Three Yuan's and a Gao

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Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Fri Feb 08, 2019 6:25 pm

Intro: Yuan Shao left behind him three sons and a nephew with their own bases and a disputed succession. Yuan Tan (Xiansi) who would govern Qing, Yuan Xi (Xianyi) of You, Yuan Shang (Xianfu) who would claim succession and Gao Gan (Yuancai) of Bing. Their infighting saw the end of a proud clan but why did they do so and how capable were they?

Sources: Will be using ZZTJ, Professor De Crespigny’s works like Imperial Warlord, his encyclopedia as mainstay. Also using Xuesanguo’s translation of the Yuan children SGZ

Thanks to Daolun, Jiuyangda (particularly on the Shen Pei letter passage) and Zirroxas for their help and their patience.



We know little of their early lives, we know not when they were born, if any of them shared the same mother. The Yuan brothers three were born to probably the wealthiest and most prestigious family in all the land, generations after generations of scholars and politicians who reached the highest ranks possible, enjoying the wealth of Ruyang basin in Runan. Their grandparent Yuan Feng (and his brother Yuan Wei) had, via a clever alliance with eunuch Yuan She, made the Yuan clan the wealthiest in the capital. Their father Shao was a leading figure of his generation at the capital, people flocked to him as he wandered the capital as a gang leader, roved the countryside with knight-errants or served in the Han ranks.

During this time, the children would have had the best education money (and extensive patronage to call upon) Shao could get them. The Yuan family were not shy about flaunting their wealth and the kids may have lived in great luxury but the momentous events of 189 and 190, starting with the death of Emperor Ling, would change the course of their lives and likely made their childhood rather less pleasant. Yuan Shao pushed the new government to eradicate the eunuchs, culminating in the assassination of He Jin, the massacre of the eunuchs (and others), the imperial family in flight and the palace ablaze before Dong Zhuo arrived to take control. Yuan Shao sought to retain his influence but after a heated meeting about Dong Zhuo’s plans to change Emperor, Yuan Shao fled north.

The Yuan family all seem to have been at the capital (and were later executed), it is possible that till Shao fled, the family remained at the capital where they would have seen the fires of Mengjin and the palace, the tension as the Yuan family played a desperate game to ensure victory. If they were at the capital, Dong Zhuo seems to have decided to leave Shao’s family to go free for sake of keeping the Yuan clan onside rather then try to seize them as hostages. It is possible Shao’s woman and children were moved out to a safer area as armies were summoned by He Jin to the capital, just in case, but I suspect they were at the capital. Either way, I wonder what the children were aware of as things spiraled out of control and how they felt suddenly being taken north.

It is hard to know how much wealth Shao had access to in his new base of Bohai, Dong Zhuo was not likely to have been willing to release family funds from the capital or allow funds from Runan to go north even before he wiped out the family. Add the costs of raising and maintaining an army and the siblings were likely, though far from poverty, facing some come down in standard of living.

At some point before the autumn of 191, Yuan Shao sent his family to Yan province under the care of it’s Inspector Liu Dai. This could have been as soon as Yuan Shao reached Bohai and was raising troops against the government or when he began to try and bluff Han Fu for Ji, both gambles with a potentially high price if he lost. Liu Dai was a friend and ally of Yuan Shao’s, a man popular with his people, of esteemed family who would know the education to be expected and ensure they were well looked after. Yan also wasn’t too far away from Yuan Shao, though it is questionable he had time to visit his family, it may have provided some comfort to be so close, and fairly peaceful. Separated from their father who they might never seen again, under the care of another, away from the glamour of the capital and less wealthy, this can’t have been a great time for the family.

Yuan Shao was not entirely without relatives, he had a nephew in Ji called Gao Gan from a Chenliu family. His father Gong had held administrative post in Shu in the 70’s and his mother was Shao’s sister, his grandfather Ci had to bribe Liang Ji after accusations of corruption (Ci’s well regarded father Shen decided reputation for honesty was best heritage and left them no property) and held rank as Director of Retainers. The Gao’s were one of the gentry, capable of reaching high rank as grandfather had and being able to have ties with the Yuan’s suggests they had some worth as a clan to ally with. Gao Gan likely had a good education and a good standard of living though, like the Yuan’s, we know little of his youth.

Gao Gan would prove very useful in early days in Ji when Yuan Shao, following the excellent plan of Pang Ji, sought to take Ji by bluff in 191 before his supplies completely collapsed, he picked his delegation carefully. He selected people who were not associated with the Yuan cause, those who Han Fu trusted and would be seen as on his side when they urged him to surrender to his “ally” Yuan Shao. Gao Gan was selected, he isn’t specifically mentioned as one of those friends, but he was part of the team who successfully persuaded Han Fu that the best route for his survival in a difficult situation was to hand over Ji. This gave Yuan Shao a prosperous province without a fight and made Yuan Shao one of the major powers in the opening years of the civil war with the resources he now had.

From the selection of Gao Gan for this task that Yuan Shao could not afford to go wrong, we might be able to assume two things. 1) That despite being Yuan Shao’s nephew, Gao Gan was not seen as close to Yuan Shao or the Gao’s were not seen as strongly tied to the Yuan clan. Else Gao Gan being part of the delegation would have risked Han Fu working out who was behind all this. 2) Gao Gan was probably Han Fu’s friend, otherwise he is the odd man out of the delegation and again a strange choice if not friend. Most of Han Fu’s friends were from prominent Yingchuan families, it is possible Gao Gan’s had mingled with those from the neighboring area and they knew each from there, that Gao Gan was seen as another of those gentry families who had gone north to flee the civil war. If they didn’t know each other from before they were in Ji, it might be Gao Gan was seen as someone from close to home and the type of talent Han Fu wished to seek out to support his still new regime. However, like the others in that delegation, Gao Gan proved to be a false friend.

Gao Gan was taken into Yuan service, he isn’t listed in the Yuan promotions that followed becoming Governor of Ji but I would assume Gao Gan got something, even if just a promise of something more later. Gao Gan was noted to be ambitious, I’m not sure he would have been too pleased to have helped and got nothing with no sign of future advancement. I also doubt this adult nephew would have been filling the hole left for Yuan Shao by his family being away and growing up without him.

The Yuan siblings and their mothers faced a real threat in Yan during the latter half of 191, when Gongsun Zan’s advance was causing panic in Ji and leaving Yuan Shao in a bad situation, Zan tried to use his strong position on his friend Liu Dai. He demanded Yuan Shao’s family be sent back to Yuan Shao, alliance with Yuan cancelled or Zan’s officer Fan Fang (who had been acting as a military officer for Liu Dai) would be recalled with implied threat of later return with army. Liu Dai did consider accepting these demands but was persuaded by Cheng Yu that Yuan Shao would win so best to maintain that alliance.

At some point before 193 the family were returned into the care of Yuan Shao. Possibly this was after Yuan Shao had driven Gongsun Zan out of Ji and he deemed it safe or later when Yan became dangerous. In 192 the Qingzhou Turbans came into the province and Liu Dai died in battle, Yuan Shao’s old friend Cao Cao took over (probably with Yuan Shao providing support to ensure the local officers picked the right man). Amidst the change and the violence, Yan was clearly no longer safe and Ji seemed more secure place for his family to reside.

After a few years apart, it must have been quite the moment for Shao himself, his sons and his ladies to be reunited at the walled city of Ye. It was also a change of status, now they no longer held status as guests, however well Liu Dai treated them, but as the family of the prestigious ruler of Ji at his seat of power. While they might never have the same wealth as old, they did have the resources of Ji to help fund their life while they would surely not need to leave, for fear of their lives, again but only for a moment of glory like Yuan Shao taking the capital. Yuan Shao had a strong army, many loyal officers and Ye, former capital of the state of Wei (even if it had fallen in status till Han Fu moved Ji’s capital from Changshan), had strong walls.

Alas in 193, though Yuan Tan was elsewhere, they would receive a mighty shock. While Yuan Shao was away holding a military council, the soldiers in the area mutinied, allying with Black Mountain Bandits under “Poison” Yu Du and with support of Li Jue’s appointed Governor of Ji Hu Shou. What local forces remained were defeated, Yuan Shao’s Administrator of Wei Li Pan and Administrator of Ye Li Cheng were killed and Yuan Shao’s capital was seized. According to Wang Can’s account, bandit leader Tao Sheng of Wei commandery, spotted what might happen and with his benevolent heart, acted quickly. First to enter the city through the west, he ensured his men seized the gates and other leaders troops couldn’t enter. Gathering up carriages, he took Yuan Shao’s family, the Yuan treasure, clothing with some other families of notable gentry and escorted them to Chiqiu where Yuan Shao was heading. There may well have been fighting to force them clear of the city and Tao Sheng was made a General in thanks for his service, Yuan Shao promptly gathered his armies and led an energetic campaign, seizing back his capital and marching through the mountains, breaking the power of the Black Mountain bandits.

I wonder if Tao Sheng was less doing this due to benevolent heart and more calculation, Yuan Shao was going to respond to this attack and if Yuan Shao was going to win then better to be the one who was the rescuer, get rewarded. We know some of those at Yuan Shao’s meeting wept when they had heard Ye fell, we know Yuan Shao kept his composure in the crises. We don’t know anything of how the ladies felt, how Xi as the eldest brother there or young Shang felt as the news of the mutiny reached them, the fall of the city with all the danger that was going to bring them, the (possibly violent) rescue. No doubt it was a huge relief to get to Yuan Shao safely but what longer term impact did this have on Xi and Shang? We will never get a sense of how this shaped them, or if they simply shrugged it off.


Service To The Family

Yuan Shao adopted a policy of giving command of his provinces or claimed provinces to his family, testing out their ability and giving them experience, ensuring command of key positions was loyal. It also meant he had lands and troops under men picked by blood rather then merit and concerns over the succession. So how did our grown up Yuan’s and Gao do?

1) Yuan Tan

The first confirmed name to be sent out, in 193 Yuan Tan was made Inspector of Qing but he was given a tricky task. The civil war had not treated Qing kindly, Jiao He’s eagerness to join the alliance against Dong Zhuo meant he pulled troops away from fighting Turbans and they proved difficult to dislodge. Yuan Shao’s selection of Zang Hong to take over proved effective in restoring order but the Qingzhou Turbans wanderings around the north meant the province lost a fair amount of manpower with them, let alone those lost in the chaos.

When Gongsun Zan attacked Ji in 191, he sent his general Tian Kai as an alternative inspector of Qing to take over Qing and the Gongsun forces were quite successful, by the time Yuan Tan arrived the Yuan forces had only Pingyuan on the Gongsun Zan side of the Yellow River. We don’t have much details of the campaign but Yuan Tan proved successful quickly, managing to end the run of defeats and stabilize (he probably came with reinforcements) the military situation. A truce was declared in 193 with both sides seizing on the arrival of Han envoy Zhao Qi, Yuan Tan had done enough to stop any sense of imminent victory there, both sides had wider concerns to deal with (Shao with the Black Mountain Bandits and Yuan Shu, Zan his unhappy lord Liu Yu) and Qing was in a state of famine after two years of constant warfare with raiding left the province to be said to be “without a blade of grass.” Both sides needed a chance to regroup and tend to their holdings in Qing.

In 195, war with Gongsun Zan erupted again as Liu Yu loyalists and tribes rebelled, Yuan Shao sought to take advantage and that included restarting war in Qing. Yuan Tan took the offensive and, with Zan’s main forces rather busy getting thrashed in You then going outright defensive, Tian Kai was driven back north and by 196, was forced to abandon Qing to flee to Zan’s fortress in Hejian. Yuan Tan wasn’t done yet as he marched east, the famed Kong Rong had claim via Liu Bei to be Inspector of Qing and held lands bordering Yuan Shao and Cao Cao so best Yuans had Beihai first. Kong Rong was...not an effective warlord and was diplomatically isolated, his troop numbers are said to have been considerably inferior to Yuan Tan’s while, during the siege of his capital, Kong Rong is said to have laid on his arm rest, reading and chatting. Kong Rong was still was observant enough to get out of the city, leaving behind his family, before Yuan Tan took the city in a night attack. By the summer of 196, all of Qing was under Yuan Tan.

It was said Yuan Tan was respected and honoured far and wide at this time, it can be overlooked the scale of achievement that made his name. Tian Kai had proved successful in Qing in the two years before Tan was appointed and the Yuan forces were having the worst of it, Yuan Tan managed to stop Tian Kai’s successes before the truce. After the truce ended, Yuan Tan had seized Qing by either end of year or very early on 196, driving out Tian Kai quite quickly and, while Kong Rong was not suited to military matters, it took Tan only months to take Beihai. Yuan Tan had not only shown he could fight someone like Tian Kai, he had shown ability to conquer with relative speed.

Yuan Tan being the eldest son and natural successor to Yuan Shao would have drawn attention to Tan anyway but his success had shown the future was bright. Yuan Tan was also noted to be charming, to have a good heart to the people but according to Jin historian Sima Biao in the Jiuzhou chunqiu, his popularity is said to have gone to his head, becoming excessively ambitious, of having “extravagant faults” while governing did not seem to be Tan’s strong point. He was said to have had little understanding of agricultural matters and of giving trust to petty corrupt men (De Crespigny’s encyclopedia describes them as clever but wicked) like Hua Yan and Kong Shun, beyond the complaint we know little of them, while not giving trust to likes of Attendant Official Wang Xiu [1]. This governance failure, arrogance and poor handling of his officer core caused Yuan Tan’s reputation to decline and may have caused some concern for Yuan Shao.

2) Yuan Xi

The middle son, the one history forgets. So much so that when Yuan Shao’s feelings towards his sons are discussed, he is noted to have loved Tan and Shang but Xi is never mentioned. This is usually in the context of discussing the rivals heirs and so Xi is left out, I don’t think this should be read as Shao not loving his middle son. Nothing is recorded of Xi’s personality, his abilities as a general or a governor, his record. A line saying “Yuan Xi liked meatbuns” would be a major advancement of our knowledge of him.

Often our understanding of the Yuan family, even of Shao himself, is fleshed out by annotations from men like Sima Bao or Wang Can. Yuan Shao as the big warlord of the north, Tan the once superstar and Shang as ruler battling each other, historians were interested in them but the seemingly passive Xi got overlooked. His marriage to Lady Zhen, wife of Cao Pi, may have also made Wei officials a tad less keen to really go into detail about his life.

Around 196, Yuan Xi was sent to You province which was not an easy task, a frontier province that often had to be subsidised by rest of China so not proving Xi with great resources while Yuan Shao only had a hold of part of You. The east was held by Gongsun Du’s clan, Zan still had Hejian fortress and some of the Yuan lands were held by allies like Xianyu Fu. It is also hard to know how much command Yuan Xi had of matters there, whereas Yuan Tan had a free hand in Qing, Yuan Shao’s star general Qu Yi among others led efforts against Hejian and eventually Yuan Shao himself would lead an army into You.

It is possible Yuan Xi was one of the unnamed generals who tried and failed against Gongsun Zan’s defences, it would be no embarrassment if he did as the Gongsun army was still formidable, the territory selected with care and the fortress a mighty one. If Qu Yi, the star general of the Yuan forces, failed then an inexperienced Yuan Xi failing is no surprise. It is possible Yuan Xi had control over the generals till Yuan Shao took over but even if true, I have to wonder if it was in name only given Qu Yi’s record and pride. It is also possible that Yuan Xi was kept out of the way to told to tend to his portion of You.

Yuan Xi, around 198, married into the gentry Zhen family of Zhongshan, a family with wealth and long history of service, but Lady Zhen seems to spent most of her time at Ye caring of her mother-in-law and where it was safe. We know little of their marriage, not unusual for the time and not something Wei wanted to dwell on.

3) Gao Gan

At some point, Gao Gan was given the chance to prove himself in the once frontier province of Bing, to try to restore it to some order after the Han had lost all such control before the collapse into civil war. It is possible this was as soon as 193 or it could have been at similar time to Xi around 196, which would surely have been frustrating for a man of Gan’s ambition

Having helped get Yuan Shao the province of Ji, Gao Gan brought over his cousin Rou, a future Wei excellency, and the rest of the Gao clan. Gao Gan was, according to Xie Cheng’s Houhanshu in Rou’s SGZ [2], “had talent and ambition great and profound, civil and military ability refined and exceptional”. He tried to become a patron of scholars so when the young, travelling scholar Zhongchang Tong was in Bing, Gao Gan invited him and treated him well. Zhongchang Tong [3] was always someone who could be rather blunt, telling Gao Gan "You seek to act as a hero, but you lack the talents. You show respect for scholars and gentlemen, but you choose the wrong men. I give you strong warning." Gao Gan was not said to be pleased.

With Yuan’s being the losing side and Bing a frontier post, we don’t get much information about his administration and historians don’t agree as to how much of Bing he ended up controlling, Carl Leban says all of Bing, De Crespigny in Imperial Warlords argues, when Gao Gan was fighting Cao Cao, his control was limited to “Shangdang, Taiyuan and perhaps Yanmen and the east of Xihe” which would have given Gao Gan a fair bit of the eastern and southern side of the province

With Bing lacking any unified authority for a few years, Gao Gan may have had to use diplomacy and force with a variety of local powers to get as far as he did. Why did a man of talent as high as claimed about Gao Gan failure to go further? Gao Gan may have had very limited resources to call upon, Bing was not likely to have been the first or second priority for Yuan Shao when there where resources and officers to be sent around, Gao Gan may have been forced to mainly rely on limited local resources. The Liang forces and Zhang Yan’s forces in Changshan may also have required Gao Gan to ensure he left strong defences for any raids that might come and taking care his own moves didn’t provoke an invasion.

4) Yuan Shang

Shang is not noted to have done anything at this time, even when Yuan Shao was outside of Ji. Yuan Shao didn’t have any new lands to send Shang to control but not being used in Ji would suggest Yuan Shang was still too young to be put in a position of real authority.



199-200 was the year where two old friends prepared then faced each other for a major battle for control of the north. Yuan Shao raised as large an army as possible, either arrogantly expecting to storm over Cao Cao’s small forces or in a desperate bid to reverse the deteriorating long term situation. The need for all the men Yuan Shao could get for his strike across the Yellow River would impact his governors.

1) Yuan Tan.

The eldest son was, with Qu Yi’s execution after the fall of Zan, one of Yuan Shao’s most famed generals while his province of Qing was on the front-line of both the early political manoeuvring and the war. Yuan Shu attempted to reach his not very beloved half-brother, Tan was sent into Xu to try to retrieve his uncle and Shu’s large following. Cao Cao dispatched forces to intercept and Yuan Shu was never able to make his way north to his estranged family. Liu Bei however later seized Xu and sought alliance with Yuan Shao, when Cao Cao struck quickly, it was Yuan Tan who greeted the fleeing Liu Bei.

This was mostly about simple position, two warlords seeking to flee through/from Xu with Qing the nearest safe harbour, if Yuan Tan was in You then he wouldn’t have been the man intended to meet them. It certainly was convenient, Yuan Tan’s education and his own charm meant he should be able to handle such first meetings while nobody could complain that they were being snubbed if their greeter was a man of such fame, lineage and the likely heir. In Liu Bei’s case, he had once recommended Yuan Tan as an Abundant Talent to court, presumably when Liu Bei was seeking Yuan Shao’s support for his takeover of Xu from the late Tao Qian, which might have made a better icebreaker compared to discussing Liu Bei having fought in Qing during Yuan Tan’s first few months there.

For the campaign itself, Cao Cao sent Zang Ba to attack and raid Qing which would likely have prevented Qing being able to send a lot of troops. That Yuan Tan was still summoned despite his province being under threat reflects the importance of the campaign but also the importance Shao must have attached to Yuan Tan’s military talents and experience. Yet the only times Yuan Tan is mentioned during the campaign itself includes being sent to escort the ailing scholar Zheng Xuan to Shao’s camp but he died on the way. Yuan Shao telling Tan he would seek to seize Cao Cao’s camp when news of Wuchou being attacked and when Yuan Shao’s army collapsed and Yuan Tan was one of the cavalryman that rode north with Shao to safety.

It is hard to imagine Qing was left without it’s commander so Yuan Tan could escort a scholar, however famed, with nothing else to do. It would seem Yuan Tan took part in the war councils of his father, he may have fought during the two months of siege but if he did, it is not recorded and he was not given notably independent command.

2) Yuan Xi

The preparations for Guandu arguably made Xi’s situation in You trickier then it had been. Zan was dead but Yuan troops were pulled away, from a province that long relied on others funding, to focus on the new main threat, likely including requiring Yuan Xi to send those not required for holding his lands. To make it worse, the once Yuan allies Xianyu Fu and Yan Rou turned to Cao Cao, giving Xi local rivals for power beyond the neutral Gongsun Du. Yan Rou’s switch of alliance may have caused doubt, given Yan Rou’s connections, over which way the Wuhuan would turn but Yuan Shao’s past diplomacy and friendship held the alliance firm at least.

The need for troops at Guandu may have left Xi with no real possibility of taking on Cao Cao’s new friends and it was not in the Yuan interest to seek a war with Gongsun clan to the east. However defensive Xi was required to be due to lack of resources, that Xianyu Fu managed to get to Guandu to meet Cao Cao may not have impressed his father and shows the weakness of Xi’s grip on his province.

3) Gao Gan

Like Xi, Gao Gan may have been required to send all troops he could without risking the security of his holdings in Bing. As well the usual concerns over Zhang Yan acting if Gao Gan stretched his forces too far, Gao Gan was likely aware of the growing problem to his south and west as Cao Cao’s agents Wei Ji and Zhang Yao worked to win over the capital region warlords and the Liang warlords respectively. He did recommend the well connected scholar Chang Lin [4] as Commandant of Cavalry but Chang Lin refused, like his uncle Shao he also tried to hire Zhang Zun [5] but Zun moved to Changshan to avoid that recruitment attempt.

4) Yuan Shang

The young of the four doesn’t seem to have been given a post, Ye was looked after by Shen Pei who was of powerful Ji family. This may have still been due to age and inexperience.

When Cao Cao moved against Liu Bei in Xu pre the main campaign, it is said Yuan Shao refused to strike at Cao Cao’s exposed rear, as Tian Feng wanted, due to one of his sons being ill. People tend to assume it was Yuan Shang due to Shao’s love and favour but Shao was known to love Yuan Tan as well and I would assume Shao had more love for Xi then the record writers mention. Still, whichever son was ill, is this a bid for dad of the era by Shao? Possibly not. Yuan Shao could have been reaching for an excuse to dismiss a flawed plan: Yuan army was still some time away from marching so forces might not have been ready to move while Yu Jin was attacking Yuan positions and causing disruption. Or the historians of Wei made the reasoning up, showing Yuan Shao the weak, the indecisive, a man ignoring great advice for a sick child. It is not a passage meant to be seen with approval.


Botched Succession

Guandu was a disaster for the Yuan forces, a lot of Shao’s best officers were dead or had changed sides, the army in the field disintegrated, Shao’s diplomatic efforts had been for naught. Cao Cao now had forces to the south, east and west of Yuan Shao’s positioning and was getting stronger, Yuan Shao was able to ensure Ji was secured after local revolts but his health was fading. At the time it was thought due to the shame and anger of losing but coughing up blood (if not a cliché) would suggest a lung problem and on 28 June 202, Shao passed away.

At least he left a smooth succession to give the Yuan clan their best chance? Alas no. Shao had long sought to test out his sons and see who would be best, at some point before Guandu he moved Tan from his own line to continue the line of a dead elder brother (Hu Sanxing suggests it was probably Yuan Cheng’s son line), technically ruling him out of succession. However despite his illness, Shao never quite got round to actually naming Shang as his heir before he died.

Why did Shao not just choose the eldest? A lot of warlords of his generation either chose a younger son or considered making the same move, intelligent, pragmatic figures all risking the same thing. The Han had, for a long time, had to choose an Emperor to replace one that had died due to lack of male heirs and when Emperor Ling did die with two sons, it was decided by a political battle that the He clan won to ensure their candidate beat Ling’s intended heir. Shao had become the chief Yuan of his generation via being moved across to another part of the Yuan line and that had worked, picking the best and most talented son rather then one by accident of for the heavy burden of rule has a certain logic. It has worked during times of peace, why not here when the need for great leadership was so vital? Of course, what happened with the Yuan’s would show why that didn’t work in practise.

Why not Yuan Tan? For all the eldest son’s popularity, reputation, skill as a general and charm, Tan’s choice of officers, falling out with some of Shao’s closest advisers and failures as a governor must have alarmed Shao. Picking the right officers would be important for the difficult task ahead and administration would need to be good, areas Tan had proven to have issues with. Shang meanwhile had support from Yuan Shao’s chief wife Lady Liu (though she does not seem to have been noted as Shang’s mother), Shang had some important support in Shao’s court and Shao liked what he saw of Shang. The handsome youth perhaps reminded the warlord of himself once and since he had never been tested, Shang’s failings hadn’t a chance to be shown.

There may also another factor to consider: that Shao had been, bar brief spells, separated from Yuan Tan for years as first the family separation then soon after their return Tan was dispatched to Qing. Meanwhile Shang had, bar a few years where family was kept away for safety, in Ye and growing up where Shao could be with him. Tan may have been a rather distant figure who had been shaped by others whereas Shang had at least had a chance to be moulded by Shao and to really build a relationship.

So why didn’t Shao actually make Shang his public heir? While Shao had taken measures to weaken Tan’s claim, perhaps that final step was just something he didn’t want to face. As people know they should write a will but never quite get around to this important task, not wishing to face their own morality and the unpleasantness of thinking what comes after you. There is always tomorrow, there is always just a bit more time….

By the end of July that year, there was no more time.


The Yuan Infighting Begins

With no chosen heir, Yuan Shao’s key officers were split and seem to have been for some time, to point that hatred had festered between the senior advisers. Yuan Tan had public support and expectation as he made his way from Qing, the sense of legitimacy as the elder son, senior commander Guo Tu and long serving Xin Ping, elder brother of Xin Pi. However Yuan Shang was in the capital, had the support of Lady Liu and those figures who Yuan Tan had fallen out with: powerful local figure Shen Pei and close strategist Pang Ji (sometimes called Feng Ji or Peng Ji).

Shang’s followers moved quickly as they forged a decree from the late warlord declaring Shang was heir and establishing him before Tan could arrive. Forging the succession is an extraordinary act, this from Shen Pei who was seen as an honest man, Pang Ji had once been an enemy of Shen Pei yet had defended him after Guandu and had been with Shao when things had seemed dire at the very start. Why would honest and loyal men usurp the succession?

Their motives are seen as Shen Pei and co feared Xin Ping and others would seek to harm them in revenge, this seem to speak ill of Xin Ping they feared him so while Shang’s supporters had sought to get Shen Pei sacked when Pei’s sons were captured at Guandu so their fears may have been legitimate. Fear is a powerful motivator but the records acknowledge Shao’s intended heir was Shang, the two former enemies may well have believed they were simply carrying out the intent and will of their late master even if he had never quite got round to it. I wonder if there is a small possibility that Shao made a deathbed declaration and had his ministers write it but the declaration, outside his inner court, would have been a shock, easy to dispute by enemies as forged.

The Dianlun, written by Cao Pi, talks of Shang’s looks, Yuan Tan’s benevolence but he adds that claims Lady Liu was a ruthless jealous woman who killed the five favoured concubines of Yuan Shao before her husband was buried, shaving their heads and “blackened their faces” in case they met Shao in the afterlife. Shang killed the families of the concubines just for good measure. Cao Pi, well known for respecting married boundaries and of not hurting a fly, might be a tad biased in claiming the new regime started with murder.

Yuan Tan arrived at Ye to find he was too late and his younger sibling was his boss, he had been unfortunate as his duties had required him to be away during the key moments after Shao’s death. However Tan had also made errors in build up that had hampered his chances of being the succesor, upsetting key advisers with strong local connections in the capital had cost him dearly while the belief that Yuan Tan would allow Xin Ping to kill them suggests a real lack of trust in him as a leader who would either look past old rivalries or keep Xin Ping from his violent plans. Tan would have been wise at Guandu, or when at court (or have his allies there do so), to do some work to rebuild relations and seek to reassure such men that, at the very least, they would be safe. There is no sign during the march to Ye that Tan sought to reach out, though by then it would have been too late.

Tan retreated to Liyang, north of the Yellow River, a major crossing point and an old Han mustering area. It was not in Qing. Tan pointedly also claimed his father’s old title of General of Chariots of Cavalry but made no immediate move for power. Why not? Initially Tan had probably not brought his army as he had expected to be placed as successor and marching on Ye would not have been a good look to start so when he found out he wasn’t the new ruler, Tan would not have had the resources to besiege the walls of Ye and took on the local forces, it would also have been a controversial move. Liyang put Tan at a key point and allowed him to muster forces from the region, awaiting events.

Shang and his followers knew Tan was not likely to be best pleased but the new regime needed to establish itself particularly with a ruler the public didn’t expect and at Liyang, Tan held an important defensive point so they tried a mixture of mollifying and spying. Shang sent a small amount of reinforcements to add to Tan’s army, he also sent Pang Ji to “help” or rather to keep an eye on his elder brother. Yuan Tan said he needed more men due to Cao Cao so asked for more reinforcements, he may also have been seeking to test the mood at Ye. Shen Pei and others urged Shang not to agree, perhaps concerned as to what exactly Tan would do with these new troops. Yuan Tan was furious at this refusal and executed Pang Ji, costing the Yuan’s an adviser noted by Wang Can’s work Yingxiong Ji for his intelligence and understanding of strategy.

Fair to say siblings relations were not at their highest point and they would soon be facing a rather major threat.


Cao Cao’s First Invasion.

In the autumn of 202, Cao Cao led his army across the Yellow River to strike at Yuan Tan’s position in Liyang. A change of ruler is a tempting time to strike, things can be unsettled for everyone and opportunities can emerge if the invasion is well timed. While it is hard to know what Cao Cao knew of the Yuan dynamics going on, that Shang was now ruler with Tan no longer in Qing meant things were clearly not happy, the Yuan lands could well be very vulnerable and uncertain. This was an opportunity for Cao Cao to make headway in Ji, his armies had bested Shao and left the Yuan army in a weakened state, why could they not defeat the next generation?

Yuan Tan’s fears over facing Cao Cao with the troops at his disposal proved to be correct and he was quickly on the back-foot. He sent word to Shang of how bad things were and whatever the disagreements, the Ye court knew Tan had to be helped in this crises. Shang initially thought dividing his army would be best against Cao Cao but then realized Tan might seize control of whichever army was not under Shang. So Yuan Shang left Shen Pei to hold Ye once more and personally lead the army to Liyang. With the leaders having to suppress their divisions, Yuan Tan having an army lacking numbers, equipment and quality while the main army under a novice without either his key strategists, this would be a hard task ahead. It was one they had to win, to halt Cao Cao’s momentum, prevent him getting a foothold in the Yuan heartland and send a message that the Yuan’s were still a name to be reckoned with.

Exactly what happened in the months ahead is disputed.

1) The Cao Cao version, backed by ZZTJ.

Cao Cao hammered the Yuan forces, beating them at every turn and forced them onto the defensive. The Yuan forces, despite being constantly beaten and losing Yan Jing at the hands of Yue Jin who was promoted to General [6], hanged on till spring at Liyang, were forced back into city so tried a major battle outside the gates and then after another heavy defeat outside the city, the Yuan forces fled to Ye during the night. Cao Cao pursued, stormed Yin’an and took in the harvest from all the areas the Yuan’s had left.

Meanwhile in 203 (presumably before Cao Cao took Liyang), Yuan Shang dispatched Administrator of Wei Gao Fan to try to disrupt Cao Cao’s river supplies. According to Li Dian’s SGZ [7] Cao Cao ordered Li Dian and Cheng to go by land instead but Li Dian had other ideas “Gao Fan’s troops have little armour but rely on the water. They are in a lax and delayed state. We will be certain to overcome them if we strike. Troops not being able to defend internally is detrimental to the State; we should strike at them immediately.” The Wei armies were victorious and reopened the supply lines.

Because Cao Cao was on a roll, his officers wished to attack Ye but Guo Jia had a clever idea “Yuan Shao loved those two sons, but neither was proclaimed as his heir. Now they are rivals for power, and each has his own party. If we press them hard they will protect one another, but if we go easily they will begin to quarrel. The best plan is go south against Jing province and wait for something to happen. When things have changed, we can attack them, and the whole affair can be settled in a single blow."

Cao Cao saw the sense in exploiting the row rather then press with a lengthy siege and pulled back undefeated. Liyang was left under Jia Xin, giving Cao Cao an important bridgehead and focused elsewhere.

2) Yuan SGZ and HHS.

The Yuan’s don’t mention Cao Cao beating them every time but that they fought a great battle for months before being pushed back into the city in the spring. Cao Cao prepared to besiege them and presumably not wishing to be trapped and relying on others to come to their rescue, the Yuan brothers managed to extradite themselves during the night. Cao Cao pursues, takes food, storms takes Yin’an but the Yuan HHS (not got copy of this, going on ZZTJ commentary) goes further, says that Yuan forces beat Cao Cao’s armies in a counter-attack. Cao Cao was still able to keep Liyang but, with that setback of his pursuing forces, he withdrew to Xu.

Who to believe? The bits from other Wei generals seems believable, a kill here, a supply issue sorted there but there are issues with Cao Cao’s SGZ of the general thrust of the campaign. The idea of Cao Cao constantly beating the Yuan’s and yet only able to push them into the city defences in the third season (autumn, winter, spring) is baffling, at best there is some exaggeration there. The very next lines after the campaign is about a proclamation [8] made on 22nd June declaring that, in future, failed generals would be striped of rank and barred from government service and ennoblement while a month later, on 3rd July, making pointed comments about generals complaints about being ignored for promotion. Reacting to a victorious and successful campaign with “Congrats everyone, you all did very well. Now if you ever fail me, I will cut you off completely and stop whining about ranks.” is… strange management. It more has the feeling of a man tearing into his generals after defeat, telling them to shut up and focus on winning battles or he will take tough measures next time.

We also have two comments from people in Jing at the time. Liu Biao would later write to Yuan Tan referring to defeating a powerful enemy at Ye, Zhuge Liang would, in his memorial to launch second Northern Campaign, list Liyang as one of the battles Cao Cao had difficulty. They were not eyewitnesses but word seems to have reached Jing that Cao Cao had a hard time in Ji and that he was defeated. Historians Hu Sanxing, Lu Bi and Professor De Crespigny follow the Yuan version of events.

From the Yuan perspective, it was a very credible performance. Up against Cao Cao himself, the man who had beaten their father, they had held him off for months before eventually being pushed back, successfully extricated their army from trouble and then inflicted a defeat on the pursuing forces. Word of this clearly spread and it would have provided a sense of the Yuan ship wasn’t a sinking one to their followers and lords abroad while Cao Cao withdrawing had given them breathing space to sort out wider issues.

As embarrassing as this was for Cao Cao, the Yuan’s still had problems. They had fought well but been driven back, they had lost border city Liyang which meant Cao Cao had an important crossing over the Yellow River and a foothold in Ji. They would need to find a way of dealing with their problems, take Liyang back and find a way of victory that didn’t come with losing land.


Meanwhile in the West

While the Yuan brothers were fighting for their lives, in 202 Cao Cao’s leader in the west and Director of Retainers Zhong Yao prepared to attack the Southern Shanyu of the Xiongnu Huchuquan. [9] The Yuan’s needed to stem Cao Cao’s growing grip in the west and Yuan Shang, perhaps aware of these events and seeking to distract Cao Cao from the south, sent Guo Yuan as Administrator of Hedong. The nephew of Zhong Yao was reinforced by Gao Gan’s soldiers while Yuan Shang’s diplomatic efforts with the Liang leaders proved initially fruitful as Ma Teng agreed not to interfere.

With Zhong Yao’s forces attacking the Xiongnu court at Pingyang, Guo Yuan was initially successful as, bar a short but fierce defence from local officer Jia Kui at Jiang, most of Hedong’s local defences fell quickly to the Yuan forces. The records focus on Jia Kui, city surrendered before it was about to fall on promise Jia Kui was protected from harm, Guo Yuan allegedly sought to force Jia Kui into service and then tried to kill him when Jia Kui called him a brigand. Appalled at this violence and betrayal of his word, the people of Jiang protested and even threatened mass suicide so Jia Kui was imprisoned then smuggled out. Jia Kui was likely offered a post given his local connections and refused so jailed in Shangdang and got smuggled out, possibly Guo Yuan’s deceit then violence is true or propaganda but the popular reaction to Jia Kui’s may have been to add lustre to Jia Kui and Wei.

More importantly Jia Kui had, during the siege, warned the local authorities of the need to ensure Guo Yuan didn’t take Pishi, on the junction of the Fen River and after capture somehow persuaded Yuan’s adviser Zhu Ao to delay Guo Yuan’s advance for a week. Despite Jia Kui’s clear hostility to Zhu Ao’s master. These delays would have brought Zhong Yao time as he made preparations, sending noted officer Zhang Ji [10] to have a word with Ma Teng about how failing to help really wasn’t appreciated. Ma Teng’s staff officer Fu Gan, son of Fu Xie [11], urged Ma Teng to ally with Cao Cao [12], usual praise of Cao Cao as firm and just controller of the Emperor, the Yuan’s treacherous and using tribes against the people. That once the events at Pingyuan is settled, Ma Teng playing both sides will see him punished and when that alarmed Ma Teng, Fu Gan said it could still be turned to Ma Teng’s advantage. Cao Cao will be worried about Hedong, Liang forces would trap Yuan forces on two sides and smash Guo Yuan in one blow, ensuring Cao Cao would be grateful.

Ma Teng made sure nobody could doubt he was putting effort in helping Cao Cao, sending 10,000 elite troops under the command of his heir Ma Chao and putting pressure on other Liang warlords like Han Sui to join in. This was a major blow to the Yuan forces and a boost to Zhong Yao’s, the Yuan forces had been successful against local forces when main western force was engaged elsewhere and relying on Liang forces to keep out. Zhong Yao was going to get significant reinforcements and it isn’t clear if Guo Yuan knew how situation had changed.

As Guo Yuan’s army made it’s way to Pingyang, it is said the Wei officers wished to retreat due to the sheer size of Guo Yuan’s army. Zhong Yao argued [13] that if he retreated, the situation could spiral out of control fast as Guo Yuan had contacts with local powers in the passes and they would turn if they saw the Wei army in a weak position by their retreat. He felt his nephew was headstrong, made bolder by his recent success, and take little account of the army facing him so would go for a direct crossing of the Fen river and they could attack while the Yuan army was crossing.

Guo Yuan ignored advice from all his advisers as he did indeed go for a direct crossing of the Fen, Zhong Yao waited till half the Yuan army was across and the other half was behind the river and attacked. The Liang troops played a prominent role Ma Chao getting injured with an arrow [14] to the foot but fighting on which would have likely inspired the troops while Colonel Pang De personally slew the Yuan commander. The Yuan army was destroyed, Hedong seems to have been quickly retaken and Huchuquan surrendered [15]. One part of SGZ says Gao Gan surrendered but given later events, this seems unlikely. There was a moment on the night after the battle where the head of Guo Yuan was missing so Zhong Yao wasn’t sure he was dead till Pang De arrived with head stored away in quiver. Zhong Yao wept for his nephew which led Pang De to apologize, Zhong Yao was diplomatic enough (and perhaps aware of the public setting which might see words reported back) to say "Guo Yuan was my nephew, but he was also an enemy of the state. Why apologise?"

The battle has some tropes of Guandu, the valiant and wise officer who faces superior odds and unnamed officers who doubt, the Yuan forces so much larger but commanded by arrogant leader who ignores advice which leads to their downfall. Zhong Yao’s officers may well have sought to retreat, possibly not wishing to be caught between two armies and Zhong Yao may well have had reason to doubt the loyalty of local powers. Guo Yuan, unable to go through Pishi quickly thanks to Jia Kui, may have sought to relive the Xiongnu as quickly as he reasonably could so chose the direct route and he may have calculated based on Zhong Yao’s forces, not realizing about the Liang reinforcements.

The Yuan’s had been right to try, Hedong had been exposed and if things went to plan then their western forces would have had Xiongnu with them, might have had reason to hope for help from local powers in the old capital region and Liang. Guo Yuan had been able to overwhelm local defences quickly but in the end, he failed and in such a way, opportunity was completely lost. Jia Kui’s quick thinking to delay the Yuan army, Zhong Yao’s reading of the situation and the considerable intervention of the Liang forces saw the Yuan attempt fail before the year was out.


The End Of Unity

After Cao Cao had spent a few months at Xuchang, carefully cultivating his authority that was in no way had been damaged by the Yuan siblings, he moved against Liu Biao. Professor De Crespigny suggests Guo Jia’s advice was around this time and it would make sense if Cao Cao had considered which way to strike and Guo Jia suggested letting the Yuan’s free to see how they react. Seemingly unbeknownst to Cao Cao, the Yuan siblings had fallen apart the moment Cao Cao had withdrawn across the Yellow River in 203.

Yuan Tan felt there was an opportunity created by Cao Cao’s retreat but he had a problem: "My equipment is no good. That is why Cao Cao defeated me. Now that Cao Cao's army is retreating, his men will be thinking of going back to their homes. If we go out and surprise him before he is across [the Yellow River] we can totally upset him. We must not miss this chance."

I wonder if a man of Cao Cao’s experience would have let his guard down during the retreat but Tan may have been right about the mindset of the defeated army and crossing a river can be a risky time for an army to find itself in a fight. Whether plan was good or not, once more Tan was complaining about the state of his army. Excuses? Possibly to a degree but he had a wider point about his army. Numbers had been an issue he raised before Cao Cao’s invasion and it would seem, having not got the throne, Yuan Tan had not been able to build a strong army. Liyang base meant he would have limited authority and resources, the poor state of his army would suggest he had not been able, due to lack of authority or perhaps Zang Ba was still active, to call upon the forces of Qing.

Yuan Shang refused to give any troops or equipment to his elder brother. Whatever he thought of the plan, Shang will have remembered the execution of Pang Ji and would not have wished to strengthen a potential rival for his power. Tan was said to be furious at this refusal while some part of him must have realized that he would never be safe under Shang if there was this level of distrust and his advisers Guo Tuo and Xin Ping, whose family was stuck in Ye, sought to encourage that fire, "It was on Shen Pei's advice that your father sent you away and made you heir to your uncle." It is a little odd they focused on Shen Pei but they may have been blinded by their own rivalry or they felt Tan wouldn’t want to fight his brother but if blamed the minister that could be executed and leave Shang unharmed, Tan would be willing to fight.

Yuan Tan raised his army against Ye, he may have been hoping to catch Shang off guard or he was simply desperate. If his army was not strong enough to take on a withdrawing Cao Cao, it was not going to be strong enough to take Shang at his capital and Tan was duly defeated. Tan then withdrew his army to Nanpi, the capital of Bohai, back in his old base of Qing. Back in his stronghold, Tan must have hoped he could draw on his old soldiers, his old resources and put up a better fight.

Alas for Tan, such hopes proved false. Aide Wang Xiu did bring reinforcements and Administrator of Donglai Guan Tong managed to arrive from the cost but at considerable cost: Donglai fell, Guan Tong’s family was killed and Tan had to give Tong the nearer post of Le’an. Most of the province rose up in revolt under Liu Xun, who was based at Taiyin, leading Tan to bemoan "Now the whole province has rebelled. What have I done wrong?"

The provinces and officers had (mostly) stayed loyal after Guandu bar some cities in Ji, they had stood firm when the Yuan brothers fought at Liyang. Once the Yuan brothers fell on each other, loyalty fell away, Qing turned on Tan, officers in both camps would begin drifting away or would defect at first real opportunity. According to Cui Yan’s SGZ, he would fake illness to avoid serving either and was jailed by Yuan Shang with Yin Kui and Chen Lin managing to arrange his release.

Wang Xiu urged Tan not to seek further bloodshed with his brother “Elder and younger brothers are like right and left hands. If a man is going into combat, and he cuts off his right hand and says, 'I am certain to win,' how can that be? If you show no affection for your brother, why should the empire have any good will towards either of you?

There are people who speak slander in the hope of some short-term advantage. They are pressing you into a family quarrel, but I beg you to close your ears and pay no attention. If the two of you would cut off the heads from some of your false ministers and become friends again, you could control the whole country and act in the empire as you please."

Xiu was certainly right the sibling warfare was damaging to Yuan’s chances, extremely bad for their reputation and the loyalty of others. Senior advisers may not have helped but executing his more famed advisers would not have done anything to help Tan’s reputation or winning loyalty from others. Or guaranteed Shang to do the same or to trust Tan, plans to sue for peace were going to be reliant on Shang being willing. Yuan Tan did not follow the advice but any plans he had of attacking his younger sibling were surely disrupted by the way Qing had rebelled on mass.

Shang brought his army into Qing and inflicted a major defeat on Tan, Tan fled to Pingyuan and shut his gates as Shang pressed his attack. Shang had the better army and had proved himself, according to Yu Huan’s Dianlue, a strong and valiant warrior whle he had now bested both Cao Cao and Yuan Tan. He also seemed quite determined to destroy Yuan Tan utterly, things were getting desperate for the older brother.


Diplomatic Moves

According to Wang Can’s Yingxiongji in Xin Pi’s SGZ [16], Guo Tu advised “Now you General have a small state and few troops, your provisions are few and your power weak, and if Xianfu (Shang’s style) comes you cannot match him for long. I humbly believe you can call Excellency Cao to come attack Xianfu. If Excellency Cao comes, he will certainly first attack Ye, and Xianfu will return to the rescue. You General can lead your troops and go west, and everything north of Ye can be captured. If Xianfu’s army is defeated, his troops will flee and desert, and you can also take and use them to resist Excellency Cao. Excellency Cao resides afar and if he comes, his supply lines cannot be maintained, and he will certainly himself flee and go. At that time, everything north of Zhao-guo would be ours, and that would be enough to resist Excellency Cáo. If you do not do this, you cannot last.”

Yuan Tan initially refused but as Shang pressed him fiercely, Tan was persuaded to send an envoy. Guo Tu’s recommendation was long time camp officer Xin Pi, brother of the now dead Ping (seems to have died of natural causes at some point during the chaos), despite Cao Cao apparently trying to recruit Xin Pi when he got the Han court and Xin Pi’s family being in Ye. The invitation of Cao Cao was a desperate gamble of a side that were pinned back to their last city and facing likely death at the hands of Shang and Shen Pei. I wonder if Guo Tu really believed Tan would so easily bounce back or if he was simply trying to find any half credible sounding way forward to persuade Tan to take this step, that there was hope still if he kept fighting, offering a potential long term route forward. What mattered was the short term, it was a desperate throw of the dice to try and simply survive beyond the next few weeks, it would suggest they didn’t think Yuan Xi would come to their aid and if not Xi then it would seem Cao Cao was the nearest outside force they could turn to. If choice is between inviting the rival or imminent death, one can see why Tan turned to old family foe Cao Cao.

Liu Biao, an old ally of Yuan Shao, seems to have heard of Xin Pi’s mission and was rather concerned. It was not in Liu Biao’s interest for the Yuan’s to collapse in infighting and strengthen Cao Cao, freeing the controller of the Han to focus on Liu Biao if he wished or for Cao Cao to conquer north then focus on Liu Biao. Liu Biao, probably via the hand of Wang Can, sent a message to Yuan Tan

“Heaven truly sent down harm, disaster and trouble flourishes and flows, your honorable father perished, and the Four Seas mourned in heart. A worthy successor he carried on governance, near and far joined hope, all wishing to distribute and serve strength, to entrust in the alliance leader, and though on the day he died, yet they kept their hopes. Who can understand blue-green fly flying on bare branch, without end roaming between your two ramparts, causing legs and arms to be divided into two bodies, backbone broken into different selves! In the past the Three Kings and Five Overlords, down to the Warring States, fathers and sons killing each other, indeed there was such things; some wishing to achieve the Ruler’s Enterprise, some wishing to settle the Overlord’s Achievement, some wishing to make honor ancestors, some wishing to defend tombs and succession, but there was never one who abandoned kin to join enemies, shaking their roots, and yet was able to accomplish enterprise and achievement, to pass down blessings to later generations. Like Qí [Duke] Xiāng restored a ninth generation vengeance, Shì Gài completed Xún Yǎn’s work, and therefore the Chūnqiū praised their righteousness, and gentlemen praised their faith. [Xún Yǎn] Bóyóu’s hatred of Qí, was not like your father’s hatred of Cáo [Cāo]; Xuān-zǐ [Shì Gài]’s continuation of enterprise, was not like a benevolent ruler’s succession to governance. Moreover gentlemen in avoiding trouble did not take refuge in enemy states, how can you forget your late father’s resentments, abandon closest kin’s intimacy, to be a warning to ten thousand ages, and leave behind the alliance’s disgrace! [Yuán Shàng of] Jì Province’s arrogance of not being fraternal, it is already there; a benevolent ruler should lower will and accept disgrace, to rectify the state’s matters; although you met with hatred from the lady [Liú], yet it was not yet like Zhèng [Duke] Zhuāng with lady Jiāng, and your enmity between brothers, is not yet like Chónghuá with Xiàng’s arrogance. However Duke Zhuāng had the happiness of large tunnel, and Xiàng received fief of Bì. May you abandon your former anger, and distantly ponder former righteousness, and again be a mother’s son and elder brother to younger brother as before.“

In short, amidst citing historical examples to follow and illustrate the situation, playing on the greatness of Shao and how much he was missed, how they hoped for a worth heir but were alarmed by the siblings attacking each other. How can Tan be so unfilial as to go to his father’s deepest foe against own brother? Shang may be arrogant but Tan should be benevolent and accept disgrace to fix the matter, to heal wounds and become family again.

Of course, saying “don’t fight your brother” works fine if said brother will stop trying to kill Tan so Liu Biao reached out to the other brother. To Shang he (and Wang Can) argued "Knowing the changes arose from Xīn [Píng] and Guō [Tú], disaster links those of the same womb, recalling the legacies of Yānbó and Shíshěng, forgetting the Chángdì’s meaning of death and mourning, close kin seeking shield and spear, corpses flowing blood, hearing of it one chokes in sobs, though surviving it appears destroyed. In the past Xuānyuán had the battle of Zhuōlù, Zhōu [King] Wǔ had the Shāng and Yǎn campaigns, both because they eliminated filth and harm did they settle the Ruler’s Enterprise, not because of fighting strong or weak, or taking pleasure in anger and hate. Therefore though they exterminated kin it was not a fault, though they executed elder brothers it did not harm righteousness. Now you two sirs first carry on a vast enterprise, continuing previous course, advancing there is consideration for the state in danger of ruin, withdrawing there is the burden of your late father’s remaining regrets, and you should think only of righteousness in affairs, and think only of the state’s health. Why is this? Metal and wood and water and fire by hardness and softness relieve each other, afterward overcoming them and obtaining their harmony, can they be by the people used. Now [Yuán Tán of] Qīng Province by nature is severe and anxious, confused on wrong and right. A benevolent ruler judges magnanimity, has generosity in abundance, and should use the great to cover the small, the superior to contain the inferior, and first eliminate Cáo Cāo to complete your late father’s regrets, and after that matter is settled, then discussing plans of wrong and right, is it not also good? If taking care for distant considerations, restraining oneself and returning to propriety, then you should shake banners and long stride, together serving the Ruling House, but if continuing in foolishness and not turning back, in violation and not changing, then the Hú and Yí will have words of ridicule, and moreover our alliance, will it again be able to exert strength for your service? This is Hánlú and Dōngguō trapping themselves first so that Tiánfù captured them. Hurriedly leaping and craning to look, one hopes to hear sound of harmonious relations. If you can be at peace, then the Yuán clan will with Hàn rise and fall! If it is not, then the alliance will forever be without hope."

Liu Biao lays main blame on Tan’s advisers for the war starting, while putting Tan as confused and uneasy rather then the main plotter, giving Shang an excuse to end the war. Points to importance of the task facing the brothers and argues that a wise ruler will use men such as Tan to avenge Shao by destroying Cao Cao, using Shang’s own superiority to cover for Tan’s weaknesses. Then maybe kill Tan. That united, the Yuan banner would be strong again, if not they would fall and be mocked, Cao Cao would benefit from their strife. Having used flattery, history and given Shang a way of ending war without losing face, Liu Biao used what leverage he had, threatening to pull his alliance.

Shang didn’t listen. The texts don’t say why (it doesn’t say why with Tan either) but Liu Biao alliance may not, though long lasting, have been too much of a concern given Liu Biao’s failure to help at Guandu. Shang may also have calculated he could destroy a desperate Tan soon, he may not have been aware of Xin Pi and even if he was, it was not guaranteed Cao Cao would come and if he did, Shang had time. Once Tan was gone, Shang would have complete control of the Yuan lands, his internal issues seemingly settled and be able to take on Cao Cao with his full might while Liu Biao would likely back a victorious, Shang due to worries about Cao Cao.

Meanwhile after Xin Pi delivered his message, Cao Cao’s council began to discuss the issue. Having attacked Liu Biao so the Yuan’s would start falling out, it is hard to believe Cao Cao didn’t already have a good idea what he wanted to do but it is said most of his generals thought Liu Biao was strong and should be dealt with. Xun You argued the Yuan’s were a bigger threat, with resources and popularity of Shao, if they combined then a non aggressive Liu Biao, best to strike now while Yuan’s are divided [17]. Cao Cao agreed [18] but then is said to have changed his mind, he was probably trying to test Xin Pi and seek what else he could get from Yuan Tan. Then Xin Pi, at a drinking party, “sensed” Cao Cao had changed mind against invading Ji so told Guo Jia who arranged a meeting.

Cao Cao tested the envoy "Can I trust Yuan Tan? Can I be sure to defeat Yuan Shang?" Xin Pi had to sell Tan’s plea to Cao Cao and summoned his best arguments for his lord… well no actually Xin Pi sold his master out. He made a major appeal for Cao Cao to invade and destroy both [19], the Yuan brothers had not realized the opening they had given as they thought they could decide the land between themselves. Yuan Tan is clearly desperate but Shang’s exhausted strength isn’t enough to finish Tan off, Ji is exhausted, hungry and being hit by Heaven. Striking Ye would force Shang to move back to defend his base, Tan would pursue and they can easily be destroyed whereas Jing was prosperous and united, if Cao Cao waits too long the Yuan’s might unite and rebuild. The Yuan’s are the greatest foe Cao Cao had and once the north is taken, the empire would tremble at Cao Cao’s full might.

It is understandable that Xin Pi, having had plenty of time to compare the strength and success of Cao Cao’s camp vs the desperate state of the Yuan’s, decided to switch loyalty. Other envoys, with varying degrees of honour and subtly had changed loyalties but this method was extremely blatant, though hardly unprecedented, taking a most vital task for their original master and using it to encourage the destruction of their master. In terms of worth for Cao Cao, his information about how the Yuan’s would react to attack on Ye was useful and Xin Pi would have up to date inside knowledge about resources and officers he was going to be facing that was no doubt invaluable. Even if the state of Ji doesn’t seem to have been as bad as Xin Pi claimed, nothing else suggests there was such large scale suffering and natural disaster, I doubt the civil war was bringing much prosperity and good governance.


Cao Cao Returns

Cao Cao led his army north to Liyang in the winter, arranging a marriage alliance between Yuan Tan’s daughter and Cao Zheng (not Cao Zhen), Pei Songzhi says in Cao Cao’s SGZ that Tan also didn’t have to pay harvest dowry. Word reached Yuan Shang and he abandoned his siege, returning to Ye. Yuan Tan had got the relief he desperately needed but he had brought Cao Cao into the Yuan heartlands, a price would be paid.

As Shang retreated, two of his officers Lü Kuang and Gao Xiang rebelled and sought to join Cao Cao. According to the Weishu, Yuan Tan sent seals of office offering the rank of general to the two rebels but, having been offered a marquis by Cao Cao and perhaps reading who was going to win, Kuang told Cao Cao. The former friend of Yuan Shao was unsurprised [20] and the ZZTJ adds it made Cao Cao realize Yuan Tan was being dishonest. Most of this may well be possible, Yuan Tan seeking to rebuild and strengthen his officer core would make sense, Cao Cao may well have suspected such a move would happen. Given Cao Cao was using offer of alliance by taking envoy’s advice on how to destroy Yuan Tan, it is rich of him to comment on dishonesty in the alliance. Weishu may have taken such an incident and been trying to spin Cao Cao’s actions as being betrayed first, further justify his later actions.

Shen Pei foresaw the danger and Xi Zuochi’s Han-Jin Chunqiu claims that Shen Pei (this is placed after Liu Biao’s letters, Shen Pei may have sent letter while Shang was still besieging Pingyuan. De Crespigny’s encyclopedia places this during Cao Cao’s arrival in 204) sent a letter to Tan. It is too lengthy to quote but can be found in the Yuan siblings SGZ linked at top. Shen Pei opened with historical examples of loyalty and family, he pointed to Shao deliberately sending Tan off to another lineage and ineligible for rule so clearly meant for Shang to be successor and that everyone knew of this, that both Shang and Tan had mourned Shao as per son and nephew. That Tan had never been denied when he asked for things, that when the two brothers had combined the people had fought hard and followed to their own exhaustion for the greater good. Only for Tan to listen to jackals and wolves, to forget his rightful place and sought to overthrown the succession, of a litany of crimes in his revolt including distressing Lady Liu with his crimes and threats. That the Heavens had led to Tan’s army collapsing, that Shang’s court hoped Tan would calm down and return to goodness and love but Yuan Tan had continued his bloody rampages and crimes. Shen Pei then sought to offer a route out, Guo Tu was confusing Tan and bringing harm, if Guo Tu is punished then Shen Pei would be willing to be executed and Shang would surrender.

Yu Huan’s Dianlue claims that Tan responded to Pei’s letter by climbing the walls and weeping, his loss of heart made it more difficult for him to win, he also (unsurprisingly) didn’t seem to believe the offer. Shen Pei’s trick didn’t seem to work in main goal of getting his rival adviser killed, if the annotation is true true then it would seem it did shake Tan’s morale further but if he was aiming to win Yuan Tan over for an alliance, “kill your adviser” was not a good way of going about it.


Siege of Ye

Having retreated back to Xuchang in the winter of 203, in the spring of 204, Cao Cao crossed the Yellow River again then sent his men to begin altering the rivers so he could transport supplies during his march north. Yuan Shang left Ye in the hands of Shen Pei and Su You while Yin Kai was sent west to ensure supplies from Shangdang, then went to attack… Yuan Tan and Pingyuan in a strange move. Perhaps Shang was gambling that he could defeat Tan with a quick strike and trusted his officers to be able to hold off Cao Cao till then. It is possible Shang calculated that if Tan and Cao combined then he would be in real trouble so sought to eliminate one of them first. Perhaps Shang was a vengeful youth that lacked the experience to know when to delay for the wider good.

Cao Cao advanced to the Yuan river and Su You, perhaps reading the writing on the wall, planned to change sides but Shen Pei discovered and the two Yuan commanders battled inside Ye, Shen Pei won and Su You had to flee, this can not have done the morale of the defenders any good. Cao Cao’s army arrived at Ye, initially he built towers and tunnels to try to undermine the great walls of Ye, then Ye was hit by another defection. Feng Li opened a gate and 300 of Cao Cao’s men went inside but word reached Shen Pei and he acted quickly, closing the gates and firing rocks at the intruders, destroying them all including Feng Li. Shen Pei had moved quickly twice and he built moats within the city to ensure Cao Cao’s tunnelling wouldn’t work.

Cao Cao was facing strong walls of the former capital of Wei, the potential need to win quickly before Shang or even Gao Gan arrived to relive the siege and Shen Pei was holding the city. It is hard to know if Shen Pei had any battle experience but he would certainly not surrender, according to the Xianxian Xingzhuang, as a youngster he built a reputation as loyal and of unimpeachable integrity so while Cao Cao had Shen Pei’s sons after Guandu but doesn’t seem to have tried to use that to persuade Shen Pei to give over the city. However Shen Pei had a history of falling out with people, even more so then it would seem usual in the Yuan court, (Pang Ji for a time, those who had sought to get him sacked, Xin family, Yuan Tan and others) and now Shen Pei would need to hold the loyalty of the garrison. After the two defections already. Cao Cao at some point tried to engineer another by having Dong Zhao write to Administrator of Wei Yuan Chunqing, kin of Shang, by calling on him to be filial and join his father Yuanchang in his court [21] but it doesn’t seem to have worked.

As spring turned to summer, Cao Cao changed tactics, he left the initial siege under the command of Cao Hong and struck out at nearby forces. In the west at Maocheng was Yin Kai, chief of Wuan, who was camped to ensure supplies from Gao Gan in Shangdang to the Yuan forces was kept flowing and so he was Cao Cao’s first target. Cao Cao won and cut off that supply route, then defeated Ju Gu (son of Ju Shou) and took Handan, he used Han Fan’s false surrender of Yiyang to have Xu Huang persuade him to surrender properly with Xu Huang urging Cao Cao to treat Han Fan generously (he got a marquis) to encourage others to submit [22]. Liang Qi surrendered She which further risked the western flank of the Yuan forces while Zhang Yan, old foe of the Yuan’s, sent messenger for an alliance with Cao Cao and was made a General.

Individually, the loss at Maocheng was a problem with supply lines being cut but the others they could have probably coped with. Zhang Yan, never friendly with the Yuan’s, allying with a foe was hardly a shattering surprise but on top of everything else? It would have been a culmination impact: Yuan’s were losing a grip to the west of Ye and their line to Gao Gan, officers were defecting even when fake defecting it turned into a real defection, people inside and out were reading the way the wind was blowing, Cao Cao was going to win. Each and every bit of bad news would have had an impact on the morale of Shen Pei’s besieged forces.

Cao Cao returned from his summer trek around Ji and changed siege tactics at Ye, build a moat to starve the city. It said he first made it shallow as if a crossing so a laughing Shen Pei would ignore it then made the moat a lot deeper, twenty feet wide and twenty feet deep, then filled it in via the Zhang river in the space of one night. This has the feeling of “clever Cao vs arrogant Yuans” but the moat was very real and by the autumn the city was starving, it is said over half the city would die of starvation during the seige.

It was not till the autumn that Yuan Shang’s army of ten thousand men began to arrive, Shang only moving when he heard Ye was in real trouble but the arrival was delayed by Shang deciding that instead of going to Ye directly, he would loop around the north to the western hills. Cao Cao’s men were concerned at fighting Yuan Shang and his army on their home turf but Cao Cao was only worried if Yuan Tan came via the main road and was relieved when they came via the hills. ZZTJ commentary explaining the logic “if Yuan Shang came by the main road, he committed his troops to open combat, and in those circumstances they would indeed do their utmost, without thought of any alternative; by coming through the hills, however, Yuan Shang and his men had the option of protecting themselves among the defensible places there, and they would lose their enthusiasm to fight in defence of their homes.”

Shang had been reckless waiting so long to come to Ye’s aid, in attacking Yuan Tan that year when Cao Cao had returned to Liyang and began building canals, but here he had been cautious. Throwing his forces into open battle risked destruction in one moment, using the hills would allow him to keep the fight going if first battle failed. It also put him further from potential pursuit by Tan and closer to Gao Gan in case Shang needed to retreat or needed further aid.

Before his army arrived, Shang sent Qian Zhao to Shangdang to try to reopen supplies and get reinforcements while he also sent Master of Records Li Fu to get word to Shen Pei and the defenders of Ye that help was coming and probably to agree plans. With only three horsemen, Li Fu put Snake to shame as, during the night of his approach, he pretended to be Chief Controller, going through the northern camps and eastwards, punishing the odd infraction here and there of the sentries he came across. He managed to get to the southern siege lines opposite the Zhang gate, again he punished men on picket duty by tying them up in the arrest. Li Fu then used the gap he had created, dashing towards the city, calling to the sentries who got him over walls by rope. Word of Li Fu’s sneaking through the lines would have given much needed cheer to Ye, the troops were said to have wept, played drums and yelled out ten thousand years, it was also embarrassing for Cao Cao’s army. Cao Cao’s army prepared to capture Li Fu on his escape out but it got worse for them, Li Fu managed to get out as Li Fu persuaded Shen Pei to send out the old, the weak to surrender and, dressed as those surrendering, Li Fu and his three companions managed to slip away into the night.

For the Ye forces, the little escapade provided cheer after months of misery, the loss of hungry mouths bought time and communications between the two Yuan forces, probably including anything Li Fu observed during his tour of Cao Cao’s camps. None of this was a huge blow to Cao Cao but it was not helpful for the attackers, the defenders were more likely to hang on, inside information given to enemies, a coordinated strike ahead and the red faces that Li Fu broke their lines twice.

Shang arrived and camped at Fu river to the Northwest of Ye, near the village of Yangping. He lit a signal fire and the Ye defenders responded with one of their own, the battle for Ye was on! Shen Pei tried to lead his men out via the north gates but Cao Cao was able to drive them back into Ye, this allowed Cao Cao to focus on Shang and the young commander was forced to flee to Quzhang at Zhang river and prepared to fortify. Either the coordination of the Yuan forces was not good enough or simply the starving defenders and Shang’s forces were simply not strong enough. Cao Cao decided to focus on the ruler to prevent a further attempt, pursuing and beginning to encircle, Shang realized the game was up so he sent Yin Kui and Chen Lin seeking to surrender. Cao Cao refused, perhaps understandably he didn’t trust Shang’s surrender as being more then a temporary experience but it would also seem Cao Cao had no wish to have the Yuan’s gently submit. He seems to have wished to destroy them and ensure the north was utterly his, no lingering Yuan loyalty, no figureheads. Yuan Shang fled to Qi hills and Cao Cao pursued, laying siege at the pass of Lankou and the Yuan forces collapsed utterly, Ma Yan and Zhang Yi (not the Shu general) surrendered among others, Shang fled to Zhonghsan. He left behind everything, his insignia, his seal, his clothing, all his baggage was in the hands of Cao Cao.

Cao Cao had everything put on display for the people of Ye, to know the scale and humiliation of the Shang forces, that help would not be arriving soon and morale collapsed. Shen Pei did his best to rally the defenders "Hold firm and fight to the end! Cao Cao's army is in trouble and Youzhou [Yuan Xi] is almost here. There is no cause to worry that we have lost a leader." It was desperate stuff, they were out of food, Yuan Shang had been their best hope yet he had been utterly destroyed so quickly on arrival. Yuan Xi would take awhile to arrive, if he was so inclined having seemingly sat out the war out so far, and winter was coming with the city starving already. Parts of You province was unlikely to have brought same resources the lord of Ji had and really was Yuan Xi a match for the defeated Shang as a general, let alone Cao Cao?

Yet Ye fought on a little more, hoping for aid to come in time or for a miracle which Shen Pei so nearly got. Cao Cao came forward to inspect the siegeworks and Shen Pei was prepared, his crossbowmen were hidden and they fired. They missed narrowly and Cao Cao, a man who seemed to have great luck, escaped. Had Cao Cao died there, Cao Pi would have had a dilemma, try to take Ye quickly so he can use that to bolster his new regime before racing south or end siege, race back to Xuchang to try and stop the regime’s foes from taking advantage of Cao Cao’s death. The chaos of such a sudden change of leadership, the potential plots and revolts, the power-plays at court and in Cao lands might have given the Yuan’s enough breathing space to attempt a comeback.

However luck had not been with Shen Pei and soon, on the evening of September 13th, he was betrayed once more. His nephew Shen Rong, Colonel of the Eastern Jianchun Gate, betrayed his lord and his uncle, opening the gate so Cao Cao could enter. Shen Pei had twice seen off such threats, perhaps that had encouraged putting family in such a key position to ensure loyalty, but this time he could not react in time. According to the Xianxian Xingzhuang, seeing what was happening from the south-east tower, Shen Pi had the Xin family executed, blaming Xin Pi and Guo Tu for the destruction of Ji. As Xin Pi hurried to the prison to try and rescue his family, Shen Pei led his men into a desperate fight within the city streets but this time, Shen Pei could not rescue the situation and he was captured alive. Yue Zi’s Shanyang gong zaiji and Yuan Ye/Wei’s Xiandi chunqiu claims Shen Pei hid in well after his forces were defeated but Pei Songzhi is scathing about this: “[Shěn] Pèi was the generation’s ardent martyr, the Yuán clan’s to the death servant, how on the day of utter destitution, could he flee into a well? This is difficult to believe, and truly is doubtful. One does not know how [Yuè] Zī and [Yuán] Wěi’s sort, indeed were what sort of men, unable to distinguish between correct and wrong, and recklessly playing with writing brush and ink, absurdly producing heresy, to make their books. Those of these sort, truly are sufficient to slander and deceive inspection, and doubt and mislead later people. They truly are criminals to historical records, what those attaining scholarship should not seek.

Shen Pei was taken to Cao Cao’s camp, the Yuan SGZ describes it simply “Pèi’s aura was valorous, and to the end he made no plea to be spared, and of those that saw him none did not sigh. Therefore they beheaded him.” The Xianxian Xingzhuang fleshes it out and is accepted by the ZZTJ: Xin Pi struck the face of the bound Shen Pei with his horse-whip “"Now, slave, you will die!" Fair to say, Xin Pi was not happy about the execution of his family and was lashing out, perhaps never having quite realized the full implications of what might happen with his allying with Cao Cao while family was in Ye. None the less, attacking a bound man is neither brave or honourable.

Shen Pei must have been hurting about the defeat and being struck across the face won’t have helped his mood but he kept his head "Dog, it is only because of people like you that my Ji province has been destroyed. I am sorry I was not able to kill you, but do you now have any right to say whether I live or die?" He blamed Xin Pi for what happened (unsurprisingly not showing responsibility for his own role) but he was aware that Xin Pi’s threats were meaningless.

After awhile, presumably when Cao Cao had ensured city was fully under his control and after dealing with Cao Pi’s new and eternal love of his life, Shen Pei was brought to the victorious warlord. Cao Cao remarked “When I was riding about earlier you fired several shots at me!" and got a blunt response "I am sorry they were too few!". It was clear that Shen Pei was not going to grovel or bow his head and Cao Cao acknowledged it "You were loyal to the Yuan. How else could you have behaved?”

Cao Cao was inclined to hire Shen Pei, winning over a senior Yuan ministers with local connections would have been a boost as he sought to bring north under control, he may also have respected Shen Pei’s display at Ye. However Xin Pi led figures in Cao Cao’s camp who wished for the death of their old enemy while Shen Pei made no plea to live or concession to his capture, not willing to show submission that might convince Cao Cao he could be loyal to Cao Cao. So the orders were given for Shen Pei to die.

An old enemy of Shen Pei’s (yes another, Shen Pei seems to have been an abrasive figure) Zhang Ziqian of Ji, who had defected at some point earlier, laughed and gloated “I have done better than you, Zhengnan (Pei’s style)." Shen Pei gave quite the rebuke "You are a turncoat. I am a loyal minister. Even though I must die, I would never change places with you." When he arrived at his place of execution, Shen Pei demanded to die facing north where his was master was.

Now both of Shang’s leading supporters were dead and the capital was lost. Shen Pei had faced his fate bravely and ensured his reputation as an honest loyalist would live on. As a defender of Ye? Shen Pei had managed to defeat two betrayals, saw off Cao Cao’s original tactics to undermine the walls and forced Cao Cao to change tactics, he had nearly killed Cao Cao with one flourish. Yet once the moat was built, Shen Pei was in trouble as his city starved and they lasted only three months. The starvation would have weakened the loyalty and capability of his forces when they did try to break out, it also leaves questions about the management of supplies or the Yuan’s general supply situation. Shen Pei had shown considerable ability to react to situations but he could not find a way to inflict a surprise on Cao Cao’s army that might have turned the tide till very late on. He may simply not have had the forces to try something like intervening before Cao Cao reached Ye or Shen Pei lacked the abilities as a tactician to make a strong offensive move.


Aftermath of Ye’s fall

For the Yuan’s, the symbolic fall of Ye would have been a major blow, their capital was gone and their heartland of Ji was pretty much under Cao Cao’s control. They had lost their home, members of their family, the prosperous core province of their power, the manpower and resources that came with it, prestige and their officers were slipping away.

Cao Cao worked to win over the people of Ji and those still under Yuan rule, he comforted Lady Liu and promised a pension to ensure she was secure for rest of her life (he also got a new wife for Cao Pi, something that may have been a little less helpful to winning over his new people), returned the Yuan treasures to her. He made a show of sacrificing at the tomb of his old ally Yuan Shao, weeping as he did so. Yuan Shao had the loyalty of the people, Cao Cao showing he had loved and respected his old friend too would likely have gone down well, he had shown a lack of greed, magnanimity for all to see. Though one wonders if Shao might have appreciated his male line not being wiped out a bit more then the tears he got instead.

Cao Cao recruited Yuan officers to his ranks like Cui Yan, giving them rank to encourage loyalty and presumably hoping some still loyal to Yuan’s would be encouraged to change their minds. After a rebuke when Cao Cao asked about taxes [23], Cui Yan persuaded Cao Cao to give them a year off tax to recover from the war and Yuan’s maladministration. One suspects this went down really well with the wider public and Cao Cao’s propaganda agents ensured they also hammered the Yuan regime.

The Weishu has the proclamation “The government of the Yuan allowed powerful families to act as they pleased, and their kinfolk to seize other men’s property. They forced the ordinary people, poor and weak, to pay taxes in their stead, while they boasted of their own wealth and paid no attention to orders from above. Shen Pei and his clan offered a haven for criminals and became leaders of such lawless men. They thought to attract the people to their cause, and raise a great force of armoured troops, but how could this be done in such a way? Let the land tax be levied at the rate of four sheng per mou, and let each household contribute just two pi of light silk cloth and two jin of floss silk. No additional levies or exactions shall be made. The Administrators and Chancellors of the commanderies and kingdoms must pay careful attention to this [last provision], and must not permit powerful persons to maintain secret reserves and evade their dues at the expense of those who are weak. “

The charge was that the Yuan’s favoured the rich, allowed nepotism and suppression of the poor via burdensome taxes while the rich paid nothing, the dead Shen Pei (so can’t answer back or serve Cao Cao at any point) happened to have harboured criminals. Naturally none of his new officers seem to be to blame for any of this. Any truth? The Han taxation system had similar problems to the one Yuan family is being accused of, there may not have been sufficient reform but mostly, Cao Cao is seeking to undermine the old regime and win popularity with any charge and claim he can think of.

Meanwhile in Bing, Qian Zhao (who had been unable to bring reinforcements in time) suggested that Gao Gan lead his 50,000 troops to take Yuan Shang and watch events. Gao Gan decided not to follow that plan but to surrender to Cao Cao, according to Qian Zhao’s SGZ [24] Gao Gan also considered killing Shang’s officer. Qian Zhao fled but was unable to get to Zhongshan so he surrendered to Cao Cao as well, Cao Cao made Qian Zhao Attendant Officer again, Gao Gan was given rank Inspector of Bing.

Why didn’t Gao Gan move against Cao Cao? Gao Gan was seeking to use the Yellow River to the east, support of tribes to the north and Mount Heng to his west to set up his defensive position but Cao Cao himself to the east and Zhong Yao to the west left him vulnerable. Gao Gan may have felt marching out at this stage, when Cao Cao had just seized Ji and Yuan Shang’s army was in tatters, would be too risky and he should play his hand differently. Surrendering brought him time to wait to see if a better opportunity came along and perhaps if he might be better served under Cao Cao.
Why did Gan strike against Qiao Zhao (or at least consider it)? Gao Gan may have been worried that Qian Zhao would take the troops and supplies he had been gathering then try to seize Bing for Yuan Shang.

The surrender of Gao Gan was helpful to Cao Cao, it took away an issue Cao Cao would have to deal with for a time and would allow him to focus elsewhere. Yet Cao Cao’s treatment of Gao Gan is odd, treating surrenders generously was a usual policy and Gao Gan’s surrender nominally gave Cao Cao parts of Bing and took out a threat. Yet there was no Marquis, no promotion but at best Gao Gan kept his rank of Inspector, at worst his claims to Governorship was shot down and he was demoted back to Inspector. Cao Cao may not have, unsurprisingly, trusted this surrender but I wonder if Gao Gan was already on his “be killed” list with the Yuan brothers and so Cao Cao was providing Gao Gan reason to get frustrated or if Cao Cao was really testing Gao Gan to see what would happen.


The Fall of Yuan Tan

We have no detail of how the fight between Shang and Tan went till Yuan Shang retreated to try to save Ye but we know how Tan reacted afterwards. He moved quickly to strengthen his position by advancing into Ji, taking Ganling, Anping, Bohai and Hejian within the three months then drove Yuan Shang out of Zhongshen into the arms of Yuan Xi at Gu’an in You. What was left of Yuan Shang’s army and officer core, like escape artist Li Fu, fell into Yuan Tan’s hands and he camped at Longcou, he had supplies coming from Wang Xiu in Le’an while Supuyan was preparing to bring 5,000 Wuhuan cavalry to help Yuan Tan.

We also have no word about how Yuan Xi felt or reacted to events, his family lost at Ye and the humiliation of his still wife being married to another man then the man who who was meant to be protecting his family (Shang) turning up. Shang could not bring an army, officers or supplies but just his own talent and considerable trouble that was surely to follow. Yet brothers were brothers and was there anything Xi could have done to prevent Cao Cao attacking anyway?

With Gao Gan “surrendered” and Yuan Shang/Xi no real threat in You, Cao Cao turned his eye to Yuan Tan and seems to have been joined by Zang Ba’s forces. He claimed Yuan Tan had broken an agreement by failing to help at Ye as promised so he cancelled the alliance and sent back Yuan Tan’s daughter, not even waiting till the end of 204 before advancing. Cao Cao may well have been within reason to object to Yuan Tan’s failure to reinforce or help in the siege of Ye in any way, it would be surprising if the alliance hadn’t held some expectation that Tan would help. However given he didn’t arrest Xin Pi for selling out his master, Cao Cao would probably have attacked anyway using another excuse, the earlier attempted hire of Gao Xiang and co would have done, or failure to send a gift basket for a concubine’s birthday. Anything he could use but failure to help at Ye gave Cao Cao a strong justification for the war.

So why didn’t Yuan Tan help at Ye? Tan may not have had the forces or the trusted officers, bar Guo Tu, to do two things at once. If he went to Ye, he could have earnt goodwill and it would have made it harder for Cao Cao to justify an immediate attack but Tan’s very weak position would not have been strengthened and Cao Cao might have made moves to further weaken Tan’s support or get Tan completely under his control. By attacking Shang’s lands and gathering up Shang’s army, Tan strengthened himself and may have hoped to put himself into a position to argue better terms with Cao Cao, or at least be able to put up a fight to force terms if Cao Cao attacked.

The initial manoeuvrings at the start of 205 are unclear, the HHS has Cao Cao advancing to Qimen and putting Yuan Tan to flight to Nanpi where he encamped by the Qing River. The Yuan SGZ says Yuan Tan captured Pingyuan and Nanpi, camped at Longcou then, when Cao Cao arrived at Qimen, retreated at night to Nanpi and again to Qing River. Cao Cao’s SGZ says Yuan Tan was afraid, seized Pingyuan then fled to Nanpi with Cao Cao quickly retaking Pingyuan. Sima Guang favoured Yuan Tan seizing Pingyuan then retreated to Nanpi and set himself at Qing River. De Crespigny in the ZZTJ notes (27 of that section) argues Yuan Tan already had Pingyuan so Cao Cao likely put pressure on Longcou and forced Tan to withdraw to Nanpi then Cao Cao turned east to take Pingyuan before concentrating against Tan’s main forces and that Qimin should be read as the gates of Tan’s encampment.

As Cao Cao advanced towards Nanpi, Yuan Tan had reason to hope for reinforcements from Wang Xiu and from the Wuhuan. However the latter would not be coming as Cao Cao used Qian Zhao’s relations with the Wuhuan, sending him to Supuyan’s court in Liucheng where there was also an envoy from Gongsun Kang, who had recently succeed Gongsun Du, by name of Han Zhong. Supuyan feigned ignorance of who was legitimate to give him title of Shanyu [25], Qian Zhao smoothly explained his own change of loyalties by explaining Yuan Shao had once been a legitimate follower of the Han but had gone against it, now Cao Cao had Han authority. Han Zhong argued Gongsun had real power and might but Qian Zhao proclaimed Cao Cao’s virtues while the Gongsun’s were using distance from Central Plains as sole protection and attacked Han Zhong. Qian Zhao was likely seeking to shake his opposing envoy, with the sword drawn to kill, into being less effective and deliberately shaken the Wuhuan court.

While Wei likely bigged up (and being more then a tad patronizing) how awestruck the Wuhuan were after that, Qiao Zhao does seem to have at least convinced the Wuhuan not to ally with Gongsun clan but on the direct mission, he only seems to have persuaded not to help Yuan Tan. Perhaps he argued Yuan Tan was a lost cause so save fight for now but the Wuhuan didn’t switch to Cao Cao, they would remain loyal to Yuan family in months ahead.

In the first month of 205, the two former allies clashed and this time Tan held his own, suggesting Tan had been considerably strengthened in taking the forces of his brother and local garrisons. However his lands had only been under Yuan Tan for a short time, even shorter with many of his army so if Tan lost, things could collapse easily. Both sides suffered heavy casualties and Cao Cao considered withdrawing but cavalry commander Cao Chun urged Cao Cao to fight on [26]. “Now we have crossed a thousand lǐ to oppose them, if advancing we cannot overcome them, then retreating will certainly damage our authority; moreover the division brigades are penetrated deeply, and difficult to last long. They are winning and so arrogant, we are losing and so afraid, using fear to oppose arrogance, they can certainly be overcome.”

Leaving aside the arrogance staple, Cao Chun was right in that a retreat for Cao Cao would have damaged their authority, the aura of victory would have been damaged and the Yuan’s seem more viable a cause if Yuan Tan had driven back Cao Cao. The drums were beaten for one final push, this final throw of the dice won the day and the Yuan army collapsed, Yue Jin first to be over Nanpi’s walls according to Yue Jin’s SGZ. The SGZ goes with Yuan Tan being executed but the HHS is followed by Sima Guang and De Crespigny with the general gist being: during the collapse of his army, Yuan Tan put on a disguise and sought to flee but he fell from his horse and he was killed by Cao Cao’s men. Running in disguise is hardly illogical and if one pulls it off, nobody comments but die during it, it does look rather bad.

Li Fu made his way to Cao Cao’s camp as Master of Records for Ji and urged Cao Cao to not sack Nanpi, the people had perhaps sent him in a bid for mercy. Having got that agreement, Li Fu pitched “In this city, the strong oppress the weak and the hearts of the people are troubled and disturbed. I suggest you give orders for someone who has just surrendered, and who is known and trusted by the people, to announce your policy." One wonders if Li Fu had thought of any alternatives to himself of just surrendered figures… Li Fu was sent into Nanpi to reassure and settle the city but there would be no mercy for Guo Tu who was executed with his family, Tan’s family was punished which likely meant they were executed. Even the girl who would have been Cao Cao’s daughter-in-law.

Wang Xiu heard of the news when at Gaomi in Beihai, he wept “Without a master, where shall I turn?" and asked for permission to bury Yuan Tan. This was granted, Cao Cao’s treatment of Nanpi and allowing the burial may have helped sway the cities of Yuan Tan that they would be alright to switch to the winning side. Only Guan Tong in Le’an was resistant but Wang Xiu, sent there to gather supplies by Cao Cao, captured Guan Tong and the city. Wang Xiu decided not to execute Guan Tong for being loyal and sent him to Cao Cao despite orders to kill. Wang Xiu would become a senior clerk in Cao Cao’s office as Minister of Works and would rise up to be a Minister, Guan Tong seems to have been allowed to retire and vanishes from the records, but given how he had lost his family out of loyalty to the Yuan’s, it hardly feels like his loyalty had led to a happy life.

Yuan Tan had once been a rising star, of good heart, charming and an accomplished general who had taken over a difficult situation in Qing and ended up conquering it but it would be his pinnacle, his reputation would never be as high again and he would suffer many setbacks. That fame that spread across the land may have gone to his head and impacted his judgement but his corrupt friends do seem to have been out of the picture by the time of Shao’s death, too late though to earn back the support of his father who had acted to try to ensure Tan couldn’t have throne. Qing may have shown Tan’s administrative weaknesses but Tan also made powerful enemies at court and the fear the likes of Shen Pei had about Xin Ping does not reflect well on their view of way Tan would treat and protect them if he ruled, on his willingness or ability to control Xin Ping’s violence.

Not being heir must have come as a shock to Tan given his fame and birth, it seems to have surprised everyone else as well. Yuan Tan didn’t make an immediate play for the throne, he may not have had the resources to do so and risked PR backlash but I wonder if his decision to go to Liyang and not Qing was a bad one. Qing would have been, though under pressure, his base with officers and populace that knew him, an experienced army that he could use as leverage on his brother. Liyang may have been closer to the action and to Ye where he could ensure the Ye court didn’t forget him but it seems to have left him with a weak army that meant he struggled in the fights that followed against Cao Cao and against his own blood.

When Tan turned his Liyang army on Shang, it had become clear that Tan was not trusted by the court and that left Tan’s position vulnerable in the long term, at some point Shang would likely attack to get rid of a sibling he didn’t trust. Tan’s bid for power and safety failed, his position collapsed as Qing turned on him, his decision to call on Cao Cao was fatal but for Tan, it was a choice between imminent death, surrender and very likely be killed or getting some breathing space to try to make a comeback.

Yuan Tan did not act honestly with Cao Cao but then, Cao Cao was coming with the purpose of destroying him, Yuan Tan was seeking to strengthen his hand as best he could. He was able to finally create an army that could stand and Yuan Tan almost had a final flourish, Cao Cao nearly withdrawing his men which would have given Yuan Tan breathing space to build up his men, alliances and win over his cities. It showed that even near the end, Yuan Tan still retained the capabilities, with the right resources, to be a formidable military figure but Cao Chun’s intervention proved decisive and Yuan Tan fated to an inglorious death and the destruction of all those he had ever loved.


Fall Of You

Cao Cao’s power strengthened even further, taking Guo Jia’s advice to recruit local talents including Chen Lin, which led to what must have been an awkward discussion about insulting Cao Cao’s family [27], and treat people kindly to win them over, Cao Cao promising “To those persons who took part with the Yuan clan in villainy, I give to them a fresh start.” News of Cao Cao’s generous treatment in conquest of Qing and in Ji seems to have reached You as would have word of Cao Cao’s victory. Jiao Chu and Zhang Nan turned on the Yuan brothers, attacking Xi’s headquarters at Ji county in Guangyang and driving them to the arms of their Wuhuan allies in Liaoxi. Yuan Xi had managed to keep his officers loyal longer but then Cao Cao was further away, now Cao Cao was close his position had collapsed embarrassingly quickly.

Jiao Chu took the title of inspector and pressured the local civil officers into a ceremony, sacrificing a white horse for people to smear blood on their lips as they took oath of loyalty to Cao Cao, warning anyone who refused would be killed. Awkwardly aide and local worthy Han Heng [28] refused "I have received great favours from the lords Yuan, father and son. Even though they are defeated and lost, I would be lacking in honour if I were neither wise enough to aid them nor strong enough to give my life for them. To face north to Cao Cao, I cannot do that." Jiao Chu’s attempt to impress Cao Cao by bringing the civil authorities of You into line and ensuring he remained Inspector risked becoming an embarrassment and a PR disaster. Jiao Chu wisely chose to let Han Heng retire rather then force the issue “Great affairs must be founded on justice, and one man will make no difference to our success or failure. Let him hold to his principles, for he is an example of loyal service for us all."

Jiao Chu was made a marquis but his fate is unclear [29] while Cao Cao unsuccessfully tried to recruit Han Heng many times, the ZZTJ paints it as all the civil officers of You surrendered with several tens of thousand soldiers under Jiao Chu pledging to Cao Cao. This is surely exaggerated, Yuan Xi had never united You and there were a lot of local leaders, Jiao Chu would have had no ability to get their support or have control of their armies. Some leaders had already pledged to Cao Cao like Xianyu Fu or Yan Rou and others Cao Cao now tried to win over via letters. Wang Song who held lands in south of Zhou and Yuyang was persuaded by Liu Fang to join Cao Cao, the letter of submission was so eloquent apparently that Cao Cao appointed Fang to his staff as Adviser to the Army.

In the summer Zhang Yan formerly led his Black Mountain Bandits to surrender, becoming a Marquis and further showing the strength Cao Cao had got in the north in 204 and 205 but the summer showed his reach in You was limited. The Yuan’s struck back via Wuhuan and those loyal (or claiming to be) to the Yuan’s like Zhao Du and Huo Nu at Gu’an led revolts, the Inspector (unnamed but possibly Jiao Chu) and Administrator of Zhou were killed, Xianyu Fu was besieged at Gongping. Cao Cao responded in the autumn, destroying the Yuan loyalists then crossing the Lu River to drive off the Wuhuan.

However word would soon reach Cao Cao of major problems to his west…


The fall of Cousin Gao

In the winter, Gao Gan seized Cao Cao’s Administrator of Shangdang and rebelled, bringing his solders to Hu Pass in Huguan county in Shangdang, blocking Cao Cao’s main route from Ji into Taihang mountains. Gao Gan also sent an army to surprise attack Ye but colonel Xun Yan (Xiuruo) was able to defeat the raid and was made a marquis. With Cao Cao’s army returning to Ye to rest, Li Dian and Yue Jin were dispatched to try to break Gao Gan’s defences and retake the pass, Yue Jin (according to his sgz) curving round behind Gao Gan’s forces to pin them in the pass. Rou submitted himself to Cao Cao and according to Gao Rou’s SGZ, Cao Cao appointed Gan’s cousin Rou to Investigating Treachery Director Scribe, which seems to have had a prison, in the hopes Rou would do something to provide justification for killing him. Gao Rou’s hard work and excellent performance meant there were no errors Cao Cao could use against him.

Why now? The records state Gao Gan was aware of the Wuhuan intervention, he must have calculated they would have helped up Cao Cao’s army in You for longer then they did. There are other possible reasons, the conquest of Ji, Qing and parts of You meant time was running out for the Yuan cause. Gao Gan would also have been aware that Cao Cao’s western holdings were having problems and that if he could hold the pass, he might be able to expand grip west and begin Yuan comeback there.

In Hongong, Henei bandit “White Horse Zhang” Cheng (have a guess what colour horse he rode) had been active since the Turbans, his reach had grown to include Hongnong and he had ten thousand men, backed by more local bandit leader Zhang Yan (not the recently surrendered Black Mountain Bandit leader). The Administrator of Hedong Wang Yi [30] (not her) had served there for over a decade and had local support but does not seem to have been either particularly loyal to Cao Cao or active in dealing with these bandits. Cao Cao sought to replace Wang Yi with the Administrator of Xiping Du Ji [31] but local leaders Wei Gu, senior clerk, and General Fan Xian protested to Zhong Yao. Wang Yi wasn’t willing to rebel but he made clear everyone knew his unhappiness by going straight to Xuchang to present his seal of office to court, rather then Cao Cao’s officer Zhong Yao as he was supposed to, before returning home.

Wei Gu and local forces held Shan crossing, preventing Du Ji from arriving to his new post for months. The Weilue says they did this out of loyalty to Wang Yi, ZZTJ says they were faking it and doing this on behalf of Gao Gan (who was still under Cao Cao at this point). I suspect Gao Gan may have had agents in the area encouraging events and it would make sense if, on deciding to revolt, Wei Gu and co reached out to potential local allies. Gao Gan may not have been was behind the revolt itself, the gentry may well have felt loyalty to long serving administrator and not been keen at Cao Cao picking their leaders, some may have been more inclined towards Gao Gan anyway.

Cao Cao was going to order Xiahou Dun to attack but Du Ji [32] feared the cost and the risk if they failed, he knew Wei Gu and was hoping to take advantage of his indecisiveness and the need for the gentry to seem loyal. Du Ji went to Anyi, the capital of Hedong which put the local leaders in an awkward position, Fan Xian executed officers in front of Du Ji to scare the new administrator but Wei Gu warned they would get a bad reputation if they executed Du Ji. Since Wei Gu was confident he could keep Du Ji under control and Du Ji made a show of talking about how much he would rely on the local leaders, they let Du Ji become their new figurehead.

For Gao Gan, this seemed an opportunity to strike west, allying with Zhang Cheng and the local leaders, Hongnong seemed ripe for the taking while Zhong Yao having tried to resign by impeaching himself when Wang Yi wasn’t punished [33] may have given hope that western leadership was not focused. Meanwhile Cao Cao was surely rather busy in You so in the winter, Gao Gan’s soldiers marched through Huoze in the east of the province and Zhang Cheng marched into Hedong to attack Yuan commandery, again from the eastern side.

What Gao Gan was unlikely to have been aware was the scale of Du Ji’s work from the inside, persuading Wei Gu not to raise a full levy leaving the local army weaker then Gao Gan would have expected and by suggesting leave for officers to gain loyalty, Du Ji had managed to get his loyalists out to local areas while dividing Wei Gu’s strength. As the Yuan alliance moved, Du Ji slipped out of Wei Gu’s grip at Anyi and set himself up with a fortress just outside, gathering 4,000 men and able to coordinate the local forces. The Yuan alliance was unable to defeat Du Ji and the local forces, allowing Zhang Ji to go to Ma Teng and collect the Liang forces once more to join with Zhong Yao’s army, the two forces combining to crush the Yuan alliance. Zhang Cheng, Fan Xian, Zhang Yan and Wei Gu were killed, Gao Gan’s army retreated and Cao Cao’s men were now in the southern part of Gao Gan’s lands.

In the spring of 206, Cao Cao left Cao Pi with supervision by Cui Yan in Ye and marched west through Hu pass and besieged key defensive point of Huguan. Having held off Yue Jin and Li Dian but weakened by western failure, Gao Gan’s forces were no match now for Cao Cao and by third month, he had lost Huguan. Leaving Xia Zhao and Deng Sheng to try to hold Shangdang, Gao Gan took a few horsemen and desperately raced to the Xiongnu court in Pingyuan but Huchuquan remembered what happened last time they combined, wouldn’t even let Gao Gan talk to him. The Shanyu could honestly tell Cao Cao that he had rejected Gao Gan, he had not even touched or seen the man, he had been a loyal ally.

Gao Gan took his small escort and tried to flee south to Liu Biao for refuge and possible help, aiming for Wu pass. The escort had only been meant for a short trip, to be small for speed and stealth but if they were caught then Gao Gan would be in real trouble. He got as far as Shangluo county in Jingzhao but he was captured and killed by the local commandant Wang Yan. With Gao Gan dead, his parts of Bing (but only his parts) fell into Cao Cao’s hands though according to Cao Ren’s SGZ, only after persuading Cao Cao not to bury the defenders alive [34] so they had reason to surrender, though De Crespigny questions the accuracy of this. Wang Yan was made a marquis which did not please everyone according to the Dianlue “Shàngluò Commandant Wáng Yǎn captured Gāo Gàn, for his achievement was given fief as Marquis; his wife wept at home, believing [Wáng] Yǎn because of his nobility and riches would again wed concubines and take away her own favour.
” This moment was a career boost to a man considered from poor quality family and he would rise to Protector of the Qiang though no word on his family situation.

What to make of Gao Gan? Xie Cheng’s Houhanshu spoke greatly of his talents but we don’t get a full chance to see it, probably due to being on the edge of the empire for a losing family. He deserves credit for carving out lands in Bing, he failed to unify it but neither did his replacement Liang Xi either so he should not be judged harshly for that. Gao Gan was able to provide supplies for his cousins for a time, he probably didn’t react to the supplies being cut off because Qian Zhao was set to march with reinforcements. When he moved against Cao Cao, there were always reasons why he did it then: be it Guo Yuan’s strike, the attempts to take Hongnong or Ye while Cao Cao was away. Gao Gan seems to have been able to get local allies in Cao Cao’s ranks in the west for his ventures which is credit to his ability to cultivate allies. Yet each strike out failed though again it shouldn’t be judged harshly, Ye was probably a try your luck effort while in the west the Ma clan intervened each time and Guo Yuan was in command for the first strike. The efforts in Hongong did not display Gao Gan’s forces in a good light as his army was held up by local forces even before the Liang forces arrived. However Gao Gan’s main forces may have been rather tied up at Hu pass at the time, Gao Gan seems to have been commanding the defence of his pass and so Gan’s forces could have been relying on the local forces to have been stronger then they were. Holding off Yue Jin and Li Dian wasn’t a bad achievement though once Cao Cao arrived, the defences did not last long.

We get no sense of his administration but Zhongchang Tong may have had a point about failure to use talent: Gan’s replacement Liang Xi was able to recommend Chang Lin (who Gan Gan had tried to hire, became Wei Minister), Yang Jun (patron and well regarded administrator, disliked by Cao Pi), Wang Xiang (scholar on Cao Pi’s staff), Xun Wei (scholar on Cao Pi’s staff) and Wang Ling (Wang Yun’s brother, general against Wu before plotting against Sima Yi), officers who Gao Gan had either failed to hire or hadn’t noticed yet became noted under Gao Gan.


Yuan and the Wuhuan

Yuan Shao had strong relations with the Wuhuan, a policy marriages with his officers families to Wuhuan chieftains, they had fought with him against Gongsun Zan and kept peace in the north. This had been maintained with his sons and though they had not helped Yuan Tan in his final moments, they were keeping the Yuan cause alive now. The three Yuan’s Xi, Shang and a Yuan Mai, who was either the 4th child of Shao or Shang’s nephew, were now with the mighty Tadun, the Wuhuan raiding into divided You.

Cao Cao spent the rest of 206 having small revolts and troubles dealt with by subordinates as he focused his mind on dealing with the tribes, he could not let them keep harassing and unsettling his northern front. While the Yuan’s were alive, they could be used as a figurehead or a symbol for anyone ambitious or unhappy with Cao Cao in the north. Cao Cao set his headquarters at Gongsun Zan’s former city of Yi while Dong Zhao was placed in charge of major canal work to ensure supply and communication lines would be intact.

Tadun, the Wuhuan leader, and the Yuan’s were likely aware of this but they had reason to be confident if they were attacked. A drive north by Cao Cao would be taking him far away from Xuchang, leaving it vulnerable to Liu Biao or internal foes, Cao Cao’s supply lines still risked being stretched to their limit despite the canal work, the Wuhuan had a strong army and their base in the Dependent State of Liaodong was protected by mountains and rivers, making it difficult to be taken. Cao Cao’s own officers were said to have concerns at the wisdom of attacking the Yuan’s when Liu Biao was around but Guo Jia calculated that if left alone, the Yuan-Wuhuan alliance could be a problem with lands still new to Cao Cao whereas Liu Biao did not trust Liu Bei and wouldn’t commit to an attack. [35]

In the summer of 207, Cao Cao gathered up figures with connections to the Wuhuan like Qian Zhao and Yan Rou then marched north. Cao Cao also reached out to Liu Yu loyalist Tian Chou [36] who was running a community in Xuwu hills to the north of Youbeiping and had always rejected Yuan Shao’s attempts to recruit him, he also rejected Yuan Shang. Tian Chou was said to admire Cao Cao’s strict government but the deadly raids by Tadun on his community may have been a more revenging reason for joining Cao Cao, he became Prefect of Tiao and joined the invading army as they headed to Wuzhong.

Cao Cao’s march along the coast was hit by storms and floods, roads became impassable due to the mud while the actually prepared Wuhuan held the key passes. Tian Chou then used his local knowledge [37], suggesting a path long forgotten from centuries ago to strike at the capital of Tadun’s lands and that the Wuhuan would think Cao Cao had retreated so be taken by suprised. Guo Jia agreed and suggested they go for as quick an army as possible "In war, speed like a spirit is the best. Now you want to make a surprise attack on people a thousand li away. If you have too much baggage it will be difficult to move fast enough. The enemy will hear of it and will certainly be ready for you. The best thing to do is leave the baggage behind and make a forced march with light troops. That way, you take them by surprise."

Cao Cao wrote a big sign in wood by side of the road saying “"It is the middle of summer, and the road is impassable. We are waiting for autumn or winter to resume the advance.” The Wuhuan scouts saw this and apparently believed Cao Cao had indeed gone for the season, I wonder if the sign is a bit of a tall tale. Wuhuan would have reason to believe Cao Cao was retreating due to weather and would come again later, making a sign declaring it would be so odd, it would seem more likely to make the Wuhuan suspicious.

Tian Chou and Guo Jia’s plan was opposed by plenty (unnamed) figures in Cao Cao’s ranks. If it worked, Cao Cao would have a speedy force catching the allied forces by surprise and from behind. However the march led by Tian Chou as guide showed the problems, marching through mountains in bad weather is apparently not a great idea, Cao Cao’s men having to fill in gorges and gullies to make the road passable. Cao Cao reached White Wolf Mountain, still some considerable distance from his final goal, when a problem emerged.

The supposedly relaxed and idle alliance either worked out Cao Cao’s plan or found out Cao Cao had gone around the rear via their own scouts when Cao Cao was 200 li away from his target. Tadun, his cousin and technically ruler Louban [38], the two Yuan’s and local leader Wuyan, possibly Dai Wuhuan leader Nengchendi was also there, raised ten thousands of cavalry to attack, arriving on Cao Cao’s men before Cao Cao was expecting them. Outnumbered (in this case, could well be true given circumstances), taken by surprise, lightly armed and with retreat going to be difficult, this was not quite how Cao Cao had quite planned it.

However he had the heights to observe the allies who, said in due to haste to get across to the surprising advance of Cao Cao, were disorganized and didn’t draw up their lines properly in time. Cao Cao spotted the opportunity and Zhang Liao (who according to the Fuzi in Zhang Liao’s sgz [39] was one who had opposed the campaign) urged Cao Cao to fight. Cao Cao gave his personal banner to Zhang Liao to lead the vanguard in the attack on the weak-point. The ill-prepared Wuhuan were crushed, Tadun was killed as were many of the chieftains while others like Nanlou and Pufulu surrendered.

Cao Cao had gambled hugely on this camapign, so much so he rewarded those who told him not to do it, and it had paid off brilliantly, driving away the Yuan’s and shattering the Wuhuan alliance, killing the leading figure in Tadun. Cao Cao had managed to move quickly with his army intact, his arrival at the rear had forced the defenders to leave their prepared positions and rush to fight an open battle. While things had not gone entirely to plan, Cao Cao responded best and spotted a major weakness from his experienced opponents and took full advantage. For the Yuan remnants, the defeat was a shattering one for manpower and for allies, the Wuhuan had been their last reliable ally under Tadun. It isn’t surprising Tadun and Yuan Shang, who had military experience, were caught out by Cao Cao’s march, it was a road unsuited for an army and a seemingly reckless move to try, but it is surprising they didn’t have their lines organized in time. Possibly they underestimated how quickly Cao Cao’s men would be ready to attack or hadn’t quite realized where Cao Cao was and had rushed to the general area.


Final Refuge and Death

The Yuan’s with Wuyan, Supuyan, Louban (sources dispute if Wuyan and Louban survived White Wolf Mountain or fled with the Yuan’s) and a few thousand followers fled to their only real potential refuge, Gongsun Kang in Liaodong. The Yuan’s had never been hostile to Gongsun Du but they had never been close and Kang had tried to claim control of the Wuhuan so they could not be sure of what reception they would get.

Cao Cao advanced to Liucheng where his advisers urged him to press on against Gongsun Kang, possibly not wishing to seem so cautious having opposed the campaign in first place. Cao Cao dismissed the idea "I shall arrange that Gongsun Kang cuts the heads off Yuan Shang and Yuan Xi and sends them to me. No need to bother with soldiers." Cao Cao knew that his presence would bind an alliance, if he retreated then he could see what happened then. It is extremely questionable if Cao Cao had the resources to stay anyway, he travelled down the coast back to Ye but during the retreat a drought meant his army was having trouble finding water and eating their horses for food. Trying to attack Gongsun Kang in such circumstances could have turned a great victory into an immense disaster.

It is possible neither Shang nor Kang started their plans with good intent, the Dianlue claims Shang suggested to Yuan Xi [40] as they made their way to Kang “"Now we have arrived in Kāng’s territory, we are certain to be invited to be invited to an interview with him. Let’s both take the opportunity to strike him down brother. If we gain Liaodong, we will still have a power-base.” If the claim is true, it was not exactly a loyal friendly move, Shang’s calculation was reasonable that Kang would meet noted guests, it would have looked bad for Kang to snub them. Having been a warlord, Yuan Shang seems to have had no wish to be a subordinate but beyond ambition, there was also no guarantees that Kang would do much to help their cause, they could be stuck there for a long long time away from their homes. Or eventually killed. Taking power, it would ensure the Yuan safety in Liadong and combining with the Wuhuan again, they could try to take on Cao Cao once more.

For Gongsun Kang, he would have to pick a side. Pick the Yuans and he gets some officers of prestige to his court, claimants he can use to try to take control of Wuhuan again and then in places like Ji. However he would be committed to that route by the Yuan and Wuhuan ambition (which might not keep them loyal anyway) and because Cao Cao had shown himself to be extremely determined in hunting down and destroying the Yuan clan, Kang would risk being next. If he turned to Cao Cao, there risked some PR backlash for poor treatment of guests but it would likely ensure Cao Cao left him alone, leaving space for Kang’s own plans and the Wuhuan would lose plenty of their leaders, Kang could then try again to extend influence over them.

Kang made his choice, inviting his guests to a meeting then having them seized by soldiers, executing them all and sending their heads to Cao Cao. Yu Huan’s Dianlue adds more possible details, sending strong men to hide into stables then bind the leaders when they entered. They were left on the frozen ground in the cold, Shang asked for a mat which saw Yuan Xi remark “Your head is about to make a journey of 10,000 li, what do you want with a mat?” Their heads were indeed cut off, Xi showing a rare moment of recorded personality as he realised the full implications quicker then his younger, perhaps still hopeful, sibling.

Cao Cao exposed Shang’s head in the marketplace of Ye and ordered “Anyone who dares weep for him will be executed." but Tian Chou and Qian Zhao ignored it, Zhao mourning his former master and Tian Chou a man who had once sought to hire him. Cao Cao was said to have respected Zhao’s loyalty (also perhaps aware of backlash if he executed them) and recommended Zhao as abundant talent, though it is not clear what rank Zhao got while Tian Chou rejected attempts to ennoble him. A few years after his embarrassment in Liyang, Cao Cao had complete control of the Yuan lands in Ji, Qing, Bing and You, wiping out the male line of his old friend and shattering a growing Wuhuan alliance, bringing in many officers who would become important figures in his government, writing one of his most famed poems the Jieshi on the rigours of war. Now he could turn his eyes elsewhere while the Yuan name lived on only in Wu and in the pages of history.



The Yuan’s inherited a rich Ji, Qing and holdings in two other provinces, still a formidable army, close ties with the Wuhuan, popular support and skilled officers. Victory after Liyang showed they could be a force when united but the situation they faced wasn’t easy, Zang Ba was putting pressure in the east, they faced Cao Cao to the south and Ma Teng proved key against them in the west while Liu Biao would fail to ever distract Cao Cao. The descendants of Yuan Shao, bar possibly Gao Gan for the defence against Yue Jin and Li Dian, are not looked on favourably. While Yuan Shao is seen as a flawed but major figure, his descendants get dismissed as talentless, of no consequence, of being unworthy of their father in terms of talent and personality. People’s focus is on their divided fall and how Cao Cao brushed through them but these were flawed and talented individuals, like Shao.

Yuan Tan may have never quite lived up to that early promise, he may have inherited the questionable political judgement of his father and poor with farming but he had still earnt that early reputation and when he had a good army, he proved a formidable foe even to the end, he seems to have had some of his father’s charisma and he seems to have been viewed as a well meaning man. Yuan Shang may have made a fatal misjudgement going after Tan when Cao Cao was around but he was said to be a strong, handsome and brave figure, despite his inexperience he inflicted defeats on Cao Cao and Yuan Tan in battle so he seems to have had talent as a military leader. Gao Gan may not have been the best with his choice of his officers but he was regarded as talented as well as ambitious, he did establish some control of Bing, building contacts and trying to exploit moments in Cao Cao’s western flank. Yuan Xi? He does not seem to have been effective, unable to unite You nor seem to strengthen Yuan grip there and losing it to mutiny soon after Shang’s arrival though he showed a realistic eye and faced his fate bravely at the end. There is also Yuan Mai but he may, be he nephew or sibling of Shang, have been too young to have any real say in what happened around him.

Of course, there is in the infighting: falling apart and allowing Cao Cao to gobble them up, inviting Cao Cao in, attacking each other rather then the bigger threat. It looks short sighted, incompetent, that they were stupid. It also casts a shadow on them as people, it looks pretty, vengeful, unfilial, how can they destroy all their father worked for by war between and brother? It was a disaster, it cost them the support of their officers, it allowed Cao Cao to manipulate and pick them off one by one and made his task a lot easier.

I blame the civil war mostly on Yuan Shao’s utter botching of the succession more then I do the sons. He had allowed things to spiral so badly that loyal and long serving officers feared for their lives if the other side won, he failed to pick and establish his heir above the other creating inevitably confusion. The children inherited a disputed succession via a forged will and officers who hated the other side, fearing for their lives with little room for trust that was needed if they were to cooperate.

For Yuan Tan, his expected succession had not happened, it was a public humiliation and one where there was room to doubt that he had been treated fairly. When he tried to work with his younger sibling, they sent a spy and kept refusing him troops, clearly not trusting him and putting him in long term danger. He could sit there and wait for trouble to come or make a desperate play for power, after that Shang showed little interest in peace (bar a possible letter and if true, certainly questionable motive with “kill your adviser” as a key demand).

For Shang, his succession was disputed and controversial, Tan was always going to have a strong claim as the legitimate ruler and he had considerable military experience makes him a huge threat. Tan going to Liyang rather then returning Qing and taking a charged rank for himself was alarming sign, his advisers worried about Xin Ping slaughtering them if Tan won. Tan executing Pang Ji would have done nothing to ease concerns and with Tan constantly asking for reinforcements, it is understandable if the concern was such troops would be strengthening Shang’s rival and could be used against them later. Once Tan rebelled then furthermore invited Cao Cao in, Shang had little reason to trust his older brother and was so close to finishing him off with Tan down to final city, Shang had possible reason to believe he could end that threat before facing Cao Cao.

It is easy from the outside to see the long term need to ally with each other but in the atmosphere of distrust and fear they inherited, with questions about legitimacy, it is harder for those inside it to take a mutual step back and make peace. It was destructive and hastened their end but it would have taken considerable wisdom from both sides to escape the history, the fear, the poison and unify once more once the spark of civil war the lit.

The sons of Shao inherited a festering wound that they failed to deal with, they do deserve blame for failing to see beyond the atmosphere but not to the extent where we dismiss them as idiots or horrible people. They were the sons of Shao, talented and flawed figures as Shao himself had been, the divided siblings showed they could cause Cao Cao a headache on their day but the distrust, though understandable, was a huge weaknesses that was exploited expertly. They made mistakes, they fell short and Cao Cao ruthlessly hunted them down but they were able men who perhaps with a better managed succession, could have shown their full potential.



[1] Styled Shuzhi from Beihai, noted as a youngster for his conduct and scholarship. Served under Kong Rong and forced the powerful Sun family to submit then executed defiant clan leader Gongsha Lu but was sacked for his own protection as Kong Rong’s grip on the area was slipping. Served Yuan Shao as a magistrate before being sent to Yuan Tan.

[2] Gao Rou's SGZ

[3] Styled Gongli from Shanyang, a man of scholarly and literary talent, of great wealth and widely admired as he toured the north in his early 20’s. Would be something of an authoritarian and nonconformist who refused office many times, feigning sickness but he also believing in seeking personal happiness was more important before eventually serving Cao Cao

[4] Style Bouie from Henei. Family had fallen on hard times but famed for showing pride when someone used his father’s style incorrectly so Chang Lin refused to bow, studied in the fields. Managed to persuade Wang Kuang to spare uncle punishment, ran a successful farm in Shangdang during drought and locust. He gained followers and helped Chen Yan fight off Zhang Yang.

[5] Style Ziming from Julu, it was claimed he was born in 136, had had been a student at Luoyang way back then lived in gentry retirement, rejected offers from warlord. Had many students and famed for deciphering omens, died in 240.

[6] From Yue Jin’s SGZ

[7] From Li Dian’s SGZ

[8] From Cao Cao’s SGZ

“Sima’s Law of ‘Leniency Upon a General’s Death’ came about because of Zhao Kuo’s mother, who entreated not to be held accountable for Kuo. It was true of generals in ancient times that when their armies suffered defeat abroad their families were held responsible at home. When I myself assign generals to go forth on campaign, to only reward accomplishments and not punish failure is not the law of the country. As such let it be decreed that for all generals who go out to attack, the ones whose armies are defeated will shoulder the blame with the unsuccessful generals barred from government service and noble rank.”

Weishu also has, from July, “There are some critics among those heading the army saying that even if they have skilful ability and virtuous conduct it is never enough to receive provincial or state appointment to an official post. These people say, ‘We are able to take part in following a course but we are not able to take part in the decision-making.’ Guanzhong said, ‘When employing learned and virtuous men their ability depends on honouring their superiors, and for fighting men their merit depends on the soldiers regarding death lightly. These two sorts of men should be employed in service of the state in order to control the empire.’ I will not give repute to inept men or soldiers lacking will to fight, but one who combines the two can receive the reward of an official salary and moreover may make contributions as a builder of the state. For this reason I clearly cannot grant official posts to subjects lacking merit just as I cannot reward a soldier who doesn’t fight; to govern fairly and with virtue rewards must be dispensed according to function. The speech of those discussing this is like peering at a tiger through a bamboo tube!”

[9] Huchuquan had taken over when his brother Yufuluo died in 195, he had failed to restore his family and lost control of most of Xiongnu to King Qubi. Huchuquan maintained a shadow court at Pingyang on the Fen River in northern Hedong.

[10] From Zuopingyi. From humble family, they became rich but he remained as a clerical officer in the local administration, using money to support officials and gentry who fell on hard times. Gained reputation and as a magistrate in Jingzhao, admired for fine administration. For Zhong Yao, seems to been the go-to choice for envoy to Ma Teng.

[11] Fu Xie had been a tall, imposing man who won respect for his virtue. A major under Huangfu Song against the Turbans with notable success in his own right, was considered an expert in strategy by the court but refused to bribe eunuchs. Governed Hanyang well but his advice was ignored by Inspector of Liang Geng Bi who was killed in mutiny when he went to attack Liang rebels. Offered to be escort home by horsemen who had once served him, was even offered head of the Liang alliance. Refused and charged out to die in battle.

Fu Gan (Yanlin or Yancai) of Beidi was aged only 13 when his father died. Had urged his father to take the offer of the Liang rebels to leave then retire, wait for a real leader to emerge but his father was too loyal to the state to take such advice. Fu Gan was probably helped in his position by the reputation of his father and seems to have acted more for Cao Cao then Ma Teng in his advice.

[12] "Men of the past had the saying: 'He who accords with virtue will prosper, and the men that opposes virtue will lose.' Lord Cao supports the Emperor and punishes cruelty and rebellion. His laws are clear and his government is ordered. High and low follow his commands. You could say that he follows the true Way. The Yuan, on the other hand, rely on their strength, they turn their backs to the royal commands, and they urge on barbarians to oppress China. You can say that they oppose virtue.

"You have always given loyal service, but you have not always used your full strength. You have private contacts with both sides, and you hope to sit back and watch the result. I fear that when things are decided there will be accusations made and punishments carried out, and you will be one of the first to be executed!"

When that scared Ma Teng, Fu Gan offered a route out "A wise man, can change ill fortune to good. As Lord Cao is at grips with the Yuan, Gao Gan and Guo Yuan have attacked Hedong together. Lord Cao has planned for every possibility, but he cannot be certain Hedong will be safe. If you send soldiers to attack Guo Yuan, he will be attacked on two sides [with the forces of Hedong and with your own], and his army can surely be taken. With one blow you cut off an arm of the Yuan clan and free a whole district from peril. Lord Cao will surely be grateful, and nothing could rival your fine reputation."

[13] "The Yuan are strong and Guo Yuan is coming against us. The people inside the passes have secret contact with him, and the one reason they have not rebelled is that they respect our authority. If we give up and go away it will show them how weak we are, and they will all turn against us. Even if we wanted to retreat, could we manage it? We would be defeating ourselves without a fight.

"Guo Yuan, moreover, is a headstrong fellow, accustomed to success. He will certainly take small account of our army. If he crosses the Fen River to camp, and we attack him while he is part-way across, then we can thoroughly defeat him."

[14] Dianlue in Ma Chao’s SGZ

[15] In 216 Huchuquan would be persuaded to go to Ye were he was, in essence, an honoured prisoner/guest and the remnant Xiongnu state divided up under Qubi. Huchuquan would be at Cao Pi’s ceremony to Emperor and sponsored a commemorative stele, the Shanyu title died with Huchuquan.

[16] From Xin Pi's SGZ

[17] "With all the activity throughout the empire, Liu Biao does nothing but hold his position between the Yangzi River and the Han. You can see he has no ambitions anywhere else. The Yuan, on the other hand, hold the territory of four provinces, with almost half a million men under arms. Yuan Shao gained people's affections by his leniency, and if his two sons can agree and maintain the inheritance they will be a source of endless trouble in the empire. "Now, however, the brothers have fallen out and will not join forces. If they stayed together they would be hard to deal with, but if you take them while they are squabbling then the whole empire can be settled. We must not lose this chance."

[18] Weishu claims Cao Cao said “When I attacked Lü Bu, Biao did not invade, and during the Guandu campaign he did not come to the aid of Yuan Shao. Thus he protects only himself from harm, and so it is suitable to plan against him later on. Tan and Shang are duplicitous so it is proper that I take advantage of their state of disorder. I will indulge Tan, pretending to support him, and he, not ultimately being helpless, will employ me to defeat Shang and I will lean in to take over his territory, which will greatly benefit me.”

[19] "Your excellency, has no reason to be concerned about Yuan Tan's loyalty. You have only to consider his military strength. When the brothers first began to fight one another, they had no idea they might be making an opening for anyone else: they thought they could decide the empire between themselves”

"Now, however, one of them is suddenly asking your help, and you can see from this [how weak they are]. Xianfu has Xiansi in trouble, but he cannot defeat him, and this is because his strength is exhausted. As their men-at-arms suffer defeat outside, and their ministers of counsel are killed within, the brothers slander and quarrel with each other. Their state is divided in two, and they have been in this situation for a whole year. Their soldiers' clothes have lice, there is drought, there are locusts, and there is famine everywhere. Such disasters from Heaven above reflect the chaos afflicting the affairs of men below. Anyone can see they are done for. Now is the time Heaven has abandoned Yuan Shang.”

"If you move against Ye, for his own preservation Yuan Shang must go back to guard his base. And as he does so, Yuan Tan will follow at his heels. Attacking an enemy distressed and desperate, striking a rebel discouraged and weary, with your power, it will be like strong wind moving the autumn leaves. Heaven has put Yuan Shang into your hands. Supposing, however, that you neglect the opportunity and attack Jing province instead? That territory is flourishing and content, with a unified government. Zhonghui said, 'Take their states from those who are in disorder, and deal firmly with those on the road to ruin.' The two Yuan pay no attention to external strategy, but plot against one another inside their own camp. They may be called disordered. The settled folk have no food, and the refugees have no provisions. They may be called ruined. In the morning they cannot be sure of the evening, and the people have no means to sustain their lives.”

"If, on the other hand, you fail to settle them now and decide to wait another year, then next harvest there may be grain, and your enemies will have recognised their errors. They will reform their government and revive their power, so you will have lost the chance to use your soldiers. Far the best policy for you now is to follow Yuan Tan's request and bring him help. Of all your enemies, none are greater than those to the north of the Yellow River, while once you have brought the north of the River under control, then your imperial army will have gained its full strength, and all the empire will tremble before you."

[20] “I certainly am aware of Tan’s pitiful scheming. He wishes to use me to attack Shang, which will allow him in the meantime to plunder the populace and gather men so that on Shang’s defeat he will have obtained for himself a superior force by which to take advantage of my weakness. However, I will benefit from Shang’s defeat, so what weakness will there be to take advantage of?”

[21] Had been in Yang province, De Crespigny saying taking refugee after fall of Yuan Shu and was summoned to court as Cao Cao realized the opportunity, Yuanchang was style name. Neither were heard of again

[22] From Xu Huang’s SGZ for false surrender

“The two Yuán [Tán and Shàng] are not yet defeated, and all the cities not yet taken ready their ears and listen. Today we have wiped out Yìyáng, but tomorrow all to the death defend, and I fear the [Yellow] River’s north will not be settled for long. May your Excellency recruit Yìyáng to show to all the cities, and then there will be none who do not follow the situation.”

[23] Cao Cao remarked to his aide "I have looked at the household registers, and there are just on three hundred thousand families. So this is a big province."

Cui Yan made clear his displeasure "The empire is fallen asunder, and the two Yuan brothers took up arms against one another. All those people of Ji, their bones were left bleaching in the wilderness. I have not heard you make any inquiries about the customs of the people, nor how you can help them in their distress. Instead, you calculate the numbers of their armed men. Do you really consider that to be the most important question? Is this what the men and women of my province must expect from you?"

[24] From Qiao Zhao’s SGZ

[25] From Qian Zhao’s SGZ

King Qiao asked Qian Zhao, “Once before, Lord Yuan said that he held command from the Son of Heaven to appoint me Chanyu. Now Lord Cao is saying that he will tell the Son of Heaven and have me made Chanyu properly. And besides all this, there is an envoy with insignia from Liaodong. Which is the right one?”

“Formerly,” replied Qian Zhao with a laugh, “Lord Yuan held office and had power to make appointments. Later, however, he opposed the imperial commands, so now Lord Cao has taken his place. He is willing to arrange that you be given title as Chanyu by the proper authority. The miserable commandery of Liaodong, how dare they claim to grant credentials?”

Han Zhong said, “My Liaodong is east of a vast sea, with millions of soldiers and with the services of the Fuyu, the Hui and the Mo. These days, honour goes to the strong. What makes Cao Cao so special?” Qian Zhao shouted at Han Zhong, “Lord Cao is sincere and respectful, wise and understanding. He supports the Son of Heaven, he attacks rebels but is kind to those who submit. He gives peace to the four seas. You, master and servant, you are stupid and disobedient. You hide away in the furthest corners of the empire and turn your backs to the royal commands. You want to usurp appointments and you interfere in the powers of the Emperor. You should be killed at once. How dare you rudely and lightly slander a great man!”

He seized Han Zhong by the neck, brought him to the floor, and drew a sword to cut his head off. King Qiao, startled and frightened, ran barefoot to grasp Qian Zhao and ask mercy for Han Zhong. All his attendants turned pale. Qian Zhao went back to his seat, and then he told King Qiao and the others who would win and who would lose, and what was the right course to follow. All came down from their mats, knelt in obeisance and received his words with respect. So the king made excuses to the messengers from Liaodong, and he disbanded the cavalry that he had prepared for Yuan Tan.

[26] From Cao Chun’s segment of Cao Ren’s SGZ

[27] From Imperial Warlords “Since you were writing for Yuan Shao, I cannot complain that you insulted me. I do resent it, however, that you attacked my father and my grandfather.” An embarrassed Chen Lin argued “An arrow in a bow has no choice where it will be shot.”

[28] From Dai and style Zipei, he had been admired for manner in which he carried out mourning of his family before joining Yuan Xi.

[29] De Crespigny wonders if he was retained as Inspector, given his self deceleration this would have made some sense. Howard Goodman suggests Jiao Chu was the unnamed Chu, general and Marquis, who sponsored stele backing Cao Pi becoming Emperor

[30] Styled Wendu, from Beidi, he had been a county magistrate in Xihe before taking charge of Hedong. Had offered gifts of clothing and food during Empeor Xian’s escape from Li Jue and was rewarded with rank of general and marquis. Seems to have been left alone after these events and Zhong Yao tried to resign for losing control of events, presumably not too happy with Wang Yi’s defiance going unpunished.

[31] Style Bohou from Jingzhao, noted for his care of his widowed mother, in local government was noted for dealing with those imprisoned quickly and effectively, was serving in Hanzhong when civil war started so fled to Jing. Returned home to bury his mother, old friend Zhang Shi appointed him to local office and then Xun Yu became patron, served in Cao Cao’s staff then in north-west as Protector of the Qiang.

[32] "Hedong has thirty thousand households, and they cannot all wish to be in rebellion. With soldiers holding them down, however, those who wish to stay loyal have no leader. It is only natural that they are frightened, so they listen to Wei Gu. Wei Gu and his men have seized full power, and they will certainly fight to the death. If we attack them without success there will be no end of trouble. If we attack them and win, we destroy the people of a whole commandery.”

"On the other hand, Wei Gu and his fellows have not yet made a public break from the imperial authority. They claim they are asking for their former master [Wang Yi], and I am sure they will not harm me if I come as their new ruler. I shall go to them direct, without an escort, and take them by surprise. Wei Gu has many ideas, but he cannot make decisions. He will certainly pretend to accept me, and if I can just stay in the commandery for a month that will give me time to arrange some plan to keep them quiet."

[33] De Crespigny’s encyclopedia interpretation of Zhong Yao’s attempt to impeach himself which is in Weilue annotation to Zhong Yao’s SGZ

[34] From Cao Ren’s SGZ

“A besieged city must be shown a survival gate, and therefore open a road to survival. Now it is publicly announced they will certainly die, causing the people to defend themselves. Moreover the city is firm and its provisions many, if attacking them then the soldiers are injured, if defending against them then the days stretch long; now arranging troops firmly below the city, to attack certain to die enemies, is not a good plan.”

[35] "Your authority makes the empire tremble, but the northern barbarians rely upon the fact that they are a long way away. They will certainly not be prepared against you. If we take advantage of their miscalculation and attack them quickly, they can be defeated and destroyed. Yuan Shao, moreover, treated the people and barbarians well, and Yuan Shang and his brother are still there. The only reason the people of the four provinces obey you now is because of your military strength, for they have not yet seen the true grace of your government. If you go off on campaign in the south, then Yuan Shang will use the resources of the Wuhuan to gather followers willing to die for him. Once the northern barbarians are on the move, the Chinese and the eastern barbarians will join them. This would give Tadun ideas and allow him to plan aggression. And if that happens I fear both Qing and Ji provinces will be lost to us.

Liu Biao, on the other hand, is the sort of fellow who does nothing but sit and talk, and he knows that his ability is no match for Liu Bei. If he gives Liu Bei an important post he must be concerned that Liu Bei will become too powerful, but if he gives him a lesser position Liu Bei will be reluctant to serve him. Even though you are leaving your territory empty and going to fight far away, you still have no cause for concern."

[36] Style Zitai from Youbeiping. Scholar and swordsman, managed to sneak to Li Jue’s capital for Liu Yu but his master was killed by Gongsun Zan by the time Tian Chou got back. Was arrested but refused to recognize Zan’s authority.

[37] “This road is always flooded in autumn and summer. Too deep for carts or horses, too shallow for boats, it has been difficult for a long time. In the past, [You]beiping commandery was administered from Pinggang, and there was a road from Lulong through to Liucheng. It has been broken and abandoned for two hundred years, since the Jianwu period, but there is still a small pathway you can follow.

The enemy commanders will be convinced that any substantial force must come [directly east] from Wuzhong, and that if it cannot get forward it will have to go back. They will be idle and make no preparations. If you quietly turn the army about, however, and go from the mouth of Lulong to the narrow gorges of Botan, you emerge onto open ground. The road is close by and easy to reach. You can catch them unawares and Tadun will be taken without a fight.”

[38] Son of the last Shanyu Qiuliju but father died when he was a child so Tadun had acted as guardian, Louban was made Shanyu when he became of age but Tadan handled matters of war.

[39] From Zhang Liao's SGZ

[40] Using Garadiner’s work on the Gongsun clan “The Kung-Sun Warlords of Liao-Tung”
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sat Feb 09, 2019 6:44 pm

That was an incredibly long read but very interesting! Thanks Dong. I wish we knew more of Tian Kai and Yuan Tan's battles as both seemed capable commanders within their limited theaters. I hadn't ever realised how unkind the records were to Yuan Xi and how little we know about him.
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Gray Riders » Sat Feb 09, 2019 11:29 pm

Thanks for another great read.

I was hoping to learn more about Yuan Xi but it seems there just isn't much about him.

Dong Zhou wrote:The descendants of Yuan Shao, bar possibly Gao Gan for the defence against Yue Jin and Li Dian, are not looked on favourably. While Yuan Shao is seen as a flawed but major figure, his descendants get dismissed as talentless, of no consequence, of being unworthy of their father in terms of talent and personality.

It's oddly appropriate timing that the recent stream for Total War: Three Kingdoms showed that Yuan Tan has a trait called "Incompetent", which struck me as incredibly harsh and far from fair.
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby zirroxas » Sat Feb 09, 2019 11:49 pm

Gray Riders wrote:It's oddly appropriate timing that the recent stream for Total War: Three Kingdoms showed that Yuan Tan has a trait called "Incompetent", which struck me as incredibly harsh and far from fair.

Wow, they did. The trait description even reads:

"Unable to cope with most situations, is there no limit to this one's ineptitude?"

Well that's just mean. Not sure how well he was treated in the Yanyi, but his flaws seem to come from something other than a general ineptitude. His early career certainly wouldn't give that impression, and while he wasn't doing so well later on, there were definitely extenuating circumstances to consider, and he did manage to give Cao Cao a tough time right at the end.
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Gray Riders » Sun Feb 10, 2019 1:24 am

zirroxas wrote:Wow, they did. The trait description even reads:

"Unable to cope with most situations, is there no limit to this one's ineptitude?"

Well that's just mean. Not sure how well he was treated in the Yanyi, but his flaws seem to come from something other than a general ineptitude. His early career certainly wouldn't give that impression, and while he wasn't doing so well later on, there were definitely extenuating circumstances to consider, and he did manage to give Cao Cao a tough time right at the end.

I think the Yanyi removed his early accomplishments, though his final battle does still mention both sides suffering heavy casualties and Cao Cao being uncertain of victory. His death was changed to Cao Hong slaying him in a duel, which is probably mostly a lateral shift.
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Sun Feb 10, 2019 12:38 pm

Sun Fin wrote:That was an incredibly long read but very interesting! Thanks Dong. I wish we knew more of Tian Kai and Yuan Tan's battles as both seemed capable commanders within their limited theaters. I hadn't ever realised how unkind the records were to Yuan Xi and how little we know about him.

I do need to work on shortening them, don't think it covering 4 people helped though. Glad you enjoyed it and yes, it is frustrating there is so little detail on the Qing wars

Gray Riders wrote:Thanks for another great read.

I was hoping to learn more about Yuan Xi but it seems there just isn't much about him.

It's oddly appropriate timing that the recent stream for Total War: Three Kingdoms showed that Yuan Tan has a trait called "Incompetent", which struck me as incredibly harsh and far from fair.

Glad you enjoyed it

When I came across Xi's line to his brother, I was just so pleased there was any spark of anything to him.

I was not amused when I heard about their choice of skill, particularly when I heard what it meant (I had guessed it might be civil related). I do wonder if they are trying to encourage people to pass kingdoms on to big names rather then sons of with some of the factions
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Gray Riders » Sun Feb 10, 2019 1:10 pm

Dong Zhou wrote:I do wonder if they are trying to encourage people to pass kingdoms on to big names rather then sons of with some of the factions

I suspect so, between Gongsun Xu being removed and that video where they showed Liu Biao's AI adopted Dian Wei and made him heir over any of his sons.
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Sun Fin » Sun Feb 10, 2019 3:14 pm

Dong Zhou wrote:I do need to work on shortening them, don't think it covering 4 people helped though. Glad you enjoyed it and yes, it is frustrating there is so little detail on the Qing wars.

Please don't, what I love about them is the depth you go into and your observations which make them richer. I don't know what you'd cut!
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby DaoLunOfShiji » Thu Feb 14, 2019 11:20 am

Sun Fin wrote:
Dong Zhou wrote:I do need to work on shortening them, don't think it covering 4 people helped though. Glad you enjoyed it and yes, it is frustrating there is so little detail on the Qing wars.

Please don't, what I love about them is the depth you go into and your observations which make them richer. I don't know what you'd cut!

Agreed with my fellow Gan Ning fan, Sun Fun! :lol: The longer it is, the more you're able to give a detail analysis of someone or something. Plus it can really help with the illusion of professionalism if you're me. :devil:
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Re: Three Yuan's and a Gao

Unread postby Sun Fin » Fri Feb 15, 2019 10:10 am

DaoLunOfShiji wrote:Please don't, what I love about them is the depth you go into and your observations which make them richer. I don't know what you'd cut!

Agreed with my fellow Gan Ning fan, Sun Fun! :lol: The longer it is, the more you're able to give a detail analysis of someone or something. Plus it can really help with the illusion of professionalism if you're me. :devil:[/quote]

My esteemed fellow, Zhong Hui hater and fan of the early era is right. He needs longer writing to appear professional :lol: :devil:
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