The Era of
When the last Han emperor was killed in 220, there were three powerful warlord families who each hoped to restore order quickly and establish a new and long-lived empire in its place. In the north, the Cao family of Han officials steadily gained power for themselves, and in 220 they proclaimed a new dynasty, the Wei. In the southwest (today’s Sichuan) Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Han ruling family, proclaimed the Shu Han dynasty (Shu being the name then for that region), which he saw as the rightful successor to the great Han; and in the lower Yangzi River valley Sun Quan, another powerful general, proclaimed the Wu dynasty.
These three rivals were later immortalized in one of China’s greatest novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which weaves together many historical tales and popular stories to portray the third century CE as a time of great military heroism and bravery, as well as treachery and betrayal. All Chinese in modern times, from primary school children to illiterate peasants and artisans, are familiar with the great heroes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There is a subtle irony in this novel as well, for it shows that the virtuous do not always win power over their rivals, and it suggests that the Mandate of Heaven will likely go to the cleverest general with the strongest battalions rather than the wisest or most moral leader. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms may be the second most important book, after the Analects of Confucius, for an understanding of Chinese culture.1
Despite the bravery, strength, and treachery of the warlords of the Three Kingdoms era, none of them came close to conquering all of the former Han dynastic territories. Instead they only managed to destroy the old Han order. In 263 the Wei forces defeated the Shu Han in the southwest, but only two years later a former Wei general removed the Wei emperor and proclaimed the Jin dynasty. In 280, the Jin defeated the Wu state in the Yangzi valley of central China, thus briefly unifying the empire under central control. But the Jin was itself short-lived, as mounted Xiongnu tribesmen, with improved efficiency through the recent invention of