An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Empire of Wu 吳 (222/229-280)

May 7, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

The empire of Wu 吳 (222/229-280) was one of the Three Empires 三國 (220~280). It was founded by Sun Quan 孫權 (182-252), the "Great Emperor" 吳大帝, r. 222-252). The dynasty is also called Sun-Wu 孫吳 in order to avoid confusion with the Zhou-period 周 (11th. cent.-221 BC) regional rulers of Wu 吳 or the small empire of Wu 吳 (902-937), one of the Ten States 十國 (902-979). From the perspective of the other empires, Sun Quan's empire was called Dong-Wu 東吳 "Wu in the East".

The "warlord state" of the southeast was based on the military achievements of Sun Jian 孫堅 (155-191), who served in the suppression of various local uprisings in the last decades of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). Sun hailed from a town close to present-day Hangzhou 杭州, at that time part of the commandery of Wu 吳郡. During the domination of Han China by Dong Zhuo 董卓 (d. 192), Sun Jian and his cousin Sun Ben 孫賁 (172-208) were commanders under the warlord Yuan Shu 袁術 (d. 199). Sun Jian died in the campaign, and his oldest son Sun Ce 孫策 (175-200) continued the support of Yuan, together with Zhou Yu 周瑜 (175–210), another important military commander.

In 194, Sun Ce for the first time proved his strategic and tactical brilliance and gained control over the Jiangnan 江南 region southeast of the Yangtze River. The young man was highly admired by the officer staff and was able to attract more followers, including his uncle Wu Jing 吳景 (d. 203). When Yuan Shu took title as emperor in 197, Sun Ce decided to break with him and declared his allegiance to the Han dynasty. The central government, at that time dominated by the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220), responded by confirming Sun Ce as regional governor of the southeast. From this area, he began to expand his domain towards the west, the province of Jingzhou 荊州 in the middle Yangtze region, and towards the north, into the Huai River 淮水 region. In 200, Sun Ce was killed by the member of a hunting party. His brother Sun Quan took over the rule over the southeast.

Like his father and brother, the young Sun Quan was able to secure the loyalty of his officers. In 208, the domination over the southeast was firm enough to expand further towards the east. A fleet travelled up the Yangtze River and destroyed Huang Zu's 黃祖 (d. 208) defences at Xiakou 夏口 (today's Wuhan 武漢, Hubei). The provincial governor Liu Biao 劉表 (142-208) died shortly later, and his son Liu Cong 劉琮 (b. 191) surrendered to Cao Cao. The rest of the province of Jingzhou was thereafter controlled by Liu Qi 劉琦 (d. 209) and Liu Bei 劉備 (161-222). After lengthy deliberations with his staff, Sun Quan decided not to surrender to the powerful warlord Cao Cao, but to align with Liu Qi and Liu Bei.

Zhou Yu arranged with the two Lius for the defence of the Yangtze River, and their joint army destroyed the forces of Cao Cao in the famous battle at the Red Cliff (Chibi 赤壁) in 208 (close to Puqi 蒲圻, Hubei). Cao Cao's forces were repelled, and he lost access to the Yangtze region in the long run. Sun Quan tried to use this chance to advance further in the eastern part of the war theatre, but was not able to push the frontline further north in the Huai River region. The area was well protected by the military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) that enabled Cao Cao's troops to operate independent from the supplies of the centre. Yet Sun Quan could also not get a firm foothold in the middle Yangtze, where Liu Bei expanded his domain to the south into the Xiang River 湘潭 valley (today's Hunan). The death of Zhou Yu deprived Sun Quan of a reliable and excellent military leader. He therefore offered to give Liu Bei his sister as a wife, but Liu declined. In 211, Liu Bei was invited by Liu Zhang 劉璋 (d. 219) in the province of Yizhou (Sichuan), and engaged as defender of the Sichuan Basin against Cao Cao. Nonetheless, the alliance against Cao Cao was maintained in spite of the conflict between Sun and Liu.

The alliance broke apart in 215. After a serious defeat in the Huai River region, Sun Quan faced a new invasion of Cao Cao, and accepted the suzerainty of the latter to ensure military rest. Liu Bei made success in his campaigns in the Hanzhong region 漢中 against Cao Cao, and his general Guan Yu 關羽 (d. 219) opened a second front in the middle Yangtze region. Sun Quan used this chance and ordered Lü Meng 呂蒙 (178-219) to attack Guan from the rear. Guan was defeated and died, an event which Liu Bei interpreted as great treason of their alliance. The defeat of Guan Yu allowed Sun Quan to occupy the middle Yangtze region.

