The Geopolitical Éclat of Three Kingdoms: The Collision of Strategies
Updated: Apr 28
"Romance of the Three Kingdoms," or Sānguó Yǎnyì (三国演义), is widely regarded as one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature, alongside works such as "Water Margin," "Journey to the West," "The Plum in the Golden Vase" from the Ming dynasty, "Dream of the Red Chamber" (also known as "Story of the Stone"), and "The Scholars" from the Qing dynasty. While highly esteemed, but by ancient scholar’s standard it cannot be compared to the "Five Classics," which include the "Shi Jing" (Book of Odes), "Li Chi" (Book of Rites), "Shu Jing" (Book of History), "I-Ching" (Book of Changes), and "Chun Qiu" (Spring and Autumn Annals) in terms of the depth of knowledge and philosophy they contain.
While it may be accurate to describe "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a work that prioritizes entertainment over offering deep philosophical insights, this characterization ignores the sophisticated intellectual task of analyzing the text's historical accuracy and separating fact from folklore, myth, and magic. Indeed, reading the novel with a critical eye requires a great deal of skill and nuance.
History of the text
To fully appreciate the historical significance of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," it is important to consider the history of the text itself. The original work is "The Records or History of the Three Kingdoms," known in Chinese as the Sanguo Zhi (三國志). This text covers the period of the late Eastern Han dynasty (c. 184–220 AD) and the subsequent Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD) and is widely regarded as the official and authoritative source on this period of history. Chen Shou wrote the work in the third century, synthesizing the histories of the rival states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu into a single compiled text. This makes "The Records of History of the Three Kingdoms" a valuable and "authentic" source of historical information, written by a contemporary scholar who lived during the period covered by the text. Unlike Sun Tzu's "Art of War," whose authenticity remains unclear due to the lack of an original text from the Autumn and Spring period, "The Records of History of the Three Kingdoms" has not necessary been filtered through pre-Qin criteria and remains a reliable source of historical information.
Liu Bei's three advisors: Pang Tong (the young Phoenix), Xhu Shu, and Zhuge Xiang (the crouching dragon), photo's source.
During the 5th century, Pei Songzhi wrote a commentary on The Records of the Three Kingdoms that incorporated additional sources and details from various historical materials. Subsequently, every unrelated personal record in The Records of the Three Kingdoms was connected to the same single story influenced by folk tales and storytelling popularized during the 10th century. It was matured in the 1320s when it was published as The Records of the Three Kingdoms in Plain Language (Sanguozhi Pinghua 三國志平話) without the writer's name. The story added some magical and supernatural events but still conformed to the original The Records of the Three Kingdoms with commentary from Pei Songzhi. Later, in the mid-14th century, Luo Guanzhong wrote Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fictionalized retelling of the history that incorporated elements of folklore, myth, and legend. The novel was published in the late 14th century and was known as Popular Exposition of the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi 三國志通俗演義). In the 1660s, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang edited and significantly altered the text of Ming dynasty editions of the Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi novel, organizing it into 120 chapters and abbreviating the title to Sanguo Yanyi (三國演義). Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang's version of Sanguo Yanyi, or for short, Sanguo Yanyi, is the standard edition today. The series produced by China Central Television (CCTV), first aired on the network in 1994, has followed Mao Lun and Mao Zhonggang's version.
The opening sentence of Sanguo Yanyi, "The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been." is often attributed to Luo Guanzhong, but it was in fact written by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang. Although the term "天下" (tiān xià) can be translated diffently from “the empire” to "all under heaven" or "the whole world," Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang sought to add a philosophical interpretation to Sanguo Yanyi beyond mere entertainment. However, the original work was simply a plain historical account without any philosophical interpretation. It should be noted that both Chen Shou and Pei Songzhi wrote from a Confucian philosophical standpoint based on their training, with Chen Shou likely sympathizing more with Shu Han. Furthermore, the heroic stories of Shu Han's founder, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Zhuge Liang, were added during the Yuan era.
However, with our previous attributes considered, it is appropriate to analyze the historical events of the Three Kingdoms using knowledge from our previous writings, such as Chinese philosophical debates, Sun Tzu's Art of War, and the formation of the Chinese bureaucracy as the first modern state during the Qin Empire. In this article, we will examine why the Han Dynasty, despite its age of more than 400 years, collapsed, and how the bureaucratic system developed earlier during the Zhou Dynasty could have influenced scholars during the Three Kingdoms period.
Background of the synergic strategies
In this article, we will analyze the core issue of the story of the three kingdoms, which led to the generation of the three kingdoms. While some might say it was the Battle of Red Cliffs, a deeper analysis is necessary. The Longzhong Plan of Zhuge Liang and Lu Su's Lu-Sun dialogue both identified the target regions of Jing and Yi for capture. As a smaller resource of Liu Bei's clique, their plan was more ambitious, seeking to conquer the entire old Han empire. Conversely, Lu Su, influenced by the conservative thinking of his peer scholars like Zhang Zhao, sought to preserve only Sun Quan's clique's influence territory within Yang, avoiding challenging Cao Cao's superior resources. However, we must consider that Lu Su was an outlier in Sun Quan's clique due to his preemptive move and his attempt to convince Sun Quan to build a Sun-Liu alliance for a decisive battle with Cao Cao.
In Sanguo Yanyi, it is said that Zhuge Liang "defeated" Sun Quan's advisors, including Zhang Zhao, in the war of words that debated historic moral issues and strategies from the Spring and Autumn period. However, according to Sanguo Zhi, this did not occur. Zhuge Liang merely "pleaded" for Sun Quan to form an alliance with them. At the time, Liu Bei's army had at most 10,000 men, compared with Cao Cao's army, which was around 700,000, and Sun Quan's army, which was 100,000 at most. It was clear that Liu Bei's force was insignificant in the forthcoming battle. However, as Lu Su had conducted reconnaissance during Cao Cao's invasion in Jing, he understood the internal politics of Jing, in which Liu Bei had played a significant role. Furthermore, Cao Cao claimed royal command from the puppet emperor under his real power. Sun Quan needed a unique legitimacy to counter Cao Cao, which resided in Liu Bei. Liu Bei was the emperor's uncle and had royal blood, and he commanded popular respect from the people. Thus, by boosting legitimacy from Liu Bei and leveraging average military force from Sun Quan, along with fluently executing Wu's naval battle, there was a chance to win the war, even though it was not ample.
After winning the war, Liu Bei's power reached its peak when he captured Yi and possessed Jing under Guan Yu's command. In the ideal Longzhong plan, concurrent invasions were expected from Hanzhong by Liu Bei, from Jing by Guan Yu, and from Yang by Sun Quan, in order to defeat Cao Cao and restore the Han royal court. However, this did not happen. After the death of Fa Zheng, Liu Bei ordered Zhuge Liang to move from Jing to help him invade Hanzhong, which succeeded. But Guan Yu, without restraint from capable advisors like Zhuge Liang, invaded in the battle of Fan and was subsequently invaded by Sun Quan's capable general Lu Meng with his carefully calculated military operation and captured Jing. Prior to this, Sun Quan had proposed a compromise to arrange a wedding between their relatives, but Guan Yu arrogantly denied it, leading to his downfall.
We can observe from later developments that although the Liu-Sun alliance was restored after Liu Bei's failed campaign to avenge Guan Yu's death, it was no longer significant. The era had passed, and Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Lu Su correctly assessed that the Han dynasty was no more, and history was moving towards a new qualitative development that would result in a more mature state, perfect in the Tang era, almost several hundred years later. At this time, the modern impersonal state, which was the backbone of political order in the Han era, was wrecked havoc, and the new practical political order was only the returning of patrimonial states that emerged as Shu Han, Wei, and Wu. Wu was concerned with restoring the balance of power, while Shu Han still obliged to the former king, Liu Bei, to unify the Han. However, lacking enough resources and manpower, it would fail, paving the way for the unification of the kingdom under Wei, not by Cao, but Sima later. Now, let's examine the "force" that built the three kingdoms in detail.
During ancient China, the collapse of the Qin dynasty and subsequent political decay generated the more stabilized Han dynasty for over 400 years. However, corrupt elites, several plagues, and floods during the late Han dynasty led to social unrest and rebellions, including the Yellow Turban Rebellion. The return to patrimonial governments among the warlords during the late Han dynasty represented a regression from the more centralized and bureaucratic rule of the Han dynasty. The struggle between the late Three Kingdoms was marked by further fragmentation and decentralization of power, paving the way for the emergence of the Sui and Tang dynasties, which restored a more centralized and bureaucratic form of government. This period was characterized by political instability, military conflict, and social upheaval.
The Three Kingdoms period of China is known for its military campaigns, political intrigue, and ambitious strategists who sought to unify the fragmented empire. Two of the most notable figures during this era were Zhuge Liang, the strategist of the Shu kingdom, and Lu Su, the advisor of the Wu kingdom. Both men had grand visions for their respective kingdoms, and their ambitious strategies culminated in a joint plan in the event to defeat Cao Cao at the battle of the Redcliff. However, the plans's success was short-lived, and the events following the Battle of Xiaoting marked the beginning of its decline. This article explores the two phases of Zhuge-Lu's ambitious strategies and how they contributed to the ultimate collapse of both states.
