The Kitchen Table #312 – Yet More Stories from the Three Kingdoms

Claim your territory at The 2009's State and Provincial Championships!
Wednesday, November 18th – In a review of Portal cards in article #168, I spend some time talking about the Three Kingdoms set, and some of the stories behind the cards. Later, in article #190, I spend the entire time describing stories behind the cards of Three Kingdoms. It’s been a while, but I feel another entry in this vein would be timely…

Hello my friends, and welcome back to the column that scratches your casual itch. Today I am going to revisit an older theme and bring back the Three Kingdoms set.

In a review of Portal cards in article #168, I spend some time talking about the Three Kingdoms set, and some of the stories behind the cards.

Later, in article #190, I spend the entire time describing stories behind the cards of Three Kingdoms.

It’s been a while, but I feel another entry in this vein would be timely. Let’s introduce Three Kingdoms….

Every society has epics, legends, myths, and folklore that make up the bedrock stories and analogies. For us, we refer to things like Aesop (The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Tortoise and The Hare, Sour Grapes, etc), Homer, Shakespeare, King Arthur, and so forth. Everybody has a basic understanding of Beowulf and Lancelot, Romeo and Juliet, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hercules. These foundational stories influence our lives, our conversation, and our culture to this day.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms portrays an era in Chinese history when the traditional Chinese empire was split into three distinct states at the decline and end of the Han Dynasty. It is generally viewed as the 100-year period from the Yellow Scarves Rebellion in 184 AD through the conquest of Wu by the Jin Dynasty in 280 AD.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written in the 14th century, and uses various methods to make this era glamorous. The characters are more heroic, the occasional mysticism leads to actual magic, and the celebration of several characters beyond the story, in an almost propaganda’ish way are all hallmarks of R3K.

It is one of the bedrock foundational legends of China. I am told that Cao Cao is used, today, as a sort of devil/boogeyman figure with children, and Liu Bei is still used as an example of rightness and honor. Phrases, ideas, strategies, characters, and situations from the story are used in speech and communication in China.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is to China as the Odyssey and Iliad are to Western Culture. Or King Arthur is to English.

If you decide to read it, let me tell you what you are in for. First of all, the unabridged story clocks in at over 2000 pages. Second, it is an easier read than you would think, because the translation is nice. Two things are going to get in your way — names and places. A lot of names and places will sound similar, and get in your way early on. In the first ten pages, you are already introduced to many of the main characters and plots have occurred. The story goes very quickly, with entire wars often taking just one chapter, and entire battles taking a few pages. The final 40 chapters are actually set in the Three Kingdoms era, instead of setting it up, and they go lightning fast.

It’s good, and I am very glad I read it. I feel much more literate, if that makes sense. Anyway, what I want to do is show you some cards from the Portal: Three Kingdoms set, and then talk about the cards, and how well they may or may not hit the books, and then tell you a story or two about the characters from R3K.

Balance of Power — Remember, if you need a map to show you where the Three Kingdoms are, to just look at the picture for Balance of Power.

Guan Yu, Sainted Warrior – In the books, characters begin to do heroic deeds. I talked in a previous article about how Zhao Zilong, with Liu Bei’s baby son in his arms, hacked through enemy after enemy in a losing battle until he had hewn his way back to his liege. There was a time after that when Guan Yu was separated from Liu Bei, and he enters the service of Cao Cao for a time, until he hears that Liu Bei is alive and in Yuan Shao’s camp. He tries to see Cao Cao to tell him he is leaving, but Cao Cao does not want to lose Guan Yu’s service, so he refuses to see him. Frustrated, Guan Yu leaves and takes none of the gifts Cao Cao gave him, except for the horse, Red Hare. Cao Cao knows that none of his generals can stop him, so he orders them to give him passage. However, some of them think that Guan Yu acted improperly. He kills Kong Xiu, who wanted to stop him because he did not have official papers. He is attacked by 1000 men, and kills Meng Tan and then Governor Han Fu, which causes the troops to flee. Officer Bian Xi offers Guan Yu succor and rest, and then ambushes him with 200 men, but Guan Yu is forewarned and he kills Bian Xi and the ambush fails. At a city, Governor Wang Zhi also tries to kill Guan Yu through secrecy and openly welcomes him, but his appointed lieutenant Hu Ban sees the morality of Guan Yu, and allows him through. Wang Zhi pursues Guan Yu and is killed. Finally, after reaching the border of the Yellow River, Guan Yu is challenged by Qin Qi, who is upset at being blocked, and cuts down Qin Qi quickly and effortlessly. This little epic romp through the Wei Kingdom is referred to as Crossing Five Passes and Slaying Six Generals. Yet, Guan Yu is just a 3/5 on the card, despite his obvious dominance of many others. (However, he is Riding Red Hare, which should give him +3/+3 according to the cards, and that would account for his awesomeness, plus he is Wielding the Green Dragon, an additional +4/+4).

Burning of Xinye — Also known as the Battle of Bowang, this was masterminded by Kongming, a.k.a. Zhuge Liang a.k.a. Sleeping Dragon. After leaving Yuan Shao’s service, Liu Bei entered the service of Liu Biao. He is given command of Xinye, but his brilliance and ethics attracted many followers. In fact, that is how Liu Bei ended up being powerful. He lost more battles than he won prior to Kongming being his advisor. His Tiger Generals and Oathbrothers and advisors were the best, because they served out of loyalty to one who was worthy of it. As Liu Bei gathered worthy advisors and respect from all, Liu Biao viewed him as a rival for his power and position, so when Cao Cao’s army came calling, Liu Biao sent Liu Bei to fight at Bowang Slope. Among Cao Cao’s generals was Xiahou Dun. Liu Bei set fire to his camp and then his men retreat to then south. Meanwhile, Kongming has ordered that Guan Yu and Zhang Fei have 1000 men each on the west and east sides of the road, hidden. Xiahou Dun ignores advice and pursues south, hoping for a major victory. Then the forces set fire to the entire area, plus hit the supplies of Cao Cao’s troops. As a result, the Wei forces are spread out, and both of the harassing forces of 1000 are able to defeat the Wei troops, and Xiahou Dun orders a general retreat the next day after several officers and many men have perished and the supplies are destroyed.

Borrowing 100,000 Arrows — Lacking a large number of arrows, Kongming has 20 boats equipped with Straw Soldiers and they approach the Wei forces in fog. Believing these boats and forces to be real, they launch volley after volley of arrows into the soldiers of straw, and thereby “lend” 100,000 arrows to Kongming’s forces. The arrows are then collected and used by Kongming’s forces in the Battle of Red Cliffs.

Borrowing the East Wind — In order to prepare for this great coming battle, Kongming realized that his forces would need the East Wind at their side. Therefore, he heads to a special altar, and begins supplications. After some time, the winds respond and he is able to control the winds for the battle.

Battle of Red Cliffs (Red Cliffs Armada) — One of the pivotal battles of the era was the Battle of Red Cliffs. The forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei united against the numerical advantage of Cao Cao. The forces meet on the water, and the allied forces of Wu and Shu win over Wei (although this is technically before Shu, Wei, and Wu form). After gathering arrows with Borrowing 100,000 Arrows, and then Borrowing the East Wind to help them prepare, their battle plans were almost complete. Pang Tong, “Young Phoenix,” is another of Liu Bei’s important advisors. He pretends to defect to Cao Cao’s side, and while in “service” he suggests that Cao Cao should counter seasickness by linking all of his boats in the flotilla together by chains. This sounds reasonable, so Cao Cao makes the order, and the boats for his 800,000 soldiers are linked together. As they near battle, it ensues, and Cao Cao’s forces retreat after battle for a day to a nice stronghold. Some fire ships arrive and set just a few of Cao Cao’s fleet on fire, but because they are chained together, the fire quickly spreads, blown by the East Wind, and the combined forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan mop up the forces of Cao Cao. Take a look at Red Cliffs Armada, and in the background, you can actually see a boat on fire.

Imperial Seal — Early in the story, when the Han Emperor is still around, the Imperial Seal goes missing, gets hidden, and is in the hands of several people, who use it to get their way, and in some cases, to control the Kingdom. Having it as a tutor card makes perfect sense, and in this case, since it was stolen, it makes sense as Black (whereas normally, I would suspect that a seal of authority allowing you to collect something would be White).

Meng Huo, Barbarian King — Each of the Three Kingdoms had different issues. Cao Cao’s Wei had to deal with the Ma Chao, Ma Teng rebellions. The rich Riverlands of Wu, south of the Yangtze, were smaller in size and hard to launch offensive campaigns from (but were great for defense). Finally, the lands of Shu, Liu Bei’s kingdom had barbarian raids from the west and south as well as less connected lands. In an attempt to turn enemy to ally, Kongming leads Shu forces against the forces of Meng Huo. He will attack various times, and will once win after unveiling mechanical animals (Kongming’s Contraptions). Kongming’s forces defeat Meng Huo seven times, and each of the first six times, Meng Huo, believes there is some slight, and keeps fighting Kongming. When he is defeated for the seventh and final time, he admits his shame, promises he and his forces will not attack Shu anymore, and he personally swears allegiance to Shu.

Ma Chao, Western Warrior — One of Liu Bei’s advantages over the others, as has been mentioned before, was his ability to inspire advisors and generals alike. He appointed five Tiger Generals over his troops. Zhang Fei and Guan Yu were his Oathbrothers, going back to the Peach Garden Oath, and were obvious choices for their ability. The third was Zhao Zilong, who had been with Liu Bei for years, and saved his son and was well known and admired for his prowess. The fourth was Ma Chao, son of Ma Teng. While in service to Wei, Cao Cao has Ma Teng killed. In anger, Ma Chao leads a major rebellion against Cao Cao. After assembling many forces, Cao Cao’s men and Ma Chao’s meet at Tong Pass where Ma Chao defeats generals like Zhang He, Wei General and others. Ma Chao assaults Cao Cao and virtually routs his troops, and almost kills Cao Cao personally. Cao Cao then uses a different tactic, diplomacy, to turn his foes against each other, and attacks during their quarrel. After retreating and entering a warlord’s service, Ma Chao and Zhang Fei will fight each other on the field twice to a standstill. However, Ma Chao’s card is a 3/3 and Zhang Fei a 4/4, so in the game Ma Chao never has a chance and Zhang Fei will always emerge victorious. After seeing this, Liu Bei and Kongming conspire to get Ma Chao to defect to their cause, and succeed, and he eventually becomes the fourth Tiger General.

The set makes the mistake of assuming that each country is aligned with a color, and all of its generals, soldiers, and such are as well. For example, they make Cao Cao Black because he is arguably the villain of the story. However, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, he has some strong non-Black qualities in addition to the famous quote that makes him appear Black “I’d rather wrong the world than be wronged by it.” The rank and file soldiers are certainly not Black or Blue simply because Wu and Wei were assigned to those colors. Not every general was Black, just because he served Cao Cao, especially since Cao Cao and had the (largely coerced) support of the Han Emperor. It would be easy for a White character to serve Cao Cao.

The basics colors are this — Green for barbarians, Red for rebels, Black for Wei, Blue for Wu, White for Shu. I’ve mentioned before that Zhang Fei should be Red/White, or perhaps even Green, but certainly not White. Similarly, Cao Cao should be White/Black. (although I admit dual colors not happening in Portal, and the simplification of characters and lands is okay, but it is a failure of the color wheel that you could not take a rich and deep story like R3K and fit the characters easily into the color wheel)

Ma Chao is the only one that serves a king outside of his color.

Yuan Shao, the Indecisive — One of the most powerful warlords of his day, Yuan Shao was quite important in the early story because he was the one organizing revolt against Dong Zhou, the Tyrant. Dong Zhou held the Emperor hostage, and was viciously controlling the land. A coalition of leaders and generals, including Cao Cao, was organized by Yuan Shao to take out Dong Zhou. The campaign against Dong Zhou included ally Sun Jian, father of Sun Ce and Sun Quan; Ma Teng, father of Ma Chao; and Gongsun Zan, an old friend of Liu Bei. In his service, Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu join Yuan Shao’s campaign, so it’s really a veritable list of who’s who, except for Lu Bu and Dong Zhou himself. The campaign fails, because Sun Jian finds the Imperial Seal, and Yuan Shao, jealous, moves to rebuke Sun Jian in public. The move almost comes to blows, and then Cao Cao and Gongsun Zan see that Yuan Shao could never be a good leader, and leave. Others leave the campaign as well. Yuan Shao moves simply to increase his power as a warlord, and ultimately is defeated and his lands annexed by Cao Cao.

Poison Arrow — At the Battle of Fancheng, Guan Yu was hit with a poison arrow and dealt a major injury. Needing the services of China’s best physician, Hua Tuo, Honored Physician arrived. Hua Tuo announced that the wound was deep, and offered Guan Yu some anesthesia. Guan Yu announced proudly in front of his men that he was not afraid of pain, and began playing Go. Hua Tuo opened up Guan Yu’s arm with a knife, and sliced into the flesh, to clean out the poison. He had to scrape out muscle tissue down to the bone, and then clean off the poisoned flesh at the bone. All of his men were affected by the sights and noises, but Guan Yu never even flinched, and just continued to play Go. Afterwards, Hua Tuo was honored by a banquet and offered riches, but he refused them saying that medicine and saving lives was his honor. Hua Tuo, Guan Yu and Poison Arrow are all cards in P3K.

Riding the Dilu Horse — Here is a quote from R3K:

Liu Biao said nothing but muttered to himself. Soon after he went out of the city to see Liu Bei and noticed he was riding a very handsome horse. They told him it was a prize taken from the recently conquered rebels; and as he praised it very warmly, Liu Bei presented it to him. Liu Biao was delighted and rode it back to the city. Kuai Yue saw it and asked where it had come from. The Imperial Protector told him it was a gift from Liu Bei.

Kuai Yue said, “My passed-away brother, Kuai Liang, knew horses very well, and I am not a bad judge. This horse has tear-tracks running down from its eyes and a white blaze on its forehead. It is called a Dilu horse, and it is a danger to his master. That is why Zhang Wu was killed. I advise you not to ride it.”

Liu Biao began to think. Soon after he asked Liu Bei to a banquet and in the course of it said, “You kindly presented me with a horse lately, and I am most grateful; but you may need it on some of your expeditions and, if you do not mind, I would like to return it.”

Liu Bei rose and thanked him. The Imperial Protector continued, “You have been here a long time, and I fear I am spoiling your career as a warrior. Now Xinye in Xiangyang is no poverty-stricken town; how would you like to garrison it with your own troops?”

Liu Bei naturally took the offer as a command and set out as soon as he could, taking leave of the Imperial Protector the next day. And so he took up his quarters in Xinye.

When he left Jingzhou City, he noticed in the gate a person making him emphatic salutations, and the man presently said, “You should not ride that horse.” Liu Bei looked at the man and recognized in the speaker one of the secretaries of Liu Biao named Yi Ji, a native of Shanyang. So he hastily dismounted and asked why.

Yi Ji replied, “Yesterday I heard that Kuai Yue told the Imperial Protector that that horse was a Dilu horse and brought disaster to its owner. That is why it was returned to you. How can you mount it again?”

“I am deeply touched by your affection,” replied Liu Bei, “but a person’s life is governed by fate and what horse can interfere with that?”

As I noted in the Burning of Xinye section, Liu Bei was assigned to it, so you can see that here in this quoted passage. You can also see the beginning of the Dilu Horse myth. It will help Liu Bei many times, but later when Pang Tong, “Young Phoenix” rides it, he is killed because of it, so it is not all good. You’ll also note that they are in Jingzhou, of Capture of Jingzhou fame.

And with that we come to the close of another article. I hope you enjoyed another look behind the scenes at some of the stories and characters that make up the world of the Three Kingdoms. If you enjoyed it, feel free to take another look at the two articles I link to above, and let me know in the forums, because there are plenty more stories in the epic for me to pull out.

Catch you next week!

Until later…

Abe Sargent