Towards the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), several cunning warlords began amassing power in the hopes of seizing the throne. The imperial chancellor Cao Cao managed to gain control of northern China and became the de facto head of the imperial court, in spite of the fact that he didn’t belong to the ruling Liu family. He coerced the reigning Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) into granting several favours to his supporters, which included awarding a man named Sun Ce governance over a southeastern region known as Wu. This seems like an insignificant act, but it may very well have proven to be Cao Cao’s downfall.
Although Sun Ce was assassinated in 200, he was succeeded by his astute younger brother Sun Quan, who was an accomplished military general. In 208, when Cao Cao attempted to expand his territory to the south, Sun Quan used his vast strategic knowledge to stop him by forming an alliance with General Liu Bei and defeating him at the Battle of the Red Cliffs. Yet it seems Sun Quan was just as ruthless as Cao Cao! In 219, he ordered his general Lü Meng to invade Liu Bei’s territory in Jing Province (modern-day Hunan and Hubei provinces) and thus severed their alliance. He may have extended his empire, but he had lost a valuable friend.
Meanwhile, undeterred by his father’s failure, Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi succeeded him in 220 and subsequently forced Emperor Xian to abdicate, claiming the throne for himself and establishing the Wei Dynasty (220-265). However, Cao Cao’s failure at the Battle of the Red Cliffs was hugely significant, as it meant that the Wei Dynasty only controlled northern China and left large parts of the country ungoverned. This allowed Liu Bei, who believed himself to be of imperial descent, to take control of southwest China and found the Shu-Han Dynasty (221–263).
Eager to jump on the imperial gravy train, Sun Quan formed the Kingdom of Wu (222–280), although at first he only asserted that he was the King of Wu. In amongst all of these declarations of power, it’s pleasant to see at least a little modesty! Yet it wasn’t long before royal temptation crept its way into Sun Quan’s heart. In 229, he finally decided that being King simply wasn’t enough and declared that he was the true Emperor. His dynasty is sometimes referred to as “Eastern Wu” rather than the Kingdom of Wu, in order to distinguish it from other kingdoms with similar names.
Although Sun Quan had certainly burned all of his bridges with Liu Bei, he was eventually approached by Liu Bei’s successor Liu Shan and this parley resulted in the reaffirmation of their alliance, which encouraged Sun Quan to pursue an offensive against the powerful Wei Dynasty. After a collection of successful military campaigns, he also managed to conquer the rebellious southern Shanyue peoples and 40,000 of them were drafted into his army. From then on, Sun Quan’s lengthy 30-year reign was marked by stability and peace. He engaged Wei in a number of wars, including the battles of Ruxu (222–223), Shiting (228), and Hefei (234), but tragically none of them resulted in any significant territorial gain.
Unfortunately it seems Sun Quan’s children would turn out to be far less benevolent. Sometimes the apple really does fall far from the tree! Long before Sun Quan had passed away, a vicious succession struggle broke out between his sons. In 242, Sun He was instated as crown prince but became embroiled in a malicious rivalry with his brother Sun Ba. This small disagreement soon evolved into a full scale conflict, with imperial officials each backing either Sun He or Sun Ba. Like a true disciplinarian, Sun Quan deposed Sun He and even forced Sun Ba to commit suicide. Talk about tiger parenting! His youngest son, Sun Liang, was then appointed crown prince and succeeded his father on his death in 252. But it seems luck was not in the cards for Sun Liang.
In 253, his distant relative Sun Jun staged a coup and effectively claimed power over the state of Wu. Although Sun Liang continued to act as its figurehead, control of imperial matters fell first to Sun Jun and then to his cousin Sun Chen on his death. It seemed like things were only going from bad to worse for Sun Liang! Yet the old adage “after bad luck comes good fortune” doesn’t always follow. In 258, Sun Liang was deposed by Sun Chen and replaced with Sun Xiu. In repayment for this kindness, Sun Xiu would later kill Sun Chen during a coup. Evidently one good turn doesn’t always deserve another! These constant internal clashes continued to cripple the imperial court and, in 263, they lost a great ally when the state of Shu was annexed by the Wei Dynasty.
Just one year later, Sun Xiu died of illness and the throne was passed on to Sun Hao. At first, this appeared to be a turning point for the kingdom as Sun Hao reduced taxes and gave relief to the poor. However, this once compassionate emperor soon became self-obsessed and cruel, killing off anyone who opposed him. His tyranny became legendary and it was only due to the diligent efforts of officials like Lu Kai and Lu Kang that the kingdom managed to remain afloat.
Meanwhile, it seemed the Wei Dynasty wasn’t fairing much better. In 265, a Wei general named Sima Yan overthrew the reigning Cao Huan and replaced the Wei Dynasty with the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Sima Yan was a brilliant tactician and, in 275, he sent forces to attack the state of Wu from six different directions. You could almost say that Wu was being smacked six ways from Sunday! Wu forces suffered a succession of brutal defeats and, in 280, Sun Hao was forced to surrender to the Jin Dynasty. This officially signified the end of the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD).
The Kingdom of Wu may have only lasted for 62 years, but it marked the crucial point when Chinese civilization reached the southern regions. From 229 to 252, droves of northern migrants settled in the area and brought with them advanced technologies, which helped improve agriculture, irrigation, and river transportation in the region. The construction of vital transportation links such as the Jiangnan and Zhedong canals meant that Wu became a bustling transport hub, expanding its trade routes into Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and even the Middle East! In short, southern China was transformed from what was considered a barbaric jungle into one of the commercial, cultural, and political centres of the country.