Biography (COB): Wei Yan (Wenchang)

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Wei Yan (Wenchang)Wei Yan (Wenchang)
魏延 (文長)

Comprehensive Officer Biography
Translated & Authored by

Place of Birth: Yiyang City (Presently Tongbo in Henan Province)
Lifespan: AD 175 – 234 (59 Years)
Titles: Corps Commander of the Forward Army, Prefect of Liangzhou, Commander of the Ministerial Forces, Great General Who Conquers the West, Lord of Nanzhen
Family: None

After the turmoil in the north had been subdued, the young Wei Yan enlisted into the service as Liu Biao, the Imperial Protector of Jing Zhou. When Liu Bei was being pursued through Jing Zhou, Wei Yan was the Prefect of Xiang Yang. Wenchang intended to welcome Liu Bei into the city and add his forces to his own. However Liu Bei went to Liu Qi instead. Seeing no future with Liu Biao, Wei Yan was forced to go to Han Xuan in the south of Jing Zhou and offer his service to him.

Later on when Liu Bei attacked Changsha, Wei Yan and Huang Zhong defended against the attack. However, Huang Zhong did not want to fight Guan Yu and let him go. Han Xuan was enraged and planned to have Huang Zhong killed under military law, however before that could happen, Wei Yan killed Han Xuan and surrendered to Liu Bei with Huang Zhong.

Wenchang followed Liu Bei in the attack on Yi Zhou he was appointed as Garrison Commander. When Liu Bei defeated Liu Zhang and took over the Imperial Protectorate, he promoted Wei Yan to General Who Wages Successful War.

In the twenty-fourth year of Rebuilt Tranquility (AD 219), Liu Bei proclaimed himself King of Hanzhong and subsequently appointed Wei Yan as the Prefect of Hanzhong, and put him in charge of the defense of eastern Shu (1).

When Liu Bei ascended the throne as Emperor of Shu, Wei Yan was promoted to General Who Guards the North. When Liu Shan succeeded his father as Emperor two years later in AD 223, Wei Yan was titled Lord of the Capital Precinct.

After Zhuge Liang began his northern campaigns against Wei, Wenchang was successively promoted to Corps Commander of the Forward Army, Prefect of Liangzhou, Commander of the Ministerial Forces, Great General Who Conquers the West and titled Lord of Nanzhen.

Wei Yan was a member of Zhuge Liang’s inner circle of friends and plays a prominent role in the northern campaigns. Wenchang urges Kongming to strike Chang An directly, however the cautious Kongming decided to maneuver through Longyou instead and did not succeed in capturing any cities. Later many people thought that perhaps Wei Yan’s plan had merit.

Though Wei Yan was one of the few who supported Zhuge Liang’s war policy, Kongming does not trust him (2). When Zhuge Liang launched a surprise attack against Sima Yi at Shangfang gorge, Wei Yan was appointed as the Vanguard general. Zhuge Liang intended to burn both Wei Yan and Sima Yi with a fire attack, but the heavy rains prevented this. Sima Yi escapes and Wei Yan protests against Zhuge Liang’s methods. Zhuge Liang then arranged to have Wei Yan executed after his own death (3).

After Zhuge Liang died, Wei Yan intended to send his body home and continue the attack on Wei. However, Zhuge Liang’s last orders were to turn the vanguard into the rearguard and issue a retreat. Wei Yan refused the order and a crisis erupts in the Shu camps. Eventually, Ma Dai slays Wei Yan on account of treason (4).

(1) Initially, Zhang Fei had expected to be given command of the forces of Hanzhong. However to everyone’s amazement, Liu Bei appointed Wei Yan instead. This is mentioned in SGZ but not in SGYY. <return>

(2) “There is treason in his bones,” said Zhuge Liang about Wei Yan. However there is no real basis for such an assumption other than a remark from Sun Quan recorded in SGZ, saying that Wei Yan may prove unreliable after Kongming’s death. <return>

(3) The accusation of Wei Yan is not found in the Mao edition of SGYY, but only in the original version of Luo Guanzhong. <return>

(4) It could be that Zhuge Liang expected Wei Yan to turn over to Wei, but the only source of such an accusation was Yang Yi, who was passed up for the succession of Zhuge Liang’s position. Thus the charges on Wei Yan become suspect and readers of the historical accords may feel that Wei Yan was treated unfairly. (Source: The Moss Roberts commentary of SGYY [Kongming and the Northern Campaigns]). <return>

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A Kongming’s Archives Exclusive Production
Major Sources: Zhongguo Lishizhu Professor T.Chen (1965 Peking)