Place of Birth: Ruyang, Runan Commandery (Presently Sang Shui County,
Lifespan: AD 154 – 202 (48 Years)
Titles: Commander of the Central Army, Prefect, Commander-in-Chief
Family: Yuan Shu (brother), Yuan Tan, Yuan Xi, Yuan Shang (sons), Yuan Feng (father), Yuan Wei (uncle), Yuan Yao, Yuan Yin (nephews), Gao Gan (son-in-law) Lady Liu (wife), Lady Zhen (daughter-in-law)
Yuan Shao, styled Benchu, was born in Ru Yang in Ru Nan prefecture. Yuan An, his great grandfather, held one of three positions as Minister over the Masses (Situ) in the Han Court. All of Yuan An’s descendants were appointed under the three dukes, and as a result the family held great authority in China during the Han Dynasty. Yuan Shao’s uncle, Yuan Feng, held the position of Minister of Interior, and his half-brother Yuan Shu held high military rank.
Benchu was a handsome man and was able to work well among many of his subordinates and with those he met, including Cao Cao. During Emperor Ling’s rule, he held the rank of Commander of the Central Army. After the death of Emperor Ling, Yuan Shao plotted to dispose of the eunuchs in the palace and advised He Jin to have them killed, but the Empress Dowager defeated the plan.
Yuan Shao proceeded to advise He Jin to summon various warlord from across the land to the capital to bring about the eunuch’s demise and increase their authority, but upon hearing of this the eunuchs holding the ranks of Chang Shi and Huang Men realized they were in danger and attempted to apologize to He Jin for their failures (1). Yuan Shao suggested He Jin kill them at this time, but He Jin refused.
(1) In Sanguo yanyi this role is specifically assigned to ‘Zhang Rang and his group of Ten Eunuchs’.
Yuan Shao was then appointed to monitor the palace eunuchs, and Yuan Shu was placed in charge of guarding the inner palace with 200 tigher troops (Huben). Later the eunuch Duan Gui, by forging a decree from the Empress Dowager, tricked He Jin into meeting them and succeeded in assassinating him, throwing the palace into disorder. Yuan Shu attempted to force Duan Gui’s surrender, but rather than turning himself in he kidnapped the King of Chen Liu, Liu Xie (Han Emperor Shao Di). Yuan Shao proceeded to have all the eunuchs of the palace executed and pursued Duan Gui who, seeing his life would soon end, drowned himself (2). Liu Xie was returned to the palace.
(2) According to the Annals of Emperor Ling (Hou Han shu) and He Jin’s biography (Sanguozhi), there were over two thousand casualties when Yuan Shao chased Duan Gui, massacring the eunuchs and ‘bystanders’. It is mentioned that many men with no beards died by accident.
During the confusion Dong Zhuo seized the opportunity to occupy Luo Yang and took custody over the new Emperor Shao and Liu Xie. Dong Zhuo proposed to Yuan Shao his plan to force Emperor Shao to abdicate in favor of Liu Xie, but Benchu was reluctant to comply and told Dong Zhuo that he would have to discuss it with his uncle Yuan Wei, who at the time held the position of Grand Tutor (Taifu), the highest position in the Han Court (3). When Dong Zhuo and Yuan Shao could not agree Yuan Shao fled to Yi Zhou, the northern province of China. Dong Zhuo was persuaded by Wu Qiong and several other generals, all sympathetic to Yuan Shao though Dong Zhuo did not know it, that the Yuan family was powerful and that Yuan Shao should be made prefect to appease him. Dong Zhuo agreed, and Yuan Shao received the title Prefect of Bo Hai.
(3) Yuan Shao wanted to elevate Liu Yu to Emperor instead of Liu Xie. However Liu Yu rejected the plan, despite Yuan Shao’s efforts.
Yuan Shao began training an army to free Luo Yang of Dong Zhuo’s control in Bo Hai despite the rank, and appointed himself General of the Imperial Chariot (Che Qi Jiang Jin, one of the highest military ranks). Together with Cao Cao, Yuan Shao formed a coalition against Dong Zhuo and was appointed as Commander-in-Chief. With the Protector of Yi Zhou, Han Fu, Yuan Shao elected Liu Yu to be the new Han Emperor, but Liu Yu rejected the proposal.
Using the coalition as a pretext, Gongsun Zan, a general from the north, moved his army with the objective of taking Yi Zhou from Han Fu. Returning to Yan Jin after a failed campaign against Dong Zhuo, Yuan Shao learned of this and adopted a ploy to persuade Han Fu into letting him occupy Yi Zhou to fend off Zan. Though his subordinates objected, Han Fu accepted the proposal, and later after Yuan Shao’s arrival Han Fu turned his position over to him.
Afterward, Ju Shou advised Yuan Shao on how to gain control of China, suggesting that he suppress Zhang Yan and his rebels at Black Mountain and to capture Qing Zhou; that using those resources he lead a northern expedition to take Gongsun Zan’s land; that he suppress the Huns; unify the provinces north of the Yellow River (Qing, Yi, You, and Bing Zhou); recruit talent and lead a large force to the Western Capital; and finally that he restore the capital of Luo Yang and rule from there. This proposal pleased Yuan Shao, who memorialized him to be Inspector of the Army (Jian Jun) and Courageous General (Fen Wu Jiang Jun). Dong Zhuo dispatched some court officials under Wu Muban on a diplomatic mission to Yuan Shao, but Shao ordered Wang Kuang, Prefect of He Nei, to kill them. In retaliation, Dong Zhuo had Yuan Wei (Yuan Shao’s uncle) and his entire household executed (4).
(4)For more detailed information of the events, please see the biographies of Dong Zhuo, Han Fu and Yuan Shao in Sanguozhi or Hou Han shu.
Many warlords were sympathetic to Yuan Shao at this point, and with the death of Yuan Shao’s uncle, they responded with an interested in taking revenge on Dong Zhuo. Guo Tu (of Ying Chuan) advised Yuan Shao to receive the Han Emperor in Ye, the capital of his northern territories, but Yuan Shao refused. Cao Cao, however, took the chance to receive the Emperor at Xu Chang, and in this way gained the territory south of the River and a foothold for much greater authority, leaving Yuan Shao in regret for not following Guo Tu’s advice. Yuan Shao ordered Cao Cao to relocate the Emperor to the north but Cao Cao refused, angering him. Emperor Xian (Liu Xie) appointed Yuan Shao to Tai Wei and Duke of Ye, but Yuan Shao rejected the rank.
Yuan Shao proceeded to defeated Gongsun Zan at Yi Jing, absorbing his troops and some generals into his own army. He sent his eldest son, Yuan Tan, to govern Qing Zhou (despite the objection of Ju Shou, one of his advisors), Yuan Xi to govern You Zhou, and his son-in-law Gao Gan to govern Bing Zhou. Shen Pei and Feng Ji were appointed control over military affairs while Tian Feng and Xu You were made advisors. With a wide range of territory, great talent, and plenty of resources, Yuan Shao dispatched 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry with Yan Liang and Wen Chou in the vanguard toward Xu Chang to contend with Cao Cao for control of the central plains. Ju Shou and Tian Feng objected against this movement citing Cao Cao’s military capabilities and the weariness of the populace among other things as reason for avoiding the campaign, though Yuan Shao rejected the advice at Shen Pei and Guo Tu’s encouragement and proceeded anyway, imprisoning Tian Feng for disrupting the force’s morale. Guo Tu and his supporters also managed to convince Yuan Shao that Ju Shou was getting too powerful, and that his loyalties were uncertain, causing Yuan Shao to lose faith in him.
Yuan Shao dispatched some of his cavalry to aid Liu Bei who was stationed in Xiao Pei, who Cao Cao attacked after losing Xu Zhou. In AD 200 Cao Cao personally lead an expedition to defeat Liu Bei, and at this point Tian Feng urged Yuan Shao to attack his forces from behind and take the capital. Yuan Shang, Shao’s son, was sick at this time, however, and more concerned with his health Yuan Shao rejected the advice. Tian Feng mourned the lost opportunity. The chance passed after Cao Cao defeated Liu Bei and to the capital. Liu Bei fled to Yuan Shao for refuge and was received warmly.
Yuan Shao then marched against Li Yang, ordering Yan Liang to defeat Liu Yan at Bai Ma. Ju Shou advised against this, explaining that Yan Liang was not capable enough to handle this task alone, but Shao sent him anyway. Cao Cao led troops to reinforce Liu Yan, Yan Liang being killed by Guan Yu during the battle (who was under Cao Cao’s service at the time). Despite this, Yuan Shao continued his southern advance and brought his army across the river. He dispatched Wen Chou and Liu Bei to face Cao Cao, but Wen Chou fell in the engagement, severely damaging the morale of Yuan Shao’s forces.
The following engagement turned into a strategic standoff. Yuan Shao erected battle towers, which Cao Cao defeated with catapults. Shao then attempted to tunnel into Cao’s camp, but failed. Cao Cao sent an ambush party to ambush Yuan Shao’s supply train, and succeeded in defeating the guards and burning the supplies. The conflict continued for months, and the commoners under Cao Cao grew weary, many defecting to Yuan Shao’s camp which, in turn, made Shao’s food shortage a critical issue. Shao, to remedy this, sent Chun Yuqiong along with 10,000 troops to secure his grain shipment. Ju Shou and Zhang He advised sending Jiang Qi as reinforcements in case Cao Cao attacked, but Yuan Shao rejected the advice, instead adopting Guo Tu’s suggestion of attacking Cao Cao’s main camp. Cao Cao, upon learning this, left Cao Hong to guard his camp and led 5,000 infantry and cavalry to attack Yuqiong at night. As a result Chin Yuqiong was killed, his men defeated, and a reinforcement band later sent by Yuan Shao defeated as well. Zhang He and Gao Lan (subordinates of Yuan Shao) surrendered to him, and shortly after Yuan Shao’s forces were badly routed, Shao forced to retreat north across the river with his son Yuan Tan. Ju Shou was captured and executed after attempting to flee, and Shao’s remaining forces surrendered and were buried alive by Cao Cao.
In AD 201, it was suggested to Tian Feng, who was imprisoned for objecting to the campaign against Cao Cao, that Yuan Shao might reward or pardon him for his insight upon his return, but Tian Feng countered saying that he would be executed, his only chance at living being with Yuan Shao’s defeat. Peng Ji, who was aware of Tian Feng’s character, had slandered him in front of Yuan Shao resulting in suspicion. When Yuan Shao came to Peng Ji before his return and explained that he felt ashamed to face Tian Feng after his failure, Peng Ji told Yuan Shao that Tian Feng had clapped his hands and laughed upon finding out his advice was correct. Yuan Shao, angered by these false words, had Tian Feng executed as Feng had anticipated.
With the death of Tian Feng, and Liu Bei leaving his service around this point, Shao was left with very few capable officers, but he still managed to put down a few small rebellions in Yi Zhou. With the defeat at Guan Du however, Yuan Shao realized that he would never be able to contend with Cao Cao again, and he died of an illness in AD 202.
Yuan Shang succeeded his father and together with his brothers attempted to repel Cao Cao’s following invasion, however the disunity of their family proved to be their downfall and by the end of AD 204 Cao Cao had taken all their land and ended the war in Northern China.