Biography (SGYY): Wu Ban (Yuanxiong)

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Wu Ban (Yuanxiong)
吳班 (元雄)
(AD ?—234)

Sanguo yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by Sam Wrest

Wu Ban (Yuanxiong)

Wu Ban, styled Yuanxiong, was the son of Wu Kuang, an official who served under Grand Administrator of the Han He Jin. Ban, who originally hailed from Jingzhou (1), was considered a very chivalrous man by nature, and he often held command just below his elder cousin, Wu Yi. Liu Bei first gave Wu Ban the command of garrison commander to help defend Langzhong along with Bei’s brother, Zhang Fei.

1: SGYY does not clearly state if Wu Ban hailed from Jingzhou, was posted there, or if he had merely lived there earlier, but SGZ mentions that Ban’s elder cousin, Wu Yi, hailed from Chen Liu, suggesting that Wu Ban also did.

Following the death of Guan Yu at the hands of the Southland, Liu Bei mobilized a great mass of his army, some seven hundred and fifty thousand, to extract revenge on the south. Wu Ban set out with Zhang Fei from Langzhong to aid in the campaign, but Fei was assassinated by two minor commanders, Fan Jiang and Zhang Da, before the army could reach the southern border. After discovering Zhang Fei’s body, Wu Ban took command of the army and prepared the memorial announcing Fei’s death. After completing it, he had Zhang Fei’s eldest son, Bao, prepare the inner and outer coffin and placed the body inside. He then had the younger son, Zhang Shao, guard Langzhong while he sent Zhang Bao ahead to inform Liu Bei of Zhang Fei’s death.

Some time after sending Zhang Bao to Liu Bei, Wu Ban too set out from Langzhong with the rest of Zhang Fei’s forces to rendezvous with the main army. Liu Bei placed Wu Ban in the vanguard for the ensuing battle with the Southland. Upon reaching southern territory, Ban overawed all opposition placed before him and successfully reached Yidu without suffering any casualties. After being informed that the southern general Sun Huan had camped at the city, Wu Ban sent word to Liu Bei. Liu Bei in turn sent Guan Xing, Guan Yu’s eldest son, and Zhang Bao to aid in the siege of Yidu. After two days of fighting, Wu Ban’s army successfully routed Sun Huan’s forces, leaving the southerners exhausted. Shortly after the victory, Riverlands commanders Feng Xi and Zhang Nan advised Wu Ban, “The southern army is through. This is the moment to raid their camps.”

Wu Ban answered, “Sun Huan has taken great losses, but Zhu Ran’s marine force remains intact on the river. If we raid their camps, the sailors could come ashore and cut off our retreat—what then?

“That’s easy enough,” Zhang Nan answered. “Have commanders Zhang Bao and Guan Xing place five thousand each in ambush in the valleys. If Zhu Ran comes, he’ll be trapped between our two forces and the day will be ours.”

Wu Ban replied, “Why not first send a few soldiers to Zhu Ran to feign surrender and inform him of our planned raid? When Zhu Ran sees the camps afire, he will go to relieve them and we can spring our ambush then. Our triumph will be complete.”

Feng Xi, Zhang Nan and the rest of the commanders present were satisfied with Wu Ban’s plan and went to carry it out immediately.

Shortly after his conference with the Riverlands commanders, Wu Ban attacked Sun Huan with generals Feng Xi and Zhang Nan and successfully penetrated the southerner’s base camp. Ban had his men set fires on all sides of the camp and the southern troops, seeing the flames rising, panicked and fled. Sun Huan managed to escape and retreated to the town of Yiling. Wu Ban pursued him immediately and encircled Yiling’s walls upon arriving at the town. Meanwhile, the commanders Wu Ban had sent to attack Zhu Ran’s relief force, Zhang Bao and Guan Xing, had defeated Ran’s general Cui Yu. As a result of Wu Ban’s victory, Liu Bei was feared throughout the Southland.

Some time after his victory over the Southland, Wu Ban received veteran general Huang Zhong in his tent. “Why have you come, elder general?” Ban asked.

Huang Zhong replied, “I have followed the Son of Heaven (Liu Bei) through every hardship since we met at Changsha. (2) Today, over seventy, I can still eat ten catties of meat a day, draw a bow two hundred pounds strong, and ride the best of horses. I am not so old. But after our lord cast a slur on us old soldiers the other day (3), I have come to do battle—to let you see whose head I will take and whether I should be countered old or not!”

2: Huang Zhong originally served under Han Xuan, Governor of Changsha. When Liu Bei attacked the city (AD 209/10), Huang Zhong, along with Wei Yan, surrendered to Bei.
3: Liu Bei, inspired by the victories of the younger commanders, had said, “The commanders who have followed me from the early days are getting old; they’re not good for much. But now that I have such splendid heroes in these nephews of mine (Zhang Bao and Guan Xing), Sun Quan does not bother me!” After someone reported these words to Huang Zhong, Zhong became determined to prove his worth.

The arrival of the southland vanguard was reported even while he spoke. Huang Zhong left the tent with energetic zeal and mounted for battle. Zhong ignored all efforts to dissuade him, but Wu Ban had commander Feng Xi follow with some troops to support him. Huang Zhong succeeded in killing Southland commander Shi Ji, but he refused to retire from the vanguard after doing so. The next day, the southern commander Pan Zhang issued a challenge for battle. Huang Zhong rode forth to meet him, again refusing to accept Wu Ban’s offer of help. However, Zhong was ambushed by the southerners and suffered injuries himself; he died in camp some time later.

After Huang Zhong’s death, Wu Ban continued the siege of Yiling for many days. While Ban was attacking the town, Feng Xi arrived with news that Liu Bei’s camps had been torched by southern commander Lu Xun. After hearing the report, Wu Ban abandoned the siege of Yiling immediately and set out with Feng Xi and Zhang Nan to secure the safety of Liu Bei. However, Feng Xi and Zhang Nan were killed on the march and Wu Ban was left almost completely isolated. Ban fought through the southern lines furiously, but the southern force only grew larger with reinforcements. Just as Ban’s fight began to look futile, a relief force led by Riverlands general Zhao Yun arrived on the scene. Wu Ban joined forces with Yun and the two safely made it to the city of Baidi.

When Zhuge Liang, Prime Minister of the Han, first successfully petitioned for an expedition against the northern kingdom of Wei, Wu Ban was the lord on Anle. Liang later summoned Ban to his quarters and assigned him the rank of rear general for the campaign against the north. Zhuge Liang’s first campaign, however, was unsuccessful, and the Riverlands army returned to Chengdu. (4)

4: Although there is no mention of Wu Ban’s involvement in Zhuge Liang’s first northern campaign in SGYY, SGZ records that Wu Ban, along with Wei Yan and Gao Xiang, killed over three thousand of Sima Yi’s armoured troops when the latter attacked Zhuge Liang, severely defeating Yi.

In AD 228, Zhuge Liang again led an expedition against the northern kingdom of Wei and Wu Ban was selected to join the campaign. Zhuge Liang marched his army onto Chencang, but he was met with fierce opposition from Wei’s commanders. After some time, the Riverlands army began running out of grain, and the defenders of Chencang refused all offers of battle. It was later reported that the Wei army in Longxi, commanded by Sun Li, were moving thousands of grain carts west of Qishan. Upon learning of this, Zhuge Liang summoned Wu Ban and his cousin, Yi, to his tent and instructed them: “Take one company each, hide inside our camp, and cut off their route back if they come.”

Wu Ban and Yi left to carry out their orders. Later that night, the Wei commander Yue Chen attacked the Shu encampments. Seeing it deserted, Chen attempted to retreat, but the two cousins already had his retreat blocked. After a period of slaughter, Yue Chen and a score of his men were able to escape, but many of his soldiers had been killed as a result of Wu Ban and Yi’s ambush. Following this victory, Zhuge Liang led the Riverlands army back into Shu territory.

In AD 229, Zhuge Liang moved the Riverlands army into the hills of Qishan and deployed them in three fortified sights to await the army of Wei; Wu Ban was selected to join him. Zhuge Liang quickly scored a victory over the Wei army, but there was no engagement with Wei’s forces for a full fortnight after. Scouts reported that the Wei army was advancing on the Riverlanders position some time later, but that they had stopped to rest after the first days march. Following this report, Zhuge Liang summoned Wu Ban along with commanders Wu Yi, Ma Zhong and Zhang Ni, and instructed them: “If the northerners come tomorrow, they will be on their mettle. Do not engage directly. Flee, fight, and flee again, alternating until you see Guan Xing take the field. Then turn and face the enemy. I will reinforce you with my own men.” Wu Ban and the other three commanders left to carry out their orders immediately.

