An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Three Empires - Geography

Oct 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald
Map Three KingdomsMap Three KingdomsMap Three Kingdoms
Map Three KingdomsMap Three KingdomsMap Three Kingdoms
Map Three KingdomsMap Three KingdomsMap Three Kingdoms
Map Three KingdomsMap Three Kingdoms

Among the many warlords that controlled China during the last decade of the Later Han Dynasty 後漢 (25-220 CE) 東漢, Cao Cao 曹操, Liu Bei 劉備 and Sun Quan 孫權 were the mightiest that could found longer lasting states. Cao Cao's son Cao Pi 曹丕 (known as Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226), founder of the Cao-Wei empire 曹魏 (220-265), reigned over the area of traditional China along the Yellow River plain and also controlled the Gansu corridor and the so-called Administration Area of the Western Regions (Xiyu changshifu 西域長史府; seat in Haitou 海頭, Lop Nur, supplied from Wuji Commandery 戊己校尉, modern Turfan 吐魯番, Xinjiang) that included the many city states of the Silk Road like Yanqi 焉耆, Gaochang 高昌 and Shanshan 鄯善. In the northeast his empire stretched into the region of modern North Korea. The capital of the Wei empire was Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan) that had been capital during the Later Han and was to remain capital and secondary capital for a few more centuries to come.

Liu Bei (known as the First Ruler of Shu 蜀先主, r. 221-222) and his son Liu Shan 劉禪 (known as the Later Ruler of Shu 蜀後主, r. 223-263) ruled over the empire of Shu 蜀漢 (221-263) and controlled the area of modern Sichuan province from the capital Chengdu 成都 (modern Chengdu, Sichuan). The mountainous territory of modern Yunnan south of the Sichuan basin was conquered in 225 during a southern campaign by the famous statesman Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 and administered as area command (dudufu 都督府) of Laixiang 庲降.

Sun Quan (known as the Great Emperor of Wu 吳大帝, r. 222-252) and his successors reigned the empire of Wu 吳 (222-280) that stretched from the Yangtze River southwards to the northern part of modern Vietnam. A special administration zone was the agriculture commandery (diannong xiaowei 典農校尉) of Piling 毗陵 (modern Changzhou 常州, Jiangsu), a prototype of a state-managed military agro-colony (tuntian 屯田).

In the famous battle of the "Red Cliff" Chibi 赤壁 (near modern Puqi 蒲圻, Hubei) in 208 CE Liu Bei and Sun Quan could defend their territories against Cao Cao, and as a result China was divided among those three warlords that consequently founded their own empires. Attempts of Liu Bei to enlarge his territory to the west and to attack Sun Quan failed 221 CE in the battle of Yiling 夷陵 (modern Yichang 宜昌, Hubei).
The Three Empires were administered like the Han empire before, with regional commands or provinces (zhou 州, in the mpa underlined, courier style) and subordinated commanderies (jun 郡). Because each of these empires claimed to represent the legal government of China, some of the regions and commanderies had the same name in two empire, like the provinces of Yangzhou 揚州 (modern Shouxian 壽縣, Anhui, and Nanjing 南京, Suzhou) and Jingzhou 荊州 (Xinye 新野, Henan, and Shashi 沙市, Hubei), or the commanderies of Lujiang 廬江 (Liu'an 六安, Anhui, and Qianshan 潛山, Anhui) and Jiangxia 江夏 (Yunmeng 雲夢, Hebei and Echeng 鄂城, Hubei). Besides commanderies there were many princedoms (wangguo 王國; names in violet) that controlled parts of Wei empire. These were territories given to imperial princes. In the empires of Wu and Shu, their number was substantially lower.
During the third century many non-Chinese tribes occupied the northern steppe zone and advanced into the territory of China proper. Except the Xiongnu 匈奴 whose power began to wane, there was the new steppe federation of the proto-Mongol people of the Xianbei 鮮卑. The states of Wei and Wu had also commercial and cultural contacts with peoples and minor states of the east on the Korean Peninsula (Samhan/Sanhan 三韓 "Three Han": Mahan 馬韓, Chinhan/Chenhan 辰韓, Pyŏnhan/Bianhan 弁韓; Koguryŏ/Gaogouli 高句麗, Fuyu/Puyŏ 夫余, Okchŏ/Woju 沃沮 and Yemaek/Huimo 濊貊) and the Japanese archipelago (Wa/Wo 倭), as well as with states in Southeast Asia.