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"Should you wish to take the overlordship, you will yield the Heaven's favor to Cao Cao in the north, and you will relinquish the Earth's advantage to Sun Quan in the south. You, General, will hold the Human's heart and complete the trinity."
Zhuge Liang, to Liu Bei

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (original title 三國演義) is a 14th-century Chinese epic novel about the century of war, turmoil, and bloodshed known as the Three Kingdoms Period (188-280 AD). It is considered one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese literature — for good reason. This epic is renowned for its beautiful style, complex and heroic characters, and enduring motifs and themes that remain relevant even in modern society. It not only left its influence throughout the Chinese culture, language, and literature, but also spawned many, many derivative works in various media (some more derivative than others) throughout the world.

The tale begins in the last days of the corrupt Han Dynasty, showing how the government and Emperor lost the "Mandate of Heaven" (天命), and the land fell into anarchy, with various warlords carving out their own territories in a struggle for supremacy. Gradually, out of the chaos, three kingdoms take shape: the kingdom of Shu, led by the virtuous Liu Bei (a distant cousin of the Emperor) and his sworn brothers, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei; the kingdom of Wei, led by the scheming Cao Cao; and the kingdom of Wu, led by the ambitious Sun family. All seek to unify the nation for one reason or another, and claim the right to rule for their own. And so the three kingdoms contend with one another over the century, and heroes rise and fall in the strife, until the nation is finally reunified.

And, as you'd expect from a pivotal work like this, it's managed to gather quite a collection of tropes.

Tropes pertaining to the novel itself:

  • Doorstopper: 800,000 words and 120 chapters. Most publishers break it up into multiple books just to make things easier.
  • Dramatization: One early editor referred to it as 70% fact and 30% fiction, which is more or less accurate: Luo Guanzhong's sources included not only historical records, but period Chinese operas, poetry and folktales as well. Some of the most memorable scenes in the book never really happened; That Other Wiki has a list, of course.
  • Executive Meddling: The version used as the basis for the English translation is actually the 17th century version of the novel, extensively edited for readability by Mao Lun and his son, Mao Zhonggang. Wile the text overall improved as a result, Zhonggang excised some passages, sometimes lengthy ones, that dramatically changed the character of certain scenes in the novels. He even added a couple of passages, such as where Lady Sun drowns herself after observing the burning of the Shu army at Yiling (thinking that Liu Bei had perished in the fire), in order to cast her in the light of the romantic ideal of the Confucian wife.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: And as That Other Wiki also mentions, over 1000 characters.
  • Stealth Parody: Despite having been written to satisfy the Imperial guidelines, Luo Guanzhong managed to sneak in a few subversions on the nature of loyalty. Blink and you'll miss them, though.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Chinese are generally faithful to their adaptations of the novel; the Japanese, less so, with a notable exception.

Tropes within the novel:

