A Surefire Way to impress Chinese People – The Power of The Three Kingdoms

In my experience, negotiating, building good relationships and striking business deals is never straightforward, especially in China. Continuing on my quest to improve my business relations with the Chinese, I found it useful to dig deeper into the roots of their ancient culture. In this post, you will see how one novel in particular blew my mind away.  “The Three Kingdoms”is a must read if you aim to do business in China more efficiently and effectively.

Last year, my Mandarin classmate, Micheal, recommended this book to help me engage in better one-one conversation with the Chinese. Micheal, a Spanish literature professor, was impressed with The Three Kingdom’s ”richness”. More importantly, he told me how I can use the book to impress the Chinese.

It was really eye opening to hear his stories about the novel and the fact not many foreigners know about it! Michael cited the novel on many occasions in his conversations with Chinese taxi drivers, doormen and local neighbours. I was left intrigued and decided to set myself two targets. Firstly, read the four volumes of Three Kingdoms and secondly, start a little experiment myself.

Although I haven’t still quite managed to finish the novel (it has around 500 pages), I did conclude my experiment. After having asked all my expat friends, including the ones who have lived here in China for over 5 years, none of them had ever heard of the book! On the other hand, everybody in my Chinese family and people on the street knew the novel very well and were very impressed I knew it.

8 Reasons why you should read Three Kingdoms

  1. According to many scholars and sources the Three Kingdoms novel is one of the four most important pieces of Chinese literature.
  2. Only about 30% of the novel is fiction, the remaining part is all about real Chinese history, politics and warfare.
  3. Most Chinese will know about the novel and it can help you to open new doors and establish a common ground for further conversations.
  4. Since not many foreigners know about the book, the Chinese will be very impressed and will start respecting you.
  5. It will show the Chinese you are not only interested in doing business but also want to know about their culture and foster longer lasting relationships. This is very important to them!
  6. It will help to understand the importance maintaining and expanding your Guanxi (Guanxi is more than a network for the Chinese).
  7. It will help you to understand the Chinese way of thinking and values, which is very important for negotiations and marketing.
  8. American and European business schools introduce oriental strategic thinking through Sun Tzu’s book, “The Art of War”. They imagine there is no better way to illustrate medieval battle. But, for an introduction to the Chinese conception of diplomacy, strategy and warfare, there is nothing to match the colorful and astounding “Three Kingdoms”.

Brief background of the Novel

The novel, written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century depicts the lives of Chinese feudal lords and their followers. The focus is on three power blocs that emerged from the ruins of the Han Dynasty that eventually form the three states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu (See map on right). The Three Kingdoms deals with their power struggle to achieve overall dominance.

The story spans over a 100 years (169 AD to 280 AD) and gives readers a sense of how the Chinese view their history in over a cyclical phase. The famous opening lines of the novel summarize this view: “It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide”.                                   

Influence on Chinese Culture

“Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, silk painting by Sekkan Sakurai (1715–1790), depicting Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei".

This famous painting on the left is usually hung in the offices of businessmen to show that they are trustworthy, just as these brothers were to each other in the novel. The Three Kingdoms also influences Chinese culture in the following ways:

a) The novel has its mark on Chinese cartoons, opera shows, soup operas, movies (like the Red Cliff and The Lost Bladesman), poems and songs.

b) It is well known in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia.

c) Political icons like Deng Xiaoping (politician responsible for the opening of China) and Mao Zedong (former head of communist party) used passages of The Three Kingdom in important speeches.

d) Famous Proverbs that you can cite: 兄弟如手足,妻子如衣服。衣服可破,尚可縫;手足斷,安可續 Translation: Brothers are like limbs, wives are like clothing. Torn clothing can be repaired; how can broken limbs be mended? Interpretation: It means that wives, like clothing, are replaceable if lost but the same does not hold true for one’s brothers (or friends). (click to see more)

Hard to imagine, but there are even books on the management style of the icons of the novel like: The great strategist Zhuge Liang,  Cao Cao politics, Guan Yu loyalty, and others. These could be also great support to understand Chinese leaders.

Certainly, there are other Chinese classical novels that can help you to discover more about Middle Kingdom history and impress your Chinese friends, customers or colleagues. Here are some of them:

The Four Great Classical Novels (Si Da Ming Zhu 四大名著)

  1. Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢,红楼梦 A Dream of Red Mansions, The Story of the Stone and The Chronicles of the Stone, 石頭記, 石头记 Shítóu Jì), by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹)
  2. Water Margin (水滸傳, 水浒传 All Men Are Brothers and Outlaws of the Marsh), by Shī Nài’ān (施耐庵)
  3. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義,三国演义), by Luó Guànzhōng (羅貫中,罗贯中)
  4. Journey to the West (西遊記,西游记 Monkey King and Monkey), by Wú Chéng’ēn (吳承恩,吴承恩).

Lastly, why don’t you try the experiment yourself and discuss The Three Kingdoms with the Chinese. Let me know your results?

About Thiago Gomes de Lima

My Name is Thiago Gomes. I am Brazilian Swiss, based in Shanghai. I hold a trilingual and tri-national bachelor degree in International Business Management from the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland. My working experience ranges from commercial to supply chain in different parts of the world such as: Europe, Brazil, SEA and China.

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