The empire, long divided, must unite. Long united, must divide. Thus, it has ever been. Three strangers stand in a peach garden, preparing to do something that will echo throughout history. In their culture, family is everything. But in these times, when blood turns against blood, they swear an oath to treat each other as brothers, and to save the Han Dynasty from the Yellow Turban rebels. One, Liu Bei is a Confucian hero. Another, Zhang Fei, is a belligerent rogue. The third, Guan Yu, will become the god of war. And thus, the Three Kingdoms period began.
Fierce duels, great armies, love, brotherhood, and betrayal. These are the images conjured when we speak of the Three Kingdoms. But the famous events of the Three Kingdoms Period aren’t wholly from history. They’re from the historical novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, written roughly 1000 years after the events took place. “Romance” is an important work of literature, arguably as important to Chinese culture as the period it portrays. But it’s a novel, rather than straight history. And about 30 percent of it, like the famous peach garden oath, is literary invention. To get the real history, you have to go back to the third century records of the Three Kingdoms, which “Romance” pulled from. And while the peach garden oath may not have happened, the Yellow Turban Rebellion certainly did.
Eastern China, 184 A.D. It began with three brothers. They were mystics, faith healers, preaching a new form of apocalyptic Taoism. They claimed that the Han Dynasty had lost the mandate of heaven (the blessing of the gods), and must be overthrown. They said a new cycle, and political reality, would begin when the sky turned yellow. And the people were receptive. The imperial court was rotten, with the emperor ceding most of his power to ambitious court eunuchs. The state was so corrupt that not only did the court sell public offices, it loaned poor officials money so they could buy them, paying the throne back in installments by squeezing the peasantry. And if that wasn’t enough, famine and flood gripped the country. The people rose, wearing yellow scarves to proclaim a new order. And the throne called out the generals. Imperial armies descended, killing the three brothers. But the Yellow Turban Uprising was an uprising of ideas, not leaders. And imperial armies could barely declare victory before another province revolted. At another time, it would not have been a particularly notable war. The Yellow Turbans provided no match for regular troops. But the war, as wars always do, gave ambitious men an opportunity to advance, and those men would splinter the kingdom. One of those men was Cao Cao, a cavalry colonel who quickly became known for his cleverness, tactical savvy, and the loyalty he inspired in his men. He shot up the ranks on a string of military victories, gaining followers and a reputation for extreme ruthlessness in suppressing the rebels and burning their shrines.
At the opposite end of the war, there was Liu Bei. The child of a poor family with a tenuous connection to imperial bloodlines, Liu found himself frustrated at his inability to help the state. So, roping together his friends Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, he raised a militia and personally led it against the rebels. Competent, but not exactly a hero, his efforts earned him a local office. Not a meteoric rise, true. But be sure to remember this obscure county official. He’s gonna be a warlord someday. But these two were not the only ones who benefited from the Yellow Turban Rebellion. As the cycle of uprising and suppression dragged on, the rotten core of the empire ceded more and more power to the generals. Five years into the war, many provinces and armies were effectively self-governing, their commanders well on their way to becoming independent warlords. And then, in the year 189, the emperor died without designating an heir. It was a disaster. His sudden exit left his wife and two sons in the middle of a divided court, pawns for the factions to fight over. On one side, the court eunuchs who backed the younger son. On the other, Confucian army officers led by the empress’s brother who backed the older.
Things went bad with incredible speed. The eunuchs tried, and failed, to assassinate the empress’s brother, and in response, he had the eunuch leader executed, and used the army to declare the older prince emperor. That done, he unsuccessfully petitioned the empress to have all of the eunuchs executed, asking several generals to surround the palace in order to force her hand. In response, the eunuchs assassinated him, successfully this time, and threw his decapitated head over the wall of the palace, thinking it would scare the army into dispersing. Instead, troops stormed inside, massacring the eunuchs. A small group escaped with the royal family as hostages, but they soon realized there was no way out. They released the emperor and jumped, en masse, into the Yellow River. Which leads us to a warlord. Dong Zhuo. Like the other generals, Dong Zhuo had also sharpened his army’s blades on rebel bone. But his area of operation had been the hinterlands, rather than the towns and cities, and his troops were tough frontiersmen. Other commanders considered his loyalty questionable, but he was in the right place at the right time. His army found the dazed royal family, staggering along the road where the eunuchs had set them free. He already had possession of the capital, and a large army. Now, he had the royal family too. Holding all the cards, he declared himself regent and started making changes. The first to go was the emperor. At thirteen, he was too old to be a proper puppet. And besides, Dong liked the younger prince better. Dong pressured the empress to depose her eldest son, and with that accomplished, Dong poisoned her. With the youngest son declared emperor and himself chancellor, Dong launched his master plan. To do anything he wanted. Whoa-! *thunk* Come on, man! Dong kicked the emperor out of his private chambers, sleeping in the monarch’s bed, accompanied by the royal maids. He strutted around wearing a sword and shoes, items forbidden in the palace. And his troops sacked the capital, using treason accusations to steal homes and property. Something had to be done. Soon, one of the most powerful generals in China, Yuan Shao, a longtime friend of Cao Cao, built a coalition to depose Dong, heroes of the Yellow Turban Rebellion. Neither knew it, but this campaign would be the final time these comrades would march side by side. The coalition boxed Dong’s armies in, surrounding the capital. Step by step, fortress by fortress, cutting supply lines, gathering strength, and waiting to strike. Then, they saw the glow of fires. Dong was burning the holy city, torching the palaces and sacking everything of value. He planned to evacuate to the ancient capital, taking the emperor. Yet Cao Cao’s old friend, Yiran Zhao, refused to move. Ever indecisive, he couldn’t choose a course of action. So Cao attacked alone, and paid for it with defeat. He escaped on a borrowed horse, blood streaming from an arrow wound, and returned to find his allied generals feasting. Only one, Sun Jian, was gearing up to drive towards the city. Shortly after Cao’s defeat, Sun’s vanguard entered the imperial tomb complex outside the capital. They found that Dong had looted the ancient graves, stripping jewelry from the very bodies of the royal ancestors. And that’s when Dong sprung his ambush. Arrows arced over the imperial tombs. Spearmen clashed among graves. But though Dong had veteran frontiersmen and the element of surprise, Sun had drilled his troops to exhaustion day after day. His delay had not been indecisiveness, but in service of discipline. Sun’s men held fast, and pushed back. Realizing he could gain nothing, and fearing his enemy’s discipline, Dong ordered a retreat from the capital. Sun had the imperial city, for all that was worth. There were no buildings, no food stores, nowhere even to billet soldiers. He resealed the royal tombs and retreated, taking only one thing. In the depths of an old well, he found the imperial seal, long lost. It had been broken and repaired with gold, but it was still usable. Sun returned to find the coalition breaking apart, squabbling over strategy and surly from inaction. Commanders began attacking each other. Deeply disunified, they had no hope of pushing on Dong’s new stronghold. Yiran Shao’s coalition of heroes was collapsing. While every member opposed Dong, each also wanted to take power once Dong fell. Frustrated, Cao Cao went home and built his armies, preparing for civil war. And the rest of the coalition, one by one, did the same. Meanwhile, in the old capital, Dong named himself Grandmaster, and embarked on a reign of terror. His executioners beheaded thousands. Officials, peasants, and the families of coalition leaders all met the headsman. He melted ancient statues down into coinage, causing mass inflation, threw spears at his chief bodyguard, Lü Bu, and held banquets where he entertained himself by watching prisoners get slowly cut to pieces, then boiled in oil. Then one day, a retainer stuck a knife in his belly. Stunned, he turned to Lü Bu, his bodyguard- his own adopted son, to beg for help. “This is an imperial order,” Lü replied, and plunged a dagger into Dong’s chest. They left his body in the streets, where the populace could see that the tyrant was dead. Years after he last saw home, the boy emperor, now free, returned to his capital. He found a burned-out ruin, a place so desperate the remaining populace had resorted to cannibalism. He also found a warlord waiting for him. A warlord who invited the young emperor to leave this dead city and rule from his newly fortified kingdom of Wei. It was Cao Cao, more powerful than ever, and now, in control of the emperor. The coalition was broken, its allies now enemies. And the whirlwind had begun.