Three Kingdoms Period Begins in China

After the death of General Cao Cao and the fall of the Han Dynasty, China experienced three-and-a-half centuries of disunion and civil war.

Summary of Event

The fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 c.e. was the result of a number of domestic and international problems that the dynasty was unable to solve. In the international arena, its traditional adversaries, the northern nomadic tribes threatened China’s national security. By the last decade of the Han Dynasty, a nomadic confederacy known as the Xiongnu had been established and was threatening the security of the northern section of the empire. The Han Dynasty tried to counter the strength of this formidable military alliance by instituting a massive arms buildup, the most important aspect of which was the enlargement of its cavalry forces. The cost of rearmament was expensive, and most of the tax burden fell upon the lower classes of Chinese society. This added fuel to an already combustible situation, and the empire was ravaged by a series of uprisings. Cao Cao

Domestically, the empire had been ravaged by epidemic disease, especially smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague. People traveling along the Silk Road, which connected East Asia to the Roman Empire, introduced these pathogens into China. These diseases were so virulent that China’s population dropped by 25 percent. This demographic catastrophe also caused the contraction of China’s commercial economy just at the time when the agricultural sector was being ravaged by internal strife. During the last century of the Han Dynasty, the empire also suffered from a number of peasant uprisings. These revolts were the result of the growing gap between the rich, landholding aristocracy and the increasingly disadvantaged peasants who provided most of the empire’s agricultural labor. Over time, a small but powerful group of aristocratic families had accumulated large tracts of productive farmland, which led to the development of an agricultural monopoly. The wealth generated by these large landholdings allowed these families to become extremely powerful, while the peasants sank deeper into poverty.

Emperor Wang Mang, known to Chinese historians as the “socialist emperor,” attempted to reverse this situation in the second decade of the common era, but the cancer on the body politic had metastasized, and Wang Mang was overthrown by a revolt in 23 c.e. The most significant uprising, the Yellow Turbans Rebellion, occurred 184-204 c.e. in the northern provinces of the Han Empire and was a reaction to both widespread poverty and excessive taxation. A coalition of powerful aristocrats put down the rebellion; this ensured there would be little chance for meaningful reform.

These problems undermined the security of the Han Dynasty; eventually the military intervened, and the emperor was reduced to a figurehead under the control of his generals. Finally in 220 c.e., the Chinese military abolished the Han Dynasty, and China broke into three separate regional kingdoms, the Wei, Shu Han, and Wu.

Cao Cao, who was born in the middle of the second century c.e., was the son of a powerful court official. He used his connections and China’s internal chaos to establish himself as an important figure in Chinese politics. Through a series of strategic alliances and bold political maneuvering, Cao Cao would eventually become the most powerful figure in northern China. He began his march to greatness in the last decade of the second century, when his small but effective fighting force defeated a coalition of aristocratic warlords at the Battle of the Yellow River. By 195 c.e., Cao Cao had established a secure, strategically located base of operations and attempted to reunite all of China under his control. His first step was to usurp the power of the new emperor, Xiandi. Because Xiandi was young and inexperienced, Cao Cao was able to use military power to intimidate him into following his political dictates, which in reality made Xiandi Cao’s political puppet.

Cao Cao then relocated thousands of peasants who had lost their homes because of the civil wars onto fertile land around the Yellow River that had been abandoned because of the recent fighting that had occurred there. The land was placed under the direct control of Cao Cao’s government, which prevented the wealthy aristocrats from regaining control. The peasants responded to their new economic security by creating bountiful harvests that were used to feed Cao Cao’s ever-expanding army. In times of trouble when rival armies attempted to bring these fertile lands under their control, the peasants could always be counted on to fight with great courage and determination because they knew they were spilling their blood for land from which they themselves would benefit. One of the many reasons Cao Cao was so successful was that none of his rivals could replicate the loyalty and productivity of his peasants.

Cao Cao also undertook major military reforms that increased the effectiveness of his army. He created a military system in which, for the first time, Chinese and foreign troops fought side by side. Most important, he realized that military tactics were changing and that if he did not adapt to this new reality, the likelihood of his success would be greatly diminished.

The most significant change occurred in the use of the cavalry. A well-disciplined cavalry unit could easily demoralize and defeat China’s traditional infantry units. Cao Cao made great efforts to recruit the best nomadic warriors from the regions north of China. These tribes had developed a mobile warrior culture that made them the most devastating force in East Asia. For centuries, these nomadic groups had lived on horseback, dominating the great steppe lands of central and northern Asia. Cao Cao’s light horse calvary consisted of the best archers on the continent, who could fire volleys of arrows with unprecedented accuracy from atop a swiftly moving horse. The volley of arrows was meant to shock the enemy with a demonstration of superior power.

Warfare in East Asia was forever changed as a result of Cao Cao’s tactics. The use of these nomadic warriors also initiated the diffusion of Chinese culture into the northern and central regions of Asia. This in turn allowed Chinese ideas, philosophy, and literature to be transported by horse across much of the eastern and central portion of the Eurasian landmass. Cao Cao also set the stage for increased diplomatic activity with Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

Cao Cao’s fortunes began to decline with his defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs (208 c.e.). This was his attempt to gain control of the central portion of the Yangtze River, which was of great strategic and tactical significance. Strategically, the Yangtze provided an avenue of transportation stretching from the East China Sea completely across the south central portion of the Han Empire. It was this territory that the successors to the Han wanted because it gave them access to the rich agricultural land of southern China. Control of that territory would enhance the economic and military power of anyone wishing to become the next emperor. Tactically, the control of the Yangtze would enable any general to move his troops at will throughout this very important part of China.

Most historians agree that Cao Cao’s defeat at Red Cliffs was mostly caused by bad timing. His troops were always loyal and ready to go anywhere and fight for their general. At the time of the battle, his troops had been campaigning steadily for five years against brutal competition in the area around the Great Wall. His overwhelming success in those campaigns made him momentarily overconfident, and a series of poor tactical maneuvers turned what should have been a fairly easy victory into a tactical defeat. Cao Cao realized his mistake, and instead of compounding his error by engaging the enemy the next day, he instead decided on a tactical retreat. He believed that if he rested his troops, he could return and defeat the enemy forces. In retrospect, Cao Cao had squandered his best chance of gaining control of the Yangtze River. Cao Cao’s withdrawal gave the defenders time to reinforce their defensive structures; this, together with the natural barriers of the river itself proved too much for Cao Cao’s forces to overcome.


Cao Cao’s defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs would ultimately prevent anyone from uniting China for the next three and a half centuries and initiated the historical era of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu Han, and Wu). At the time of Cao’s death, China had slipped into a time of political and economic chaos that in many ways mirrored the Warring States Period after the fall of the Zhou Dynasty 1066-256 b.c.e. This resemblance is most striking in the elegance of its prose, especially in the area of military tactics and philosophy.

Further Reading

  • Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1990. The best single-volume account of Chinese cultural history. Maps, index, bibliography.
  • Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900. New York: Routledge Press, 2002. An excellent overview of medieval Chinese military history. Maps, index, bibliography.
  • Graff, David A., and Robin Higham. A Military History of China. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Possibly the best survey of Chinese military history to date. Maps, index, and bibliography.
  • Hucker, Charles O. China’s Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1975. An excellent historical overview of Chinese cultural history. Index, pictures, and bibliography.

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