The Three Kingdoms represents one of the bloodiest periods in Chinese history. It took place between 220 – 280 AD and was caused by the chaotic infighting between the states of Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), and Wu (吳) as they sought imperial power in ancient China, following the Han Dynasty and the crushing of the Yellow Turban Rebellion.
Although a relatively short period in Chinese history, the Three Kingdoms as with many periods of warfare has been greatly romanticized in the cultures of China, Korea, Japan, and even Vietnam. It has been popularized in folk tales, novels, and in more recent times has become a popular subject for television, film and even video games.
The factors leading up to the Three Kingdoms period
The story begins in the year 184 during the reign of Emperor Ling when peasants began to revolt against the Han Dynasty, ultimately becoming known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion. The rebellion like much unrest we have seen across the ages can be largely summarised as being caused by a large divide in wealth between the rich and poor, along with the weakening of the Han Dynasty from a political stand point.
As the Han Dynasty came to an end, the imperial army fought to defeat the Yellow Turban Rebellion, and eventually reduced their military threat by 205 AD. During this time the generals that were given the task of putting down the rebellion had grown strong in power and wealth and saw an opportunity to use this to seize imperial power for themselves.
There were three key players in this power struggle:
- Cao Cao, who served as the captain of cavalry.
- Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Han imperial family.
- Sun Quan, who was known as ‘the general who attacks barbarians’.
In 205 AD Cao Cao became the dictator in Northern China, whilst Liu Bei created a stronghold in the area now known as Sichuan province, while Sun Quan based himself in the southeast.
Cao Cao is largely cast as the aggressor in the Three Kingdoms, and with very clear ambitions to reunite China under a single ruler he pushed his army hard as they marched south against the states of Shu and Wu.
Meanwhile, Liu Bei (Shu) and Sun Quan (Wu) knew that Cao Cao had a large numerical advantage in terms of soldiers. Having already defeated the Jing Province, Liu Bei and Sun Quan were forced to form an alliance to combine their strength against Cao Cao.
Having done so, they moved their army to meet Cao Cao at the infamous battle of the red cliffs.
The Battle of Red Cliffs
The Battle of the Red Cliffs took place some 12 years prior to the official period of the Three Kingdoms and occurred in an area along the Yangtze River somewhere around present day Hubei and Hunan provinces.
Cao Cao knew that if he had any hope of uniting China under his rule he needed to achieve naval control of the Yangtze River and its strategic naval base at Jiangling, which would give him greater access to the southern region of China.
The initial campaign was highly favourable for Cao Cao, and he was able to capture the naval base at Jiangling, taking command of a sizeable naval fleet and a key strategic military depot. As Cao Cao continued his advances, Liu Bei and Sun Quan negotiated and agreed upon an alliance, combining their forces to create an army of some 50,000 men.
Representation of Cao Cao – Captain of the Cavalry by Cai Jun
Whilst Cao Cao had boasted of having 800,000 soldiers, estimates put his number closer to 200,000, still giving him an overwhelming numerical advantage that would have been enough in most cases to guarantee victory.
The battle itself can be segmented into 3 critical parts
- An initial skirmish at the Red Cliffs, which caused Cao Cao to retreat to Wulin.
- A decisive naval engagement on the Yangtze River.
- Cao Cao’s disastrous retreat along the Huarong Road.
The initial skirmish came as the combined forces of Sun-Liu encountered Cao Cao’s vanguard force at the Red Cliffs. Plagued by disease and low morale from the continued march south, Cao Cao’s forces were unable to gain an advantage, and thus retreated to Wulin.
Having chained his great naval fleet together to reduce the level of seasickness among his soldiers, Cao Cao received a letter from one of the Sin-Liu commanders offering their surrender. His name was Huang Gai, and it turned out to be a ruse. Instead of surrendering, Huang Gai had his ships turned into fire boats, filling them with dry reeds and burning oil.
This famous part of the battle, led to Liu Bei saying ‘Everything is prepared, all we need now is the Eastern wind’ in relation to the ships needing an eastern wind to push them into Cao Cao’s resting fleet. This has since become a Chinese idiom, meaning ‘everything is ready; we just lack one crucial element’.
Representation of Cao Cao’s soldiers waiting in their boat on the River Yangtze by artist Cai Jun
As the ships headed towards Cao Cao’s fleet, the men departed into smaller crafts and set the ships alight. The unmanned ships, propelled by that favourable eastern wind, smashed into Cao Cao’s fleet with many men and horses either killed by the flames or through drowning.
Further skirmishes on land, led to Cao Cao sounding the retreat along the Huarong Road, which included a treacherous pass through bogey marshland. As a result of prolonged heavy rain, many soldiers drowned in the mud or were trampled to death in the effort to reach Nan Commandery (present day Jiangling County, Jingzhou, Hubei).
Famine, combined with disease had decimated Cao Cao’s remaining forces leading Cao Cao to retreat north to his home base of Ye (present day Handan, Hebei) leaving his generals to guard among other key strategic locations – Jiangling. By the end of 209 AD Jiangling had fallen to Zhou Yu and thus fell under the rule of Sun Quan.
The Three Kingdoms Begins
Despite being beaten at the Yangtze River, Cao Cao continued to rule Wei in the north, whilst Liu Bei the Shu state in the west and Sun Quan the Wu state in the southeast.
Continued fighting occurred in the preceding years, and new emperors came and went across the Three Kingdoms, but ultimately sheer numbers prevailed, and Wei, with the largest population of the three states prevailed, defeating Shu in 263 AD.
After an internal power struggle, Wei changed its named to Jin before going on to defeat Wu in 280 AD, re-unifying China and bringing the Three Kingdoms period to a close.
Spanning the best part of 60 years, the Three Kingdoms period brought about countless tales of heroism, cunning and deceit, which coupled with an awfully high death toll made it a sure fire story for the ages.
Cai Jun Three Kingdoms Series
Chinese artist Cai Jun, has masterfully recreated some of the scenes and characters from the three kingdoms series: