An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Three Empires 三國 (220~280 CE)

Cao-Wei Empire 曹魏 (220-265)

Shu-Han Empire 蜀漢 (221-263)

Wu Empire 吳 (222/229-280)

The Three Empires (Sanguo 三國, 220-280), often called "Three Kingdoms", were three states that succeeded the Later Han dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE) and came into being as the only surviving dominions of several warlords that contended for imperial power after the breakdown of the Han central government. The designation "Three Kingdoms" has become the common term because it is the popular translation of the historical romance Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 from the 15th century.

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 rightful successor of the Han dynasty. It ruled over north China.

The south was controlled by the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280), founded by Sun Quan 孫權.

The region of Sichuan and Yunnan was dominated by the empire of Shu 蜀 (221-263), established by Liu Bei 劉備.

The division between north and south in the early 3rd century intensified the cultural, political and economic differences between these two parts of China. The Wei empire saw the introduction of a pseudo-moral ranking of distinguished families in nine grades (jiupin 九品). The highest of them had exclusive access to eminent state offices, while the lower ranks were reserved for members of less prestigious families. The 3rd century also experienced a general militarization of society. The empire of Wu in the southeast was characterized by an antagonism between the imperial court and the local gentry. The empire of Shu, whose rulers claimed the right to inherit the Han dynasty, was likewise dependent on the goodwill of the old gentry of the Sichuan Basin. The latter was conquered by the state of Wei. The Wei dynasty itself succumbed to internal quarrels and was replaced by the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420), founded by a powerful general of the family Sima 司馬 which eventually reunited China.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Three Kingdoms period, the geography of the time, provides a list of the respective rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empires/kingdoms, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts (if one may use this term in that historical stage), the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions. In addition to that, the history of each of the "Kingdoms" is described separately and from its own point of view.