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Far East Kingdoms



Shu Han (Minor Han) Dynasty (Three Kingdoms China)
AD 221 - 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, one of which was Shu Han. It was opposed in one of China's bloodiest civil wars in its entire history by Cao Wei and the Eastern Wu. Shu Han was established in AD 221, the following the proclamation by Cao Pi of the Cao Wei kingdom in 220. Shu Han territory covered Chongqing and Sichuan provinces in the central south-west of modern China.

Originally known by western sinologists simply as 'Han' or the 'Minor Han', a differentiation eventually had to be found between Shu Han (or simply 'Shu'), the Shu state that was conquered by the Qin in 316 BC during the 'Warring States' era, the Early Han of 202 BC, the Late Han of AD 23, the Han (Posterior) dynasty of the 'Five Dynasties' period, and even modern Han (or 'China' to much of the rest of the world). The kingdom's first ruler, Liu Bei, saw himself as the natural successor of the Han, so his kingdom bore this name (and its reduced territory is responsible for it being labelled 'Minor Han'). However, the 'Shu' does owe something to the earlier Shu state that was conquered in 316 BC, with both having Sichuan as a core part of their territory, and this was added to 'Han' to further describe this kingdom in terms of its ambition and location. Despite being termed a kingdom by the same western scholars, the Shu Han 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.

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).)

221 - 223

Liu Bei / 'Zhaolie'

Self-proclaimed 'Han successor' king. Defeated and died.

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.

222 - 223

Liu Bei launches an ill-advised campaign against his former ally, Sun Quan of Eastern Wu, to recapture Jing Province in central southern China. It is this province that Sun Quan had seized from Liu Bei in 219, thereby breaking their alliance and greatly expanding his own Eastern Wu territory prior to the creation of his kingdom. The campaign culminates in the Battle of Xiaoting in which Liu Bei's forces are crushed. Much of the Shu Han army is lost and Liu Bei dies in the following year of illness.

223 - 263

Liu Shan / 'Hou Chu / Xiaohuai'

Son. Acceded aged 16. Surrendered to Cao Wei.


One of the most dangerous moments for Cao 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.

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)


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.


Following the aforementioned several large-scale attacks against Cao Wei, all of which are repulsed, the Shu kingdom is perceived as being weak by Sima Zhao, regent of Cao Wei. He launches a fresh invasion of Shu territory in 263 and the capital at Chengdu is captured with some ease. With the situation apparently hopeless, 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.

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