Wu Ban and the other three commanders rode out of the Riverlands camp and engaged the Wei army, commanded by generals Zhang He and Dai Ling. After a brief clash, Ban had his men withdrew, the Wei army pursuing them more than twenty li. Because it was the sixth month, the midsummer heat had the men and horses exhausted, and after a further fifty li of pursuing the Riverlanders, the Wei troops were spent. Zhuge Liang then waved a red flag, signalling Wu Ban and the other three commanders to coordinate with Guan Xing in an attack on Zhang He and Dai Ling, dealing the Wei army a severe defeat. Shortly after the victory over the northerners, news came that general Zhang Bao had died of illness in Chengdu. Because of this, Zhuge Liang ordered a retreat back to Shu territory.

Zhuge Liang later set out on a fourth invasion of Wei, marching his army onto the Qishan Hills. Wu Ban was again chosen to join the expedition. Upon reaching Ye Gorge, the Riverlands army was met by the northern commander Cao Zhen. Zhuge Liang summoned Wu Ban and his cousin, Yi, to his quarters and confided in them that he predicted Zhen to send a general to investigate their encampments. Liang instructed Ban and Yi to attack the northern general, whoever he was, when he arrived. The two cousins left Liang’s quarters to carry out their orders and, true enough to Zhuge Liang’s prediction, the northern commander Qin Liang had come to investigate the Riverlands encampments. The two cousins attacked Liang from the front immediately; Liang was further attacked from the rear by Guan Xing and Liao Hua and killed in the ensuing melee. A score of the enemy soldiers surrendered in the battle and Zhuge Liang had those soldiers clothing and armour distributed among his own men for disguises. Wu Ban, along with Wu Yi, Guan Xing and Liao Hua, was put in charge of these men and ordered to take them directly to attack Cao Zhen’s base camp. Cao Zhen, thinking they were Qin Liang’s troops, personally welcomed Wu Ban and the other Shu commanders, but he was dealt a stunning defeat and forced to flee eastward from his camp. Despite these victories, the Riverlands army was recalled by the Second Emperor, Liu Shan. (5)

5: Li Yan of Yong’an had sent District Commander Gou An to deliver the grain shipment to the Riverlands 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.

Zhuge Liang launched his next punitive expedition against Wei in the ninth year of Jian Xing, AD 231 (by the Shu-Han calendar). Wu Ban was again selected to join in the campaign. Upon arriving at Qishan, Zhuge Liang left Wu Ban, along with Wang Ping, Wu Yi and Zhang Ni, in charge of Shu’s encampments while he himself marched to Lucheng. Liang was thus able to take Lucheng and score several victories over Wei’s forces without having to worry about the army at Qishan. Some time later, however, Wu Ban and the other three commanders received orders to withdraw the Qishan army back to Chengdu along with Zhuge Liang’s own army, the reason being that word had come of a supposed attack being made by the Southland. (6)

6: 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.”
Zhuge Liang consequently 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 again launched a campaign against the northern kingdom of Wei, and Wu Ban was again selected to join him. Once the Riverlanders got beyond the Qishan Hills, Liang established five positions: left, right, centre, forward, and rear. In addition, he had fourteen camps placed between Ye Gorge and Saber Gateway as a long-term defence measure; all positions were well patrolled. When reports came that northern commanders Guo Huai and Sun Li had led Longxi troops to Beiyuan and encamped there, Zhuge Liang instructed Wu Ban and his cousin, Yi, to lead sailors downstream on rafts to burn the enemy’s bridges. Wu Ban and his cousin cut their forces in half; Ban took one half downriver to set fire to the pontoon bridges while Yi took the other half to aid the rest of the Riverlands army. Wu Ban, however, was checked by northern commanders Zhang Hu and Yue Chen with a shower of arrows before he could reach the bridges; one struck Wu Ban, who plunged to his death. His cousin, Wu Yi, continued to serve the kingdom of Shu until he too fell in combat in the fifteenth year of Jianxing, AD 237.

Copyright © 2004 Sam Wrest
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong