The Three Kingdoms Period: China’s Golden Age of Adventure

From the lecture series: From Yao to Mao — 5000 Years of Chinese History

By Kenneth J. Hammond, PhD, New Mexico State University

By the latter part of the 2nd century, the Han dynasty ceased to be a functional political entity. Eventually, in the year 220, the last Han emperor was set aside, and the country divided into three successor states: Shu Han, Wei, and Wu. This set up a short but fascinating age in China’s early history that spans from 222 to 265, known as the Three Kingdoms period.

Map of the Three Kingdoms in 262, on the eve of the conquest of Shu,Wei and Wu
Three Kingdoms in 262 (Image: By Yu Ninjie/Public domain)

Three Kings, Three Kingdoms

Cropped image from a 7th century Portrait of Liu Bei by Yan Liben from the Thirteen Emperors Scroll
Liu Bei, founder of the Shu Han kingdom (Image: By Yan Liben (閻立本)7/Public domain)

Liu Bei, a member of the imperial Liu family, set up a kingdom called Shu Han, Shu being an ancient term for the area of Sichuan, and Han implying this as a continuation of the Han dynasty.

Learn more about the Han golden age, during which essential imperial institutions were established and Han territories were expanded.

Cropped image from a 7th century Portrait of Cao Pei by Yan Li-pen from the  Thirteen Emperors Scroll
Cao Pei , founder of the Wei kingdom (Image: By Yan Li-pen/Public domain)

In northern China, a man named Cao Pei founded a kingdom called Wei. Cao Pei was the son of a man named Cao Cao, the adopted son of a eunuch. Cao Cao was one of the many people who have been contending for power under the final decades of the Han, and carving out a large territory in northern China under his control. His death in 220 allowed his son Cao Pei to set up the kingdom of Wei.

Cropped image from a 7th century Portrait of Sun Wu by Yan Liben from the  Thirteen Emperors Scroll
Sun Wu, founder of the Wu Kingdom (Image: By Yan Liben/Public domain)

In southeastern China, a third state was formed, ruled by a man called Sun Wu. The state itself is also called Wu, a traditional ancient historical name for that part of China.

Celebrating Military Deception

What makes the Three Kingdoms period so fascinating is that it became an age of great heroism and romance. It is looked upon by later Chinese as a golden age—not of good government or of flourishing poetry and art, but an age of great adventure.

Depiction of Zhuge Liang in the Sancai Tuhui, a Ming imprint of the 37th year of the Wanli reign (1609)
Zhuge Liang, a General in the Shu Han Kingdom, is often held up as an exemplary figure in the stories of The Three Kingdoms. (Image: By Sancai Tuhui/Public domain)

The reason for this is, in part, because the heroes of this period are not the kinds of scholars, political officials, or emperors who are portrayed as the great culture heroes in later times. These are military men, noted not for their strength or for their ability to crush their opponents, but for their cleverness and wit. This is an age in which deceiving, outwitting, and winning fights against your enemy by not fighting are considered to be the great talents and accomplishments of the heroes of the age.

One particularly fascinating figure was Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang was a general—he never became a ruler or seems to have had the ambition of seizing power for himself—but he came to be known as one of the greatest strategists in Chinese history. Cao Cao and Zhuge Liang are often held up as the great exemplars of clever strategy.

This is a transcript from the video series From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Straw Boats Gather Arrows

The stories of these men are remarkable for their cleverness: In one instance, a general has brought his army to the south, and they’ve camped on the bank of a great river. Their army is on the northern bank of the river; on the southern bank of the river are the enemy’s forces. The army on the northern bank of the river is far from home, its supply lines are extended. If they can inflict a decisive defeat on their enemy at this point, they may gain everything. It’s a critical moment. But they’re in a tough spot because in the fighting that has gone on up to this point, they have used up almost all their arrows. Archers are a critical component of warfare. If you don’t have arrows, your archers aren’t going to be very useful. What to do?

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If you don’t have arrows, your archers aren’t going to be very useful. What to do?

They decide to take advantage of a particular circumstance in their location: The river that flows between the two armies in the evenings tends to become covered with fog. It’s a time of year when at night, the air cools down and the air rising from the river condenses, creating a thick layer of fog over the river. They go upstream and commandeer boats as they go along. They build dummies out straw, dress them in uniforms, then tie the boats together and push them out into the stream. The boats float downstream in the evening, just as the fog is descending on the river. On the southern bank, the sentries are alert, watching out, and they know that under the cover of fog is a dangerous time because the enemy on the north bank may try to slip across the river and attack.

Photograph of a portrait showing Zhuge Liang's army collecting arrows from their enemy during a three kingdoms battle. Original portrait found at  at the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing.
Zhuge Liang’s army collecting arrows from their enemy. (Image: Photographed by Shizhao/Public domain)

They see the outline of these boats coming down the river through the fog, but because of the cover, they can’t see very clearly. They see all the soldiers lined up, waiting to attack. They think, “We’ve figured out their clever strategy, and they’re trying to sneak up on us in the fog,” and so they unleash a hail of arrows on these boats. Of course, the arrows stick in the straw dummies. On the north side, the opposing army hauls the ropes in, draw the boats back, and they’ve resupplied themselves with the arrows they needed to carry on the campaign. This sort of story becomes legendary, passed down through China.

Learn more about the military technology of the ancient Chinese

A Clever Game of Chess

“We found Zhuge Liang. He’s in this town and if we attack right away, we can defeat him.”

Another clever example involves Zhuge Liang. He was sent out to control a certain territory with a large army, including an advance party. Liang led the advance party to occupy a particular town, with his main force probably two or three days’ march behind him. At this point, the enemy army is approaching, only about a day’s march away. They’ve sent their scouts out ahead to check out the situation. In their search, the enemy comes up onto the ridge outside of this walled town, and spying out, they see Zhuge Liang’s forces, but it is the advance. Delighted, they ride back and tell the commander, “We found Zhuge Liang. He’s in this town and if we attack right away, we can defeat him.”

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Zhuge Liang is no fool. He has had his own spies out and they have detected the approach of the enemy. His advisors come and they say, “We’ve got to get out of here. The enemy is just over the hill, and they will be here in a matter of hours. We just have our little detachment, so we must get out of here.” Zhuge Liang says, “I really feel like playing some chess.” He calls to his second in command and he says, “Let’s go play some chess.”

They go up on the city wall. Right over the main gate, there is a little terrace there where they set up a table, sit down in a couple of chairs, and they begin to play a game of chess. The other commanders are all very upset, criticizing him, “What are you doing? We need to get out of here. The enemy is coming.”

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Zhuge Liang tells them, “No, don’t worry about it. In fact, open the gates to the city, and let’s have the market take place as usual. Have a squad of soldiers go out and march up and down outside. That will be enough.” The commanders are appalled, but they follow their orders, open the city gates, with traffic going in and out, and business going on as usual, as the small squad of soldiers is marching up and down.

The enemy commander arrives with the advance party of his forces and they come up on the hill near the town. They look down and his scouts say, “See? We told you. Here’s Zhuge Liang. We have a chance. He doesn’t know we are here. We have a chance to defeat him and capture him.” The commander looks very carefully and he sees Zhuge Liang playing chess on the wall while the group of soldiers march and the gates are open. It’s obvious that he is completely defenseless.

The commander thinks for a minute, and he orders the army to withdraw. His subordinates ask, “What are you doing?” He responds, “Zhuge Liang would never allow himself to be in this sort of situation. This is obviously a trap. We know how smart he is, he must have his forces concealed nearby. As soon as we attack, we’ll be destroyed. Our only hope is to run away.”

Great Stories of the Three Kingdoms Period

By a clever deception, by appearing to be unconcerned, Zhuge Liang convinces his opponents that he is invulnerable, when, in fact, he could have been captured easily.

These kinds of stories are the ones that become characteristic of the Three Kingdoms period. They are written down, and over time, poetry is written about them and they become the subject of plays and operas.

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There is a great romance novel called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms that evolves over the centuries and becomes one of the great bestsellers. If you spend time in China today and turn on any TV show on any night on any channel, you are likely to see dramatizations of stories of the Three Kingdoms.

Common Questions About the Three Kingdoms

Q: Is the Three Kingdoms a true story or a fictional book?

The Three Kingdoms was an actual historical period in Chinese history but was romanticized in a legendary book, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written and compiled by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century. It is considered one of the Four Chinese Classical Novels.

Q: Was there a winner between the Three Kingdoms?

No. There was no single winner in the period of the Three Kingdoms. There was much destruction and fighting on all sides.

Q: How was China divided into the Three Kingdoms?

Three regimes resulted in China’s Three Kingdoms: Shu in the southwest, the Wei in the North, and the Wu in the southeast. 

Q: What brought the Three Kingdoms to an end?

The Three Kingdoms period was brought to an end around 280 BCE when the Court of Jin forced the surrender of Wu Kingdom’s leader Sun Hao.

This article was updated on September 30, 2020

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