In 220, Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wen of Wei 魏文帝, r. 220-226), the oldest son of Cao Cao, forced Emperor Xian of the Han 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220) to abdicate (see shanrang 禪讓) and adopted the title of emperor of Wei. Sun Quan accepted this step, declared his loyalty, and was in late 221 rewarded with the title of King of Wu. Liu Bei had responded by declaring himself emperor of Shu-Han in April 221. Liu desired to take revenge for the death of Guan Yu, and sent an army down the Yangtze against Sun Quan. General Lu Xun 陸遜 (183-245) used the right moment for a full-fledged attack on the invader, and utterly defeated the army of Shu-Han. Liu Bei accepted an armistice. Sun Quan was then in full control of the middle and lower Yangtze regions, and by military means secure enough to break the alliance with Wei and declare himself master of an independent kingdom in late 222. His domain reached to Guangdong and even into what is today the north of Vietnam. Yet unlike the empires of Cao-Wei and Shu-Han, the large territory of Wu was not coherent, but divided by mountain ranges and hostile territory. Sun Quan tried to make for good by establishing diplomatic relationships with southeast Asian countries like Funan 扶南 (southern Vietnam and Cambodia) or with the warlord of the northeast, Gongsun Yuan 公孫淵 (d. 238). He even launched an expedition to the island of Taiwan (Yizhou 夷洲). In 229, Sun Quan followed the example of Cao Pi and Liu Bei and adopted the title of emperor (posthumous title Grand Emperor, Wu Dadi 吳大帝, r. 229-252).

The social landscape of the southeast and south had considerably changed during the Later Han period. Large-scale immigration from the Yellow River plain superseded the native population, drove native tribes into the hills, and created new local elites, with which the Sun family had to cooperate in order to win and stay in power. The size of the registered population had multiplied five to seven times in the previous two hundred years (de Crespigny 2019: 58). The expansion of the power of Sun's regime made necessary the cooptation of the local elite, but also the impetus of strong leaders like He Qi 賀齊 (d. 227), who conquered the region of what is today the province of Fujian, Huang Gai 黃蓋 (d. 210), who secured the region of present-day Hunan, or the generals Lü Meng, Lu Xun and Zhuge Ke 諸葛恪 (203–253).

The capital Jianye 建業 (present-day Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), was built up from the scratch, and emerged as a formidable centre of culture and economy in the course of the 3rd century. It was rhapsodized by the poet Zuo Si 左思 (c. 250-305), the home of many scholars and scientists, and the source of the famous porcelain of Wu. The state of Sun Quan was nevertheless a military establishment, which was felt in the conduct and thought of many high dignities like He Qi or Gan Ning 甘寧, or the emperor himself, who is told to have behaved sometimes in the manner of a warlord rather than that of a sovereign.

In order to invigorate the economy, agriculture and military power, large farmlands were opened in the lower and middle Yangtze areas, and Sun Quan tried to obtain cheap workforces by forcing non-Chinese hilltribes into slavery. There existed intensive economical contacts with countries in East Asia like Koguryŏ 高句麗 (Korea) and the Wa 倭 states of Japan), Southeast Asia (Linyi 林邑, Funan), and perhaps even to India (Tianzhu 天竺) and the Middle and Near East (Daqin 大秦). The overseas activities of the Wu empire thus paved the way for economic expansion during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420-589).

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 these aristocrats had to be sent to the capital as hostages, and certain officials had the task to control this gentry. Often, local clans fought for their political independence from the court at Jianye.

After Sun Quan's death in 252, succession struggles broke out between his sons Sun He 孫和 (224-253) and Sun Ba 孫霸 (d. 250) that were both supported by various court factions and steered by their sisters Sun Luban 孫魯班 (Princess Quan 全公主, fl. 229–258) and Sun Luyu 孫魯育 (Princess Zhu 朱公主, d. 255), and Sun He's mother Lady Wang 王夫人. The intrigues were finally ended in favour to Sun's youngest son Sun Liang 孫亮 (r. 252-258 CE), son of Lady Pan 潘夫人 (Pan Shu 潘淑, d. 252). As Sun Liang was just seven sui of age, Zhuge Ke was appointed regent for the under-age sovereign.

Zhuge Ke, however, was assassinated by Prince Sun Jun 孫峻 (219-256). Yet this was only the beginning of a series of murderous intrigues. After Sun Jun's death, his cousin Sun Chen 孫綝 (also read Sun Lin, 231-259) took over the factual control over the central government, wiped away his opponents and finally forced Sun Liang to abdication. The Deposed Emperor (Wu Feidi 吳廢帝, r. 252-257), as he is called by historians, was demoted to the status of Prince of Guiji 會稽. Sun Chen enthroned Sun Xiu 孫休, who is known as Emperor Jing 吳景帝 (r. 258-264). The Wu court was quite happy that two incidences in the Huai River region were settled internally by the state of Wei, namely the rebellion of general Guanqiu Jian 毌丘儉 (d. 255) in 254, and that of Zhuge Dan 諸葛誕 (d. 258) in 257.

Emperor Jing finally ended the control of the imperial princes over the throne succession by arresting and executing Sun Chen and even his own brother, the retired Prince of Guiji. During the reign of Emperor Jing, the empire of Wei invaded and terminated the Shu-Han empire in Sichuan. Just a year later, the powerful regent Sima Yan 司馬炎 (236-290) overthrew the Wei dynasty and founded the Jin 晉 (265-420).

Sun Hao 孫皓 (r. 264-280), a son of Sun He and the last emperor of Wu, is known as a frivolous and prodigious person - even if this is the common mode of Chinese historiographers to describe last rulers. After the Wei dynasty had conquered Shu and was itself succeeded by the Jin dynasty, Sun Hao prepared for military confrontation. At the same time he was confronted with local rebellions and grave dissatisfaction at the court and among the local elites. In 279, Sima Yan thrusted from two sides into the Wu empire, in the west through the Han River valley, and in the east across the Huai River. On 31 May 380, Sun Hao surrendered and was brought to Luoyang, where he died with the title of Marquis of Guiming 歸命侯 four years later.

The main reason for the internal weakness of the empire of Wu in its later decades was the dominance of eminent families of magnates who did not support the central government, but fought only for their own interests.

Table 1. Rulers of the Wu Empire 吳 (222/229-280)
Capital: Jianye 建業 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), Jiangling 江陵 (Jingzhou 荊州, Hubei), Wuchang 武昌 (Echeng 鄂城, Hubei)
posthumous title {temple name} personal name reign-periods
King of Wu 吳 in 221, Emperor in 229.
Wu Dadi 吳大帝 (r. 222/229-252)
{Wu Taizu 吳太祖}
Sun Quan 孫權 Huangwu 黃武 (222-228)
Huanglong 黃龍 (229-231)
Jiahe 嘉禾 (232-237)
Chiwu 赤烏 (238-250)
Taiyuan 太元 (251)
Shenfeng 神鳳 (252)
Prince of Guiji 會稽王
The Deposed Emperor (Wu Feidi) 吳廢帝 (r. 252-257)
The Young Emperor (Wu Youdi) 吳幼帝
Sun Liang 孫亮 Jianxing 建興 (252-253)
Wufeng 五鳳 (254-255)
Taiping 太平 (256-257)
Wu Jingdi 吳景帝 (r. 258-263) Sun Xiu 孫休 Yong'an 永安 (258-263)
The Last Emperor of Wu (Wu Modi 吳末帝, r. 264-280)
Demoted as Marquis of Wucheng 烏程侯, then Marquis Guiming 歸命侯.
Sun Hao 孫皓 Yuanxing 元興 (264)
Ganlu 甘露 (265)
Baoding 寶鼎 (266-268)
Jianheng 建衡 (269-271)
Fenghuang 鳳凰 (272-274)
Tiance 天冊 (275)
Tianxi 天璽 (276)
Tianji 天紀 (277-280)
280 empire of Wu conquered by Jin 晉 (265-420)
de Crespigny, Rafe (1990). Generals of the South: The Foundation and Early History of the Three Kingdoms State of Wu (Canberra: Australian National University, Faculty of Asian Studies).
de Crespigny, Rafe (2019). "Wu", in Albert E. Dien, Keith N. Knapp, ed. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 2, The Six Dynasties, 220–589 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 50-65.
Zhonguo lishi da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《中國歷史大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (2000). Zhongguo lishi da cidian 中國歷史大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), Vol.2, 3315-3316.