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Background to the Three Kingdoms
(Period 07, AD 220-280)

Page Outline: Historical Overview, Picturesque Battles, Picturesque People

Historical Overview

The period of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó 三国) following the breakup of the Hàn dynasty (period 06) involved a civil war that generated more tales of military derring-do than any other time in Chinese history. This page is intended to provide background to some of the main characters and events to help you appreciate the popular stories that are set in this period.

The last years of the Hàn dynasty saw a weakening in the power of civil authorities, and their gradual displacement by the military. The situation had already deteriorated when the last emperor of Hàn, known to history by the title Xiàndì 献帝 (or Mǐndì 愍帝) (monarch 06d-14) ascended to the throne at the age of 8. This happened just after the murder of his older brother while both of them were fleeing a warlord named DǑNG Zhuō 董卓, who had once saved the dynasty from border tribes, but was himself now sacking the capital (Luóyáng 洛阳).

The child emperor had little power (and was said by some to be an idiot), and indeed the country had already effectively fallen into three separate "kingdoms," each of which had plenty of internal turmoil of its own. Although the period is usually called simply "Three Kingdoms"(Sānguó 三国), some Chinese writers extend the name to "Three Kingdoms Standing Like the Legs of a Three-Legged Cooking Pot" (Sānguó Dǐng Lì 三国鼎立), suggesting the foolishness of the three legs contending with each other for domination.

Wèi . The northernmost kingdom was named Wèi and was controlled by a warlord named CÁO Cāo 曹操. CÁO Cāo's father had been the adopted son of a palace eunuch. CÁO Cāo was a brilliant tactician and excellent scholar but clearly an opportunist who understood that the Hàn dynasty was ending and that this was a chance to establish a new imperial line. CÁO was part of the group of Hàn loyalists who succeeded in killing the Warlord DǑNG Zhuō, and he became the protector of the emperor, whom he more or less forcibly married to his daughter.

CÁO had two sons, as clever, competent, and unscrupulous as himself. When CÁO Cāo died in 220, his son CÁO Pī 曹丕 forced the boy emperor Xiàndì to abdicate and declared himself emperor (reign 07b-1), naming his dynasty Wèi (with the capital remaining at Luòyáng 洛阳 in Hénán 河南, the former Hàn dynasty capital). He called himself the "literary emperor" (Wéndì 文帝). Because Wèi was dominated by the Cáo family, it is sometimes called the Cáo-Wèi 曹魏 dynasty.


. To the south (with the ever-shifting dividing line usually lying somewhat north of the Yangzi river) lay the "kingdom" of Wú , the territory of another warlord, a respected Hàn general by the name of SŪN Quán 孙权, who, in view of the collapse of the Hàn royal line and the ambitions of the Wèi state to the north, eventually, like CÁO Pī in the north, declared that he himself was the emperor, establishing the Wú dynasty (with its capital near the Wèi border at Jiànyè 建业, modern Nánjīng 南京, in Jiāngsū 江苏 Province).

SŪN Quán took the pretentious reign title "Great Emperor," or Dàdì 大帝 (reign 07d-1). (It is sometimes called the Sūn-Wú 孙吴 dynasty because of its domination by the Sūn family.)

Shǔ . To the west of Wú, in the area that is today Guìzhōu 贵州 and Sìchuān 四川 Provinces, lay the "kingdom" of Shǔ , where a vigorous vagabond by the name of LIÚ Bèi 刘备 declared that, since he shared the surname Liú with the ruling house of the fallen Hàn dynasty, he was its legitimate successor. Indeed, he eventually declared himself emperor of Shǔ (with his capital at Chéngdū 成都 in Sìchuān 四川 Province), and took the reign name Zhāoliè 昭烈 (reign 07c-1). (Historians today sometimes refer to the state of Shǔ as Shǔ-Hàn 蜀汉 for that reason.)

However his hold on Shǔ took some time to come together, and many of the stories from the period relate to his difficulty in gaining full control of this state. He never did succeed in restoring the Hàn dynasty by conquering all of China.

In the end, the northern state of Wèi succeeded in conquering Shǔ in AD 263, but the throne of Wèi itself was usurped from the Cáo family a scant two years later by one of its generals, a certain SĪMǍ Yán 司马炎, who declared that the combined state Wèi plus Shǔ was his own dynasty, which he called the Jìn (period 08a). Less than twenty years later, in 280, this new state of Jìn conquered Wú, briefly reuniting China before the Jìn itself crumbled under the assaults of marauders from lands still further to the north. Caution: this Jìn dynasty is not the same as the Jī dynasty (period 18)nearly a thousand years later.

The period of greatest interest to Chinese storytellers is the very beginning, the years around AD 200, when the Hàn still attracted loyalty, and the forces among three emergent states seemed roughly balanced, but constantly shifting.

In particular, storytellers remember two great battles, and a handful of heroic figures. Here are the two battles and the principal players:

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Picturesque Battles

  1. The Battle of Guāndù (Guāndù zhi Zhàn 官渡之战) (AD 199) involved an assault by CÁO Cāo of Wèi upon General YUÁN Shào 袁绍, near the town of Guāndù. Although Yuán had five times the troop strength of Cáo, he ultimately lost the battle because of indecisiveness and arrogant self-confidence, and the battle proved a turning point in Cáo's fortunes as he strengthened the expansionist state of Wèi. Storytellers stress the character flaws that led to Yuán Shào having a military disaster when he should have had military success.
  2. The Battle of Red Cliff (Chìbì zhi Zhàn 赤壁之战) (AD 208), near Xiàkǒu 夏口 in Húběi 湖北) involved CÁO Cāo's forces moving south into Wú, which was forced into an alliance with Shǔ partly in order to gain access to the services of Shǔ's master strategist ZHŪGĚ Liàng 诸葛亮. Brilliant strategy on the part of the southern allies eventually routed Cáo and destroyed much of his army. But Shǔ's unwillingness to leave Wú caused serious friction between the allies afterward, weakening both of them. Most retellings focus on Zhūgě Liàng's brilliant military strategy.

