Well, as the question is stated, would the 3K era as we know it have existed without Cao Cao?, the answer is clearly no because the 3K era as we know it is centred most prominently on three people: Liu Bei, Sun Quan and Cao Cao. Clearly things would have been different.
I would argue that there still would have been a long civil war, and possibly even the tripartite division that was later established. Yuan Shao is clearly the major force in the North in this scenario and given that Liu Bei didn't become powerful until he seized the West, and Wu was in the south, I think Yuan Shao takes the north with ease. The question is whether anyone challenges him for the Central Plains. It is said that Sun Ce, prior to his death, wished to go north to attack Cao Cao but this is somewhat debated. If I remember correctly, de Crespigny comes down on the side that Ce probably didn't really intend to do this. As such I'm inclined to believe Wu would have stayed in the south.
As for Liu Bei, he clearly was not someone who wished to serve anyone for long, rather wishing to be a leader himself. I think that he would have escaped the clutches of any hostile forces, just as he did in the real situations, because if he can get away from Cao Cao on multiple occasions, he can get away from anyone. I believe he would have evntually found his way south to Liu Biao in either case.
This brings us to the big question, and one of the major axes on which the 3K saga turned, and that's Jing province. Cao Cao was responsible for Yuan Shu being put down, and as we know Shu and Biao were often at odds with one another. I don't see Shao making a beeline south as Cao did, so that leaves Shu, Biao, probably Liu Bei on Biao's side, and the possible intervention of Sun Ce/Quan. Were Sun Jian still alive I have no doubt he would have of course fought against Biao, but Ce had been neglected by Yuan Shu - one of the catalysts for the formation of Wu to begin with - so I'm not sure how that would play out. Biao's forces were responsible for Sun Jian's death, however, so perhaps Wu would team up with Yuan Shu anyway. In this scenario, Shu is hardly a weakling, but if he still makes his imperial proclamation then all is lost for him anyhow - everyone would have sicced their dogs of war on him if Cao Cao hadn't. This, perhaps, would be enough to drive Wu away from Yuan Shu. However, Shu was on his way to his brother/cousin Shao when Cao Cao struck the final blow, so perhaps he does manage to unite with his brother/cousin this time
So we have a scenario where there are three factions in this south-central region, the area that gave rise to Chibi and gave Liu Bei the momentum to rocket into sudden relevance in the big picture. The factions are:
Han family members:
- Liu Biao
- Liu Bei
- Liu Biao's kids
The Yuan clan:
- Yuan Shu
- Yuan Shao
- Sun Ce
- Sun Quan
I think Liu Bei still finds Zhuge Liang and, given Yuan's power in the north, Liang comes up with a similar version of his Longshan plan. When Liu Biao dies Yuan Shao and Shu may come on the offensive, but they aren't nearly as wily and seamless in their actions and fighting as Cao Cao, so whether Liu Zong surrenders again is in question. It is true, however, that Shao had many, many men. So, I think we see this: Liu Bei, who is nominally backing Liu Zong and Liu Qi in Jing province, joins forces with Wu again, though this time he has many more soldiers and officers than he did in real life, and they drive off Yuan Shao. Now, Cao Cao clearly suffered a striking defeat at Chibi, possibly in two different locations, but the marsh sickness was the major reason why he decided to heed the better part of valor. I think Shao and Shu's troops get sick as well but they are not as forward-thinking as Cao Cao and they end up getting beat terribly in the confrontation with Bei and Quan. They flee northward, Liu Bei has total possession of Jing north of the river, the defense of their father's homeland convinces the anti-Bei party in Jing to get over it, and both Bei and Wu are secure. Since Liu Bei has northern Jing as his base, he agrees to cede the southern commanderies to Wu despite Biao having nominally had control over the whole shebang (Biao's ability to hold the southern commanderies in check was hit-and-miss).
Bei then moves west, as normal, leaving Liu Qi (providing he lives longer this time) and Zong to handle Jing, with the historical backup forces he left in reality, only more secure and more men. However, because the Yuan got sledgehammered at our Chibi replacement, they are far weaker now than Cao Cao was. Sun Quan attacks Hefei and is successful, Liu Bei takes Hanzhong and Guan Yu seizes Fan castle.
At this point its a race to see who takes the Yuan out. I think either Liu Bei or Wu could have done it, that's how much worse the Yuan were than Cao Cao in terms of strategy, defense and military things in general. Yuan Shu and Shao may start squabbling amongst themselves, as Shao's kids did in reality, and basically whoever is able to knock them out first has got the show won because they have the other kingdom surrounded.
The only exception would be if Shu and Wu continued their joint attacks and ended up carving up the Yuan lands between them, thus forming a kind of Yin-Yang shaped division. Then we have Marginally-Less-Romantic Two Kingdoms and that could be a stalemate that lasted for awhile. Both were plenty capable with, at this time, a lot of talented men on the battlefield and in administration, and they would have absorbed a lot more as they overcame the Yuan. Shu would be at a slight disadvantage because, depending on how far their 'crescent' extends on the northern border they've got Xiongnu and other fun times ahead of them. Wu is sitting rather pretty, with only the weak, southern tribes to handle, but Shu probably has more of the powerful north-central region.
Yup, those are two divisions that could be sitting there for a long, long time. Instead of being reunified for about 100 years or so under Jin, the nation could have remained fragmented for even longer.
Last edited by Liu Yuante
on Sun Feb 05, 2006 3:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.