The Three Kingdoms Period

The Eastern Han Empire (AD 25-220) ended when the empire divided between three big kingdoms. The disintegration of the Han and the Three Kingdoms period was a time of disaster for the people. The period lasted for 60 years until the year 280 when the large Jin Empire took over the region.

长江壹号在瞿塘峡_副本The Yangtze River

The region was divided between Cao Cao (155–220) who controlled the area north of the Yangtze River, Liu Bei (161–223) who controlled an inland area including Sichuan in the southwest, and Sun Quan (182–252) who controlled the southeast. The north was called Cao Wei (曹魏), the southwest was called Shu Han (蜀漢), and the southeast was called Dong Wu (東吳) that means Eastern Wu.

The Han Empire ended in natural disasters and rebellions that reduced the power of the dynastic court. There were also great conflicts in the dynastic court that ended in much killings and assassinations of royal clan members, the imperial eunuchs and officials, and their staff and guards.

The Han Empire broke into three economic geographical regions that were separated by the natural boundaries of the Yangtze River that crosses the country east and west and the central mountains where the Three Gorges are.

A Time of Disaster

Through the natural disasters and warfare at the end of the empire and during the Three Kingdoms Period, the population of the region was greatly reduced. The ancient idea about the “Mandate of Heaven” was that natural disasters generally mark the end of the rule of a dynastic clan that controls an empire in the region. This was true of the Han Empire.

During the last decades of the Han Empire, the fighting between the regional rulers, the imperial court, and the peasant armies and bands killed a lot of people. Many people migrated to search for safety. So many people died or moved and lost their land and property that the official censuses show a great drop in registering households.

There were an estimated 54 million people in the Han Empire according to a census in 156 AD, but only an estimated 16 million people according to a census in the Jin Empire in 280 AD though the Jin Empire contained the same territory as that of the Han Empire.

This drop in population mirrors the drop from the end of the Zhou era when there was an estimated 40 million people in the region to the end of the Qin Empire when 18 million people were recorded.

The emergence of the Jin Empire killed even more people. First, the Jin Dynasty clan established control in Cao Wei and conquered Shu Han to form the Jin Empire (263–420); and then the Jin Dynasty conquered the remaining state Dong Wu in the year 280.


The Partition

After Cao Cao's defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208, the region was divided into three spheres of influence. Cao Cao was a leading figure in who attempted to control the whole empire, and he helped to bring it down. He died in 220 AD.

When he died, his son Cao Pi forced the last emperor of the Han Dynasty who was named Emperor Xian to give him his throne in 220. He was called Emperor Wen. He lived for only 6 years after this until the year 226. He set up his capital at Luoyang in the new kingdom called Cao Wei.

In 221, Liu Bei in the new kingdom of Shu Han named himself the Emperor of the Han Empire. In the same year, Sun Quan took the title of the King of Wu.

Frequent Wars

Liu Bei declared war on Dong Wu. At the Battle of Yiling, Liu Bei was defeated by Sun Quan's army, and he was forced to retreat back to Shu Han where he died.

After the death of Liu Bei, Liu Bei’s son Liu Shan took power in Shu Han. Zhuge Liang became the Prime Minister under Liu Bei. He was known as unusually intelligent and a great military strategist. They made peace with Sun Quan. This stabilized the political situation between them.

Both leaders then turned against the countries to the south of them to expand. Sun Quan conquered the Shanyue people to the south of him in 234. He then conscripted tens of thousands of them for his army. About the same time, Liu Shan fought the Nanmen. He also added Nanmen to his army.

In 227, Zhuge Liang sent an army against Cao Wei even though Wei had a much bigger population and a much bigger territory. According to census figures around this time, Shu Han had a population of only a million people. Wei probably had a population of about 3 or 4 million because a census of Wei that was taken in the year 260 showed a figure of 4.4 million people.

Zhuge Liang's campaigns failed, and in 234, he led his last great northern offensive and died.

Prosperity of Dong Wu

At the same time, Cao Wei kept attacking Dong Wu. But they could not break through Sun Quan’s river defenses that included a fortress called Ruxu. During Sun Quan’s long reign, Dong Wu prospered.

A migration of northern people and the subjugation of the Shanyue people increased his population and their agricultural production.

Big canals were dug that aided inland transportation, and trade with Shu Han helped both kingdoms to prosper. Dong Wu merchants traded with merchants in Linyi (northern Vietnam) and Funan (southern Vietnam).

Rise of the Jin Dynasty in Cao Wei and the Fall of Shu Han

After the 230s, the ruling Cao clan in Cao Wei was threatened by the Sima clan that held a lot of land. Sima Yi was a great general in Cao Wei.

In 238, Sima Yi took over the capital of Luoyang. In 263, Wei launched a three-pronged attack against the Shu Han, and the Shu army was forced into a general retreat. In 263, Liu Shan surrendered.

Expansion of the Jin Empire

In Cao Wei, the Cao clan still claimed the dynastic throne. Sima Yan forced Cao Huan to abdicate and established the Jin Dynasty in 265.

In 269, the Jin Dynasty started construction of a navy to control the Yangtze River and ferry troops across to attack Dong Wu. This invasion came in 279 after ten years of preparation.

In 280, Emperor Sun Hao of Dong Wu surrendered. This event marks the end of the Three Kingdom Period and the ascension of the new Jin Empire.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

This interesting and bloody stage of history was portrayed in popular literature hundreds of years later. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a famous semi-historical work said to be written by Luo Guan Zhong. It is ancient historical fiction that colors modern Chinese thinking about the era.

The novel describes the machinations, court intrigues, and the shifting alliances of the three kingdoms. He portrays the wars and the lives and struggles of the rulers at the end of the Han Dynasty and in the Three Kingdoms Period. Special emphasis is laid on the antagonists Liu Bei and Cao Cao. There are accounts of ghastly deaths and of rulers dying after meeting avenging ghosts.

The authorship and the date the novel was originally written are debatable. Chinese traditionally say that the novel was written by Luo Guan Zhong at the end of the Yuan Dynasty period (1279–1368) that would be about 1368 or so.

But some scholars say that the book contains material that indicates that the book was written in the middle or late Ming Dynasty era (1368-1644) or about two hundred years later. It could be that the earlier date is valid and that material or information was added by revisers.

It is known that a major revision was published by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang in 1522 during the Qing Dynasty era. They revised the structure and deleted a lot of material. So now there are two major versions: an older version that has about 900,000 words and the more popular 1522 version that has about 770,000 words.


  • The capital of the kingdom called Cao Wei, where Sima Yi began the Jin Empire, is Luoyang. Visit Luoyang with one of our Luoyang tours. While there you can arrange with us to visit sites related to this era and later and earlier eras, since Luoyang was often chosen by ancient dynasties as their capital city.
Hi, I'm Gavin Van Hinsbergh
I updated this article on April 8, 2014
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Questions and Answers About The Three Kingdoms Period

Ee soon thian 2013-08-20
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I got 1 question that I can''t find in the history. The question is> what is the song that zhang fei, kuan yu and liu bei sing before they go for war?

Dear Ee soon thian,
Sorry that I do not know what song they sing before they go for war.
As a travel agency in China, we glad to arrange tour package of China tour if you need. Please feel free contact us if you need any tour arrangement.

Nancy Deng replied on 2013-08-21
Ben 2013-06-20
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Hello, I''m planning a trip to China and wondering if you can help me with a few things. I will be visiting the Forbidden City and The Terracotta Army, but I''m also interested in seeing history from the Three Kingdoms period. Would you be able to list what historical sites are able to be visited from the Three Kingdoms period (also any museums which exhibit pieces from this period too). I would be willing to move around and not stay in the same place. Regards

Hi Ben, thanks for your inquiry.

For the history from the Three Kingdoms period, I recommend the Wuhou temple in Chengdu to you. Wuhou Temple is the only one temple which combines the monarch and some of his subjects, such as Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang.   It is the largest museum of the site left over from the Three Kingdoms Period.

There is also a ruin of the Eight Battle Formation of the Three Kingdoms in the suburb of Chengdu, which is known by quite few people.  It is about the strategy and tactics by Zhuge Liang. I think you may also have interest in it.

Chendu is also the hometown of the giant panda. If you travel with your children, they may like it very much.

We are very glad to help plan your your China tour. In order to give you an accurate quotation please help me with below the information:

1. Number of people in your group including yourself

2. Length of stay in China

3. Entry/ exit city

4. Starting date of the tour

5. Class of hotel: 3 / 4 / 5 star

After getting further information from you, I will send you a detailed itinerary, okay? 

Whitney Liao replied on 2013-06-21
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