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Kings of Three Kingdoms Period

The majority of the Chinese populace get to know the history of the Three Kingdoms Period through a Chinese classic novel entitled Romance of the Three Kingdoms and (in modern times) a TV drama series adaptation based on it. Most Chinese rest comfortably with this much-legendized account of history. The novel’s first half centers on three men in particular: Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan - founding rulers of three rivaling states of the Three Kingdoms Period.

The term "Three Kingdoms" is a habitual English translation, and is inappropriate in a strict sense. In fact, each of the three regimes (Wei, Shu, and Wu) was proclaimed an empire after 220 CE, and each of the three rulers had assumed different titles throughout the course of their careers. Cao Cao, for example, assumed the titles of Marquis of Wuping, Duke of Wei, and Prince of Wei, and was honored as Emperor Wu of Wei posthumously.

Cao Cao: a wise boss

Initially a middle-level Han court official, Cao Cao (155~220 CE) made a name for himself with his victories in suppressing the Yellow Turban Rebellion. He actively fought in the military alliance headed by Yuan Shao against Dong Zhuo, the infamous warlord who rose to dominance through bloody intervention in court politics. Amid the chaos that ensued, Cao Cao’s troops saved the boy-Emperor Xian-Di who escaped from the capital. With the emperor under his control, Cao Cao was appointed chancellor and commander-in-chief.


Kings of Three Kingdoms Period

Aside from a politician, Cao Cao was a notable poet and literature master, too.

Cao Cao then aimed to unify north China through wars. In the Battle of Guandu (200 CE), he defeated Yuan Shao, then the most powerful regional warlord, with a conspicuously smaller army than Yuan. Further internal strife within the Yuan clan allowed Cao to easily conquer the Yuan’s territory in Shandong and Hebei.

North China was unified by Cao Cao by 208. However, his southern expedition into the areas south of the Yangtze River met with a major setback in the Battle of Red Cliffs. As Liu Bei expanded in the southwest, a balance of power took shape between the three men: Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan, despite sporadic attempts to defeat each other in the following decades. Of all three rulers, Cao Cao was indisputably the strongest, controlling the most densely-populated and prosperous areas of China proper in the north. Though at the zenith of power as prime minister, Cao Cao upheld the Han court nominally. It was his son, Cao Pi, who dethroned the last Han emperor after Cao Cao’s death in 220.


Kings of Three Kingdoms Period

Cao Cao built up a strong team of generals and advisors. He would respect and welcome talents even though many came from his adversaries.

As an English idiom goes, “speak of the devil, and the devil comes”. The Chinese equivalent to this idiom is “speak of Cao Cao, and Cao Cao comes”. So, in an interesting way, Cao Cao equals a devil. In Chinese literature and drama, Cao Cao is often portrayed as a brutal, suspicious tyrant. However, the true Cao Cao as a historical character was more than such descriptions could summarize. Even in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao showed his wisdom and vision in building up a good team of talents under him. He would respect capable generals and advisors, many of whom were originally members of his adversaries and surrendered to join his team after defeat.

Liu Bei: from shoe-seller to emperor

Liu Bei (161~223 CE) was a distant descendant to Emperor Jing-Di (r. 157~141 BC). Though of a royal pedigree, Liu Bei’s family had been in reduced circumstances when he was born, and Liu Bei and his mother had to sell shoes and straw-woven mats for a living. However, he had always cherished great ambition.


Kings of Three Kingdoms Period

Chinese folk accounts would incorrectly make Liu Bei and two of his generals Zhang Fei and Guan Yu sworn brothers.

In 184, amid the nationwide peasants uprising, Liu Bei raised a volunteer army upon the financial support of local wealthy merchants to join the government forces to suppress the rebellion. With victories scored, his contributions were recognized by government generals who promoted him to prefects of certain counties. Aspiring to higher positions, Liu Bei was to move north and south in the next two decades to join other, more powerful, warlords. He suffered many defeats, and at two instances, had his families captured by enemy troops while finding his own force disintegrated.

With a thwarted career, Liu Bei now took shelter (from 201) under Liu Biao, governor of the prosperous Jing Province in central-southern China. It was there that he met Zhuge Liang, the recluse-scholar who later became his top advisor. Zhuge outlined a long-term plan for him, in which Liu Bei was to ally with Sun Quan in the southeast against Cao Cao in the north, while taking over the Provinces of Jing and Yi as his own power base.


Kings of Three Kingdoms Period

Zhuge Liang, the most important consultant to Liu Bei, who drew up the strategy of balance of power between three rivaling states.

Liu Bei fared better after being joined by Zhuge Liang. Though suffering a defeat again at the Battle of Changban in 208 (in which his family got caught by Cao Cao’s troops again), Liu Bei soon forged alliance with Sun Quan, and crushed Cao Cao’s grand southern expedition army in the Battle of Red Cliffs, driving Cao Cao back to the north. He then expanded westward, and had taken over control of Yi Province (today’s Sichuan and Chongqing) and Hanzhong Prefecture by 219 CE.

After Cao Pi dethroned Emperor Xian-Di of Han Dynasty and proclaimed himself Emperor of the Wei Dynasty in 220, Liu Bei followed suit upon suggestion of his advisors. His regime was named Shu-Han, which showed his intent to carry on the lineage of the Han Dynasty.

Sun Quan: initiator of the “imperial age of south China”

The eastern Chinese city of Nanjing is one of the ancient capitals of Imperial China. Between the fall of Eastern Han Dynasty (220 CE) and the conquest of the Southern Chen Dynasty (589 CE), Nanjing hosted the imperial governments and royal residences of a southern-China regime under six dynasties. And this “imperial age of south China” started with Sun Quan’s Wu regime.

Sun Quan (182~252 CE) was the youngest of the three men, born when Liu Bei was selling shoes and mats (while never without an ambitious dream) and Cao Cao was already a mid-level court official. At his elder brother’s death in 200, he inherited the warlord state carved out by his father and brother on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River at the age of 18. Like Cao Cao, he was surrounded with a capable team of generals and advisors, most prominently General Zhou Yu and Chancellor Zhang Zhao.


Kings of Three Kingdoms PeriodKings of Three Kingdoms Period

The Battle of Red Cliffs, in which Sun Quan allied with Liu Bei to check the advance of Cao Cao into south China. Assault by fire destroyed Cao Cao's navy who had chained the war-ships together in order to reduce shocks by waves.  

Qinhuai River, Nanjing. Sun Quan made Jianye (Nanjing) his capital. Nanjing was to serve as capital for six dynasties between 220 and 589.

In 208, Sun Quan allied with Liu Bei, and successfully crushed Cao Cao’s seemingly irresistible southern expedition forces in the Battle of Red Cliffs. In the stand-off between the three rival states of Wei, Shu, and Wu, Sun Quan’s Wu regime would stand safe and sound most of the time in the face of aggressions by the other two parties, though his campaigns against the Wei all ended in failure, too. After Cao Pi and Liu Bei proclaimed themselves emperors in 220 and 221 respectively, Sun Quan declared independence, too, and proclaimed himself emperor of Eastern Wu Empire in 229, relocating the capital to Jianye (modern-day Nanjing).

A notable venture under Sun Quan was the naval expedition in the East China Sea. Sun Quan’s forces under general Wei Wen made it to Yizhou (modern-day Taiwan), and maintained a brief period of rule there.



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