The "Three Kingdoms" (better: Three Empires) Sanguo 三國 (220-280) were three states that succeeded the Eastern Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE) and came into being as the surviving dominions of three warlords that contested for imperial power. The empire of Wei 魏 (220-265), founded by Cao Pi 曹丕 (known as Emperor Wen of Wei 魏文帝, r. 220-226), is normally seen as the righteous successor of the Han dynasty. It ruled over northern China, while the south was ruled by the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280), founded by Sun Quan 孫權. The region of Sichuan and Yunnan was ruled by the empire of Shu 蜀 (221-263) that was founded by Liu Bei 劉備. The name "Three Kingdoms" has become the common term because it is the popular translation of the historical novel Sanguo yanyi 三國演義.
The division between north and south in the early 3rd century intensified the cultural, political and economical differences between these two parts of China. The Wei empire saw the introduction of a pseudo-moral ranking of eminent families that according to this ranking had an exclusive access to state offices (see nine official ranks), and it experienced a general militarisation of society. The empire of Wu was characterised by an antagony of the court and the local gentry. The empire of Shu, whose rulers claimed descendancy of the Han dynasty, perpetuated a culturally different realm in the Sichuan Basin. It was conquered by Wei. The state of Wei itself succumbed to internal quarrels and was replaced by the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420), founded by a family of powerful generals of the family Sima 司馬.
The history of the contests of the warlords in the late decades of the Han period, and that of the three empires, is narrated in the famous Ming period novel Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 "The Three Kingdoms".