Beloved Brother Liu Bei:
The Legend Lives On

by Grace Maneein, Comparative Literature

Abstract: This literary exploration of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms dives into the captivating allure of beloved brother Liu Bei in creating both a compelling narrative and foil to Ming China’s leadership values. An analysis of Liu Bei’s portrayal sheds light on the complexities of leadership and morality in ancient China. Rooted in meticulous historical research and literary craftsmanship, this examination scrutinizes Liu Bei’s ascent to power, bolstered by his royal lineage and alliances with the Peach Garden Brothers. Despite—or perhaps, because of—his inherent appropriateness, Liu Bei’s time as emperor is marked by inefficiency, prompting reflections on the limitations of Confucian morality. The tension between personal relationships and public responsibility is palpable as Liu Bei navigates loyalty to his sworn brothers while fulfilling his duties as Han Emperor. Always acting with appropriateness, Liu Bei emerges as a symbol of benevolence, and his legacy is immortalized in the collective consciousness of Chinese culture—even when the appropriate action in question costs him his empire. Concluding with a reflection on the broader cultural significance of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which serves as both a source of national pride and a critique of traditional moral frameworks, this exploration offers a nuanced understanding of leadership, appropriate actions, and the enduring legacy of Liu Bei in Chinese literature and culture against the context of Ming era China.

appropriateness, Confucian values, Ming China, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Warring States Period, Liu Bei

Those who have read Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, in any capacity, often harbor a love for Liu Bei. His backdrop is an epic tale attributed to 14th century figure Luo Guanzhong to encompass both the exaggerated narratives and historically accurate events of ancient China’s Eastern Han and Three Kingdoms period, famously asserted by Zhang Xuechang to be of “seventy percent facts and thirty percent fabrications” (Ge 157). The cultural impact of the novel is profound with its influence permeating Chinese popular culture from the Ming Dynasty onward. Its reach spans from informing military strategy and defining morality to shaping the artistry of Peking theater opera. Liu Bei himself is a hand-selected protagonist, written to be loved by his audience centuries later despite his ultimate inability to reunite China. His attractiveness as a hero stems not from his physical or intellectual abilities, but rather from his perceived ability to always act appropriately and with brotherly kindness. Much of this perception relies on Luo Guanzhong’s translation of historical events into an epic Chinese novel and the following centuries of collective authorship. The resulting selective presentation of Liu Bei’s life significantly influenced his historical perception for centuries to come.

Is it not paradoxical for Liu Bei to be considered the only inherently appropriate person to take the position of Han Emperor, a direct result of his royal bloodline and membership within sworn Peach Garden Brothers, then abruptly expect him to prioritize the welfare of his subjects over his comrades and brothers? An in-depth analysis of Liu Bei’s portrayal as a benevolent yet ultimately unsuccessful protagonist underscores the importance of intrinsic moral appropriateness in leadership, the Mandate of Heaven guaranteeing Liu Bei’s rise to power just as much as his resulting demise. Despite his ultimate downfall, Liu Bei’s enduring portrayal as a benevolent and appropriate ruler ensures his lasting legacy for centuries to come.

Liu Bei is not only morally appropriate; he is the very picture of appropriateness (義 pronounced “yi”). This concept of appropriateness, defined in the context of this paper by Jiyuan Yu, can also be translated as “righteousness,” “duty,” or “morality.” Appropriateness defines “what is suitable,” and “what is suitable” is determined by “the cultivated nature” in a person’s adherence to traditional Chinese rites dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (Yu 27). In other words, doing what is appropriate is determined by a set of social customs and rituals, but it is also deemed appropriate to deviate from these customs and rituals in certain instances. Yu demonstrates an example in which it would be appropriate to break the custom of forbidding men from touching women they are not married nor immediately related to in the instance of saving his sister-in-law from drowning (Yu 29). Predictably, this invites tension between two differing types of appropriateness that are both heralded throughout the novel: Loyalty-Appropriateness, to which Liu Bei is obligated to the Peach Garden Brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, and Subject-Ruler Appropriateness, to which Liu Bei is obligated to everyone under his rule. Both types of appropriateness are not only demonstrated through Liu Bei, but thoroughly emphasized with his displays of brotherly affection.

The relationship between Liu Bei’s perceived appropriateness and his perception as a loyal person is causal. Input from wiser and more qualified characters such as his advisor, “Sleeping Dragon” Zhuge Liang, undeniably ensures that all of Liu Bei’s actions are “appropriate.” Situations throughout the novel conveniently unfold to showcase his deeply compassionate and tradition-abiding heart in the best light. One particularly illustrative example is seen when Liu Bei initially refuses to accept the role of Emperor, understanding that doing so would be inappropriate and against accordance with rites that firmly state that “the ruler should be a ruler and the subject should be a subject” (Yu 30). The key, here, depends upon Liu Bei’s perceived intention of violating this common understanding. Ever appropriate, Liu Bei acts accordingly: he turns down the primary, very public offer by protesting, “Though you would all honor me as a king, without the Emperor’s public edict, it would be usurpation” (Luo 305). However, when Zhuge Liang feigns illness, adopting the role of Emperor becomes a matter of saving a trusted advisor from depressive peril (Guo 338-339).

Liu Bei’s brotherly care and humanity, illustrated by the vastness of his grief, is thoroughly highlighted in Guan Hanqing’s fictionalized and somewhat sensationalized play, “In a Dream Guan [Yu] and Zhang, A Pair, Rush to Western Zhu” written in the 13th Century CE.This immense sorrow for his fallen brother is what moves Zhang to talk to Liu, thus ensuring that the “blood oath in the Peach Orchard will be kept at the cost of the empire” (Idema 299). Zhang’s reluctance during this scene functions as evidence that some part of him ultimately understood that approaching Liu Bei would change the course of history, yet he still placed importance on his loyalty to Liu Bei and Guan Yu — and their loyalty to each other — above his own subject-ruler relationship with Emperor Bei. From this point on, following through on anything that yielded a result other than devotional brotherhood would completely compromise both the integrity and morality of Liu Bei’s character. After all, being a great brother is a large part of what determines success in recruiting loyal soldiers, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms “[to] a significant extent, […] is a novel about recruitment and retention of talents” (Ge 176). Liu Bei is both revered and feared for his connections to many talented and legendary warriors and advisors, such as Lord Guan and Kongming. In suggesting sending Lord Guan’s head to Cao Cao, trusted advisor Zhang Zhao’s advice to Sun Quan communicates a fear of retribution from sworn Peach Garden Brother Liu Bei:

Zhang Zhao: “Have Lord Guan’s head sent to Cao Cao in such a way as to make it appear to Liu Bei that it was all Cao’s direction. [Liu Bei’s] animosity will be redirected toward Cao Cao and his enemies will turn on the kingdom of Wei while we observe the fortunes of both and from a neutral vantage seize our opportunity”(Luo 327).

As such, Liu Bei’s steadfast commitment to Loyalty-Appropriateness completely hinders his ability to act within Subject-Ruler Appropriateness. Once he finds himself being addressed as “Emperor Bei,” he is automatically bound and obligated to the responsibilities of the Heaven-ordained role as Emperor of China above his blood-oath brotherhood. For the first time, he chooses to disobey Zhuge Liang and wage war against the Wu to avenge Guan Yu, sacrificing the opportunity to forge an alliance and further establish his rule. Liu Bei dies in battle, with the miracles of Heaven no longer on his side. However, “by sacrificing his ultimate goal of re-establishing the house of Han and bringing about a reunification of the empire, Liu Bei preserves his image of being a person of appropriateness” (Yu 35). His noble passing arouses compassion, as he surrenders his ambitions of being a capable ruler to fulfill a pledge to his sworn brother. Thus, in both life and death, Liu Bei acts appropriately.  

Liu Bei’s manner of death, while fitting for his character, may have shielded him from a less favorable historical reputation. By evaluating this event through the traditional framework of whether the story’s conflicts were adequately and heroically resolved, Liu Bei’s inability to unify the Three Kingdoms is of profound importance. Had the main purpose of Romance of the Three Kingdoms been to provide narrative entertainment, Liu Bei may not have been elevated to the status of de facto protagonist. Without the rich cultural backdrop of a commonly shared, legendary history that reinforces Confucian and Menician ideologies, Cao Cao is a far more entertaining, ambitious, and self-centered character that would better resonate with the tastes of modern Western television viewership. Given the plethora of historical characters available, one might wonder why Luo Guanzhong opted to center the narrative around a short-lived Emperor who met his demise during his first military campaign amidst the unfolding drama.

Liu Bei’s enduring legacy proves that “appropriate and beloved” emperors did not equate to being the most effective. Within the moral framework of the novel, effectiveness as a ruler pales in importance to perpetuating one’s ancestral legacy. Unlike the ruthless pragmatism of Cao Cao, Liu Bei’s focus on appropriateness and being beloved is prioritized despite his evident ineffectiveness. This could be read as a major criticism of the Chinese values of the time from the perspective of someone who was educated and elite enough to have been granted access to the necessary historical records to write Romance of the Three Kingdoms. At the time, being a royally employed person of the scholar-gentry class was a dire issue of personal safety. According to Ge, “The Imperial Academy served as the most important base for the production of [Ming] officials, [as such, the treatment of the students at this academy is particularly indicative of royal political attitudes toward academics at large. Breaking harsh conduct codes] could incur the disciplinary penalty of severe beatings, banishment to remote frontiers, or even death” (Ge 169). One can infer Luo Guanzhong would qualify as such a person and found the general treatment of scholars during this time appalling. As such, Luo Guanzhong appears to have deliberately immortalized Liu Bei as a kind and benevolent legacy holder, recognizing that while rulers may inherently grasp the need for efficacy and ruthlessness, they may overlook the importance of genuine affection and legacy. This characterization is even further enhanced in the Mao edition of Three Kingdoms, published in 1680. As a result, Liu Bei, a figure originally rooted in historical accuracy, transformed a highly idealized portrayal of exemplified appropriateness, strategically crafted to foil the rulers of the early Ming dynasty.

By contrast, it is possible that Cao Cao was engineered to represent the rulers of the early Ming dynasty. Unlike Liu Bei, Cao Cao is characterized as a person who “does not offer sincere friendship or camaraderie. [He] is more interested in Machiavellian manipulation and control” (Ge 180). A prime example of this can be seen in the two leaders’ opposite treatment of Xu Shu to get the renowned military advisor to join their side. Liu Bei passes Xu’s test for moral character, earning his admiration and loyalty, while Cao Cao attempts to achieve the same feat by holding Xu’s mother hostage. Cao Cao’s arrogance and hubris actually cost him his own life when he kills the only man competent enough to save him from succumbing to illness, a renowned doctor named Hua Tuo in chapter sixty-nine of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Guo 304). Similarly, early Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang “executed his prime minister Hu Weitong in 1380 on charges of cronyism and treason, followed by a bloody purge that ‘claimed over 30,000 lower-ranking victims’ according to Dreyer in Early Ming China” (Ge 65). Scholarly bloodbaths were not unheard of during the time of Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ writing: “Perhaps it is not so far-fetched to say that in the characterization of Cao Cao, there are ingredients from [early Ming Emperors] Zhu Yuanzhang and Zhu Di,” Ge concludes. At one point, Liu Bei directly points out the differences between himself and his foe, Cao Cao: “The one that struggles against me like fire against water is Cao Cao. Where Cao Cao is impetus I am temperate; where he is harsh I am benevolent; where he is cunning I am sincere” (Luo 300). Both metaphors are life-sustaining in their own right, yet unquestionably exclusive. This dramatic comparison reinforces the fact that the two are polarly opposed regarding what exactly a “just” ruler should be.

Ironically, Liu Bei’s appropriateness as the ideal, commendable, and benevolent leader lives on, even though he had to die in the novel to illustrate just how infallibly commendable he was. The value of the characterization and subsequent lessons learned from Liu Bei remains significant — withstanding centuries. Even though Yu is undeniably correct in stating that “[Confucianism] cannot provide practical guidance when moral conflicts occur” and the natural flow of events in Three Kingdoms guarantee Liu Bei’s rise to power as much as his resulting demise, his failures as an emperor only seem to bolster the legend of Liu Bei’s enduring appropriateness.

Significantly, the novel does not conclude with the end of Liu Bei, Kongming, or even the short-lived Wei Dynasty. Although much of the novel was framed in a way where the primary source of tension at the climax was between Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and their fight to be the person to unify China, Three Kingdoms continues even after both of these characters and their supporting cast members die. Cao Cao’s descendants establish the Wei, and then the Sima family’s coup d’etat go on to establish the Jin Dynasty. It is Sima Yan, and not Liu Bei or Cao Cao or his descendants, who finally unifies China. Luo Guanzhong and the following collective authorship of Romance of the Three Kingdoms found it important to have a third character, lacking in prominence throughout the majority of the novel, to achieve the dream of what two leaders — one benevolent, the other Machiavellian, reminiscent of then-modern rulership — had failed to achieve. The lesson to be learned from these authors is the importance of accepting the impermanence of power, dynasties, and humanity as a whole. This was a stark contrast to the actions of early Ming emperors who killed the instructors of the scholar-gentry class when they asked for better schooling conditions (Ge 169). Poring over large swaths of Chinese history to compose this masterpiece undoubtedly made Luo Guanzhong and subsequent editors feel simultaneously very small, yet part of something greater than themselves. Their primary goal was likely to establish a collective cultural identity for Chinese people to take pride in while subtly pointing out the practical criticisms of using Confucianism as a definitive moral framework through the illustrious example of protagonist Liu Bei’s life. Considering the magnitude to which both Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Liu Bei are known today, throughout every Chinese-speaking state and beyond, one can conclude they succeeded.

Works Cited

Ge, Lingyan. “Sanguo Yanyi and the Menician View of Political Sovereignty.” Monumenta Serica, vol. 55, no. 1, 2007, pp. 157-193. DOI: 10.1179/mon.2007.55.1.006

Guan, Hanqing. “In a Dream Guan and Zhang, A Pair, Rush to Western Zhu.” Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood: Early Chinese Plays on the Three Kingdoms, Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

Idema, Wilt L. Introduction to “In a Dream Guan and Zhang, A Pair, Rush to Western Zhu.” Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood: Early Chinese Plays on the Three Kingdoms, Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

Luo, Guanzhong, and Moss Roberts. Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. Abridged edition, University of California Press, 2020.

Jiyuan Yu. “The Notion of Appropriateness (Yi) in Three Kingdoms.” Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture, SUNY Press, 2007, pp. 27-42.

Acknowledgements: To my family & best friend, whose actions have embodied the essence of unconditional love, teaching me its true meaning. Thank you.

Citation Style: MLA