Chen An: Inspiration for Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in SGYY

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Chen An: Inspiration for Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in SGYY

Unread postby Aaron.K » Thu Nov 23, 2017 7:03 am

I don't know why I never posted this here before, but I thought it was quite interesting. It's a very spectacular post that was made by Yun on China History Forum a long time ago. I managed to save it before CHF went down, but it seems I forgot to bring it up here. Regardless, here it is now.

Again I must re-iterate, these are not my words, but the words of Yun from CHF who wrote this about Chen An, a general during the fall of the Western Jin and Age of Fragmentation period. The most important part is the last one which contains his assessment in regards to being a model for Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in SGYY, but the entire write up of Chen An is quite good.

I just thought of telling you guys about a little-known figure named Chen An 陈安 who was a warlord in Qinzhou 秦州 (based around present-day Tianshui 天水) during the chaotic period after the fall of the Western Jin dynasty to the Xiongnu. This is partly because he was one of the greatest warriors in Chinese history, and partly because he may have served as a model for the image of Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In 307, at the end of the Civil War of the Princes, the Prince of Nanyang 南阳王 Sima Mo 司马模 was sent by the imperial court to garrison the devastated city of Chang'an, from whence the emperor Sima Zhong had just been brought back to the capital city Luoyang after having been a puppet of the now-defeated Sima Yong 司马顒, Prince of Hejian 河间, in Chang'an. Later, Sima Mo sent his son Sima Bao 司马保 to garrison Shanggui 上邽 (Tianshui), but this was opposed by the Governor of Qinzhou, Pei Bao 裴苞. Sima Mo then ordered a junior general (duwei 都尉) named Chen An to attack Pei Bao, driving Pei to take refuge with Jia Ya 贾疋, the Prefect of Anding 安定. Sima Bao then took up his post in Shanggui.

After the fall of Luoyang to the Xiongnu in 311, in which the Jin emperor Sima Chi 司马炽 was captured, the Xiongnu swiftly moved on to Chang'an. Besieged and running out of supplies, Sima Mo surrendered and was executed. But before long, Jia Ya and some other loyalist Jin ministers and generals drove the Xiongnu out of Chang'an and installed Sima Ye 司马邺 as the new Jin emperor. From 312 to 315, Sima Ye promoted Sima Bao to the successive posts of Grand Marshal, Prime Minister of the Right, and Prime Minister, but Sima Bao remained in Shanggui rather than coming to Chang'an. Chen An had fled to Shanggui from Chang'an after the fall of Sima Mo, and Sima Bao ordered him to lead 1,000 men to suppress Qiang rebels in the region. Chen An's success in this, and his earlier service rendered in defeating Pei Bao, allowed him to gain Sima Bao's favour. But Sima Bao's general Zhang Chun 张春 was jealous and accused Chen An behind his back of plotting betrayal, urging Sima Bao to execute him. Sima Bao refused, and Zhang Chun then sent assassins to attack Chen An. Chen was wounded but managed to fight off his assailants. Knowing he was in danger, he fled west to Longcheng 陇城 to strike it out on his own. But in the years after that, he continued sending regular envoys with tribute to Sima Bao.

In 316-317, Chang'an was besieged by the Xiongnu and Sima Ye surrendered, thus ending at last the Western Jin dynasty. In 318, Chen An changed tack and joined with the Prefect of Anding, Jiao Song 焦嵩, in attacking Shanggui, perhaps hoping to eliminate Zhang Chun and regain Sima Bao's favour. Sima Bao asked for help from Zhang Shi 张寔, the Governor of Liangzhou 凉州 (the Gansu Corridor). Zhang despatched 20,000 troops to aid Sima Bao, and Chen An withdrew.

In 318, it was learned that Sima Ye had been murdered in captivity by the Xiongnu. Sima Bao in Shanggui and Sima Rui 司马睿 in Jiankang (Nanjing) were now the only two princes capable of continuing the Jin dynasty. Sima Bao wished to be emperor, but Zhang Shi chose to recognise Sima Rui as the new emperor despite being a neighbour of Sima Bao. The rationale was that Sima Bao was much further from the imperial line of the Western Jin than Sima Rui, and Sima Rui had a better reputation than Sima Bao who was extremely obese, liked only to read and sleep, and was naive and indecisive. Anyway, Zhang Shi eventually founded his own semi-autonomous dynasty in Liangzhou, known to history as the Former Liang 前凉.