Picturesque People

  1. Hàn (period 06d)
    1. DǑNG Zhuō 董卓 (d192) A promising Hàn general with intimate knowledge of the ways of border tribes.
      When conspiring eunuchs carried off the heir apparent, Dǒng managed to restore him to the throne, only to depose him later and install a foolish princeling (reign 06d-14), whom he entirely dominated. Dǒng's appalling abuses of power led to his eventual assassination and guaranteed him a place among the villains of history. (In the course of things, he had become astonishingly obese, and it is said that after he was killed, people stabbed wooden spikes into his body and set them ablaze, like candle wicks, burning his body fat.)
    2. YUÁN Shào 袁绍 (d202) A powerful general and rival of CÁO Cāo, and a veteran of the final campaign against DǑNG Zhuō 董卓.
      It is said that in youth he was a handsome and affable friend of one of CÁO Cāo's sons, and was active with the Cáo family against the scheming eunuchs and warlords undercutting the falling Hàn dynasty. But YUÁN Shào eventually turned against the Cáo family. He is remembered in history for his increasingly indecisive and suspicious character, and the squabbling he encouraged among his sons over who would succeed him. He died of illness and the sons were exterminated by CÁO Cāo. In stories about this period, YUÁN Shào is sometimes allied with LIÚ Bèi of the state of Shǔ, less because of his conviction that Liú's cause was just than because he hated CÁO Cāo.
  2. State of Wèi 魏国 (period 07b, AD 220-265)
    1. CÁO Cāo 曹操 (b155 d220) Initially the urbane and brilliant Hàn dynasty courtier and general, later the unscrupulous dictator of Wèi .
      He rose to prominence in the battles of the Hàn régime against the Yellow Turban Rebels (Huángjīn Jūn 黄巾军, AD 185-205), then became a vigorous reformer and campaigner against the warlords and others weakening the Hàn government. His combination of competence and unscrupulousness led to his becoming virtual dictator of the collapsing Hàn state. Folklore typically represents CÁO Cāo as something of a villain, although political correctness in China today is kinder to him.
    2. CÁO Pī 曹丕 (b187 d226) Son and successor of CÁO Cāo.
      He declared himself emperor (reign 07b1) of a new "Wèi Dynasty" in 220, provoking similar declarations by the dictators of Shǔ in 221 and Wú in 222.
  3. State of Shǔ 蜀国 (period 07c, AD 221-263)
    1. LIÚ Bèi 刘备 (b161 d223) A claimant to the Hàn throne on the basis of sharing the surname LIÚ with the Hàn emperors.
      He eventually emerged as the dictator of the state of Shǔ, and declared himself emperor in 221. He is especially famous because of his sworn brotherhood with GUĀN Yǔ and ZHĀNG Fēi. (For the text of this famous oath, click here.)
    2. GUĀN Yǔ 关羽 (d219) A formidable fighter and the sworn brother of LIÚ Bèi and ZHĀNG Fēi.
      GUĀN was later deified as the god of war, but was also always strongly associated with loyalty and righteousness. CÁO Cāo made strong efforts to win him to the Wèi side, even granting him a royal title, but, having once sworn his loyalty to LIÚ Bèi, he remained loyal to Shǔ.
    3. ZHĀNG Fēi 张飞 (d221) A formidable fighter and the sworn brother of LIÚ Bèi and GUĀN Yǔ.
      It is said of him that on one occasion he stood on a bridge and held off the whole of CÁO Cāo's army for a time. Despite his martial prowess, it is largely his association with GUĀN Yǔ and LIÚ Bèi that makes him a visible character in these events. Remembered also for his quick temper, he was eventually assassinated by two of his own officers.
    4. ZHŪGĚ Liàng 诸葛亮 (b181 d234) The most brilliant military strategist of his era, whose reputation was so great that even today his name is used as a term for a person exhibiting an impressive combination of integrity and cunning.
      He was reluctant to join battle, but after three very humble visits to him by the three sworn brothers (visits much celebrated in popular retellings), he was eventually persuaded to ally himself with LIÚ Bèi of Shǔ.
  4. State of Wú 吴国 (period 07d, AD 222-280)
    1. SŪN Quán 孙权 (b182 d252) A general who became the dictator of the state of Wú, where he declared himself emperor in 222.
      Since Wú was weaker than Wèi, which continually threatened it, he was forced into an uneasy alliance with Shǔ to his west, which he suspected of wanting to conquer Wú. Most of his suspicions were fully justified, although in the end that was not what happened.
    2. ZHŌU Yú 周瑜 (b175 d210) A general from Wú who worked with the strategists of Shǔ when Shǔ and Wú were allied.
      He is best remembered for the defeat inflicted on CÁO Cāo at Red Cliff, but also for his good looks and his excellent musical abilities. He aspired to attack Shǔ and bring it under the sway of Wú, then attack Wèi and reunite China under SŪN's reign (or possibly his own), but he died before he was able to carry out the plan.

Click here for a quick quiz over this page: Quiz 1, Quiz 2, Quiz 3

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