Three Kingdoms Period

Written by Sally Guo Updated Oct. 20, 2021

Fall of the Han Empire

The end of the Eastern Han Empire (AD 25-220) was marked by its division into 3 regions headed by leaders Cao Cao (155-220 CE) who had control over the area north of the Yangtze River known as Cao Wei; Liu Bei (161-223) who reigned over an inland region known as Shu Han, which included Sichuan to the southwest; and Sun Quan (182-252) who had control of the southeastern region known as Dong Wu, which means Eastern Wu.

Various factors led to the decline and final end of the Han Empire. These included natural disasters and rebellions that immensely eroded the power of the dynastic court. The situation was further compounded by great conflicts within the dynastic court itself, which resulted in many killings and assassinations amongst court officials as well.

The Three Kingdoms Emerge

The Han Empire broke up into three economic geographic regions that were separated by the natural boundaries of the Yangtze River and central mountains which were home to the Three Gorges. The population of this region was reduced by the natural disasters and warfare experienced at the end of the empire, as well as during the Three Kingdoms Period. The Jin Dynasty was able to take control of Cao Wei and conquer Shu Han, thereby forming the Jin Empire (263-420). Later in the year 280, the Jin Dynasty was able to conquer Dong Wu.


The End of the Han Era

At the end of the Han era, there were uprisings by the common people, as well as natural disasters that led to its decline. This was in keeping with the ancient belief about the “Mandate of Heaven” which stated that natural disasters would generally mark the end of the rule by a dynastic clan in control of an empire in the region. During its final decades, the Han Empire witnessed fighting between regional rulers, the imperial court, and the peasant armies and bands that resulted in the deaths of many people, while many others migrated in search of safety.

These deaths and migrations led many people to lose their land and property such that when the official census was taken during the Three Kingdom Period, a marked drop in the number of households was registered. A 156 AD census during the Han Empire registered an estimated 54 million people. However, only an estimated 16 million people were registered during the Jin Empire census of 280 AD, never mind that the Jin Empire and the preceding Han Empire comprised of the exact same territory.

The aftermath of the Battle of Red Cliffs

After Cao was defeated in 208 at the Battle of Red Cliffs, China was divided into 3 spheres of influence. In his attempt to control the entire empire, Caocao ultimately became a major contributor to its downfall. Caocao died in 220 AD and was succeeded by his son Cao Pi who forced Xian, the last Emperor of the Han Dynasty to abdicate his throne in 220. Cao Pi was thereafter known as Emperor Wen and only reigned until the year 226 when he died. He established his capital at Luoyang in Cao Wei.

In 221, Liu Bei named himself Emperor of the Han Empire in Shu Han. In the same year, Sun Quan took the title of the King of Wu. Liu Bei declared war on Dong War but was defeated by Sun Quan’s army at the Battle of Yiling and forced to retreat back to Shu Han where he died. Following the death of his father, Liu Shan took control of Shu Han and appointed Zhuge Liang Prime Minister, who would prove instrumental in brokering peace with Sun Quan. This ultimately led to a stabilization of the political relations between the two rival kingdoms.

With this ceasefire in place, the 2 leaders now focused their attention on fighting the people in the south and conscripting the defeated masses into their armies. Sun Quan focused his war efforts on conquering the Shanyue people in 234, while Liu Shan fought and conquered the Nanmen around the same time.

Zhuge Liang’s Demise

In 227, Zhuge Liang sent an army to fight Cao Wei. This move proved disastrous as the Wei consisted of a much bigger population of 3-4 million according to the census figures of the time, in comparison to his estimated 1 million people. In addition, the Cao Wei comprised of a much bigger territory which his Zhuge Liang army was unable to gain full control of. Ultimately, his campaigns against Cao Wei failed and Zhuge Liang died in 234 following his last great northern offensive.

At the same time, Cao Wei continued its attacks on Dong Wu but was unable to break through Sun Quan’s river defenses which included the Ruxu fortress.



The Three Kingdoms Period is regarded fondly in China as the era in which the highest ideals of chivalry were demonstrated. These acts have been depicted in the adventure novel San Kuo Chih Yen I (Romance of the Three Kingdoms). During this era, Confucianism reigned supreme although this school of thought was soon eclipsed by the disorder and disunity of the time. However, this instability did lay fertile ground for the opening up of Chinese culture to new influences such as Taoism and Indian Buddhism.

Art and Sciences

Art during the Three Kingdoms Period was predominantly influenced by Buddhism and featured many elements of Central Asian art. The Three Kingdoms also enjoyed many advances in scientific learning gained from contact with India. And as knowledge of the outside world increased, there was a great improvement of maps which led to the invention of a grid system of coordinates.


The Three Kingdoms period did not last more than a hundred years, yet many people and events of the period formed the basis of Chinese heroes and legends. The Three Kingdoms period bequeathed more than one thousand years of cultural heritage to the Chinese people and their descendants. This era boasts a rich and plentiful cultural heritage marked by sites such as the Wuhou Temple, the Mingyue Gorge Trail in Guangyuan, Mianyang Ziyun Pavilion, the Jiangmen Pass, Langzhong Ancient City, and many more.

There are also many legends about this period that have been passed down over thousands of years including Cao Cao’s planned assassination of Dong Zhuo, the Battle of Red Cliffs, Three Visits to the Thatched Cottage, and Borrowing Arrows with Thatched Boats.


In order to defend themselves and develop agriculture, some local landlords and aristocracy of the Three Kingdoms Period established their own strongholds which gradually evolved into a self-sufficient manorial system. This system of manors and strongholds would later have an impact on the economic mode of subsequent dynasties. During the Three Kingdoms Period, newly minted coins were not used as currency. Because of this collapse of coinage, Cao Wei officially declared in 221 that grains and silk cloth would serve as the main currencies.


The Three Kingdoms period bequeathed over one thousand years of cultural heritage to the Chinese people and their descendants. In addition, the instability of the period laid the foundation for the opening up of Chinese culture to new influences such as Taoism and Indian Buddhism. The Three Kingdoms also enjoyed many advances in scientific learning gained from contact with India, as well as new influences in the art sphere. There was also a great improvement of maps which led to the invention of a grid system of coordinates.

Rise and Decline

Rise of the Dong Wu

During its long reign under Sun Quan, Dong Wu was able to prosper. There was an increase in population due to the subjugation of the Shanyue people, while the migration of the northern people encouraged increased agricultural production. During this time, big canals were dug out to aid in inland transportation and trade with Shu Han was encouraged, which enabled both kingdoms to prosper. The merchants from Dong Wu also engaged in trading activities with Linyi merchants of present-day northern Vietnam, and Funan merchants of present-day southern Vietnam.

Fall of the Shu Han

After the 230s, the ruling Cao clan in Cao Wei faced threats by the Sima, a large land-owning clan. Sima Yi, a distinguished general in Cao Wei took over the capital of Luoyang in 238. In 263, Wei launched a 3-pronged attack on the Shu Han, forcing its army into a general retreat. The 263 surrenders by Liu Shan marked the end of the Three Kingdoms Period.

Rise and Expansion of the Jin Dynasty

The Cao clan still claimed the dynastic throne in Cao Wei. Cao Huan was forced to abdicate the throne by Sima Yan, which led to the establishment of the Jin Dynasty in 265. The Jin Dynasty began construction of a navy in 269, with the aim of controlling the Yangtze River and ferry troops across for purposes of attacking Dong Wu. After 10 years of preparation, the invasion was finally carried out in 279, which led to the surrender of Emperor Sun Hao of Dong Wu in 280.

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