In 319 Sima Bao proclaimed himself King of Jin, and set up his own court in Shanggui, hoping to compete with Sima Rui for the allegiance of the remaining territories of the Western Jin (which were however mostly in the south). But he soon had more immediate worries. Chen An had declared himself Governor of Qinzhou and pledged allegiance to first the Xiongnu and then the Sichuan rebel state of Cheng 成, so as to buy time for an attack on Shanggui. Shanggui was then suffering from famine, and Zhang Chun urged Sima Bao to flee. They abandoned Shanggui for Qishan 祁山, and Chen An moved in to capture Shanggui. But Zhang Shi sent his Liangzhou troops in to help Sima Bao again, and Chen An withdrew to the east of Shanggui. Sima Bao returned to the city, only to face another attack by Chen An. Zhang Shi sent another force in, and Chen An again retreated.

In 320, the Xiongnu ruler Liu Yao 刘曜 (who had moved the Xiongnu capital to Chang'an in 319) led an attack on Shanggui, inflicting major defeats on Sima Bao and forcing him to flee west to Sangcheng 桑城. Liu Yao did not press on further, and withdrew to Chang'an. Zhang Chun now plotted to bring Sima Bao to seek refuge in Liangzhou. Zhang Shi feared that they would try and seize his position, so he sent a general to 'receive' Sima Bao but gave him secret orders to prevent Sima Bao from entering Liangzhou.

Zhang and another general, Yang Ci 杨次, had fallen out with General Yang Tao 杨韬, and asked Sima Bao to execute their rival. They also urged Sima Bao to launch an attack on Chen An, who had taken over Shanggui after Sima Bao fled to Sangcheng. Sima Bao rejected both their appeals. Two months later, they Sima Bao died - either from illness or murdered by Zhang Chun and Yang Ci. He was 26 years old, and had no son because he had suffered from impotency (erectile dysfunction). Zhang Chun then installed another prince named Sima Zhan 司马瞻 as the new ruler. Many of Sima Bao's troops and subordinates refused to accept this, and more than 10,000 of them defected to Zhang Shi in Liangzhou.

Chen An, who held Shanggui as the Xiongnu Zhao 赵 state's Governor of Qinzhou, urged Liu Yao in a letter to attack Sima Zhan, whom he considered illegitimate. Liu Yao appointed him as Grand General 大将军 to lead a campaign against Zhang Chun and Sima Zhan. Chen An was victorious, and Sima Zhan surrendered while Zhang Chun fled westwards to Fuhan 枹罕 and Yang Ci was captured in battle. Chen An sent Sima Zhan to Chang'an, where Liu Yao executed him. Chen himself brought Yang Ci in front of Sima Bao's coffin, and beheaded him there, using the head as an offering to Sima Bao. Then he buried Sima Bao in Shanggui with the protocol befitting an emperor, giving Sima Bao the posthumous title of Emperor Yuan 晋元帝 (ironically, this was also to be the posthumous title of Sima Bao's rival in Jiankang, Sima Rui, after the latter's death in 322).

At this point, Chen An seemed set for a successful career as a governor and general under the Xiongnu regime, despite his gesture of loyalty to the dead Sima Bao - but he suddenly decided to turn against his new ruler Liu Yao. To find out why, look out for Part 2...

Part 2 - the second rebellion of Chen An

To the south of Qinzhou province is Wudu 武都 prefecture, which at the time of the fall of the Western Jin was controlled by an ethnic Di 氐 chieftain of the Yang 杨family, named Yang Nandi 杨难敌. The Yang family Di of Wudu (also known as Chouchi 仇池) were able to preserve their autonomy by pledging allegiance to all neighbouring powers (except for a period of annexation by the Former Qin in 373-394) into the middle of the 5th century, until they were finally absorbed by the Northern Wei. The main reason for this is the extremely rugged terrain of Wudu, which made it very difficult to attack. Two generals under Sima Bao, Yang Man 杨曼 and Yang Tao 杨韬 (the one whom Zhang Chun and Yang Ci had hated), had also taken refuge with Yang Nandi in Wudu after the attacks by the Xiongnu in 320. It's possible they were even of the same Di clan as Yang Nandi.

In 322, the Xiongnu ruler Liu Yao personally led an attack on Wudu to subdue Yang Nandi. Yang was defeated and withdrew into the mountain fort of Chouchi, although the Di and Qiang tribes in the area, as well as surrendered generals like Yang Tao, all surrendered to Liu Yao. The Xiongnu army came down with an epidemic, and Liu Yao himself fell ill, making it necessary to withdraw. But in order to prevent Yang Nandi from attacking his army as it retreated, Liu Yao arranged a 'surrender' by Yang Nandi that amounted to little more than a truce. Yang remained in control of Wudu, but pledged nominal allegiance to Liu Yao with a number of official titles like General, Governor, and Prince of Wudu.

The bigger trouble began when Liu Yao was heading back from Wudu to Chang'an. Chen An made a request for Liu Yao to stop over in Qinzhou and meet him, but Liu Yao declined on the grounds of his illness. Chen An suspected that Liu Yao had already died, and launched a raid on the Xiongnu army as it passed by Qinzhou. Liu Yao was too ill to ride a horse, and had to return to Chang'an in a carriage. General Huyan Shi 呼延寔 was assigned as a rearguard for the supply train of the Xiongnu army, but was captured along with the supplies by Chen An. Chen An asked Huyan Shi, "Liu Yao is dead, so who do you intend to serve? I would like to accomplish something great with your help."

Huyan Shi cursed Chen An, "You dog! You received favour from others and were raised to a trusted position, but you first betrayed Sima Bao, and now betray again. Who do you think you are compared to my lord? What great things can you speak of, when your head will before long be hanging in the streets of Shanggui? Kill me quickly, and hang my head on the eastern gate of Shanggui, so that I can see my army entering the city." Chen An flew into a rage and executed Huyan Shi, but appointed Huyan's aide-de-camp Lu Ping 鲁憑 as his own staff officer.

Chen An then sent his younger brother Chen Ji 陈集 and his general Zhang Ming 张明 to lead 20,000 to 30,000 cavalry in pursuit of Liu Yao. But Liu Yao's general Huyan Yu 呼延瑜 engaged them in battle and defeated them. Chen Ji and Zhang Ming were killed, and most of their troops were captured. Chen An grew disheartened at this setback and pulled back into Shanggui. But he soon sent his generals Liu Lie 刘烈 and Zhao Han 赵罕 east to attack and capture the city of Qian 汧, which was on the western border of Liu Yao's territory. The Di and Qiang tribes in the area all defected to Chen, and his army grew to over 100,000. He then declared himself King of Liang 凉王, Grand General, Grand Commander-in-Chief, and Governor of Yongzhou, Liangzhou 凉州, Qinzhou, and Liangzhou 梁州, appointing Zhao Mu 赵募 as his prime minister.

Lu Ping wept bitterly and said, "I cannot bear to see the death of Chen An!" Chen grew angry at this, and had him executed. When Liu Yao heard of this, he wept sadly and said, "Chen An needs wise and virtuous advisors at this time, and yet is killing them instead. I can tell that he will amount to nothing."

Before long, the Xiongnu King of Xiutu 休屠王 Shi Hu 石虎 (different from the Shi Hu of the Later Zhao) surrendered Sangcheng to Liu Yao, presenting Chen An with enemies on both east and west. Liu Yao gave Shi Hu the posts of Qinzhou Governor (formerly held by Chen An) and Prince of Jiuquan 酒泉王.

[Around this time, Liu Yao's empress Yang Xianrong passed away]

In 323, Chen An besieged Nan'an 南安, to the northwest of Shanggui, which was garrisoned by the Xiongnu general Liu Gong 刘贡. Shi Hu then launched an attack on Shanggui from Sangcheng to force Chen An to withdraw from Nan'an to defend his home base (the classic "encircling Wei to save Zhao" strategy). Chen An had no choice but to lift the siege and head back to Shanggui. He met Shi Hu's army at Guatian 瓜田, and Shi Hu being outnumbered withdrew into a derelict fort formerly garrisoned by Chen An's rival Zhang Chun. Chen An was probably further enraged by this, and cried out, "You barbarian traitor! I'll capture and bind this slave alive, and then go back and kill Liu Gong."

However, while Shi Hu held out in the fort, Liu Gong sallied out from Nan'an and struck Chen An's army in the rear, capturing or killing over 10,000 men. Chen An turned around and rushed to reinforce his rear, but Liu Gong engaged him again and defeated him. Shi Hu, in turn, sallied out from the fort with his cavalry, and Chen An's army was encircled and routed. He escaped with 8,000 cavalry and fled into Longcheng 陇城, northeast of Shanggui.

[coming soon: Part 3 - Chen An's Last Battle]

Part 3

In the autumn of 323, Liu Yao (having recovered from his illness last year and completed the construction of Yang Xianrong's mausoleum) led an army against Chen An, who was still holed up in Longcheng. While Liu Yao's troops besieged Longcheng, another detachment went south and laid siege to Shanggui. Chen An sallied out of Longcheng several times, hoping to break out of the siege, but was always defeated, losing a total of more than 8,000 troops (as many as he had brought with him into the city). Liu Yao's general Liu Gan 刘幹 also captured the city of Pingxiang 平襄, west of Longcheng and northwest of Shanggui, to cut off any retreat in that direction from either city. The various prefectures in the region quickly surrendered to Liu Yao. Liu Yao proclaimed an amnesty for all rebels in the region, except for Chen An and his Prime Minister Zhao Mu (who was holding Shanggui).

Chen An decided to make another attempt to break out. He left his generals Yang Bozhi 杨伯支 and Jiang Chong'er 姜冲儿 to continue holding Longcheng, and himself rode out with several hundred cavalry, intending to gather troops from Shanggui and Pingxiang and then return to relieve Longcheng. Only when he had broken through the siege lines did he find out that Pingxiang had fallen and Shanggui was also under siege. He then headed south, probably hoping to seek refuge with the Di in Wudu.

Liu Yao's generals Ping Xian 平先 and Qiu Zhongbo 丘中伯 gave chase with crack cavalry and caught up with Chen An, defeating him and killing or capturing over 400 of his troops. Left with only 10 or so elite cavalrymen, Chen An fought his last desperate battle with the Xiongnu. He certainly put up a remarkable fight - in his left hand he he wielded a long single-edged sword (da dao 大刀) seven chi long (about 1.68m by the measurement standard of the time); in his right hand he wielded a serpentine spear (she mao 蛇矛) 1 zhang and 8 chi long (18 chi or 4.34m). When any enemy troops drew near to him, he struck out with both sword and spear, killing five or six men at once. As for enemies who kept a distance from him, he had one quiver of arrows on either side of his saddle, and shot arrows to his left and right as he rode (Dong Zhuo 董卓, the warlord of the Late Han, was also reputed to be able to do this).

But Ping Xian was also a formidable warrior of great strength and agility, and he engaged Chen An in a one-on-one fight. After three exchanges of blows, he was able to grab Chen An's spear and ride off. At this point the sun was setting and a heavy rain fell. Chen An abandoned his horse and fled into the hills with five or six followers on foot. They hid among the streams, and during that night the Xiongnu troops combed the hills for them but could find nothing because of the rains. The next day's searching was also fruitless at first, but then Chen An sent his general Shi Rong 石容 to the foot of the hills to scout out the movements of the Xiongnu. Huyan Qingren 呼延青人, a Xiongnu general, captured Shi and tortured him to make him reveal Chen An's location. Shi Rong refused to talk, and Huyan Qingren then killed him.

When the rain stopped, Huyan Qingren found some trails left by Chen An and his men, and tracked him down at the bend of a stream. Chen An was captured and executed on the spot. Soon, Yang Bozhi murdered his colleague Jiang Chong'er and handed Longcheng over to the Xiongnu, while General Song Ting 宋亭 murdered Zhao Mu in Shanggui and also surrendered to the enemy. The Yang and Jiang were two of the most powerful Di and Qiang clans in Qinzhou, and Liu Yao had over 2,000 households of their members relocated to Chang'an to prevent them from rebelling again. The other Di and Qiang tribes in the area also were made to send hostages to Chang'an to ensure their loyalty.

Liu Yao was overjoyed upon hearing of Chen An's death, but the people of Qinzhou mourned him. Despite his record of having betrayed two masters, and his recklessness in proclaiming himself as King of Liang and killing Lu Ping, he was a charismatic leader and shared weal and woe with his followers. The people composed a folk song for him that went:

陇上壮士有陈安 Longshang zhuangshi you Chen An
In the Long region there was a hero named Chen An

躯干虽小腹中宽 Qugan sui xiao fuzhong kuan
His build was small, but his stomach was large (i.e. he was maganimous and generous)

爱养将士如心肝 Aiyang jiangshi ru xin'gan
He loved and cherished his soldiers like his own heart and liver (a metaphor for great affection)

慑骢父马铁瑕鞍 Shecong fuma tiexia an
He rode a fearsome piebald steed with an iron saddle

七尺大刀奋如湍 Qichi dadao fen ru tuan
His seven chi long sword slashed as swiftly as rushing waters

丈八蛇矛左右盘 Zhangba shemao zuoyou pan
His one zhang and eight chi long serpentine spear whirled left and right

十荡十决无当前 Shitang shijue wu dangqian
In ten duels of ten rounds, none could stand against him

战始三交失蛇矛 Zhanshi sanjiao shi shemao
But this time, he lost his serpentine spear after just three rounds

弃我慑骢窜岩幽 Qi wo shecong cuan yanyou
He left his piebald steed behind and fled into the hidden cliffs

为我外援而悬头 Wei wo waiyuan er xuantou
Seeking for reinforcements, he ended up with his head hung on the gates

西流之水东流河 Xiliu zhi shui dongliu he
Streams in the west flow eastwards into the river

一去不还奈子何!Yiqu buhuan nai zi he
They flow onward and never return - what can one do about it!

When Liu Yao heard of this song, he was both impressed and saddened by it, and ordered his court musicians to sing it as a tribute to Chen An.


Chen An was only one of many warlords who were active in the north during the civil wars of the Age of Fragmentation, and it is possible that his martial skills were over-rated considering his poor record in leading battles and in his duel with Ping Xian. He clearly had very little political acumen, and lacked a strategic mind. The sincerity of his devotion to Sima Bao is also questionable, and he was not above surrendering to his master's enemies when in a desperate situation.

The greater significance of Chen An's career lies in the image of him as a warrior wielding lance, sword, and bow simultaneously. This is a style of fighting that is seldom seen in Chinese warfare, and the other notable example is Ran Min 冉闵 who wielded a lance in one hand and a ji 戟 halberd with the other in his last battle with the Murong Xianbei. These are important evidence that lances and long swords could be wielded with one hand by skilled and strong warriors. Another important incident is his duel with Ping Xian, which is clearly described as being conducted in rounds (jiao 交). This is an image that is usually dismissed as being a fictional convention from novels like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and no less an authority on warfare in that period than Cao Cao actually said in a military directive that generals should not do any fighting themselves. But Chen An's example (and also Ping Xian's) shows that in some cases, generals could risk a one-on-one combat with each other. That this was considered worthy of note in the dynastic history shows that it was an exception that proves the rule (of course, one could also raise the exceptional incident of Guan Yu's charging in to kill Yan Liang at Baima, for which Cao Cao rewarded, and not reprimanded, him).

Lastly, the story of Chen An is very likely a model for the image of Zhang Fei and Guan Yu in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The one zhang and eight chi serpentine spear is easily recognisable, while the seven chi (1.68m) long sword was misinterpreted as a glaive (chang dao 长刀 or yanyue dao 偃月刀) by Yuan and Ming writers, because the value of seven chi had increased to at least 2.15m by their time. This was made more confusing by the popular use of the term da dao 大刀 to refer to the yanyue dao by Ming times. Since neither Guan Yu nor Zhang Fei are identified with any specific weapon in the Sanguo Zhi, it seems likely that writers in later times looked back to sources that were as contemporaneous as possible to see what they might have used. Chen An of the Western Jin had two cool weapons that fit the bill perfectly.
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Re: Chen An: Inspiration for Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in SGYY

Unread postby Sun Fin » Thu Nov 23, 2017 12:17 pm

Very interesting - a good read! Thanks for sharing :D
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