China Pt.2 (Three Kingdoms)

“The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide. This has been so since antiquity.”

Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our last blog in the History Around the Globe Series – India!

By: Kristina Dong & Linda Ba

Once more – China!

China’s long-spanning history is marked with conquest, division, and union. Particularly, the era of the Three Kingdoms was a period of unrest, where heroes and villains alike sprung to prominence and power was split across three Kingdoms – Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Sun Wu. This period is most well-known due to the classic historical fiction novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written by Luo Guan Zhong who lived during the Ming Dynasty. His novel was based on real-life historical figures and events. It is set just after the Han dynasty’s end and right before the beginning of the Jin Dynasty.

The empire was divided into three kingdoms (Wei, Wu, Shu), hence, the name Three Kingdom’s Era (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). The lands north of the Yangtze River were led by Cao Cao, hence known as the land of Cao Wei. Liu Bei, who came from a line of one of the past Han emperors, was the leader of the southwestern region and the land was referred to as Shu Han. And alas, the southeastern region was led by Sun Quan, and his lands were known as Sun Wu.

These three kingdoms fought over dominance for over 100 years, with over 2000 characters covering plots, military techniques and tactics in a time of total warfare. This novel is beloved by many in East Asia and its influence was compared to works of Shakespeare. The literature is more than just a story about its history but contains high literary value. In 1982 the novel was officially announced to be one of the Four Chinese Classical Literature.

Map of the Three Kingdoms | Image from

Historical Figures

Zhuge Liang, courtesy name – Kong Ming, was an excellent military strategist who served the Kingdom of Shu Han during this era. He was referred to as a ‘Sleeping Dragon’ (卧龙), feared and respected due to his knowledge and intellect.

Master Shui Jing in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms once recommended Kong Ming to the later founder of Shu Han – Liu Bei saying,

“Sleeping Dragon and Young Phoenix, if you can get either one of them, you can achieve peace in the empire.”

Left Zhuge Liang, Right Pang Tong | Image from

Kong Ming was a veritable genius and his title as the ‘Sleeping Dragon’ was renowned long before he rose to prominence.

In Romance of The Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei was said to have visited Kong Ming three times to request his aid in restoring the Han empire after heeding to the advise of Master Shui Jing – this story was later known as the proverb ‘Three Visits to the Thatched Cottage’ (三顾茅庐). Kong Ming was thought to have envisioned the division of the empire into three forces long before the Three Kingdoms were formed. The establishment of Shu Han was thus unlikely to be probable without Kong Ming’s military genius.

‘Three Visits to the Thatched Cottage’ | Image from

Kong Ming was a man far ahead of his times. A military strategist, statesman, writer, and inventor, his military feats and literary works are remembered even today.

Amongst which, Kong Ming was the inventor of the Kong Ming Lantern (Sky Lantern), which is a small hot air balloon made of paper, and was originally used by Kong Ming to deliver military updates to long distances.

Kong Ming Lantern | Image from

Kong Ming’s memorials ‘Chu Shio Biao’ are also renowned and studied in depth by scholars over the years. The memorials were presented to the second emperor of Shu Han, Liu Shan, before Kong Ming embarked on a series of northern military expeditions against the rival state Wei. He talks about the reasons for the Northern Expeditions, as well as his personal advice to Liu Shan on good governance and way of ruling.

Chu Shi Biao | Image from


Many famous battles took place in this era, marred with struggles for power and bloodshed. The Battle of Red Cliffs is one of, if not, the most well-known battle that took place between the later three forces of Wei, Shu, and Wu.

Cao Cao (Wei) ventured south in hopes of conquering the southern plains and eliminating the forces of Sun Quan (Wu) and Liu Bei (later Shu Han). In face of the larger enemy, the forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei combined and counter-attacked fiercely.

Despite facing Cao Cao’s army that is many times their size, Sun Quan and Liu Bei’s joint forces came up with a strategy to use fire to attack Cao Cao’s fleet which came out victorious, forcing Cao Cao to retreat in disarray back to the north.

The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, and provided the basis for the states of Shu and Wu in the forthcoming years.

Battle of Red Cliffs | Image from

Popular Culture

Want to know more about the details of this period and what roles each character played in the story?

There are many adaptions of the novel into popular media, from comics to TV series and even games. Below is our recommended 2010 drama adaptation with 95 episodes!

There have also been popular card game adaptions San Guo Sha (三国杀) and a recent release of the video game adaption in 2018. The graphics look amazing!

Keen to go on exchange to Asia?

Want to know more about the history of wider China and its other fantastical tales by applying for exchange to an Asian partner university? Check out UNSW’s list of partner universities spanning across Asia!

Check out our interviews with Asia Exchange Returnees for more interesting experiences around the region!

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