Facts of the Three Kingdoms Period in China

Facts of the Three Kingdoms Period in China
By Leon Long
China Expert

The classic novel by Luo Guanzhong, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. The novel vividly narrates the events of the Three Kingdoms Period and has greatly popularized the history and its characters by blending historical facts with fiction, maintaining a strong appeal even today. The period was marked by intense political rivalry and intriguing power struggles. Tales of alliances, betrayals, and cunning stratagems have captured the imagination of the Chinese people for centuries.

When was the Three Kingdoms Period?

Most people believe the Three Kingdoms Period lasted from 220 to 280 CE in ancient China. But Some people consider the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period to coincide with the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184 CE. This rebellion was a large-scale peasant uprising against the Eastern Han Dynasty, which greatly destabilized the imperial rule and led to a decline in central authority.

What were the Three Kingdoms?

The Three Kingdoms were established after the fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty. It began when the generals assigned by the Han government to put down the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans became stronger than the throne and fought among themselves for supremacy.

Three Kingdoms Map

Cao Wei (曹魏) (220-266 AD): Its leader, Cao Cao, had been a minor general in the Han army but rose to prominence when he successfully suppressed the Yellow Turban Rebellion. By 205 CE the poet-general Cao Cao had made himself dictator of north China. Instead of trying to curb the growth of hard-to-tax local magnates, Cao Cao developed alternative ways to supply his armies. He carved out huge state farms from land laid waste by war and settled landless poor and captured rebels to work them and thus made the state the greatest of all landlords. He also established military colonies for hereditary military households whose men would both farm and fight. For his cavalry, Cao Cao recruited Xiongnu tribesmen in large numbers, settling many in southern Shanxi. After his death in 220 CE, his son Cao Pei formalized the family's dominance by forcing the abdication of the last Han emperor and founding the Wei dynasty at the old Han capital of Luoyang.

Shu Han (蜀汉) (221-263 CE): Established by Liu Bei, a descendant of the Han imperial family, Shu Han aimed to restore the Han Dynasty. It was located in the Sichuan basin and parts of southern China and had its capital at Chengdu. Shu Han is famous for its strategic alliance with the kingdom of Wu to counterbalance the powerful Wei, and for the legendary strategist Zhuge Liang, who served as Liu Bei's adviser.

Eastern Wu  (东吴) (229-280 CE): Also known as Sun Wu. Founded by Sun Quan, the Eastern Wu kingdom covered parts of southern and eastern China, including the fertile Yangtze River region. Its capital was established in Jianye (present-day Nanjing). Eastern Wu was the last of the three kingdoms to be established, and it played a pivotal role in the alliance with Shu Han against Wei.

What are the Major Events During Three Kingdoms Period?

Battle of Red Cliffs (208 CE)
 Battle of Red Cliffs

In this pivotal battle, a strategic alliance between Liu Bei of Shu and Sun Quan of Wu defeated the forces of Cao Cao, who sought to unify China under his rule. The Battle of Red Cliffs marked a turning point in the Three Kingdoms Period, as it prevented one kingdom from gaining supremacy and established the balance of power among the three kingdoms.

Cao Pi becomes Emperor of Cao Wei (220 CE)

After his father's death in 220 CE, Cao Pi inherited his father's position as King of Wei and its vast territories, mainly covering northern China. He then declared the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, forcing Emperor Xian to abdicate and proclaiming himself the Emperor Wen of Wei.

Fall of the Three Kingdoms

The end of the Three Kingdoms era was marked by the rise of the Sima family in Wei, which led to the establishment of the Jin Dynasty in 266 CE. By 280 CE, the Jin Dynasty conquered the remaining Kingdoms of Shu and Wu, effectively reunifying China and bringing the Three Kingdoms Period to a close.

Notable Persons of the Three Kingdoms Period

Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) (181-234 CE)

Zhuge Liang

Also known as Kongming, was a prominent statesman, military strategist, and philosopher during the Three Kingdoms Period. He is best known for serving as the chief advisor and regent to Liu Bei, the ruler of the Kingdom of Shu. Renowned for his exceptional intellect, strategic vision, and unwavering loyalty, Zhuge Liang played a crucial role in the establishment and development of the Shu Kingdom.

The Three Kingdoms Period produced several notable historical figures, many of whom were immortalized in the classic Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Luo Guanzhong. Some of the most famous figures from the Three Kingdoms Period include:

Cao Cao (曹操) (155-220 CE)

A skilled military commander and the de facto ruler of the late Han Dynasty, Cao Cao was known for his cunning, resourcefulness, and ambition to reunify China under his rule. He laid the foundation for the establishment of the Wei Kingdom. Cao Cao was not only a skilled military strategist and leader but also a talented politician and administrator. He implemented important political, economic, and agricultural reforms during his rule, which helped strengthen Wei's governance and improved living conditions for his people.

Liu Bei (刘备) (161-223 CE)

Born into a peasant family with distant relations to the Han imperial line, Liu Bei started as a weaver, later entering the Han administration as a minor official. Highly respected for his values, sense of justice, and humility, Liu Bei is known for his compassionate treatment of his people and loyalty to his allies. His ability to attract talented generals and advisors, such as Zhuge Liang, played a crucial role in his success.

Sun Quan (孙权) (182-252CE)

Born as the youngest son of the influential warlord Sun Jian, Sun Quan inherited the leadership of the Sun family's forces in southern China after the death of his elder brother, Sun Ce. Demonstrating exceptional political and military acumen, Sun Quan expanded his territories, ultimately founding the Kingdom of Wu in 222 CE and proclaiming himself the King of Wu. Sun Quan is best known for his role in the legendary Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE, where his strategic alliance with Liu Bei's forces helped them defeat the numerically superior army of Cao Cao. This pivotal battle shaped the fate of the Three Kingdoms, maintaining a balance of power between the three major states.

Guan Yu (关羽) (C.160-219 CE)

Guan Yu

A skilled warrior and general who served Liu Bei and later became a symbol of loyalty and righteousness, Guan Yu was known for his martial prowess and unwavering loyalty to Liu Bei, and he is often depicted as a larger-than-life figure in Chinese literature and folklore. However, despite his many successes, Guan Yu's life came to a tragic end when he was captured and executed by the forces of Sun Quan, a rival warlord, and the founder of the Kingdom of Wu.

Zhang Fei (张飞) (C.167-221 CE)

A brave and fierce general who served Liu Bei alongside Guan Yu, Zhang Fei was known for his courage, loyalty, and formidable fighting skills, as well as his fiery temper. As a loyal companion and sworn brother of the warlord Liu Bei, Zhang Fei played a significant role in various military endeavors to help Liu Bei rise to power and establish the Kingdom of Shu.

Hua Tuo (华佗) (c. 140–208 CE)

Hua Tuo

He was a legendary Chinese physician, surgeon, and inventor of acupuncture anesthesia during the Eastern Han Dynasty and the early Three Kingdoms Period. He is acknowledged as one of the greatest physicians in Chinese history and is considered a pioneer in surgery and an early practitioner of herbal medicine.

Achievements of the Three Kingdoms Period

Even though the Three Kingdoms period was marked by warfare and rivalries, it led to significant advancements in literature, medicine, technology, and cultural integration, which helped to shape and transform China's history.

Cultural Achievements:

  • The Three Kingdoms period saw the rise of Jian'an poetry, named after the Jian'an era of the Eastern Han Dynasty towards its end. Some notable poets of this style include Cao Cao, Cao Pi, and Cao Zhi – all were associated with the Cao Wei state. Their poems frequently express the sorrows of war and the desire for peace, focusing on a range of themes, from introspection and philosophical contemplation to friendship and loyalty.
  • The development of literary criticism began in this period, with important figures such as Cao Pi and Lu Ji, who contributed with theoretical works like "On Literature" and "Wen Fu," respectively. These treatises reflect the thoughts and philosophy about literature and writing, helping to promote further development and standardization in Chinese literature.
  • Kaishu
  • Kaishu was invented. Zhong You (151-230 CE) is considered one of the founding figures of Chinese Kaishu or the 'regular script.' Kaishu is characterized by its standardized, clear, and well-proportioned strokes, making it easier to read than more cursive script styles like Grass Script. The development of Kaishu was crucial as it became the foundation of modern Chinese handwriting and is still widely used in China today.

Science and technology Achievements

  • Advancements in Medicine: Hua Tuo made significant contributions to medicine, including herbal anesthesia, acupuncture, and developing new surgical techniques.
  • Iron Manufacturing: Advances in iron manufacturing and metallurgy took place during this period, with the invention of the blast furnace and the development of cast iron.
  •  the wooden ox and gliding horse
  • Military Engineering: The era witnessed innovations in military engineering, such as the construction of various siege weapons and sophisticated tactical formations. The strategist Zhuge Liang of the Shu Han state is credited with inventing the wooden ox and gliding horse, which were mechanical devices used for efficient transport of supplies during war campaigns.
  • Agriculture: The widespread use of iron tools during this period led to increased productivity and the ability to cultivate more land. The adoption of these tools facilitated better agricultural practices and higher food production.
  • Shipbuilding: The Three Kingdoms period experienced advancements in shipbuilding techniques, resulting in larger and more efficient vessels for naval warfare and transportation. Improvements such as the development of masts and sails enhanced navigation capabilities and the strategic importance of naval forces.
  • Advancements in the field of cartography. Pei Xiu (224-271 CE) is considered the "Father of Chinese Cartography". He developed a new system of cartographic representation that greatly improved the accuracy and clarity of existing maps. Although none of Pei Xiu's original maps have survived, his mapping principles had a profound impact on the development of cartography in ancient China and influenced future extensions of Chinese geographic knowledge.
  • Advancements in Math: Liu Hui (c.220–280 CE) made contributions to Chinese mathematics, particularly in the areas of geometry, trigonometry, and measurements. He used a method involving inscribed polygons to approximate Pi, reaching a value of 3.1416 with a 3072-sided polygon, which was a remarkable improvement of precision for his time. He developed several advanced methods to measure objects or areas of various shapes, including triangles, quadrangles, and circles.
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