The Three Kingdoms (AD 220–280), a tripartite division between the states of Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), and Wu (吳), followed the loss of the de facto power of the Han dynasty in China. As a result, it ushered in the start of the Period of Disunity. To further distinguish the three states from other historical Chinese states of the same name, historians have added a relevant character: Wei is also known as Cao Wei (曹魏), Shu is also known as Shu Han (蜀漢), and Wu is also known as Dong (or Eastern) Wu (東吳). The term "Three Kingdoms" itself is something of a mistranslation, since each state was eventually headed not by a king, but by an emperor who claimed legitimate succession from the Han dynasty. Nevertheless, the term "Three Kingdoms" has become standard among sinologists.
In a strict academic sense, the period of the Three Kingdoms refers to the period between the foundation of the state of Wei in 220 AD and the conquest of the state of Wu by the Jin dynasty in 280. 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 of Wei, Shu, and Wu. The later part of this period was marked by the collapse of the tripartite situation involving the conquest of Shu by Wei (263), the overthrow of Wei by the Jin dynasty (265), and the conquest of Wu by Jin (280).
The Three Kingdoms period is one of the bloodiest in Chinese history. In fact, it has been considered the second deadliest period of warfare behind World War II. A nationwide census taken in AD 280, following the reunification of the Three Kingdoms under the Jin shows a total of 2,459,840 households and 16,163,863 individuals which was only a fraction of the 10,677,960 households, and 56,486,856 individuals reported during the Han era. While the census may not have been particularly accurate due to multitude of factors of the times, the Jin in AD 280 did make an attempt to account for all individuals where they could.
Technology advanced significantly during this period. Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang invented the wooden ox, suggested to be an early form of the wheelbarrow, and improved on the repeating crossbow. Wei mechanical engineer Ma Jun is considered by many to be the equal of his predecessor Zhang Heng. He invented a hydraulic-powered, mechanical puppet theatre designed for Emperor Ming of Wei, square-pallet chain pumps for irrigation of gardens in Luoyang, and the ingenious design of the south-pointing chariot, a non-magnetic directional compass operated by differential gears.
Although relatively short, this historical period has been greatly romanticized in the cultures of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It has been celebrated and popularized in operas, folk stories, novels and in more recent times, films, television, and video games. The best known of these is Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Ming dynasty historical novel based on events in the Three Kingdoms period. The authoritative historical record of the era is Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms, along with Pei Songzhi's later annotations of the text.
Just as the name implies, the Three Kingdoms were made up of three kingdoms - Wei, Shu and Wu. As a single dynasty, the Three Kingdoms Period originated in 220 AD when Wei replaced the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD-220 AD) and ended in 280 AD when the 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.
In 189 when Emperor Ling of the Eastern Han dynasty died, a young emperor - Emperor Shao was put on the throne. Resenting the manipulation of eunuchs, two generals Yuan Shao and He Jin plotted to murder them. During the chaos caused by the fighting between the eunuchs and generals, Dong Zhuo, a treacherous court official of the Eastern Han drove his army into Luoyang. With full political power in his hand, Dong Zhuo dethroned Emperor Shao and put Emperor Xian on the throne. All Dong's deeds aroused strong protest from the courtiers and many local officials. As the political situation became acute, a large-scale civil war finally broke out.
After Dong Zhuo invaded Luoyang, Cao Cao fled to Chenliu (currently southeast of Kaifeng in Henan Province) and began to assemble military forces to revolt. In 193, Dong was killed in a mutiny but the melee remained. This period of unrest continued until 196, Balkanized areas were formed among which the most two powerful ones were those of Yuan Shao and Cao Cao.
In 196, Cao Cao held Emperor Xian under duress and took this advantage to strengthen his military power. In 201, with comparatively weaker strength, Cao Cao defeated Yuan Shao in the Battle of Guandu after which he gradually unified the northern area of China. In 209, Cao Cao drove his troops to the southern area and captured Jingzhou. But when he wanted to expand his power further to the south, he was defeated by the allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan in the Battle of Red Cliff and thus he withdrew his army back to the central plains of China.
In 220 when Cao Cao died, his eldest son Cao Pi proclaimed himself emperor, with Wei as his National Title and Luoyang as his capital city. In 221, Liu Bei proclaimed himself emperor, with Shu his national title and Chengdu the capital city. And in 229, Sun Quan proclaimed himself emperor in Wuchang (currently Wuhan), and later moved the capital to Jiankang (currently Nanjing), with the national title Wu. Since then, the so-called Three Kingdoms' Tripartite Confrontation was formed. On the whole, Wei occupied the north, Shu occupied the southwest and Wu occupied the southeast.
Upon the founding of the three kingdoms, rulers of each kingdom all committed to improve the way of ruling and develop their national economy. In the Kingdom of Wei, Cao Cao made many reforms to discard old policies inform previous dynasties. The Tun Tian (farming done by soldiers) System was also carried out, which greatly promoted the national productivity. In the Kingdom of Shu, Zhuge Liang set up strict social order and tried to govern the kingdom by law. With his assistance, Shu's agriculture and handicraft industry developed rapidly. Additionally, Shu formed a friendly relationship with ethnic minorities in southwestern areas. In the Kingdom of Wu, the shipbuilding industry was much more prosperous. As for the national strength, Wei ranked first, Wu second and Shu third.
Throughout the Three Kingdoms Period, battles between the three countries were countless. Among those, battles between Shu and Wu fighting for Jingzhou, Shu and Wei fighting for Hanzhong as well as Wei defeating Shu were all illustrious ones in Chinese history.
Finally, the end of the Three Kingdoms Period started from the Sima Yan (son of Sima Yi and chancellor of Wei)'s usurpation of Wei and the establishment of the Jin Dynasty (265 - 420). In 282 when the Jin army conquered the last kingdom - Wu's capital, the Three Kingdoms Period was ended.
The Eastern Han Empire (AD 25-220) ended when the empire divided between three big kingdoms. The disintegration of the Han and the Three Kingdoms period was a time of disaster for the people. The period lasted for 60 years until the year 280 when the large Jin Empire took over the region.
The region was divided between Cao Cao (155–220) who controlled the area north of the Yangtze River, Liu Bei (161–223) who controlled an inland area including Sichuan in the southwest, and Sun Quan (182–252) who controlled the southeast. The north was called Cao Wei (曹魏), the southwest was called Shu Han (蜀漢), and the southeast was called Dong Wu (東吳) that means Eastern Wu.
The Han Empire ended in natural disasters and rebellions that reduced the power of the dynastic court. There were also great conflicts in the dynastic court that ended in much killings and assassinations of royal clan members, the imperial eunuchs and officials, and their staff and guards.
The Han Empire broke into three economic geographical regions that were separated by the natural boundaries of the Yangtze River that crosses the country east and west and the central mountains where the Three Gorges are.
A Time of Disaster
Through the natural disasters and warfare at the end of the empire and during the Three Kingdoms Period, the population of the region was greatly reduced. The ancient idea about the “Mandate of Heaven” was that natural disasters generally mark the end of the rule of a dynastic clan that controls an empire in the region. This was true of the Han Empire.
During the last decades of the Han Empire, the fighting between the regional rulers, the imperial court, and the peasant armies and bands killed a lot of people. Many people migrated to search for safety. So many people died or moved and lost their land and property that the official censuses show a great drop in registering households.
There were an estimated 54 million people in the Han Empire according to a census in 156 AD, but only an estimated 16 million people according to a census in the Jin Empire in 280 AD though the Jin Empire contained the same territory as that of the Han Empire.
This drop in population mirrors the drop from the end of the Zhou era when there was an estimated 40 million people in the region to the end of the Qin Empire when 18 million people were recorded.
The emergence of the Jin Empire killed even more people. First, the Jin Dynasty clan established control in Cao Wei and conquered Shu Han to form the Jin Empire (263–420); and then the Jin Dynasty conquered the remaining state Dong Wu in the year 280.
After Cao Cao's defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208, the region was divided into three spheres of influence. Cao Cao was a leading figure in who attempted to control the whole empire, and he helped to bring it down. He died in 220 AD.
When he died, his son Cao Pi forced the last emperor of the Han Dynasty who was named Emperor Xian to give him his throne in 220. He was called Emperor Wen. He lived for only 6 years after this until the year 226. He set up his capital at Luoyang in the new kingdom called Cao Wei.
In 221, Liu Bei in the new kingdom of Shu Han named himself the Emperor of the Han Empire. In the same year, Sun Quan took the title of the King of Wu.
Liu Bei declared war on Dong Wu. At the Battle of Yiling, Liu Bei was defeated by Sun Quan's army, and he was forced to retreat back to Shu Han where he died.
After the death of Liu Bei, Liu Bei’s son Liu Shan took power in Shu Han. Zhuge Liang became the Prime Minister under Liu Bei. He was known as unusually intelligent and a great military strategist. They made peace with Sun Quan. This stabilized the political situation between them.
Both leaders then turned against the countries to the south of them to expand. Sun Quan conquered the Shanyue people to the south of him in 234. He then conscripted tens of thousands of them for his army. About the same time, Liu Shan fought the Nanmen. He also added Nanmen to his army.
In 227, Zhuge Liang sent an army against Cao Wei even though Wei had a much bigger population and a much bigger territory. According to census figures around this time, Shu Han had a population of only a million people. Wei probably had a population of about 3 or 4 million because a census of Wei that was taken in the year 260 showed a figure of 4.4 million people.
Zhuge Liang's campaigns failed, and in 234, he led his last great northern offensive and died.
Prosperity of Dong Wu
At the same time, Cao Wei kept attacking Dong Wu. But they could not break through Sun Quan’s river defenses that included a fortress called Ruxu. During Sun Quan’s long reign, Dong Wu prospered.
A migration of northern people and the subjugation of the Shanyue people increased his population and their agricultural production.
Big canals were dug that aided inland transportation, and trade with Shu Han helped both kingdoms to prosper. Dong Wu merchants traded with merchants in Linyi (northern Vietnam) and Funan (southern Vietnam).
Rise of the Jin Dynasty in Cao Wei and the Fall of Shu Han
After the 230s, the ruling Cao clan in Cao Wei was threatened by the Sima clan that held a lot of land. Sima Yi was a great general in Cao Wei.
In 238, Sima Yi took over the capital of Luoyang. In 263, Wei launched a three-pronged attack against the Shu Han, and the Shu army was forced into a general retreat. In 263, Liu Shan surrendered.
Expansion of the Jin Empire
In Cao Wei, the Cao clan still claimed the dynastic throne. Sima Yan forced Cao Huan to abdicate and established the Jin Dynasty in 265.
In 269, the Jin Dynasty started construction of a navy to control the Yangtze River and ferry troops across to attack Dong Wu. This invasion came in 279 after ten years of preparation.
In 280, Emperor Sun Hao of Dong Wu surrendered. This event marks the end of the Three Kingdom Period and the ascension of the new Jin Empire.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
This interesting and bloody stage of history was portrayed in popular literature hundreds of years later. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a famous semi-historical work said to be written by Luo Guan Zhong. It is ancient historical fiction that colors modern Chinese thinking about the era.
The novel describes the machinations, court intrigues, and the shifting alliances of the three kingdoms. He portrays the wars and the lives and struggles of the rulers at the end of the Han Dynasty and in the Three Kingdoms Period. Special emphasis is laid on the antagonists Liu Bei and Cao Cao. There are accounts of ghastly deaths and of rulers dying after meeting avenging ghosts.
The authorship and the date the novel was originally written are debatable. Chinese traditionally say that the novel was written by Luo Guan Zhong at the end of the Yuan Dynasty period (1279–1368) that would be about 1368 or so.
But some scholars say that the book contains material that indicates that the book was written in the middle or late Ming Dynasty era (1368-1644) or about two hundred years later. It could be that the earlier date is valid and that material or information was added by revisers.
It is known that a major revision was published by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang in 1522 during the Qing Dynasty era. They revised the structure and deleted a lot of material. So now there are two major versions: an older version that has about 900,000 words and the more popular 1522 version that has about 770,000 words.