About the Author
Hello! I’m Turner, an aspiring freshman. I am currently learning about the Three Kingdoms Period out of interest due to the acclaim of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, praised as one of the Classic Chinese Novels alongside the more well-known “Journey to the West.” Through this project, I expanded my understanding of Chinese history and learned about the Emperor of China during the Three Kingdoms period.
Emperor as Power Broker: The Three Kingdom's Period in Ancient China
In China, a set of six novels are considered the greatest novels of ancient literature. One of these is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a romanticization of the Three Kingdoms Period, taking place between 220 AD and 280 AD. The fall of the Han Dynasty, which had ruled for 400 years, led to the destabilization of government and to the rise of three different ‘Kingdoms’. This destabilization changed the lives of almost every person living within China, most notably the emperor, Liu Xie, himself.
The Han Dynasty, from 202 BC to 220 AD, “lasted for 400 years” and was considered “one of the greatest periods in the entire history of China.” The first emperor of the Han Dynasty was Liu Bang, who split the country into “a series of administrative areas ruled by centrally appointed officials and developing a salaried bureaucracy in which promotion was based primarily on merit.” In addition, the Han Dynasty was also the dynasty which initiated “the development of the Silk Road.”
The fall of the Han Dynasty was caused by two main factors: natural calamities and poor taxation. For around 200 years, the Han Dynasty faced “natural disasters beyond their control.” (Campbell 2) In addition, landowning nobles had the ability to take peasants under them and tax them personally. When the emperors attempted to tax them, they would provide “less and less tax money for the empire.” Around 189, the dynasty finally collapsed as the emperor was captured from the Imperial Capital.
This period led to the Three Kingdoms period, named after its three states. Notably, never do all three hold the title that is translated to ‘King’. The first leaders of these states were Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei. Cao Cao was “a commandant and police chief at the Han capital Luoyang.” He died in 220 as the King of Wei. Sun Quan was originally a warlord under Liu Bei, until in 223 he “announced his own reign-title, and in the winter of that year.”6 Sun Quan died in 252, after forming the state of Wu. The final state was the state of Shu, started by Liu Bei. He began the state in 219, as “in celebration of the victory he proclaimed himself King of Hanzhong.”6 Liu Bei died in 223.
The first warlord to possess the emperor, however, was neither of these three leaders. He was initially possessed by Dong Zhuo, one of the many warlords who rose up to fill the weak central government. Without any true army to defend him, Dong Zhuo “led his army forward to deal with the disorders, and as he did so the power of the imperial government was ended.”7 Soon after, Dong Zhuo replaced the emperor Liu Bian with his brother, Liu Xian. Dong Zhuo was assassinated by his bodyguard, Lu Bu, in 192.
Around 196, Emperor Xian escaped the warlords at Chang’an and was taken in by Cao Cao, who “rigorously followed the formalities of the court and justified his actions as a loyal minister of the Han.” Still, it was an open secret that Cao Cao held power and that Emperor Xian was just a puppet. In 208, Cao Cao was bestowed the title of “Chancellor” by the puppet emperor. Around 214, he accelerated this process, as he “received the title Duke of Wei in 214, and in 217 became King of Wei.” In 220, Cao Cao died and was succeeded by his son Cao Pi. In December of 220, Cao Pi declared the heavenly mandate and the abdication of the previous emperor.
Over the course of the Three Kingdoms Period, the Emperor was mainly possessed by Cao Cao. However, Cao Cao’s insistence on holding onto the emperor within his court must have provided some benefit to his growing nation.
One possible benefit could be status in the army and among common folk. The specific flow of warfare in China was much different from that of European Nations. Despite the formality of armies, “the basic fighting unit was the group… about some leader.” Because of this, the authority of the commander was the most important factor behind an armed force, and this “depended primarily upon prestige and personality.”9 Similarly, “the perception of social status as a source of authority was sometimes more important than practical matters”.
The other possible benefit may have been his ascension to emperor. Here, the term “Emperor” is important to consider. The term that is translated to emperor is “Huángdì”. Dì referred to “high god of the Shang, the first historical state in China,” while Huang meant “splendid”. By using these two characters, the Emperor claimed to possess godhood. In addition, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty had cemented this by inscribing “his achievements in verse on the peaks of mountains” and arduously attempting to cement his religious centrality through modification of the capital city.
Due to this, becoming ‘Emperor’ came with the added pressures of claiming to be a god. This also implied denouncing the Han Dynasty’s godhood, a position built up for 400 years. The first to attempt this during the Three Kingdoms period was Yuan Shu in 199. His claim “was rejected even by his allies, and every hand turned against him.” At the time, “the imperial title was still reserved to the house of Liu.” Yuan Shu’s death may have been a cautionary tale for Cao Cao, who may have retained the emperor to ease such a transition by sidestepping the pressure. Cao Cao died in 220, and was succeeded by his son Cao Pi.
In December of 220, Cao Pi declared himself as ‘Emperor’. By forcing the previous emperor to abdicate the throne, Cao Pi may have legitimized his reign by replacing the emperor rather than challenging him. This plan worked, as Cao Pi managed to retain his support. Liu Bei likewise claimed to be emperor in 221 as a challenge to Cao Pi’s authority. Sun Quan, the last of the three states, claimed independence from Liu Bei in 222 and claimed the heavenly mandate in 229.
Each ruler also had their own justifications as emperor. Liu Bei’s claim was that he was the rightful heir to the Han dynasty, as one of the descendants of the house of Han. Cao Pi, on the other hand, claimed that the state of Wei had the support of the Han Dynasty’s nobles and had received Emperor Xian’s abdication. The weakest of these claims was that of Sun Quan, whose claim was that his government was most virtuous. It is said that “No traditional historian has accepted Sun Quan's claim to the Mandate”.
Within this conflict between Liu Bei and Cao Pi, the emperor’s abdication served a vital role. It weakened Liu Bei’s claim to the throne as the emperor had already abdicated, as well as implied a position of inferiority to Cao Pi. Without this support, even with the grand state that Cao Cao had managed to gain through his military abilities, ascending at the time may not have been feasible. Thus, the emperor was a vital balance against Liu Bei’s political position.
Over the Three Kingdoms period, the Emperor spent much of his time in captivity of the various warlords such as Dong Zhao or Cao Cao. The emperor’s greatest impact on the Three Kingdoms Period was seen within the court of Cao Cao, as Dong Zhuo failed to utilize the emperor before his death. Thus, the emperor’s role within the Three Kingdoms period was in stabilizing the state of Wei and assisting in Cao Pi’s ascension as emperor.
Campbell, Dennis. “The Fall of the Han Dynasty.” OER Project. Accessed May 6th 2023. https://www.oerproject.com/-/media/WHP/PDF/Era4/WHP-4-1-4-Read---Fall-of-the-Han---930L.ashx
De Crespigny, Rafe. “The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin.” East Asian History, Published June 1991. https://www.eastasianhistory.org/sites/default/files/article-content/01/EAH01_01.pdf
“Han Dynasty - New World Encyclopedia.” New World Encyclopedia. Accessed May 6th, 2023. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Han_Dynasty
“Han Dynasty | Definition, Map, Time, Period, Achievements, and Facts.” Britannica, Revised March 31st 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Han-dynasty
Lewis, Mark Edward. “The Early Chinese Empires : Qin and Han.” Internet Archive. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Published April 20th, 2007. https://archive.org/details/historyofimperia00broo/page/n7/mode/2up