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Through his fictionalized history of China, Luo Guanzhong traces the ascent of Ssu-ma Yen, ending with his becoming the first emperor of a unified nation. The book begins soon after the Yellow Turban rebellion failed and follows those of its adherents who vowed to continue their struggle. Among these is Ts’ao Ts’ao, who defeats numerous rivals to become the king of Wei in the north, challenging the Han empire. In addition, Liu Pei, aided especially by Chu-ko Liang, becomes the Szechwan ruler as king of Shu.

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Ts’ao Ts’ao does not progress unimpeded, however; in particular, Sun Ch’üan of the southern kingdom of Wu challenges him. After Sun Ch’üan allies with Liu Pei, their combined forces defeat those of Ts’ao Ts’ao at the Battle of Red Cliff. This event initiates the establishment of a delicate, short-lived balance among the powers of the Three Kingdoms. Kuan Yü, who governs the Hupeh province that borders Wu, dies in battling Sun Ch’üan’s forces. Liu Pei is soon defeated when he tries to conquer Wu. After Liu Pei dies, the leadership is left in the hands of his incompetent son.

To compensate, the military leader Chu-ko Liang assumes a stronger role; his combined diplomatic and bellicose efforts finally generated a strained, temporary peace between Shu and Wu; however, his strength gives out and he dies. After Ts’ao Ts’ao also dies, Ssu-ma I assumes command of the Wei forces; he and his followers vigorously punish and finally push out Ts’ao Ts’ao’s descendants. Chiang Wei directs the opposing Shu forces but are no match for the stronger Wei forces that invade under the command of T’eng Ai and Chung Hui. Chiang Wei also dies, leading the Shu and Wu forces to surrender. The combined territories will now be ruled by a new emperor Ssu-ma Yen, who is Ssu-ma I’s grandson.

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When the Yellow Turban rebellion is finally quashed, the many soldiers of fortune who take part in its suppression seize power for themselves, thus precipitating the downfall of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Among these the most shrewd and successful politician is Ts’ao Ts’ao, who already attracted a large following of able strategists and warriors. After the systematic elimination of his many rivals, such as Tung Cho, Lü Pu, Yuan Shao, and Yuan Shu, he rules over North China as the king of Wei, subjecting the Han Emperor and his court to great indignity.

Liu Pei, who also rose to fame during the Yellow Turban rebellion, is for a long time doing very poorly, despite the legendary prowess of his sworn brothers, Kuan Yü and Chang Fei. It is not until he seeks out Chu-ko Liang and makes him his chief strategist that his fortunes begin to improve. In time he rules over Szechwan as the king of Shu.

While Liu Pei is beginning to mend his fortunes, the only man who blocks Ts’ao Ts’ao’s territorial ambitions is Sun Ch’üan, who inherited from his father and older brother the rich kingdom of Wu, south of the Yangtze. When Ts’ao Ts’ao finally decides to cross the Yangtze and subdue Wu, Sun Ch’üan and Liu Pei form an alliance, and the combined strategy of their respective military commanders, Chou Yü and Chu-ko Liang, subject Ts’ao Ts’ao’s forces to a crushing defeat in the Battle of Red Cliff. After this victory Liu Pei goes to Szechwan, and the precarious balance of power of the Three Kingdoms is...

(The entire section contains 917 words.)

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