Sanguo yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by Sam Wrest
Gao Xiang was a commander serving the kingdom of Shu during the reign of its second ruler, Liu Shan. Although at first only a minor General of the kingdom, Xiang was able to advance in Shu’s ranks through the merit he achieved in battle, and he was often heavily relied upon by the kingdom’s Prime Minister, Zhuge Liang.
When Zhuge Liang first successfully petitioned for an expedition against the northern kingdom of Wei, Gao Xiang was promoted to the rank of Right General. Zhuge Liang began the first of his northern offensives in AD 228, and Gao Xiang was selected to join in the attack. Xiang and the western army first marched on to Nan’an and successfully occupied the city. After doing so, Gao Xiang was ordered to join Zhao Yun and Zhang Yi in attacking Tianshui, but Xiang and his comrades were ordered by Zhuge Liang to wait in Tianshui’s surrounding hills until its governorship showed signs of weakness.
After some time, Gao Xiang was informed by Zhao Yun that Ma Zun, the Governor of Tianshui, and his military personnel had left Tianshui, and Yun told Xiang that he would attack the city with five thousand troops immediately. Gao Xiang agreed to the plan, and had his own unit remain in the hillside in the case that Zhao Yun would need reinforcements. Observing from his vantage point, Gao Xiang saw Zhao Yun lead his men to the gate of Tianshui, but he was met by an ambush on several fronts and soundly boxed in. Seeing Yun trapped, Gao Xiang quickly mustered his men about him and charged into Wei’s ranks, opening up an avenue of escape for Zhao Yun and his trapped soldiers. After continuing the fight for a short time after, Xiang ordered his own unit to retreat from the field and, together with Yun and Zhang Yi, marched onto Nan’an to discuss their next move with Zhuge Liang.
Gao Xiang and the Shu army were later able to capture both Tianshui and Anding and, after doing so, Zhuge Liang ordered a march onto the hills of Qishan. After several battles with Wei’s Cao Zhen, Zhuge Liang ordered fortifications built at Jieting to defend against an impending attack by Sima Yi. Commanders Ma Su and Wang Ping were sent to undertake the defence, and Gao Xiang was later summoned by Zhuge Liang, who instructed him, “Northeast of Jieting is the town of Willow Rows on a small road screened by the hills. Place troops there—I’ll give you ten thousand—and pitch camp. If there’s trouble in Jieting, go to the rescue.”
Gao Xiang agreed to the assignment and, after mustering his ten thousand-strong army, set off for Willow Rows.
After waiting at Willow Rows for some time, Gao Xiang received word that Jieting had fallen from an attack made by Sima Yi and Zhang He. Jieting’s defending commander, Ma Su, had already fled the town, but Wang Ping and Wei Yan were still desperately trying to hold. After hearing the report, Gao Xiang mustered his ten thousand troops, as well as issuing a call to the townsmen of Willow Rows to take up arms and fight the northern army. Many volunteered, and Gao Xiang set off for Jieting with his combined forces immediately.
On the main road to Jieting, Gao Xiang spotted Wang Ping and Wei Yan fleeing towards him in the distance. Coming upon them, Xiang was told of how Ma Su had ignored Zhuge Liang’s orders, which had resulted in the fall of Jieting and the flight of the western army. After hearing them, Xiang immediately said, “Raid their camp tonight, and we will recover Jieting!”
Gao Xiang then sat down by a nearby hill with the two commanders to discuss their plans for retaking the lost strongpoint. By dusk, their preparations were complete and their forces ready to march in three separate units. Gao Xiang set off for Jieting and arrived with his unit to find the town completely deserted, save for Wei Yan and his troops, who had arrived before Xiang. Conferring with Yan, neither could figure out where the Wei army had gone, and there was still no sign of Wang Ping’s unit. As confusion began to grip Gao Xiang, a bombard sounded—flames mounted on all sides in coordination with the beating of drums, and the Wei army were soon upon them. With Wei Yan, Gao Xiang charged the ambushers and fought desperately, but the enemy was too many for them to overcome. (1) All of a sudden, thunderous shouts sounded from a nearby slope, and Gao Xiang soon recognized Wang Ping leading a contingent of men into the melee. Ping’s attack opened up an avenue of escape, and Gao Xiang joined the other two western commanders in retreating to Willow Rows. However, upon reaching the town, Gao Xiang discovered that it had already been occupied by Wei’s Guo Huai. Fearing the loss of Yangping Pass, Gao Xiang then left Willow Rows and set off for Yangping with Wang Ping and Wei Yan.
1: Although not mentioned in SGYY, SGZ records that Gao Xiang, along with Wei Yan and commander Wu Ban, killed over three thousand of Sima Yi’s armoured troops at around the time of this battle.
After being at Yangping Pass for some time, Gao Xiang received word that Zhuge Liang had ordered an immediate withdrawal to Hanzhong. Xiang quickly gathered his forces and set off for Zhuge Liang’s position with Wei Yan and Wang Ping. Upon arriving there, Wang Ping was summoned to Zhuge Liang’s quarters, and Ping explained to Liang that the defeat at Jieting had been a result of Ma Su’s folly, while Gao Xiang had carried out his role precisely and with skill. After hearing the same report from fellow commanders, Zhuge Liang had Ma Su executed, and Gao Xiang and the rest of the western army were ordered to remain in Hanzhong in preparation of another northern campaign.
In AD 234, Zhuge Liang launched another northern expedition, and Gao Xiang was again selected to join the campaign. The western army advanced onto the Qishan Hills and, upon reaching it, established five positions: left, right, centre, forward, and rear. After several skirmishes with the north’s forces, Gao Xiang was called to Zhuge Liang’s command tent for secret orders. Liang ordered Xiang to take a thousand men to Saber Gateway, where he would transport a number of mechanical wooden beasts loaded with grain to the camps in Qishan. Although somewhat perplexed with his assignment, Gao Xiang left for Saber Gateway immediately and, upon arriving at the gateway, has his men collect and haul the mechanical beasts back to the Qishan camps.
After traveling for some time, Gao Xiang and his transport troops were set upon by several northern units, commanded by Zhang Hu and Yue Chen. With far inferior numbers, Gao Xiang didn’t resist the attack, but rather allowed the northerners to steal a number of the bulls. Once the northerners had dispersed, Xiang had his men pick up the bulls once again, and then ordered the continued march to the Qishan encampments. Upon arriving at Liang’s tent, Gao Xiang told him of the loss of a number of the mechanical bulls. “Exactly what I wanted them to do!” Liang exclaimed with a smile on his face. “We’ve lost only a few machines, but we will soon have more than ample return from them.”
“How does your Excellency know?” Gao Xiang and the other commanders asked.
“Sima Yi will copy them once he has seen them—and for that I have a countermove,” Zhuge Liang replied.
Several days after his meeting with Zhuge Liang, Gao Xiang discovered that Sima Yi had indeed built a series of wooden bulls identical to those of Liang’s, and Liang was later able to steal the bulls back. Some time after he had done so, Gao Xiang was summoned to his command tent and instructed, “Take the wooden bulls and gliding horses, some in groups of forty or fifty. Load them with grain and move them back and forth on the hill paths. If the enemy seizes them, it will add to your merit.”
Gao Xiang accepted the assignment. After mustering his men, Xiang headed for the hills with the mechanical animals and, as instructed, circled the Gourd Gorge repeatedly. For fourteen days, Xiang remained at the gorge, pretending to be transporting grain, and in that time, he was attacked frequently by northern commander Xiahou Hui. As instructed, Gao Xiang allowed Xiahou Hui to steal a number of the bulls, and on his fifteenth day in the gorge, Gao Xiang returned to the Shu encampments with what was left of his the mechanical bulls. Xiang’s allowing the Wei troops to steal the bulls gave Sima Yi confidence to attack the Shu camps once again, which resulted in a massive victory for Zhuge Liang’s armies.
In the eighth month of AD 234, shortly after Gao Xiang transported the mechanical bulls over Gourd Gorge, Zhuge Liang died of illness. As a result of his death, Gao Xiang and the rest of the Riverlands army abandoned the campaign against Wei and retreated back to western territory. While in the Riverlands, Gao Xiang himself died, though it is uncertain exactly how or when.
Copyright © 2005–2006 Sam Wrest
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong