China // The Yangzi basin //

Sanguo: The Three Kingdoms


The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.

So, rather cynically, begins one of China’s best-known stories, the fourteenth-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国, sān guó). Covering 120 chapters and a cast of thousands, the story touches heavily on the Yangzi basin, which, as a buffer zone between the Three Kingdoms, formed the backdrop for many major battles and key events. Some surviving sites are covered in this chapter and elsewhere in the guide.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is essentially fictionalized, though well founded in historical fact. Opening in 168 AD, the tale recounts the decline of the Han empire, how China was split into three states by competing warlords, and the subsequent (short-lived) reunification of the country in 280 AD under a new dynasty. The main action begins in 189 AD. At this point, the two protagonists were the villainous Cao Cao and the virtuous Liu Bei, whose watery character was compensated for by the strength of his spirited sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu – the latter eventually becoming enshrined in the Chinese pantheon as the red-faced god of war and healing. Having put down the Yellow Turban taoist secret society uprising in 184 AD in the name of the emperor, both Cao and Liu felt their position threatened by the other; Cao was regent to the emperor Xian, but Liu had a remote blood tie to the throne. Though both claimed to support the emperor’s wishes, Cao and Liu began fighting against each other, with Cao being defeated in Hubei at the Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD) after Liu engaged the aid of the wily adviser Zhuge Liang, who boosted Liu’s heavily outnumbered forces by enlisting the help of a third warlord, Sun Quan.

Consolidating their positions, each of the three formed a private kingdom: Cao Cao retreated north to the Yellow River basin where he established the state of Wei around the ailing imperial court; Sun Quan set up Wu farther south along the lower Yangzi; while Liu Bei built a power base in the riverlands of Sichuan, the state of Shu. The alliance between Shu and Wu fell apart when Sun Quan asked Guan Yu to betray Liu. Guan refused and was assassinated by Sun in 220 AD. At this point Cao Cao died, and his ambitious son, Cao Pi, forced the emperor to abdicate and announced himself head of a new dynasty. Fearing retaliation from the state of Shu after Guan Yu’s murder, Sun Quan decided to support Cao Pi’s claims, while over in Shu, Liu Bei also declared his right to rule.

Against Zhuge Liang’s advice, Liu marched against Wu to avenge Guan Yu’s death, but his troops mutinied, killing Zhang Fei. Humiliated, Liu withdrew to Baidicheng in the Yangzi Gorges and died. With him out of the way, Cao Pi attacked Sun Quan, who was forced to renew his uncomfortable alliance with Shu – now governed by Zhuge Liang – to keep the invaders out of his kingdom. By 229 AD, however, things were stable enough for Sun Quan to declare himself as a rival emperor, leaving Zhuge to die five years later fighting the armies of Wei. Wei was unable to pursue the advantage, as a coup against Cao Pi started a period of civil war in the north, ending around 249 AD when the Sima clan emerged victorious. Sun Quan died soon afterwards, while Shu abandoned all claim to the empire. Wei’s Sima clan founded a new dynasty, the Jin, in 265 AD, finally overpowering Wu and uniting China in 280 AD.

Read More

Explore China