The history of China is one of dynasties rising and falling, new territories being carved from old, old territories uniting, and most of all conflict as warlords battled it out for power and wealth. The Three Kingdoms period lasted from 220 to 280 (the exact dates are a matter of much debate), and is often seen today as a golden age of chivalry and romance. Simply put, China was divided between three territories (not actually kingdoms at all), those of the Wei, Shu Han and the Wu, and as the subtitle of this box tells us, this first set from Caesar focuses on the Shu, in the west of China. The Shu kingdom was founded in 221 and would cease to exist in 263 when it was conquered by the Wei, but during that period its armies were kept very busy in campaigns against both their two major neighbours and local disturbances.
Sources available to us on the appearance of armies during this period (that is to say, ones in European languages) are lamentably scarce, so we would not claim any expertise on the subject. However, from what information is available we would say these are properly done. The men wear one or more short robes, and most also have a lamellar cuirass front and back, plus either a helmet or a cap. This simple costume is well done, as are the weapons on show. Some poses carry a sword, some a spear, and there are others with a crossbow or a bow. It has been suggested that a higher proportion of the infantry were bowmen than is implied in this set, but at least this means you get a good range of weaponry, although we would have liked to have seen a halberd too. What did surprise us was the lack of any shields, and while those with bows or two-handed weapons might find them unappealing, we would have thought that at least some of the swordsmen would have carried one.
This was the first set from Caesar after a long hiatus, but they have completely maintained the very high quality of their sculpting and poses. The detail is excellent, the clothing very natural and the faces perfect. The poses too are every bit as good as we have come to expect from Caesar, and in particular show how poses can be made that are far from flat despite a simple two-piece mould. Having said that, there are a few figures that require assembly, and they are the third figure in row three (separate right arm), the last figure in the same row (separate left arm and sword) and the first in the bottom row (separate left arm and sword). All these arms have shaped pegs that fit very well into a suitable hole in the shoulder, and we found they sat firmly without need for glue, although gluing would be recommended if the figures are to be handled a lot. The fit is great, and they do make a difference to the pose, but we can have no complaint about any aspect of the production of these beautiful, flash-free figures.
The most interesting aspect of this set is the last four figures in our lower two rows. The first thing to say is they are a lot bigger than the rest – they range from 27 mm to 32 mm in height, so are inconsistent even between themselves, never mind the ordinary soldiers here. Clearly this is unrealistic, and that is intentional because these are not just command figures, they are specific hero figures. The Three Kingdoms is today widely known thanks to a book written during the Ming period called ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, which is how this period gets its rather idealistic reputation despite actually being one of great bloodshed. The book is very long and widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of Chinese literature, and is based on the gradual collapse of the Han dynasty and the history of the ‘three kingdoms’ that followed it. For the Shu, the four major characters, all real historic personalities, are:
Liu Bei and the two generals formed a very close bond, and are often described as oath brothers, while Zhuge Liang is considered perhaps the most intelligent and accomplished politician of his day. All are considered heroes, hence their exaggerated size here. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei are in our fourth row, while the fifth shows Liu Bei and then Zhuge Liang, holding the fan. Their appearance and demeanour certainly have something of the hero about them, and may be influenced by recent computer games, but they are also beautifully sculpted and look great. If it were not for their size, the last two would work well as Chinese civilians for many ages.
- Liu Bei (161 - 223) – the warlord who originally founded the Shu kingdom and was its first ruler.
- Guan Yu (d. 221) – a general who loyally served Liu Bei for many years and is widely revered today.
- Zhang Fei (d. 221) – another general who served Liu Bei from his early exploits.
- Zhuge Liang (181 - 234) – statesman and military strategist who is still famous in China today, and served Liu Bei before becoming regent of the Shu after his death.
The Three Kingdoms is much celebrated today – both the period and the work of literature – so the appeal of this set is clear. Having great sculpting certainly helps, though we felt even the ordinary troops here were a bit tall for ancient Chinese. Apparently at this time sidearms were not common, and here no one has a scabbard, yet we thought the three poses holding a sword should have a scabbard to put it in. Although there is no flash, there are some small areas of filled plastic between spear and body, though these are unobtrusive. As usual, any bent weapons in the box are easily made straight by applying heat, so these look great. Having the super-large hero figures is not to our taste, since they look ridiculous next to figures of the correct size, but that apart this is a great return for Caesar, and depicting a period so little known outside of Asia that is deserves to be much better represented.