The Textual History of Sanguo Yanyi

The Manchu Translation


The Manchu translation of Sanguo Yanyi, entitled Ilan Guran i Bithe (The Story of the Three Kingdoms) in Manchu, is of great interest to the student of Sanguo Yanyi, as it was translated from a Ming edition, and thus represents a pre-Mao Zonggang version of the novel.[1] Furthermore, its status as the language of the ruling Qing (Manchu) dynasty also ensured that the Manchu translation was the only other version of the novel to be able to compete with the Mao Zonggang recension during the Qing dynasty.

History of the Manchu Translation

Scores of Chinese novels and other works of fiction were translated into the Manchu tongue during the Qing dynasty, but Sanguo Yanyi was probably the earliest, and certainly the most influential, of all such translations.[2] Whereas almost all other Manchu translations of Chinese fiction were never actually published and are only known to exist in manuscript form, Sanguo Yanyi was one of the only two translations of Chinese novels ever to have been put into print (the other being, oddly enough, Jin Ping Mei [Gin Ping Mei Bithe], which was published in Kangxi 47 [1708]). Moreover Sanguo Yanyi was translated and published at the behest of the de facto ruler of the Empire, the Prince Regent Dorgon 多爾袞 (1612-1650, regent 1644-1650), by a team of seven translators supervised by the Grand Secretaries Kicungge 祁充格 (d.1651), Fan Wencheng 范文程 (1597-1666), Garin 剛林 (d.1651), Feng Quan 馮銓 (1595-1672), Hong Chengchou 洪承疇 (1593-1665), Ning Wanwo 寧完我 (d.1665) and Song Quan 宋權. On the 17th day of the first month of Shunzhi 7 [1650] Kicungge submitted a memorial to the effect that the translation was completed and had been printed.[3]

The fact that the translation of Sanguo Yanyi was commissioned by Dorgon, and involved so many important court officials, is noteworthy enough, but that the translation was considered a matter of great importance to the Qing court only five years after the fall of Beijing, when the Manchu regime was still far from fully secure in its control of China (the rump Ming court did not finally collapse until 1661) clearly indicates that the Manchu interest in Sanguo Yanyi transcended its role as a simple work of popular fiction. One of the officials involved in the Sanguo Yanyi translation project, Ning Wanwo, had in Tiancong 7 [1633] put forward a memorial urging the translation of the Confucian classics as a first step towards "rectifying the heart, cultivating the individual self, ordering the family, and governing the state",[4] but in the end the translation of Sanguo Yanyi was given priority over the translation of the "Four Books" and the "Five Classics", none of which were completed before 1652, and which were not eventually published until the Kangxi period (1662-1722).[5]

One reason why Sanguo Yanyi may have been considered so important by the Manchu hierarchy is that they saw the political situation of the Three Kingdoms period as being analogous to that of their own time. Sanguo Yanyi is the story of the decline and fall of a dynasty that had lost the "mandate of Heaven", and the emergence of new dynastic powers. The Manchus needed to justify the dynastic succession from Ming to Qing, and by identifying themselves with the Shu dynasty (perceived as the legitimate successors of the Han dynasty), it is possible the Manchus sought to legitimize their displacement of the Ming dynasty. This is supported by the original order to translate Sanguo Yanyi by Dorgon, who says:

This book can serve as a model of exemplary conduct for loyal subjects, righteous worthies, filial sons, and chaste women. It can also serve as a warning against treacherous subjects who harm their country and bad government which sets the court in disorder. Although the language is unrefined, [this novel] has great benefits, and should enable the people to understand the principle of [dynastic] rise and fall, tranquillity and confusion.

That the Manchus did identify themselves with the Shu cause is given some backing by an unnamed Qing source who suggests that the Manchus modeled their military alliance with the Mongols on the brotherly relationship between Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei:

That this [Qing] dynasty was able to win over the Mongols was in fact all down to their use of Sanguo Yanyi. Before Emperor Shizu (r.1644-1661) had entered the pass [and overthrown the Ming dynasty in 1644], the Manchus first of all conquered the various Mongol tribes. Next, [Hong Taiji] formed brotherly alliances with the various Mongol khans, using the Peach Orchard Oath as a model. The Manchus identified themselves with Liu Bei, and identified the Mongols with Guan Yu. Later, when [Hong Taiji] became Emperor of all China, he was afraid that the Mongols might become disaffected, and so he enfeoffed Guan Yu as the Great Emperor Sage Guan (with many honorific titles) in order to show his respect for the Mongols. It is for this reason that, aside from their faith in the lamas, the Mongols revere no-one more than Guan Yu. It is precisely for this reason that for more than two hundred years [the Mongols] have guarded the northern borders as loyal subjects, and have never invaded nor rebelled. In this they emulate Guan Yu's unerring devotion to Liu Bei.

This analogy could be further extended by identifying the younger brother of the Liu Bei brotherhood, Zhang Fei, with the Han Chinese. The Banner system instituted under Nurhaci (Emperor Taizu, r.1583-1626), whereby all Manchus belonged to one of eight banners, was extended by Hong Taiji (Emperor Taizong, r.1627-1643) by the addition of eight Mongol banners and eight Han banners for those Mongols and Han Chinese who submitted to the Manchu regime. The relationship between the Manchu, Mongol, and Han banners was clearly analogous to the brotherhood between Liu Bei (elder brother = Manchu), Guan Yu (second brother = Mongol), and Zhang Fei (younger brother = Han); and if the brotherhood between Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei was conceived as a union to save the Han dynasty from usurpers such as Cao Cao, so too would the Manchu hierarchy have liked the people of China to think that the combined armies of the Manchu, Mongol and Han banners were intent on saving the Ming dynasty from usurpers such as the rebel Li Zicheng (whose occupation of the capital Beijing in 1644 was the trigger for the Manchu invasion of China).

It may well have been useful as propaganda for the Manchus to identify themselves with Liu Bei or the Shu cause, but it does not convincingly give an explanation for why the translation of Sanguo Yanyi was of such urgency to the Qing court.

A more practical explanation of why the Qing court ordered the translation of Sanguo Yanyi is that the Manchus considered it to be useful as a book of practical military strategy. For example, Wang Songru 王嵩儒 (1873-?) claimed:

Before this [Qing] dynasty had entered the pass [and overthrown the Ming dynasty in 1644] the [Manchu] translation of Sanguo Yanyi was used as a book of military strategy, and for this reason the Qing dynasty esteemed Guan Yu.

Furthermore, Chen Kangqi 陳康祺 (1840-1890) provides the following anecdote relating to the use of Sanguo Yanyi as a manual of generalship:

During the early years of the [Qing] dynasty, many of the Manchu generals who could not read Chinese found this [translation of Sanguo Yanyi] to be of great help. During the Jiaqing period (1796-1820) when the Loyal and Resolute Duke Eldemboo (1748-1805) was first made an imperial guardsman under the command of Hai Chaoyong, his forces would be defeated in every battle. Chaoyong told him: "Your skills as a military officer can do with some improvement: you need to learn something of ancient military strategy", whereupon he gave him a copy of Sanguo Yanyi. Eventually he was made a military commissioner, and when the bandits of the three provinces (the White Lotus rebels) were quelled Eldemboo was top of the roll of honour.

The idea that Sanguo Yanyi could actually be used to instruct generals in the art of fighting battles may seem somewhat far-fetched, and that it would have been translated specifically for that purpose somewhat fanciful, but this possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. Military strategy was a real concern for the Manchus, as can be seen from the fact that of the nine translations undertaken by the great translator Dahai at the Manchu court of Mukden in 1632-1633 (see below), three of them were works that belonged to the "school of military strategy": Su Shu 素書 (The Plain Book), San Lüe 三略 (The Three Strategies) and Liu Tao 六韜 (The Six Secret Teachings).[10] Although the first two texts do not contain precise details of military strategy, they do expound general ethical and political principles which the Manchus may have thought necessary to emulate in order to overcome their Chinese neighbours. It may well have been that the Manchu leadership saw in Sanguo Yanyi the exact combination of practical military instruction, ethical principles and political leadership that they wished to assimilate.

