One of the most dramatic and well known eras of human history, the Three Kingdoms period of China took place towards the end of the 400-year-old Han Empire. Following a series of disasters including the Yellow Turban Rebellion which started in 184 C.E., the rogue warlord Dong Zhuo seized power in the imperial capital of Luoyang, beginning a dramatic era where various warlords vied for supremacy that culminated with the emergence of three powers: Wei (founded by Cao Pi in 220 C.E. as the successor to the Han Empire on the grounds that the last Han Emperor had passed the title on to his house) in the north, Shu (founded by Liu Bei in 221 C.E. as the continuation of the Han Dynasty on the grounds that he was of the same royal Liu clan as the rulers of Hannote ) in the southwest and Wu (founded by Sun Quan, on the grounds that (1) everyone else was doing it and (2) his people were culturally and economically distinct and practically a different people anyway in the southeast.) note
For all its fame, the Three Kingdoms era was very brief, with two kingdoms collapsing within two generations of their founding. The first to fall was Shu, which surrendered to Wei in late 263 C.E. during the reign of Liu Bei's son Liu Shan. Wei itself collapsed a mere two years later when Sima Yan, Prince of Jin and grandson of Sima Yi note , usurped the throne from the Cao family and established the new state of Jin in early 266 C.E.. The Three Kingdoms period ended in 280 C.E., when Sun Hao, grandson of Sun Quan, surrendered Wu to Sima Yan.
As if to spite the Sima clan, this unified Jin Dynasty was to be similarly brief. After Sima Yan's death in 290 C.E., his intellectually disabled son proved to be an incompetent ruler; the Rebellion of the Eight Princes would begin in 291 C.E. (but only leading to epic catastrophe from 300 C.E. onwards), paving the way for non-Han tribes further north to invade in the early 4th century C.E, culminating in the Disaster of Yongjia in 311, where Luoyang (the capital of Jin) was captured and sacked. From that point, China would be disunited—and ruled in large part by non-Chinese peoples—for nearly 300 years, until reunification by the Sui Dynasty in 589, when Sui defeated Chen.
Most famous for being the origin of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which took historical events and combined them with folklore and folk tales. The actual authoritative historiography of the era is Records of the Three Kingdoms (三国志, San Guo Zhi) compiled by Chen Shou; Pei Songzhi's annotations greatly expanded the scope of the work, but various historians and scholars have casted doubts on individual parts of the annotations. Zi Zhi Tong Jian (Chinese: 資治通鑑, "Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance"), compiled by a team led by Sima Guang note , provides a context of how the Eastern Han got itself into such a mess in the first place.
For English readers, Australian sinologist Rafe de Crespigny has written many works on this period, even translating and annotating some parts of Tongjian (from 157 to 220 CE). Achilles Fang, a Chinese-Korean sinologist, also wrote extensively on this period.
Background: The in-laws vs the eunuchs, and the rotting of institutionsThe decline of the Eastern Han dynasty was a process lasting more than a century, during which two main factions struggled for supremacy: the waiqi (consort kin, relatives of the empress/imperial concubines) and the eunuchs. The waiqi were prominent clans that translated their status to power by filling governmental positions with their kin. The dowager empress would also become regent in case the emperor was too young to rule, and the Later Han was plagued with child emperors. note Meanwhile, the eunuchs were close servants whom the emperor personally trusted and turned to whenever he was upset with whoever held the real power at the time, and through this, they accumulated a great deal of influence themselves to the scorn of "proper" officials.
Most historians, traditional or modern, attribute the irreversible decline of the Eastern Han to the two emperors Huan and Lingabout the naming . While Romance does not elaborate much on Emperor Ling's reign (other than the Yellow Turbans), he was actually notorious for his open auction of government positions for personal monetary gains. note That, and him operating a palace where nubile palace maids serve him while being stark naked. note His predecessor, Emperor Huan, greatly empowered the eunuchs in the bid to unseat his brother-in-law Liang Ji, a notorious waiqi note . While Liang Ji was eventually killed, the empowerment of eunuchs would leave a devastating legacy for the Eastern Han; they would later go on to form a 12-men clique known as the Ten Attendants under Emperor Ling's reign. Many eunuchs wrecked havoc on the political, economical and social scenes via various actions, e.g. mass corruption, falsely accusing their scholar-bureaucrat opponents of crimes, and stuffing the imperial court and regional officialdom with their cronies. note
By the reigns of Emperor Huan and Ling, the rot of institutions had also become terminal. During the Han Dynasty, officials obtained their positions primarily through recommendations; one can be nominated a "xiaolian" (孝廉, literally "filial and incorrupt") based on his virtues, or a "xiucai" (秀才note ) based on his talent. Theoretically, while the nominator is responsible for the nominee's subsequent performance as an official, this was rarely enforced in reality. As one might expect, corruption, nepotism and incompetence gradually seeped into the bureaucracy. The situation was so bad that the opening lines of a nursery rhyme during the eras of Huan-Lingnote goes: "A nominated xiucai is illiterate; a nominated xiaolian doesn't live with his father".note
Repainting the Sky: The Yellow Turban Rebellion
During the Han dynasty, various Taoist schools amalgamated the teachings of Laozi, Zhuangzi and elements of Chinese folk religion. Before Zhang Jie, a master named Zhang Daoling (not related to Zhang Jie) founded the Five Pecks of Rice sect note which, by the time of the Three Kingdom Period, grew into a theocratic fiefdom under his grandson Zhang Lu. Another (possibly fictional) figure was Gan Ji, who allegedly preached in Jiangdong and got executed by Sun Ce. Facing the hardship of natural disasters, famine and oppressive taxes, many peasants turned to faith, and in periods of turmoil throughout Chinese history religious societies proved to be a fatal threat to the reigning authority, whether it was the Yellow Turban Rebellion, the Red Turban Rebellion, the White Lotus Rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion, etc. The Yellow Turban Rebellion itself is generally regarded as the first recorded instance of a religiously inspired rebellion in imperial Chinese history.
