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The Three Kingdoms of China

By Edited Nov 17, 2016 1 0

Introduction to the three kingdoms period

The three kingdoms period is a chaotic and turbulent era featuring many famous warlords in the Chinese’s ancient history. It took place towards the end of the Eastern Han dynasty and before the reunification of the land by the Jin dynasty (AD 280). Historical events that took place during that period of time were mostly passed down to the later generations through the official Chinese historical text, the “Records of the Three Kingdoms”, authored by Chen Shou (233-297).

The Three Kingdoms of China
General history of the three kingdoms period

The end period of the Eastern Han dynasty was marked by various economic woes and political conflict. Constant power struggles and conflicts between the eunuchs, members of the imperial family, and court officials weakened the imperial court’s ability to effectively govern the various states and provinces. Corruption was prevalent during that period with the positions of government and state officials obtainable simply through bribery. Coupled with natural disasters and invasion from border tribes, common Han people experienced extreme poverty and famine. Several uprisings then occurred including the famous “Yellow Turban Rebellion” which further deteriorated the power and influence of the imperial court.

The weakening of the imperial court soon gave rise to numerous feudal warlords. These warlords were initially state or province governers. Although they formed their armies to subdue the rebellions at first, they soon began to fight among themselves to expand their territory and forces. Beside massive displays of military might, many strategies and military tactics were also witnessed in this period of conquest with two famous battles, “the battle of Guan Du” and “the battle of Chi Bi”, both of which were won by the side that was greatly outnumbered but possessed superior strategies.

By AD 220, the Han dynasty officially came to an end when the last ruler of Han, Emperor Xian was forced to abdicate the throne to Cao Pi, the then vassal king of “Wei”. Cao Pi was the second son of Cao Cao, one of the three remaining feudal lords who had managed to occupy a massive territory under his ruling. The other two feudal lords, Liu Bei and Sun Quan also proclaimed themselves to be the emperor of “Shu” and “Wu” Empire by AD 221 and 229 respectively.

The next few decades saw numerous battle campaigns fought between the three kingdoms. Alliance pacts and rivalry between the three kingdoms were formed and broken one after another. By AD 263, the “Shu” empire finally surrendered to the “Wei” empire. By AD 265, the Sima family of “Wei” has steadily and greatly increased their influence and power through constant and strategic elimination of their political opponents. On that year, Cao Huan, the then emperor of “Wei” was forced to abdicate his throne to Sima Yan who renamed the empire to the “Jin”.

By AD 280, the “Jin” empire successfully conquered the “Wu” and unified the land of Ancient China.

Record of the three kingdoms

Chen Shou, the author to the Record of the three kingdoms was born in An Han (modern Si Chuan), an area under the “Shu” empire. He was initially a government official under the “Shu” empire and worked for the “Jin” empire as an official historian after the surrender of “Shu”.

Record of the three kingdoms is widely viewed to be the official authority on events that happened in the three kingdoms period. It consists of 3 books, namely the book of “Wei”, “Shu” and “Wu”. Each book consists of several volumes and each volume contains biographies of one or more historical characters. The “Wei” book has a total of 30 volumes, “Shu” book 15 volumes and “Wu” book “20 volumes.  Events that have taken place throughout the three kingdoms period were reconstructed through a combination of these biographies.

By the Eastern Jin dynasty, Pei Song Zhi (372 – 451), the historian of the then imperial court further improvised the Record of the three kingdoms by adding annotations and his personal commentaries into the official text by Chen Shou. He based his annotations and commentaries based on materials and references from many sources, including ones that were rejected by Chen Shou. Today, Pei Song Zhi’s work was seen to be an integral element of the text and is often read together with the Record of three kingdoms.

Romance of the three kingdoms

Romance of the three kingdoms was a fictional novel on the three kingdoms period, authored by novelist Luo Guan Zhong (1330 – 1400), almost 1100 years after the actual historical period. The novel recreated a dramatized account of events happened in the three kingdoms period while adding fictional plots and characters into the novel. Characters in the novel were mostly based on historical figures but many were given fictional coat of personalities.  Many of the novel events were also fictional or distorted from the actual records.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Credit: By Shizhao (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An image depicting one of the fictional events in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Unlike the Record of the three kingdoms which was categorized through biographies, Romance of the three kingdoms was narrated through story lines. Liu Bei and his band of followers from the “Shu” empires were being related as the protagonist. The story jumped from character to character but mainly revolved around the founders of “Wei”, “Shu” and “Wu”.

The novel consisted of 120 chapters and was named as one of the four great classical novel of Chinese literature. The novel has seen many of his dramatized characters becoming folk tales and legends passed down generations after generations. One of the better known examples is Guan Yu, a general under the “Shu” empire who represents the value of loyalty, bravery and righteousness in many Chinese societies today. In some place, he was worshipped as a deity with small shrines of him commonly seen in many Chinese shops and temples.

Beside these folk tales, the dramatized version of romance of the three kingdoms has also seen its popularity in popular media which includes movies, television drama, manga, animation, video games, card games, fan fictions and even MMORPG.

Summary

The three kingdom period is a short but eventful period in the long period of ancient Chinese history. Similarly to other period of transition between dynasties, this period has its fair share of great personalities and events. The era is however, being dramatized and popularized by the novel, “Romance of the three kingdoms” which has produced many legends and colorful characters.

Today, thanks to the popular “Romance of the three kingdoms”; people get to know about the history and records of the three kingdoms much more than the other dynasties in ancient Chinese history.

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Bibliography

  1. "Record of the three kingdoms (In Chinese only)." Tianyabook. 30/03/2013 <Web >
  2. "Romance of the three kingdoms (In Chinese only)." Guo Xue. 30/03/2013 <Web >

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