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The Three Kingdoms period ( ) is a period in the history of China, part of an era of disunity called the Six Dynasties following immediately the loss of de facto power of the Han Dynasty emperors. In a strict academic sense it refers to the period between the foundation of the Wei in 220 and the conquest of the Wu by the Jin Dynasty in 280. However, many Chinese historians and laymen extend the starting point of this period back to the uprising of the Yellow Turbans in 184.

The three kingdoms were Wèi (), Shǔ (), and (). To help further distinguish these states from other historical Chinese states of the same name, historians add a relevant character: Wei is also known as Cáo Wèi (曹魏), Shu is also known as Shǔ Hàn (蜀漢), and Wu is also known as Dōng Wú or Eastern Wu (東吳). The term Three Kingdoms itself is somewhat of a mistranslation, since each state was eventually headed not by kings, but by an emperor who claimed legitimate succession from the Han Dynasty. Although the translation Three Empires is more contextually accurate, the term Three Kingdoms has become standard among sinologists.

The earlier, "unofficial" part of the period, from 184 to 220, was marked by chaotic infighting between warlords in various parts of Chinamarker. The middle part of the period, from 220 and 263, was marked by a more militarily stable arrangement between three rival states, Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The later part of this period was marked by the collapse of the tripartite situation: first the destruction of Shu by Wei (263), then the overthrow of Wei by the Jin Dynasty (265), and the destruction of Wu by Jin (280).

Although relatively short, this historical period has been greatly romanticised in the cultures of Chinamarker, Japanmarker, Koreamarker, and Vietnammarker. It has been celebrated and popularised in operas, folk stories, novels and in more recent times, films, television serials, and video games. The best known of these is undoubtedly the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fictional account of the period which draws heavily on history. The authoritative historical record of the era is Chen Shou's Sanguo Zhi, along with Pei Songzhi's later annotations of the text.

The Three Kingdoms period was one of the bloodiest in Chinese history. A population census during the late Eastern Han Dynasty reported a population of approximately 50 million, while a population census during the early Western Jin Dynasty (after Jin re-unified China) reported a population of approximately 16 million.However, the Jin dynasty's census was far less complete than the Han census, so these figures are in question. Even after taking into account the possible inaccuracies of these census reports, the fact a large percentage of the population was wiped out during this period of constant war is beyond doubt.

Technology advanced significantly during this period.Zhuge Liang invented the wooden ox, suggested to be an early form of the wheelbarrow.A brilliant mechanical engineer known as Ma Jun, in the Kingdom of Wei, is considered by many to be as brilliant as his predecessor Zhang Heng. He invented a hydraulic-powered, mechanical puppet theatre designed for Emperor Ming of Wei (Cao Rui), square-pallet chain pumps for irrigation of gardens in Luoyangmarker, and the ingenious design of the South Pointing Chariot, a non-magnetic directional compass operated by differential gears.

Collapse of dynastic power

The Three Kingdoms in 262, on the eve of the conquest of Shu.
What is traditionally thought of as the beginning of the "unofficial" Three Kingdoms Period is the Yellow Turban Rebellion led by Zhang Jiao in 184. The year long revolt devastated northern China, as Zhang's religious sect, the Way of Peace, battled the weakened Han Empire, whose army was led by He Jin. The Way of Peace was primarily composed of farmers who had suffered greatly under the corrupt government system and thus easily converted by Zhang Jiao to create a "new and peaceful world." The rebellion ended when Zhang Jiao died of illness, but the chaos the rebellion wrought, when combined with the natural disasters that had overrun China in the same period, destabilized the Han Dynasty and doomed it to fall. The rebellion also caused the central government to increase the allowance of military power of the local governments, which is one of the causes of the warring period that followed.

The series of events leading to the collapse of dynastic power and the rise of Cáo Cāo are extremely complex. The death of Emperor Ling in May 189 led to an unstable regency under General-in-chief He Jin and renewed rivalry between the factions of the eunuchs and regular civil bureaucracy. Following the assassination of He Jin, his chief ally the Colonel-Lieutenant of Retainers Yuan Shao led a massacre of the eunuchs in the imperial palaces in Luoyangmarker. This event prompted the invitation of frontier general Dong Zhuo to enter Luoyang from the northwest boundary of China. At the time China faced the powerful barbarians of Qiang tribe to the northwest, and thus Dong Zhuo controlled a large army with elite training. When he brought the army to Luoyang, he was able to easily overpower the existing armies of both sides and took control of the imperial court, ushering in a period of civil war across China.

Dong Zhuo then manipulated the succession so that the future Emperor Xian could take the throne in lieu of his elder half-brother. Dong Zhuo, while ambitious, genuinely wished for a more capable emperor. On his way to Luoyang, he encountered a small band of soldiers protecting the two sons of Emperor Ling fleeing the war zone. In the encounter Dong Zhuo acted arrogantly and threateningly, causing the elder half-brother to be paralyzed with fear; the younger brother, the future Emperor Xian, responded calmly with authority and commanded Dong Zhuo to protect the royal family with his army to return to the Imperial Court.

While Dong Zhuo originally wanted to re-establish the authority of Han Empire and manage all the political conflict properly, his political capability proved to be much worse than his military leadership. His behaviour grew more and more violent and authoritarian, executing or sending into exile all that opposed him, and showed less and less respect to the Emperor. He ignored all royal etiquette and frequently carried open weapons into the imperial court. In 190 a coalition led by Yuan Shao was formed between nearly all the provincial authorities in the eastern provinces of the empire against Dong Zhuo. The mounting pressure from repeated defeat on the southern frontline against the Sun Jian forces drove the Han Emperor and later Dong Zhuo himself west to Chang'anmarker in May 191.

Dong Zhuo once again demonstrated his political shortcomings by forcing millions of residents of Luoyang to migrate to Chang'an. He then set fire to Luoyang, preventing occupation by his enemies and destroying the biggest city in China at that time. In addition, he ordered his army to slaughter a whole village of civilians. The soldiers beheaded the civilians and carried their heads into Chang'an to show off as war trophies, pretending to have had a great victory against his enemies. A year later Dong Zhuo was killed in a coup d'etat by Wang Yun and Lü Bu.

Rise of Cao Cao

In 191, there was some talk among the coalition of appointing Liu Yu, an imperial relative, as emperor, and gradually its members began to fall out. Most of the warlords in the coalition, with a few exceptions, sought the increase of personal military power in the time of instability instead of seriously wishing to restore the Han Dynasty's authority. The Han empire was divided between a number of regional warlords. Yuan Shao occupied the northern area of Ye and extended his power, by taking over his superior Han Fu with trickery and intimidation, north of the Yellow Rivermarker against Gongsun Zan, who held the northern frontier. Cáo Cāo, directly to Yuan's south, was engaged in a struggle against Yuan Shu and Liu Biao, who occupied respectively the Huai River basin and Middle Yangzi regions. Further south the young warlord Sun Ce, taking over after the untimely death of Sun Jian, was establishing his rule in the Lower Yangzi, albeit as a subordinate of Yuan Shu. In the west, Liu Zhang held Yizhou province while Hanzhongmarker and the northwest were controlled by a motley collection of smaller warlords such as Ma Teng of Xiliang, the original post of Dong Zhuo.

Dong Zhuo, confident in his success, was slain by his own adopted son, Lü Bu and his father-in-law Wang Yun. Lü Bu, in turn, was attacked by Dong Zhuo's supporters: Li Jue, Guo Si, Zhang Ji (Zhang Xiu's Uncle) and Fan Chou. Wang Yun and his whole family were executed. Lu fled to Zhang Yang, a northern warlord, and remained with him for a time before briefly joining Yuan Shao, but it was clear that Lü Bu was far too independent to serve another.

In August 195, Emperor Xian fled the tyranny of Li Jue at Chang'an and made a year long hazardous journey east in search of supporters. By 196, when he was received by Cao Cao, most of the smaller contenders for power had either been absorbed by larger ones or destroyed. This was an extremely important move for Cao Cao following the suggestion from his primary advisor, Xun Yu, commenting that by supporting the authentic Emperor, Cao Cao would have the formal legal authority to control the other warlords and force them to comply in order to restore the Han dynasty.

