LONGMEN, China — In the shadow of a lush mountain and near a slow-moving river in southeast China sits this village, whose name means Dragon Gate.
There are narrow alleys and whitewashed homes and the flesh of sliced bamboo drying on the ground. Its humble appearance, though, belies the fact that it played a role in the famous Three Kingdoms era, when kings leading rival states fought in the third century over the right to succeed the Han empire. The blood-drenched stories were immortalized in a 14th-century classic by Luo Guanzhong, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” which in turn has spawned countless films, television shows and other adaptations.
“This village is so important because the people are descended from Sun Quan,” said one resident, Sun Yaxiao, 25, as she walked with visitors one afternoon through the alleys. Sun Quan was one of the three major kings in the early period of the Three Kingdoms, a figure known to most Chinese.
“People named Sun are rare; there just aren’t that many,” she said. “There aren’t as many as those named Huang, for example.”
The village has managed to capitalize on its association with Sun Quan, even though the king never actually lived here. It was his grandfather Sun Zhong, a melon farmer, who was said to be a resident, even though that is debated among scholars. Longmen charges a $13 entrance fee to outsiders, who usually make the 30-mile drive from the provincial capital of Hangzhou.
There are countless hamlets, towns and cities across China that boast of links to the four or five towering classics of Chinese literature and the historical events on which those works are based. Virtually all Chinese learn these tales, which mix history and myth, and so residents of otherwise obscure locales leap at the chance to latch on to the legends, sometimes for profit.
In the western region of Xinjiang, for instance, the desert town of Turpan has become a big tourist draw because of its proximity to the Flaming Mountains, the site of a well-known episode in “Journey to the West,” a 16th-century novel about the Monkey King’s pilgrimage to India that, like “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” is also based on history.
“The Three Kingdoms” is to China what “The Iliad” is to the West. Its tales of battlefield heroics and betrayal, palace intrigue and passions, stir the imagination here. It also resonates with the Chinese because its sweeping narrative encapsulates a historical rhythm that they see as an immutable fact, one expressed in the opening lines: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”
But unlike “The Iliad,” “The Three Kingdoms” has wide appeal in modern times. Mao Zedong supposedly studied it for strategy lessons. John Woo, the Hong Kong filmmaker, recently directed an epic, “Red Cliff,” based on a famous battle from the novel. The film was the top earner at the Chinese box office in 2008.
Places associated with heroes and villains from “The Three Kingdoms” — Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu, Cao Cao and, of course, Sun Quan — are scattered across China.
“In China, there are simply too many places that have become famous because of the Three Kingdoms,” said Fang Bei