The Role of Yangtze River in the Separation of Wu and the Wei States

Yangtze River plays an important role in Chinese history, civilization and culture. Its history has begun more than 2 million years ago with most cultural heritage sites being located along it banks. In the 1st century, three famous Kingdoms took over, namely, Wei, which was led by the Ts'ao family and located in the North, Liu Pei, which was located in the Southwest and governed by Shu Han, and Wu in the Southeast, which remained under Sun Ch'uan. Later, the Ts’ao family, the invaders who came from the North, took over the other Kingdoms and appropriated their states. In this attack, only the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), which Toba established from one of the barbarian tribes, lasted for long (Shaw 225). During the 4th and 5th centuries, the four dynasties that had been established by the Chinese were in charge of the South. This paper aims are discussing the role of Yangtze River in dividing the states of Wei and Wu. The work will analyze the military, technological and geographical aspects to support the argument of River Yangtze separating the Wu and Wei States.

Brief Geography Description of Yangtze River

The Yangtze River rises in Dangla Mountains located on the Eastern parts of Tibet Plateau. Before reaching Yunnan, the river passes through the east Qinghai but turns southward to the border of Sichuan. At Yibin location, the river enters the basin of Sichuan, and meets the Three Gorges bordering Hubei and Chongqing further (Van Slyke 10).  The Three Gorges is the location where the mighty tributaries meet to feed the Yangtze.

Separation of Wu and Wei States

In Chinese history, Wu and Wei states in China are known for the longest civil confrontation. The Wu and Yue people were found occupying Yangtze delta areas including the current Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai, while Chu people occupied the lower areas of Yangtze, which is currently Hunan Jiangxi, Southern Anhui and Hubei provinces (Wu 876). Due to the fact that it was extremely difficult to cross Yangtze River, it officially became the kingdoms’ border and the area of ferocious battles. The city Nanjing became the first transition area and the most strategic location on Yangtze (Shaw 9).

Wu that was commonly referred to as Sun Wu (Eastern Wu) was one of the most popular states, which maintained its supremacy in China during the ruling period of the three kingdoms between years 220 and 280. Before this period, it existed as a dependent kingdom, serving the established Cao Wei, which was then its major rival state. It later on became independent from Wei, hence becoming a sovereign state from the year 222, but it became a full empire only in the year 229 (Shaw 225). The transition occurred after Sun Quan, its founding leader, made himself an emperor. The name of the empire was acquired from its base “Yangtze River Delta area” because this region was originally called Wu. To differentiate it from other historical states in China, which had similar names and were located in the same region, it was later renamed Sun Wu or Eastern Wu (Shaw 9). The name Eastern Wu was preferred over Sun Wu, since it was found in the Eastern parts of China in the era of the 3 Kingdoms, including Sun Wu as a part of the acquired family name of the ruler. Notably, the empire had two capitals, namely Jiangsu, the present-day Nanjing, and Hubei, the current Ezhou.

The Origin of Wu

As the ruling time of Han dynasty was coming to an end, Sun Ce, the son of the warlord Sun Jian, in collaboration with his descends used this opportunity to borrow some troops of the warlord Yuan Shu to go for a military attack in Jiangnan and Wu areas (Lynn 16). The period this activity occurred at was between 194 and 199, and the warriors seized many territories that were initially in occupation by warlords, like Wang Lang, Yan Baihu and Liu Yao. Around 196-197, Sun Ce cut off relationships with Yuan Shu after he declared himself an emperor. When this happened, the emperor Shian treated it as a betrayal because he was entitled to be the leading emperor of the Han dynasty (Shaw 10). Cao, the warlord who was the official ruler of the state of the Imperial Court of Han at that moment, requested emperor Xian to give Sun Ce the "Marquis of Wu" title. However, Sun Ce’s rule did not last long because he was killed in summer of the year 200, and his younger brother Sun Quan took over his seat. Just like his brother, Sun Quan was loyal to Emperor Xian, but still maintained the autonomous leadership in the Wu state. In the year 219, Sun Quan cut off links with Liu Bei after sending his general Lü Meng to attack the territories of Liu's in the Jing Province. This led to the capture and execution of Guan Yu, one of the defenders of Liu Bei's properties in the Jing Province, by the forces of Sun Quan (Lynn 17).

After a major dispute, there was an extension of the boundaries of Sun Quan's domains, which went beyond the Jiangdong areas, including the Southern part of Jing Province (this area covered a part of the current Hunan and Hubei). Later on, around the year 220, Cao Cao's son, Cao Pi, who was his successor, brought the Han dynasty to an end, forcing the emperor Xian to surrender to him, and establishing the Cao Wei State. During this transition, Sun Quan agreed to submit to Wei where he was given the vassal king title “King of Wu” by Cao Pi. One year later, through another de facto process, Liu Bei became an Emperor and went forward to establish the Shu Han State. He then plotted some military campaign against Sun Quan in the year 222 so as to have the Jing Province back and plot revenge against Guan Yu, which led to the Xiaoting battle (Shaw 13).