Cao Cao, whose zone of control was the precursor to the Kingdom of Wei, had raised an army in the winter of 189. In several strategic movements and battles, he controlled the Dui province and defeated several factions of the Yellow Turban rebels. This earned him the aid of other local militaries controlled by Zhang Miao and Chen Gong, who joined his cause to create his first sizeable army. He continued the effort and absorbed approximately 300,000 Yellow Turbans into his army as well as a number of clan-based military groups from the eastern side of Qing province. In 196 he established an imperial court at Xuchangmarker and developed military agricultural colonies (tuntian) to support his army. Although the system imposed a heavy tax on hired civilian farmers (40% to 60% of agricultural production), the farmers were more than pleased to be able to work with relative stability and professional military protection in a time of chaos. This was later said to be his second important policy for success.

In 194, Cao Cao went to war with Tao Qian of Xuzhoumarker, whose officers had executed his whole family. Tao Qian received the support of Liu Bei and Gongsun Zan, but even then it seemed as if Cao Cao's superior forces would overrun Xuzhou entirely. However, Cao Cao received word that Lü Bu had seized Yan province in Cao Cao's absence, and accordingly he retreated, putting a halt to hostilities with Tao Qian for the time being. Tao Qian died that same year, leaving his province to Liu Bei. A year later, in 195, Cao Cao managed to drive Lü Bu out of Yan. Lu Bu fled to Xuzhou and was received by Liu Bei, and an uneasy alliance began between the two.

In the south, Sun Ce, then an independent general under the service of Yuan Shu, defeated the warlords of Yangzhoumarker, including Liu Yao, Wang Lang, and Yan Baihu. The speed with which Sun Ce accomplished his conquests led to his nickname, "Little Conqueror" (小霸王), a reference to the late Xiang Yu. In 197, Yuan Shu, who was at odds with Cao Cao, Yuan Shao, and Liu Bei, felt assured of victory with his subordinate's conquests, and thus declared himself emperor of the Cheng Dynasty. The move, however, was a strategic blunder, as it drew the ire of many warlords across the land, including Yuan Shu's own subordinate Sun Ce, who had advised Yuan Shu not to make such a move. Cao Cao issued orders to Sun Ce to attack Yuan Shu. Sun Ce complied, but first convinced Cao Cao to form a coalition against Yuan Shu, of which Liu Bei and Lü Bu were members. Attacked on all sides, Yuan Shu was defeated and fled into hiding.

Afterwards, Lü Bu betrayed Liu Bei and seized Xuzhou, forming an alliance with Yuan Shu's remnant forces. Liu Bei fled to Cao Cao, who accepted him. Soon, preparations were made for an attack on Lü Bu, and the combined forces of Cao Cao and Liu Bei besieged Xia Pi. Lü Bu's officers deserted him, Yuan Shu's forces never arrived as reinforcements, and he was bound by his own officers Song Xian and Wei Xu and executed along with many of his officers. Thus, the man known as the mightiest warrior in the land was no more.

In 200, Dong Cheng, an officer of the Imperial Court, received a secret edict from the Emperor to assassinate Cao Cao. He collaborated with Liu Bei on this effort, but Cao Cao soon found out about the plot and had Dong Cheng and his co-conspirators executed, with only Liu Bei surviving and fleeing to the Yuan Shao in the north.

After settling the nearby provinces, including a rebellion led by former Yellow Turbans, and internal affairs with the court, Cao Cao turned his attention north to Yuan Shao, who himself had eliminated his northern rival Gongsun Zan that same year. Yuan Shao, himself of higher nobility than Cao Cao, amassed a large army and camped along the northern bank of the Yellow river.

In 200, after winning a decisive battle against Liu Biao at Shaxian and putting down the rebellions of Xu Gong and others, Sun Ce was struck by an arrow and fatally wounded. On his deathbed, he named his younger brother, Sun Quan, as his heir.

Following months of planning, Cao Cao and Yuan Shao met in force at Guandumarker. Overcoming Yuan's superior numbers, Cao Cao decisively defeated him by setting fire to his supplies, and in doing so crippled the northern army. Liu Bei fled to Liu Biao of Jing province, and many of Yuan Shao's forces were destroyed. In 202, Cao Cao took advantage of Yuan Shao's death and the resulting division among his sons to advance north of the Yellow River. He captured Ye in 204 and occupied the provinces of Ji, Bing, Qing and You. By the end of 207, after a lightning campaign against the Wuhuan barbarians, Cao Cao had achieved undisputed dominance of the North China Plain.

Red Cliffs and its aftermath

Traditional site of Red Cliffs.
In 208, Cao Cao marched south with his army hoping to quickly unify the empire. Liu Biao's son Liu Cong surrendered the province of Jing and Cao was able to capture a sizeable fleet at Jiangling. Sun Quan, the successor to Sun Ce in the Lower Yangzi, continued to resist however. His advisor Lu Su secured an alliance with Liu Bei, himself a recent refugee from the north, and Sun Ce's sworn brother Zhou Yu was placed in command of Sun Quan's navy, along with a veteran officer of the Sun family, Cheng Pu. Their combined armies of 50,000 met Cao Cao's fleet and 200,000-strong force at Red Cliffsmarker (Chinese: 赤壁 Chi Bimarker) that winter. After an initial skirmish, an attack beginning with a plan to set fire to Cao Cao's fleet was set in motion to lead to the decisive defeat of Cao Cao, forcing him to retreat in disarray back to the north. The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, and provided the basis for the states of Shu and Wu.

After his return to the north, Cao Cao contented himself with absorbing the northwestern regions in 211 and consolidating his power. He progressively increased his titles and power, eventually becoming the Prince of Wei in 217, a title bestowed upon him by the puppet Han emperor that he controlled. Liu Bei, having defeated the weak Jing warlords Han Xuan, Jin Xuan, Zhao Fan, and Liu Du, entered Yi province and later in 214 displaced Liu Zhang as ruler, leaving his commander Guan Yu in charge of Jing province. Sun Quan, who had in the intervening years being engaged with defenses against Cao Cao in the southeast at Hefeimarker, now turned his attention to Jing province and the Middle Yangzi. Tensions between the allies were increasingly visible. In 219, after Liu Bei successfully seized Hanzhong from Cao Cao and as Guan Yu was engaged in the siege of Fan, Sun Quan's commander-in-chief Lu Meng secretly seized Jing province, and his forces captured and slew Guan Yu.

Three emperors

In the first month of 220, Cao Cao died and in the tenth month his son Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to abdicate, thus ending the Han Dynasty. He named his state Wei and made himself emperor at Luoyang. In 221, Liu Bei named himself Emperor of Han, in a bid to restore the fallen Han dynasty. (His state is known to history as "Shu" or "Shu Han".) In the same year, Wei bestowed on Sun Quan the title of King of Wu. A year later, Shu Han troops declared war on Wu and met the Wu armies at the Battle of Yiling. At Yiling, Liu Bei was disastrously defeated by Sun Quan's commander Lu Xun and forced to retreat back to Shu, where he died soon afterward. After the death of Liu Bei, Shu and Wu resumed friendly relations at the expense of Wei, thus stabilizing the tripartite configuration. In 222, Sun Quan renounced his recognition of Cao Pi's regime and, in 229, he declared himself emperor at Wuchang.

Dominion of the north completely belonged to Wei, whilst Shu occupied the southwest and Wu the central south and east. The external borders of the states were generally limited to the extent of Chinese civilization. For example, the political control of Shu on its southern frontier was limited by the Tai tribes of modern Yunnanmarker and Burmamarker, known collectively as the Southern Barbarians (南蠻).


The population could be derived from the official record of Chen Shou's Sanguo Zhi. In terms of manpower, the Wei was by far the largest, retaining more than 660,000 households and 4,400,000 people within its borders(263). Shu had a population of 940,000(263), and Wu 2,300,000(280).The total population of Three Kingdoms was about one-tenth that of the late Eastern Han Dynasty.Thus, Wei had more than 58% of the population and around 40% of territory. With these resources, it is estimated that it could raise an army of 440,000 while Shu and Wu could manage 100,000 and 230,000. The Wu-Shu alliance against the Wei proved itself to be a militarily stable configuration; the basic borders of the Three Kingdoms remained almost unchanged for more than forty years.

