by Dr Rafe De Crespigny

Cao Cao entered the world when it was in chaos. During his life, he marched his armies and generals across four horizons.

Shown here: Cao Cao supervises a navy camp.

Man from the Margin:
Cao Cao and the Three Kingdoms

The Fifty-first George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology 1990

Dr Rafe de Crespigny

The Australian National University


This lecture of Dr Rafe de Crespigny is about the Three Kingdoms. We are soindebted to Dr Rafe de Crespigny for granting us the permission to present hiscommentary to the novel readers.

The web site of the lecture is at

The web site of the Australian National University is

Copyright ?by Dr Rafe de Crespigny

Foreword by Dr Rafe de Crespigny

George Ernest Morrison was a remarkable man, of great energy, imagination andinfluence in the relations between China and the West. From his writings andpapers, moreover, it appears that he was able to maintain a successful balancebetween his love and appreciation of China and his own sense of identity as anAustralian.

So the series of lectures established almostsixty years ago was an appropriate honour to his name, and the topics which havebeen covered, from literature and philosophy to politics and economics, presenta remarkable record of the developing interest and scholarship on China in thiscountry.

We owe a considerable debt to the founders ofthis program in the 1930s, and we may hope they would be pleased with thecontinuing results of their enterprise.

I feel most honoured to have been invited topresent the Morrison Lecture for 1990. This lecture will deal with times longago, but the turmoil of empire and the end of a dynasty are matters thatMorrison knew well.


Man from the Margin: Cao Cao and theThree Kingdoms

Cao Cao was born in AD 155, a subject of the dynasty ofLater Han. His father, Cao Song, was the adopted son of a eunuchat court, and rose through influence and bribery to the highest position in theimperial bureaucracy. Cao Cao himself occupied a number ofmiddle-range posts at the capital until 189, when the general Dong Zhuotook advantage of a failed coup d'etat and claimed power forhimself.

The civil war which followed destroyed theauthority of the empire, and for ten years the heart of China was ravaged andruined by ragged armies of adventurers, in an infinite permutation of alliancesand treachery.

From this confusion, Cao Cao emerged in triumph. He established a coherent government with the Emperor as hispuppet, and by AD 200, when he defeated his chief rival Yuan Shao in battle by the Yellow River, he was the master of north China.

In AD 208, however, when Cao Cao sought to extend his control to the south, he was defeated and driven back atthe battle of the Red Cliffs, and he never succeeded in breaking the line of theGreat River (the Yangtze or Yangzi).

When Cao Cao died in AD 220, hisstate of Wei still faced two major rivals: Shu-Han in the west under Liu Bei, and Wu in the south under the Sun family.

Forty years later, the Sima familyseized power from Cao Cao's successors and established theirown dynasty of Jin, and they conquered Shu and Wu to restore a short-lived unityto the Chinese world. The position, however, was always insecure and afterlittle more than twenty years the empire was divided again, with the northdominated by alien, non-Chinese rulers and peoples. Not until the end of thesixth century did a single state hold sway once more over the civilised world ofChina.

At this stage, let me offer some justificationfor the discussion of events so long ago and dynasties so far away. The heroesof the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao, his colleagues and his rivals,have a notable place in the traditions of the Chinese people. They arecelebrated in poetry and drama, their deeds are recounted in cycles of stories,and the policies and crises of their time have been the centre of intellectualand popular debate in modern China.

In that respect, the romance of the ThreeKingdoms holds a place among the Chinese people comparable to the tales of KingArthur, of Charlemagne and his paladins or, still more relevant to the presentworld, of Richard Lionheart and his Crusaders. And if we consider this lastexample, and the present events in the Middle East, we can recognise how certainevents in the past, whether or not they are adequately recorded or properlyunderstood, can influence our perceptions and actions in the present and thefuture.

I shall not deal here with the romantictradition of the Three Kingdoms: I think we can take that as given, and wellrecognised among those who study the field. But since the Morrison Lectures areconcerned to address the ethnography of China, and since the matter of the ThreeKingdoms has been a significant strand in Chinese popular culture for almost twothousand years, I ask this question: What is it that has made the history of theThree Kingdoms so special? And since I am basically a historian, I seek toanswer that question by discussing the history, the society and the people ofthat time.

So if we deal with that age as it really was,one question is: Why Three Kingdoms? For scholars of recent times, looking backover two thousand years of China, the important pattern is that of the greatdynasties, from Han to Tang to Song to Ming to Qing, uniting all under Heavenfor centuries at a time, with physical boundaries generally coterminous with theextent of Chinese civilisation.

If, however, we look precisely at the end ofHan, we must recognise that the fall of the unified empire was followed by fourhundred years of political division: An age as long as the Han dynasty itself.The fall of Han was absolute, and it required a different combination ofcircumstances for Song and Tang to restore the unity which had been lost for solong.

Yet there was always a tradition that thecivilised world should be reunited. During the last days of Han, there wereomens and debates on the succession: After twice twelve generations (24emperors of Later Han), the virtue of the imperial Liu clan was ending,and who should take over the government? It was, nonetheless, assumed thatgovernment would remain to be taken---no one expected the whole edifice wouldbreak into pieces. There might be a brief period of confusion, but the naturalpattern of unity and peace should be restored.

From this point of view the reputation of CaoCao has suffered: He established government in the heart-landof China, but he did not destroy his two chief rivals, and the state which hefounded was swiftly subverted and destroyed. As a result, rather than receivingpraise for creating a measure of order out of chaos, Cao Cao receives blame for not doing more---and in Confucianist analysis this politicalfailure is explained by a lack of personal virtue. So Cao Cao is painted as cruel and cunning, a brilliant but flawed tyrant, the man againstwhom the loyal Liu Bei, the brave Guan Yu, and thebrilliant Zhuge Liang, all men of Shu-Han, could demonstratetheir wisdom, nobility, and skill.

If, however, we escape from politicalmoralising, and look more objectively at the reality of empire in traditionalChina, then the picture becomes a little different.

By the middle of the second century AD, the Handynasty was bankrupt, not only in economic terms, but socially and politicallyas well. The economic crisis can be traced at least to the beginning of thefirst century, in the period after the civil war which brought the destructionof Wang Mang and the restoration of the Liu familyunder Emperor Guang Wu.

The new emperor owed his success to the supportof great landed families, and these were powerful enough to prevent the centralgovernment from enforcing any tight control over their local interests andactivities. In a pattern which became the norm for all dynasties of China, thelocal gentry took control of all recruitment to office in the imperialbureaucracy, and they dominated the workings of government to their ownadvantage. In Later Han, the obvious example of their power was the failure ofthe new regime to enforce an effective survey of land tenure---so the gentrymaintained their hold on the essential capital of a pre-industrial society;while the central government was deprived of its full share from the resourcesof the nation.(1)

The effect of this initial weakness wascompounded by mistaken military ambition. At the end of the first century, intwo remarkable series of campaigns, Dou Xian destroyed the state of the NorthernXiongnu in present day Mongolia, and Ban Chao reestablished Chinese authorityover central Asia, present day Xinjiang. Both generals had close connection tothe court, each of their achievements has been praised by nationalist Chinesecommentators, and the combined effect of their success was imperial disaster.

In strategic terms, the destruction of thestable and controllable state of the Xiongnu left a political vacuum along thenorthern frontier of the empire, and that vacuum was swiftly filled by thedisorganised but aggressive tribes of the Xianbi. Further to the west, thecontinued control of central Asia proved to be beyond the resources of theChinese government; but as rebellion broke out and the troops were ordered home,the uncertainty and the loss of prestige brought mutinies and revolt. Inparticular, from 107 to 118, the northwest of China was devastated by therebellion of the non-Chinese Qiang people. The process continued, and by themiddle of the second century the north and northwest of China was either outsidethe control of the imperial government or was under constant and destabilisingattack from beyond the frontier.

In traditional interpretation, it is the rulersof the second and third centuries who are blamed for allowing the northern partof China to fall into the hands of "barbarians": It is my contentionthat the depopulation and withdrawal which allowed this to happen was a directconsequence of the excessive and costly aggression by Dou Xian and Ban Chao.(2)

The military misfortunes I have described hadserious consequences for the government of Later Han. Immediately, the cost ofthe wars put direct strain upon the central budget. In the longer term, the lossof resources from the devastated territories, particularly in the northwest,meant that shortfall in taxation quotas had to be sought elsewhere, notably fromthe settled and prosperous Yellow River plain.

Inevitably, this produced two results: Theweakened central government was unable to enforce its requirements against theentrenched interests of the local gentry; and the very attempt to do so causedresentment and disruption.

At the imperial capital, Luoyang,there was another political development. Throughout the dynasty one emperorafter another had been expected, and often required, to take as his chiefconsort a woman from one of the great families of the empire, and the malemembers of her family always held high authority at court. The"usurper" Wang Mang, who seized power from FormerHan, had based his position upon that relationship; the energetic generals DouXian and Ban Chao were imperial relatives by marriage; at the beginning of thesecond century the Empress-Dowager Deng and her clan had controlled the court;and they in turn were succeeded by the Liang family. Each group sought tomaintain itself by sexual politics in the harem and by intrigue at court, buteach in turn was overthrown after one or two generations.

On occasion, the emperor played the chief rolein ridding himself of these over-mighty subjects and their unwanted tutelage,but he was compelled to rely increasingly upon support from the eunuchs of hisharem. Formally appointed as guardians and jailers of the women, their proximityto the ruler gave them opportunity to act first as messengers and then astrusted agents.

In AD 159, when Emperor Huan destroyedthe Liang family, he relied almost entirely upon the support of the eunuchs.Notably, moreover, he received no useful assistance from the full men of thegentry who held office in the court and the government, for they were generallyeither intimidated by the power of the Liang family, or respected them asleading members of their own class.(3)

For the remaining ten years of his reign,Emperor Huan continued to rely upon the eunuchs and their associates,promoted them in his service and sought to establish their position in theempire at large. When he died in AD 168, the gentry officials hoped for betterthings under the new regent Dou Wu, whose daughter as Empress hadbeen forced onto Emperor Huan against his will. A few months later,however, the eunuchs ran a coup against Dou Wu and hissupporters, they obtained the support of the imperial guard regiments, theyseized control of government under the young Emperor Ling, and theyheld that power for the next twenty years.

The period of Liang family hegemony had seenthe development of one group of gentry opposition.

Described by themselves as "Pure",and known by their later fate as the Proscribed Faction, these men sought tomaintain an ideal Confucianist morality in opposition to the corruption ofgovernment dominated by powerful politicians. Most of the leaders and heroes ofthis group came from the middle and lower gentry, and they were energeticallysupported by students of the imperial university, thirty thousand strong, whochanted slogans and scrawled graffiti about the streets and walls of thecapital.

Sadly, however, like other ideal moralists inlater times, the Pure men were more ready to criticise those who held power thanto offer any practical alternative to the problems of government, and they werereadily led to support "reformers" who were primarily concerned withtheir own selfish interests.

They played no part in the destruction of theLiang, and they turned their disapproval with equal and indeed greater censureagainst the government of Emperor Huan and his eunuch favourites.(4)

In AD 166, after several years of skirmishing withpropaganda, the eunuchs persuaded their master to exile the leaders of thisgroup from office. The men of faction rose to brief power as supporters of DouWu; but when the eunuchs regained power in 168, they confirmedtheir success by a purge and proscription of their enemies, and the ban wasmaintained for the next fifteen years.

The troubles at the capital were unsettlingenough in themselves, for an impoverished administration, whose government ispunctuated by coups d'etat, is no recipe for imperial success. In more generalterms, however, the conflict between gentry Confucianists and imperial clientswithin Luoyang brought a lack of sympathy and loss of allegiancethroughout the whole of China. It can readily be argued that the Pure men of theProscribed Party were blinkered in their approach to the problems of government,and were concerned for the most part with the limited interests of their ownclass and background, but they were well armed with the moral courage of theirconvictions, and the spectacle of their executions and persecution drove abrutal wedge between the imperial government and the leading group which shouldsupport the regime.

Already, along the frontier, the empiremaintained a position only at the cost of misery and disruption to the subjectsit should protect. Now, within the country, the perceived moral failures of thevarious regimes made men of good will and good family reject an official career.(5)And in many respects, this withdrawal from responsibility was more serious forthe fortunes of the dynasty than any feuds, quarrels, and proscriptions at thecapital.

The final, fatal weakness of Han was the lossof faith among the scholars and gentlemen who should have given their chiefsupport.

Increasingly, in the provinces, as men soughttheir own advantage through private arrangements, the network of commendation,patronage, and alliance, already established among local families, developed andgrew. Beside and below the official administration, which they dominated throughtheir influence in the bureaucracy, leaders of the gentry maintained a networkof tenants, retainers, and clients, oppressing and robbing their poorerneighbours, and contending with one another for local influence and power.

Moreover, for this conservative, politicallystagnant society of the provinces, the threat posed by the arrival of new menfrom the capital, eunuchs and their supporters seeking position in the countryfor themselves, was a major source of conflict. Though not on a large scale, thestruggles were fierce and cruel on both sides:

In one instance, a eunuch associate sought tomarry the daughter of a leading local gentleman. The request was refused, and sothe frustrated suitor led a band of followers to attack the neighbouringproperty, kidnapped the unfortunate girl, had her tied to a stake in hiscourtyard, and amused himself by shooting arrows at her till she died.

In response, the local magistrate arrested,tortured, and killed the ringleader and all his dependents, without regard toguilt, innocence, age or sex.(6)

Amongst themselves, these gentlemen could beequally vicious.

The father of Su Buwei was killed in a personalquarrel by Li Gao, who later became a minister at court. Su Buwei found anopportunity to tunnel into the minister's residence by night and came to hisbedroom. At that moment, Li Gao had got up to go to the lavatory, so Su Buweicontented himself by murdering Li Gao's concubine and his infant son. He thenescaped to his home country, dug up the corpse of Li Gao's father from its tomb,and took the head as an offering to his own father's grave.

Li Gao is said to have died of grief and shame,but some time later Su Buwei himself, and sixty members of his household, werekilled in revenge by a friend of Li Gao.

In moral comment upon this unhappy history,leaders of the Pure faction admired the manner in which Su Buwei had maintainedhis vendetta single-handed against official odds.(7)

Such incidents as these may have beenexceptional, but an almanac for the proprietors of great estates suggests thatthe third month is the time to prepare security measures against thieves who mayappear during the food shortages of spring, and in the ninth month the familyshould repair its weapons and practise military skills, to be ready for theattacks of bandits driven by the misery of the coming winter.(8)

Seen against this background, the tomb modelsof Later Han take a new meaning: Those charming towers above the farmyard arebuilt for serious defence in time of troubles, like the castles of Japan ormedieval Europe. And there are general indications that whereas in Qin Dynastyand Former Han the wealthy tombs, and the multitudes of model warriors, werereserved to members of the imperial house, by Later Han the grave goods, and thewarriors, were used by local officials and the leaders of clans. The items arenot of such high quality, but they are more widely spread, both in space acrossthe provinces of China and in rank amongst the members of the gentry. If a mantook soldiers with him to guard his grave, we may assume he had retained suchservices during his life, and it seems very possible that the devolution ofluxury and the symbols of power among the dead reflects a living wealth and areal independence of local interests against the now limited authority of theimperial government.

Indeed it was a nice question whether thedynasty was maintained with the support of the landed gentry and the officials,or rather for their benefit. To a considerable degree, the attitude of scholarsand the men of good family was one of pious moralising against the imperialgovernment, combined with a benevolent sympathy, largely unaccompanied bypractical action, for those who were poorer and weaker. And the leaders of thePure faction, though they were men of great honour and tragic courage, can alsobe regarded as the short-sighted representatives of a selfish landlord class,primarily concerned with its personal interests, and unable or unwilling to lookbeyond to the dangers which threatened society as a whole.

Certainly, for the common people of China, suchconflicts among their betters brought little interest and no advantage: Bothsides were contending for the right to exploit the labour of the subsistencefarmers who comprised more than ninety per cent of the population and producedalmost all of the nation's wealth. In the long term, moreover, the continuedweakness of central government meant that powerful local families could evadetheir quotas for taxation and pass the cost onto their tenants or their poorerneighbours, while the benefits which government should provide, assistance intime of famine, a measure of good order, and a sense of security, were steadilydisregarded.

In AD 184, first year of a new cycle in thecalendar, the religious leader Zhang Jue, who hadestablished wide popularity through faith-healing and the preaching of a newutopia, led a mass uprising across all north China. His followers wore yellowscarves about their heads, and they fought for a coming era of Great Peace (Taiping).The rebellion of the Yellow Scarves, however, was essentially a peasantmovement, and it was broken within the year. Whatever their discontent with theregime at the capital, the great local families were equally concerned todestroy their enemies below. There was no substantial support for the rebelsamong the gentry, and the bulk of the imperial armies were raised in regimentsbased upon family retainers and local leadership: Despite the promise of abetter world, the greater part of the people preferred the traditionalrelationship of servant and master to the abstract opportunity of escape fromclass oppression.(9)

The immediate result of the uprising was theslaughter of great numbers of people, the devastation of formerly prosperousregions, a vast increase in lawlessness and banditry, and an exhaustion ofgovernment. The formal structures of the state remained, but the erosion ofauthority was almost complete, and the basis for civil war had been prepared.The facade of Han relied only upon general acceptance of the imperiallegitimacy---and a reluctance to contemplate what alternatives might take itsplace.

In AD 189 the death of Emperor Ling renewed the conflict between eunuchs and regular officials. In bloody andruinous fighting, each side destroyed the other, and on the evening of 24September, as flames from the imperial palace lit up the sky, the frontiergeneral Dong Zhuo came to take over the capital and put his ownnominee, the younger son of Emperor Ling, upon the throne.

Dong Zhuo did not hold powerfor very long, but the way he had gained it and the way that he used it meantthe end of legitimate government in the empire. He had no good right to be inthe capital at all, he held his power solely because he was the man in commandof the army, and only another army could remove him. The leaders of theprovinces took up arms to oppose him, and they recruited their armies as theyhad against the Yellow Scarves, on a nucleus of local family forces and apress-ganged conscription.

The "loyal alliance" lasted no morethan a few months, and for the next ten years, as disorder spread across China,the former structures of power were wiped away. At the beginning, armies werebased upon traditional and local family loyalties, but there rapidly emerged adistinction between those whose hereditary position allowed them to command suchforces, and the men who could take real advantage of such opportunity. It wasone thing for a gentleman to use his retainers in a feud or bullying against hisneighbours; it was quite a different matter when such clan leaders came face toface with competent fighting men. One after another, in every region of China,the amateurs succumbed to the professionals, and the leaders of great lineagefell victim to the men from the margin.

The career of Cao Cao is amodel of this process in action. His family background is uncertain, he and hisfather owed their position at court to their connection with the eunuchs, anddespite their rank they were not in the same class as the men of great family.Cao Cao held minor military command against the YellowScarves, but it was only in AD 190, at the age of thirty-five, that he took anindependent position. His first small army, like the others, was based uponprivate resources, but Cao Cao showed an ability andimagination that raised him rapidly from the common ruck. In the early years,moreover, though he suffered some substantial defeats, he showed an exceptionalability to retain the loyalty of his officers and of the soldiers under hiscommand, and he gradually developed a warlord state in the territory south ofthe Yellow River.

By the middle AD 190s, from this small but securebase, Cao Cao achieved two remarkable successes.

Firstly, he took control of the young EmperorXian, maintaining him as a puppet to legitimate his personal power.Second, still more important, Cao Cao established a system ofmilitary agricultural colonies, which resettled peasants dispossessed by waronto fields that others had abandoned. The new tenants were allocated land underdirect control of the government, without intervention from the formerlandlords: And in ready exchange they defended their territory and producedreliable supplies for armies further afield. None of his rivals were willing orable to match this administrative coup, and the power of his state grew withoutinterruption.

In AD 200, at the battle of Guandu just south of the Yellow River, Cao Cao destroyed the army ofhis greatest enemy, Yuan Shao, and in the following years hetook over all of north China from the Great Wall to the River Huai and the RiverHan.

In AD 208, however, as Cao Cao sought to take control of the middle Great River, his initial success was haltedat the Red Cliffs near present day Wuhan. The engagement itself was not a majorone, but the tactical setback had great strategic consequences, for the armiesof the south, notably the forces of Wu under Sun Quan, wereable to maintain defences on the line of the Great River for more than seventyyears thereafter, and this success established the foundations for the futuredivision of China into Northern and Southern dynasties.

In immediate terms, there were several reasonswhy Cao Cao failed at the Red Cliffs. For one thing, he wasnot fully committed to success. His own army had been on active service forseveral years, and was barely returned from a triumphant campaign north of theGreat Wall. His initial thrust had secured the basin of the River Han, and itappears most likely that his further advance was made rather in the hope ofswift success against weak and divided enemies than in the determination toembark on a thorough conquest. Once he had suffered a setback, it was betterpolicy to return and secure the government of his base territory than tocontinue and perhaps over-commit himself too far from home. There should alwaysbe another opportunity.(10)

In fact, the opportunity never came: Though thearmies of Wei, under Cao Cao and his successors, repeatedlyattacked the line of the middle and lower Great River, they never obtained aposition in the south. In part, this lack of success can be ascribed to theobstacle of the Great River and the difficulty of organising major amphibiousoperations over such a distance. Besides this, however, it is evident thatChinese colonisation and control in the south was now sufficient to support aseparate state.

During Later Han, through the first and secondcenturies AD, the registered population of China south of the Great River hadmore than doubled, both in simple numbers and as a proportion of the empire as awhole, from seven to fifteen percent. The increase came largely throughmigration, as men sought to escape from the troubles and oppression of thenorth, and it was confirmed by settlement of agricultural land and byintermarriage with the people of the south. Often enough, this steady incursionhad been resisted by the earlier inhabitants, who saw themselves driven fromtheir lands by the new settlers, but these occasional "rebellions"were put down by local or imperial armies, and the expansion of the Chinesepeople at the expense of their neighbours was maintained, as for the followingtwo thousand years, without great difficulty.

This spread of Chinese power meant that, oncehe had been able to secure a short-term frontier along the Great River, thegovernment of Sun Quan was able to confirm that defence linewith men, ships, and fortifications. Moreover, the state of Wu then embarkedupon a program of conquest and colonisation through its southern territories,forcing more people, both Han and non-Chinese, into its service, and turningthese human resources into defence against the north. In this respect, thesouthern expansion of Chinese culture created and confirmed the division of theChinese world.(11)

In other directions, Cao Cao and his successors were able to take over the territory formerly controlled byHan in Manchuria and northern Korea, and they reestablished contact withdependent states in central Asia. It was not possible, however, to restore theChinese position along the northern frontier, for that land had been lost andabandoned by the government of Han: All that could be done was to recognise anumber of petty chieftains and seek to keep them under some control, and it wasfrom that region, notably present day Shanxi, that the non-Chinese dynastiesdeveloped their power in the following century.

Finally, to the west in present day Sichuan,the warlord adventurer Liu Bei, his minister Zhuge Liang, and their local successors concentrated their energies onmilitary aggression against Wei. Their efforts were ineffectual, and beyond thestrength of a single province, but the state of Shu-Han survived for more thanfifty years primarily because the power of the north could not be concentratedin that direction so long as there was an active threat across the Great Riverfrom the south. Only after the death of Sun Quan, when thegovernment of Wu was demoralised by succession struggles, could the new dynastyof Jin [of the Sima family] concentrate against Shu-Han and thenturn to conquer the south.

Cao Cao died in AD 220 as aformal subject of Han, and the dynasty was not ended until the enforcedabdication of Emperor Xian in favour of his son Cao Pi at the end of that year. By that time, however, the frontiers of the ThreeKingdoms---Wei, Shu-Han and Wu---had been established by thirty years of war,and the pattern of their conflict had been largely determined by thedevelopments of previous centuries. Of these the most important were theweakness in the north, due to the over-expansion by Later Han against theXiongnu, and the strength of the south, brought by a steady, now accelerated,colonisation south of the Great River.

It would be sadly dull, however, if all suchhistory should be explained merely in terms of geography, demography, andeconomics, and indeed it would be wrong to try to do so. Within the pattern oftheir time, Cao Cao, his associates and rivals made their wayby individual achievement, and this is the real and human story of the ThreeKingdoms.

