By this time, anarchy had spread throughout China, and the former empire had been divided into competing regions vying for territorial control. Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan dominated the fight over the north while Sun Jian and Liu Biao battled for possession of the southern provinces. Even leaders without title or land, such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei, began to amass considerable power.
Among these figures, Cao Cao, a military genius who fought against the Yellow Turban Rebellion and Dong Zhuo, achieved the most successes. Only eight years after the death of the Warlord Zhuo, Cao Cao routed the armies of Yuan Shao and assumed effective rule over all of northern China. From this position, Cao Cao expanded his control beyond the Great Wall, and sent his forces south, beyond the Yangtze River. The reunification of China would be complete once he seized the southern half of the splintered, former empire.
Cao Cao’s sweeping advances would set him on a collision course with other rising powers in the south and west of China. Liu Bei, who had previously fought alongside Cao Cao in several conflicts, soon took up arms against him. Similarly, the armies of Sun Jian, now led by his children, secured their hold on the south and braced for Cao Cao’s charge. The latter two nations would form a temporary alliance to stem the tide of Cao Cao’s advances. These events culminated at the legendary Battle of Red Cliff, where Cao Cao was finally defeated, albeit temporarily, and forced to retreat northwards.
The victory was short lived for Liu Bei and Sun Quan, who soon turned against each other for control of each other’s territory. Cao Cao’s involvement in the south was intermittent, as each side would continue to compete for dominance over the course of the next two decades.
These three kingdoms would come to be known as the Wei (Cao Cao), the Shu (Liu Bei), and the Wu (Sun Jian), each driven by a common cause – to unify all of China under their own banner. This goal would put them at odds with one another for nearly six decades.
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