Sanguo yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by Sam Wrest
Gao Lan was a famed commander serving Yuan Shao, known throughout China as one of Shao’s most capable officers.
In AD 200, Yuan Shao mobilised the armies of the four northern provinces he controlled—Ji, Qing, You and Bing—for an attack on the capital of Xuchang. Gao Lan was selected to join the campaign, and the massive army first headed for Guandu, guarded by Cao Cao’s General Xiahou Dun. Cao Cao arrived with reinforcements soon after and deployed his army on the field, while Gao Lan was ordered by Yuan Shao to join him on horseback to confront Cao. Cao Cao came forth from the bannered entrance to his line, many of his most famous commanders grouped around him. Pointing at Yuan Shao with his whip, Cao cried, “I petitioned the Son of Heaven to appoint you regent-marshal. What justifies this rebellion?”
“You who pass yourself off as prime minister to the Han are the real traitor,” Yuan Shao retorted. “Your crimes mount to the skies, higher than those of the usurpers Wang Mang and Dong Zhuo. Yet you slander others as rebels!”
“I bear an imperial decree to punish you,” Cao replied.
“And I,” Yuan Shao countered, “have the decree the Emperor hid in the girdle as authority to bring a traitor to justice!” (1)
1: In AD 199, Emperor Xian petitioned Dong Cheng, an imperial-in-law, to assassinate Cao Cao for his crimes to the throne. The text was written onto a white girdle in blood from Xian’s own hand.
Gao Lan then heard Cao Cao order his commander Zhang Liao to the field, to which his own companion, Zhang He, answered enthusiastically. The two fought many bouts, but when no winner was apparent, Cao’s General Xu Chu too took to the field. Seeing Zhang He outnumbered, Gao Lan rode out in response and exchanged many bouts with Cao’s famed commander, but both were unable to gain a upper-hand. As they were still fighting, Gao Lan heard Cao order more of his commanders onto the field, but crossbow fire from his own line forced Cao’s army back in retreat, to which Gao Lan and the rest of the northerners followed up and heavily defeated.
After the victory at Guandu, numerous clashes ensued between the two armies, varying in who was the victor. Some time later, it was reported a great fire was blazing in the north, indicating that Yuan Shao’s main stores at Wuchao were under attack. Gao Lan was present when this report arrived, as was his fellow commander Zhang He, who said, “Let me go with Gao Lan and save Wuchao.”
“Not a good idea,” Guo Tu replied, one of Yuan Shao’s advisors. “If they have plundered the stores, then Cao is there and Guandu is undefended. Strike Guandu first, and Cao will swiftly retreat. This is exactly how Sun Bin relieved Wei’s siege of Zhao and went on to defeat Wei’s army.”
Despite the disagreement of both Gao Lan and Zhang He, Yuan Shao followed Guo Tu’s advice and ordered Gao Lan, with Zhang He and five thousand men, to attack Guandu. Gao Lan set off immediately and attacked Guandu as soon as he arrived, but he was met with a three-sided defence—Xiahou Dun on the left, Cao Ren on the right, and Cao Hong in the centre. Furthermore, Lan’s army was struck from another side by Cao Cao’s army, resulting in his forces being over-extended. Unable to offer any resistance against the four-pronged attack, Gao Lan had his army withdraw and managed to break away from the ambush.
While making camp after his defeat, Gao Lan received Guo Tu in his tent, who told him that as a result of their defeat, Yuan Shao planned on executing both him and Zhang He upon their return. (2) Some time later, a messenger from Yuan Shao arrived requesting Gao Lan’s return, to which the commander asked, “Why is our lord recalling us?”
2: Guo Tu had realised that both Gao Lan and Zhang He would testify the folly of his advice to Yuan Shao while proving the wisdom of their own, so he acted to prevent their return from Guandu. In a conference, he said to Yuan Shao, “I think, my lord, that our defeat will be most gratifying to Zhang He and Gao Lan.”
“What are you talking about?” Yuan Shao asked.
“Those two have been meaning to defect for some time,” Guo Tu answered. “By not exerting themselves on this mission they have caused us heavy losses.”
Based on Guo Tu’s false information, Yuan Shao then sent a messenger to Gao Lan and Zhang He requesting their return with intentions to punish them once they did.
“I don’t know,” the messenger replied. Gao Lan then drew his sword and killed the messenger on the spot. Turning to Zhang He, he said, “Yuan Shao believes any slander. Sooner or later Cao Cao is going to take him. Why sit and wait to die? Let’s join Cao Cao.”
“I have wanted to do it for a long time,” Zhang He responded.
The two then gathered their troops and set off for Cao Cao’s base camp, who gave them permission to enter. Coming before Cao Cao, Gao Lan and Zhang He dropped their weapons and prostrated themselves. “Had Yuan Shao listened to you,” Cao said, “he could have spared himself this defeat. Now you two have come to us like Weizi, who quit the dying Shang dynasty, or Han Xin, who left Xiang Yu to serve the house of Han.”
Cao Cao then gave Gao Lan the rank of adjutant general as well as appointing him Lord of Donglai.
Some time later, Xu You, who had also surrendered to Cao Cao from Yuan Shao, advised a lightning raid on Shao’s now demoralised camps. Gao Lan offered to lead the attack and, along with Zhang He, set off to raid the northerner’s camp. Gao Lan divided his forces into separate units and instructed his army to attack at the third watch. At the appointed time, Gao Lan led the attack on the encampments and devastated Yuan Shao’s army, inflicting casualties on half of his men. The fighting raged on until morning when Gao Lan urged his victorious troops back to his own camp. Yuan Shao retreated back to Jizhou shortly after this victory.
In AD 201, Cao Cao launched a campaign against Yuan Shao at Jizhou in which Gao Lan was selected to join. Initially, Cao’s army suffered defeat at the hands of Shao’s son, Shang, but the army withdrew to the river in preparation of a counter-attack. Cao Cao ordered ten units divided in five pairs to be assembled in anticipation of Yuan Shao’s advance, and Gao Lan was put in command of the fifth. In prediction of Yuan Shao’s army being defeated at the river, Gao Lan placed his troops in concealed positions along the road to Jizhou. Dead into the night, Shao’s defeated troops were spotted retreating along the road and once they had passed Gao Lan’s position, Lan led his troops in an ambush from the left side of the road, while troops of Xiahou Yuan’s sprung from the right, delivering severe injuries to the northern army and almost killing Yuan Shao himself.
Soon after the victory at Jizhou, word came of an attack being made on the capital of Xuchang by Liu Bei. Cao Cao abandoned the campaign against Yuan Shao to cut off Liu Bei’s attack and selected Gao Lan to join him. Cao Cao’s army met Liu Bei at the Rang Mountains but, fatigued from their long march, were defeated in the first battle. To divide Bei’s forces, Cao Cao had Xiahou Dun attack Bei’s base of Runan, another unit attack a grain shipment being sent to him, and Xu Chu attack Bei himself. Liu Bei was thus defeated and forced into flight, and Cao Cao ordered Gao Lan to pursue and attack him. Lan set out and reached Liu Bei’s troops at a hill—Bei was so terrified at his arrival that he attempted to take his own life, but his commander Liu Pi stopped him. Liu Pi then charged Gao Lan, but Lan swiftly cut him down at the moment of engagement. Gao Lan then ordered his troops to descend the hill and attack Liu Bei, but before they could, a disturbance arose in his own ranks. Gao Lan turned to see enemy commander Zhao Yun attacking his rear, but before he could react, Yun reached Lan and struck him with his spear, killing him.
Copyright © 2005 Sam Wrest
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong