An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Empire of Shu-Han 蜀漢 (221-263)

May 9, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

The empire of Shu-Han 蜀漢 (221-263) was one of the Three Empires 三國 (220~280). It was founded by Liu Bei 劉備 (Emperor Zhaolie 漢昭烈帝, r. 221-222). Shu 蜀 is the name of the region (modern Sichuan), derived from the ancient state of Shu. Liu Bei's empire is called Shu-Han because Liu Bei claimed descent from the ruling family of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and saw himself as the legal successor to the Han, whose throne had been usurped by the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265).

Liu Bei defined his state as the "third epoch of the Han dynasty" (Farmer 2001: 58) and the local name of the state was therefore actually Han, even if the appellative Shu was used as well. Foreign states like Wei and Wu 吳 (229-280) used the designation Shu, sometimes with a derogatory meaning, expressing doubt concerning the legitimacy of the empire of Shu-Han. Geographically seen the name Shu might refer to the state as well as to the commandery of Shujun 蜀郡 with the seat in Chengdu 成都, the political centre of the Sichuan Basin.

The Sichuan Basin was not just a fertile ground to sustain a relatively large population. It also possessed natural resources like salt, iron and natural gas which allowed the region autonomy from the Yellow River plain and central China. Moreover, the Basin was shielded by surrounding mountains which made access relatively complicated and defence rather easy. The wars between the empire of Shu-Han and the empire of Wei in the Yellow River plain occurred in a the mountainous regions of the Qinling Range 秦嶺 and the Hanzhong region 漢中. For centuries the Sichuan Basis had been populated by immigrants from north China. Its registered population had a size of between 4 and 5 million (Farmer 2019: 66), according to other sources just above 1 million (ibd. 77).

In the last decades of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), the province of Yizhou was controlled by Liu Yan 劉焉 (d. 194), a distant relative of the imperial house. He profited from the successful suppression by the local elites of the Yellow Turban uprising (huangjin qiyi 黃巾起義), and finally planned to adopt the title of emperor. Liu Yan was succeeded as regional governor (mu 牧) of the province of Yizhou by his son Liu Zhang 劉璋 (194-219). Yet both, father and son, were not able to gain control over the local elites, and were challenged by the emergence of a new rebel movement launched by Zhang Lu 張魯 (d. 216 CE), the so-called Celestial Master of the Daoist Five-Pecks-of-Grain sect (Wudoumi dao 五斗米道). Liu Zhang was finally urged by a retainer of his to join with Liu Bei, who controlled the province of Jingzhou in the middle Yangtze region.

Liu Zhang entrusted Fa Zheng 法正 (176–220) with the mission to invite Liu Bei, but Fa was aware that Liu Zhang was not match for Liu Bei, and suggested to the latter to take over the province. In 211, Liu Bei entered Sichuan with a force of only 11,000 men (Farmer 2019: 69). Liu Bei remained loyal to the regional governor and carried out military attacks on the Celestial Master Zhang Lu. Yet in 212, Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220), who controlled the Yellow River plain, attacked Sun Quan 孫權 (182-252) in the southeast, a former ally of Liu Bei. The latter decided to support Sun Quan, a decision with roused the anger of Liu Zhang. He broke with his supporter Liu Bei, who thereupon turned against Liu Zhang and conquered the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu. Liu Zhang surrendered and was sent to Jingzhou, as governor and a subordinate of Liu Bei.

Liu Bei himself, now master of the Sichuan Basin, began to organise his own government. He was supported by competent advisors like Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234). Even if Liu Bei was not known as a successful military leader, he was known for his ability to respect talents among his subordinates and advisors, and thus attracted new supporters. One of his first projects was the reconstruction of the educational system, for which reason Sichuan became the centre of intellectual and literary trends in the 3rd century CE. The central administration of the Han empire was a model for Liu Bei's own court.

Liu Bei's military fortunes were mediocre. He could not win back territory in the middle Yangtze area, and the threat of Zhang Lu's Daoist state was only ended when Zhang surrendered to Cao Cao. At least, Liu could gain some territory in the Hanzhong region, and therefore adopted the title of King of Han 漢, following the model of Liu Bang 劉邦 (Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195 BCE), who had been King of Han before he founded the imperial Han dynasty. In 219, Liu Bei's general Guan Yu 關羽 (d. 219) was killed in a campaign led by Sun Quan, and the whole middle Yangtze region fell into the hands of Sun, leaving Liu Bei just the Sichuan Basin.

In late 220, Cao Cao's son Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wen of Wei 魏文帝, r. 220-226) forced the Han sovereign Emperor Xian 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220) - who had for years been in custody of Cao Cao - to abdicate (see shanrang 禪讓) and proclaimed his own reign, as emperor of the Wei dynasty. Liu Bei's advisors urged him to use this chance to proclaim a renewal of the Han dynasty and adopt the title of emperor himself. Propagandistically announced by omens and auspicious phenomena, Liu Bei was enthroned as emperor of Han on 6 Apr 221. His Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相) was Zhuge Liang. In 229, Sun Quan proclaimed himself emperor of Wu.

In 221, Liu Bei decided to launch a campaign to reconquer the province of Jingzhou and take revenge for the death of Guan Yu. After initial success in the battle of Zigui 秭歸, the tide turned. Shortly after the defeat in the critical battle of Yiling 夷陵 (or Xiaoting 猇亭, near present-day Yichang 宜昌, Hubei) Liu Bei died, and the Shu empire was given into the hands of his young son Liu Shan 劉禪 (r. 223-263 CE).

Liu Shan had an age of just 17 sui, which made the regency of Zhuge Liang necessary, but even in later years, Liu Shan never adopted an active role in governmental affairs. Chief Counsellor Zhuge Liang restructured the government to enable to cooptation of local elites by the non-local government. He brought relief to the local population, lightened punishments and reduced the size of the bureaucracy. Civil and military positions were filled by locals. Zhuge Liang is praised by historians for the fair and just fulfillment of his duties. A weak point in his overall strategy was that he always pursued the idea to conquer the Wei empire and neglected a closer identification of the Liu family and their supporters with the local elites, and thus estranged the two parts.

The first military campaigns of the Shu-Han empire were directed against the south, where non-Chinese tribes resisted the dominance of the Han elites in the Sichuan Basin. The region of Nanzhong 南中 (today's Guizhou and Yunnan) were conquered in 225, even if native leaders like Meng Huo 孟獲 were allowed to retain their functions in the native communities. Meng even rose to the post of Vice Censor-in-chief (yushi zhongcheng 御史中丞) in the central government of Shu-Han. Some tribes like the Qiang 羌 were even known as fierce fighters and became an integral part of the elite troops of Shu. The government of Shu thus exploited the human resources of the south as well its material ones. Huge numbers of non-Chinese were forcibly resettled close to Chengdu to work as slaves on public or private fields.

The passing away of Emperor Wen of Wei offered a chance to launch a military campaign against the state of Wei. In 226, Zhuge Liang in person commanded the operation and conquered some commanderies in the western region, but an advance to Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) failed. His northern campaigns of 231 and 234 had likewise limited effects, mostly caused by problems in the fields of logistics. Attempts to improve military supply by the creation of military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) did not yield the desired effects.

After Zhuge Liang's death, a new generation of administrators took over the state. The central government was in the hands of Jiang Wan 蔣琬 (d. 246), Fei Yi 費禕 (d. 253), and Dong Yun 董允 (d. 246). The years until Jiang Wan's death were stable and peaceful. With the takeover by Jiang Wei 姜維 (202-264), a new series of military campaigns began. In 247, Jiang defeated an army of Wei in the northwestern parts of the frontier, and two years later launched a major campaign. It was no success, and some generals even surrendered to Wei. In 251, control over the central government fell into the hands of Chen Zhi 陳祗 (d. 258), who collaborated with the eunuch Huang Hao 黃皓. In the field, Jiang Wei almost annually attacked the enemy in the northern border zone, but he failed each time. The officialdom became more and more alarmed by the events in the field and at the court. Qiao Zhou 譙周 (199-270) urged the emperor to turn his eyes on governmental affairs and to check Jiang Wang's useless efforts as well as Huang Hao's growing power, but to no avail.

Huang Hao refused to further support Jiang Wan, even after a new defeat in 262 by Deng Ai 鄧艾 (197-264), a general of Wei. Deng Ai, Zhong Hui (225-264) 鍾會 and Zhuge Xu 諸葛緒 advanced deep into the territory of Shu. While some officials suggested flight to the south or alliance with the empire of Wu, Qiao Zhou voted for surrender in order to save the lives of emperor, court and subjects. Emperor Liu Shan decided to surrender to Deng Ai, and presented the victor the seals of the empire of Shu-Han. He was brought to Luoyang 洛陽 (today in Henan), the capital of Wei, where he died as prefectural Duke of Anle 安樂. For his whole life, he had been regarded as a "little child" and historiographers therefore use to call him with his child name Adou 阿斗. Officials of Shu were offered posts in the government of Wei, and some accepted. Others were drawn into the conflict between the ruling family Cao and the Sima 司馬 family which eventually overthrew the Caos.

It can be concluded that the continued attempts to conquer north China distracted the Liu family from attention to the rich resources the region had to offer.

Table 1. Rulers of the Shu-Han Empire 蜀漢 (221-263)
Capital: Chengdu 成都 (modern Chengdu, Sichuan)
posthumous title {temple name} personal name reign-periods
King of Han 漢 in 219, Emperor in 221.
Shu Zhaoliedi 蜀昭烈帝 or The First Ruler (Shu Xianzhu) 蜀先主 (r. 221-222)
{Han Liezu 漢烈祖}
Liu Bei 劉備 (161-222) Zhangwu 章武 (221-222)
The Last Ruler (Shu Houzhu) 蜀後主 (r. 222-263)
Demoted as Duke of Anle 安樂公.
Liu Shan 劉禪 (207-271) Jianxing 建興 (223-237)
Yanxi 延熙 (238-257)
Jingyao 景耀 (258-262)
Yanxing 炎興 (263)
280 empire of Shu-Han conquered by Wei 曹魏 (220-265)
Farmer, J. Michael (2001). "What's in a Name? On the Appellative 'Shu' in Early Medieval Chinese Historiography", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 121 (1), 44-59.
Farmer, J. Michael (2019). "Shu-Han", in Albert E. Dien, Keith N. Knapp, ed. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 2, The Six Dynasties, 220–589 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 66-78.
Zhonguo lishi da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《中國歷史大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (2000). Zhongguo lishi da cidian 中國歷史大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), Vol.2, 3315-3316.