The Three Kingdoms from 220 to 280 AD was the tripartite division of China among the dynastic states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The Three Kingdoms period was preceded by the Eastern Han dynasty and was followed by the Western Jin dynasty. The short-lived state of Yan on the Liaodong Peninsula, which lasted from 237 to 238, is sometimes considered as a "4th kingdom".
Academically, the period of the Three Kingdoms refers to the period between the establishment of Cao Wei in 220 and the conquest of the Eastern Wu by the Western Jin in 280. The earlier, "unofficial" part of the period, from 184 to 220, was marked by chaotic infighting between warlords in various parts of China during the downfall of the Eastern Han dynasty. The middle part of the period, from 220 to 263, was marked by a more militarily stable arrangement between three rival states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The later part of the era was marked by the conquest of Shu by Wei in 263, the usurpation of Cao Wei by the Western Jin in 266, and the conquest of Eastern Wu by the Western Jin in 280.
Technology advanced significantly during this period. Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang invented the wooden ox, suggested to be an early form of the wheelbarrow, and improved on the repeating crossbow. Wei mechanical engineer Ma Jun is considered by many to be the equal of his predecessor Zhang Heng. He invented a hydraulic-powered, mechanical puppet theatre designed for Emperor Ming of Wei, square-pallet chain pumps for irrigation of gardens in Luoyang, and the ingenious design of the south-pointing chariot, a non-magnetic directional compass operated by differential gears. The Three Kingdoms period is one of the bloodiest in Chinese history.
Three Kingdoms Timeline
- Han dynasty crumbles internally due to various reasons Agrarian crisis: Famine, Floods and plague(climate change?)
- Yellow Turban Rebellion
- Rise of Warlords
- Dong Zhuo in power
- Coalition against Dong Zhuo
- Collapse of central power
- Emergence of the three kingdoms
Yellow Turban RebellionChina
The Yellow Turban Rebellion, also translated as the Yellow Scarves Rebellion, was a peasant revolt in China against the Eastern Han dynasty. The uprising broke out in 184 AD during the reign of Emperor Ling. Although the main rebellion was suppressed by 185 AD, pockets of resistance continued and smaller rebellions emerged in later years. It took 21 years until the uprising was fully suppressed in 205 AD. The rebellion, which got its name from the colour of the cloths that the rebels wore on their heads, marked an important point in the history of Taoism due to the rebels' association with secret Taoist societies.
Ten EunuchsXian, China
Dong ZhouLouyang, China
Dong Zhuo takes control of Luoyang and deposes Liu Bian in favor of his half-brother Liu Xie, Emperor Xian of Han
Campaign against Dong ZhuoHenan, China
The Campaign against Dong Zhuo was a punitive expedition initiated by a coalition of regional officials and warlords against the warlord Dong Zhuo in 190 in the late Eastern Han dynasty. The members of the coalition claimed that Dong had the intention of usurping the throne by holding Emperor Xian hostage and by establishing a strong influence in the imperial court. They justified their campaign as to remove Dong from power.
Battle of XingyangXingyang, Henan, China
The Battle of Xingyang was a battle fought in 190 in the late Eastern Han dynasty as part of the campaign against Dong Zhuo. It took place when Dong Zhuo's retreating forces, led by Xu Rong, encountered Cao Cao's pursuing army at Xingyang. Dong Zhuo defeated Cao Cao at Xingyang.
Rise of Local WarlordsXingyang, Henan, China
Cao Cao returned to Suanzao to see the warlords feasting every day with no intention of attacking Dong Zhuo; he reproached them. Learning from his defeat in Xingyang where he tried to attack Chenggao head-on, Cao Cao came up with an alternative strategy and presented it to the coalition. However, the generals in Suanzao would not agree to his plan. Cao Cao abandoned the generals in Suanzao to gather troops in Yang Province with Xiahou Dun, then went to camp with the coalition commander-in-chief Yuan Shao in Henei. Soon after Cao Cao's departure, the generals in Suanzao ran out of food and dispersed; some even fought amongst themselves. The coalition camp in Suanzao collapsed on itself.
Battle of YangchengDengfeng, Henan, China
The Battle of Yangcheng was a battle fought between the warlords Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu as the coalition against Dong Zhuo fell apart in 191 in the late Eastern Han dynasty. Sun Jian, Yuan Shu's nominal subordinate returning from his triumphant capture of the abandoned capital of Luoyang, became involved in Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu's personal feud as the former allies turned against one another. Yuan Shao's forces, under Zhou Yu, first got the upper hand against Sun Jian's forces, but was beaten back by Sun's counterattack.
Dong Zhuo assassinatedXian, China
Wang Yun and Lü Bu kill Dong Zhuo and Wang Yun himself is killed by Dong Zhuo's officers Li Jue and Guo Si.
War between Cao Cao and Zhang XiuNanyang, Henan, China
The war between Cao Cao and Zhang Xiu was fought between the warlords Cao Cao and Zhang Xiu between 197 and 199 in the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. It concluded with Zhang Xiu's surrender to Cao Cao.
Cao Cao's campaigns to unify northern China beginNorthern China
Battle of GuanduHenan, China
Battle of LiyangHenan, China
Cao Cao unites northern ChinaLingyuan, Liaoning, China
Cao Cao defeats Yuan Shang and the Wuhuan.
Battle of Red Cliffsnear Yangtze River, China
The Battle of Red Cliffs, otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi, was a decisive naval battle in the winter of AD 208–9 at the end of the Han dynasty, about twelve years prior to the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. The battle was fought between the allied forces of the southern warlords Sun Quan, Liu Bei and Liu Qi against the numerically superior forces of the northern warlord Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Sun Quan frustrated Cao Cao's effort to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and reunite the territory of the Eastern Han dynasty.
Cao Cao is King of WeiHanzhong, China
Cao Cao was promoted to the status of a vassal king – "King of Wei". Over the years, Cao Cao, as well as Liu Bei and Sun Quan, continued to consolidate their power in their respective regions.
Three Kingdom Period beginsLouyang, China
When Cao Cao died in 220 AD, his son Cao Pi forces Emperor Xian of Han to abdicate and declares himself Emperor of the Wei dynasty; so ends the Han dynasty. Cao Pi made Luoyang capital of his new kingdom called Cao Wei, and so began the Three Kingdoms.
Cao Cao diesLuoyang, Henan, China
In 220, Cao Cao died in Luoyang at the age of 65, having failed to unify China under his rule, allegedly of a "head disease". His will instructed that he be buried near Ximen Bao's tomb in Ye without gold and jade treasures, and that his subjects on duty at the frontier were to stay in their posts and not attend the funeral as, in his own words, "the country is still unstable".
Cao Cao's eldest surviving son Cao Pi succeeded him. Within a year, Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate and proclaimed himself the first emperor of the state of Cao Wei. Cao Cao was then posthumously titled "Grand Ancestor Emperor Wu of Wei".
Cao Pi becomes Emperor of Cao WeiChina
In the winter of 220, Cao Pi made his move for the imperial throne, strongly suggesting to Emperor Xian that he should yield the throne. Emperor Xian did so, and Cao Pi formally declined three times (a model that would be followed by future usurpers in Chinese history), and then finally accepted, establishing the state of Cao Wei. This event marked the official end of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. The dethroned Emperor Xian was granted the title "Duke of Shanyang". Cao Pi granted posthumous titles of emperors to his grandfather Cao Song and his father Cao Cao , while his mother Queen Dowager Bian became empress dowager. He also moved the imperial capital from Xuchang to Luoyang.
Liu Bei becomes Emperor of Shu HanChengdu, Sichuan, China
In 221, Liu Bei declared himself emperor too and established the state of Shu Han; he claimed that his intention was to keep the Han dynasty's lineage alive. He changed the reign year and made Zhuge Liang his chancellor and Xu Jing his minister over the masses. He established a bureaucracy and an ancestral temple where he offered sacrifices to Emperor Gao (the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty). He designated Lady Wu as his empress and made his son Liu Shan as crown prince. Later, he named his son Liu Yong prince of Lu and his other son Liu Li prince of Liang.
Battle of XiaotingYiling, Yichang, Hubei, China
The Battle of Xiaoting（猇亭之戰）, also known as the Battle of Yiling and the Battle of Yiling and Xiaoting, was fought between the state of Shu and the state of Wu, between the years 221 and 222 in the early Three Kingdoms period of China. The battle is significant because Wu was able to turn the situation from a series of initial losses into a defensive stalemate, before proceeding to win a decisive victory over Shu. The Wu victory halted the Shu invasion and preceded the death of Liu Bei, Shu's founding emperor.
Zhuge Liang's Southern CampaignYunnan, China
Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign, also known as the War of Pacification in Nanzhong, was a military campaign which took place in 225 during the early Three Kingdoms period (220–280) of China. It was led by Zhuge Liang, the Imperial Chancellor of the state of Shu Han, against opposing forces in the Nanzhong region (covering parts of present-day Yunnan, Guizhou and southern Sichuan). The campaign was a response to rebellions started by local governors in the Nanzhong region and intrusions by the Nanman (literally: "southern barbarians").
Zhuge Liang's Northern ExpeditionsGansu, China
Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions were a series of five military campaigns launched by the state of Shu Han against the rival state of Cao Wei from 228 to 234 during the Three Kingdoms period in China. All five expeditions were led by Zhuge Liang, the Imperial Chancellor and regent of Shu. Although they proved unsuccessful and ended up as a stalemate, the expeditions have become some of the best known conflicts of the Three Kingdoms period and one of the few battles during it where each side (Shu and Wei) fought against each other with hundreds of thousands of troops, as opposed to other battles where one side had a huge numerical advantage.
The expeditions are dramatised and romanticised in the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where they are referred to as the "six campaigns from Mount Qi" (六出祁山). This term is inaccurate, since Zhuge Liang only launched two of his expeditions (the first and the fourth) from Mount Qi.
Sun Quan becomes Emperor of WuEzhou, Hubei, China
In 229, Sun Quan declared himself emperor, which almost damaged the alliance with Shu, as many Shu officials saw this as a sign of betrayal of the Han dynasty — to which Shu claimed to be the legitimate successor. However, Zhuge Liang opposed ending the alliance and in fact confirmed it with a formal treaty later that year, in which the two states pledged to support each other and divide Wei equally if they could conquer it. Later that year, he moved his capital from Wuchang to Jianye, leaving his crown prince Sun Deng, assisted by Lu Xun, in charge of the western parts of Eastern Wu.
Sima Yi's Liaodong campaignLiaoning, China
Sima Yi's Liaodong campaign occurred in 238 CE during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Sima Yi, a general of the state of Cao Wei, led a force of 40,000 troops to attack the kingdom of Yan led by warlord Gongsun Yuan, whose clan had ruled independently from the central government for three generations in the northeastern territory of Liaodong (present-day eastern Liaoning). After a siege that lasted three months, Gongsun Yuan's headquarters fell to Sima Yi with assistance from Goguryeo (one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea), and many who served the Yan Kingdom were massacred. In addition to eliminating Wei's rival in the northeast, the acquisition of Liaodong as a result of the successful campaign allowed Wei contact with the non-Han peoples of Manchuria, the Korean Peninsula, and the Japanese archipelago. On the other hand, the war and the subsequent centralisation policies lessened the Chinese grip on the territory, which permitted a number of non-Han states to form in the area in later centuries.
Goguryeo–Wei WarKorean Peninsula
The Goguryeo–Wei War was a series of invasions of Goguryeo from 244 to 245 launched by Cao Wei.
The invasions, a retaliation against a Goguryeo raid in 242, destroyed the Goguryeo capital of Hwando, sent its king fleeing, and broke the tributary relationships between Goguryeo and the other tribes of the Korean Peninsula that formed much of Goguryeo's economy. Although the king evaded capture and would go on to settle in a new capital, Goguryeo was greatly diminished for a time, and would spend the next half century rebuilding its ruling structure and regaining control over its people, unmentioned by the Chinese historical texts.
By the time Goguryeo reappeared in Chinese annals, the state had evolved into a much more powerful political entity—thus the Wei invasion was identified by historians as a watershed moment in Goguryeo history that divided the different stages of Goguryeo's growth. In addition, the second campaign of the war included the furthest expedition into Manchuria by a Chinese army up to that time and was therefore instrumental in providing the earliest descriptions of the peoples who lived there.
Fall of WeiLuoyang, Henan, China
In 249, during the reign of Cao Rui's successor, Cao Fang, the regent Sima Yi seized state power from his co-regent, Cao Shuang, in a coup. This event marked the collapse of imperial authority in Wei, as Cao Fang's role had been reduced to that of a puppet ruler while Sima Yi wielded state power firmly in his hands. Wang Ling, a Wei general, tried to rebel against Sima Yi, but was swiftly dealt with, and took his own life. Sima Yi died on 7 September 251, passing on his authority to his eldest son, Sima Shi, who continued ruling as regent.
Sima Shi deposed Cao Fang in 254, on grounds of planning to stage a rebellion, and replaced him with Cao Mao. In response, Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin staged a rebellion, but were crushed by Sima Shi in an event that nevertheless took a heavy toll on Sima Shi's health, having undergone eye surgery prior to the insurrection, causing him to die on 23 March 255, but not before handing his power and regency over to his younger brother, Sima Zhao.
In 258, Sima Zhao quelled Zhuge Dan's rebellion, marking an end to what are known as the Three Rebellions in Shouchun. In 260, Cao Mao attempted to seize back state power from Sima Zhao in a coup, but was killed by Cheng Ji, a military officer who was serving under Jia Chong, a subordinate to the Simas. After Cao Mao's death, Cao Huan was enthroned as the fifth ruler of Wei. However, Cao Huan was also a mere figurehead under Sima Zhao's control, much like his predecessor. In 263, Wei armies led by Zhong Hui and Deng Ai conquered Shu. Afterwards, Zhong Hui and former Shu general Jiang Wei grouped and plotted together in order to oust Sima Zhao from power, however, various Wei officials turned against them when it was found out that Jiang Wei had urged Zhong Hui to get rid of these officials before the planned coup. Sima Zhao himself received and finally accepted the nine bestowments and the title Duke of Jin in 263, and was further bestowed with the title King of Jin by Cao Huan in 264, but he died on 6 September 265, leaving the final step of usurpation up to his eldest son, Sima Yan.
Conquest of Shu by WeiSichuan, China
The Conquest of Shu by Wei was a military campaign launched by the dynastic state of Cao Wei against its rival Shu Han in late 263 during the Three Kingdoms period of China. The campaign culminated in the fall of Shu Han and the tripartite equilibrium maintained in China proper for over 40 years since the end of the Eastern Han dynasty in 220. The conquest laid the foundation for an eventual reunified China proper under the Western Jin dynasty in 280.
Sima Yan declares himself emperor of the Jin dynastyLuoyang, Henan, China
On 6 September 265, Sima Zhao died without having formally taken imperial authority. Sima Yan became the King of Jin by the next day. On 4 February 266, he forced Cao Huan to abdicate, ending the state of Cao Wei. Four days later, on 8 February 266, he declared himself emperor of the Jin dynasty.
Conquest of Wu by JinChina
The conquest of Wu by Jin was a military campaign launched by the Western Jin dynasty against the Eastern Wu dynasty in 280 at the end of the Three Kingdoms period (220–280) of China. The campaign concluded with the fall of Eastern Wu and the reunification of China proper under the Western Jin dynasty.
Get our spam-free newsletter.
- Notifications on new HistoryMaps
- Find out which HistoryMaps are updated
- Find out which HistoryMaps are coming out next
- Theobald, Ulrich (2000), "Chinese History – Three Kingdoms 三國 (220–280)", Chinaknowledge, retrieved 7 July 2015
- Theobald, Ulrich (28 June 2011). "The Yellow Turban Uprising". Chinaknowledge. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
- de Crespigny, Rafe (2018) . Generals of the South: the foundation and early history of the Three Kingdoms state of Wu (Internet ed.). Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University.