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The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin
A history of China in the Third Century AD

Internet edition 2003


Rafe de Crespigny

Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University

NOTE: This article was originally published in East Asian History [ISSN 1036-6008], The Australian National University, Canberra no. 1 [June 1991], pp. 1-36, & no. 2 [December 1991], pp. 143-164. Internet publication last revised in November 2003.
© The whole work is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism, or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Enquiries should be made to the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

Note to the Internet edition 2003: This document contains the text of an article published in two parts in the Canberra journal East Asian History: Number 1, June 1991, 1-36, and Number 2, December 1991, 143-164. Maps and annotations are included, but not characters. I have added some references to works in the field published since 1991, but have not at this stage attempted a comprehensive bibliography. In a letter of 1994, Professor Fang Beichen of Chengdu University provided some comments; I am most grateful to him and have made a number of changes in accordance with his advice.

Note to the original article 1991: This work has been prepared as a chapter for the second volume of The Cambridge History of China. I present it here in preliminary form because I believe there is room for a general survey of the third century, which saw the transition from a long-unified empire to a comparable period of disunity and conflict, and because I know that I shall benefit from the comments and criticisms of others. I emphasise that the piece is designed as a discussion of events: I refer occasionally to matters of literature and philosophy, but there are others expert in those fields, and I have sought only to provide a historical background for their analysis.


Table of contents

Part 1: The Formation of the Three Kingdoms (189-220)

The successes of Cao Cao

It is not often in history that a major change can be dated so precisely as the fall of the empire of Han. On the evening of 24 September 189 the general Dong Zhuo, camped outside the capital city of Luoyang, saw flames rise up against the sky. He led his army forward to deal with the disorders, and at that moment the power of the imperial government was ended.

When Dong Zhuo entered the capital, he did so without formal authority, but he faced no legitimate opposition, and his seizure of power turned the political structure of the state back to its roots. Despite cosmological and political theories of the time, the essential factor in government had been the military authority of the emperor. The founders of the dynasty, Emperor Gao of Former Han and Emperor Guangwu of Later Han, had gained the throne by victory in civil war, and their descendants had ruled in succession just because, in the last resort, their armies would obey their imperial commands. Now, however, that authority was gone. On 28 September, Dong Zhuo deposed the young emperor Liu Bian and placed his half-brother Liu Xie, Emperor Xian, upon the throne. Within a few weeks there was open rebellion and the whole of eastern China was cut off from the new government at Luoyang.

The impetus for opposition to Dong Zhuo, however, came as much from personal ambition as from any desire to restore the power of Han. Leaders of the rebels in the east included Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu, who controlled a network of influence based on the high official status of their family and their wealth of landed property, and men such as Cao Cao, not so well regarded, but with sufficient resources of family property to raise his own private army. Many of the regular officials of the provinces were reluctant to break the peace, but the local pressure was overwhelming, and those who did not join the rebels were swiftly eliminated. And there were, of course, numbers of fighting men and adventurers, some of them with pretensions to an official position, who took advantage of the growing turmoil to seek power and profit on their own initiative.

In 191 the army of Sun Jian, under the command of Yuan Shu, drove Dong Zhuo from Luoyang west to Chang'an, and in 192 Dong Zhuo was assassinated by his former body-guard Lü Bu. The central government fell into complete disorder and played no further part in the affairs of the rest of the empire, and the alliance in the east broke up into an anarchy of warfare across the whole of the plain.

In this first stage of the wars, there were a multitude of contenders for success or survival. From his base at Ye city in Ji province, Yuan Shao extended his power north of the Yellow River, while further south, between the Yellow River and the Huai River, there was a tense and vicious conflict between Yuan Shu, Cao Cao, Tao Qian the Governor of Xu province, Lü Bu from the northwest and Liu Bei, a man of poor family who yet claimed descent from the rulers of Former Han. Yuan Shu was driven south of the Huai River in 193, Tao Qian was destroyed in 194, and Liu Bei surrendered in 196. As his power spread, Cao Cao's army combined family connections, gentry allies, soldiers of fortune and surrendered rebels, and by 198, when he captured Lü Bu and killed him, Cao Cao had no further rival in the southern part of the Yellow plain.

Of those early opponents, Tao Qian was an appointed official who could claim no strong local support against a determined enemy, while at the other end of the scale Lü Bu and Liu Bei were soldiers of fortune who relied for success entirely upon their military prowess and reputation. They were not regarded as men of good social position, they did not have notable support among the gentry, and they failed to attract a substantial body of advisers and administrators to their service. So their power was brittle, and no match in the longer term for a competent opponent who could also offer some form of stable government. More commonly, such a leader without background would subordinate himself to a man of national authority, and it was for this reason that Sun Jian, who had obtained a large army in 189 but who came from an insignificant family of the southeast, accepted Yuan Shu as his chief and fought thereafter under his orders.

Sun Jian was killed early in the civil war, in a campaign against Liu Biao the Governor of Jing  province, and in 193 Yuan Shu was driven south into Yang province. From his new capital at Shouchun in present-day Anhui, he made some attempt to regain the ground he had lost north of the Huai River, and in 197 he took title as emperor of a new dynasty. Yuan Shu's claim, however, was rejected even by his allies, and every hand turned against him. Abandoned by almost all his followers, he died in the summer of 199. Though the empire had become a gigantic battleground, and the emperor himself was a powerless puppet, the imperial title was still reserved to the house of Liu.

In 196 Emperor Xian made his escape from the squabbling warlords of Chang'an, and with a combination of luck and imagination Cao Cao took him under protection and control. Playing the hand far more carefully than had Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao established the formalities of an imperial court at present-day Xuchang in Henan, and he justified his actions as a loyal minister of Han.

In the summer of 200, after months of planning and preparation, Yuan Shao and Cao Cao met in a long-drawn campaign about the small city of Guandu, south of the Yellow River near present-day Kaifeng. Cao Cao's forces were heavily outnumbered, but they held their defence for more than a month, and then a fortunate raid against the enemy's supply lines broke the morale of Yuan Shao's forces and drove them in disorder to the north. Two years later, Yuan Shao died, his sons quarrelled about the inheritance, and Cao Cao took advantage of the confusion. In 204 he captured Ye city, and by 207, after a brilliant campaign beyond the frontier against the non-Chinese Wuhuan, he had established control over all the Yellow plain.

Cao Cao was a fine general and a remarkable politician, and he has acquired a legendary status in Chinese tradition. To appreciate the reality of his achievement, however, we must recognise the pattern of conflict within which he gained his success.

The ramshackle pattern of military recruitment had considerable effect upon techniques of warfare and upon the structure of politics for generations to come. Despite theories and formalities of ranks and grades, the basic fighting unit was the group which had gathered or been conscripted about some leader, and each unit was accompanied by a mass of camp-followers, wives and children, cooks and prostitutes, peddlers and gamblers, and a few who specialised in care of the sick and wounded. At the core of command, each chieftain was supported by a group of companions, close relatives or old friends and comrades, whom he could rely upon completely and who served as a focus for the mass of his troops.

In these circumstances, success in combat depended very largely upon the personal courage of the individual commander, the degree with which he could encourage his men to follow him, and the ability to rally them to his standard even after serious defeat. Though accounts of the time exaggerate the heroism of the leaders, it does appear that the pattern of battle required a direct attack by small body of men, who sought to "break the enemy line" and throw the opposing body of troops into disorder and flight. The officers who could embark on such an enterprise were certainly brave and physically skilful, but they were also likely to be violent and egotistical, and they were not necessarily competent administrators or thoughtful counsellors.

The troops these men commanded were unwieldy and uncertain. As authority depended primarily upon prestige and personality, no individual could exercise real control over more than a few hundred or perhaps a thousand men, and any substantial force, perhaps thirty thousand men, must be ordered through a long hierarchy of command, from the leading general to individual units. With limited means of communication, there were constant problems of discipline and supply, while such a military mass was extremely difficult to manoeuvre in the face of battle, where even a minor set-back could produce loss of morale and swift collapse. And though the question was often ignored, there was serious danger of disease amongst such a host of men gathered together. To a considerable degree, armies of that time carried with them the seeds of their own destruction.

In more general, even philosophical terms, there has been some debate on the nature of Cao Cao's social or class position, and his significance as the representative of middle and lower land-holders and gentry as opposed to the members of old and powerful clans represented and championed by Yuan Shao. Indeed it is true that the perception of social status as a source of authority was sometimes more important than practical matters, for the dominance of gentry families in the political society of Later Han had brought a general expectation that local and national authority was reserved to men of lineage. On the other hand, though family background could determine whether a man had sufficient status to maintain an independent command and attract useful administrative support, it is too simplistic to base analysis purely on questions of class conflict. Many contemporaries regarded the ambitions of the Yuan as excessive and deluded, and Cao Cao was, sensibly, more cautious. The Cao and their kinsmen of the Xiahou family were parvenus compared to great lineages such as the Yuan, but Cao Cao's father had been Grand Commandant, most senior position in the imperial administration, Cao Cao's first recruitment of troops was based upon family resources, and he had sufficient standing to seek and achieve an independent position.

Once he had entered the contest, Cao Cao's great achievement was to gain and hold the loyalty of a vast number of different commanders and their followers, and to maintain his disparate forces as a coherent military power. This was a matter of personal ability, and when he had established his authority south of the Yellow River it was upon the basis of that regional command that he mounted his opposition to Yuan Shao and other rivals. In the political and military manoeuvring which culminated in the decisive battle of Guandu, there was discussion of Yuan Shao's claim to great family and of Cao Cao's talent as a leader, but this was rather in the nature of propaganda than the echoes of a Marxist confrontation: the critical conflict was between the warlord north of the Yellow River and his rival to the south, and Cao Cao gained the victory because he organised his resources more effectively and commanded his army with greater skill.

By the end of 207, after his conquest of the territory formerly controlled by Yuan Shao, Cao Cao had established government over half the population of the empire, and he controlled the heart-land of China. From this central position, he was faced by a scattering of opponents, none of them in close alliance and each one weaker than himself. In the northeast, the southern part of Manchuria, Gongsun Du had established a separatist state, and he was succeeded by his son Gongsun Kang in 204. North across the frontier and in the region of present-day Shanxi, imperial control had largely given way to a medley of non-Chinese tribes, in which the remnants of the Xiongnu state struggled for survival against the erratic power of the Xianbi. In Liang 2D province, about present-day Gansu, rebellion which had broken out in 184 had been restricted to that territory, but the confusion had been made worse by the collapse of government at Chang'an after the death of Dong Zhuo. To the west, in present-day Sichuan, Liu Yan, the Governor of Yi province appointed in 188, had been succeeded by his son Liu Zhang in 194. Immediately to the north of Liu Zhang's territory, Hanzhong commandery on the upper Han River in present-day southern Shenxi was under the theocratic government of Zhang Lu, leader of the Five Pecks of Rice sect, recognised by the present-day Taoist church as third patriarch of the Celestial Masters.

Immediately after his campaign to settle the north, however, Cao Cao turned his attention southwards against Liu Biao, Governor of Jing province, and the young warlord Sun Quan who controlled the lower course of the Yangzi.

At the beginning of Later Han, the critical phase of civil war had been the struggle for command of the Yellow plain, and when the future Emperor Guangwu had gained that territory it was only a matter of time before the rival warlords on the periphery fell under his control. In 208, as Cao Cao embarked on his campaign to the south, it was generally expected, even by his opponents, that the same pattern would be followed once again. By a combination of changed circumstances and the fortunes of war, however, the unity of the empire was not restored so quickly, and it was indeed very long delayed.


The Red Cliffs campaign (208)

We have noticed Sun Jian, former Grand Administrator of Changsha and then general in the service of Yuan Shu. After his death on campaign against Liu Biao, his forces were largely taken over by Yuan Shu but a few years later, about 194, his son Sun Ce, then aged eighteen, took service with Yuan Shu. He was given command of some of the soldiers who had followed his father, and was sent to join operations south of the Yangzi.

The Sun came from Wu commandery in present-day Zhejiang, but they were not a leading family of that region, and Sun Jian had made his career as a fighting soldier. In similar fashion, Sun Ce established his position in the southeast essentially through his own remarkable military skill. By 198, at the age of twenty-three, he had declared independence from his former patron Yuan Shu, now a usurping emperor, and he held control of Danyang, Wu and Kuaiji commanderies, a stretch of territory from present-day Nanjing past Hangzhou Bay, including some outposts on the coast of Fujian. From this base Sun Ce extended his power westwards, and by 200 he had taken Yuzhang commandery about the present-day Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, and Lujiang commandery north of the Yangzi.

In this series of campaigns, Sun Ce had to deal not only with the semi-regular troops of rival administrators, but also with bandits, with local self-defence groups, and with powerful clans which had gathered their own private armies. In many respects the warfare was as much a matter of local rivalry as a formal struggle for power, and in 200, soon after his conquest of Poyang, Sun Ce was ambushed and assassinated by former retainers of a defeated local family from Wu.

Sun Ce was succeeded by his younger brother Sun Quan, at that time eighteen years old. The warlord state, however, was sufficiently well established that it survived the immediate crisis, and Sun Quan swiftly established his authority in the territory his brother had left him. By 203 he was expanding further to the west, and early in 208 he destroyed Huang Zu, the subordinate commander of Liu Biao who controlled the territory about present-day Wuhan on the middle Yangzi.

On the eve of Cao Cao's campaign against the south, therefore, Sun Quan held a curve of territory from Hangzhou Bay to the Yangzi estuary and west towards Wuhan. He had, however, no strong position north towards the Huai River, and much of the hill country in the south was inaccessible, inhabited by the non-Chinese Yue people and by refugees from official levies or the disturbances of war. On the other hand, whereas Sun Quan's power was only a fraction of that which Cao Cao could mobilise, his navy on the Yangzi was experienced and effective, and had established a local superiority.

Cao Cao's first opponent was Liu Biao, Governor of Jing province. Liu Biao had been appointed to that position by the Han government under control of Dong Zhuo, but after the early 190s, when he had repelled the attack of Sun Jian and Yuan Shu, he played no substantial role in the civil war of the north. The territory formally under his control extended south from his capital at present-day Xiangfan down the Han River to the Yangzi, and then south again up the valley of the Xiang River, but in practice his authority beyond the Yangzi was tenuous, while his eastern flank was under threat from Sun Quan.

In the autumn of 208, moreover, Liu Biao died. Through political manoeuvring, the succession was taken by his younger son Liu Zong, and the elder Liu Qi was left discontented and rebellious. As Cao Cao approached, Liu Zong's supporters urged him to surrender, and indeed he had no alternative. Cao Cao took over the province, made his own appointments to the local government, and gathered many of the leading officials and scholars at Liu Biao's court into his own service.

There was, however, a party of opposition, to some degree centred about Liu Qi, but inspired primarily by Liu Bei, who had fled from the north some years before. Liu Bei attempted to rally the dissidents and establish a line of defence on the Yangzi. Chased, caught and heavily defeated by Cao Cao, however, he turned to seek support from Sun Quan.

It was not an easy decision. Liu Bei and Liu Qi were in exile and retreat, and although Liu Bei's lieutenant Guan Yu had collected much of the Jing province fleet from the Han River, Cao Cao had control of the naval base at Jiangling on the Yangzi. As he brought his army and his new fleet eastwards in pursuit, he also sent messengers calling Sun Quan to surrender.

Sun Quan was uncertain of his best course of action, and there was considerable debate at his headquarters. He decided, however, to send troops forward under the command of Zhou Yu, to join Liu Bei and Liu Qi, and to test Cao Cao's strength. If their defence should be unsuccessful, he could expect to withdraw most of his men, and he would still have a reserve army with which to negotiate terms.

The allies met Cao Cao's forces at the Red Cliffs, on the Yangzi between present-day Wuhan and Yueyang, and for a few days the two groups faced one another across the river. The men from the north had already taken part in a long campaign with several forced marches, they were not used to the southern waterways and marshlands, and we are told there was sickness in the camp. Some of the army and all of the fleet had formerly served Liu Biao, and many must have been undecided about their new master. For his own part, Cao Cao probably regarded the operation as a reconnaissance in force: if he was successful in defeating the allies and driving them to separate surrenders, so much the better if not, he could withdraw and look for another occasion in the future.

Cao Cao's first attack was driven back and then the wind changed against him and Zhou Yu sent in an attack with fire-ships. In the technology of warfare of that time, fire was a common weapon, and when used in the right circumstance it could create large-scale destruction. Whatever preparations Cao Cao may have made against the threat, he was compelled to abandon his position and retreat, and the allies enhanced their victory with tales of slaughter. The battle at the Red Cliffs has become one of the most celebrated of Chinese history, it is the theme of several plays and poems, and the centre-piece of the great historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

It is very likely that the account of Cao Cao's defeat has been exaggerated, and literary tradition has embellished the story out of all proportion, but later events justify the engagement as one of the decisive battles of Chinese history. As Cao Cao retreated, he left garrisons behind him, but in the following year Zhou Yu's army captured Jiangling, and the southerners thereafter faced no serious threat to their naval control of the Yangzi. Cao Cao and his successors made several attempts to break the river defences, but they could not match the strategic position or the tactical skills of their enemies. Neither side may have realised it at the time, but the Red Cliffs campaign was the last chance for many years to re-unite the empire, for it was control of the middle Yangzi which meant the difference between survival and surrender in the south.

The struggle for the middle Yangzi

With the fall of Jiangling, Cao Cao's territory in the south was restricted to the Han River, with Xiangyang as his centre of defence. Sun Quan, as chief of the allies, naturally expected to profit from their success, but while his attention was devoted to his own position in the east, with an unsuccessful sortie northwards across the Huai River, Liu Bei and his chief adviser Zhuge Liang seized the commanderies south of the Yangzi, and established a dominant position in the southern part of Jing province. In 210, Zhou Yu died, and Sun Quan had no one of comparable authority to take his place. He was compelled to transfer the territory of Jiangling to Liu Bei, and he retained only the eastern region from Wuhan to the Dongting Lake.

In 211, Cao Cao turned to the northwest, broke the back of a warlord coalition in the Wei River valley, and re-occupied the territory about Chang'an. Faced with this threat to his north, Liu Zhang invited Liu Bei to come to his aid in Yi province and assist him, first against Zhang Lu in Hanzhong and then in due course against Cao Cao. Liu Bei accepted the invitation, but one year later he forced a quarrel with Liu Zhang and turned against him. In 214 Liu Zhang was compelled to surrender, and Liu Bei took over his territory.

During this period Cao Cao and Sun Quan had engaged one another in the southeast, but Cao Cao's forces had no success against Sun Quan's position on the Yangzi, while Sun Quan was unable to break the line of the Huai River. In particular, Cao Cao's administrator Liu Fu established agricultural garrisons about Shouchun and Hefei, and the settled peasant militia gave a long-term stability to the defence of the region. Further south, in campaigns against the non-Chinese people and the refugees or renegades of present-day southern Zhejiang and Fujian, Sun Quan's officers, notably He Qi and Lu Xun, began a process of conquest and colonisation which increased the territory of the state and added considerably to the human resources that could be taxed and recruited for corvee service and war.

When Liu Bei seized power in Yi province, however, Sun Quan turned his attention again to the middle Yangzi, and demanded a greater share of the territory in the basin of the Xiang River. Apart from the resentment with which he had watched his erstwhile weaker ally gain territory in Sichuan, it was clear that the resources he currently commanded were not sufficient to maintain long-term defence against the north. In 215 Sun Quan's officer Lü Meng was sent to seize the southern commanderies of Jing province. Liu Bei's general Guan Yu brought an army in counter-attack, and the rival warlords agreed on a new settlement, establishing the Xiang River as the boundary between them. Both were concerned by the threat from the north, and Liu Bei was also distracted by the situation in Yi province, where Cao Cao's attack from Chang'an across the Qin Ling range divide compelled the surrender of Zhang Lu in Hanzhong, and opened the way for a direct attack on Liu Bei.

For the time being, however, Cao Cao was chiefly concerned with the organisation of the territory now under his control, with the suppression of some internal plots against his authority, and with consolidation of his power as the dominant figure at the refugee court of Han. Imperial Chancellor since 208, in 214 he received the title Duke of Wei, and in 217 he became King of Wei and appointed his eldest son Cao Pi as Heir. Cao Cao's major military activity in this period was one more attack against Sun Quan's position on the lower Yangzi, but although he compelled Sun Quan to make formal surrender and acknowledge him as king, the diplomatic coup had no effect upon the military relationship of the two sides nor upon Sun Quan's freedom of action. In that year, moreover, a major outbreak of plague, which may have begun among the armies on the Yangzi, also attacked the court and took many of the leading scholars of the day.

For the immediate political future of China, the events of 219 were critical. At the beginning of that year, after a long campaign of stalemate, Liu Bei defeated and killed Cao Cao's general Xiahou Yuan in Hanzhong. Cao Cao brought reinforcements in an attempt to rectify the damage, but he could not regain the territory, and he was compelled to retreat across the Qin Ling divide. So Liu Bei's borders were secured against the north, and in celebration of the victory he proclaimed himself King of Hanzhong.

To the east, the enemies of Wei sought to take advantage of Cao Cao's misfortune in Hanzhong. Sun Quan made another unsuccessful attack against Hefei, but Guan Yu on the middle Yangzi presented a far more serious danger. From his base at Jiangling, he attacked up the line of the Han River, and he was fortunate to encounter heavy summer rains and flooding. One of Cao Cao's armies, caught in the open, was washed away, and Guan Yu brought his ships to the walls of Fan city, at present-day Xiangfan, last obstacle to an advance north into Nanyang and the heart of Cao Cao's power. The garrison in Fan city was isolated and outnumbered, and their fortifications were eroded by water, but they held out for three months, and then Guan Yu himself was attacked and destroyed.

Until this time, despite the incident of 214, Sun Quan and his chief commander in Jing province, Lu Su, had agreed their best policy was to maintain the alliance with Liu Bei rather than face Cao Cao alone. Sun Quan, however, was not satisfied with the territory he had acquired, and he was concerned that his nominal ally in the west might soon become as much of a threat as his enemy in the north. When Lu Su died in 217, Sun Quan appointed Lü Meng, who had served as a personal agent for him in the past, to take his place, and although they continued to speak fair to Guan Yu, the Sun group was looking for some opportunity to act against him.

In the autumn of 219, as Guan Yu was committed to the attack up the Han River and the siege of Fan city, Lü Meng prepared a secret invasion and struck westwards along the Yangzi against Jiangling. The surprise was complete, Guan Yu's position collapsed in ruins, he himself was killed and the greater part of his army surrendered. Cao Cao's position in the Han valley was restored, and Sun Quan held all the territory east of the Yangzi gorges.

At the beginning of the following year, 220, Cao Cao died at the age of sixty-six sui, and he was succeeded by his son Cao Pi. In the winter, on 11 December 220 by Western reckoning, the new ruler of Wei received the abdication of the last emperor of Han and proclaimed his own accession to the Mandate. Six months later, on 15 May 221, Liu Bei in Sichuan made a rival claim as emperor of the continuing house of Han: from the chief commandery of that province, his dynasty is generally known as Shu-Han.

For the time being, Sun Quan accepted the continued suzerainty of Wei and recognised Cao Pi's new honour. In exchange he received enfeoffment as King of Wu, but his chief concern was to hold the northern state in benevolent neutrality while he sought to deal with the inevitable attack from Liu Bei, seeking revenge for the destruction of Guan Yu and reconquest of the territory he had lost in Jing province. In this, Sun Quan was successful, for Cao Pi was new to power and to the usurping title, and could not afford to turn too ostentatiously against his own feudatory.

The attack from Shu against Wu came at the end of 221, and in the spring of 222 Liu Bei arrived to take command of operations. Lü Meng, Sun Quan's commander against Guan Yu, had been ill at the time of that campaign and died soon afterwards, and Sun Quan appointed his son-in-law and close confidant Lu Xun, a man of good gentry and official family, to take responsibility for the defence of the west. Against the advice of his subordinates, Lu Xun waited until Liu Bei was fully committed along the Yangzi below the Yangzi Gorges, but in the sixth Chinese month, at the end of the summer, he made a series of attacks with fire against the flank of Liu Bei's extended positions, and the army of Shu-Han was broken. Liu Bei made his escape to Bodi "White Emperor" city, near present-day Fengjie in Sichuan, and he died there in the following year.

After the destruction of Guan Yu in 219, the defeat of Liu Bei in 222 confirmed Sun Quan's control of Jing province, and Sun Quan wasted little time in reneging on his fealty to Wei. He failed to send the hostages he had promised, and when Cao Pi came south to enforce the pledge Sun Quan's armies defied him with success on both the middle and the lower Yangzi. As sign of his independence, Sun Quan announced his own reign-title, and in the winter of that year, the beginning of 223, completing a brilliant series of diplomatic manoeuvres, he negotiated peace and friendship with the government of Liu Bei.

In military terms, the division of the empire of Han between three rival states was complete. There were individual warlords and rulers on the perimeters of the former empire, but the essential boundaries had been drawn. In the west, the victory of Liu Bei in Hanzhong had brought the upper Han valley under his control, and set the lines of battle in that area along the Qin Ling range divide, south of the valley of the Wei River. On the middle Yangzi, Jing province of Han, the major possibilities of manoeuvre were ended: Shu-Han was restricted to the west of the Yangzi Gorges while Wei and Wu shared a hostile, but largely static, frontier about the lower Han River. In the southeast, Cao Cao's establishment of agricultural garrisons, and the consistent failure of Sun Quan's sorties against Hefei and Shouchun, confirmed the grasp of Wei along the Huai, but Sun Quan's naval power on the Yangzi was never seriously threatened, and between the two lines of defence there stretched a desolate no-man's land.


Part 2: Rival Empires (220-265)

Hitherto, we have considered the division of Han largely in terms of the military geography which determined the frontiers of the three successor states. We must appreciate, however, that the very existence of these three "kingdoms" was in many respects an unexpected development. In former times, the brief interludes of civil war after the end of Qin and the fall of Wang Mang had been followed by swift reconstruction of a new government for the whole of China, and though the second century of Later Han had seen much discussion concerning the Mandate of Heaven, it had been generally accepted that the house of Liu should be revived or replaced, not that its inheritance would be divided. In many respects, the most interesting question about the end of Han is not why the dynasty fell, but why the unified empire was not restored. Any full answer to this question requires more than simple discussion of the chances of politics and war. We must consider the nature of the states which emerged from the ruin of Han.

Wu and the south

At the beginning of the first century AD, during the civil war which followed the fall of Wang Mang, the rulers of the south had offered no substantial resistance to the victor in the north, and at the end of the second century, during the time of civil war which followed the fall of Han, Sun Ce owed his initial success to the natural defences of the river and the weakness of his immediate northern neighbour Yuan Shu. By the time of the Red Cliffs campaign, however, the state of Sun Quan was strong enough to hold off a direct attack from the north.

The territory then controlled by Sun Quan - the commanderies of Yuzhang, Danyang, Wu and Kuaiji - had contained less than two million people at the end of Former Han, but in the middle of the second century AD their number was assessed at more than three million. This increase of Chinese population south of the Yangzi was a critical factor in the division of the empire after the fall of the Han dynasty, for these human resources, under competent warlord government in that strategic situation, proved sufficient for survival.

The growth of population in this region was part of a general trend during Han, and the demographic change may be traced in census records preserved from the beginning of the first century and the middle of the second century AD. At the time of the census recorded in the treatises of Hou Han shu, the registered population of the empire was a little less than fifty million individuals. Of this total, the southern parts of Jing province and Yang province provinces, later controlled by Wu, contained some seven million, and Jiao province in the far south had perhaps one and a half million. Numbers were affected by changes on the frontiers, by the toll of civil war and by migration from one region to another, but on the basis of those Later Han records the population of the territory of Wu was one-sixth of the former empire; the northern state of Wei could claim four times that number - two-thirds of the old empire.

In this situation, though Sun Quan's state had based its early success on the demographic changes of the Later Han period, its survival depended on an energetic development of the territory and the people under its control. This consideration gave urgency to the expansion into Jing province, culminating in the destruction of Guan Yu in 219 and the successful defence against Liu Bei in 222, while at the same time, the government of Wu extended its influence into the far south.

Jiao province of Later Han occupied present-day Guangdong and Guangxi, together with the Red River delta and the coast of Vietnam as far south as Hué. It was first brought under the control of China by the conquests of the First Emperor of Qin at the end of the third century BC, but the fall of Qin allowed the émigré Zhao Tuo to establish his independent state. The province was reconquered by the armies of Emperor Wu of Former Han at the end of the second century BC, and Emperor Guangwu's general Ma Yuan restored the authority of Later Han, but growing weakness in the central government during the second century had seen a number of local disorders and permitted the development of considerable local control. Towards the end of the century, Shi Xie, leader of a family of Chinese descent, established a personal hegemony through all the region. His capital, Longbian near present-day Hanoi, was a major trading centre, Shi Xie was admired for his authority and his scholarship, the splendour of his court was celebrated, and it became a place of refuge from the warfare of central China.

For several years, the leaders in the north had other things to occupy them. After 200, however, Shi Xie appears to have relinquished close control of the eastern part of the province, present-day Guangdong, and there was some conflict between Cao Cao, now dominant in the north, and Liu Biao of Jing province. Each party sent nominees for positions of local authority, and Cao Cao allied himself directly with Shi Xie.

In 210, after the death of Liu Biao and the defeat of Cao Cao at the Red Cliffs, Sun Quan appointed his officer Bu Zhi as Governor. From his base at Panyu, present-day Guangzhou/Canton, Bu Zhi established relations with Shi Xie, and Shi Xie sent tribute and hostages to Sun Quan. Now more than seventy years old, he was evidently content with a limited, if profitable, role in the Red River delta. Certainly, though Vietnamese tradition records him as "King Si", he appears to have made no attempt to emulate the political achievement of Zhao Tuo and the separate state of Nanyue four centuries earlier.

In 220, Bu Zhi was succeeded by Lü Dai, who confirmed the position in Nanhai and Cangwu commanderies, and extended his influence over present-day Guangdong and Guangxi. When Shi Xie died in 226, Lü Dai was ready to remove the last vestiges of his power. Pressing against the formal position of the Shi clan, he forced a quarrel and arrived at the Red River with an army and a fleet. When the sons of Shi Xie surrendered, Lü Dai had them executed and sent their heads to Sun Quan. His authority was confirmed along all the southern shore as far as present-day Cambodia, the sea trade into southeast Asia was peacefully maintained, and the prosperity of the Shi family at the entrepot in northern Vietnam was now continued to the advantage of Wu.

With the acquisition of this territory in the far south, Sun Quan obtained a source of notable wealth, and secured his frontiers to the west and north. When Liu Bei died in 223, the government in Shu-Han, now controlled by the regent Zhuge Liang, confirmed the arrangement of peace and alliance, and though. Cao Pi made several attacks on the line of the Yangzi, he was compelled each time to withdraw. In 226 Cao Pi died, and chief military attention shifted northwest to the frontier against Shu-Han along the Wei River valley in present-day Shenxi. In this period of stability and prosperity, on 23 June 229, Sun Quan assumed the imperial title for himself.

In the context of traditional Chinese history, the claim is an eccentric one. The Cao family could assert that they held the greater part of the old empire, and their succession was legitimated by the abdication of Emperor Xian, while Liu Bei in the southwest claimed to represent the true imperial clan. Sun Quan had no such justification. His territory was on the fringes of the empire, and he had earlier accepted his title as king of Wu, and his calendar, from the usurping Wei. Sun Quan based his claim upon two predications: that the imperial position, vacated by Han, had not been filled by any worthy successor and that his own accession was justified by the virtue of his government, in particular by his concern for the people. He dismissed the claims of Wei by describing the Cao family as criminal usurpers, and without specific reference to the claim of Liu Bei, he stated simply that the fortunes of Han were ended, and the claim to succession had thus become irrelevant.

No traditional historian has accepted Sun Quan's claim to the Mandate of Heaven. Much of the formal argument is based upon the incongruity of the regnal calendar, overlapping with Wei at the beginning and with Jin at the end, but it is, in any case, difficult to regard the imperial pretensions of Wu as very much more than a facade. The ministers and generals of Sun Quan were given titles from the official hierarchy of Han, and his capital became a centre of culture and wealth, but the essential structure of government was based upon an alliance of powerful local families under the hegemony of the Sun clan, and civilian authority was subordinated very closely to military power.

Sun Quan did attempt to expand his empire beyond his immediate territory. He received emissaries from Funan and other countries of the south, he re-established a Chinese presence on Hainan island, he sent an expedition to Taiwan, and possibly also to the Ryukyus, and he sought to establish alliance with the Gongsun warlords of Liaodong in southern Manchuria. None of these initiatives, however, achieved real success, and the later military history of Wu was not impressive.

Despite several attempts, the armies of Wu were unable to break the defences of Wei along the Huai River. There were two occasions, in 255 and 257, when the city of Shouchun was seized by rebels against the political dominance of the Sima family in Wei, but the southerners could provide no useful assistance, and in each case the city was recaptured and the northern position was confirmed.

For the most part, the strategy of Wu was defensive, with garrisons and naval bases along the line of the Yangzi. After some indecision, Sun Quan established his capital at Jianye, present-day Nanjing, which provided a centre for control of the lower Yangzi. Defence of the middle Yangzi and the lower Han River was based on the new city of Wuchang, downstream from the present metropolis of Wuhan, with a military government of wide independent power. For the most part, the traditional Han hierarchy of provinces, commanderies and counties was adequate for local administration, but on the frontier territory with Wei and Shu-Han there were also Area Commanders (dudu) to maintain defence along the Yangzi.

After a government of more than fifty years, Sun Quan died in 252. His long reign provided a welcome stability, but it also brought difficulties for his successors and misfortune on his death. His eldest son and Heir Apparent, Sun Deng, had died in 241. The next surviving son, Sun He, was appointed to replace him, but that candidacy was bedevilled by factional feuding. In 250 Sun He was deposed, and the elderly Sun Quan was persuaded to pass the succession to his youngest son, the seven-year-old Sun Liang, under the guardianship of Zhuge Ke.

This was a recipe for further intrigue and instability. In 253, eighteen months after the death of Sun Quan, and following a disastrous attack against Hefei, Zhuge Ke was assassinated by orders of Sun Liang under the influence of Sun Jun, a distant cadet of the imperial family. When Sun Jun died three years later, his cousin Sun Lin succeeded to the dominant position at court. In 258 Sun Liang, now in his mid teens, sought to rid himself of the over-powerful minister, but he was dethroned and replaced by Sun Xiu, sixth son of Sun Quan and some twenty-two years old. A few months later, Sun Xiu arranged a successful coup against Sun Lin and took power himself.

The government of Sun Xiu was not particularly effective, and his death in 264 came just at the time the state of Shu-Han surrendered to Wei. In that period of emergency, Sun Hao, son of the former Heir Apparent Sun He and aged in his early twenties, was chosen as an adult ruler who might restore the fortunes and energies of the state. He achieved, however, only limited success, and in 280 he was compelled to surrender to the Jin state of the Sima family, which had taken over from Wei and which brought overwhelming force against him. At the time of the surrender, the population of Wu was reported as 523,000 households, 2,300,000 individuals, 32,000 officials, and 230,000 men under arms.

Overall, the history of Wu may be divided into two periods. At first, under Sun Ce and the younger Sun Quan, it was an energetic and aggressive state, commanded by men of military skill and achievement. Those officers who came from outside the ranks of the local gentry, however, depended closely upon the central government and were seldom able to establish an independent position in the society of the south. As the opportunities for expansion ended in the 220s, and the chances of politics and personality took their toll of the fortunes of the families of these early leaders, local clans and their retainers came to dominance.

Apart from personal rivalries, therefore, the faction conflicts of the central government reflect the transfer of power from the original leaders of the warlord enterprise to the established local families. Within the palace, cadet branches of the Sun clan contended for influence, but just as the authority of the ruler was limited by the rivalry and conflict of the great clans at the capital, so the central government had limited authority in the daily affairs of the provinces.

In 253, following the death of Sun Quan, the general Deng Ai in Wei observed that the great families of Wu, relying upon their military strength and their retainers, held the essential power of the state. Those families of the southeast which supported Sun Ce and Sun Quan in the early years had gained at the expense of their local rivals, and with the passage of time, they secured their positions as local magnates. They could be kept under control by the threat of force and by a system of internal hostages, but they were not easily overthrown by the chances of politics.

At the basic level, moreover, the government of Wu, recorded by the histories in terms of generals and ministers and intrigue at court, relied upon a broad class of village and county gentry, who might accept provincial office in one commandery or another, but who had small interest or concern with the politics of the capital. From this point of view, the same pattern was maintained as in the last years of Later Han: essential dues were paid to the imperial government, but the details of its activities were largely irrelevant to local power, influence and survival.

In its later years, therefore, the state of Wu was no longer an ambitious warlord enterprise, but a group of magnates concerned to maintain their wealth and authority. Faced with such a collection of family interests, operating at every level, the Sun rulers were never able to establish strong instruments for the control and development of agriculture and the machinery of war, with which they might compete efficiently against their rivals. In the end, though the government of Wu held power through its past military success, it failed to mobilise its resources to the full and it lacked authority against local interests within the state.

One achievement, however, was of great importance for the future. We have noted how the increased population of the south during Han provided opportunity for the first establishment of the separate state. From this base, the rulers of Wu sought to increase the numbers of people and the amount of farmland under their control. In order to do so, they pressed constantly against the open territory to the south, to extract manpower and taxation from the isolated groups of non-Chinese native people and Chinese refugees who had settled earlier beyond the reach of the government. As each advance was made, the people were registered as citizens and subjects, and their human and economic resources became available for further expansion against their neighbours or for defence against the north. So the expansion and maintenance of the state of Wu were linked in a policy of warfare and colonisation.

It is difficult to assess the speed of this process. In the very earliest years of the state, He Qi extended authority from the isolated coastal counties by present-day Fuzhou up the valleys of the Min River into present-day Jiangxi and southern Zhejiang, and subsequent campaigns confirmed control south of the Huang Shan mountains. In 234, a final assault was launched against the hills people of Danyang, and this operation, commanded by Zhuge Ke, was a consolidation of Chinese authority. The process, however, continued elsewhere, sometimes by officially sponsored campaigns, regularly by small-scale but consistent local aggression, a steady pressure backed up where necessary by official military force.

One method of assessing the colonisation and conquests of the state of Wu in the southeast is by comparison of the counties listed at the time of the census of Later Han, about 140, with those which appear in the list of the Treatise of Geography of Jin shu, compiled soon after the conquest of Wu in 280. The Jin dynasty figures for population, based upon a taxation list, cannot be compared with those of Han, which represent a full census, but the existence of a county must indicate a real Chinese presence.

On this comparison, the expansion of authority in the southeast is remarkable. By 280, within the territory of Wu from the south of the Yangzi to the north of Vietnam, the number of counties had doubled since the time of Later Han, from 160 to 322, and they were spread across territories where no such establishment had been seen before. The frontier had been transformed, and there were newly confirmed settlements in present-day southern Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Fujian. Though the initiative for expansion had arisen from the needs of the state of Wu, the achievement came eventually to benefit the empire of Jin: driven from the north at the beginning of the fourth century AD, the émigré court found refuge and security in the lands which had been developed by Wu.


If the state of Wu was based upon the military achievement of one local family and its supporters, the claimant empire of Shu-Han in the west was the work of an itinerant warlord entrepreneur, and the soldiers of fortune who accepted his leadership.

The history of Shu-Han, and particularly that of the founder Liu Bei and his chief minister Zhuge Liang, has been considerably distorted by the romantic tradition which presents Liu Bei as a hero of chivalry and Zhuge Liang as a master of warfare and magic. While Cao Cao is described as the powerful, proud and arrogant usurper of the imperial mandate, and the men of Wu are often ineffectual and self-seeking, sometimes treacherous, the government of Shu-Han is lauded as the true successor of the fallen empire and the centre of wisdom, courage and loyalty.

It is possible to trace elements of such a cycle of stories to the Tang period and earlier, but it was well developed in Song and Yuan, with a great number of dramas in the traditional repertoire, and it came to full flower with the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms [Sanguo yanyi] during Ming. The bias in favour of Shu-Han may also be found in the comments of the great philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) on "legitimate succession", while the concept of a "true" government, still maintained on Chinese soil but exiled from the traditional centre of power, found popularity not only in Zhu Xi's dynasty of Southern Song, but also in the modern Republic of China on Taiwan.

Despite this romantic tradition, and although some modern scholars have sought to use its material as a guide to the history of the Three Kingdoms, it is important to realise that the novel and the dramas are not independent sources of information. They are frequently and sometimes deliberately mistaken in what they recount, and they are of no more value for the study of the time they purport to describe than are the plays of Shakespeare for the history of England, Scotland or Rome.

On the other hand, though we must ignore the brilliant falsehoods of romance, the history of Shu-Han is still remarkable.

The founder of the state, Liu Bei, came from Zhuo commandery near present-day Beijing, and he acquired his first reputation in warfare against the Yellow Turban rebellion of 184. When civil war broke out in the 190s he served or allied himself with one warlord after another, and he held short-lived power over substantial territory in north China. In 200, however, at the time of the campaign between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao about Guandu, Liu Bei was thoroughly defeated by Cao Cao's forces and fled to take refuge with Liu Biao.

For the next several years, Liu Bei had no notable role in the politics of the empire. He did, however, maintain the followers who had accompanied him into exile, he developed connections among Liu Biao's own entourage, and it was at this time he met Zhuge Liang. In 208, when Liu Biao died and Cao Cao came south, Liu Bei established himself as the chief of those who sought to oppose the surrender. He was briskly defeated, but fled to seek support from Sun Quan, and after the victory at the Red Cliffs he established a position in the southern part of Jing province.

In 211 Liu Bei was invited into Yi province by the Governor, Liu Zhang, to assist him in dealing with enemies on his northern borders. Liu Zhang, not a man of military distinction or great personal authority, sought the borrowed authority and the experienced army of his nominal "cousin", but a strong party at Liu Zhang's court was prepared to welcome Liu Bei as ruler of the whole territory. Liu Bei agreed to their proposal, and little more than a year after his arrival in the west he turned against his patron and employer. In the summer of 214 he received Liu Zhang's surrender and established his own regime at Chengdu.

In 219 the decisive victory over Xiahou Yuan established Liu Bei's control of the Han valley, and gave justification for his claim to the royal and then imperial title of Han. Further east, however, the destruction of Guan Yu, and the failure of Liu Bei's expedition down the Yangzi three years later, restricted the territory of his state to Yi province, and despite its imperial pretensions Shu-Han never recovered from those massive defeats.

