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New Robert Berring Course Excites Chinese Media

Sanguosha playing card
One of Sanguosha's 153 cards

By Andrew Cohen

A new course sponsored by Berkeley Law professor Robert Berring ’74—on a historical Chinese novel and the popular card game it spawned—is creating media attention in China weeks before classes begin.

Several Chinese news reporters have interviewed Berring about the course, which centers on Romance of the Three Kingdoms and its huge impact on China’s culture. Considered one of the great works of Chinese literature, the 14th-century tome inspired the creation of a modern card game, Sanguosha.

“This book is embedded in Chinese culture the way Shakespeare is embedded in our minds,” Berring said. “Everyone knows the major stories. Heroic heroes, aching betrayals, love, intrigue, it has it all. Just as someone who never read Shakespeare nevertheless knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, so it is with Romance of the Three Kingdoms in China. The card game allows young Chinese to role-play based on the book, and forays into popular culture like this keep the story vibrant.”

The class is part of UC Berkeley’s student-run democratic education program, or DeCal. Weekly courses, initiated by undergraduates under faculty supervision, enable students to explore new academic, social, and educational issues outside the mainstream curriculum. The course, officially titled “Exploring the Three Kingdoms: The Classic Chinese Novel and Sanguosha the Card Game,” has drawn intense interest. Although the class can only enroll 30 students, its web page has been viewed more than 12,000 times.

Three Chinese students at UC Berkeley organized the course after getting Sanguosha’s 153 cards and game rules translated into English—and inviting American friends to learn the game. They then enlisted Berring, a Berkeley Law faculty member since 1982 who has taught many law-school courses on Chinese law and society, to serve as the overseer and guest lecturer.

Tradition and trajectory

Written by Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on historical records from 184-280 A.D., when China was ruled by three different warring factions. The book’s profound impact on Chinese culture is reflected in movies, television series, and now Sangousha.

“Part of my role is to provide the students with some core philosophy dating back to China’s dynasties,” Berring said. “Grasping China’s ancient system of rules, as demonstrated in Sanguosha, can help students understand the pace and volume of change occurring in modern Chinese society.”

In past years, Berring has supervised DeCal courses such as Ancient Chinese Thought and Taiwanese Society. He also regularly teaches an undergraduate course on China for the Legal Studies Department. In this new class, students will read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, screen related television series and movies, and play Sangousha.

China’s young adults often play the card game in large groups in cafes and bars. The game has four different roles: Ruler, Loyalist, Defector, and Rebel. Each player takes a role based on characters from the novel and seeks to maximize their unique skills and weapons.

When word about the course surfaced in China and questions arose about its academic viability, even an official at China’s Ministry of Education chimed in his support: “Combining learning and games is good,” he was quoted in a Chinese media report. “A course about the culture related to the Three Kingdoms and Sanguosha can act as a tool.”

No argument from Berring, now in his fifth decade of studying Chinese law and society. As a freshman at Harvard, he “found a whole new world” during a class on East Asia.

“China always made sense to me and I fell in love with it.”

“Eventually,” Berring said with a laugh, “everyone else became interested in it, too.”