  • Abnormal Limb Rotation Range: Sima Yi. (Though unusually compare him to a Wolf rather than an Owl)
  • Abusive Parents: Liu Bei's infant son, Liu Chan, was lost at Chang Ban, so Zhao Yun made a selfless charge into enemy lines to bring the kid back. So what does Liu Bei do? He throws his kid to the ground, pissed that he nearly lost a great general. The kid later grows up and loses the kingdom, and is considered by most readers to be completely useless. Probably because he was dropped on his head as a kid. In a major example of Values Dissonance, no one in the story calls Liu Bei out on this. Then again, he's the one who quoted lore as saying that "[b]rothers are as hands and feet; wives and children are as clothing. You may mend your torn dress, but who can reattach a lost limb?"
  • Action Girl: Sun Quan's sister (named Sun Shang Xiang in most opera adaptations - and Dynasty Warriors) who practices swordplay, has an entourage of a hundred maids decked out in armor and weapons, scares Liu Bei half to death on his wedding night, and scolds her brother's generals into submission when she eventually elopes with her husband. Historically, she raised havoc on a regular basis and had to be monitored by Zhao Yun. Not that she ever does any fighting, but that's enough ...
    • Zhurong is the only female character to actually fight. She manages to capture a couple of Shu generals, then gets captured herself several times, but compared to the other female characters (who sometimes regard themselves as disposable) she does pretty well.
      • Lady Wang, Zhao Ang's wife, also fought, both historically (in fact, she was the only woman to actually historically be recorded as fighting in that period, when she took up arms and attempted to murder Ma Chao after he slaughtered her husband) and in the novel, though that part's far less prominent.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: When you find an eunuch, they're never going to be portrayed as decent. Case in points: Huang Hao (the one who brought downfall to Shu by influencing the already Suck Sessor Liu Shan) or Cen Hun (stated to be the 'Huang Hao' for Wu's last emperor Sun Hao, although this is novel-exclusive).
  • An Aesop: The first part of Romance that any Chinese-language elementary student will learn in school is the "Seven Steps Poem", a story about Cao Cao's successor Cao Pi and his more popular son Cao Zhi. It's often presented as an Anvilicious fable about sibling rivalry.
  • Annoying Arrows: Guan Yu and Xiahou Dun - but Averted by the large number of characters who actually do get killed by arrows. And while even Guan Yu plays this trope straight most of the time, he does get knocked off his horse by an arrow, requiring extensive surgery to heal the wound.
  • The Archer: Everyone had to be at least decent in archery, but Lu Bu, Zhang He, Xiahou Yuan, Taishi Ci and Huang Zhong were known for their accuracy. (Heck, Lu Bu enforces a ceasefire between Liu Bei and Yuan Shu's general Ji Ling by bullseye-ing his own halberd from 150 paces away, and once Taishi Ci while participating in a siege of a castle and being insulted by a defending officer on the rampant who's pointing at the besieging army, pins the officer's hand to the castle with an arrow shot. Oh, and soon after his debut, he was surrounded by enemy horsemen while riding with a message but shot them all down.)
    • There's an archery contest in Cao Cao's new palace where five consecutive officers of Wei competing for a crimson silk robe all score bullseye — Zhang He shooting backwards, while Xiahou Yuan does it bent over backwards — but it's Xu Huang who wins... by shooting the twig holding the robe itself.
  • Arranged Marriage: A staple of the times, not uncommonly forced, but Liu Bei's marriage to Sun Quan's sister is a hilarious subversion of the trope:
    Zhou Yu convinces Sun Quan to do it as a pretext to capture Liu Bei. Liu Bei makes an attempt to get out of it since he's bright enough to realize the danger, but is compelled to agree on grounds of political expediency (and since Zhuge Liang promises to protect him). When he arrives, it turns out that the Sun family's queen mother hadn't been told — and Zhuge Liang, having predicted that, got Zhao Yun to publicize the proceedings before the whole town. The mother of the bride is prepared to exercise her Parental Marriage Veto (by letting the groom be attacked) despite Liu Bei's high reputation, until she and the "State Patriarch" (father of the Qiao sisters and thus Zhou Yu's father-in-law) actually meet Liu Bei and change their minds, blessing the marriage. In the meantime, Liu Bei is scared to death of his new Action Girl wife, and is stuck in Wu for a whole year after Sun Quan and Zhou Yu switch plans (deciding to keep him "drunk and happy" in hopes of dissolving his force)... When he decides to return, his wife is the one who proposes the idea of eloping, and then scolds four Wu generals into backing down in the course of their escape. And throughout the whole proceedings, Sun Quan and Zhou Yu are put through a massive Humiliation Conga:
    1.) Sun Quan's mother and Zhou Yu's father-in-law curse them for ruining the girl, since if the plan succeeds the story will follow her ("what man would want her now?!")
    2.) Then they curse them for trying to kill Liu Bei after meeting him and giving their approval (despite Sun Quan's mother having been prepared to allow the plot).
    3.) Then the bride curses them — her brother and brother-in-law — for trying to stop her escape.
    4.) And just when Liu Bei and his bride escape, Zhuge Liang's chorus line of soldiers is conveniently lined up on the other side of the river just to mock Zhou Yu.
    Of course, Liu Bei (somewhat), Zhou Yu and Sun Quan are all left holding the Idiot Ball, and Zhuge Liang wins... yet again.
  • Arrow Catch: Jiang Wei. See below for more details.
  • Arrows on Fire: A staple of any fire attack.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Following Guan Yu's death, he gets promoted to minor deity by a later emperor. But not before scaring Sun Quan by possessing and killing Lu Meng... who "fell over dead with blood gushing from the seven orifices of his body." To this day, you can still find altars to Guan Yu in many Chinese-speaking areas.
    • He's even in the Celestial Bureacracy pantheon in Scion.
  • Ass in Ambassador: Mi Heng manages to take this to the next level. Until he crosses the line and gets executed.
  • Automatic Crossbows: Zhuge Liang is credited in-novel with inventing these.
  • Badass: So, so many characters, especially Lu Bu. Scary thing is, Zhuge Liang himself (despite never having so much as drawn a sword in combat) may qualify as such, after looking at his track record...
  • Badass Grandpa:
    • Huang Zhong gets singled out for his advanced age, despite the fact that he can still kick ass with the best of them - and you have to be able to do that to stay alive for that long. Lampshaded when, in his first fight against Guan Yu, his horse suddenly keels over and Guan Yu lets him retreat. His excuse? "The horse is too old."
    • Later on, Zhao Yun at age 70 when he personally kills three generals and captures one, all of them brothers, in the same engagement and rendering an army of 80,000 Qiang tribesmen (working for Wei) frozen with fear, then kills their father in a second engagement and winning that skirmish too. The reason? "[T]he Prime Minister thought me too old and did not wish to employ me. I had to give him a proof."
    • Zhang He fought the Yellow Turban Uprising, which began in 184. During Zhuge Liang's fourth Northern Expedition in 231, he decides that Zhang He (fighting for the other side) is too dangerous and must die, and arranges for this to happen. Zhang He must have been close to seventy by then, if not even older.
  • Badass Cape: The "battle gown" worn with the armor of the time, wide enough to cover the arms.
  • Batman Gambit: Zhuge Liang, who shows a near-psychic ability to predict people's actions based on their character.
  • Beardness Protection Program: Cao Cao loses his cape and beard in quick succession after Ma Chao's men start looking for "that guy in the red cape" and (soon after) "that guy with the long beard". And then they start looking for "that guy with the shaved beard"... whereupon he decides to give up on the disguises and just run.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: Several examples. Notably, Guan Yu's subordinates Zhou Cang and Wang Fu after Guan's capture and execution.
  • Beware of Hitch-Hiking Ghosts: Mi Zhu picked up a woman in his carriage who was actually a spirit of fire, sent to burn his house down. His kindness towards her caused her to warn him of this, however, early enough that he was able to hurry home and save his valuables and his family's lives.
  • Blade on a Stick: Guan Yu's "Green Dragon Crescent Blade". He's the reason why the Chinese glaive is called the "Guan Dao" - even if there's no historical evidence that the weapon even existed during his time.
    • Heck, TONS of warriors in the book are decked with this kind of weapon. From the average spears and halberds (the mainstay battlefield equipments at the time) of your average Mooks, to those big fancy pole-blades used by generals (Zhang Fei's spear with a snake-shaped blade, Lu Bu's halberd, and Xu Huang's battle-axe to name a few) used by the author as a symbol of each character's personalities and as making action scenes appear more flashy to the readers, since most of those weapons didn't even exist at the time.
  • Blood Brothers: The Oath at the Peach Garden between Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu is one of the most famous incidents in the novel. Note though that they're not the only such brotherhood (Sun Ce and Zhou Yu are as well), just the most famous and celebrated.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Zhang Fei - and Subverted when he used his enemies' knowledge of his love for wine to lure them into a trap. (Unfortunately both before and after this, his love for wine — or rather, the Unstoppable Rage that could come about — did cause negative consequences for Liu Bei, the last one being his death when his last two victims had their revenge. That, and there's the time that in stealing Lu Bu's war horses, he single-handedly broke an alliance that Lu Bu might have actually kept.)
  • Burn the Witch: Taoists. Sun Ce hates superstitions, and Cao Cao just hates people who speak against him. As seen below, things don't turn out too well for either of them.
  • Call to Agriculture: Subverted, when Liu Bei had to share temporary lodging in the same city as Cao Cao, he deflected suspicion from himself by taking up gardening in his yard as a disguise.
  • Catch and Return: Jiang Wei (having accidentally spilled his quiver) catches an arrow fired at him by Guo Huai and then fires it back at the shooter, killing him.
  • Chaste Hero: Multiple characters either directly or by proxy in ensuring that their charges aren't violated.
    • The most fortunate to do so may have been civil official Mi Zhu (who served Tao Qian and Liu Bei)... since the woman revealed herself to be the Goddess of Fire and that she had a command to burn his house down that night. Thanks to her early warning, he kept his life, health, and his valuables.