Firstly, we should recognise again the degreeto which the old regime of the Han was destroyed in the first years of civilwar. The authority of the government at the capital, already shaken by theinternal quarrels and the rivalries of the eunuchs and their opponents, had beencompletely eliminated by the usurpation of Dong Zhuo, and theemperor himself became no more than a pawn in the politics of the warlords. Andat the same time, during this fight to the finish, the traditional powerstructure of the provinces, based upon hereditary control by great landedfamilies, was utterly destroyed.

Yuan Shao, last great rival ofCao Cao in the north, is a notable example of the gentlemenwho had held influence under Han and whose power was destroyed in the civil war.The Yuan family had held the highest offices of state for generationsand their network of allies and clients extended across the empire. Yuan Shaohad played a leading role against the eunuchs and when thealliance was formed against Dong Zhuo he was swiftly elected asleader. The influence and prestige of his family, and the military power whichhe acquired upon that basis, were sufficient to overwhelm his neighbours northof the Yellow River; and until he encountered Cao Cao face toface, he had met no substantial setback. The defeat at Guandu inAD 200, however, was more than a tactical misfortune, for Yuan Shao's main army disintegrated, and he was never able to return to the attack. YuanShao died soon afterwards, his sons quarrelled amongstthemselves, and they died landless in exile.

The matter of controlling and maintaining anarmy in being was central to the success of Cao Cao and thefailure of Yuan Shao. For the armies of this time wereramshackle affairs. The small regular forces of the Han dynasty, professionalsoldiers based at the capital and experienced troops on the northern frontier,had been well-disciplined and efficient, but elsewhere in the empire thegovernment of Later Han had been more concerned about the loyalty of its peoplethan with the need for competent soldiers, and it maintained no general systemof militia training.

In civil war, as the mobilisations of thewarlords brought vast numbers to the competing banners, there were neither timenor resources for proper training. Many men with experience in the old imperialarmy gained advancement as commanders of the new recruits, but their units wereoverwhelmed by the hordes of newcomers, and the traditions, skills anddiscipline were lost. As for equipment, uniforms, supply, and generalcoordination, the texts indicate either that they were completely lacking or,when they were present, that this was considered exceptional.

In reality, these armies were simple armedmobs, with landless troops driven variously by loyalty or fear, by personaldesperation, and by the hope of plunder. And they were accompanied by a mass ofcamp-followers---women and children, cooks and prostitutes, peddlers andgamblers, and a few who specialised in care of the sick and wounded. In the ruinof the society of the past, these masses of ragged misery joined the command ofany chieftain who might gain them a measure of security.

So the structure and fighting techniques ofthese armies were based upon small groups of men following individual leaders.The heart of each unit was the commander himself, supported by his"companions", skilled soldiers who owed him personal allegiance andserved as a body-guard, and the most important tactic was expressed in thephrase "to break the enemy line". In aggressive action, the commanderand his companions acted as spearhead for a drive at the enemy array; and ifthey were successful, they could hope to be followed by the mass of theirfollowers, spreading out to attack the broken enemy from the flank and the rear.

Such tactics have been used at other times andplaces, and the reliance upon mass, concentrated at one point, is a naturaltechnique for an ill-disciplined force, but it is a frightening operation forthe leaders of a primitive army, with no certainty of support. Such attackrequires great courage from the leader and his immediate followers, and a highlevel of personal authority to attract his men to follow in the charge. So if weread in the stories how one man held a bridge, or another advanced alone againstan army, some part of the tale may be true:

Here, for example, is an attack from the GreatRiver: (12)

Two great ships were moored to narrow theentrance, with heavy ropes stretched between them and stones attached asanchors. Above this line of defence were a thousand men with crossbows forcovering fire. The arrows poured down like rain, and the army could not getforward.

Dong Xi and Ling Tong were together in the van. Each took charge of a forlorn horde of volunteers, allin double armour. They boarded a great barge, charged between the covered boats,and Dong Xi himself cut the ropes with his sword. The enemycraft were swept down-stream, and the main body of the army was able to attack.

For the most part, the new leaders came fromlower gentry or comparable background, for they needed access to some group ofsupporters in order to begin a military career. Sun Jian,father of the first emperor of Wu, was probably the son of a merchant, and hefirst went to war with a few hundred personal and family followers.

Liu Bei, future sovereign ofShu, claimed distant descent from the house of Han, but his father had held onlyminor office. Like many others, he and his sworn brothers Guan Yuand Zhang Fei came first to prominence in fighting against theYellow Scarves. Thereafter, at onetime or another, and with limited militarysuccess, Liu Bei served or allied himself to every majorwarlord, and his seizure of power in the west came as the natural culmination ofa long record of double-dealing. He must have been, however, a man of remarkablequality, for he retained a reputation for honour and generosity, and heattracted and held the loyalty of his followers even in the days of his weaknessand apparent failure.

Indeed, at every level, success and survivaldepended almost entirely upon the leaders' personal quality. Not only did theyrequire the military skill to attack against odds, they also needed theauthority and style to attract and hold men in their service and support inbattle. And the fighting commanders were men of flamboyant personality,arrogant, luxurious, often quick-witted, frequently brutal, not easy for anyoneto deal with:

Gan Ning would kill forpleasure, and he gave outlaws refuge and lodging in his offices. Whenever hewent in or out, if he was on land, there were horsemen and chariots drawn up inarray, and if he travelled by water, there were lines of small craft, all withfollowers in embroidered clothing. Wherever he halted, he used a silken rope tomoor the boat, and when he moved on again, he cut the rope and left it, to showhow little he cared.(13)

Pan Zhang was a rough, fierceman, whose orders were always respected. He loved to play a fine part, but hebegan as an impoverished drunkard: when creditors came to his gate, he simplyassured them that one day he would be wealthy and powerful, and he would repaythem then. Later, when he held command, he would steal for the benefit of hismen and on his own account; and if one of his officers or soldiers happened tobe well off, he would sometimes kill him and take his property.(14)

Zhu Huan, as general of Wu oncampaign against Wei, quarrelled bitterly with his commander-in-chief, killednumbers of his attendants, and then "pretended he was insane" and leftthe army. Sun Quan, however, soothed him down, treated himwith honour, and returned him to the front with a largely independent command.Zhu Huan remarked that now he had the opportunity to return to active service,his ailment would cure itself.(15)

In this society of war, therefore, there was anew hierarchy of heroes: Men of remarkable, often foolhardy, courage andpersonality---mad, bad, and dangerous to know---subject only to those fewexceptional rulers who could control their energies and hold their loyalty.

In the great campaigns, those which decided thefortunes of a state, there was a limited, but vital, role for high command. Amajor force, thirty thousand men or more, occupied a vast area of ground andplaced heavy demands on the resources of an even wider territory. It wascomposed of disparate units with individual leaders, much of whose time wasspent in foraging, while poor techniques of communication restricted allattempts at control and manoeuvre. The real requirement was not for a brilliantstrategy: The essential thing was to maintain the army in being---and frequentlythis was more than the generals could manage.

For in these circumstances, the question ofmorale was a matter of vital moment, and every leader had to recognise that themass of troops at his command was both brittle and volatile. If either sidesuffered a reverse, if the defence gave way or an attack was checked, if anotable leader was discomfited or slain, numbers of men would be confused anduncertain, and they could rapidly fall into panic and flight. Inevitably, atsome stage, this was going to happen---the important question was whether thecommander, at whatever level he was operating, could restore the situation andrally his troops again to his banner.

This was the critical difference betweensuccess and failure in the civil war, and in more general terms it provides ameasure of the achievement of Cao Cao. Faced with the ruin ofHan, with military and political chaos over the whole of China, Cao Cao reconstructed a functioning government and restored a measure of good orderacross the great part of the empire. Given the nature of the fighting men thathe had to deal with, ebullient, fierce and egocentric, he and his rivals Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang and Sun Quan,can only be admired for their strength of personality and their ability tomanage their followers.

I turn to another question: Can we say that theunity of empire was more desirable than the opportunities provided by division?For many regions, and notably the south, separation from a central governmentmeant that the wealth of the territory remained to benefit the local people.During Han, the system of the Grand Canal had drained prosperity from thesouthern frontier to the luxury of Luoyang and its mistaken ambitionsin the north. Under Wu, however, the Great River was developed as a greattrading route between the east and the centre of China, while the profits oftrade from the southern seas supported a splendid city at present-day Nanjing [Shidou], whose culture would rival and complement that of the oldercentres on the Yellow River plain.

Indeed, the splendour of these rival courts,their palaces and their capitals, provided a means for the rulers to impresstheir subjects. Cao Cao did much to restore the city ofLuoyang, but he also expressed his authority by the embellishment oftwo other capitals, Xuchang and Yejun, south and northof the Yellow River. In 210, when he built the Copper Bird Terrace at Yejun, his brilliant son Cao Zhi celebrated theconstruction in impromptu verse:(16)

On a pleasure-tour with the brilliant ruler,
We climb the storied terrace with feelings of delight;
We see all the palace stretched out below,
And we gaze upon the works of wisdom and virtue:
He has raised great gates like rugged hills,
He has floated twin turrets into the clouds,
He has built a splendid tower to reach the heavens,
He has joined flying bridges to the western walls.
We look down to the long thread of the Zhang River,
We look out to the flourishing growth of the orchards;
We lift our heads to the gentle majesty of the spring breeze,
And we hear the competing cries of a hundred birds.
The heavenly work is established firm as a wall,
The wishes of our house are brought to fulfillment,
Good influence reaches all the world,
And every respect and reverence is paid to the capital;
Though the hegemonies of the past were magnificent,
How can they compare to your wisdom and virtue?

Both the theme and the author symbolize twonotable aspects of the state of Wei, for Cao Zhi is admired asone of the greatest poets of China. Cao Cao himself was a manof considerable literary talent, and his eldest son and heir Cao Pi had genuine ability as a composer and scholar of literature.

In practical terms, moreover, restoration andembellishment of their cities was the outward sign of legitimacy for the newrulers. For although Liu Bei in Shu-Han would claim the imperialtitle in right of the Liu family, the rulers of Wei and Wu had no suchconcern: Their mandate relied upon simple possession of power. The virtue of therival states could be judged only on the basis of their political and militarysuccess, in the restoration of effective government, not upon any claim to idealmoral virtue. The emperors of Han had been criticised with portents---accidentsin the heavens or on earth, reported to show how the faults of the ruler weredisturbing the harmony of the universe (17)---but such chargeswere of no effect against the new regime.

The enemies of Cao Cao slandered him by propaganda, in stories told with relish to this day, but forthe time being at least, the complaints of morality were irrelevant, and areputation for trickery and ruthlessness added awe and imagination to his name.

At the same time, Cao Cao andhis sons gathered about them writers, poets and scholars, respected and admiredin their own time and in subsequent generations, who gave an intellectualsplendour to what need otherwise have been no more than a military government.

The poets of this period, moreover, restoredthe voice of individuals. For the most part, during Han, literary expression hadbeen concerned primarily with the interests of government and the leaders ofsociety. The splendid rhapsodies of Fu presented, either in admiration orcriticism, the glories of empire, and the lyrics of the Yue Fu described,certainly with sympathy but without personal involvement, the life of the commonpeople. As the security of the past collapsed in ruins, however, Wang Can, Chen Lin, and other "Masters of theJianan Period" expressed their sorrows not only for the nation as a whole,but for their own sense of its misery. In a splendid early model of the newstyle, his "Rhapsody on Climbing a Tower" written in exile to thesouth, Wang Can alternates the sights and sounds of nature tocounterpoint his own sense of loneliness and frustration.(18)Later, when he came to join Cao Cao's court, he and hiscolleagues, including the young Cao Pi and Cao Zhi,formed friendships which were expressed in poems written one to another. Andthis sense of personal identity among gentlemen was now expressed in a new styleof literature, immensely important to later generations and centuries in thefuture.

For in this new world, as Cao Cao claimed repeatedly, with all the old patterns of society brought to ruin,individual talent was the one thing essential to success. There was no room forconcern about background or personal morality, the only question was ability,whether it be on the field of battle, in council of war, or in theadministration of settled territory:

I have never heard that a state could beestablished and restored when its officials were incompetent and its soldierswould not fight..... In times of peace, we may admire fine virtue, but in timeof trouble it is achievement and ability which obtain rewards. And so long a manhas ability, I can use him.(19)

For masses of the people, of course, suchopportunity never arose, many of the newcomers had no more than a short-livedcareer, and some men of lineage were able to maintain and restore their familyprosperity for generations to come, but in each case it was the individual whohad to seize and seek their own fortune.

And it was not only in war and government, butalso in society and in the life of the mind, that the Three Kingdoms offered acareer open to the talents. The imagination and energy of scholars and thinkerswere directed not only to politics and literature but also to fields ofphilosophy which had been largely blocked by the tradition of Han Confucianism.While Buddhism still remained to some extent on the margin, interest in theindividual rather than the ideal of society brought a revival of indigenousChinese thought, centred on the study of the three Mysteries: The Classic ofChanges, the Daode Jing and the Book of Zhuangzi.(20)

In similar fashion, this freedom of thought andopenness of opportunity created one of the few periods in Chinese history whenwomen had the opportunity to influence affairs directly rather than hide behinda screen. The Lady Wu, mother of Sun Quan, played asubstantial role in council, and Sun Quan's sister, marriedto Liu Bei, is said to have dominated his household andterrified her husband with the aid of a personal following of a hundred femaleattendants, all of them trained in arms. Sun Quan'sdaughters, in more traditional style, disrupted his court with intrigue, andwhen one became the mistress of his chief minister, she had her sister put todeath.

In the north, though Cao Cao acknowledged more than thirty children by different women, he gave his loyaltyto the Lady Bian, a former sing-song girl who became Queen and EmpressDowager of Wei. His son and successor Cao Pi, after animpetuous but tragic marriage with the widowed daughter-in-law of Yuan Shao, chose as his empress the Lady Guo, a woman of minorgentry stock who had at onetime been a servant. So the imperial family of Weidefied the tradition of Han: They chose their consorts from families which couldoffer neither support nor rivalry to the throne, and it seems very probable thatthey held them in genuine affection.

In the longer term, however, the marriagepolicy of Wei deprived the imperial lineage of prestige and political support.Increasingly, moreover, the former pattern of Han society, dominated by powerfulfamilies, emerged again under the ambit of the new empires. Many great clans hadbeen destroyed in civil war, but others submitted to the new rulers andmaintained their local position largely intact, while many new men of theconquerors, exposed too greatly to the chances of war and politics, either fellvictim themselves or failed to pass on their great position to descendants.

In this way, as the Three Kingdoms stabilised,the rival governments, primarily concerned with intrigue at the capital andproblems on the frontiers, were unable to maintain close authority against thelocal magnates. The apex of government, recorded by the histories with tales ofgenerals and ministers and intrigue at court, rested upon a broad class ofvillage and county gentry, who might accept local office, but who had smallconcern with the politics of the capital or the fortunes of the state. So thepattern of the last years of Later Han was restored: Basic dues were paid to theimperial court, but the details of its activities were largely irrelevant tolocal power, influence and survival.

Inevitably, moreover, as the rulers became moreisolated from their most powerful subjects, the basis of authority was whittledaway. Gradually the military units, the civilian administration, and theagricultural colonies of Wei, fell back into hereditary control, while thesplendours and imagination of the court and the capital, which had formerlyserved to enhance the prestige and legitimacy of the new states, became sourcesof resentment and disapproval. The power of government, heart of Cao Cao'sreconstruction of the state, was steadily eroded to theadvantage of local interests and the power of great families.

As a result of this process, when the Simafamily seized power in Wei, they obtained support as representativesof the great clans against the Cao. In practice, the opponents of theimperial state sought their own interests, but they identified those interestswith a true morality, and they regarded themselves as men of traditional"Confucian" virtue, contending against authoritarian"Legalist" principles and the absurd excesses of philosophicalspeculation---the policies of the Sima echoed real concern for astructure of power which would give proper respect to gentlemen of quality andsubstance.

In this respect, one essential aspect of theThree Kingdoms was a struggle between two forms of political society. On oneside was the gentry-bureaucratic tradition of Han, which had successfully defiedthe imperial government and dominated the state with a structure of family andclan linkage, of alliances and clients, networks of connections and a localhierarchy of oppression and control.

On the other side was the structure by whichCao Cao and his associates had attempted to restore order fromthe chaos of the second century: A powerful, authoritative government, withpolitical and social status determined by individual ability rather than byinherited position.(21)

That model, however, was too fragmented andbrittle to survive for long against the self-interested alliance of the greatlineages, and the people who might have benefited from such a structure wereeither too selfish to maintain it or too anxious to seek security as allies andclients of the hereditary chieftains. The Chinese reverted very quickly to thetraditional structure, and the power of class and clan remained the backbone ofgovernment, not only in the centuries of division, but also in the greatdynastic empires which followed.

So I suggest this is one reason why tales ofthe Three Kingdoms have remained so strongly embedded in the popular culture ofChina: Beside the excitement and imagination of the stories themselves, there isthe memory of one brief moment when some individuals could seize theiropportunities and break through the barriers of class and clan.

Cao Cao, indeed, was a modelof the process. When he was young, a celebrated judge of character described himas:

A good subject in time of peace, a crafty heroin time of trouble.(22)

As a man of character and enterprise, he wouldhave remained restricted and frustrated in an organised society. It was the ruinof empire which brought opportunity, and he and his fellows were no longer smallfish in a well-controlled pond, but dragons in mighty waters.

It was a moment of personal liberty which wasnot maintained, but the legend has been admired by the oppressed of everygeneration since that time, and the heroes of that age have been taken asexamples of those who controlled their own destiny.

As Cao Cao said in one of hispoems,(23) despite the difficulties and miseries of war,

Theswift steed in old age may rest in his stable,
But he still thinks of a thousand mile journey;
When a hero comes to the end of his days,
Strong heart remains the same.
The time of our life and death
Is more than the whim of Heaven;
If a man is in harmony with himself,
He may live for long years.

And, in continuing chorus:

Fortune indeed has come;
And singing expresses our hopes.

So if it is asked: Why should we be concernedwith the history of men and events so long ago? I suggest, with appropriatecaution, three strands for an answer: The literary style is better; thebloodshed is further away; but the lessons are as enduring as the people ofChina.


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(*) The notes presented below are designed for two purposes: firstly, toidentify Chinese texts which have been specifically quoted or cited; second, tooffer a first reference, in my own works or those of other scholars, to justifyparticular statements. In a format such as this, it is hardly appropriate toprovide a complete set of citations nor a full bibliography, and I make noattempt to do so.

(1) See, for example, Patricia Ebrey, "The Economic andSocial History of Later Han", in John K. Fairbank and Denis Twitchett[general editors], The Cambridge History of China, Volume I (edited by DenisTwitchett and Michael Loewe), The Ch'in and Han Empires, Cambridge UP 1986(hereafter Cambridge China I), 619-626. Cho-yun Hsu, Han Agriculture: TheFormation of Early Chinese Agrarian Economy, University of Washington, Seattle1980, 210-211, cites several instances of officials being punished by EmperorGuangwu for presenting false or inadequate returns but, as Hans Bielenstein, TheRestoration of the Han Dynasty (RHD) 4, in Bulletin of the Museum of Far EasternAntiquities (BMFEA) LI, 136-137, and Ch'?T'ung-tsu, Han Social Structure,University of Washington, Seattle 1980, 203-204, observe, there is evidence thatcorruption continued, and the government of Later Han made no effective effortto control the amount of landed property held by any one family.

(2) See de Crespigny, Northern Frontier, Canberra 1984,89-91, 125, 264-276, and 417-437. Cf. Bielenstein, RHD 3 in BMFEA XXXIX,129-130, and Y?Ying-shih, "Han Foreign Relations", in CambridgeChina I, 402-403 and 415-416.

(3) See, for example, de Crespigny, Emperor Huan and EmperorLing I, 11-13. On the status of consort families in Later Han, see Ch'? HanSocial Structure, 210-211, and de Crespigny, "Political Protest in ImperialChina: the Great Proscription of Later Han, 167-184", in Papers on FarEastern History 11, Canberra 1975, 1-36, at 4-5 note 1: cf. Yang Lien-sheng,Dong Han de haozu, in The Tsing Hua Journal 11 (1936), 1007-63, translated as"Landed Nobility of the Eastern Han Dynasty" in E-tu Zen Sun and JohnDeFrancis, Chinese Social History: Translations of Selected Studies, Washington1956, 103-134, at 1042/122, and Etienne Balazs, "La crise sociale et laphilosophie politique ?la fin des Han", in T'oung Pao XXXIX (1949-50),83-131, translated by H.M. Wright, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy:Variations on a Theme, Yale UP 1964, 187-225 at 84/188-189.

(4) de Crespigny, "Political Protest in ImperialChina", and Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling I, 69-85 and 101.

(5) On this development, see de Crespigny, "Politics andPhilosophy under the Government of Emperor Huan 159-168 AD", in T'oung PaoLXVI (1980), 41-83 at 51-56: "Good men do nothing".

(6) Fan Ye, Hou Han shu, Beijing (Zhonghua shuju) 1965 (HHS)78/68, 2521-22.

(7) HHS 31/21, 1107-09; de Crespigny, Emperor Huan andEmperor Ling I, 127-128.

(8) Cui Shi, Simin yueling, C.7 and I.1, translated in Hsu,Han Agriculture, 220 and 225.

(9) Some scholars have sought to demonstrate an associationbetween the gentry members of the Proscribed Party and the rebels of the YellowTurbans. From my own reading of the texts, however, I have so far found theevidence for such a proposition to be tenuous, and the arguments less thanconvincing.

(10) The campaign is discussed in de Crespigny, Generals ofthe South: the foundation and early history of the Three Kingdoms state of Wu,Canberra 1990, 263-275.

(11) This colonisation is discussed in de Crespigny,Generals of the South, particularly at 68-69 and 475-478.

(12) Based on Chen Shou, Sanguo zhi, Beijing (Zhonghua shuju)1959 (SGZ) 55/Wu 10, 1291; de Crespigny, Generals of the South, 240.

(13) SGZ 55/Wu 10, 1292, commentary of Pei Songzhi quotingthe Wu shu of Wei Zhao and others; de Crespigny, Generals of the South, 517.

(14) SGZ 55/Wu 10, 1300; de Crespigny, Generals of theSouth, 518-519.

(15) SGZ 56/Wu 11, 1314; Achilles Fang, The Chronicle of theThree Kingdoms, Harvard UP 1952, I, 551-553.

(16) SGZ 19, 558, commentary of Pei Songzhi quoting the Weiji of Yin Dan.

(17) See, for example, Bielenstein, "An Interpretationof the Portents in the Ts'ien Han-shu", in BMFEA XXII (1950), 127-143,Wolfgang Eberhard, "The Political Function of Astronomy and Astronomers inHan China", in Chinese Thought and Institutions, edited by John K. Fairbank,Chicago UP 1957, 33-70, de Crespigny, "Politics and Philosophy",61-68, and Portents of Protest in the Later Han Dynasty: the memorials of HsiangK'ai to Emperor Huan, Canberra 1976.

(18) Denglou fu, in Wen xuan 11, translated by BurtonWatson, Chinese Rhyme-Prose, Columbia UP 1971, 52-60.

(19) From edicts quoted in the Pei Songzhi commentary to SGZ1, 24 and 32, also 44 and 49-50.

(20) See, for example, Etienne Balazs, "Entre révoltenihiliste et evasion mystique. Les courants intellectuels en Chine au IIIe sièclede notre ère," in Etudes asiatiques 2 (1948), 27-55, translated in ChineseCivilization and Bureaucracy, 226-254, and "Paul Demiéville,"Philosophy and Religion from Han to Sui", in Cambridge China I,828-832.

(21) In this dichotomy, one may find echoes of the contrastproposed by Loewe between "Modernists" and "Reformists"during Qin and Former Han. See the Introduction to his Crisis and Conflict inHan China, London 1974, 11-13, and Cambridge China I, 104-105 and 488-489.

(22) HHS 68/58, 2234. (Cf. the version given by the Yitongzazhi of Sun Sheng, quoted in the Pei Songzhi commentary to SGZ 1, 3).

(23) From Bu chu Xiamen xing, in Wei Wudi Wei Wendi shi zhu(Poems by Cao Cao and Cao Pi; with commentaryby Huang Jie), Beijing 1958, 26-29; de Crespigny, Northern Frontier, 414.

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