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Romance of the Three Kingdoms

THE riveting Three Kingdoms Period has been difficult to document concretely because of its chaos, instability and lack of funerary relics. A remarkable exhibition draws together illuminating artifacts. Zhou Tao reports.

Early this year, Hollywood-based Hong Kong director John Woo's epic "Red Cliff" generated great interest in China's Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD). Today, the public can view real excavated relics from that period about 1,800 years ago.

The exhibition, "Great Romance of the Three Kingdoms," opens at Shanghai Library next Monday and runs through May 17.

Relics represent the history of the Three Kingdoms Period through its politics, economy, military and culture.

The touring exhibition is organized by Art Exhibitions China and the Shanghai International Culture Association, plus around 20 collaborators from China and Japan.

In late 2006, organizers began to explore as many relevant sites as possible and had visited around 70 places in more than two years. As of early last year, 34 museums and archeological institutes across China had contributed 205 exhibits, including weapons, scripts, paintings and statues.

The exhibition was first launched in Japan as a cultural exchange program organized by the famous Japanese Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai.

In May 2008, the exhibition opened in Tokyo and has been to seven Japanese cities in 10 months, drawing more than 1 million visitors.

The exhibition in Shanghai is the first stop in China; it moves on to Hubei Province, a key battlefield for the three kingdoms. The legendary Battle of Red Cliff took place in what is now Hubei, and the battle's outcome "balanced" the power of the three kings.

As described in the classic novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and Woo's movie, the joint army of only 50,000 soldiers led by warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan miraculously defeated the army of 800,000, commanded by warlord Cao Cao.

The victory prevented the two smaller warlords from being eliminated from the power scene, and from that time on, the three kings contained each other's power for the following decades.

Wizard-like strategist Zhuge Liang contributed greatly to the victory with his knowledge and his "weather forecast" to determine the perfect moment to set fire to the enemy's base. Thus, he became an idol of intelligence and strategy throughout centuries in traditional Chinese culture.

Interestingly, among Chinese there seems to be two definitions of the time span of the Three Kingdoms Period. Officially it is said the year 220 AD marks the beginning, as that was the time when these three kingdoms finally came into being.

However, as early as in 184 AD, the late years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), the vast territory of ancient China has fallen into chaos as various lords launched wars to seize state power while the emperor almost lost control of the country.

The chaos among warlords is where the legend originated. In the view of most Chinese, and even people from neighboring Asian countries, how these noblemen, generals, strategists and outlaws encountered and interacted with each other is more fascinating than their later formal face-offs on battlefields.

The tragedy of the period is that the population slumped because of the ongoing killings. At the same time, the attempts of every king to defeat his other two foes had enhanced the political system, economy, agriculture, military and technology.

For succeeding generations it was tremendously difficult to collect and preserve relics from this period of chaos and instability. More important, it became customary to simplify funerals, reducing extravagant burials and putting very few items in tombs.

The Three Kingdoms Period only lasted around 60 years, the blink of an eye in terms of Chinese history, but it has had a dramatic impact on Chinese culture even until today.

Ideas such as brotherhood, a code of righteousness and the wisdom of overcoming a strong foe by strategy, not force, have inspired countless works of art and culture over the centuries.

The values of loyalty and heroism that the legends have transmitted have gradually become core values in Chinese traditional culture.

The legends of the Three Kingdoms are constant themes in art. Some historical figures have even become idols of folk worship for their bravery or wisdom.

In our modern times, which are dominated by high technology, the Three Kingdoms themes have been adapted and taken on new forms in literature, motion pictures and even video games.

Date: April 13-May 17, 9am-5pm

Venue: Shanghai Library, 1555 Huaihai Rd M.

Admission: 30 yuan

Tel: 6445-5555


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