Biography (COB): Zhou Yu (Gongjin)

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Zhou Yu (Gongjin)Zhou Yu (Gongjin)
周瑜 (公瑾)

Comprehensive Officer Biography
Translated & Authored by

Place of Birth: Shu County, Lu Jiang Commandery (Presently Shu Cheng, An Hui Province)
Life Span: AD 175 – 210 A.D. (35 years)
Titles: Chief of Juchao County, Grand Administrator of Jiangxia, General of the Gentlemen of the Household Who Establishes Majesty, Great Commander-in-Chief, Grand Administrator of Nan
Family: Zhou Jing, Zhou Zhong (grand–uncles), Zhou Shang (uncle), Xiao Qiao (wife), Sun Ce (in–law), two sons

The Zhou family of Lujiang Commandery was a family of considerable wealth and power in Jiang Dong. A paternal grand–uncle of Zhou Yu was once appointed as Grand Commandant of the Han, and his other male relatives continued to hold important positions in the bureaucracy (1). According to the biography of Sun Ce, he met with Zhou Yu when they were both in Shouchun, and they became good friends (2). The Zhou family residence was at Shu county, and when the Lady Wu moved there with her family, Zhou Yu offered them a place to stay.

When Liu Yao moved his forces against Wu Jing, the uncle of Sun Ce and vassal of Yuan Shu, Zhou Shang was appointed as Grand Administrator of Danyang; and Zhou Yu followed him there. Wu Jing took command of the army and fought against Liu Yao for over a year without any result. At this point, Sun Ce arrived at Danyang with his own force and took command of the forces (3). Sun Ce and Zhou Yu took Liu Yao’s supply depot at Niuzhu, then moved against Zhai Rong and Xie Li. Sun Ce’s forces successfully took Moling and Qua, driving out Liu Yao’s forces on the southern bank of the Yangzi. Headquarters were set up in Qua and Sun Ce’s mother and brothers were brought there as well. After subdueing the rebellions of Hill people in the area, Sun Ce sent Zhou Yu back to Danyang to protect it (4). In AD 196, Yuan Shu was fighting for Xu Province just north of the Yangzi. He recalled Zhou Shang to Shouchun and offered a military rank to Zhou Yu. However Zhou Yu was already suspicious of Yuan Shu and asked to be made Chief of Juchao County in Lujiang province instead (5).

Zhou Yu’s suspicions were warranted as Yuan Shu declared himself Emperor of the Zhong dynasty in the summer of AD 197. Sun Ce seperated himself from Yuan Shu and invited all of his old friends to join him. Zhou Yu left his post at Juchao and joined Sun Ce’s staff, along with his personal friend Lu Su (6). Sun Ce welcomed Zhou Yu into his army and appointed him Imperial Corps Commander. In addition, Zhou Yu was given thousand troops to guard Niuzhu and was oppointed as Grand Administrator of Chungu (7).

The death of Yuan Shu in AD 199 opened up new opportunities for Sun Ce. Together with Zhou Yu, he lead a force north across the Yangzi to capture Shouchun and its capital Huan. Following their success, Sun Ce and Zhou Yu turned south towards the forces of Huang Zu. They defeated Huang Zhu’s son Huang She and captured Jiangxia Commandery. Sun Ce sent a memorial to the crown, in which he appointed Zhou Yu as Grand Administrator of Jiangxia, General of the Gentlemen of the Household Who Establishes Majesty, and Protector of the Army at the Centre. Having pushed back Huang Zu, Sun Ce turned his attention to Tong Zhi in Luling and Hua Xin, successor of Liu Yao, in Yuzhang. Zhou Yu, along with Sun Ce’s nephew Sun Fu, were sent to Nancheng where they would monitor Tong Zhi. Within a month Luling was captured and Sun Fu was appointed as Grand Administrator. At this point, Zhou Yu and Sun Ce both married a girl from the Qiao family, Sun Ce married the older sister Da Qiao, and Zhou Yu the younger sister Xiao Qiao (8).

Sun Ce was assasinated in AD 200 at the age of 25, and his younger brother Sun Quan succeeded him as head of the family and as Grand Administrator of Kuai Ji (9). Zhou Yu left his post at Baqui and took his troops back to Wu Commandery where he attended the funeral of his close friend and companion Sun Ce. Since Sun Quan was still young and inexperienced, the Lady Wu appointed Zhang Zhao as his tutor and Zhou Yu shared the burden of the administration with him.

Zhou Yu aided Sun Quan in setting up the military order and discipline, and he was well liked among the officers. Cheng Pu, a much older and veteran officer of Wu was initially discontent with Gongjin for ignoring his plans and making him look inferior. However, Cheng Pu started to realize the wisdom in Zhou Yu and honored him from then on, speaking nothing but praise about the young Wu commander.

In the eleventh year of Rebuilt Tranquility (AD 206), Sun Quan renewed the attack on Huang Zu in Eastern Jing Province, with Zhou Yu as the commander and Sun Yu from Danyang as support. Zhou Yu first had to deal the Mo and Bao tribes before moving on to Huang Zu’s fort at Xiakou. Zhou Yu killed the tribe leaders and migrated some ten thousand people back into Sun family teritory. Huang Zu responded and sent a few thousand soldiers, commanded by Deng Long, to oppose Zhou Yu. The forces under Deng Long were routed and Zhou Yu captured Deng Long at Zhaisang. Sun Quan joined the offensive personally and Zhou Yu continued to take resources from Huang Zu’s teritory. In the spring of AD 208, the final offensive against Huang Zu in Xiakou began. Zhou Yu personally led the vanguard, along with Dong Xi and Ling Tong (10). The city was taken by the Sun Clan forces, and Huang Zu was killed in battle. This victory acknowledged and secured Sun Quan’s dominance of the south. His forces spread from Wu Commandery all the way to Xiakou in Jing Province.

While the Sun clan was fighting its old enemies in Yang Province and Eastern Jing Province, a lot was changing in the North. Cao Cao had completely taken care of all the opposition in the north and now turned his attention south, to Jing Province, where Liu Biao still reigned. Liu Biao died and his son Liu Zong took over his father’s position. However Liu Zong surrendered his forces to Cao Cao and the region quickly fell to the Cao clan. Cao Cao had one more enemy in Jing: Liu Bei, who he needed to deal with (11).

During Lu Su’s mission to Xiangyang, he encountered Liu Bei on the way. He went back to Sun Quan’s headquarters, accompanied by Liu Bei’s adviser Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang petitioned Sun Quan to aid Liu Bei in his struggle against Cao Cao (12). Sun Quan became annoyed with Zhuge Liang, and at Lu Su’s advise he waited for Zhou Yu to come back from his mission. Sun Quan was most likely reluctant to help Liu Bei, since the Sun family had always tried to maintain its independance in the south, and more importantly, Sun Quan had no reason to trust Liu Bei with his own army. Zhou Yu returned and advised the young Sun ruler to oppose Cao Cao in Jing through use of the Yangzi (13). Zhou Yu pointed out that Cao Cao was not used to fighting on the sea, that his troops were exhausted from their long march, and that the coming winter would prove difficult for his troops and would not give them much time to prepare. Zhou Yu asked for 30,000 elite troops and wanted to take Cheng Pu and Lu Su with him. Sun Quan agreed, and although Cheng Pu, who held equal rank, was officially in charge of the vanguard, there is no doubt that Zhou Yu arranged the battle himself.

The battle against Cao Cao, in coordination with Liu Bei, took place in the winter of the year AD 208. Cao Cao’s navy squared off against the elite of the Wu naval forces under Zhou Yu and Cheng Pu. The battle of Chi Bi or “Red Wall”, is perhaps one of the most disputed in Chinese History. The records of the battle are filled with propaganda from all sides, and it is therefore difficult to summarize what actually happened (14). Zhou Yu’s second in command, Huang Gai, noted that Cao Cao had a large fleet but they were vulnerable because they were chained together. Huang Gai and Zhou Yu initiated the “Battered Body” plan, and Huang Gai faked surrender to Cao Cao (15). Huang Gai burned down Cao Cao’s fleet, and Zhou Yu immediately attacked. Cao Cao was defeated and forced to retreat back to the north, leaving his cousin Cao Ren in charge of Jiangling. Zhou Yu then began the siege of Jiangliang with a limited amount of forces.

The seige of Jiangling took a long time, as most of the forces were still on the other side of the Yangzi. After a few months of indecisive battle, Gan Ning lead his forces over the river to aid Zhou Yu. Cao Ren sent his forces to intercept them, and Gan Ning was forced to fight them on his way to Zhou Yu. On the advice of Lü Meng, Zhou Yu left Ling Tong in command of the seige and lead his main force to assist Gan Ning (16). Zhou Yu was wounded by an arrow during the attack, but he kept the moral of his troops up and they scored a complete victory over Cao Ren, who abandonned Jiangling.

Cao Cao had been pushed back north all the way to Xiangyang, and the Sun family was rapidly gaining teritory. Zhou Yu was appointed as Grand Administrator of Nan Commandery, and Cheng Pu took up his post as Grand Administrator of Jiangxia. Zhou Yu advised Sun Quan to be very careful with Liu Bei, and suggested that he treat Liu Bei with luxury at first, and then control him later on. Sadly however, Sun Quan did not heed this excellent advise. Zhou Yu continued to make plans, instead of going North, Zhou Yu wanted to go west into the lands of Ba–Shu, where the pacifist Liu Zhang had been the prominent leader. Sun Quan accepted the plan and Zhou Yu went back to Jiangling to make preparations.

Zhou Yu had made plans to invade Yi Province together with Sun Yu, however, he died of illness at the young age of thirty–five. On his deathbed, he recommended Lu Su to be his successor and urged Sun Quan to always listen to his advise. Sun Quan agreed, and Zhou Yu died later that night. His widow and two sons remained under the protection of Sun Quan, and Lu Su inherited his position.

Zhou Yu was a broad-minded and outspoken man with magnificent potential. Loved and honored by many people, and a master in music and rhythm. Some references say that Zhou Yu could spot an error in sound and rhythm even after many cups of wine (17). In the novel, Gongjin is told to dance to his own musical compositions and wrote his own songs. Truly, Zhou Yu was one of the most influential and fascinating personas of his time, and surpasses both Sun Jian and Sun Ce in fame as one of the finest strategists of China.

(1) As we mentioned earlier in Zhu Jun’s Biography, the rank of (太尉) Tai Wei or Grand Commandant was the highest rank in the bureaucracy. The Grand Command was the head of the Three Dukes, and thus, in theory, the most powerful man in the Empire after the Emperor himself. <return>

(2) Zhou Yu’s own biography dates their first meeting to be in AD 190, when the Lady Wu moved to Shu County with her kids. The most logical story, in my eyes, is the one in Sun Ce’s biography. Because when the Lady Wu arrived in Shu County, she was greeted by the Zhou family and given residence in Shu. It seems unlikely that they would have extended such courtesy to the wife of a general they hardly knew. Granted, Sun Jian’s reputation as Grand Administrator of Chang Sha gave the family more priveledges. However, there is no recorded contact between Sun Jian and Zhou Shang (Zhou Yu’s uncle and Grand Administrator of Danyang), I doubt that Sun Jian would have a notable reputation with the Zhou family. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Zhou Yu’s family was already well–established and powerful. In their eyes, they would not need an alliance with the Sun family, because they proved to be capable of taking care of themselves. It does supply a motive however, as to why Zhou Shang was favourable of the friendship between Zhou Yu and Sun Ce. Since the Sun family had only recently come to fame, the Zhou family could only benefit from a relationship with them, without having to worry about a potential rivalry in the future. <return>

(3) It is very surprising that the young Sun Ce at this point, would be able to take over command of such a large group of people. Both Wu Jing and Zhou Shang were high ranking officers and clearly more experienced. However, there are no contradictions found in the biographies of Wu Jing and Sun Ben about the event, so we can be sure that this is how it really happened. For more information, see my Sun Ce Biography. <return>

(4) For the next decade or so, Danyang would remain the most disputed teritory in Sun Ce’s “Kingdom”. Both Huang Zu and Liu Yao stretched their authority towards the western part of Danyang, and this made matters difficult for Sun Ce and Zhou Shang, who was now aided by his nephew Zhou Yu. <return>

(5) According to Zhou Yu’s biography in Sanguozhi, Zhou Yu returned briefly to Shouchun to request his reassignment to Juchao County. This was a smart move on Zhou Yu’s part, which proves that Zhou Yu had no interest in flowery titles and rank. Under Yuan Shu, Zhou Yu could possibly have attained a high military and civil rank, instead he settled for Chief of a small county in his native Commandery of Lujiang. This way, Zhou Yu would not have to be involved with Yuan Shu, and would place him in the middle of Shouchun and Qua. For more information on ranks on County/Commandery level, see De Crespigny, South China under the Later Han. <return>

(6) The biography of Lu Su in in SGZ 54/2 (SGZ Online , SGZ, with Pei’s Notes). I have written a seperate biography for Lu Su in English. Lu Su was Zhou Yu’s first successor and a cherished advisor of the later ruler of Wu, Sun Quan. <return>

(7) The biography of Zhou Yu in Sanguo Zhi tells a similar story to that of Sun Ce (Sun Ce’s Bio, note 6, Quoting Jiangbiao Zhuan). It says that Zhou Yu was called “Young Gentleman Zhou”, and that his sympathetic and trustworthy nature was well known in the area of Lujiang Commandery. <return>

(8) It was said that at this time, Sun Ce joked: “Though the two Qiao girls may be exiles, now they have got us for their husbands, they have all they need to make them happy.” From Generals of the South, Chapter 4, page 227 below. <return>

(9) Though it appears the take–over went smooth, Sun Quan was certainly not the only candidate for succession. He had a younger brother Sun Yi, who was more like Sun Ce than Sun Quan was. Sun Ce’s nephews, Sun Ben and Sun Fu, also held considerable rank under both Yuan Shu and Sun Ce. A more likely, and possibly more attractive choice for succesion was Zhou Yu himself. We should not forget that Zhou Yu was a member of a powerful family, and he earned the respect of many people in all the counties of Lujiang. However it does not appear that Zhou Yu had any desire to take over the command, and he served Sun Quan loyaly for the years to come. <return>

(10) Dong Xi was already a noted warrior under the Sun clan, Ling Tong at this time couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old at the time. In one of the earlier battles against Huang Zu, Ling Tong’s father Ling Cao was killed by Gan Ning. For more information, see the Biographies of Gan Ning, and Ling Tong. <return>

(11) Liu Bei was a distant relative of the Emperor Xian and the future ruler of the Shu Kingdom. He and a small gathering of friends served in the North, mainly in Yu and Xu Provinces. At this time however, Liu Bei was running away from Cao Cao, who had routed his forces several times. No doubt these were critical times for Liu Bei. <return>

(12) There are different versions of the debate available, both recorded by Chen Shou in Sanguo Zhi. The records contradict each other and I can only provide a rough summary of the debate. During the times of the first debate, Zhou Yu was on a mission in Poyang, and was therefore not present. Like all records of spoken words and debate, one must realize that these records can never reflect the entire truth, and thus these kinds of things should not be taken too seriously. <return>

(13) The meeting between Sun Quan and Zhou Yu was recorded in Jiangbiao Zhuan, quoted in the SGZ biography of Zhou Yu. Zhou Yu dismissed the arguements made by Zhang Zhao and others, who were in favor of surrendering to Cao Cao. Sun Quan was delighted with Zhou Yu’s analysis and his mind was set at ease. He told his officers to no longer speak of surrender, unless they wanted to be punished. <return>

(14) The Wu side of the propaganda included a few interesting stories. According to Sanguo yanyi, Cao Cao attempted to recruit Zhou Yu through means of their mutual friend Jiang Gan. But Zhou Yu was not fooled by Jiang Gan and used him in his own plot to kill the generals Cai Mao and Zhang Yun, who where Cao Cao’s only generals exprienced in Naval warfare. Cao Cao’s plot turned against him and cost him two valuable generals. <return>

(15) Huang Gai was already a respected general by that time, and he was already past his fifties. The “Battered Body” plan is a rather heroic and touching one. Huang Gai offered to be severely beat in front of Cao Cao’s spies, for defying Zhou Yu and supporting surrender. Huang Gai was beaten in public by Zhou Yu, and a fake letter of defection was sent to Cao Cao. The plan worked and Huang Gai was able to get his boat close to Cao Cao’s fleet and burn it down. Huang Gai took a great personal risk, and his courage and loyalty to the house of Sun is perhaps the most touching, a most human of all stories related to heroism. To read more about Huang Gai, see his comprehensive officer biography. <return>

(16) We already talked about Ling Tong in note 10, and by this time, Gan Ning had surrendered to the Sun clan, but was still on unfavourable terms with Ling Tong. Lü Meng was the third successor to Zhou Yu’s position and a noted scholar and warrior. The biography of Lü Meng has already been translated for your reading pleasure. <return>

(17) Generals of the South, Sanguo Zhi quotiong Jiangbiao Zhuan. Cheng Pu said: “To be with Zhou Gongjin is to drink cold wine unmixed with water: you become drunk before you realise it.” Also in Jiangbiao Zhuan, the late Lady Wu said that, “Gongjin is like a son to me.” It is clear that Zhou Yu was loved and trusted by many people, and respected for his wisdom and talent. <return>

Copyright © 2002 – 2003
A Kongming’s Archives Exclusive Production
Major Sources: Zhongguo Lishizhu – Professor T.Chen (1965 Peking)
annotations from Wu Jianxiang dachen nianbiao and Wu Li
Generals of the South – Rafe de Crespigny