Trade and transport

In economic terms the division of the Three Kingdoms reflected a reality that long endured. Even in the Northern Song, seven hundred years after the Three Kingdoms, it was possible to think of China as being composed of three great regional markets. (The status of the northwest was slightly ambivalent, as it had links with the northern region and Sichuanmarker). These geographical divisions are underscored by the fact that the main communication routes between the three main regions were all man-made: the Grand Canal linking north and south, the hauling-way through the Three Gorgesmarker of the Yangzi linking southern China with Sichuan and the gallery roads joining Sichuan with the northwest. The break into three separate entities was quite natural and even anticipated by such political foresight as that of Zhuge Liang (see Longzhong Plan).


In 223 Liu Shan rose to the throne of Shu following his father's defeat and death. The defeat of Liu Bei at Yiling ended the period of hostility between Wu and Shu and both used the opportunity to concentrate on internal problems and the external enemy of Wei. For Sun Quan, the victory terminated his fears of Shu expansion into Jing province and he turned to the aborigines of the southeast, whom the Chinese collectively called the "Shanyue" peoples (see Yue). A collection of successes against the rebellious tribesmen culminated in the victory of 234. In that year Zhuge Ke ended a three year siege of Danyang with the surrender of 100,000 Shanyue. Of these, 40,000 were drafted as auxiliaries into the Wu army. Meanwhile Shu was also experiencing troubles with the indigenous tribes of their south. The Southwestern Nanman peoples rose in revolt against Han authority, captured and looted the city of Yizhou. Zhuge Liang, recognising the importance of stability in the south, ordered the advance of the Shu armies in three columns against the Nanman. He fought a number of engagements against the chieftain Meng Huo, at the end of which Meng submitted. A tribesman was allowed to reside at the Shu capital Chengdumarker as an official and the Nanman formed their own battalions within the Shu army.

Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions

At the end of Zhuge Liang's southern campaign, the Wu-Shu alliance came to fruition and Shu was free to move against the north. In 227 Zhuge Liang transferred his main Shu armies to Hanzhongmarker, and opened up the battle for the northwest with Wei. The next year, he ordered the general Zhao Yun to attack from Ji Gorge as a diversion while Zhuge himself led the main force to Qishan. The vanguard Ma Su, however, suffered a tactical defeat at Jieting and the Shu army was forced to withdraw. In the next six years Zhuge Liang attempted several more offensives, but supply problems limited the capacity for success. In 234 he led his last great northern offensive, reaching the Battle of Wuzhang Plains south of the Wei Rivermarker. Due to the death of Zhuge Liang (234 AD), however, the Shu army was forced once again to withdraw, but were pursued by Wei. The Shu forces began to withdraw; Sima Yi deduced Zhuge's demise and ordered an attack. Shu struck back almost immediately, causing Sima Yi to second guess and allow Shu to withdraw successfully.

Wu and development of the south

In the times of Zhuge Liang's great northern offensives, the state of Wu had always been on the defensive against invasions from the north. The area around Hefeimarker was the scene of many bitter battles and under constant pressure from Wei after the Battle of Red Cliffs. Warfare had grown so intense that many of the residents chose to migrate and resettle south of the Yangzi. After Zhuge Liang's death, attacks on the Huainan region intensified but nonetheless, Wei could not break through the line of the river defenses erected by Wu, which included the Ruxu fortress.

Sun Quan's long reign is regarded as a time of plenty for his southern state. Migrations from the north and the settlement of the Shanyue increased manpower for agriculture, especially along the lower reaches of the Yangzi and in Kuaiji commandery. River transport blossomed, with the construction of the Zhedong and Jiangnan canals. Trade with Shu flourished, with a huge influx of Shu cotton and the development of celadon and metal industries. Ocean transport was improved to such an extent that sea journeys were made to Manchuria and the island of Taiwanmarker. In the south, Wu merchants reached Linyi (southern Vietnammarker) and Fu'nan (Cambodiamarker). As the economy prospered, so too did the arts and culture. In the Yangzi delta, the first Buddhist influences reached the south from Luoyang. (See Buddhism in China)

Decline and end of the Three Kingdoms

From the late 230s tensions began to become visible between the imperial Cao clan and the Sima clan. Following the death of Cao Zhen, factionalism was evident between Cao Shuang and the Grand Commander Sima Yi. In deliberations, Cao Shuang placed his own supporters in important posts and excluded Sima, whom he regarded as a threat. The power of the Sima clan, one of the great landowning families of the Han, was bolstered by Sima Yi's military victories. Additionally, Sima Yi was an extremely capable strategist and politician. In 238 he crushed the rebellion of Gongsun Yuan and brought the Liaodong region directly under central control. Ultimately, he outmaneuvered Cao Shuang in power play. Taking advantage of an excursion by the imperial clansmen to the Gaoping tombs, Sima undertook a putsch in Luoyang, forcing Cao Shuang's faction from authority. Many protested against the overwhelming power of the Sima family; notable among these were the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. One of the sages, Xi Kang, was executed as part of the purges after Cao Shuang's downfall.

Fall of Shu

The decreasing strength of the Cao clan was mirrored by the decline of Shu. After Zhuge Liang's death, his position as Lieutenant Chancellor fell to Jiang Wan, Fei Yi and Dong Yun, in that order. But after 258, Shu politics became increasingly controlled by the eunuch faction and corruption rose. Despite the energetic efforts of Jiang Wei, Zhuge's protege, Shu was unable to secure any decisive achievement. In 263, Wei launched a three-pronged attack and the Shu army was forced into general retreat from Hanzhong. Jiang Wei hurriedly held a position at Jian'ge but he was outflanked by the Wei commander Deng Ai, who force-marched his army from Yinping through territory formerly considered impassable. By the winter of the year, the capital Chengdu fell due to the strategic invasion of Wei by Deng Ai who invaded Chengdu personally. The emperor Liu Shan thus surrendered. The state of Shu had come to an end after forty-three years.

Fall of Wei

Cao Huan succeeded to the throne in 260 after Cao Mao was killed by Sima Zhao. Soon after, Sima Zhao died and his title as Lord of Jin was inherited by his son Sima Yan. Sima Yan immediately began plotting to become Emperor but faced stiff opposition. However, due to advice from his advisors, Cao Huan decided the best course of action would be to abdicate, unlike his predecessor Cao Mao. Sima Yan seized the throne in 264 after forcing Cao Huan's abdication, effectively overthrowing the Wei Dynasty and establishing the successor Jin Dynasty. This situation was similar to the deposal of Emperor Xian of the Han Dynasty by Cao Pi, the founder of the Wei Dynasty.

Fall of Wu

Following Sun Quan's death and the ascension of the young Sun Liang as emperor in 252, the kingdom of Wu went into a period of steady decline. Successful Wei suppression of rebellions in the Huainan region by Sima Zhao and Sima Shi reduced any opportunity of Wu influence. The fall of Shu signalled a change in Wei politics. After Liu Shan surrendered to Wei, Sima Yan (grandson of Sima Yi), overthrew the Wei emperor and proclaimed his own dynasty of Jin in 264, ending forty-six years of Cao dominion in the north. After Jin's rise, Emperor Sun Xiu of Wu died, and his ministers gave the throne to Sun Hao. Sun Hao was a promising young man, but upon ascension he became a tyrant, killing or exiling all who dared oppose him in the court. In 269 Yang Hu, Jin commander in the south, started preparing for the invasion of Wu by ordering the construction of a fleet and the training of marines in Sichuan under Wang Jun. Four years later, Lu Kang, the last great general of Wu, died leaving no competent successor. The planned Jin offensive finally came in the winter of 279. Sima Yan launched five simultaneous offensives along the Yangzi River from Jianye to Jiangling whilst the Sichuanmarker fleet sailed downriver to Jing province. Under the strain of such an enormous attack, the Wu forces collapsed and Jianye fell in the third month of 280. Emperor Sun Hao surrendered and was given a fiefdom on which to live out his days. This marked the end of the Three Kingdoms era, and the beginning of a break in the forthcoming 300 years of chaos.

The Three Kingdoms in popular culture

Numerous people and affairs from the period later became Chinese legends. The most complete and influential example is the historical fiction Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong during the Ming dynastymarker. Fictional accounts of the Three Kingdoms, mostly based on the Romance, play a significant role in East Asian popular culture. Books, TV serials, movies, cartoons, games, and music on the topic are still regularly produced in China, Taiwan, and Japan.

See also


  1. Chinaknowledge, Chinese History - Three Kingdoms


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