Three Kingdoms, China

Three Kingdoms, China
Three Kingdoms, China
The Three Kingdoms period lasted between 220 and 280 c.e. It inaugurated almost four centuries of political division in Chinese history, comparable to the Dark Ages in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. This is because similar to the Roman Empire in western Europe, the fall of the unified Han dynasty signaled a period of civil wars, intrigues, and nomadic invasions and rule over northern China.

Several events heralded the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty, beginning with the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184 c.e. This peasant revolt with messianic overtones was put down by regional warlords, who proceeded to war against one another, with the hapless emperors as their pawns.

Cao Cao (Ts’ao Ts’ao) emerged as the most powerful warlord, but his attempt to reestablish unity under his leadership ended at the Battle of the Red Cliff in 208, when his forces were defeated by a coalition of two rivals.

As a result, Cao could only control northern China, while one rival Liu Bei (Liu Pei), who was a descendant of the Han imperial house, established himself in Sichuan (Szechwan) and the southwest with a capital city in Chengdu (Cheng-tu), while Sun Quan (Sun Ch’uan) controlled the southeast from the Yangtze River valley to northern Vietnam with his capital in Nanjing (Nanking).

Cao Cao, known as one of the most wily and ruthless politicians in Chinese history, consolidated his rule in the north, gave himself the title of king, and would probably have usurped the throne but died in 220.

In 220 Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi (Ts’ao P’ei) forced the last Han emperor to abdicate in his favor and proclaimed the establishment of the Wei dynasty. However, his rivals immediately challenged him. Liu Bei proclaimed himself emperor because of his imperial lineage, and his dynasty was called the Shu Han (Shu is another name of Sichuan).

Zhugo Liang (Chu-kuo Liang), a brilliant tactician who gained legendary renown, and Liu Bei’s sworn brothers, Zhang Fei (Chang Fei) and Guan Yu (Kuan Yu), aided him militarily. The latter became known as Guandi (Kuan-ti), or Emperor Guan, and was deified as the god of war in Chinese popular religion.

Liu Bei’s early death in 223 and the inability of his successor resulted in the annexation of Shu Han by Wei in 263. Sun Quan also proclaimed himself emperor in 222 and called his realm the Wu dynasty. Meanwhile, Cao Cao’s weak descendants would suffer the same fate as the last Han emperor.

In 265 the last Wei ruler was forced to abdicate to his powerful general, Sima Yuan (Ssu-ma Yuan), who founded the Jin (Chin) dynasty. Sima Yuan then destroyed Wu in 280 and ended the era of the Three Kingdoms. It was an era of chaos, wars, and murderous intrigues but has been romanticized as one of chivalry and romance.