When Liu Bei died in 223, his son Liu Shan was seventeen, but Zhuge Liang acted as regent and held control of the government. He confirmed the alliance with Wu, and in campaigns to the south during 224 and 225 he established control of the territory and people as far as the Dian Lake in present-day Yunnan. In 227 he turned his attention to the north: from Hanzhong he launched a series of attacks across the Qin Ling range, and he encouraged defection among the Wei commanders to the west, in present Hubei. The renegade Meng Ta, however, was quickly destroyed by the Wei general Sima Yi, and Zhuge Liang was not able to establish a position. In 229 he did acquire the territory of Wudu commandery, the southern part of present-day Gansu on the upper Han valley, and in 233 he embarked on a renewed attempt to break the line of the mountain barrier. He was, however, successfully opposed by Sima Yi, and he died in the following year.

After a short period of intrigue and confusion, Zhuge Liang's position as commander-in-chief and head of government was taken by Jiang Wan. Like Zhuge Liang, Jiang Wan had his headquarters in Hanzhong, on the frontier against Wei, and the central administration at Chengdu was maintained by a secondary office. In 244, Jiang Wan became ill and left active service, and at his death in 246 Liu Shan, now forty years old, took formal authority at the capital. Despite his maturity Liu Shan was an unimpressive ruler. He was accused, probably correctly, of being more interested in his harem and his personal pleasures than in the responsibilities of government, and he gave excessive power to his favourite Chen Zhi and the eunuch Huang Hao.

Though he planned aggressive action, Jiang Wan had never presented Wei with a serious threat. His position as chief minister on the frontier was taken by Fei Yi, and when Fei Yi was assassinated by a renegade from Wei in 251 command in the north was given to the energetic general Jiang Wei. For the strategists of Shu-Han, an attack from Hanzhong eastwards down the river against present-day Henan, though tempting, was put out of consideration by the difficulty of retreat upstream if the invasion should be defeated. As a result, for the next ten years, Jiang Wei sought to break the line of the Qin Ling ranges, primarily through alliance with the non-Chinese Qiang. The men of Wei, however, consolidated their power with a program of agricultural garrisons, while the energies and morale of the people of Shu-Han were exhausted by the years of failure.

In the 260s, after the Sima family had established control of the government of Wei, they planned the attack on Shu-Han. In the autumn of 263 they captured the passes into Hanzhong, and while one army held Jiang Wei in the northwest, the general Deng Ai went forward against Chengdu. In the winter, after victory in one pitched battle, he received the surrender of Liu Shan. There was a brief period of intrigue and confusion as Deng Ai was dismissed and then assassinated, while Jiang Wei and a rebel commander of Wei, Zhong Hui, sought to establish an independent position, but the plotters were killed, and in the summer of 264 Liu Shan was received into honoured exile at Luoyang.

At the time of the surrender the population of Shu-Han was reported as 280,000 households, 940,000 individuals, 40,000 officials, and 102,000 men under arms. The registered population of Yi province under Later Han had been seven and a quarter million, and even the three commanderies about Chengdu had numbered more than 575,000 households with two and a quarter million individuals. In the Treatise of Geography of Jin shu, which preserves the figures for tax assessment some twenty years later, the population of the territory is just over 300,000 households. This is compatible with the record of Shu-Han, and clearly indicates a quota system of taxation, rather than a decline in the number of people physically inhabiting the province. No government of this time was able to maintain the same level of control as had the local administrators of Han, and the nominal losses of population were much the same over all the divided empire.

On the other hand, though the state of Wu had made some attempt to establish a structure of government which might echo the traditions of Han, Shu-Han appears to have had no more than the most basic civil administration. After the death of Zhuge Liang, the office of Chancellor was ended. Jiang Wan held his senior position with the title Marshal of State, and Fei Yi, head of government at Chengdu, was General-in-Chief, Intendant of the Secretariat and Governor of Yi province. Soon after Jiang Wan's death, Fei Yi moved to campaign headquarters in Hanzhong, and Jiang Wei, also with command in the north, became Intendant of the Secretariat. So the senior officials of the state held military titles, and were regularly engaged in war, while civilian matters at Chengdu were in the hands of Liu Shan and his favourites. In such circumstances, the administration of Shu-Han was that of a warlord regime, with emphasis on the recruitment and supply of troops and on the personal interests of the chieftain. There were, of course, clerical offices to support the work, but it was not a government for long-term planning and development.

One effect of this limitation may be seen in the relationship of the government of Shu-Han with the lands of the south. When Liu Bei seized power at Chengdu in 214, he established the divisional office of Laixiang to administer the southern part of his territory, and the campaigns of Zhuge Liang of the mid-220s destroyed the non-Chinese alliance led by Meng Huo. It should be observed, however, that the settlement imposed on the defeated tribes by Zhuge Liang left the people under continuing control by their native leaders, and confirmed that power with seals and other emblems of authority. In formal terms, they were subjects of Shu-Han, but the records refer to several later rebellions in the southern commanderies, and although the people were brought under control without great difficulty, they did not add notably to the resources of the state.

In this respect, we may contrast the policy of Shu-Han with that of Wu, where conquest of new territory was followed by firm colonisation and the establishment of new units for local control. While the number of counties in the territory of Wu had doubled during the century and a half between the census of Later Han and the register of Jin, in the territory of Shu-Han there was a net gain of just twenty percent, and there was no program of development.

In sum, once Sun Quan had confirmed his hold on the middle Yangzi, the only areas of expansion for Shu-Han lay to the north and the south. Southwards, the government of Zhuge Liang and his successors contented themselves with a general authority, but they did not develop the human and material resources they had acquired. Instead, they concentrated their efforts upon the north and exhausted their limited strength in futile aggression. Shu-Han was founded as a warlord enterprise in a provincial state, and it never became anything more.

Wei and the Sima family

In comparison with Shu-Han, with Wu and with the Gongsun family of the northeast, the state of Wei established by Cao Cao must be regarded as effective successor to the fallen empire of Han. Apart from the formality of the abdication by Emperor Xian to Cao Pi in 220, Wei controlled the heart-lands of China and some seventy per cent of the formerly registered population. The achievement, of course, has been recognised by traditional historians, but there has also been long debate on the reasons for the failure of Wei to reunite the whole of the empire, and this has led to criticism of the state and its rulers, either for lack of enterprise or for lack of moral virtue. We have noted, however, that the increased population of China south of the Yangzi, and the military competence of the government of Sun Quan, made the conquest of that territory extremely difficult - and while Shu-Han in the west remained independent, the northern regime was faced with two substantial opponents who could not be eliminated quickly. Indeed, rather than criticising Cao Cao for not restoring the whole empire of Han, one should admire his achievement in successfully re-establishing government in the north.

On all evidence, the break-down of imperial authority at the end of the second century AD was far more serious than it had been at the beginning of the first. At the simplest level of calculation, the earlier period of full civil war lasted only fifteen years, from the rebellion against Wang Mang in 22 to Emperor Guangwu's defeat of his last major enemy, Gongsun Shu in 36. In contrast, by 207, when Cao Cao had established full dominance over the Yellow plain, the structure of Han government had disappeared, the empire had been devastated by twenty years of turmoil, and later events would prove that control of central China no longer guaranteed control of the periphery.

This political and military perspective partly concealed an important change in Chinese society. At the beginning of Later Han, the reunification of the empire had depended to some extent upon the support which Emperor Guangwu obtained from leading clans and local families, and the power of the government had been substantially limited by its political debts. In the two hundred years which followed, gentry control in the countryside grew steadily, with land, tenants, clients and armed retainers, and the authority of the court and the capital became proportionately weaker. The collapse of authority in civil war confirmed this development, and presented both the opportunity and the necessity for non-official organisations for self-protection.

The problem facing Cao Cao was twofold: on the one hand, there were great numbers of refugees, driven from their homes by war and famine, and at the same time there were numerous local organisations which had taken responsibility for many of the people, and which offered a low-level competition for legitimacy and power. Many of these organisations, often described as "bandits" or "rebels" were formed amongst the peasants, and they sometimes took the form of clan groupings or religious associations. The great majority of dispossessed or uncertain people, however, gathered about some local magnate, and through this pattern of commutation the power of gentry clans, which had already been great under Later Han, came to dominate the local economy, society and administration. The restoration of full imperial power required not merely victory in war, but also the re-establishment or replacement of a system of government which had been growing steadily less effective for some two hundred years.

At an early stage of the civil war, about 196, Cao Cao established a number of "agricultural garrisons" (tuntian) in the neighbourhood of Xu city, his chief headquarters. There was arable land nearby which had been abandoned by refugees and was available to the government, and it was sensible and appropriate that surplus people should be allocated the empty fields. The distinctive point about the new system, however, was that the farmers maintained a direct relationship with the government, that they were granted supplies and material assistance, and that they returned a regular share of produce to the imperial granaries and treasury.

Traditionally, under the Han dynasty, a tax had been levied upon each subject's land-holding, while other government exactions, such as poll tax, civil corvee and military conscription or payment for substitutes, placed a heavy burden on the peasant farmer. The opportunities for corruption and confusion, and for false reporting and evasion, were very great, particularly since the bureaucrats responsible for the collection of the revenues tended to come from the land-owning families themselves. The new agricultural garrisons, through concentration upon sharing the yield, removed the need for surveys of the quantity and quality of the land, and by placing the peasants under the direct control of the government the system eliminated the influences of private interest.

A good deal of debate took place before this policy on sharing production was determined. Since the government was providing the land and farming equipment, notably including oxen for the heavy work of ploughing, there were many who argued that the farmers should be required to pay a fixed rental, regardless of the value of the crop. Cao Cao's adviser Zao Zhi, however, argued that the government levy should be taken as a percentage of the yield, not as a fixed sum: the share-cropping system provided a steady incentive towards higher production, and although a fixed sum might appear more likely to produce a guaranteed return, it would still be necessary to reduce payments in time of poor harvest. This was agreed, and it appears that the government received 50% of the annual yield from the tenant of a garrison, or 60% when the oxen used were owned by the state.

The first garrisons were set up under the administration of Ren Jun, close adviser to Cao Cao, who was appointed Commissioner for Agriculture with authority comparable to that of the head of a commandery, and the system was extended through many areas of Cao Cao's control. It was not, however, universally applied, and not all agricultural garrisons were set up directly by the central government. North of the Yellow River, it appears that there was regular household and land tax, with agricultural garrisons in only a few places of particular local need, and in the region of the Huai River the local commander Liu Fu organised a number of settlements which appear to have remained under the supervision of his office.

Though earlier agricultural garrisons had been set up primarily for military purposes - and those established by Liu Fu were indeed established to maintain the frontier against Wu - Cao Cao's system was designed as much for the value of its civilian production as for military defence. Tenants of the garrisons were naturally expected to be able to protect themselves in time of emergency, and on occasion they could take part in major work on dams and canals, but they were not conscripted for general corvee labour, nor for military service - their function was to produce food, the sinews of war, and they were protected from any interference with that duty.

As a means of physical and political resettlement, the agricultural garrisons were remarkably successful, for they confirmed Cao Cao's control of the ground and gave the migrant peasants a new commitment to the regime which had sponsored them. Economically, the system deployed the resources of land and people on terms which provided regular supplies for government and the army. Comparatively speaking, however, the production of the agricultural garrisons was only a fraction of the resources of the Cao Cao's territory, and it was still necessary for the new regime to establish formal links of authority and service with the many local centres of power. It was in these circumstances that Cao Cao began the system of appointments by Nine Ranks and Categories (jiupin) and when Cao Pi succeeded his father in 220, the structure was established in the state of Wei.

Traditionally under Han, recruitment into the imperial service had been through recommendation of a candidate, generally followed by a period of probation at the capital, and then appointment to substantive office. The majority of recommendations had been made in the form of "Filial and Incorrupt" (xiaolian) by the administration of the commandery to which the candidate belonged. Theoretically, the judgement of a nominee's worth was made on the basis of his local reputation, confirmed where appropriate by supervision at court. By the end of Han, however, through their natural alliance with peers and colleagues in local government, selection had come largely into the hands of the local gentry, and the program was rather a source of influence for great families than a reliable means of obtaining servants for the state. Under the stress of civil war, moreover, the system had broken down entirely, and Cao Cao was compelled to seek some other means to recruit men of ability without encouraging the existing tendencies to local authority and separatism.

Formally, the new system echoed the old principles of choice based upon local reputation, "nomination from the district and selection by the village", and those who were put forward had their characters described in terms similar to those of the "pure judgements" fashionable among scholars and gentlemen in the later years of Han. Despite this air of legitimate tradition and honest reform, however, such a system in practice could only confirm the opportunity for local men of power to influence the recommendations.

To guard against self-serving, corrupt and false nominations, the central government of Wei appointed Rectifiers to each commandery, officials whose duty was to assess the quality of the candidates for office, and to grade them in terms of suitability and potential. In this respect, they carried out one of the functions of a Grand Administrator under Han, but there were two notable differences: firstly that these officials were specialists in such judgements, acting as censors for local nominations and secondly that whereas in Han times senior local officials were deliberately appointed to hold office outside their home country, the Rectifiers were required to supervise their own native territory. They were, however, commissioned from the capital, and it was hoped that they would act rather as informed agents of the state than as representatives of purely local interests.

The judgement of the Rectifiers was expressed by allocation of each candidate to one of nine categories, backed by a summary description of his character. In similar fashion, all offices in the empire were graded into nine ranks, although there was no necessary correlation between the category of an official and the rank of his current office. The category was rather a judgement of potential, and men of the highest category were regarded as eligible for appointment to the highest positions.

Though there were a number of subordinates to assist the Rectifiers in their work, and some senior officials with different titles were established at provincial level, there were frequent complaints that the officers were over-extended, so they could not make full investigation of the multitude of candidates. Predictably, there were also accusations of favouritism, many of them justified, and in practice it appears that the system became the means by which men of good family entrenched themselves in power. In a celebrated memorial presented during the early years of Western Jin, Liu Yi criticised the arbitrary power of these officials, claiming that:

there are no men of humble family in the highest categories, nor do any representatives of powerful clans appear among the lower ranks.

And the modern Japanese scholar Tanigawa Michio has observed that:

it was the aristocratic stratum in the Six Dynasties which... established itself as a ruling class. The most concrete, structural manifestation of their institutionalization was the Nine Ranks recruitment system for the bureaucracy.

The system had been designed to satisfy the claims of leading local families to a role in the government, but to maintain some control over the full exercise of their influence. In the long term, given the power of the great clans, the attempt was doomed to failure, and the state of Wei remained vulnerable to the ambitions of its mighty subjects.

There was, in this respect, critical disagreement between the new regime of the Cao family and the ambitions of other great clans in the reconstituted empire. While men of good family looked naturally for a continuation of the processes which had developed under Han, with increasing autonomy for their local interests and power, Cao Cao and his associates sought the restoration of good order through strong central government, with laws and administration which would bring an end to the weakness and disorder that bedevilled the last century of Han. In summary terms, while the government of Cao Cao looked for a "Legalist" or "Modernist" solution to the political crisis, their leading subjects were concerned with the status and power of their families, justified by a "Confucian", "Reformist" morality.

The authority and legitimacy of the state of Wei was based upon success in civil war and a special relationship with the tradition of Han. Through more than twenty years, Cao Cao developed a parallel administration whereby he himself held nominal position as chief servant of the dynasty, but also maintained a separate administrative and military structure under his own command. When his son and successor Cao Pi received the abdication of Emperor Xian of Han and took the imperial title for himself, it was indeed generally accepted that the Mandate of Heaven had changed, and that the power of Earth, represented by the colour yellow, had succeeded to the Fire and red of Han.

Besides its military strength, and the mystical authority which could be claimed from Han, the new regime enhanced its position with the outward signs of power and prosperity. The three chief cities, Luoyang which had been the capital of Later Han, Xu city the residence of Emperor Xian, and Ye city the former headquarters of Yuan Shao, now centre of the administration of Wei, were each restored and adorned with monuments. In 212, when his Copper Bird Terrace on the walls of Ye city was completed, Cao Cao had his sons celebrate the occasion by composing a rhapsody. His third son Cao Zhi, then ten years old, wrote:

On a pleasure-tour with the brilliant ruler,

we climb the storied terrace with feelings of delight

We see all the palace stretched out below,

and we gaze upon the works of wisdom and virtue:

He has raised great gates like rugged hills,

he has floated twin turrets into the clouds,

He has built a splendid tower to reach the heavens,

he has joined flying bridges to the western walls.

We look down to the long thread of the Zhang River,

we look out to the flourishing growth of the orchards

We lift our heads to the gentle majesty of the spring breeze,

and we hear the competing cries of a hundred birds.

The heavenly work is established firm as a wall,

the wishes of our house are brought to fulfilment,

Good influence reaches all the world,

and every respect and reverence is paid to the capital

Though the hegemons of the past were magnificent,

how can they compare to your wisdom and virtue?

Cao Cao was impressed, and the theme and the author symbolize two notable aspects of the state of Wei. Though the rhapsody is not one of his finest works, Cao Zhi is admired as one of the greatest poets of China. Cao Cao himself was skilled in both poetry and prose, his eldest son and heir Cao Pi had real ability as a composer and scholar of literature, and Cao Pi's son Cao Rui was also respected as a poet.

This succession of talented rulers, moreover, gathered and sponsored a host of poets, writers and scholars, respected and admired in their own time and in subsequent generations, who gave an intellectual splendour to what might otherwise have been no more than a military government. The details of their achievement must be analysed elsewhere, but we may recognise that the abilities of the Cao family, in association with such men as Wang Can and the other Masters of the Jian'an reign period, represent a flowering of culture which is one of the glories of early Chinese civilisation, and the leadership of the new government was strengthened by this gathering of distinguished men at court.

As for any state developed in such a time of crisis and continuing tension, the structure of power at the centre of Wei was by no means certain or secure. By good fortune, Cao Cao lived to the age of sixty-five, and Cao Pi his eldest son, succeeded him as a mature man of thirty-four. There had been, however, some question whether Cao Zhi, third son of Cao Cao, might not have been named his successor, and the second son, Cao Zhang, a competent and experienced military commander, held some hopes for himself. One reason Cao Pi arranged to receive the imperial title from Emperor Xian so soon after his father's death was to confirm his position at the head of the government.

Moreover, Cao Pi also removed his brothers and half-brothers from any further possibility of threat or rivalry. They were swiftly despatched to the territories of their nominal fiefs, they were kept under constant observation, and they were transferred, demoted, or restored in title at frequent intervals. Very occasionally, they were permitted formal visits to the capital, but they were not allowed any place in the government.

This firm isolation of the emperor's male relatives remained an established policy of Wei, and it reflected the practice of Han. Cao Pi, however, considering the troubles which had beset the imperial Liu family through the involvement of great families of relatives by marriage, also ordered that the empress-dowager should have no involvement in government, and no member of the clan of an imperial consort should hold position as a regent. The Lady Bian, dowager of Cao Cao and mother of Cao Pi, was a former sing-song girl, the Lady Guo, chosen Empress of Cao Pi, came of minor gentry stock and had at one time been a servant, and the father of Cao Rui's first Empress Mao had been a yamen runner. It seems very probable the latter two consorts were deliberately chosen from families which could offer no rivalry to the Cao family. The policies of exclusion, one old and one new, removed two sources of potential disturbance from the court, but they also deprived the imperial lineage of some prestige and political support, and compelled the ruler to rely chiefly upon cadet branches of the family or other clans allied through marriage to princesses.

The effect of the new system was shown in 226, when Cao Pi died at the age of forty. His eldest son Cao Rui, twenty-two years old, came to the throne as an adult, but four regent advisers were appointed for him: the minister Chen Qun, the generals Cao Zhen and Cao Xiu, who were distantly related to the imperial family, and the general Sima Yi. In practice, the new emperor was permitted to manage affairs for himself, but the combination of guardians reflected the balance of influence which supported the throne. Within a few years, moreover, Cao Zhen, Cao Xiu and Chen Qun were dead, and Sima Yi was the senior minister and military commander of the empire.

The Sima family were a respected, old-established, and wide-ranging family from Henei commandery. Sima Yi's elder brother Sima Lang had joined Cao Cao early in the civil war, and Sima Yi, who first held office at the puppet court of Han, followed him in 208 and served on the staff of Cao Cao's headquarters. In 217 he became a member of the suite of Cao Pi as Heir Apparent, and he was evidently a personal friend. When Cao Pi came to the throne, Sima Yi received steadily higher appointments, and in 224 and 225 he was left in charge of domestic affairs while the emperor took the field against Wu.

A few months after Cao Pi's death in 226, Sima Yi took command in the field for the first time, driving back a secondary attack of Wu against Xiangyang, and in the following year he was given responsibility for military affairs on the Han River. Although he was in his late forties, and his previous experience had been civil and administrative, he proved to be an energetic and competent general, and during the next ten years he held command in the south against Wu and in the west against Shu-Han.

In 238 Sima Yi was recalled from his headquarters at Chang'an to take command of an offensive against Gongsun Yuan of Manchuria. In a swift, powerful campaign he brushed aside Gongsun Yuan's defences on the Liao River, captured his capital Xiangping, and exterminated the warlord government. So the northeast was brought into the domain of Wei, and a further series of campaigns in 244-245, under the general Guanqiu Jian, broke the power of the non-Chinese state of Koguryo and removed any immediate threat from that region of the frontier. The Chinese military position in the northeast was now the strongest it had been since the time of Emperor Wu and Former Han, and its political authority is reflected in a series of embassies which came to the court of Wei from the Japanese female ruler Pimiko.

In 239, at the age of thirty-five, Cao Rui died. He had no sons of his own body, and his adopted successor was a seven-year-old boy, Cao Fang, who was surely a close member of the imperial family, but whose exact parentage was officially unknown. Cao Rui had replaced the Lady Mao with a new Empress, the Lady Guo, a woman of respectable family, but in accordance with the policy of Cao Pi her relatives were kept from power. For a time Cao Rui contemplated a council of regency which would be dominated by members of the imperial lineage, but he was finally persuaded to nominate only two men: Cao Shuang, son of the former regent Cao Zhen, and Sima Yi.

From the beginning of the joint regency, chief power at court was in the hands of Cao Shuang. Sima Yi was given the honourable title of Grand Tutor, but he was not encouraged to play any substantial role, and he concentrated rather upon military enterprises. Unlike his father and grandfather, Cao Rui had taken no part in military affairs, Cao Fang was still too young to do so, and Cao Shuang recorded only a single unsuccessful campaign against the frontier of Shu-Han. Sima Yi, in contrast, was a distinguished commander, with wide support in the army and among men of good family outside the circle of the court.

In the cultural history of China the Zhengshi reign period from 240 to 249, the time of Cao Shuang's regency, is a moment of intellectual brilliance when the tradition of Confucianism, almost exhausted by the sterilities of Han, was revived for a time under the influence of Taoism and in particular by association with xuanxue, "The Study of the Mysteries." Among the leaders of this intellectual trend were He Yan, a close associate of Cao Shuang, and his friend Wang Bi, one of the greatest interpreters of the Yi jing )v8g the Book of Changes.

The social attitudes and personal conduct of this group of intellectuals and scholars, however, though fitting with the freedom of their philosophical attitudes, did not win wide approval or respect. He Yan, son of a concubine of Cao Cao, was elegant and arrogant, a scholar of the Laozi, brilliant in the repartee and dialectic of "pure conversation" (qingtan). Under Cao Shuang, as a member of the imperial secretariat, he had considerable influence on official appointments, and brought many of his colleagues to court. He had a reputation, however, as a libertine, and he and his associates were devotees of the ecstatic drug known as the Five Minerals Powder.

In many respects, the attitude of He Yan and his friends was comparable to the ideal of "spontaneity" and going "beyond the bounds" which was followed by their contemporaries Ruan Ji, Xi Kang and other Sages of the Bamboo Grove. These men, of good background and great talent, represented a movement which sought to avoid meaningless formality, and which deliberately opposed the traditions accepted by standard Confucianism. The attitudes of He Yan and his associates can be readily understood in the context of the society of their time, but their conduct was exaggerated both in reality and in the propaganda of their enemies. In political terms, He Yan appears to have been the only member of the group interested in substantial office, but Cao Shuang and all the court were affected by his reputation. In the earlier years of Wei, the literary life of the capital added lustre and authority to the new regime. Now, in a sad reversal, the excesses attributed to He Yan and his clique became an embarrassment, and Sima Yi was able to present himself as the representative for men of good family who sought Confucian reform, morality and restraint in politics and society.

In 247 Cao Shuang and his associates introduced a number of administrative and legal changes to enhance the central power which they controlled. Sima Yi pretended illness and ostensibly retired from public life, but at the beginning of 249, as the emperor and Cao Shuang were on a visit to the dynastic tombs outside Luoyang, Sima Yi gathered troops for a coup d'état, seized the cortege and massacred Cao Shuang, his colleagues and their kinsmen. From this time on, the state of Wei was in the hands of the Sima family.

In 251, two years after the coup, Sima Yi died, leaving his position to his eldest son Sima Shi, then forty years old. Sima Shi embarked on a series of raids and campaigns against Wu and against the non-Chinese people of the north, but he achieved no breakthrough, and by 254 the emperor and supporters of the Cao family were threatening his authority. Sima Shi, however, struck first, deposed Cao Fang, and set his cousin Cao Mao on the throne in his stead.

In the following year, 255, the general Guanqiu Jian and other supporters of the dynasty seized the city of Shouchun and asked for help from Wu. The southerners, however, were unable to provide assistance, and Sima Shi destroyed the rebels. Soon afterwards, on 23 March, Sima Shi died, but he was succeeded by his younger brother Sima Zhao, and the power of the clan was not interrupted. In 257 another general of Wei, Zhuge Tan, rebelled at Shouchun and also sought support from the south, but the city was recaptured in the following year and the northern hold on the line of the Huai River was confirmed.

In 260, there was one further conspiracy to preserve the dynasty, in which the twenty-year-old Emperor took a leading role, but it was defeated in a short skirmish, and Cao Mao was killed in the fighting. He was replaced by the last in the line of puppets, Cao Huan, and Sima Zhao could now concentrate upon the conquest of Shu-Han. By 264 victory in the west was complete, and Sima Zhao took title as King of Jin. In the autumn of the following year Sima Zhao died, but he was succeeded by his eldest son Sima Yan, then thirty years old. That winter, on 4 February 266, in form reminiscent of Cao Pi's accession years before, Sima Yan received the abdication of Cao Huan and took the imperial title for himself.

So the final triumph of Wei over Shu-Han was also the occasion for the overthrow of the Cao family and its replacement by the Jin dynasty of Sima Yan. The victory could perhaps have come earlier, for the northern state was always more powerful than its rivals, while Shu-Han, after the death of Zhuge Liang, did not maintain an effective government, and Wu also suffered dissension after the long reign of Sun Quan. In similar fashion, however, the weakness of the central government of Wei after the death of Cao Pi, and the conflict which accompanied the rise to power of Sima Yi and his family, prevented the government from taking proper advantage of the disorder in its rivals' camp.

Even before the conquest of Shu-Han, however, the record of Wei was impressive. In the northeast, Cao Cao had broken the Wuhuan confederacy, Sima Yi conquered Gongsun Yuan, and Guanqiu Jian destroyed Koguryo and extended Chinese authority well beyond the frontier. In the west, Cao Cao had settled the Wei River valley by his victory at Huayin, Cao Pi received embassies from central Asia and re-established some form of protectorate, and Xu Miao the Inspector of Liang province confirmed control in the region south of the Ordos.

The restoration of imperial frontiers along the north, however, was limited by weaknesses in the Chinese position which had developed earlier, and by a natural lack of confidence on the part of the central government in the distance over which it could exercise control. In this respect, though Gongsun Yuan in Manchuria had established considerable authority beyond the frontiers of Later Han, and the campaigns of Guanqiu Jian destroyed the power of Koguryo, Sima Yi did not build upon that achievement, but encouraged and enforced the withdrawal of Chinese settlers. The military campaigns in the northeast had been pursued with energy, but the net result was a vacuum on the frontier, with opportunity for non-Chinese peoples, notably the Murong clan of the Xianbi, to develop an independent position.

More generally across the north, rebellion, warfare, raiding and a resultant emigration had removed great expanses of territory from the control of Later Han, and Cao Cao and his successors were compelled to accept the realities of the situation. Cao Cao brought the last Shanyu of the Southern Xiongnu as a hostage to his court, and established a notional administration of five divisions for those Xiongnu who acknowledged Chinese suzerainty. There was, however, no attempt to restore a Chinese presence on the ground, and the government of Wei had effectively abandoned all claim to the region beyond the Ordos and the Sanggan River. By good fortune for China, neither the Xiongnu nor the Xianbi, who now competed with them for dominance in the steppe, were sufficiently well organised to offer any immediate threat, and they were hampered by their own confusions and by some well-placed Chinese intrigue. The lack of a strong imperial position, however, left the several groups and tribes largely free to develop their own interests and power for the future.

Nonetheless, in formal terms the government of Wei had been remarkably successful, and the re-establishment of authority in the north laid firm foundations for the conquest of Shu-Han and Wu. The full unification, however, was achieved by the Sima family, and apart from arguments of loyalty and legitimacy, their reward was not inappropriate. Cao Cao and his son had obtained their authority from a combination of military ability and a splendid state, but after the early death of Cao Pi, Cao Rui had not taken firm command of the army. For a dynasty of marginal lineage, still close to its military origins, this was already a risk, and the suspicions of other clans for any tendency to limit their local power were only enhanced as the government sought to demonstrate authority through display rather than reality. In the end, the leaders of the political community were prepared to support the virtues and achievement of Sima Yi and his sons, men whom they could identify with their own background and interests, against an imperial family perceived increasingly as being of poor character and lineage, lacking the true prestige of government, and without sympathy for the real leaders of the community. The new regime of Jin would reflect their interests far better.

Part 3: The Empire of Western Jin (265-317)

The Unification of China (265-280)

When Sima Yan received the abdication of Cao Huan and proclaimed his own empire of Jin, the formal ceremony was merely the culmination of a process by which his family had seized control of the affairs of the state of Wei. Sima Yan's accession followed closely upon the triumphant conquest of Shu-Han, while the court of Wu was in turmoil and faced rebellion in the far south. With apparently overwhelming strength, and the energy of a new regime, there was reason to expect that the power of Jin would be swiftly turned against the south of the Yangzi and the unification of the Chinese world would soon be completed. In fact, however, Sima Yan and his advisers were uncertain of their position, and they were reluctant to embark upon another great campaign.

The policies and structure of Jin reflected the origins of the Sima family power and the convictions with which they had seized it. The Sima had obtained support because they were seen as representatives of the great clans against the Cao family, and it is fair to assume that Sima Yi and his successors believed their position was correct and honourable. Though the political opponents of the imperial government of Wei sought their own interests, they identified those interests with a true morality, and they regarded themselves as men of traditional "Confucian" virtue, contending against an authoritarian centralism identified with "Legalist" principles. In this respect one may discern a renewal of the debate, identified by Loewe for the Han period, between "Reformist" and "Modernist" approaches to imperial government, and the policies of the Sima reflected a concern for a structure of government and society which would give proper respect to men of quality.

So the Sima, unlike their predecessors the Liu and the Cao, were committed to a position as chief amongst other noble clans, and by both politics and philosophy they were reluctant to claim the full authority of the imperial throne.

On the other hand, it was still necessary to run a government, and Sima Yi, Sima Shi, Sima Zhao, and Sima Yan had, each in turn, showed a capacity for firm action. Moreover, in contrast to the policies of Han and Wei, since the rulers of Jin regarded the state as an extension of their family, they had no hesitation in relying upon their brothers and cousins. The day after he took the imperial title, Sima Yan enfeoffed twenty-seven of his relatives as princes, and these princes were maintained in positions of power. Two of the eight senior ministers were members of the imperial clan, several princes served as Area Commanders and provincial Inspectors, with substantial local authority, and all were given responsibility for the administration of their fiefs. The Wei dynasty of the Cao had fallen into alien hands because the emperors lacked the support of their own relatives, but the Sima had gained their position through appointments granted within the family, and the Jin dynasty would not be so defenceless.

At the same time, however, if the Sima were prepared to rely so heavily upon relationship and personal loyalty, it was difficult for the emperor to enforce the authority which had been claimed by the earlier dynasties. The Han dynasty, moreover, had developed its legitimacy over centuries, and the Wei had acquired their power through conquest, but although Sima Yi and his relatives had played a notable role in the military affairs of the state, their main route to the throne had been through political intrigue and coups d''etat. As a result, the power of the Jin government was restricted, and for some years there remained a sense of uncertainty regarding its competence and its right to rule.

Sima Yan evidently felt he could not afford to risk an immediate attack on Wu, for the consequences of a set-back or defeat could have been disastrous for his prestige and even for his new regime. Though Jin now controlled the Sichuan basin, the years of bitter conflict against Shu-Han, and the hostility that remained among the defeated enemy, meant the resources of that region could hardly be mobilised quickly, and the strategic defences of Wu along the Yangzi appeared secure.

There was trouble, moreover, with the non-Chinese people of the frontier, particularly in the northwest between the Wei River and the Ordos. Years earlier, when the Wei general Deng Ai was engaged in the Wei valley, he had forced the surrender of a group of Xianbi and brought them into Qin province, newly-established on the upper Wei. By the late 260s, however, under the leadership of the chieftain Jifu Shujineng, these immigrants were causing trouble. A special command was set up in 269, but in the following year a local Chinese army was destroyed, and another shared its fate in 271. In response to this sign of weakness the Xiongnu leader Liu Meng rebelled and raided the territory further north, and although he was killed in 272 the unrest remained. Eventually, in 279, when Jifu Shujineng was killed in battle, the remainder of the Xianbi surrendered and the region was restored once again to some form of control.

By this time, the state of Jin was sufficiently well established for a serious attack against the south. There had been no substantial break-through on the line of the Yangzi, but the government of Wu was consistently on the defensive, and Sun Hao was losing both support and confidence. There was still uncertainty among the advisers of Sima Yan, but the forward policy had long been argued by the senior general Yang Hu, commander on the Han River, and the project was taken up by his successor Du Yu and the minister Zhang Hua.

The essence of the plan was to outflank the position of Wu by an invasion from Sichuan. While Sima Zhou led a direct attack southwards, Wang Jun the Inspector of Yi province prepared a great fleet and sailed through the Yangzi Gorges, breaking the river barriers and opening the way for the regular troops of Jin to advance down the Han and across the Huai. The campaign began in the spring of 280, and by the third month the combined forces of the invaders were at the walls of Jianye. On 1 May 280, deserted by his last troops, Sun Hao came to the camp of Wang Jun and handed over his seals and insignia to Sima Zhou.

Settlement of the empire (280-290)

In 264, at the time of the conquest of Shu-Han, a decree of the government of Wei under the control of Sima Zhao abolished the separate administration of government agricultural garrisons "in order to equalise the corvee services". The officials in charge were transferred to the regular hierarchy of commanderies and counties, and the court of Jin confirmed the policy two years later.

This pair of edicts did not eliminate all agricultural garrisons, but it did represent a reduction in central control over those substantial assets of labour and land, and the change reflects a weakening of the government's position against the powerful families to whom the Sima owed their accession to the throne. There is considerable debate on the manner in which the nature and the function of the garrisons had been subverted, whether by the encroachment of local gentry and officials who took the people and the land under their own control, or by the excessive demands made upon the colonists by competing local and central interests, but there is no doubt that the centralising policies of the early state of Wei, expressed particularly through government access to the special resources of the garrisons, were now largely abandoned. Because of their contribution to military operations, the garrisons were maintained in form during the next few years, but they held only a limited role in the future economy of the state. After the conquest of Wu, when the major need for military expenditure and energy was passed, the system of agricultural garrisons was subsumed into the general land system of the empire.

As on other occasions in Chinese history, the reunification of the empire left the victorious government with serious problems of disarmament and reconstruction. The situation had not been so urgent at the time of the conquest of Shu-Han, for there still remained the rival and powerful state of Wu, and surplus troops could be transferred to serve on that front. In 280, however, apart from the general defence of the north, there was no need for more than local garrisons, and there remained a great number of soldiers and their families, many of them maintained in service for generations, who should now be settled into productive work. There was room for resettlement along the old frontier with Wu, between the Huai River and the Yangzi and on the lower reaches of the Han, there were other regions which had not been fully occupied or exploited in the years of war, and abolition of the agricultural garrisons allowed a re-assessment of their land.

In these circumstances, the government of Jin established a system of land allocation (ketian), based upon the entitlement of each individual in the farming community. The basic unit was fifty mou, which was the amount allocated to a "regular" male, aged between 16 and 60 years. A "secondary" male, aged between 13 and 15 or 61 and 65, received half that amount, and a regular female received twenty mou. Those older or younger received no allocation. Though it is unlikely the system could have been maintained on a regular basis, it served as the formal basis for resettlement and reconstruction of the countryside in the years after the unification of the empire.

As corollary to the allocation of land, and reflecting a policy established by Cao Cao, founder of Wei, taxes were levied on each household: one which was headed by a regular male was required to pay three pi of silk and three jin of silk floss, and one which was headed by a female or secondary male paid half that amount. In this regard, an allocation of tax against each household was markedly easier to administer than the Han system based upon land or the poll-tax, for it did not require such a detailed survey or census and the assessment in kind reflects a continued decline of the use of coinage.

There had been currency and inflation problems throughout Later Han, but when the government of Dong Zhuo replaced the traditional wushu coinage with smaller units at the beginning of the civil war, it brought a collapse of the money economy. Cao Cao and his son Cao Pi both attempted to restore the currency, but in 221 the government of Wei formally declared that grain and silk should be the official means of exchange. Though the wushu coins were later revived again, and were maintained in circulation by the government of Jin, the official economy still relied upon commodity exchange.

One effect of the years of disturbance had been a decline in private commerce, and a more limited pattern of trade than in the time of Han. The great landed estates, concerned primarily with their own self-sufficiency, concentrated economic activity into small local areas, and numbers of people came to take service with them. In some cases, as we have seen, these followers came voluntarily for protection others had been called up in an officially-sponsored conscription, and then had their allegiance transferred gradually to their individual commander and the same process took place as the government agricultural garrisons were broken up to the advantage of private interests. Despite official programs for settlement, numbers of people failed to receive any allocation of land, while others found the protection of a powerful magnate more attractive and secure than the risks of individual enterprise and the demands of taxation. Throughout the countryside, individual land-owners were able to deal with their tenants and dependents in a system of barter and exchange of service, and it was difficult for any government agency to obtain information or to enforce their demands. Taxation and other levies were obtained rather by negotiation on the basis of quotas than by formal assessment of value and obligation.

In an attempt to control this expansion of great land-holdings and their dependences, the imperial administration promulgated a law of land registration (zhantian). In theory, at least, the system provided that each individual should register his land with the government, paying tax on the amount involved, but receiving good title in return. As an extension of this measure, the system sought to limit the size of land-holdings throughout the empire, proclaiming that each male was entitled to seventy mou and each female thirty. There appears, however, no restriction of age or family status, so children and old people could contribute to the legal entitlement of their family. It has been observed that under this system a husband and wife together would have an allowance of one hundred mou, the basic figure in the well-field system described by Mencius. Searching for reforms to solve the problems of the time, and observing the excessive land-holdings and the extending power of the great families, several writers of Later Han proposed the restoration of this ideal, and Sima Lang had suggested the scheme to Cao Cao, founder of Wei, without success. Given the interests and strength of the opposition, a policy of equal distribution had not been practicable in the past, and it was all the less so now.

Unlike the ketian, which probably represented a real program of allocation, usefully carried out in some regions, the zhantian was no more than an attempt to establish the principle that each person was entitled to registered possession of a certain amount of land, and any excess was subject to ultimate control and possible confiscation. The system was not intended for immediate operation, but represented a policy which might be enforced at some later time.

Even this, however, was optimistic, for the government was compelled to accept the right of nobles and officials to hold land in addition to the regular allocation and, most importantly, there was no way to control the numbers of client families who had attached themselves or had been taken into service by powerful clans. In partial recognition of the situation, the Jin allowed privileged and official families to "protect" a limited number of retainers and tenants. As with the land registration, the government evidently hoped that if it gave formal recognition to the existence of these clients it would thereby establish some principle of authority, and the situation could be brought under control later. Given the political support which the Sima family required from the great clans, however, and considering the fact that the officials administering the restrictions were themselves either members of such families or readily intimidated by their local power, there was never great likelihood that the imperial government would be able to enforce its writ against the wishes and interests of its powerful subjects.

One may see the signs of weakness in records of population. The Treatise of Geography in Jin shu presents only rounded and summary figures for the numbers of households in each administrative area, no way comparable to the two Han histories, which give figures for both households and individuals. Moreover, where the Later Han records about 140 A.D. have a total population for the empire of 9.7 million households and almost fifty million individuals, the Jin figures about 280 have only 2.5 million households and sixteen million individuals, one-fifth of the numbers under Han.

Though the years of civil war had certainly taken a toll in the heart-land of China, and brought a dramatic decline along the northern frontier, we have also observed the remarkable development of colonisation in the area south of the Yangzi formerly controlled by Wu. The population of China may have declined since the time of Later Han, but the loss was certainly not so great as the figures would indicate. Bielenstein has shown that the numbers of households given by Jin shu for each commandery represent a taxation list, not a true census. They may indeed be best understood as a series of quotas, indicating the assessed value and obligation of each unit, with no more than incidental relationship to the true population in each area. As to the numbers of individuals, we have seen how the records of the surrendered states of Shu-Han and Wu present far lower figures than those of the same area recorded by Later Han, and the total given by Jin shu follows the same pattern. It must be assumed that these reported the people under direct control of the administration for corvee or conscription, while the remainder of the population contrived to avoid such levies, either by keeping at a physical distance from government agencies or, very frequently, by sheltering under the protection of great families. In practice, the governments of the rival states, and the empire of Jin which succeeded them, had only limited access to the resources which they nominally controlled. The problem, moreover, was not just a question of administrative energy and competence, for the growth of economic and political power among the landed families, already established during Later Han, had accelerated in the years of turmoil, and there was now no meaningful machinery by which a government might restore the authority of the old empire.

In these circumstances, unable to establish full control over the empire, the Jin were compelled to make use of their family connections. During the years of conflict, contending warlords and governments had roughly maintained the Han structure of local administration, based upon provinces, commanderies and counties. Because of the threat of mutiny and separatism, Inspectors rather than Governors had been appointed, and there had been varying policies and some debate on the granting of military responsibilities. From practice during the civil wars and under Wei, confirmed by Jin, a new pattern was developed whereby Inspectors were appointed primarily as civil officials, but another hierarchy, that of Area Commanders, was appointed above them.

Classed in the second of the Nine Ranks, the same as ministers at court and generals of the army, Area Commanders had full military power within their territory, and their authority was dominant in the empire outside the capital. Moreover, in a clear demonstration of faith in family, the government of Jin entrusted members of the imperial Sima clan with a substantial number of these appointments, particularly along the northern frontier and in the North China plain. By contrast, the competent official Zhang Hua was removed from his post in You province of the northeast because of suspicion about his loyalty.

So the government of China reunited under Sima Yan was still weak and ineffective in comparison with Han. It did not succeed in establishing control over its most powerful subjects, and on the other hand, as time passed, the generation of leaders who had given a personal loyalty to Sima Yan and his predecessors during the years of their rise to power gradually died out. To maintain its position, the court relied upon members of the imperial house who were established as long-term rulers with military power over substantial territories across the empire. It was a policy which had often been urged by scholars of the Confucian tradition, but it had been consistently rejected by Qin, Han and Wei. The Sima family of Jin now put it to the test.

Empress Jia and the eight princes (290-306)

Sima Yan, Emperor Wu of Jin, died on 16 May 290 at the age of fifty-five, and he was succeeded by his thirty-year-old son Sima Zhong, later known as Emperor Hui.

Sima Zhong had been appointed Heir Apparent in 267, and in 272 he was married to the Lady Jia Nanfeng, daughter of the minister Jia Chong, an old supporter of the Sima family who had played a leading role in the fighting against Cao Mao in 260. Though there was a general anxiety, from increasing evidence, that Sima Zhong was mentally disabled and unfit to rule, Sima Yan maintained him as his heir and accepted the alliance with the Jia family.

On this vital question, Sima Yan is said to have accepted the persuasions of his first empress the Lady Yang Yan, but the decision was not unreasonable. As the Lady Yang observed, to discard the senior son, even when he was not the most suitable, would open debate on other candidates, and this could easily develop into a general struggle for power. Sima Zhong, moreover, now had a son of his own, Sima Yu, born of the Lady Xie, one of Sima Yan's own concubines who had obtained his favour. In 290, Sima Yu was thirteen, and he was a young man of outstanding quality.

Earlier, when the Empress Yang Yan was on her deathbed, she recommended that her cousin Yang Zhi should succeed her, and Yang Jun, father of the Lady Yang Zhi, acquired great influence with the Emperor. In his own last illness, Sima Yan sought to establish an interim administration to guide the dynasty until Sima Yu could take substantive power. He had an edict prepared that his senior uncle Sima Liang, son of Sima Yi by a concubine, should become the regent head of government jointly with Yang Jun, and he sent three of his younger sons into the provinces as area commanders: Sima Wei, was in Jing province, Sima Yun was in Yang, and Sima Jian was in the northwest. Military control of the provinces was thus almost entirely in the hands of the Sima family: Sima Wei, Sima Yun and Sima Jian controlled the south of the Yangzi and the northwest, the northern part of the North China plain was held by Sima Lun, also a son of Sima Yi by a concubine, and the territories south of the Yellow River were governed by Sima Lun's brother Sima Yong and his nephew Sima Huang.

By accepting two empresses from the Yang clan, Sima Yan had established a powerful group of relatives by marriage, and he was also concerned about the ambitions of the Jia family. He evidently believed, however, that the authority he had granted Sima Liang, and the local powers of the princes, would be sufficient to ensure the position of the imperial house. In fact, his death brought immediate conflict.

It was the Yang family that took the initiative. With the support of his daughter the Empress, Yang Jun suppressed the edict granting regent's authority to Sima Liang, and after Sima Yan died he took that power for himself. In fear of Yang Jun, Sima Liang made no effective response to the challenge, but fled from the capital and took up the position he had held earlier, as Area Commander in Yu province, based upon Xuchang. The Empress Jia, however, held no such inhibitions: on 23 April 291 she organised a coup, with palace guards under her own command, to destroy Yang Jun, his family and their supporters. The Empress-Dowager Yang was deposed, and Sima Liang and the senior official Wei Guan were invited to take over the reins of government.

Thus far, the Empress Jia could claim to have been acting in accordance with the wishes of her late father-in-law. The situation was confused, however, by Sima Wei, who returned from his appointment in Jing province and sought a role in the politics of the capital. With intrigue against his elder kinsman Sima Liang, he obtained approval from the Empress to remove him and Wei Guan, and on 25 July 291, just three months after their appointment, the two men were assassinated. Almost immediately afterwards, on the advice of her minister Zhang Hua, the Empress Jia had Sima Wei arrested and executed on the charge of forging an imperial edict.

With this last twist of treachery, the Empress Jia had gained full control of the capital, and for the next several years the highest positions at court were in the hands of her family and their supporters. For a time Sima Yong, recalled from the northwest, was given formal charge of the secretariat, but he had no real authority and in 296 he returned to his former territory. General administration was maintained by the veteran Zhang Hua and the youthful Pei Wei, while the empress' nephew Jia Mi held considerable influence at court and was a noted patron of leading men of letters.

In many respects the period of Jia family dominance resembled the occasions in Han when consort families had acquired similar power over the government, and though the regime has been described as a usurpation, it was not incompetent. There were substantial problems on the frontiers, but they were coped with, and despite the military potential of their local powers the Sima princes appear to have accepted the destruction of Sima Liang and Sima Wei, and the somewhat cavalier treatment of Sima Yong, without great concern and certainly without taking action. In fact, the struggles at the capital had little effect upon arrangements in the provinces provided that the imperial title remained in proper hands.

The situation was changed, however, dramatically and fatally, when the Empress decided to remove Sima Yu from his position as Heir Apparent. Sima Yu turned twenty in 297, and the time was approaching when he might seek authority of his own or become the centre of a dissident faction. He and Jia Mi, moreover, were clear enemies, and if the Heir Apparent came to the throne the future of the Jia faction was very uncertain. In February 300, therefore, Sima Yu was tricked into signing a treasonous letter, and the Emperor was persuaded to dismiss him. Three months later, on 27 April, the Empress Jia had the young man killed.

Once again, this pattern of conduct may often be observed during Han. A consort family which had held regency powers was always in trouble when the true ruler came to maturity, and one side or the other would frequently resort to intrigue and bloodshed. The unfortunate Sima Yu had presented a comparable threat, and events followed a sad tradition. At this point, however, unlike Han, other members of the imperial clan were in position to defend their interests.

At the time of Sima Yu's death, the two surviving sons of Sima Yi, Sima Yong and Sima Lun, were stationed at Luoyang. Sima Lun had transferred from Ji to Yong province, but in 296 he was recalled to the capital and was replaced by Sima Yong. Sima Yong, for his part, had lately been re-appointed to formal control of the imperial secretariat, and his place in the northwest was taken by his cousin Sima Yung. On 7 May 300 Sima Lun and his allies seized power at the capital. They imprisoned the Empress Jia, forcing her to commit suicide a few days later, and they killed Jia Mi, Zhang Hua, and Pei Wei. Sima Lun became Chancellor of State and appointed his relatives and supporters to the leading positions.

In this respect, the policy of the Jin dynasty had been remarkably successful. Unlike the pattern of Han, the imperial family had been able to resist and destroy the over-ambitious consort group, and power was now returned to the Sima family. Despite Sima Lun's seniority in the clan, however, he was not himself popular, there was objection to his counsellor Sun Xiu, and it was claimed that he was acting without proper authority. In the autumn of 300, Sima Yun attempted a coup against Sima Lun, but was killed in the skirmishing which followed. Then, on 3 February 301, Sima Lun forced a form of abdication upon Emperor Hui and claimed the imperial title for himself.

Despite earlier examples of such seizure of power, it was not acceptable to usurp the throne from one's own kinsman, and in April 301 Sima Ying and Sima Yih, younger brothers of Emperor Hui, joined forces with Sima Jiong, Area Commander at Xuchang, and came from the east against Luoyang. They defeated Sima Lun and forced him to commit suicide, they restored Emperor Hui to his imperial state, and then Sima Jiong used his local military power to take over the regency.

Again, though it was one thing to run the empire as a family affair, there was great room for disagreement as to which individual should hold the highest position. Sima Lun's ambition had brought his destruction, but in May 302, the death of the last of the sons of the late Heir Apparent Sima Yu caused another dynastic crisis, for there was now no clear successor to Emperor Hui. Sima Ying hoped for the nomination, and he resented the dominant position taken by the more distant relative Sima Jiong, while Sima Yung from the west also sought a role. In complex intrigue during the last days of the Chinese year, Sima Ying and Sima Yung involved Sima Yih in their rivalry with Sima Jiong, but when Sima Jiong sought to destroy Sima Yih, Sima Yih turned the tables on him and took his place at the head of government.

Sima Yih appears to have been the most competent of the princes, and also the most popular, but disorder at the capital had already begun to remove the authority of the central government. There was continuing rebellion in Sichuan, increasing trouble in Henan, and after twelve months Sima Yih was attacked from the east by Sima Ying and from the west by Sima Yung. In an energetic campaign, Sima Yih inflicted heavy defeat on Sima Ying's forces and held off the army of Sima Yung commanded by Zhang Fang. Then, however, he was betrayed and arrested in his own camp by Sima Yue, member of a cadet lineage, and on 19 March 304 Zhang Fang had Sima Yih burnt at the stake.

On 1 May 304, with Sima Yung's approval, Sima Ying named himself as Heir Apparent, and removed several government offices to his own capital at Ye. Though Sima Yue still held the Emperor at Luoyang, he felt increasing resentment at the shift of power to the new regime in the east, and in the summer of 304 he led an army against Ye. On 9 September, at the battle of Tangyin, his troops were utterly defeated. Emperor Hui was wounded by three arrows, his attendant Xi Shao, son of the poet Xi Kang, was killed in front of him, and he fell into the hands of Sima Ying.

A few weeks later, however, the general Wang Jun, who had been appointed to command in the north by the Jia regime and was threatened by Sima Ying, came south against Ye with an army including a substantial contingent of non-Chinese auxiliaries. Taking the Emperor with him, Sima Ying fled in panic to Luoyang. He was, however, completely discredited, and power was held by Zhang Fang, who garrisoned the capital with the most powerful army of the region. Soon afterwards Zhang Fang brought the court west to Chang'an, where he could also supervise his nominal superior, Sima Yung.

The new regime, however, was surrounded by enemies. The armies of Wang Jun continued their advance, and there was an additional threat from the Xiongnu under Liu Yuan in present-day Shanxi. From his fief territory of Donghai, moreover, and with the aid of his brothers, Sima Yue gathered forces to renew the challenge, and from the summer of 305, in a multitude of engagements, including the siege and capture of Xuchang, Ye and Luoyang, he advanced towards the west. Early in 306, in an attempt to come to terms, Sima Yung assassinated Zhang Fang, but on 5 June 306 Chang'an was captured and sacked by an army of Wuhuan and Xianbi under the command of Wang Jun's general Ji Hong. Emperor Hui was returned to Luoyang, Sima Yung and Sima Ying were captured and killed, and Sima Yue took control of the court.

Emperor Hui died on 8 January 307 - there were rumours Sima Yue had him poisoned - and he was succeeded by his younger brother Sima Zhi, twenty-fifth son of Sima Yan. The new emperor was not so incompetent as his brother, but he played no part in politics and left matters to Sima Yue. In fact, however, for all the ruthlessness with which he had pursued his ambitions, the regime maintained by Sima Yue was little more than a fragile facade, and the Yongjia reign period (307-312) was a period of continued anarchy. The territory north of the Yellow River was contested ground, there was trouble in the valley of the Huai, Sichuan continued in rebellion, and in 308 the bandit Wang Mi from Shandong captured Xuchang city.

The victory of Sima Yue finished the civil war, but it had ended in exhaustion and despair. Though the brothers and cousins of the Sima clan had indeed defended their imperial position, six years of turmoil had produced a ferocious, meaningless record of treachery, murder and war. The credit of the government and the imperial family was ruined, the greater part of the imperial armies had been destroyed in the internecine fighting, and there was no authority that might restore the state or re-establish a position against the forces which threatened from the north.

The peoples of the steppe and the collapse of Western Jin

Since written sources for the study of early east Asia are in Chinese, it is not surprising that most of the history has been discussed from a Chinese point of view. Despite this bias, however, there is ample evidence to show that the traditional attitude towards non-Chinese neighbours of the empire was arrogant, aggressive, short-sighted and untrustworthy. When such people were brought under control, notably in the south and the west, they were oppressed and exploited by the Chinese government and its citizens, and on the northern frontier, imperial governments sought only to force the aliens into their tribute system. There was no concept of independence, let alone equality of esteem, treaties were seldom made and never kept, and trade was regarded as a means of control rather than as sensible exchange of goods for value. It was consistent policy that any large grouping should be divided and destroyed, but the result, often enough, left the frontier vulnerable to a multitude of petty, troublesome, war-leaders.

Unattractive though it may have been, that policy was successful for much of the Han period. At the end of the first century A.D., however, the great victory of Dou Xian over the Northern Xiongnu destroyed the political equilibrium of the north, and the second century saw an enfeebled Chinese government faced with a multitude of disparate threats, from the rebellions of the Qiang people in the west to the rise of aggressive Xianbi tribes which came to replace the federations of the Xiongnu. In the time of Emperor Ling the Xianbi war-leader Tanshihuai acquired general control over his people, destroyed a major Chinese army, and sent raiding parties year after year against the frontier.

By good fortune for the Chinese, the successors of Tanshihuai lacked his authority, and the pirate kingdom fell into disarray after his death in the early 180s. For a few years at the end of Han the Xianbi leader Kebineng restored some semblance of Tanshihuai's dominion, and was given title as an ally by Cao Pi, but Chinese diplomacy aided his enemies, and when Kebineng was murdered in 235 the new federation also collapsed.

Elsewhere, in the northeast Cao Cao had destroyed a Wuhuan alliance under Tadun in 207, and he brought the Wei River valley under control at the battle of Huayin in 211. In 216 he settled the remnant Xiongnu in five divisions through present-day Shanxi and Shenxi, with a formal capital under Chinese supervision at Pingyang on the Fen River, and a hostage at Ye city for their good behaviour. Thereafter, in the region of Manchuria the campaigns of Guanqiu Jian in 244-245 broke the kingdom of Koguryo, and in the west the Qiang and Di peoples of the Wei valley and present-day Gansu were generally held under control by the contending forces of Wei and Shu-Han. When Sima Yan took his imperial title in 265, the non-Chinese people along the northern borders were disordered and divided.

The general strategic position, however, was far less satisfactory than it had been before. At its greatest extent, the territory of Later Han had included all the northern loop of the Yellow River beyond the Ordos, and the north of present-day Shanxi and Hebei, but during the second century disturbances amongst the Xiongnu and the Qiang, and the attacks of the Xianbi, removed great areas from the control of the imperial government. Cao Cao and his successors could do no more than stabilise the situation, and as a result, under Wei and Jin, present-day Shanxi as far south as Taiyuan and the Fen River was occupied by groups of Xiongnu, while the Xianbi were established in the Sanggan valley and the region of present-day Huhehot. In the Wei valley, during the late 260s and the 270s, the Xianbi Jifu Shujineng and the Xiongnu Liu Meng presented some embarrassment to the new dynasty, and there was further trouble in 294 after Sima Lun, as Area Commander, sought to establish tighter control. The rebellion spread from the Xiongnu to the Qiang and the Di, with the Di leader Qi Wannian claiming an imperial title in 296, and the trouble was not suppressed until 299.

The dangers from non-Chinese occupation of the north and northwest had not gone unnoticed. In 280, after the suppression of Liu Meng and the defeat of Wu, the censorial official Guo Qin urged that the Xiongnu should be expelled to the north, and in 299 the junior officer Jiang Tong presented his "Essay on Shifting the Western Barbarians", arguing in traditional terms that the Land Within the Passes was the heart of the nation and the Qiang and Di should be resettled elsewhere. There was, in fact, some attempt to drive the non-Chinese people south into present-day Sichuan, but in practical terms the solution was impossible: Chinese settlement in the Wei valley had been long in decline, the economic use of the country had changed from peasant farming to mixed agriculture and pasture, and the government was by no means strong enough to enforce such a mass migration. Within a year, moreover, the turmoil at court was bringing all into ruin.

At first, the quarrels of the imperial clan had been limited to the territory about Luoyang and Chang'an. In 304, however, when Sima Ying held the Emperor hostage at Ye, the situation changed. Wang Jun's attack from the north was mounted with the support of Wuhuan and Xianbi, who acquired their first taste for the plunder and slaughter of a major Chinese city. As the invaders drew near, moreover, Sima Ying released the Xiongnu hostage prince Liu Yuan, hoping that he would rally his people and return to the rescue. Liu Yuan did collect an army, but he was too late to help Sima Ying, and instead he raised his own claim to imperial power. From a base in the Fen River valley, relying upon his lineage from the Shanyu of the Xiongnu on one side and from a princess of Han on the other, he declared himself first King then Emperor of Han.

Sima Teng, younger brother of Sima Yue, had been responsible for Bing province, but in fear of Liu Yuan he abandoned his position and left it to the Inspector Liu Kun. Sima Teng sought to maintain himself at Ye, but in June 307 the city was sacked and Sima Teng was killed by the bandit Ji Sang and his associate Shi Le, a man from the Jie tribe of the Xiongnu. Sima Yue's forces drove the invaders back a few weeks later, and Ji Sang was killed, but Shi Le transferred his allegiance to Liu Yuan, and by 309 their armies threatened all north China. Though Liu Yuan died in 310, his son Liu Cong maintained the offensive, and the death of Sima Yue early in 311 added to the confusion within the government of Jin. On 13 July, after a massive defeat of the defending army, Shi Le stormed Luoyang, sacked the city, and took Sima Zhi, Emperor Huai, as a prisoner to Liu Cong's capital at Pingyang.

With this catastrophe, the central power of Jin was ended. In the west, Chang'an also fell to the Xiongnu but was recaptured by loyalist forces with Qiang and Di auxiliaries. Sima Ye, eleven-year-old nephew of Sima Zhi, was proclaimed Heir Apparent, and in 313, after Sima Zhi had been put to death in his captivity, he ascended the throne. For a few more years, with local support from the west and northwest of the empire, and intervention by the loyal Liu Kun from Bing province, the court at Chang'an maintained a tenuous existence, but the city was steadily encircled by the forces of Liu Cong, and the defenders were starved into submission at the end of 316. Sima Ye was also taken into exile, and he was killed a few months later.

Elsewhere in the empire, the waning power of Jin was restricted to Bing and You provinces in the north, and Jianye with the lands south of the Yangzi, former territory of Wu. Sima Rui, Prince of Langye, a great-grandson of Sima Yi, had held command at Jianye since 307. He was attacked by Shi Le in 312, but the invaders, hampered by three months of rain, could make no headway south of the Huai. So Jianye became a place of refuge from the ruin of the north, and Sima Rui took title as King of Jin in 317. The following year, after the death of Sima Ye, he proclaimed himself Emperor, and the dynasty, now known as Eastern Jin, was thus revived.

In Bing province, from his base at Jinyang by present-day Taiyuan, Liu Kun obtained the aid of the Tuoba group of the Xianbi, traditional enemies of the Xiongnu, who occupied the northern part of present-day Shanxi and the region of Huhehot. His own position, however, was weak. In 310 he was compelled to send his son as hostage in order to obtain troops from his allies, and he depended increasingly upon his relationship with the chieftain Tuoba Yilu. In 314 the two leaders mounted a sortie to relieve Chang'an, and Tuoba Yilu was awarded the title King of Dai. Two years later, however, as Shi Le extended his power across the North China plain, Tuoba Yilu was assassinated and his clansmen rejected the alliance with Jin. Liu Kun fled northeast to the Duan group of the Xianbi, but was killed there in 318.

In somewhat similar fashion, Wang Jun in You province maintained an alliance with the Murong group of the Xianbi, who had risen to power in Manchuria after the defeat of Koguryo by Guanqiu Jian in the middle of the third century, and consolidated their position through marriage alliance with the Duan and a successfully aggressive policy towards their neighbours the Puyo and the Yuwen Xianbi. Disconcertingly, however, the government of Murong Hui, who had held authority among his people since 285 and had created a orderly government with numbers of Chinese advisers and officials, was more attractive to refugees from central China than the regime of Wang Jun. Wang Jun had sought to act as patron and overlord to Murong Hui, but he was deserted by his own people and his allies, and he was taken and killed by Shi Le in 314. By contrast, in 317, Murong Hui established contact with the Jin court at Jianye, and was awarded the title of a general and the rank of a duke.

This last sad failure exemplifies the critical weakness of the empire: that Chinese people should prefer an alien frontier state to the protection of their own administrator. The destruction of the capitals and the ruin of Western Jin was not just a matter of powerful barbarian forces pressing against the empire it came essentially from the irresponsible feuding that had bedevilled the imperial family since the death of Sima Yan more than twenty years before. Where people had looked for stability and competence, their rulers had shown them selfishness, cruelty, and futility. Such a succession of disorders would cut to the heart of any government, and as they were robbed of their faith and their confidence the former subjects of the empire turned away from those who had betrayed them.

Conclusion: Patterns of the Third Century

Looking overall at the period from the collapse of Later Han at the end of the second century AD to the ruin of Western Jin at the beginning of the fourth century, one may observe two major developments of lasting importance for the history of China: the first is the development of the Chinese position south of the Yangzi the second is the changing economic and social structure of the Chinese world, and the devastating effect which this had upon the basic loyalties which had supported the traditional imperial state.

The impetus which the state of Wu gave to Chinese control over the lands of the south has already been discussed. The situation at the end of the second century permitted the initial establishment of a local regime independent of the north, and then the energy of the Sun family and their associates developed the resources of the region by colonization into areas formerly untouched by the government of Han. Though the rulers of Wu could not in the end survive against the united power of the north and the west, it was through their achievement that a base was found for the survival of a truncated Chinese state after the fall of Western Jin.

On the second matter, while it is easy to criticise the political weakness of Wei and the appalling instability of Western Jin, we should recognise the degree to which the old regime of Han had been destroyed in the first years of civil war. The warlords who struggled for power at the beginning of the third century held their forces together by loose bonds of personal loyalty, and even as the three new regional states developed some formal political structures, the true network of power was based upon family and local self-interest. In such circumstances, one should rather admire the achievement of Cao Cao, his rivals and successors, in creating some workable institutions from a situation of internecine chaos, than criticise them for the weaknesses of their constructions.

In the end, however, as the state of Western Jin fell into ruin, anecdotes of two men, the aesthete Wang Yan and the statesman Zhang Hua, could be presented as examples of the moral weakness that lay at the heart of the state.

Wang Yan was one of the most brilliant men of his time, skilled in the sophistries of pure conversation, a scholar both of diplomacy and of xuanxue. At Luoyang in 311 he was captured by Shi Le, who asked him about the failure of Jin. Wang Yan's answers were clear and elegant, and Shi Le spoke with him for several days. But Wang Yan also sought to explain how he himself had held aloof from such meanness, and those errors and failures were no concern of his. Shi Le replied, "Your fame extends over all the four seas, and since your youth you have occupied high positions.... How can you claim to have taken no part in the affairs of the world? Indeed it is your fault that the empire is defeated and destroyed!" And so he killed him.

In similar fashion, Zhang Hua wrote an essay of warning about consort families, but he later served the government of the Empress Jia. In 300 he was arrested and sentenced to death by Sima Lun. On the eve of execution he sought to justify himself to one of his captors, but he was asked to explain why he did not protest, even to death, at the deposition of the Heir Apparent Sima Yu. Zhang Hua replied that he had spoken against the project in open council. "And when your objections were ignored," came the reply, "why did you not resign your office?" Zhang Hua could make no answer.

Even if one considers the nature of their rulers, from the cruelty of the Empress Jia to the murderous rivalries of the Eight Princes, the conduct of these officials and their colleagues fell far short of the model displayed by the proscribed partisans one hundred years earlier, who were prepared to die for the principles they believed in, and they match poorly with the personal loyalty that other men had given their chieftains in the years of the Three Kingdoms. The problem at the heart of Western Jin, however, was more than the limited responsibility shown by individuals at the court, for they represented the culmination of a process of political withdrawal, a separation between the ruler and the chiefs of his subjects, which had been developing since the time of Han and which was displayed very clearly when the illusion of unity was restored by Jin.

In writing this paper, I have largely avoided such terms as "feudalism" and "aristocracy", for I believe that such general descriptions, unless carefully defined, carry too many implications and allow too much room for misunderstanding. There has been debate in recent years on the nature of Chinese society and politics in the period between the fall of Han and rise of Sui and Tang, and two particular problems have appeared in the course of that discussion: there is much uncertainty and disagreement about terminology and there is a question whether the four centuries of this period of division can be properly treated as a whole. I can here deal only briefly with this complex matter, but I suggest that in the time of Wei and Western Jin the political and intellectual structure of imperial China was faced with a crisis which arose from an economic and social situation that was already developing during Han. There were here two separate, contradictory factors in play. Firstly, from the time of Later Han and increasingly during the disturbances which accompanied its fall, by a process of commendation well recognised in the history of Western feudalism, powerful local families gathered about them increasing numbers of tenants and clients who sought the protection of their leadership, and who in turn gave support to their power. Secondly, however, because the imperial state continued to operate on the philosophy of a direct relationship between the ruler and each of his subjects, that private system of commendation was not extended into a public hierarchy of feudalism. The very fact that the emperor claimed ultimate authority over all the land, while every subject owed a general duty of service and taxation, prevented the development of a system which relied upon individual and hereditary contracts of fiefdom.

From the time of Later Han, the decline of central authority brought a fragmentation of the political and economic structure of the empire, and the power of the great local families came from their own resources and organisation, not from any dispensation of the imperial authority. It is true that the governments of Han, Wei and Jin awarded titles of nobility such as king or prince, duke and marquis, but these reflected political relationships and favour, and did not create political power. By contrast, the families which held authority in the land had no such relationship with their ruler as medieval feudatories in the West: there was no system of sub-infeudation, no contract to exchange land for service, no legal argument about contending rights and obligations, and no alternative authority to which a subject might appeal. In this respect, the political and social status of those leading families may best be compared, not to that of the great feudatories of medieval times, but to the English gentry or the French noblesse of early modern Europe; and even then we must observe that there were no privileges granted by the throne of China like those held by the noblesse in France, as, for example, exemption from taxation by the taille.

A number of terms have been used to describe these families, whether they were "aristocratic" or "Žlélite", an "oligarchy" or a "nobility". One difficulty in analysis arises from the bias of the official Chinese histories, which emphasise the holding of some official position, rank or title as a sign of social status, and pay chief attention to those individuals or kinship groups which acquire such recognition. Naturally enough, given the records available, modern scholarship has concentrated on families such as the Cui and the Xie, who often held position at court and whose lineage may be traced through the whole period of division. Nevertheless, though these "super-Žlélite" clans are of interest in their own right, they are to some extent a distraction from the broader group which I prefer to describe as "gentry". At the upper levels of this "gentry" one may identify the "nobility" who received titles from the ruler, and an "aristocracy" of those few powerful clans which wielded the greatest influence at provincial or national level. Across the empire as a whole, however, the "gentry" were a broader class, including all those lineage groups, down to village level, which held authority through their control and influence over their lands, tenants, serfs and retainers.

At a local level, power was based upon concepts which could be identified as feudal in the West. As the gentry families enlarged their position, however, traditional Chinese theories of government provided no means to negotiate an effective link with this increasingly important group of leadership within the whole community, for it was quite inappropriate that the sovereign should enter into a feudal contract, with reciprocal rights and duties. The gentry of China were readily identified among the people but, unless they happened to hold official position, they had no formal and particular connection with the emperor and he, for his part, had no machinery to interfere with the patron-client relationship from which they drew their private authority.

As a result, without rights or duties on either side, the imperial regime was faced with a simple withdrawal of interest and support by its most powerful subjects. One faction or another might struggle for power at court, and dynasty succeed dynasty through intrigue and abdication, but there was no obligation upon the gentry of any level to concern themselves with the matter, and no reason but self-interest when they chose to do so.

For the dynasty of Western Jin, in particular, the withdrawal of commitment by leading clans and individuals brought a crippling loss of confidence and authority, for the weakening of the bonds of loyalty and responsibility limited the moral force of the government, denied it access to a high proportion of the economic resources that it theoretically controlled, and rendered the whole imperial regime vulnerable and unstable. At the same time, however, the changes of society and politics brought forward a new and exciting debate on the proper relationship of the individual with the family, with the state, with the community, and with the world at large.


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