Jian'an (196–220, the reign of the last Han emperor) and the Three Kingdoms (220–65, the tripartite division of China among the states of Wei, Shu, and Wu) are often associated with opposite images: Jian'an brings to mind an age of cultural flourishing, whereas the Three Kingdoms recalls the infighting of warlords. In The Halberd at Red Cliff, Xiaofei Tian vividly presents how those associations were gradually constructed over the centuries. This book, consisting of three parts, is both engaging and enlightening.

Part one focuses on the Jian'an period, with the first chapter tracing “the creation of the literary era of Jian'an as itself a literary construction” (p. 12). This construction, Tian shows, began with Crown Prince Cao Pi's (187–226) memorialization of his deceased friends in different writings, especially his “Discourse on Literature” and letter to Wu Zhi (177–230), both of which prove that the merry gathering defining the literary...

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