Event (SGYY): Cao Cao Discusses Heroes

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In a Plum Garden, Cao Cao Discusses Heroes
Fourth Year of Jian’an (AD 199)
Novel Chapter: 21

Author Notes in Blue
Authored by James Peirce
Story translation by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor

Liu Bei and Cao Cao speak of heroes

In the Fourth Year of Jian’an (AD 199), Emperor Xian, weary of being abused by Cao Cao, discussed his options with Empress Fu and her father, Fu Wan. With a need to be secretive due to the many creatures of Cao Cao in the palace, Fu Wan suggested writing a secret decree and hiding it in a jade girdle, which would be awarded to the loyal General of Cavalry and Chariots, Dong Cheng. Emperor Xian then wrote the decree in his own blood and summoned Dong Cheng to bestow on him the gift, which he accepted. Though he was challenged and searched by Cao Cao outside the palace afterward, it was not discovered.

Later, Dong Cheng, after accidentally burning the jade girdle, discovered the decree in a sleeve and began to slowly gather allies. When he later met with Ma Teng, who became a part of the secret plan to dispose of Cao Cao, the later suggested contacting Liu Bei. Dong Cheng then invited him and after some wary conversation recruited him to their cause as well. All the names were recorded on a strip of white silk. Liu Bei now had to keep his secret agenda from the attentive and intelligent Cao Cao.

Now in order to put Cao Cao quite off the scent that any plot against him was in progress, Liu Bei began to devote himself to gardening, planting vegetables, and watering them with his own hands. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei ventured to remonstrate with him for taking to such an occupation when great matters needed attention.

“The reason for this you may not know,” replied he.

And they said no more.

One day when the two brothers were absent, and Liu Bei was busy in his garden, two generals of Cao Cao, Xu Chu and Zhang Liao, with an escort came from Cao Cao, saying, “The command of the Prime Minister is that you come at once.”

“What important affair is afoot?” asked Liu Bei nervously.

“We know nothing. We were ordered to come and request your presence.”

All he could do was to follow.

When Liu Bei arrived, Cao Cao met him and laughingly said, “That is a big business you have in hand at home.”

This remark made Liu Bei turn the color of clay. Cao Cao took him by the hand and led him straight to the private garden, saying, “The growth of vegetables that you are trying to learn is very difficult.”

Liu Bei breathed again. He said, “That is hardly a business. It is only a solace.”

Cao Cao said, “I happened to notice the green plums on the trees today, and suddenly my thoughts went back to a year ago when we were thrashing Zhang Xiu. We were marching through a parched county, and everyone was suffering from thirst. Suddenly I lifted my whip, and pointing at something in the distance I said, ‘Look at those fruitful plum trees in the forest ahead.’ The soldiers heard it, and it made their mouths water. Seeing the plums kindles my appreciation. I owe something to the plums, and we will repay it today. I ordered the servants to heat some wine very hot and sent to invite you to share it.”

Liu Bei was quite composed by this time and no longer suspected any sinister design. He went with his host to a small spring pavilion in a plum garden, where the wine cups were already laid out and green plums filled the dishes. They sat down to a confidential talk and free enjoyment of their wine.

As they drank, the weather gradually changed, clouds gathering and threatening rain. The servants pointed out a mass of cloud that looked like a dragon hung in the sky. Both host and guest leaned over the balcony looking at it.

“Do you understand the evolution of dragons?” asked Cao Cao of the guest.

“Not in detail.”

“A dragon can assume any size, can rise in glory or hide from sight. Bulky, it generates clouds and evolves mist; attenuated, it can scarcely hide a mustard stalk or conceal a shadow. Mounting, it can soar to the empyrean; subsiding, it lurks in the uttermost depths of the ocean. This is the midspring season, and the dragon chooses this moment for its transformations like a person realizing his own desires and overrunning the world. The dragon among animals compares with the hero among people. You, General, have traveled all lakes and rivers. You must know who are the heroes of the present day, and I wish you would say who they are.”

“I am just a common dullard. How can I know such things?”

“Do not be so modest,” said Cao Cao.

“Thanks to your kindly protection I have a post at court. But as to heroes I really do not know who they are.”

“You may not have looked upon their faces, but you must have heard their names.”

“Yuan Shu of the South of River Huai, with his strong army and abundant resources: Is he one?” asked Liu Bei.

His host laughed, “A rotting skeleton in a graveyard. I shall put him out of the way shortly.”

“Well, Yuan Shao then. The highest offices of state have been held in his family for four generations, and his clients are many in the empire. He is firmly posted in Jizhou, and he commands the services of many able people. Surely he is one.”

“A bully, but a coward. He is fond of grandiose schemes, but is devoid of decision. He makes for great things but grudges the necessary sacrifice. He loses sight of everything else in view of a little present advantage. He is not one.”

“There is Liu Biao of Jingzhou. He is renowned as a man of perfection, whose fame has spread on all sides. Surely he is a hero.”

“He is a mere semblance, a man of vain reputation. No, not he.”

“Sun Ce is a sturdy sort, the chief of all in the South Land. Is he a hero?”

“He has profited by the reputation of his father Sun Jian. Sun Ce is not a real hero.”

“What of Liu Zhang of Yizhou?”

“Though he is of the reigning family, he is nothing more than a watch dog. How could you make a hero of him?”

“What about Zhang Xiu, Zhang Lu, Han Sui, and all those leaders?”

Cao Cao clapped his hands and laughed very loudly, saying, “Paltry people like them are not worth mentioning.”

“With these exceptions I really know none.”

“Now heroes are the ones who cherish lofty designs in their bosoms and have plans to achieve them. They have all-embracing schemes, and the whole world is at their mercy.”

“Who is such a person?” said Liu Bei.

Cao Cao pointed his finger first at his guest and then at himself, saying, “The only heroes in the world are you and I.”

Liu Bei gasped, and the spoon and chopsticks rattled to the floor. Now just at that moment the storm burst with a tremendous peal of thunder and rush of rain.

Liu Bei stooped down to recover the fallen articles, saying, “What a shock! And it was quite close.”

“What! Are you afraid of thunder?” said Cao Cao.

Liu Bei replied, “Even [Confucius] paled at a sudden peal of thunder or fierce gust of wind. Why should one not fear?” (1)

1: This incident comes from Liu Bei’s biography in Sanguozhi.

Thus he glossed over the real fact, that it was the words he had heard that had so startled him.

Constrained to lodge in a tiger’s lair,
He played a waiting part,
But when Cao Cao talked of breaking humans,
Then terror gripped his heart.
But he cleverly used the thunder peal
As excuse for turning pale;
O quick to seize occasions thus!
He surely must prevail.

The shower had passed, and there appeared two men rushing through the garden, both armed. In spite of the attendants, they forced their way to the pavilion where sat the two friends. They were Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.

The two brothers had been outside the city at archery practice when Cao Cao’s invitation had come so peremptorily. On their return they heard that two officers had arrived and led away Liu Bei to the Prime Minister. They hastened to his palace and were told their brother was with his host in the grounds, and they feared something had happened. So they rushed in.

Now when they saw their brother quietly talking with Cao Cao and enjoying a cup of wine, they took up their usual places and meekly stood waiting.

“Why did you come?” said Cao Cao.

“We heard that you, Sir, had invited our brother to a wine party, and we came to amuse you with a little sword play,” said they.

“This is not a Hongmen Banquet,” replied Cao Cao. “What use have we for Xiang Chang and Xiang Ba of old?”

Liu Bei smiled. The host ordered wine to be served to the two “Fan Kuais” to allay their anxiety and, soon after, the three took their leave and returned homeward.

“We were nearly frightened to death,” said Guan Yu.

The story of the dropped chopsticks was told. The two asked what their brother intended by his actions.

“My learning gardening was to convince Cao Cao of my perfect simplicity and the absence of any ambition. But when he suddenly pointed to me as one of the heroes, I was startled, for I thought he had some suspicions. Happily the thunder at that moment supplied the excuse I wanted.”

“Really you are very clever,” said they.

Later, hearing of Gongsun Zan’s death after being defeated by Yuan Shao, Liu Bei became worried about the whereabouts of his friend, Zhao Yun. He also calculated the time to be best to break away from Cao Cao, and consequentially proposed to Cao Cao that, in order to avoid the possible danger of Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu joining forces, he be allowed a military division to leave and destroy the later. Cao Cao, after getting the Emperor’s approval, dispatched Liu Bei with 50,000 troops under the command of his officers Zhu Liang and Lu Zhao. Liu Bei left after meeting with the Emperor and Dong Cheng, reassuring them that he would not forget their agreement. Ma Teng also left the capital.

Guo Jia and Cheng Yu, when they heard of Liu Bei’s command, went to Cao Cao and protested his decision, explaining that Zhu Liang and Lu Zhao were not equal to the task of maintaining command. Cao Cao realized his mistake, and sent a messenger to call Liu Bei back, but it was already too late. Liu Bei refused the order, went on and later tricked Lu Zhao and Zhu Liang out of their command, thus gaining his independence from Cao Cao. (2)

2: According to the Sanguozhi, it was actually Cao Cao’s idea to dispatch Liu Bei, though the protests made by Cheng Yu and Guo Jia still took place.

Unfortunately, due to a servant’s betrayal, Dong Cheng’s plan was discovered, and Cao Cao found the silk strip containing the names of the conspirators. All but Ma Teng and Liu Bei were executed, though they remained loyal to the end. Liu Bei would continue to fight against Cao Cao until his death many years later.

Link: Read the unabridged Brewitt-Taylor translation online (external).
Link: Learn about which translation and edition might be best for you.

Original Content Copyright © 2004 James Peirce
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong
Sources: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Moss Roberts; C.H. Brewitt-Taylor)