even good decisions usually have some bad consequences.

What I most enjoyed is the book's perspective on delegating power. Power must be delegated, after all. No emperor, king, general, or magistrate can operate without the assistance and advice of his subordinates. Yet the delegation of that power is hazardous, and the book can be read as a series of anecdotes about how that can go wrong.

So the Han emperor is usurped by his capable and conniving minister Cao Cao, whose son starts a new dynasty and declares himself emperor. Before the end of the book, that dynasty is in turn usurped by the house of Sima Yi, who establishes the Jin dynasty, with which the book ends.

But you cannot promote incompetent ministers, to preserve yourself from the machinations of the competent. The novel relentlessly gives examples of how promoting those without merit inevitably results in disaster. And even Kongming, one of the wisest leaders in the novel, has difficulty identifying those with merit, at least once destroying an army by promoting the less talented.

But this is just the start of the difficulty of giving power to subordinates. Well-wishing subordinates can deceive you in order to bring you to do what they judge to be best. You must adjudicate between the advice of different subordinates, because disaster will strike if you act without consultation; you must adjudicate quickly and decisively, because disaster will strike if you take too long in consultation. If you treat an enemy well, you may lure them to your side; but if you treat an enemy well, they may come back and kill you for your trouble later.

Part of the delight of the book is recognizing tropes played straight, known to me only from garbled Western sources, and here presented for the first time.

Overall, I plan to look through it again later and pull out my favorite pieces.