Here I shall try to discuss a few uncanny resemblances and ironic affinities between certain generals and faction rulers in The Ravages of Time, beginning with the oft-compared-and-contrasted duo of Liu Bei and Cao Cao.
- Liu Bei and Cao Cao both have special but sketchy connections to the imperial court. On the one hand, Liu Bei claims to be a distant descendant of some imperial relative, but grew up in a relatively poor environment. On the other hand, Cao Cao is a son of an official adopted into the family of some influential eunuch, at a time when eunuchs had a bad reputation on account of the grave abuses of some infamous personalities.
- Liu Bei and Cao Cao both started off as relatively idealistic loyalist officials, with the former building his reputation among commoners, while the latter steadily climbed up the bureaucratic ladder via recommendations and promotions. They also began to consider and adopt more pragmatic views and ruthless methods as a result of hardships in battle (along with the prodding of some of the Eight Geniuses, and some close encounters with Lü Bu).
- Liu Bei and Cao Cao both harbor ambitions to seize power on behalf of the emperor (regardless of the sincerity of their claims). For his part, Liu Bei plans on using his status as a popular imperial uncle to consolidate the imperial clan and suppress the corrupt and the power-hungry in the name of loyalty. Cao Cao in turn plans on using his de facto control over the emperor to solidify his position as the highest-ranking minister and to suppress dissenters, paving the way for the difficult tasks of governance and institution-rebuilding in a reunified and re-disciplined territory.
- Liu Bei and Cao Cao both command many capable officers and advisers. In addition, they each have more than one of the Eight Geniuses working for them as strategists.
- Liu Bei and Cao Cao are both renowned for being ‘two-faceted’, albeit in different ways. For one thing, Liu Bei is hailed as a good judge of character but somewhat naive when it comes to political maneuvering (although in later developments, Liu Bei also faces the accusation of being pretentious, hiding his bid for more power in a mask of righteousness). Meanwhile, Cao Cao is deemed to be someone who can conquer well and act ruthlessly in times of chaos, but would also turn out to be a capable minister come peacetime.
- Liu Bei and Cao Cao are both compared to past emperors. On the one hand, Liu Bei is likened to the founder of Han due to his surname (and his shrewdness). On the other hand, Cao Cao’s harshness and military might echo the example set by the first emperor of unified Qin.
Some other prominent warlords can also be similarly connected and correlated.
- Dong Zhuo and Yuan Shu: both happen to be leaders who are ‘honest’ enough about their desire to rule the world (although they also have their own rhetorical gestures, with Dong Zhuo denouncing the corruption of the court for having allowed a provincial general like him to eventually seize power, while Yuan Shu dares to continue the shifting-dynasties tradition in order to protect the people who are tired of war); in addition, both appreciate ‘sincerity’ from others (although strangely enough, Yuan Shu’s demand for earnest effort encourages flatterers, whereas Dong Zhuo’s disdain for normalized hypocrisy attracts crude but short-sighted followers and shrewd opportunists into his camp).
- Ma Teng and Sun Jian: both happen to be imperial loyalists with roots in ‘frontier’ areas (Ma Teng based in Xiliang to the northwest, Sun Jian being renowned in the southeastern regions); both are also positioned near the bastions of notoriously ambitious warlords (Ma Teng near Dong Zhuo, Sun Jian near Yuan Shu); in addition, both specialize in a style of warfare associated with their home bases (cavalry for Ma Teng and naval battles for Sun Jian); and lastly, both have famous sons (Ma Chao and Sun Ce, respectively) who are talented in warfare but whose loyalties to the Han are questionable at best.
- The Yuan clan and some prominent imperial clan branches
- Cao Pi and Sun Quan: both are sons of renowned warlords (Cao Cao and Sun Jian, respectively); both have received guidance from merchant advisers (Sima Yi’s plans involve getting close to Cao Pi, while Sun Quan spent part of his youth being under Shan Wuling’s tutelage before returning to the Sun clan); and both would eventually establish their independent kingdoms using the ‘assets’ inherited from (and prepared by) their predecessors.