Gan Ning, styled Xingba, is a native of Linjiang in the Ba commandery and was born in AD 175 As a youth he had assembled a band of outlaws with whom he roamed over the rivers and lakes, where he would terrorize everybody. He wore a bell at his waist, and at the sound of this bell everyone fled and hid. He fitted his boats with sails of Xichuan brocade, and people called him the ‘Pirate with Silken Sails.’
Gan Ning had read a few books and had reformed in his twenty’s and joined the ranks of Liu Biao. When Sun Quan was attacking Huang Zu he had shot an arrow and killed a general named Ling Cao. Ling Cao’s son Ling Tong led another attack to recover his father’s corpse, but it was called off after a little while.
The following year Sun Quan wanted to attack Huang Zu again and this time Lü Meng brought up that Gan Ning had wanted to leave Huang Zu and join Sun Quan. Sun Quan requested that Lu Meng bring him to him. When the salutations were over, the chief said, “My heart is entirely captivated by your coming. I feel no resentment against you. I hope you will have no doubts on that score, and I may as well tell you that I desire some plan for the destruction of Huang Zu.” Gan Ning replied, “The dynasty is decadent and without influence. Cao Cao will finally absorb the country down to the river unless he is opposed. Liu Biao provides nothing against the future, and his sons are quite unfitted to succeed him. You should lay your plans to oust him at once before Cao Cao anticipates you. The first attack should be made on Huang Zu, who is getting old and avaricious, so that everyone hates him. He is totally unprepared for a fight and his army is undisciplined. He would fall at the first blow. If he were gone, you would control the western passes and could conquer the lands of Ba and Shu. And you would be securely established.”
“The advice is most valuable,” said Sun Quan, and he made his preparations. Gan Ning was made a general for the attack. As Gan Ning approached the area he chose a hundred light craft and put picked men on them, fifty to a boat. Twenty were to row the boats and thirty to fight. These latter were armored swordsmen. Careless of the enemy’s missiles these boats advanced, got to the defenders’ fleet, and cut the hawsers of their ships so that they drifted hither and thither in confusion. Gan Ning leaped upon one boat and killed Deng Long. Chen Jiu left the fleet and set out for the shore. Lü Meng dropped into a small boat and went among the larger ships setting them on fire. When Chen Jiu had nearly reached the bank, Lü Meng reckless of death went after him, got ahead, and struck him full in the breast so that he fell.
Before long Su Fei came along the bank with reinforcements, but it was too late. The armies of the South Land had already landed, and there was no hope of repelling them. Su Fei fled into the open country, but he was made prisoner.
When Huang Zu recognized that he was beaten and could not maintain his position, he abandoned Jiangxia and took the road to Jingzhou. Gan Ning, foreseeing this, had laid an ambush outside the east gate of Jiangxia. Soon after the fugitive, with a small following, had burst out of the gate, he found his road blocked.
From horseback, Huang Zu said, “I treated you well in the past. Why do you now press me so hard?” Gan Ning angrily shouted, “I did good service for you, and yet you treated me as a pirate. Now what have you to say?”
There was nothing to be said, and Huang Zu turned his horse to escape. But Gan Ning thrust aside his troops and rode in pursuit himself. Then he heard shouting in his rear and saw General Cheng Pu coming up. Fearing lest this other pursuer should overpass him and score the success he desired for himself, Gan Ning fitted an arrow to his bow and shot at the fugitive. Huang Zu was hit and fell from his steed. Then Gan Ning cut off his head. After this, joining himself to Cheng Pu, the two returned bearing the ghastly trophy to their lord. Sun Quan ordered them to place it in a box to be taken back home and offered as a sacrifice to the manes of his father.
Having rewarded the soldiers for the victory and promoted Gan Ning. Now Su Fei was still confined, but he got someone to go to Gan Ning to beg him to plead for mercy. Gan Ning had expected this although the prisoner had said no word, and he was averse from leaving his friend and one-time protector to perish.
“I should not have forgotten him even if he had said nothing,” said Gan Ning. When the army had returned, Sun Quan gave orders for Su Fei’s execution that his head might be offered with that of Huang Zu. Then Gan Ning went in to his lord and said, weeping, “Long ago, if it had not been for Su Fei, my bones would have been rotting in some ditch and how then could I have rendered service under your banner? Now he deserves death, but I cannot forget his kindness to me, and I pray you take away the honors you have bestowed on me as a set-off to his crime.” Sun Quan replied, “Since he once showed kindness to you, I will pardon him for your sake. But what can be done if he runs away?” “If he be pardoned and escape death, he will be immeasurably grateful and will not go away. If he should, then will I offer my life in exchange.”
So the condemned man escaped death, and only one head was offered in sacrifice. After the sacrificial ceremonies, a great banquet was spread in honor of the victories. As it was proceeding, suddenly one of the guests burst into loud lamentations, drew his sword, and rushed upon Gan Ning. Gan Ning hastily rose and defended himself with the chair on which he had been sitting. The host looked at the assailant and saw it was Ling Tong, whose father Ling Cao had fallen under an arrow shot by Gan Ning. The son was now burning to avenge his father’s death.
Hastily leaving his place, Sun Quan checked the angry officer, saying, “If he slew your noble father, then remember each was fighting for his lord for whom he was bound to exert himself to the utmost. But now that you both are under one flag and are of one house, you may not recall an ancient injury. You must regard my interests continually.”
Ling Tong beat his head upon the floor and cried, saying, “But how can I not avenge this? It is a blood feud, and we may not both live under the same sky.” The guests interfered, beseeching the man to forgo his revenge, and at last he ceased from his murderous intention. But he sat glaring wrathfully at his enemy.
So soon after Gan Ning was dispatched with five thousand troops and one hundred warships to guard Xiakou, where he was beyond the reach of Ling Tong’s wrath. Then Sun Quan promoted Ling Tong, and so he was somewhat appeased.
During the battle of Chi Bi Gan Ning served as the vanguard. Gan Ning played a major role as one of the generals pretended to rebel against Wu. He had met with Kan Ze and two other men and talked about how he was very upset with Wu and pretended to show rebellious feelings.
At the battle of the Red Cliffs Gan Ning was ordered to take with him the false deserter Cai Zhong and his soldiers, and go along the south bank, showing the flags of Cao Cao, till he reached the Black Forest just opposite the enemy’s main store of grain and forage. Then he was to penetrate as deeply as possible into the enemy’s lines and light a torch as a signal. Cai He was to be kept in camp for another purpose. He immediately left with his forces and was used general Cai Zhong to figure his way around. Once inside the enemy base he killed Cai Zhong and let loose his force. Two generals had just arrived at the area with fresh reinforcements, but Gan Ning had easily cut them down. He was one of the generals that helped win at the battle of Chi Bi.
After the battle of Chi Bi Gan Ning greatly helped Zhou Yu with the attack on NanJun, but it was only to be taken by Shu. Gan Ning also participated in minor skirmishes.
On the attack on Huancheng, Gan Ning took an iron chain in his hand and climbed up the wall. They shot at him with bows and crossbows, but he turned aside the arrows and bolts, and he threw the chain round Governor Zhu Guang to pull him down. Lü Meng beat the drum for the attack. The soldiers made a rush forward to climb the wall, and they slew Zhu Guang. His officers and soldiers gave in, and so Huancheng fell to Sun Quan. It was still a long time to noon. The soldiers were feasting over the capture of the city.
During the party Ling Tong’s thoughts turned to the enmity he bore Gan Ning for having slain his father, and the praises, which Lü Meng now heaped upon Gan Ning, filled Ling Tong’s heart with bitterness. For some time he glared savagely at Gan Ning, and then he determined on revenge.
Drawing his sword, Ling Tong suddenly rose to his feet and cried, “There is nothing to amuse the assembly. I will give them a display of swordsmanship!” Gan Ning quickly saw his real intention. He pushed back his table and laid hold of a halberd in each hand, crying, “And you may also watch an adept in the use of this weapon!” Lü Meng saw the evil meaning of both, and assuming his sword and shield, he hastily stepped between the two warriors, saying, “Neither of you gentlemen is so dexterous as I.”
So he forced the two combatants asunder, while someone ran to tell Sun Quan. The Marquis hastily jumped into the saddle and rode to the banquet hall. At sight of their lord, they all three lowered their weapons.
“I have bidden you two to forget this old enmity,” said Sun Quan. “Why do you revive it today?” Ling Tong prostrated himself in tears. Sun Quan exhorted him to forget his quarrel, and once again there was peace.
The next day Sun Quan led his attack on He Fei with Lü Meng and Gan Ning as advancing guard. The leaders of the van met Yue Jing first, and Gan Ning rode out and challenged him. After a few bouts, Yue Jing pretended to be defeated and fled. Gan Ning called to his colleague to join in the pursuit.
An ambush was set by Li Dian and Zhang Liao, to which Sun Quan fell victim. He was forced to flee and Ling Tong and a small force held off the enemy until Gan Ning and Lü Meng came. Sun Quan had retreated to his fort at Ruxu when he heard of Cao Cao coming with four hundred thousand troops.
Looking around at the officers in his tent, Sun Quan said, “Who is bold enough to go forth and fight this Cao Cao and so take the keen edge off the spirit of his army?” And Ling Tong offered himself, saying, “I will go!” “How many soldiers do you require?” “Three thousand troops will suffice,” replied Ling Tong. But Gan Ning struck in, saying, “Only a hundred horse would be needed. Why send three thousand?” Ling Tong was angry, and he and Gan Ning began to wrangle even in the presence of their chief. “Cao Cao’s army is too strong to be attacked recklessly,” said Sun Quan.
Finally he gave the commission to Ling Tong with his three thousand, bidding him reconnoiter just outside Ruxu, and fight the enemy if he met him. Marching out, Ling Tong very soon saw a great cloud of dust, which marked the approach of an army. As soon as they came near enough, Zhang Liao, who led the van, engaged with Ling Tong, and they fought half a hundred bouts without sign of victory for either. Then Sun Quan began to fear for his champion, so he sent Lü Meng to extricate Ling Tong from the battle and escort him home.
When Ling Tong had come back, his rival Gan Ning went to Sun Quan and said, “Now let me have the hundred horsemen, and I will raid the enemy’s camp this night. If I lose a soldier or a mount, I will claim no merit.”
Sun Quan commended his courage and chose a hundred of his best veterans, whom he placed under Gan Ning’s command for the raid. Sun Quan also gave him as a feast for the soldiers fifty flasks of wine and seventy-five pounds of mutton. Returning to the tents, Gan Ning drew up his little force and made them sit down in rows. Then he filled two silver goblets with wine and solemnly drank to them. Next he said, “Comrades, tonight our orders are to raid the camp of the enemy. Wherefore fill your goblets and call up all your strength for the task.” But the men did not welcome his words. Instead they looked one at another uncertain. Seeing them in this mood, Gan Ning adopted a fierce tone, drew his sword and cried, “What are you waiting for? If I, a leader of rank, can risk my life, cannot you?” Moved by the angry face of the leader, the men rose, bowed their heads and said, “We will fight to the last!”
Then the wine and meat were distributed to them and each one ate his fill. The second watch was chosen as the hour to start, and each man stuck a white goose plume in his cap whereby they could recognize each other in the darkness.
At the time appointed they buckled on their armor, mounted and, galloping away, quickly came to Cao Cao’s camp. Hastily throwing aside the thorny barriers, they burst in with a yell that rose to the very heavens. They made straight for the center, hoping to slay Cao Cao himself. But the troops of the leader’s brigade had made a rampart of their carts within which they were sheltered as if in an iron tent, so that the raiders failed to find a way in.
However, Gan Ning and his small force dashed hither and thither, cutting and slashing, till Cao Cao’s men were quite bewildered and frightened. They had no notion of the number of their assailants. All their efforts only increased the confusion. Wherefore the hundred men had it all their own way and rushed from point to point slaying whomever they met. But soon the drums beat in every camp and torches were lit and shouts arose, and it was time for the raiders to get away.
Gan Ning led his little body of troops out through the south gate with never a soldier trying to stop him, and rode for his own camp. He met Zhou Tai, who had been sent to help him in case of need; but the need had not arisen, and the hundred heroes with their leader rode back in triumph. There was no pursuit. On his return, Gan Ning took the tale of his men at the camp gate; neither a man nor a horse was missing. He entered to the sound of drum and fife and the shouting of his men. “Long life!” shouted they, as Sun Quan came to welcome them. Gan Ning dismounted and prostrated himself.
His lord raised him, and took him by the hand, saying, “This expedition of yours must have given those rebels a shaking. I had yielded to your desire only I wished to give you the opportunity to manifest your valor. I did not wish to let you be sacrificed.” Gan Ning’s exploit was rewarded with gifts, a thousand rolls of silk and a hundred keen swords, all of which he distributed among his soldiers.
Sun Quan was very proud of his subordinate’s doughty deed, and said, “Cao Cao may have his Zhang Liao, but I can match him with my friend Gan Ning.”
Soon after Ling Tong and Yue Jing were in a battle. While they were fighting Cao Xiu let fly an arrow that hit Ling Tong’s horse. As Yue Jing pounced forward another arrow was let go and hit Yue Jing right in the face. Ling Tong retreated back to his lines. “The arrow that saved you was shot by Gan Ning,” said Sun Quan. Ling Tong turned to his rival and bowed low. “I could not have supposed you would have rendered me such a service, Sir,” said he to Gan Ning. This episode ended the strife and enmity between the two leaders, who thereafter swore perpetual friendship.
At the battle of Yi Ling Gan Ning was ill, but when he heard of the Shu forces approaching he immediately sprang to battle. A force led by a man called King Shamo Ke engaged Gan Ning’s troops. Shamo Ke dove into the battle and slayed many men. Gan Ning realized he had no chance against such a man and attempted a retreat. As he was retreating Shamo Ke shot an arrow at Gan Ning’s skull. Gan Ning rode on to Fuchikou, but there he dismounted and sat under a big tree, where he died. On the tree were many hundreds of crows, and they gathered round the corpse as if to protect it. He died in the year AD 218 and was 43 years of age.
Copyright © 2003 Dan Liao
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong