Classic Characters: Lu Bu, warrior without rival, jerk.

Lü Bu possessed the might of a tiger, but he lacked the planning skills of a talented person. He was frivolous and temperamental, and was only concerned about the gains he could make. Throughout history, there had never been such persons like him who did not end up being destroyed Chen Shou  Sanguozhi

Why yes, I have been playing Dynasty Warriors (8) in my period of relaxation after releasing Bloodlust: Will to Power, what of it?

Lu Bu from Dynasty Warriors

Lu Bu is a famous warrior and warlord from the end of the Han Dynasty, a historical personage who is a character portrayed in the much loved Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong, considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese Literature. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is well loved, and once I became familiar with it I saw the characters pop up in games, film, anime, even as commentators on the Art of War. Think of it as a body of  work that is on par with Arthurian legend in terms of influence, but with a stronger historical basis.

The end of the Han Dynasty was a period of great turmoil, with numerous warlords vying to control the land or put an end to the chaos. It was a time of ripe opportunity for anyone with skill at arms, ambition, or a heroic nature. Many legendary figures arose from this period, including tremendous heroes and daring leaders. Out of all of them Lu Bu is regarded as the mightiest warrior, often noted as being utterly unmatched in personal combat. However, despite his valour and strength he is generally regarded in a negative light, because of his naked ambition and lack of self-control.

In an age famed for the prowess of its warriors, Lu Bu stands out among the best. He is never faulted for his courage or his exemplary personal fighting skills. In this wayhe compares favourably to classical fantasy heroes. He was often compared to a tiger in battle, a great compliment. Essentially he was the Lancelot, El Cid, or Cu Chullain of his period, the one who no one really wanted to face in a one on one confrontation. He is powerful and so fearsome that regular soldiers often refuse to engage him.  In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, only the greatest warriors can stand their ground against him, at least physically. A warrior’s warrior, with few rivals.

Lu Bu is also an excellent horseman and archer. His horse, Red Hare, is said to be the greatest horse of the period.

However, what makes Lu Bu an interesting character is not his unmatched might, but rather how he squanders and wastes it. While he was portrayed as a great warrior, he was noted as being a poor strategist, untrustworthy, and arrogant. Here are some example of his deeds:

  • A pattern of betrayal: He betrays Ding Yuan, the man who first promoted him, at the urging of Dong Zhuo. He later betrays Dong Zhuo at the urging of some of the tyrant’s ministers. When he takes shelter from the noble-hearted Liu Bei years later, he turns around and usurps Liu Bei’s position. Individually each of these actions furthers Lu Bu’s goals, but they mark him as an unreliable ally.
  • Lack of Self Control: Lu Bu loses at least one battle because he argues with other commanders. This is regarded as a serious flaw, At his execution he is accused of coveting other men’s wives by at least one commentator. He wins no friends among the people since he seems to enjoy plundering the land wherever he goes. (great hobby)
  • Arrogance: Lu Bu is a jerk, plain and simple. He mocks his enemies. He annoys his friends. At least two warlords drive him from their service because he keeps making demands and parades around acting like he is better than everyone.
  • Impulsive: Lu Bu also has a history of changing his mind at the last minute. At one point he allies himself with Yuan Shao and they agree to a marriage alliance via their children. Lu Bu changes his mind, betraying Yuan Shao, after his daughter is already on the road. While the intrigues of the period are often complex, Lu Bu acts like a bull in a china shop, blundering from one moment to the next without a cohesive strategy beyond advancing himself.

Lu Bu rarely finds a stable base of operations due to his inconsistent actions. While his might makes him a valuable military asset, his unreliability assures his doom. Eventually his own men turn against him, turning him over to Cao Cao. Even Cao Cao, who often recruits great warriors who have opposed him, cannot bring himself to trust Lu Bu and executes him, hanging the great warrior.

Lu Bu is an interesting character. In many ways he would seem at home in a Grimdark novel; a flawed brute who cynically seeks his own aggrandizement. However, the tale of Lu Bu offers a rebuke to those who are too cynical. Untrustworthy men are eventually dragged down by their own reputation, no matter how strong. Lu Bu, despite his fame and might, was never able to forge the alliances he would need to survive in the three kingdoms period. There are reasons honour and loyalty, despite being impediments to short term gain, are seen as necessary to a functioning society. Without trust, how can we build stability?

Lu Bu from an old illustration.

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2 comments on “Classic Characters: Lu Bu, warrior without rival, jerk.

  1. generaliregi says:

    I have read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong. Lord guan is a character i envy most for his loyalty to Liu xuande.Lu Bu is a brute with no discipline. Kong Ming(Zhuge Liang) towers all in martial talent. Ma Cao and Zhao Zilong i bet can rival Lu Bu in martial skills. Pang Tong is another case all together.Do not mention of SIma Yi, I always wonder what would have happened if Zhuge Liang and SIma Yi worked together aganist the Wei dynasty(Cao Cao). Thanks alot for posting this.

    • grimkrieg says:

      Very cool, Lord Guan is also my favourite character (we style them as Guan Yu and Liu Bei, I believe.) Lu Bu rises to early prominence through strength but Ma Cao, Zhuge Liang, and others certainly surpass him as Lu Bu wastes his power.

      The reason I posted about Lu Bu is that western fantasy is currently very interested in flawed characters, and he fits the bill.

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