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The Three Kingdoms period (Simplified Chinese: 三国; Traditional Chinese: 三國; Pinyin Sānguó) is a period in the history of China. In a strict academic sense it refers to the period between the foundation of the Wei in 220 and the conquest of the Wu by the Jin Dynasty in 280. However, many Chinese historians and laypeople extend the starting point of this period back to the uprising of the Yellow Turbans in 184.
The earlier, "unofficial" part of the period, from 190 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, Wei (魏), Han (漢), and Wu (吳).
To distinguish these states from earlier states of the same name, historians prepended a character: Wei is also known as Cao Wei (曹魏), Han is also known as Shu Han (蜀漢), which later became more commonly known as Shu, and Wu is also known as Eastern Wu (東吳). The later part of this period was marked by the destruction of Shu by Wei (263), the overthrow of Wei by the Jin Dynasty (265), and the destruction of Wu by Jin (280).
The term "Three Kingdoms" itself is somewhat of a mistranslation, since each state was eventually headed by an Emperor who claimed legitimate succession from the Han Dynasty, not by kings. Nevertheless the term has become standard among sinologists and will be used in this article.
Although relatively short, this historical period has been greatly romanticised in the cultures of China, Japan, Korea and throughout Southeast Asia. It has been celebrated and popularised in operas, folk stories, novels and in more recent times, films, television serials, and computer 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.
The Three Kingdoms period is also one of the bloodiest period in the history of China. A population census in late Eastern Han dynasty reported a population of approximately 56 million, while a population census in early Western Jin dynasty (after Jin re-unified China) reported a population of approximately 16 million. Even taking into account the inaccuracies of these census reports, it's safe to assume that a large percentage of the population was wiped out during the constant wars waged during this period.
This article will trace outline the major developments leading to the establishment of the Three Kingdoms and their subsequent history.
Collapse of dynastic power
The series of events leading to the collapse of dynastic power and the rise of Cao Cao are extremely complex. The death of Emperor Ling in May 189 led to an unstable regency under General-in-chief He Jin and renewed rivalry between the factions of the eunuchs and regular civil bureaucracy. Following the assassination of He Jin, his chief ally the Colonel-Director of Retainers Yuan Shao led a massacre of the eunuchs in the imperial palaces. The ensuing turmoil at the capital allowed the frontier general Dong Zhuo to enter Luoyang from the northwest and take control of the imperial court, ushering in a period of civil war across China.
Dong Zhuo manipulated the succession so that the future Emperor Xian could take the throne in lieu of his elder half-brother. In 190 a coalition led by Yuan Shao was formed in the eastern provinces of the empire against him. The mounting pressure drove the Han Emperor and later Dong Zhuo himself west to Chang'an in May 191. A year later he was killed in a coup d'etat and the Emperor passed through a number of warlords in the years that followed.
The rise of Cao Cao
In 191 there was some talk among the coalition of appointing an emperor of their own, and gradually its members began to fall out. Open warfare broke out as soon as Dong Zhuo left Luoyang. In August 195 Emperor Xian left Chang'an and made a year-long hazardous journey east in search of supporters. By 196, when he was received by Cao Cao, most of the smaller contenders for power had either been absorbed by larger ones or destroyed. The Han empire was divided between a number of regional warlords. Yuan Shao occupied the northern centre of Ye and extended his power north of the Yellow River against Gongsun Zan, who held the northern frontier. Cao Cao, directly to Yuan's south, was engaged in a struggle against Yuan Shu and Liu Biao, who respectively occupied the Huai River basin and Middle Yangzi regions. Further south the young warlord Sun Ce was establishing his rule in the Lower Yangzi. In the west, Liu Zhang held Yizhou province whilst Hanzhong and the northwest was controlled by a motley collection of smaller warlords.
Cao Cao, who would become the effective founder of Wei, had raised an army in the winter of 189. He had absorbed some 300,000 Yellow Turbans into his army as well as a number of clan-based military groups. In 196 he established an imperial court at Xuchang and developed military agricultural colonies (tuntian ) to support his army. After destroying Yuan Shu in 197, and the eastern warlords Lü Bu (198) and Liu Bei (199) in rapid succession, Cao Cao turned his attention north to Yuan Shao, who himself had eliminated his northern rival Gongsun Zan that same year.
Following months of planning, the two sides met in force at Guandu in 200. Overcoming Yuan's superior numbers, Cao Cao decisively defeated him and crippled the northern army. In 202, Cao Cao took advantage of Yuan Shao's death and the resulting division among his sons to advance north of the Yellow River. He captured Ye in 204 and occupied the provinces of Ji, Bing, Qing and You. By the end of 207, after a lightning campaign against the Wuhuan people, Cao Cao had achieved undisputed dominance of the North China Plain.
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 Zong 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. 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 with fireships inflicted a decisive defeat on 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.
After his return to the north, Cao Cao contented himself with absorbing the northwestern regions in 211 and consolidating his power. He progressively increased his titles and power, eventually becoming King of Wei in 217. Liu Bei entered Yi province and later in 214 displaced Liu Zhang as ruler, leaving his commander Guan Yu in charge of Jing province. Sun Quan, who had in the intervening years being engaged with defenses against Cao Cao in the southeast at Hefei, now turned his attention to Jing province and the Middle Yangzi. Tensions between the allies were increasingly visible. In 219, after Liu Bei successfully seized Hanzhong from Cao Cao and as Guan Yu was engaged in the siege of Fan , Sun Quan's commander-in-chief Lü Meng secretly seized Jing province.
Tripartite of China
In the first month of 220, Cao Cao died and in the tenth month his son Cao Pi deposed the Emperor Xian and ended 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 Xiaoting, 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 229, Sun Quan renounced his recognition of Cao Pi's regime and 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 Thai tribes of modern Yunnan and Burma.
In terms of manpower, the Wei was by far the strongest, retaining more than 660,000 households and 4,400,000 people within its borders. Shu had a population of 940,000, and Wu 2,300,000. Thus, Wei had more than 58% of the population and around 40% of territory. With these resources, it is estimated that it could raise an army of 400,000 whilst Shu and Wu could manage 100,000 and 230,000 respectively: roughly 10% of their registered populations. The Wu-Shu alliance against the Wei proved itself to be a militarily stable configuration; the basic borders of the Three Kingdoms almost unchanging for more than forty years.
Trade and transport
In economic terms the division of the Three Kingdoms reflected a reality that long endured. Even in the Northern Song, seven hundred years after the Three Kingdoms, it was possible to think of China as being composed of three great regional markets. (The status of the northwest was slightly ambivalent, as it had links with the northern region and Sichuan). These geographical divisions are underscored by the fact that the main communication routes between the three main regions were all man-made: the Grand Canal linking north and south, the hauling-way through the Three Gorges of the Yangzi linking southern China with Sichuan and the gallery roads joining Sichuan with the northwest. The break into three separate entities was quite natural and even anticipated by such political foresight as Zhuge Liang (see Longzhong Plan 隆中對).
In 222 Liu Shan rose to the throne of Shu following his father's defeat and death. The defeat of Liu Bei at Yiling ended the period of hostility between Wu and Shu and both used the opportunity to concentrate on internal problems and the external enemy of Wei. For Sun Quan, the victory terminated his fears of Shu expansion into Jing province and he turned to the aborigines of the southeast, whom the Chinese collectively called the "Shanyue" peoples (see Yue). A collection of successes against the rebellious tribesmen culminated in the victory of 234. In that year Zhuge Ge ended a three year siege of Danyang with the surrender of 100,000 Shanyue. Of these, 40,000 were drafted as auxiliaries into the Wu army. Meanwhile Shu were also experiencing troubles with the indigenous tribes of their south. The South-western Yi peoples rose in revolt against Han authority, captured and looted the city of Yizhou. Zhuge Liang, recognising the importance of stability in the south, ordered the advance of the Shu armies in three columns against the Yi. He fought a number of engagements against the chieftain Meng Huo, at the end of which Meng submitted. A tribesman was allowed to reside at the Shu capital Chengdu as an official and the Yi formed their own battalions within the Shu army.
Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions
At the end of Zhuge Liang's southern campaign, the Wu-Shu alliance came to fruition and Shu was free to move against north. In 227 Zhuge Liang transferred his main Shu armies to Hanzhong, and opened up the battle for the northwest with Wei. (See Northern Expeditions) The next year, he ordered general Zhao Yun to attack from Ji Gorge as a diversion whilst Zhuge himself led the main force to Qishan. The vanguard Ma Su, however, suffered a tactical defeat at Jieting and the Shu army was forced to withdraw. In the next six years Zhuge Liang attempted several more offensives, but supply problems limited the capacity for success. In 234 he led his last great northern offensive, reaching the Wuzhang Plain south of the Wei River. Due to his untimely death, however, the Shu army was forced once again to withdraw.
Wu and development of the south
In the times of Zhuge Liang's great northern offensives, the state of Wu had always been on the defensive against invasions from the north. The area around Hefei was under constant pressure from Wei after the Battle of Red Cliffs and the scene of many bitter battles. Warfare had grown so intense that many of the residents chose to migrate and resettle south of the Yangzi. After Zhuge Liang's death, attacks on the Huainan region intensified but nonetheless, Wei could not break through the line of the river defenses erected by Wu, which included the Ruxu fortress.
Sun Quan's long reign is regarded as a time of plenty for his southern state. Migrations from the north and the settlement of the Shanyue increased manpower for agriculture, especially along the lower reaches of the Yangzi and in Kuaiji commandery. River transport blossomed, with the construction of the Zhedong and Jiangnan canals. Trade with Shu flourished, with a huge influx of Shu cotton and the development of celadon and metal industries. Ocean transport was improved to such an extent that sea journeys were made to Manchuria and the island of Taiwan. In the south, Wu merchants reached Linyi (southern Vietnam) and Fu'nan (Cambodia). As the economy prospered, so too did the arts and culture. In the Yangzi delta, the first Buddhist influences reached the south from Luoyang. (See Buddhism in China)
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 Commandant 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 to the overwhelming power of the Sima family; notable of which 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.
Conquest 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 Wei 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 protégé, Shu was unable to secure any decisive victory against Wei. 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 Jiange 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 had fallen and the emperor Liu Chan had surrendered. The state of Shu had come to an end after forty-three years.
Conquest of Wu
Following Sun Quan's death in 252, the kingdom of Wu went into a period of steady decline. Successful Wei oppression 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. Sima Yan (grandson of Sima Yi), after accepting the surrender of Liu Shan, overthrew the Wei emperor and proclaimed his own dynasty of Jin in 264, ending forty-six years of Cao dominion in the north. In 269 Yang Hu, Jin commander in the south, started preparing for the invasion of Wu by ordering the construction of a fleet and 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 Jiankang to Jiangling whilst the Sichuan fleet sailed downriver to Jing province. Under the strain of such an enormous attack, the Wu forces collapsed and Jiankang fell in the third month of 280, bringing to a close a century of conflict.
- Battle of Jieqiao (191)
- Battle of Guandu (200)
- Battle of Red Cliffs (208)
- Battle of Yiling (223)
- Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign
- Northern Expeditions
- Battle of Jieting
- Battle of Wuzhang Plain
For a more comprehensive list, see Personages of the Three Kingdoms
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- Military history of the Three Kingdoms
- Yellow Turban Rebellion
- Rafe de Crespigny
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. 
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