Encyclopedia: Sima Shi

Sima Shi (Ziyuan); Ssŭma Shih (Tzŭ-yüan); 司馬師 (子元)

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Sima Shi (Ziyuan) 司馬師 (子元)

Lived: AD ?–255

None Available

Served: Wei, Jin

Sima Yi’s son. Instrumental in the rise of Jin.

Officer Details

Wade-Giles: Ssŭma Shih (Tzŭ-yüan)
Simplified Chinese: 司马师 (子元)
Pronunciation: Si1ma3 Shi1 (Zi3yuan2)
Cantonese (Yale): Sima Si (Ji-yun)
Cantonese (Jyutpin): Simaa Si (Zi-jyun)
Min-Nan: Suma Su (Cu-goan)

Family and Relationships

Sima Yi (Father); Sima Zhao (Brother)

Literary Appearances

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: 94, 102, 103, 106109, 110, 119

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Historic (Confirmed)

Sima Shi was the son of Sima Yi. Following the death of the Emperor Cao Rui of Wei, Sima Yi and Cao Shuang rose to prominence within the kingdom. Cao Shuang and his clique dominated the government for a time. However, by AD 248, Sima Yi and his sons started plotting Cao Shuang’s destruction. [1] They succeeded and Sima Yi took power at court. Following the death of Sima Yi, the Wei Emperor appointed Sima Shi to high civil and military ranks. [2]

At this time, Deng Ai had proposed that the Wei court should confer various official titles upon Xiongnu leaders in order to divide their clan. He also suggested that the Xiongnu be segregated from Chinese living in Bingzhou. Upon ascension to high office, Sima Shi adopted these plans. [3] The following year, Sima Shi received the exalted rank of General-in-Chief [4].

Within Wu, the famed sovereign Sun Quan died. He entrusted the governance of Wu to several regents. One of these, Zhuge Ke, became especially prominent. In AD 252 Zhuge Ke marched with troops to Dongxing. At Dongxing, he constructed a dam and two fortresses upon hills to the right and left of the dam. Several Wei generals saw Zhuge Ke’s mobilization as an opportunity to assault Wu. They proposed various plans for an offensive. Although Fu Jia advised Sima Shi to avoid engaging in battle with Zhuge Ke, Sima Shi nonetheless decided to press the attack. [5] Three armies fanned out to fight Wu at various locations. Unfortunately, Zhuge Ke was able to win a great victory over the Wei army stationed at Dongxing. [6] As a result, the entire campaign was foiled. The two other armies that were dispatched burned their camps and fled back to Wei.

Sima Shi could have demoted the Wei generals in command at Dongxing and elsewhere, but instead he decided to spare them. He did, however, demote his brother Sima Zhao, who was serving in the army at the time. In addition, Sima Shi personally took blame for the defeat. He reasoned that if he had listened to the counsel of Fu Jia, he could have avoided calamity. In the same year, Chen Tai requested troops from Bing (heavily populated by the Xiongnu, as mentioned previously) to aid him in an assault against other “barbarian” lands. Sima Shi granted the request. This, again, turned out to be a poor decision. The “barbarian” auxiliaries from Bing who were to be conscripted balked at the notion of marching such great distances. Consequently, two prefectures of Bing rose up in rebellion. Sima Shi once again cast blame upon himself for the revolts. [7]

At this juncture, Wei was threatened jointly by campaigns of Zhuge Ke (Wu) and Jiang Wei (Shu-Han): Zhuge Ke besieged Xincheng while Jiang Wei besieged Didao. Sima Shi consulted with Yu Song, saying, “At present, we are occupied in the east [Wu] and in the west [Shu-Han]; the situation in both places is urgent, yet our generals are dispirited. What shall we do?” In turn, Yu Song suggested sending out a large force to scare Jiang Wei while putting up a staunch resistance in Xincheng to ward off Zhuge Ke. Sima Shi followed Yu Song’s advice. This plan worked and, as a result, both Shu-Han and Wu armies were driven back. [8] The defeat of Zhuge Ke was particularly decisive because shortly thereafter, he lost favor and was assassinated. Previously, but within the same year, Fei Yi of Shu-Han had been assassinated as well. Shu-Han and Wu were thus deprived of important leadership at a critical time. [9]

In the Spring of AD 254, Sima Shi personally killed Li Feng with the ring of his sword hilt. Li Feng had frequently engaged in secret discussions with the Wei Emperor, which aroused the suspicion of Sima Shi. Sima Shi also became paranoid about several other people on close terms with Li Feng. All of them were put to death. The list included Li Tao, Xiahou Xuan, Zhang Qi, Su Shuo, Yue Dun and Liu Xian. These people, along with their entire families, were exterminated. [10] This bloody purge, characteristic of the Sima family’s rise to power, cemented the Sima family’s authority and suppressed potential dissidents. However, it also came with a drawback. By executing so many people, the Sima family created for itself enemies that would not have otherwise existed. Anybody associated with people who were killed felt deeply afraid of their own security. In the past, this had caused the defection of Xiahou Ba from Wei to Shu-Han. Now it stirred up a brand new conspiracy. Guanqiu Jian had been friends with both Li Feng and Xiahou Xuan, two officials that were put to death by Sima Shi. Disturbed by their demise, Guanqiu Jian began plotting rebellion with another Wei commander-Wen Qin. [11]

Equally important in this year, though, was Sima Shi’s decision to also depose the Wei Emperor, Cao Fang. Li Feng had been murdered because of his secret discussions with the Emperor. For Sima Shi, this was unacceptable both on Li Feng’s part and the Emperor’s. Sima Shi could not legitimately simply kill the Emperor, though. For although the Emperor of Wei at this point was reduced to a figurehead, his office was still respected. So instead of killing the Emperor, Sima Shi summoned an assembly of officials together toward the end of the year AD 254. Here, Sima Shi reported that the Emperor had behaved inappropriately in his office. He requested that the Imperial Seal be taken from the Emperor and given to Cao Ju (a son of Cao Cao). Nobody in the Wei court voiced any opposition. The Empress Dowager demonstrated that she possessed the Imperial Seal, but insisted that it be given instead to Cao Mao, a plea that Sima Shi accepted. As a result, the previous Wei Emperor, Cao Fang, was sent to Qi to live out his life as a royal prince. In his place, the fourteen year old Cao Mao ascended the throne. [12]

The fact that Sima Shi was able to have the Wei Emperor deposed on a whim demonstrates the extent to which the Sima family had seized power by AD 254. In all but name, they ruled the kingdom of Wei. Neither Sima Shi nor his successor, Sima Zhao, proclaimed a new dynasty, however, because they sought to consecrate their rule with greater legitimacy first. In other words, while in reality the Sima family controlled Wei by now, the Simas gradually built up their rank and prestige before they decisively announced the end of Wei.

Sima Shi’s deposition of Emperor Cao Fang granted Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin all the pretext they needed to begin an insurrection (at the beginning of AD 255). Their’s would be the second rebellion that took place in the city of Shouchun (nearby the border with Wu). The rebels’ choice of location forced Wei to act speedily. Shouchun was close enough to the Wu border that the kingdom of Wu might feasibly reinforce the rebels and either seize Shouchun themselves or act in collusion with its controllers. The timing of this rebellion, on the other hand, was terrible for Sima Shi. Just recently, a tumor had been removed from his eye. He was still wounded when news of events in Shouchun came to him. Several officers suggested that he should not push himself since his health was in dire risk. Zhong Hui, Wang Su and others, however, advised that the Sima family’s legitimacy might fall apart should Guanqiu Jian and co. encounter success in their opposition. Understanding the graveness of the situation, Sima Shi reportedly leaped up from his seat and announced that he would, in person, attend to punishing the rebels. [13]

Near the end of January (AD 255), Sima Shi personally led the armies of Wei out to confront Guanqiu Jian. He ordered his brother, Sima Zhao, to take command in the capital. [14] Zheng Mao hinted that a defensive posture would work best against the rebels, a sentiment that Sima Shi was inclined to agree with. [15] Wang Ji oppositely opined that the people of Shouchun were not truly in favor of Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin’s actions, and thus a swift strike against them would bring about the rebels’ defeat. Sima Shi at first considered this idea, but then he wavered, ordering Wang Ji to stay behind at Xuchang. Wang Ji, feeling distressed, continually remonstrated with Sima Shi. He argued that if Guanqiu Jian was able to build up too much momentum, increasing his support within the region, he would become an intractable foe. Following Wang Ji’s continued pleading, Sima Shi desisted and advanced with the army. He occupied the banks of the Yin River. By Februrary he had moved to Yinqiao. Shi Zhao and Li Xu, two of Guanqiu Jian’s commanders, surrendered here to Sima Shi. [16]

At Yinqiao, though, Sima Shi grew uncertain. He decided to halt before pursuing further action. Wang Ji, flustered, explained that prudence could only go so far before becoming an impediment. He argued that Sima Shi’s supply lines were long and Guanqiu Jian’s forces would make too much progress if Sima Shi merely entrenched himself. Finally he decided to act on his own. He justified this by saying, “When a general is with his army, he does not accept all his sovereign’s commands.” Wang Ji believed that the area of Nandun was strategically essential to quelling Guanqiu Jian’s revolt. Guanqiu Jian also had thought to control this area, but before he could arrive, Wang Ji had already advanced and seized it (against the opinion of Sima Shi). So Guanqiu Jian retreated to another location, Xiang, and held his ground there instead. [17]

Sima Shi’s troops wanted to engage the enemy at Xiang, but Sima Shi forbade any military action. While Sima Shi’s caution was in some ways problematic, his strategy worked in the longrun. He reasoned that his foes lacked unity of cause. The defections of Shi Zhao and Li Xu, to Sima Shi, seemed an omen of events to come. It turned out that he was correct. As time went on, several of Guanqiu Jian’s officers surrendered. He gave orders to Zhuge Dan to march to Shouchun and to Hu Xun to cut off the rebels’ retreat. [18]

Guanqiu Jian and Wen Qin, when beginning their rebellion, had sent out letters to various provinces urging them to join. [19] This plot backfired because, instead, it merely alerted various regions within the Wei Empire that trouble was afoot. Zhuge Dan killed the emissary that Guanqiu Jian had dispatched. [20] The governor of Yanzhou, Deng Ai, did the same thing. Moreover, Deng Ai marched out with his army and camped at Luojia. Wen Qin saw Deng Ai’s army and decided to launch a surprise attack. Sima Shi, however, secretly marched out to reinforce his ally. [21]

Exactly what happened at Luojia is confusing. One narrative reports that at night, Wen Qin’s son Wen Yang launched a raid against the Wei encampments. This temporarily threw the Wei camps into confusion and apparently shocked Sima Shi. [22] The Jin Shu goes so far as to say that Wen Yang’s attack caused Sima Shi’s diseased eyeball to pop out, resulting in immense agony. Sima Shi, worried lest somebody find out, covered up his face with a bedcover (according to the Jin Shu version of events). [23] Wen Qin apparently hesitated with reinforcing his son, though, and in the end Wen Yang retreated. At length, Wen Qin’s entire army decided to retreat further East. Sima Shi sent Sima Ban with 8,000 men to pursue them. This resulted in a catastrophic defeat for Wen Qin, who lost many men from the pursuit. [24]

Wen Qin wrote a letter to Guo Huai (who had already died) later on, though, which claims a slightly different set of events. Here, Wen Qin brags that at Luojia his soldiers fully thrashed Sima Shi’s army. He laments that Guanqiu Jian did not lend his forces support. This, Wen Qin claimed, resulted in his army eventually routing due to being overwhelmed. He claims to have won several victories against the armies of Sima Shi after returning to Xiang thereafter as well. [25]

Complicating matters, another version from the Sanguozhi biography of Guanqiu Jian asserts Wen Qin carrying out a surprise night attack against Deng Ai’s army, but retreating upon daybreak after observing the sizable reinforcement by Sima Shi. [26] This version omits the story of Sima Shi being taken aback by Wen Yang, which is found in Jin Shu instead.

That Wen Qin was forced to flee from Luojia, though, is clear. It is further likely that he suffered a military setback of some kind in his escape. This retreat, moreover, unraveled the entire rebellion. Guanqiu Jian was seized by consternation at Wen Qin’s flight. He fled the field and his army was put to rout. Meanwhile, Zhuge Dan had taken Shouchun, cutting off any chance for Wen Qin or Guanqiu Jian to retreat into the city. Guanqiu Jian’s troops deserted him en masse and eventually Guanqiu Jian himself was killed. Wen Qin, meanwhile, escaped to Wu (if his version of events is to be believed, though, he did not flee to Wu until inflicting further losses upon Sima Shi’s immense forces). This marked the end of the second rebellion of Shouchun. [27]

The year AD 255 also marked the end of Sima Shi’s life. He had been fatally ill during the campaign against the Shouchun rebels. Following the campaign’s successful conclusion, Sima Shi returned to Xuchang, named Sima Zhao as his successor and died. [28]

Sima Shi’s military acumen was somewhat lacking. Several of the decisions he made as General-in-Chief were deeply flawed. At times, Sima Shi himself was even forced to apologize for the erroneous judgments he made. Sima Shi, however, gave the state of Wei decisive leadership at a crucial time in history. In comparison, the state of Shu-Han struggled greatly with the death of their leader Zhuge Liang (and thereafter with the assassination of Fei Yi). A similar political crisis emerged in Wu with the death of Sun Quan (and thereafter with the assassination of Zhuge Ke). During Sima Shi’s “regency,” the Sima family’s grasp of the court was consolidated and, externally, Shu-Han and Wu armies were successfully repulsed. In his final days, Sima Shi managed to overcome a threatening rebellion in Shouchun. Like Sima Yi before him, Shi thus laid the foundation for the Sima family to both usurp power and unify the land.


Basically everything is drawn from Achilles Fang’s Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms.

I am hoping to find more information on Sima Shi to supplement this source, but so far I have not yet arrived at anything (surprisingly considering Sima Shi’s importance in history).

[1]- Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 248, Point 14

[2]-The ranks he received were General-in-Chief who Pacifies the Army (fujun da jiangjun) and Intendant of the Affairs of the Master of Writing (lu shangshu shi). Jiangjun were chief generals in the military hierarchy while the shangshu was the Imperial Secretariat. The lu shangshu shi, in this case, held broad governmental power. Dr. Rafe de Crespigny describes this office as akin to that of a “regent.”

The appointment to these ranks is mentioned at Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 251, Point 17. The translations are derived from China History Forum’s list of Han Military titles as well as Dr. Rafe de Crespigny’s lists of Civil and Military titles.

[3]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 251, Point 18

[4] As indicated in Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 252, Point 1.

[5] Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 252, Points 12–15.

[6] Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 252, Points 16–21.

[7] Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 253, Point 4.

[8] Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 253, Points 13–15.

[9] Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 253, Points 18–21 as well as Point 1.

[10]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 254, Points 1–8

[11]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 254, Points 27–28

[12]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 254, Point 23

[13]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Points 1–6

[14]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 7

[15]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 8

[16]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Points 9–10

[17]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 11

[18]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 14

[19]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, see both the points and notes for 1 and 2

[20]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 2

[21]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 16

[22]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 17

[23]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Note 17.3

[24]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Point 20

[25]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Note 22.2

[26]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Note 17.5

[27]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Points 22–25

[28]-Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, Year AD 255, Points 28–29

Works Cited-

Sima Guang. Zizhi Tongjian. Trans. Achilles Fang. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 1952. Print.



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May 13, 2014