Historian and consultant on Total War: Three Kingdoms Rafe de Crespigny talks us through his role on the game
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How did you come to team up with Creative Assembly to work on this project?
Creative Assembly approached me in September 2016, when they were in the process of planning the project, and asked if I would agree to act as a consultant. Though I know nothing about internet gaming, I was interested in the idea. We discussed a few points, found a basis for agreement, and I accepted.
What does the work of a historical consultant on a game like this consist of?
I have seen it as an opportunity to give some guidance on the actual history of the period. For the purposes of the game, of course, that history must change – otherwise all anyone would have to do is read the books! But we have discussed many different aspects of the situation of China at that time, including, for example:
• communications routes;
• battle techniques;
• Buddhism and Taoism;
• human resources, including population of different regions and the training of officials;
• migration and settlement, including the establishment of agricultural garrisons;
• non-Chinese people on the frontiers and Chinese people seeking to escape from government control or simply avoid the civil war.
It’s a balancing act. Sometimes, for the sake of the game, it is necessary for Creative Assembly to amend or adjust historical reality, and I am quite prepared to accept that. I see it as my job to ensure that the designers know what the reality [probably!] was, so that their variations are deliberate.
Where did your story with the late Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms begin? What drew you to it?
I began studying Chinese language and history rather more than sixty years ago, with a very fine scholar, Hans Bielenstein. He was an expert on the Later Han (23-220 AD), and the warlords of the Three Kingdoms period emerged after the imperial government of Han collapsed in 189.
I read the English translation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi yanyi) by C H Brewitt-Taylor in my very first year, and quite fell in love with it. It is like the knights of King Arthur [or present-day Game of Thrones], but it is based on real people and real events, and the Chinese historians have left us a great deal of detail. So – apart from a few excursions into modern history – I have been working on Later Han and the Three Kingdoms ever since.
How much historical record do we have for these years from 169-280 CE?
A great deal. Apart from the official History of the Later Han Dynasty (Hou Han shu), the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi) and the History of the Jin Dynasty (Jin shu), each of which was formally accepted by later emperors and which amount to 120, 65 and 130 chapters respectively, there are several parallel and rival histories which survive in part or in fragments. And there are also stele and of course archeological evidence.
What do we know about the historians who chronicled events at/close to the time?
Again, quite a lot. All of them have biographies in later histories, so there is a fair bit of personal information. Fan Ye, author of Hou Han shu, for example, started his work when he was in exile from the court for having been drunk at an imperial ceremony; and Pei Songzhi, compiler of the official commentary to Sanguo zhi, was a senior and trusted official under the first emperor of the Liu Song dynasty.
What are the big challenges in interpreting and assessing the historical records of this period?
Since Confucius and his followers regarded history as almost a sacred subject, with a moral requirement to get it right, the original historians were pretty conscientious and those who transmitted the records were also as reliable as they could be. So one can have a fair confidence in the received texts.
I find the main difficulty is in discounting the inevitable bias of perspective: the men who wrote these texts were by definition literate, and that means that they saw things from the perspective of a landed gentry – for the landed gentry were the class most likely to have the means and leisure for education. So Chinese traditional history is written from a conservative and rather moral point of view.
One example is the treatment of eunuchs, who were attendants in the imperial harem and thus confidants of the emperor and who could in consequence often wield very great power. They usually have a very negative press, sometimes quite unfairly.
Similarly, rebels are generally bad, no matter what their justification may have been, and religious rebels are seriously bad.
The other main problem is that individuals may be likewise be classed as good or bad, and incidents or anecdotes are either exaggerated or invented to demonstrate their virtues or faults.
Overall, moreover, traditional Chinese history tends to be great man” history. Hou Han shu, for example, has a valuable list of administrative territories and their population, and there are incidental remarks about payments of money and the cost of grain scattered through the texts, but the history itself is written with very little attention to such general and often critical matters as demography and economics.
In the end, therefore, while there is a great deal of information, a degree of suspicion is always wise, and it is often a good idea to try to read between the lines. We can never be sure what really happened on any one occasion, and it is often hard to judge the motivation for a person’s actions – particularly after two thousand years – but it is worth while to try, for one may learn a great deal about people, and about oneself.
The fictional retelling, Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, is the best known retelling and has been described as seven parts fact, three parts fiction. Does that ratio sound about right to you?
Yes, so long as it is recognised that the three parts of fiction may distort the seven parts history so much that the final and overall effect is false.
In particular, in my opinion, while the core facts of the Romance follow the chronicle of events quite well, the emphasis on Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhuge Liang, heroes of Shu-Han, often distorts the perspective and sometimes produces statements or incidents which have no basis in fact.
Similarly, while Cao Cao and his state of Wei are seen as the great enemy and are generally viewed in quite a hostile fashion, I believe that such an approach loses considerable value: Cao Cao is one of the great characters of Chinese history, he achieved a great deal against massive odds and in most difficult circumstances, and our perception of the period is the poorer for the failure of the Romance to give him his due.
How much of the retelling in Romance was coloured by contemporary events and the feelings of the new editors or interpreters towards the imperial powers of the day?
The formative period of the Romance was the Southern Song dynasty about 1100, when the Chinese state was in restricted territory and faced with a powerful non-Chinese state in Northern China. So the Romance does reflect that view of the legitimate, albeit weaker, kingdom of Liu Bei in Shu-Han faced by a greater but less worthy enemy. In more recent times, the same analogy has applied to the Republic of China on Taiwan, though I suspect that position is now less firmly held.
On the other hand, the “Romantic” bias towards Liu Bei can also be found during the great and successful dynasties of Tang and Ming – and the Romance as we have it now owes much of its form to the Ming period.
I suspect that Lui Bei and his gallant comrades made better copy for story-tellers – a bit like Robin Hood. It’s romance, it’s popular, and the good guys – no matter how they are found or defined – are supposed to win.
Are there any important elements of the real history that the story gets wrong?
Not really important ones. The essential pattern of the history remains intact.
As above, the variations are either exaggerations or misplacements, which distort the reader’s view. For example:
The celebrated “Empty City” stratagem, which is ascribed by Romance to Zhuge Liang, was actually used by Wei Ping, an officer of Cao Cao. Similarly, Zhuge Liang’s trick to obtain arrows by covering boats with straw, then sailing them to defy Cao Cao’s troops and have them shoot at him, is probably a corruption of an anecdote about Sun Quan.
And though Romance describes how Cao Cao killed his loyal officer Liu Fu on the eve of the Red Cliffs, Liu Fu had actually died some months before and a long way away on the Huai River.
How would you assess the overall importance of the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms to Chinese literature?
Romance is generally regarded as one of the four great traditional novels, along with Shuihu zhuan “Water Margin,” Jin Ping Mei “Golden Lotus,” and Xiyu ji “Journey to the West.” It is commonly read as a swashbuckling adventure story, but in The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel Andrew H Plaks has well shown that it is a good deal more than that, most notably in its presentation of how talented and apparently successful figures such as Guan Yu and Zhuge Liang are eventually brought down by their own self-confidence and indeed hubris.
So on the one hand, Romance is an exaggerated and almost episodic account of a real historical period, but at the same time it presents an indirect psychological criticism of its protagonists. One interpretation leads towards the simple hagiography of twentieth century Communist heroes; the other to the sophistication of the great and complex Honglou meng “Dream of the Red Chamber.”