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Far East Kingdoms



Cao Wei Dynasty (Three Kingdoms China)
AD 220 - 265

The 'Three Kingdoms' period of Chinese history was triggered by a mixture of factors. Not least of these was increasing levels of control by the imperial court's eunuchs, but Late Han China was in trouble for a long time. Powerful dowager empresses came and went, as did a succession of male emperors who were often only children, even when they were murdered on the throne. With grievances mounting against the state the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in AD 184 and 'Yellow Turban' resentment informed the increasing tension of the next three decades and more. It was only a matter of time before central authority collapsed altogether.

The destruction to state offices and institutions that was wrought during the Yellow Turban Rebellion led to regional military leaders governing with increasing independence. Emerging warlords formed kingdoms of their own and the collapse of the Han was complete by AD 220. Three new kingdoms emerged from the wreckage, the first of which was Cao Wei in AD 220 (the 'c' in 'cao' is pronounced with a 'ts' sound, as 'tsao wei'). It was opposed in one of China's bloodiest civil wars in its entire history by the Eastern Wu and Shu Han. The initial steps towards its founding were taking by Cao Cao when he was pronounced duke of Wei in AD 213. When he died in 220, his son used this duchy name for the state he proclaimed in the same year.

Originally known by western sinologists simply as 'Wei' a differentiation eventually had to be found between Cao Wei, the Wei who were conquered by the Xia of Bronze Age China around 1766 BC, the Wei state of the 'Warring Sates' era, the Northern Wei dynasty of the 'Sixteen Kingdoms' period, the Eastern Wei and Western Wei which were later divisions of the northern kingdom, or even the brief eighth century AD Wei dynasty. Despite being termed a kingdom by the same western scholars, the Cao Wei claimed the title of emperor and their state was seen by them as the rightful continuation of the preceding Late Han state. Fortunately the word for 'king' in ancient and early Iron Age China was the same as the word for 'emperor', with any real differentiation only emerging later.

Wei travellers to Japan reported on its early development as a kingdom. The Wei themselves started out by using Xuchang as their capital, but Cao Pi moved it to Luoyang, the former imperial capital of the Late Han, almost as soon as he had proclaimed himself as the successor to the Late Han. Unfortunately for them, they eventually became subject to the same transfer of power to their regents as they had inflicted upon the Late Han, and from that point the Wei kingdom was doomed.

Three Kingdoms

(Information by Peter Kessler, from Military Culture in Imperial China, Nicola Di Cosmo & Robin D S Yates (Harvard University Press, 2009), from Records of the Three Kingdoms, Chen Shou (third century text which covers the period AD 184-220 and which combines individual histories of the three kingdoms), from Zizhi Tongjian, Sima Guang (noted tenth century historical work), and from External Link: Three Kingdoms (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

220 - 226

Cao Pi / 'Emperor Wen'

Son of Cao Cao, 'duke of Wei' in AD 213.

220 - 221

With Cao Pi having proclaimed the Wei kingdom in 220 and Liu Bei having responded in 221 by proclaiming the Shu Han kingdom, Sun Quan of the Eastern Wu keeps his council, not proclaiming anything at all. When open warfare quickly erupts between the other two kingdoms, Sun Quan pays formal allegiance to Cao Pi and is granted the title king of Wu. The mistake will doom the Wei to ruling only in the north.

226 - 239

Cao Rui

Son. An able military commander.


A Chinese chronicle known as Sanguozhi records that the Kushan king, Vasudeva I, sends tribute to Emperor Cao Rui of Wei. Chinese records know Vasudeva better as Bodiao, while they still refer to the Kushans as Da Yuezhi, their name for the Greater Yuezhi who originally lived along the borders of the Chinese kingdom. The date recorded for the arrival of the Kushan envoy in China is on Guimao of the twelfth month, in the third year of Taihe which has been equated to AD 229. The vacuum created by the Chinese retreat in Central Asia has apparently been filled by Vasudeva.

Map of Three Kingdoms China AD 220-263
In AD 220 the Late Han Chinese empire was officially transferred to the Wei or Cao Wei dynasty, and their opponents simply had to respond (click or tap on map to view full sized)


One of the most dangerous moments for the Wei arrives in the form of a massive semi-coordinated attack by the Shu and Eastern Wu. Cao Rui personally leads an army of reinforcement to the southern border where the Eastern Wu are repulsed. Shu's attack from the south-west is the last of the five attempts by its imperial chancellor, Zhuge Liang, to lead hundreds of thousands of troops against the Wei, who respond each time with similar numbers. These campaigns are amongst the best known of this era, but they produce an unsteady stalemate in the north.


Suffering from a severe illness which soon results in his death, Cao Rui selects his adopted son, Cao Fang, to be his successor. He is little more than a boy, however so two regents are appointed to manage affairs for him. The first of these is Cao Shuang, a Wei general and the son of the late General Cao Zhen, an adopted son of Cao Cao.

239 - 254

Cao Fang

Adopted son. Acceded aged 7. Deposed.

239 - 249

Cao Shuang

Regent, general, and cousin. Deposed and executed.

239 - 251

Sima Yi

Regent, general, and cousin. Died aged 71/72.

c.240s - 250s

The horse-riding Alani barbarians are no longer dependent upon the Kangju, as recorded by the Weilüe history of the Wei dynasty. This can be taken to mean that they are migrating westwards away from the Kangju and also out of sight of the otherwise-occupied Chinese kingdoms.


An alliance with the Korean kingdom of Koguryo falls apart once the Wei have taken their main objective. This had been the Eastern Han commandery of the warlord Gongsun Yuan, whose clan had now been independent of Chinese control for three generations. His defeat, however, soon creates disharmony between the erstwhile allies, and the Wei are forced to capture Koguryo's capital to end the matter.

In the same year, having largely avoided warfare in the decade since the failure of the last of the northern campaigns against the Cao Wei, the Shu Han are now subjected to a Cao Wei invasion of Hanzhong. Despite being clearly outnumbered, the Shu Han forces repulse Cao Wei at the Battle of Xingshi. The Wei forces flee the battlefield. Further ineffective campaigns are subsequently launched by the Shu Han against the Cao Wei.


Sima Yi launches a coup against Cao Shuang, an event that is known as the 'Incident at Gaoping Tombs'. After years of witnessing Cao Shuang's increasing corruption, along with his attempts to sideline Sima Yi himself, the co-regent has plotted a complete removal of Cao Shuang and his aides. They are all captured and executed, leaving Sima Yi as the sole regent for the remainder of his lifetime.

Cao Wei coin
Cao Wei coinage is comparatively rare - unsurprisingly for a dynasty that replaced itself after less than half a century - and surviving issuances show a decline in quality during that period

251 - 254

The death of Sima Yi changes nothing in Wei. His son, Sima Shi, succeeds him and the Sima clan simply strengthen their hold on true power in the kingdom. When Emperor Cao Fang attempts to remove him in 254, Sima Shi has him deposed and replaced by his cousin, Cao Mao.

251 - 255

Sima Shi

Son of Sima Yi. Regent and true power in the kingdom.

254 - 260

Cao Mao

Cousin of Cao Fang. Killed during coup attempt.

255 - 265

Sima Zhao

Brother of Sima Shi. Regent and true power in the kingdom.


In his latest attempt to remove the Sima clan from their position of assumed power, the thoughtful and resourceful Cao Mao launches a coup attempt. Two of his own advisors betray him to Sima Zhao, however, and although the military attack on the Sima stronghold is proceeding well, Cao Mao is killed by a spear. The aged Cao Huan (or Cao Huang prior to his promotion) is placed on the throne as a thorough puppet.

260 - 266

Cao Huan

Grandson of Cao Cao. Duke of Changdao. Abdicated.

263 - 265

Following several large-scale attacks against Cao Wei, all of which are repulsed, the Shu kingdom is perceived as being weak by Sima Zhao, so he launches an invasion of its territory in 263. Its emperor, Liu Shan, is eventually persuaded to surrender, thereby removing one facet of the three-sided 'Three Kingdoms' conflict. Towards the end of the invasion, Sima Zhao has himself created the duke of Jin, thereby founding a dynasty which will succeed the Wei. In 264, he goes one step further by raising himself to the position of king of Jin and forcing Cao Huan to accept a position as his vassal, but his death in 265 delays the inevitable end of the Wei.

265 - 266

Sima Yan

Son of Sima Zhao. Regent. Created Jin dynasty.


That inevitable end takes place when control of the kingdom of Cao Wei is usurped by Sima Yan. In this act Cao Huan is forced to abdicate, thereby legally transferring all of his powers and territories to Sima Yan. He is now the official ruler of the northern-based Wei territories and the conquered Shu territories. Only the Eastern Wu remain to oppose his newly-created Jin dynasty.

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