1: The dates given are mostly speculation. Xu Shu was probably born sometime between AD 168-175 because he is described as a youth when he kills a man near the end of Emperor Ling’s reign (AD 168-189). We can assume that he was less than 20 years old (and probably closer to 15 years old) in AD 187 or 188. The Wei Lue, quoted in Pei Songzhi’s notes to Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi has Zhuge Liang comment on Xu Shu in the middle of the Taihe reign period (AD 227-233) and states that Xu Shu died a few years later. If we assume Zhuge Liang made the comment in AD 230, then Xu Shu must have died sometime between AD 232-234.
Xu Shu (styled Yuanzhi) was from Yingchuan, a district noted for its talented scholars (2). His father died when he was young, leaving him and his younger brother Xu Kang to be raised by their mother. He was an expert swordsman, and killed a man to avenge an injustice near the end of Emperor Ling’s reign (AD 168-189). When he was arrested, he refused to identify himself, so the authorities paraded him around the market on a cart hoping that someone would know him. No one betrayed his name, even though some people recognized him. Instead, some of his friends set him free. He went into hiding and assumed the name Shan Fu.
2: Guo Jia, Shi Guangyuan, Sima Hui, Xu Shu, Xun You, and Xun Yu were some of the famous geniuses from Yingchuan.
After his escape, he devoted himself to the life of a scholar, and studied under many masters. Before long, he travelled to Jingzhou (3), where he came under the tutelage of Sima Hui. He also befriended Cui Zhouping, Meng Gongwei, Pang Degong, Pang Tong, Shi Guangyuan (4), and Zhuge Liang, with whom he studied spiritual refinement. Eventually, he sought employment with the Protector of Jingzhou, Liu Biao, who was also a scholar and had a reputation for favouring learned men. After serving him as an adviser for a brief time, Xu Shu became aware of the Protector’s inadequacies, and left a letter explaining his departure.
3: The Wei Lue dates Xu Shu’s move to Jingzhou to the middle of the Chuping reign period (AD 190-194).
4: In the Wei Lue, Xu Shu befriends Shi Guangyuan before moving to Jingzhou. When Xu Shu returned to the north, Shi Guangyuan went with him.
Finding himself without a master once again, he returned to Sima Hui’s residence and told him all that had happened. Sima Hui chided him for underestimating his own ability, and persuaded him to seek employment with Liu Bei, who was a guest of the scholar at the time. That night, Xu Shu headed to Xinye, the city under Liu Bei’s control. When Liu Bei returned to Xinye, Xu Shu donned a linen scarf on his head, a plain cloth robe, a black belt, and black footwear, and attracted his attention by singing in the marketplace. Liu Bei immediately took notice and, after Xu Shu expressed a desire to serve him, treated him as a guest of honour. For his part, Xu Shu was unwilling simply to accept the rumours of Liu Bei’s virtue, and decided to test him. He advised Liu Bei to give his horse, which bore a mark that suggested it was cursed, to an enemy until the curse was spent. When Liu Bei reacted in anger, Xu Shu was delighted, explained his test, and then praised his new master’s benevolence. As a result, he was appointed director general of Liu Bei’s forces.
After Xu Shu joined Liu Bei, Xinye came under attack by an elite unit of five thousand crack troops from Fan led by Cao Ren’s generals Lü Kuang and Lü Xiang. Under Xu Shu’s direction, the unit was easily defeated, and Liu Bei rewarded him with a feast. That night, Xu Shu predicted that Cao Ren would react to the defeat of his generals by mounting a full-scale attack, leaving Fan undefended. Soon enough, Cao Ren arrived at Xinye, deployed his troops in the “Eight Gates to Impregnable Positions” formation, and sent a messenger to Liu Bei to ask if he recognized the arrangement. Liu Bei consulted with Xu Shu, who not only identified it, but explained its workings in detail. The formation was almost perfectly executed, but Xu Shu noticed a weakness and taught Liu Bei how to exploit it. Zhao Yun was commanded to engage the main force, while Zhang Fei was sent north to the river to intercept Cao Ren’s retreat and Guan Yu was dispatched to sack Fan. After Zhao Yun surprised Cao Ren by utterly destroying his formations, Xu Shu recalled the army and prepared defences against a night raid. As predicted, Cao Ren attacked that night, and after being defeated by Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu in turn, fled back to the capital. Xu Shu had Liu Bei station Zhao Yun at Fan with a thousand soldiers while the rest of the force returned to Xinye.
Xu Shu’s brother had recently died, so when he received a letter from his mother some time after the battle with Cao Ren, stating that she had been imprisoned by Cao Cao and would not be released unless he surrendered himself and left Liu Bei’s service, he was distraught. Tears filled his eyes, and he immediately went to explain his situation to Liu Bei. Sun Qian urged Liu Bei to persuade Xu Shu to stay, hoping that Cao Cao would execute the mother and inadvertently cause him to fight even more passionately, but Liu Bei refused. Xu Shu insisted that he be allowed to leave immediately, and Liu Bei escorted him several li outside the city. The two wept freely. Xu Shu reassured Liu Bei, and vowed never to propose a single strategy for Cao Cao. He took his leave, but returned moments later to recommend that Liu Bei pay a visit to Zhuge Liang (5).
5: Xu Shu left Liu Bei in early to mid Jian An 12 (AD 207), though historically, he left much later. Sima Guang’s Zizhi tongjian dates his departure to sometime between the 8th-10th months of Jian An 13 (Sept.-Nov. AD 208), after Zhuge Liang had already joined Liu Bei.
On his way to the capital, he grew worried that Zhuge Liang would refuse to assist Liu Bei, so he rode straight to his friend’s hut to speak with him. He explained his reasons for leaving Liu Bei’s service and expressed his wish that Zhuge Liang would apply his talents as his replacement. Zhuge Liang was annoyed that his friend would implicate him in political affairs, and dismissed him rudely. Embarrassed, Xu Shu continued on his journey until he reached Xuchang. Cao Cao’s advisers, including Cheng Yu and Xun Yu, greeted him at the gates. He paid his respects to Cao Cao, who made it no secret that he was interested in benefiting from his service, and then withdrew to his mother’s chamber.
His mother was astonished to see him, and asked why he had come. He explained that he had received her letter while in the service of Liu Bei, and had departed as soon as he could. His mother reacted violently. During her captivity, Cheng Yu had coaxed samples of her handwriting by pretending to be Xu Shu’s old friend, but his true intention was to lure Xu Shu away from Liu Bei. He eventually learned how to copy the woman’s script, and forged the letter that summoned Xu Shu. She swore and berated her son for trusting a forged letter and leaving his proper master, while he cowered on the floor. When she had finished scolding Xu Shu, his mother retreated behind a screen and hanged herself in shame. Xu Shu did not react in time to save her, and was utterly broken with grief. He observed the mourning period and guarded his mother’s gravesite, though he refused all of Cao Cao’s gifts of condolence.
In the sixth month of Jian An 13 (July AD 208), Cao Cao assumed the office of Han Prime Minister and resolved to keep Xinye under close scrutiny. For this purpose, he ordered Xiahou Dun, Yu Jin, Li Dian, Xiahou Lan, and Han Hao to march to Bowang with one hundred thousand men; however, Xun Yu and Xu Shu warned against underestimating Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang. Xu Shu had already been described as ten times more talented than Cheng Yu, so Cao Cao asked him about Zhuge Liang’s ability. Xu Shu said “I am a firefly; he, the full-risen moon.” Xiahou Dun ignored Xu Shu’s warning and insisted on an immediate attack. He marched on Bowang but suffered a major defeat. When Cao Cao followed up Xiahou Dun’s failed attack with a larger force, Liu Bei evacuated Xinye and stationed his men at Fan. Cao Cao wanted to make a direct attack, but Liu Ye suggested that he give Liu Bei the opportunity to submit, for the sake of the safety of the people of the area. Cao Cao summoned Xu Shu. He knew that Liu Bei would not surrender to him, and he knew that Xu Shu would not try to convince his friends to submit. In this way, he contrived to gain popular support by appearing to be concerned about the people, all the while ensuring that he would ultimately be able to attack Fan. When Xu Shu met with Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang at Fan, he informed them of Cao Cao’s scheme to win approval, and shared information about the invading army. Liu Bei wanted him to stay with them, but Xu Shu was not willing to bear the scorn that such an act would bring him. He returned to Cao Cao and informed him that Liu Bei did not intend to submit.
Later that year, Cao Cao was preparing to launch a large-scale naval invasion of the Southland. As a part of an intricate scheme designed by Southland strategists to foil the attack, Pang Tong convinced Cao Cao to connect his ships together before setting out, ostensibly to prevent his sailors from becoming seasick but really to facilitate a fire attack against his fleet. Then, under the pretext of removing his family from harm’s way, Pang Tong set out to cross the river to inform the supreme commander of the Southland, Zhou Yu, of the success of his mission. Just as he was about to embark, Xu Shu, disguised in a Taoist priest’s garb and a bamboo hat, stopped him. Before Pang Tong had a chance to recognize his old friend, Xu Shu described every detail of the secret plot and said it “may be enough to take in Cao Cao, but it won’t work on me.” Pang Tong was terrified that such carefully laid plans could be seen through so easily. It was then that he became aware of the speaker’s identity, and he immediately grew calm.
After ensuring their privacy, Pang Tong asked, “You don’t mean to give me away?”
Xu Shu said, “Of course I am not going to foil your very effective plan.” But he was worried about his own survival in the face of the impending battle, and asked Pang Tong for advice on how to escape the fighting and its aftermath. After a brief conference, Xu Shu was satisfied with his friend’s advice, and Pang Tong sailed back to the Southland. Later that night, Xu Shu secretly instructed a close friend to spread rumours around Cao Cao’s camps.
The next day, someone informed Cao Cao that there was a rumour spreading among the soldiers that Han Sui and Ma Teng were marching on the capital. Cao Cao, who had directed the bulk of his military might to the south, grew worried and summoned his advisers. Xu Shu said, “I have the honour of being in Your Excellency’s employ, but to my dismay have not in any way justified your confidence.” He then asked for soldiers and permission to march to San Pass to intercept the rebel forces. Cao Cao agreed, and sent him away with Zang Ba and three thousand troops (6). Thus, Xu Shu managed to avoid the coming catastrophe. It was the fifteenth day of the eleventh month of Jian An 13 (10 Dec. AD 208).
6: By this time, Cao Cao had realized that Xu Shu was not going to assist him in any tangible way. By sending him to guard San Pass, he distanced him from Liu Bei and the rest of his former friends and effectively removed any chance for him to return to his former master. He probably also hoped that Xu Shu would be more willing to help him if the enemies he faced were not affiliated with Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang. When it became apparent that the rumours had been false and that San Pass was relatively safe, Xu Shu was given a minor office in the capital, where he apparently stayed until his death.
Copyright © 2005 J.C. Cawley
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong