Comprehensive Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by SlickSlicer
Lifespan: AD 176–222
Birthplace: Maoling County, Fufeng Prefecture
Titles: Subordinate Officer of Sili Xiaowei (Sili Xiaowei Dujun Congshi); Lieutenant-General; General Who Conquers the West (self-proclaimed); General Who Subdues the West and Colonel Consultant of the Army; Marquis of Duting; General of the Left; General of the Agile Cavalry and Provincial Governor of Liang (AD 221); Marquis of Lixiang (AD 221); Marquis of Yuewei (posthumous); One of the “Five Tiger Generals”
Relations: Ma Teng (father); Ma Xiu, Ma Tie (brothers); Ma Yunlu (sister); Ma Qin, Ma Cheng (sons); Lady Ma (daughter); Lady Dong (secondary wife); Ma Dai (cousin); Liu Li (married Lady Ma) (son-in-law)
Ma Chao was born in Maoling in AD 177 and was the son of Ma Teng. A part Qiang chief of the West, Ma Chao’s most famous achievement was uniting several warlords in a powerful coalition against Cao Cao. Cao Cao himself was always impressed with Ma Chao, as were several of Ma Chao’s enemies. One of Ma Chao’s opponents, Yang Fu, once remarked, “Ma Chao has the courage of the likes of Ying Bu and Han Xin (1), but he also has the heart of the Qiangs and the Huns.” Allegedly, Ma Chao was also the descendent of the famous Han commander, Ma Yuan (2).
1: Ma Yuan was a general who served Liu Xiu, the founder of the Eastern Han (often referred to as ‘Later-Han’) dynasty. Originally, Ma Yuan served under Wang Mang, the creator of the short-lived and unsuccessful Xin Dynasty. Later, Ma Yuan helped Liu Xiu pacify China and afterwards, Ma Yuan was active in conquering several southern barbarian groups (earning him the title ‘Queller of the Deep’). Ma Yuan is most famous for putting down the insurrection of the Trung sisters (Trung Trac and Trung Nhi), a large two-year rebellion led by two Vietnamese women who had revolted against Han Chinese dominance.
2: Han Xin and Ying Bu were two distinguished generals who served Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty. For some reason, Lü Bu rather than Ying Bu is substituted in this quote in the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
In AD 194, Ma Chao’s father, Ma Teng, went on a campaign to assault Li Jue. It is likely that Ma Chao, who was only 17 years old at this time, did not accompany his father on the expedition (though the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms states that Ma Chao came with Ma Teng and even slew several generals in battle against Li Jue’s forces). Ma Chao held command of a more major battle in AD 202, however. At this time, Cao Cao was fighting with the sons of Yuan Shao, and specifically was being troubled by the attacks of a general of Yuan Shang’s named Guo Yuan. Ma Teng was indecisive about whom to support and had messengers meet with officers of both Cao Cao and Guo Yuan. Eventually however, Ma Teng would send 25-year-old Ma Chao and another officer named Pang De to support Cao Cao.
With about ten thousand soldiers under his command (3), Ma Chao armed himself for battle and marched to meet up with Zhong Yao, an officer under Cao Cao. Following Zhong Yao’s plan, Ma Chao and the troops under Zhong Yao prepared to defend against another attack by Guo Yuan. When Zhong Yao received information that Guo Yuan would be crossing the Fen River, he decided that the joint-armies under his command and Ma Chao’s should wait until half of Guo Yuan’s army was across the river and then strike this isolated group head-on. Supposedly, Ma Chao was hit by an arrow in the foot, but wrapped a simple bandage around the wound and continued fighting. Nevertheless, regardless of whether Ma Chao was wounded in the battle, the allied armies of Ma Chao and Zhong Yao won a great victory. Amidst the chaos of the fighting, Ma Chao’s officer Pang De even succeeded in taking Guo Yuan’s head.
3: This might be an exaggeration, but this number is used in some sources (like the Zizhi tongjian by Sima Guang).
By AD 210, Ma Chao’s father began to fall out of favor with his former ally, Han Sui. In order to preserve peace, Ma Teng asked Cao Cao if he could move to Xuchang. Meanwhile, Ma Chao would succeed his father as the leader of his clan. After Ma Chao was recognized as the new lord of his faction, Cao Cao sent Zhong Yao to govern the areas bordering his lands and Ma Chao’s. Ma Chao did kept peace with Zhong Yao, his former ally, but the alliance between the two forces was very uneasy. When Cao Cao went to defeat Zhang Lu, Ma Chao and several other lords thought that they were being assaulted instead. Ma Chao, Han Sui, Hou Xuan, Cheng Yin, Yang Qiu, Li Kan, Zhang Heng, Liang Xing, Cheng Yi & Ma Wan thus rose up in rebellion and set up a defense at Tong Gate. In effect, the allied chieftains prevented Cao Cao’s attack on Zhang Lu.
Cao Cao, who had perhaps expected this show of disobedience, decided to cross the Yellow River and strike at his new enemies. In response, Ma Chao sent cavalry to intercept Cao Cao’s army while archers shot volleys directed at Cao Cao’s own unit. While Ma Chao’s troops were initially successful, an officer of Cao Cao’s named Ding Fei supposedly managed to throw Ma Chao’s troops into confusion by crossing the Yellow River and releasing several coralled animals. This ploy utterly confused Ma Chao’s troops, which began to round up the beasts that had escaped. While Ma Chao’s army was distracted, Cao Cao moved across the Yellow River and set up an encampment. He also ordered his men to construct a bridge. Ma Chao’s army was skirmished by Cao Cao’s troops on several occasions, but these small attacks were just diversions. Eventually Ma Chao attempted a night raid on Cao Cao’s army, but this failed and Ma Chao’s army was defeated. Although Ma Chao offered peace to his rival several times, Cao Cao refused on each occasion. Finally Cao Cao accepted a truce, but this was just a ruse that Cao Cao used so he could strike Ma Chao’s forces and once more surprise them. Once more, the allied forces led by Ma Chao were humiliated by Cao Cao’s ingenious tactics.
Ma Chao eventually opted to flee to Lantian, where he would put up a final stand against Cao Cao. In a number of battles, though, Ma Chao was defeated by Xiahou Yuan (another famous general of Cao Cao’s). Gathering up his remaining men, Ma Chao shifted his policy a bit and moved to conquer a multitude of cities west of Long Mountain. Succeeding in ever battle he went to, Ma Chao only encountered any kind of decent resistance during his siege of Ji (which soon capitulated as well). After this victories, Xiahou Yuan tried to besiege the city of Ji (which Ma Chao had recently obtained), but found little success in this venture. Eventually Xiahou Yuan retreated his exhausted army from the battlefield. Thus was Ma Chao able to redeem himself from defeat at Tong Gate.
The King of the Di tribe, King Qianwan, was impressed with Ma Chao’s feats and allied with him. Yet Ma Chao’s success and security would not last long. Soon after Chao’s successes against Xiahou Yuan, Jiang Xu, Zhao Ang, Yin Feng, and Li Jun, all subordinates of Ma Chao (and former loyalists of Wei Kang), mutinied against Ma Chao. The rebels conspired with two of Ma Chao’s officers within Ji named Liang Kun and Zhao Qu. Yang Fu, another notable captain of Ma Chao’s (and former officer of Wei Kang), further supported the whole revolt. When Ma Chao left Ji city to go kill Jiang Xu and Zhao Ang, Liang Kun and Zhao Qu took over Ji in Ma Chao’s absence, and slaughtered Ma Chao’s entire family. Unfortunately, Ma Chao learned about this news too late, though the enraged commander was able to somewhat avenge his relatives by capturing and putting to death Jiang Xu’s mother and Zhao Yue, the son of rebel leader Zhao Qu. Ma Chao then ordered his army to turn around and fight their enemies at Li. Sadly, Ma Chao lost this engagement, but he and his men fought bravely (supposedly one of Ma Chao’s adversaries, Yang Fu, was wounded five times in the melee between the two forces). A sullen and defeated Ma Chao took up refuge with the lord of Hanzhong, Zhang Lu.
Now a mere vassal under another warlord, Ma Chao wasted no time beseeching Zhang Lu for troops to strike Liang Kun and Zhao Qu with. Somehow, Cao Cao’s men managed to discover that Ma Chao was leading an attack on his former subordinates though. Xiahou Yuan, Ma Chao’s previous rival, thus swiftly marched to reinforce Ma Chao’s adversaries. Together the combined armies decisively defeated Ma Chao again, driving the frustrated leader back to Han Zhong. Upon returning to Zhang Lu’s kingdom, however, Ma Chao realized that he was distrusted and disliked by his new lord and his new fellow officers. Dejectedly, Ma Chao left Zhang Lu’s service and settled among local Di barbarians.
Ma Chao’s luck would change for the better shortly. From AD 211-214, Liu Bei, a famed commander of the time, clashed fiercely with the lord of Shu, Liu Zhang. While Liu Bei was besieging Liu Zhang’s capital, Chengdu, Ma Chao sent messengers asking Liu Bei if he could be allowed to join Liu Bei’s forces. Liu Bei eagerly accepted Ma Chao’s assistance and sent both soldiers and supplies to Ma Chao. Next, Ma Chao promptly attacked Chengdu from the north, a move that shocked the defenders of the city. Shortly thereafter, Jian Yong, an officer of Liu Bei and friend of Liu Zhang, convinced Liu Zhang to surrender the city to Liu Bei (4). For his services in the siege, Ma Chao was given the rank of General Who Subdues the West and Colonel Consultant of the Army. Ma Chao later obtained rank as one of the Five Tiger Generals of the Shu kingdom.
4: Although most of his officers thought that it was foolish to surrender to Liu Bei, Liu Zhang ignored their advice and surrendered after negotiating with Jian Yong.
Ma Chao perished in AD 222, probably due to natural causes. Before Ma Chao’s untimely demise, Liu Bei had asked Ma Chao to pacify the Qiang peoples of the North. Although Ma Chao was popular with the Qiang tribe and had many connections with them, it is unclear whether or not Ma Chao ever accomplished this mission.
Copyright © 2006 SlickSlicer. All Rights Reserved.
Based on factual historic sources.