Analysis of Yuan Shao

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Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Tue Jan 01, 2019 12:12 pm

Intro: Yuan Shao (Benchu), a man who has come to represent the old order, the man of great family who was outclassed by the new rising man like Cao Cao, who threw away all his advantages with a blundering campaign at Guandu. What led to his rise and his downfall? How good was he as a warlord?

Usual sources of ZZTJ, various De Crespigny works like encyclopaedia and a kindly lent copies of both Imperial Warlord, Fire Over Luoyang and Jack Yuan's SGZ translation

Annotations done by sections, mostly for my own sanity. Thanks to Jia Nangfeng, fuyonggu, Han and daolunofshiji for helping me with questions I had. Yuan children will be done in a separate analysis to come in future.


Early Career:

Yuan Shao was from a Runan family, based around rich agricultural basin of Ruyang, though we do not know what year he was born other then he was in his 20’s in the 160’s. He was truly from one of the elite families of his day, very wealthy, clients who they could push into positions and act in their interests at local or national levels, jobs if they wished simply via their family name. His great-grandfather Yuan An was the first of his line to become an Excellency and every generation since would hold such high position. The Yuan family had a policy of welcoming anybody as a potential client, expanding their influence at local and national level to the point where it was said during the time of Yuan Shao’s uncle Cheng that there was nobody that wasn’t a client of the Yuan family.

Yuan Shao was grandson of Yuan Tang, a scholar, famed for his Confucian virtue, an Excellency (third of the direct line to become such) and father of many many children but it then the lineage gets a little unclear so I’m going with De Crespigny’s version. He was probably son of Yuan Feng (Tang’s third son), a generous and honorable man who was widely respected, Feng (and his younger brother Yuan Wei) had also made the family the wealthiest in court when they allied to Yuan She. [1] It would seem Yuan Shao was son of a concubine and Yuan Shu was son of the main wife so Yuan Shu was thus set to be the leading Yuan of their generation. However when Tang’s second son Yuan Cheng, a trusted adviser to extremely powerful General-in-Chief Liang Ji died young without a male heir, Shao was transferred to continue the line and became the leading Yuan of that generation. This put Yuan Shao ahead of Yuan Shu in importance and would cause tensions later.

We know nothing of Yuan Shao’s childhood, the Yingxiong ji [2] says Yuan Shao was adored by “The two Excellencies” (likely Feng and Wei), Yuan Shu would later tell Gongsun Zan that Yuan Shao was treated as the family slave but at the time Yuan Shu at the time had fallen out with Yuan Shao and was clearly trying to undermine Yuan Shao. Given his family history as scholars and the prestige+wealth of the Yuan clan, Yuan Shao was likely given the very best education that anyone could ask for. When Shao grew up he was described as handsome with a strong build, a man who exuded authority, he did not follow the scholarship route of some in his family but he quickly mastered the art of building a client base. He was seen as admiring men of breeding and becoming a patron to those who would soon became celebrated (there isn’t a list of such figures), people rich and poor made their way to his gate to seek his favor and support. One of the people he befriended was a certain Cao Cao who will pop in this story a few times. Yuan Shao became a leader of his fellow youngsters in Luoyang, such groupings were often portrayed as led by knight-errants or gallants, at their best they could be used to help people but often would be used for acts of thuggery or acts outside the laws. Rich young men forming a gang at the capital, I suspect they did not go around helping little old ladies across the street. While Yuan Shao was said to be too embarrassed to display his wealth and prestige in front of the critic Xu Shao, the Yuan clan were noted for their extravagance and I doubt Yuan Shao was any different.

There is a story based around this time from the Shishuo xinyu [3] where Yuan Shao and Cao Cao raided a wedding party, Cao Cao raped the bride at sword-point then they fled. When Yuan Shao got stuck in brambles, Cao Cao didn’t help but turned to pursuers and cried “Here is the villain”. Cao Cao got away safely, Yuan Shao was beaten within an inch of his life. This is unlikely to be true and is read by the likes of De Crespigny in Imperial Warlord as an analogy for treatment of the Han however this (and other Cao Cao related tales like breaking into Zhang Rang’s mansion) may also reflect the kind of thing such groups were seen to be doing. Acting outside and careless of the law, getting into scrapes and troubles, rich men gone wild. The source also claimed, at some later point, Yuan Shao sent an assassin to kill a sleeping Cao Cao but aim and Cao Cao’s reading of the situation meant the sword missed both times then doesn’t say what happened after (or why a third strike of sword wasn’t tried), I’m not sure that tells us anything more then you should finish your stories properly.

By the late 160’s Yuan Shao began to make an impact on the national stage: the eunuchs had survived the gentry leaders Chen Fan and Dou Wu’s attempt to seize power and struck against their gentry opponents by the Great Proscription of 169, many leading members of the gentry were killed, barred from office or fled into exile. Yuan Shao allied with one proscribed scholar and noted talent spotter He Yong who had hidden in Runan, Yuan Shao would use his contacts in the capital to gather information and He Yong would sneak into the capital. The two of them provided escape lines for those needing to get out of the capital and away from the wrath of the eunuchs, they were said to have saved a lot of people lives. Despite Yuan Shao’s name and connections providing a shield, this was still a risk for Yuan Shao and a brave thing to do.

At some point Yuan Shao entered service as a Gentleman Cadet and then was sent to Puyang in Dong commandery as a magistrate where he managed to keep an unsullied reputation, the start of his career and perhaps diplomatically getting him out of the capital. When his adopted mother died, Yuan Shao resigned to mourn and then decided he would also mourn his adopted father Yuan Cheng, taking him out of service for six years. This may have been a way to simply avoid taking service under a regime he dislike, as a lot of people were doing, while enhancing his reputation by this display of filial piety and reminding people of his lineage.

While Shao was mourning, Yuan Feng became an Excellency in 178 but died around 179 and was buried with extraordinary honours and favour shown by Emperor Ling. Yuan Shao isn’t noted to have mourned but Pei Songzhi mentions the works are simply incomplete and unclear on this matter so it shouldn’t be held against Shao. The leadership of the family fell to uncle Yuan Wei who had worked closely with Yuan Feng including the alliance with Yuan She, had established a good reputation while young and was already an Excellency.

After his mourning period, Yuan Shao returned to Luoyang but according to the Yingxiong ji became more restrained in his use of clients, only agreeing to meet those already famous. He also traveled with and befriended knight-errants and other figures like the adventurer Zhang Miao, He Yong, Wu Ziqing [4], Xu You and Wu Qiong [5]. Leaving aside whatever adventures happened, these would prove useful contacts for the future, some acting as agents, some as warlord allies and some would serve Yuan Shao directly. During this time there were efforts within the court to bring Shao back into service but he ignored such summons and orders. This was not unusual at the time, some figures refused outright to serve the court given corruption and eunuchs while others used this to add lustre to their name, swan about and then join up when they received an appropriately good (be it rank or the prestigious name behind the recruitment) offer.

However leading eunuch Zhao Zhong complained to fellow eunuchs “Yuan Benchu does not heed summons and instead accommodates useless officers. I know not what this boy is planning to do.” This reached Yuan Wei, which may well have been Zhao Zhong’s intent, and the uncle rebuked Yuan Shao, warning this could ruin the family. Why the unusual step? It must have been somewhat embarrassing for the regime that the leading light of the next generation of the long serving Yuan family was refusing to serve but I think Zhao Zhong had deeper reason to be alarmed. Back in the 160’s, Yuan Shao’s actions and friendships could be dismissed as that of an eager youth but now in the 180’s, Yuan Shao is repeating the same patterns. Acting against the government, befriending known anti-eunuch figures, going around with armed groups who act outside the law. At some point Yuan Shao would be head of the Yuan clan with access to all their extreme wealth and connections, if he still held those attitudes then there would be trouble at court ending either destruction of the eunuchs or the fall of the Yuan clan. This do not suit Yuan Wei either, he had seen the considerable political skill of the eunuchs at keeping power against the gentry and the risks this brought everyone in the family if the eunuchs decided to take measures.

Yuan Shao returned to service, first under the staff of General-in-Chief He Jin which would put Yuan Shao’s return at 184 at the earliest, he then served in the Censorate before being made General of the Household. This feels like giving Yuan Shao experience of central government and perhaps there were hopes learning the practicalities of government might moderate his views on eunuchs and law-breaking. In 188 Emperor Ling created his own privately funded army under the eunuch Jian Shi, the Colonels of the Western Garden saw Yuan Shao as the second Colonel. This may have been an attempt to Emperor Ling to persuade the gentry to accept a second army at the capital, one under eunuch control and not under He Jin, by tying Yuan Shao to the new army.

Any hopes that Yuan Shao was becoming less anti-eunuch was failing though, the much respected Colonel He Xun had bemoaned to Yuan Shao and Liu Yu "His majesty is intelligent, but he is deceived by those about him." and they began plotting the coup to destroy the eunuchs. This was halted when Jian Shi got wind of this and pushed through Zhang Wen’s request to send He Xun to Jingzhao to deal with serious issues there. Yuan Shao still got a chance to cause the eunuchs damage when, in the summer of 189, Jian Shi and Emperor Ling sought to get He Jin out of his power-base in the capital to fight against the major Liang rebellion. He Jin learned of this and sent Yuan Shao to gather troops in Xu and Yan provinces, this meant He Jin couldn’t leave the capital till Yuan Shao returned, one suspects Yuan Shao went about his task at an unusually slow pace.

On the 13th of May, Emperor Ling died after a short-illness. During Emperor Ling’s life, Yuan Shao had shown a dislike for the eunuchs and the government: his choice of friends, his going around with even leading groups acting outside the law, the escape lines, the plot with He Xun. Even in the last months, Yuan Shao had helped He Jin frustrate a eunuch plot. Yuan Shao had impressed people with his personality and his ability to build (though clearly helped by being the future Yuan leader) his own client base but he had only been part of government a few years, doing well as a magistrate and then holding various ranks in the last few years. He Jin’s use of him would suggest he was starting to get more involved in central matters but in the upcoming months, Yuan Shao would become one of the most important members at court and really shaping national affairs.

Not for the better.


[1] Yuan She, also sometimes called Yuan Lang, had saved the life of Emperor Huan’s mother from Liang Ji and unsurprisingly became a great favourite. Yuan She claimed kinship, allying himself with one of the great families would have provided a certain legitimacy while they became allied with a favourite of Emperor Huan and in exchange he advanced their positions in court and ensured they got very very very wealthy. Yuan She was tortured and killed in 179 but the Yuan clan were untouched.

[2] Full title: Hanmo yingxiong ji (Records of Heroes and Champions at the End of Han), it was written by Wang Can, a scholar and officer of Liu Biao and Wei and provides a lot of the information we have about Yuan Shao’s early life.

[3] Translated as Tales of the World, it was a collection of tales from Liu Yiqing and treated as inaccurate collection of tales rather then a work of reliable history.

[4] Ziqing is style name, personal name not know and nothing else bar this friendship is recorded.

[5] Style Deyu and from Runan, he acted for Yuan Shao in Dong Zhuo’s court, recommending talent who turned on Dong Zhuo, was executed when he protested moving court to Chang’an.


Under He Jin

The death of Emperor Ling left several factions with eye for power and two youngsters who could be Emperor, the quick manoeuvring of He Jin saw the eldest Liu Bian enthroned as Emperor Shao. The commanding Dowager He and He Jin both knew that their background left them vulnerable with many rumours circulating about where exactly they came from and how they got so high, so they sought and were able to get Yuan Wei to agree to become Grand Tutor and share power, giving a major stamp of approval from one of the great families. Yuan Shao reached out to He Jin, via He Jin ally Zhang Jin [1], urging He Jin to slaughter the eunuchs “The Yellow Gates and Regular Attendants have been usurping power for some time, even the Empress of the Palace of Perpetual Joy (Ling’s mother Dowager Dong) sides with them. General, you should cleanse the world, restore order, and end the suffering of the people.”

He Jin initially ignored that advice as he had other more serious problems to deal with, like the minor detail that Jian Shi had just tried to kill him, but he hired Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu to his staff, adding their luster and connections to his new regime, keeping Yuan Wei onside (it would have been weird not to hire Yuan Wei’s nephews….) but he also quickly grew to trust them both. He Jin also built a circle of trusted advisers including using some Yuan connections with Pang Ji (sometimes called Feng Ji or Peng Ji) a client of Yuan Shao’s and He Yong an old friend of Shao.

He Jin skilfully cemented his position, executing Jian Shi and destroying the rival Dong family, people sometimes credit success like this to Yuan Shao but nothing in the histories suggests Yuan Shao had anything to do with that and He Jin did have a good record as a political player in his own right. Now He Jin was not distracted by the need to secure his power-base and ensure basic political survival, Yuan Shao tried again with a well constructed speech [2]. He acknowledged that there had been gentry attempts to root out the eunuchs before and it had not gone well, he set out a fair analysis what had gone wrong (allowing news to leak and that the troops were not behind the gentry then), meaning Yuan Shao could push for urgency but also use the contrast to show why He Jin was in a better position: Chen Fan and Dou Wu hadn’t got the soldiers support, He Jin was very popular with the troops of the Northern Army. Yuan Shao also played into He Jin’s desire for a great name, a man whose background was sneered at was offered the chance to became a great hero.

Yuan Shao didn’t quite get what he wanted, He Jin did not use his army but instead went to his sister to negotiate for the eunuchs to be sacked and replaced by his men (it was a stupid plan) [3], Dowager He refused. He Jin went back and considered his options with Yuan Shao putting pressure on, warning the eunuchs were close to the Emperor, handling his orders and those coming in, that this would lead to trouble. There was certainly a risk that the eunuchs would make themselves so useful to Emperor that when Emperor Shao began to assert himself, he would act to protect them and make it very difficult for the gentry to do anything.

The capital was split: the eunuchs didn’t want to be sacked or worse so opposed these manoeuvres and sought favour/protection with the He family, the He family supported the eunuchs due to past support (there were also accusations of eunuchs bribing the clan), as an important counter-balance to the gentry and grew concerned at what He Jin’s plan would do to Emperor Shao and the Dowager’s authority. Vs a generation of gentry who saw the cure for all Han’s ills was by massacring eunuchs and wished He Jin to use military force, He Jin sought to impress them and gain great reputation promised by bringing down the eunuchs. If Emperor Shao had a view, it has been lost to history but fair to say, there was not much of domestic reform going on through these months.

Much to the gentry faction’s frustration, He Jin sought to have the eunuchs fired by negotiating with the legitimate authority of the Empress Dowager and seems rather less inclined to the whole mass murder thing. Most of his advisers tried to work within He Jin’s parameters and two plans emerged to try to break the deadlock, Shao proposed one and would be heavily involved with the other, one of which was a bad gamble and the other of which was a clever move.

1) Summon the army. Yuan Shao and others, though only Shao is named so may have been leading the push, urged He Jin to summon fighting men and their troops to the capital, a show of force to put Dowager He under pressure. He Jin agreed to this but there was opposition within his faction, one annotation has Cao Cao feeling it was overkill when executing of a few would deal with the matter [4] and Chen Lin also argued it was overkill and risked destroying He Jin’s strong position [5]. Who was right?

One can see what Yuan Shao and co were trying, He Jin was not going to act with a quick coup, the current stalemate risked something going wrong as it had last time and a show of force behind He Jin would send a strong message. They may also have been seeking to ensure nearby generals were onside as the last major gentry coup against eunuchs had failed to do so and ended up with the eunuch forces being led by the visiting and confused Zhang Huan who was one of the great generals of his day. Chen Lin however was right to be concerned, He Jin was in a strong position thanks to the great loyalty of the Northern Army to him and that he knew the figures in the capital, outside figures with their own troops didn’t know He Jin and their own troops would have no reason to back He Jin in a crunch, things could spiral out of He Jin’s control with these outside factors brought in.

Things did not go well with the plan, He Jin’s choice of Dong Zhuo (no word on how Yuan Shao felt about this choice) led to resignation of Zheng Tai and protests, Dong Zhuo would fail to follow orders when He Jin ordered him to come no further before being brought to heel to Henan by envoy Chong Shao. Ding Yuan was sent out of capital to make a show of force at Henei and burnt the fortified town of Mengjin, the records suggest that was a deliberate atrocity but De Crespigny, in Fire over Luoyang, questions if He Jin would really have wanted his new regime to start by burning a town and Ding Yuan may have gone beyond orders.

The impact was it terrified the capital as they could see the fires and troops marching on the capital surely did nothing to help calm the fears of the populace. However the one person they needed to intimidate was Dowager He and she proved of sterner stuff then Yuan Shao had anticipated, she refused to sacrifice her loyal eunuchs and undermine her position by giving in. While He Jin still retained control, problems had been stored up with Dong Zhuo clearly unreliable and the awful image of a town being burnt by imperial forces.

2) Investigate the eunuchs. At some point during the stalemate, Yuan Shao became worried He Jin was wavering about fighting the eunuchs so tried to urge him into a quick decision "The battle-lines are drawn and our plans are in the open. How can you continue to wait and not make any decision? If the affair is delayed too long, things will change and you will be a second Dou Wu." Yuan Shao did not seem to suggest what He Jin might do but he wanted He Jin to take initiative.

He Jin came up with a clever response, he made Yuan Shao director of Retainers but since reporting crimes to throne in itself was not going to work, he added Staff of Authority that gave Yuan Shao permission to act freely. He also made noted eunuch hater Wang Yun [6] Intendant of Henan which put the police forces in the capital under Wang Yun’s control. One imagines such a promotion helped soothe Yuan Shao but it was also highly practical, He Jin had just put major eunuch opponents in charge of investigating crimes in the administration. Yuan Shao took the hint as to what he was meant to do, ordering military strategists to launch investigations into the eunuchs while he urged Dong Zhuo and other commanders to ask Empress Dowager for permission to bring their troops further into the capital.

It was clear the eunuchs were in deep trouble, the chances of Yuan Shao and Wang Yun being neutral in their investigations were about zilch. These were men who had spent their lives fighting eunuchs or supporting those that had, both men had acted outside the law and supported those that also acted outside the rules. If there were crimes, they would be found and if there weren’t crimes, well the gentry believed the eunuchs were guilty anyway so that didn’t really matter. Empress He knew the only way to save her loyal servants was to fire them and tell them to go home in a bid to get the investigations to stop.

The eunuchs went to He Jin and begged for mercy, He Jin told them they were free to return to their homes outside the capital. He Jin had done in months what the gentry had tried to do and failed for decades but Yuan Shao was not happy. Eunuchs were still free, breathing and this would not do, Yuan Shao pressed repeatedly for He Jin to execute the eunuchs, He Jin refused time and time again to satisfy Yuan Shao’s murderous impulses. Having not got what he wanted, Yuan Shao decided to act without He Jin’s permission, he sent letters to every provincial and commandry head to arrest the families of the eunuchs and since Yuan Shao did not have the actual authority to do that, Shao claimed it was orders from He Jin himself. This was disgraceful, Yuan Shao was pursuing a vendetta at all costs, going beyond his authority with these orders, lying to people and using He Jin’s name behind He Jin’s back.

Then something went wrong, the histories say He Jin dithered and plans leaked out, plans that so alarmed the eunuchs they quickly sought to get back under the protection of the Empress Dowager. Given He Jin had 1) won, 2) had actively refused to execute the eunuchs, one wonders quite what leaked. One possibility for me is that Yuan Shao’s activities outside the capital reached back to the eunuchs, who would have believed it was He Jin (since “He Jin ordered it”), and if their families were being arrested then clearly leaving capital was not a safe option for them. If that is the case, Yuan Shao had cost his cause victory, would cost He Jin his life and lead to everything that followed including the downfall of the dynasty.

Yuan Shao gets praised as a hero for these days and that victory against the eunuchs was denied by He Jin’s weaknesses. I will discuss Yuan Shao’s attitude towards eunuchs in the next segment and concentrate simply in terms of Yuan Shao’s role (He Jin’s is discussed in my analysis of He Jin) during these months. For me it wasn’t impressive, he had tried too early to get a rather busy He Jin to attack the eunuchs, his second attempt however was a well done speech that used history and He Jin’s desires for an effective persuasion. Yuan Shao got He Jin onto a certain path but Yuan Shao and He Jin had a very different view on how to do that, Yuan Shao wished for a quick strike using He Jin’s army, He Jin was not willing to go down that route.

Yuan Shao was willing to adapt, problem is his push to use the army was a risky gamble that while, till He Jin died, didn’t fully backfire as it might have, it still failed and caused problems. When a worried Yuan Shao was soothed by He Jin giving him new rank, Yuan Shao knew how to use his newly gifted rank very effectively for his goals though his summoning of Dong Zhuo to be even closer to the capital ignored the objections made earlier and helped put Dong Zhuo even closer for when things went wrong. Yuan Shao could not have foreseen how badly that would go wrong and He Jin is the main person to blame for his summons but Yuan Shao played his part there. When He Jin actually won with his own plan, Yuan Shao reacted very badly, first seeking to satisfy his bloodlust, then seeking to go around He Jin in illegal and dishonest ways at possibly gigantic cost for everyone else.

The capital was about to be set alight and everything change with Yuan Shao at the heart of events.


[1] Style Ziyuan from Nanyang, sent by Cao Cao to challenge Liu Biao in the south as Governor of Jiao, used regalia to build his authority but either killed in mutiny or via local tribes.

[2] "In the past, when Dou Wu planned to kill the palace favorites, the only reason he came to grief was because he allowed the news to leak out. The men of the five regiments [of the Northern Army] feared the eunuchs and were prepared to obey them, but Dou Wu had counted on those troops, so he brought misfortune upon himself.

At the moment, you and your brother [He Miao] both control strong forces. Your subordinate and divisional commanders are all brave men of fine reputation, fully prepared to carry out your orders. Everything is in your hands, and this is an occasion sent by heaven. You, my general, must act at once to remove evil from the empire, and leave a name for later generations. You cannot let this opportunity slip."

[3] He Jin seems to have had a weakness when it came to PR, the lowly born Dowager He replacing eunuchs, whose role was partly because they couldn’t sleep with the woman of the palace, with men who could sleep with her so soon after her husband died was asking for further malicious gossip and scandal.

[4] “The use of eunuchs as officials has always been practised, but if the Emperor did not allow such authority and favour to be bestowed on them, they would not cause situations such as this. Since they are controlling affairs with their wicked behaviour the ringleaders should be put to death, and a single prison guard would be sufficient to do so; why is it necessary to repeatedly have others called in from outside? To seek the wrongdoers’ total extermination will result in the plot being found out, and in my opinion those doing the plotting will come to harm.”"

Cao Cao also noted that total extermination had tendency to backfire, funnily enough eunuchs in the palace that were sympathetic to overthrow of the corrupt tended to be rather less keen to help when they would be destroyed as well. It was a mistake the gentry kept on making and it seems to have cost He Jin support within the palace.

[5] "There is a proverb about closing the eyes to catch a bird. Such deceit is sure to fail in small matters, and the rule must apply yet more strongly in great affairs of state. How can policy be maintained by trickery? You hold the imperial authority, and all essential military strength. With the leap of a dragon and the pace of a tiger, you may act as you will.

"The present plan, however, is like pumping up fire in a stove when all that is required is the singeing of a hair. You need only act quickly, and display the thunder of your power. Use your own judgement to make a decision, and both heaven and man will approve. If, on the other hand, you fail to use the strength you have, but call in help from outside, then great armies will gather and the strongest will win. That is like turning a spear against yourself and passing the handle to someone else. The project will surely fail, and you will have embarked upon a road to ruin."

[6] Wang Yun had once executed a eunuch in a local power battle despite an amnesty which made the execution illegal. Later had been imprisoned on false charges after finding some of Zhang Rang’s clients had been in contact with Turban supporters, Wang Yun was even advised to take poison by his friends things had seemed so bad. When released, Wang Yun had to go into hiding till Emperor Ling died.


A Few Days of Fire

Whatever leaked out to the eunuchs, it led to disaster as He Jin faced with either go fully in or lose support of gentry by giving up, finally pushed for the eunuchs deaths and the worried eunuchs, despite the extra security measures, assassinated He Jin on the 22nd of September. The eunuch then, using He Jin’s head to force Masters of Writing to write the surprising edict, tried to replace Yuan Shao and Wang Yun with experienced Fan Ling and Xu Xiang [1]. The eunuchs had seen off gentry coups before by cutting off the head of the faction, this time though they could not call on the support of the Imperial Family, the gentry were not going to submit after what happened in past and the troops were very angry to lose a commander they loved.

When He Jin’s troops and officers worked out something had gone wrong, they laid siege to the palace with the eunuchs frantically defending the gates until Yuan Shu burnt them down. The Imperial Family were forced to flee to Northern Palace though Dowager He escaped the eunuchs. On the 23rd [2] Yuan Shao led He Jin’s forces outside the palace then he and Yuan Wei forged orders to summon Fan Ling and Xu Xiang and execute them both. Then Yuan Shao joined forces with He Miao, brother of He Jin, to seize the Tower of the Vermilion Bird, tallest guard tower in the city and key route from palace to city. There they caught leading eunuch Zhao Zhong and others, beheading them while He Miao was quickly murdered (Yuan Shao doesn’t seem to have been involved in this) by Wang Kuang and Dong Min’s men for allying with eunuchs in past.

Yuan Shao had control of the key points and took the leading role now, he ordered the gates around the palace to be shut so they could begin clean and fair investigations on all sides… oh no sorry, to commit mass murder. Every eunuch in the palace was to be killed immediately, be they young, old, innocent or guilty. It is believed two thousand men or so were killed while many beardless men resorting to flashing their privates to save their lives but even that undignified method did not save every beardless non-eunuch from Yuan Shao’s murder spree.

Yuan Shao then sent his men to clear the entire palace but due to the complex layout of palace, likely mass looting and possibly desperately resistance, it took till the 24th for his soldiers to be in a position to try to seize the inner apartments, his men even climbing the Principle Gate tower to try to reach the harem itself. The remaining eunuchs, the Emperor and Xian fled the city, they were pursued by Min Gong and Lu Zhi which ended with with the eunuchs drowning themselves and the likely traumatised imperial brothers returned on the 25th.

In some ways, the grisly few days was effective for Yuan Shao, it had been him that, of anyone, took charge of the situation and who had got the soldiers under command. He led the purge through the palace and killed many many many people though his attempts to trap the eunuchs didn’t completely work given some leading figures and the imperial family managed to leave the city. Of course, one might point out this was a disaster, the image of the palace on fire, the imperial family fleeing their capital, lots of innocent people slaughtered, many treasures no doubt looted, the balance between factions destroyed, peace and authority of the centre shattered. Add He Jin and his brother dead leaving a power vacuum but you know, Yuan Shao got to kill a lot of people whose crime was being made different or wrong place, wrong time and that is all that matters. Heroic gentry victory!

Yuan Shao had played a major part in what was a disaster for the Han by the path he walked, his blundering and bloodthirsty advice/ actions under He Jin before a mass slaughter and pillage. I do not see how we can call Yuan Shao as a hero for killing innocents or for serious failure but how we judge it? It should be noted Yuan Shao was backed by the gentry of his own time while the histories do paint Yuan Shao as energetic hero, denied only by He family corruption and weak dithering He Jin, the gentry+historian constantly supported “execute them all” policies even if the records come across as feeling the massacre was a step too far. Nobody at the time sought to stop the killings and Yuan Shao clearly suffered no loss of reputation among his fellows. So why did Yuan Shao have support in his time and in the centuries to follow?

The gentry felt eunuchs in charge was against the natural order of things, without the natural order then calamity ensued. They no doubt really believed that if He Jin just acted quickly with his army and seized the eunuchs, restoring the gentry to their rightful place, things would change for the better and gentry plans tended to cover a wide net of eunuchs rather then just the corrupt. The damage this would and did cause seems to have escaped their notice, that things had been bad before the eunuchs came along or the fundamental issues that had weakened the Han also seem to have been either missed or sidelined, instead destroying the eunuchs was the key to everything. Do that and everything would be right again, a quick coup, a bit of blood and then good governance would be restored.

Yuan Shao had greatly benefited from the eunuch Yuan She’s support providing such wealth to his family and the pragmatic attitude of an older generation willing to make such a deal but Yuan Shao was shaped by his time. He was far from the only one of his generation to act outside the law, the sense of the ends justify the means. After all what is the difference between the roaming knight-errants+ the adventurers use of force of arms and falsifying orders+leading troops to purge the palace of evil-doers? Going outside the law to serve a greater end. He had seen the ruthlessness of the eunuchs when they won political battles when he ran escape lines at a youngish age and the need for friends of his to hide away to escape their wrath, if they failed to overthrow the eunuchs and accepted defeat then would not the same happen to him? To his friends? It would have felt like it was win or die for Yuan Shao and his fellows, they had seen the results of delay and failure in past and it gave a sense of urgency.

Things could only get better right?


[1] Fan Ling [Deyuan] from Nanyang and grandson of hermit scholar Fan Ying, he had been praised for his work in Jingzhao by Cai Yong and had been an Excellency for a whole month. Xu Xiang [Gongbi] from Runan, son of Excellency Xun, had long been an associate with the eunuchs and was Minister Steward at the time.

[2] Using De Crespigny’s chronology in Fire over Luoyang


Fighting Dong Zhuo

Dong Zhuo had arrived at the capital during the chaos, having spotted the flames from outside the city and officials had turned to him to provide the escort. However not all were happy with this idea and when some ministers said there were orders to withdraw troops, the general gave quite a put down “You may be high officials, but you have failed to keep good order and the sovereign himself is now a refugee. What is this nonsense?” Words one feels quite a few officials including Yuan Shao should have had a think about.

The morning after the night before must have been a shock to everyone, seeing the palace after the fires and killings, the dead bodies, realizing He Jin’s body had gone completely missing, the Great Seal missing and the huge vacuum at the heart of government. The eunuchs had been a key part of government since Liang Ji’s fall back in 159, now they were gone and who would step in? The imperial family had a major shock and would have not found their home much comfort to return to under circumstances, Emperor Shao had not been an active ruler so far and now he was not going to step into the breach. Dowager He was going to be hampered by treatment of her gender and lack of eunuchs while, however tense things had come, losing both her brothers must have hurt. The deaths of He Jin and He Miao left the Northern Army without a leader to follow and hurting and though Ding Yuan was installed in charge of security, that didn’t give him command of all the forces, it also left the gentry without a leader at a key moment. There were the Excellences and Yuan Wei who had helped run the government but they did not manage to step into the vacuum quickly enough.

Chief Commandant of Cavalry Bao Xin had only recent arrived back at the capital having been sent by He Jin to recruit troops in Taishan as part of the “scare everyone” plan. Bao Xin met with Yuan Shao and warned "Dong Zhuo has a strong army and will be inclined to rebellion. Unless you take precautions you will certainly fall into his hands. Now that he has just arrived, his men will be weary and exhausted. If you attack him by surprise, you can take him." Yuan Shao refused, the records blaming a fear of Dong Zhuo, so Bao Xin took his troops back to Taishan and out of trouble to come.

Was Yuan Shao wrong? Leaving aside this could be “I warned about Dong” foreshadowing, I think it would be harder for Yuan Shao then Bao Xin painted. Yes Dong Zhuo’s 3,000 men would have been tired but they were loyal to him and Dong Zhuo was a highly experienced general whereas Yuan Shao had only fought eunuchs. The Northern Army had just fought their way through a palace for a few days, they would likely have been tired themselves, and lost a superior they loved. While Yuan Shao was able to command them in the circumstances of He Jin’s death, would they and the officers follow him in a unilateral strike against a noted general? How would the court feel if Yuan Shao was going around killing people on his own authority? Again.

Meanwhile Dong Zhuo manoeuvred better then the life time politicians to take control, he faked having a bigger army then he had and the He troops went over to him. Dong Zhuo followed up by arranged the assassination of Ding Yuan, who was the only real alternative military power, and claimed no rain of late was a bad omen so one of the Excellencies had to resign. You get three guesses as to who stepped in to fill the hole left by that resignation. Hint: it wasn’t Yuan Shao.

Everyone now had to try to adapt to the changing circumstances and in Fire Over Luoyang, De Crespigny suggests Yuan Shao tried to establish the same influence he had under He Jin. It would perhaps explain why Dong Zhuo went to Yuan Shao to talk about his plans to change the Emperor, not juts seeking the important support of the Yuan’s but that Shao had been actively seeking influence with the new regime so Dong Zhuo thought he had an ally. Yuan Shao’s SGZ simply has Yuan Shao say it is a matter of too great import and should be discussed with his uncle with Dong uttering treason “The kind that are the Liu clan do not deserve to be left on the throne” so Yuan Shao drew his sword, bowed and left. The Xiandi chunqiu [1] seems to be the more fuller and trusted version, showing a fuller discussion ending in a blazing row [2] and swords drawn.

In summary Dong Zhuo bemoaned Emperor Ling was an awful ruler, felt Liu Xie might be a worthy enough ruler but it was hard to tell and possibly the Han had run out of virtue. Yuan Shao gave a passionate defence of the Han, the young Emperor had shown nothing but perfection, trying to replace the clear heir with the son of a concubine would be controversial. Dong grasps sword and yelled he was in charge, nobody could deny him and made threats, Yuan Shao warned there was more then one strong man in the land, drawing his sword, bowing then leaving.

Yuan Shao hung up his seal of office as Director of Retainers and fled to Ji before he could come to harm. While I suspect Yuan Shao was not filled to the brim with Han loyalty given his track record and Emperor Shao had done nothing to suggest showing perfection, Yuan Shao likely sensed trouble ahead. Emperor Shao was the clear legitimate ruler, replacing with a much younger brother was going to be very controversial and Dong Zhuo’s reaction to Yuan Shao’s concerns was not encouraging for a long term partnership. Dong Zhuo overthrew the Emperor on the 28th of September and imprisoned Dowager He, all with Yuan Wei’s consent given though under probable distress. On the 30th the Dowager was poisoned, he killed her elderly mother and desecrated the corpse of He Miao. Then Dong Zhuo offered rewards for Yuan Shao’s arrest but Yuan Shao’s clients and friends in the capital, Zhou Bi [3], Colonel Wu Qiong and He Yong were trusted by Dong Zhuo and acted to protect Yuan Shao [4]. Plying flattery, that Yuan Shao simply lacked the ability to understand the great designs of Zhuo and was panicking however they warned the Yuan client base meant an attempt to arrest Shao would cause a mass uprising across the Empire. Dong Zhuo agreed and made Yuan Shao head of Bohai and Marquis of Kangxiang in a bid to soothe Yuan Shao’s feelings.

Fair to say, it didn’t work and Yuan Shao was soon in Bohai seeking to raise troops but his superior the Governor of Ji Han Fu had only recently been appointed himself, as part of Dong Zhuo’s attempt to add lustre to his regime by appointing noted men to provincial governorships, and may not have been too happy with Yuan Shao’s arrival. Han Fu sent Attendant Officials to restrict Yuan Shao’s freedom to act, Han Fu may at first have feared Yuan Shao was seeking to take Ji and when Yuan Shao’s motives became clearer, Han Fu did not want to get Ji province involved in what he felt was a private quarrel between the house of Yuan and Dong Zhuo. Only when other governors raised their own armies did Han Fu commit to the rebel alliance [5] and write to Yuan Shao to discuss Dong Zhuo’s crimes while giving agreement for Yuan Shao to raise an army.

By the spring of 190, the land was in a civil war that would not end for a long long time. The Coalition quickly agreed to make Yuan Shao its head and swore an oath to save the Han from Dong Zhuo. Shao took upon himself the temporary title of General of Chariots and Cavalry, to be confirmed when they rescued Emperor Xian, while the other lords took on lesser military titles. Yuan Shao was a logical choice to be the head, a name everyone would recognize, of impeccable lineage and who had recently served so close to He Jin. Shao knew quite a few of the warlords from his time either mourning or working at the capital, there may well have been genuine admiration for Yuan Shao. There is also the possibility that Yuan Shao wasn’t, at this point, a threat to any of the lords there, Yuan Shao had one city and was relying on others to keep his army fed.

Yuan Shao combined his forces with Wang Kuang’s at Henei with Han Fu using the wealth of Ji to keep the two armies supplied throughout. Kong Zhuo camped at Yingchuan but soon died of illness, the vast majority of the warlords merged at Suanzao while Yuan Shu with Sun Jian arriving later, set himself at Luyang, Dong Zhuo was thus surrounded and cut off from the north, east and south of his position.

It was said around this time that Yuan Shao and Cao discussed the future, Yuan Shao asked Cao Cao, "If this affair should fail, what territory would you take?" "What would your idea be?" asked Cao Cao. "In the south," replied Yuan Shao, "I would hold the Yellow River, and in the north I would reach to Yan and Dai. Then I could collect the hosts of barbarians in the north and turn south to fight for the empire. That should do it." Cao Cao gave one of those annoying “answer first so I can then go for a different route then you intended” answers “I would use the wise and strong men of the empire, and I would govern them loyally and honestly. That way, I could manage anything." One doubts Yuan Shao’s plan before this point was to not hire skilled officers and to treat those under him badly but one can see he was already forming plans for the north.

On the 26th of March, the former Emperor Liu Bian was forced to commit suicide, on the 22nd of April Yuan Shao’s agents Wu Qiong and Zhuo Bi were executed when they opposed change of capital (and Dong had rather noticed the people they recommended had raised armies against him). He Yong would later join a plot against Dong Zhuo and when arrested on some other matter, Yong committed suicide so he could not reveal the names of his fellow plotters. On 27th Emperor Xian had moved capital to Chang’an and on the 10th May, Yuan Shao suffered what would have been a great personal blow as the Yuan’s left in the capital, said to be over fifty people including Yuan Wei and Yuan Ji [6] while De Crespigny mentions Shao’s own mother was among them, were unsurprisingly executed. Yuan Shao had become head of the family in circumstances he cannot have imagined he would ever be forced to face. A frustrated Cao Cao, defeated by Xu Rong as he tried to inspire others to pursue the retreating imperial armies and unhappy with Suanzao group engaging in drinking rather then planning (perhaps also predicting their impending supply problems), left to rebuild his forces. Unfortunately soon after, the Suanzao forces had run out of supplies and Liu Dai murdered Qiao Mao as the forces collapsed, leaving Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu the only fronts left against Dong Zhuo.

A crises emerged in Qing after it’s inspector Jiao He [7] had pulled troops away from fighting Turbans to join Coalition, the Turbans happily took advantage to plunger the region. When Jiao He died of illness, Yuan Shao had to pick a successor to give a sense of legitimacy and governance to Coalition. Yuan Shao turned to a well connected and much admired Zang Hong [8] to try to restore order, he proved effective choice in terms of bringing Qing back to peace and wise politically. Zhang Chao was not going to object to his Officer of Merit getting such a promotion, Yuan Shao was an admirer but nobody could claim Yuan Shao was strengthening his own power by this appointment and the warlords would either be pleased for good friend Zang Hong or not be able to raise any particular objection.

At some point, Dong Zhuo sent some of his senior ministers to seek peace, SGZ says before the killing of Yuan Wei (but it is claiming people joined Yuan Shao over the killings and lords rose up in support doesn’t add up with what went on at time) when Yuan Shao took control of Ji while HHS and ZZTJ says around autumn of coalition and after Yuan Wei’s death. Personally, though I used ZZTJ’s timing of events, I’m inclined for before Yuan Wei’s death as, though Dong Zhuo was violent, I struggle to get my head around the idea he would do that then try to sue for peace but thinking envoys came after Yuan death is a legitimate position. The three that came to Henei, Bearer of the Gilded Mace Humu Ban, Court Architect Wu Xiu and Colonel Wang Gui [9] were met by Wang Kuang and killed on Yuan Shao’s orders. This would have given Dong Zhuo reason to have executed the Yuan family in retalation at seeing his senior ministers peaceful mission ended in blood. Whichever way round the two spates of executions happened, clearly the norms had broken down when even men of prestige like Yuan Wei and Humu Ban were being killed in a grudge match.

In the winter, the Henei forces suffered a major blow as Wang Kuang, who seems to have been acting as the military commander for Henei forces, led his troops to Heyang crossing. Dong Zhuo sent decoy troops to give impression of crossing at Pingyin then sent his main forces across at Xiaoping and in behind Wang Kuang’s troops. The resulting attack to their rear smashed the Taishan forces and may well have sent a signal to rest of the northern forces about trying to fight the imperial troops. Wang Kuang fled back to Taishan to try to gather more troops but was assassinated by kinsmen of Humu Ban. However Cao Cao, after a very difficult recruitment drive, returned and placed himself with the Henei forces while Yuan Shao hired Cao Cao’s friend Zhou Yu (not the Wu guy) and his 2,000 men. Other warlords in the alliance came to Henei as well (have a pity for poor Han Fu who was having to supply everyone) with Yuan Shao now in effective command of the sole eastern forces.

Being the lord of all lords must have been heady stuff and it may have been made worse when he became the sole commander in the east. Two Suanzao lords fell out with Yuan Shao, Bao Xin deciding to repeat the trick of forewarning of a future tyrant, this time to Cao Cao [10] while Zhang Miao’s SGZ says Miao rebuked Yuan Shao for acting arrogantly so Yuan Shao tried to get Cao Cao to kill his old friend. Cao Cao refused on grounds that this was really not the time to murder old friends however mistaken they may be. [11] Amazingly Zhang Miao and Yuan Shao remained allies for years afterwards.

In the spring of 191, the lords in the eastern passes held a general council, it was proposed by Han Fu and Yuan Shao “As they had a Child Emperor controlled by a treacherous minister, the empire Under Heaven had none to turn their hearts to. [Liú] Yú is of the Imperial Clan and has reputation, and the people look to him.” Cao Cao objected that Xian had done nothing wrong and that it would forfeit the good-will of the public [12] but Cao Cao was a minor figure who could be ignored. Yuan Shao and Han Fu wrote to Yuan Shu to get his support “The Emperor is not a true son of Xiao-Ling. We want to act like [the Marquis of] Jiang and Guan [Ying] in former times, when they punished and deposed a puppet ruler, and welcomed the King of Dai to his place. We plan to set up the Commander-in-Chief Liu Yu as Emperor.” [13] Xiao-Ling was Emperor Ling, they were questioning Xian’s lineage (Wu Shu claims the attacks were based on Xian being son of a concubine, not a wise route for Yuan Shao to take given his parentage) and citing figures of the past to justify their actions.

Yuan Shu refused, whether for his future ambitions as claimed or he just thought it was a bad idea, so Yuan Shao tried again [14] outright claiming Emperor Xian was not of the Liu line and court all followers of Dong, they can starve out the court and set up a strong one to bring peace, he also blamed the child Xian for the death of their clan. Yuan Shu [15] defended Xian and the situation as a temporary matter, pointing out Yuan Shao was engaging in slander and pinning the blame for Yuan family destruction on Dong Zhuo. The matter was settled when Yuan Shao and Han Fu asked Liu Yu and he refused, going so far as to call them traitors and when Han Fu suggested Liu Yu instead be head of Secretariat, Liu Yu threatened to exile himself.

It is hard to know what Yuan Shao hoped, long term, would come from an alternative Emperor, short term one imagines some prestige, ranks and enoffment but at great long term cost. This would have undermined the claim of the alliance as Han loyalists, men fighting to save the child Emperor from a brutal tyrant, a claim that has enhanced their reputation and lasts till the present day. It was a simple claim whereas serving an alternative and set up by yourselves Han Emperor, a second court just looks self serving. Yuan Shao and Han Fu’s arguments for deposing Xian were weak and desperate, Emperor Xian as a child could not be blamed for what had happened and the attacks on Xian’s parentage would be laughable if they were not so malicious. Spreading such lies about or attempting to create a second Emperor was not going to help the alliance or efforts to bring peace back to the land.

However while the eastern commanders were stuck, Sun Jian had ploughed through the imperial forces and in the spring of 191, Dong Zhuo had retreated from Luoyang. With Dong Zhuo having retreated to Chang’an, Luoyang impracticable to hold, tensions already having turned into fights and land grabs even between family members, and one force of the alliance have already collapsed, the Coalition was over.

The portrayal of the alliance has never been entirely positive, yay rising up against Dong Zhuo but their inertia is condemned as is the infighting that saw them all fall out. Cao Cao’s SGZ and ZZTJ accuse the lords of being afraid to fight Dong Zhuo’s stronger forces and Cao Cao was clearly frustrated with his group at Suanzao for sitting around drinking and feasting. So while they get praised for the noble goal, they (bar Sun Jian and Cao Cao) get lambasted for being ineffective with Yuan Shao getting a bit more criticism as the leader of these laggards. While I’m critical of the Liu Yu idea, I think people are harsh on two fronts

1) Yuan Shao may have been leader but it was by election and his ability to impose himself was limited. He could use force of personality and persuasion but if other warlords didn’t want to do something, Yuan Shao had limited means to bring them into line. He had only Bohai and was relying on others to keep his forces supplied, something one imagines the other warlords were well aware of. Though his falling out with Bao Xin and Zhang Miao suggests his position and prestige went to his head somewhat.

2) The coalition’s strategy. The ZZTJ and SGZ accuses the alliance of being scared of Dong Zhuo’s forces, this is probably true, and while one there is some fairness in charges of being inert/indulging themselves, the lack of battles with Dong Zhuo was with some reason. Dong Zhuo’s first instinct when the alliance formed was to raise his armies and meet them in the field, till Zheng Tai warned would unsettle things even more while the allies (bar Sun Jian and initially Cao Cao) wanted to avoid battle. If one side wishes battle and the other wishes to avoid, it would suggest both sides have the same reading of the military situation and that battle very much favours one side.

Dong Zhuo had the numbers, his troops via the Liang wars and the Northern Army were battle hardened and elite soldiers, Dong Zhuo himself was arguably one of the three great military figures (along with Huangfu Song and Sun Jian) operating at the time. The only man who could compare to the Han controller with their own military skill, experience and troops among the allies was Sun Jian. Every other warlord’s battle experience was none at all, massacring eunuchs or some role against the Turbans, they would have to learn on the job. Their troops would be family retainers, provincial troops and those who joined in hopes of a better life/loot, individual soldiers might have experience but not most of them. When the eastern lords did find themselves in a fight against Dong Zhuo’s forces it ended badly! Instead of seeking battle, what the allies did was blockade Dong Zhuo, cutting him off from taxes and food supplies from all but the capital areas (the Han had pretty much lost Bing already and Liang was in revolt), forcing Dong Zhuo to resort to raiding parties and desperate and unsuccessful economic measures. Cao Cao, after his defeat of Xu Rong, was willing to keep to a “no fighting” strategy but simply wished for a more aggressive show of force and blockade, he learnt if you can’t win in battle, the longer term strategy of a blockade was a wise choice.

In the end, the economic situation may have weakened Dong Zhuo’s armies in fighting Sun Jian, forced to withdraw Dong Zhuo was no threat to the alliance power-bases. However instead of peace, Yuan Shao was already at war with others.


[1] Spring and Autumn Annals of Emperor Xian

[2] Dong starts with “The master of the empire should be a man of worth and wisdom: I become angry whenever I think of Emperor Ling. Lord Dong [Xian] seems possible. If I give him the throne, however, would he be any better than Lord Shi [Bian, Dong using their childhood names]? There are men who can show a little wisdom in some things but great foolishness in others. How shall we judge such things? It may be that the Liu clan has exhausted its virtue."

"The house of Han has ruled the empire for over four hundred years," replied Yuan Shao. "Its grace and favour have penetrated all the realm, and the people look up to it. Now the Emperor is rich in years, and he has not yet shown the empire anything less than perfection. You wish to do away with the son of the legal wife and set the son of a concubine in his place. I fear people will not accept your arguments."

Dong Zhuo grasped his sword and shouted at Yuan Shao, "Silly fool, how dare you defy me! Am I not in charge of the affairs of state? If I want to do it, who shall say me no? Do you doubt the temper of my sword?" Yuan Shao flew into a rage, "Are you the only strong man in the empire?" He drew his own sword from his belt, gave a curt salute, and went out.

[3] Style Zhongyuan from either Wuwei or Hanyang, his father Zhou Shen had fought alongside Dong Zhuo (not that Dong was impressed with Shen) against Liang rebels in 185. Was used by Dong Zhuo to recommend men to office

[4] "To dismiss one emperor and set up another, these are matters of moment, quite beyond the comprehension of ordinary men. Yuan Shao could not appreciate such a great action, and he ran away simply because he was frightened. If you chase him too anxiously, however, the situation will certainly change. That family has been distributing favours for four generations, so they have clients and officials who have served under them throughout the empire. If Yuan Shao calls up fighting men and raises an army, then bold warriors will join him in rebellion and you will hold nothing east of the mountains. It would be much better to pardon him and give him appointment as administrator in some commandery. Yuan Shao will be glad to escape punishment and will certainly cause no trouble."

[5] There is disagreement as to when Yuan Shao got this permission, HHS says after alliance was formed and Yuan Shao was head, annotation The Record of Hero’s in Cao Cao’s sgz says before then, Sima Guang and de Crespigny agree with the latter as Han Fu could have had no influence after Yuan Shao was made head of alliance. I’m inclined to go with the majority and I suspect if Yuan Shao was unable to raise troops, it would have rather hampered his chances of being leader of the alliance.

[6] Yuan Shu’s older brother, he had held the rank of Minister Coachman under Dong Zhuo.

[7] Jiao He was skilled in Pure Conversation and a believer in mystical arts, while Qing initially prospered, that went when he weakened the defences against Turbans, He was accused of refusing to fight the Turbans and relied on sorcery when forced. At one battle, used magic to break the ice on a frozen river which scattered Turban forces.

[8] Style Ziyuan from Guangling, a handsome man and scholar like his father Zang Min, he had advised Zhang Chao to raise forces against Dong Zhuo, became friends with Kong Zhuo, Zhang Miao, Liu Dai and was widely admired. He was the one picked to read out the Coalition’s oath.

[9] Humu Ban [Jiyou] from Taishan was admired by the students and anti-eunuch reformists in the 60’s for helping poor, banned from office in 178 on charges of factionalism. Some sources say he was brother-in-law to Wang Kuang and wrote an eloquent letter defending his actions while arranging care for his family and died in jail. We know nothing of Wu Xiu/Xun and Wang Gui other then their fates.

[10] "Yuan Shao is leader of the covenant, but he uses that authority to his own advantage. He will himself rebel and become another Dong Zhuo. You are not yet strong enough to restrain him, and you will only make trouble for yourself if you try. What you can do, however, is establish a position south of the Yellow River and wait to see what happens." “

[11] “Mèngzhuó (Zhang Miao’s style) is our close friend, and whether right or wrong we should tolerate him. Now when the world Under Heaven is not yet settled, we should not harm one another.”

[12] "When we raised loyal troops, all the people supported us, and the reason was that our cause is just. Now we have a young ruler who is feeble and weak, in the power of an evil minister. These are not the faults for which [the King of] Changyi [Liu He] forfeited his imperial throne. If we make a sudden change, who in the empire can be at ease? You may look north, but I turn west (referring to Liu Yu being in north and Xian in west)” Liu He was Emperor in 72 but replaced within 27 days due to his inappropriate behaviour during mourning period for previous ruler.

[13] Liu Yu’s mini biography in Gongsun Zan's SGZ annotation Wu-Shu has a fuller version

“The Emperor is not a son of Xiào-Líng. We wish to follow the example of [the Marquis of] Jiàng and Guàn [Yīng] punishing a child ruler to welcome and enthrone the King of Dài. [Liú] Yú is praised for merit and virtue in government, our civilization has no other, and now among the branches of the ruling house, there are none that can compare to him.” It also said: “In the past Guāng-Wǔ [25-57] was five generations removed from Dìng-wáng [a son of Jǐng-dì, -155-141] and as Marshal-in-Chief commanded the [Yellow] River’s north. Gěng Yǎn and Féng Yì advised him to take Imperial Title, and in the end he succeeded Gēngshǐ [23-25]. Now Lord Liú [Yú] in his descent from Gōng-wáng [a son of Guāng-Wǔ] is also five generations, and he as Marshal-in-Chief commands as Governor of Yōuzhōu. This is the same as with Guāng-Wǔ.” At the time four stars met at jīwěi [constellation], and [Hán] Fù made a prophecy that said a divine man would soon be at Yān’s border. It was also reported that a man of Jìyīn, Wáng Dìng [‘the King is decided’] found a Jade seal that had written on it: “Yú will be Heaven’s Son.” It was also reported two suns were sighted at Dài-jùn, and it was said Yú would succeed to the Throne.”

Referring to Zhou Bo and Guan Ying overthrew the Lu clan and brought in Emperor Wen, whose kingdom of Dai was under Liu Yu’s jurisdiction as Governor of You.

[14] "Now in the west there is a young ruler who has the name [of an emperor], but has no blood relationship to the imperial clan, while all his officials, high and low, are supporters and flatterers of Dong Zhuo. How can we continue to trust them?

We need only send troops to camp at the passes and strategic points, and all [the supporters of Dong Zhuo and the Emperor] will be cramped and die. If a sage ruler is set up in the east, then we may hope for great peace. How can you still have doubts?

Moreover, the people of our clan have been slaughtered. Do you not recall [the example of] Wu Zixu? How can you still accept this ruler?” Wu Zixu fled Chu after his family was killed by the King and helped the state of Wu invade Chu then flogged the dead king’s body.

[15] "The Emperor is wise and capable, with the nature of King Cheng of Zhou [referring to a child sovereign who was a good ruler when he came of age]. The bandit Dong Zhuo has taken advantage of a temporary confusion and compelled the officials to obey him, so this is a moment of difficulty for the house of Han.”

"Now you say the Emperor 'has no blood relationship,' but that is simple slander. You say, 'the people of our clan have been slaughtered,' and 'how can you still accept this ruler?' But this was Dong Zhuo's work, certainly not the Emperor's.”

"It is with the utmost loyalty that I seek the destruction of Dong Zhuo, I refuse to think of anything else!"


Seizing Ji and Coalition Fallout

By 191, Yuan Shao had some cards to play in the civil war, he was arguably the most famous warlord due to the lineage, the clients, the name he had made for himself. The opposer of eunuchs, key lieutenant to He Jin, the leader of all the warlords and the one that ended up commanding the one remaining eastern army against the tyrant has other warlords were defeated or fell apart. His wealth must have been shrunken by this point, the family base was not in easy reach, the capital resources no longer his and wealth spent maintaining an army but he may still have had some wealth.

Yuan Shao seems to have been aware that he needed to prepare for life after the mass alliance, he tried to hire Tian Feng and he or his agents in Ji seem to have been rather busy in Ji building local support. Yuan Shao also welcomed substantial military reinforcements in Henei, the exiled Southern Shanyu Yufuluo [1] and Zhang Yang, unable to take Shangdang, took his several thousand soldiers to Yuan Shao.

Yuan Shao soon though faced two problems from rival warlords even before the Coalition had broken up.

1) Han Fu.

The governor of Ji who had kept Yuan Shao supplied suddenly cut Shao off early in 191, ZZTJ accuses Han Fu of being jealous of Yuan Shao’s gentry support in Ji. Alarmed might be less pejorative, Han Fu was, though a seemingly capable bureaucrat of enough note for Dong Zhuo to see him as an appointment to Ji that would add lustre to his regime, was against a superstar in terms of reputation and pull. Yuan Shao was also simply better and more expirenced at building support in and events would show Han Fu had reason to worry about Shao’s support in Ji. One also suspects the recent addition of several thousand troops to a subordinate that Han Fu didn’t have reason to greatly trust might also have caused Han Fu to be uneasy.

Han Fu’s plan of starving Shao was right at Yuan Shao’s very big weak point and does seem to have caused problems in the Yuan ranks. Yuan Shao simply did not have the practical resources and base of his rivals, trying to support an army on one city was going to very problematic. Yuan Shao needed a base that could support an army and unless things changed soon, his new allies would not stay and his army would be falling apart as Han Fu intended, Yuan Shao’s hopes and dreams would die here.

The experienced military man Qu Yi, in amazing timing, rebelled against Han Fu and defeated Han Fu’s army, Yuan Shao entering an alliance with Qu Yi. One does wonder if Qu Yi had been one of those in contact with Yuan Shao giving the timing of Qu Yi’s revolt but though it gave Yuan Shao an excellent commander, it didn’t solve the fundamental issue. Long time client Pang Ji pointed out the need for a base ‘General, you rely on what resources others give you for your great undertaking. Without a province to occupy, you cannot guarantee your own survival.’ Yuan Shao explained why he was not going to war: ‘The troops of Ji are strong whilst mine are hungry. If we cannot solve this problem, then there is no hope of establishing myself.’ Pang Ji had a scheme ‘You can contact Gongsun Zan, and direct him to come south to attack Ji. He will come and Han Fu will be much alarmed. Then we can send an emissary to advise him on his options. After he has heard them, he will definitely resign in your favour. And with this, you can occupy his position.’

One wonders if the opening parts of that conversation from Wang Can’s Yingxiong ji are less what was actually said and more the writer explaining situation. I really can’t see how Yuan Shao needed to be told he needed a base to support himself or that the blinding obvious was a great way to introduce the plan, Yuan Shao’s reply also helpfully sets up when Yuan Shao hadn’t gone to war ie supply issues vs the strong Ji forces. Whatever the accuracy of the build up, Pang Ji’s plan was a master-stroke as if it worked, it would hand over Yuan Shao a very rich and prestigious province without a fight. Yuan Shao would go from struggling to feed an army to someone in a strong starting position for the civil war.

Messages were sent to Gongsun Zan who unsurprisingly agreed at the chance to take Ji (and get out from Liu Yu’s control), faking to lead his men to join the fight against Dong Zhuo which would ensure Han Fu wasn’t prepared and Zan’s superior Liu Yu didn’t react. Gongsun Zan altered his march, defeated Han Fu at Anping and had the better of the battles. When Dong Zhuo retreated from Luoyang, Yuan Shao moved his army from Henei to Yan crossing only 100 kilometres from Han Fu’s capital in Ye.

With Han Fu unable to beat the experienced forces of Gongsun Zan and Yuan Shao now moving closer to Han Fu’s capital, Yuan Shao decided now was the time for the envoy’s to persuade Han Fu to surrender. Yuan Shao selected perfectly the delegation of unattached gentry who Han Fu considered friends and would trust: Xin Ping, Xun Shen (also called Xun Chen) and Guo Tu. More puzzling a selection is Yuan Shao’s nephew Gao Gan, it would seem a bit of a give-away of who the delegation were acting for but one can only assume, like the others, he was a friend of Han Fu.

Han Fu’s “friends” warned Han Fu [2] he would lose to Gongsun Zan and the unnervingly advancing Yuan Shao, the only way to save himself would be to turn to Yuan Shao, an ally who would be very grateful. Han Fu’s civil officers argued that Yuan Shao was in desperate straits and utterly reliant on Han Fu supplies, he would be destroyed soon as long as those supplies continued to be withheld. Han Fu decided to surrender and when word reached crossbow commanders in Zhao Fu and Cheng Huan, they dashed back from Meng crossing. On the way to Ye, they passed by Yuan Shao’s army at night and annoyed Yuan Shao greatly by their display of force. They argued to Han Fu that Yuan Shao’s army was already deserting and alliances fraying, he would be doomed within days but Han Fu was committed to surrender. Han Fu moved into mansion of the late eunuch Zhao Zhong and had his son deliver seal to Yuan Shao, it was the autumn of 191 and Yuan Shao finally had a strong base to call his own after a cleverly executed game of bluff.

Yuan Shao approached and some of Han Fu’s staff left their posts to try to gain favour, despite the best efforts of Geng Wu and Min Chun, Tian Feng executed the two loyalists. Yuan Shao moved quickly to cement his authority, the careers of Han Fu’s loyalists ended while Han Fu was given paper rank of General Who Displays Majesty but no authority, soldiers or staff. Han Fu’s false friends were given roles on Yuan Shao’s staff while Qu Yi became a key commander for Yuan Shao, Zhang He was from promoted from Major to Colonel. Tian Feng and Shen Pei had not served under Han Fu but took jobs at Yuan Shao’s headquarters, old friend Xu You also got a job. Yuan Shao tried to recruit the elderly hermit Lu Zhi as a military adviser but he refused while Han Fu’s guest Xun Yu was treated well but Shao was unable to persuade him to stay. Most of these names would play their part in Yuan Shao’s rise (and his fall).

Cavalry officer Ju Shou, a rising figure under Han Fu, was initially made an Attendant Official but he met Yuan Shao and laid out one amazing job application. “When you, general, entered court at a youthful age, you were already famed within the seas. At the vital moment of deposing and enthroning [of the Emperor], you demonstrated your loyalty and righteousness. When you fled on a lone mount, Dong Zhuo became anxious. When you crossed the He north, Bohai yielded to you. When you led the soldiers of that single commandery, the host of Ji came into your control. Your prestige resonates in the lands north of the He and your name is famed throughout the empire. Though the Yellow Turbans are cunning and frenzied; and the Heishan bandits reckless and domineering; when you led the army east Qing can be secured. Then when you return to subdue the Heishan bandits, Zhang Yan will be eliminated. When your forces withdraw to the north, Gongsun Zan will surely lose his life. When you awe the Rong and Di, the Xiongnu will undoubtedly capitulate to you. If you conquer the domain north of the Great He and unite the lands of four provinces; collect the merits of heroes and assemble a host of millions; receive the great procession of the Emperor at the western capital and restore the clan temple [of the imperial house] at Luoyi [Luoyang]; issue decrees to the empire and subdue those who refuse to submit—then who can resist you? In a few years, achieving these victories will not be hard.”

It was the right mix of flattery and a plan, a great overview of how Yuan Shao can go from ruling Ji to getting the north under control. Who to target of the local rivals first (though Gongsun Zan decimated the Turbans before Yuan Shao had to face them) and which lands to take, bring the tribes to order then bring in the Emperor. Yuan Shao, who had been looking for a second in command after being rejected by Zhang Liangze [3], was impressed and immediately make Ju Shou General Who Displays Firmness, with responsibility as Supervisor and Protector over all his officers. Ju Shou had got a huge promotion to a key role in Yuan Shao’s forces, in charge of discipline over everyone, that moment shows a difference between a man like Han Fu, who had been bringing Ju Shou through the ranks bit by bit, and Yuan Shao who saw the great talent so made him on the key figures of his regime in an instant.

Alas amidst the joy, there were some sour notes

1) Yuan Shap's SGZ puts this as when Dong envoys were sent and Yuan Wei and co were executed. The SGZ also says this so enraged everybody that famed people joined (doesn’t say whom, I suspect taking Ji might have been a rather more important reason to join Yuan Shao) and that people rose up, including some of the provinices, in support. I have not seen any evidence of such wide-spread revolt.

2) Yuan Shao appointed Zhu Han of Henei Attendant Official for the Officers at the Capital. Zhu Han resented Han Fu for treating him with disrespect and he believed Yuan Shao wanted Han Fu dead so he got together some soldiers and surrounded Han Fu’s mansion. Zhu Han went in and though Han Fu managed to flee upside, his son was captured and had both legs broken. Yuan Shao immediately executed Zhu Han, Han Fu understandably didn’t want to stay and so Yuan Shao allowed him to go to Shao’s old friend Zhang Miao though Han Fu would soon take his own life.

While it was understandable why Han Fu may not have trusted Yuan Shao after that attack, the records make clear Yuan Shao never intended this and while Yuan Shao had a history of violence, it is hard to see him being behind this. People don’t tend to be keen to surrender if you go and kill your first big surrendering person while Yuan Shao needed, both for people of Ji’s support and wider PR, for this to be seen as a peaceful handover of power. This risked damaging Yuan Shao’s reputation and unsettling the people of Ji.

3) Yufulou seized control of Zhang Yang’s men, capture their leader, and led the forces against Yuan Shao, to the south of Ye. Qu Yi opposed the Shandang force, forcing Yufuluo’s force to flee to Liyang [4]. Yuan Shao had lost allies and troops but it wasn’t a huge loss, Yufulou was clearly unreliable and Zhang Yang’s leniency towards plotters would eventually see him assassinated.

Yuan Shao had Ji, a rare occasion where a force took a major province without a fight (well from the winning force) and Pang Ji’s plan is perhaps often overlooked when talking of great or key plans of the era. Yuan Shao had executed it perfectly, choosing his timing, knowing when to add pressure and his envoys were carefully selected: a Yuan Shao envoy would have had little chance of persuading Han Fu to surrender as clearly self interested. Han Fu’s friends who were not under Yuan Shao saying surrender? That had force. Given Ji, Yuan Shao had got to work quickly to ensure the gentry leaders were in his camp and he promoted talented men like Zhang He and Ju Shou while Qu Yi provided much needed experience and would be his go-to general.

2) Yuan Shu

During the end months of the Coalition Yuan Shu seems to have come to resent Yuan Shao’s fame and popularity among the other lords and sought to undermine Yuan Shao by helpful stories of Yuan Shao’s childhood. He wrote to Gongsun Zan "Shao is not a true son of the Yuan clan" and when a number of Yuan retainers chose Yuan Shao (who had been actively recruiting from the Runan gentry while one assumes Yuan Shu tried to do the same), Yuan Shu remarked ""These worthless fellows have deserted me to join our family slave.", that sort of healthy sibling rivalry. The first attack does have a bit of Yuan Shao’s own attacks on Xian’s lineage being returned in kind but apparently Yuan Shao did not appreciate this.

As well as the embarrassment and the anger, this rift must have hurt. Till 191, Yuan Shu’s career had been similar to Shao’s: A famed sportsman and gallant (which is sometimes used for knight-errant style leading armed men) in his youth, he had also been a trusted adviser of He Jin against the eunuchs, it had been Yuan Shu who had burnt down the palace gates on the night of He Jin’s death (though it had been Yuan Shu’s men assigned to the palace to prevent He Jin being killed). Yuan Shu had also grown uneasy at Dong Zhuo though fled south, it had been the two Yuan’s that kept the flag flying for Coalition, both had suffered the loss of their family and they were half-brothers. The records don’t say if they were close but they had been working alongside each other for some time, now they would tear the land apart.

Using Generals of the South for the next bit: Yuan Shao, while stuck in the north trying to persuade Han Fu to let him have a go at ruling Ji, decided to send Yuan Shu a military and political message, making one of the Zhou clan [5] the Inspector of Yu to rival Sun Jian and sending the Zhou clan to attack Sun Jian’s outpost at Yangcheng in Yingchuan. This was on the border between the two Yuan lands and Yuan Shao had some claim to it as did Sun Jian as Inspector of Yu, something Yuan Shao could accept in wider interests of alliance till Yuan Shu started telling such tales. Sun Jian was away fighting Dong Zhuo so Yuan Shao’s men were able to seize the camp, not exactly helpful to the great cause and Sun Jian does not seem to have been overly happy when he got the news.

However Dong Zhuo was soon retreated and after Sun Jian had finished with rituals at the capital, he headed to take back his city. Sun Jian was reinforced by Yuan Shu and by a 1,000 cavalry led by Gongsun Zan’s cousin Gongsun Yue, Zan having warned his lord Liu Yu against giving Yuan Shu troops then hastily sending some of his own to avoid angering the powerful southern warlord. Sun Jian suffered the blow of losing Yue in one of the early skirmishes via a stray arrow but as a highly experienced and great commander, Sun Jian soon got the better of the conflict. Yuan Shu then sent forces to attack Zhou base at Jiujiang and forced Zhou forces at Yangcheng to withdraw to help there, the Zhou being driven out in 192.

Yuan Shao’s attempts to get an early victory against his half brother while they were distracted had really backfired. The Zhou clan had failed and so it was possible Yuan Shu might now strike at Yuan Shao’s lands while Gongsun Zan might not react well to losing his cousin to Yuan forces. What Yuan Shao would no doubt have considered an unfortunate circumstance of war, Zan may have felt that entire situation was unnecessary and it is hard to be overly sympathetic to Yuan Shao’s misfortune when he had attacked the one general fighting Dong Zhuo.

Still I’m sure Zan would prove a forgiving person who wouldn’t hold this against Yuan Shao.


[1] Had fought against Turbans on behalf of the Han but his father’s support for the Han saw the Xiuchuge first kill his father Qiangqu and then drive Yufuluo into exile. Unable to get Han support by time Emperor Ling died, Yufuluo has become a soldier of fortune, resorting to plunder.

[2] See my analysis on Han Fu for fully version of the debate with Han Fu’s camp and Han Fu’s motives.

[3] Also called Zhang Ze, style Yuanxiu from Hanzhong. Nicknamed Sleeping Tiger. As Administrator of Zangke, had intimidated the tribes and was often used where the Han needed rebels dealt with or tribes kept under control, noted for good government everywhere he went. Yuan Shao offered him Chief of Staff but would serve Cao Cao as General on the Liao.

[4] Yufuluo would be unable to keep control of Zhang Yang and would be defeated by Cao Cao a few times before his death of 195. Younger brother Huchuquan was no less able to restore the family to leading the Xiongnu and ended up a puppet at Wei court, no more Shanyu was proclaimed when he died.

[5] Two HHS says the scholar and Administrator of Danyang Zhou Xin, another HHS and the SGZ says Ang which Sima Guang follows, Wu lu and local history Kuaiji dianlu says Zhou Yu and De Crespigny tends to follow that.


Vs Gongsun Zan For Ji

As 191 drew on, Yuan Shao entered into political manoeuvring as did Yuan Shu: Shao allied with Liu Biao whose presence in Jing would keep Yuan Shu distracted and prove fatal to Sun Jian, this kept Shao’s southern flank free from major pressure. Events in Dong commendry had taken a turn for the worse after the murder of Qiao Mao by Liu Dai during the collapse of the Suanzao forces, Liu Dai’s chosen replacement Wang Gong had struggled to deal with the Black Mountain forces. In response Shao sought to ally with some of the bandit leaders like Guo Zu to limit the threat while Cao Cao was sent to deal with the matter and proved effective so replaced Wang Gong with Yuan Shao’s support. This dealt with another headache, helped further secure Shao’s southern flank and put an ally of Yuan Shao’s on the borders.

Yuan Shao also had a stroke of fortune at some point when Liu Yu’s son He, who had originally been meant to be bringing a message from Xian to Liu Yu asking for help escaping Dong Zhuo, managed to finally escape the grip of Yuan Shu (who had used Liu He to get troops from Liu Yu) and came north. Liu He sadly would never reach his father as Yuan Shao detained him, Liu Yu was a powerful governor and at some point, Yuan Shao might need his help or need to face Liu Yu, having Yu’s son in Shao’s clutches would no doubt prove useful.

Yuan Shao had a big problem: Gongsun Zan had not forgiven him “"My cousin is dead, and Yuan Shao is to blame.” and moved his army to Pan river, the site of his recent thumping of local Turbans. When Ju Shou had listed Zan as the last Chinese rival to fight in the north, it was not without reason. Yuan Shao and his officers had extremely limited battle experience, fighting the Turbans and the Heishan bandits would have given them experience and expanded local control, it would also have allowed Ji to get used to Yuan Shao. Given Zan’s experience as a cavalry commander against the tribes, where he gained a reputation for his courage, and that his troops would have had a lot of experience, he was not an ideal first challenge to face.

Gongsun Zan, who had gained a reputation for rhetoric in his youth, sent a memorial to court justifying his impending attack and showing his literary skill [1]. Building up Yuan Shao’s record of violence and treason, he listed ten crimes starting at the national level: blaming him for the burning of Mengjin, summoning Dong Zhuo then abandoning his duties. Of getting his family killed then faffing about during Coalition bar plundering and trying to create a new Emperor. On a local level, of sending his officer Cui Juye to plunder (he had unsuccessfully attacked Zhou commandery and been heavily defeated by Zan, there probably was pillaging due to nature of warfare), of killing Liu Xun (had helped raise troops against Dong Zhuo, they fell out and he was killed, Zang Hong possibly suggests he wanted to return to family) who Zan claimed had defeated Heishan bandits (I suspect Zan was taking Qu Yi’s credit and giving it to Liu Xun), of demanding bribes from two former officials and then killing them. Then he goes into Yuan Shao’s record with the Yuan’s, saying Yuan Shao shouldn’t be head of family given his slave girl mother (Gongsun Zan’s own mother was of “mean descent”) so shouldn’t have become head of family, his attack on Sun Jian had allowed Dong Zhuo to escape. He stopped at ten, remarking there wasn’t enough bamboo in southern hills to list every single fault, but Yuan Shu was far better then Yuan Shao.

Gongsun Zan had prepared very carefully, he had put his army in a place that reminded everyone of his recent success that had spread his name across the land, 70,000 Turbans captured and several thousand killed. Since “my cousin died in a battle with Yuan Shao’s proxy forces” was not going to work to justify invading a man of Yuan Shao’s fame, Zan had come prepared with his proclamation. Gongsun Zan advertised he was more then just a fighting man, painting himself as a Han loyalist and very closely tying himself with Yuan Shu, casually mentioning the level of contact and making an effort to back Yuan Shu’s claims to be the leading Yuan. For Yuan Shao, he had attacked Yuan Shao as a traitor, an incompetent, a violent man and an unfilial son, seeking to justify it to rival lords so they didn’t act against him, his own superior Liu Yu and to the people of Ji who were being told what a horrid guy Yuan Shao was. While we can get a sense of perspective on the national issues, it can be harder when propaganda goes to local level as sometimes it is only time we hear of the figures killed or we don’t have the detail required to judge but one suspects those making the attack tended to use any execution or unfortunately timed death to attack the rival warlord.

Gongsun Zan had done his preparations and, his army entered Ji. The province turned to Zan with cities changing on mass, I suspect less for the memorial but Zan’s fame and I wonder if the transition of regime with the violence at Ye had unsettled people. Yuan Shao was alarmed so sought to make a peace offering, giving his old title and seal as Administrator of Bohai to Gongsun Fan, a distant cousin of Zan, who promptly added his new soldiers to the invaders. Zan began giving out posts including to those in Ji with Yan Gang to be it’s new head while Tian Kai who, with Liu Bei starting to get noticed during this campaign, had been successful fighting Yuan Shao’s interests in Qing was given charge of Qing. The only good news for Yuan’s fledgling regime was Ji Yong attempt to bring over Ganling failed as Zhu Ling, despite his family being held hostage, retook the city for Yuan Shao.

Gongsun Zan wished to exploit his victories politically, the two warlords had a mutual friend in Liu Dai who was in charge of Yan and during earlier days, Zan had sent Fan Fang with cavalry forces to help while Yuan Shao had sent his wife and children to Liu Dai for protection. My guess is he did this either when he first raised troops against Dong Zhuo or as Coalition fell apart and his mind turned to taking Ji, both cases where Yuan Shao may have feared for the safety of his loved ones if things went wrong. Gongsun Zan sent word to Fan Fang to put pressure on Liu Dai, either send Yuan family back to Yuan Shao and cancel that alliance or Fan Fang would return with troops (with an implied threat of what would happen when Zan beat Yuan Shao). Liu Dai was worried about which side to throw his alliance firmly behind, guest Cheng Yu persuaded him Yuan Shao would win and to maintain that alliance. This would have been a relief when word got back to Shao, he had kept his ally rather then have another front he badly didn’t need and his family could stay safe in Yan while he fought for his life in Ji.

With Liu Yu’s own attempts to persuade Gongsun Zan to make peace having failed, in the spring of 192, Yuan Shao put himself at the head of his forces to meet Gongsun Zan, to try to halt Gongsun Zan’s momentum. Though known as the Battle of Jie Bridge, it started 20 li to the south and on edge of Julu and thanks to Wang Can’s work, we have a fair bit of detail. Gongsun Zan had 30,000 infantry with his famed white horse cavalry on each flank with over 5,000 each of such cavalry. The Yuan forces were split into two with the idea that left division would fire to the right and vice versa, aiming to killing everything in the centre.

Qu Yi was probably the one military officer in the Yuan ranks who had real experience, he had fought in the Liang campaigns for the Han as well at beating Han Fu and driving away the rebelling former allies, he was given the vanguard. Only 800 infantry and a thousand crossbowman on each flank in support, the small numbers were probably Qu Yi having men of personal command he could rely on to hold their nerve. Gongsun Zan sent his cavalry to break this small vanguard, do so and that would surely rattle the Yuan forces. Qu Yi’s men held their nerve as the cavalry galloped towards them, crouching behind their shields then when cavalry were only a few paces away, they leapt out and roared then charged while the crossbowmen fired upon the cavalry. The sudden volley from close range, the yells and the charge must have disrupted the momentum of the cavalry, Yan Gang had been on the frontlines and was killed, more then a thousand fell and the cavalry were driven back.

In a time when most armies were not professional, momentum and morale was important, things could quickly turn into a route. Gongsun Zan’s elite cavalry had just been beaten by a small force, one of his commanders was dead and the battle turned against him, Gongsun Zan fled with his cavalry with Qu Yi leading the pursuit to Jie Bridge. There Gongsun Zan tried to rally a fightback with his rearguard at what they hoped was a defensible point but the stand was unsuccessful. Qu Yi won the battle on the bridge and drove his forces into Gongsun Zan’s base-camp, cutting down Gongsun Zan’s standard. With that symbol, the resistance of the Gongsun Zan troops was broken and they seemed to be utterly routed.

Yuan Shao was twelve li away when Qu Yi won at Jie Bridge and he made a rookie mistake, thinking the battle was over, his security got lax. Dismounting, which would not have given him the best view of surroundings, what had once been several thousand men under his command was now just a thousand infantryman and a few dozen crossbowmen. I assume most of his forces had been committed into battle or pursuit and that the army in their victory had lost it’s discipline. Yuan Shao’s men were in for a rather unpleasant surprise as 2,000 of Gongsun Zan’s horse archers had rallied and finding this small Yuan force, surrounded it and began firing. Yuan Shao was in deep trouble with no cavalry to chase the horse archers away and only a few menwith ranged equipment, Tian Feng tried to get him to hide behind a low wall for safety but Yuan Shao threw his helmet to the ground declaring “A real man should die in front of the ranks. To be idle behind a wall, that is no way to live!”

In a moment of crises, Yuan Shao had shown bravery and his crossbowmen, though many were killed, stuck to their post to fire back whereas had he hid, it is possible his few men would have wavered at this key moment. Yuan Shao also got lucky, the cavalry did not know Yuan Shao was among the troops so didn’t press as hard as they might and were already withdrawing by the time MVP Qu Yi had raced back to the rescue, forcing them into full retreat.

Despite that late scare, this was a major victory and Gongsun Zan was forced to retreat to Bohai. The plan to stop Gongsun Zan’s cavalry had worked perfectly thanks to the excellent display of Qu Yi and his elite unit, Gongsun Zan had symbolically lost his standard, his Inspector of Ji and plenty of soldiers. Yuan Shao’s men must have taken heart from showing they could beat such an experienced army, it had brought Yuan Shao momentum and breathing space. Certainly Yuan Shao would have to learn a lot from the near disaster at the end but, after his foolishness, he had also shown bravery at the crunch point.

Yuan Shao may have felt the worst was over but the years ahead would prove challenging even in his base of Ji.


[1] Diannlue in Gongsun Zan’s SGZ. The memorial is well worth a read, too long for this analysis


Settling Ji

In 192 Yuan Shao’s army welcomed Lu Bu who had been assassinated his master, been driven from the capital and been unable to get Yuan Shu to accept service due to record of betrayal then fled Zhang Yang when Li Jue and co put a bounty on his head. Yuan Shao was less picky then his beloved brother, an experienced general with his own military core would surely be useful for Yuan Shao’s plans as he tried to expand against his many local rivals, even if Lu Bu was around only for a short time.

Yuan Shao suffered a blow when Turbans, those who had survived Gongsun Zan and really didn’t want to face him again, invaded Yan and killed Liu Dai. Cao Cao took over and rank was promoted from Liu Dai ‘s position of Inspector to Yuan Shao level of Governor, Cao Cao perhaps using Yuan Shao’s issues with Gongsun Zan to ensure rank among the big warlords. However there is some dispute as to who backed him onto Yan, Wei records very much put it down to local figures like Bao Xin and Chen Gong while Yuan Shao would later claim credit for this appointment. The truth is probably somewhere in-between, Wei records seem to have tried to create a sense of early Cao Cao being more independent of Yuan Shao then he probably was but no doubt Cao Cao’s local allies were important in winning over local support for his candidacy. It was in Yuan Shao’s interest to ensure an ally was replaced with another ally and Yan was in his sphere of influence, I doubt he left it to chance that Cao Cao would be selected in Yan rather then someone like Ying Shao. Whatever Yuan Shao did or didn’t help Cao Cao become head of Yan, at some point (whether the Turbans arriving or in the aftermath) Yuan Shao seems to have brought his family back.

