Sanguo Yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by Sam Wrest
Ma Dai was the nephew of Ma Teng, Governor of Xiliang, and a ranking General in his Uncle’s army. Much like his cousin, Ma Chao, Dai was well versed in military tactics and combat, and was considered an able field commander.
In AD 211, Ma Teng received an imperial summons to the Han capital, Xuchang, from Prime Minister Cao Cao. Along with his cousin, Ma Chao, Ma Dai was invited to discuss whether or not the decree should be accepted by his Uncle. “Since Dong Cheng gave me Emperor Xian’s secret mandate,” (1) Teng said, “Liu Xuande (Bei) has been my sworn ally in the loyalist campaigns. Alas, Dong Cheng is dead, and Liu Xuande has suffered numerous defeats while I, off in this remote western corner, have been able to do little for him. The news of Xuande’s conquest of Jingzhou (2) has rekindled my longstanding ambition to help the Han – but now a summons comes from Cao Cao. What am I to do?”
1: In AD 200, Dong Cheng, an imperial-in-law, received a secret mandate from the Emperor ordering him to execute Cao Cao. Ma Teng was recruited into the cause along with Liu Bei, but the plot was exposed in AD 202 and Dong Cheng executed. Historically, however, Ma Teng never pledged his loyalty to the mandate.
2: Prior to Ma Teng’s summons to the capital, Liu Bei had begun capturing various districts of the province of Jingzhou.
Ma Chao was the first to reply. “Cao Cao acts with the Emperor’s sanction,” he said. “If you refuse to go, he will charge us with sedition. Take advantage of his summons and go to the capital. Make use of the occasion to fulfil your ‘longstanding ambition.’”
But Ma Dai, suspecting foul play in Cao Cao’s summons, said, “Who can fathom Cao Cao’s purposes? You could be going to your doom, Uncle.”
In reply, Ma Chao said, “What’s to stop me from following you to the capital with the whole Xiliang army and ridding the empire of this evil?
But Ma Teng disagreed. “You remain here guarding Xiliang with your Qiang troops,” he said. “My other sons, Xiu and Tie, and my nephew Ma Dai can follow me. When Cao Cao sees that you have stayed in Xiliang, assisted by Han Sui (3), he won’t dare harm me.”
3: Han Sui was the Imperial Protector of Bingzhou and sworn brother to Ma Teng.
Thus, Ma Dai marched onto Xuchang with his Uncle and two nephews, in command of the rear force one thousand strong, while Ma Teng went ahead with the vanguard.
Just prior to reaching the capital, Ma Dai encountered a score of Ma Teng’s soldiers fleeing back to Xiliang. Questioning them, Dai learned that his Uncle and nephews had all been executed by Cao Cao after a plot by them and one of Cao’s officers, Huang Kui, had been exposed. (4) Unable to resist Cao Cao’s forces alone, Ma Dai disguised himself as a travelling merchant and began the return journey to Xiliang. Arriving at Ma Chao’s encampment in the dead of night, Dai entered his cousin’s tent immediately and threw himself to the ground, weeping. “Uncle and both cousins are dead,” he said to Chao. “Uncle Teng planned with Imperial Officer Huang Kui to kill Cao; but, alas, the scheme got out and all were executed publicly. Your brothers Tie and Xiu also met their doom. Only I, disguised as a merchant, managed to escape.”
Upon hearing his story, Ma Chao too collapsed to the ground in a fit of tears. At that moment, however, an envoy arrived from Liu Bei proposing an attack on Cao Cao. With vengeance on their minds, Ma Dai and Chao mustered the entire Xiliang army for an attack on Cao, and forged an alliance with Han Sui for the impending expedition. Ma Dai was placed in command of the army’s vanguard with a force fifteen thousand strong. With his cousin and the rest of the Xiliang force some distance behind him, Dai began his march onto Chang’an.
4: Historically, Ma Dai was not with his Uncle on his visit to the capital. Ma Teng was only executed after Ma Chao attacked Tong Pass, which was triggered when the Ma’s learned of Cao Cao’s intention to attack Zhang Lu in Hanzhong. It’s more likely that Ma Dai was part of the attacking Xiliang army.
Upon reaching the hills and valleys surrounding Chang’an, Ma Dai was met with the city’s governor, Zhong Yao. Yao deployed Chang’an’s army, but Dai personally led his own force in an attack on their line and, working his sword, severely defeated Zhong Yao. Yao was soon forced to move back into Chang’an before the onslaught, but Ma Dai pursued the retreating army and took a further toll on their numbers. Soon after, Ma Chao arrived with Xiliang’s main army and joined up with Ma Dai to surround Chang’an’s walls. In just over two weeks, Chang’an was successfully taken and occupied. (5)
5: Initially, the Xiliang army had difficulty in taking Chang’an. After ten days of unsuccessful siege, a plan was proposed by Pang De, another Xiliang commander, to temporarily withdraw the army so as to trick Zhong Yao into opening Chang’an’s gates. The plan was accepted and carried out, and when Yao opened Chang’an’s gates once again, Pang De entered with a small undercover force and attacked the city internally, opening its gates to allow the main Xiliang army to occupy it.
After occupying Chang’an, the next object of the Ma’s attention became Tong Pass, where Zhong Yao and the remainder of his forces had fled, and the Xiliang army soon descended upon it. Arriving at the pass, it was soon learned that Cao Cao had further reinforced it with two more commanders, Cao Hong and Xu Huang. The Ma’s had a section of their force lounge on the grass outside of the pass, creating the impression of exhaustion, and Cao Hong soon charged out to attack the troops. As he did, Ma Dai circled around Hong to place himself at his rear and led his contingent in an attack against him. Unprepared for the attack, Cao Hong was severely defeated, and when Ma Chao and Pang De joined up with Dai from the left and right, over half of Tong Pass’s entire force was killed. Cao Hong, Xu Huang, and Zhong Yao all fled, and the Xiliang army occupied Tong Pass.
After some time, reports arrived that Cao Cao was leading his main army from the capital to retake Tong Pass. With his cousin, Chao, and Pang De, Ma Dai rode at the head of the Xiliang army to confront Cao and met him just outside of the pass. Ma Chao was the first of the three to take the field and battled with three of Cao Cao’s commanders: Yu Jin, Zhang He and Li Tong, defeating the former two while killing the latter. As Tong fell dead from his horse, Ma Dai and the rest of the Xiliang army charged in an all out attack on Cao Cao’s force. With Ma Chao and Pang De, Dai plunged into Cao’s centre camp and killed a great many of his soldiers. Cao Cao consequently retreated and the Xiliang army returned to Tong Pass.
Cao Cao later re-positioned his forces north of the River Wei, and Ma Dai was placed in command of the rear unit assigned to attack his position. The army advanced in the dead of night and arrived to find Cao’s soldiers fully exposed, having already revealed their position when Commander Cheng Yi went ahead with a scouting party. Taking advantage of their vulnerability, Ma Dai attacked with the rest of the Xiliang army and dealt them another defeat. The battle lasted until dawn, and the Ma’s occupied the majority of the River Wei.
After several other battles with Cao Cao, relations between Ma Dai’s cousin, Chao, and Han Sui began to deteriorate. Eventually, spies inside Sui’s camp reported his intention to defect to Cao, sending Ma Chao to directly confront Han Sui before he could. With Pang De, Ma Dai accompanied Chao to Sui’s tent, but hostilities between the two immediately erupted, and Ma Chao killed two of Han Sui’s commanders and severed one of Sui’s hands. (6) Before Han Sui himself could be captured, however, reports arrived that an attack force of Cao Cao’s was imminent, and Ma Dai mounted his horse for combat. With Pang De, Ma Dai led an assault on Cao’s forces, which were pressing in from all directions, and successfully maintained a stout defence. As the battle raged on, Ma Dai spotted Ma Chao tumble from his force, his mount killed by a contingent of Cao Cao’s forces pressing in for the kill. Rallying his remaining soldiers, Dai charged Chao’s attackers and drove them off. Ma Dai then accommodated his cousin with a new mount, and the two decided that, with their forces divided as a result of Han Sui’s defection, a retreat was inevitable. With Pang De and a score of mounted followers, the two Ma’s set out for Lintao in Longxi.
6: Han Sui’s defection wasn’t solely the product of his own desire, but rather a ploy of Cao Cao’s to create distrust between Sui and Ma Chao. Historically, however, the defection never took place, and Han Sui continued to battle Cao Cao even after the Ma’s withdrew their forces.
Ma Dai remained with his cousin, Chao, in Longxi for the next two years, during which Chao was able to occupy the majority of the district for himself. After the second year, however, Chao was ousted from the district by Cao Cao’s forces, and Ma Dai joined him in seeking amnesty with Zhang Lu in Hanzhong. After some time in Hanzhong, a request for reinforcements arrived from Yizhou, who’s Governor Liu Zhang was currently under attack by Liu Bei. Ma Dai and Chao were selected to head the relief force, which numbered twenty thousand, while Pang De remained behind in Hanzhong due to illness. The two cousins soon headed out for Yizhou with their new assignment.
Ma Dai and Chao headed for Jiameng Pass, which had already been captured by Liu Bei’s forces, and began the offensive on its defenders. Before the pass could be reclaimed, however, reports arrived of a relief force headed by Bei himself. Ma Dai went ahead to meet the new threat and was confronted by Bei’s Commander Wei Yan. Charging at one another, the two leaders fought several bouts, after which Ma Dai feigned defeat and began making back for his line. Wei Yan pursued, but as the chase gained momentum, Ma Dai unslung his bow, rotated in his saddle, and shot Yan in his left arm, sending him into full flight. Dai then began riding hard after his adversary, but was met by another of Liu Bei’s commanders. “Who are you? First your name. Then fight,” shouted the officer.
“Ma Dai of Xiliang, none other!” Dai shouted back.
“Then you’re not Ma Chao? Begone! No match for me! Send that wretch to me – Zhang Fei of Yan!”
“You despise me?” Ma Dai asked.
Before a reply was forthcoming, Dai cocked his spear and charged Zhang Fei. After ten bouts fought with the commander, Ma Dai turned around and headed back to camp. Fei, in turn, was called back to his own encampment.
Returning to council with his cousin, Ma Dai told of Zhang Fei and his intention to battle Chao. The next day, the two cousins approached the front line, and Ma Chao demanded to fight no one but Zhang Fei. Fei consented, and the two warriors fought many battles in single combat over the course of the next few weeks, but neither could overcome the other. After more time at the pass, orders arrived from Hanzhong detailing the Ma’s to abandon the campaign, but Ma Chao was determined to continue his battle with Zhang Fei. Eventually, a courier arrived with three conditions set by Zhang Lu. The first, that the Riverlands must be captured; the second, that Liu Zhang must be executed; and the third, that Liu Bei’s forces were to be removed. The courier also explained that the conditions must be met in one month, would result in execution if failed, and would only be rendered void if the Ma’s ceased combat. With such conditions impossible to meet inside a single month, the Ma’s decided to finally suspend hostilities with Liu Bei. However, reports arrived that the strongpoints to Hanzhong had been sealed to the Ma’s (7), and so when Liu Bei sent an envoy inviting Dai and Chao to join his army, the two cousins happily consented.
7: Yang Song, an officer of Zhang Lu’s, had spread rumours that the Ma’s intended on rebelling once they returned to Hanzhong. Consequently, Lu denied them entry back into Hanzhong.
Ma Dai and Chao later joined Liu Bei and the rest of his commanders in a war council to discuss taking Chengdu, Yizhou’s capital. “Do not tire your forces, my lord,” Chao said. “I will call on Liu Zhang to surrender. If he refuses, my brother Dai and I will deliver Chengdu to you ourselves.” (8)
8: Ma Dai and Chao were not actual brothers, but were so close to one another that they referred to their relationship as such.
Liu Bei was delighted and agreed, and the two cousins went to the walls of Chengdu. “We want to speak to Liu Zhang,” they shouted, and when Zhang appeared, the Ma’s praised Liu Bei and advised the Inspector to surrender. The next day, Liu Zhang opened the gates of Chengdu and the entire province of Yizhou was consequently occupied by Liu Bei. The year was AD 214. For his role in the campaign, Ma Dai was promoted in Bei’s army and richly rewarded.
In AD 221, Liu Bei declared himself Emperor of Shu following the abdication of the Han by Cao Cao’s son, Pi. In AD 223, Liu Bei himself died, and his son, Shan, ascended the Shu thrown. By this time, Ma Dai held the position of General Who Pacifies the North. In AD 225, Shu’s Prime Minister Zhuge Liang initiated a campaign against Meng Huo and the Nanman people of the south, who had recently rebelled. (9) After an initial clash between the main army and the southern tribe, Ma Dai followed with a back up unit, as well as transporting grain and medication supplies to reinforce the expedition. Arriving into Zhuge Liang’s presence, Liang asked, “How many troops have you brought?”
9: Ma Dai was a descendent of the famous warrior Ma Yuan, who had himself conquered the Nanman region in AD 44. A shrine dedicated to Yuan was later erected in the area.
“Three thousand,” Ma Dai replied.
“Our men are worn out from battle,” Liang said. “I would like you to send your troops to the front if you are willing.”
“The Emperor’s troops,” Ma Dai replied, “are neither yours nor mine. If Your Excellency needs them, I shall shirk no hardship, nor even death.”
“Meng Huo holds the river; there is no way we can cross. I want to cut off the grain supply and rout him.
“How?” Ma Dai asked.
“One hundred and fifty li away, in the lower reaches of the river, by Sandymouth where the current ebbs, it is possible to tie rafts together and get across. Take your own three thousand, get directly into the Man redoubts, and interdict their supply line. Then meet with Dongtuna and Ahuinan (two Nanman leaders) and make them our collaborators. Don’t let anything go wrong.”
Ma Dai accepted his assignment and set off with his unit eagerly. Dai soon reached Sandymouth and directed his men to cross the Lu. Wading in to its waters, however, Dai’s men began to topple over, and those that managed back to shore soon perished in the same manner. Disturbed by the development, Ma Dai sent a report back to Zhuge Liang detailing what had occurred. Liang in turn sent some native guides and, with six hundred picked troops, Ma Dai again crossed the Lu, this time in the dead of night, and successfully made it to the other side. Dai then had his full force occupy the Jiashan Defile on the main grain route for the Nanman tribes. Soon afterwards, the tribes attempted delivering the grain supplies, but Ma Dai cut them off and seized more than a hundred carts.
Soon after seizing the Nanman grain carts, a relief force was sighted heading for Ma Dai’s position. Dai deployed his unit, and the two opposing forces formed into separate positions. The Man commander, Mangyachang, rode forth, and Ma Dai met him on the field. In a single pass, Dai pierced Manyachang through with his spear, and the tribal leader dropped dead from his horse. After the victory, another Nanman force was sighted on the horizon, this one setting up camp just off the Jiashan Defile in preparation for an attack. Ma Dai went to meet the force. One of Dai’s soldiers related that the unit’s commander, Dongtuna, had previously been captured and released by Zhuge Liang, and so Ma Dai went forward to denounce the enemy leader. “Faithless ingrate! Villain!” he shouted. “His Excellency spared your life, yet now you turn on us again! Where is your honour?” Dongtuna’s face flushed and he led his forces in a withdrawal. Returning to Meng Huo, Dongtuna later commented, “I can’t resist a hero like Ma Dai!” Dai himself gathered the grain carts he had captured and returned to the main camp to distribute them.
After his battles with Manyachang and Dongtuna, Ma Dai took to guarding the northern shore of the Lu. One night, his men spotted a Nanman contingent attempting to cross the waters. Placing his men in ambush, Dai allowed the tribal unit to cross but, once they did, sprung his trap and surrounded the small contingent. Ma Dai questioned their commander, Meng You, and then delivered him to Zhuge Liang’s main tent. After Liang had interrogated You, Ma Dai was himself called upon by the Prime Minister. Liang explained that Meng You intended to mingle his own troops into Shu’s forces for an impending attack by Meng Huo, but ordered Dai to counter the attack by dressing himself and a contingent of men in the garb of the Nanman. Ma Dai left and did as instructed. Dead into the night, he spotted Meng Huo fleeing the Shu camp, having been defeated by Zhuge Liang when he attacked. Ma Dai approached Huo who, seeing them dressed as Nanman soldiers, suspected nothing, but as he neared the Nanman King, Ma Dai wrestled him to the floor and bound him. Dai then delivered him to Zhuge Liang’s tent, but Meng Huo was later released. (10) Ma Dai saw the Nanman chief leave the encampment and, pointing his sword to him, warned, “This time you will not get off!”
10: This was Meng Huo’s third capture, but the Nanman King refused to submit. Consequently, Zhuge Liang released him in hopes off accepting his surrender the next time he was caught.
Meng Huo later led a renewed assault on the Shu encampment. As the attack was in progress, Ma Dai was summoned to Zhuge Liang’s command tent, who instructed him, “I am going to abandon these three camps and withdraw to the north shore. As soon as I do, you are to take down the floating bridge and move it downstream so Zhao Zilong (Yun) and Wei Yan can get across and stand ready to assist us.”
His orders given, Ma Dai left to carry out his new assignment. Once the three Shu encampments had been abandoned, Dai had his men replace the floating bridge to the appropriate position and then stationed his own men in nearby hills in preparation of Meng Huo’s offensive. Soon after, Ma Dai spotted Huo and a band of his soldiers approaching the hills and cut off his line of advance. Consequently, the Nanman King fled eastwards, where he was promptly captured for the fourth time. Once again, Zhuge Liang had him released when he refused to submit.
Meng Huo was later captured a fifth time when one of his own commanders, Yang Feng, delivered him unto Zhuge Liang, but again the Man King refused to submit. The Shu army then led another attack on the Nanman forces, but two commanders, Zhang Ni and Ma Zhong, were captured by Zhurong, Meng Huo’s wife. After the defeat was reported, Ma Dai was summoned to Zhuge Liang’s command tent, who instructed him to place an ambush set to ensnare Zhurong on a nearby side path. Dai left to carry out his instructions and placed his men on either side of the indicated road, with each side holding the end of a rope he had concealed on the path. Lying in wait, Ma Dai spotted Zhurong pursuing Commander Wei Yan down the side path. As Zhurong’s mount neared his position, Dai gave the order for his men to raise the rope, tripping her from her horse. Ma Dai then seized the female warrior and took her to Zhuge Liang, who had her exchanged for the two captured Shu officers.
Meng Huo himself was later captured a sixth time, but again refused amnesty. It was soon reported that Huo had joined with Wu Tugu, King of the Black Lance Kingdom, for a final assault against the Shu army. Once Tugu’s forces advanced, Ma Dai was again summoned by Zhuge Liang, who said, “I am going to give you ten carriages with black containers; you will need a thousand bamboo poles. Inside the containers you will find certain essential items. Have your own troops hold either end of Winding Serpent Valley and act accordingly to our plan. You have half a month to prepare everything. At the prearranged time you are to proceed as instructed. Should anyone learn of this plan, the full weight of martial law will be imposed.”
Ma Dai left to carry out his instructions and soon had his men occupy Winding Serpent Valley. Inside the black containers, he discovered, were incendiary items. Instructions later arrived from Zhuge Liang detailing him that the containers were to be abandoned in the valley once the Nanman appeared, in preparation for a fire attack on their forces. In two weeks time, Wu Tugu appeared at the valley but, rather than fighting his forces, Ma Dai had his men abandon the valley in coordination with Zhuge Liang’s plan, leaving the black containers behind. Tugu, along with his Black Lance army, were subsequently caught in the inferno caused by the containers and killed. Ma Dai keep his men in position just outside of the valley, and soon spotted Meng Huo himself approaching the scene. Huo was quickly defeated by Shu commanders Zhang Ni and Ma Zhong, but the Nanman King himself was able to escape. Seeing him flee, Ma Dai darted through the nearby terrain and intercepted him from the side, taking him captive once again. This time, Meng Huo submitted, and the southern Man region came under Shu control.
When Ma Dai returned to Chengdu, he learned that his cousin, Chou, had passed away due to illness. (11) In AD 226, Zhuge Liang successfully petitioned for an expedition against the northern kingdom of Wei. In preparation for the attack, Ma Dai was given command of the left army and put in charge of grain transport, as well as being made Lord of Chencang. Before the army began its march onto Mianyang, Ma Dai, attired in mourning garb and attended by Zhuge Liang, visited the tomb of his diseased cousin and offered sacrifice to his memory. After the ceremony, Ma Dai joined the Riverlands army in its advance northward.
11: Historically, Ma Chao’s death is placed in AD 222 rather than 225. Before his death, Ma Chao said to Liu Bei, “I used to have some two hundred members in my household but they were mostly killed by Meng De (Cao Cao), except for my younger cousin and follower Ma Dai. He is the only person left to continue the family line, hence I sincerely place him in your care and I will have no regrets.”
By AD 228, the Shu army had captured Tianshui, Shanggui and Jicheng, and moved on to the hills of Qishan. The Wei army, commanded by Cao Zhen, soon arrived in an attempt to repel the Riverlanders. Ma Dai was called to Zhuge Liang’s command tent before any combat was initiated, and ordered to set up his forces on either side of the Shu encampment in the event of an enemy ambush. Dai left to carry out his instructions and, true enough to Zhuge Liang’s predication, enemy commanders Cao Zun and Zhu Zan were spotted entering the camp sometime during the second watch. With Zhang Ni, Wang Ping and Zhang Yi, Ma Dai charged the northern force and sent them into full flight.
After the victory over Cao Zhen’s forces, reports arrived that the northern army had been reinforced by the Western Qiang, commanded by Yadan and Yueji. Knowing Ma Dai to have previous ties with the Qiang, Zhuge Liang called him to the counsel on how the new threat would be repelled. “You know the ways of the Qiang,” Liang said, “and have lived among them long enough to serve as a guide.”
Zhuge Liang then placed fifty thousand troops under Ma Dai’s command, along with commanders Guan Xing and Zhang Bao. The army departed immediately and arrived at the Qiang’s position within several days. Guan Xing initially went ahead with one hundred men to scout the enemy’s position and, upon his return, Ma Dai and the other two Shu commanders conferred. “Tomorrow look for weaknesses in their formation,” Dai said. “Then we can plan further.”
The following day, the western army went forth to confront the Qiang forces. Ma Dai commanded the right wing of the troops, while Guan Xing and Zhang Bao commanded the centre and left respectively. The opposing lines formed up, but a barrage of arrows suddenly shot by the Qiang forced the Riverlands’ force apart, and Ma Dai became separated from his fellow commanders. Fighting his way back to camp, Dai consolidated his position and established a line of defence in the event of another offensive, but none was forthcoming. Guan Xing and Zhang Bao later returned safely back to the camp, and Ma Dai said, “There is no way to repel the enemy. I will defend the campsite while you two petition the Prime Minister for a plan to defeat them.”
Accordingly, Guan Xing and Zhang Bao left the camp for an audience with Zhuge Liang, while Ma Dai remained on the defensive at the encampment.
Zhuge Liang later arrived with reinforcements, and Ma Dai joined his troops with those of the Prime Minister’s. It was the end of February in the year, and snow soon started to descend on the terrain. Liang ordered moats dug on the nearby pathways and concealed with the falling snow. With Commanders Jiang Wei and Zhang Yi, Ma Dai then positioned his contingent of men in the nearby hills, ready to strike at the Qiang once they advanced into the trap. Soon after, Yueji and Yadan led their forces in an attack on Zhuge Liang, but their forward units promptly fell prey to the hidden manholes. Rousing his men, Ma Dai then descended from the hills and attacked the Qiang from the rear, personally capturing Commander Yadan in the ensuing melee. After the battle had reached its conclusion, Dai presented the Qiang prisoner to Zhuge Liang, who had him and the remainder of his forces freed. Yadan soon led his men in a withdrawal to his own territory, and Ma Dai joined the rest of the Riverlanders in returning to the Qishan Hills.
Zhuge Liang later ordered a retreat to Hanzhong when the town of Jieting was taken by Wei’s Sima Yi. To help safeguard the withdrawal, Ma Dai was ordered to secure the line of retreat by placing ambushes along the roads, along with the aid of Commander Jiang Wei. Ma Dai left to carry out his assignment and soon had ambushes set in several different parts of the path leading to the Riverlands. After lying in wait for some time, Ma Dai spotted Cao Zhen leading an army down the road. Signalling his men, Dai charged down from his concealed position and speared through Cao Zhen’s vanguard leader, Chen Zao, while Zhen and the remainder of his forces fled in defeat. The Riverlands army were then able to proceed safely on to Hanzhong.
In the autumn of AD 228, Zhuge Liang again initiated another expedition against the northern kingdom of Wei, and Ma Dai was selected to lead the vanguard of the army. Reaching the Qishan Hills, Dai was summoned to the Prime Minister’s command tent, who said, “Take three thousand men to the Wei army grain depot. Do not enter the site; only set fires upwind. If the carts burn, the enemy will come to surround our camp.”
Ma Dai immediately set off and reached the Wei depot during the second watch. Dai had both his men and their mounts wear gags so as to muffle any sound of their approach, and then lead them forward towards the grain carts. Once a southwest wind began to blow, Ma Dai had his men set fires on the south side of the camp, and the wind quickly spread the flames through the entirety of the depot. Rather than retreat, Ma Dai then had his three thousand men remain silent just outside of the flames’ reach. Soon after, enemy Commander Sun Li was spotted leading a sortie to attack the Riverlands’ main camp, and Ma Dai then signalled his men forward to attack the northern leaders. Emerging from the flames, Ma Dai charged down and pressed Sun Li from several sides, inflicting countless casualties, and the Wei army soon after retreated. However, the western army’s own grain supply was lacking, and Zhuge Liang soon ordered a withdrawal back to Shu territory.
In AD 229, Zhuge Liang led a third northern expedition, but the campaign ended when Commander Zhang Bao died of illness inside Chengdu. In AD 230, reports arrived that the Wei army themselves were leading a force in an attempt to conquer Hanzhong, but the northern troops were forced to retreat due to heavy rainfall. As they were, Ma Dai was ordered to advance through Ye Gorge along with commanders Wang Ping, Ma Zhong and Zhang Yi in preparation of another northern offensive. Zhuge Liang later summoned Dai and Commander Wang Ping, and said, “If Wei troops are holding Ye Gorge, I want you two to cross the hills with your own units. Move only by night, and get to the eastern side of the Qishan Hills as quickly as possible. Then signal with fire.”
Ma Dai and Wang Ping set off immediately. Upon reaching Ye Gorge, they found the position to already be manned by northern forces. Accordingly, the two set off for eastern Qishan and met up with commanders Ma Zhong and Zhang Yi by setting off the appropriate fire signal. The four western leaders then marched on to Cao Zhen’s main camp, which was already under attack from the north. Seeing the battle unfold, Ma Dai and the other three Riverlanders attacked Zhen from the rear and forced him from his encampment. The Shu army later went on to score several other victories over both Cao Zhen and Sima Yi, but after which were recalled by its Emperor, Liu Shan. (12)
12: Li Yan, who was in charge of provisions for the northern campaigns, had sent District Commander Gou An to deliver a grain shipment to the western army but An, addicted to wine, dallied on the journey and arrived ten days late. Zhuge Liang had him whipped eighty times and Gou An fled to the Wei camp. Sima Yi ordered him back to Chengdu to spread the false rumour that Zhuge Liang wished to declare himself Emperor and Liu Shan, upon hearing the rumour, recalled the Riverlands army. Historically, however, there is no evidence to suggest that such a rumour was the cause for Zhuge Liang’s withdrawal, nor even that Gou An actually existed.
In AD 231, Zhuge Liang initiated another northern offensive. Ma Dai was once again selected to join the expedition, and the army set out for Lucheng, whose governor hastened to hand over the city. The approach of Sima Yi’s army was soon reported, and Ma Dai was ordered to take command of one thousand men and five hundred drummers on the westerner’s left flank, as well as to carry a statue in the likeness of Zhuge Liang. Similar orders were given to both Jiang Wei and Wei Yan, aimed to confuse the northern force of Liang’s actual location. In this manner, the four western units alternated their position on the battlefield, and Sima Yi’s army soon became disorientated for fear of what they were actually confronting. The Wei army then fled in a panicked retreat to Shanggui, and Ma Dai and the Riverlands’ force returned victorious to Lucheng.
Some time after the victory over Sima Yi, Ma Dai was summoned to a war counsel by Zhuge Liang. “Tonight the enemy will attack,” Liang said. “The wheat fields east and west of the city make a good place to hide our soldiers. Who will dare to go out and prepare the ambush?”
Ma Dai immediately stepped forward to volunteer for the task, as did fellow commanders Ma Zhong, Jiang Wei and Wei Yan. Together with Ma Zhong, Ma Dai was given command of two thousand men with which to attack from the southwest and northeast, while Jiang Wei and Wei Yan covered the southeast and northwest.
With Ma Zhong, Ma Dai then set out with his contingent of men to his designated position. The Wei army, commanded by Sima Yi and Guo Huai, arrived dead into the night. Ma Dai and his fellow commanders allowed the force to encircle Lucheng, exposing them to the full force of their positions, and then sprung their ambush. Ma Dai charged down from his vantage point and the northern forces, squeezed between four separate units, suffered heavy losses and hastily retreated. Dai then camped his forces outside of the city in the event of another attack.
Zhuge Liang later summoned Ma Dai, along with Jiang Wei, back in to the city. “The Wei troops are holding their strongpoints in the hills,” he said. “They do not come out to fight because they think we will have no food after the wheat is used up, and secondly, because they have sent troops to surprise Saber Gateway and cut out our supply line. I want each of you to take ten thousand men and defend our strongpoints. When the enemy sees our readiness, they will withdraw.”
With Jiang Wei, Ma Dai then departed with his troops to defend the necessary strongpoints. While stationed there, however, word arrived that Zhuge Liang had ordered a withdrawal back to Shu territory, and Ma Dai and Jiang Wei consequently abandoned the strongpoints and led their troops homeward to Hanzhong. (13)
13: Li Yan had sent Zhuge Liang a letter, which read:
“Recent word is that the Southland had someone in Luoyang negotiate a truce with Wei. Wei urged Wu to conquer Shu, but luckily Wu has not mobilized. Presently making further inquiries. Humbly hope Your Excellency acts quickly.”
Consequently, Zhuge Liang had the Riverlands army retreat back to Chengdu. This report, however, was false—Li Yan had failed to arrange for the supplies and, anticipating Zhuge Liang’s accusation, had submitted this false letter to cover up his fault. He was later demoted to commoner status and held in Zitong district.
In AD 234, Zhuge Liang launched another northern campaign. Ma Dai was selected to join the expedition, and the western army advanced onto the Qishan Hills and established five positions: left, right, centre, forward and rear. Ma Dai was soon ordered to attack Beiyuan along with Wei Yan, and the two commanders set out immediately. Travelling constantly, the two reached Beiyuan by dusk, but its defender, Sun Li, abandoned the town upon their arrival. Suspecting an ambush, Ma Dai and Wei Yan quickly turned their troops around, but northern leaders Sima Yi and Guo Huai were already upon them from both left and right. Dai and Yan then joined up and began cutting an avenue of escape, but the Wei army was swiftly moving in from all sides. As the fight began to look desperate, Shu General Wu Yi entered the fray and, together, the three westerners fought their way from the ambush and secured the nearby shoreline as a defensive position.
Shortly after his failed attack on Beiyuan, Ma Dai, with Wei Yan and Wu Yi, returned back to the Shu main encampment. Once there, Dai was informed by Zhuge Liang of the defection of northern commander Zhang Wen. It was soon discovered, however, that Wen’s change of allegiance was false, and Liang subsequently forced the northerner to pen a letter to Sima Yi advising him to attack Shu’s encampments. After Zhang Wen consented, Ma Dai was ordered to place his men in ambush on the right side of the Shu encampment along with Ma Zhong. Dai deployed his troops in the appropriate positions and then himself began lying in wait for the northern offensive. As darkness descended on the camp, Wei commanders Qin Lang and Sima Yi were spotted entering the encampment. When Yi and his men had fully committed themselves into the ambush, Ma Dai and several score of other western commanders sprung their ambush and attacked the Wei army from several sides. Qin Lang was killed in the ensuing melee, while Sima Yi and a small number of his forces were able to affect a retreat.
After the victory over Sima Yi, Ma Dai was summoned by Zhuge Liang. Liang told Dai of his intention to create ‘wooden bulls’ and ‘gliding horses’ as a means to transport grain in the coming battles against Wei, and ordered Dai to guard the entrance to the gorge where the machines were being built. “Keep the craftsmen in and the outsiders out,” Liang said. “I’ll be coming by myself to check on their progress. This is my one hope for defeating Sima Yi. The work must be kept absolutely secret.”
His orders given, Ma Dai set out for Gourd Gorge, where the wooden bulls were being manufactured, and deployed his men in a defensive perimeter around it. Dai successfully defended the gorge for the duration it took for the bulls and horses to be finished and, upon their completion, they were used to lure Sima Yi into an ambush that resulted in a major defeat for the Wei army.
With the production of the wooden bulls and gliding horses completed, Ma Dai returned to the Shu main encampment, where Zhuge Liang promptly ordered him to dig a deep moat inside the camp to be filled with flammable materials. Once done, Liang instructed him: “Block the rear route into Gourd Gorge and hide troops inside the gorge. If Sima Yi pursues, let him enter the gorge. Then set the kindling ablaze.”
Ma Dai left with his force to carry out the assignment. After being stationed in Gourd Gorge for a short period of time, Sima Yi himself was spotted entering the gorge with a large contingent of men. Ma Dai had his troops silently ascend the hills from which to gain a vantage point to attack Yi’s forces. When Sima Yi had fully committed himself into the gorge, Ma Dai signalled for his men to fling down torches onto the kindling he had previously set, and the entrance to the gorge soon became impassable due to the ensuing inferno. As the fire spread, Dai observed Sima Yi embracing his two sons, Shi and Zhao, and crying, “We three are doomed to die here.”
Before the fire could spread any further, however, a sudden torrent of rain gushed down from the sky and extinguished the flames. Ma Dai led his men in an assault on Sima Yi’s forces in hopes of taking the northern leader, but with far inferior troops, Dai was unable to stop the much larger army from escaping. Sima Yi returned to the northern bank of the River Wei, where he refused any further engagement, and Ma Dai went back to the main Shu encampment.
By the eighth month of AD 234, Sima Yi had remained stalwart in his strictly defensive strategy, and Zhuge Liang’s physical health had begun to waver. Halfway through the month, Liang’s condition had worsened to such an extent that his death began looking inevitable. Ma Dai was soon summoned to Zhuge Liang’s tent, who he found to be laying on his couch. Motioning Dai closer, Liang said in low undertones that, in the event that Commander Wei Yan should refuse the order to retreat and become a threat to the Shu army, Ma Dai was to kill him. “Carry it out after my death,” Zhuge Liang whispered, and further instructed Dai that after Wei Yan had mouthed the words, ‘who will slay me?’, he should act. Dai agreed to the solemn task and left the Prime Minister’s tent.
Shortly after Ma Dai’s meeting with him, Zhuge Liang passed away, and the Riverlands army began their withdrawal back to Shu territory. Wei Yan was given command of the rear, and Ma Dai remained close with him to monitor his movements. It soon became evident that Wei Yan did not concur with Zhuge Liang’s last order to retreat, and after a meeting with Counsellor Fei Yi, Yan implored him to ask Yang Yi, who was now in charge of military operations, to relinquish power to Wei Yan. After Fei Yi did not return, however, Yan became suspicious, and had Ma Dai investigate. Dai soon found out that Jiang Wei had been placed in command of the rear army, while the better part of the forward army had already begun withdrawing. After relating the information to Wei Yan, Yan exploded into a rage. “How dare that useless pedant trifle with me!” he said. “I’ll kill him! Will you help me?”
Playing along with the part to keep close to Wei Yan, Ma Dai said, “I have always despised Yang Yi, and I am willing to help you against him, General.”
Convinced and pleased by his sincerity, Wei Yan broke camp and Ma Dai joined him in leading his forces south.
Wei Yan stationed his troops in Nangu and gave three hundred for Ma Dai to command. Shortly after camping there, Yang Yi’s Commander He Ping arrived to challenge Wei Yan. The two squared off inside Nangu, while Ma Dai remained outside of the combat with his three hundred. Wei Yan was soon defeated after the bulk of his forces began fleeing, leaving Ma Dai and his small contingent as the only ones remaining. Racing back to Dai’s position, Wei Yan said, “Stay by me now, and I shall never forget it.”
Ma Dai nodded and joined Wei Yan in chasing He Ping, but the Shu General had already withdrawn. Turning to Ma Dai, Yan said, “How about seeking our fortune with Wei?”
Now confident of Wei Yan’s treachery, Ma Dai further tested him. “That is not a sensible idea,” he answered. “Shouldn’t a man of honour aim to create his own dominion rather than bend his knee in another’s service? I see in you a man of sense and courage, excelling any other in the Riverlands. I would take an oath with you: first to seize Hanzhong, then to attack the western Riverlands!”
Wei Yan, delighted, accepted Ma Dai’s proposal, and Dai suggested that they seize Nanzheng from Jiang Wei. Yan agreed, not suspecting anything amiss, and the two began marching to the city.
Ma Dai and Wei Yan soon reached Nanzheng. Still playing the part of Yan’s ally, Ma Dai went to the city’s walls and cried out, “Surrender now!”
Jiang Wei soon came out of the city. Drawing his line, Wei shouted, “Rebel traitor Wei Yan! His Excellency never did you ill! How dare you turn against him now?”
“Jiang Wei; this does not concern you,” Wei Yan replied. “Let Yang Yi come forth!”
The drawbridge to Nanzheng then rose again, and Yang Yi came riding out. Pointing to Wei Yan, Yi laughed and said, “When His Excellency was alive, he predicted you would revolt and warned me to be ready. His words came true today. If you will shout from horseback three times the words ‘who will slay me?’, then you are a true hero and I will deliver the seat of Hanzhong to you.”
Also laughing, Wei Yan answered, “Yang Yi, you miserable coward! Listen! I was only three parts in ten afraid of Kongming when he lived, so who dares oppose me now he’s gone? I’ll shout it not three but thirty thousand times – what difference could it make to me?”
Wei Yan then raised his sword and cried out, “Who dares slay me?”
As his words were still echoing in the air, Ma Dai drew his own sword and shouted harshly, “I dare slay you!”
At that, Ma Dai struck a single blow with his weapon, and Wei Yan toppled dead from his horse. (14) A poet of later times wrote:
Zhuge knew beforehand Wei Yan’s mind,
The traitor to Shu-Han he’d later prove.
The artifice no man could have foreknown,
But by Yan’s death its potency was shown.
14: After Zhuge Liang had given Ma Dai instructions to kill Wei Yan upon his betrayal, he summoned Yang Yi to his tent and handed him a brocade bag. “After I am dead, Wei Yan will turn against us,” Liang said. “When he does, accompany him to the front line and then open this. You will find the right man to execute him”
Later, when Ma Dai and Wei Yan approached Nanzheng, Yany Yi opened up the brocade bag, which told of how Ma Dai would kill Wei Yan after Yan uttered the words ‘who dares slay me?’. Accordingly, Yang Yi taunted Wei Yan into saying the words.
Ma Dai then joined his forces with those of Jiang Wei’s and together, the two returned with the rest of the Shu army to Chengdu. For distinguishing himself in the campaign and for his slaying of Wei Yan, Ma Dai was awarded Yan’s previous rank. While in Chengdu, however, Ma Dai died of natural causes, though the exact date of his death is uncertain.
Copyright © 2007 Sam Wrest. All Rights Reserved.
Source: Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms