Skip to main content

A few extra things to know when reading the Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (三体) is the first science fiction in a trilogy of books written by Liu Cixin. This book is fascinating and I finished it in a weekend. 

I really enjoyed it, and I also realised that, for people who are not familiar with Chinese history, they may not be aware of some of the small connections and miss some of the fun.

Therefore, in this article, I’ll point out three small details and I hope they will help non-Chinese readers to appreciate the novel just a little bit more. No spoilers or giveaways are here. 

One thing that I must say a few words first is the Cultural Revolution, which is one of the major threads in this novel and it is not a small detail. It was brutal and divisive, turning many families member into enemies. Liu Cixin did a good job with the twisted rhetoric and the constant political pressure people felt at the time. Even if readers do not know anything about the Cultural Revolution, they will not miss the connections between the Cultural Revolution and subsequent events.

It is other small things they may not capture. Below are three of them.

three body science fiction

Zhou Wen Wang (周文王, 1152 – 1050 BCE), King Wen of Zhou

In the novel, a player in a computer game introduces himself as Zhou Wen Wang. He claims that he can solve the three-body problem by calculations.

What the readers may not know is that in Chinese history, Zhou Wen Wang was truly a master of calculations, which gave him this unique power to know. 

It was said that, in his kingdom, prisoners did not go to prison. The practice was to draw a circle on the ground to serve as a prison. There were no prison guards, only people who took care the prisoners’ need, such as food and water. It looked like that prisoners could escape anytime they wanted. However, if they did, they could be captured again very quickly. It was because Zhou Wen Wang would know their whereabouts easily by doing some calculations.

His calculation method was using the eight trigrams, which he further developed to the sixty-four hexagrams and wrote corresponding judgements. These sixty-four hexagrams and his writings became 《易经》 (I Ching), the Book of Change, the famous divination book which is still used today.

Mo Zi (墨子, c. 475 – 221 BCE)

In the novel, another player in the same computer game introduces himself as Mo Zi. He builds a sophisticated machine to predict the three-body movements. 

In Chinese history, Mo Zi was a great philosopher and also a great scientist. He was a master in mechanics, geometry, optics and algebra. He also built machineries and was an expert on fortifications. Nobody at his time could compete with him.  

One story told us how good he was. 

Mo Zi heard the King of Chu wanted to send troops to attack the Kingdom of Song, so he went to see the King of Chu and tried to stop him. The King of Chu didn’t listen to Mo Zi because he had a capable craftsman, Lu Ban, helping him build weapons to attack the city. 

Lu Ban is also a famous person in Chinese history. He is credited for inventing saw. 

Therefore, Mo Zi needed to show the King of Chu that his weapons were useless. So, in front of King of Chu, Lu Ban and Mo Zi simulated the offence and defence several times, and Lu Ban lost every time. 

On seeing this, the King of Chu thought he had no chance of winning and therefore gave up his plan. 

Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇, 259 — 210 BCE) and his long sword

In the novel, a player in the same computer game is Qin Shi Huang and he has a sword that he asks another person to draw out from the sheath. 

In Chinese history, Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor. He coined the word 皇帝 (emperor). After his death, he had a Terracotta Army to guard his tomb.

I visited these terracotta warriors a couple of times in Xi’an and the scale was really impressive.

From a story we know that he carried with him a long sword. 

In this story, Jing Ke, an assassin, was sent to kill him. While he was running away from Jing Ke, he tried to draw his sword. But the sword was too long. He couldn’t do it. One person at his court shouted that he could draw the sword from his back. He did it and killed the Jing Ke. 

So, Qing Shi Huang’s long sword is legendary. It is interesting to see how it is weaved into the novel. 

To Know more

If you’re interested in further reading, check out these articles that I recommend Books about China and Books about famous Chinese people. You can find references to Chinese dynasties, Chinese philosophers and also the story of Qin Shi Huang and Jing Ke.