Biography (SGYY): Mi Heng (Zhengping)

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Mi Heng (Zhengping)
彌衡 (正平)
(AD ??–200)

Sanguo yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by James Peirce

Mi Heng (Zhengping)

Mi Heng, styled Zhengping, was a reputable scholar of China.

In AD 200 Cao Cao sought to launch a campaign against Liu Bei in Xuzhou, who had just obtained his independence bringing a portion of Cao Cao’s own forces with him (formerly under the command of Liu Dai and Wang Zhong). Kong Rong, however, opposed this pointing out that marching troops in winter would be unwise, suggesting they delay the campaign until spring. Instead, he proposed that Cao Cao use the time to make peace with Zhang Xiu and Liu Biao to his south to free his movements in the north.

Zhang Xiu accepted the proposal for peace at Jia Xu’s advice, and upon Jia Xu’s arrival in the capital he advised Cao Cao; “Liu Bei is fond of befriending the luminaries of our day. We need a noted literary man of letters to persuade him.” Xun You suggested that this task be appointed to Kong Rong, who in turn explained to Cao Cao that he knew of a man, Mi Heng, styled Zhengping, who was ten times more talented than himself. Kong Rong then recommended Mi Heng to the Son of Heaven through petition (1).

1: Sanguo yanyi (Brewitt-Taylor) is source of the petition translation.

“In ancient days, when the great waters were abroad, the emperor pondered over their regulation and he sought out people of talent from all directions. In old time, when Emperor Wu of the Hans desired to enlarge his borders, crowds of scholars responded to his call (2).

2: Shi Zong (Emperor Wu, Liu Che) reigned from 141 to 87 BC.

“Intelligent and holy, Your Majesty ascended the throne. You have fallen upon evil days, but have been diligent, modest, and untiring in your efforts. Now the great mountains have sent forth spirits, and people of genius appear.

“I, your humble servant, know of a certain simple scholar, Mi Heng by name, of Pingyuan, a young man of twenty-four. His moral character is excellent, his talents eminent. As a youth he took a high place in study and penetrated the most secret arcane of learning. What he glanced at he could repeat, what he heard once he never forgot. He is naturally high-principled, and his thoughts are divine. Sang Hongyang’s mental calculations and Zhang Anshi’s memorial feats compared with Mi Heng’s powers are no longer wonderful (3). Loyal, sincere, correct, and straightforward, his ambition is unsullied. He regards the good with trembling respect; he detests the evil with uncompromising hatred. Ren Zuo in unflinching candor, Shi Yu in severe rectitude, never surpassed him (4).

3: Sanguo yanyi (Moss Roberts): Sang Hongyang, an important participant in the salt and iron debates of 81 BC, could do computations in his head. Zhang Anshi, director of the Secretariat for Emperor Xuan (74-49 BC), earned a reputation for his memory upon receiting the texts of three cases of books lost by Emperor Xuan.
4: Sanguo yanyi (Moss Roberts): Ren Zuo, during the Warrings States period, defended a critic of the king of Wei despite in the face of his sovereign’s displeasure. Shi Yu gave his life protesting the appointment of a wicked minister in the state of Wei during the Spring and Autumn period.

“Hundreds of hawks are not worth one osprey. If Mi Heng is given a court appointment, notable results must follow. Ready in debate, rapid in utterance, his overwhelming intelligence wells up in profusion. In the solution of doubts and the unraveling of difficulties he has no peer.

“In former days of Han, Jia Yi begged to be sent on trial to a vassal state for the control of the Xiongnu tribespeople; Zhong Jun offered to bring back the Prince of Nanyue to do homage to the emperor. The generous conduct of these youths has been much admired.

“In our day Lu Cui and Yan Xiang, remarkable for their talents, have been appointed among the secretaries. And Mi Heng is no less capable. Should he be got, then all possibilities may be realized: The dragon may curvet through the celestial streets and soar along the Milky Way; fame will extend to the poles of the universe and hang in the firmament with rainbow glory. He would be the glory of all the present Ministers and enhance the majesty of the Palace itself. The Music will acquire new beauties, and the Palace will contain an excellent treasure. People like Mi Heng are but few. As in the recitation of ‘Ji Chu Songs’ and the singing of ‘Yang E Poems’, the most skillful performers are sought; and such fleet horses as ‘Fei Tu Broncos’ and ‘Yao Niao Mustangs’ were looked for by the famous judges of horses, Wang Liang and Bo Le.

