Periods of Chinese History
The Cao-Wei Empire
The Shu-Han Empire
The Wu Empire
The Problem of the Calendar
Changing Roles in Historiography
The beginning of the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280) is officially fixed as the year 220, when Cao Pi 曹丕 (posthumously named Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226) proclaimed himself emperor of the Wei dynasty 魏 (220-265; often called Cao-Wei 曹魏 in order to avoid confusion with the Northern Wei empire 北魏, 386-534). Yet many scholars think that end of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) era was actually in the year 190, when the mighty general Dong Zhuo 董桌 – after extirpating the eunuch clique at the court - kidnapped the last emperor of Han, Emperor Xian 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220, and abducted him from the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan) to the old capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), and so initiated three decades full of war and unrest, of political and administrative chaos, of social and economical distress and calamities. An alliance of local governors under the leadership of Yuan Shao 袁紹 tried to overthrow the tyrant Dong Zhuo. After the death of Dong Zhuo in 192, the empire was left in a political vacuum that was filled by a dozen of warlords and religious sects like the Daoist Five-Peck-of-Grains Sect (Wudoumi dao 五斗米道) and the Yellow Turban uprising 黃巾起義. The mightiest of the warlords were Cao Cao (controlling the area of modern Henan) and Yuan Shao (occupying modern Hebei ). Cao Cao, having the young emperor in his hands, was able to defeat Yuan Shao in the battle of Guandu 官渡 (modern Zhongmou 中牟, Henan) and conquered the northern part of China until 207. His opponents in the south, Sun Quan 孫權 and Liu Bei 劉備, forged an alliance against the northern warlord and defeated Cao Cao in the river battle at the Red Cliff (Chibi 赤壁, near modern Puqi 蒲圻, Hubei) in 208. From then on, the division of China was decided and finally effected in the years of 220-222 when Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan successively called themselved emperors. Chinese historians describe this situation as "the feet of a tripod erected against each other" (dingzu duishi 鼎足對峙), or "three empires standing like the feet of an [actually united] tripod" (san guo dingl i 三國鼎立). These were the empires of Wei 魏 (220-265), Wu 吳 (222-280) and Shu 蜀 (221-263).
Although Cao Cao was not a real member of the northern Chinese aristocracy, he was accepted as a leader due to his military and political successes. Nonetheless, he tried to oust his political opponents among the aristocracy with brutal force and thereby provoked the hostility of the powerful distinguished families (shizu 士族). Cao Cao looked not only for supporters among the families of a higher education and a higher social background (mingshi 名士), but also among the lower social strata and tried to promote people of ability rather than simply because of social background.
Cao Cao's son Cao Pi made himself emperor of Wei 魏 in 220 (name of an old state of the Warring States period) and so intendingly broke with the old Han empire that had lasted for about four hundred years. At the northern frontier, nomadic non-Chinese peoples declared their submission to the new emperor of China, like the Xiongnu 匈奴, the city states of Shanshan 鄯善, Qiuci 龜慈, and Yutian 于闐, and there was installed a commandant protecting the people of the Xianbei 鮮卑 (hu Xianbei xiaowei [also read jiaoyu] 護鮮卑校尉). The Western Territories were governed as administrative prefecture (Xiyu zhangshi fu 西域長史府). Following the tradition of territorial expansion of the Han empire to the Central Asian oasises, military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) were arranged especially in the area of Gaochang 高昌 (modern Turfan 吐魯番, Xinjiang). The southern frontier as war front against the empires of Wu and Shu were relatively stable and quiet for the next few decades, although there occurred several military campaigns against the two southern empires from time to time.
To consolidate his rule, Cao Pi tried to abolish the institutional problems by which the Later Han dynasty had suffered from and finally had perished. It was forbidden to present submissions or petitions to empresses bypassing the authority of the emperor like it had often been practiced during the Later Han period. Furthermore, the relatives of empresses were excluded from official charges and feudal titles. Relatives and princes of the imperial house were enfeoffed with a feudal territory far away from the capital (like in the modern provinces of Shandong, Henan or Hebei), but they had to reside within these estates and were not allowed to dwell in the capital Luoyang. Their personal troops were not allowed to surpass a certain number of soldiers. Like his father too, Cao Pi relied on a very austere and economical household policy and interdicted the organising of extravagant burials and tombs like it had been popular among the Han dynasty aristocracy and officialdom – whose funeral customs, on the other hand, have left back many precious archeological objects.
After Cao Pi’s death in 225, his son Cao Rui 曹叡 became emperor (Emperor Ming 魏明帝, r. r. 226－239 CE), supported by the regents Cao Zhen 曹真, Chen Qun 陳群, Cao Xiu 曹休, and Sima Yi 司馬懿. Under his rule several military campaigns against the kingdoms of Wu and Shu took place, and the rebellion of Gongsun Yuan 公孫淵 in Liaodong 遼東 (modern Liaoning) was suppressed. Cao Rui was the initiator of a new criminal and administrative codex called Weilü 魏律 or Xinlü 新律. In order to pursue an official career, it was necessary to take part in a kind of examination system that was based on the Confucian Classics. These procedures were partially a response to the philosophical movement of the "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學) that preferred to dicuss metaphysical questions rather than with social and state-political matters like the Confucianis did and that was very widespread among the educated class during the third and fourth centuries. In these administrative regulations the origin of the state examination system can be found that was to dominate access to official career until the very beginning of the twentieth century. The rulers of the Wei dynasty also introduced the custom to divide the ranks of state offices into nine grades (jiupin 九品) with upper, mean and lower subranks (counting 27 ranks in total, later only upper and lower ranks). All eminent families of the state were likewise classified into nine grades, and their sons were allowed to be appointed to offices with a corresponding rank, and not higher.
The policy of austerity that had been pursued under the rule of Cao Cao and Cao Pi was gradually given up. There was again material and personal unthriftiness at the central court and among the aristocracy. Emperor Ming died childless in 239, and the ageing regent Sima Yi took over the government for the child emperor Cao Fang 曹芳 (r. 239-254), but Sima Yi was manoeuvered out by the court clique around Cao Shuang 曹爽, a party to which also the philosopher He Yan 何晏 belonged. Only when Sima Yi was able to establish a coalition with the Empress Dowager, Cao Shuang was eliminated. In 251, the defender-in-chief Wang Ling 王淩 overthrew the child emperor Cao Fang and installed Cao Biao 曹彪 as new ruler. In turn, Sima Yi's son Sima Shi 司馬師 could disempower the clique of Wang Ling, Guanqiu Jian 毌丘儉, and Zhuge Dan 諸葛誕, and installed another puppet ruler named Cao Mao 曹髦 (r. 254-260 CE). Sima Shi's brother Sima Zhao 司馬昭 was finally enfeoffed as Duke of Jin 晉公 and, after Cao Mao's untimely death, brought to the throne another puppet emperor, Cao Huan 曹奐, called Emperor Yuan 魏元帝 (r. 260-265). The potentate Sima Zhao was succeeded by his son Sima Yan 司馬炎 (known as Emperor Wu of Jin 晉武帝, r. 265-289) in 265, as both Prince of Jin and Counsellor-in-chief. He did not hesitate very long to dethrone Cao Huan, demoted him to Prince of Chenliu 陳留 and proclaimed the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420). He was able to destroy the states of Wu and Shu and so reunited China in the Jin empire.
Liu Bei withdrew to the region of Yizhou 益州 (modern province of Sichuan) in 211 and, supported by Guan Yu 關羽 (later venerated as the red-faced God of War, Duke Guan 關公) and Zhang Fei 張飛 after he had lost the region of Jingzhou 荊州 (middle Yangtze area) to the kingdom of Wu. He always saw himself as righteous successor of the old Han dynasty, also because he had the same surname (Liu 劉) like the house of Han. His empire is therefore also called the Shu-Han 蜀漢 to express this function as a short continuation of the great Han dynasty. In 221 he called himself emperor of Shu (name of the old non-Chinese state of Shu 蜀).
Shortly after the defeate in the critical battle of Yiling 夷陵 (near modern Yichang 宜昌, Hubei) Liu Bei died, and the Shu empire was given into the hands of his under-age son Liu Shan 劉禪 (r. 223-263 CE). Liu Shan ruled his remote empire with the assistance of the wise counsellor Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮. Already in 207, Zhuge Liang had concluded a contract with Sun Quan from the Wu empire to create a united front against the northern "usurper" Cao Cao. During the next decades, it was possible to hold a relatively stable frontier against the Cao-Wei empire in the region of Hanzhong 漢中, the mountainous area of the Qinling Range between the modern provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi), and to turn the attention to domestic policies.
The Liu dynasty, residing in Chengdu 成都 (modern Chengdu, Sichuan), had to rely on local magnates from among the distinguished families (haozu 豪族) of the Sichuan Basin who was granted offices and territory. During a short peaceful period, the territory of Shu-Han was expanded to the south and included the region of the modern provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan into the empire that had hitherto been inhabited by independant native tribes. This colonization of southwest China was effected during the so-called southern campaign (zheng Nanzhong 征南中). To facilitate the expansion of agriculture and wealth, southern non-Chinese peoples of the mountaineous area were resettled in the fertile Sichuan basin where they served as labour slaves to the local Chinese gentry.
From 227 on, Zhuge Liang undertook several military campaigns against the Cao-Wei empire, without obtaining any satisfactory results. After Zhuge Liang's death Jiang Wan 蔣琬 and Fan Yi 費禕 overtook the role of political advisors for Liu Shan, while the late chancellor was more and more venerated as an unapproachable saint. The last attempts of Jiang Wei 姜維 and Huang Hao 黃皓 to attack the Cao-Wei empire ended in their defeat and the conquest of Shu by the generals Deng Ai 鄧艾 and Zhong Hui 鍾會. Liu Shan capitulated in 263 and was brought to the Wei capital Luoyang, where he died.
The potentates of the lower Yangtze area, the Sun family under the guidance of Sun Ce 孫策 and his brother Sun Quan, managed to control the whole area south of the Yangtze down to the north of modern Vietnam, as well as north of the Yangtze to the area of the River Huai 淮河 (north of modern Jiangsu province). In 222, Sun Quan proclaimed himself emperor of Wu (according to the name of the state of Wu 吳 during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), that had controlled the southeast of China) and was therewith the third power in a divided China. He shifted his residence from Wuchang 武昌 (modern Echeng 鄂城, Hubei) to Jianye 建業 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), a place that was to remain the capital for many dynasties during the centuries to follow. At the beginning of his rule, Sun Quan tried to rely on the aristocracy of the River Huai 淮河 area, but he could not but cooperate and arrange with the local gentry (shizu 士族) of the territory southeast of the lower reaches of the Yangtze (the Jiangdong 江東 triangle; southern part of of modern Jiangsu and northern part of Zhejiang).
In order to invigorate economy, agriculture and military power, large farmlands were opened in the lower and middle Yangtze area, and Sun Quan tried to obtain cheap workforces by forcing non-Chinese mountain tribes into slavery. Military campaigns to the island of Yizhou 夷洲 (modern Taiwan) and Liaodong 遼東 (modern Liaoning Prov.) ended in military disasters. Nontheless, there existed intensive economical contacts with countries in East Asia (Goguryeo 高句麗, Korea, and the Wa 倭 states of Japan), Southeast Asia (Linyi 林邑, Funan 扶南 in modern Vietnam and Cambodia), and even to India (Tianzhu 天竺) and the Middle and Near East (Daqin 大秦).
In order to secure his own rule, Sun Quan granted the mighty families of the large land estate owners of the lower Yangtze area wide privileges. They were exempted from certain taxes, had special economical and military rights, and were allowed to manage large households with thousands of clerks, bondsmen and slaves. Yet not to lose the grip on these quasi self-governed communities, wives and sons of this aristocrats had to be sent to the capital as hostages, and certain officials had the task to control this gentry. Often, gentry clans fought for their political independence from the court at Jianye.
After Sun Quan's death succession struggles broke out between his sons Sun He 孫和 and Sun Ba 孫霸 that were both supported by various court factions. Those were finally decided in favour of Sun's youngest son Sun Liang 孫亮 (r. 252-258 CE). Sun Liang was controlled by Zhuge Ke 諸葛恪 and later by Zhuge's opponent Prince Sun Jun 孫峻. After Sun Jun's death his brother Sun Lin 孫綝 took over the control over the central government, wiped away his opponents and finally forced Sun Liang to abdication. He was demoted to the status of Prince of Guiji 會稽. Sun Lin enthroned Sun Xiu 孫休 who is known as Emperor Jing 吳景帝 (r. 258-264). Emperor Jing finally ended the control of the imperial princes over the throne succession by arresting and executing Sun Lin. Sun Hao 孫皓 (r. 264-280), the last emperor of the "kingdom" of Wu, is known as a frivolous and prodigious person. After the Wei dynasty had conquered Shu and was by itself succeeded by the Jin dynasty, Sun Hao prepared for military confrontation, but lost his capital and was soon captured by the Jin general and brought to Luoyang, where he died.
Chinese historiographers did not have a calendar with a fix date like the putative date of the birth of Jesus Christ in the Western calendar. During the Warring States period, when China was controlled by several feudal states, the year of rule of the kings of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) was the scale of counting time. Yet for the Three Kingdoms, many historians were not able to decide the rule of which emperor should be the orientation scale. The official dynastic history of the Three Kingdoms is compounded of three autonomous books for every empire: Weishu 魏書, Wushu 吳書 and Shushu 蜀書 (together called Sanguozhi 三國志, compiled by Chen Shou 陳壽). Historians from the Jin period counted Liu Bei's rule as the justified because the Jin dynasty had replaced that of the Wei. For the Tang period 唐 (618-907) historian Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 the Heavenly mandate was cut off during that time. Sima Guang 司馬光, a historian of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), used the Wei calendar because the other lords had accepted Cao Pi's rule. The Neo-Confucian demigod Zhu Xi 朱熹 from the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) again chose the calendar of Liu Bei as the justified one.
History is never told objectively, but every age has its own interpretation of events and actors. Discussion about who was the right emperor is not ended yet. In the minds of the common people, popular tales are to be found and stories about the battles, intrigues and plans of the Three Kingdoms. The book that mostly formed popular thinking about this period of history is the novel Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 "The Three Kingdoms" by Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中 (end 15th cent.). This novel depicts Cao Cao as a decisive person who ended the tyranny of Dong Zhuo, but who dared to make himself the regent for a weak and young emperor. His counterpart Liu Bei is described as the justified successor and defender of the Han family. Contemporary historians were quite objective in their judgement about who was a
good and who was a bad politician, but later novelists and writers of theatre plays made a villian of Cao Cao and a hero of Liu Bei and his followers. Among the latter, Guan Zhong was elevated to the status of God of War, and Zhuge Liang is likewise highly venerated as a semi-deity of loyalty and wisdom.
October 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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