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Kingdoms (220-280), Three

End of the Han Dynasty

The revolt of the Yellow Turbans started in 184 AD amidst the corrupt and turbulent twilight years of Han Dynasty. This peasant revolt started on the outskirts of the Han territory but by 189 AD, the violence had reached the gates of the capital Luoyang. Emperor Ling of Han died young in the same year (33 or 34 years old) but did not name an heir to succeed him. His unexpected death left the decision to declare an emperor into the hands of the empress dowager (Emperor Ling’s widow) and the powerful eunuch Jian Shuo. In May of 189, they declared one of Emperor Ling’s sons, the young Prince of Hongnong as the new Emperor Shao of Han. The eunuch Jian Shuo also secretly planned the wholesale purge of Han generals so that he alone would remain powerful, but the news reached a Han general who organized another purge of the palace eunuchs himself. This eventually led to the Three Kingdoms between 220 – 270 AD as listed on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History.

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A bloody purge of both sides started, but while the eunuchs and the generals were at each other’s throats, a general named Dong Zhou took advantage of the situation and took over the palace. He removed Emperor Shao from his position, imprisoned the empress dowager, and appointed his own ministers. The 14-year old Emperor Shao and his younger brother fled the palace, but the boys returned after they realized the harsh realities of life outside its walls. With no food and no one to shelter them, the boys asked for the protection of Dong Zhou, to which the general agreed. He was smarter than the boys realized as Dong Zhou immediately proclaimed the easier-to-manipulate younger brother, Liu Xie, as Emperor Xian and had the older Emperor Shao poisoned.

The Three Kingdoms: Wei, Shu, and Wu

While the palace eunuchs, Han generals, and Dong Zhou were busy asserting their power in Luoyang, another general, Cao Cao, plotted to gain more power for himself. When the Yellow Turban fighters threatened Luoyang, Dong Zhou set fire to the Han capital and fled with the Emperor Xian to Chang’an. Cao Cao caught up with them and then killed Dong Zhou; he then offered his protection to Emperor Xian in a bid to control the young emperor. When he saw that he had no choice, Emperor Xian accepted Cao Cao’s offer and went back to Luoyang to rule. However, he was nothing more than a puppet emperor as Cao Cao retained most of the power over what remained of the Han empire. The empire was not of much use for either of them too as it had fractured into different states ruled by a general who frequently went up against each other. Cao Cao’s rivals, the generals Liu Bei (later, ruler of Shu Kingdom) and Sun Quan (later, Lord of Wu Kingdom), also rose during this period.

“Statue of Cao Cao in Wuhan”

The three general’s quest for domination peaked in 208 AD at the Battle of Red Cliffs which saw Cao Cao’s navy defeated by Liu Bei’s and Sun Quan’s. Cao Cao and his troops failed to wrest the former Han territories located south of the Yangtze River, and many of his men died during the retreat. The defeated Cao Cao retreated north to Luoyang and did not venture into another battle against the two warlords again. He controlled the remainder of the Eastern Han Empire until his death (although Emperor Xian remained as a figurehead for the rest of his life), and the crown passed on to Cao Cao’s son upon the general’s death. This ended the Han Dynasty’s rule over the Empire (or what remained of it), and new dynasties ushered in the Three Kingdoms period.

The former Han empire was now officially fragmented. The warlord Sun Quan now held the kingdom of Wu with its capital Jianye (modern Nanjing), while Liu Bei ruled from the Shu Dynasty’s capital Chengdu. Cao Pi, Cao Cao’s son, ruled from the remnant of the north, now called the kingdom of Cao Wei.

Unrest and civil wars continued during the Three Kingdoms Period. Over the years, the state of Cao Wei was involved with a series of minor battles with the states of Shu and Wu. Cao Wei was also involved in a war against the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo after the latter invaded Xi’anping near the Yalu River. Cao Wei’s troops ravaged the Goguryeo capital of Hwando in return, and many of its people resettled in Wei territories. The continued unrest within the Cao Wei state led to its gradual decay and eventual fall of Cao Cao’s dynasty to Sima Yan, the first emperor of Jin Dynasty.

The state of Shu was also plagued with and weakened by internal strife until it fell to the state of Wei in 263 AD. The state of Wu did not fare any better as it was also involved in other wars and plagued by rebellions. Succession problems added to its gradual fragmentation, and it fell to the stronger kingdom of Cao Wei in 264 AD after the death of its last ruler, Sun Hao.

Picture By Dhugal Fletcher from Singapore, Singapore – Cao Cao, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.
Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History, and Culture. Routledge, 2013.
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2 thoughts on “Kingdoms (220-280), Three

  1. This is inaccurate. Three Kingdoms period was more or less from 220- 270. Overall instability indeed continued well into 5th century.

    1. Thank you Lazar. After some research, it does look like you are correct, although I’m seeing 280 as the end date. Apparently, some include the revolt of the Yellow Turbans. We will look into making some changes after looking at the current references and doing additional research. Thank you again.

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