The Records of the Three Kingdoms is a Chinese historical text which covers the history of the late Eastern Han dynasty (c. 184–220 AD) and the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD). It is widely regarded as the official and authoritative historical text for that period. Written by Chen Shou in the third century, the work combines the smaller histories of the rival states of Cao Wei, Shu Han and Eastern Wu in the Three Kingdoms period into a single text. The Records of the Three Kingdoms provided the basis for the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century.
Together with the Records of the Grand Historian, Book of Han and Book of the Later Han, the Records of the Three Kingdoms is part of the early four historiographies of the Twenty-Four Histories canon. It contains 65 volumes and about 360,000 Chinese characters which are broken into three books. The Book of Wei contains 30 volumes, the Book of Shu 15 volumes, while the Book of Wu contains 20 volumes. Each volume is organised in the form of one or more biographies. The amount of space a biography takes up is dictated by the importance of the figure.
The original author was Chen Shou, who was born in present-day Nanchong, Sichuan, in the state of Shu. After the fall of Shu in 263, he became an official historian under the government of the Jin dynasty, and was assigned to create a history of the Three Kingdoms period. After the fall of Wu in 280, his work received the acclaim of the senior minister Zhang Hua. Prior to the Jin dynasty, both the states of Wei and Wu already had their official histories, such as the Book of Wei by Wang Chen, the Weilüe by Yu Huan, and the Book of Wu by Wei Zhao. Chen Shou created the Records of the Three Kingdoms with these preexisting works as a foundation. However, since the state of Shu lacked documents about its history, the Book of Shu in the Records of the Three Kingdoms was composed by Chen Shou himself based on his personal memories of his early life in Shu and other primary sources he collected, such as the writings of Zhuge Liang. The Records of the Three Kingdoms used the year 220 AD — which marked the end of the Han dynasty — as the year in which the state of Wei was established. The Records of the Three Kingdoms referred the rulers of Wei as 'Emperors' and those of Shu and Wu as 'Lords' or by their personal names. This was to uphold the legitimacy of the Jin dynasty as the inheritor of the Mandate of Heaven from Wei — because Wei must first be "designated" as the true successor to the Han dynasty in order for Jin's claim to be effective.
The romantic and historical traditions for the Three Kingdoms period have been so confused over the centuries that the Records of the Three Kingdoms is often regarded as an invaluable resource. Although it contains errors, it is nevertheless more historically accurate than the embellishments of writers in later periods. Many of the political, economic and military figures from the Three Kingdoms period have their own biographies in the Records of the Three Kingdoms, as are those who contributed to the fields of culture, arts and science. In its nature, the work is indeed a chronicle, much like those of early Medieval Europe written much later. The text is bland and little more than a collection of historical facts.
A rough translation of a typical extract from Guan Yu's biography is as follows:
In the 24th year (of Jian'an), the Former Lord became the King of Hanzhong, and he appointed (Guan) Yu as the "General of the Vanguard". In the same year, (Guan) Yu led his men to attack Cao Ren at Fan. Lord Cao sent Yu Jin to aid (Cao) Ren. In autumn, great rains caused the Han River to flood, (Yu) Jin and the seven armies were lost.
From this, we can establish reasonably accurately the flow of events and how history unfolded but almost nothing about society or elements of institutions or policies.
The amount of creative imagination used in ancient Chinese historical narratives — of "fictionalising" — is impossible to estimate precisely. Sima Qian employed this device in his Records of the Grand Historian and it can be assumed that Chen Shou also did the same in the Records of the Three Kingdoms. It is highly unlikely that various remarks which leaders or soldiers are supposed to have made in the heat of battle could have been taken down stenographically and thus many of them may be false.
Chen Shou, a former Shu subject, favoured his state over Wu in the work, but this preference was subordinate to the Jin dynasty's point of view, which saw Wei as the legitimate successor to the Han dynasty. He referred to the Wei rulers as 'Emperors', the Shu rulers as 'Lords', and the Wu rulers by their personal names. He also never referred to the Wu empresses as "empresses", instead calling them "Ladies".
The book is also important to the research of Japanese history (where it is known as Sangokushi (三国志)), for its volume on Wa is the first historical document to make explicit mention of Japan. It describes the ancient country of Yamatai and its queen Himiko.
Due to the biographical rather than primarily annalistic arrangement of the work, assigning dates to the historical content is both imprecise and non-trivial. Certain volumes contain background information about their subjects' forebears which date back centuries before the main record. For example, the biography of Liu Yan begins with discussing his ancestor Liu Yu's enfeoffment at Jingling (present-day Tianmen, Hubei) in around 85 AD. The first event to receive detailed description throughout the work is the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184. Many biographies make passing mention of the event, but more concrete information such as correspondence and troop movements during the uprising can be found in fragmentary form in at least four volumes: the biographies of Cheng Yu, Yu Jin, Liu Bei, and Sun Jian.
The three books in the Records of the Three Kingdoms end at different dates, with the main section of the Book of Wei ending with the abdication of Cao Huan in 265, the Book of Shu ending with the death of Liu Shan in 271, and the Book of Wu ending with the death of Sun Hao in 284.