The Fall of the Han and the Three Kingdoms Period

Learning Objective

  • Demonstrate the significance of the Battle of the Red Cliffs and the Three Kingdoms Period

Key Points

  • The Han government began to weaken and fracture by the end of the second century CE. General Dong Zhuo captured Emperor Shao and installed his own puppet ruler, Emperor Xian.
  • The warlord Cao Cao attempted to reunify China under the Han, but was defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs.
  • The Han Dynasty ultimately collapsed in 220 CE, and China splintered into three warlord kingdoms in what is known as the Three Kingdoms period.
  • The Three Kingdoms period was war-torn, but also a time of great technological advancement.



An engineering technique in which liquid is in motion and transmits energy.

Battle of Red Cliffs

A turning point in history that marked the last attempt to reunite the Han, and the beginning of a time of bloodshed for the Chinese.

After the death of Emperor Zhang (of the Eastern Han period’s Rule of Ming and Zhang) in 88 CE, corrupt officials increasingly gained control of the state, while family feuds tore the dynasty apart. As the power of the emperor weakened, military commanders acted more independently and tried to secure power for themselves.

The Fall of the Han Dynasty

In 184 CE, two major Daoist rebellions—the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion—broke out. In order to fight these rebellions Emperor Ling gave military commanders control over their own provinces, but this gave way to a long power struggle. In 189 CE, Emperor Ling died and was succeeded by his 13 year old son, Liu Bian, known as Emperor Shao. Empress Dowager He was regent, and her older brother, General-in-Chief He Jin, became the most powerful official in the court. He Jin wanted to exterminate the Ten Attendants, a group of influential eunuch officials. He summoned General Dong Zhuo to march on the city. The plot was discovered by the eunuchs, and He Jin was killed. In response the Emperor ordered indiscriminate killing of the eunuchs. The survivors kidnapped the Emperor and fled, only to later commit suicide upon General Dong Zhuo’s arrival. The General would then replace Emperor Shao with the Prince of Cheniliu, known as Emperor Xian. Xian would be the last emperor of the Han Dynasty.


Portrait of Dong Zhuo. This portrait of Dong Zhuo dates from a Qing Dynasty edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Dong Zhuo was eventually assassinated and was succeeded by another warlord, Cao Cao, who wanted to reunite the Han Empire by defeating the rebellious warlords. He nearly succeeded but was defeated in 208 CE at the Battle of Red Cliffs, a memorable turning point in history. With this defeat, most of the hope that the Han Empire would be reunited disappeared. When Cao Cao died in 220 CE, Emperor Xian abdicated the throne, claiming that he had failed to keep the Mandate of Heaven. China splintered into three kingdoms ruled by warlords; this marks the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

The Three Kingdoms Period

When the Han Dynasty collapsed in 220 CE, no one was powerful enough to reunify China under a single emperor. The result was the period of the Three Kingdoms, which lasted until 280 CE, when the Jin Dynasty took over. These three kingdoms, Wei, Shu, and Wu, battled for control in a long series of wars. This was one of the bloodiest times in Chinese history—according to census data, the population decreased from 50 million to 16 million—but it also has long been romanticized in East Asian cultures and remembered as a time of chivalry and honor. It has been celebrated and popularized in operas, folk stories, and novels, and in more recent times, films, television, and video games.


The Three Kingdoms. The Three Kingdoms in 262 CE after the fall of the Han dynasty.

Technology advanced significantly during this period. Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang invented the wooden ox, suggested to be an early form of the wheelbarrow, and improved on the repeating crossbow. Wei mechanical engineer, Ma Jun, invented a hydraulic-powered, mechanical puppet theatre designed for his emperor. He also invented a new irrigation device, the south-pointing chariot, and a non-magnetic directional compass.