In this battle, Liu Bei was significantly defeated by the Sun Quan's leader Lu Xun and had no choice than to flee to Baidicheng, where he died a year later. Liu Shan, who was Liu Bei’s immediate successor, together with his regent, Zhuge Liang, chose to establish peace with the ruler, Sun Quan. These two leaders later on reassured each other of the previous unity. Thus, Sun Quan announced his independence from Wei in 222, but still ruled as “King of Wu” till 229, when he made himself the “Emperor of Wu”, and his legitimate leadership was recognized by Shu (Lynn 18).

Sun Quan was in leadership for over 20 years, and his ruling brought stability to South China. During his time, Wu was in confrontation with Wei, giving the famous battles of Hefei (234), Ruxu (222–223) and Shiting (228). In all these battles, Wu did not manage to get any territory in the North of Yangtze River, and Wei did not succeed in getting the area South of Yangtze (Shaw 225).

A struggle of succession arose between Sun Quan's sons during the last times of his ruling. Sun Quan then chose Sun He to be the prince of the crown in 242, after his earlier heir, Sun Deng, passed on in 241. Later, Sun had some rivalry with his younger brother, Sun Ba. This led to the development of two rivaling groups that were opposing, Sun He and Sun Ba, created under the Imperial Court of Sun Quan. 

Yangtze River and Military Development

Over the Chinese history, Yangtze River has been known as a natural war barrier for most of war conflicts. The ancient Chinese history was engaged with war immensely, and this mighty river has always been a part of this war. In fact, the Chinese conflict revolving around the Yangtze River is one of the longest and most diverse ones in the world history, involving several nations from several continents. From 6000 BC to the present, Yangtze River civilization is known for developing cities, ports and destroying them due to conflicts. Thus, Chinese army of any caliber understands that this river has been instrumental in their comparative and competitive growth (“Yangtze River Civilization”). The army has grown in China’s great rivers, and this country is known to have produced the largest number of its infantry in water basins as compared to those of land. The natural defense of Yangtze River provided to the Chinese Military and Kingdoms territories that are suitable for civilization development, even though the best units of civilization neighboring with the river were destroyed during the long-lasting bitter battles. Both civilization and civil wars were growing together with this river, which remained a strategic point for winning opponents or protecting territories because opponents could not cross it.

The River’s Role during the Three Periods

Under Sun Quan rule, the economy of the areas in the East of Yangtze River greatly improved. With the growth of the economy, the towns and counties increased in number. With the convenience of the river transportation in the East of Yangtze, the shipbuilding industry together with the salt industry of the Wu area became prosperous. During this period, the ship capacity grew to 1,000 passengers. In addition, Sun Quan put a lot of emphasis on agricultural development and succeeded in appointing farm officials, as well as embracing the Tuntian System. The Tuntian System was a farming system, in which soldiers and farmers cultivated the land for the provision of tax or military purposes (Lynn 19). Moreover, there was a sufficient labor force and advanced handicraft being brought in from the West, which facilitated the textile industry growth. 

The Wu kingdom established trade routes with most of the overseas countries like Vietnam and Cambodia to take advantage of the navigation. The cultural development of South Yangtze River was promoted by the economic prosperity, thus providing a good environment for the occurrence of renowned scholars like Wei Zhao, Lu Ji and Yu Fan. Similarly, due to the strategic location, Wu's armies had privileges in water battles, as they put up some army bases (Lynn 19). There was also the construction of shipyards, where the army that was comprised of minority nations including Yi Army, Shanyue Army, and Man Army was involved.

During the period of Zhuge Liang development, the Northern offensives, the State of Wu, had remained defensive against the potential invaders from the North. The Hefei area was the main point of several violent battles, which always took place under a constant pressure from Wei, following the “Battle of Red Cliffs”. The war was a reason why most people chose to migrate to the South of Yangtze River. Attacks on the Huai River region were hard to resist after Zhuge Liang's death, but still Wei did not manage to break the river defense lines such as Ruxu fortress erected by Wu (Shaw 8).

The long period of Sun Quan's ruling is also termed as a period with plenty for the Southern State. A lot of migrations, many coming from the North and the Shanyue settlement areas, meant an increase of agricultural workers who were coming to settle along the lower regions of Yangtze and the popular at the time Kuaiji Commandery (current Shaoxing). The river transportation increased, following the construction of Jiangnan and Zhedong canals. Trading with Shu regions flourished, increasing the import of the region’s cotton and metal production and celadon crafts. At the same time, ocean transportation was also improved due to the increasing involvement with the river routes (Yasuda 10). Following the prosperity of economy, art and culture also grew, influenced by the first Buddhist ideas reaching south from Luoyang.

During the rule of Wu, some regions of Yangtze River delta, which were early known as a barbaric “jungle", developed into commercial, cultural and political areas of China. These achievements in Wu state in the South came with an emerging civilization in China, reaching as far as the Southern areas of the empire. Moreover, in approximately the year 230, Taiwan Island was explored, and the three famous Chinese Kingdoms during the leadership of Sun Quan had a chance to explore Taiwan (Lynn 19). In addition, it is believed that Wu merchants were proactive and may have reached the Southern Vietnam as well as Cambodia for business.

However, due to the difficulties in the waterway, the military achievements of Wu were undermined. Thus, Sun Quan even lost one of his vassals, and even the achievements in Wu could not cover up the problems (Yasuda 13). As years went by, Wu, the great popular military, was overturned and became unimpressive. Even if it seemed an easy task to invade and take Hefei from Wei, Wu was reluctant and unable to do that. Indeed, since the 230s, the task of acquiring more territory became difficult because of the “New City”, built at Hefei and heavily fortified under the leadership of Wei. The greatest failure of accomplishing anything encountered in Wu was the year 255 and also the last years of the 250s. When in their rebellion against Wei Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin received a patronage of Wu, which promised to support them in Shouchun (currently Shou County, Anhui), the Wu forces failed to arrive on time to the combat between Sima Shi and the Wei forces. Upon launching a strong full-scale rebellion by Zhuge Dan, the Wu forces got a great defeat since they had lent most of their forces to Zhuge Dan's camp. This led to regaining of Shouchun by Wei, with Sima Zhao as a commander.  During Wei’s attack of Shu in the year 263, Wu was not able to support its friends because of a revolt in Vietnam. The decline of Wu came when Sun Xiu died of sickness in the year 264, a year after Wei conquered Shu. During this time, Wu was facing an internal turmoil due to the break out of rebellions in Jiaozhi in the South. The ministers Wan Yu, Zhang Bu and Puyang Xing chose to appoint Sun He's son, Sun Hao, to take up the throne. According to “A Brief History of China: The Asian Way of Life”, at the onset of Sun Hao's leadership, taxes were reduced, relief was given to the poor, and freedom granted to many maids. However, with time, Sun Hao has become more engaged in drinking and women than working towards reviving the declining state. This caused a lot of anger towards him from the people of Wu.

Guisepi continues to indicate that the decline of Wu came many years after the deaths of Lu Xun and Sun Quan in the years 245 and 252 respectively. Later, their successors did not make efforts to keep up the empire. Later, Sun Jun murdered Zhuge Ke in 253, following a failed attempt of invasion to Hefei due to the Wu victory, against the attack of Wei force at Dong Xing.  Ding Feng then killed Sun Chen, executing Sun Xiu’s orders. Besides, corruption was common in the Wu leadership, which made conquering the Jin dynasty an easy task during the year 280.

Technologies Attributed to Yangtze River

In Chinese history, Yangtze River is a great contributor of technological development in several ways. First, this River is used to as ore deposit for several types of metal including iron, copper and bronze. The ancient Chinese could use this ore deposits, especially in the Southern part of the River, for metallurgy purpose. Second, this River is an important technology transportation channel. The technologies constructed in China would be transported through this river into other parts of the world. For example, since iron technology and iron tools occurred in China in the 7th century B.C., this technology moved from China to Korea through the Yangtze River (Yasuda 10). A high construction was unearthed in Yaojiawan in Xishui County as early as at the time of Eastern Zhou and Qin Dynasty, making this river the earliest known iron foundry site on Earth.

Apart from earlier metallurgy, the recent technologies attributed to Yangtze River include ship building for water vessel transportation and agricultural technologies for irrigation in the Jiangsu Province. In the recent centuries, the Yangtze River continued to facilitate the use of technology through dam building. Several dams have been built along this river and the current Three Gorges Dam showcase the modern technology for producing hydroelectric power. Up until today, the extraction of earlier technology and Chinese ancient culture and tools takes place along Yangtze.


This paper discussed the meaning and role of Yangtze River as it divided the states of Wei and Wu focusing on military, technological and geographical aspects. Yangtze River is considered a cradle of Chinese civilization. The importance of this river in terms of geography is that it offered a natural barrier that protected kingdoms from invasion. The river is also the birthplace of the most fierce battles of civil war ever reported in China. These battles were long, hence exacerbating increased levels of military resource output in the ancient China. Due to the difficulties of crossing this river, it was the main political boundary of North and South China with numerous conflicts, with the Battle of the Red Cliff remaining most popular.

A great part of China's civilization also roots from Yangtze; hence, the river played a key role in separating the two states from military, technological and geographical aspects. In the military perspective, during war times it acted as a barrier between the two states. Following the efforts of Qin Dynastic Court marked by the period of the Warring States, technology, emanating from agriculture and transportation in the region, grew to make iron tools and weapons common with merchants. Towards the end, the Qin was able to handle armies of hundreds of thousands. “The art of war book”, an influential book about war fare was written by a strategist Sun Tzu during the era. Other influential books about warfare were also written during this era.

It is known geographically that rivers are natural barriers and serve as landmarks when it comes to marking boundaries, and it was the same case in the South and West of this river that the two states were separated. The history of China showcases the military prowess that Yangtze River conflicts created. These conflicts between the warring states aroused from the desire to control resources of this great river, resulting in technological advancement in building water vessels, inland port, using the river for transportation purposes and inventing agricultural skills through the readily available resources that this river brought.

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