Total War Three Kingdoms history

Yellow Turban Rebellion

The power of the Eastern Han dynasty went into depression and steadily declined from a variety of political and economic problems after the death of Emperor He in 105 AD. A series of Han emperors ascended the throne while still youths, and de facto imperial power often rested with the emperors’ older relatives. As these relatives occasionally were loath to give up their influence, emperors would, upon reaching maturity, be forced to rely on political alliances with senior officials and eunuchs to achieve control of the government. Political posturing and infighting between imperial relatives and eunuch officials was a constant problem in Chinese government at the time. During the reigns of Emperor Huan (r. 146–168) and Emperor Ling (r. 168–189), leading officials’ dissatisfaction with the eunuchs’ usurpations of power reached a peak, and many began to openly protest against them. The first and second protests met with failure, and the court eunuchs persuaded the emperor to execute many of the protesting scholars. Some local rulers seized the opportunity to exert despotic control over their lands and citizens, since many feared to speak out in the oppressive political climate. Emperors Huan and Ling’s reigns were recorded as particularly dark periods of Han dynasty rule. In addition to political oppression and mismanagement, China experienced a number of natural disasters during this period, and local rebellions sprung up throughout the country.

In the third month of 184, Zhang Jiao, leader of the Way of Supreme Peace, a Taoist movement, along with his two brothers Zhang Liang and Zhang Bao, led the movement’s followers in a rebellion against the government that was called the Yellow Turban Rebellion. Their movement quickly attracted followers and soon numbered several hundred thousand and received support from many parts of China. They had 36 bases throughout China, with large bases having 10,000 or more followers and minor bases having 6,000 to 7,000, similar to Han armies. Their motto was:
“The firmament has perished, the Yellow Sky will soon rise; in this year of jiazi, let there be prosperity in the world!”
Emperor Ling dispatched generals Huangfu Song, Lu Zhi, and Zhu Jun to lead the Han armies against the rebels, and decreed that local governments had to supply soldiers to assist in their efforts. It is at this point that the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms begins its narrative. The Yellow Turbans were ultimately defeated and its surviving followers dispersed throughout China, but due to the turbulent situation throughout the empire, many were able to survive as bandits in mountainous areas, thus continuing their ability to contribute to the turmoil of the era.

With the widespread increase in bandits across the Chinese nation, the Han army had no way to repel each and every raiding party. In 188, Emperor Ling accepted a memorial from Liu Yan suggesting he grant direct administrative power over feudal provinces and direct command of regional military to local governors, as well as promoting them in rank and filling such positions with members of the Liu family or court officials. This move made provinces (zhou) official administrative units, and although they had power to combat rebellions, the later intragovernmental chaos allowed these local governors to easily rule independently of the central government. Liu Yan was also promoted as governor of Yi Province. Soon after this move, Liu Yan severed all of his region’s ties to the Han imperial court, and several other areas followed suit.

Dong Zhuo in power

In the same year, Emperor Ling died, and another struggle began between the court eunuchs for control of the imperial family. Court eunuch Jian Shuo planned to kill General-in-Chief He Jin, a relative of the imperial family, and to replace the crown prince Liu Bian with his younger brother Liu Xie, the Prince of Chenliu (in present-day Kaifeng), though his plan was unsuccessful. Liu Bian took the Han throne as Emperor Shao, and He Jin plotted with warlord Yuan Shao to assassinate the Ten Attendants, a clique of twelve eunuchs led by Zhang Rang who controlled much of the imperial court. He Jin also ordered Dong Zhuo, the frontier general in Liang Province, and Ding Yuan, Inspector of Bing Province, to bring troops to the capital to reinforce his position of authority. The eunuchs learned of He Jin’s plot, and had him assassinated before Dong Zhuo reached the capital Luoyang. When Yuan Shao’s troops reached Luoyang, they stormed the palace complex, killing the Ten Attendants and 2,000 of the eunuchs’ supporters. Though this move effectively ended the century-long feud between the eunuchs and the imperial family, this event prompted the invitation of Dong Zhuo to the outskirts of Luoyang from the northwest boundary of China.
On the evening of 24 September 189, General Dong Zhuo observed that Luoyang was set ablaze—as a result of a power struggle between the eunuchs and civil service—and commanded his army forward to strike down the disorder. As the emperor had lost any remaining military or political power, Dong Zhuo seized the de facto control of the government located at Luoyang. On 28 September, Dong Zhuo deposed Liu Bian from the imperial Han throne in favor of Liu Xie. In the following weeks, rebellions broke out throughout all of China.