Before the year end, Zan tried a repeat of the same route he had taken but didn’t get as far, his attempts to have Julu, under the terrified Administrator Li Shao [1], switch sides was foiled when Dong Zhao executed the local leaders like Sun Kang under state of emergency. Then at Longcou Yuan Shao met Gongsun Zan’s forces, winning the battle and sending Zan back to You province, Zan would never reach Ji again and would be on the defensive for the rest of their long conflict. When the Inspector of Yang Chen Wen died, Yuan Shao sent respected cousin Yuan Yi to take over but Yuan Shu drove him back and Yuan Yi died in a mutiny.

In 193, Yuan Shao used his family to expand his grip and to test their ability: nephew Gao Gan was possibly sent to the frontier province of Bing to try to claim a province the Han had abandoned into his own. Yuan Tan, Shao’s eldest son, was sent to Qing and while we know little of what happened in Bing, we Yuan Tan faced a difficult situation: Yuan forces in Qing held only Pingyuan on Zan’s side of the Yellow River but Yuan Tan managed to halt Tian Kai’s success, beginning to drive Tian Kai back. Yuan Shao also sent forces to aid Cao Cao, first in driving away Zan officers Shan Jing from Pingyuan area, Liu Bei at Gaotang and Tao Qian forces at Fugan then helping defeat Yuan Shu’s allied forces in Chenliu, securing Cao Cao’s lands and driving Yuan Shu away from where he could be a threat to Yuan Shao.

The two forces in Qing had a major problem, two years of constant fighting had left the troops exhausted and both sides had resorted to pillaging for some time, this had left the province “a wilderness without one blade of grass”. Li Jue and co’s regime was trying to reach out to the lords to gain some legitimacy, they sent the elderly Minister Coachman Zhao Qi [2] to try to bring peace. Yuan Shao was said to have gone some way out of his camp to meet Zhao Qi and kept him in his camp. Word was sent to Gongsun Zan who declared his wish to be best friends 4eva [3], peace was made with commander Yuan Tan and Tian Kai leading their forces back to their own parts of Qing.

Why the agreement? The state of Qing province being in such a bad state may have helped but both warlords had other issues they needed to focus on. Gongsun Zan had to deal with growing tensions with Liu Yu at home and a breather after momentum had turned didn’t hurt. For Yuan Shao, a truce gave him chance to deal with other local rivals then take on Gongsun Zan when Yuan forces were stronger placed.

Yuan Shao suffered a major blow in 193 and that may has also persuaded him towards a truce. While Yuan Shao was camped at Boluo Crossing holding a meeting with leading retainers when the troops at Wei commandery rebelled, allying with “Poison” Yu Du and his Black Mountain Bandits. With tens of thousands of troops, they seized Ye, killing both Administrator of Wei Li Pan and Administrator of Ye Li Cheng. When word reached Yuan Shao’s camp, there was a state of shock, some who had family in Ye started weeping and though the Yuan family were in Ye, Yuan Shao was noted to have kept his composure despite what must have been a shocking and painful moment for him. Shao summoned his army by land and water to the south of Ye at Chiqiu and was fortunate to be met there by his family, as one bandit Tao Sheng got Yuan family, wealth and other people into carriages and smuggled them out to Chiqiu, Tao Sheng was promptly made a General for his actions.

Dong Zhao went to deal with Wei commandery while, with his army behind him, Yuan Shao led a counter-attack at the Luchang Hills of Chaoge county, besieging Yu Du and Li Jue’s appointed Governor Hu Shou for five days then taking their heads along with over ten thousand of the Black Mountain bandits. After what had happened in Ye, their record of raiding and that they were allied to Gongsun Zan, Yuan Shao decided to go further. Yuan Shao led his army north through the mountains, wiping out Zuo “with the Long Moustache” Zizhangba and his forces then destroying the camps of bandit leaders Liu Shi, Qing “Green Ox-Horn” Niujue, “Yellow Dragon” Huanglong, “Enclosure on the Left” Zuoxiao, “Great-Virtue” Guo Daxian, “Big-Eyes” Li Damu and the presumably hairy Yu Digen.

Several tens of thousands of bandits were dead and their leaders killed but Yuan Shao was not done, continuing onto Changshan after what had been 150 miles of marching and fighting. There he faced Zhang “The Flying Swallow” Yan who had been reinforced via the Chuge group of the Xiongnu and four detachments from the Wuhuan. Zhang Yan had 20-30 thousand good infantry and several thousand cavalry, Yuan Shao’s numbers aren’t known but they had just gained a lot of experience fighting through the mountains. Fighting went on for ten days, Lu Bu with his allies cavalry commander Cheng Lian and Wei Yue often acting as the line-breakers. However though Zhang Yan took heavy casualties and came off the worst, the Yuan army was exhausted, they had to withdraw as well.

While it started with the embarrassing fall of Ye and ended with a limited victory, Yuan Shao had every reason to be pleased with how things had gone in the end. Yuan Shao had gone through the mountains, breaking a series of camps and taking many many heads (even if numbers may have been exaggerated) though at the cost of wiping out many great nicknames from the era. There can be a tendency to go “just bandits” but as well as numbers, the Black Mountain bandits had proven formidable group, Emperor Ling had been forced to come to terms with them and they had caused a lot of trouble since. Yuan Shao had broken their strength, Zhang Yan still was around but would not be able to create such chaos on the northern warlords ever again.

However tensions had emerged during the campaign had emerged between Lu Bu and Yuan Shao though sources disagree as to exactly why. Lu Bu’s SGZ and the ZZTJ claim Yuan Shao resented Lu Bu’s robbery and plunder as Lu Bu sought profit for his men, ZZTJ says Lu Bu’s men acted cruelly in way they did this. Wang Can’s work says Lu Bu’s achievements (I would assume Lu Bu had fought pre the final battles) made Lu Bu arrogant, feeling under-rewarded and was dismissive towards Yuan Shao’s officers. Generally the former is the accepted version so one must assume Lu Bu’s troops pillaged in an extremely excessive way to turn the normal plundering into one Yuan Shao objected to, Wang Can’s version plays into Lu Bu having a history of arrogance.

Either way, Lu Bu was aware that Yuan Shao was not happy so he suggested he return to Luoyang with Yuan Shao granting him Director of Retainers rank. Yuan Shao agreed but was worried Lu Bu might lead troops against him some day so Yuan Shao arranged an assassination. Lu Bu suspected something was up with his new thirty very strong escort Shao had given so used music to fake being inside his tent that night and watched from outside as his tent was attacked. Lu Bu then fled to Zhang Yang while Yuan Shao, on learning Lu Bu was alive, closed his gates and ordered his men to pursue. None dared pursue Lu Bu.

Yuan Shao risked a PR backlash and was more keen on asking Cao Cao to kill people then do it himself so why did he take this step? Clearly Lu Bu had made an impression in his military displays under Yuan Shao to everyone in Yuan Shao’s forces and Yuan Shao was worried about facing him in future. He may have looked at Yuan Shu’s record of successful assassinations so thought if Shu could pull it off, so could he and rid himself of a future threat. Alas for Yuan Shao, Lu Bu read his ruthless/dishonourable intentions and escaped while the reaction of Shao and his men to the news is a bit embarrassing.


[1] From Henei, he had been Inspector of Ji and when civil war started was at Yewang which he feared was too close to the mountain passes where Dong and the Coalition could face each other so moved his household which unsettled locals.

[2] Style Bingqing (so he remembered homeland when in exile) from prominent family in Jingzhao. A noted Confucian scholar and influential writer writer whose near death experience in his 40’s saw him change and seek office, he was forced to flee after attacking powerful brother of a eunuch in 158 and became a merchant. Banned from office till the Turban revolt, Liang rebels tried to get him to act as their leader. After this he would stay with Liu Biao, despite having senior appointments at court, due to age and ill-health.

[3] ‘Grand Coachman Zhao comes with the virtue of Zhou Zhao, bearing his edict to demonstrate the munificence of the imperial court. Seeing such serenity, it seems that the clouds have parted and the sun shines once again. In the past, Jia Fu and Kou Xun also battled with their troops, wishing harm upon each other. Then they encountered the magnanimity of Guangwu. Henceforth they entered court together and travelled in the same carriage, bringing honour unto themselves. I hold only these frontier lands. To have a bond with you, general, would indeed be for your grace and my own good fortune.’


A Time of Peace

After Lu Bu’s departure, Yuan Shao’s part of the 3kingdoms is quiet outside of politics. He took in the historian Ying Shao who fled for refuge after his escorting Cao Song went disastrously wrong [1] then sent Zhu Ling with three battalions to help Cao Cao (he never got them back) however Yuan Shao inadvertently caused problems for Cao Cao. Lu Bu became friends with Zhang Miao which infuriated Yuan Shao (to the extent Dong Zhao, whose brother Fang served Zhang Miao, felt he had to leave), word of that anger reached Zhang Miao who became unsettled. Yuan Shao had already tried to get Cao Cao to kill him once, if Yuan Shao asked this time then would Cao Cao find it a political advantage to attack Zhang Miao? De Crespingy’s Imperial Warlords claims Yuan Shao asked Cao Cao to indeed kill Zhang Miao a second time and it is certainly possible that Yuan Shao took such extreme measures due to Lu Bu concerns, a tendency for violence and falling out with an old friend.

Chen Gong tapped into this and the unpopular execution of Bian Rang to create an alliance of revolt against Cao Cao. Yuan Shao was probably not seeking to make up for that when, while Cao Cao was getting beaten constantly by Lu Bu’s forces, he offered to take Cao Cao’s family to refuge in Ye and for Cao Cao to formally ally himself to Yuan Shao. Cao Cao was in a bad state and had to be persuaded by Cheng Yu not to take this offer and subordinate himself to Yuan Shao. There may have been an element of old friendship in this, providing security for an old friend as Liu Dai had once done for Yuan Shao and being close to his old friend again. However this was mostly a ruthless effort to take advantage of Cao Cao’s dire straights, family would have been a hostage to keep sure Cao Cao remained a vassal to Yuan Shao rather then an independent ally. It was a well timed moved by Yuan Shao that so nearly worked and could have been a great turning point in the history of the era.

De Crespigny’s encyclopedia says Yuan Shao also sent troops to aid Cao Cao as he fought back against Lu Bu but Shao may have rather annoyed Cao Cao with some of his manoeuvrings. When Tao Qian died, his successor Liu Bei (instead of turning to his old master Gongsun Zan for recognition), sought Yuan Shao’s approval for legitimacy via Chen Deng to the chief of the alliance. Yuan Shao granted it, willing to accept this signal then Xu had changed from a Zan supporter to supporting Yuan though Cao Cao can’t have been too pleased Xu was now off limits.

Why was 194 so quiet for Yuan Shao’s army? In military terms, Yuan Shao may have still be concerned at what Zhang Yan might do while Gongsun Zan had strengthened after destroying Liu Yu and seizing control of the entire of You province. Yuan Shao may also have been taking time to rest his army and concentrate on civil issues, Ji had suffered major revolts that had cost him (vs Gongsun Zan then Black Mountains) so winning public support and loyalty of key figures was needed. His lands in Qing needed some rest, rebuilding of farmlands and resupply before the next wars. One assumes the lack of revolts and future wars in Qing suggest Yuan Shao was at least somewhat successful in these matters but we know very little of Yuan Shao’s administrative record or those of his officers other then what his opponents claimed.


[1] Style Zhongyuan from Runan, held various administration ranks in the court before being appointed to run Taishan in Yan. Had defeated the Turbans and supported Tao Qian’s proposal to have Zhu Jun rescue Emperor Xian. Wrote about legal history, conduct of court using his own memory, customs and omens and was a major source for other historians.


Back To War

In 195, two events led Yuan Shao to dispatch his armies again. One would prove a sad case that led to a PR disaster, the other was rather happier for Yuan Shao.

1) Vs Zang Hong.

Around 193 or 194 Zang Hong had been moved from Qing (I wonder if he had been the one struggling against Tian Kai but Zang Hong’s SGZ fails to mention any such warfare) to Administrator of Dong. The commandery of Dong was under Cao Cao’s jurisdiction in Yan though in practise, the Yellow River seems to have become an unofficial border between the two allies and Zang Hong’s authority would be on Yuan Shao’s side. While the River made a practicle border, Cao Cao may not have been overly pleased at this none-the-less.

Early in 195, Cao Cao had taken back Yan, Lu Bu had fled to Xu (Yuan Shao did not try to have Liu Bei killed for this), Zhang Miao tried to get helped from Yuan Shu but was killed by his soldiers and Zhang Chao was hanging on desperately at Yongqiu. Zhang Chao’s last hope was Yuan Shao’s officer Zang Hong, his own former officer, would come to his aid though as his officers pointed out "Yuan Shao and Cao Cao are presently at peace and Zang Hong holds his appointment through Yuan Shao. He will not upset good [relations between Yuan and Cao] and bring the misfortune [of such involvement]."

Zang Hong had gone barefooted to Yuan Shao, weeping and begging to be sent with soldiers or even just his own men to help Zhang Chao. Yuan Shao refused both ideas, reasons aren’t given but Zhang Chao’s officers probably had their finger on it: Zang Hong was asking Yuan Shao to backstab an ally, open up a new war when he had two foes to worry about and risk destroying everything Yuan Shao and his loyal officers had built. The second request was not much better, “Hi, I’m an officer of Yuan Shao’s leading men against your armies. This is totally not due to Yuan Shao” was not likely to have worked at avoiding any of these problems.

Yongqiu fell, Zhang Chao killed himself and the family of the two Zhang’s were slaughtered, Yuan Shao probably thought matter was done. Zang Hong was understandably devastated, he had been a close adviser to Zhang Chao once, and he became angry with Yuan Shao for not choosing to sacrifice everything for Zang Hong’s feelings, for allowing Zhang Chao to die. So Zang Hong broke relations with his lord and refused correspondence, he must have known what was about to happen.

Yuan Shao sent his forces to Zang Hong’s capital of Dongwuyang, it is described as a siege that lasted over a year but also that he died in 195 so I think length of siege may have been a tad exaggerated. Shao may not however put in an energetic siege, he was a fan of Zang Hong and sought to come to terms, asking Chen Lin (who was of the same hometown as Zang Hong, Guangling, and a noted scholar) to write to remind Zang Hong of his duties and to explain the situation including Zang Hong’s weak position. Zang Hong’s letter back became a major part of his SGZ and seems to have become celebrated as an example of loyalty. [1]

Initially Zang Hong is humble to the man he knew but quickly begins scolding Chen Lin (he does this a lot) and sets out to explain why he is doing this with heavy doses of contempt for Chen Lin. He is sad to do this but he must for Zhang Chao, Yuan Shao showed great favour once but failing to reinforce Zhang Chao had disgraced Zang Hong and that was a far bigger crime then this revolt. Yuan Shao could simply leave him alone and he accuses Yuan Shao of a history of oppressing those who wished to leave: Zhang Jingming (seems to be personal name Da, successfully pulled of a major water project as Administrator of Julu in 149) who had helped persuade Han Fu to surrender then left for Lu Bu and died fearful (I have no useful details about his death). The attempt to kill Lu Bu for no crime, Liu Ziqi of wanting to return to family and was beaten to death (Pei Songzhi wonders if this is Liu Xun that Zan had mentioned). After that, how can such a humble man as Zang Hong understand Yuan Shao’s ways but how could any of their deaths be justified? How can Zang Hong not observe Yuan Shao’s abandoning the Han and using men for his own benefit, including killing them and not worry?

Zang Hong blamed Yuan Shao utterly for this conflict, not himself, Shao was forcing Zang Hong to renounce his office and to defend the city. He is acting loyally to Zhang Chao, he had affection for Yuan Shao but they had separated but also argues that the pragmatic thing to do is for Yuan Shao to leave, Zang Hong is in a strong defensive position and Yuan Shao had enemies in the northern so why waste time here? Then one more “I’m loyal, your not” attack at Chen Lin.

Fair to say Yuan Shao got the subtle hint that Zang Hong had no plans to surrender, brought in more troops and ordered the siege to really begin in earnest. Was Yuan Shao wrong? Zang Hong was an idealist who had different views on the Han and was struggling with conflicting loyalties and sense of duty. I wonder if Yuan Shao was paying here for past actions with those who had wanted to leave, that instead of leaving elsewhere to a lord he preferred, it is possible Zang Hong felt his best route to safety was to stay in Dongwuyang. In the situation at hand however it is hard to see what else Yuan Shao could do other then try to retake his lands. Leaving it alone would be embarrassing, cost him resources and a border region, something another warlord (like, say, Cao Cao) would surely try to exploit to strengthen their own grip.

Events would prove that Zang Hong’s belief in his resources to last some time vs Yuan Shao’s ability to wield an army on a separate front was wrong. Under a proper siege now, Zang Hong’s city began to starve, Hong was a charismatic figure and clearly won local support, they stuck with him even as they were forced to eat rats. Zang Hong offered to his officers to surrender the city, while insulting Yuan Shao as a man without principle, but they apparently believed in his cause of rebelling due to not being able to dictate diplomatic policy based solely on Zang Hong’s connections. Zang Hong shared the last bit of gruel he had and killed his concubine to feed his troops but the records says 7-8 thousand died for Zang Hong’s cause and none defected. I suspect elements of this account of the siege are more about building an example of inspiring loyalty rather then 100% accurate portrayal of events.

Eventually the city fell and Zang Hong was captured alive having got thousands killed and brought much suffering. Yuan Shao summoned a council of leading men as he aimed to pardon Zang Hong for what had happened, what he must have hoped would be a show of Yuan Shao’s pragmatism and magnanimity for a loyal rebel but it went horribly horribly wrong. Though quite why Yuan Shao started it with "Zang Hong, how could you be so ungrateful? Will you submit to me now?" I don’t know, it isn’t the most persuasive way to get someone to submit. Zang Hong, tied on the floor, looked up and railed against Yuan Shao for being disloyal to the Han, to the Zhang family he had once called brother and he only regrets he lacked the strength to right the wrongs [2]. Yuan Shao knew Zang Hong would not serve so gave orders for his execution, a move that must have saddened him and that he had gone to considerable lengths to avoid. Alas for Yuan Shao, things would get even worse!

Chen Rong, another fellow of Guangling and an admirer of Zang Hong, had been in Zang Hong’s service but was sent away when siege went bad, Yuan forces had likely captured him and Chen Rong was in the council to see all this. When the order for death was given, Chen Rong intervened "You have embarked upon a great work, to end the violence in the empire. Yet you begin by killing a loyal, honest man. Does this match the will of Heaven? Zang Hong took up arms for the chief of his commandery. How can you kill him?"

Yuan Shao was said to be embarrassed and this must certainly have made the situation more awkward but Yuan Shao sought to avoid more bloodshed. He had Chen Rong led out, commenting “You are not Zāng Hóng’s close companion. Why do you act in vain?” [3] Chen Rong wouldn’t let it go and made clear he wanted to die rather then serve Yuan Shao “There are unwritten rules of humanity and honour. If you follow them you are a gentleman. If you disregard them you are a common fellow. I would rather die on the same day as Zang Hong than live under the same sun as you."

Faced with another who refused to serve and had just been rather rude, Yuan Shao had him executed as well. This went down badly within the council with people claiming "How could he kill two such heroes on a single day?" and clearly this was a blot on Yuan Shao’s reputation at the time. Zang Hong and Chen Rong became celebrated for their loyalty so the man who killed them was clearly unworthy!

I lean more towards the commentary of Xu Zhong on the matter [4], bar Yuan Shao being Han loyal, then I do Zang Hong. Yuan Shao got a bad reputation for the events here but I’m not sure what he could have done differently. No warlord would allow a vassal to invade an ally and risk everything, junior officers were not supposed to dictate diplomatic policy on their own whims, Zang Hong was being unreasonable to put Yuan Shao in that position then blame Yuan Shao for not being an idiot. When Zang Hong, like many of the era, struggled with the issues of competing loyalties and rebelled then what else is Yuan Shao supposed to do as a warlord but win his border lands back? As Zang Hong revelled in his moral superiority, abused others and led thousands to starvation, Yuan Shao sought a peaceful solution. Even when he won, Yuan Shao unusually sought to forgive but the two made clear they wanted to be martyrs and I suspect had they been allowed to leave, would have been continuing to decry Yuan Shao as a man without morals to whoever would listen.

Yuan Shao may have had a history of violence but on this, Yuan Shao was the pragmatic, realistic, compromiser who went out of his way to keep Zang Hong alive. So naturally he is the evil one.

2) Gongsun Zan

Since their last conflict, Gongsun Zan had won a brief battle with his boss Liu Yu, executed Liu Yu and his loyalists and seized province of You, building a grand fortress and agricultural colonies in the border territory of Yi in Hejian. Gongsun Zan despised the gentry, sending some into exile, refusing to give jobs to the local gentry but instead swearing oath of brotherhood with his friends of lesser birth. Combined with a strict rule, past violence against the tribes and tensions were building, exploding in 195. Liu Yu loyalist Xianyu Fu led an uprising of the local gentry of You, including likes of Xianyu Yin, they dispatched Yan Rou to persuade the tribes to help, making him Major of the Wuhuan. Yan Rou had lived among the tribes as a youth, was trusted and he used his connections with the Wuhuan to lead the tribes in support though perhaps revenge against Gongsun Zan also played a part in their decision. Combined they killed Zuo Dan, the Administrator of Yuyang, in battle which encouraged others to pledge their support.

Wuhuan King Supuyan “The Severe” his support in and Yuan Shao suddenly remembered he had an undying love for Liu Yu, dispatching Liu He to join Qu Yi’s forces and sending Qian Zhao to lead some Wuhuan cavalry, while Yuan Tan led forces in Qing against Tian Kai once more. This scale of revolt was too big an opportunity to waste and Yuan Shao ensured he had his best commander at the fore while his use of Liu He was no doubt trying to help get local support for his invading army.

The allied army numbered a hundred thousand and faced off against Gongsun Zan at Baoqiu, the allies inflecting casualties in the twenty thousand mark and putting Gongsun Zan on the back-foot. There were further engagements after that and the allied forces were constantly winning (about only victory for Zan’s forces was when general Wang Meng defected to Zan’s opponents then got shamed out of attacking Dongzhou by Tian Yu [5]) so Gongsun Zan changed tactics. He withdrew his forces to all but his core base and his grand fortress, going on the defensive rather then risk more open battles. Zan’s goal was to ride out the chaos behind his walls, with his concubines for company and no men anywhere near, his fortress was also behind the many complex watercourses that would likely slow the rebel advance. While this gave Yuan Shao all but a strip of Gongsun Zan’s lands, it also stalled momentum as Yuan Shao’s forces faced a strong defensive position. Yuan Shao, needing local support, recognized Xianyu Fu’s declaration he was the new Administrator of Yuyang and when Yan Rou killed the Protector of the Wuhuan Xing Ju to strengthen his grip on the tribes, Yuan Shao supported the regime change though Liu He vanished from history.

Yuan Shao had seized an opportunity that emerged, turning the balance of the power in the north filmy his way and ensuring Gongsun Zan was holed up. It was a long road ahead though, Gongsun Zan still had a strong army to threaten if Yuan Shao got careless and moved his men elsewhere while the strong defensive position with men, water and walls meant any Yuan advance would be a slow trudge, bit by bit.


[1] Zang Hong’s SGZ

[2] "All the Yuan served the Han, and in four generations they held five posts as excellencies. Well may it be said that they have received favour. Now, however, when the imperial house is weak and in decline, you have no intention to offer support and assistance. You seek only to seize opportunity, you possess inordinate ambition, and you kill good and loyal men to establish your evil power. "I have myself heard you call Zhang of Chenliu [Zhang Miao] your elder brother, so my commandery leader [Zhang Chao] must be your younger brother. You were supposed to be allies, eliminating evil and preserving the state from harm. How could you hold back your forces and stand idle as another man was destroyed? I only regret that I am too weak to raise my sword to right the wrongs of the empire. How can you speak of submission?”

[3] I tend to go for ZZTJ versions of speech but that has “not one of Zang Hong’s people” when he had clearly been an officer of Zang Hong so gone with SGZ

[4] Hóng was kindhearted and world famous for his righteousness. He sought to rescue his former lord from danger. This feeling is enough to make anyone sympathize, and this righteousness is enough to encourage the weak. However Yuán was also a close friend, installed him in the province and commandery, and though their relationship was not that of master and servant, he was the Alliance Leader and had received their trust, and should not have been betrayed. Yuán and Cáo were at peace, and both sides sought to assist the Imperial House. Lǚ Bù rebelled without reason, his intentions were to rebel and create chaos, but [Zhāng] Miǎo and Chāo without authority installed Bù as provincial Governor. By the Imperial laws, they were all criminals. That Lord Cáo punished them and that Yuán did not rescue them was not without reason. Hóng should not have asked Yuán for troops and should not have blamed him. If Hóng did not have sufficient planners or strength, he could have sought out other powers to ask help for the rescue. If his plans and strength were not enough to assist in matters, then it would be better to not just observe the quarrel but die with Chāo. Why should he swear to defend the city to the end and be inflexible, dying himself and exterminating his own people, failing to establish any achievement? How tragic!

[5] Tian Yu’s biography

“For you to have abandoned Master Gongsun Zan, who treated you so well, might have been due to circumstances beyond your control. But since you now return, playing the part of a bandit, I know that you are nothing more than a rebel. ‘Though a man have only knowledge enough to carry a pitcher, as he is in charge of it, he must not lend it to another.’ I have such a charge. So why not bring on your attack?”


The Han Decision

In 195 Li Jue’s regime had tried to bribe Yuan Shao for support, confirming him as Governor of Ji which Yuan Shao had claimed for himself, confirming Dong Zhu’s enoffment of Shao as Marquis of Kang district and adding a Staff of Authority (that must have brought back memories) with title of General of either Rear or the Right. Yuan Shao likely was happy to have his ranks given official approval and to have new ones but Yuan Shao had little interest in helping the controllers of the Han.

Emperor Xian that year made his effort to flee the clutches of the military generals and sought protection of nearby warlords in 196. It is possible that it was Xian (De Crespigny notes in ZZTJ says Li Jue, Imperial Warlords suggest Xian) promoted Shao to General of the Rear as part of his attempts to get help. Yuan Shao dispatched a senior envoy to Xian’s capital at Hedong and when his envoy returned, said envoy argued for helping the Emperor. The SGZ says this was Guo Tu but contemporary historian Liu Ai [1] says it was Ju Shou who had argued for the Han, ZZTJ and De Crespigny back it being Ju Shou and that Guo Tu argued against. I am inclined to go with the majority given Ju Shou’s earlier plan had called for Emperor to come under Yuan Shao’s protection and Liu Ai provides details in the Xiandi zhuan.

Yuan Shao’s senior advisers proved to be split [2]. Ju Shou unsurprisingly argued for the Han, appealing to the record of Yuan Shao’s family and Han needs him now, listing it’s troubles while rulers are showing no loyalty or concern for national interest and the exhausted people. That Yuan Shao is in a strong position with Ji fairly peaceful, gentry support and a strong army to shield Emperor in Ye. Holding the Emperor would mean lords would have to obey and punish those who wouldn’t submit to court.

Guo Tu and senior General Chunyu Qiong argued the Han had been in long decline and trying to revive it was too difficult, the time is about who can strike best in civil war and perhaps hoping Yuan Shao would self declare [3]. Having the Emperor would curb Yuan Shao’s freedom to act and could face accusations if Yuan Shao acted against an order. Ju Shou argued this was fulfilling the needs of the time and if Yuan Shao didn’t act now then someone else would. Yuan Shao decided not to aid the Han court but nor did he declare himself openly against the Han (which as Yuan Shu would prove, would not have been wise).

Failure to take Xian is often seen as a key mistake from Yuan Shao, particularly in the light of how Cao Cao used Emperor Xian to truly put himself at the centre of the national stage. Ju Shou’s plea to Yuan family past misread Yuan Shao whose own history was not at all supportive of Emperor Xian, Yuan Shao may have been closer to “Han is doomed, reach for the throne” view of Guo and Chunyu, but on the practical proposals? Ju Shou had a point a decision needed to be taken quickly but how appealing was more political clout over warlords? Assuming they obeyed of course. Yuan Shao already had major political clout to gain allies so how much gain would he get for risk of independence and potential internal political issues that were raised by others?

Cao Cao was the first of the era to really show how an Emperor could be used but he also showed the potentially deadly risks that being Xian’s controller brought, for Cao Cao the risk reward balance was very much in favour of being the Han’s controller, it was a game changer for him. For Yuan Shao, a man perhaps no longer caring for the Han, that balance was less favourable, it would be probably have boosted him but not enough for Yuan Shao to feel it was worth the difficulty. Perhaps the big flaw was less failing to appreciate what being Han controller would do for Yuan Shao but failing to anticipate how well someone might use Xian if Yuan Shao didn’t take control.

Cao Cao expanded his reach towards the capital, taking Emperor Xian back to Xuchang in 196 and establishing his grip on the court. Cao Cao was made General-in-Chief (I’m sure it was a shock to him) and he went right for Yuan Shao, an edict sent declaring Yuan Shao had failed to support the throne and accusing him of faction while ZZTJ quotes part of it “"Though your lands are broad and you have many soldiers, you have set up a party solely for yourself. We do not hear of you as a leader to give help to the true king, we only hear that you usurp authority and attack others.” Faction was a dangerous charge, used by the eunuchs to exile and execute their gentry enemies, and Yuan Shao had to respond. He sent back a memorial (I, alas, do not have a copy of this) defending his record and by claiming he had got Cao Cao appointed Governor of Yan, tying Cao Cao’s past and position to him.

Cao Cao realized he had overstepped the mark and sought to mollify, suddenly Yuan Shao was not a traitor but should be Grand Commandant and be made Marqius of Ye. Perhaps normally being given such great rank and improved enoffment might have worked if Cao Cao hadn’t just become General-in-Chief and Yuan Shao was still angry."There were several occasions Cao Cao was in danger of death, and I was quick to help him and save him. Now he is making use of the Son of Heaven to give me orders."

Cao Cao’s SGZ tries to paint this as Yuan Shao was too ashamed so the graceful Cao Cao resigned General-in-Chief to give to his old friend. In truth Cao Cao was forced into an extremely embarrassing step down, making himself Excellency of Works with acting authority as General of Chariots and Cavalry, both the third highest ranks in the system and Yuan Shao was General-in-Chief plus Grand Commandant, above Cao Cao. Some sources say Yuan Shao tried to resign Grand Commandant to Chen Qun’s father Ji but as Chen Ji was serving under old foe Lu Bu, it seems unlikely. The next year Kong Rong was sent to just emphasis how awesome the Han court found Yuan Shao: as well as his new seals of office, he was granted the authority over the four provinces of Ji, Qing, You and Bing, also given some of the nine distinctions like bows and arrows, a battle-axe and the right to have 100 personal guards under the title Rapid as Tigers.

Yuan Shao can be seen as petty and arrogant for this, it is also the way the SGZ portrays it, but Cao Cao (leaving aside his dangerous opening gambit), was using rewards to show the world that Yuan Shao was now the junior partner of the alliance. Yuan Shao taking this would have publicly diminished his standing among warlords, gentry and officers, he had no reason to accept this and I doubt the likes of Cao Cao would have done either in similar circumstances. As it showed, Yuan Shao still had the power and status to force Cao Cao to show who the senior partner still was and he won that political battle.

The Book of Wei claims in Cao Cao’s SGZ that Yuan Shao’s violent tendencies emerged as he tried to get Cao Cao to murder Liang Shao [4] (for an unexplained old argument), Yang Biao (for connections to Yuan Shu I suspect) and Kong Rong (presumably for Qing). Cao Cao heroically refused (though as Pei Songzhi notes, Cao Cao did torture one and kill another [5]) with Yuan Shao said to feel Cao Cao was being a hypocrite and was resentful. If true (which I have my doubts) rather then an attempt to make Cao Cao look good for protecting men of rank, this would have been Yuan Shao being extremely vindictive.

The end result of all this had, though Yuan Shao had managed to win the first political battle, a major asset in Cao Cao’s hands, a thorn for Cao Cao and what seems to be the start of the deterioration in their relationship.


[1] At the time Liu Ai was within the court as a trusted Palace Attendant, he remained at court under Cao Cao, writing about the life of Emperors Ling and Xian.

[2] Ju Shou "Your clan has provided honoured assistants for one ruler after another, and each generation has contributed loyalty and brave deeds. Now the court is wandering and in flight, and the imperial ancestral temples have been destroyed. Look at the provinces and commanderies: their rulers pretend to maintain their troops for the Emperor, but in secret each is planning against the other. There is no concern for the national altars and no thought of giving rest to the people.

"In this province, the borders are comparatively peaceful, you have a strong army, and the gentry support you. Go west to welcome the imperial carriage, and set the palace at Ye city. If you hold the Emperor you will have authority over the other lords, and you can collect men and horses to punish those that will not pay court. Who could dare to oppose it?"

His opponents “The Han house has long been failing. Now you want to restore it, but that is surely too difficult. And brave men are rising everywhere, each with a province or a commandery. They join their followers and collect their forces, and whenever they move they can number their troops by the tens of thousands. This is the time that the Qin have lost a deer, and the first to catch it will rule as king. If you receive the Son of Heaven, you will have to report everything you do. If you obey him you lose your independence, but if you disobey you will be opposing the mandate. This is not the best plan."

Ju Shou’s final push "If you receive the court now, you will be acting with justice to fulfil the needs of the time. Unless you decide quickly, someone else will be ahead of you."

[3] De Crespigny mentions that as their plan in Fire Over Luoyang

[4] Court Architect under Emperor Xian, seized by Guo Si when Guo had fallen out of Li Jue and took part in flight, backed Duan Wei’s loyalty. Was put in charge of the Empress apartments, normally a job for a eunuch, by Cao Cao.

[5] Your Servant Song is of this opinion: Yang Biao later was endangered by the King of Wei, and nearly lost his life, and in truth Kong Rong was unable to avoid being executed. Here is what it means to first profess certain behavior but not follow it later! One must be honest in one’s conduct to avoid reproach.


Steady Advance

While 196 would turn out to be the year of Cao Cao getting the Emperor then getting humiliated by Yuan Shao, it was also the year of Yuan Tan’s rise. By the end of 195 or early in 196, Yuan Tan had taken Qing, pushing forward over the year then driving out Tian Kai who fled to Gongsun Zan’s fortress. Yuan Tan had started back in 193 with the Yuan forces down to one city on Zan’s side of the Yellow River and exhausted while Tian Kai had momentum, yet Tan had turned things around before the truce. Yuan Tan was almost certainly helped this time round by Gongsun Zan’s main forces being tied up in You and then Gongsun Zan’s very defensive strategy leaving Tian Kai without aid but even so, Yuan Tan had driven out one of Gongsun Zan’s more successful officers when others had struggled and taken the province for which he claimed title.

Yuan Tan was given credit for that and he moved on quickly, spending the spring and the summer besieging Beihai which was under the control of Kong Rong. The attack was probably for two reasons: 1) it was the one piece of land in the area not owned by Yuan or Cao Cao while 2) Liu Bei had once nominated Kong Rong as Inspector of Qing (presumably as thanks for Xu support) so a potential rival for Yuan Tan’s position. Kong Rong had little interest in matters of war and is said to have just gone to his books during the siege rather then fight though he did observe enough to leave his family behind and escape before Yuan Tan destroyed the defences, capturing city and family in a night attack. Yuan Tan’s military success and touch with the common people saw his fame spread across the land, adding lustre to the Yuan name but it would be the peak of Yuan Tan’s reputation and the last major noted military action of the Yuan forces for a few years.

Around this time second son Yuan Xi was sent to manage You or the parts Yuan Shao controlled, with Gongsun Du and local forces in the area, this was a chance to show what the middle son could do. If Gao Gan hadn’t been sent in 193, the ambitious nephew would have been kicking his heels in Ji for sometime and would certainly have been dispatched to seize Bing around this time. Meanwhile it is remarked around this time in the ZZTJ due to the great agricultural reforms under Cao Cao by Zao Zhi and Ren Jun, that Yuan Shao’s men were resorting to eating mulberries and jujubes. This doesn’t seem to be a specific claim against Yuan Shao, the general situation of military supplies and Yuan Shu’s supplies issues are mentioned, but showing that even the powerful Yuan’s were themselves struggling with supplies in this era. This perhaps reflects less on Yuan Shao’s failure, more on Cao Cao and his officers who made a game changing move.

Yuan Shao invited the great Old Text scholar and drinker Zheng Xuan from Beihai to his court in Ji where he given a station at the top of the hall, the elderly scholar greatly impressed despite arriving late and drinking a lot. Yuan Shao however is accused, in Jiuzhou chunqiu, of treating Zheng Xuan with disrespect, which led the former Western Garden colonel and now subordinate Zhao Rong to predict Yuan Shao’s fall. [1] If true this would have been a huge PR error by Yuan Shao but when Zheng Xuan (who had left court of both Yuan and Cao Cao) fell ill during the battle of Guandu, Yuan Shao dispatched Yuan Tan to bring him to camp. Zheng Xuan died on the way but, while Yuan Shao could be arrogant, this doesn’t sound like a man who viewed Xuan with disrespect.

In 197, Cao Cao’s defeat to Zhang Xiu seems to have led Yuan Shao to a letter described as “proud and contemptuous” which infuriated Cao Cao. The letter has not survived but one assumed it had a purpose beyond being rude (or Yuan Shao was still a tad bitter about Cao Cao’s attempt to bounce him into being second rank), whatever was in it also seems to have rattled Cao Cao to the extent it led to concerns in his offer core [2]. It was left to Xun Yu and Guo Jia to handle Cao Cao, both men were extremely close to Cao Cao and both had been valued guests of Yuan Shao before joining Cao Cao.

We know little of why Xun Yu left Yuan Shao bar he felt Yuan Shao wouldn’t achieve greatness but when Guo Jia left Yuan Shao, he warned Guo Tu and Xin Ping "A man who is wise takes care to examine his master. He will then never come to harm, and he will be able to establish a good reputation. Lord Yuan seeks to imitate the Duke of Zhou by being courteous to talented people, but that is all. He does not understand the finer points of bringing men to serve. He has many ideas but few of the essentials, he loves to make plans but never makes a decision. You wish to work with him, to save the empire in its time of calamity and to help him secure the throne. That, however, will not be easy. I intend to make a new start and seek another master. Why don't you come too?"

His friends argued that Yuan Shao had treated them well. It is hard, bar the possible failure to attack while Liu Bei was distracting Cao Cao, to point to any chance Yuan Shao failed to take due to dithering but it may well be the case that if offered plans (rather then exploiting an opportunity emerging), Yuan Shao could have been slow to make up his mind and it was a common charge against Yuan Shao.

Now with Cao Cao needing support, the two advisers formed a duet with the famous ten reasons Cao Cao is superior to Yuan Shao and would win. [3] Yuan Shao was like Xiang Yu and Cao Cao the founding Emperor of the Han, Yuan Shao’s failings: 1) Caring too much for ceremony and not the reality of people’s hearts, 2) not being loyal to the Han, 3) Yuan Shao being weak and lenient to his people so weak goverment, 4) Suspicious of his officers so turns to his family, 5) being indecisive and hesitant, 6) attracts people by show rather then with sincerity so doesn’t get sincere officers, 7) cares if he sees someone struggling but doesn’t think of the grander picture, they saw it as having a woman’s compassion, 8) listens to rumours and accusations with his camp out of control 9) Yuan Shao unable to provide clear direction in administration, 10) in military matters prefers show and doesn’t understand the essentials of war.

Beyond the flattery, the two also reassured Cao Cao on practical matters, Yuan Shao would not attack while Cao Cao was fighting Lu Bu due to Gongsun Zan nor would Yuan Shao invade the former capital region, reaching out the Liang warlords and Liu Zhang due to Liang divisions. The ten points of Cao Cao’s superiority is a great speech but what it does tell us about Yuan Shao? Probably not much as it is questionable they ever made that speech. They almost certainly acted to calm Cao Cao and reassure things would turn out fine, it is great writing and it’s historic importance it is it sets out what the writers viewed made a true leader vs one who is not in brilliant rhetoric style. However De Crespigny notes this style of rhetoric is used in other cases (it was claimed to be used by Yuan Shao’s delegation to Han Fu), some of the charges are remarkably similar to other things far far away future Wei figures said and this may have been a model of propaganda spread by Cao Cao’s agents.

Yuan Shao received Chen Yu, former officer of Cao Cao whose efforts to stir up against Sun Ce had resulted in defeat under Lu Fan. In 198, Yuan Shao was finding he was getting worried every time an Imperial Edict arrived so he, inspired by his well known love for the Han, wrote to Cao Cao. With the old capital in ruins and Xu in such unhealthy marshland, why not move capital to Juancheng which would be healthier and easier for Cao Cao to supply? That it happened to be close to Yuan Shao’s lands was, of course, simply a happy coincidence but unsurprisingly Cao Cao rejected this “helpful” suggestion.

Tian Feng felt they should follow up "Now that the idea of shifting the capital has not worked out, you must make early plans against Xu city and prepare to receive the Emperor yourself. You could then claim that all your actions were in response to imperial orders, and so you would command the four seas. That is the perfect arrangement. If you do not follow this program, you will eventually be taken over by someone else, and it will be too late for regrets.” Yuan Shao rejected the plan though word of it, via defectors to Cao Cao, reached Cao Cao while he was besieging Zhang Xiu in Rang and forced him to retreat.

In Henei, events turned Yuan Shao’s way as the lenient Zhang Yang was murdered and in the ensuing chaos, Sui Gu became the major military figure in the region. Having been a Black Mountain Bandit who had been defeated by Cao Cao twice, Sui Gu turned his support towards Yuan Shao. However in 199, Cao Cao sent forces led by Cao Ren and Shi Huan to take over, Sui Gui sought to get help from Yuan Shao but was intercepted and destroyed with Yuan Shao making no move.

Why did Yuan Shao not attack Cao Cao while Zhang Xiu was in Rang and seek to seize Emperor Xian while Cao Cao’s back was turned? Why did Yuan Shao not send forces into the capital passes and rally Liang? Why did Yuan Shao not reinforce Sui Gu? Yuan Shao never seems to have been keen on opening a second war against another foe unless coordinating with allies. With his main forces and resources sucked into a long war with Gongsun Zan, he was probably not willing to open a major second front against his (still) ally. Yuan Shao may have felt his resources couldn’t cope or he simply lacked the boldness/flair to make such aggressive gambles whereas Cao Cao was willing to fight on multiple fronts at times.

As for war with Gongsun Zan? It dragged on and on. Details are lacking as to, having got Gongsun Zan holed up, why Yuan Shao failed to finish him off for so long. The records portray Gongsun Zan’s fortress as something of note so that must have played a part and the placing behind water courses may have made it harder to get to. Zan’s lands may have been small but Zan seems to have been confident he had the men and resources to ride the war out, the stalemate suggests they may have still been formidable when forced onto defence. Zan’s SGZ says several of Yuan generals tried (De Crespigny’s encyclopedia entry for Gongsun Zan mentions Qu Yi as one such figure) and all struggled to make headway so I don’t think lack of effort can be blamed.

At some point, Yuan Shao even sought truce [4] though according to Yuan Ye’s Han Jin Chunqiu/Chronicle of Emperor Xian, he first appealed to former alliance then he seemed to blame Gongsun Yue’s death on Gongsun Zan’s plundering and boastfully ignoring Yuan Shao’s letters of peace and that Jie bridge was due to Heaven. Yuan Shao was really really sad at amount of people who had died, of Gongsun Zan breaking the truce made in 193, of Zan driving the people to revolt and the tribes to turn to Yuan Shao, of creating a fake seal to be grand commander which betrays alliance. He accuses Gongsun Zan of being arrogant, rash, lacking virtue and consistency, tendency to run away and being an all round rotter. Since Zan had angered heaven, lost support and his supplies were running out while Yuan Shao just wants peace, why not agree to ceasefire?

Unsurprisingly, Gongsun Zan ignored the letter and tightened up his defences, sure Yuan Shao’s lack of supplies would cost him. One has to wonder if the letter is remotely accurate as hard to see “your evil and you suck” being a great diplomatic strategy or if, after peace attempt failed, Yuan’s propaganda officers wrote a fake letter to spread around that made Yuan Shao the good humble figure blessed by heaven and wanting peace vs the evil one. If Gongsun Zan had agreed, one wonders if Yuan Shao had plans elsewhere but only if he could get peace on his main front could he feel safe to strike elsewhere. Perhaps he would have moved against Cao Cao in such circumstances or he simply felt his army needed a rest after years of fighting and seemingly getting nowhere. Or the annotation is just wrong.

In 198, Yuan Shao personally launched a major invasion, reinforced by the Wuhuan under Tadun, on Gongsun Zan’s southern outposts, enough to worry the commanders. In the past Gongsun Zan had not sent reinforcements when outposts were besieged and fearing defeat without aid, the southern defences of Gongsun Zan collapsed as they surrendered or fled. With Yuan Shao’s army marching on the fortress, Zan was persuaded not to strike out in an alliance with Zhang Yan into Ji and found himself under siege. It would be a case of whether Zan could hold out till Yuan Shao’s supplies ran out….

By 199, Gongsun Zan realized his hopes of hanging on might not work out as Yuan Shao’s siege got tighter and tighter. He sent word to his son Gongsun Xu to coordinate a pincer attack, Xu allied with Zhang Yan and led a large army to attack Yuan Shao’s army with Gongsun Zan planning to lead his men out and catch Yuan Shao between the two. Yuan Shao’s sentries caught the messenger with the plan, one annotation has another message captured where Gongsun Zan dreamt of the city fall being captured and Chen Lin using it to fake a message from the son to warn against charging out that moment [5]. They used Gongsun Zan’s plan against him in the spring, lighting the fire Gongsun Zan was expecting and luring him out into an ambush, inflicting a heavy defeat.

Yuan Shao’s engineers then managed to dig under one of the towers then set fire to the wooden supports underneath, this led to the tower to collapse and a hole appear in the defences. Yuan Shao ordered his men to charge through the gap and climb the walls, Gongsun Zan killed his concubines and committed suicide as he saw his doom, Tian Kai died in battle and Gongsun Xu would be killed by Chuge group of the Xiongnu. Gongsun Zan’s head along with others like Guan Jing was sent to a, if Weilue is to be believed, a rather surprised Cao Cao.

After so many years, after the panic of Ji, the great battle south of Jie bridge (and learning not to have a lie down), the exhaustion of Qing, the march through the mountains, the exploiting the revolt and the final long siege, Yuan Shao’s main rival was no more. He was now the master of his side of the Yellow River, the Black Mountain bandits were around but a shadow of their former selves and Kong Rong’s weak regime was conquered. Yuan Shao’s skilful diplomacy to protect his flanks, use of men like Qu Yi and military skill had won him this far but it had taken awhile and issues were flaring in the south.


[1] Jin officer Sima Bao’s Spring and Autumn Annals of the Nine Provinces “The worthy have the confidence of the noble man. The worthy who are discourteous will lose the confidence of the noble man. A man with promise will not dare to lose the adoring hearts of the people, not to mention the noble man. When a man loses the confidence of the noble man he ceases to be promising.”

[2] Xun Yu’s SGZ

[3] "You know well that Liu [Emperor Gao of Han] was no match for the power of Xiang [Yu]. In wisdom alone was the Founder of Han superior to Xiang Yu; and though Xiang Yu was strong he was taken in the end.”

"There are ten points where Yuan Shao is weak and you are his superior, so though Yuan Shao may be powerful he will never gain success: Yuan Shao esteems great ceremony and has fine manners; you show consideration and act naturally: this is superior moral conduct.”

"Yuan Shao acts as a rebel; you serve and obey the Emperor and so command the empire: this is superior sense of honour.”

“Since the time of Emperors Huan and Ling the government has declined through excessive indulgence. Yuan Shao, weak-willed and excessively lenient, does not maintain firm rule. You, however, keep hold on your people, so that everyone, high or low, knows the rules: this is superior government.”

"Outwardly Yuan Shao acts generously, but privately he is jealous. He uses men but he is suspicious of them, and he appoints only the sons and children of his own or his wife's families. Outwardly you are easy and simple, but inside you are clever and shrewd. You use men and trust them. It is only their ability that matters and you pay no attention to relationship: this is the superiority of a liberal mind.”

"Yuan Shao has many plans but makes few decisions, he lets things slip and acts too late. When you make a plan you take action quickly and you can always cope with a changing situation: this is superior strategy.

"Yuan Shao uses fine discussions and ceremony to attract men of good repute, and many scholars who love words and ornamental show will turn to him. You treat men in straight-forward fashion, and you have no use for empty finery. So scholars with loyal hearts, who can see things clearly and are sincere, all want to serve you: this is superior virtue.”

"If Yuan Shao sees a man who is hungry or cold, he pities him and it shows on his face, but he deals only with things he can see. You sometimes neglect small things before your eyes, but when it comes to great matters concerning the people of all the empire, then you extend your grace and your providence is beyond anyone's expectation. You cannot see everything, but your consideration is always thorough and complete: this is superior human feeling.”

"Yuan Shao's officers struggle for influence, with accusations, confusion and uncertainty. You treat subordinates fairly and you pay no attention to rumour or slander: this is superior understanding.

"No-one knows what Yuan Shao really wants. You, however, bring forward with ceremony those who do right, and you use the law to correct those who do wrong: this is superiority in civil administration.”

"Yuan Shao, fascinated by empty show, cannot appreciate the essentials of war, but you can defeat a host of men with a few and you use soldiers like a spirit. The people of the army trust you and the masses of the enemy fear you: this is superior military skill."

[4] The Hàn Jìn Chūnqiū in Gongsun Zan’s biography, too long to quote

[5] Xiàn-dì Chūnqiū in Zan’s SGZ has “Zàn dreamed of Jì city collapsing, and knew he would certainly be destroyed, so he sent a messenger with a letter to [Gōngsūn] Xù. One of Shào’s sentries captured it, and Chén Lín sent a [fake] reply letter: “One hears that in the past in the time of the fall of Zhōu there were bodies and blood [everywhere]. I believe this cannot be; how can you plan to today charge out yourself?”


Preparing For The Big Showdown

We come to the point which defines Yuan Shao’s reputation, where he led a massive army against Cao Cao who, with 300 men, was holding the pass for the glory of… wait wrong movie. The campaign ahead was defined by Wei who used it to make their rise even more glorious, to compare Cao Cao the wonderful vs Yuan Shao the worse in every way, Cao Cao the new vs Yuan of the old ways, little vs large. In De Crespigny’s intro to Established Peace/ the ZZTJ, he notes Sima Guang liked to use the histories to weave a morality tale. In Yuan Shao’s case, he pushed cases like Zang Hong and Guandu to show a man who fell due to his arrogance. There have been arguments made against the conventional telling but let us start with the usual portrayal.

Both sides must have been known about the campaign that was coming, both had conquered their side of the border and knew they had to face each other. It would see friends against friends, Cao Cao and Yuan Shao had once roved the streets of the capital, they had worked well as allies but tensions had been building for some years now with Cao Cao preparing his defence lines at Guandu. Some of Cao Cao’s major officers had been well treated as guests under Yuan Shao (Xun Yu and Guo Jia), Xun Yu’s brother was serving Yuan Shao, Dong Zhao had served Yuan Shao till falling out, Zhu Ling had served Yuan Shao.

Yuan Shao sought to assure local support in his newly conquered lands and with the northern tribes, he treated Yan Rou well and maintained his loyalty initially, he granted titles to Wuhuan warlords who had fought against Zan (Nanlou, Supuyan and Wuyan), was friendly with Tadun and he is even said to have pretended the daughters of his officers were his own and given them as brides to the Wuhuan chieftains. There is no sense that the Yuan officers objected to this, they may have seen the need for the wider good to bring the tribes onside or Yuan Shao ensured there was something in it for them. However Yuan Shao was unable to get Xianyu Fu to be loyal as Tian Yu persuaded him to ally with Cao Cao while former Liu Yu officer Tian Chou refused his service. Yuan Shao took no action, either Xianyu Fu kept his new allegiance discreetly hidden at first or Yuan Shao didn’t have resources to spare.

Yuan Shao received word from his half-brother Yuan Shu, having lost his base and running out of supplies, who was willing to offer his throne in exchange for sanctuary. "Heaven has long withdrawn prosperity from the house of Han. The Yuan have received the mandate to rule; auspicious influences shine out in splendour. You hold four provinces with a population of a million families. I respectfully hand over this great trust, so that you may bring it to fulfilment." Shao sent Tan to try and receive his family in Xu but Cao Cao sent forces to block this reunification and Yuan Shu could not get through before he died. Did Yuan Shao want the transfer of Yuan Shu’s title? There risked being some taint if he did that, it could simply have been that this was family in desperate straights while on the cynical side, Yuan Shu still had a sizeable following to add to Yuan Shao’s and having a once powerful warlord under him might have added to Yuan Shao’s prestige and connections.

Wei historian Yu Huan in the Dian lue claims around this time that Yuan Shao’s Master of Records Geng Bao suggested Yuan Shao took up the imperial throne anyway, Yuan Shao had become arrogant and refusing to send tribute (to the guy he was about to attack, wonder why) and liked the idea. His council, presumably including those who had told him to abandon the Han a few years ago, were appalled and Yuan Shao was forced to execute Geng Bao to cover for his ambition. I suspect the Wei historian was rather seeking to undermine Yuan Shao there as an ambitious traitor.

Yuan Shao turned to diplomacy again, seeking support of old ally Liu Biao and of Liu Biao’s ally Zhang Xiu who had once killed Cao Cao’s son in battle, trying to give Cao Cao a war on two fronts. Liu Biao played both sides and kept out as he had his own issues like Zheng Xian and Wu, Zhang Xiu was persuaded by Jia Xu to surrender to Cao Cao instead. Meanwhile Governor of Liang Wei Duan dispatched Yang Fu as envoy to Xuchang to observe and report to the lords in the former capital passes, he claimed “Lord Yuan is lenient but has no power of decision. He is fond of planning but cannot make up his mind. Without decision he will have no authority, and if he is slow to make up his mind he cannot keep abreast of events. He is the stronger now, but he will never gain the empire.” and praises Cao Cao. Having been to Cao Cao’s capital, got a promotion to Chief Clerk of Anping, he may well have been loyal to Cao Cao. It is hard to know, having never notably known Yuan Shao, how he was able to forewarn his superior Wei Duan of Yuan’s failings.

The diplomatic situation either suggests Cao Cao’s position was rather stronger then they claim or some of them may have been wise after the fact but that still suited Wei to claim they foresaw victory. Leban questions the similarity of Yang Fu’s claims with others like Jia Xu and if a common line was adapted by record keepers onto various advisers.

Yuan Shao also prepared his army but it suffered a major loss when Yuan Shao executed his star general Qu Yi. Wang Can says Qu Yi became arrogant and reckless, boasting of his victories, De Crespigny’s encyclopedia says Qu Yi had become insubordinate. Warlords tended to be a tad touchy about their authority and if Qu Yi was no longer obeying orders then Yuan Shao did not need that indiscipline before a major campaign. Yuan Shao gets some criticism for this now but when those of the time accuse Yuan Shao of not using men properly, Qu Yi never seems to be one of those they mention which would suggest few had issue with this. It may well be Qu Yi was out of control and had to go but it meant the loss of his most experienced general, one who had played a key role in repelling then destroying Gongsun Zan.

Yuan Shao began gathering his men, promoting officers like Zhang He, Yan Liang and Wen Chou, Tian Feng, Xun Shen and Xu You had risen to be close advisers, Shen Pei of powerful local clan was to be left behind to look after Ye. His troops were said to be over hundred thousand with several thousand cavalry but his camp was split. According to Liu Ai, Ju Shou and Tian Feng (though ZZTJ suggests just Ju Shou while De Crespigny’s encyclopedia says Xu You also argued a defensive strategy) wished Yuan Shao to go on the defensive, Shen Pei and Guo Tu argued for a full scale attack. Cui Yan [1] opposed out of Han loyalty “Heaven’s Son is at Xǔ, the people hope you will support and be obedient, so it is better to defend your borders and fulfil your office, in order to bring peace to the realm.”, everybody else ignored him so they could discuss the actual issues.

Team defensive [2] warned the Yuan army was exhausted as were supplies and the populace, best to rest and cover. Buy time by sending message with captives to court then when Cao Cao blocks that, use that to justify an attack. Encamp at Liyang north of the river and slowly encroach with fortified position to the south, have cavalry raiding to keep Cao Cao on defensive while Yuan Shao builds his equipment and stores, waiting for the opportunity. His rivals said it would be easy to beat Cao Cao, Ju Shou warned directly attacking Cao Cao would see Emperor Xian used to put Yuan Shao in the wrong while Cao Cao’s soldiers were better then Gongsun Zan’s and to attack now would be proud, his first such criticism of the Yuan forces. His rivals argued there was precedent for just war and best to attack now while Yuan Shao was strong, while his troops were in good spirits before opportunity slips away which they would pay for, that Ju Shou was too conservative an adviser.

Yuan Shao backed Guo Tu and Shen Pei on this. It is hard to know which is true given lack of records the exact state of Yuan armies, they may well have been lifted by recent success but Yuan forces had been in a state of constant war for some time, it must have taken it’s toll. Ju Shou’s plan has a certain logic, rest a little after what had been a draining few years, build up a strong defensive posture and wait for something to happen, also try to seek legitimacy. After that plan, it feels like the arguments were simplified to general thrust, the rivals don’t really set out a plan in that other then “now is our chance, attack” and going defensive could cost them what they felt was a key moment, they dispute the political need to write to throne and set out what may have been a general complaint they had with Ju Shou over the years. Both sides get rather distracted by what would define a just war politically but Yuan Shao seems to have believed in the need to strike fast, settle the issue now rather then seeking to weary Cao Cao over the longer term, preferring the gamble of the single campaign over the potential risk of slowly weakening via delay.

Disagreement on strategy or even if to campaign was a common enough occurrence when a big campaign was about to happen, the cautious vs the aggressive is an age old dispute and Cao Cao had some splits in his own camp during various campaigns. What followed Yuan Shao’s decision was more alarming, Guo Tu and his camp argued that Ju Shou [3] was (though careful not to accuse Ju Shou of being disloyal) far too powerful, that his authority matched that of Yuan Shao and that, as the man with effective control of the army, he should not be in Yuan Shao’s inner councils. Yuan Shao seems to have felt there was a legitimate issue with the scale of Ju Shou’s authority and split it into three Chief Controllers: one for Ju Shou, one for Guo Tu and another for Chunyu Qiong. This may well have been a fair issue but there was also clear elements of a faction bringing down a rival whose strategy they disagreed with, one authority splitting into three could risk confusion and though Ju Shou was still very senior, one can’t imagine this improved his mood any.

Cao Cao’s SGZ says every single general of Cao Cao’s feared defeat which might be pushing the truth more then a tad even with the conventional telling and there were discussions at Xuchang. Cao Cao of course had no doubts "I know what sort of man Yuan Shao is: his ideas are big, but he has little wisdom; he looks stern, but his courage is slight; he is envious and malicious and has small power of command. His soldiers are many but his plans are confused, his leaders are proud but his government is not united. Though his lands are broad and his supplies are plentiful, that simply makes it more worth while to take him over." Whatever one can say about Yuan Shao, I’m not sure anyone can say his courage was slight but Cao Cao was seeking to reassure his court, not give an accurate character assessment.

Kong Rong was worried and talked to Xun Yu though strangely doesn’t mention the man who crushed him (perhaps he felt Yuan Tan would play no part) "Yuan Shao's lands are broad and his troops are strong. Tian Feng and Xu You are wise men to plan for him, Shen Pei and Pang Ji are loyal ministers acting in his affairs, Yan Liang and Wen Chou are brave generals in command of his troops. Here are serious problems.” Xun Yu however knew Yuan Shao’s officers well enough and felt there would be trouble "Yuan Shao has many soldiers, but his government is not well-ordered. Tian Feng is stubborn and insubordinate; Xu You is greedy and ill-disciplined. Shen Pei is self-opinionated and lacks original ideas; Pang Ji is too adventurous and independent. People like that find it hard to co-operate, and they will certainly disrupt his councils. Yan Liang and Wen Chou have the bravery of common fellows. One battle will be enough to deal with them."

There needs to be some care here, Xun Yu is trying to persuade Kong Rong to back the war and not to worry rather then aiming for a fair and accurate description, there may have been elements of touching up after the event to make the argument even more impressive as Wei built their public narrative. It is doubtful that Yan Liang and Wen Chou really only had “bravery of common fellows” whatever flaws they had or that Xun Yu really felt that, Xun Yu was simply seeking to pass two of Yuan Shao’s famed officers as a minor concern. However even with those caveats, Xun Yu did feel that Yuan Shao’s camp was full of ego’s (perhaps not unlike most warlord councils) and that Yuan Shao would not be able to control them and get them unified. The individual descriptions of advisers would have been either Xun Yu’s words based on knowing such men or, in any touching up for public consumption, felt to be believable about the individuals.

Cao Cao made preparations of his own, sending Man Chong to Yuan base in Runan that was rising in support of Yuan Shao and with only 500 men, Man Chong destroyed twenty encampments and killed tens of local leaders at a conference. This proved effective, though Runan remained an area of trouble, it would not provide a real threat to Cao Cao with the local leaders taken out. Cao Cao also sent the recently captured Wei Chong to Henei to bring the area to order and secure his left flank, Yu Jin was sent to camp by the Yellow River. While those were defensive moves, his sending of Zang Ba was not only told to guard the east but to actively raid Qing was an attacking move, which was likely aiming to pin down the Yuan troops there and the famed Yuan Tan from joining Yuan Shao’s forces.

Cao Cao’s plans were somewhat disrupted by Liu Bei seizing control of his old base in Xu, allying with Chang Xi of Mount Tai and reaching out to Yuan Shao. Cao Cao initially committed only Liu Dai and Wang Zhong against the revolt but they proved unable to beat Liu Bei. In the spring of 200, with Guo Jia predicting Yuan Shao would be too slow and hesitant to react, Cao Cao marched against Liu Bei himself and Tian Feng spotted an opportunity. "Cao Cao has engaged Liu Bei and he cannot break off easily. If you take the army against his rear, you can settle things at once." Yuan Shao explained he couldn’t as one of his sons was sick, Tian Feng thumped ground with staff "Alas, in the critical moment he throws away opportunity for the sake of a sick child. The pity of it, the chance is lost."

Yuan Shao, a man who had kept his composure when he thought his family was dead and who had exploited opportunities, refused to attack due to illness of one child? It is odd. Even if Yuan Shao thought Tian Feng’s plan was bad and searching for an excuse, why that one? Yuan Shao’s army may not have been ready yet to for what would have had to be a very quick strike and the Yuan forces were engaged on the defensive in Qing and at the Yellow River. Yu Jin, perhaps seeking to provide cover while Cao Cao moved in Xu, combined with Yue Jin and launched a series of attacks on Yuan encampments including forcing the surrenders He Mao and Wang Mo. This does not sound like a Yuan army army ready to roll right into Xuchang.

Liu Bei was quickly crushed by Cao Cao and fled, minus Guan Yu, to Yuan Tan then was sent to meet Yuan Shao who came out to meet the popular general. Liu Bei was a popular hero who added lustre and someone who knew Cao Cao’s forces, he also brought more troops as Liu Bei’s followers gradually returned over the next month though one of Liu Bei’s chief officers being in the Wei camp must have been a concern as Cao Cao marched to Guandu. The speed of which Cao Cao defeated Liu Bei and the Wei forces aggression across the river, one wonders how much opportunity even a ready Yuan Shao would have had to really breach the prepared Cao defences.

The Yuan forces were finally ready! Well nearly, there was still rows to be had! Tian Feng [4] felt that with Cao Cao returned, the opportunity for a quick strike was over and he proposed something similar to Ju Shou’s plan, wait, build up forces while constant raids and harassment to weaken and confuse Cao Cao’s army. Do not trust fate into a single battle. Yuan Shao stuck with his plan for an attack but Tian Feng would not shut up and at some point, Yuan Shao felt Tian Feng was starting to unsettle the army with his constant objections so had Tian Feng jailed. Cao Cao is said to have remarked "Yuan Shao will certainly be defeated." when he heard Tian Feng was jailed then after the victory, said "If Yuan Shao had accepted the advice of his Aide-de-Camp (Tian Feng), everything would still be in the balance." There may be elements here of “look how wise and good at using men Cao Cao is compared to Yuan Shao” though when he heard of Tian Feng’s jailing, Cao Cao would likely have been pleased at the clear issues within the Yuan camp.

Early in 200, Yuan Shao’s officer Chen Lin sent a great call to arms using terms that, though Cao Cao understood the need to go for his reputation, would later see him complain at the shots at his family, The letter [5] first compared Yuan Shao to heroes of old who overthrew evil controllers (guess which side Cao Cao is compared to), he attacks Cao Cao’s background as the grandson of evil eunuch and of poor stock with Cao Cao himself being a frivolous thug. The loyal Yuan Shao had raised an alliance against Dong Zhuo and had taken Cao Cao into his plans as he saw the need to use such flawed men for the emergency, put Cao Cao’s defeat to Xu Rong as foolishness that Yuan Shao had to help Cao Cao recover from. Cao Cao nearly lost Yan due to his cruelty but Yuan Shao rescued him from Lu Bu, explains Yuan Shao’s failure to come to Xian’s aid due to emergency threat of Gongsun Zan so ordered Cao Cao to do so but Cao Cao used it to take control of the Emperor only to discover Cao Cao breaking authority and humiliating the Sovereign. Using executions and accusing Cao Cao of a variety of abuses of court and people, of raiding the dead, Yuan Shao explained he did nothing as busy in the north and hoping Cao Cao would settle down.

He accuses Cao Cao of preparing an invasion force to backstab Yuan Shao during Yuan Shao’s final siege but plans got leaked and Zan fell quicker then Cao Cao expected. Now Yuan Shao had cowed the tribes, Cao Cao’s army was terrified. Yuan Shao has a million men with great experience and heart, preparing to attack on all sides with Liu Biao and Zhang Xiu also prepared to strike. The Wen Xuan adds a bit more, that Cao Cao’s army contains those that want to return to Yuan Shao or those of Lu Bu whose loyalty is uncertain and Cao Cao’s old guard are exhausted from years of fighting. It also helpfully suggests some people were unaware of Cao Cao’s crimes towards the Emperor so would only realize now and could act, he also offered marquis and a lot of money for whoever killed Cao Cao but promises safety for those who surrendered.

Within it’s own time, the letter does not seem to have worked as intended as Liu Biao didn’t attack and there weren’t mass defections but it was considered a well written piece of propaganda and some of the accusations stuck on Cao Cao for generations since. It played the Han loyalty card, used whatever they could against Cao Cao (background, Bian Rang, controlling Emperor), explained carefully how Yuan Shao had been allies of Cao Cao for the wider good and so can’t be blamed for evil Cao Cao’s rise, sought to encourage revolt by excusing Cao Cao’s subordinates and encourage allies in the south by making a show.

Of course, it wasn’t the pinnacle of accuracy or reflecting Yuan Shao’s actual feelings, this was about making people think Yuan Shao was the noble hero attacking a wretched Cao Cao. Yuan Shao/Cui Lin’s shot at background should be seen as simply a propaganda attack rather then elitist, I doubt in the year 200 he suddenly discovered Cao Cao was the grandson of a eunuch and began sobbing at the horror. It should also be noted that Yuan Shao’s men had also robbed the dead until Cui Yan objected [6] so was being a bit rich, the backstab may have been using Yu Jin’s recent raids across the river to twist into something else as otherwise this is no evidence of Cao Cao plotting against Yuan Shao at that time. The words sent out across the land shouldn’t be seen as Yuan Shao being arrogant and boastful, he was seeking to win over others by making his victory seem certain so they joined the winners rather then Yuan Shao really felt this would be easy.

The great battle for the future of the north was set to begin.


[1] Cui Yan’s SGZ

Been forced to abandon studies under Zheng Xuan as bandits hit Beihai and Zheng Xuan lacked food, Cui Yan had idled away for a time till Yuan Shao hired him. Promoted to Cavalry Commandant after objecting to troops digging up graves ‘In the past Sūn Qīng said ‘When soldiers are not morally educated, armoured troops are unsuccessful, so that even Tāng Wǔ would not be able to win battle.’ Now the roads are covered in bones, the people have not seen virtue, it is appropriate to order the commanderies and counties to cover up the bones and bury the bodies, to show favour through sorrow and distress, and recall [Zhōu] Wén-wáng’s benevolence.”

[2] "You have only just dealt with Gongsun Zan, and your army has been away several years. The people are sick and distressed and the granaries and storehouses are empty. You should not move now, but rather pay attention to farming and give your people a rest. First of all, send a messenger to present captives to the court. If he cannot get through, then report that Cao Cao is blocking our access to the Emperor. Go forward to Liyang to camp, and gradually develop fortified positions south of the Yellow River. Build more boats, put weapons and equipment in repair, and send detachments of good cavalry to raid the borders, so the enemy has no peace and our men can take their ease. This way, we can settle the business at leisure."

Guo Tu and Shen Pei argued, "With your spiritual warfare, if you lead the mighty armies of the north against the Yellow River to attack Cao Cao, that is easy as turning your hand. Why should you act as he says?"

"Troops that give aid against rebels and punish oppression," replied Ju Shou, "they are called loyal. Those that rely on numbers and trust to their strength, they are called proud. The loyal man has no match, but the proud man is soon defeated. Now Cao Cao holds the Emperor and so gives orders to the empire. If you raise an army against the south, you put yourself in the wrong. To plan a campaign, moreover, requires more than a simple count of numbers. Cao Cao's laws and orders are strict, his men are fresh and drilled. This is not Gongsun Zan, who sat and waited for our attack. If you disregard the plans of security and safety, and raise an army without good cause, then I am anxious for you."

“When King Wu [of Zhou] attacked Zhou [of Shang]," responded Guo Tu and Shen Pei, "that was no disloyalty. How much more is this true of fighting against Cao Cao. Yet you claim there is no good cause! Besides, our lord is strong and his troops in high heart. If we fail to settle the affair now, that can be described as 'Heaven gives it and we do not take it. Disaster will come in return.' This is how Yue became hegemon and Wu was destroyed. The Supervisor of the Army [Ju Shou] is too conservative. He fails to appreciate opportunity, and he can-not judge how affairs will develop."

[3] "Ju Shou supervises everything, with authority inside and out. His power overawes the army. If he becomes too mighty, how will you keep him under control? When a minister wields the same power as his ruler, disaster is sure to come. This is what the Yellow Stone [book] warns against. Furthermore, the man who controls the army outside should not be privy to decisions taken at the inner council."

[4] "Since Cao Cao has destroyed Liu Bei, the area about Xu city will no longer be undefended. Cao Cao, moreover, is extremely good at using soldiers, and you can never tell what he will do next. Though his army is small he cannot be taken lightly.

The best policy is to keep him at a distance and make him wait. You occupy the strong places of the hills and rivers and you command the troops of four provinces. Keep contact with leaders outside and encourage farming in your own lands. When all is ready, choose your best soldiers and send out raiding parties. Take advantage of his weak points to break through in one place or another so as to trouble the territory south of the Yellow River. If he relieves the right, you attack the left; if he sends help to the left, you attack him on the right. The enemy will be marching backwards and forwards and his people will have no peace. We shall not be tired, but they will be exhausted. In no more than three years success will come as you wait. If, on the other hand, you do not follow this plan of certain victory, but prefer to trust the result of a single battle, you may find affairs go against you. It will then be too late for regrets."

[5] Using Imperial Warlords

[6] See note 1 of this section


Battle Commences

Yuan Shao led his army south to Liyang, said to have 100,000 infantry with armour for 10,000 and 10,000 cavalry, among the number was a rather grumpy Ju Shou who had divided up his possessions among his family as he faced either being one of the greatest men in the land or death [1]. He warned his brother Zong that Cao Cao had plans while the Yuan army was exhausted and it’s plus officers were arrogant. Across the yellow river, Cao Cao’s frontline was Boma under Liu Yan and to the east the small garrison of Juancheng under Cheng Yu with only seven hundred men. Cao Cao was concerned for Juancheng but Cheng Yu said Yuan Shao was too proud to attack something so small [2] when he felt conquest was so close, the less insulting idea would be the garrison was out of the way, had no strength to provide a threat and would require too many resources diverted from Yuan Shao’s main focus.

Yan Liang was chosen to lead the first across across the Yellow River despite Ju Shou’s concerns “Yan Liang is careless and impatient. He is brave, but he cannot manage alone”. Yuan Shao may have felt that all Yan Liang had to do was keep Liu Yan under siege and that the main army would deal with the real threat of Cao Cao’s reinforcements, something that was worrying Cao Cao’s men. However Xun You’s suggested feint at Yan suggesting they were crossing to attack Yuan Shao’s rear which saw the Yuan forces distracted, made the numbers far more manageable for Cao Cao’s soldiers and Yan Liang seems to have dropped his guard since Cao forces were meant to be engaged elsewhere. Cao Cao’s force march to Boma caught Yan Liang by surprise and he was quickly killed by Guan Yu. With the death of their general, the Yuan force there collapsed and the siege was lifted but Cao Cao had no intention of holding this line for long and ordered a complete evacuation back to Guandu.

The Yuan forces advanced to Yan crossing and prepared to cross, Ju Shou again urged caution "When you are fighting a war, you must be careful to think of every possibility. The best plan now is to stay in camp at the Yan Crossing and send an advance guard towards Guandu. If they can capture the place you will still have time to join up with them. If, however, you go forward now and something goes wrong, none of the army will be able to get back.” Ju Shou’s plan has logic, a defeat at Guandu for a subordinate general could be rescued, a defeat of the main force across the river and situation would likely spiral into disaster. Yuan Shao seems determined to keep to all or nothing and may not have been confident after the death of Qu Yi and Yan Liang’s defeat for any of the remaining officers to lead things without him being close by.

Ju Shou was in despair and sadly remarked "The master is too confident; his servants too ambitious. Oh, distant Yellow River, why do I cross?". Fearing defeat, Ju Shou tried to claim sickness and be allowed to return home, Yuan Shao was not pleased and stripped his once deputy of all command, giving it to Guo Tu who, according to imperial warlords, may have acted as Yuan Shao’s battlefield commander during Guandu. In fairness to Yuan Shao, allowing one of his most senior officers to wander off would have sent a bad signal to camp and Ju Shou trying to throw a sickie amidst a major campaign was not a move most warlords would have been thankful for. If Ju Shou didn’t want to serve, best his men be put under someone who did and Ju Shou could be kept around for advice.

Meanwhile Yuan Shao’s cavalry forces, under Wen Chou and Liu Bei [3] were pursuing Cao Cao’s baggage train. Cao Cao hid his cavalry behind the dykes and waited till the Yuan forces split as some began chasing the baggage. As far as Yuan forces could see, Cao forces had to abandon city in a hurry and baggage had been left in retreat, they did not see men hiding up behind the dyke. Launching his ambush against surprised and disorganized cavalry, Cao Cao inflicted another costly defeat as Wen Chou was killed, Cao Cao was able to withdraw safely to Guandu. Meanwhile Yuan Shao had, in the very early stages of the summer war, lost Yan Liang and Wen Chou who were two celebrated fighting men. We know little of their career but we know they were famed in their time, had just been promoted to generalship and that their deaths impacted the morale of the Yuan forces so I assume they had been rather good at their jobs in the lower ranks.

Cao Cao had chosen Guandu as the waters and marshes made it difficult for Yuan Shao to try to use the flanks, instead it was going to be a grindfest against Cao Cao’s defensive fortifications. It was not a good position for Yuan Shao to face, attacking fortified positions uphill with long supply lines and limited room to try to manoeuvre Cao Cao. With such a poor battleground, Yuan Shao would have been far better to follow his advisers suggestion to sit on the defensive and raid, wait till Cao Cao could not situate himself in such a strong position and then take on Cao Cao’s smaller forces then.

Cao Cao received the support of Yan Rou and met Xianyu Fu, both were given promotions but they seem to have done nothing to attack Yuan Shao’s homelands. Yuan Shao still had support of Wuhuan and, more immediately for his campaign, got the support of Turban leader Liu Pi in Yuan heartlands Runan and dispatched Liu Bei with troops to support, possibly at Liu Bei’s urging. With Runan being a Yuan supportive area, it is a little surprising he didn’t use a trusted Yuan figure who might have connections. Perhaps he hoped Liu Bei’s experience and sheer charisma would be enough, perhaps simply Liu Bei was the man who wanted the task, either way Yuan Shao must have been hoping it would provide Cao Cao a real headache. Yuan Shao also wrote to figures in Yu province for support and several urged the powerful leader Li Tong (Liu Biao also sought his support) to switch from Cao Cao to Yuan Shao but he did not rebel.

Liu Bei’s presence and plundering did seem to unsettle people and worried Cao Cao but Cao Ren felt Liu Bei hadn’t had time to get to know those in the area or the army to gel and so was dispatched with a cavalry force to deal with this issue, Liu Bei was forced to return to Yuan Shao but according to Liu Bei’s SGZ and ZZTJ, Liu Bei was seeking a way out with neither saying exactly why. Perhaps he feared Yuan Shao was going to lose, perhaps he felt he wasn’t quite going to get the independence he wished. So Liu Bei urged Yuan Shao to send him south again, that he would act as Yuan Shao’s agent to Liu Biao and ally with Gong Du in Runan. Yuan Shao did need Liu Biao’s help and if Liu Bei could persuade him, it would be a real boon. Alas Liu Bei seems to have forgotten the whole “contact Liu Biao bit” till after Guandu when Liu Bei was defeated and sought sanctuary.

By autumn Yuan Shao’s slow advance had got to Yangwu, 31 miles from the Yellow River and half that from Cao Cao’s position. Ju Shou again urged Yuan Shao to play a delaying game “Though our northern troops are many, their strength and spirit are not equal to the men of the south. The supplies of the southerners are few and their stores are not so plentiful as ours of the north. So the south will want to fight early, while delay will give advantage to the north. You should wait and do nothing for a few weeks." Yuan Shao stuck to his course while Ju Shou seems to have changed his mind about the supply situation. Or historians writing the records were not keeping track of what they were saying when fleshing out the general thrust.

By the middle of autumn, Yuan Shao’s forces were camped out on the sand-dunes in front of Cao Cao’s position with De Crespigny calculating both sides encampments stretched almost a hundred kilometres (around 62 miles) in Imperial Warlords. If Yuan Shao could win here, Xuchang was open to him but it was Cao Cao that struck first. Or tried to. His sally out was driven back to camp and Yuan Shao’s forces tried some engineering tricks, large towers to shoot inside the camp, making it difficult for Cao Cao’s troops to move, till Cao Cao’s mobile artillery “thunder cars” [4] destroyed the towers. Attempts to tunnel underneath the camp were thwarted by a long ditch while raids on the Cao supply lines were thwarted by Ren Jun’s strong guard.

Xu You considered another way "Cao Cao has few soldiers, and he has brought his whole army to face us. There cannot be many of his men left at Xu city. If we send a light force by night to make a surprise attack, Xu can be taken. Once Xu is captured, then we hold the Emperor and can attack Cao Cao in his name, while Cao Cao becomes an outlaw. Even if he is not destroyed, we can make him rush back and forth and we are sure to defeat him." Yuan Shao is said not to have agreed, saying "The main thing is to take Cao Cao first." but yet he did send a detachment under Han Xun which was defeated by Cao Ren’s mobile reserve force. By this point, Yuan Shao may have lost faith in such efforts given the constant defeats when he sent separate forces against Cao Cao so sent a lesser force and after this one, Yuan Shao concentrated on the front ahead of him. Xu You was said to be furious at being ignored, perhaps it would be better to say he was angry his advice wasn’t followed properly.

Cao Cao after two months did consider withdrawing, he claimed for supplies but one would assume Cao Cao hadn’t spent months preparing everything for a siege then brought only two months worth of food. Even with the conventional telling, I think we can call that one a bit of establishment for dramatic effect. The way siege was going and failure to strike out may have shaken him up but Xun Yu, back looking after the home front, rallied him that moment of victory was near and it would be bad to retreat. With Cao Cao suitably cheered up, his thoughts turned to Yuan supplies as the route forward since Shao’s force was stalled, had probably used up local resources and was now relying on a long supply chain over hundred miles overseen by trusted senior officer Chunyu Qiong, using the Yellow River and Ji river to transport between two major depots. Chunyu Qiong had been one of Emperor Ling’s eight colonels and had served Yuan Shao a long time, like a lot of Yuan officers we know very little of what he did during these years.

Xun You advised an attack on the depot to the west at Gushi that was under the command of Han Xun [5] who was described as brave but careless and prone to underestimating foes. In fairness to Han Xun and Yuan Shao, it could be not so much Han Xun but the entire supply line officers had relaxed, they would not have seen action for months, Cao Cao had been pinned back, discipline and safeguards can have slackened. Xu Huang, Cao Ren and Shi Huan were sent, they managed to defeat Han Xun and burn the baggage train/depot [6] with Han Xun retreating to join Chunyu Qiong. This was a blow but Yuan army still had supplies at Wuchao and this should have been a warning to the Yuan forces to tighten up their supply defences. At some point Ju Shou proposed that Jiang Qi be sent with a mobile force to act as an interceptor for Cao Cao’s raids, it is extremely hard to see why Yuan Shao didn’t follow this advice as a just in case.

In the winter Yuan Shao then had a key stroke of misfortune, Xu You was still said to be unhappy at his advice not being followed and when news came that Shen Pei had arrested a member of Xu You’s family for some crime, Xu You defected. Xu You had been friends to both leaders but as one of Yuan Shao’s inner circle, he knew Yuan Shao’s positions, his plans and would have more recent insight into the man and his officers then anyone else. Xu You may have skipped out the part of his family being arrested when he told his woes to Cao Cao but of all the defections between the two armies, this mattered the most.

One piece of information Xu You gave was the place of Yuan Shao’s supply depot in Wuchao so leaving behind Cao Hong and Xun You to hold Guandu, Cao Cao took an elite force of five thousand and managed to sneak his forces through the night to outside Wuchao. Surrounding the depot, they lit fires which confused and alarmed the Yuan defenders, at dawn Chunyu Qiong led his men out to fight. Chunyu Qiong is accused of being (there is really a theme building here) arrogant and underestimating the attacking forces due to small size so not organizing his men properly. They may simply not have recovered from the surprise but either way, Cao Cao pushed the Yuan forces back into their camp.

Word reached the main camp at Guandu of what was happening, Yuan Shao decided to attack the main camp "As Cao Cao is defeating Chunyu Qiong, I shall take his camp and he will have nothing to come back to." Guo Tu supported the decision but Zhang He and Gao Lan [7] argued that if Chunyu Qiong lost, as they feared he would against Cao Cao’s elite troops, everything would collapse and it was uncertain if they could take the Cao camp. Yuan Shao decided to do both, sending a cavalry force to attack Cao Cao while the main army pressed against Guandu.

The concerns of the generals are clear enough, if supply base goes, an army can not stand so why did Yuan Shao ignore Zhang He? Yuan Shao may have felt speed was key so a small light force would arrive quickly, Cao Cao would be then caught between two armies and either forced to withdraw or be in a very difficult situation. Meanwhile the main defences were without their leader, severely depleted and if numbers and quality, if pushed it might fall and open everything up before Cao Cao could return. However with Yuan Shao having advanced so far, the danger if supplies went and that he didn’t need to win that day, it was a needless gamble.

Neither move worked, Zhang He and Gao Lan were unable to breach the defences which Guo Tu possibly blamed on his front line officers, Zhang He and Gao Lan promptly defected. Meanwhile Cao Cao used the cavalry force to put his men in a win or die situation. This desperation and that Cao Cao’s men were his best whereas I suspect the Yuan’s elite troops were not being used on supply duty was enough, Wuchao was seized and burnt to ground with Chunyu Qiong, Han Xun, Lu Weihuang, Sui Yuanjin, Zhao Rui killed in the fighting. Cao Cao headed back to reinforce his main camp and Yuan Shao’s big campaign was about to collapse.

With knowledge their food was gone and with the main assault having already failed, the Yuan forces fell apart and were slaughtered or captured. Though casualties were likely high as Yuan forces collapsed into a disorganized rabble, the boasted 70% killed by Cao Cao does seem rather an exaggeration. Yuan Shao himself fled over the river with only his son Tan, a few staff and eight hundred cavalry for company but others were not so fortunate. Ju Shou was captured and pushed a fair bit of blame on his master “"Ji province [Yuan Shao] made bad plans, and he brought defeat upon himself. I was neither clever nor strong enough. It is fitting I should be taken." while Shen Pei’s sons were among those that fell into Cao Cao’s hands. Cao Cao also captured several documents including letters from his own officers written to Yuan Shao and copying Emperor Guangwu’s example he burnt the letters unread, claiming he hadn’t read them as he himself had doubted his chances. Cao Cao wasn’t struck down by lightening for claiming to have not read said letters.

Could the Yuan’s recover? How would the temperamental Yuan Shao react to defeat?


[1] "If we survive, my authority will certainly be recognised every-where. If we lose, I shall not escape with my life. The pity of it." His younger brother Ju Zong said, "Cao Cao's men and horses are no match for ours. Why are you afraid?" "Because Cao Cao has clear plans," replied Ju Shou, "and he controls the Son of Heaven. Though we have defeated Bogui [Gongsun Zan], our soldiers are exhausted, our master is proud and his officers arrogant. This will bring our army to destruction. "Yang Xiong observed, 'The six kingdoms were foolish and stupid. They weakened the Ji [family of the Zhou dynasty] for the Ying [family of Qin].' These are words for today."

[2] "With his army of a hundred thousand men, Yuan Shao is confident that nothing can stand before him. If he sees that I have very few, he will pay little attention and will not attack. On the other hand, if you add to my troops, then if he passes by he is sure to attack, and if he attacks he will certainly win. You and I would thus both lose strength. Please have no doubts”

[3] De Crepsigny argues in Imperial Warlord that Liu Bei would not have been given such command unless Guan Yu had returned.

[4] De Crespigny in ZZTJ suggests they were mobile balista

[5] ZZTJ and some of the SGZ says Han Meng, other parts of SGZ says Han Xun and De Crespigny argues in his encyclopedia Han Xun is also Han Meng and Han Juzi.

[6] According to Imperial Warlords, Xun You’s SGZ says supply convoy, Xu Huang says the depot itself. Either way, they lost the supplies and Han Xun left Gushi.

[7] "If Lord Cao's best troops have gone he is sure to defeat Chunyu Qiong. When Chunyu Qiong is defeated the affair is lost. I beg first to go and help him." After Guo Tu defended the decision "Lord Cao's camp is strong," argued Zhang He. "If we attack it we shall certainly not succeed. If Chunyu Qiong and the others are taken then we shall all be captives."



Yuan Shao arrived at Liyang, he went to the camp of General Jiang Yiqu and sought loyalty "I entrust you with my head!" Jiang Yiqu (possibly the style of Jiang Qi) knew what to do, giving up his tent, putting Yuan Shao at the head and asking his lord to take over the command of his men. With Yuan Shao safe and as knowledge of his whereabouts spread, Yuan’s soldiers drifted back while at Guandu Ju Shou had refused to serve Cao Cao for what might happen to his family and he also tried to return, as it would seem did some of the captured troops, Cao Cao was forced to kill them.

Internal disagreements also emerged in the immediate aftermath, some had felt Tian Feng would be restored having been proven right but Tian Feng feared that was not Yuan Shao’s nature. "Our lord may seem lenient, but he forgets nothing. He does not value my loyalty, and I have several times angered him with advice or warning. Had he won, he would have been pleased and might have forgiven me. But now the battle is lost and he is angry. It will bring back all his hidden resentment, and I do not expect to live."

Yuan Shao initially seemed inclined to blame everyone but Tian Feng "The people of Ji province have heard my army is defeated and they should all remember [how they misled] me. My Aide-de-Camp Tian Feng was the only one who did not agree, but advised me not to go. I am still ashamed to face him." Pang Ji for some reason made a seroius allegation against Tian Feng "When Tian Feng heard you had retreated, he clapped his hands and laughed aloud. He was pleased things turned out as he foretold." Yuan Shao was not pleased, exclaiming to his officer "I did not use Tian Feng's advice, and so he laughs at me!" Yuan Shao was a violent man but I’m not sure how many warlords would respond to hearing they were being laughed at after such a big defeat with restraint or joy. What is more puzzling is why Pang Ji took such action given how honourably he acted with Shen Pei at this time.

There were inevitable concerns that the capital of Yuan Shao’s lands was in the hands of a man who Cao Cao now had family to hold as hostage. Meng Dai, backed by Xin Ping and Guo Tuo, warned "Shen Pei has a position of special authority and he belongs to a powerful clan. Now that his sons are in the south he will certainly plan to rebel." Meng Dai was sent to replace Shen Pei in Ye as Supervisor of the Army but as Yuan Shao considered what further to do, Pang Ji spoke up. He was known to hate Shen Pei but defended his old foe "Shen Pei is fiercely honest and always respects the examples of the ancients. He could not turn traitor just because his two sons are in the south. Have no doubts.”. Yuan Shao admitted his surprise but Pang Ji said his arguments with Shen Pei were a private matter, this was an affair of state.

So why the two different reactions from Yuan Shao’s long serving adviser? Pang Ji may simply have been honest both times. While the fears over Shen Pei was understandable in the circumstances, Pang Ji knew Shen Pei to be a loyal man. With Tian Feng, there is nothing in the historical texts I have seen to suggest Pang Ji was fibbing and there doesn’t seem a particular reason for Pang Ji to have sought Tian Feng’s death when he had refused to ensure Shen Pei was destroyed. Tian Feng may have been, in a moment, pleased at being proved right and shown it in a moment of carelessness, something that would not have endeared him to his fellows and annoyed any warlord.

After Guandu, Yuan Shao still had his lands, plenty of officers and soldiers but it had been a devastating defeat. Two of his famed officers Yan Liang and Wen Chou were dead, senior commander Chunyu Qiong was dead, rising general Zhang He had defected, he had allowed Liu Bei to run away, his major military core of officers seem to have gone. The three advisers who had wanted a defensive campaign, Ju Shou was captured and killed, Tian Feng had been executed and Xu You had defected. Two of Yuan Shao’s three most senior officers were dead leaving only Guo Tu and a lot of officers who had been in favour of the attack. Yuan Shao had lost a lot of men, resources, momentum and prestige, he no longer looked like a winner or likely conqueror.

The ZZTJ remarks of this defeat “As a man, Yuan Shao was generous and elegant. He was able, and neither pleasure nor anger would show on his expression. Yet he was proud, obstinate and self-satisfied, and seldom followed the best course. So he came to defeat.” The SGZ remarks following Tian Feng’s death “On the exterior, Yuan Shao is generous and refined. He seems tolerant and never shows his emotions. But inside he is very narrow-minded, jealous and malicious. He treated others as he treated Tian Feng. “

There is really no other way of describing Yuan Shao’s handling of his council other then disastrous. His officers being split onto what to do? Fine, it was a major decision and then, as now, it is not reasonable to expect the camp to fully agree beyond one course. His camp being full of ego’s? Naturally. Some of these were men of noted family and they all risen high under a powerful warlord, such men don’t tend to be timid, meek figures. They key for any leader is to keep the group united, to avoid disagreements spiralling into wider issues and keeping everyone focused on the cause, not on facing each other. Yuan Shao failed miserably at this.

It had been, by the conventional reading, a really bad showing by Yuan Shao. He had played right into Cao Cao’s hands, a long supply line, attacking up a hill against fortified positions with no room to manoeuvre, committing to a major battle with all the risks that entailed. Three of his advisers had offered flexible, defensive advice that would have had Cao Cao chasing around on Yuan Shao’s terms but he had rejected such plans and when chances emerged for a second front, it could be argued he hadn’t given it proper resources and energy. He had struggled to keep his council united or moral high despite his stronger position, with jail, grumpiness and defections of key failures, in the end his great big army was smashed by the more united and skilled, if smaller, foe.

Yet is it right?


Yuan Shao had the advantage… right?

Pei Songzhi was the first to really question the general thrust of Cao Cao’s noble band vs Yuan Shao’s overwhelming hordes, remarking in Cao Cao’s SGZ [1] about inconsistencies and logical errors. Cao Cao started with five thousand men, added Qingzhou Turbans and others so would have required horrific attrition rates to end up so few numbers. How exactly if so outnumbered did Cao Cao match Yuan Shao’s encampment in first place yet not only that, still have troops to strike out against Yuan supplies. Twice. Why did Yuan Shao’s 70-80,000 men just allow Cao Cao’s “less then a tenth size” force to kill them and that Zhong Yao sending two thousand horses for six hundred cavalrymen makes no sense if the records are correct.

The general reaction to that is either people being unaware of it or “yep, numbers on both sides are a tad exaggerated but the general position is truthful.” Maybe Yuan Shao didn’t quite have 10 fold numbers on Cao Cao but he was the bigger force and it was great Cao Cao win against the odds, helped by Yuan Shao’s arrogance and sheer incompetence. De Crespigny in his excellent Imperial Warlords (well worth a read, on Cao Cao’s life but also figures like Yuan Shao) argues this may not have been the case, that actually Yuan Shao was the underdog vs the stronger Cao Cao and I’m basing a lot of my argument here on his work.

One assumption made is Yuan Shao was the mighty master of four northern provinces, Ji, Qing, You and Bing, able to bring food and men from all four to muster a powerful army. Of the four provinces

1) Ji. Yep, makes sense here. He had Ji, it was rich and been peaceful for a few years. Huzaah! Granted Cao Cao had some rich lands of his own and, as well as usual garrisons, some forces would be needed to be kept back due to Zhang Yan still lurking.

2) Qing. Well Yuan Shao certainly controlled it thanks to Yuan Tan. However the Turbans of Qingzhou where from… have a guess so it had taken a huge population transfer to Cao Cao’s lands. The land had been also hit by famine and long brutal civil wars till Yuan Tan’s breakthrough in 196 while Yuan Tan’s rule of the province had seen his reputation decline with allegations of arrogance, failure to understand agriculture and corrupt friends so there may have been limits to it’s recovery during the peace. Even so, they had a famed commander and experienced troops so surely Yuan Shao got major reinforcements here?

He certainly got Yuan Tan but Cao Cao had sent Zang Ba to raid and threaten the province, it is questionable how many soldiers Yuan Tan could bring out of Qing under such circumstances. That, when the province was under threat, Yuan Shao pulled it’s leader for the main front is a complement to Tan’s military talents but perhaps a signal of how Yuan Shao needed everything he could get focused on Guandu.

3) Bing. Always a frontier post, the collapse of the Southern Xiongu government and revolts meant the Han had lost control of it even before the civil war started. Gao Gan was, presumably with troops, meant to try to unite it and bring it back under control, it is hard to know exactly how he did bringing back Han (or Yuan) influence. De Crespigny in Imperial Warlords mentions Carl Leban’s Ts’o Ts’ao and the rise of Wei says Yuan Shao had full control in Bing (and other provinces), De Crespigny argues that years later Gao Gan only had influence in “Shangdang, Taiyuan and perhaps Yanmen and the east of Xihe”.

Gao Gan isn’t mentioned at Guandu, he only really comes into play after Yuan Shao’s death in the records, though he could have sent troops but with rest of Bing unconquered, how much did he have to spare? There would also have been the concern of Wei Ji’s recent arrival in Hedong to Bing’s south and Ji’s west, seeking to establish order back in the former capital areas. As campaign went on, the governor of Liang Wei Duan would back Cao Cao and Zhong Yao was working on the Liang warlords so the west would be getting stronger for Cao Cao.

4) You, a costly drain to the Han due to fighting with tribes, Liu Yu had made it prosper before his death and Yuan had taken it from Gongsun Zan. However Yuan Xi had only parts of it, Gongsun Du had some land in the east of the province while Xianyu Fu had local connections and lands in You, switching his support to Cao Cao. While Xianyu was no real threat, the switch of Yan Rou with his Wuhuan connections (though they remained loyal to the Yuan family) would have been a concern and meant Cao Cao had two local figures with their forces to challenge Yuan Xi. While they do not seem to have provided active threat to Yuan Xi, he wasn’t able to conquer them either and again, how many troops could he dispatch when Cao Cao had military support in the area?

Two of Yuan Shao’s four provinces were not unified so he couldn’t bring the full weight of their resources and only one was a wealthy one. In at least two of the provinces, the local Yuan forces needed their soldiers to shield from rivals so Yuan Shao could not summon as much as might have from each to make such a huge force. Yuan Shao likely had a large army, he may well have ordered Yuan Xi and Gao Gan to not seek to expand and, after calculating what was needed to hold his lands, taken everything else to throw at one major assault.

Cao Cao had considerable land resources of his own to draw men for his army and the supplies to maintain them. Indeed Cao Cao was putting pressure on two flanks of Yuan Shao with Zang Ba a direct threat while Wei Ji’s recent arrival in Hedong and bringing the former captain region under Cao Cao was, though not yet a military threat, building pressure on the other side. Cao Cao may not have had local supremacy at Guandu but he clearly had resources to spare for raids and for sending armies to attack Yuan Shao’s lands, armies he felt no need to order back to deal with Yuan Shao’s main thrust.

Yuan Shao’s usual gifts of diplomacy and contacts did not quite work for him this time, Man Chong’s actions in Runan didn’t bring peace but the Yuan family base never applied a real threat to Cao Cao’s rear. It was not a good time for Liu Biao to launch a northern campaign (Zheng Xian’s revolt and Sun Ce’s southern threat) even without pro-Cao factions in his court and Yuan Shao would have had good reason to believe Zhang Xiu would help against an old little, very little to think Zhang Xiu would surrender to Cao Cao. That Cao Cao was having diplomatic success in You and the west of Yuan’s forces (and with backers in Jing) suggests Cao Cao was seen as a potential winner by figures who had never met Cao Cao.

De Crespigny wonders if Yuan Shao’s failure to wipe out Gongsun Zan after Zan’s retreat to fortress might reflect Yuan Shao’s military resources were less then generally thought. Even leaving aside that speculation, Cao Cao’s strong resources and his squeezing Yuan’s heartland from both flanks, Yuan Shao’s campaign might not have been one of arrogant supremacy. It might have been a campaign of desperation, to stop Cao Cao’s growing threat before it was too late by smashing Cao Cao’s heartlands in an all or nothing move. Even if Yuan Shao had the local numbers, a campaign born of desperation for Shao would have changed the mindsets of both sides and influenced the decisions. taken

In that context, Yuan Shao’s decision making makes more sense though his failure to keep his camp united still reflects poorly on his leadership. Going on the defensive looks a more questionable move from Yuan Shao’s advisers, time was on Cao Cao’s side and risks allowing Cao Cao to further squeeze the Yuan forces on all fronts. Instead Yuan Shao gathered as large a force as he could, including Yuan Tan who was needed elsewhere, to throw at Cao Cao’s heartlands in a desperate bid to turn things around. Guandu may have been a less then ideal spot but win there and Cao Cao’s heartlands are open, momentum switches and likes of Zang Ba may be called back. The failure to really go multiple fronts? A lack of resources so using whatever he had spare while he concentrates on Cao Cao’s heartlands. Wuchao? Still a huge gamble but for Yuan Shao, staying in the field is one thing but he needs a win now rather then for things to drag on, he flt cavalry would help force Cao Cao to retreat and he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to win now, an opportunity he might not get again.

The big argument against this are quotes of the time, Xun Yu remarking in his letter to Cao Cao at Guandu that though “"Your force is only a tenth of his” (not exactly reassuring words) before saying why they were going to win is one such example, all sides being quoted in ways that say Cao Cao has inferior forces and of Yuan arrogance. Unfortunately while sometimes the texts are direct quotes or memories of what was said, sometimes it is more an approximate thrust of the argument with embellished details (and sometimes made up). Wei had, like Yuan Shao, it’s propaganda machine to spread it’s message at it’s time and unlike Yuan Shao, would have it’s own history department in the years after, both used to shape a narrative. At the time, Guandu would have been huge moment with Yuan Shao being the big warlord of the north, the biggest name of all the surviving warlords and it would be Cao Cao’s most famous win, a moment that could be seen as turning him from contender into the big power of the land. When turning thrust of arguments into words, why not just add a bit more dazzle and glory to your leader, compare and contrast Cao Cao with a few added praise of Cao Cao and a few mentions of Yuan Shao being arrogant, why not add a few exaggerated army size comparisons? Thus your narrative of compare and contrast, of last ditch win for the small guys vs the giant army takes place.

Cao Cao ran a brilliant campaign and outclassed Yuan Shao even before Yuan Shao marched south, Cao Cao had the resources, he had got Yuan lands in a vulnerable position and forced Yuan Shao to fight on his terms, drawing Yuan Shao in across the Yellow River on ground of Cao Cao’s choosing and using his free men to destroy the Yuan supplies. Yuan Shao failed to match his excellent opponent but whatever mistakes were made, including his complete failure to keep his councillors united, they were probably born more of desperation then an entitled arrogance.


[1] Using translation from Cao Cao’s SGZ

Your servant Song believes that the King of Wei (Cao Cao), when he first raised up soldiers, had already gathered a multitude of five thousand, and that from then on he was victorious in nearly every battle, and so his losses would be no more than two or three out of every ten. Moreover, in a single defeat of the Yellow Turbans he accepted the surrender of three hundred thousand soldiers, though we are not able to know the record of the rest of those whom he absorbed. Even though he incurred losses in military expeditions he still should not have had so few soldiers. For men to fortify their camps and defend against each other is different from ravaging each other at swordpoint in pitched battle.

The Ben Ji states: Shao had a multitude of more than one hundred thousand soldiers and his encampment extended to the east and west for ten li. Though changing circumstances had gone against the Great Ancestor of Wei, and his strategy had not worked, he is depicted as being satisfied with having only a few thousand soldiers, but if he did not have more than is said, how could he face and resist the enemy? By applying reasoning to the records I presume to show that they are incorrect. Shao used an area of ten li for his camp, and Great Ancestor of Wei placed his camp in corresponding fashion facing him. From this, his forces must not have been so very few; this is one reason. If Shao had ten times as many men he logically ought to have had all the power needed both to besiege and defend, and use them to cut off Great Ancestor of Wei’s comings and goings. However, Great Ancestor of Wei used Xu Huang and his men to attack Shao’s transport carts and also went out himself to attack Chunyu Qiong and his men, flying Shao’s flags, intermingling with the enemy and infiltrating them without resistance. It is clear that Shao’s strength was not sufficient to restrain him, therefore his forces must not have been so very few; this is the second reason.

All of the records say that Great Ancestor of Wei buried seventy or eighty thousand of Shao’s troops alive. If eighty thousand men were to scatter and flee he would not be able to tie them down with only eight thousand men, yet this multitude of Shao’s men all submissively went forward to their deaths; by what means did he have strength enough to restrain them? Truly, his forces must not have been so very few; this is the third reason. That the transcribers wished for his forces to seem to be few is strange, as it is not an accurate record. According to the biography of Zhong You, it says, “When His Excellency and Shao were opposing each other You was serving as Director of Retainers, and he sent a group of two thousand pi of horses as supplies for the army.” The Ben Ji and Shi Yu both say that at the time Great Ancestor of Wei had only six hundred cavalrymen, so why did You feel the horses were needed?


Last Years of Yuan Shao

In spring of 201 Xun Yu urged Cao Cao to press Yuan Shao while Yuan followers would be unhappy and before he could really rebuild his forces but all Cao Cao did was a raiding party for food in Dongping and drove Yuan’s men out of Cangting crossing, he didn’t press matters across the Yellow River, Guandu had taken it’s toll on his forces. Meanwhile Yuan Shao had somewhat rebuilt his armies and his focus was to retake the cities that rebelled in Ji, Yuan Shao was able to bring them back under his control before any major damage could be done.

Yuan Shao sent Yuan Tan back to Qing but problems were emerging, Yuan Shao is said to have become sick after Guandu, coughing up blood, ashamed of his failure and angry. This may be no more then a cliché based around dying a few years after major defeat or it may be that, having lived quite some time at this point, Shao had developed a lung problem that proved fatal. With his age and probable illness, he needed to secure his succession but he had already created problems.

At some point while Ju Shou was alive, Yuan Shao had moved Yuan Tan onto the lineage of a dead, unknown elder brother of Yuan Shao’s (Hu Sanxing suggests it was probably Yuan Cheng’s son) then sent him out again to Qing (193 seems rather early, maybe when Yuan Shao received honours from court). This made Tan his nephew rather then the direct heir to Yuan power-base as Yuan Shao’s eldest son and Ju Shou raised concerns “It is said that when a single hare goes astray, ten thousand men will pursue it. When one man gains it, the greedy all stop because the thing is settled. It was the institution of the ancients that one who is full in age is worthy and one who is virtuous is ordained. Remember the victories and defeats of earlier generations and think of the principle of settling the pursuit of the hare.’ [1] Yuan Shao argued ‘I want to order my four children each a province to occupy, to observe their ability.’ Ju Shou bemoaning ‘Calamity will come of this!’

Ju Shou feared any signal of a divided succession and must have worried that Yuan Tan had a claim to the succession and an army behind him was going to be a problem. Yuan Shao seems to have not been worried, he wanted to give his sons (and nephew Gan) a chance to show what they could do and perhaps felt the matter could be sorted later. For some reason during this era the idea of “just choose the eldest son” had fallen out of favour, Emperor Ling, Yuan Shao, Liu Biao and Cao Cao all considered other sons, only Cao selected the eldest son and for the rest, the changed or intended succession did not end well. Possibly the Han failure to have “father to son” successions for some time (and then when it happened with Emperor’s Ling, that didn’t go well) meant the tradition and reasons why it tended to be this way faded from warlord minds until the track record of disputed successions became clear.

Giving Yuan family key positions with troops, lands and men could work if they all united behind the chosen heir, family could prevent alternative power-bases forming while build local support to the Yuan name and his future line picking up vital experience. The danger is if the succession was disputed (and Shao’s manoeuvre of adoption was not going to sort that issue out) or any fall out, that is a lot of powerful claimants to the Yuan crown who can back it with resources and soldiers.

So why did Yuan Shao move against his eldest? Yuan Shang was said to be handsome and his main wife Lady Liu was pushing Yuan Shang’s claim, Shao loved his youngest. Shang was also unsullied by time running a province whereas, depending on timing, Gan had limited success, Yuan Xi seems to have next to none in tackling rivals in You and after a bright start, while though Tan was noted as being loved and charming, his choice of friends, poor governeance and attitude that emerged in Qing may have worried Shao.

To make matters worse, despite sickness and age, Yuan Shao never got around to actually declaring Yuan Shang as being his heir. With his camp split between who was best, Yuan Shang having the backing of his mother and being at capital, Yuan Tan having the sense of eldest son and an army, this was not going to end well. On 28 June 202, Yuan Shao passed away, leaving behind a rich province, a still formidable army, Wuhuan friendship and a strong family name, Xun You warning Yuan Shao left behind loyalty due to lenient rule. He also left behind the seeds of chaos that would destroy the great clan and a wife who would kill and deface five favoured concubines out of jealousy.

When Ye fell to Cao Cao, he went to Yuan Shao’s grave and mourned, returning to Lady Liu the family treasures, gave her comfort, gifts and an allowance of grain. One suspects Yuan Shao would have also liked Cao Cao not to wipe out his male line and ensure family remained prominent but Cao Cao didn’t go that far. As when Yuan Shao had offered Cao Cao sanctuary, there was surely a mixture of old friendship and a large dose of ruthless political calculation. Whatever falling out Yuan Shao and Cao Cao had, they had once been friends and close allies in many things, it must have been a sad moment for Cao Cao. Yet for warlords, such public grief was also a necessary show, Yuan Shao had been of greater family then Cao Cao and once leader of the alliance, Yuan Shao had local support. Cao Cao was making a very public show of how gracious he was in victory, showing due deference that would please the gentry and appeasing the locals he needed to win over.

He also sent out a memorial [2] with new taxation policy with attacks on Shen Pei but may well have been charging Shao as well as Shang when it claimed: “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.” This also reflects other attacks from Wei officials that portray Yuan Shao as winning loyalty by being too lenient or kind unlike strict Cao Cao (whose officers are, of course, loyal for the right reasons). How much of this line of attack true? There is likely an element of propaganda, when attempting reform it isn’t the worst idea to start by blaming your predecessors to help sell this is necessary, the old Cao good Yuan bad+Cao officers loyal and Yuan loyalty isn’t real loyalty, it plays into the image Cao Cao’s regime was trying to create of it’s own government.

There may also be some truth to lenient vs strict. There was a belief that the Han’s decline and the chaos was partly due to loss of law and order with rules breaking down and subjects getting overly powerful, a loss of morality at the top. Cao Cao and his officers played to that, a strict regime, a return to law and order, no more excess at the top but good virtuous officials who didn’t flaunt wealth, a rebalance with the gentry. Yuan Shao, as one who had flaunted wealth as a youth, may have been less inclined on such shows of restraint by his regime, his rules may well have been less strict and more old style lenient (unless you crossed him) though I suspect the wanton pillaging is far more on the propaganda side.

The once rebellious youth, the man who had sought to purge the eunuchs and destroy Dong Zhuo, the man who had given Cao Cao an important start and support, was dead, leaving a divided Yuan family facing his old friend and their doom.


[1] The ZZTJ adds “"Tan is the eldest, and should be your successor, but you are sending him away. Trouble will come from this." which I suspect is trying to make the point clear for audience.

[2] Imperial Warlords



Professor De Crespigny’s comments on Yuan Shao: his general reaction to the vs eunuch days is not a positive one, using terms like bloodthirsty but also energetic, he remarks on the “when did Yuan family get killed” ZZTJ notes of Yuan Shao’s natural violence. At the end of Yuan Shao entry in his encyclopedia, the professor remarks “Despite uncertainty over his position in the family, many people regarded Yuan Shao as representing the tradition of the great gentry and official clans of Later Han. He was personally popular, and his rise to power was aided by the support of clients and protégés who recognised past patronage from the Yuan. As chief rival to Cao Cao, however, he was not well matched, for he was neither a good judge of politics nor a brilliant general, while the favour that he showed to his youngest son Shang brought the destruction of his family.” He notes in Man From the Margin “In the political and military manoeuvring which culminated in the decisive battle of Guandu, there was discussion of Yuan Shao's claim to great family and of Cao Cao's talent as a leader, but this was more in the nature of propaganda than a class confrontation: the essential conflict was between the warlord north of the Yellow River and his rival to the south, and Cao Cao gained the victory because he organized his resources more effectively and commanded his army with greater skill.”

Yuan of the old guard and family vs Cao Cao the rising dynamic outsider is a great narrative and a great symbol but it wasn’t quite true. Cao Cao was of gentry class and of wealth even if the Cao’s were, as cost them against the Sima old guard, not quite one of them, Cao Cao was not dismissed for his background by Shao or his officer core. Yuan Shao was certainly of great and old family, he used that to advance his cause but he wasn’t seeking to restore the old ways against the new and he adapted to the times unlike many other of noted family who fell a lot quicker.

For me, Yuan Shao was born with all the advantages one could wish for, looks, unmatched wealth, prestige, surely a great education, a family with untold connections, he was certainly shaped by that. He was also shaped by his time, a disregard for the laws, willing use of violence, zealous hatred of the eunuchs, an increasingly ambivalent relationship with the Han. However his reputation after his death would be shaped by his last sometimes desperate and sometimes foolish acts. It was also shaped by how Wei chose to portray the great battle of Guandu and the “compare and contrast” with Cao Cao and Yuan Shao in a way that was not designed for accuracy.

As a young man, Yuan Shao ran around and led armed men who acted outside the law, he saved many lives with his escape lines with He Yong but there were undoubtedly less noble acts committed by Yuan Shao and his fellows. When he finally came to senior office, Yuan Shao was an energetic but blundering opponent of the eunuchs, his flawed plans and deliberately going beyond authority undermining both stability at the capital and He Jin while possibly getting He Jin killed in Yuan Shao’s desire for blood. Yuan Shao took command in the aftermath of He Jin’s assassination and committed a massacre of thousands of innocent people, leaving the Han shaken and vulnerable to what happened next.

Some of the flaws, the violence and his record of poor political judgement, would last throughout Yuan Shao’s life but the circumstances the flight from Dong Zhuo saw Yuan Shao rise to the occasion, mostly. As a warlord, Yuan Shao was able to bring calm in the worst situations and showed great bravery, he used his prestige and networks to create important alliances that protected his flanks, using the chaos to put allied figures like Zang Hong and Cao Cao to good medium term effect even if both later turned on him. He gained a pragmatic streak that He Jin could have used from him, he knew the value of things like propaganda whether it be use of Cui Lin or his memorial battles with Cao Cao.

While Yuan Shao tended to leave military command to likes of Wang Kuang and Qu Yi, Yuan Shao did take to the field at times and had a good record till Guandu. From one city supplied by Han Fu, Yuan Shao bluffed his way to rule of Ji, he delivered such a beating to the Black Mountain Bandits that they were never able to return to their old strength, he used his generals and exploited opportunity to get You and in the end personally oversaw the destruction of Gongsun Zan. However to the south, Cao Cao was doing all this and a lot quicker combined agricultural reforms and political master-strokes. Yuan Shao was able to handle himself in a political fight, as Cao Cao discovered, but when forced to make a political decision, Yuan Shao’s judgement was poor. One possible reason that might have hampered him in that, Yuan Shao comes across as one who didn’t particularly care for Han, thought it was dying and underestimated the pull it still could have on others or how the court could be used.

While Yuan Shao did well in the north, he seems to have to trued to ensure he could focus on one foe at a time with any secondary force being to reinforce or work with an ally rather then really commit his forces. His advances across the north, though he moved quickly to exploit opportunities like the mass revolt against Gongsun Zan, was steady and slow. Yuan Shao does not seem to have been willing to gamble on two front wars or conquer lands with speedy quick strikes, while a competent military leader, he simply was not at the levels of a great like Cao Cao. When Cao Cao’s officers refer to failure to make plans, this may reflect that Shao rarely made a move himself that really strengthened his position out of nowhere or changed moment of the campaign, he could only exploit what events fell his way.

As an administrator, it is hard to know as we get very little glimpses into how things were run. He seems to have struggled, like many, to supply his men in the field for some time, there is no sense of an administrative reform but neither that Ji was bankrupted by his goverment, Wei criticisms may have reflected a philosophy clash and little attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the loyalty of Yuan following.

In terms of using his men, Yuan Shao was a charismatic figure but when be became leader of the alliance, his ability to handle superiors and his juniors seems to have been hampered somewhat. A streak of arrogance led to complaints from figures like Zhang Miao, his temper saw Dong Zhao leave while those he felt crossed him on even minor matters, Yuan Shao seems to have been a bit too eager to deal with it by execution or assassination. Yuan Shao, like all warlords, had the odd questionable pick and some defections but he also inspired a degree of loyalty to his family in Ji that lasted after his death. In terms of using talent, Ju Shou and Qu Yi quickly became key figures for him, Zhang He rose through the ranks, the only “why didn’t he rise far under Yuan Shao?” off the top of my head is Cui Yan who late became a key figure for Cao Cao. There are figures whose use is puzzling like Guo Tu and Chunyu Qiong, but we are not helped by the poor records that tell us little of what they did for large parts of their careers that saw them so trusted.

Damningly Yuan Shao lost control of his camp by Guandu, Qu Yi executed, Ju Shou was demoted and then tried to be go home, Tian Feng ended up jailed as he pushed too far and later executed, Xu You grew resentful and defected, Zhang He surrendered due to what was being said about him, Shen Pei faced accusations. Disagreements on a campaign is normal but the sheer scale of all this, the loss of unity and the reactions of his officers reflects very badly on Yuan Shao’s leadership.

Yuan Shao’s use of family also seems to have played a part in Yuan Shao’s failure to be in a stronger position. The use of family has a certain logic to it, ensures loyalty and gives future generation chance to prove themselves, but it meant it wasn’t the best people for the job. Yuan Tan proved military successful but if Yuan Xi, for example, had been replaced by a proven figure who could bring energy and proven military skill to trying to conquer then improve You, maybe Yuan Shao could have had a stronger grip on his other provinces for when the big showdown came.

Yuan Shao’s poor political judgement and his use of family would kill the Yuan chances of a fightback with a messy and disputed succession with three potential contenders with armies. The Yuan forces would have had a difficult time with a unified leader but Shao’s failure with succession was arguably matching his errors under He Jin for the immense cost it brought, maybe even the biggest error of his life. It made Cao Cao’s conquest of the north a lot easier and it doomed the once great Yuan clan to last no more, vis Shao’s line then the generation of Shao’s sons and nephew. Shu’s line would live on for a time as his son Yuan Yao served Wu, Yao’s daughter and sister (who rejected chance to be Sun Quan’s Empress) married into Sun family but the Yuan name seems to have faded out there.

Yuan Shao was an able, charismatic man who used his family name to impressive effect, using diplomacy and military skill to carve out a position for himself in the north in circumstances he would never have imagined in his youth and where other men of note were never able to adapt to. Despite his fortunate circumstances, Yuan Shao did not have any easy life, he lost many friends and relatives in the chaos, had to ride through many rough moments with calmness and bravery. He was said to treat people kindly but Yuan Shao also showed a capacity for brutality and murder if things were not as he wished. In the end, his poor political skills ended with a disputed succession that killed his family’s regime, while in the field of battle he was beaten by a superior warlord at Guandu, there is no shame in that.
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Gray Riders » Wed Jan 02, 2019 4:22 am

This can't have been easy to write. Incredibly interesting read!

I've been interested in Professor De Crespigny's thoughts on Guandu since I read an interview with him where he briefly went into it, but sadly Imperial Warlord is well outside my price range for a book.

It's getting late but I will be back with more thoughts tomorrow (I'll edit this post if nobody else has commented by then).
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Wed Jan 02, 2019 5:47 pm

Gray Riders wrote:This can't have been easy to write. Incredibly interesting read!

I've been interested in Professor De Crespigny's thoughts on Guandu since I read an interview with him where he briefly went into it, but sadly Imperial Warlord is well outside my price range for a book.

It's getting late but I will be back with more thoughts tomorrow (I'll edit this post if nobody else has commented by then).

Thanks, glad you liked it and look forward to your thoughts.

Sorry about that, I felt I should plug the book if I'm going to base that part so heavily on it. I hope you get a chance to borrow it someday
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby LiuBeiwasGreat » Wed Jan 02, 2019 11:00 pm

Great read, I always love hearing more details about famous officers and I enjoyed hearing a different perspective on Guan Du.

One thing I was disappointed in was the fact that you left out Guan Jing's last charge and just skipped to his death :P
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Gray Riders » Thu Jan 03, 2019 4:05 am

Dong Zhou wrote:There is a story based around this time from the Shishuo xinyu [3] where Yuan Shao and Cao Cao raided a wedding party, Cao Cao raped the bride at sword-point then they fled. When Yuan Shao got stuck in brambles, Cao Cao didn’t help but turned to pursuers and cried “Here is the villain”. Cao Cao got away safely, Yuan Shao was beaten within an inch of his life.

So, I've read a version of this story in the past, but it had a very different ending; Cao Cao's shouting out gave Yuan Shao a panicked burst of adrenaline that let him escape the brambles. Afterwards, Yuan Shao said that one day he would be a great lord and Cao Cao his chief general, with Cao Cao replying that it would be the other way around.

Yuan Shao became a leader of his fellow youngsters in Luoyang, such groupings were often portrayed as led by knight-errants or gallants, at their best they could be used to help people but often would be used for acts of thuggery or acts outside the laws. Rich young men forming a gang at the capital, I suspect they did not go around helping little old ladies across the street.

Recently, I've been reading some light books about the history of European knighthood and how it was shaped by various external factors makes me view this more carefully than I had in the past--it's not a perfect match but I the idea of young rich men forming (armed?) bands and going off to adventure explains a lot about Yuan Shao's later life (the noted tendency to violence, for one).

Zhang Miao’s SGZ says Miao rebuked Yuan Shao for acting arrogantly so Yuan Shao tried to get Cao Cao to kill his old friend. Cao Cao refused on grounds that this was really not the time to murder old friends however mistaken they may be. [11] Amazingly Zhang Miao and Yuan Shao remained allies for years afterwards.

I don't have any evidence, but I do wonder if this was a bit of creative writing by Wei historians? It seems incredible Zhang Miao would stay allied with Yuan Shao for so long if this happened.

I find your view of the coalition's actions very interesting, noting that open battle had consistently ended poorly for them (quite predictably, when you note how inexperienced the leaders and their troops were compared to Dong Zhuo's frontier troops and the Northern Army) and the blockade may well have helped Sun Jian's successful push. I find myself agreeing with your analysis over the traditional, more critical view of the alliance's strategy (though the infighting they fell into so quickly is of course another matter)

Yuan Shao had Ji, a rare occasion where a force took a major province without a fight (well from the winning force) and Pang Ji’s plan is perhaps often overlooked when talking of great or key plans of the era. Yuan Shao had executed it perfectly, choosing his timing, knowing when to add pressure and his envoys were carefully selected: a Yuan Shao envoy would have had little chance of persuading Han Fu to surrender as clearly self interested. Han Fu’s friends who were not under Yuan Shao saying surrender? That had force. Given Ji, Yuan Shao had got to work quickly to ensure the gentry leaders were in his camp and he promoted talented men like Zhang He and Ju Shou while Qu Yi provided much needed experience and would be his go-to general.

The takeover of Ye was genius. A masterstroke that gave Yuan Shao control of such an important region? Many of the famous strategists of the era never pulled off something like that. I think Pang Ji is quite underrated. However, although Gongsun Zan invaded over Gongsun Yue's death, but I wonder if the Yuan camp considered the possibility he could have invaded over the Ji trick? I don't suppose they had many options, though, and as we'd see despite initial worry Yuan Shao's forces proved quite capable of winning this fight.
So, there's something I wanted to mention here. I wonder if the incident where the Black Mountain bandits sized Ye could be why he--as you noted--seemed reluctant to fight several foes at once? Having Ye taken from behind and his family endangered must have been a tremendous fright, even if he managed to remain calm.
Still, his tremendous victories over the Black Mountain Bandits don't seem to get much attention despite defeating what had been a significant force in the area.

None dared pursue Lu Bu.

Intentional or happy coincidence? :wink:
Like yourself, I never understood why he was so harshly criticized for the Zang Hong incident.

I rather wonder what Cao Cao was planning with his initial condemnation of Yuan Shao after taking in the Emperor? It seemed uncharacteristically careless to start picking at his powerful ally right away.

"There were several occasions Cao Cao was in danger of death, and I was quick to help him and save him. Now he is making use of the Son of Heaven to give me orders."

I wonder if this could be alluding to his apparently reinforcing Cao Cao when he fought Lu Bu? Possibly the Yuan soldiers (if we also include the ones sent with Zhu Ling earlier) could have been a larger factor in Cao Cao's victory than Wei historians would like to let on? No evidence, just a thought.

In 198, Yuan Shao was finding he was getting worried every time an Imperial Edict arrived so he, inspired by his well known love for the Han, wrote to Cao Cao. With the old capital in ruins and Xu in such unhealthy marshland, why not move capital to Juancheng which would be healthier and easier for Cao Cao to supply? That it happened to be close to Yuan Shao’s lands was, of course, simply a happy coincidence but unsurprisingly Cao Cao rejected this “helpful” suggestion.

Honestly, between this and the letter sent after Zhang Xiu I keep picturing Yuan Shao as a second century version of an e-mail troll. :lol:

I'd heard about Qu Yi's execution before but I think this is the first time I've read about what caused it (even if it seems we were given two different accounts). The lack of criticism from contemporary historians over it has me suspect it was the version from De Crespigny’s encyclopedia.

I think this is the first theory I've seen that Pang Ji wasn't slandering Tian Feng but that he actually did laugh after hearing about what happened--though I had noticed the inconsistency with how he handled Tian Feng compared to Shen Pei. It's an interesting idea.

No matter which version of Guandu one subscribes to, the complete breakdown of Yuan Shao's ability to manage his officer corp is striking.

Looking forward to the analysis on the Yuan children. :)
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Sun Fin » Thu Jan 03, 2019 12:06 pm

Wow that was a mammoth piece of work! Thanks for all your work on compiling it, it took me over a hour to read it so can only imagine how long it took to write it! Some interesting thoughts in there, the bit about roving bands of knight-errants piqued my imagination too :lol:.
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Thu Jan 03, 2019 7:40 pm

Thanks Sun Fin and LiuBeiWasGreat

LiuBeiwasGreat wrote:Great read, I always love hearing more details about famous officers and I enjoyed hearing a different perspective on Guan Du.

One thing I was disappointed in was the fact that you left out Guan Jing's last charge and just skipped to his death :P

The 20 page ode Guan Jing's death deserves was simply too long for the article, sorry :cry:

Gray Riders

Gray Riders wrote:So, I've read a version of this story in the past, but it had a very different ending; Cao Cao's shouting out gave Yuan Shao a panicked burst of adrenaline that let him escape the brambles. Afterwards, Yuan Shao said that one day he would be a great lord and Cao Cao his chief general, with Cao Cao replying that it would be the other way around.

It's possible that tale has had a few versions down the years. I do recall the bramble one as well just not the aftermath bit

Recently, I've been reading some light books about the history of European knighthood and how it was shaped by various external factors makes me view this more carefully than I had in the past--it's not a perfect match but I the idea of young rich men forming (armed?) bands and going off to adventure explains a lot about Yuan Shao's later life (the noted tendency to violence, for one).

The best modern day equivalent I could think of is when young rich people get drunk at university and clubs, doing.... silly things due to feeling they are untouchable. It isn't a perfect match, knighthood may well be a better example from what I have heard but I'm not an expert.

Yes they do seem to have been armed men and yes I think that sense of violence as the answer came from this sort of adventuring and that it was acceptable within the time. Maybe if he had been born to his father's generation, Yuan Shao may have been rather more restrained

I don't have any evidence, but I do wonder if this was a bit of creative writing by Wei historians? It seems incredible Zhang Miao would stay allied with Yuan Shao for so long if this happened.

Possible. Plays into arrogance theme, plays into his history of violence (and that he may have made such a request at a later date over Lu Bu), I could certainly see "Yuan Shao and Zhang Miao have row" being turned into something more "and then Yuan Shao tried to kill" by Wei historians

I find your view of the coalition's actions very interesting, noting that open battle had consistently ended poorly for them (quite predictably, when you note how inexperienced the leaders and their troops were compared to Dong Zhuo's frontier troops and the Northern Army) and the blockade may well have helped Sun Jian's successful push. I find myself agreeing with your analysis over the traditional, more critical view of the alliance's strategy (though the infighting they fell into so quickly is of course another matter)

I do think the economics of what happened (ie the blockade and how that impacted Dong Zhuo's forces) gets overlooked in how things played it, whatever one thinks of the alliance strategy.

Yeah hard to defend the infighting or some of the political stuff going on behind the scenes.

The takeover of Ye was genius. A masterstroke that gave Yuan Shao control of such an important region? Many of the famous strategists of the era never pulled off something like that. I think Pang Ji is quite underrated. However, although Gongsun Zan invaded over Gongsun Yue's death, but I wonder if the Yuan camp considered the possibility he could have invaded over the Ji trick? I don't suppose they had many options, though, and as we'd see despite initial worry Yuan Shao's forces proved quite capable of winning this fight.

I think problem for Pang Ji is he vanishes for some time from the records and Han Fu's bad repuation for surrendering makes the Ji takeover look less brilliant then it was.

They don't seem to have seen it coming, Ju Shou had Gongsun Zan down for last stage, Pang Ji made no counter-plans, the Yuan camp seems badly prepared for the fight. I wonder if there was something in the deal for Gongsun Zan that was meant to appease him or they thought Liu Yu would be more of a restraint.

So, there's something I wanted to mention here. I wonder if the incident where the Black Mountain bandits sized Ye could be why he--as you noted--seemed reluctant to fight several foes at once? Having Ye taken from behind and his family endangered must have been a tremendous fright, even if he managed to remain calm.
Still, his tremendous victories over the Black Mountain Bandits don't seem to get much attention despite defeating what had been a significant force in the area.

Possibly, that sort of thing could shake anyone, but it doesn't seem something he was doing before hand though so could just be a cautious mindset he had.

I think partly a lack of detail so people's read it quickly and mark it down as a victory without seeing it as much, the Lu Bu issue feels like it occupies as much time in the texts or more then the actual camapign. Also the "only bandits" thing, people respect Zhang Yan but the others are just numbers that are crossed off and again the bandits image of not quite being that impressive to beat

Intentional or happy coincidence? :wink:

I rather wonder what Cao Cao was planning with his initial condemnation of Yuan Shao after taking in the Emperor? It seemed uncharacteristically careless to start picking at his powerful ally right away.

Deliberate. Unless lawyers are present :wink:

It is possible Cao Cao overexcited, he tended to make mistakes and then learn from them, he got the Emperor, all that potential power, that elevation to one of the real big league player and he went to brownbeat his old boss. I'm guessing the end target was for Yuan Shao to get some sort of rank but of lesser status then Cao Cao and be shown as Cao Cao's junior partner

I wonder if this could be alluding to his apparently reinforcing Cao Cao when he fought Lu Bu? Possibly the Yuan soldiers (if we also include the ones sent with Zhu Ling earlier) could have been a larger factor in Cao Cao's victory than Wei historians would like to let on? No evidence, just a thought.

Entirly possible and that Yuan Shao may have lent reinforcements during some of Cao Cao's early troubles.

I'd heard about Qu Yi's execution before but I think this is the first time I've read about what caused it (even if it seems we were given two different accounts). The lack of criticism from contemporary historians over it has me suspect it was the version from De Crespigny’s encyclopaedia

Wang Can's annotation in Yuan Shao's SGZ has one line Boasting of his victories, Qu Yi became arrogant and reckless, so Yuan Shao killed him., De Crespigny's encyclopaedia has Relying upon these achievements, Qu Yi became insubordinate and Yuan Shao then killed him and took over his troops.

I think this is the first theory I've seen that Pang Ji wasn't slandering Tian Feng but that he actually did laugh after hearing about what happened--though I had noticed the inconsistency with how he handled Tian Feng compared to Shen Pei. It's an interesting idea.

I went into it sure Pang Ji had slandered Tian Feng, I wonder if I got that impression from the novel.

No matter which version of Guandu one subscribes to, the complete breakdown of Yuan Shao's ability to manage his officer corp is striking.

Looking forward to the analysis on the Yuan children. :)


Shhouldn't be as long at least :P
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Gray Riders » Thu Jan 03, 2019 8:10 pm

Dong Zhou wrote:They don't seem to have seen it coming, Ju Shou had Gongsun Zan down for last stage, Pang Ji made no counter-plans, the Yuan camp seems badly prepared for the fight. I wonder if there was something in the deal for Gongsun Zan that was meant to appease him or they thought Liu Yu would be more of a restraint.

Interesting idea. Maybe they did assume Liu Yu would be able to restrain Gongsun Zan.

Also the "only bandits" thing, people respect Zhang Yan but the others are just numbers that are crossed off and again the bandits image of not quite being that impressive to beat

I think the "only bandits" thing (easy mistake I made a lot too) might stem from a misunderstanding of the troop quality post-Han warlords had--thinking of, say, comparing a modern military to bank robbers, when the peasant levies the warlords would mostly be using are really no better trained and equipped (and usually less experienced) than bandits are.
I know in medieval Europe bandits were often currently unemployed (or employed but ill disciplined, or employed but payment is in arrears) mercenaries and were therefore often very experienced fighters compared to the local militias. I'm not sure about the Black Mountain Bandits, but they'd been causing trouble so long I figure they probably had combat experience by the time of Yuan Shao's campaign.

I went into it sure Pang Ji had slandered Tian Feng, I wonder if I got that impression from the novel.

I think because the records don't mention Tian Feng doing it (and he's generally viewed positively) it's just what people will initially assume. Pang Ji also has a bad reputation in general (ZZTJ saying he forged Yuan Shao's will later on doesn't look good, either).
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Fri Jan 04, 2019 12:12 pm

I think your right on both.

I think we all have that image with bandits, they are just armed ruffians whereas government troops project a certain of power and professionalism. Even if the reality is rather more equal. The Black Mountain Bandits had advantage of mountain defences, they had (probably rather exaggerated) numbers and had been at this for rather more time then most of Yuan Shao's men so I agree they probably had more experienced troops, they were a power in the north for a time.
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Re: Analysis of Yuan Shao

Unread postby Li_Shengsun » Fri Jan 11, 2019 6:16 am

Weird, the description on Guandu battle seems doesnt mention what Cao Cao do to Yuan Shao's men after the raid on Wu Chao, although i do remember read somewhere, where Cao Cao cut off the noses of Yuan Shao's dead soldiers and general, mixed them with noses and lips of an oxen and horses then send it to Yuan Shao's camp as form of intimidation.

Its a shame that Yuan Shao slaughtered those 'bandits' instead of gaining their support. He could use some experienced fighter other than Qu Yi really. Especially during Guandu battle. But, judging his personality, even if he did gain those bandits support, they mightve ended like Lu Bu is.
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