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Does Lord of the Rings have its roots in Chinese Literature? Let's see!

Updated on September 3, 2012
There is a prodigious amount of anecdotal evidence that Tolkien based Lord of the Rings on the 14th century epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms
There is a prodigious amount of anecdotal evidence that Tolkien based Lord of the Rings on the 14th century epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The pledge of allegiance of the fellowship has a stark contrast with the oath of brotherhood in the peach garden between Generals Liu Bei (Centre), Guan Yu (Left) and Zhang Fei (Right)
The pledge of allegiance of the fellowship has a stark contrast with the oath of brotherhood in the peach garden between Generals Liu Bei (Centre), Guan Yu (Left) and Zhang Fei (Right)
The legendary Chinese statesman Zhuge Liang, on whom I believe Tolkien based the character Gandalf
The legendary Chinese statesman Zhuge Liang, on whom I believe Tolkien based the character Gandalf
Sima Yi, the main villain of the later part of the novella, and Zhuge Liang's arch-nemesis. I believe that Saruman the dark wizard was based on Sima Yi.
Sima Yi, the main villain of the later part of the novella, and Zhuge Liang's arch-nemesis. I believe that Saruman the dark wizard was based on Sima Yi.

This is going to be one of my more controversial posts, which I expect to generate a fair bit of debate. We all know that all great literature has had its origins somewhere. We all know that the plot of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Inception was probably based on a Donald Duck comic book, and that that William Shakespeare's world-renowned play Romeo and Juliet was in fact, inspired by the Roman fable Pyramus and Thisbe. But did you know that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (very, very probably) had its roots in Early Modern Chinese literature? This essay attempts to compare and contrast the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the 14th century Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, altogether pointing out the uncanny parallels, in order to support the notion that Tolkien had in fact based the Lord of the Rings on Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Please note that this essay is not supported by any contemporary academic authority of any kind, and that the opinions put fourth by me are nothing but opinions, and that you are free to disagree with me as far as this issue is concerned.

I think we all know what Lord of the Rings is about. In a nutshell, it tells the story of a band of heroes who go on a quest to destroy this evil little ring, which causes bad things to happen to anybody who touches it. But I think I should probably sum up what Romance of the Three Kingdoms is, in order to cater to the layman reader. Basically, Romance of the Three Kingdoms takes place in the declining years of the Han Dynasty (c. 180 A.D.), and revolves around a regular guy named Liu Bei, who is in fact, the true heir to the throne of China. It tells of how Liu Bei rises from poverty and becomes one of the greatest men in Ancient China, and centers around his quest to restore the Han Dynasty to its former glory, and bring peace to the people. Here's a link to the theme song of the epic 2010 TV Series Three Kingdoms. This should give you a more thorough idea on what I mean when I say it strongly, strongly contrasts with Lord of the Rings. Just read the lyrics, and you will see what I mean!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sShe58IL47k

Anyhoo... How does this tie in with Lord of the Rings?

Well, for starters:

Consider the premise of these two pieces of fiction:

Lord of the Rings: One ring to rule them all.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms: One (imperial) seal to rule them all.

In The Lord of the Rings, the idea is that he who holds the ring meets with calamity, e.g. Prince Isildur who refuses to destroy the ring, and ends up getting killed by a volley of arrows while on the way back from a military campaign. The ring then falls into the hands of Smeagol, who kills his cousin and becomes Gollum.

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, he who holds the seal meets with calamity, e.g. General Sun Jian, who gets his hands on the imperial seal and is strongly advised by his men to give it up because they sense it to be a bad omen. He refuses to give up the seal, and in turn, is betrayed by his ally Liu Biao and killed by a volley of arrows. The seal then goes back to the emperor, who ends up becoming a puppet of Prime Minister Cao Cao, gets forced to abdicate his throne to Cao Pi, and eventually kills himself

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (more or less) centers around the warrior Aragon, the true heir to the throne of Gondor (I know Froddo is supposed to be the protagonist, but for the sake of argument, let's compare Aragon with Liu Bei). He has two sworn brothers, Legolas and Gimli.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms (more or less) centers around General Liu Bei, the true heir to the throne of China. He has two sworn brothers, Guan Yu (Legolas) and Zhang Fei (Gimli).

In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf and Saruman are the two opposing forces of good vs evil. They can be said to be the equivalent of the tacticians, Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi.

The strategists Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi of Romance of the Three Kingdoms can be said to be the equivalent of the wizards Gandalf and Saruman. Zhuge Liang works for the good guys (The Kingdom of Shu, ala Gondor), while Sima Yi works for the bad guys (The Kingdom of Wei, ala Mordor). Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi are both arch-nemeses, and are hell-bent on destroying one another. However; while Zhuge Liang is a representation of "good" (loyalty, honor, and fortitude), Sima Yi is the perfect antithesis of whatever Zhuge Liang represents; he represents the very epitome of the word "evil", and is portrayed as a power-hungry, remorseless sociopath who schemes in the shadows to usurp the throne of Wei, while Zhuge Liang refuses to usurp the throne from the relatively incompetent Liu Shan, even with posthumous permission from his father, Liu Bei.

It occurred to me that perhaps one of the most uncanny parallels between these two great pieces of literature is that they both revolve around the idea of brotherhood, so to speak. In both works, the audience gets a sense of brotherhood stemming from the protagonists, and this is especially true of Liu Bei's relationship with his subordinates. Guan Yu's loyalty towards Liu Bei prevents him from giving in to Cao Cao's hospitality (this is featured in the new Donnie Yen film The Lost Bladesman), and this so remarkably parallels Samwise Gamgee's loyalty towards Froddo, risking his life and refusing to abandon him even in the heart of adversity.

Finally, I think that we can all agree that Zhang Fei = Gimli!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj_jB-bp7es

In conclusion, this essay as I have mentioned is simply anecdotal opinion, and to be honest, I have neither read Lord of the Rings or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I have however, seen the films, and it took me a while, but I did in the end come to the epiphany that Tolkien had used Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a primary source of inspiration, and this fact is concealed by the ethnocentric academic media of the contemporary Western World, in order for the West to avoid losing its status quo as the sole purveyor of great literature. We Asians have long acknowledged the West as a necessary complement to the East, and I think it's about damned time the West fostered a mutual attitude towards us. And what better way than to acknowledge that Oriental literature plays/has played an integral part in the existence of Anglo-Saxon literature?




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    • LauraGT profile image

      LauraGT 5 years ago from MA

      Interesting. I totally hear your point about acknowledging and the west losing some of its arrogance. But, do you think this fact diminishes the greatness of the Tolkien work?

    • BereniceTeh90 profile image
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      BereniceTeh90 5 years ago

      Hi Laura; so sorry for the late reply!

      Absolutely not!! As a matter of fact, all great literature is born out of somewhere, and did you know that the movie Inception with Leonardo Dicaprio in it was actually based on a Donald Duck comic book? =)

      Also, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was actually based on an Ancient Greco-Roman love story called Pyramus and Thisbe. Plus, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill was actually based on the Japanese samurai series Lone Wolf and Cub. But see, Tarantino makes no secret that he based his series on Lone Wolf and Cub, and you can see that he has a great deal of respect for and fascination with Asian culture. As Oscar Wilde said, "imitation is the best flattery". =D I love it when people take an interest in Asian culture, as i am sure that the Europeans love it when we Asians take an interest in their culture and history!

    • profile image

      Aygor 4 years ago

      I Have read Lord of the Rings and Romance of the Three Kingdoms multiple times each as i love both books. They might share some weak similiarity, as they both somewhat share a Good vs Evil synopsis (and to be honest in RoTK that's very debeatable) but they are 2 completely different books in every aspect and any kind of relation between them is highly unlikely at best.

      Just a few examples on the top of my mind: you completely forget the Wu kingdom, and every other warlord prior to the division of China in three kingdoms (which happens roughly at 3/4 of the book), Sima Yi isn't portrayed as the root of all evil: in popular culture he isn't loyal but in the novel it's his sons who usurp the power not him, Liu Bei isn't a heir to the throne but a scion of the imperial family and he refuses to declare himself emperor in many occasions; Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli are not sworn brothers.

      Anyway you should read the books before thinking about a comparison, as movies has cut a huge portion of the stories (ever heard of the hobbit wars in the county for example?)

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