2. Cao Cao's consolidating the northern power and moving south
To understand the context in which Zhuge Liang and Lu Su's strategies emerged, it is essential to consider the rise of Cao Cao and his conquest of the northern territories. Cao Cao was a skilled strategist who had succeeded in consolidating power in the north and was expanding southward. His ambition threatened the southern kingdoms of Shu and Wu, who needed to find a way to counter his growing influence. The threat of Cao Cao's northern army looming over them forced both Zhuge Liang and Lu Su to come up with ambitious plans to safeguard their kingdoms.
Painting of The Romance of Three Kingdoms at Wat Pavaranivesh Vihara Ratchawarawihan, the major temple of the Thammayut Nikaya order of Thai Theravada Buddhism in Bangkok, Thailand.
Confucianism emphasizes loyalty, but it also emphasizes the importance of restoring order and stability in society. Zhuge Liang, being a devout Confucian, saw the collapse of the Han dynasty as a critical moment in history and believed it was his duty to restore order by establishing a new dynasty. He saw Liu Bei as the rightful ruler to take up this mantle and sought to expand his influence in order to establish a strong, centralized government based on Confucian principles.
On the other hand, Cao Cao and Lu Su recognized that the Han dynasty was already in decline and sought to exploit its weaknesses for their own gain. Cao Cao was a pragmatic ruler who focused on consolidating power and expanding his own territory, rather than attempting to restore the Han dynasty. Lu Su, likewise, sought to expand Wu's power and influence, but was more concerned with maintaining a balance of power between the various warlords rather than seeking to establish a new dynasty.
Sun Quan, while still influenced by Confucianism, had a more pragmatic approach to ruling his kingdom. He recognized that he could not hope to control the entire empire and focused instead on maintaining his own influence and power over his territory. He was content to form alliances with other warlords as necessary, but did not seek to establish a new dynasty or restore the Han dynasty. This conservative and status quo strategy was reflected in the nature of his major advisors, who also sought to maintain the equilibrium of power among the warlords rather than pursuing a more ambitious agenda.
Lu Su and Zhuge Liang's grand strategies were unique and ambitious in their vision for a restored or new Han empire, while Cao Cao's ambitions were more focused on his personal power and glory. Although Cao Cao had the potential to establish a new dynasty, his adherence to Confucian principles and loyalty to the Han dynasty prevented him from doing so. On the other hand, his son Cao Pi was able to break free from these constraints and establish the Wei dynasty.
3. Jia Xu’s warning
When Cao Cao took over as Governor of Ji Province after pacifying northern China, Jia Xu was reassigned as a Palace Counsellor (太中大夫). In 208, after Cao Cao annexed Jing Province, he planned to continue and attack the territories in Jiangdong controlled by warlord Sun Quan. Jia Xu advised against it, saying, "My lord, you have defeated the Yuans, and now you have taken Jing Province. Your name spreads throughout the Empire, and your military is very strong. If you follow the footsteps of the Chu state by attracting talents to serve in the government and improving the lives of the people, you won't need to resort to force to subdue the Jiangdong territories. They will submit to you on their own." Cao Cao ignored Jia Xu's advice and proceeded to attack Jiangdong, ultimately losing the decisive Battle of Red Cliffs against the allied forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei later that year.
Pei Songzhi, who annotated Jia Xu's biography in the Sanguozhi, argued that Jia Xu's advice to Cao Cao was inappropriate. He pointed out that Cao Cao's territories lacked the stability necessary for him to follow Jia Xu's advice and focus on economic development in Jing Province. Moreover, Cao Cao had to deal with external threats posed by warlords such as Han Sui and Ma Chao in the northwest. Pei Songzhi noted that Jing Province was highly unstable and would not remain under Cao Cao's control for long due to the polarizing presence of Liu Bei and Sun Quan in the region. He pointed out that during the Battle of Jiangling in 208, Cao Cao's general Cao Ren still lost Jiangling Commandery to Sun Quan and Liu Bei's forces despite his best efforts at defending it. Pei Songzhi thus concluded that it was impossible for Cao Cao to focus on economic development in Jing Province given how unstable the region was, making Jia Xu's advice inappropriate. He argued that Cao Cao made the right choice to attack Jiangdong when he had resources for naval warfare acquired from his recent annexation of Jing Province. Pei Songzhi also mentioned that Cao Cao's defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs was not due to miscalculation or poor planning but rather uncontrollable factors, such as the plague that affected his troops and the winds that fanned the fire, which destroyed his naval fleet.