As noted in the remark by Wang Songru quoted above, there is a tradition that the Manchu translation of Sanguo Yanyi was completed before the Manchu invasion of China in 1644, and that it was used by Manchu generals during the campaign to establish Manchu rule in China.[11] Evidence that the history of the translation of Sanguo Yanyi may go back to the earliest period of Sino-Manchu translations made at the Manchu court in Mukden under Hong Taiji (1627-1643) has been found in a passage in the Da-Qing Taizong Wen Huangdi Shilu (The Veritable Records of Emperor Taizong of the Great Qing) which records the translations that had been made by the great Manchu scholar Dahai 達海 (1595-1632) when he died at the age of thirty-eight (by Chinese reckoning) in the seventh Month of Tiancong 6 [1632]:

The works that [Dahai] had previously translated include the Xingbu Huidian (The Penal Code),[12] the Su Shu (The Plain Book), the San Lüe (The Three Strategies), and the Wanbao Quanshu (The Precious Book of Knowledge) which have all been completed. At the present time he was just in the process of translating the Tongjian (A Comprehensive Mirror),[13] the Liu Tao (The Six Secret Teachings), Mengzi (The Book of Mencius), Sanguozhi (The History of the Three Kingdoms), and [a selection from] the Mahayana sutras, but he died before they were finished.

A work entitled Sanguozhi would normally refer to the dynastic history of the Three Kingdoms period, and it has been accepted as this by some modern scholars.[15] However, other scholars identify this text as the novel Sanguo Yanyi (which was titled Sanguozhi in a few editions, notably the Li Zhuowu commentary edition which was the most popular edition amongst the late Ming scholar-official class).[16] This identification is given weight by the late Qing official Chen Kangqi (1840-1890) who makes the following remarks in connection with the Manchu translation of Sanguo Yanyi:

In Chongde 4 [1639] the emperor Taizong (Hong Taiji) ordered the Grand Secretary Dahai to translate Mengzi (The Book of Mencius), Tongjian (A Comprehensive Mirror), the Liu Tao (The Six Secret Teachings), and also this book (Luo Guanzhong's Sanguo Yanyi), but the [translations] were not completed.

Chen Kangqi apparently bases himself on the entry in Da-Qing Taizong Wen Huangdi Shilu, but the date of Chongde 4 [1639] for the commissioning of the translation is evidently wrong as Dahai had been dead for seven years by that time. Possibly Chongde 4 is a mistake for Tiancong 4 [1630].

The texts translated by Dahai are eclectic, covering works of history, law, philosophy, religion, military strategy and general knowledge, and so it would be hard to say that Sanguo Yanyi would not have been a fitting work for a court translation (indeed it was translated by imperial command less than twenty years later). However, there is no hard evidence that the Sanguozhi translated by Dahai was indeed Sanguo Yanyi, and the only sources that date the translation of the novel to the pre-conquest period are late 19th century authors (Wang Songru and Chen Kangqi) whose reliability has to be in question.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that Dahai may have been translating the dynastic history rather than the novel. Firstly, in the Manchu history, Manwen Laodang (The Old Manchu Annals), which Da-Qing Taizong Wen Huangdi Shilu is based on, the title of the unfinished translation by Dahai is given as San Guwe Jy (a transliteration of Sanguozhi) rather than as Ilan Gurun i Bithe (The Story of the Three Kingdoms) which is what the extant Manchu translation of the novel is known as. Secondly, the dynastic history Sanguozhi was translated at an early date, and apparently published in Shunzhi 4 [1647], three years before the completion of Sanguo Yanyi.[18] This translation of Sanguozhi may well have been based on Dahai's unfinished manuscript.

Although we cannot dismiss the possibility that the earliest translation of Sanguo Yanyi dates to the pre-conquest period, in the absence of more substantial evidence, it would seem safest to assume that the Manchu text of Sanguo Yanyi started with the extant 1650 translation.

Editions of the Manchu Translation

The extant Manchu translation exists in two printed editions, one a monolingual Manchu edition, and one a bilingual Manchu-Chinese edition. Various manuscript versions of the Manchu translation are also known,[19] but these are probably copies of one or other of the extant printed editions.

Monolingual Edition

The monolingual Manchu edition [Man-A], entitled Ilan Gurun i Bithe, is the edition discussed above that was published by imperial order in Shunzhi 7 [1650]. Most extant editions include the 1650 memorial by the Grand Secretary Kicungge 祁充格 among the prefatory matter.

The edition has a textual division of 24 juan, and includes the table of dramatis personae that is found in most Ming editions of the novel. Each half-folio comprises nine lines of text, written from left to right in the standard Manchu fashion.

The text of this edition closely follows that of the 1522 preface edition of the Chinese text, albeit with a certain amount of textual abridgement and simplification, and at first glance appears to be a direct translation of the text of the 1522 edition. However, a closer examination of the text shows that this is not quite the case.

Firstly, although the text closely follows that of the 1522 edition, and clearly has a close textual affiliation with that edition, there is evidence that the extant 1522 edition cannot have been the actual source edition for the Manchu translation. For example, there are three example of homœoteleutic omission that are found only in the 1522 edition (see Examples nos.136-138), that are not to be found in the Manchu translation. If the Manchu text had been translated from the 1522 edition, then we would expect that the Manchu text would preserve these examples of homœoteleutic omission. In fact the text omitted in the 1522 edition is partially or fully translated in the Manchu edition. This indicates that the source edition for the Manchu translation could not have been the extant 1522 edition, but must have been a non-extant ancestral edition to the 1522 edition, in which the textual corruptions peculiar to extant 1522 edition had not yet been introduced. As the Manchu translation was an imperial commission, supervised by a team of high officials, it quite possible that the translators had access to an early official edition of Sanguo Yanyi kept in the Imperial Library, such as the editions recorded as having been issued by the Censorate (Ducha Yuan 都察院) and by the Directorate of Ceremonial (Sili Jian 司禮監). The Manchu translation may thus be the only surviving textual witness to one of these early official editions.

Secondly, Items 13-17 of the Manchu text are not translated from the same source as the rest of the edition, but appear to have been translated from a 120 chapter commentary edition. This is evidenced by the fact that Items 13-15 contain a number of intratextual notes and geographical glosses that are identical to those found in the 120 chapter commentary editions such as the Li Zhuowu commentary edition, whilst the titles for Items 16 and 17 of the Manchu text translate the titles given in the 120 chapter text rather than the slightly different titles that are given in the text of the 1522 edition. Presumably the section of text corresponding to items 13-17 of the source edition for the translation were missing or damaged, and so the missing sections were translated from a 120 chapter edition, most probably the Li Zhuowu commentary edition, which was the edition of Sanguo Yanyi that was most widely read amongst the literati during the late Ming and early Qing.

The following copies of this edition are known to me:

Bilingual Edition

The bilingual Manchu-Chinese edition [Man-B], entitled Ilan Gurun i Bithe in Manchu or simply Sanguozhi 三國志 in Chinese, comprises the complete text of the monolingual Manchu edition, together with an interlinear Chinese translation. Like the earlier monolingual Manchu edition, this edition has a textual division of 24 juan, and includes a table of dramatis personae. Each half-folio of text comprises 7 lines of Manchu text, writen from right to left, with the Chinese translation appended to the right of the corresponding Manchu text.

From the evidence of taboo characters in the Chinese text, this edition would seem to have been published during the Yongzheng period (1723-1735): the Chinese text omits the last stroke of the characters used for personal names by the Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors (xuan 玄, ye 曄 and yin 胤), but not those used by the Qianlong emperor (hong 弘 and li 曆). The publisher of this edition is unknown, and it is perhaps an official edition.

