Epic Chinese History: Game of Thrones vs. Romance of the Three Kingdoms

*WARNING: Spoiler alert for Game of Thrones/Romance of the Three Kingdoms*

three kingdoms game of thrones 

The Han dynasty was once a glorious empire united under the Han family that spread across a landmass the size of 2.3 million square miles. By the year 2025, it is on the verge of collapse. The Imperial family is plagued by infighting. Roving bandits pillage the country. Violent rebellions threaten the empire. Eunuchs (imperial advisors in ancient China) endlessly supply the emperor with bad advice. Various warlords seize the opportunity to vie for control of the throne. In the chaos, no one is safe as the power-hungry warlords attack friends and foes alike. Eventually, the smaller and weaker factions are picked off leaving the three most powerful clans, Wu, Wei and Shu interlocked in a power struggle.

The Han dynasty was split by in-fighting into the kingdoms of Wu, Wei and Shu.

I recently stumbled across this China Simplified article discussing the similarities between the popular series, Game of Thrones, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms(三国时代), a Chinese classical epic story. Similar to the ongoing struggle between noble houses in Game of Thrones, the article used examples of struggles for power and the frequency of the throne changing hands to illustrate how the plot of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Game of Thrones were actually quite similar. However, in my opinion, what makes RotTK stand out is that the story is based on historical truth. 

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is an embellished account of the historical Three Kingdoms Era, c.220-280 AD China and is one of the most popular novels in Chinese culture, not only for its historic significance, but also for the loyalty, commitment to country, and personal sacrifice. Chinese generals are also known to have kept copies of the book, for its insights on military stratagems.

Game of Thrones may have magic and dragons, but the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is equally as epic…and real. We’re talking the third bloodiest period in history here, behind WWII and Mongolian conquests, and this tale of conquest has many insights into Three Kingdoms Era China. If you haven’t heard of it you might even be familiar with one of the many adaptations that make this historic tale come to life, like the video game series Dynasty Warriors.

Game of Thrones may have magic and dragons, but the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is equally as epic…and real.

As most of you are probably familiar, Game of Thrones is a series revolving around a similar power struggle. The late king of Westeros, Robert Baratheon, has just died, and every powerful noble house is now competing for control of the iron throne. Alliances are made and broken and lords turn on each other at the opportunity of political power.

When kingdoms fall, the strong and cunning rise to the top, making their mark on history. Although it’s doubtful that Game of Thrones is based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, on closer inspection, there are quite a few similarities between historical figures and the fantastical ones. Here are a few characters that may sound familiar….


1. Daenerys / Liu Bei

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There couldn’t be any character as hungry for justice as the mother of dragons…right? Wrong. Daenerys Targaryen, is the rightful heir to the throne of Westeros, though she is exiled due to usurpers claiming the throne and seeking her untimely end. She is a leader of the people, using her morals to gain the hearts, and support of the people, not unlike Liu Bei. As a member of the Imperial family, Liu Bei is the leader of Shu, and rules with moral virtue seeking to restore the Han Dynasty to end the struggle for the sake of the people. Unfortunately for both Liu Bei, and Daenerys Targaryen, they must both face reality and part with their virtues, as Daenerys must kill her brother for sole legitimacy, and Liu Bei conquers his relative’s lands for a base of his own.


2.  Tywin Lannister / Cao Cao

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Every strong house has a strong leader at its head. Tywin Lannister, the head of House Lannister, one of the most powerful families in Westeros, may have met his match in Cao Cao. The Prime Minister of the shattered Han Dynasty, and ruler of faction Wei. Just like the Lannisters in GoT, Cao Cao seizes the throne after the fall of the former ruler. They are both master tacticians, to similar faults. Tywin chooses to rule his family and holdings through cold logic, alienating his family to the point of death at the hands of his own son. Cao Cao strictly follows the arts of war, and often punishes failure, and disobedience or disloyalty with death, which allows him to be manipulated by enemies seeking to eliminate his finest officers, like at the Battle of Red Cliffs.


 3. Ned Stark / He Jin

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Even in the midst of chaos are those who loyally serve with honor and virtue. Two of the most straight-forward, and honest characters in these stories would be He Jin, a regent and military commander for the Han dynasty, and Ned Stark, lord of Winterfell. They both serve their kings loyally, and follow their orders by the book to their respective ends. Ned Stark failed to seize power after the former king’s deaths, allowing the empire collapse after his execution. He Jin fails to remove his political opponents by force, which leads to his death and the fall of Han. Though Ned Stark quells the Iron Isle rebellion, and He Jin the Yellow Turban Rebellion, both met their ends due to their straightforwardness and refusal to play the game of politics.


4. Gregor Clegane (The Mountain) / Lu Bu

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Sir Gregor Clegane, better known as ‘The Mountain’ and Lu Bu, are the penultimate warriors of their respective realms and are seemingly unbeatable in regular combat. The Mountain is known as Tywin Lannister’s attack dog, who will pillage and ransack wherever he travels, while Lu Bu is feared across the lands for being unrivaled in single combat, atop the fabled steed Red Hare, known for its speed and endurance. Both warriors are defeated through unconventional means: the Mountain by poison in a duel, and Lu Bu through deception by a concubine, and eventually his own despair and alcoholism.


5. Bronn / Gan Ning

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Even in the most tumultuous of times, there are still individuals capable of making the most of things. Both Bronn, Tyrion Lannister’s trusty sworn sword, and Gan Ning, a general of Wu, have similar rags to riches stories. Bronn served as a mercenary, until being employed by Tyrion Lannister, and is eventually raised to knighthood for his services. Gan Ning was a notorious river pirate, until being captured by Wu forces, at which point he was employed as an officer for his wit. While these men come from humble beginnings, they are able to put their fighting skills, and resourcefulness to good use in the employ of larger factions.


 6. Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) / Sima Yi

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Behind every battlefield operate brilliant minds, such as Petyr Baelish (better known as Littlefinger,) and Sima Yi. Petyr Baelish is the cunning master of coin for Westeros, and few are able to withstand the economic costs of ruling a kingdom, or waging war, without his help. Sima Yi is a head strategist of Wei, and leads several successful campaigns, and when not in direct command, efficiently handles administrative affairs and supply trains. Both men have informants everywhere, helping them towards their ultimate goal…conquering their own empire.


 7. Melisandre / Zhang Jiao

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Religion plays a large role in both Game of Thrones, and the Three Kingdoms, though to various degrees. Most notably are Melisandre, a priestess of R’hllor (Lord of Light), and Zhang Jiao, leader of the Daoist cult of the Yellow Turbans. Melisandre drastically affects the battle for Westeros’ throne by killing the former king’s younger brother Renly Baratheon, in support of the elder brother Stannis Baratheon, while Zhang Jiao leads the rebel movement that starts the beginning of many armed revolts ending the Han Dynasty, which then unfolds into the power struggle between Wu, Wei, and Shu.

Who knew just how similar these characters actually were. So if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you should definitely get into Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in any form, as they are both full of action, betrayal, and the desire to control the throne. Romance of Three Kingdoms is as enthralling as Game of Thrones and a highly entertaining way to learn a bit more of Chinese history.

“History is….better than 90 percent of what the fantasists make up” – George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin himself said, “History is….better than 90 percent of what the fantasists make up”, so if you are looking for an epic with more fact than fiction, look no further than Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


Check out the book at: http://www.threekingdoms.com/

Check out the show at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1514753/

Check out one of the game series based off Dat: http://www.koeitecmoamerica.com/dw8/#home

Image credit: 

Map of the Three Kingdoms courtesy of dannytaylor02.hubpages.com

Game of Thrones images courtesy of http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Game_of_Thrones_Wiki

Romance of the Three Kingdoms images courtesy of http://threekingdoms.wikia.com/wiki/Romance_of_the_Three_Kingdoms