“So I, the humble one, dare not conceal this man. Your Majesty is careful in the selection of servants and should try him. Let him be summoned as he is, simply clad in his serge dress; and should he not appear worthy, then may I be punished for the fault of deception.”

After reading Kong Rong’s petition, Emperor Xian passed it on to Cao Cao who summoned Mi Heng to the capital. Though Mi Heng arrived, during his audience with Cao Cao he suffered the indignity of not being commanded to take a seat, after which he looked skyward and sighed, “In all this world, I can see not a single man!”

Cao Cao, who overheard the comment, replied sharply, “Among those in my service, dozens rank as heroes of our time. What point are you trying to make?”

“Name them,” was Mi Heng’s simple response.

Cao Cao replied, “Xun Yu, Xun You, Guo Jia, and Cheng Yu are all men of clear sight and vision, superior by far to Xiao He and Chen Ping (5) . Zhang Liao, Xu Chu, Li Dian, and Yue Jin possess a valor beyond that of Cen Peng or Ma Wu (6). Among my military aids Lu Qian and Man Chong, and my vanguard leaders Yu Jin and Xu Huang. Xiahou Dun is a field commander of rare talent, and Cao Ren is favored strongly by fortune. What then is your point?” he pressed again.

5: Political and military advisors under Liu Bang.
6: Generals serving under Liu Xiu, founder of the Later (Eastern) Han.

“I do not agree,” replied Mi Heng with a scoff. “The men you have mentioned are all known to me, only too well. Xun Yu is good for attending funeral ceremonies or the bedridden, Xun You for guarding graveyards. Cheng Yu would show remarkable talent in service as a gatekeeper, and Guo Jia’s real talent lies in reading prose and reciting verse. Zhang Liao is equal to the task of tapping chimes and drums, Xu Chu for tending cattle and horses. Yu Jin can be employed carrying blocks and constructing walls, Xu Huang slaughtering pigs and dogs. Xiahou Dun should have the title ‘Unscathed General’ and Cao Ren ‘Well-bribed Governor’. The rest are so many clothes racks, rice sacks, wine casks, meat sacks…”

“And what is your specialty?” raged a furious Cao Cao.

“I,” replied Mi Heng, “have mastered the patterns of heaven and the contours of the land. I know well the Three Religions and the Nine Systems of Philosophy. With virtual equal to that of Confucius and his dear disciple Yan Yuan, I could make my prince rival of Kings Yao and Shun. Think you I can discuss these things on even turn with common people?”

Zhang Liao, who was standing near, drew his sword and moved to strike down the impudent visitor Mi Heng, but was cut short as Cao Cao responded, “It so happens that I am short a drum master for our banquets and ceremonies. Mi Heng may have this assignment.” Mi Heng did not refuse the task, and left as soon as Cao Cao had finished speaking.

“Speaking with such impudence, why didn’t you put him to death?” asked Zhang Liao.

“He has something of a name, everyone seems to have heard of him though I do not know why. If I were to kill him the world would condemn me as mean and intolerant. Because he thinks so highly of himself, I have made him a drummer to humiliate him.”

Several days later, Cao Cao summoned Mi Heng to perform for his guests in a palace banquet. The prior drum master had warned Mi Heng to wear fresh attire before using the instruments, but Mi Heng entered dressed shabbily, taking his place among the well-dressed musicians, and preceded to sound out the chosen piece, “Triple Tolling of Yuyang.” From the earliest taps on the drum the effect was superb, profound as notes from metal and stone, moving every guest to tears.

During the performance, one of Cao Cao’s attendants shouted to him angrily, “Why haven’t you changed your clothes?”

Mi Heng responded by turning to the assembly and stripping himself naked, causing the guests to hastily shield their eyes. Then, his expression unchanging, Mi Heng casually drew his clothing back over his body.

“How dare you commit such an outrage in the imperial court?” demanded Cao Cao.

“To abuse one’s lord or to deceive ones sovereign; this is what I call an ‘outrage’. Let all see that I have kept the natural form given me by my parents free of blemish, an emblem of my purity,” replied Mi Heng.

“If you are so pure, who then is corrupt?” demanded Cao Cao.

“Your inability,” responded Mi Heng, “to distinguish between the able and incompetent shows your eyes to be corrupt. Your rejection of loyal advice and honest words show your ears to be corrupt. Your inability to recite the Odes and Documents reveals your mouth to be corrupt (7). An ignorance of past and present shows your whole being to be corrupt. Conflicts with the lords of the realm show your stomach to be corrupt. Your ambitions of usurpation reveal the corruption of your mind. To make a renowned scholar such as myself serve as drum master is a poor imitation of tricks from such as Yang Huo who insulted Confucius or Zhang Cang who attempted to ruin Mencius. Do you believe, holding men in such contempt, you can still become the leader of all lords in the realm?”

7: The earliest, and primary, Confucian classics.

Kong Rong, having witnessed the events and the following exchange between Cao Cao and Mi Heng, feared for the life of the person whom he had recommended to the court. Approaching Cao Cao calmly, he spoke, “For his crimes, send him to do hard labor as a convict. He will never be another Fu Yue. (8)

8: A convict turned ranking official after appearing to the Emperor in a dream.

Pointing to Mi Heng, Cao Cao said, “I am sending you to Jingzhou as my envoy. Win Liu Biao’s support to my side and you may return a high official.” Mi Heng, however, refused to go. Cao Cao ordered three horses to be prepared then had Mi Heng dragged away between them.

Cao Cao had a departure feast prepared at the Eastern Gates, attended by his officials and commanders. When Mi Heng appeared, the assembly did not rise on instruction from Xun Yu. Mi Heng uttered a loud cry. “What are you wailing for?” inquired Xun Yu.

“I’m walking among dead mean waiting to be buried, is there a reason why I shouldn’t wail?” was the response.

“If we are corpses,” replied the officers, “you are a headless ghost.”

“I am a minister of the Han, not a partisan of Cao Cao’s,” cried Mi Heng. “You cannot claim I have no head! (9)

9: Mi Heng’s head belongs to the Han Emperor, theirs to Cao Cao.

The officials present wished to kill him, angered deeply by his words, but Xun Yu checked them. “You should not dirty your blades on a rat,” he replied simply.

“Though I may be a rat,” retorted Mi Heng, “I still have my human nature. You and your kind can be considered nothing more than parasitic wasps.” This brought the exchange of insults to a close, the assembled officials dispersing in anger.

Under duress from Cao Cao, Mi Heng continued to Jingzhou where he sang praise of his host. His tone, however, was ironic enough for Liu Biao to take offense, sending him on to meet Huang Zu in Jiangxia.

“Mi Heng has mocked you, and should be put to death,” said an officer to Liu Biao.

“He slandered Cao Cao numerous times, and is only now alive because he didn’t wish to have the blood of a noted scholar on his hands. He sent him here hoping to borrow my hand and slay him, placing the blame on me. I’ve sent him to meet Huang Zu to show Cao Cao that two can play the part.” Liu Biao’s advisors were impressed by his clever solution to the problem.

Later, a messenger brought news of Mi Heng’s death, reciting the events to Liu Biao. In Jiangxia Mi Heng drank with Huang Zu, both having become quite intoxicated. Huang Zu asked Mi Heng, “Among those at the capital, who are great men?”

“The big child is Kong Rong, the little one Yang Xiu, but nobody else,” was the reply.

“And what do you think of me?” asked Huang Zu.

“You?” replied Mi Heng. “You are much akin to a temple deity who receives fragrant offerings, but in fact, is lifeless and impotent.”

“You take me for an idol of wood or clay?” demanded Huang Zu angrily, ordering Mi Heng put to death. Mi Heng never ceased his railings and abuse until the end. It was still the fifth year of Jian An (AD 200).

Liu Biao openly lamented Mi Heng’s death, ordering his body recovered then having him honorably interred near Yingwu on Parrot Island. A later poet wrote of Mi Heng:

Huang Zu was not a man of charity;
Upon his shores Mi Heng died, yet worthily.
Now his body lies on Yingwu Isle:
Who visits, but the river flowing by?” (10)
1: Sanguo yanyi (Moss Roberts) is source of the poem translation.

Cao Cao smiled when he heard news of Mi Heng’s death. “A rotten bookworm,” he mused, “done in by his own sharp tongue.” He then proceeded with his plans to attack Liu Bei without waiting for favorable terms with Liu Biao.

Copyright © 2004 James Peirce
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong
Sources: Romance of the Three Kingdoms Brewitt-Taylor and Moss Roberts