Dian Wei was born in Jiwu County, Chen Liu Kingdom (Presently Hesui County in Henan Province) in the year AD 160.
Dian Wei was recommended into Cao Cao’s services by Xiahou Dun. Xiahou Dun stated that “He is the boldest of the bold, the strongest of the strong. He was one of Zhang Miao’s people, but quarreled 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.” “I see he is no ordinary man,” said Cao Cao. “He is fine and straight and looks very powerful and bold.” “He is! 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 couple of spears, each weighs a hundred and twenty pounds, and he vaults into the saddle with these under his arm.”
Cao Cao bade the man give proof of his skill. So Dian Wei galloped to and fro carrying the spears. Then he saw away among the tents a huge banner swaying dangerously with the force of the wind and on the point of falling. A crowd of soldiers were vainly struggling to keep it steady. Down he leaped, shouted to the men to clear out and held the staff quite steady with one hand, keeping it perfectly upright in spite of the strong wind.
“This is old E Lai again!” said Cao Cao. He gave Dian Wei a post of Commander of the Headquarters Guards and besides made Dian Wei presents of an embroidered robe he was wearing and a swift steed with a handsome saddle.
Now Cao Cao was trying to retreat from Lu Bu, but Lu Bu’s generals kept on ambushing and pursuing him. Cao Cao was desperate and cried out in fear, “Who can save me?” Then from the crush dashed out Dian Wei with his double spears, crying, “Fear not, my lord!” Dian Wei leapt from his steed, put aside his double spears, and laid hold of a handful of battle-axes. Turning to his followers he said, “When the ruffians are at ten paces, call out to me.”
Then he set off with mighty strides, plunging forward, careless of the flying arrows. Lu Bu’s horsemen followed, and when they got near, Dian Wei’s followers shouted, “Ten paces!” “Five, then call!” shouted back Dian Wei, and went on. Presently, “Five paces!” Then Dian Wei spun round and flung the battle-axes. With every fling a man fell from the saddle and never a battle-ax missed. Having thus slain ten or so the remainder fled, and Dian Wei quickly remounted his steed, set his twin spears and rushed again into the fight with vigor that none could withstand. One by one his opponents yielded, and he was able to lead Cao Cao safely out of the press of battle. Cao Cao and his commanders went to their camp. Cao Cao rewarded Dian Wei for this and advanced him in rank.
Cao Cao had decided to attack a city that Lu Bu’s had just entered. He devised a plan and everyone was to rush into the castle. As he was outside the west gate he saw it suddenly open and he dashed in. But when he reached the state residence, he noticed the streets were quite deserted, and then he knew he had been tricked. Wheeling round his horse, he shouted to his followers to retire. This was the signal for another move. An explosion of a signal bomb was heard close at hand, and it was echoed from every side in a deafening roar. Gongs and drums beat all around with a roar like rivers rushing backward to their source, and the ocean boiling up from its depths. From two sides east and west came bodies of soldiers eager to attack, led by Lu Bu’s generals Zhang Liao and Zang Ba.
Cao Cao dashed off toward the north only to find his way barred by Hao Meng and Cao Xing. Cao Cao tried for the south gate, but met enemies led by Gao Shun and Hou Cheng. Dian Wei, with fierce eyes and gritting teeth, at last burst through and got out, with the enemy close after him.
But when Dian Wei reached the drawbridge, he glanced behind him and missed his master. Immediately Dian Wei turned back and cut an alley inside. Just within he met Li Dian. “Where is our lord?” cried Dian Wei. “I am looking for him!” said Li Dian. “Quick! Get help from outside,” shouted Dian Wei. “I will seek him!”
So Li Dian hastened for aid, and Dian Wei slashed his way in, looking on every side for Cao Cao. He was not to be found. Dashing out of the city, Dian Wei ran up against Yue Jing, who asked where their lord was. After going to back out again, Dian Wei went in alone, butting through the smoke and dashing through the flames. But he got in and searched on every side.
When Cao Cao saw his sturdy protector Dian Wei cut his way out and disappear leaving him surrounded, he again made an attempt to reach the north gate. On the way, sharply silhouetted against the glow, he saw the figure of Lu Bu coming toward him with his trident halberd ready to kill. Cao Cao covered his face with his hand, whipped up his steed and galloped past.
Thus relieved Cao Cao set off for the east gate. Then he fell in with Dian Wei, who took him under his protection and fought through the press, leaving a trail of death behind till they reached the gate. Here the fire was raging fiercely, and burning beams were falling on all sides. The earth element seemed to have interchanged with the fire element. Dian Wei warded off the burning pieces of wood with his lance and rode into the smoke making a way for his lord. Just as they were passing through the gate a flaming beam fell from the gate tower. Cao Cao just warded it off with his arm, but it struck his steed on the quarters and knocked the steed down. Cao Cao’s hand and arm were badly burned and his hair and beard singed. Dian Wei turned back to his rescue. Luckily Xiahou Yuan came along just then, and the two raised Cao Cao and set him on Xiahou Yuan’s horse. And thus they got him out of the burning city. But they had to go through heavy fighting till daybreak.
One time Cao Cao was attacking a group of yellow scarves. Dian Wei, pursuing the rebels, reached Gepei Hills. A swashbuckler went out to meet him. “Are you also a Yellow Scarves rebel?” said Dian Wei. “I have some hundreds of them prisoners in an enclosure here.” “Why not bring them out?” said Dian Wei. “I will if you win this sword from my hand.” This annoyed Dian Wei who attacked him. They engaged and the combat lasted for two long hours and then was still undecided. Both rested a while. The swashbuckler was the first to recover and renewed the challenge. They fought till dusk and then, as their horses were quite spent; the combat was once more suspended. Dian Wei feigned defeat a few more times until the man was captured. This man joined Cao Cao’s ranks.
Now Cao Cao had camped near a man named Zhang Xiu. He had become very displeased when Cao Cao had started to keep a special watch over the wife of his uncle.
Dian Wei was treated to a party and became quite intoxicated. This intoxication was part of a plan to destroy and kill Cao Cao because Zhang Xiu that the affair with his uncle’s wife was a disgrace to his family. He had crippled Dian Wei and stolen his double halberds.
A fire had started and the attack from Zhang Xiu had begun. Cao Cao called Dian Wei. But he, usually so alert, was lying down quite intoxicated. However, the beating of gongs and rolling of drums mingling with his dreams awoke Dian Wei, and he jumped up. His trusty halberds had disappeared. The enemy was near. He hastily snatched up an infantryman’s sword and rushed out. At the gate he saw a crowd of spearmen just bursting in. Dian Wei rushed at them slashing all around him, and twenty or more fell beneath his blows. The others drew back. But the spears stood around him like reeds on the riverbank. Being totally without mail, he was soon wounded in several places. He fought desperately till his sword snapped and was no longer of any use. Throwing it aside he seized a couple of soldiers and with their bodies as weapons felled ten of his opponents. The others dared not approach, but they shot arrows at him. These fell thick as rain, but he still maintained the gate against the assailants.
However, the mutineers got in by the rear of the camp, and they wounded Dian Wei in the back with spear thrusts. Uttering a loud cry he fell. The blood gushed from the wound in torrents, and he died. Even after he was dead not a man dared to come in by the main gate. Cao Cao grieved at Dian Wei’s death more than his son’s death. He was worshiped greatly by the Cao family. He was 37 at the time of his death.
Copyright © 2003 Dan Liao
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong