Dream of a Third Han: In Pursuit of an Ideal

Dream of a Third Han: In Pursuit of an Ideal August 22, 2023

There are a number of things in the historical record that suggest that Shu-Han possessed millennialist proclivities. One of the less certain ones deals with a topic from a previous entry, Liu Bei’s relations with Zhang Lu. While Liu Bei in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is generally indifferent to Zhang Lu’s fate, in history he was deeply interested in bringing Zhang Lu over to his side. This was especially true after Cao Cao captured Hanzhong, despite Liu Bei no longer being able to derive any territorial benefit from it. His continuing insistence upon winning Zhang’s allegiance can perhaps be explained if we accept that Liu Bei was aware of how deeply engrained Celestial Master teachings were amongst the populace of Sichuan. Zhang Lu’s endorsement would have legitimized his rule amongst these people and made him look like the messianic ruler they had been waiting for. It was in similar terms that the Zhangs eventually endorsed Cao-Wei and it is not unreasonable to think that Liu would have recognized the benefits he could reap amongst his own people if such messianic notions were applied to himself by the man who was, for believers in Sichuan, the chief authority on the matter. Thus, we have an action by Liu Bei in the historical record that may suggest that he was actively thinking about his role in millennialist terms.

But a far stronger piece of evidence for this mindset comes from the coins minted by the Shu-Han government. An article by Adrian Loder for Kongming’s Archives notes that the Shu-Han administration minted coins bearing the phrase taiping. As discussed in a previous entry, taiping carried strong millennialist connotations. Any state that used the motto in an official capacity was actively portraying its own rule as the era of universal harmony, enduring prosperity, and transformation of the natural world indicated by the name taiping. Sun Liang of Wu also adopted taiping as a reign title in 256, so clearly there was a general desire on the part of the rulers of the Three Kingdoms to claim the millenarian mantle of taiping for themselves (since Sun Liang’s Taiping era lasted only two years before his overthrow, the choice of name might have been a little presumptuous). But Shu-Han using the phrase would not only invoke general hopes for the coming millennial age but would also be a reminder of the fact that in popular prophecy, this utopian age was expected to come about at the Han Dynasty’s restoration. By claiming both that it was inaugurating the time of taiping and that it was restoring the Han Dynasty, Shu-Han was repeating the central message of that prophecy and applying that message to itself. It seems very unlikely that it did so unintentionally.

Liu Bei (at top) along with Guan Yu and Zhang Fei from an 1825 woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada. (Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

But there is even stronger evidence that millennialism played a central role in how Shu-Han viewed itself. Earlier, we discussed how, particularly after Wang Mang’s fall, the Han Dynasty subscribed to a mystical and cyclical understanding of its own existence, in which a great messianic emperor would come along every so often to restore the dynasty at the start of a new age. J. Michael Farmer, in his 2001 article, “What’s in a Name? On the Appellative ‘Shu’ in Early Medieval Chinese Historiography,” demonstrates that Liu Bei went out of his way to insert himself into that paradigm. As Farmer notes, “Liu Bei saw himself as the third epoch-founding emperor of the Han Dynasty” (Farmer 45) and actively sought to imbue his reign with the aura of the long-awaited Han-restorer.

For instance, he established an ancestral temple not to the Han emperor he was actually descended from—Han Jingdi—but to Gaozu [Liu Bang] and Guangwudi [Liu Xiu]. Liu Bang had founded the Han Dynasty and Liu Xiu had reestablished it following Wang Mang’s usurpation, meaning that by associating his reign with theirs, Liu Bei was presenting himself as Han’s third founder and second savior. Liu Bei also issued a document at his ascension in which he referred specifically to the cyclical theory, casting Cao Cao as a second Wang Mang and himself as the man chosen by Heaven to restore the rule of a dynasty who “days [are] without limit” (qtd. in Farmer 46). Finally, there is the name of his state. Liu Bei called his state “Han” after the dynasty he was attempting to reestablish (Shu-Han is a later coinage made from combining the state’s own name with the name used for it by Wei and Wu). But when adherents of Liu Bei and Shu-Han needed to differentiate it from the earlier forms of the Han Dynasty, they appear to have used the term “Ji Han,” meaning “Third Han.” Thus, even one of the names used by the state tied back into the cyclical narrative of Han’s periodic restoration by messianic sage-emperors. It is clear, then, that at least one popular form of Han millennialism was a central part of Shu-Han’s state ideology.

True, it was the respectable Han millennialism that had been favored by the imperial court since even before Wang Mang’s usurpation and not the popular prophecy of Liu and Li, but it was still millennialism. Geoffrey Ashe, in The Discovery of King Arthur, states that King Arthur’s own legend is built upon a messianic idea from the late Roman world: the Restitutor Orbis (world-restorer), a peerless ruler who would appear when the old order is on the verge of collapse and renew it for another cycle. The belief in periodic Han restorations was very similar, with heroic sage-emperors reinvigorating the dynasty at the beginning of each new age. Liu Bei was very clearly playing into that belief, casting himself as a Restitutor Orbis who would ring in the Han’s third cycle of universal rule and general prosperity. By invoking the idea as directly and as often as he did, Liu Bei was deliberately portraying himself as an imperial messiah.

No doubt, he and his followers were also aware of the many other kinds of millennialist expectation swirling around their home base of Sichuan and through China at large. One of these was the taiping ideal which, as we have seen, Shu-Han did indeed coopt for their own purposes. That, like the cyclical Han theory, had received longstanding recognition from the Han imperial court and was thus also a legitimate and respectable form of millennialist thinking. Shu-Han could safely use the cyclical and taiping ideals without appearing to depart too much from accepted Han imperial practice. However, there were less respectable forms of prophecy circulating, particularly in Sichuan. Still, these prophecies generally focused on the same themes: a transformative future era of general happiness and the coming restoration of the Han Dynasty. These aligned well enough with Shu-Han’s own official claims and, if the state did not make as explicit use of these millennialist ideas as it did with those inherited from previous Han administrations, it was surely still trying to tap into the enthusiasm behind them through its own claims. Shu-Han was very much capable of adapting different millennialist beliefs to its own purposes and was, in that sense at least, a product of the same millenarian energies that also inspired the radicalism of the Yellow Turbans and the Celestial Masters.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that such millennial ambitions, whether in the radical form espoused by Zhang Jiao or the more respectable form championed by Liu Bei, were destined to go unfulfilled. Thus, the Yellow Turbans were demonized, the Celestial Masters abandoned their messianic beliefs in favor of maintaining the status quo, and Liu Bei and his fellows were remembered by later generations as tragic figures fighting to restore a past that they know is gone forever. Eventually, the divide between what the Shu-Han heroes believed and what the popular apocalyptic movements did that later portrayals would rarely display any overlap. However, it seems to me that traces of the millennialist side of Shu-Han’s ideology may perhaps be found in three later developments in Chinese literature.

The first of these involves Xi Zuochi. He famously argued for Shu-Han’s legitimacy at the Jin court, making him the first scholar after the close of the Three Kingdoms era to recognize Shu-Han and not Wei as the rightful ruler of China. He also had notable millennialist leanings. Erik Zürcher, in “‘Prince Moonlight’: Messianism and Eschatology in Early Medieval China,” notes that Xi makes the first written mention of the messianic figure called “Moonlight boy” or “Prince Moonlight” who would play such an important role in medieval Chinese eschatology. Moonlight is an idealized future ruler who will reshape China into a utopian realm, much as the restoring Han emperor was expected to do. This lines his narrative up quite neatly with Shu-Han’s state ideology and if Xi recognized that they both offered fundamentally similar millenarian messages, it would explain why he took such an interest in these two otherwise unrelated subjects.

The second development is that Zhuge Liang continued to be associated with apocalyptic and millennialist prophecy throughout Chinese history. As the centuries went on, Shu-Han’s sagacious chief statesman not only came to be regarded as the country’s foremost master of military strategy but as a Merlin-like combination of prophet and wizard. Just like Merlin in the West, his name was attached to prophecies of great political and eschatological import. One famous book of prophecies credited to Zhuge Liang was the Maqian ke, which purports to foretell all Chinese history from the fall of Shu-Han onward. Like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin prophecies, it offers veiled allusions to actual historical events until it reaches a certain point—probably the moment of the book’s true composition—and then veers off into apocalypse. For the Maqian ke, that point of departure is the coming of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing is identified with the “Old Moon”—the great end-times foe in Chinese messianic lore since the Middle Ages—and their reign over China represents a truly apocalyptic event, a shattering of the old social order. But after them, Zhuge Liang prophesizes the coming of a messiah who will ring in a millennialist golden age, “Salvation from calamity can only be done by a sage / Yang restores order and light is born from the depths of darkness,” (Zhuge 28). Since this is the last prophecy in the book, the implication is that history is at an end and the sage-ruler’s millennial kingdom will be eternal.

Thus, an overtly millenarian text uses Zhuge Liang, the great statesman of Shu-Han, as its mouthpiece. Why is this? It could simply be that, as an acknowledged prophet and famous master of all things hidden, Zhuge Liang made the most sense for a prophetic work on Chinese history. As we have seen, in the East and the West, prophetic histories of the world that end in apocalyptic climaxes are common, and do not usually require much on the part of their supposed sources other than being knowers of secret things. But at the same time, the most famous of these prophets, Merlin, was closely associated with the millennialist hopes embodied in a resurgent British nation and the messianic figure of the returned Arthur, and this no doubt played a large role in his massive appeal. Could something similar have happened in China, with the millennialist ideology of Shu-Han being transmuted into a personal association of the state’s de facto ruler with millenarian ideas? It is certainly interesting that the Maqian ke’s prophetic narrative is bookended by the downfall of Shu-Han and the birth of the millennial kingdom. The book can thus be read as having a coherent story arc: Shu-Han is unable to achieve its millennialist goals but they are finally accomplished over the long arc of history when the sage-ruler completes the work that Shu-Han had left unfinished so long ago. If nothing else, the existence of the Maqian ke proves that a connection between the historical Shu-Han state and millennialist ideas was not an unreasonable one to make in late imperial China.

The third possible literary echo is the fact that Shu-Han is generally portrayed as a utopia in the Three Kingdoms literary tradition. Most popular adaptations of the story portray Liu Bei as an ideal ruler and Zhuge Liang as his ideal advisor, with their joint rule turning Shu-Han into a paradise on earth. This trend began all the way back in Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi, which describes Zhuge Liang’s governance in these terms:

Zhuge Liang served in the capacity of minister of the kingdom, he aided and comforted all the people, offered clear instruction in proper morality, defined the officials’ jurisdictions and responsibilities, obeyed his ruler’s fiat, spoke frankly and with sincerity, and practiced justice … he was beneficent toward the people of that time, both consistently rewarding them even if they were his enemies, and also … consistently punishing the arrogant and disdainful even if they were dear kindred … as a result within the bounds of the Kingdom of Shu, everyone altogether revered and admired him … because his intention was fair, and what’s more he offered clear guidance. (Chen 263)

Zhuge Liang’s administration is described in what are clearly utopian terms. He is perfectly just, perfectly fair, utterly impartial, and loved by everyone. That Chen would look back at his conquered homeland and its greatest leader with nostalgic fondness is not surprising. But his depiction goes beyond mere nostalgia; it is as much a recommendation for how a state should be as a description of how one used to be. His work demonstrates that even at an early date, a relatively dependable historian like Chen Shou could buy into the idea that Shu-Han under Zhuge Liang was a utopian state with moral leadership and perfect administrative practices. Once history gave way to popular romance, the utopian theme only became more entrenched. The pinghua interprets the threefold division as metaphysical in addition to territorial. The text states that Cao Cao will enjoy the “Moment of Heaven”—he will be the instrument by which Heaven destroys the Han Dynasty—and Sun Quan will attain the “Advantages of Earth” because of the natural defenses provided by Wu’s many mountains and rivers (Idema and West 8). Liu Bei, however, will possess the “Harmony of Men,” which suggests that a utopian social order of mutual love and respect between “lord and vassals” will be established in the realm he reigns over (8). The Romance of the Three Kingdoms repeats the line about the “Harmony of Men”—putting it in the mouth of Zhuge Liang as part of his famous Longzhong Plan—but also gives a more concrete description of what Shu-Han’s governance of its territory actually looks like. After Liu Bei has claimed Sichuan, Zhuge Liang describes how they intend to govern:

Our new administration must win respect through legal authority; when the laws are carried out, then the people will appreciate our kindnesses. Moreover, we must use rank to limit ambition so that when rank is granted, the honor will be appreciated. Balanced bestowing of kindness and honor will restore proper relations between lord and vassal, and the principles of good governance will again be manifest.” (Luo 1186)

Statue of Zhuge Liang in the Wuhou Memorial Temple. (Courtesy of China Discovery)

This is, like Chen Shou’s earlier description of Zhuge Liang’s actual tenure as Prime Minister, a prescription for creating a perfect government. The novel emphasizes that it is neither too harsh nor too lenient and is fair and appropriate in both rewards and punishments. While the Shu-Han of the novel does not always perfectly capture this model, on the whole, its system of government is quite utopian, particularly during Zhuge Liang’s tenure as Prime Minister: “The inhabitants of the region welcomed the reign of peace; a climate of honesty and mutual trust prevailed, and fortune favored the land with generous harvests several years in a row. Both young and old tapped their contented bellies rhythmically as they rejoiced in song” (1536). This description of a perfectly just government leading to total social harmony, general prosperity, and universal happiness is the taiping ideal fulfilled. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms stresses how happiness, contentment, and satisfaction are shared by all the people of Shu-Han, while also continuing to emphasize the perfections of this government. The novelist goes further than any previous work in demonstrating that all the conditions of utopia are fulfilled in Shu-Han, making the Romance of the Three Kingdoms the quintessential utopian portrayal of Liu Bei’s realm.

That the Romance’s version of Shu-Han follows the taiping ideal closely is telling since—as we have noted before—that notion was heavily millenarian in its expectation that a future sovereign would institute a world-transforming golden age. Of course, the utopian depiction of Shu-Han in the Three Kingdoms texts is not millenarian for the simple reason that its reign lies in the past and not in the future. However, the state’s later utopian image may still be rooted in its real-life millennialist messaging. After all, Shu-Han announced that it was bringing in the taiping era of universal peace and prosperity, which was tantamount to proclaiming itself a utopian state. That utopian self-portrayal may have been built upon millennialist promises for the future, but the image itself could still endure even after those promises failed. All that was required was for nostalgic former subjects like Chen Shou or later partisans like the authors of the pinghua and the Romance to accept the basic idea of Shu-Han as an incipient utopia but then transfer the fulfillment of its utopian potential from the future to the past. As the long literary tradition demonstrates, this was something that they were more than happy to do.

We see something similar with the King Arthur stories in the West. I have long argued that Western depictions of King Arthur’s Camelot share many basic similarities to Chinese depictions of Shu-Han. Both begin with their culture’s depiction of an ideal ruler, but then the story’s true focus shifts to the heroic vassals that the ruler brings together to carry out his purpose. What emerges is a portrait of a whole chivalric warrior-class rather than the biography of the ruler, even if the increasingly passive ruler remains the pivot around which the whole turns. There is a sense that this gathering of heroes is fighting to restore an old, vanishing social order, the “good old days,” and their kingdom is later remembered as the epitome of those “good old days.” They are successful for a time but, at the seeming height of success, things fall apart and spiral into tragedy. The ruler’s reign ends with a disastrous final battle (Camlann for Arthur, Xiaoting/Yiling for Liu Bei) and his kingdom, whether gradually or quickly, meets its demise at the hands of a new social order.

King Arthur from the title page of The Boy’s King Arthur. (Courtesy of Britannica)

There are, of course, some variations across the literature—the circumstances of Arthur’s departure and the fate of his realm can differ wildly and, as we have seen, the pinghua at least was willing to grant Liu Bei a posthumous victory—but, in the main, the great royal-heroic tradition of the East and that of the West show a remarkable convergence. It is significant here because of the parallel between Camelot/Logres and Shu-Han as utopias that lie in the distant past, swallowed up by the vastness of time. As we have seen in my previous series, the belief that Camelot was a utopia had much to do with the millennialist expectations that surrounded the figure of Arthur. Though this development reached its peak in the High Middle Ages, it appears to have begun long before. After all, there was the Restitutor Orbis ideal. As Geoffrey Ashe says of Arthur: “He was the High King in whose reign Britain was, for a while, retrieved from disaster … Under his leadership Britons reentered the imperial scheme and might, in their part of Europe, have set it up again. Hence he was the nearest thing to a Restitutor in that quarter which the last agonies produced” (Ashe 124). I have also long suspected that the example of Carausius may have played a role in later utopian depictions of Arthur’s reign. Though he lived about two centuries before the historical Arthur, he was, like Arthur, a Saxon-fighter who set up his own independent realm in Britain. He also tried to give a millennialist cast to his regime by applying Virgil’s famous prophecy of a new golden age in the Fourth Eclogue to his own reign. It seems possible to me that the millennial pretensions of this figure so similar to Arthur might have influenced how Arthur’s own reign and messianic future prospects came to be viewed. In either case, a messianic groundwork seems to have already been laid in the historical record for later depictions of Arthur before the legend itself even began.

It is not unreasonable to think that something similar happened with Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, and Shu-Han. It is true that Arthur’s story ends on an explicitly millennialist note, with the promise of his future return, while that of the Shu-Han heroes does not. Despite the fact that its founding heroes, particularly Guan Yu, are worshipped as gods in China to this day, all that Shu-Han has in terms of millennialist hope is the fact that the old Liu-and-Li prophecy kept circulating for centuries after the state’s demise. That does not mean, however, that millennialist expectations did not play a role in how Shu-Han would be remembered in Chinese literature. Geoffrey Ashe describes Arthur as “a regional Restitutor fulfilling the dream—for a time—in one fragment of the imperial world … He saves a battered realm from the results of crime and strife in high places … He recruits new men, men of ability and integrity, without distinction as to their origins” (24). That description could equally describe Liu Bei or, when a further line is added—“He proves himself a master of warfare, yet he gives his subjects a long spell of peace” (24)—Zhuge Liang. We have already seen that the leaders of Shu-Han attempted to embody something like the Restitutor ideal in third-century China. If the fulfillment (however limited) of that messianic archetype in the West was enough to make Arthur’s realm look like a utopia to future generations, a similar fulfillment (however limited) in the East could certainly have been enough to establish the utopian reputation Shu-Han has enjoyed for nearly two-thousand years. If this is the case, then the innumerable adaptations of the Three Kingdoms story have, without knowing it, transmitted a part of Shu-Han’s millennialist ideology through the long span of time.

The current story of Shu-Han may, unlike that of Arthur, possess only traces of the millennialist message that the original state promulgated. But they are further evidence that Shu-Han did indeed have a millennialist understanding of its own place in history. This adds to the implications adduced from its location in Sichuan and the general prophetic climate of the time and to the testimonials of the numismatic and historical record which tell us that Shu-Han actively promoted a millennialist ideology. From all this, we can conclude that, despite what centuries of portrayals have seemed to suggest, Shu-Han was not a past-focused or purely reactionary regime. Though rooted in the past, the leaders of the state had their eyes set on a future of millenarian promise that they considered themselves destined to bring about. Though their millennialism was of a different kind than that of the Yellow Turbans or the Celestial Masters, it was still a valid form of millennialist thought. Shu-Han was, in actual fact, a millennialist state. A recognition of this fact should be more than enough to shake many of our basic assumptions about the dynamics of power and prophecy in the time of the Three Kingdoms.


Ashe, Geoffrey. The Discovery of King Arthur. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1985. Owl Press Books, 1987.

Chen Shou, Sanguozhi. Kunming: Yunnan People’s Publishing House, 2017. Translation mine.

Farmer, J. Michael. “What’s in a Name? On the Appellative ‘Shu’ in Medieval Chinese Historiography.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 121.1 (2001): 44-59.

Loder, Adrian. “Ancient Chinse Coins: Shu-Han Dynasty Coins.” Kongming’s Archives. Kongming.net. 2006.

Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms. Translated by Moss Roberts. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2003.

Records of the Three Kingdoms in Plain Language. Trans. Wilt L. Idema and Stephen H. West. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016.

Zhuge Liang. Maqian ke. Ver. 4. Edited by Steve Moore. August 2012. Translation mine.

Zürcher, Erik. “‘Prince Moonlight’: Messianism and Eschatology in Early Medieval China.T’oung Pao 68.1/3 (1982): 1-75.

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