Sanguozhi 三国志 The Records of the Three Kingdoms

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The Sanguozhi 三国志 “Records of the Three Kingdoms” is one of the official dynastic histories (zhengshi 正史). Together with its predecessors Shiji 史记, Hanshu 汉书 andHouhanshu 后汉书 it is one of the “four great histories” (sishi 四史) of ancient China. It describes separately the history of each of the so-called Three Kingdoms 三国 (220-280 CE) in a biographic-thematic style (jizhuanti 纪传体). The author was Chen Shou 陈寿 from the Jin period 晋 (265-420), the first commentator was Pei Songzhi 裴松之 from the southern dynasty of Liu-Song 刘宋 (420-479). The Weishu 魏书 “Book of Wei (sometimes also called Weizhi 魏志 “Records of Wei”) contains the imperial and normal biographies of the kingdom (better: empire) of Wei, which was ruled by the family of Cao 曹, in 30 juan “scrolls”, the Shushu 蜀书 “Book of Shu” (Shuzhi 蜀志) that of the empire of Shu, ruled by the family of Liu 刘 who claimed to be the righteous successors of the Han dynasty 汉 (206 BCE-220 CE), in 15 juan, and theWushu 吴书 “Book of Wu” (Wuzhi 吴志) that of the southestern empire of Wu, which was ruled by the family of Sun 孙, in 20 juan, which makes for a total amount of 65juan.

Chen Shou was originally a high official at the court of Shu before he entred into the service of the Jin dynasty. It is not known when he completed his history of the Three Kingdoms period. For the Liu-Shu dynasty it was the first history written, but for the other two kingdoms there were already two histories on which Chen certainly relied. This was Wang Chen’s 王沈 Weishu 魏书 “Book of Wei”, and Yu Huan’s 鱼豢 Weilüe 魏略 “A concise [history] of Wei”.

The concurrent existence of three empires on Chinese soil posed a problem for a historian: Which one was the righteous dynasty to which Heaven had bestowed the so-called Heavenly mandate? The answer to this question was of far-reaching consequences for the calendar and and the claim of legitimation for the subsequent dynasties. In the eyes of the Jin dynasty the Cao-Wei family was accepted as the righteous rulers. The lords of the two other empires, therefore, could not be called “emperor” (di 帝) but were only given the title of “ruler” (zhu 主). Chen Shou therefore speaks of “emperor” Wei Wudi 魏武帝, but only of the “Former” and the “Later Ruler” (xianzhu 先主, houzhu 后主) of Shu and the “Ruler” of Wu. The last ruler of Wu submitted to the Jin dynasty and could therefore not be called “emperor”: Sun Hao 孙皓 (r. 264-280) is only called sizhu 嗣主 “the succeeding ruler” instead. Similarly, the wives of the rulers of Wei are called houfei “empresses and consorts”, while that of the others are called feizi 妃子 resp. feibin 妃嫔 “consorts”. The events in the states of Shu and Wu are not dated with their own calendar but with the calendar of Wei, using the reign mottos of Wei. In the Jinshu 晋书, the history of the Jin dynasty, the problem of parallel empires was solved in another way.
There were unsubstantiated criticism against Chen Shou to have omitted a biography for Ding Yi 丁仪 and his son Ding Yi (2) 丁廙 from Shu, and to have written only a very short biography for Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮, prime minister of Shu. The latter is indeed true but the biography (Liezhuan 35) contains a lot of praise for Zhuge Liang. Yet what is surely not appropriate is Chen’s overt praise for the founders of the Jin dynasty, the family of Sima 司马. Compared to the other three of the “Four histories” the Sanguozhi is rather short and lacks substance, especially in those matters going beyond the purely biographical accounts. Treatises, for example, are totally missing. The commentary of Pei Songzhi tried to solve some of the problems. He added missing information from more than 140 other books of which far the largest part is lost today, and corrected errors.

One chapter that often attracted attention is the earliest extant description of Japan (Liezhuan 41, sometimes called Woren zhuan 倭人传).

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