    • And there's Zhao Yun, who turned down an offer to marry a beautiful woman in favor of serving his lord. Of course, what complicated matters was: 1.) She was the widow of the brother of 2.) a recently conquered vassal who 3.) had recently sworn brotherhood with him. Though it is not depicted in the novel itself, that move paid off later when said recently conquered vassal fled from Liu Bei, and Zhao Yun avoided considerable trouble.
    • And Liao Hua, who refused to take Liu Bei's captured wives for himself, killed his partner (who did want to take them) and then promptly turned himself and his partner's head over to Guan Yu. An excellent career choice, as he outlives most of the other characters — an accomplishment for one who turns up that early in the novel.
    • The probably most famous example is Guan Yu refusing to sleep with Liu Bei's wives while in Cao Cao's custody, as one of his three conditions for surrendering to Cao Cao was the protection of Liu Bei's wives. Then again, the incident — and all of his privileges — were attempts to sway his loyalty to Liu Bei, and Guan Yu was probably aware of this. (Later, when presented with ten maids Guan Yu turned them over to his sisters-in-law.)
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Multiple characters, especially Lu Bu. (It was lampshaded with both Lu Bu and Liu Bei; Lu Bu once saved Liu Bei from an encroaching invasion and told him, "I hope you will not forget that when you come into your own." When Lu Bu was captured by Cao Cao though, Liu Bei pointed out Lu Bu's past — and pivotal — betrayals/killings of his first lord and then Dong Zhuo. Lu Bu got the rope while Liu Bei got off scot-free... for a while, anyway.)
    • Liu Bei, though the book really tries to write around it, has this too. In actual history, Liu Bei was far worse than Lu Bu was in this regard.
      • Really? The only betrayal Liu Bei has done in his life is to Liu Zhang when he needed the land to oppose Cao Cao. Meanwhile, Lu Bu killed Ding Yaun and Dong Zhou in betrayal and have attacked Liu Bei that gave him a place to live while he was fighting Yaun Shu. There is a reason why all the warlords were happy to accept Liu Bei into their force for awhile.
    • Though Lu Bu is arguably more honorable then often portrayed in other media. Though he betrays several masters (which seems all to common at the time), he refuses to harm Liu Bei's family when they were on opposite sides, and even used his archery skills to end a conflict without having to kill a single man. If nothing else, he is at least portayed as a human character.
      • Funny, considering how after Liu Bei gained about 10,000 men to his army, Lu Bu attacked right away. He is arguably not a human character if he killed his step father because he wanted fame.
  • Cliff Hanger: Every single chapter ending, which fits with the oral tradition similarly to Arabian Nights (so that the storyteller could keep the audience hooked and coming back for more).
  • Combat by Champion
  • Cool Horse: Red Hare, said to be faster and stronger than the horses of its day (the Chinese term is "thousand-li horse"). May or may not go three times as fast as a regular horse. Either way, though, it's a stallion whose body and hair are entirely "glowing-sun red." The steed of Lu Bu until his death, then Guan Yu, who is regularly depicted atop Red Hare. (As an aside, Guan Yu is also described as being red-complexioned, which fits...)
  • Conservation of Ninjitsu : Woe betide any soldier not identified by name.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Guan Yu gets executed by the kingdom of Wu. Liu Bei, enraged, renews hostilities with Sun Quan leading to a disastrous military campaign and his eventual death after the failure. In the meantime, Guan Yu's ghost comes back to kill Lu Meng, the general who planned the trap that caused Guan Yu's death. And Liu Bei's wife - who is also Sun Quan's sister - drowns herself on hearing the news.)
  • Dark Horse Victory: The eventual unifier of the Three Kingdoms? The Jin Dynasty, founded by the descendants of Sima Yi - Cao Cao's strategist.)
  • Death by Despair: Zhuge Liang managed to irritate Zhou Yu to death. He managed to Hannibal Lecture two other Wei officials into a fatal fit later on as well. Happens to others as well.
    • Ironically, Zhuge Liang himself is victim to this at the very end, after the freak rainstorm at Mount Qi that saved Sima Yi's butt from a trap that quite literally took ten years for Zhuge Liang to be able to force him into. This wound up being the thing that finally pushes Zhuge Liang's already fragile health at the time over the edge.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Huang Zhong, Xu Chu, and Taishi Ci amongst others.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: If you think you're winning against Zhuge Liang, that means it's time for the ambush to come out. Other characters use this as well.
  • Disposable Woman: Cao Pi's first wife (AKA Zhen Ji in Dynasty Warriors) is apparently told to commit suicide because Cao Pi favors his concubine. (Cao Rui, her son, had a Calling the Old Man Out moment that we unfortunately don't remember if it's in the book or not.)
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When his father is robbed and killed by one of Tao Qian's officers who went bandit, Cao Cao raises an army and ravages Tao Qian's territories. Tao Qian only managed to escape personal injury thanks to Cao Cao withdrawing his armies when his home territories came under attack by Lu Bu.
  • Divided for Publication: For some reason (it's not like you find this with The Illiad or The Song Of Roland) modern publications split it up.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: Sun Ce crushed Yu Mi to death while trying to take him prisoner.
  • The Dragon: Basically Lu Bu while in Dong Zhuo's service, as his defection eliminates the last check on Dong Zhuo's rise to power and he's recognized as the linchpin that holds the regime together even moreso than the army and other officers.
  • Driven to Suicide: Xun Yu opposed Cao Cao's ascension to the rank of Duke. When Xun Yu pled illness to get out of being sent on an expedition, Cao Cao sent him a box like those that normally hold presents. Opening the box to find it empty, Xun Yu took the hint and committed suicide.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Dong Zhuo.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Xiahou Dun gets hit in the eye with an arrow - and eats it.
  • Eye Scream: (Xiahou Dun: see the above.)
  • Faking the Dead: Played straight by Cao Cao against Lu Bu, and by Sun Ce against Liu Yao. Invoked and subverted by Zhuge Liang: he really was dead, but manages to convince Sima Yi that he was only Faking the Dead to cause him to retreat.
  • False-Flag Operation: Done several times by various sides. Cao Cao's raid at Wuchao is a particularly important one.
  • Fear of Thunder: Inverted: Liu Bei uses it as an excuse to cover up his shock when Cao Cao predicts that the two of them are the only true heroes of the age.
  • Flanderization: EVERYBODY. The scary thing is, it's not clear which is more deviant from the truth: this or Dynasty Warriors.
  • First-Name Basis: It was common practice for men to take "style names": Guan Yu was Yunchang ("Long Cloud"), Zhao Yun was Zilong ("Young Dragon"), Zhuge Liang was Kongming, Zhang Liao was Wenyuan, and so on.Relationship titles may also be substituted for names. How one character addresses another one can indicate a great deal about their relationship.
  • Forging Scene: At least one Live Action Adaptation show Liu Bei and his Blood Brothers receiving their signature weapons after such a montage.
  • Four-Star Badass: Too many to count — generals routinely lead their troops from the front and meet on the battlefield. Probably the best example is Lu Bu, whose knowledge of military tactics and strategy, and in fact any talent he may have as a military leader, is dwarfed by his personal combat ability.
  • Gambit Pileup: With that many factions opposing each other, this is unavoidable.
  • Genghis Gambit: How Yuan Shao took Han Fu's territory.
  • Gentle Giant: Xu Chu. He was at least 6 foot 5, with a 52 inch belly, but he was known by names such as Sleeping Tiger, Tiger Fool, etc because while in battle, Xu was like a tiger, while outside of battle he was known as being simple-minded and honest.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Guan Yu's beard was reputedly fabulous to the point where Cao Cao gave him a beard bag. Oh, and when confronted by bandits, his taking off the bag caused them to promptly surrender and their leaders to beg to join him — albeit this was probably also because they recognized him for the Badass that he was.
  • Grievous Harm with a Body: Dian Wei's last stand had him using enemy soldiers as bludgeons.
  • Hollywood Healing: Huang Gai, who had himself whipped as part of a plot against Cao Cao as a Fake Defector. He healed fast enough to participate in the battle... only to get wounded again!
  • Honey Trap: Diao Chan, with Lu Bu and Dong Zhuo, the latter eventually coming to his downfall because of her.
  • Honor Before Reason: Following the battle at Chi Bi, Guan Yu trapped Cao Cao in one of Zhuge Liang's ambushes. But because Cao Cao had treated him well previously when he was in service, Guan Yu lets him go. (Supposedly Zhuge Liang had actually accounted for this when he sent Guan Yu, though.)
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Chen Gong, who believes that first Cao Cao, then Lü Bu are righteous heroes worthy of ruling the land.
  • Humiliation Conga: Meng Huo's seven defeats and Cao Cao's retreat from Chi Bi, among others.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Perhaps unintended. But for some reason every time one of the characters plots a conspiracy or a civil war, or other such things, it is "for the good of the State".
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Liu Bei, on the run and starving, is given some meat by a local peasant. The source? The peasant's wife. (He is ignorant at the time, but grateful when he finds out... not to mention the fact that when he tells Cao Cao about it, Cao Cao rewards the peasant with a hundred ounces of silver.)
  • Important Haircut: Played straight by Cao Cao, cutting his hair to show loss of face after he lost control of his horse, which trampling over some crops after he'd issued an edict that any soldier who trampled over crops would lose his head. Subverted by Zhou Fang, who cut off his hair to impress Cao Xiu with his trustworthiness. He was lying, and it really shows how far he's willing to go for his true lord, Sun Quan.
  • Incendiary Exponent: Most famously, the Fire Ship attack at the battle of Chi Bi. Legendary and effective.
  • Ironic Echo: "I trust you have been well since we last parted?" First spoken by Guan Yu, taunting Cao Cao about his escape back to his sworn brothers. Later Cao Cao says it upon being presented with Guan Yu's severed head.
  • I Shall Taunt You: Zhou Yu, Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi were all fond of doing this... and usually with each other. Zhuge Liang, however, kills people via taunting.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: The most common excuse for changing your mind about executing people/handing your concubine to your adoptive son/threatening to expose an assassination plot. Honestly, they need to work on their routine a little.
  • Kill'Em All: Redundant, but all the famous characters are dead by the end of the novel. It lasted a hundred years - should you be surprised?
  • Laser-Guided Karma:

 Sun Jian pointing toward the heavens as an oath said, "If I have the Imperial seal and am hiding it myself, may my end be unhappy and my death violent!"

He dies in an ambush in the next chapter from rocks crushing his head.

  • Living Legend: The generals in general.
  • Love Ruins the Realm: Inverted by the whole Diao Chan incident, where the realm was at a nadir anyway and getting rid of the tyrant was an attempt at making things better. (Unfortunately, it inadvertently trades the tyranny of Dong Zhuo for the chaotic rivalries of the regional warlords, while his puppet emperor simply comes "under new management.") Invoked in the buildup to the battle of Chi Bi, where Zhuge Liang provokes Zhou Yu (and the kingdom of Wu) into fighting by claiming that Cao Cao was lusting after the Qiao sisters, one being Zhou Yu's own wife and the other, his late best friend and sworn brother Sun Ce's widow.
  • MacGuffin: The Imperial Seal is supposed to signify the Mandate of Heaven and the right to rule the land. People fights for it, Sun Jian dies on account of it, and then its use is Subverted when Sun Ce trades it off for an army which he uses to found the kingdom of Wu, although Yuan Shu (who had made that trade with Sun Ce) ended up using it as the basis for founding his stillborn dynasty. The seal eventually passes to the kingdom of Wei, and while it's still used to claim the right to rule, nobody really cares at that point.
  • Made of Iron: Several characters, including Zhou Tai (who takes twelve wounds defending Sun Quan from bandits when Quan was a child) and Dian Wei.
  • The Magnificent: Sun Ce became known as the "Little Conqueror", after scaring one enemy officer to death and crushing another one between his arm and torso.
  • Mainstream Obscurity: Its importance in the Oriental literary tradition is hard to overstate, and you can just scroll down below to see the extensive list of derivative works it's spawned, to say nothing of the numerous references to it, its events and its character that crop up so frequently in Oriental culture, yet like Shakespeare and other comparable western classics, when it comes to people who've actually read it, particularly outside of a school context...
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: While Zhang Fei's shout wasn't superpowered, it reputedly killed at least one general at Chang Ban. From fright. Sun Ce managed to pull this off as well.
  • The Man: One of Cao Cao's many official titles. Really.
  • Melee a Trois
  • Mooks: Galore, of course, with special mention going to the poor messengers. Those poor, poor, messengers...
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Lu Bu eventually kills his patron and adoptive father, Dong Zhuo, for the sake of Diao Chan.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Quite a few people and moments.
    • For Cao Cao, it was when he had Ju Shou executed ("I just killed the one guy who isn't a backstabbing freak... even if his loyalty was for the other guy and he tried to run away!"), and when he had his leading admirals executed for treason early during the campaign against Sun Quan, only to realize right afterward that he'd been had.
    • Earlier, when Cao Cao was on the run following a failed assassination attempt against Dong Zhuo, his father's sworn brother gives him shelter. Cao Cao and Chen Gong (a magistrate who'd freed Cao Cao) hide in a back room, overhear something about to getting out the knives killed, assumes its him, and jumps out and slaughters the entire household, including the wife and children of the person who promised to give him safety. Turns out that they were talking about killing a PIG as part of the feast they were having to honor Cao Cao. Cao Cao runs, meets the family friend outside, and then stabs him in the back because he didn't want the authorities knowing about him. This is however Subverted that shortly after, Cao Cao lets out his famous quote that excuses his actions and defines his character:

 Better I betray the world rather than have the world betray me!

      • This is likely actually the author's misinterpretation of the original quote, "Is it that I wronged the world rather than the world wronged me?"
    • It seems to run in the family, with two examples in Cao Pi's case:
      • Trying to execute his poetic intellectual brother Cao Zhi (who at worst was merely a layabout with his drinking buddies), but gives him a chance by challenging him to compose a poem, then another, without using certain words. Both poems reminds him what a Jerkass he's being, and having been called to account, he lessens Zhi's punishment to exile.
      • When taking his son Cao Rui to a hunt, he kills a deer's mother and tells Rui to kill the child, but Rui asks why he should kill the son when the mother is already killed. This led to Cao Pi possibly remembering about that he'd ordered Rui's mother (Lady Zhen) to commit suicide, and he eventually named Rui his successor.
  • Not My Driver: Meng Huo, fleeing from Shu forces, jumps on what appears to be a Nanman boat. You can guess what happens next.
  • One-Man Army: Zhang Fei scares off an entire army at the bridge of Chang Ban. Also possible Truth in Television, since most fights tended to be decided by duels between the generals.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted, sort of. There are a lot of characters with similar sounding names, most of which have distinct characters which have the same romanisation. Plus, many character names sound just like place names. Much of the novel is filled with lines like "Zhang Fei fought at Chang Ban". It's easy to get confused after a while.
  • Only Smart People May Pass: Cao Cao was fond of word games, even going so far to give inconsequential instructions (the disposition of some cheese, his opinion on a door) in codes. Yang Xiu solved both those mentioned, but in a subversion his intelligence (along with his support of one of Cao's younger sons for succession) made Cao fear him and would eventually lead to Yang's downfall.
  • Off with His Head: Many characters, notably Guan Yu, both committing (with the most named victims!) and falling victim to this trope. Subverted when his head starts talking and his ghost starts killing people.
    • In a rather funny Lampshading, after he possesses Lu Meng, throws Sun Quan around and sits on his throne before leaving/killing Lu Meng's body, then animates his own head in Cao Cao's presence, his disembodied ghost goes off calling for the return of his head... only for a priest who he met while alive to ask him: "[W]ho will also return the heads of your several victims---Yan Liang, Wen Chou, and the commanders of the five passes?" Guan Yu takes the hint.
  • Oracular Urchin: Luo Guanzhong liked to put street children in just for the sake of singing ominous songs, usually hinting at subsequent events. However, there's at least one time where it's a character (who needs to steer his mark towards a certain course of action) merely claiming that such children exist and are singing such songs... Genre Savvy, perhaps?
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege: Fairly common, the most famous being Guan Yu's and Liu Bei's intercession on Zhang Liao's behalf after the fall of Xiapi Castle, ironically just after Liu Bei had thrown Lu Bu under the bus. (Zhang Liao would end up being the envoy who would convince Guan Yu to surrender to Cao Cao.)
    • Turned around in a way when Zhuge Liang ordered Guan Yu's execution for sparing Cao Cao in Huarong Valley — at which point Zhuge Liang's own lord Liu Bei begged for his sworn brother's life.
  • Portent of Doom: In the first few chapters, the end of the Han dynasty is seen in some very bad portents (a horrible plague among one of those things), kicking of the chain of events that leads to decades of war.
  • Power Trio: Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu - at least in tradition. Also, if you want to stretch the definition a little, the Three Kingdoms themselves.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: Guo Jia, who lays out the ten ways in which Cao Cao is better than Yuan Shao. Smithers could take lessons in ass-kissing from this guy.
    • Something to note: while he was a capable butt kisser (and the ten comparisons to Yuan Shao probably earn him a mention in the trope), Guo Jia was also a gifted strategist (smart enough to set off a My Death Is Just the Beginning plot) and not above questioning his boss from time to time (when he let Liu Bei go to take on Yuan Shu, for instance).
  • Rain of Arrows: Subverted when Zhuge Liang "borrowed" Cao Cao's arrows by sailing out dummy ships laden with straw.
  • Regent for Life: Between the eunuchs, Dong Zhuo and Cao Cao, emperors had absolutely no power and even less luck. (Heck, Dong Zhuo overtly has one emperor deposed and then forced to drink poison, while his mother is literally thrown out the window.)
  • Religion Is Magic: As Cao Cao and Sun Ce learnt, do not under any circumstances screw around with Taoist mystics. Subverted by Zhuge Liang who claimed to summon the east wind at the battle of Chi Bi... but really just did the whole ritual to waste time since he'd predicted the change in weather previously. (Historically, Zhou Yu just consulted a local fisherman.)
  • Revenge Before Reason: Liu Bei marches on Sun Quan to seek revenge for the death of Guan Yu. Everyone besides Guan Yu's immediate relatives and Zhang Fei tries to convince him to focus on Wei, but Liu Bei insists on invading Wu. Even after Sun Quan makes a large number of concessions, he refuses to back off and focus on Wei. The result is a massive defeat for Shu.
  • Rule of Cool: Most of the liberties taken with history in the novel, especially regarding character deaths. No, we can't have generals dying old and in bed... let's kill some of them really painfully!
    • Oddly averted in the case of Xiahou Dun though, as his death barely gets a sentence or two.
    • Also averted with Xu Chu, whose death isn't even mentioned at all. Wu's Lu Xun is also barely mentioned when he died. Can you guess which kingdom was the author's favorite?
      • Ah, but Ma Chao, one of Shu's top generals, also had a barely mentioned death. Though it is true he only joined Shu towards the end of his life.
  • Shoot the Messenger: And friggin' how.
  • Siege Engines
  • Smug Snake: Cao Cao never really gets a chance to shine in the novel, despite being the designated villain of the story. (Ironically Subverted by the eulogy poem that immediately follows his death basically declaring him above good and evil.)
  • Speak of the Devil: Or, as the Chinese say, "Speak of Cao Cao and he appears." Parodied (by being taken to its logical extreme) here.
  • Stealth Insult: Cao Cao weeping for Guo Jia's death after his defeat at Chi Bi. All of his advisors realize that he is making fun of the fact that none of them was able to see through the fire attack in time.
  • Thanatos Gambit: As an old saying goes, a dead Zhuge Liang scared a live Sima Yi. And HOW!
  • The Horde: The Yellow Scarves.
  • The Strategist: Everyone's got at least one, but Zhuge Liang is the King of Strategists in the novel, and probably the most awesome character in the book.
  • The Thirty-Six Stratagems: Trope Namer for several; see the trope entry for details.
  • Treacherous Advisor:
    • Chen Deng advised Lu Bu very poorly, as he was plotting to sell him out anyway.
    • Sima Yi too against Wei after Cao Rui's death, although in Dynasty Warriors 6 it's against Cao Cao specifically. One of his descendants even has the reigning Wei emperor murdered in broad daylight.
    • There's also Xu Shu (for Cao Cao), although he did so by neglect since he had "familial obligation" to leave Liu Bei's service, but promised not to help his new lord Cao Cao, and he keeps quiet upon discovering that Pang Tong (which makes him the heroic - in a sense - version of this trope) was involved in the Liu Bei-Sun Quan alliance's plot leading up to the Battle of Chi Bi.
  • Unfortunate Names: Cao Cao's given name consists of a character that, when pronounced slightly differently, is also used to write one of the many Chinese words for "fuck," and is the "grass" of the infamous "grass mud horse" meme. The "mud horse" part just sounds similar to "Your mother."
    • Additionally, "Cao" is usually mispronounced as "Cow" by some english speakers instead of correct "Tsaow". Hence, Cao Cao is refered as "Cow Cow" and his son, Cao Pi, is regrettably refered as "Cow Pee".
    • In addition, there are some names that are unfortunate for English speakers, such as He Man, who lasts only two or three paragraphs in Chapter 12. (His only line of dialogue: "I am He Man, the devil who shoots across the sky. Who dare fight with me?" Unfortunately for him, the relatively minor character Cao Hong does, faking retreat before cutting him down.) Note that this name is not pronounced even remotely like the English "He Man", but more like "Huh Mahn".
    • There is also the case of Du Yu, a Jin general near the end of the book, which leads to many a poor joke. Of course, no list is complete without mentioning the most unfortunate one of all, a very obscure man who served Gongsun Zan: Wang Men.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Done several times. Might be the reason for Zhuge Liang's habit of handing his plans to his subordinates in brocade sacks, to be revealed only at the very last minute. The most famous example in the novel would be Zhuge Liang's three instructions to Zhao Yun regarding the Lady Sun affair.
  • Villainous Glutton: Dong Zhuo. An official lit a wick in his corpse, and it burnt for days.
  • You Rebel Scum : Everyone calls everyone else this. It makes sense in an odd way. If you claim to be rightful emperor by extension you claim opponents are rebels.
  • Warrior Poet: Cao Cao and his sons were renowned poets, and founded one of the major styles of poetry of the time.
  • Worthy Opponent: When Cao Cao and Liu Bei were both in the capital, they held a famously-depicted "talk of heroes" in Cao Cao's garden where Cao Cao discounted several "heroes" that Liu Bei suggested before declaring that "the only two heroes in the world under heaven are you and I!" Causes Liu Bei to have an Oh Crap moment as he realizes that Cao Cao just implicitly declared him the only real threat to his rule, and Liu Bei's own famous "afraid of lightning" moment.
  • You Killed My Father:
    • Subverted by Ling Tong, who intended to kill Gan Ning for killing his father Ling Cao (before Gan Ning's surrender to Sun Quan). Sun Quan interceded during Ling Tong's attempt and forbade any further attempts, and the two eventually became friendly rivals.
    • After Ma Teng is executed for his involvement in an assassination plot against Cao Cao, his son Ma Chao declares war for this very reason.
  • You Shall Not Pass:
    • Dian Wei holding off Zhang Xiu's forces.
    • Zhang Fei at the Battle of Chang Ban, where he shouts a challenge for anyone in Wei's army to come and pass, and no one comes forward, allowing Liu Bei time to escape.

