During the final 50 years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), political corruption plagued the imperial palace and it became evident that this once illustrious empire was about to collapse. Seeing the opportunity to seize control, several formidable warlords began amassing power outside of imperial authority. While all other opponents threatened to snatch the throne from the reigning Liu family, who had governed the country under the Han Dynasty for over 400 years, one lone man desperately tried to defend it. Move over Rocky, it’s time for a real underdog story!
Liu Bei, who claimed descent from one of the early Han emperors, was born into poverty but had risen to prominence thanks to sponsorship from a wealthy patron. By distinguishing himself in battle during the great Yellow Turban Rebellion, he went on to become one of the principal Han military generals and governed an area in modern-day Sichuan province known as Shu. So, when a cunning imperial chancellor named Cao Cao took control of northern China and attempted to expand his territory further south, it was Liu Bei that prevented him by defeating him at the epic Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208, along with the help of a warlord named Sun Quan. This was a crucial moment in Chinese history since, if Cao Cao had succeeded, he may have gone on to conquer the entire country. When it came to these three powerful warlords, there was no such thing as small victories!
Unfortunately Liu Bei’s triumph may have prevented Cao Cao from advancing any further, but it did not relinquish his stranglehold on the imperial court. So, when Cao Cao died in 220 and was succeeded by his son Cao Pi, the threat of the Cao Family still loomed large over the country. Within the very same year of his father’s death, Cao Pi forced the reigning Emperor Xian (r. 189–220) to abdicate and declared himself Emperor, establishing the Wei Dynasty (220-265).
Outraged by such a brazen act and desperate to carry on his family’s legacy, Liu Bei also declared himself Emperor and founded the Shu-Han Dynasty (221–263), which he regarded as a continuation of the Han Dynasty even though he only controlled the state of Shu. Not to be left out, his once ally Sun Quan took control of south-east China and formed the Kingdom of Wu (222–280). It seemed that not a year went by without someone claiming to be the rightful Emperor! With the country thus separated, the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) officially began.
Liu Bei’s honest and commendable attempts to maintain the reputation of his family are highly celebrated and romanticised in the classical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, in which he is heralded as one of China’s great heroes. Yet, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions! Liu Bei may not have been hellish, but the dynasty that he founded never expanded much beyond Sichuan province and lasted for only 42 years. In his short three-year reign, Liu Bei launched an unsuccessful campaign in 222 to take back Jing province (modern-day Hunan and Hubei provinces) from the Kingdom of Wu and suffered such a crushing defeat that he barely survived the battle, dying from illness just a year later. Hardly the greatest show of heroism!
He was succeeded by his 16-year-old son Liu Shan, who was aided by the regents Zhuge Liang and Li Yan. The Liu family may have had the impressive pedigree, but it was Zhuge Liang who proved to be the real hero of the Shu-Han Dynasty. At the time, Shu was the smallest and weakest of the Three Kingdoms, meaning it was greatly limited in terms of resources and manpower. Luckily Zhuge Liang was an excellent strategist and, from 224 to 225, he launched a series of southward campaigns that successfully annexed the southern territories up to the Dianchi Lake in Yunnan province. In a bold move, he even parleyed for peace with the Kingdom of Wu and managed to reaffirm their alliance.
With the backing of Wu, Zhuge Liang finally had the confidence to pursue an aggressive foreign policy against the Wei Dynasty. From 228 to 234, he masterminded five military campaigns against Wei, which were all aimed at capturing the city of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an). Tragically these efforts were to no avail and, during a long stalemate in the final campaign, Zhuge Liang passed away. This proved to be a devastating blow for the Shu-Han Dynasty; one that it would never fully recover from. The Shu general Jiang Wei became something of a spiritual successor to Zhuge and, from 247 to 262, launched several attacks on Wei, but all of them failed to make any significant territorial gain.
Meanwhile, political corruption began to overcome the Shu court and eventually caused major fractures in the government. In 263, the Wei Dynasty commenced a three-pronged attack on the weakened Shu army. Jiang Wei desperately tried to defend against it, but he was outmanoeuvred by the cunning Wei general Deng Ai. In the winter of that same year, Deng Ai marched his troops into the Shu capital of Chengdu and Liu Shan was forced to surrender.
While Liu Shan was given the honorary title of “Duke of Anle” and was allowed to live out the rest of his days peacefully in Luoyang, the Shu-Han Dynasty came to a bitter end. Yet this short-lived dynasty did leave behind a few remnants of its past glory. Many of its irrigation and road-building projects, such as the Zipingpu Dam near Chengdu, greatly boosted the economy of southwest China and are still in use today. So it seems the Shu court was damned by war, but immortalised thanks to dams!