The Chinese text of this edition follows the Manchu text closely (i.e. it neither adds to nor subtracts from the narrative contents of the Manchu text), but is often written in a more colloquial language that the original Chinese text from which the Manchu text was translated. This gives it the appearance of being a back-translation from the Manchu. However, there are too many exact correspondences between the wording of the Chinese text appended to the Manchu translation and the wording of Chinese editions of Sanguo Yanyi for this to be wholly the case. It seems that the compiler of the Manchu-Chinese edition must have had access to a Chinese edition, which he edited to follow the often abridged Manchu text, and which he partially rewrote in a colloquial style that would be easier to understand for a Manchu reader whose native tongue was not Chinese. A close examination of the appended Chinese text indicates that its source was not the same as the source for the Manchu translation (a text closely related to the extant 1522 edition), but must have been a 120 chapter edition, probably the popular Li Zhuowu commentary edition.

The following copies of this edition are known to me:

Translations of the Manchu Version

The status of the Manchu language during the Qing dynasty meant that the Manchu translation of Sanguo Yanyi was extremely influential during the Qing dynasty, and was the basis for a number of translations of the novel into other languages. Indeed, I am not aware of any Qing dynasty translations of the novel that are based solely on the Chinese text.


The Manchu translation of Sanguo Yanyi was apparently used as the basis for a translation of the novel into the Sibe language (a language closely related to Manchu, and written in the same script).[20] I have not come across the Sibe translation, and I suspect that it only exists in manuscript.


There is an early Mongolian translation of the novel, which I have not seen. Boris Riftin, who has examined the Mongolian translation, is not certain whether the Mongolian version is translated from the Manchu or not, but he does mention that he has seen a single volume of a Mongolian table of dramatis personae for Sanguo Yanyi, and as the Manchu text was the only common Qing edition to preserve the table of dramatis personae commonly found in the Ming editions of the novel, this suggests that the Mongolian version might indeed have been translated from the Manchu.[21]


I do not know of a complete Korean translation of the novel made during the Qing dynasty, but there does exist a bilingual Manchu-Korean text entitled Sam Yǒk Ch'ong Hae 三譯總解 (A Trilingual Translation with General Notes) which was first published in Korea in Kangxi 42 [1703], and republished in Qianlong 39 [1774].[22] This was intended as an educational text for learning Manchu, and comprises the Manchu text, an intratextual phonetic transcription and a translation into Korean (hence the term "trilingual" in the title), of ten of the most well-known items from Sanguo Yanyi:

The Manchu text is exactly the same as that of the full translation (although intratextual notes are omitted), and each of the ten items of the Manchu text is printed in full.


I have heard rumours that there is a Qing translation, perhaps only partial, of Sanguo Yanyi into Tibetan. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate a copy of this translation, which I suspect would have been from the Manchu.


The influence of the Manchu version of Sanguo Yanyi was not restricted to the Far East, but also extended to Europe, where many of the early Sinologists where more at home with Manchu than Chinese. Thus, the first translation of Sanguo Yanyi into a European language, Théodore Pavie's San-koué-tchy (Ilan kouroun-i pithé): Histoire des Trois Royaumes (Paris, 1845-1851), was primarily based on the Manchu version of the novel.


1. A facsimile reprint of the copy of the bilingual Manchu-Chinese edition of Sanguo Yanyi is available under the title A Manchu Edition of Ilan-gurun-i bithe. A transliteration and translation into English of a short passage from Item 93 of the Manchu translation of Sanguo Yanyi is given in Robert Ramsey, The Languages of China pp.222-223.

2. See Martin Gimm, "Manchu translations of Chinese novels and short stories", where seventy-six Manchu translations of Chinese fiction are catalogued (see pp.103-105 for Sanguo Yanyi).

3. This memorial, written in Manchu, is the main primary source relating to the background of this translation, and is present at the head of the extant monolingual Manchu translation. It has been translated into Chinese by Huang Runhua and Wang Xiaohong in "Manwen yiben Tangren Xiaoshuo, Liaozhai Zhiyi deng xuyan ji yiyin Sanguo Yanyi yuzhi" pp.4-5. The completion of the translation and distribution of payments to those concerned is also recorded in an entry for the fourth month of Shunzhi 7 [1650] in Da-Qing Shizu Zhang Huangdi Shilu (The Veritable Records of Emperor Shizu) 48:20a-b. Martin Gimm ("Manchu translations of Chinese novels and short stories" p.104) and Zheng Zhenduo ("Sanguozhi Yanyi de yanhua" p.167) both cite Chen Kangqi (1840-1890) as giving the date of completion of the translation as Shunzhi 4 [1647], but all the editions of Langqian Jiwen Erbi (also known as Yanxia Xiang Cuolu 燕下鄉脞錄) that I have examined give Shunzhi 7 [1650] as the date of completion (see for example Langqian Jiwen Chubi, Erbi, Sanbi 10/513; and Zhu and Liu, Sanguo Yanyi Ziliao Huibian p.710).

4. Cited in Stephen Durrant, "Sino-Manchu translations at the Mukden court" p.654.

5. See Stephen Durrant, "Manchu Translations of Chou Dynasty Texts" p.53.

6. From the Chinese translation in Huang Runhua and Wang Xiaohong, "Manwen yiben Tangren Xiaoshuo, Liaozhai Zhiyi deng xuyan ji yiyin Sanguo Yanyi yuzhi" pp.4-5.

7. Quoted in Zhu and Liu, Sanguozhi Yanyi Ziliao Huibian p.745.

8. Zhanggu Lingshi 1:9b-10a (also in Zhu and Liu, Sanguo Yanyi Ziliao Huibian p.708).

9. Langqian Jiwen Chubi, Erbi, Sanbi 10/514 (also in Zhu and Liu, Sanguo Yanyi Ziliao Huibian p.710).

10. These three texts, and the motives for their translation, are discussed by Stephen Durrant in "Sino-Manchu translations at the Mukden court" pp.654-655.

11. Cf. also Zheng Zhenduo, "Sanguozhi Yanyi de yanhua" p.168, where he mentions that in some forgotten book he had once read it was stated that many Manchu officers carried a copy of the Manchu translation of Sanguo Yanyi with them when they invaded China. According to this source, the Manchus greatly revered Guan Yu, and whenever their troops were in trouble the red-faced, long-bearded Lord Guan would come to their rescue.

12. Identified as Ming Huidian Lüli 明會典律例 (The Penal Statutes of the Ming Legal Code). See Stephen Durrant, "Sino-Manchu translations at the Mukden court" p.655.

13. Identified as the Gangjian Huizuan 綱鑒會纂 version of Zhu Xi's Zizhi Tongjian Gangmu (Outline and Explanation of a Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government) compiled by Wang Shizhen 王世貞 (1526-1590). See Stephen Durrant, "Sino-Manchu translations at the Mukden court" p.656.

14. Da-Qing Taizong Wen Huangdi Shilu 12:14b-15a. This entry is itself based on the Manchu history Manwen Laodang (The Old Manchu Annals), for which see Manbun Rōtō vol.5 p.825.

15. See for example Stephen Durrant, "Sino-Manchu translations at the Mukden court" p.656.

16. See for example Martin Gimm, "Manchu translations of Chinese novels and short stories" pp.79 and 103.

17. Langqian Jiwen Chubi, Erbi, Sanbi 10/513-514 (also in Zhu and Liu, Sanguo Yanyi Ziliao Huibian p.710).

18. According to Stephen Durrant, "Sino-Manchu translations at the Mukden court" p.656. However, I myself have not seen this 1647 edition of Sanguozhi.

19. See Martin Gimm, "Manchu translations of Chinese novels and short stories" p.105.

20. See Huang Runhua, "Manwen Fanyi Xiaoshuo Shulüe" p.8 for mention of the Sibe version.

21. See Li Fuqing, "Zhongguo zhanghui xiaoshuo yu huaben de Mengwen yiben" p.104.

22. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the Oriental Collection of the British Library in London both have copies of the 1774 edition (British Library call number 19957.d.9), but I do not know if the original 1703 edition is still extant or not (Gimm makes no mention of any copies of the 1703 edition). See Simon and Nelson, Manchu Books in London p.117 (no.II.148), and M. Courant, Bibliographie Coréenne vol.1 pp.87-89 (nos.115-116) for further details of this edition.

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