In East China, in an attempt to restore the power of the Han, a large coalition against Dong Zhuo began to rise, with leaders such as Yuan Shao, Yuan Shu, and Cao Cao. Many provincial officials were compelled to join or risk elimination. In 191, Sun Jian (Yuan Shu’s subordinate) led an army against Dong Zhuo and drove him from Luoyang to Chang’an. In the following year (192), Lü Bu, Dong Zhuo’s former bodyguard, assassinated Dong Zhuo.

Collapse of central power

In 192, there was some talk among the coalition of appointing Liu Yu, an imperial relative, as emperor, and gradually its members began to fall out. Most of the warlords in the coalition, with a few exceptions, sought the increase of personal military power in the time of instability instead of seriously wishing to restore the Han dynasty’s authority. The Han empire was divided between a number of regional warlords. As a result of the complete collapse of the central government and eastern alliance, the North China Plain fell into warfare and anarchy with many contenders vying for success or survival. Emperor Xian fell into the hands of various warlords of Chang’an.

Dong Zhuo, confident in his success, was slain by his follower Lu Bu, who plotted with minister Wang Yun. Lu Bu, in turn, was attacked by Dong Zhuo’s subordinates: Li Jue, Guo Si, Zhang Ji and Fan Chou. Wang Yun and his whole family were executed. Lu Bu fled to Zhang Yang, a northern warlord, and remained with him for a time before briefly joining Yuan Shao, but it was clear that Lu Bu was far too independent to serve another.

Yuan Shao operated from Ye city in Ji Province, extending his power north of the Yellow River. Han Fu had formerly been the Governor of Ji Province, but he came under the control of Yuan Shao and was replaced by him.

Between the Yellow and Huai rivers, a conflict had erupted between Yuan Shu, Cao Cao, Tao Qian (Governor of Xu Province), Lü Bu, and Liu Bei (a man with a poor background who claimed imperial descent). Cao Cao forced the Yellow Turbans to surrender in 192, drove Yuan Shu to the south of the Huai River in 193, inflicted devastation upon Tao Qian in 194, received the surrender of Liu Bei in 196, and captured and executed Lü Bu in 198. Cao was now in complete control of the southern part of the North China Plain.

In the northeast, Gongsun Du held control of southern Manchuria, where he had established a state. He was succeeded by his son Gongsun Kang in 204. In the north across the frontier, since the fall of imperial control, the region had become chaotic as the Xiongnu remnants came into conflict with the Xianbei. In Liang Province (present-day Gansu), rebellion had erupted in 184. In the west, Liu Yan had been Governor of Yi Province since his appointment in 188. He was succeeded by his son Liu Zhang in 194. Directly north of Liu Zhang’s territory, Zhang Lu (leader of the Five Pecks of Rice) led a theocratic government at Hanzhong commandary (on the upper Han River). Liu Biao held control over his province as the Governor of Jing Province. Sun Quan held control over the lower Yangtze.

Xu and Yan provinces

In 194, Cao Cao went to war with Tao Qian of Xu Province, because Tao’s subordinate Zhang Kai had murdered Cao Cao’s father Cao Song. Tao Qian received the support of Liu Bei and Gongsun Zan, but even then it seemed as if Cao Cao’s superior forces would overrun Xu Province entirely. Cao Cao received word that Lu Bu had seized Yan Province in his absence, and accordingly he retreated, putting a halt to hostilities with Tao Qian for the time being. Tao Qian died in the same year, leaving his province to Liu Bei. A year later, in 195, Cao Cao managed to drive Lu Bu out of Yan Province. Lu Bu fled to Xu Province and was received by Liu Bei, and an uneasy alliance began between the two.

Afterwards, Lu Bu betrayed Liu Bei and seized Xu Province, forming an alliance with Yuan Shu’s remnant forces. Liu Bei, together with his followers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, fled to Cao Cao, who accepted him. Soon, preparations were made for an attack on Lu Bu, and the combined forces of Cao Cao and Liu Bei invaded Xu Province. Lü Bu’s men deserted him, Yuan Shu’s forces never arrived as reinforcements, and he was bound by his own subordinates Song Xian (宋憲) and Wei Xu (魏續) and executed on Cao Cao’s order.

Huai River

Yuan Shu, after being driven south in 193, established himself at his new capital Shouchun (present-day Anhui). He attempted to regain lost territory north of the Huai River. In 197, Yuan Shu declared himself emperor of his own dynasty. The move was a strategic blunder, as it drew the ire of many warlords across the land, including Yuan Shu’s own subordinates who almost all abandoned him. Abandoned by almost all his allies and followers, he perished in 199.

Emperor Xian’s fate

In August 195, Emperor Xian fled the tyranny of Li Jue at Chang’an and made a year long hazardous journey east in search of supporters. In 196, Emperor Xian came under the protection and control of Cao Cao after he had succeeded in fleeing from the warlords of Chang’an. Establishing the imperial court at Xuchang in Henan, Cao Cao—who now held the de facto control—rigorously followed the formalities of the court and justified his actions as a loyal minister of the Han. By then, most of the smaller contenders for power had either been absorbed by larger ones or destroyed. This was an extremely important move for Cao Cao following the suggestion from his primary adviser, Xun Yu, commenting that by supporting the authentic emperor, Cao Cao would have the formal legal authority to control the other warlords and force them to comply in order to restore the Han dynasty.

North China Plain

Cao Cao, whose zone of control was the precursor to the state of Cao Wei, had raised an army in 189. In several strategic movements and battles, he controlled Yan Province and defeated several factions of the Yellow Turban rebels. This earned him the aid of other local militaries controlled by Zhang Miao and Chen Gong, who joined his cause to create his first sizable army. He continued the effort and absorbed approximately 300,000 Yellow Turban rebels into his army as well as a number of clan-based military groups from the eastern side of Qing Province. He developed military agricultural colonies (tuntian) to support his army. Although the system imposed a heavy tax on hired civilian farmers (40% to 60% of agricultural production), the farmers were more than pleased to be able to work with relative stability and professional military protection in a time of chaos. This was later said to be his second important policy for success.

In 200, Dong Cheng, an imperial relative, received a secret edict from Emperor Xian to assassinate Cao Cao. He collaborated with Liu Bei on this effort, but Cao Cao soon found out about the plot and had Dong Cheng and his conspirators executed, with only Liu Bei surviving and fleeing to join Yuan Shao in the north.

After settling the nearby provinces, including a rebellion led by former Yellow Turbans, and internal affairs with the court, Cao Cao turned his attention north to Yuan Shao, who himself had eliminated his northern rival Gongsun Zan that same year. Yuan Shao, himself of higher nobility than Cao Cao, amassed a large army and camped along the northern bank of the Yellow River.

In the summer of 200, after months of preparations, the armies of Cao Cao and Yuan Shao clashed at the Battle of Guandu (near present-day Kaifeng). Cao Cao’s army was heavily outnumbered by Yuan Shao. Due to a raid in Yuan’s supply train, Yuan’s army fell into disorder as they fled back north.

Cao Cao took advantage of Yuan Shao’s death in 202, which resulted in division among his sons, and advanced to the north. In 204, after the Battle of Ye, Cao Cao captured the city of Ye. By the end of 207, after a victorious campaign beyond the frontier against the Wuhuan culminating in the Battle of White Wolf Mountain, Cao Cao achieved complete dominance of the North China Plain. He now controlled China’s heartland, including Yuan Shao’s former territory, and half of the Chinese population.

South of the Yangtze

In 193, Huang Zu led the forces of Liu Biao in a campaign against Sun Jian (Yuan Shu’s subordinate general) and killed him. In 194, Sun Ce (aged 18) came into the military service under Yuan Shu. He was given the command of some troops who formerly had been commanded by his late father Sun Jian. In the south, he defeated the warlords of Yang Province, including Liu Yao, Wang Lang, and Yan Baihu.[citation needed] In 198, Sun Ce (aged 23) declared his independence from Yuan Shu who recently had declared himself emperor. He held control over Danyang, Wu, and Kuaiji commandaries (from present-day Nanjing to the Hangzhou Bay and some outposts at the Fujian coast), while expanding westward in a series of campaigns. By 200, he had conquered Yuzhang commandary (at present-day Lake Poyang in Jiangxi) and Lujiang (north of the Yangtze). In 200, Sun Ce was ambushed and assassinated by the former retainers of a defeated rival from Wu.

Sun Quan (aged 18) succeeded him and quickly established his authority. By 203, he was expanding westward. In 208, Sun Quan defeated Huang Zu (Liu Biao’s subordinate commander) around present-day Wuhan. He now held control over the territories south of the Yangtze (below Wuhan, Poyang region, and Hangzhou Bay). His navy established local superiority over the Yangtze. Nevertheless, he would soon come under the threat of Cao Cao’s larger armies.

South of the Yangtze

In 193, Huang Zu led the forces of Liu Biao in a campaign against Sun Jian (Yuan Shu’s subordinate general) and killed him. In 194, Sun Ce (aged 18) came into the military service under Yuan Shu. He was given the command of some troops who formerly had been commanded by his late father Sun Jian. In the south, he defeated the warlords of Yang Province, including Liu Yao, Wang Lang, and Yan Baihu.[citation needed] In 198, Sun Ce (aged 23) declared his independence from Yuan Shu who recently had declared himself emperor. He held control over Danyang, Wu, and Kuaiji commandaries (from present-day Nanjing to the Hangzhou Bay and some outposts at the Fujian coast), while expanding westward in a series of campaigns. By 200, he had conquered Yuzhang commandary (at present-day Lake Poyang in Jiangxi) and Lujiang (north of the Yangtze). In 200, Sun Ce was ambushed and assassinated by the former retainers of a defeated rival from Wu.

Sun Quan (aged 18) succeeded him and quickly established his authority. By 203, he was expanding westward. In 208, Sun Quan defeated Huang Zu (Liu Biao’s subordinate commander) around present-day Wuhan. He now held control over the territories south of the Yangtze (below Wuhan, Poyang region, and Hangzhou Bay). His navy established local superiority over the Yangtze. Nevertheless, he would soon come under the threat of Cao Cao’s larger armies.

Jing Province

During Dong Zhuo’s reign over the Han government, Liu Biao had been appointed as the Governor of Jing Province. His territory was located around his capital Xiangyang and the territory to the south around the Han and Yangtze River. Beyond his eastern border was the territory of Sun Quan.

In 200, during the time of the campaign around Guandu between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, Liu Bei’s forces had been defeated by a detachment of Cao Cao’s army, forcing Liu Bei to flee and seek refuge with Liu Biao in Jing Province. In this exile, Liu Bei maintained his followers who had accompanied him and made new connections within Liu Biao’s entourage. It was during this time that Liu Bei also met Zhuge Liang.

In the autumn of 208, Liu Biao died and was succeeded by his youngest son Liu Cong over the eldest son Liu Qi through political maneuvering. Liu Bei had become the head of the opposition to a surrender when Cao Cao’s army marched southward to Jing. After the advice of his supporters, Liu Cong surrendered to Cao Cao. Cao Cao took control of the province and began appointing scholars and officials from Liu Biao’s court to the local government. Meanwhile, Liu Qi had joined Liu Bei to establish a line of defense at the Yangtze River against the surrender to Cao Cao, but they suffered defeat at the hands of Cao Cao. In the aftermath, they retreated and sought support from Sun Quan. Guan Yu (Liu Bei’s subordinate lieutenant) had managed to retrieve most of Jing Province’s fleet from the Han River. Cao Cao occupied the naval base at Jiangling on the Yangtze River. He would now begin proceeding eastwards towards Sun Quan with his armies and new fleet, while sending messengers to demand Sun Quan’s surrender.

Battle of Red Cliffs

In 208, Cao Cao marched south with his army hoping to quickly unify the empire. Liu Biao’s son Liu Cong surrendered Jing Province and Cao was able to capture a sizable fleet at Jiangling. Sun Quan, the successor to Sun Ce in the lower Yangtze, continued to resist. His advisor Lu Su secured an alliance with Liu Bei, himself a recent refugee from the north, and Zhou Yu was placed in command of Sun Quan’s navy, along with a veteran general who served the Sun family, Cheng Pu. Their combined armies of 50,000 met Cao Cao’s fleet and 200,000-strong force at Red Cliffs that winter. After an initial skirmish, an attack beginning with a plan to set fire to Cao Cao’s fleet was set in motion to lead to the decisive defeat of Cao Cao, forcing him to retreat in disarray back to the north. The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, and provided the basis for the states of Shu and Wu.

Final years of the dynasty

In 209, Zhou Yu captured Jiangling, establishing the south’s complete dominance over the Yangtze River. Meanwhile, Liu Bei and his principal adviser Zhuge Liang captured the Xiang River basin commandaries, establishing control over the southern territories of Jing province. Sun Quan was forced to cede the territory around Jiangling to Liu Bei, because he could not establish a proper authority over it after Zhou Yu’s death in 210.

In 211, Cao Cao defeated a warlord coalition in the Wei valley, ending in the Battle of Huayin, capturing the territory around Chang’an. In 211, Liu Bei accepted an invitation from Liu Zhang to come to Yi Province for aiding the latter against a threat from the north, namely Zhang Lu of Hanzhong. Liu Bei met people within Liu Zhang’s court who wished that he would replace Liu Zhang as the ruler of Yi Province. A year after his arrival, Liu Bei came into conflict with Liu Zhang and turned against him. In summer of 214, Liu Bei received the surrender of Liu Zhang, capturing Yi Province, and established his regime at Chengdu. In 215, Cao Cao captured Hanzhong after attacking and receiving the surrender of Zhang Lu. He had launched the attack from Chang’an through the Qinling Mountain passes to Hanzhong. The conquest threatened Liu Bei’s territory located directly to the south. Cao Cao progressively increased his titles and power under the puppet Emperor Xian. He became the Chancellor in 208, the Duke of Wei in 214, and the King of Wei in 217. He also compelled Sun Quan to accept suzerainty to Wei, but it had no real effect in practice.

After Liu Bei had captured Yi Province from Liu Zhang in 214, Sun Quan—who had been engaged with Cao Cao in the southeast at the region between the Huai and Yangtze rivers during the intervening years—turned his attention to the middle Yangtze. Cao Cao and Sun Quan had gained no success in breaking each other’s positions. Liu Fu, an administrator under Cao Cao, had established agricultural garrisons at Hefei and Shouchun to defend Cao’s territory near the Huai river. Sun Quan resented the fact that Liu Bei, a weaker ally, had gained so much territory west of him and demanded a larger share of the Xiang River basin. In 215, Lü Meng (Sun Quan’s officer) was sent to capture Jing province’s southern commanderies, but Guan Yu (Liu Bei’s general) launched a counterattack. Later that year, Liu Bei and Sun Quan reached a settlement that the Xiang River would serve as the border between their territories.

In the south, Sun Quan had sent He Qin, Lu Xun, and others to expand and conquer territory in what are now southern Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.

In 219, Liu Bei seized Hanzhong by defeating and killing General Xiahou Yuan, who served Cao Cao. Cao Cao sent reinforcements in an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the territory. Liu Bei had now secured his territory against the north and declared himself the King of Hanzhong. In the east, Sun Quan attempted to capture Hefei from Cao Cao, but he did not succeed.

While Lu Su had been chief commander for Sun Quan in Jing Province, their policy was to maintain the alliance with Liu Bei while Cao Cao was still a threat. This changed when Sun Quan appointed Lü Meng when Lu Su died in 217. In 219, Guan Yu sailed from Jiangling up the Han River towards the city of Fan (near Xianyang), but was unable to capture it. In the autumn of 219, Lu Meng launched a surprise attack by sailing up the Yangtze towards Jiangling, resulting in its capture. Guan Yu was unable to hold his position as most of his army surrendered. He was captured and executed on Sun Quan’s order. Cao Cao regained the Han valley, while Sun Quan captured all the territory east of the Yangtze Gorges.

Emergence of the three kingdoms

At the beginning of 220, Cao Cao died and was succeeded by his son Cao Pi. On 11 December, Emperor Xian abdicated and Cao Pi ascended the imperial throne by proclaiming the heavenly mandate as the Emperor of Wei. On 15 May 221, Liu Bei responded by proclaiming himself as the Emperor of Han. His state would become generally known as Shu Han. Sun Quan continued to recognize his de jure suzerainty to Wei and was enfeoffed as the King of Wu.

At the end of 221, Shu invaded Wu in response for Guan Yu’s killing and the loss of Jing Province by Wu. In the spring of 222, Liu Bei arrived at the scene to personally take command of the invasion. Sun Quan dispatched Lu Xun to command over the defense of Wu against the invasion by Shu. Against the advice of his subordinates, Lu Xun waited until Liu Bei was committed along the Yangtze below the Yangtze Gorges. Finally, in the sixth month of 222, Lu Xun launched a series of fire attacks against the flank of Liu Bei’s extended position which caused disorder in the Shu army and Liu Bei’s retreat to Baidi (near present-day Fengjie). Afterwards in 222, Sun Quan renounced his suzerainty to Wei and declared the independence of Wu. In 223, Liu Bei perished at Baidi. Zhuge Liang now acted as a regent for Liu Shan (aged 17) and held control of the Shu government. Shu and Wu resumed their diplomatic relations by re-establishing peace and alliance in the winter of 223. On 23 June 229, Sun Quan proclaimed himself as the Emperor of Wu.

Shu controlled the upper Han valley and the territory west of the Yangtze Gorges. The Qinling Mountains divided Shu and Wei. Wei held control over the Wei and Huai valley, where agricultural garrisons were established at Shouchun and Hefei to defend Huai. Military sorties by Wu against Hefei and Shouchun would consistently end in failure, thereby confirming Wei’s hold over Huai. Wu controlled all of the Yangtze valley. The territory between the Huai and Yangtze was a desolate area, where a largely-static frontier between Wei and Wu had formed at the lower Han valley.

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