Comprehensive Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by SlickSlicer
Lifespan: AD ?–199
Birthplace: Ruyang, Runan Commandery (Presently Sang Shui County, Henan Province)
Titles: General of the Gentlemen of the Rapid Tiger Household; Marquis of Yangdi and General of the Left; Emperor (self-proclaimed; AD 197)
Relations: Yuan Tang (grandfather); Yuan Feng (father); Yuan Cheng (uncle); Yuan Yao (son); Lady Yuan (daughter); Yuan Yin (nephew); Yuan Shao (relative); Sun Quan (son-in-law)
Yuan Shu was the son of Yuan Feng and was born in Ruyang. His clan, the Yuan, had been honored for generations in Ancient China (1). In part because of his high prestige, Yuan Shu was elected Filially Pious & Incorrupt (xiaolian) and ascended to the rank of General of the Gentlemen of the Rapid Tiger Household in the Late-Han period. Although the citizens of Runan thought Yuan Shu to be a just and righteous man, many people later regarded Yuan Shu to be egotistical and harsh. Xu Shao, a servant of Liu Yao and enemy of Yuan Shu, once told his liege that Yuan Shu was as selfish and cruel as a jackal.
1: According to Hou Han shu and Dr. Rafe de Crispigny’s Generals of the South as well, Yuan Shu was the son of Yuan Feng, a high-ranking aristocrat who held the position of Minister of Works during Emperor Ling’s reign. Both Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu were definite grandsons of Yuan Tang. Yuan Shao however could have been the product of either Yuan Feng or Yuan Cheng. If the father of Yuan Shao was Yuan Cheng it means that Shao and Shu would have been cousins, but some sources offer the opinion that they were half-brothers because Yuan Shao was an illegitimate child birthed from one of Yuan Feng’s concubines. Whether Yuan Shao and Shu are half-brothers or cousins remains unclear because there is a great deal of uncertainty who Yuan Shao’s real parent was.
In the later years of the Han dynasty, the various ministers of the state were very factious. Many took up sides with either the powerful 10 Regular Attendants (which were influential eunuchs in the Han court) or with He Jin. Yuan Shu and Yuan Shao were supporters of the latter. When the court eunuchs of the Han murdered He Jin, Yuan Shu joined forces with He Jin’s officer, Wu Kuang, and besieged the southern gates of one of the Emperor’s imperial palaces (2). At sundown, Yuan Shu ordered his men to burn down the Gate of Nine Dragons in Luoyang, the capital city of the Han dynasty. The eunuchs who opposed Yuan Shu, however, convinced the Empress-Dowager of Han that Yuan Shu was rebelling. Escaping with her, Emperor Shao and a number of officers to another palace in Luoyang, the eunuchs thus narrowly eluded capture. Although Yuan Shu failed to eliminate the eunuchs, Wu Kuang did kill He Miao, an alleged sympathizer of the eunuch cause. Additionally, Yuan Shao began to besiege the Northern Palace of Luoyang, the stronghold where the eunuchs had escaped to. Min Gong, an officer of the Han, pursued the eunuchs and eventually managed to cut down their leader, Zhang Rang, sometime later.
2: There were two Imperial Palaces during this time, both located in Luoyang. Later, Dong Zhuo’s troops would set fire to Luoyang and the capital would be moved to Chang’an (and then to Xuchang in the time of Cao Cao’s hegemony over the Han government).
While these catastrophic events took place in Luoyang, a general of He Jin’s named Dong Zhuo had marched close to the capital city with his army. In a politically genius move, Dong Zhuo met the young child Emperor of Han and the Prince of Chenliu, Liu Xian, and marched into the capital. Absorbing the troops formerly belonging to He Jin, Dong Zhuo easily took over the Imperial Court. Yuan Shu, seeking to get away from Dong Zhuo’s clutches, fled the capital, established a base in Luyang and prepared to ally with a group of warlords in resisting Dong Zhuo’s growing influence. After conquering Nanyang, Yuan Shu was ready to spearhead an attack on the usurper.
Dong Zhuo did not wish to fight against his enemies, however, and so he sent a number of high-ranking officials to negotiate with Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu. But in response, Yuan Shu executed nearly all the envoys Dong Zhuo sent, including Yin Xiu, an otherwise innocent imperial treasurer. Yuan Shu positioned his forces southeast of Luoyang and made Sun Jian, an ally of his, the commander of his troops. To counter Yuan Shu, Dong Zhuo dispatched Xu Rong and Li Meng to surprise Sun Jian and rout his army. The ensuing conflict did not go well for Yuan Shu’s subordinate, who nearly perished (3). Hastily, however, Sun Jian re-organized his army and at Yangren won a fairly decisive victory against Hu Zhen, another vassal of Dong Zhuo. As time wore on, the anti-Dong Zhuo coalition began gaining more and more ground against their adversary. Despite this, Yuan Shu began distrusting his own ally, Sun Jian. After being advised that Sun Jian might try to take over the capital as Dong Zhuo had done, Yuan Shu suddenly quit sending supplies to Sun Jian. But in the middle of the night, Sun Jian rode to Yuan Shu’s headquarters and re-affirmed his allegiance, thus earning Yuan Shu’s trust again (and after this incident, Yuan Shu resumed shipping supplies to Sun Jian’s men). Sun Jian eventually won an outstanding victory against Dong Zhuo at Luoyang, thus forcing the villain to flee to Chang’an.
3: This is in contrast to the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which states that Zu Mao died trying to save Sun Jian. Historically however, Zu Mao and Sun Jian both managed to get away from the battlefield, although it was a close call and they barely made it. Several other characters participating in the campaign were captured and subjected to cruel punishments by Dong Zhuo’s men (like being boiled alive).
When Dong Zhuo fled the capital city, the allied lords against him began to start having petty disagreements with one another. At length, Yuan Shu decided to ally with Gongsun Zan against Yuan Shao (4). Meanwhile, Yuan Shao incited Zhou Xin, Zhou Ang and Zhou Yu to assault Yangcheng, a small base that Sun Jian’s troops had previously captured. Sun Jian and Gongsun Yue, a relative and retainer of Gongsun Zan, marched to Yangcheng to wrest it from Yuan Shao’s influence. Gongsun Yue died in battle against Zhou Xin, Ang and Yu, but Sun Jian re-conquered Yangcheng quite swiftly nevertheless. Yuan Shao, realizing the threat of the forces against him, concluded an alliance with Liu Biao, another provincial governor. Yuan Shu tried to send Sun Jian to destroy Liu Biao in response, but Sun Jian was caught in an ambush and succumbed to death by arrows.
4: Gongsun Zan was only one of Yuan Shu’s many allies. He was one of the most powerful leaders during this period and certainly the mightiest of Yuan Shu’s affiliates though. Other allies of Yuan Shu include the Xiongnu, who were led by Yufuluo, and the Black Mountain Bandits. A group of Yellow Scarves also aided Yuan Shu’s ally, Sun Jian, in a few of his battles. At one point in time, a large number of Yellow Scarves rallied under He Yi and marched to Shou Chun to join up with Yuan Shu. The enthusiastic men were cut off by Cao Cao and forced to give up their plans, however.
As war waged on between Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu, Yuan Shu suffered more and more setbacks in battle against his sibling. Yuan Shu eventually moved out of his former capital and joined forces with Yufuluo and the Black Mountain Bandits, two of his trusted allies. Yuan Shu hoped to re-establish himself in Chenliu, but another warlord named Cao Cao harassed Yuan Shu’s forces while they were camped at a base in Fengqiu. Yuan Shu tried to retreat, but Cao Cao hotly pursued his tired army, defeating it in numerous clashes. Still controlling a very large army despite his losses, Yuan Shu escaped to Jiujiang commandery and commanded his weathered soldiers to besiege the city of Shou Chun (5). This proved to be a brilliant move, since Yuan Shu managed to sieze the populous city and hold it almost until his death.
5: Dr. Rafe de Crispigny notes two different accounts on Yuan Shu’s conquest of Shou Chun. One is that he simply besieged Shou Chun, was victorious, and killed the inspector of the area, Chen Wen. Another account of his attack is that Chen Wen had died prior to Yuan Shu’s coming and Yuan Shu had appointed an inspector to Shou Chun named Chen Yu. If the latter case is true then this inspector betrayed Yuan Shu. Some sources also state that Yuan Shu had previously attempted invasions of Shou Chun. His officer, Yuan Yi, commanded these attacks but failed to take the city, report some accounts of the time.
Li Jue, who at this time held control over the Emperor at Chang’an, gave Yuan Shu the titles of Marquis of Yangdi and General of the Left as a show of goodwill. The Han court in Chang’an, acting under Li Jue’s command, also sent Ma Midi and Zhao Qu as envoys to Shou Chun. Yet Yuan Shu was hostile to all overtures that Li Jue made for peace. Taking Ma Midi into his custody, Yuan Shu angrily tried to force the poor emissary to join his personal staff of ministers. Ma Midi fell ill however and died in Shou Chun.
Next, an officer of Yuan Shu’s named Wu Jing took over Danyang commandery. The ambitious Yuan Shu then followed up this success by declaring himself King of Xu, thus making himself a formal adversary of Tao Qian, who reigned over that region (Xu). Although there was fighting between Tao Qian and Yuan Shu, the former warlord died and was succeeded by Liu Bei before any fighting could boil into a large standoff. As Tao Qian and Yuan Shu’s men fought a few border skirmishes, Yuan Shu was also greedily shifting his eyes in new directions. Yuan Shu demanded that Lu Kang, the lord of Lujiang, give him tribute. When Lu Kang refused to comply with Yuan Shu’s request though, Yuan Shu wrathfully dispatched Sun Ce to defeat him (6). After Sun Ce was victorious over Lu Kang, Yuan Shu gave the post of Grand Administrator of Lujiang to his officer Liu Xun. Sun Ce, who had been promised the position of Grand Administrator in exchange for services rendered to Yuan Shu, was frustrated by his lord’s seeming carelessness.
6: Two explanations are offered by Dr. Rafe de Crispigny on Sun Ce’s campaign. One is that Sun Ce defeated and captured Lu Kang, which is what is recorded in the Zizhi tongjian. The other is that Sun Ce conquered most of Lujiang, but that Lu Kang retreated to his capital city of Shu and held out there for a while longer. Either way, Yuan Shu had promised Sun Ce a position of Grand Administrator of Lu Jiang if he was victorious over Lu Kang, but had not given Sun Ce this position. If Lu Kang had held out in his capital and avoided capture from Sun Ce, it would make more sense why Yuan Shu would not make Ce a prefect over Lujiang following Sun Ce’s successes.
Liu Yao, at one time an ally of Yuan Shu, looked upon the events happening in Lujiiang with suspicion. Upon seeing the quick conquest of Lu Kang by Sun Ce, Liu Yao began to worry about his own security as well. Liu Yao had been appointed Inspector of Yang Province by the Han dynasty, and had been set up in Qu’a by Wu Jing and Sun Ben, two of Yuan Shu’s officers. Now, thinking that the Yuan and Sun clans planned to conspire against him, Liu Yao revolted in Qu’a and forced Yuan Shu’s commanders out of the area. After Yuan Shu’s officers, Wu Jing and Sun Ben, failed to quell Liu Yao’s insurrection, Yuan Shu granted Sun Ce several thousand troops to assist. Much to the surprise of Yuan Shu, Sun Ce won great victories against Liu Yao, and even forced the rebel to withdraw from Qu’a. Yuan Shu then appointed Sun Ce as Acting General Who Destroys Criminals. Despite suffering several defeats at the hands of Sun Ce’s army, Liu Yao followed the advice of his advisor Xu Shao and attacked Yuzhang, which was held by another one of Yuan Shu’s officers, Zhuge Xuan (a relative of the famous later Shu strategist, Zhuge Liang). Zhuge Xuan fled to Xicheng, but Zhu Hao, a general under Liu Yao, further humiliated his army. Zhai Rong, an alleged ally of Liu Yao, killed Zhu Hao before any more damage could be done, and in the end, the still crippled Imperial Government granted Yuzhang to a trusted official named Hua Xin. Thus Yuan Shu came to lose whatever nominal control he had over Yuzhang.
