Biography (SGYY): Yang Xiu (Dezu)

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Yang Xiu (Dezu)
楊修 (德祖)
(AD 184–219)

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

Yang Xiu (Dezu)

Yang Xiu, styled Dezu, was a talented scholar. He was born in AD 184 to a family of well-known politicians who were able to influence court decisions. He was talented in civil affairs, poetry, and was also very insightful.

Cao Cao’s third son, Cao Zhi, greatly admired Yang Xiu’s talents and often invited him over for discussions that lasted all night.

When Zhang Song came from Ba-Shu as Liu Zhang’s emissary in an attempt to secure Cao Cao’s help in attacking Hanzhong, but his blunt speaking angered him. Cao Cao left and some in attendance asked Zhang Song why he had behaved so rudely. Zhang Song replied, “We have no plausible flatterers and glib talkers in the River Lands.” Yang Xiu challenged him and the two debated about the merits of their kingdoms. Yang Xiu, in defense of Cao Cao, showed Zhang Song a copy of his war manual. Zhang Song read it and said, “Every child in Yi Zhou knows this book by heart. Someone wrote it during the time of the Warring States, and Cao Cao has plagiarized it. But he has deceived no one but you.” Yang Xiu replied saying that it was a unique part of Cao Cao’s personal library. Zhang Song said he would prove it by reciting the whole book word for word, and he did.

Yang Xiu, impressed by Zhang Song’s talent, escorted him to a room and said he would try to get him another interview with Cao Cao. Cao Cao was not impressed with Zhang Song, so Yang Xiu told him about the incident in which he recited his whole book after reading it once to express his talent. Cao Cao said, “It only shows that the ancients and I are in secret sympathy”, but had the book burned. Yang Xiu suggested that he meet Zhang Song again at the courts to show their glory to Zhang Song. Cao Cao agreed.

During their next meeting Cao Cao showed Zhang Song his Tiger Guard and asked his opinion. Zhang Song replied, “We never see this military parade in Yizhou. We govern the people by righteousness.” This angered Cao Cao. Zhang Song continued to upset Cao Cao by bringing up his military failures and finally Cao Cao ordered him executed. Yang Xiu remonstrated, but to no effect. Xun Yu also remonstrated and Cao Cao instead had Zhang Song beaten and ejected.

Later Cao Cao, while on a military campaign with Yang Xiu and others, came across estate of the late Minister Cai Yong, now home to his daughter, Cai Yan, and her husband, Dong Si. Cao Cao decided to visit and went to the residence with a few attendants. Dong Si was absent, but Cai Yan was available. Cao Cao noticed a tablet on the wall to which Cai Yong had made an addition and read them, “yellow silk, young wife, a daughter's child, pestle and mortar.”

Cao Cao asked the meaning of the words, but Cai Yan did not know them. He then turned to the strategists in his staff and asked, but they did not understand either. Yang Xiu spoke out and said he knew the meaning, but Cao Cao told him not to state it until he had thought it out. After leaving, the meaning occurred to Cao Cao, he turned to Yang Xiu and asked what he thought it meant. Yang Xiu explained the meaning, and Cao Cao was very impressed. (1)

1: From Sanguo yanyi: “This is the solution of the enigma,” said Yang Xiu. “’Yellow silk’ is silk threads of natural color, and the character for ‘silk’ placed beside that for ‘color’ forms a word meaning ‘finally, decidedly’. The ‘young wife’ is a ‘little female’, and the character for ‘female’ with ‘little’, or ‘few’, placed beside it forms a word meaning ‘admirable, fine’. The ‘daughter’s child’ is ‘daughter’ and ‘child’, which side by side make the word ‘good’. And a ‘pestle and mortar’ suggest pounding together the five bitter herbs in a receptacle: The character for ‘receptacle’ and ‘bitter’ form a word meaning ‘to tell’. So the four words are ‘Decidedly fine and well told.’”

After unsuccessfully defending against Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang at Hanzhong, Yangping Pass Cao Cao retreated to Ye Gorge to consider his options. Cao Cao was not longer in a position to attack, but did not want to retreat which would incite scorn from the western armies. While considering this matter the chef brought Cao Cao some chicken broth. Seeing the ribs in the bowl gave Cao Cao a thought. While he was considering it Xiahou Dun came in and asked what the password for the night would be, and Cao Cao unthinkingly replied “chicken ribs”.

When Yang Xiu heard the password he was surprised. He ordered his men to pack up their belongings and prepare for the journey home. When Xiahou Dun heard about this decision he called Yang Xiu to his tent and asked him why he was packing up to go home. Yang Xiu replied, “I knew by the password that we would be retreating soon. You see, chicken ribs have no meat on them, but we relish them for the flavor. If we advance we will fail and retreat will earn us contempt. There is no advantage either way, so a quick return home is best. Tomorrow his lordship will order our return to the capital, so I thought it best to save the last moment rush.” “How well you know our lordship’s innermost thoughts,” Xiahou Dun replied, and then he set to preparing his own army for the march home. Soon many other commanders were doing the same.

That night Cao Cao was agitated and could not sleep, so he got up and inspected the camp. He was agitated to find Xiahou Dun’s men packing and summoned him for an explanation. Xiahou Dun explained that Yang Xiu had anticipated the return home. Yang Xiu was then summoned and he attributed his decision to the “chicken ribs” comment. Cao Cao was outraged and ordered that Yang Xiu be executed and his head be placed on the main gate as a warning. Yang Xiu had interpreted cryptic responses by Cao Cao in the past, for example at one point Cao Cao had a garden built and when he went to inspect it he didn’t say a word and wrote a single word, “alive”, on the gate post. No one could figure it out, but Yang Xiu, when he saw it, said, “The graph alive inside the graph gate makes the graph broad. His Excellency was simply saying that the gate is too broad.” The workers fixed the gate to suite these words, and when Cao Cao returned and was delighted. He asked who had guessed the meaning, and was told by the workmen that it was Yang Xiu. Although Cao Cao voiced his admiration, he secretly resented him (2).

2: From Sanguo yanyi: Cao Cao’s historical dislike of Yang Xiu was probably related to his relationship with his son, Cao Zhi.

On another occasion a box of kumiss was sent to Cao Cao from the north. Cao Cao wrote three words on the box, “One box crème”, and placed it in the cabinet. When Yang Xiu saw it he opened the cabinet and distributed the treat. When Cao Cao asked him why he had done it Yang Xiu replied, “you plainly wrote on the box ‘one man, one mouthful of crème’” (3). Cao Cao smiled, but in his heart he was full of anger.

3: From Sanguo yanyi: Separated, the components of the characters yield the meaning.

Cao Cao had proposed naming Cao Zhi as the heir apparent Cao Pi, the eldest, requested advise from Wu Zhe, elder of Zhaoge. To keep it secret he had Wu Zhe brought in inside a box made to hold bolts of silk. Yang Xiu discovered the truth, however, and placed Cao Pi’s quarters under surveillance. Cao Pi asked advise from Wu Zhi and was told to have a real box of silk transported in. When they found the real box of silk it made Cao Cao think that Yang Xiu was against his eldest son, and this only made things worse.

Cao Cao later tested Cao Zhi and Cao Pi by summoning them to the palace, but he ordered the guards to deny them access. Cao Pi arrived, but turned back when they told him that he could not enter. Cao Zhi asked Yang Xiu for advise and Yang Xiu told him that when acting on the Lord’s order he should cut down any that oppose him. Cao Zhi went to the gate and when stopped said, “I have the lord’s order to appear in the palace, any who oppose me must be killed,” and then had the guard cut down. Cao Cao was impressed, but later learned that Yang Xiu was behind the advise. He was so angry that he no longer favored Cao Zhi.

Yang Xiu had also prepared an book on state affairs for Cao Zhi that allowed him to answer questions posted by Cao Cao with eloquence. Cao Cao became suspicious and bribed some of Cao Zhi’s attendants to search his room and the primer was discovered. Cao Cao was outraged and from that point on thought to kill Yang Xiu. The chicken ribs incident provided him with a sufficient excuse. He followed through with the execution. Yang Xiu died at the age of 34.

A poet of later years wrote about Yang Xiu:
Brilliant and all-seeing was Yang Xiu;
His family always wore the cap of state.
Words from his brush sprang magically to life;
And poetry took shape within his breast.
He starts to speak: all hearers amazed;
His swift replies confound a brilliant throng.
Alas, he died by his own talent wronged;
Cao Cao's retreat was not the cause at all.

Copyright © 2002–2004 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