Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms Coins
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Background and History
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong during the waning years of Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century is a famous Chinese historical novel. This vast and complex novel, consisting of approximately 800,000 words and 120 chapters takes place during the demise of the Eastern Han Dynasty (r. 25-220) and the subsequent period known as the Three Kingdoms (220-265). Most of the hundreds of characters in this partially factual, partially mythological story concern themselves with either restoring the Han Dynasty or destroying it.
Rise of Dong Zhuo
The scope of this article deals primarily with the later portions of the story occurring after the agrarian crisis known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion. This violent uprising, breaking out in the year 184 was comprised primarily of famished and displaced peasants whose aim was to overthrow the central Han government. This brutal conflict raged on until 205 when the Han forces were finally able to subdue the rebels. In spite of this highly vaunted victory, the centralized ruling Han state was greatly weakened while at the same time suffering untold thousands of casualties. Out of this chaos arose a despotic usurper named Dong Zhuo. Those remaining loyal to Han rule joined forces in a collected effort to overthrow Dong’s violent rule.
Fall of Dong Zhuo and his Son’s Defeat
The Han forces were only able to battle Dong’s army to a stalemate. However, Dong was soon to suffer an untimely death at the hands of his adopted son, Lu Bu. Lu killed his foster father because Dong did not approve of the woman to which his son was smitten. After Dong’s death, his adopted son took control of his armies. The battles between Han loyalists and Lu’s forces were mostly mild Han victories coupled with several confrontations with one side being unable to best the other. While the Han Dynasty was tittering on the brink of collapse due to civil unrest and general disarray, they were able to deal a crushing blow to Lu’s forces at the Battle of Xiapi in 198 under the combined tutelage of General Liu Bei and the warlord known as Cao Cao. It is during this time when the sworn brothers Liu, General Guan Yu, and General Zhang Fei pledged their undying loyalty to the crumbling Han Dynasty.
Cao Cao Turns on Liu Bei
Cao’s intentions were to wrest power from the Han; he built up his forces in an attempt to meet this goal. After a series of defeats to the hands of Cao’s armies, Liu, while in full retreat enlisted the help of a brilliant military strategist named Zhuge Liang. Liu, with the help of Generals Guan and Zhang was able to establish a stronghold in modern day central China within an area currently known as Hubei Province using the strategies thought of by Zhuge. These Han loyalists allied with the forces of a neighboring province at the time known as Yi ruled by Sun Quan were able to deliver a decisive defeat to Cao at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 209 forcing him to retreat north. Eventually the relationship between Liu and Sun started to deteriorate leading to conflict between the two factions. After a series of violent skirmishes, Liu was able to take control of Hubei Province (then known as Jing Province) as well as Yi Province sending Sun’s forces into a state of disorderly retreat. However, the success of the Han loyalists Liu, Zhang, Zhuge, and Guan were short lived.
Death of General Guan Yu
While the Han loyalists were celebrating their victories, Sun and Cao were able to form a pact under which they joined forces against Liu. Their plan was to bait General Guan, who was charged with ruling Jing Province into attacking Cao’s army, he did just that. While Guan was away battling Cao, Sun sent his men into the largely unguarded Jing Province. The province fell to Sun’s forces in 219. Guan does not learn of this loss until he returns to Jing. Here is forces fell under heavy attack and became surrounded. Quickly, Guan’s forces started to surrender, desert, or perish. In an act of pure desperation, Guan heroically, but unsuccessfully attempted to break out of his closing encirclement. He was captured and executed as a result of refusing to renounce loyalty to Liu as was per Sun’s orders. Shortly following the demise of Guan, Cao died of what the story claims to have been a brain tumor. Before Cao’s death his leadership is considered by current historians to have officially been the last of the Han Dynasty. Therefore, some students of this period in history mark his death as being the end of the Han. This is partially due to the fact that Cao’s son usurped his post and did not ascend to it via official, non-violent means. Regardless, Liu believed himself to be the only rightful
The Death of Zhang Fei and Liu Bei’s Defeat and Death at the Battle of Xiaoting
While Liu and his strategist Zhuge were planning to avenge Guan’s death, General Zhang in 221 was assassinated in his sleep by traitors who earlier had covertly defected to Sun. Liu was able to amass an army so large that Sun offered him the return of Jing Province in exchange for not attacking. Liu was advised by Zhuge and other members of his think tank to accept the offer. However, Liu was too bent on seeking revenge for both of his sworn brothers’ deaths. Going against the advice of his councilors, Liu went to war with Sun in a conflict known as the Battle of Xiaoting (222). This was a terrible defeat for Liu; who while in full retreat died of an unknown illness in 223. In the emotional last conversation between Liu and Zhuge, Liu bequeathed the authority of his throne to Zhuge in the event of his officially named young successor Liu Shan becomes incompetent. Zhuge, together with Liu Shan attempted many attacks on Sun’s forces, but they all ended in stalemates accomplishing little. The brilliant strategist Zhuge went to live a full life, dying in 234 of natural causes at the age of 53.
1/2 oz Guandu War from 1996 with a portrait of Luo Guanzhong on its reverse side and advancing troops at the Battle of Guandu on the other.