The Three Kuai's

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The Three Kuai's

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Fri Aug 23, 2019 10:27 am

Intro: A requested piece about the Kuai siblings, two famous advisers of Liu Biao the ruler of Jing and then serving Wei. Were they as good as their reputation and their role in the novel? What was Kuai Qi like and did he live up to his relatives?

Sources: Usual De Crespigny work and Liu Biao’s SGZ which covers a lot of his Jing/Wei officers


Lineage and Early Life

The family were descended from Kuai Tong (originally Kuai Che but Han historians changed it to avoid personal name clash with Emperor Wu), a native of Fanyang who was active in north during Qin empires collapse and who had helped Hua Xin as an adviser during conquest of Qi then urged Han Xin to rebel against Liu Bang. [1] Kuai Tong seems not to have suffered for his advice but the Kuai family were not noted as prominent in the Han government (they have no entry till our subject trio in De Crespigny’s encyclopaedia) and at some point, for an unknown reason, the family moved south to Yanzhong Lu in Nan. Possibly at some point Fanyang was vulnerable to tribal threat and the family moved to a more secure location in the south like many many others.

We know little of the Kuai’s as a clan, we don’t know when Liang (style Zirou) and Yue (style Yidu) were born (though Liang was older), who their parents were, let alone if their ancestors had held rank between Tong and the siblings. It is possible the Kuai’s simply had no interest in official and local service but probably more likely that the Kuai’s family records were lost in the chaos of civil wars. While I suspect a Kuai reaching high rank in the capital would have got noted somewhere else, if the Kuai’s had kept their ranks to ensuring local influence in Jing, that would have gone under the radar elsewhere. The Kuai brothers themselves suffer from a lack of information, like a lot of Liu Biao to Wei advisers there is not much in the SGZ and what fleshing out we get is from annotations of incidents and a paragraph biography in Wei/Jin scholar Fu Xuan’s Fuzi.

The Kuai siblings lives would suggest the family still had influence in the region and the wealth to educate both sons as would be expected of the gentry.


Service to the Han

Kuai Yue was described as a man of impressive appearance and intelligent, his reputation reached General-In-Chief He Jin, who was seeking to gather support against the eunuchs and legitimacy among the gentry, hired Kuai Yue as one of many advisers. Kuai Yue pushed He Jin to massacre the eunuchs but the Fuzi accuses He Jin of being hesitant and indecisive so Kuai Yue, predicting defeat for He Jin, asked to be made a magistrate in Ruyang in Runan.

I have argued that the traditional portrayal of He Jin is unfair [2] and it is unclear what, beyond “eunuchs are bad”, Kuai Yue actually proposed. Like others, he probably wanted He Jin to use his military authority to take out the eunuchs quickly but He Jin, for a few possible reasons, was unwilling to do that. There were worries among He Jin’s supporters that his lack of a bold strike/mass murder could see the eunuchs repeat their victories of old and then being seen as close to He Jin would be deadly. Kuai Yue was trying to distance himself from any fall out of He Jin’s defeat.

While Kuai Yue’s time under He Jin was short, it may have proved useful. Making contacts at the capital that might prove useful someday, adding a bit of lustre for the Kuai name back at Yanzhong Lu and getting the name at the capital. Maybe when the He Jin vs eunuchs conflict blew over, Kuai Yue could return to the capital.


Liu Biao arrives

With the capital having been thrown into chaos by He Jin’s seeming victory turning to disaster thanks to leaks and assassination leading to massacres, fire and Dong Zhuo’s military coup, the land plunged into civil war. Jing was not spared, it’s inspector Wang Rui and the administrator of Nanyang killed by Sun Jian [3] on the way to war with Dong Zhuo with Sun Jian collecting many troops from Jing.

Yuan Shu helped himself to Nanyang and it’s wealthy capital of Wan, local leaders Su Dai in Sun Jian’s former city of Changsha, Bei Yu in Huarong and in Jiangxia Zhang Hu and Chen Sheng [4] were raising troops. Dong Zhuo wished to show he was still in charge and the legitimate government despite the recent major uprising, he continued his policy of sending famed men to head provincial governments, choosing former eunuch opponent Liu Biao to govern Jing. With no troops in support as Dong Zhuo was rather busy with the coalition, Liu Biao seems to have got some agreement to be allowed into Jing as he nominated Yuan Shu as head of Nanyang and entered Yicheng in Nan, south of Xiangyang.

With only having what few local troops of Yicheng had, Yuan Shu a long term threat and needing to quickly get Jing under control, Liu Biao summoned a council with the Kuai family of Nan there. It isn’t made clear why they were summoned, it is possible Liu Biao and Kuai Yue met at the capital as supporters of He Jin (and we know the noted figures at council had served at court), perhaps the Kuai’s were attracted by Liu Biao’s reputation or were worried by the plunge into civil war. Or a powerful local family snubbing the new head of Jing at their base in Nan was a good way to get into trouble.

We know Cai Mao of Xiangyang was at the council but the only parts that survive are Liu Biao’s exchanges with the Kuai brothers thanks to Sima Biao’s Zhanlue. As Liu Biao worried he would be unable to raise troops, the first to advise was the eldest Liang “If crowds do not join it is because your benevolence is not enough. If those that join cannot be controlled it is because your justice is not enough. If you have benevolence and justice in principle and conduct, the people will submit like water flows down. Why worry about those who do not follow and ask about raising troops for a plan?”

Liu Biao then turned to the younger brother “Those governing in peace emphasize benevolence and justice. Those governing in chaos emphasize power and strategy. Armies are not in numbers but in obtaining men. Yuán Shù is valorous but not decisive. Sū Dài and Bèi Yǔ are both only fighting men, and not worth worrying about. The clan army leaders are mostly violent and cruel, and cause their subordinates to suffer. If one surpasses them in accomplishment and show they will provide great advantage, the crowds will certainly come. You sir must execute the unprincipled, and support and employ the rest, the entire province’s people will harbor happy hearts. When they hear of your flourishing virtue, they will certainly with their children on their backs arrive. Troops will gather and crowds attach. To the south occupy Jiānglíng, to the north defend Xiāngyáng, and Jīngzhōu’s eight prefectures can be gathered and settled. Though [Yuán] Shù and the rest come, there is nothing they can do.”

Liu Biao diplomatically called on a historical analogy to praise both “Your [Kuǎi Liáng’s] gentle advice is Yōng Jì’s discussion, and your [Kuǎi Yuè’s] unique decisive plan is Jiù Fàn’s strategy.” [5] In practise, Kuai Liang never seems to have been given a post and Kuai Yue’s strategy was put in action, Kuai Yue arranged for local leaders to be summoned, presumably Kuai Yue’s local connections and influence were considered more likely to be trusted and get local leaders to come over. Some fifty five leaders arrived and were promptly killed and their leaderless armies were taken over, other local leaders decided to submit quickly and Liu Biao quickly brought Jing lands south of the Jiang to order. The last hold out (bar Yuan Shu) was Xiangyang which Zhang Hu and Chen Sheng had taken after escaping the massacre, Kuai Yue and Pang Ji (not the Yuan one) rode alone to meet them and persuade them to surrender, presumably reassuring their safety.

Kuai Liang’s advice had been moralistic and naive, a belief that virtue and good governance would be enough to bring people around and that troops would not be needed. While few scholars would have argued against the need for a ruler to set an example, to rule with virtue and that it would bring others over, most recognised there was a time and place for troops. There were a few examples of such idealistic thinking during the dying days of the Han of men like Kuai Liang, Xiang Xu or Song Nie [6], whatever their merits as people and whatever their intelligence (we only get one glimpses of Kuai Liang so hard to judge) such men were horribly unsuited to government affairs during a time of war. There is no recorded reward for Kuai Liang but given Liu Biao’s need to win over local scholars and the Kuai’s local power, something for such virtuous advice was possibly given but Kuai Liang vanishes from the pages of history.

Kuai Yue had set out a base plan of holding the Han river basin between Xiangyang, Liu Biao’s new capital, south of the Han River and the port of Jiangling that controlled the Yangzi, seeking to spread influence to the south of the Xiang River basin and contest Yuan Shu’s holdings in Nanyang. By “executing the unprincipled” ie Kuai Yue’s guests then employing the soldiers, Liu Biao would display his authority and his willingness to use people while good government would further cement his support against local rivals.

Time was of the essence for Liu Biao, it was uncertain he would win in an outright conflict with the other warlords with his meagre resources and he needed to have a good defensive position for when Yuan Shu was finished with the coalition as he would surely not be content with Nanyang. Instead of uncertain odds of military campaigns, Kuai Yue had got his hands dirty, used his influence to trick rivals to meeting where they were killed then persuaded two local leaders to submit. Liu Biao had gone from a man who didn’t even control the main city in Nan and uncertain he could raise soldiers to master of Jing via trickery, murder, display of authority and diplomacy, cowering rivals into line. When Sun Jian arrived, Jing was behind Liu Biao with his forces controlling the key crossing points into the Han basin and protected by rivers. Without Kuai Yue’s plan, Sun Jian could have faced a far weaker Liu Biao and if Yuan Shu got Jing, his power would have been even greater for the early wars.


Under Liu Biao

There is a limit to how much was recorded of Liu Biao’s court outside of it’s scholarship and Kuai Yue doesn’t appear much. He was made Administrator of Zhangling to the east of Nanyang, though we get no sense of his skill in governance, the SGZ calls him Chief General, Andrew Chittick [7] suggests Kuai Yue was Liu Biao’s chief military strategist. His position in Nanyang would have perhaps given Kuai Yue position to help Zhang Xiu and the eastern allied commanders (or to watch over).

Kuai Yue seems to have been involved in the big diplomatic discussions at court. The SGZ says Kuai Yue, backed Han Song and Liu Xian’s call to either intervene during Guandu one way or the other or surrender to Cao Cao. Since we don’t have Kuai Yue’s words, we don’t know if he agreed with every word or if he was just urging Liu Biao to pick a side during what may have felt as the big big of their time rather then sit on the sidelines.

The Wei records in the SGZ do have a habit of “future Wei officers tell their lord of the wonders of Cao Cao” like Jia Xu to Zhang Xiu or Yang Fu to Wei Duan, it is possible a pro-Cao alliance faction was upgraded to a pro-Cao submission. Such claims add lustre to Cao Cao as a man whose talent, legitimacy and governance attracted great man even afar in other kingdoms. With Cao Cao as controller of the Han, a closer neighbour and a rising figure, it would be natural for a pro-Cao faction to be in Liu Biao’s court though pushing for submission would be a further step.

Liu Biao’s forces were tied up in the south with Sun Ce’s aggression and Zhang Xian’s revolt so Liu Biao kept his careful balance neutrality in the north, remaining ally to former head of coalition and long time ally Yuan Shao while acknowledging Cao Cao as controller of the court. Chittick notes the Nan born Kuai Yue stuck with Liu Biao despite his backing of Cao Cao and survived the northern purge from Liu Biao’s ranks. Given that Kuai Yue may have at least been content with Liu Biao’s concentration on the south once Liu Biao had made his decision.

When Liu Biao died with Cao Cao’s army on the march in 208, Kuai Yue is listed as one of those urging Liu Cong to surrender though only Fu Xuan’s advice is recorded. Without the reasoning being recorded, it is hard to know Kuai Yue’s reasons however there was logic behind submission. The regime was new and Cao Cao’s arrival meant no time for Liu Cong to win over the populace but it was far from just Cao Cao. To the south Sun Quan’s officer Lu Su was coming over to spy on the lay of the land, in Jiangxia Liu Qi was furious and was going to try to fight for his right to rule. The main commander to face Cao Cao was Liu Bei, a man who wasn’t going to help Cao Cao but someone Liu Biao hadn’t trusted and perhaps the court didn’t trust either to stay loyal and not try to take advantage of the internal disputes. It would be rather difficult for Liu Cong to deal with all these threats, surrender would allow Liu Cong to negotiate a good future for himself under a warlord who seemed set for victory and potentially spare Jing a lot of trouble.


Kuai service under Cao Cao

As Cao Cao swept through Jing, he needed to reward his new subjects, to show favour on those who had backed him. Fifteen marquis were made including Kuai Yue but Cao Cao seems to have been impressed with Kuai Yue specifically, writing to Xun Yu “I am not pleased to obtain Jīngzhōu, I am pleased to obtain Kuǎi Yìdù [Yue’s style] and that is all.” and Kuai Yue was made Minister of Merit, one of the nine ministers whose job was to manage the cadets at the palace [8]. Kuai Liang is not recorded to have got anything, we don’t know if he was even alive at this point.

Cao Cao probably had some idea of Kuai Yue’s reputation before hand, Kuai Yue’s posting meant he was near the Wei borders, it was important to have some idea of who were the able men in the opposing regime and talent one could hope to win over. Actually meeting Kuai Yue during his taking of Jing would have confirmed Kuai Yue’s reputation and Cao Cao seems to have had a genuine admiration for his new officer. Alas during the six years or so in office, we have little detail of advice given or tasks done, Cao Cao’s last letter would suggest Kuai Yue was a hard and effective worker but not a vocal figure in his council.

When Kuai Yue fell mortally ill in 214, he wrote to Cao Cao entrusting his family to Cao Cao’s care. Kuai Yue may have hoped this would ensure the family’s continued favour and future would be secure. Cao Cao wrote back, speaking of the kind of man Kuai Yue was and bemoaning Kuai Yue’s fate “The dead should live. The living are not worthy of it. You brought up little but did much. If you after you are gone you remain a spirit, you will also hear my words.”

After Kuai Yue’s death, the last Kuai we hear about is Kuai Qi, also of Nan and likely a kinsman who was appointed to Fangling, an area once of Hanzhong and on Cao Cao’s western front facing Liu Bei. Perhaps this was Cao Cao carrying out Kuai Yue’s request but having the long established Jing family holding posts there likely didn’t hurt Cao Cao’s support in Jing area. In 219 Meng Da was sent from Zigui by Liu Bei to attack, while Cao Ren was occupied with the threat of Guan Yu. Kuai Qi was killed, Fangling taken before Shu forces pushed on to take Shangyong. As Liu Bei declared himself King and Guan Yu began his fateful march against Cao Ren, the Kuai’s faded from the three kingdom histories.



The novel perhaps give people a fondness for Kuai Liang who is the wise strategist who contrasts with the blundering Cai Mao and Huang Zu, Kuai Yue is less impressive but helps Cai Mao against Liu Bei and fades from scene after helping Liu Zong surrender. Historically it seems to be the other way round, Kuai Yue the wise and prominent adviser with Kuai Liang fading from history.

In truth we don’t get much on a lot of Liu Biao’s officials, despite the scholarship work and stability in Jing, they get small mentions at the end of Liu Biao’s SGZ and annotations come in to add a little more flesh. Kuai Liang only appears once and gives idealistic advice, Kuai Qi is likely a kinsman but the extent is not clear and he is killed by Meng Da with little known about him.

Kuai Yue was the big figure of the family, attracting the attention of He Jin, the man who had used trickery and murder to establish Liu Biao’s authority and remained a senior figure, staying in office to the end. Under Cao Cao he held major rank and Cao Cao’s words to Xun Yu then to the dying Minister suggest Kuai Yue held value to the warlord. He was clearly well regarded in his own time and by two warlords, we get a glimpse of his intelligence and ruthlessness.

Yet we only see him once in action for Liu Biao, we only glimpse value to Cao Cao by Cao Cao’s words rather then deeds, Kuai Yue’s plans and deeds have been lost to time. Kuai Yue must be regarded as an able man but full judgement perhaps can never be given as we only get fleeting glimpses of what he could do.



[1] Used this site and wikipedia

[2] Shameless self plug

[3] Generals of the South pages 88-92 for details.

[4] Chen Shengalso called Chen Zuo

[5] As I understand it Duke Wen of Jin was about to face forces of Chu at Chengpu when he sought out advice. Jia Fan suggested trickery, Yong Ji said that would only work once and better to set a good example. Duke Wen used Jia Fan’s advice but gave Yong Ji higher reward as longer term advice.

[6] Xiang Xu was once a hermit who took office and became a critic, he suggested Turbans could be deal with by destroying the eunuchs and having a single office go to Yellow River and read Book of Filial Piety. The eunuchs arranged his execution without much protest at the time.

Song Nie was appointed to Liang when there were revolts, Emperor Ling cancelled the recruitment when he discovered Song Nie’s plan was to read the Book of Filial Piety to rebels so they would stand down.

[7] JSTOR article on Liu Biao

[8] Yang Zhengyuan, who also translated the SGZ I'm using, with an explanation of ranks
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Re: The Three Kuai's

Unread postby Sun Fin » Fri Aug 23, 2019 11:17 am

Interesting! Thank you Dong! It is a shame how little we know about officers of the major warlord's who lost.
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