Greatest generals of the Three Kingdoms Period

Sep 2015
88
Scotland
The Three Kingdoms Period is one of the most interesting sagas of Chinese history. Upon the dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the early third century AD, China found itself thrust into a bloody conflict between three warring states that claimed rule over the old empire - the Wei state in the north, the Wu state in the south and the Shu state in the west. The prelude to the Three Kingdoms Period actually occurred during the last years of the second century AD where the Han Dynasty saw its control weakened by rebellions and powerful warlords. It was during this period in which the three states began to take form and warred with numerous other regional powers. The "official" period of the Three Kingdoms began in 220 AD and was marked by a more stable arrangement of the three rival states vying for power. The end of the Three Kingdoms Period began in 263 AD with the fall of Shu to Wei. The Jin dynasty took control of Wei in 266 AD and then went on to conquer Wu in 280 AD - finally bringing the period to a close under a China united by the Jin dynasty,

The generals I list here are, in my opinion, the best commanders during the Three Kingdoms Period. I would like to hear the opinions of others who are more well-versed in this period of history than I am.

1. Cao Cao (155 - 220)

Cao Cao is, for me, undoubtedly the best general of the entire 3K period. A chancellor under the ailing Han Dynasty, Cao Cao conquered and pacified the North China Plain, laying the foundations of the Wei state. Cao Cao began his career as a warlord consistently outnumbered, yet due to his audacious command, he managed to prevail against more numerous and well-supplied foes. In the battles of the Yan Ford and Guandu, Cao Cao defeated the powerful Yuan brothers for control of northern China. In the Battle of White Wolf Mountain, Cao Cao defeated the Wuhuan and not to mention his defeats of Liu Bei. The one great stain on his career, however, is the Battle of the Red Cliffs. Liu Bei made many strategic blunders in this battle and despite his earlier successes in dealing with foes that heavily outnumbered him, he thought that simply having a huge force would be enough for him to crush Wu and Shu and conquer the lands south of the Yangtze.

2. Sun Ce (175 AD - 200 AD)

If not for the shortness of his career, Sun Ce would be renown as one of the greatest generals of all time. Alas, his death at age 25 cut short his brilliant, rising star reminiscent of the death of Alexander the Great. At twenty, Sun Ce invaded Jiangnan - the lands to the south of the Yangtze River - with 5,000 men. With speed, he conquered city after city defeating several warlords. Many of the warlords allied together and attempted to stop the young conqueror but he managed to send them reeling time and time again. Before his untimely death, Sun Ce may have been planning to attack the heart of Cao Cao's territory of Wei, conquering the lands north of the Yangtze. Unfortunately for the young conqueror he was assassinated by a servant before he could realise his destiny. Had Sun Ce not been killed the history of China might have turned out very differently indeed.

3. Sima Yi (179 - 251)

One of the greatest generals of the Wei state. While the relationship between Cao Cao and Sima Yi was often rocky, he was recognised as the best general of Wei after Cao Cao himself. His defense of Wei against the invasions of Shu were legendary. Sima Yi was also the progenitor of the Jin dynasty, established by his grandsom, which went on to usurp the Wei throne and conquer Wu.

4. Zhang Liao (169 - 222)

Another of Wei's best generals under Cao Cao. Zhang Liao would have made this list for one battle only, the Battle of Heifei. With 7000 soldiers, Zhang Liao defended the fortress of Heifei against the onslaught of Sun Quan of Wu. Before the battle, Zhang Liao raided the camp of Sun Quan before returning to the fortress. Unable to breach Heifei's defenses, Sun Quan had to beat a withdrawl due to plague. As the last unit of Sun Quan's bodyguard began to move, Zhang Liao led a powerful counterattack and almost killed the warlord.

5. Zhao Yun (174 - 229)

Zhao Yun was the best commander of Shu. The state of Shu viewed itself as the legitimate successor of the Han Dynasty and thus managed to command many Han loyalists but the rulers of Shu lacked the prestige awarded to the rulers of Wei and Wu. Zhao Yun distinguished himself in the Hangzhong Campaign where he was instrumental to Shu's victory. In the Battle of the Han River, Zhao Yun - although outnumbered - mamaged to inflict a heavy defeat on Cao Cao.

6. Lu Meng (178 - 220)

Wu's best general after Sun Ce. Lu Meng's great achievement was his Jing campaign in which he captured the province from the state of Shu and captured one of Shu's most famous generals Guan Yu. Lu Meng gets a bad rep as he is accused of betraying Shu with the invasion, destroying any chance of defeating Wei but Lu Meng heavily strengthened Wu's position through his conquest.

7. Sun Jian (155 - 191)

The father of Sun Ce, Sun Jian was an ally of the Yuan brothers - the warlords defeated by Cao Cao to establish the Wei state. In the closing days of the Han Dynasty, the tyrant Dong Zhuo had control over China, holding the emperor as a puppet. Sun Jian led the revolt against Dong Zhuo and defeated his, much larger, forces. Sun Jian spent the rest of his life warring with his former allies and died on campaign. Sun Jian also put down many rebellions under the Han dynasty.

8. Deng Ai (197 - 264)

The Wei general who led the final, decisive blow against Shu and conquered the territory. Deng Ai cut through a dangerous mountain shortcut and led a surprise attack on the Shu capital.

9. Zhou Yu (175 - 210)

The commander at the decisive Battle of the Red Cliffs. Zhou Yu thwarted Cao Cao's plan to capture the areas south of the Yangtze and ensured the Wu would survive yet.

10. Wang Ping (193 - 248)

The last great commander of Shu. Wang Ping reorganised the Shu army when the state was on its last legs and managed to hold out against the superior forces of Wei for quite some time.

Honourable mentions:

Xiahou Yan - a Wei general who fought under Cao Cao and subdued the western provinces.

Lu Xun - a general of the Wu state who also distinguished himself in the capture of the Jing province from Shu.

Cao Ren - fought with Cao Cao in his earliest campaigns and was a distinguished Wei general.

Wang Jun - the Jin dynasty general who finally conquered Wu in 280 and ended the Three Kingdoms period.

Zhang Xiu - another case of wasted potential. Xiahou Yan was a warlord who consistently defeated and repulsed Cao Cao from his territory - the only commander to do so. He himself then entered the service of Wei. If he had a stronger power base, perhaps he could have been a real player?

Xu Rong - a general who served Dong Zhuo during the coalition to depose him. Xu Rong defeated both Sun Jian and Cao Cao before finally being killed in battle.
 

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
5,648
Ontario, Canada
are there any good books on this period? I cant seem to find any
Not really. You are basically just limited to books written by Rafe de Crespigny from the hugely expensive Brill catalog.

Though I suppose you could try Harvard History of China book 2, Northern and Southern Dynasties. Or even the Cambridge history of China, the volumes about the Han dynasty.
 

mariusj

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,019
Los Angeles
5. Zhao Yun (174 - 229)
Realistically, which battle he actually commanded? None?

Lu Xun - a general of the Wu state who also distinguished himself in the capture of the Jing province from Shu.
Probably one of the top 10 of that period.

Like, if we are going to make a Gatcha game, Lu Xun is a SSS+ and you have to pour like 10000$ for him.
 

macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
4,178
Slovenia, EU
Best of Suns or Wu should be Zhou Yu because of Red Cliffs. Without his victory there would be no Shu Han or Wu to speak about.

From Shu on a list should be Zhuge Liang who subdued south and was leading Northern campaigns, Wei Yan who was behind most of Shu victories after they got established in Sichuan and of course Guan Yu.

Lu Bu deserves a honorable mention, also Ma Teng and Ma Chao.

About a prestige you are wrong. Shu Han leaders Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Zhao Yun and Zhuge Liang were alone wielding as much prestige as all of Wei combined. Please who was balancing their prestige around 220? It only felt after Liu Bei's lost attempt against Wu in Jing and after Guan Yu's fall.

Lu Xun > Lu Meng. Lu Meng took Jing and killed Guan Yu but Lu Xun defeated larger Liu Bei's army and also Cao Wei push in the east.

Zhuge Liang and Guan Yu were greatest Shu Han generals, Cao Cao, Sima Yi and Deng Ai greatest Cao Wei generals and Zhou Yu and Lu Xun greatest of Wu.

In my opinion independent commands and long careers with many victories are the most important criteriums.


I agree that Cao Cao deserves a top spot.
 

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
5,648
Ontario, Canada
If I had to pick four generals for their strategic ability then I would probably go with Cao Cao, Sun Quan, Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang. Lu Su and Lu Xun could probably go in there as well.

If we are talking strictly an independent field command then it is probably Cao Cao, Sun Ce, Zhou Yu and Cao Ren.
 

macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
4,178
Slovenia, EU
Oh, I forgot Lu Su. I still find Lu Xun and Zhou Yu above him.

Waht is your data on Sun Ce that you see him so high?
 
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mariusj

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,019
Los Angeles
If I had to pick four generals for their strategic ability then I would probably go with Cao Cao, Sun Quan, Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang. Lu Su and Lu Xun could probably go in there as well.

If we are talking strictly an independent field command then it is probably Cao Cao, Sun Ce, Zhou Yu and Cao Ren.
Strategic wise, I really don't have that much regard to Sun Quan. What exactly did he do to put him on top of Zhou Yu & Lu Xun who held command during his era?

For example, 2 most important strategic move of the Three Kingdom era was the control the emperor and command the various lords from Ju Shou & Xun Yu where Ju advised Yuan Shao that '今州城粗定,兵强士附,西迎大驾,即宫邺都,挟天子以令诸侯,蓄士马以讨不庭,谁能御之' 'Today the province and the city was pacified generally, our forces are large and the talents flock to our banner, we should go west and received his arrival, and build palace in Ye, and command the various lords through his imperial order, build our forces and attack those who refuse to submit, who can stop this?'
Xun Yu's advise was more subtle, but still these were really farsighted strategic advise.

Zhuge Liang was also important strategic vision, although I recently read some people say it wasn't real but personally I think that it was real.

So in comparison to Zhuge & Xun & Ju's strategic vision, I don't really see Sun Quan as someone who had a grand vision in how to proceed. What was his end game?
 

mariusj

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,019
Los Angeles
Oh, I forgot Lu Su. I still find Lu Xun and Zhou Yu above him.

Waht is your data on Sun Ce that you see him so high?
I think Sun Ce had a bonus point in dying so young, so practically everything about him were praises, and even those that were 'negative' were kind of positive as well.

And he began his career almost as a child with no bases of support but the remainder of his father's forces and his friend Zhou Yu, granted now we know what a deadly combo they were, but at that point where he started his was probably one of the lowest starting point of all the warlords?