Childhood friend, and later enemy of, Cao Cao. Defeated at Guandu.
Chief of Puyang; Attendant Imperial Clerk; Colonel of the Central Army; Grand Administrator of Bohai, Marquis of Kangxiang; General of Chariots and Cavalry (self-proclaimed); Governor of Jizhou; Grand Commandant; General-in-Chief
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Yuan Shao was a grandson of Yuan Tang, a minister who held high rank within the Han Dynasty. It is unclear who his father was. When corrupt eunuchs dominated the Han court, Yuan Shao was one of the men who rose up in arms against them. Later, he protested Dong Zhuo’s military takeover of the capital. In AD 190, Yuan Shao and some other warlords drafted troops to fight with Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo attempted to make peace with Yuan Shao, but Shao slew several of the envoys that greeted him.
The Han Emperor became a puppet of Dong Zhuo. Yuan Shao and Han Fu wished to set up Liu Yu as Emperor in his place, but the proposal was abandoned when Liu Yu himself disagreed with this course of action. Eventually, Dong Zhuo was driven from the capital. Han Fu, who formerly had supplied Yuan Shao’s army, stopped sending as many provisions. Qu Yi revolted against Han Fu at around the same time. In response to these developments, Yuan Shao loosely allied with Qu Yi and Gongsun Zan against Han Fu.
Gongsun Zan fought successfully with Han Fu for some time. Han Fu, worried, surrendered the province of Ji to Yuan Shao. It wasn’t long before Han Fu grew suspicious of Yuan Shao’s nature and fled to join the warlord Zhang Miao. He later committed suicide after believing there was a conspiracy against him.
At this time, relations between Yuan Shao and his relative, Yuan Shu, had also broken down. Yuan Shao dispatched Zhou Ang to try to seize Yangcheng from Yuan Shu. In the course of the battle though, a cousin of Gongsun Zan’s was killed. This unfortunate event enraged Gongsun Zan. Yuan Shao fought with and defeated Gongsun Zan at Jieqiao (Jie Bridge) and in other battles. Gongsun Zan fled to You Province. In AD 193 the two forces made a short truce.
Yuan Shao took this occasion to fight with a group of brigands known as the Black Mountain Bandits. He slew thousands of them, decimating camps left and right. At this time, the famed general Lü Bu had fled from place to place and was currently in Yuan Shao’s service. Together, the armies of Lü Bu and Yuan Shao inflicted numerous casualties against the Black Mountain Bandit leader Zhang Yan at the Battle of Changshan. They ultimately failed to destroy him, however. Yuan Shao and Lü Bu were mutually paranoid of each other and Lü Bu later fled. After this campaign, Yuan Shao once more turned his attention to Gongsun Zan.
While Yuan Shao was off fighting other enemies, Gongsun Zan had killed the governor Liu Yu and had taken You province from him. Gongsun Zan was disfavored by the populace. He treated merchants decently, but alienated nobles, scholars, men of talent, and many others. Former subordinates of Liu Yu defected, joined Yuan Shao, and led an attack on Gongsun Zan. Gongsun Zan was trounced at the Battle of Baoqiu River. Fearful, Gongsun Zan fled to a seemingly impregnable fortress at Yijing. Though well-defended, Gongsun Zan’s troops were hard pressed. Gongsun Zan sent a letter to his vassal Gongsun Xu. The message told him to reinforce Yijing, and to light a signal fire when he came. Yuan Shao’s army intercepted this message and lit a signal fire. This predictably made Gongsun Zan think that his ally had come. Thus, he moved out of Yijing with some troops. Catastrophe for Gongsun Zan ensued, and Zan scurried back to Yijing. Yuan Shao’s army then dug tunnels and lit Gongsun Zan’s main tower aflame. Amongst the chaos, Gongsun Zan killed himself and his entire family. Separately, Gongsun Xu was later slain by some Xiongnu tribesmen.
Now in a strong position, Yuan Shao allied himself with various chieftains of the Wuhuan. Realizing that Cao Cao was presently his greatest rival for control of the North, Yuan Shao sought to eliminate him. An advisor, Ju Shou, suggested that Yuan Shao set up defensive positions instead of attacking head-on. Yuan Shao ignored this idea, however. Yuan Shao attempted to align himself with Zhang Xiu, a previous nemesis of Cao Cao’s, but this failed. He also urged an ally, Liu Biao, to provide assistance, but Liu Biao remained indecisive. Yuan Shao might have been flustered at these developments, but he didn’t show it. He proceeded forward regardless of such failures.
Yuan Shao wished to begin his assault on Cao Cao by attacking Liu Yan at Boma. He ordered Yan Liang to besiege him. At this time, Liu Bei’s officer Guan Yu was in the service of Cao Cao. Guan Yu rode up to Yan Liang and decapitated him swiftly. The death of Yan Liang discouraged Yuan Shao’s troops. Consequently, Yan Liang’s troops were routed. During this whole time, Yuan Shao’s ministers Ju Shou and Tian Feng had repeatedly endeavored to give Yuan Shao the finest advice possible. Yuan Shao, arrogant after his victories over Gongsun Zan, overlooked such advice and only listened to sycophants such as Guo Tu. In a second skirmish between Yuan Shao’s forces and Cao Cao’s, troops under Cao Cao slew Yuan Shao’s officer Wen Chou.
Yuan Shao finally mobilized his army to fight with Cao Cao more directly at Guandu. His troops pushed Cao Cao back, yet Cao Cao maintained a defensive position. Siege Towers were brought out to shoot at Cao Cao’s camps, but catapults broke them. Tunneling attempts by Yuan Shao likewise failed. One time a vassal of Yuan Shao’s named Han Meng moved supplies to support the main army. Cao Cao’s troops intercepted Han Meng and burned the supplies.
In response to these losses, a man named Xu You proposed that Yuan Shao initiate a night raid against Cao Cao. Yuan Shao once again did not listen, but instead insisted on his current plots. In subsequent events, a member of Xu You’s family was arrested, which completely enraged Xu You. As a result, Xu You went over to Cao Cao and informed him of the exact positions of Yuan Shao’s supplies. Cao Cao cleverly utilized this information by commanding some of his men to carry Yuan flags and move towards Yuan Shao’s supply camps. Once they got there, they set everything alight and, amidst the confusion, slaughtered the men defending said supplies. Yuan Shao got the news of this, but still hoped that staying the course might succeed. This proved to be faulty logic; Yuan Shao’s men were disheartened and they could not win. By the end of the battle, Yuan Shao’s men were in full panic. Supplies were abandoned, cities in Ji were captured by Cao Cao, and a plethora of men who had served in Yuan Shao’s ranks were put to death (including Ju Shou).
Yuan Shao escaped to the camps of a general named Jiang Yiqu. He exclaimed, “I entrust you with my head!” Jiang Yiqu then rallied the beaten troops of Yuan Shao and tried to put them back into order. Slowly but surely, Yuan Shao successfully regained some ground. Cao Cao swiftly led his men to finish him off, however. In doing so, Cao Cao won a second decisive victory over Yuan Shao at Cangting. Following his two devastating defeats at Guandu and Cangting, Yuan Shao succumbed to illness and perished in the year AD 202.