Three Kingdoms History: Unity to Division

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From Unity to Division

Authored by: Sean Williams
Edited by:

When a period of great prosperity for a civilization ends, the people of that society often focus on what caused the end of their last age of prosperity, instead of what could be in store for the future. The Three Kingdoms (Chinese Sanguo) period of Chinese history is another example of this cycle in human history. Some people say that the Sanguo period was not important because of its chronological location between the lavish Han Dynasty and the tumultuous Era of Disunity, a 400-year period of constant warfare and division. However, those people could not be more wrong. The Sanguo period was important because it ended the glory days of the Han Dynasty, in addition to beginning a period of nearly four centuries of constant warfare. But despite these negative events, the Sanguo period had positive outcomes as well. Because of the constant conflicts in northern China, millions of peasants and merchants were forced to move into the southern provinces to attain peace, causing an important ecomonic shift. With events such as these one can see that the Sanguo period was of extreme importance for Chinese history.

The Sanguo period ended China’s first long-lasting empire, the Han Dynasty. But to understand how important this event was in full context of Chinese history, one must first see how truly great the Han Dynasty was. The Han Dynasty, founded in 206 BC by Liu Bang (Lavarini), was a time of prosperity and advancement for the Chinese civilization. Trade through the Silk Road grew exponentially during this period (Silk Road Study Group), and many major inventions, such as paper (Institute of Paper Science and Technology), porcelain, the wheelbarrow, and even a primitive seismograph, were discovered during this age as well (Dawson). Additionally, the early emperors of the dynasty such as Liu Bang and Liu Che implemented systems by which civil officers were required to go through academies before accepting their positions (Theobald, “Western or Former Han Dynasty (206 BC-8 AD)”). This strengthened the administrative system of the government, and allowed for an elite, more intelligent ruling class. (Later rulers during the Sanguo period attempted to reproduce these efforts.) Even crown princes were not exempted from this law. There were also many philosophical and sociological findings during the Han Dynasty. The Confucian principle of Yin and Yang (now identified more often with Taoism) became of extreme importance to the Chinese people during the first century BC, and Sima Qian’s The Records of the Great Historian was completed in 92 BC (Theobald, “Western or Former Han Dynasty (206 BC-8 AD)”). Perhaps the world’s first socialist ruler, Wang Mang, usurped the Han throne in AD 9 and proceeded to put in place drastic social reforms, including the liberation of all slaves in China (Theobald, “Xin Dynasty and Eastern or Latter Han Dynasty (8/25-220)”).

But Wang Mang was killed, and the Han Dynasty would begin to grow corrupt. Its emperors began to rely on eunuchs (chamberlains from the lower class) for advice (Theobald, “Xin Dynasty and Eastern or Latter Han Dynasty (8/25-220)”). These eunuchs gave the emperors faulty advice, which led to an era of widespread banditry and brigandage throughout the land (Guanzhong, ch 1). Soon the people began to rise up against the debase government in the form of religious revolts, such as the Yellow Scarves Rebellion in AD 184, in which a self-styled magician named Zhang Jiao led half a million peasants against the imperial army (Theobald, “Xin Dynasty and Eastern or Latter Han Dynasty (8/25-220)”). The Han emperor Lingdi called for warlords from across the land to suppress the rebellion, and they did so successfully in AD 185. However, these warlords, like the eunuchs, began to exert their influence upon the imperial court, and in AD 189, the warlord Yuan Shao killed off the eunuchs (Guanzhong, ch 3). The warlords who had crushed the rebellion of the Yellow Scarves and ended the corruption of the court eunuchs would themselves become the de facto rulers in the last days of the Han Dynasty. Soon, the Sanguo period would end China’s days of prosperity and begin a long period of war.

The Han Dynasty would end in AD 220, though its final ruler, Emperor Xiandi, exercised no real power. After around the year 200, the warlord Cao Cao was the real ruler, and after his death in 220 his son, Cao Pi, usurped the Han throne and founded the Wei Dynasty in the north (Theobald, “The Three Kingdoms (220-280)”). In 221, the kingdom of Shu-Han would be founded by Liu Bei in the southwest; and in the southeast, Sun Quan would found the kingdom of Wu in 222 (Theobald, “The Three Kingdoms (220-280)”). All three men claimed to be the true emperor of China, and all three men possessed large armies and fought constantly over territory. But none of these three kingdoms would conquer the others; in 265 an aristocratic general named Sima Yan overthrew the Wei Dynasty, and renamed the dynasty Jin (Theobald, “The Three Kingdoms (220-280)”). The Sima family conquered Shu and Wu, and unified the country. Millions of men and women died during this era; before the Yellow Turban Rebellion during the Han Dynasty, census revealed 60 million people living in China (Frankenstein); after the unification by Jin, only 16 million people remained alive (Hook, 159).

The Sanguo period not only ended the Han Dynasty, but it began a long period of tumult and divisiveness that has become known as the “Era of Disunity.” After unifying the nation, Sima Yan ordered disarmament (Theobald, “Jin Dynasty (265-420) and Southern Dynasties (420-589)”), presumably to prevent his dynasty from ending the same way the Han and Wei dynasties had: at the hands of powerful warlords. But Sima Yan had not foreseen where these weapons would go after ordering disarmament. Many of the former members of the army sold their weapons to the “barbarians” on the northern steppe. These nomadic tribes, the most powerful of which was the Xiongnu (known to the West as the Huns), began to attack China, and in 311 they sacked the most populous city, Luoyang (Theobald, “Jin Dynasty (265-420) and Southern Dynasties (420-589)”). A nation already weakened by ninety-six years of war during the Sanguo period could hardly bear incursions from several foreign tribes. In 316, Jin’s capital, Chang’an, was taken by the Xiongnu tribe, and in order to survive, the imperial family, along with thousands nobles and peasants, migrated south of the Yangtze river (Theobald,“Jin Dynasty (265-420) and Southern Dynasties (420-589)”). The five tribes who had pushed Jin out of their territory set up sixteen kingdoms, all of which would wage war against each other repeatedly for the next three hundred years (Theobald, “Tuoba-Wei (386-534 and Northern Dynasties (304-439)”). Although the north would be unified for a short period under the Xianbei tribe, eventually it would be divided and fought over once more. These tribes, when ruling over native Chinese populations, tended to be brutal; farmers were forcably moved in order to cultivate deserts, and even Buddhist monks were pushed into building more pieces of the Great Wall (Theobald, “Tuoba-Wei (386-534 and Northern Dynasties (304-439)”). These brutal tribes might not have ever ruled over the Chinese people had the Sanguo period never occurred, as it substantially weakened the succeeding Jin Dynasty’s capability to make war against a potential opponent.

The north was not the only land which was under duress. Jin’s rulers, despite Sima Yan’s attempts, had fallen victim to strong military leaders in a very similar manner as the Han Dynasty in 420, only to be replaced to three weak, short-lived dynasties (Theobald, “Jin Dynasty (265-420) and Southern Dynasties (420-589)”). By the time fallen victim to the dynastic cycle, a new dynasty in the north, Sui, had built up an army, and prepared to finally reunify the country. In 589, the Sui army ended the long period of warfare and combat, that began the Sanguo period and unified the country once more (Theobald, “Sui Dynasty (581-618)”).

Despite the negative effects that the Sanguo period had on Chinese society, it also had positive impacts as well. The most significant of these positive aspects was that the wars of the Sanguo period (which, for the large part, took place in northern China) caused many people to migrate to the southern provinces, which made up the kingdoms of Shu and Wu. Later, during the wars between the “barbarian” tribes over northern China, more of the Chinese peasanty migrated south of the Yangtze River (Warrior Tours). These mass migrations caused the economic center of the country to eventually move from the northern plains to the rivers of the southeast. Without the warfare of the Sanguo period forcing these migrations, centuries may have passed before the settlement of China’s southern provinces occurred. Even to this day, China’s economy lies in its southern shipping industries, and not farming.

One can certainly see that the Sanguo period was of vital importance to Chinese history. Not only did it end the glorious Han Dynasty, but it also began a four-hundred year period of constant warfare. However, it led to a mass migration to the southern region which was of vital importance, as a crucial shift in Chinese economy happened. These events make the Sanguo period truly one of the most important eras in Chinese history.

Works Cited
- Frankenstein, Paul. “Condensed China.” 1 May 02 (offline)
- Guanzhong, Luo. Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Ed. Snow N. Snow. Trans. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor. 3rd ed. 1997. 12 Apr 2002
- Hook, Brian ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
- Institute of Paper Science and Technology. “The Invention of Paper.” 2002. 30 Apr 2002
- Lavarini, Diana and Anna Del Franco. “A chronology.” 2001. 30 Apr 2002 (offline)
- Silk Road Study Group. “History.” 2001. 30 Apr 2002 (offline)
- Dawson, Sammi and Josh Weckesser. “An Introduction to the Civilizations of India and China.” 30 May 2002
- Theobald, Ulrich. “Jin Dynasty (265-420) and Southern Dynasties (420-589).” 2000. 1 May 2002
-- “Sui Dynasty (581-618).” 2000. 1 May 2002
-- “The Three Kingdoms (220-280).” 2000. 30 Apr 2002
-- “Tuoba-Wei (386-534 and Northern Dynasties (304-439).” 2000. 1 May 2002
-- “Western or Former Han Dynasty (206 BC-8 AD).” 2000. 30 Apr 2002
-- “Xin Dynasty and Eastern or Latter Han Dynasty (8/25-220).” 2000. 13 Apr 2002
Warrior Tours, Inc. “Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420).” 2002. 1 May 2002

Copyright © 2002 - 2003 Sean Williams