Three brothers Zhang Jue, Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang, known historically as healers, founded one such Taoist sect called Taiping (sound familiar?). They eventually grew into a relatively well-organized movement which even infiltrated the governmental ranks. With this, the Zhangs were able to pull off a country-wide rebellion in 184, aiming to overthrow the Han and proclaim a new dynasty:
- "The Azure Sky already died, the Yellow Sky will ascend. In the jiazi year note , there will be great joy to the entire world." (蒼天已死，黃天當立。歲在甲子，天下大吉。)
The revolt, called the Yellow Turban Rebellion due to the pieces of cloth the rebels wrapped their heads with, targeted local governmental headquarters, pillaged villages while the capital's response was hampered by court politics. However, the Zhang brothers did not enjoy success for long; Zhang Jue soon died of illness and his brothers fell in battle within the first year of the rebellion. Nevertheless, pockets of rebels persisted and fought the government or descended to banditry over the next two decades.
The uprising and subsequent disarray further weakened the authority of the Han central government and worsened already bad living conditions. With many regions effectively cut off from the central government, the imperial court relied on local leaders and their private armies to re-establish order. This allowed local warlords to consolidate their personal power and establish their own fiefdoms. More on the warlords The first warlord to burst onto the imperial scene in a big way was Dong Zhuo.
Fall of the Waiqi and Eunuch factionsEmperor Ling died in May 189 C.E. at the age of 34, having reigned for 21 years, and immediately sparkled a Succession Crisis. While Ling himself favoured his younger son Liu Xie (the future Emperor Xian), his empress Lady He and her brother He Jin favoured Lady He's son Liu Bian. Before his death, Ling had entrusted Jian Shuo, a eunuch, to assist Liu Xie. Jian then plotted to kill He Jin, but the plot was foiled and He killed Jian instead. Around this time, there was infighting among the waiqi faction, as the Hes and the Dongs note struggled for primacy. Ultimately, the Hes prevailed and Liu Bian was crowned. However, the eunuchs then bribed Lady He's mother and other brother He Miao, sowing discord among the Hes.
Jian's death did not hinder the eunuchs' faction, and they began to plot He Jin's death. Yuan Shao had advised He Jin to kill all eunuchs, but due to the objections of others (including Empress Dowager He), He Jin did not do so. However, he resorted to summoning general Dong Zhuo from the northwestern frontier to the capital, hoping Dong's might would intimidate the Empress to back down. In panic, the eunuchs lured He Jin to the palace and killed him. Without He's restraint, Yuan Shao then led men to the palace, exterminating any eunuch on sight. note Thus, two important factions in imperial politics were reduced to nothing almost overnight, allowing Dong Zhuo to rise to power.
However, there was a third faction in imperial politics: the scholar-officials based in the imperial capital, of which Yuan Wei (uncle of Shao and Shu) was the leader. The Yuan clan of Runan had great influence at the time, its members having held at least one of the "Three Excellencies" positions for four generations. As the scholar-officials were fundamentally opposed to the eunuchs, Yuan Wei chose to align his faction with He Jin.
Dong Zhuo: The TyrantDespite great martial prowess at a young age, Dong Zhuo was far from being the best general of his time. Nevertheless, he managed to rise through the ranks partly due to knowing the right person to bribe. By the time He Jin summoned him, Dong had been rejecting imperial assignment orders and building up his power base in the frontier province of Liang for a while.note
Arriving at Luoyang with the capital literally ablaze and in total anarchy, Dong used the opportunity to move in with his army and take charge of the imperial government. He deposed Emperor Shao (Liu Bian) and murdered him along with his mother Empress Dowager He to install Liu Xie (Emperor Xian) as his puppet. Dong also executed Yuan Wei and Yuan Ji (Shao and Shu's elder brother), along with many members of the Yuan clan of Runan. All these sparked a coalition of warlords to march against him, including Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu, and Cao Cao. The coalition met with some success, forcing Dong Zhuo to flee to Chang'an (not before looting Luoyang first), but the coalition fell apart before Dong Zhuo could be deposed. Despite this, Dong Zhuo only got to enjoy power for another year before Lü Bu assassinated him at the urging of Wang Yun.
The demonization of Dong Zhuo in the novel is only a slight exaggeration, for Dong was almost just as bad in Real Life. Lü Bu had an affair with one of Dong's chambermaids, and keeping it a secret was one of the reasons of his betrayal. Though her name's been lost to history, that maid is usually known in modern times as Diaochan, after the Romance character inspired by her. Also, it was Sun Jian who was actively fighting against Dong; he was the one who historically killed Hua Xiong.
Rise of the WarlordsAfter May 192, with Luoyang burnt and Chang'an in disarray after Dong Zhuo's death, the various warlords all over China continue to consolidate their power in various parts of the country. To the north, Cao Cao and Yuan Shao struggle against each other, culminating in their showdown at Guandu. (Before that, Yuan had largely secured the northeast for himself after defeating Gongsun Zan) To the south and southeast, Liu Biao faces off against the Sun family. note To the southwest, Liu Zhang inherited Yi Province from his father, Liu Yan, after his older brothers died from execution. Liu Zhang then executed much of Zhang Lu's family after the latter refused to follow the former's orders. Both Liu Zhang and Zhang Lu will remain in their fiefdoms (Zhang Lu in Hanzhong) for many years to come.
Yuan Shu crowns himself EmperorBack when Dong Zhuo was retreating to Changan from Luoyang, Sun Jian entered Luoyang with his troops and managed to fish out the Imperial Seal which had been dropped down a well in the chaos. At the time, Sun Jian was still under Yuan Shu's command, and it was said that Yuan imprisoned Sun Jian's wife to force Sun to cough up the seal. With the seal in hand, along with a prophecy seemingly indicating that he was to become emperor, Yuan crowned himself emperor in 197. This proved to be an utter disaster for him. Firstly, he seemed to assume that because Sun Jian was his subordinate, all Sun Jian's land and resources were as good as his, and he took this for granted. This turned out not to be the case. After Yuan Shu crowned himself emperor, Sun Ce (Sun Jian's son) took the opportunity to break away, on the (not incorrect) premise that Yuan was now a pretender and a traitor. Suddenly bereft of his most powerful ally, Yuan attempted to ally with Lü Bu but this also failed (initially), as Lü Bu proclaimed his loyalty to Emperor Xian. With Cao Cao and Sun Ce beating down on him, Yuan only lasted 2 years and died in 199; Lü Bu eventually jumped ship and allied with Yuan, but was defeated by Cao and also died in 199 (before Yuan), on 7 Feb. note
The main action which sparked this support for the Eastern Han was Emperor Xian's decision to leave Chang'an for Luoyang. Despite his youth, Emperor Xian realised that by relocating to Luoyang, he'll be closer to the centres of power (the Central Plains), and is more likely to link up with warlords which might prove supportive. The journey took about a whole year (195-196). At Luoyang, Emperor Xian met Cao Cao, and agreed to Cao's suggestion to relocate (yet again) to what would be later known as Xuchang. Modern historians have argued that it was this combination of Cao's ability-cum-military strength and the legitimacy conferred by Emperor Xian which allowed Cao to eventually triumph, especially at Guandu. Some have gone even further to argue that at the beginning of the relationship, Emperor Xian was the stronger party.
There were some warlords who were against Emperor Xian. Yuan Shao was one; he had been firmly against Emperor Xian as Xian had been nominated by Dong Zhuo. Yuan had also previously tried to nominate a rival emperor, spread rumours that Emperor Xian is not Emperor Ling's son, and even killed some envoys sent by Xian. Liu Biao had personal ties with He Jin, and had supported Yuan Shao during the anti-Dong coalition. As such, after Xian's relocation to Xuchang, Liu nominally paid homage to Xian, but secretly maintained ties with Yuan. If one noticed, the warlords who were anti-Emperor Xian were eventually eliminated, most of the time by Cao Cao.
Emperor Xian also took a proactive role during his time at Xu Chang. Yuan Shu's self-coronation was one incident where his diplomatic efforts contributed to Yuan's eventual destruction. By bestowing titles and rewards upon Sun Ce and communicating with Lü Bu, Emperor Xian helped convince both men to join in the beatdown on Yuan Shu. In 197, two months after Yuan Shu's coronation, by sending Kong Rong as envoy to confer the title of Great Marshal upon Yuan Shao (the title being previously held by Cao Cao himself), Emperor Xian secured Yuan Shao's neutrality.
Another interesting phenomenon was that in 220 C.E., between Cao Cao's death in the first lunar month of the year till Cao Pi's usurpation in the tenth lunar month, the Qingzhou corps mutinied. This was a significant development as the Qingzhou corps had been part of the core of Cao Cao's troops since the beginning of his career. Thus, modern historians have argued that Cao Pi's usurpation of the throne was not done from a position of strength, but a position of weakness. Emperor Xian giving up the throne was interpreted as a move designed to boost Cao Pi's legitimacy, and prevent the north from descending into chaos.
Ultimately, one should never forget that throughout his career, Emperor Xian navigated his way through warlords like Dong Zhuo, Li Jue and Guo Si, and ultimately Cao Cao, all without being physically harmed. It's a testament to the young emperor's wisdom and readiness to adapt to the circumstances and make the best of the bad hand life had dealt him. After his abdication (which was regarded as the first peaceful abdication in Chinese imperial history), he was treated well by Cao Wei, unlike future emperors who abdicated and frequently died tragically not too long after. When Liu Xie passed away in 234, the year of Zhuge Liang's death and 14 years after his abdication, he was buried with honors due to an emperor. note
Politics aside, Emperor Xian was keen on learning. note In particular, he wanted to better understand the Book of Han (Han Shu, attributed to historian Ban Gu), the then go-to text for the history of the Western Han. However, at over 80,000 characters and many repetitions in the text, the emperor found it difficult to get the most of the Book. He then ordered Xun Yue, a cousin of Xun Yu, to rewrite the Book in the style of a chronicle. The result was the Annals of Han (漢紀, Han Ji); at about 18,000 characters, the Annals was praised as an excellent summary and companion work of Book.
During the Eastern Han, China was using commodity money in the form of wuzhu (五铢) coins made of copper. note The wuzhu cash coins were first minted by Emperor Wu of Han in 118 BCE, so by the time of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, they had been circulating in markets for almost three centuries. However, with the YT Rebellion and turmoil caused by Dong Zhuo, the technical knowledge required to mint the coins were lost, and the mints themselves in Luoyang and Chang'an were largely destroyed. In addition, the unrest severely disrupted the economic fabric of northern China. Thus, many parts of northern China reverted to a barter economy, using grains or cloth as "currency"; other areas saw the continued use of wuzhu copper coins minted either in the past or locally by regional warlords.
Liu Bei first discovered the usefulness of currency debasement after his conquest of Chengdu in 214 CE. Before the fall of Chengdu, he promised his troops that they were free to loot the city after its fall. After the looting, Liu discovered that he had difficulty in replenishing military supplies. Liu Ba then suggested to Liu Bei that he mint zhibai wuzhu (直百五铢) coins to use as the official currency. While this minting did quickly replenish Liu's supplies, the seeds of a currency war had already been sowed.
The face value of 1 zhibai wuzhu coin was set at 100 wuzhu coins; however, its weight (and thus commodity value) was (obviously) not 100 times that of the wuzhu coin. Thus, the minting of zhibai wuzhu coins was currency debasement by another name. Just before the Battle of Yiling, Liu stepped up the minting of zhibai wuzhu coins in order to pay for the huge military bill; even after Shu's defeat at Yiling, Zhuge Liang continued the minting of zhibai wuzhu coins. The inflationary effects of the currency debasement took a while to hit Shu, as many "zhibai wuzhu" coins found their way to both Wei and Wu. There, they caused massive economic damage. In Wei, Cao Pi had actually revived the use of wuzhu coins as legal tender in early 221 (before Yiling); the influx of zhibai wuzhu coins forced him to abolish copper coins as legal tender. After Pi's death, his son and successor Cao Rui tried to reintroduce copper coins as legal tender. Again, Gresham's law struck, and Rui soon abandoned his plans.note
In Wu, Sun Quan actually joined in the currency war, by minting the daquan (大泉) series of copper coins, starting with the daquan wubai (大泉五百) in 236 CE, and then the "daquan dangqian" (大泉当千) two years later. The face value of these two coins were set at 500 and 1000 wuzhu coins, respectively. Eventually, Sun Quan went for broke, minting copper coins with face values set at 2000 and 5000 wuzhu coins. As one can expect, this caused runaway inflation. In addition, Sun also progressively reduced the weight of the minted coins, further aggravating the situation. Tensions in society soon reached fever pitch and Sun withdrew these copper coins from circulation in 246 CE.
In Shu, Liu Shan decreed a currency reform in 240 CE, abolishing the zhibai wuzhu coin and introducing the zhibai (直百) and zhiyi (直一) coins, with the face value of zhibai coins set at 100 zhiyi coins. However, as Shu's economic situation worsened over the years, zhiyi coins were eventually rendered obsolete; very few have survived to modern times, compared to zhibai coins.
Readers of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms tend to believe that Liu Bei and his subordinates and his Shu Kingdom were scions of virtue and basically heroic figures all around. Unfortunately, what transpired in history was not as pleasing as the novel depicted (although they are not without some positive traits). It should be noted that the not-so-pleasant look was majorly caused by how the Shu Kingdom had a rather poor history management (as opposed to Wei) so a lot of the kingdom's detailed achievements were not recorded. Even Chen Shou, when writing the historical Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms had to depend a lot from Wei/Jin-produced history books which were more likely to focus on Shu's enemy while leaving Shu as either a footnote or not painted that positively. See also on the Aftermath section below on how people decided to whitewash the Kingdom of Shu from its faults in the first place.
Liu Bei's familial connection to the Imperial line was extremely distant, to the point he was barely related to the Emperors of his time at all. His adopted son Liu Feng (formerly Kou Feng) was actually more closely related to the Imperial line than he was. He and the Emperor also never actually met in person. In addition, far from being a virtuous and heroic figurenote , Liu Bei repeatedly betrayed his patrons and employers (even abandoning his family on at least three occasions), and finally crowned himself Emperor, claiming it was in order to continue the Han line (going so far as to refer to his domain as the Han Empire and himself as Han Emperor). He justified this by claiming that Cao Pi had murdered Emperor Xian. It must be said that historians largely rate his rule over his lands as passable; one of the things the novels got right was that he was never recorded to have participated in any massacres, unlike Cao Cao. Liu's greatest mistake was probably his attack on Wu to avenge Guan Yu, which brought about his greatest defeat and death via illness. Many of his contemporaries also gave him credit for his determination and tenacity; there were a lot of times that Liu Bei came close to being wiped off the map, but as long as he lived he somehow always managed to come Back from the Brink, even if he had to commit treachery to do it. On Yiling It should be noted that as opposed to the novel where he threw his infant baby to the ground at Changban... at least he didn't do that in real life. He ate people on a few occasions, though out of desperation rather than a taste for human flesh.
At a more esoteric level, Liu Bei actually brought upon great misery to many in China, because of his minting of zhibai wuzhu coins; see the "Monetary War" section for more details.
If anything, Liu Bei was looked up heroically and became the subject for Historical Hero Upgrade because the Chinese folk at the time also loved underdogs and his constant opposition to Cao Cao, who committed several looting and massacres of the common people, despite majorly losing against him and tenaciously surviving a lot of times, gave him more exposure for people to root on.
Zhang Fei was a strong warrior and a competent commander, but also a violent brute prone to beating or killing his men for mistakes, and this was something for which Liu Bei censured him. This cost him dearly at least twice: Liu Bei was chased out of Xu Province by the commoners after Zhang Fei murdered the local official Cao Bao note , and Zhang Fei himself was finally murdered by some of his men just before the launch of the Yiling Campaign. In addition, he kidnapped and forcibly married a 13 year old girl, who later bore him two daughtersnote . Despite this, he was also one of Liu Bei's most successful generals, being more accomplished than the likes of Zhao Yun, Ma Chao and Guan Yu. He actually uses strategy more here unlike in the novel; the Changban bridge event happened not because he yelled so fiercely, but impromptu strategy pulled off well. Unlike Guan Yu, who despised scholars, Zhang actually enjoyed the company of learned men.
Guan Yu's military record was spotty, with more defeats than victories being recorded. note Even his Fancheng campaign, which started out well and enjoyed some good luck (an entire enemy army was washed away by a flood), ground to a halt once he went up against competent opposition like Cao Ren and Xu Huang. His worst failure was the loss of Liu Bei's Jing Province holdings to Lü Meng, which cost Liu almost a third of his territory. Guan was also known to be arrogant, looking down on others (even Sun Quan, Liu Bei's primary ally) as his inferiors. note This serves as his flaw, balancing out his steadfast honor (shown to Cao Cao during his services to him) and loyalty to Liu Bei.
Historically, the Oath at the Peach Garden never happened; the trio were "just" normal acquaintances/lord-subordinates without special relations. However, it is noted in Records that the three were "as close as brothers" (to the point of sharing the same bed); many of Liu Bei's enemies (including Zhou Yu, Guo Jia and Cheng Yu) were recorded as mentioning Guan Yu and Zhang Fei as well when discussing the threat posed by Liu. Also, the fact that Liu launched the Yiling Campaign to avenge Guan, despite the advice of many Shu officials, meant that perhaps, there had been friendship borne out of years going through thick and thin together.
Zhao Yun never achieved high rank under Liu Bei, and was more known for being commander of Liu Bei's bodyguard unit. Zhuge Liang quickly promoted him when he became Chancellor, but Zhao never had much chance to actually do anything. His first major command was during Zhuge's first Northern Campaign, where he was repelled by Wei forces and passed away not long after. Most of Zhao Yun's greatest feats are mentioned in a work known as the Zhao Yun Biezhuan (or Unofficial Biography of Zhao Yun), effectively a Fix Fic that has him pull of amazing feats like repel Cao Cao's entire army with a clever ambush at Hanzhong (despite no historical records of such a devastating defeat existing). However, Chen Shou himself credits Zhao Yun and Huang Zhong with exceptional bravery, comparing them to Western Han generals Guan Ying and Xiahou Ying. Also, like Guan and Zhang, he served Liu Bei loyally for many years; unlike the former two, he escaped a violent death.
Out of the top 5 Shu generals, Ma Chao's life was probably the one which the novel takes the most liberties with. In history, Ma Chao was noted to have caused his family's death due to his ambition. note He was the only Shu general to have been a minor warlord himself. Also, he did not serve Liu Bei for long (about 8 years) before dying of illness in 222 C.E. Historians have speculated that Liu Bei's main aim in recruiting him was to exploit his lineage as Ma Yuan's descendant, given his ill reputation as a rebel who caused his clan's near extermination.
Zhuge Liang was brilliant and well-read (he is credited with creating Shu's legal code almost from scratch), but his skills were wholly unsuited for military command. Sima Yi only fought him twice, and it was Cao Zhen who repelled most of Zhuge's campaigns. In addition, Zhuge Liang was stubborn and often stuck to plans long after they were no longer tenable, and he was unable to adapt to the quickly-changing conditions of the battlefield. He also put his faith in his own circle of cronies and proteges, and deliberately excluded men he disliked like Wei Yan (despite Wei being Shu's single best general at this point). After his death, his cronies organised a retreat despite Wei Yan outranking all of them, and things got so bad that fighting broke out that ended with Wei Yan's death. Shu's "Golden Age" came only after Zhuge Liang's death, as his successors like Jiang Wan and Fei Yi opted to focus on internal affairs rather than launching futile attacks on Wei. note
It has been argued that by Yiling, Zhuge Liang no longer had Liu Bei's complete trust; on the Yiling campaign, Zhuge was left behind to guard Chengdu and an uncomfortable truth is that Liu Bei embarked on the campaign without any sound advisor or general by his side. Some academics have speculated that Zhuge did not advise Liu Bei not to invade Wu because he knew that his advice would fall on deaf ears. Some have gone even further to argue that Liu Bei did not use Zhuge as a strategist at all after Chibi, the evidence for this being that his advisor during the campaign to capture Yi Province was Pang Tong, and the advisor during the expedition to conquer Han Zhong was Fa Zheng.
Besides Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei had other advisors whom he greatly respected and rewarded after his conquest of Yi Province. Mi Zhu was the most heavily rewarded, followed by Sun Qian and Jian Yong, followed by Yi Ji. Yi Ji also worked on the above-mentioned Shu's legal code together with other scholars like Liu Ba, Fa Zheng and Li Yan. Fa was remembered by Zhuge after their master's defeat at Xiaoting: "If Fa Zheng had been around, he would have stopped our master from launching the campaign; even if he had been unable to halt the campaign, he would have at least limited the damage done."
However, Shu's legal minds were not without their flaws either. Fa was noted to be vindictive, and abused his position to settle scores with people who had wronged him before his ascent. Although Zhuge received word of this abuse, he suppressed it as he knew that Liu Bei (and indeed he himself) admired his talent. Liu Ba was arrogant; when Zhang Fei wanted to meet him, he refused an audience as he looked down on Zhang's background.
Along with the Historical Hero Upgrade Liu Bei and Shu-Han got in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao and his subordinates got the Historical Villain Upgrade. More modern takes on Cao Cao depict him as doing what he had to do. Historically he was not as villainous as he was depicted in the novel (no more so than many of his contemporaries whose names haven't become by-words for "treachery"). But make no mistake that Cao Cao and his subordinates were not flawless saints either. Also look at the Aftermath section on how the idea to vilify the Cao family started in the first place.
While Cao Cao was harsh and ruthless, he was also fair, absolutely refusing to allow people to get away with any sort of crime (unlike some of his rivals who turned blind eyes to the misdeeds of their favoured servants). That said, he could also be reasonable and forgiving for the right reasons (for example, he forgave a rebel because he was aware the man had rebelled to protect his subordinates, rather than any actual enmity towards Cao himself). He often made widows into his concubines, since they had no other ways to look after themselves. Even the execution of the Empress was justified, as the standard punishment for treason was the extermination of the traitor's family. Far from being constantly defeated by Liu Bei, Cao Cao generally crushed Liu without much effort. He was also an accomplished poet and scholar note . Indeed, of the Big Three, he was the first to consolidate his power base and expand it considerably. While he had enough scruples not to declare himself emperor, his son Cao Pi had no such inhibitions, declaring himself emperor within a year of Cao's death. note After deposing Empress Fu in 214, Cao's daughter Jie was made empress in 215. However, it should be noted that Cao's relationship with Emperor Xian was symbiotic, at least at the beginning. Indeed, when Cao Jie herself heard the news that her elder brother is usurping power from her husband, she threw the Imperial Seal on the floor and cursed, much like what the-then-much-older Wang Zhengjun did when her nephew Wang Mang usurped power from the Western Han more than 200 years prior.
One of the chief reasons on how Cao Cao was nonetheless subjected to Historical Villain Upgrade was that while he could be forgiving for the right reasons and fair, if people rubbed him the wrong way he could get very murder-happy (and unfortunately, a lot of people did). He was recorded to have committed a lot of massacres; if anything, the novel actually omitted a lot of them, leaving only the massacre in Xuzhou/Xu Province, caused by Cao blaming governor Tao Qian for the death of his father Cao Song, when in reality he slaughtered several cities due to his army being low on food, so thoroughly that the Si river was filled with corpses. note Ultimately, Cao Cao's actions did not sit well with the teachings of Confucianism (especially the part about installing a puppet emperor while he's controlling them from behind the scenes; many considered such an act to be one of unabashed personal ambition - a big no-no in Confucianism note ), thus fueling his vilification. note
Cao Pi's decision to crown himself Emperor turned out to be a rather poor one. Though not incompetent himself, he was a shadow of his father when it came to various abilities. note He also did his family no favours by (a) trusting Sima Yi and (b) dying young (before the age 40 at 226 C.E., less than 6 years after his coronation). For a double whammy, Pi's son Rui also died young (in 239 CE at the age of 35). Cao Pi's rule was also significant as he abandoned his father's system of promoting officials solely on merit; he adopted Chen Qun's suggestion of promotion based on a "nine-rank system". The end result was that from Cao Pi onwards, the officials of Cao Wei became increasingly filled by the scholar-elite (who were often families with various forms of power, such as financial and ideological strength); not surprisingly, Sima Yi's family was one such family. note
Sima Yi clearly bided his time. He served Cao Cao loyally, and gained the trust of Cao Pi, who defended Yi against Cao's suspicions. With the death of Cao Rui in 239 C.E., the stage was set for Sima Yi to slowly maneuver his way to greater power. note While Rui mistrusted Yi note , and Cao Shuang (son of Cao Zhen and the other co-regent for the young Cao Fang) stripped Yi's real power while granting him honorific titles, Shuang was no match for Yi's ruthlessness and cunning. In 249 C.E., 10 years after Rui's death, Sima Yi launched a coup which eventually eliminated Cao Shuang, and Yi himself became regent, complete with the title's powers. Yi himself would pass away in 251 C.E.; his sons Sima Shi and Sima Zhao would continue to tighten their family's grip on power in the years to come.
Sun Jian was initially a minor court official who rose to prominence in the Yellow Turban Rebellion. While his personal bravery and ability was widely acknowledged, he did not leave much material support for his elder son and successor when he died, as for much of his career, he was under Yuan Shu's command, and did not manage to break free.
Sun Ce was the one who successfully broke away from Yuan Shu and carved out territory in Jiangdong to call his own. He proclaimed loyalty to Emperor Xian, which facilitated his legitimacy in destroying the minor Jiangdong warlords. However, with his death, his younger brother and successor had other ideas.
Sun Quan placed particular importance in his independence and the independence of Jiangdong. This was the ultimate reason why he did not choose to surrender before Chibi. This emphasis on independence informed many of his decisions, as he allied with either Liu Bei or Cao Cao as circumstances dictated. However, after his spectacular success at Chibi, Quan's ambitions grew; soon after Chibi, he invaded Hefei for the first time. Hefei would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to Quan's plans to enter the Central Plains. While Cao Cao was alive, Hefei was attacked twice without any success. After Sun Quan crowned himself emperor in May 229, he attacked Hefei and its associated fortress (Xincheng) another three times during his reign, again without any success. Wu's last attempt to invade Hefei took place about a year after Quan's death; its failure greatly contributed to Zhuge Ke's (Zhuge Jin's son and regent for Quan's successor Liang) death later that year.
Zhou Yu's personality was nothing like in the novel. As many historians had pointed out, he had no reason to envy Zhuge Liang, as by Chibi, he had a brilliant career, a gorgeous spouse and was himself a handsome man to boot. His historical death at the age of 35 was due to illness, and was considered a great pity by many of his contemporaries and his liege, Sun Quan. Unlike his sworn brother Sun Ce, Zhou also advocated independence for Jiangdong, and so led Sun Quan's armies into battle against Cao Cao.
Lu Su's personality was also nothing like in the novel. He was a great strategic mind, and an adequate successor to Zhou Yu. Like Zhou, he advocated his liege's independence, and saw the alliance with Liu Bei as a means to maintain said independence. His death at a relatively young age (45) seemed to be part of a macabre tradition whereby Wu's strategists died at a young age. Lyu Meng would continue this tradition, dying at the age of 41 in early 220.
Gan Ning, a pirate-turned Wu general, was not an all around affable and cool dude like most portrayals had him as. History recorded him to be a ruthless, murderous pirate who got away with whatever bad things he did because he's being protected by law solely by being hired by Sun Quan, the definition of a Psycho for Hire. He murdered Ling Tong's father Ling Cao and they never reconciled. Reportedly, however, he mended his ways after an incident where he executed a supreme Kick the Dog action: He murdered a boy servant after abuses and promising to spare him if he was to be surrendered to Lu Meng. On hearing this, Lu Meng was so pissed off that he actually was considering to murder him in retaliation, but Lu's mother talked him out of it. So afterwards, Lu Meng invited Gan Ning for dinner as if nothing happened. Somehow this made Gan Ning realize what a murderous asshole he has been and wept in shame. Afterwards, he no longer had any records of doing evil things like that, implying that he cleaned up his acts afterwards.
Ironically, once the Three Kingdoms come into being, territorial changes became minimal. Geography played a part; the Qinling Mountains divided Shu and Wei, causing Zhuge Liang's five and Jiang Wei's eleven expeditions to inflict great damage on Shu's economy. The territory between the Huai and Yangtze was a desolate area, where a largely-static frontier between Wei and Wu had formed at the lower Han valley. Wei and Wu fought a total of 4 battles over Hefei. note
Guandu was fought between Yuan Shao and Cao Cao from the first month to the tenth month of 200 CE. This campaign started with Yuan's intent to exterminate Cao and, by extension, weaken Emperor Xian as Cao was then the emperor's firmest supporter. However, due to Yuan's inconvenient stance on Emperor Xian, he could not act decisively against Cao. Cao managed to overcome Yuan's numerical superiority and crushed the attack. With Yuan's spectacular defeat, Cao was able to consolidate the north and northeast of China under his rule. After Guandu and the destruction of Yuan's remnant forces in the following years, these regions of China were largely pacified and was in relative peace for many years. note Another crucial factor in Cao's victory was Liu Biao's neutrality. With his position and military strength, if Liu had sent troops to assist Yuan, the resulting pincer attack would most certainly have crushed Cao. As it turned out, while Liu promised to send troops, in the end he did not do so, and Cao faced Yuan alone.
Chibi (Also known by its English name, the Red Cliffs) was fought at the end of 208 C.E., between Cao Cao and the Sun Quan-Liu Bei alliance. While it was not the only attempt by Cao Cao to attack Sun Quan and seize Sun's territories in the south and south-east, Chibi did mark the end of Cao Cao's territorial expansion towards the two directions. This war was fought as Sun Quan was unwilling to become subservient to Emperor Xian. note
Yiling (also known as Xiaoting) was fought between Liu Bei and Sun Quan from 221-222 CE. Launched by Liu Bei to avenge Guan Yu's death and to take back the parts of Jing which had been seized by Sun, Liu's strategic mistake allowed Lu Xun to launch a spectacular fire attack and crushed Shu's forces. Sun's victory at Yiling made Shu's losses in Jing permanent, and was arguably the first nail in Shu's coffin. The next major territorial changes in China after this battle took place more than 40 years later, when Wei conquered Shu.
Beyond China: Liaodong and JiaozhiDuring this time period, parts of what is now northern Vietnam (known then as Jiaozhi) and North Korea came under Sun Wu's and Cao Wei's control respectively.
Shi Xie was an Eastern Han official in charge of Jiaozhi who later pledged his loyalty to Sun Quan as Sun declared his independence from Cao Wei. Shi died in 226 C.E. at the age of 89; one of his sons refused to accept Sun Quan's appointed officials and tried to take up his father's post. The Shi family were either executed or demoted to the status of commoners. Shi Xie himself was posthumously titled Thiên Cảm Gia Ứng Linh Vũ Đại Vương (善感嘉應靈武大王) by a Trần Dynasty emperor, as recorded in the "Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư" (大越史記全書), and History of King Si (Kỳ Sĩ Vương), and is still honoured in some Vietnamese temples today as "King Si" (Sĩ Vương).More than 2 decades after Shi Xie's death, a Lady Triệu (趙嫗, "Lady Zhao" for Mandarin audiences) tried to rise up against Wu; her rebellion was successful for a few months, but she was eventually defeated. Her suicide after defeat, along with her exploits, inspired the Vietnamese to declare her a martyr and deify her, and there were comparison of her with the much-later Joan of Arc. Records on Lady Triệu were limited to Vietnamese ones, many of which were only written down centuries after her death; Chinese records only mentioned that there were rebellions in the region around the time period where she was active. After Lady Triệu, another Eastern Wu official was recorded by "Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư" to be beloved by the locals. He was Tao Huang, who served in Jiao Province for more than 20 years; when he passed away in 290, during the Western Jin era, he was mourned by locals who wept as if they had lost their own close kin. Tao was succeeded by Wu Yan, who was also a former official of Wu and also served in the province for more than 20 years.
Liaodong was adjacent to the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. Sima Yi first allied with Goguryeo in order to take down the local warlord Gongsun Kang, whose family had ruled Liaodong for decades up to that point (238 C.E.). After the defeat of Gongsun, the alliance didn't last and at 244-245 C.E., Cao Wei sent an expedition led by Guanqiu Jian against Goguryeo. This expedition was a decisive victory for Cao Wei; Goguryeo completed its recovery only during the Jin dynasty.
Aftermath of the Three Kingdoms
After Shu-Han was weakened and conquered by Cao Wei in late 263, the latter eventually became the State of Jin, when Sima Yan (Sima Yi's grandson) crowned himself as emperor of Jin in February 266. He fought to unite China, defeating Wu which was suffering an internal conflict thanks to Emperor Sun Hao, who is said to have been an extremely cruel tyrant. The Jin Dynasty completed China's unification in 280 and became known for effectively ending the Three Kingdoms period.
Unfortunately, the peace brought by Jin was short-lived. Sima Yan's successor Sima Zhong (Emperor Hui) proved to be rather inept due to unfortunate circumstances (most would say inherent brain damage); this paved the way for yet another brutal civil war known as the War of Eight Princes. Non-Han tribes took advantage of the civil war to launch continuous invasions against Jin and cause uprisings within Jin's borders, instilling more suffering and culminating in the Disaster of Yongjia in 311CE, where Luoyang fell and was sacked. Soon, another fragmentation emerged: the Sixteen Kingdoms period. A branch of the Sima Clan note then headed south and established the Eastern Jin, which lasted till 420, overthrown by a military general Liu Yu (with a brief period (about six months) of getting usurped by Huan Xuan, a warlord) note and beginning a pattern of coups that would start each succeeding dynasties.
It took very long for China to recover and enjoy a longer period of peace.note
Because of these turmoils, a lot of people lost faith in the Jin Dynasty and considered it one of the worst dynasties in China. note From there, people began to investigate Jin's origins and found out how the Sima clan usurped power from Cao Wei, and how Cao Wei also usurped power from the Han Dynasty. note The Han Dynasty was remembered fondly, and people remembered the one Kingdom that still fought for the Han Dynasty's prestige: Shu-Han. And thus, stories which promote Shu-Han and defame both Cao Wei and Jin began to gain popularity as a response, eventually culminating in a certain Luo Guanzhong penning an epic novel that sided mostly with Shu-Han, but also became one of the greatest novels in China.note
The Three Kingdoms in fiction
- Red Cliff: A film by John Woo depicting the battle of Chibi/the Red Cliffs as described in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, rather than the historical battle.
- The Lost Bladesman: A film about Guan Yu that took great liberties with the source material (the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel, which already took great liberties with historical fact).
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms: An epic novel that combined historical fact, folklore and made up events (including magic and ghosts).
- Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (sometimes also known as the "94 version", as it was first aired in that year, or the "old version", to distinguish it from the 2010 series)
- Three Kingdoms
- Cao Cao 2013: A somewhat controversial drama that was specifically meant to showcase a human Cao Cao, his relationships and his triumphs and failures. The fact that Cao Cao was the hero was such an Audience-Alienating Premise that it wasn't shown on Chinese tv until 2015 (and was actually released in Japan and South Korea first, in 2013).
- The Advisor's Alliance AKA The Great Military Strategist Sima Yi: The Military Strategists' Alliance: Another drama that humanizes the state of Wei (though Cao Cao still starts off a little nuts), and adds a lot of drama between many of the figures within it. It is a two-part drama that details the life of Sima Yi (who was well-known to be portrayed as quite the sinister fellow next to Cao Cao), and his career throughout his years in the Wei state as someone who was merely using his great foresight to handle the chaos of the political court and protect his family altogether.
- The second season, Growling Tiger Roaring Dragon details Sima Yi's life serving both Cao Pi and eventually his son, Cao Rui, as he finds a new rival in Zhuge Liang during his five campaigns against Wei. However, even after removing the larger threats of both Shu and Wu, internal affairs still arise within the Wei state as Sima Yi ages.
- Dynasty Warriors
- Kessen II
- Sanguo Zhanji/Sangoku Senki (lit. Three Kingdoms War Record), known in the West as Knights of Valour: An RPG-styled beat 'em up series developed by Taiwanese company IGS (International Game System) with mechanics almost as deep as the Dungeons & Dragons arcade games developed by Capcom (with special moves, supers, unique items per character and branching paths). Loosely follows the plot of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but later installments have a bit of an extra Sengoku Basara-styled feel to the character presentation. Only the second installment's expansion and the spin-off title don't actually use the level up system, while the third installment and its expansion are the only games to never be localized. Has a PS4 installment that's fully rendered in 3D and patches in new character releases.
- Total War: Three Kingdoms: Of particular note as:
- Professor de Crespigny was hired as an advisor for the game.
- The first expansion, Eight Princes, was probably the first video game to ever depict the War of the Eight Princes in mainstream media.
- The second expansion, Mandate of Heaven, was probably the first video game to ever portray Liu Chong, the last Prince of Chen of the Eastern Han, in mainstream media.
- Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty
See also Romance of the Three Kingdoms for other works that might not be covered here.