General Introduction Three Kingdoms Period

Three Kingdoms Period Just as the name implies, the Three Kingdoms were made up of three kingdoms - the Kingdom of Wei, Kingdom of Shu and Kingdom of Wu. As a single dynasty, the Three Kingdoms Period originated in 220 AD when the Kingdom of Wei replaced the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD-220 AD) and ended in 280 AD when the Kingdom of Wu was defeated by the Court of Jin. It is considered to be a special historical period full of power struggles and sophisticated military strategies.

 

The three kingdoms were Wei , Shu , and Wu. To help further distinguish these states from other historical Chinese states of the same name, historians add a relevant character: Wei is also known as Cao Wei, Shu is also known as Shu Han , and Wu is also known as Dong Wu or Eastern Wu. The term Three Kingdoms itself is somewhat of a mistranslation, since each state was eventually headed not by kings, but by an emperor who claimed legitimate succession from the Han Dynasty. Although the translation Three Empires is more contextually accurate, the term Three Kingdoms has become standard among sinologists. 

 

The earlier, "unofficial" part of the period, from 184 to 220, was marked by chaotic infighting between warlords in various parts of China. The middle part of the period, from 220 and 263, was marked by a more militarily stable arrangement between three rival states, Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The later part of this period was marked by the collapse of the tripartite situation: first the destruction of Shu by Wei (263), then the overthrow of Wei by the Jin Dynasty (265), and the destruction of Wu by Jin (280). Although relatively short, this historical period has been greatly romanticised in the cultures of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It has been celebrated and popularised in operas, folk stories, novels and in more recent times, films, television serials, and video games. The best known of these is undoubtedly the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fictional account of the period which draws heavily on history. The authoritative historical record of the era is Chen Shou's Sanguo Zhi, along with Pei Songzhi's later annotations of the text. 

 

Rise of Cao Cao

In 191, there was some talk among the coalition of appointing Liu Yu, an imperial relative, as emperor, and gradually its members began to fall out. Most of the warlords in the coalition, with a few exceptions, sought the increase of personal military power in the time of instability instead of seriously wishing to restore the Han Dynasty's authority. The Han empire was divided between a number of regional warlords. Yuan Shao occupied the northern area of Ye and extended his power, by taking over his superior Han Fu with trickery and intimidation, north of the Yellow River against Gongsun Zan, who held the northern frontier. Cáo Cāo, directly to Yuan's south, was engaged in a struggle against Yuan Shu and Liu Biao, who occupied respectively the Huai River basin and Middle Yangzi regions. Further south the young warlord Sun Ce, taking over after the untimely death of Sun Jian, was establishing his rule in the Lower Yangzi, albeit as a subordinate of Yuan Shu. In the west, Liu Zhang held Yizhou province while Hanzhong and the northwest were controlled by a motley collection of smaller warlords such as Ma Teng of Xiliang, the original post of Dong Zhuo.

 

Red Cliffs and its aftermath

In 208, Cao Cao marched south with his army hoping to quickly unify the empire. Liu Biao's son Liu Cong surrendered the province of Jing and Cao was able to capture a sizeable fleet at Jiangling. Sun Quan, the successor to Sun Ce in the Lower Yangzi, continued to resist however. His advisor Lu Su secured an alliance with Liu Bei, himself a recent refugee from the north, and Sun Ce's sworn brother Zhou Yu was placed in command of Sun Quan's navy, along with a veteran officer of the Sun family, Cheng Pu. Their combined armies of 50,000 met Cao Cao's fleet and 200,000-strong force at Red Cliffs that winter. After an initial skirmish, an attack beginning with a plan to set fire to Cao Cao's fleet was set in motion to lead to the decisive defeat of Cao Cao, forcing him to retreat in disarray back to the north. The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, and provided the basis for the states of Shu and Wu.

Three emperors

In the first month of 220, Cao Cao died and in the tenth month his son Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate, thus ending the Han Dynasty. He named his state Wei and made himself emperor at Luoyang. In 221, Liu Bei named himself Emperor of Han, in a bid to restore the fallen Han dynasty. (His state is known to history as "Shu" or "Shu Han".) In the same year, Wei bestowed on Sun Quan the title of King of Wu. A year later, Shu Han troops declared war on Wu and met the Wu armies at the Battle of Yiling. At Yiling, Liu Bei was disastrously defeated by Sun Quan's commander Lu Xun and forced to retreat back to Shu, where he died soon afterward. After the death of Liu Bei, Shu and Wu resumed friendly relations at the expense of Wei, thus stabilizing the tripartite configuration. In 222, Sun Quan renounced his recognition of Cao Pi's regime and, in 229, he declared himself emperor at Wuchang. Dominion of the north completely belonged to Wei, whilst Shu occupied the southwest and Wu the central south and east. The external borders of the states were generally limited to the extent of Chinese civilization. For example, the political control of Shu on its southern frontier was limited by the Tai tribes of modern Yunnan and Burma, known collectively as the Southern Barbarians.

Decline and end of the Three Kingdoms

From the late 230s tensions began to become visible between the imperial Cao clan and the Sima clan. Following the death of Cao Zhen, factionalism was evident between Cao Shuang and the Grand Commander Sima Yi. In deliberations, Cao Shuang placed his own supporters in important posts and excluded Sima, whom he regarded as a threat. The power of the Sima clan, one of the great landowning families of the Han, was bolstered by Sima Yi's military victories. Additionally, Sima Yi was an extremely capable strategist and politician. In 238 he crushed the rebellion of Gongsun Yuan and brought the Liaodong region directly under central control. Ultimately, he outmaneuvered Cao Shuang in power play. Taking advantage of an excursion by the imperial clansmen to the Gaoping tombs, Sima undertook a putsch in Luoyang, forcing Cao Shuang's faction from authority. Many protested against the overwhelming power of the Sima family; notable among these were the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. One of the sages, Xi Kang, was executed as part of the purges after Cao Shuang's downfall.

 

Fall of Shu

The decreasing strength of the Cao clan was mirrored by the decline of Shu. After Zhuge Liang's death, his position as Lieutenant Chancellor fell to Jiang Wan, Fei Yi and Dong Yun, in that order. But after 258, Shu politics became increasingly controlled by the eunuch faction and corruption rose. Despite the energetic efforts of Jiang Wei, Zhuge's protege, Shu was unable to secure any decisive achievement. In 263, Wei launched a three-pronged attack and the Shu army was forced into general retreat from Hanzhong. Jiang Wei hurriedly held a position at Jian'ge but he was outflanked by the Wei commander Deng Ai, who force-marched his army from Yinping through territory formerly considered impassable. By the winter of the year, the capital Chengdu fell due to the strategic invasion of Wei by Deng Ai who invaded Chengdu personally. The emperor Liu Shan thus surrendered. The state of Shu had come to an end after forty-three years.

 

Fall of Wu

Following Sun Quan's death and the ascension of the young Sun Liang as emperor in 252, the kingdom of Wu went into a period of steady decline. Successful Wei suppression of rebellions in the Huainan region by Sima Zhao and Sima Shi reduced any opportunity of Wu influence. The fall of Shu signalled a change in Wei politics. After Liu Shan surrendered to Wei, Sima Yan (grandson of Sima Yi), overthrew the Wei emperor and proclaimed his own dynasty of Jin in 264, ending forty-six years of Cao dominion in the north. After Jin's rise, Emperor Sun Xiu of Wu died, and his ministers gave the throne to Sun Hao. Sun Hao was a promising young man, but upon ascension he became a tyrant, killing or exiling all who dared oppose him in the court.

 

In 269 Yang Hu, Jin commander in the south, started preparing for the invasion of Wu by ordering the construction of a fleet and the training of marines in Sichuan under Wang Jun. Four years later, Lu Kang, the last great general of Wu, died leaving no competent successor. The planned Jin offensive finally came in the winter of 279. Sima Yan launched five simultaneous offensives along the Yangzi River from Jianye to Jiangling whilst the Sichuan fleet sailed downriver to Jing province. Under the strain of such an enormous attack, the Wu forces collapsed and Jianye fell in the third month of 280. Emperor Sun Hao surrendered and was given a fiefdom on which to live out his days. This marked the end of the Three Kingdoms era, and the beginning of a break in the forthcoming 300 years of chaos.

 

Fall of Wei

Cao Huan succeeded to the throne in 260 after Cao Mao was killed by Sima Zhao. Soon after, Sima Zhao died and his title as Lord of Jin was inherited by his son Sima Yan. Sima Yan immediately began plotting to become Emperor but faced stiff opposition. However, due to advice from his advisors, Cao Huan decided the best course of action would be to abdicate, unlike his predecessor Cao Mao. Sima Yan seized the throne in 264 after forcing Cao Huan's abdication, effectively overthrowing the Wei Dynasty and establishing the successor Jin Dynasty. This situation was similar to the deposal of Emperor Xian of the Han Dynasty by Cao Pi, the founder of the Wei Dynasty.