One of the aspects of the Romance that makes it a classic is that it is not only a collection of fascinating stories, poems, battle scenes, political or military tricks/strategies; it is also suffused with a moral philosophy, perhaps with more than one. Values matter more or less to the participants in the story; they always matter to the narrator or compiler of the Romance. Of these values/beliefs are two that collide as the action unfolds: loyalty and fate.
Loyalty begins with filial piety on the not unreasonable assumption that a son filial to his father and ancestors would be loyal to his lord and to the Emperor. The first step on the ladder of civil service would be to be recommended for one’s “abilities and filial devotion” (舉孝廉) as was Cao Cao when he was twenty (Romance, ch. 1), even though he becomes the leader of the Usurpers of Han imperial authority. Of Zhou Yu, it was said that he “unfailingly respected his elders” (以交伯符, Romance, ch. 57).
At the same time, the idea that Fate determined one’s life events was fairly universal. Sun Jian, the founder of the Wu kingdom in Jiangdong was known more for his martial prowess than the depth of his understanding of astrology; nonetheless, in chapter 6 of the Romance, he remarks that the emperor’s star had grown dim, foreshadowing the fall of the dynasty.
While planning the final battles of Chibi in chapter 50 of the Romance, Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang of the Loyalist party discuss whether or not Guan Yu could be counted on to guard the final pass that Cao Cao would have to pass through in order to reach safety; they were both aware of his strong sense of honor and felt that since Cao had shown Guan some kindness in the past, Guan would find it difficult to capture Cao. Liang remarked that he had consulted the astrological charts and found “no indication that Fate has determined Cao’s capture”; therefore giving the assignment to Guan Yu would allow him to earn merit with mercy and “that is also a good thing.”
Chapter 54 of the Romance provides another striking example of the importance of divining what Fate has in store. In this chapter, Sun Quan and Zhou Yu of the Wu kingdom that had briefly joined the Loyalists to defeat the Usurpers scheme to use a marriage proposal to the Loyalist Liu Bei (offering Quan’s sister as a bride) in order to lure him into Jiangdong where he can be held for ransom (for the province of Jingzhou). Zhuge Liang agrees with Liu Bei that this is very likely what the Wu leaders intended, but declares that consultation with the stars indicate that nothing untoward would happen to Bei; he therefore urges Bei to accept.
This notion of Fate extends well beyond the Three Kingdoms: Graff, in his Medieval Chinese Warfare (Routledge, 2002), noted that there are several chapters on divination in Tang dynasty military manuals even though the historical records, written by more orthodox Confucian scholars, tend to obscure the role of such practices. Ichisada Miyazaki, 1981, China’s Examination Hell, documents the widespread belief that Fate and spirits influenced if not determined the results of China’s vaunted examination system.
In the context of the events of the Three Kingdoms, when it seemed clear that the Han dynasty was in trouble, there was bound to be a collision between the value of loyalty and the belief that Fate determines the course of events; what should be the proper role of a man who wished to remain loyal when it seems clear that the dynasty is failing, i. e., losing its mandate to rule? How can loyalty be demonstrated when it would appear that the Mandate of Heaven decreed a change?
By the time of the Ming dynasty, the scholars had given sufficient thought to this question and, no doubt with the encouragement of the imperial court, codified the proper response: a man who had sworn to uphold a dynasty could not change his allegiance even if the Mandate of Heaven decrees otherwise. Those who had not sworn allegiance were free to choose which side they each would uphold. This was not so clear at the time of the Three Kingdoms and the uncertainty is reflected in the Romance (compiled during the early Ming dynasty). Such uncertainty gave rise to debate and argumentation that provides an additional dimension of interest to the stories in the Romance.
In chapter 37 of the Romance, Liu Bei meets Cui Zhouping, a close friend of Zhuge Liang’s (the target of Bei’s search for an advisor in his quest to restore the imperial order). Zhouping declares that order and disorder both proceeded from Heaven, that “peace is getting old and there is cause for dried up spears to be wielded again all over,” and that once Heaven had determined the course of events man should not stubbornly attempt to reverse it (命之所在，人不得而強之乎). Bei asks to hear more but declares “I am a servant of the Han and have sworn to support it; I would not dare to leave it to Fate.” At this point, Zhouping pleads ignorance of contemporary affairs and declines to engage in further discussion. While, Bei’s oath-brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei are dismissive of the encounter, Bei seemed anxious to hear more on the subject.
The clash of these values/beliefs is most clearly stated in chapter 43 of the Romance in which Zhuge Liang debates the councilors of the Wu kingdom as well as Sun Quan himself. During the debate, Liang is asked what he thought of Cao Cao; he replies curtly that Cao is a traitor to the Han at which point one of the Wu councilors, interjects to say that the Han era had passed and that Heaven would dispose of its end. Liang replies harshly that in embracing Fate, such a person has dishonored his father and his ruler (天下之所共憤﹔公乃以天數歸之，真無父無君之人也).
Another of the Wu councilor asserts that Cao’s legitimacy did not only spring from the fact that he was holding the Son of Heaven hostage but also because he, Cao, was related to a former prime minister serving the Han. Liang replies that, in that case, Cao is not only a traitor to the imperial dynasty but is also despicably lacking in filial piety for he is rebelling against the ruler and the dynasty his ancestors had served (不惟漢室之亂臣，亦曹氏之賊子也).
Liang provides something of a resolution of this collision of values in what might have been the end of his mission to forge an alliance between Bei’s Loyalist forces and those of Wu/Jiangdong; he meets with Sun Quan who asks the question why Bei remained defiant of Cao while a reasonable assessment of the military situation might lead others to conclude that it would be best to submit. Lord Bei, Liang said, remains defiant because he does not accept that Fate should determine his actions, let others do what they would; Bei would not yield.
It would seem clear that Zhuge Liang has been made the mouth-piece of the Ming neo-Confucian view regarding the balance of loyalty and fate. But it should not be assumed that Luo Guanzhong was simply toeing the “party line.” Of the five bosom friends that regularly met and discussed moral and political concerns, Cui Zhouping and two others opted for the “contemplative life” while Xu Shu was Bei’s first advisor on strategy until a forged letter brought him to his mother who was under house arrest in Cao’s camp. Zhuge Liang of course chose to become Bei’s second and last advisor. Just before he met and joined Bei, however, he and Zhouping were on one of their usual wandering trips.
One can only wonder what they discussed during those days. It is unlikely that the proximity of the events within the narrative of the Romance was a coincidence, and much more likely that Luo intentionally set the discussion between Zhouping and Bei in such close logical and chronological proximity to Liang’s debate in Jiangdong to highlight the uncomfortable collision of the two values/beliefs.