Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical novel based on the events that occurred before and during the Three Kingdoms era. Written by Luo Guanzhong more than a millennium after the Three Kingdoms period, the novel incorporates many popular tales and opera scripts into the character of Guan Yu, making him one of the most altered and aggrandized in the book. Significant incidents that deviate from true history include:

Brotherhood sworn in the garden of peach blossoms

This particular tale is one of the most well-known stories from the novel and found in the first chapter. It speaks of Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei who, having met by chance in the county of Zhuo in 184, found a common desire to serve the country in such tumultuous times. They swore an oath of brotherhood the next day in Zhang Fei's backyard, which was a garden full of peach blossoms. Liu Bei was ranked the eldest, Guan Yu the second, and Zhang Fei the youngest.

The Oath of the Peach Garden inspired present day secret societies in Chinese communities, such as the Triad, to use a similar ritual when swearing in new members. The phrasing of their oath, "Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we hope to die so," is popular among present day secret societies.

Releasing Cao Cao at Huarong Trail

In Chapter 50, after the fire started burning his ships at the Battle of Red Cliffs, Cao Cao gathered all the men he could and escaped towards the city of Jiangling. Under instruction from adviser Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu led 500 foot soldiers and lay in wait along the Huarong Trail, a narrow shortcut in the woods leading to Jiangling. Prior to leaving, Guan Yu had duly sworn an oath not to allow Cao Cao passage over past favors from the warlord.

Cao Cao came to a fork in the road during his perilous escape. Columns of smoke were seen rising from the narrower path. Cao Cao judged that the smoke was a trick of the enemy to divert him to the main road, where an ambush must have been laid. He then led his men towards the narrow path – the Huarong Trail.

The smoke was indeed a trick by Zhuge Liang. Grasping Cao Cao's psychology exactly, Zhuge Liang meant to direct him to the Huarong Trail, where Guan Yu with his men were waiting. Upon being cut off, Cao Cao rode forward and appealed to Guan Yu to remember his kindness in former days. Seeing the plight of the defeated men and recalling the former favors he received from Cao Cao, Guan Yu eventually allowed the enemy to pass through without challenge, despite his previous oath. Upon returning, Guan Yu pleaded guilty but under the beseeching of Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang fully understood the compassion and mercy of General Guan Yu and forgave him.

Treatment of a poisoned arm

The famed physician Hua Tuo came by a boat from the east and went to see Guan Yu, who was playing a game of go with adviser Ma Liang. After examining the wound, Hua Tuo told Guan Yu he had to cut open the flesh and scrape off the residual poison on the surface of the bones. He also suggested that the patient place the injured arm through a ring fixed to a pillar to prevent movement in the absence of anesthesia, and that blindfold be applied. However, Guan Yu requested that the primitive surgery be performed on the spot, while he continued the game. Those around him cringed at the sound of the knife scraping the bone, but Guan Yu ate and drank, talked and laughed as if he did not feel any pain, presumably not to affect the morale of his army.

Records of Three Kingdoms did record a similar incident, though the physician was not named. Also, the injury was sustained on the left arm instead of the right at an unspecified time. Hua Tuo was not alive at that time of treatment. He was credited to have died in 208 AD, 12 years before the scraping of the bones story happened, making this event an anachronism.

Revenge on Lü Meng

Also in Chapter 77, after executing Guan Yu and reclaiming Jingzhou , Sun Quan threw a feast to celebrate and commend Lü Meng, chief planner and commander of the maneuver to capture Jingzhou and Guan Yu. On the feast, however, Lü Meng was possessed by Guan Yu's spirit and seized Sun Quan. As others rushed forward to save their lord, the possessed Lü Meng swore revenge. In moments, Lü Meng collapsed onto the floor and died. The frightened Sun Quan then sent Guan Yu's severed head in a wooden box to Cao Cao, meaning to sow a discord between the Kingdom of Shu and Kingdom of Wei.

When Cao Cao opened the box, he saw that Guan Yu looked as he did alive. Cao Cao smiled and said to Guan Yu's head, "I hope you are well since we last parted." To his horror, Guan Yu opened his mouth, and the long beard and hairs stood on their ends. Cao Cao fell to the floor and did not regain consciousness for a long time. When he did, he exclaimed, "General Guan is truly a god from heaven!" He then ordered the head be buried with honors accorded to a noble.

Historically, Lü Meng died of illness some time after Guan Yu's death, naming Lu Xun as his successor. In what can be seen as a case of irony, Lü Meng's death gave the brilliant young strategist his chance to inflict a far more devastating defeat on Liu Bei at Yiling, all but destroying Shu's war making capability.

A great man is a great man because of certain things he has done -- he may be a great hero. A great man in any direction is partial. Greatness is partial, fragmentary. That is why great men have to face more anguish than ordinary men.


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