Zhuge Liang's Longzhong plan
4. The merging of Zhuge-Lu's ambitious strategies
To counter Cao Cao's military might, Zhuge Liang and Lu Su devised distinct yet complementary strategies for their respective kingdoms. Zhuge Liang's plan centered on capturing Jing Province, thereby establishing Liu Bei's kingdom, later known as Shu, and then expanding westward while maintaining alliances with Wu and other southern kingdoms.This plan is known as Longzhong strategy.
On the other hand, Lu Su's plan, also referred to as Lu-Sun's dialogue, formed a crucial part of Wu's strategy. It aimed to expand Wu's territory in the south before launching a decisive attack against Cao Cao's northern army. Unlike other major advisors of Wu, who sought to maintain equilibrium and avoid direct confrontation with Cao Cao, Lu Su recognized the growing threat of Cao Cao's power and took preemptive action to protect Wu.
The default strategy for Sun Quan was to fight and win battles with better payoff, but he needed to ensure victory and reinforce it with Liu Bei's legitimacy, not manpower. However, this risked making Liu Bei a potential rival after the battle, which eventually happened. This decayed the synergy of strategy in the late period of the Three Kingdoms. Surrender produced lower payoff and was considered too risky.
The Lu Su’s plan played a pivotal role in the merging of Zhuge-Lu's strategies by providing a framework for cooperation between the two kingdoms. When Cao Cao invaded Jing Province, Sun Quan, the leader of Wu, saw an opportunity to form an alliance with Liu Bei and pursue Zhuge Liang's Longzhong Plan. This move aligned with the Lu Su’s plan and resulted in the two kingdoms joining forces to attack Cao Cao on multiple fronts. Without the Lu Su’s plan, it remains uncertain whether Wu would have been willing to cooperate with Shu and pursue a joint strategy.
The merging of Zhuge-Lu's ambitious strategies marked the beginning of a new phase in the Three Kingdoms period, with the potential to alter the course of the war. The capable naval battle strategy of Zhou Yu facilitated the Sun-Liu alliance's successful defeat of Cao Cao. However, the late development of the story led to conflicts within the alliance. Wu saw Shu's rise as a potential threat to the balance of power among the three forces, leading to Wu's tactic to capture Jing Province, which resulted in the killing of Guan Yu. This event enraged Liu Bei and led to his campaign and loss at the battle of Xiaoting. While Wu perceived this as a means to restore equilibrium, Shu viewed the cessation of the Longzhong Plan as a setback. Nonetheless, they managed to revive it and maintain a loose form of the Wu-Shu alliance during the late period of the Three Kingdoms.
5. The decay of Zhuge-Lu's ambitious strategies
Despite the initial success of the Longzhong Plan, the events following the Battle of Xiaoting marked the beginning of the plan's decline. Zhuge Liang's continued military campaigns weakened Shu's resources and manpower, leading to a stalemate with Wei's forces. Zhuge Liang pursued continued warfare to maintain the status of Shu as a warring state and to prioritize the army over the economy. This would require a highly authoritarian and centralized government, which could lead to corruption and other issues. However, it is also possible that Zhuge Liang believed that continued warfare was necessary to weaken the enemy and make them more vulnerable to defeat, even if it meant using up Shu's resources and manpower. Additionally, he may have hoped to catch Sima Yi off guard with a surprise tactic, but this could also be seen as a risky and potentially foolish strategy. Meanwhile, Wu's default strategy of maintaining equilibrium meant that they were hesitant to commit to the war effort, making it difficult for Shu to gain the upper hand. The decay of Zhuge-Lu's ambitious strategies ultimately led to the collapse of both states, with the weakened Shu kingdom falling to the Wei kingdom and the Wu kingdom eventually surrendering to the Jin dynasty.
The peak time of Shu Han occurred when Liu Bei succeeded in capturing Hanzhong, which gave them a strategic advantage over their rivals. However, this period also marked the beginning of their decline, as Guan Yu decided to invade Wei shortly thereafter, which turned out to be a disastrous decision. This was partly due to the lack of checks and balances on Guan Yu's authority, as he had become increasingly autonomous and arrogant. The death of Fa Zheng also deprived Liu Bei of a capable advisor, and the move of Zhuge Liang from Jing to Yi to help Liu Bei invade Hanzhong left Guan Yu without proper guidance. Shu Han's lack of human resources also contributed to their downfall, as they were unable to find capable successors to the Five Tiger Generals.
The merging of Zhuge-Lu's ambitious strategies was a significant turning point in the Three Kingdoms period, but ultimately, the decay of these plans led to the downfall of both kingdoms. While the Longzhong Plan had the potential to change the course of the war, it ultimately proved unsustainable and led to the depletion of resources and manpower. The downfall of both Shu and Wu serves as a cautionary tale of the perils of ambitious strategies and the importance of maintaining balance and stability in times of conflict.