Lecture Eight

Later Han and the Three Kingdoms

Scope: After a brief disruption of dynastic succession by the usurper Wang Mang from 9-23 C.E., the Later, or Eastern, Han dynasty continued to rule China. By the end of the 2nd century of the common era, however, internal problems combining institutional weaknesses, changes in the social and economic order, and turmoil in religious and spiritual life led to the collapse of the Han government. The empire was divided into three large states, and one of the more romantic periods in Chinese history, known as the Three Kingdoms, followed, from 220-265 C.E. This was a period of great military leaders and clever strategists and has provided stories and heroes for Chinese literature ever since. We will consider some of these figures and how they have been portrayed in poetry and drama.


I. The restored Han dynasty ruled China from 23-220 C.E.

A. The Han dynasty as a whole was a period of transition and development in Chinese society and economic life.

1. We have already discussed the creation of an imperial ideology through the synthesis of Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism.

2. Changes in the system of land ownership also took place.

B. The Liu family regained the throne and reestablished control of the empire after Wang Mang’s death.

1. For the next century and a half, the empire was stable, and both the economy and the population expanded.

2. Continuing trends that had begun during the Early Han, the social and political elite became increasingly based in the ownership of land, and the military nature of the pre-Han ruling classes faded away.

3. Cultural sophistication and literary skill were seen as markers of elite status and as qualifications for service in government.

C. Within the imperial system, however, rival groups sought to increase their power and wealth.

1. Great landed families intermarried with the Liu house and tried to manipulate the imperial succession.

2. Military leaders used their power to intimidate weaker emperors.

3. Eunuchs, in theory merely menial servants in the imperial household, built up great power through their control of the inner chambers where emperors lived.

II. By late in the 2nd century, the dynasty began to face serious problems.

A. The power of landed families had led to greater exploitation of the mass of ordinary farmers.

1. As peasants were impoverished, they turned to mystical cults to seek comfort.

2. Some of these became focal points for rebellions against the power of the wealthy landowners.

B. The military suppression of these rebellions gave new power to the generals.

1. Military strongmen assumed control of large parts of the empire.

2. The power of the eunuchs was destroyed by the military, but in the process, the dynasty was further weakened.

3. By the early 3rd century, Han power was largely a hollow shell.

III. The Han collapsed in the early years of the 3rd century, ushering in a period of division known as the Three Kingdoms, from 220-265 C.E.

A. Regional strongmen sought to protect their own power and fought amongst themselves.

1. Generals, such as Cao Cao, the adopted son of a eunuch, carved out domains under their personal control while still technically honoring the Han emperor.

2. In the southwest, a collateral line of the Liu family seized power.

B. In 220, the last Han emperor was deposed and the empire split apart.

1. Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pei, founded the kingdom of Wei.

2. Liu Bei, from a minor branch of the imperial family, set up the kingdom of Shu Han in what is now Sichuan.

3. Another general, Sun Wu, formed the state of Wu in southeast China.

IV. The Three Kingdoms period was a time of romance and adventure.

A. The rivalry between the kingdoms and their rulers led to constant warfare.

1. Strategy and clever intrigues were characteristic of this period.

2. Great generals, such as Zhuge Liang, were known for outwitting their enemies, rather than for mere brute force.

3. The exploits of these kings and generals became the stuff of legend and provided the plots and characters for plays, poems, and stories throughout later history.

4. In one story, Zhuge Liang tricks his enemies into re-supplying him with arrows by fooling them into firing on boats manned by straw dummies.

5. In another instance, Zhuge Liang, without his main army, deceives his attackers by playing chess on the city wall while leaving the gates of the city open and undefended.

B. Eventually, a coup overthrew the Cao family in the kingdom of Wei, and a new leader briefly reunified the empire.

1. The Sima family seized power in 265 and held the empire together until 304.

2. Invasions of non-Chinese peoples from the northwest led to a new age of disorder and division, which we will discuss in Lecture Ten.

3. First, however, we will pause to examine the arrival of Buddhism in China during the later Han and the impact it had on China’s culture.

Essential Reading:

Moss Roberts, trans., Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel.

Supplemental Reading:

Howard L. Goodman, Ts ’ao P'i Transcendent.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why did emperors allow eunuchs or royal in-laws to gain so much power at court?

2. Why is there such an emphasis on the use of clever stratagems in the history of the Three Kingdoms period?

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