The Three Empires

The Three Empires

The time of the Three Empires was immortalized in San Guo Yanyi, the famous novel The Three Empires, which treats the confusion following the demise of the late Han dynasty and the struggle over dominance in China.

Demise of the Han dynasty and development of the Three Empires

The Han empire was weakened by uprisings and corruption. The 184 C.E. uprising of the “Yellow Turbans,” a religious sect, weakened the empire and strengthened the generals Dong Zhou and Cao Cao, who came from rich, landowning families. Cao Cao in particular saw a meteoric rise in prestige from their quick quelling of the rebellion.

When a young, weak emperor came to power in 190 C.E., the generals Dong Zhou and Cao Cao recognized the opportunity to seize the mantle of power. After Dong Zhou’s murder by eunuchs, Cao Cao was able to make himself the strong man of China, but he lost control over wide swaths of south China and the west. He appointed a weak emperor in 196 but maintained actual power himself. Yet he never declared himself emperor.

The Three Empires Wei, Shu, and Wu

The Empire Wei

In the year 213, Cao Cao became Duke of Wei. He died in 220, and his son Cao Pei (187 – 226) named himself emperor that same year, founding the Wei dynasty, one of the Three Empires, with Luoyang as its capital. The example of the legendary rulers Yao and Shun, neither of whom inherited directly but were named successors because they were competent, served as his legitimation. The state Wei was the most significant of the Three Empiries and the next major dynasty (Jin) arose from it. The other two empires were Shu (220 – 264 C.E.) in the west (modern-day Szechuan) and Wu (220 – 280 C.E.) in southeast China.

The Shu empire under Liu Bai

Liu Bai (161 – 223 C.E.) was the founder of the Shu empire, also know as Han-Shu because of Liu Bai’s relationship to the Han dynasty. Liu Bai plays a prominent role in the novel The Three Empires as progeny of the Han dynasty who tried to rebuild the old dynasty. Because of his cleverness and wealth of stratagems, Liu Bai’s advisor Zhuge Liang also became famous. His war strategies are known by every child in modern China. The state Shu was conquered in 263 by Wei.

The Wu empire under Sun Quan

The empire Wu was founded by Sun Quan (182 – 252 C.E.). The capital was modern-day Nanjing. Sun Quan named himself emperor of his own dynasty. Wu lasted until 282 C.E. before it was annexed by the newly founded Jin dynasty.

The Jin dynasty already existed shortly after Shu’s conquering by Wei, when the emperor was forced to abdicate by a Wei intrigue. Imperial unity was not forged until 280 C.E., so this year is often considered the beginning of the Jin dynasty.

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