Following the conflicts that took place in Yuzhang, Yuan Shu sent an army to oppose Liu Bei, who had been named the heir of Tao Qian. For a month the forces of Yuan Shu and Liu Bei fought, but neither army could get an advantage over the other. In order to break the stalemate, Yuan Shu incited Lü Bu, a famous warrior of the times, to betray Liu Bei, who had formerly been Lü Bu’s benefactor. Quickly grabbing the city of Xia Pi from Zhang Fei, Lü Bu now threatened Liu Bei from the rear. When Liu Bei turned his army around to try to take the city back, Yuan Shu struck vengefully from behind and left Liu Bei’s army in shambles. Liu Bei then gathered the men he had left and went to try to take Guangling. Yuan Shu had anticipated such movement, however, and once again trounced Liu Bei’s pathetic forces. With his army in a deplorable state, Liu Bei surrendered, for a time, to Lü Bu.
Yuan Shu’s successes began to make him think many thoughts of grandeur. Upon finding a favorable prophecy (7) and several other signs that he perceived to have come from heaven, Yuan Shu started believing that he was destined to become a great Emperor and re-unify China. Yuan Shu’s ministers, including a certain Zhang Cheng, expressed dissent with Yuan Shu’s schemes. Sun Ce, previously Yuan Shu’s ally, realized that Yuan Shu would not accept being a servant of the Han, however, and so broke diplomatically with Yuan Shu at this time. Yuan Shu, reacting to Sun Ce’s parting, now asked Lü Bu for an alliance sealed by marriage (Lü Bu’s daughter would marry Yuan Shu’s son). Lü Bu agreed to this, but when an army led by Ji Ling, an officer of Yuan Shu’s, came to strike at Liu Bei’s forces, Lü Bu decided to mediate between the two armies (8). Yuan Shu accepted peace for the time period, and made no further moves to strike Liu Bei or Lü Bu.
7: There were several reasons why Yuan Shu felt that his claim to become Emperor was legitimate. First off, there was a prophecy that read: The one to replace Han shall be high road. Yuan Shu’s style name was Gonglu, which meant public road and which he interpreted to be on par with the name listed in the prophecy. Secondly, Yuan Shu had obtained the Imperial Seal from Sun Jian and held onto it up to this time. Sun Jian or one of his subordinates had found the Jade Seal in a well in Luo Yang and Sun Jian had promptly given the seal to his superior. The Great Seal of State was the insignia of the Emperor, and an item used in ceremonies of succession. It represented a symbol of authority, and on meetings of the state it was worn on the belt of the Emperor. This majestic item could be used by Yuan Shu to affirm his authority as Emperor.
Finally, and probably most significantly, there was a common belief during this time that a dynasty representing the element of Earth should replace the Han (with its’ official element of fire). Chinese philosophy upheld the idea that there were five elements, collectively called Wu Zhong Liu Xing Zhi Chi (the five types of elements dominating at different times, a.k.a. wood, fire, earth, metal & water). These elements were supposed to be dynamic states of change. In this philosophical doctrine, fire was said to produce earth, since fire reduces things to ashes and the ashes in turn fertilize the soil and help things to grow. Moreover, Fire was representative of the summer season, whereas Earth was supposed to symbolize late summer and was thus the successor to Han’s fire in that way. Above all, the foremost quality of the element Earth was said to be stability, which was of course something long desired by citizens living in China during this age of Han decline and civil chaos.
To relate this all back to the topic, the Yuan family claimed descent from Yuan Taotu, who was in turn a descendent of an ancient Chinese Emperor named Yu Shun. Emperor Shun associated himself with the color yellow and the element Earth. For this reason, Yuan Shu also felt aligned with the element Earth and the color yellow. Yuan Shu was one of the first rulers to utilize the philosophy of elemental superiority to support his claims as Emperor during the Age of Fragmentation (a period lasting from the decline of the Han to the beginning of the Tang). The Yellow Scarves, who wore brightly colored scarves around their heads to show their affiliation with the element Earth, were the only ones to precede him in doing this (Zhang Jue’s reasons for starting the Yellow Scarf Rebellion were religious and philosophical, and based off the same reasoning that Yellow Earth would supplant Han’s Fire).
When Yuan Shu presented his arguments of legitimacy to his advisors, he was supposedly largely criticized for such notions. When Yuan Shu actually proclaimed himself Emperor, he was condemned abroad as a traitor to the Han and a corrupt usurper. Despite this, the kingdoms of Wu and Wei later copied Yuan Shu’s actions by also changing their reign styles and adopting Earth as the element of their Empires. The problem of Yuan Shu making himself Emperor, therefore, is not so much a matter of legitimacy (since he certainly had a decent amount of evidence and logic to support his claim), but rather one of timing; if Yuan Shu set himself up as Emperor after more properly pacifying the Southlands, winning the support of various officials and bringing more territory under his dominion, perhaps his ascension to such an imperial title would have been more accepted.
8: This is a famous story of the period. Ji Ling supposedly came with an army of 30,000 to quash Liu Bei (these numbers are likely way over-exagerrated). Though Liu Bei requested help from Lü Bu, Lü Bu’s generals advised their liege to allow Yuan Shu to crush Liu Bei. Lü Bu felt that both Liu Bei and Yuan Shu could become dangerous threats if he allowed either to grow too powerful. Thus he intervened by inviting Ji Ling and his captains, as well as Liu Bei and his officers, to a banquet. Lü Bu set up a halberd at the gate of his encampment and bet that he could hit the small spike of it. “I will shoot the halberd from here and if I hit then both sides in this war will draw back their men. If I miss, however, you each may resume your quarrel,” said Lü Bu as he drew his bow. Amazingly, Lü Bu managed to hit his small target and Ji Ling and his men, thinking it was a miracle, decided to withdraw. Lü Bu, as fate would have it, turned on Liu Bei not much later.
Yuan Shu eventually proclaimed himself Emperor of his domain. He named his state Zhong and styled himself the Emperor at Shou Chun. Yuan Shu further changed the name of Jiujiang commandery to Huainan and gave the Grand Administrator of the region the imperial rank of Intendant. He appointed senior officials and gave loyal servants high ranks used by the Han court. Yuan Shu murdered those who tried to escape appointments (including a certain Jin Shang, whom Yuan Shu wanted to make Grand Commandment) and began acting very regally around his generals. When Yuan Shu tried to explain to Lü Bu that he had made himself an Emperor, Lü Bu beheaded Yuan Shu’s envoy, Han Yin, and threatened to cut off ties with Yuan Shu’s new state. An infuriated Yuan Shu opted to now obliterate Lü Bu once and for all. The massive forces of Zhong, led by veteran commanders Zhang Xun and Qiao Rui, advanced swiftly into Xu province. Unfortunately for Yuan Shu though, Lü Bu had persuaded two junior officers in Yuan Shu’s new empire, Han Xian and Yang Feng, to defect mid-battle and confuse the ranks of Yuan Shu’s army. Lü Bu thus won a great victory, and his troops headed towards Shou Chun, looting and plundering the countryside as they went. Yuan Shu fully armed himself and road out with five thousand cavalry under his command towards the bank of the Huai River. Lü Bu’s cavalry, seeing the ruler of their enemies, jeered and teased Yuan Shu. Yet after a little while, Lü Bu’s army retreated back to their territory, satisfied that they had driven Yuan Shu away from Xu (as it turned out, permanently).
Sun Ce allied with Lü Bu after an imperial edict ordered him to join forces in a Han-backed coalition against Yuan Shu. Yuan Shu reacted to the news of many enemies by requesting provisions from the neighboring kingdom of Chen. When the lord of Chen, Liu Chong, refused to grant Yuan Shu’s request, Yuan Shu sent assassins to execute Liu Chong and his chancellor Luo Jun. Yuan Shu thus destroyed the state of Chen, and received the things from the kingdom that he had coveted.
Cao Cao, who had taken the Emperor of Han into his custody and engineered the coalition against Yuan Shu, invaded Yuan Shu’s lands in autumn. Leaving Qiao Rui to fend off Cao Cao’s attacks, Yuan Shu fearfully retreated to Shou Chun. Although Cao Cao crushed Qiao Rui and his troops, Yuan Shu successfully escaped across the Huai River. He would henceforth be in a precarious position militarily, as armies from different factions swarmed all around him.
Liu Bei had allied with Cao Cao at this time. Because of this, Lü Bu renewed the alliance he formerly had with Yuan Shu. But Cao Cao attacked Lü Bu and defeated him in one battle after another. Lü Bu was so desperate that he even contemplated surrender. Lü Bu’s secretaries, Wang Kai and Xu Si, rode to Yuan Shu’s lands to beseech Yuan Shu to grant their lord assistance. When Wang Kai and Xu Si pressed Yuan Shu to supply their lord with ample troops though, Yuan Shu was still bitter about his defeat at the hands of Lü Bu’s officers. After refusing to help Lü Bu a few times, Yuan Shu was finally persuaded to lend his old foe some troops and moral support. A grateful Lü Bu attempted to send his daughter to Yuan Shu to further restore amicable relations, but Cao Cao’s men ultimately prevented this from happening. Eventually Lü Bu would surrender and Cao Cao would give the order to strangle him and his most loyal vassals. With Lü Bu dead, Yuan Shu was threatened with attack from all sides, and could call upon no potential allies to save him.
After Lü Bu’s demise seemed certain, Yuan Shu sent messengers to incite the Shan Yue, as well as clan leaders like Zu Lang, to attack Sun Ce. Sun Ce quickly defeated Zu Lang, however, and continued to strengthen his position in the Southeast. Yuan Shu’s position, meanwhile, only grew worse and worse. Yuan Shu’s treasury held no money and his military was not strong enough to defend against a rebellion or invasion. Yuan Shu finally opted to incinerate his palace buildings and escape to the Qian hills, where Lei Bo and Chen Jian, two of his former followers, had been hiding. When Lei Bo and Chen Jian refused to support their former lord, Yuan Shu wrote to Yuan Shao, formerly his enemy, and stated that he would give up the Imperial Seal if Yuan Shao would help him. Yuan Shao dispatched his son, Yuan Tan, to escort Yuan Shu over the Huai River, through Xia Pi and north to Qing. Yet a union between Yuan Shu and Yuan Shao, always at odds throughout their lifetime, was not destined to be.
Liu Bei, Yuan Shu’s adversary for a long time, intercepted Yuan Shu’s small band of followers before it could make it to Yuan Shao’s territory. Escaping to a small village, Yuan Shu groaned that he had run out of options. He had been ill for a long time, coughing up blood and having other problems. Soon he would die in agony, knowing that he had not prevailed in his struggle to conquer the provinces formerly belonging to the Han dynasty. Hated for trying to make himself Emperor, Yuan Shu would later be cast as a Macchiavellian villain in Luo Guanzhong’s novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Copyright © 2006 SlickSlicer. All Rights Reserved.
Based on factual historic sources.