Sanguo yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by Morgan Evans
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Styled Mengde, Cao Cao was a man of medium build with small eyes and a long beard. Born in Qiao, Cao Cao’s father, Cao Song, had been born Xiahou Song but was adopted into the Cao family by the Eunuch Cao Teng. During his youth, Cao Cao enjoyed hunting, songs and dancing; he was a resourceful and crafty young man. One of his uncles seeing this in him used to get angry and tell Cao Song of his son’s deeds, resulting in Cao Cao being reprimanded by his father. However, one day Cao Cao pretended to have a fit when his uncle came near. The uncle quickly brought Cao Song who found Mengde in perfect health and so quizzed him about the fit. The young man told his father “I have never suffered from fits or any such illness but my uncle distrusts me and he has therefore deceived you.” From that day forth, Cao Song never listened to complaints about his son from that uncle and the young man grew up immoral and uncontrolled. A man named Qiao Xian once said to Cao Cao, “Rebellion is at hand, and only a man of the greatest ability can succeed in restoring tranquillity. That man is yourself.” a view that was echoed by He Yong. Upon these words, Mengde sought out a wise man from Runan named Xu Shao and asked him “What manner of man am I?” to which the Xu Shao replied, “In peace you are an able subject, in chaos you are a crafty hero.”
At the age of twenty, Cao Cao graduated and became known for his decency and integrity. He soon took up a post as Commanding Officer in a county near the capital where he made a name for himself by punishing all those who broke the law, regardless of rank. He was quickly made a magistrate of Dunqiu. When the Yellow Scarves Rebellion broke out in AD 184, Cao Cao was promoted from General to Cavalry Commander and given command of 5,000 mounted troops to reinforce Huangfu Song and Zhu Jun at Yingchuan. As Cao’s army arrived at Changse, they encountered the retreating rebels and a slaughter ensued as thousands of the Yellow Scarves were cut to pieces. The rebels had been led by two of the three founders of the movement, brothers Zhang Bao and Zhang Liang, who had escaped in the confusion. Cao Cao and his men set off after them but the two rebel commanders split up so Cao remained in pursuit of Zhang Liang. After joining forces with Huangfu Song, Cao Cao fought against Zhang Liang at Quyang where they met with seven successes despite Zhang Liang’s numbers being reinforced (1) and eventually Zhang Liang was killed. For his role in the victory, Cao Cao was promoted and assigned to Jinan.
1: The third rebel leader, Zhang Jiao, had died of illness so Zhang Liang took Jiao’s men and added them to his own army.
In AD 188, the Ten Eunuch Attendants to the Emperor had become drunk with the power they wielded and freely abused it, destroying anyone who could stand in their way. By AD 189 the situation grew worse when the Emperor became ill and the Eunuchs plotted against the Regent Marshal, He Jin (2). He Jin got wind of the plot and summoned many of the ministers to consult with him, including Cao Cao who now held the title General of Military Standards. Mengde advised caution and for the meeting to be kept secret but He Jin was angered by such thoughts. Their disagreement was interrupted by news that the Emperor had died and that the eunuchs intended for Prince Xian to ascend the throne instead of Prince Bian. The Imperial Commander, Yuan Shao, offered to storm the palace with five thousand troops, set up the true heir and slay the eunuchs, an offer that He Jin accepted. Yuan Shao’s force met with success and Prince Bian was made the new emperor but the crafty eunuchs gained the protection from the new emperor’s mother. Finding himself powerless against the eunuchs, in the sixth month of the year, He Jin decided that he would summon the warlord Dong Zhuo to the capital to kill the eunuchs. Secretary Chen Lin objected to this course of action, but He Jin was adamant. Cao Cao laughed at the two arguing men saying, “Solving this issue is as easy as turning over one’s hand! Why so much talk? The eunuch evil is of very old standing, but the real cause of the present trouble is in the improper influence allowed them by the emperors and the misplaced favouritism they have enjoyed. A single bailiff would be ample force to employ against this kind of evil, why involve regional forces? Any plot to slay all of them will speedily become known, and the plan will fail.” but He Jin accused Mengde of having his own agenda. Cao Cao left the meeting saying, “He Jin is the one who throws the world into chaos” and He Jin continued with his plan to bring Dong Zhuo to the capital. When Dong Zhuo accepted, the eunuchs began to plot against He Jin once more and coerced his sister to summon him to the palace. Despite the pleas of Chen Lin, Yuan Shao and Cao Cao, He Jin could not see the possibility of a trap so Cao Cao and Yuan Shao accompanied him to the palace, along with a force of 500 men. When they arrived at the palace, the guard would only admit He Jin, so Cao Cao and the others waited at the gate. After waiting for a long time, Cao Cao and Yuan Shao shouted through the gate “Your carriage awaits, general!” only for He Jin’s head to be thrown over the wall to them. With that, the party at the gate broke into the palace and started slaying any eunuchs they found. During the chaos, many men who lacked facial hair were mistaken for eunuchs and killed, but four of the eunuchs kidnapped the Emperor and Prince Xian and fled. Many fires had started, so Cao Cao set himself to extinguishing the flames and set troops in pursuit of the Emperor. The large troop that went after the Emperor and his brother successfully liberated him but it was at that time that the army of Dong Zhuo arrived at the capital.
2: He Jin’s sister was a concubine to the Emperor and had born a son, Liu Bian. However, the Emperor also had a son by another concubine, Liu Xian, and it was this son that the Attendants favoured. Knowing that He Jin would object, the eunuchs decided to kill him. Regent Marshal was the highest military position so He Jin held a great deal of power.
With his large army stationed at the capital, Dong Zhuo flaunted the rules without fear of reprisal. Slowly he added more troops to his army, including the mighty warrior, Lü Bu. With no one capable of stopping him, Dong Zhuo removed Emperor Bian from the throne, raised Prince Liu Xian instead and named himself Prime Minister (3). Yuan Shao wrote to the Minister of the Interior, Wang Yun, urging him to rebel and promising support. Wang Yun held a banquet at his home, under the guise of a birthday party, to urge his fellow ministers to action. A weeping Wang Yun gave a passionate speech to the guests in attendance, bringing his guests to tears too. Cao Cao sat in attendance, clapping his hands and laughing at his fellow ministers; “Will all this weeping slay Dong Zhuo?” he asked the assembly. Wang Yun was greatly angered; “Your forbears ate the bounty of the Hans. Do you feel no gratitude? How can you laugh?”, but Cao Cao replied “I laughed at the absurdity of an assembly like this being unable to compass the death of one man. Foolish and incapable as I am, I will cut off his head and hang it at the gate as an offering to the people. Recently, I have bowed my head to Dong Zhuo with the sole desire of finding a chance to destroy him. Now he begins to trust me, and so I can get close to him. You have a sword with seven precious jewels which I would borrow, and I will go into his palace and kill him. I care not if I die for it.” Mengde swore an oath, took the jewelled sword, hid it under his robe and left the hall. The next day Cao Cao, with the hidden sword, went to see Dong Zhuo at the palace. He found the Prime Minister seated on a couch in the small guest room, flanked as usual by Lü Bu. “Why so late Cao Cao?” asked Dong Zhuo. “My horse is slow,” replied Mengde. “We have some fine horses from my district” said Zhuo, and he sent Lü Bu to bring one for their guest. Dong Zhuo was a powerful man with great physical strength and Cao Cao was afraid to strike in case the blow was not fatal. The Prime Minister rolled over on his couch, facing away from Cao Cao. Mengde knew this was his best chance and drew the sword to strike, but as he did, Zhuo saw Cao Cao’s reflection in a mirror and turned around shouting “What are you doing Cao Cao?” Cao Cao dropped to his knees and said, “I have a precious sword which I wish to present to you.” while Lü Bu re-entered the room. Dong Zhuo took the sword and then the three men went outside to look at the horse that Lü Bu had chosen. Cao Cao thanked the Prime Minister for the horse, led it outside then rode away quickly. Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo conferred, both suspecting Cao Cao’s assassination attempt and decided to send for Mengde. However, they found that Cao Cao had not returned home and instead had fled from the city, heading east. Dong Zhuo immediately had wanted posters distributed and offered a large reward for the capture of his would be assassin.
3: AD 190. Soon after this, Dong Zhuo had the former Emperor killed.
Cao Cao travelled towards Qiao but when he reached Zhongmu, one of the gate guards recognised him and made him prisoner. When he appeared before the Magistrate, Mengde claimed to be a merchant named Huang Fu, but the Magistrate was not fooled and ordered him to be held in prison until the reward could be claimed. Around midnight, Mengde was brought to the Magistrate’s private chambers for interrogation and asked why he had tried to kill the Prime Minister. Cao replied, “What does the sparrow know of the swan’s ambition? You have me, just turn me in for the reward. Why bother with questions” The Magistrate sent away the guards and turned back to his prisoner saying “Please do not despise me, I am no mere officeholder, I simply have not found a worthy master” Cao Cao replied, “My ancestors enjoyed the bounty of the Han, and if I did not repay that debt then I would be no different than bird or beast. I have bowed the knee to Dong Zhuo that thereby I might find an opportunity against him, and so remove this evil from the state. I have failed this time. Such is the will of Heaven. I am going home to my county. There I shall issue a summons calling all of the lords of this realm to action against the tyrant.” The magistrate loosened the bonds and bowed to him, introducing himself as Chen Gong and swore to follow Mengde. Chen Gong took some money, gave Cao Cao new clothes and then the two men rode away towards Qiao.
Three days later, the two men arrived at Chenggao. Cao Cao knew that his father’s sworn brother, Lu Boshe, lived nearby and suggested that they take refuge with him for the night. When they arrived at his home, Lu Boshe greeted the two men and asked of how his nephew had become a fugitive. Mengde explained the entire story and when he finished, Lu Boshe bowed low in thanks to Chen Gong for his release of Cao and promised them a bed each. Lu Boshe then went into the inner chamber for a while and when he came out he told the guests that he was going to fetch some wine from the village. The two guests sat and waited for their host to return but after a while they heard from the rear of the house the sharpening of a knife. Cao Cao began to doubt his sworn uncle’s intentions so the two men went to the back of the house and listened further. “Bind before killing”, they heard. “As I thought,” said Cao Cao, “we must strike first or we will be captured!” Cao Cao and Chen Gong burst into the room and killed the eight men and women who were inside. As they looked around they found a pig bound ready for killing. “You were too suspicious and now we have killed innocent people!” said Chen Gong. The two men immediately mounted their horses and rode away but they soon met Lu Boshe who was carrying wine and food. Lu Boshe was surprised to see his guests leaving and enquired why they refused his hospitality but Cao Cao continued to ride on. Suddenly Mengde drew his sword and cut down Lu Boshe, much to the horror of Chen Gong who implored, “What we did before was wrong enough, why now this?” Mengde replied, “When he got home and saw his family killed, do you think he would have let it lie? He would have raised the alarm and brought a mob after us, we would be killed!” “But you murdered him knowing he was innocent! You have committed a great wrong!” Chen Gong cried. Cao Cao retorted, “I would rather betray the world than have the world betray me!” Chen Gong said nothing further. They soon arrived at an inn but while Cao Cao was asleep, Chen Gong left for his home county of Dongjun (4).
4: Chen Gong decided to kill Cao Cao as he was convinced Mengde would commit further evil deeds. However, he decided against it as it would contradict his whole reason for joining with Cao Cao in the first place.
The next day Cao Cao continued his journey to Qiao where he met with his father, Cao Song. He related what had happened and expressed his desire to sell all of the family property in order to enlist soldiers. Knowing that their property would not raise much money, Cao song suggested that his son seek out Wei Hong, a wealthy local man, known for his thrift and virtue. Cao Cao invited the wealthy man to a banquet and said to him, “The Hans have lost their lordship, and Dong Zhuo is really a tyrant. He flouts his prince and is cruel to the people, who gnash their teeth with rage. I would restore the Hans, but my means are insufficient. Sir, I appeal to your loyalty and public spirit.” Wei Hong had long wished to move against Dong Zhuo and readily pledged all his wealth to the cause. With funding secured, Cao Cao appealed far and wide for volunteers and set up a large white recruitment banner with the words “Loyalty and Honour” inscribed on it. Response was rapid and soon Cao Cao had amassed a sizeable army. Among the recruits were Yue Jin and Li Dian who were appointed to Cao Cao’s personal staff. Mengde was also joined by his cousins, Xiahou Dun, Xiahou Yuan, Cao Ren and Cao Hong who each brought a thousand men. The army began to drill in readiness for battle while Wei Hong bought clothing, armour, flags and banners. In addition, the army received many donations of gift and grain from supporters.
Hearing of Cao Cao’s movements, Yuan Shao marched his army of thirty thousand men to Qiao to join with Mengde and then a call to arms was sent across the nation. Sixteen warlords pledged their support and mobilised their armies to march on the capital. Along with Cao Cao and Yuan Shao, the alliance consisted of the forces of:
Yuan Shu, Governor of Nanyang
Gongsun Zan, Governor of Beiping accompanied by Liu Bei, Magistrate of Pingyuan
Sun Jian, Governor of Changsha
Ma Teng, Governor of Xiliang
Kong Rong, Governor of Beihai
Tao Qian, Imperial Protector of Xuzhou Region
Han Fu, Imperial Protector of Jizhou Region
Kong Zhou, Imperial Protector of Yuzhou Region
Wang Kuang, Governor of Henei
Liu Dai, Imperial Protector of Yanzhou Region
Zhang Miao, Governor of Chenliu
Qiao Mao, Governor of Dongjun
Yuan Yi, Governor of Shanyang
Bao Xin, Lord of Jibei
Zhang Chao, Governor of Guangling and
Zhang Yang, Governor of Shangdang
Each force varied in numbers from ten thousand men to thirty thousand men and when the armies met, the camp spread over seventy miles. When all the armies had arrived, Cao Cao called all the lords to an assembly so that they could lay out plans and elect a leader. Mengde addressed the other lords, “For four generations the highest offices of state have been filled by members of the Yuan family, and their clients and supporters are everywhere. As a descendant of ancient ministers of Han, Yuan Shao is a suitable man to be our chief lord.” and all agreed with him. Once Yuan Shao had sworn an oath of leadership, Cao Cao addressed the lords, “We must all obey the commander we have appointed this day and support the state. There must be no feeling of rivalry or superiority based upon numbers.” Yuan Shao then appointed his brother Yuan Shu as being in charge of supplies and Sun Jian as van leader. Sun Jian’s army was then sent against the River Si Pass while the other armies took up support positions.
The battle did not go in the favour of the alliance as the defender of the pass, Hua Xiong, defeated and killed Bao Xin’s brother, Bao Zhong and his army. Sun Jian fared somewhat better until a shortage of supplies and a sneak attack by Hua Xiong forced him to retreat. Greatly alarmed by this turn of events, Yuan Shao summoned the commanders to a meeting. During the meeting Hua Xiong came to the camp offering challenges. Two trusted generals were sent against the attacker but both fell. Liu Bei’s sworn brother, Guan Yu, offered to go and fight Hua Xiong but Yuan Shu and Yuan Shao were outraged that a simple foot soldier should speak out of turn. Cao Cao saw ability in Guan Yu and convinced the Yuans to allow Guan Yu to fight Hua Xiong. Guan Yu felled his opponent quickly. Despite the victory, the Yuans begun to argue with Liu Bei’s other sworn brother, Zhang Fei, but Cao Cao intervened and kept matters calm. That night, Mengde sent meat and wine to Liu Bei and his two brothers.
Hearing of the defeat of Hua Xiong, Dong Zhuo sent fifty thousand troops to reinforce the River Si Pass while leading an army of one hundred and fifty thousand to Tiger Trap Pass, fifteen miles from the capital. When they arrived, a stockade was erected outside the pass, at which Lü Bu was stationed with thirty thousand troops. Cao Cao recommended an opposing force be sent against Dong Zhuo, so Gongsun Zan, Wang Kuang, Bao Xin, Qiao Mao, Yuan Yi, Kong Rong, Tao Qian, Zhang Yan and Cao Cao all moved their armies to attack Tiger Trap Pass. Their initial attack was unsuccessful as Lü Bu’s forces quickly scattered the armies of Wang Kuang, Yuan Yi and Qia Mao. During a second engagement the allies lost more troops including two generals who were killed by Lü Bu himself. Soon Lü Bu’s army attacked again but were repelled when Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei fought Lü Bu himself and caused him to retreat. News of this victory saw Sun Jian move against River Si Pass again and with his men being forced slowly back, Dong Zhuo ordered the capital to be abandoned and relocated to the easier to defend city of Chang’an. The residents of the capital, including the emperor, were driven out and marched to Chang’an while the city was looted and then burnt to the ground by Dong Zhuo’s men.
With Dong Zhuo’s army in retreat, both River Si Pass and Tiger Trap Pass were seized by the alliance. Cao Cao went to see Yuan Shao and asked, “Dong Zhuo has gone west. We ought to follow and attack his rear without loss of time. Why do you remain inactive?” but Yuan Shao felt that nothing could be gained from an attack and that it was better to rest the armies. Mengde disagreed, “This moment was most propitious in the utter confusion that reigned: palaces burned, the Emperor abducted, the whole world upset, and no one knowing where to turn. A single blow could exterminate Dong Zhuo. Why not pursue?” but all the lords agreed with Yuan Shao and would not act. “Those unworthy people cannot discuss worthy things!” cried Cao Cao and then he led his army of ten thousand men in pursuit of Dong Zhuo.
Cao Cao caught up with Dong Zhuo’s army just past Yingyang and rode forward shouting, “Rebels, abductors, drovers of the people, where are you going?” Xiahou Dun rode out and engaged Lü Bu but almost immediately, Dong Zhuo’s men attacked Cao Cao’s forces from both the left and the right. The attack on three fronts was too much and Cao Cao’s defeated army had to pull back to Yingyang. As the army reformed and a meal was being prepared, an ambush sprung up around them led by Yingyang’s governor Xu Rong. Cao Cao mounted his horse and fled but ran straight into the way of Xu Rong. As Mengde turned and rode away, Xu Rong fired an arrow that hit Cao Cao in the shoulder. Not pausing to remove the arrow, Cao Cao continued to flee but as he went over a hill, two soldiers dashed out and brought down his horse. The soldiers seized Cao Cao but just then Cao Hong rode up and cut down the two captors. Mengde said, “I am doomed, go and save yourself!” but Cao Hong gave up his horse and replied, “The world can do without Cao Hong but not without you my lord!” Cao Cao mounted the horse and the two men continued their escape until they reached a wide stream. “This is my fate, I really am doomed!” exclaimed Cao Cao. Cao Hong took Mengde down from the horse, took the wounded man on his back and then waded into the stream. By the time they reached the other side, their pursuers had almost caught up with them and fired arrows across the stream. The two men continued their flight for another ten miles, where they sat and rested under a precipice. Suddenly there was shouting and Xu Rong with a party of horsemen appeared but at that moment, Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan with their men arrived. Xiahou Dun quickly killed Xu Rong and ran off the enemy troops. Soon Cao Cao’s other generals arrived but the greetings were mixed with sadness and joy. Only a few hundred men remained of the ten thousand so the defeated army marched back to Luoyang.
They were welcomed back to Luoyang back Yuan Shao and a feast was prepared to console them. During the banquet, Cao Cao said sadly, “My object was for the public good, and all you gentlemen nobly supported me. My plan was to get Yuan Shao with his Henei troops to approach Mengching; and my force at Qiao to keep Chenggao; while the others of you to hold Suanzao, to close the passes of Huanyuan and Daigu, and to take possession of the granaries, to control the points of vantage, and thus to secure the Capital District. I planned for Yuan Shu with his Nanyang army to occupy the counties of Danshi and Xilin and go into Wu Pass to help the three supports. All were to fortify their positions and not to fight. Advantage lay in a diverse military coalition that could show the empire a possibility of dealing with the rebellion. We could have convinced the people to side with us against Dong Zhuo. Victory would have been ours at once. But then came delays and doubts and inaction, and the confidence of the people was lost, and I am ashamed.” None of the lords present could make any reply. Cao Cao knew that the other lords did not trust him and that nothing could be accomplished, so he led his troops off to Yanzhou. Soon afterwards, the alliance between the warlords crumbled. In the months that followed, Dong Zhuo would be slain by Lü Bu but the tyrant’s generals, Li Jue and Guo Si, would attack and seize the capital forcing the assassin to seek refuge with Yuan Shu. Meanwhile, Cao Cao became Governor of Dongjun and drew together another army.
When another Yellow Scarves rebellion broke out in Qingzhou, Cao Cao was ordered to suppress it along with Bao Xin. The two lords attacked the rebels at Shouyang with Bao Xin leading the charge and were victorious over the rebels, although Bao Xin was killed. Ten thousand of the rebels surrendered, so Cao Cao added them to his own army and placed the defectors in the vanguard. Wherever the army went, more rebels surrendered and Mengde’s army quickly grew and this continued for three months. The best of these newly gained troops were made the Quingzhou Army while the others were sent home. Cao Cao’s fame quickly spread and for his successes, he was given the title General Who Guards the East.
Liu Dai submitted control of Yanzhou to Cao Cao, which became Mengde’s headquarters. While here, he recruited wise counsellors and bold warriors. Included in these new recruits were Xun Yu, Xun You, Cheng Yu, Guo Jia, Liu Ye, Man Chong, Lü Qian, Mao Jie and Yu Jin. Then one day Xiahou Dun brought a man to Cao Cao and said, “He is named Dian Wei and he is from Chenliu. He is the boldest of the bold, the strongest of the strong. He was one of Zhang Miao’s people, but quarrelled with his tent companions and killed some dozens of them with his fists. Then he fled to the mountains where I found him. I was out shooting and saw him follow a tiger across a stream. I persuaded him to join my troop, and I recommend him. He killed a man once to avenge a friend and carried his head through the whole market place. Hundreds saw him, but dared not come near. The weapon he uses now is a pair of spears, each weighs a hundred and twenty pounds, and he vaults into the saddle with these under his arm.” Mengde was impressed and asked the man to give a demonstration of his skill. A group of soldiers nearby were vainly trying to keep a huge banner upright in the strong wind, so Dian Wei sent the men away and held the banner perfectly upright with only one hand. Dian Wei was assigned a post in the headquarters and given a fast horse with a beautiful saddle. Cao Cao even presented his own finely embroidered robe as a gift to the newcomer.
Mengde wished to be reunited with his father who was presently living at Langye so the Governor of Taishan, Ying Shao, was dispatched to escort Cao Song and his family of forty to Yanzhou. Their route passed through the Xuzhou Region where the Imperial Protector, Tao Qian, greeted them. Qian wished to be on good terms with Cao Cao so he treated the travellers with great hospitality and when they set off, he personally accompanied them for a while. From there, he had one of his generals, Zhang Kai, along with five hundred men escort the Cao family for the rest of the journey. However, Zhang Kai and his men were former rebels who had submitted to Tao Qian through lack of choice and they soon killed the Cao family and stole their possessions. Ying Shao survived and fled to Yuan Shao for protection while the bandits went to the South of River Huai. Some of the servants escaped and told Cao Cao of his family’s fate. Mengde fell to the ground and uttered a great cry when told of his father’s death. Once raised he snarled through gritted teeth, “Tao Qian’s people have slain my father: No longer can the same sky cover us. I will sweep Xuzhou off the face of the earth. Only thus can I satisfy my vengeance.” Thirty thousand men were assigned under Xun Yu and Cheng Yu to guard the headquarters while the rest of the army was mobilised to Xuzhou with orders to slaughter all residents of every city they captured. The huge army marched under a banner that had one word inscribed on it: ‘Vengeance’.
Bian Rang, the Governor of Jiujiang, was a friend of Tao Qian and marched five thousand troops to Xuzhou. However, Cao Cao heard of this move and sent Xiahou Dun to destroy the army and kill Bian Rang before they could get there. Chen Gong, who had lived peacefully in Dongjun since leaving Cao Cao, went to see his former companion in the hope that he could prevent the intended slaughter of Xuzhou. At first, Cao would not grant Chen Gong an audience but eventually consented after remembering the kindness he had received from Chen. The visitor said, “They say you go to avenge your father’s death on Xuzhou, to destroy its people. I have come to say a word. Imperial Protector Tao Qian is humane and a good man. He is not looking out for his own advantage, careless of the means and of others. Your worthy father met his unhappy death at the hands of Zhang Kai. Tao Qian is guiltless. Still more innocent are the people, and to slay them would be an evil. I pray you think over it.” but Cao Cao angrily replied, “You once abandoned me and now you have the impudence to come to see me! Tao Qian slew my whole family, and I will tear his heart out in revenge. I swear it! You may speak for your friend and say what you will. I shall be as if I heard not.” Chen Gong took his leave and then set off to Chenliu to serve Zhang Miao. The army continued it’s march, laying waste to all in it’s path.
When Cao Cao’s army reached Xuzhou, he rode forth dressed in white mourning robes to abuse Tao Qian. Tao Qian bowed low and said, “I wished to make friends with you, Illustrious Sir, and so I sent Zhang Kai to escort your family. I knew not that his rebel heart was still unchanged. The fault does not lie at my door as you must see.” but Cao Cao spat, “You old wretch! You killed my father, and now you dare mumble this nonsense,” and sent Xiahou Dun out to attack. The combat was interrupted by a storm so both armies drew off. During the temporary reprieve, Tao Qian wrote letters to Kong Rong of Beihai and Tien Kai requesting aid. Both men marched armies to aid Xuzhou but camped at a great distance from Cao Cao’s army, as both were fearful of Mengde. Cao Cao received a letter from Liu Bei asking that the siege be reconsidered, but this only strengthened Mengde’s resolve. “Who is this Liu Bei that he dares write and exhort me?” shouted Cao Cao. He ordered the messenger to be put to death and the siege to be renewed, but Guo Jia intervened, “Liu Bei has come from afar to help Tao Qian, and he is trying the effect of politeness before resorting to arms. I pray you, my lord, reply with fair words that his heart may be lulled with a feeling of safety. Then attack with vigour and the city will fall.” This advice pleased Cao, so he spared the messenger. However, at this time, a horseman came bearing news that Lü Bu had invaded Yanzhou and that Juancheng, Fanxia and Dongjun were suffering fierce attacks (5). Cao Cao was deeply disturbed by this and said “If my own region is lost the I will have no home to return to. I must do something at once.” Guo Jia suggested befriending Liu Bei and returning to Yanzhou. Mengde agreed, so he wrote a letter to Liu Bei and then ordered the army to withdraw (6).
5: Lü Bu had been refused refuge by Yuan Shu so instead, he went to Yuan Shao. However, his arrogance irritated Yuan Shao’s generals who wanted to kill him. Lü Bu then went to serve Zhang Yang in Shangdang but Li Jue and Guo Si wrote to Zhang Yang demanding Lü Bu’s execution. Lü Bu fled and ended up with Zhang Miao, the Governor of Chenliu, who deployed his new General against Cao Cao’s territory.
6: After Cao Cao’s withdrawl, Tao Qian tries to hand over the region to Liu Bei. Liu Bei repeatedly refuses and camps at Xiao Pei.
Cao Cao’s army marched to Puyang where Lü Bu was stationed with fifty thousand soldiers. The two armies arrayed in open land and Mengde, mounted on horseback, sat between his two banners watching the enemy manoeuvre. Cao Cao rode forth and pointing to Lü Bu shouted, “You and I had no quarrel, why then did you invade my land?” but Lü Bu replied, “The empire of Han is the possession of all. What is your special claim?” and ordered Zang Ba to challenge. Cao Cao sent Yu Jing to engage the enemy, but neither man could gain an advantage. Xiahou Dun also rode out but was engaged by Zhang Liao. Lü Bu became angry and charged forward, forcing Cao Cao’s army to retreat. Mengde regrouped his troops, ordered a new camp to be made and then called his officers to a council. Yu Jin suggested attacking the lightly guarded enemy camp to the West of Puyang and Cao Cao readily agreed. That night Cao led an army of twenty thousand men against the western camp and captured it easily. However, reinforcements led by Lü Bu soon arrived and forced Cao to flee. However, he quickly found there to be no way out and cried out in fear, “Who can save me?” With that Dian Wei burst forth and cut a path out, leading Mengde to safety. As soon as they had made it back to the safety of their camp, Lü Bu attacked but was driven off by Xiahou Dun. Cao Cao gave Dian Wei a promotion and rewarded him greatly.
While trying to establish the next course of action, Cao Cao received a secret letter from the Tian family promising him help from within the city. The letter said that the people hated Lü Bu and that the signal would be a white flag with the word ‘Rectitude’ written on it. “Heaven is going to give me Puyang!” said Cao Cao happily. Liu Ye advised caution and advised that Mengde should only take one third of the army with him, leaving the other two thirds outside as reinforcements. Cao Cao saw this advice was good and took the advised precautions. When he reached Puyang, he carefully looked at each of the flags until he spotted the signal flag at the west gate and he quietly rejoiced. At noon the gates of the city opened and a body of troops emerged to give battle. However, before any fighting could begin, the army drew back into the city but a few soldiers broke away and came to Cao Cao. These soldiers came bearing letters from the Tian family saying that they would beat a gong within the city as the signal to begin the attack. Cao Cao ordered the army to advance and took his place at the front despite the objections of Li Dian.
As night fell Mengde heard a commotion within the city followed by the signal gong and saw the gates being thrown wide open. Cao led the advance but as he reached the state residence he noticed that the streets were deserted and realised that he had been tricked. As he gave the order to retreat, a bomb went off and an ambush sprung up around them led by Lü Bu’s generals Zang Ba and Zhang Liao. As he rode away, Cao Cao found that the gates out of the city were blocked and that there was no way out. The situation worsened as he became separated from his men, so he desperately tried the north gate again. As he got there he saw silhouetted against the glow of the ambush fires, the imposing figure of Lü Bu. With no way out, Cao Cao covered his face with his hand and rode straight past Lü Bu but then he felt a tapping on his helmet and Lü Bu’s voice boomed, “Where is Cao Cao?” Mengde turned and pointed to a horseman in the distance, “There, that is Cao Cao!” and was relieved as Lü Bu wheeled his steed, Red Hare, around and set off after the horseman. Cao rode away quickly for the east gate, where he met up with Dian Wei. The two men fought their way to the gate but found that it was engulfed in flames. Slowly making their way through the fire and smoke, Cao Cao looked up to see a burning beam falling towards him. He managed to ward it off with his arm but the beam badly burnt him and brought down his horse. Xiahou Yuan arrived at that time and helped Dian Wei to get Cao Cao out of the city.
At daybreak, they returned to their camp and Cao Cao went to his tent to recover while his officers waited anxiously for news of his health. Soon Cao Cao sat with his officers, laughing at how he had blundered into such a simple trap. He then said, “I will turn his trick to my own use. I will spread a false report that I was burned in the fire, and that I died during the night. He will come to attack as soon as the news gets abroad, and I will have an ambush ready for him in Maling Hills. I will get him this time.” With this, the soldiers were all ordered to wear mourning dress and soon Lü Bu heard of Cao Cao’s “death”. As expected, Lü Bu marched his army through the Mailing Hills and fell into the ambush that was prepared for him. Lü Bu managed to escape back to Puyang but he had lost many men. Soon afterwards famine spread across the country and Cao Cao’s army found themselves short on supplies. Mengde ordered the army to withdraw to Juancheng.
Shortly news came from Xuzhou that Tao Qian had died and given control of the region to Liu Bei. Cao Cao was angry, “I have missed my revenge. This Liu Bei has simply stepped into command of the region without expending half an arrow: He sat still and attained his desire. But I will put him to death and then dig up Tao Qian’s corpse in revenge for the death of my noble father!” and was intent upon a new campaign against Xuzhou. Xun Yu begged Cao Cao to reconsider, pointing out that Lü Bu would certainly attack them from behind if they set off. He suggested attacking three cities held by Yellow Scarves, Chencheng, Yingchuan and Runan in order to gain food and the stores of treasure that the rebels had plundered. Mengde saw that this was a wiser course of action and so personally led the army against Chencheng, which quickly fell to him. Soon the army set off for Runan and Yingchuan and at Goat Hill, they encountered the rebels who fell easily to Cao Cao’s might. However, one of the rebel leaders, He Yi, fled to the Kobei hills and was pursued by Dian Wei. Later in the day, soldiers returned from the hills bringing news that Dian Wei had duelled for hours against a man who had single-handedly captured hundreds of the rebels. Amazed by this story, Mengde set off for the hills to see this contest for himself. When he saw Dian Wei’s opponent, Cao knew that he must gain this man’s services and ordered Dian Wei to feign defeat. When Dian Wei retreated from the duel, the man rode hard in pursuit and fell into a pit trap that had been prepared by Cao Cao. He was made prisoner and brought before Cao Cao who loosened his bonds and asked him to sit. The man introduced himself as Xu Chu and he related his struggles against the rebels. Mengde asked him to join his army and quickly received Xu Chu’s formal submission. Xu Chu was made general and the captured rebel leaders were executed.
With Runan and Yingchuan pacified, the army returned to Jiancheng. The city of Yanzhou was barely defended so Cao Cao launched an immediate attack on it, killing the two leaders charged with defending the city. Next the army marched on Puyang where Lü Bu came out to give challenge. Xu Chu went out and fought with Lü Bu but neither man showed any signs of advantage, so Cao Cao dispatched Dian Wei to attack from another direction. Lü Bu still showed no signs of weakness so Cao Cao sent the Xiahous to attack the left and Li Dian and Yue Jin to attack the right. Lü Bu could not withstand six opponents and so retired to the city but found the drawbridge had been raised. The Tian family had seen Lü Bu’s defeat and had switched allegiances to Cao Cao, forcing Lü Bu to flee to Dingtao. Soon Mengde occupied Puyang and he pardoned the Tian family’s previous doings.
Determined to hunt down Lü Bu, Cao ordered the army to advance to Dingtao where a stockade was built at the edge of a wood. It was harvest time so Cao Cao sent his troops to cut wheat. Soon Lü Bu arrived at the stockade but quickly turned and withdrew. Cao Cao knew why Lü Bu had retired and said to his men, “He fears an ambush in the wood, we will set up flags there and deceive him. There is a long embankment near the camp but behind it there is no water. There we will lay an ambush to fall upon Lü Bu when he comes to burn the wood.” With the exception of fifty drummers, Mengde sent his entire army to hide behind the embankment while he recruited peasants to loiter within the stockade, making it look occupied. The next day, Lü Bu returned and burned the wood as expected. When no troops came rushing out, Lü Bu went over to inspect the stockade and fell into Cao’s ambush. Two-thirds of Lü Bu’s troops were killed in the confusion along with the general Cheng Lian. Lü Bu himself barely escaped. Cao Cao’s army then attacked Dingtao and met with no resistance. The whole northeast was now under Mengde’s control and he set about rebuilding the cities and their defences. Cao Cao memorialised the throne and was awarded the title General Who Exhibits Firm Virtue and was made Lord of Feiting.
Months later, news reached Cao Cao that the Emperor had relocated to Luoyang (7) so he called his advisors together. Xun Yu suggested that Cao should offer his army in protecting the Emperor and helping him restore order, so that Mengde could gain universal regard. Cao Cao at once prepared his army, but before they could move, a messenger arrived from the Emperor requesting Cao Cao’s aid. Having the decree from the Emperor was exactly what Cao wanted, so his army set off immediately. As they marched towards the capital, word reached them that Li Jue and Guo Si were also heading for the capital. Xiahou Dun was sent to ride ahead of the main force with fifty thousand veteran soldiers to protect the Emperor. After they left, Cao Cao feared that the advance force may not be enough and so he sent Cao Hong, Li Dian and Yue Jin to reinforce Xiahou Dun.
7: The Emperor tired of Li Jue and Guo Si’s abuses of power and turned them against each other. Li Jue kidnapped the Emperor while Guo Si burned the palace down and a three month seige ensued between the two. Yang Feng, Dong Chen and Han Xian rescued the Emperor from his captors and, at the Emperor’s command they return to the original capital, Luoyang.
When Cao Cao reached Luoyang, he went into the city for an audience with the Emperor. He knelt at the foot of the steps, but the Emperor called Cao to stand beside him and be thanked. Mengde replied, “Having been the recipient of great bounty, thy servant owes the state much gratitude. The measure of evil of the two rebels is full, I have two hundred thousand of good soldiers to oppose them, and those soldiers are fully equal to securing the safety of Your Majesty and the Throne. The preservation of the state sacrifice is the matter of real moment.” Cao Cao was appointed Commander of Capital District and Minister of War. He was also given Military Insignia.
Soon Li Jue and Guo Si attacked the city, so Cao Cao sent Cao Ren, Xu Chu and Dian Wei to oppose them with three hundred horsemen. Xu Chu took the heads of Li Jue’s nephews, Li Xian and Li Bie and brought them before Mengde. Cao patted Xu Chu on the back saying, “You are really my Fan Kuai!” (8) Following this success, Cao Cao himself led his army against the rebels, killing ten thousand of Li Jue and Guo Si’s men and receiving the surrender of many more. With their army destroyed, the two rebel leaders fled to the hills. Yang Feng and Han Xian, jealous of Cao’s successes and fearing there would be no place for them, withdrew their armies to Daliang.
8: Fan Kuai was a general who served under Liu Bang (the founder of The Han Dynasty). The two lived in Pei together and Fan Kuai served Liu Bang until his death in 189 BC
One day a messenger arrived from the Emperor to summon Cao Cao. Mengde noticed that the messenger looked plump and well despite everyone else being hungry and famine stricken. The messenger explained that he had always lived on meagre rations and introduced himself as Dong Zhao. Cao Cao stood up and went over to the messenger and told him, “I have heard of you. How happy I am to meet you!” Cao called Xun Yu in to be introduced, and the three men sat drinking wine and talking about affairs of state. Dong Zhao advised that the capital should be moved to Xuchang and that while many would object, the rewards for such a move would make it worthwhile. “Exactly my own inclination!” replied Cao Cao, seizing his guest’s hand. “But are there not dangers? Yang Feng at Daliang and the court officials!” Zhao suggested writing to Yang Feng to set his mind at rest while explaining to the court officials that as there is no food in the capital, it would be better to go to Xuchang. As Dong Zhao left, Cao Cao took his hands again and said, “I shall need your advice in future affairs.” Then Cao Cao and his advisors began discussing the change of capital.
Soon Cao Cao heard that the Court Counsellor and astrologer, Wang Yi had written a letter to the Emperor predicting the end of The Han Dynasty and that it would be succeeded by the ancient state of Wei (9) Cao consulted Xun Yu who explained that the stars favoured Mengde if he could relocate the capital to Xuchang. The next day, Cao Cao addressed the court, “Luoyang is deserted and cannot be restored, nor can it be supplied easily with food. Xuchang is a noble city, resourceful and close to Luyang, which is a grain basin. It is everything that a capital should be. I venture to request that the court move thither.” No one, not even the Emperor dared to oppose the suggestion, and so the capital was moved. On the set day, Cao Cao commanded the escort but they had not travelled far before he found the way barred by Han Xian and Yang Feng. At the front of their force was Yang Feng’s general Xu Huang. Cao Cao rode forward and ordered Xu Chu to fight the enemy general but after fifty bouts, Mengde signalled Xu Chu to retire. Cao Cao called a meeting and said to his advisors, “The two rebels themselves need not be discussed; but Xu Huang is a fine general, and I was unwilling to use any great force against him. I want to win him over to our side.” and so Man Chong volunteered to go and see Xu Huang as they were old friends. Man Chong was successful and Xu Huang quickly set off with a few horsemen for Cao Cao’s camp. Yang Feng heard of Xu Huang’s defection and quickly set off after him. Cao Cao had expected this and laid in wait for him. As Yang Feng caught up with Xu Huang, the ambush sprung up around him. Cao Cao shouted, “I have been waiting here a long time. Do not run away!” and a confused battle began. Han Xian arrived as reinforcements and succeeded in helping Yang Feng escape, but the two men had few troops left and so went to Yuan Shu.
9: Wei was a state during The Warring States period.
The next day Cao Cao ordered the cavalcade to resume it’s journey. They eventually arrived at Xuchang, where they built palaces, a temple and altar and all the other necessary buildings. Those who had given good and poor service were then respectively awarded with rewards and punishments. Cao Cao had sole decision over these and Dong Cheng, along with thirteen others, were raised to the rank of Lordship. Cao Cao became Prime Minister, Regent Marshal and Lord of Wuping, while his generals and advisors all received titles and promotions. Cao Cao now held absolute power over the court; all memorials to the Emperor went first to him before the throne. When all had settled, Cao Cao called all his advisors to a banquet to discuss affairs outside the capital. “Liu Bei has his army at Xuzhou, and he carries on the administration of the region. Lü Bu fled to Liu Bei when defeated, and Liu Bei gave Lü Bu Xiao Pei to live in. If these two agreed to join forces and attack, my position would be most serious. What precautions can be taken?” asked Cao Cao of his advisers. Xun Yu suggested, “Liu Bei has no decree authorizing him to govern the region. You, Sir Prime Minister, can procure one for him, and when sending it, and so conferring upon him right in addition to his might, you can enclose a private note telling him to get rid of Lü Bu. If he does, then he will have lost a vigorous warrior from his side, and he could be dealt with as occasions serve. Should he fail, then Lü Bu will slay him.” Cao Cao was delighted with this plan and promptly memorialised the throne accordingly. Liu Bei was made General Who Conquers the East, Lord of Yicheng and Imperial Protector of Xuzhou. A messenger was given the official decree along with a secret letter from Cao Cao and then dispatched to Liu Bei.
When the messenger returned, he brought a letter from Liu Bei stating that it would take time to plan and implement Lü Bu’s death. However, the messenger told Mengde that Liu Bei had actually told Lü Bu of the letter from Cao Cao and had vowed not to kill him. “The plan has failed. What next?” asked Cao Cao of his advisors. Xun Yu had another plan, “Send to Yuan Shu to say that Liu Bei has sent up a secret memorial to the Throne that he wishes to subdue the southern regions around the Huai River. Yuan Shu will be angry and attack him. Then you will order Liu Bei to dispose of Yuan Shu and so set them destroying each other. Lü Bu will certainly think that is his chance and turn traitor.” Cao Cao liked this plan and sent a messenger with a false edict to Liu Bei. Xun Yu’s plan worked perfectly; soon Lü Bu had seized Xuzhou and had forced Liu Bei to flee to Xuchang. Cao Cao received Liu Bei’s messenger, Sun Qian, and was very friendly to him, saying “Liu Bei is as my brother.” Liu Bei was invited to the city and when he arrived, Cao Cao treated him with great respect and said of Lü Bu, “He has no sense of right, you and I, my brother, will attack him together.” Liu Bei was grateful and, after a great banquet, retired to his camp outside the city’s walls.
After Liu Bei had left, Cao Cao met with Xun Yu who advised killing Liu Bei while the opportunity was present. Mengde made no reply to this suggestion and chose to consult Guo Jia, to whom he said, “I have been advised to kill Liu Bei: What of such a scheme?” Guo Jia advised against this plan, pointing out that killing a man who had come for help would certainly reflect badly on Cao Cao and would alienate potential allies. “What you say exactly fits in with what I think,” said Cao Cao. Mengde then memorialised the Emperor to bestow the Imperial Protectorship of Yuzhou on Liu Bei. Hearing of this, Cheng Yu came to see his master and also advised killing Liu Bei, but Cao Cao responded, “Now is just the time to make use of good people. I will not forfeit the regard of the world for the sake of removing one individual. Guo Jia and I both see this in the same light.” From there, he would hear no further suggestions of assassination and sent three thousand troops with ten thousand carts of grain to aid Liu Bei in attacking Lü Bu. When Liu Bei reached Yuzhou he informed Cao Cao, who prepared to march his army in support. Just then, news came that Liu Biao and Zhang Xiu had joined forces and were preparing to attack the capital. Cao knew that to attack these two would allow Lü Bu the opportunity to attack the capital and so he consulted Xun Yu. The advisor suggested obtaining a promotion for Lü Bu and ordering him to make peace with Liu Bei so that he would hold his place. Cao Cao sent a messenger to Lü Bu bearing the promotion while he prepared to march south.
Cao Cao marched his army of one hundred and fifty thousand troops in three divisions to River Yu and made a camp. Soon Zhang Xiu’s advisor, Jia Xu, came proposing his master’s submission. Admiring Jia Xu’s abilities, Cao Cao tried to convince him to leave Zhang Xiu’s service but Jia Xu refused. The next day, Zhang Xiu arrived and Cao Cao met him with great generosity. Cao Cao then entered Wancheng with a small force where he was entertained nightly with great banquets. One day Cao was feeling exceptionally happy and he asked his attendants if there were any singing girls in the city. His nephew, Cao Amin, recommended Zhang Xiu’s aunt who he described as beautiful. Cao Cao was eager to meet the woman and sent his nephew to bring her to him. Cao Amin quickly set off with an armed escort and soon brought the woman before Cao Cao. The woman was indeed as beautiful as described and introduced herself to her host as Lady Zhou. Cao Cao said to her, “It was for your sake that I allowed Zhang Xiu to submit; otherwise I would have slain him and cut him off root and branch. To see you is a glimpse of paradise, but there is one thing I should like better. Stay here and go with me to the capital where I will see that you are properly cared for. What do you say to that, my lady?” The woman thanked him and moved to Cao Cao’s camp immediately. Dian Wei was appointed to guard over her and Mengde was the only person allowed to see her. Cao Cao spent his days with her, content to let time pass them by. However, their relationship angered Zhang Xiu and he started to plot against Cao Cao. Soon Zhang Xiu visited Mengde. He told Cao that the surrendered troops were deserting, and suggested they should be placed in the centre of Cao Cao’s camp to stop further desertion. Cao Cao permitted this and soon Zhang Xiu’s troops arrived.
One night Cao Cao was having supper with Lady Zhou when he heard a commotion outside the tent. He sent to find out what was going on and was informed that it was simply the night patrol passing by. Later in the night, again a commotion could be heard from the rear of the tent and Cao Cao was informed that one of the fodder carts was burning. This did not worry him but soon the fire spread and so Cao Cao summoned Dian Wei. However, Dian Wei was intoxicated as Zhang Xiu had deliberately incapacitated him and was unresponsive. Eventually roused, Dian Wei went out to hold the main gate while Cao Cao fled by the rear gate accompanied by Cao Amin who was on foot. An arrow struck Mengde in the arm while his horse was hit by three arrows, but the powerful beast continued on despite it’s wounds. As they reached the River Yu, some of the pursuers caught up and hacked Cao Amin to pieces. Mengde dashed into the river and had just reached the other side when his horse was hit in the eye by an arrow and killed. Cao Ang, the eldest son of Cao Cao, gave up his horse to his father and urged him on. Cao Ang was quickly killed by a flight of arrows as his father made away. Soon Cao Cao fell in with several of his officers and a few troops.
Soon Cao Cao met with Xiahou Dun’s troops who reported that Yu Jin had turned traitor and attacked them. This surprised Mengde and so he gave the order for Xiahou Dun, Li Dian, Yue Jin and Xu Chu to attack the rogue officer. As they approached Yu Jin’s army they saw that he was constructing a camp, and as Yu Jin finished his construction Zhang Xiu attacked him. . Zhang Xiu was overcome and lost nearly all of his troops, forcing him to flee to Liu Biao for refuge. Yu Jin then came before Cao Cao and told him how Xiahou Dun’s troops, the Qingzhou army (10), were plundering, so Yu Jin’s men had attacked them in order to protect the people. He explained also that he had ordered a camp to be made as he felt it was paramount to protect himself from the enemy and could explain his actions later. (11) Cao Cao said, “When the first thought of a leader in the time of greatest stress is to maintain order and to strengthen his defences, giving no thought to slander but shouldering his burdens bravely, and when he thereby turns a defeat into a victory, who, even of the ancient leaders, can excel Yu Jin?” Yu Jin was rewarded with golden armour and the lordship of Yishou while Xiahou Dun was reprimanded for the lack of discipline amongst his soldiers. Soon sacrifices were made for Dian Wei with Cao Cao himself leading the mourning. To his officers he said, “I have lost my first born son, but I grieve not so heavily for him as for Dian Wei. I weep for him!” Once the mourning was completed, the army returned to the capital where Cao Cao took into his care Dian Wei’s son, Dian Man.
10: The Qingzhou army were the army solely comprised of former Yellow Scarves rebels.
11: Yu Jin had earlier said to one of his men, “Our enemies are coming up in our rear and are very close. It is necessary to prepare for defense or we shall not withstand them. Explanation is a small matter, but defense is very important.”
Soon afterwards, Chen Deng came from Lü Bu as a messenger with Yuan Shu’s messenger, Han Yin, as a captive (12). With him he brought a letter of thanks and a letter asking to be confirmed as the Imperial Protector of Xuzhou. Cao Cao was pleased to hear that the marriage arrangement had broken down and promptly put Han Yin to death in the market place. Afterwards, Chen Deng secretly told Cao Cao, “Lü Bu is cruel, stupid, and facile. The longer he remains, the worse.” Cao replied, “I know Lü Bu quite well, he is a wolf with a savage heart, and it will be hard to feed him for long. If it had not been for you and your father, I should not have known all the circumstances and you must help me to get rid of him. (13)” Cao Cao rewarded the two men; Chen Deng was given the governorship of Guangling while his father was given an annual grant of two thousand carts of rice. As Chen Deng prepared to leave for Xuzhou, Cao Cao took him by the hand and said, “I shall depend upon you in the eastern affairs.” Soon word reached Cao Cao that Yuan Shu was marching to attack Xuzhou so he sent a messenger to Sun Ce appointing him Governor of Kuaji and ordering him to attack Yuan Shu (14). Sun Ce wrote back proposing a joint attack instead. Shortly after receiving Sun Ce’s reply, a report came that Yuan Shu was short of food and had raided Chenliu. Feeling that this was an opportune moment, Cao Cao ordered an army of one hundred and seventy thousand men to begin the march south while Cao Ren was left to guard the capital. Summons were sent to Sun Ce, Liu Bei and Lü Bu. As the army reached the border of Yuzhou they met with Liu Bei who brought the severed heads of Han Xian and Yang Feng before the Prime Minister. The two men had been plundering the local people so Liu Bei had the men assassinated. Cao Cao praised Liu Bei saying, “You have removed an evil, which is a grand service.” The army continued their march and soon met with Lü Bu, who Cao Cao appointed General of the Left Army. The three armies were combined with Cao Cao in the centre while Lü Bu led the left wing, Liu Bei the right with Xiahou Dun and Yu Jin leading the van.
12: Han Yin had arranged for Lü Bu’s daughter to marry Yuan Shu’s son. Lü Bu broke off the marriage arrangement when Yuan Shu declared himself Emperor.
13: It was Chen Deng’s father who advised Lü Bu to break off the marriage.
14: After Sun Jian’s death at the hands of Liu Biao, Sun Ce took command of his father’s army. For some time he had served under Yuan Shu but had struck out on his own, conquering the old state of Wu.
Cao Cao’s army encountered Yuan Shu’s vanguard at Shouchun and scored a quick victory, killing the enemy general Qiao Rui and driving his troops back into the city. News came that Sun Ce’s fleet had arrived and would attack the city from the west, so Cao Cao ordered Lü Bu to attack the east and Liu Bei to attack the south, while his own army attacked the north. Cao Cao’s large army soon begun to run short of food and none could be gained from the surrounding area as it had suffered from famine for several years. Cao Cao stepped up military operations in order to capture the city faster but the defenders knew the value of delay. Mengde requested aid from Sun Ce who sent a hundred thousand carts of grain but soon the usual distribution became impossible. The Prime Minister met with the Chief of the Commissariat, Ren Jun, and the Controller of the Granaries, Wang Hou, to decide on a course of action. Cao Cao said to them, “Serve out with a smaller measure, that will save us for a time.” but the two men were concerned that the soldiers would complain. Cao assured them that if that were the case, then he had another plan. As ordered, Wang Hou served out smaller measures to the troops. Soon Cao Cao heard that the troops were indeed complaining and so he sent a secret summons to Wang Hou. When the Controller arrived, Cao Cao said to him, “I want to ask you to lend me something to pacify the soldiers with. You must not refuse. I want the loan of your head to expose to the soldiers.” Wang Hou exclaimed, “But I have done nothing wrong!” “I know that,” said Mengde, “but if I do not put you to death, there will be a mutiny. After you are gone, your wife and children shall be my care, so you need not grieve on their account.” Wang Hou was led out by the executioners and was beheaded. His head was mounted on a tall pole with a sign attached stating that he had been put to death in accordance with military law for issuing short measures of grain. This appeased the troops. Cao Cao then issued an order to take the city within three days and that failure would mean death. The Prime Minister himself supervised the work at the walls of the city, braving the defender’s constant showers of stones and arrows. Two lesser officers who left their stations in fear were slain by Cao Cao. After this, Cao Cao worked alongside the soldiers. Encouraged by their leader, the army became unstoppable and they quickly scaled the walls and battered down the gates. The officers of the city were captured and executed while all of Yuan Shu’s imperial paraphernalia was burned.
Cao Cao wished to follow up on this success by crossing the river to attack Yuan Shu but Xun Yu advised against it as food for the army was still an issue. Then a message arrived stating that Zhang Xiu, with Liu Biao’s support, was ravaging the surrounding country. Rebellions had broken out in Nanyang and Jiangling, and Cao Hong had been defeated in several encounters. Cao Cao immediately wrote to Sun Ce asking him to blockade the Great River to prevent any move on the part of Liu Biao, while Cao himself would go against Zhang Xiu. Before the army set out, Cao Cao ordered Liu Bei to station himself at Xiao Pei so that he and Lü Bu could be as brothers. However, once Lü Bu had left for Xuzhou, Mengde secretly said to Liu Bei, “I am leaving you at Xiaopei to dig a pitfall for the ‘tiger’. You will only take advice from Chen Deng and Chen Gui, and there can be no mishap. You will find an ally when needed.” Cao Cao then marched his army back to Xuchang where he sent a memorial to the Emperor stating that Zhang Xiu was in rebellion and that an army needed to be sent against him. The Emperor personally escorted Cao Cao out of the city when the expedition began.
As the army marched towards their destination, they passed through a wheat region. The peasants had not cut the wheat as they had fled at the news of the oncoming army. Cao Cao sent a proclamation to all the surrounding villages and towns, “I am sent on the expedition by command of the Emperor to capture a rebel and save the people. I cannot avoid moving in the harvest season; but if anyone tramples down the corn, he shall be put to death. Military law is strict without exception, and the people need fear no damage.” The local people were pleased and lined the road, wishing success to the army. When the soldiers passed wheat fields, they would dismount and push aside the stalks so that none were trampled. One day, as Cao Cao was riding through a field, a dove suddenly flew up, startling Cao’s horse so that it swerved into the wheat, trampling down a large patch. The Prime Minister at once called the Marshal and told him to decree the sentence, saying, “I made the rule, and I have broken it. Can I otherwise satisfy public opinion?” He then grasped his sword and went to take his own life, but those around him prevented him from doing so. Guo Jia said to him, “In ancient days the laws were not applied to those of the most important. You are the supreme leader of a mighty army and must not wound yourself.” Cao Cao thought for a long time and eventually said, “Since there exists the reason just quoted, I may perhaps escape the death penalty.” and with his sword he cut off his hair and threw it on the ground. “I cut off the hair as touching the head.” Then he sent messengers to exhibit the hair throughout the whole army, saying, “The Prime Minister, having trodden down some corn, ought to have lost his head by the terms of the order; now here is his hair cut off as an attack on the head.” This act served as an effective message to the troops and not one was disobedient after that (15).
15: A poet later wrote of this event:
A myriad soldiers march along and all are brave and bold,
And their myriad inclinations by one leader are controlled.
That crafty leader shore his locks when forfeit was his head,
O full of guile were thou, Cao Cao, as everyone has said.
Cao Cao’s army eventually came to Nanyang. Zhang Xiu himself rode in front of his army and shouted at Cao Cao, “O false and pretended supporter of benevolence and justice! O shameless one! You are just a beast of the forest, and absolutely devoid of humanity.” Greatly angered, Cao Cao sent Xu Chu against the enemy who killed Zhang Xian and drove the enemy back into the city. Mengde began the siege of the city, filling up the moat and building a large mound near the walls so that the inside of the city could be seen. He rode around the city, inspecting the defences and noticed that the southeast corner of the city’s wall had been repaired with poor quality bricks and that the defences were in disrepair. He then ordered a mound of earth and brushwood to be made at the northwest corner of the city in order to divert the enemy from the real attack. Soon the scouts reported that the city’s defenders had moved to the northwest and were making preparations for defence. “They have fallen into my trap!” said Cao Cao gleefully. He ordered his troops to attack the northwest but after a while, the veteran soldiers were dispatched to the opposite corner where they quietly climbed the wall and entered the city. However an ambush fell on them, the troops were totally defeated and Cao Cao’s army was sent into retreat. Cao Cao rallied his army but he had lost fifty thousand men and two of his generals, Yu Jin and Lü Qian were wounded. The army was ordered to withdraw. As the army retreated they marched through Xiangyang, and as they passed alongside the River Yu Cao Cao uttered a great cry. The officers nearby asked why he had cried out, to which he replied, “I remembered that here, only a year ago, I lost my great general: Dian Wei. Is that not a reason to grieve?” He then ordered the army to halt while he made sacrifice and mourned for the fallen warrior. Sacrifices were made for Cao Amin, Cao Ang, the soldiers who had died and even the steed that had carried Cao Cao across the river. The army was deeply affected by Cao Cao’s devotion.
The next day Cao Cao received a letter from Xun Yu informing him that Liu Biao had cut off the path of retreat and that Zhang Xiu was in pursuit. Mengde wrote back saying, “I have been marching only a short distance each day and of course knew of the pursuit. But my plans are laid and, as I am near Anzhong, my enemy will be broken. You need not have any fears.” The army’s march was then quickened until he neared Liu Biao’s position. Cao ordered his men to open a path through the pass during the night, and laid an ambush there. During the first light of dawn, Liu Biao and Zhang Xiu’s forces met and dashed at Cao Cao’s army. As they entered the pass, the ambush sprung around them and drove them back. Cao’s army then camped outside the pass. However, another letter arrived from Xun Yu with news that Yuan Shao was preparing for an attack on Xuchang. Alarmed by this, Mengde set out homeward immediately. Zhang Xiu and Liu Biao attempted another attack on the retreating army but where thwarted by the rearguard. A second attack was made and this time the rearguard was routed with the wagons and baggage being captured by Zhang Xiu’s men. When Cao Cao heard of this attack, he hastily turned back to support the rearguard but he saw the enemy drawing off. The defeated rearguard told him that they had been aided by troops that came from the hills. “What troops?” asked Cao Cao in surprise. The leader of the troops introduced himself as Li Tong, Imperial Commander, from Jiangxia. He had heard of the struggle and had come from Runan to lend his help. As a sign of his gratitude, Cao Cao bestowed upon him the title Lord Who Renders High Services and charged him with the defence of Runan against Liu Biao and Xhang Xiu. Li Tong expressed his thanks and then returned to Runan.
Upon returning to the capital, Cao Cao memorialised the Emperor in regard to the services rendered by Sun Ce (16). Xun Yu asked Mengde how he was so certain of victory at Anxhong, to which Cao replied, “My soldiers, who retire and find their retreat cut off, fight vigorously and desperately. I retired slowly to entice the enemy into following whereby I could do as I wished with them. Basing my movements on these considerations I felt secure.” Xun Yu bowed his head in admiration. Guo Jia then entered bearing a letter from Yuan Shao that expressed his desire to attack Gongsun Zan and requesting the loan of troops. Cao Cao said, “Yuan Shao was going to attack Xuchang. I suppose my return has made him change his intention,” and then he read the letter for himself. “Yuan Shao is so exceedingly rude that I will attack him,” said Cao Cao. “Only I think I am not quite strong enough. What should be done?” Guo Jia said, “My lord, you know well who lost, and why, in the conflict between Liu Bang, the Supreme Ancestor, and Xiang Yu, his rival. The former won only by superior wisdom. Xiang Yu was the stronger, but in the end he was overcome. Your rival has ten weak points whereas you have ten strong ones, and, though his army is large, it is not terrible. Yuan Shao is overmuch devoted to ceremony and deportment; while you are sympathetic and natural; this is an excellence in conduct. He is antagonistic and drives; you are conciliatory and lead; so you have the advantage of popular approval. For many years the government has been lax, and he makes it more so; you strive vigorously after efficiency; this is the excellence of able administration. He is outwardly liberal but grudging at heart, and too given to nepotism; you appear exacting, but you understand and use people after their ability; this is the advantage of correct appreciation. He is a visionary but lacking in decision; you are a man of prompt decision and direct action; this is an advantage in policy. He loves to gather about him people of renown; you treat people as you find them regardless of their reputation; this is where you excel in moral virtue. He is compassionate to those at hand, but careless about those out of sight; your care is all-embracing; this is where you excel in humanity. He lends a ready ear to calumny and is misled; you may be flooded with evil counsel, but you preserve independence; this is where you excel in perspicacity. His sense of right and wrong is confused; your appreciation is accurate and clear; this is where you excel in administrative capacity. He loves the make-believe force, but is ignorant of military essentials; you would overcome with far inferior numbers as you possess military genius; this is where you excel in war. With your ten superiorities, you will have no difficulty in overcoming Yuan Shao.” Cao Cao smiled and said, “How can I be worth as much as you say?” Xun Yu replied, “What Guo Jia has said about the ten points in your favor agrees exactly with what I think. Yuan Shao’s army is not formidable in spite of its size.” Cao Cao’s advisers suggested that they should launch an attack on Lü Bu once Yuan Shao had begun his march against Gongsun Zan, thereby ensuring that enemies would no longer surround the capital.
16: Sun Ce was made Lord of Wu with the title General Who Destroys Rebels.
Cao Cao wrote to Liu Bei to secure his aid against Lü Bu and also reassured Yuan Shao by obtaining promising aid in the campaign against Gongsun Zan. Unfortunately, Liu Bei’s reply to Mengde’s letter was intercepted by Chen Gong and taken to Lü Bu who attacked Liu Bei. Soon Liu Bei’s messenger, Jian Yong, arrived to inform the Prime Minister that Lü Bu was attacking Liu Bei at Xiao Pei. Cao Cao said, “I wish to attack Lü Bu. I fear not Yuan Shao, but Liu Biao and Zhang Xiu may attack me in the rear.” Xun You pointed out that the two men in question would not pose a threat as they had been recently defeated and would not be eager to fight again. Reassured, Cao Cao sent an army of fifty thousand in advance with four commanders; Xiahou Dun, Xiahou Yuan, Lü Qian and Li Dian. Mengde himself commanded the centre while Jian Yong brought up the rear. As the army reached Xiao Pei, Xiahou Dun engaged the enemy and killed the enemy general Cao Xing despite losing his left eye to an arrow. As Xiahou Dun retreated, Gao Shun attacked and routed the army. At this victory, Lü Bu attacked Xiao Pei and quickly occupied the city while scattering Liu Bei’s forces.
As Cao Cao approached Liangcheng, they fell in with Liu Bei. Liu Bei related to the Prime Minister how Xiao Pei had been lost, how his family had been captured and how he was not sure of the fate of his sworn brothers. Cao Cao shed tears at the story and sent a hundred ounces of silver to a hunter who had sheltered Liu Bei the previous night. The army continued its march to Jibei where Xiahou Yuan welcomed them. Mengde went to visit Xiahou Dun’s bedside and had him returned to Xuchang for skilled medical treatment. Shortly afterwards, scouts reported that Lü Bu had allied with bandits and was now attacking Yanzhou. Cao Cao charged Cao Ren with capturing Xiao Pei while he and Liu Bei went against Lü Bu. The Prime Minister’s army marched east and encountered the bandits at Mangdang Hills, but Xu Chu easily defeated them, forcing them back to Xiao Pass.
Meanwhile, Lü Bu marched from Xuzhou to reinforce Xiao Pei while, at Chen Deng’s suggestion, ordering all treasure and his own family to be moved to Xia Pi. Chen Deng wrote three notes to Cao Cao, tied them to arrows and shot them into Cao’s camp. Chen Deng then continued his machinations and successfully tricked Chen Gong and Lü Bu into fighting each other (17). Upon seeing Chen Deng’s signal, Cao Cao advanced his force as quickly as possible, easily defeating the bandits who held the pass. From there, the army marched on to Xiao Pei which was now under Cao Ren’s control (18). As they arrived they saw that Lü Bu’s army was in battle with a force led by Zhang Fei (19). Lü Bu quickly retreated when faced with Cao Cao’s force and fled east towards Xia Pi. Mengde then entered the captured city of Xuzhou with Liu Bei who had been recently reunited with his sworn brothers. Cao Cao held a huge banquet for the officers with Chen Gui and Liu Bei as guests of honour. At the end of the banquet, Cao praised the two Chens and rewarded them with the revenues of ten counties. In addition, the younger Chen was given the title of General Who Quells the Waves.
17: Chen Gong was told to retreat from the pass by Chen Deng while Lü Bu was advancing to reinforce. The armies encountered each other at night and, not recognising each other, fought until dawn.
18: Lü Bu and Chen Gong retreated to Xuzhou but Mi Zhu would not let them enter. They then retreated to Xiao Pei but halfway there encountered Zhang Liao and Gao Shun who had been dispatched by Chen Deng. Meanwhile, Cao Ren had occupied Xiao Pei.
19: During the pursuit of Lü Bu, Zhang Fei is reunited with Guan Yu.
Cao Cao turned his attention to the taking of Xia Pi. Cheng Yu advised against attacking Lü Bu, “If Lü Bu is pressed too hard, he may get clear by a desperate effort and throw himself into the arms of our especial enemy, Yuan Shu. These two as allies would be difficult to overcome. Rather send a capable man to guard the South of River Huai, one able to secure you against Lü Bu on one hand and to hold Yuan Shu on the other. Moreover the bandits are in Huashang Mountains and still our enemies. They must be watched.” Cao Cao replied, “I can keep the whole of Huashang Mountains, and I will request Liu Bei to take the south.” With their plan set, Cao Cao marched his army against Xia Pi. The army advanced all the way to the city without resistance (20) After the camp had been set up, Cao Cao stood at the foot of the city’s wall and called to Lü Bu. When Lü Bu appeared on top of the wall, Cao Cao said to him, “When I heard that your family and that of Yuan Shu were likely to be united by marriage, I sent an army against you. Yuan Shu was guilty of treason, while you had to your credit on the destruction of Dong Zhuo. For what reason have you sacrificed all your merits to throw in your lot with a rebel? It will be over late to regret when this city shall have fallen. But if you surrender and help me to support the ruling house, you shall not lose your rank.” Lü Bu asked the Prime Minister to withdraw his army so that they could discuss the matter but as he spoke, Chen Gong shot an arrow that hit Cao’s helmet. Pointing at Chen Gong, Mengde shouted, “I swear that I will slay you at least!” and then ordered the attack on the walls to begin.
20: Xia Pi was defended by the River Si and Lü Bu had a huge supply of grain. Rather than risk another defeat, he opted to stay defensive and let Cao Cao attack.
Cao Cao’s assault on the walls continued for days with Lü Bu offering no resistance. Later, Liu Bei brought one of Lü Bu’s generals, He Meng, before Cao Cao. The captured general had been returning from Yuan Shu’s territory where he had renewed the proposal of marriage. Yuan Shu had agreed to send troops to aid Lü Bu as soon as Lü Bu’s daughter had arrived. The Prime Minister was angry and ordered He Meng to be executed at the main gate. He then sent orders for extra care to be taken in ensuring that none of the besieged had any contact with the outer world, the penalty being rigorous punishment for any who failed. Within days Lü Bu, accompanied by three thousand troops, attempted to take his daughter to Yuan Shu but was beaten back into the city by Liu Bei and his brothers. After two months under seige and with no means of securing aid, Lü Bu took to wine.
Word reached Cao Cao that Kui Gu was leading an army from Henei to aid Lü Bu (21) and so Mengde sent Shi Huan to intercept this force and kill the leader. The Prime Minister called a counsel and said to his advisers, “We are threatened on the north by Yuan Shao, and on the west Liu Biao and Zhang Xiu are a menace. Here we meet with no success against the city of Xia Pi. We are for leaving Lü Bu to his fate and returning home. What do you think?” Xun Yu objected, advising a swift decisive attack. Guo Jia proposed such a plan, suggesting that the River Si and River Yi could be used to flood the city. Cao Cao was overjoyed by this suggestion and sent troops to cut the banks of the rivers while he moved his men to high ground. The city soon flooded with only the east gate being free of water.
21: Zhang Yang, the Governor of Henei, had wanted to come to the aid of Lü Bu but he was assassinated by one of his subordinates, Yang Chou. Yang Chou was bringing his master’s head to Cao Cao when he had been killed by Kui Gu, who was loyal to the Governor.
Soon afterwards Lü Bu’s general, Hou Cheng arrived at Mengde’s camp with Lü Bu’s steed, Red Hare. He explained that Wei Xu, Song Xian and himself intended to defect and that they would show a white flag to signal that the city’s gates were open. Upon hearing this, Cao Cao had notifications written out which were attached to arrows and shot over the wall. The notification read: “Regent Marshal Cao Cao has received a command from the Emperor to destroy Lü Bu. Those who interfere with the operations of his grand army, whatever their rank, shall be put to death in the gate on the day that the city shall be captured. Should anyone capture Lü Bu or bring his head, he shall be well rewarded. Let all take note of this.” At Dawn the next day, the white signal flag was raised and so Cao Cao begun his attack. The assault lasted until noon when the attackers drew off to rest. Soon afterwards the white was raised again and the traitors shouted from the city’s walls, “Lü Bu has been captured alive!” the gates were thrown open and Cao Cao’s army entered the city, capturing Gao Shun, Zhang Liao and Chen Gong. Mengde gave orders for the rivers to be turned back to their usual courses and then set about soothing the people of the city.
Cao Cao and Liu Bei, accompanied by Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, seated themselves in the White Gate Tower where the prisoners were brought before them. Lü Bu was brought first, “The bonds are very tight, I beseech you to loosen them!” he cried. “A tiger must be bound tight” replied Cao Cao. Gao Shun was brought in and Cao asked him “What have you to say?” but the prisoner made no reply. Mengde ordered Gao Shun to be taken away and executed. Chen Gong was next to be brought before the Prime Minister. “I hope you have been well since we last saw each other, Chen Gong?” said Cao Cao. The prisoner replied, “Your ways were crooked, and so I left you,” “You say I was crooked; and what of your serving Lü Bu?” asked Mengde. “Though he was a fool, he did not resemble you in deceit and wickedness.” retorted Chen Gong. Cao Cao asked him, “You say you are able enough and clever, but what about your position today?” Turning toward Lü Bu, Chen Gong said, “This man would not follow my advice. Had he done so, he would not now be a captive.” “What think you ought to be done about this day’s work?” asked Cao Cao. Undaunted, Chen Gong replied, “There is death for me today, and that is the end!” Cao continued, “Very well for you; but what of your mother and wife and children?” The defeated general replied, “It is said that one who rules with due regard to filial piety does not harm a person’s family; one who would show benevolence does not cut off the sacrifices at a person’s tomb. My mother and wife and children are in your hands. But since I am your prisoner, I pray you slay me quickly and not to try to harrow my feelings.” Cao Cao wished to spare him, but Chen Gong turned and walked away. Mengde rose from his seat and walked with Chen Gong, tears falling from his eyes, but Chen Gong never looked at him. The Prime Minister turned to the guards and said, “Let his mother and family be taken to Xuchang and looked after immediately. Any postponement will be punished!” Chen Gong’s body was buried with honours at the capital Xuchang.
When Cao Cao returned to his seat, Lü Bu addressed him, “Your only trouble, Illustrious Sir, is myself, and I am on your side now. You take the lead, I will help you, and together the world is at our feet.” Cao turned to Liu Bei and asked his opinion. “You are willing to forget the episodes of Ding Yuan and Dong Zhuo?” replied Liu Bei. Cao Cao ordered Lü Bu to be taken away and executed by strangulation. As Lü Bu was being taken away, Zhang Liao was being escorted in and shouted at him, “Lü Bu, O fool! Death is but death, and why are you scared of it?” Cao Cao pointed at the prisoner and said, “He has a familiar face.” “You were not likely to forget me: You saw me before in Puyang,” said Zhang Liao. “It is a pity that the fire that day was not fierce enough to burn you up, rebel that you are.” he continued. Cao Cao began to get angry, “How dare you insult me?” and he lifted his sword to kill the prisoner. Zhang Liao was undaunted and stretched his neck out for the blow. Just then Liu Bei grabbed Cao Cao’s arm and Guan Yu knelt before the Prime Minister, both men pleading for the prisoner’s life to be spared. Cao Cao threw away his sword, smiled and said, “I know Zhang Liao to be loyal and good. I was just testing him,” He then loosened the prisoner’s bonds and led him to a seat of honour. Zhang Liao formally yielded and so Cao Cao bestowed upon him the rank of Imperial Commander and the title of Lordship. Zhang Liao was sent to win over the bandit leader Zang Ba who then submitted along with all but one of his colleagues; Chang Xi. The soldiers were rewarded with a great feast and then the army retired to Xuchang. As they passed through Xuzhou, the people lined the roads petitioning the Prime Minister that Liu Bei should be made their protector. Cao Cao addressed them, “Liu Bei has rendered great services. You must wait till he has been received in audience and obtained his reward. After that he shall be sent here.” The people bowed low to express their thanks to Cao Cao. Mengde left General of the Flying Cavalry, Che Zhou, in command of the region in the meantime.
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Copyright © 2004 Morgan Evans
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong