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, dammit, he was the Han Emperor, being of the same Liu clan as the rulers of Han) 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 263 C.E. during the reign of Liu Bei's son Liu Shan. Wei itself collapsed a mere two years later when Sima Zhao, a senior general of Wei and son of Sima Yi, usurped the throne from the Cao family and established the new state of Jin. The Three Kingdoms period ended in 280 C.E., when Sun Hao, grandson of Sun Quan, surrendered Wu to Sima Yan (son of Zhao) of Jin.
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., 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 history 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. However, 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).
Background: The reign of Emperors Huan and LingMost historians, traditional or modern, attribute the irreversible decline of the Eastern Han to these two emperors. While Romance did 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 his personal monetary gains. That, and him operating a palace whereby nubile palace maids serve him while being stark naked. His predecessor, Emperor Huan, greatly empowered the eunuchs, in the bid to unseat his brother-in-law Liang Ji, a notorious waiqi (consort kin, relatives of the empress/imperial concubines). 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 clique known as the Ten Attendants (in which there are 12 of them) under Emperor Ling's reign.
The beginning: The Yellow Turban RebellionThe novel's version largely reflected the rise of the rebellion accurately, though many characters who were depicted as part of the rebellion were fictional; while the Zhang brothers were known historically as healers, they were members of a Taoist sect and Zhang Jiao himself was suspected to be a sorcerer.
The rebellion further weakened the authority of the Han central government, worsened already bad living conditions (due to natural disasters, famine and oppressive taxes), and most importantly, allowed local warlords to consolidate their personal power and establish their own fiefdoms. More on the warlords The first warlord to burst into the imperial scene in a big way, was Dong Zhuo. Emperor Ling died in 189 C.E. at the age of 34, having reigned for 21 years. note
Fall of the Waiqi and Eunuch factionsWith Emperor Ling's death, there was a struggle between factions on which son should become emperor. 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. However, the eunuchs then bribed Lady He's mother and other brother He Miao, causing 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. The eunuchs then managed to kill He Jin; Yuan Shao then led men to exterminate the eunuchs. Thus, two important factions in imperial politics were reduced to nothing almost overnight, allowing Dong Zhuo to rise to power.
Dong Zhuo: The TyrantAgain, the novel could do little more to demonize Dong Zhuo, for Dong was just as bad in Real Life as he was in the novel. The main fictional aspect in this arc is Diao Chan. While she did not exist, Lü Bu did have an affair with one of Dong's chambermaids. Also, it was Sun Jian who was actively fighting against Dong.
Rise of the WarlordsBy 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, accumulating in their showdown at Guan Du. (Before that, Yuan had largely secured the northeast for himself). 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 three older brothers died either from execution or illness. 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 declares 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 from a well. At the time, Sun Jian was still under Yuan's command, and it was said that Yuan imprisoned Sun Jian's wife to force Sun to cough up the Seal. With the seal and a prophecy seemingly indicating that he was to become Emperor, Yuan declared himself emperor in 197. This proved to be an utter disaster for Yuan. First of all, Sun Ce (Sun Jian's son) took the opportunity to break away, on the (not incorrect) premise that Yuan is now a pretender and a traitor. Next, Yuan's attempt to ally with Lv Bu also failed, as Lv Bu proclaimed his loyalty to Emperor Xian. With Cao Cao, Lv Bu and Sun Ce beating down on him, Yuan only lasted 2 years, dying in 199.
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 even gone 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 Lv 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 month of the year till Cao Pi's usurpation in the tenth 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 to Cao Cao, without being physically harmed. It's a testament to the young emperor's wisdom and readiness to adapt with the bad hand of cards life has 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.
Zhang Fei was a violent brute prone to beating or killing his men for mistakes, and this was something Liu Bei had advised him on. 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 recordednote . Even his Fancheng campaign, which started out well and enjoyed some good luck (an entire reinforcing army was washed away by a flash 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, 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 took 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..
Zhuge Liang was brilliant and well-read, but his skills were wholly unsuited for military command. (He is credited with creating Shu's legal code almost from scratch, and making it both clearer and fairer than the previous code. Of course, he had help from others; see below.) 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 after Zhuge Liang's death, as his successors like Jiang Wan and Fei Yi opted to focus on internal affairs than launching futile attacks on Wei. note On Yiling and Liu Bei's trust
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 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.
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.
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 is set for Sima Yi to slowly maneuver his way to great power. While Rui mistrusted Yi and Cao Shuang (son of Cao Zhen and 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 will 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.
Zhou Yu's personality was nothing like in the novels. 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 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 novels. 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 mean to maintain said independence.
Ironically, once the Three Kingdoms come into being, territorial changes became minimal. Geography played a part; the Qinling Mountains divided Shu and Wei. 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
Guan Du was fought between Yuan Shao and Cao Cao from the first month to the tenth month of 200 C.E.. 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 Guan Du 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.
Chi Bi 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, Chi Bi 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 C.E.. 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.
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; Chinese records only mentioned that there were rebellions in the region around the time period where she was active.
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, the latter eventually became the State of Jin. Sima Yan (Sima Yi's grandson) crowned himself as emperor of Jin, and fought to unite China, defeating Wu which was suffering an internal conflict thanks to Emperor Sun Hao, who is said to be an extremely cruel tyrant. The Jin Dynasty was formed and became known as the one who united China and effectively ending the Three Kingdoms period.
Unfortunately, the peace brought by Jin was short-lived. Sima Yan's descendants 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 and uprisings within border, instilling more suffering. Soon, another fragmentation emerged: the Sixteen Kingdoms period. A branch of the Sima Clan then headed south and established the Eastern Jin, which lasted till 420, overthrown by its military general (with a brief period of getting usurped by a warlord) 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. 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. 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 to a certain Luo Guanzhong penning an epic novel that sided with Shu-Han mostly, but also became one of the greatest novels in China.
The Three Kingdoms in fiction
Due to the popularity and prevalence of Romance, there are a few factors one can reliably see in media based on the Three Kingdoms:
- Liu Bei is a virtuous scion of the Imperial family who wants nothing more than to restore the Empire to its former glory. A gallant and heroic figure, he rallied a talented pool of subordinates who helped him repel the villainous Cao Cao repeatedly. Upon meeting Emperor Xian, the young emperor acknowledged him as his "Imperial Uncle". After Emperor Xian abdicated the throne and Cao Pi became Emperor of Wei (replacing the Han Empire with the Wei Empire), Liu Bei reluctantly named himself Emperor in order to continue the Han Imperial line, justifying his actions with the fact he was part of the Han line himself.
- Zhang Fei is a Boisterous Bruiser who was rough around the edges, but reliable and likeable as long as he doesn't have too much to drink. While a bit smarter than he's given credit for, Zhang Fei has little use for strategy and prefers a good, honest fight.
- Guan Yu is an intelligent, honorable man who happens to be an awe-inspiring warrior. Known for his magnificent beard, he's considered one of the foremost warriors of the realm and respected far and wide for his prowess. Cao Cao attempted desperately to recruit him, and briefly succeeded, but Guan's loyalty to his sworn brother Liu Bei led him to leave Cao and the riches he offered behind. His Fancheng campaign almost changed the face of the Three Kingdoms before he was betrayed by Sun Quan and Lü Meng, and was captured and executed by them. After his death, people prayed for his spirit and this eventually deified him into a God amongst the Chinese Mythology.
- Zhao Yun is a warrior without equal, often riding upon a white horse so as to make clear he is no ordinary man. Both martially gifted and highly intelligent, he can turn the tide of battle almost single-handed. He is the one Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang turn to get things done. Much of this actually stemmed from actual-existing fake biographies of Zhao Yun, to the point where one can deem it as "Older Than Dirt Chinese fanfiction".
- Zhuge Liang is a supernatural genius, who always knows what his enemies will do and always has a plan to counter them. While amazingly successful during his Northern Campaigns, events always conspired to cause him to return home in failure (be it incompetent or untrustworthy subordinates, sheer bad luck or Wei's advantage in sheer numbers of troops and supplies). Even his arch-rival Sima Yi only manages to hold Zhuge back with great difficulty and suffered innumerable defeats at his hands. At the Wuzhang Plains, where Sima Yi opts to hide behind his defenses, Zhuge Liang dies of illness and exhaustion after an attempt to extend his lifespan through magic is thwarted by Wei Yan. After his death, Shu forces withdraw in good order and his successor Jiang Wei carries out several Northern Campaigns of his own, inflicting great damage to Wei.
- Cao Cao is a cunning and ruthless villain with a lust for power and for women (especially the wives of other men). He thinks nothing of using the Emperor for his own purposes, and both cruel and petty (for example, having the pregnant Empress executed due to her father plotting against him). Nevertheless, all his cunning and treachery is thwarted time and again by the courage, honour and virtue of Liu Bei and his heroic followers, at least mentally, Cao Cao still had a lot of successful campaigns that crushed Liu Bei even in the novels (at least before Zhuge Liang enters the scene). That WAS the old portrayals, but recently, Cao Cao has also enjoyed better portrayals, when you had someone like the tyrannical Dong Zhuo around. But the best Cao Cao can get is being a Machiavellian Anti-Hero with some Shoot the Dog moments, never a straight up virtuous hero, unlike Liu Bei who constantly one-ups him in the terms of virtue and benevolence.
- Sun Quan succeeded his brother Sun Ce as the ruler of the far south. He mostly attended to his own affairs, but his jealousy towards Liu Bei led him to launch a treacherous attack on Jing Province, even killing Liu Bei's sworn brother Guan Yu. Historically, Sun's attack on Jing was provoked by Guan Yu attacking one of Sun's supply depots in order to supply his own forces. Sun also felt betrayed by Liu because Liu prevented him from invading Yi Province, secretly planning to invade it himself. More info
- As part of the alliance, Sun Quan had his younger sister marry Liu Bei. Despite consternation on the part of the Lady Sun and her mother Madame Wu, Liu Bei's upright and virtuous manner impressed them both and Lady Sun fell deeply in love. She had to be tricked to return to Wu, and later died shortly after Liu Bei's passing (in some stories from illness and grief, in others from committing suicide).
- Historically, both parties were aware that it was a political marriage, and as Lady Sun was constantly guarded by her armed maidens in waiting there are some people who believe that she and Liu Bei never even consummated the marriage. She left Shu once relations with Sun Quan broke down, as there was no longer a point to her remaining. There were no records about her after her return to Wu.
- Battles between armies often began with a duel between famed officers from both sides; the result boosting the morale of the victors while demoralising the losers. Ma Chao, for example, defeated noted generals like Zhang He in duels and used the resulting morale boost to defeat their armies.
- Historically, there were only two recorded duels: Sun Ce vs Taishi Ci (which happened when both men happened upon each other while leading scouting parties, and fought each other hand-to-hand during the resulting skirmish) and Ma Chao against Yan Xing, a minor general under the Liang warlord Han Sui (Yan nearly killed Ma by piercing him with a spear; the shaft broke so the tip only grazed Ma's head.).
- Zhang Fei's heroic stand at Changban Bridge, frightening away thousands of Cao Cao's soldiers and generals (even Cao Cao himself!) with a mighty roar of challange. Historically, Zhang Fei collapsed the bridge behind him as he retreated, then cleverly had his soldiers stir up dust behind a clump of trees to make it appear as through reinforcements were rushing to his side. His pursuers, wary of trying to cross a collapsed bridge with enemy reinforcements incoming, withdrew.
- Zhao Yun discovers Liu Bei's wife and infant son Liu Shan during the chaos at Changban. While the lady kills herself so as to not slow him down, Zhao cuts his way through Cao Cao's huge army to bring the baby back to his lord's side. Historically, Zhao found both Liu Bei's wife and Liu Shan, and managed to escort them to safety as Cao Cao only had a small elite cavalry unit at Changban, and let them carry on their way after mistaking them for refugees fleeing to safety.
- The battle of Chibi is the single most important battle of the Three Kingdoms, as it is Cao Cao's defeat there thanks to Zhuge Liang's ability to summon the winds (which in reality he knew the wind they needed was to blow on that day due to reading weather signs) and Zhou Yu's plan for Huang Gai to falsely defect before setting Cao's fleet ablaze that leads to the formation of the Three Kingdoms. Historically, Chibi was simply the first major attempt Cao Cao made to break through Sun Quan's defenses. Ruxu was even more epic note , as both Cao Cao and Sun Quan brought all their finest generals and best troops for the showdown. Cao's inability to make headway ensured Sun's independence, though Cao still managed to compel Sun Quan to nominally surrender.
- When Cao Cao began his invasion of Liang Province, Ma Chao managed to repel him and very nearly captured or killed Cao Cao himself. Cao was able to recover from this defeat by building a fortress of ice (often interpreted as dirt walls reinforced by water frozen by the cold weather). Historically, while some of his generals were defeated in battle, Cao Cao himself had them on the defensive throughout the campaign, to the point they offered to cede territory to him in return for peace. Cao refused and crushed the most powerful warlords, then turned his attention south to Yi Province and left the mop-up operations to generals like Xiahou Yuan.
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- Red Cliff: a film by John Woo depicting the battle of Chibi 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
- Three Kingdoms: a 2010 drama well regarded for its greater focus on characterization and interpersonal relationships.
- 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 Advisors 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
See also Romance of the Three Kingdoms for other works that might not be covered here.