Derivative works:

Anime and Manga

Board and Card Games

  • Believe it or not, the makers of Magic: The Gathering released a card set based on the novel, Portal Three Kingdoms, as part of an outreach program to players in Asia and the Pacific. It was only released in China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.


  • Red Cliff, a movie by John Woo.
  • Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon focuses on the last stand of Zhao Yun.
  • The Lost Bladesman focuses on Guan Yu, played by Donnie Yen of Ip Man fame, and the circumstances that revolved around his tenure with Cao Cao.
  • In an inversion of Sturgeon's Law, Just Another Pandora's Box, from the director of Stephen Chow's Chinese Odyssey movies, takes a Seltzer and Friedberg approach.

Live Action TV

Video Games

  • From Koei:
    • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (11 in this series of strategy games and counting since 1985)
    • Dynasty Warriors
    • Dynasty Tactics (More closely related to Kessen than Dynasty Warriors)
    • Kessen II. Kessen II is extremely loosely tied to the source material. It starts with the Imperial Seal being entrusted to Diao Chan, who falls in love with Liu Bei.
  • Destiny of an Emperor, an RPG for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Capccm, as well as a Japan-only sequel.
  • Koihime Musou: Kazuto, an Ordinary High School Student, is transported to a version of Ancient China where most of the characters from the novel have been genderflipped into cute girls. With his Chick Magnet powers and his foreknowledge of the original novel, Kazuto helps the kingdom he is aligned with unite China. In the original Visual Novel, this was the Kingdom of Shu but subsequent installments in the franchise opened up other playable factions. Kazuto is a victim of Cipher Scything in the animated adaptations.