In Three Kingdoms, Luo Guanzhong creates a historical novel originally based on real people and events. He narrates the fall of the Han Dynasty, the rise of the three kingdoms (Xu, Wei, and Wu), and the ultimate downfall of these kingdoms. In the beginning, many warlords are introduced each battling for dominance, but three prominent leaders are the focus of the story - they are Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan. These three rise to power through their formidable characters and vie with each other to determine the future of China. This paper focuses primarily on explaining Liu Bei’s failure to restoring the Han dynasty. The very quality of loyalty that makes Liu Bei the most deserving contender for the throne, is also his greatest weakness. After learning the death of Lord Guan, Liu Bei’s loyalty to his oath brothers causes him to make rash decisions and steers him away from his public responsibility.
The sworn brotherhood made between Liu Bei, Lord Guan, and Zhang Fei arose from their common desire to protect the people of the Han dynasty. Their alliance was made at a peach garden. When offering sacrifices to Heaven and earth, they pledged, “We three, though of separate ancestry, join in brotherhood here…We dare not hope to be together always but hereby vow to die the same day.” The bond made at the beginning is a strong theme that carries throughout the novel. All three brothers do their best to stand by their oath, especially Liu Bei. This brotherhood pact plays a key role in the establishment of the Kingdom of Xu, by exemplifying how the non-blood-brothers stood by each other even when the odds were against them.
Throughout the novel, there are many instances where Liu Bei displayed his loyalty to his brothers and their oath. (Lord Guan and Zhang Fei also had their moments of displaying loyalty to their brotherhood, but it will not be discussed here.) As a reward for defeating the Yellow Scarves, Liu Bei is appointed as a judicial officer. When in office, Lord Guan and Zhang Fei stood proudly by Liu Bei’s side, and Liu Bei selflessly “shared bed and board with his brothers.” Being gifted the new job title, Liu Bei chooses to share his power and earnings with his brothers rather than casting them aside and making them sustain themselves through other means. A second example is when all three brothers are separated during their countless battles against Cao Cao. The brothers do not know the whereabouts of each other and the novel gives an account of Liu Bei’s emotional state. Upon hearing no news from his brothers, Liu Bei “was in a state of constant fretfulness.” Clearly, Liu Bei is concerned about the well-being of his brothers and even goes to the extent of blaming himself for their separation and potentially bring more harm than good to them. Later, when the three brothers reunite, Liu Bei is depicted as rejoicing over the fact his brothers came back unharmed. A final example that precisely shows Liu Bei’s loyalty to the oath is when Lord Guan was about to be executed by Kongming for showing mercy to Cao Cao and his men and letting them pass. Liu Bei is reminded of the oath “to live and die—as one” and informs Kongming that he does not have “the heart to go against” their pledge. At point, already well through more than half of the book, Liu Bei still remembers the oath made at the peach garden, and it is this very oath that saves Lord Guan from execution. These three examples of Liu Bei’s loyalty to the brotherhood not only display his righteous and moral character through his actions and words but also greatly explains why he attracted many strong followers. However, his loyalty to the brotherhood eventually becomes his greatest weakness and leads to his failure in reuniting the Han dynasty.
When Liu Bei learns about the beheading of Lord Guan done under the command of Sun Quan, this served as a turning point in his demeanor. Initially, he becomes gravely grief-stricken, faints on multiple accounts, and refuses to drink or eat anything. After some mourning, Liu Bei is filled with grief and anger, and vows to avenge Lord Guan’s death at whatever cost. His judgment becomes greatly impaired and begins to reject the military advice from Kongming and Zhao Zilong. Before Lord Guan’s death, Liu Bei almost always listened to the counsel of Kongming, he never acted on his own accord or made decisions without the presence of Kongming. From making battle strategies to preparing responses for meetings with individuals of the opposing force, Liu Bei listened to Kongming intently like a student listening to his teacher. However, after Lord Guan’s death, Liu Bei took military matters into his own hands. When being informed about Lu Xun’s advances, Liu Bei remarked, “I am seasoned in the ways of the war. Do you think a milksop of a child is too much for me?” This is the first time in the novel Liu Bei boasts about his skills, his display of arrogance may have stemmed from his desire for vengeance. Prior to Lord Guan’s death, Liu Bei never bragged and usually talked lowly of himself in the face of others. Additionally, when Ma Liang advises Liu Bei to send their defense strategies to Kongming for revision, Liu Bei retorts with, “I am versed in warfare well enough to do without his opinion.” Again, Liu Bei’s current remarks seem very different from the ones he usually said before Lord Guan’s death. It seems as if his need to avenge his brother’s death has tainted his judgments and made him forget about his public responsibility to restoring the Han dynasty. The words and actions he displays after the death of Lord Guan seem to revolve solely around the matter of the brotherhood pact, which is a personal matter. Thus, Lord Guan’s death served as a critical moment where Liu Bei had to choose between his loyalty to his brothers and his chance to restoring the Han dynasty. Unfortunately, he chose to be loyal his brothers and severed his chances of uniting all of China.
Even before the death of Lord Guan, the notion of weighing the importance of public duty over personal matters was mentioned. When Kongming was conversing with his elder brother he said, “For one in the service of Lord Liu, it is only fitting that public concerns take precedence over private ones.” Kongming and the individuals serving under Liu Bei knew the importance of placing more value on unity and conformity (collectivism) rather than on the self, and they chose to serve Liu Bei because they also knew Liu Bei held that exact same view. However, with the death of Lord Guan Liu Bei’s perspective changed. He placed more value on the individual self rather than on the collective. Zhao Zilong realized this shift of perspective in Liu Bei and in his attempt to remind Liu Bei of his original intentions he told Liu Bei, “War against the traitors to Han is a public responsibility. War for the sake of a brother is a personal matter. I urge Your Majesty to give priority to the empire.” Unfortunately, Liu Bei was not moved by Zhao Zilong's words and acted on his desire to avenge Lord Guan’s death rather than on uniting China.
Therefore, Lord Guan’s death served as a catalyst to impair Liu Bei’s judgments. Liu Bei’s loyalty to his oath-brothers ultimately took precedence over resorting to the Han Dynasty, which resulted in his failure to uniting all of China and becoming the Heavenly ruler.