Biography (SGYY): Zhang Song (Yongnian)

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Zhang Song (Yongnian)
張松 (永年)
Lived: AD ?–211

Sanguo Yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by Dong Zhou

Zhang Song (Yongnian)

Zhang Song was a native of Yizhou with a broad forehead, protuberant at the temples like a countryman’s hoe, and a pointed head. His nose was flat and his teeth protruded. He was a dwarf in stature but had a deep voice like a great bell. He held the post of Supernumerary Charioteer under Liu Zhang.

Liu Zhang heard that his neighbour, Zhang Lu of Hanzhong, was planning to invade Yizhou so called in a council of advisors where Zhang Song boasted “My Master, be not alarmed. I am no genius, but I have a bit of a healthy tongue, and with that I will make Zhang Lu afraid even to look this way.”

Zhang Song’s plan was to bring presents to Cao Cao, gain his support and get the successful warlord to march against Hanzhong. While Liu Zhang prepared the gifts, Zhang Song secretly copied maps and plans of the West Country (1). Taking a small escort, Zhang Song made his way to Xu Chang and secured lodging before making daily visits to the Prime Ministers Palace (2) to gain an interview.

1: West Country is also known as Shu or Yizhou.
2: Cao Cao was the Prime Minister

This proved difficult as Cao Cao’s recent victory over Ma Chao had filled him with immense pride, doing nothing but throwing banquets and appearing for only the most important affairs. Any work he did was in his private residence so Zhang Song was forced to wait many days until he managed to bribe his way into an audience.

Cao Cao asked why Liu Zhang had not sent tribute before to which Zhang Song claimed the roads where dangerous due to thieves and brigands. Cao Cao interrupted in a loud harsh voice, saying, “What thieves and robbers are there when I have cleansed the empire?” Zhang Song’s reply was blunt “How can you say the land is tranquil when one sees Sun Quan in the south, Zhang Lu and Liu Bei in the west, and everyone of these with armies reckoned in legions? The weakest of them has one hundred thousand troops.”

Cao Cao, already having taken a dislike due to Zhang Song’s looks, shook his sleeves and left after that reply. Those in attendance upbraided Zhang Song for being rude, they advised him to go home quickly and be thankful that Cao Cao had not taken notice of Zhang Song’s fault due to the distance Yongnain had travelled.

Zhang Song smiled and claimed there were no plausible flatterers and glib talkers in Yizhou. Yang Xiu challenged that statement and invited Zhang Song into the library where they could talk more freely. Zhang Song knew Yang Xiu’s reputation as a well read man and a clever conversationalist.

The two men began talking about the west where Zhang Song claimed that despite the precipitous roads, the men of Yizhou would travel through fire and water for Liu Zhang, that Yizhou had no place its equal (3), filled with men as capable as the hero’s of old, the schools of philosophy and Shu’s culture stood as models.

3: “Yizhou is a name for the group of western counties and territories known of old as the state of Shu. The roads are intersected by streams, and the land bristles with steep mountains. The circuit is over two hundred stations and marches and the area over one hundred thousand square miles. The population is dense, villages being so close that the crowings of cocks in one waken the people in the next, and the dogs barking in this excite the curs in that. The soil is rich and well cultivated, and droughts or famines are equally unknown. Prosperity is general, and the music of pipes and strings can always be heard. The produce of the fields is piled mountain high. There is no place its equal.”

Zhang Song asked Yang Xiu what office he held and upon hearing he was First Secretary in the Palace of the Prime Minister, Zhang Song rebuked him, reminding Yang Xiu that the Yang family had held office for many years so why was Yang Xiu not in court assisting the Emperor but serving Cao Cao as a mere clerk? Yang Xiu was ashamed but claimed that though his post was minor, his duties where of great importance and that he served in his post as training under the guidance of Cao Cao.

Zhang Song smiled at that, claming that “If what I have heard is true, Cao Cao’s learning throws no gleaming light on the way of Confucius or Mencius, nor does his military skill illumine the art of Sun Zi or Wu Qi. He seems to understand the doctrine of brute force and holding on to what advantages he can seize, but I see not how he can give you any valuable training or enlighten your understanding.”

Yang Xiu decided to prove the talents of Cao Cao by showing the new book that the Prime Minister had written called “The New Book of Cao Cao.” Zhang Song read all thirteen chapters, all dealing with the art of war. Yang Xiu claimed it was a discussion of the art of ancient and modern war composed on the model of Sun Zi’s Treatise on the Art of War and would go down in prosperity.

Zhang Song claimed that every child in Yizhou knew the book by heart and that Cao Cao had plagiarised it, that it had been written by an obscure man in the Warring States period. Yang Xiu tried to refute that claim by saying that the book was only in Cao Cao’s private library so Zhang Song repeated the book from memory, word by word from beginning to end (4). Yang Xiu said, “You remember it like this after only one reading! Really you are marvelous.” He promised to speak to Cao Cao to get Zhang Song another interview.

4: Cao Cao upon hearing this had the book burnt. The novel contains a poem about Zhang Song’s deed (source:

He boasted not a handsome face,
Nor was his body blessed with grace.
His words streamed like a waterfall,
He read a book and knew it all.
Shu’s glories could he well rehearse,
His lore embraced the universe.
Or text or note of scholiast
Once read, his memory held fast.

Yang Xiu pressed for Zhang Song to be allowed another audience so Cao Cao grudgingly told Yang Xiu that Zhang Song could come to see him reviewing the Tiger Guard. Zhang Song was not impressed and when asked by Cao Cao if he had ever seen such a fine body of men, he replied “We never see this military parade in Yizhou. We govern the people by righteousness.” Cao Cao glared hard but Zhang Song showed no fear as the Prime Minister went on. “I regard the rat-class of the world as of no more importance than so many weeds, and for my army to reach a place is to overcome it, to give battle is to conquer, to besiege is to take. Those who are with me, live; but those who oppose me, die. Do you understand?” Zhang Song’s wasn’t cowed “O Prime Minister, I know well that when you march out your army, you always conquer. I knew it when you attacked Lü Bu at Puyang; and when you fought Zhang Xiu at Wancheng; and when you met Zhou Yu at the Red Cliffs; and when in Huarong Valley you encountered Guan Yu; and on that day when you cut off your beard and threw away your robe at Tong Pass; and when you hid in a boat to escape the arrows on the Yellow River. On all these occasions, no one could stand against you.”

Cao Cao was furious at being reminded of his defeats, he ordered his attendants to drag Zhang Song out and execute the envoy. Yang Xiu and Xun Yu remonstrated that executing an envoy from the west that had come with tribute would have a nasty effect when dealing with people in distant lands so Cao Cao only had Zhang Song beaten and ejected.

Zhang Song had not expected such arrogance from Cao Cao but did not want to return a failure and a laughing stock so decided to see what manner of man Liu Bei was. Zhuge Liang had earlier sent a spy to Xu Chang to keep an eye on Zhang Song’s envoy mission and was ready, sending Zhao Yun to Wucheng to greet Zhang Song.

Zhao Yun’s’s servants offered drinks and food while kneeling, Zhao Yun himself was humble at meeting Zhang Song before escorting Yongnain to Jingzhou city, in the guest house was Guan Yu and a large number of people, beating drums and showing every sign of respect, the two officers of Liu Bei listened diligently to whatever Zhang Song had to say.

The next morning, Zhang Song was met by Liu Bei, the warlord standing by the side of the road in deference to his guest, his respectful words flattering Zhang Song’s vanity. When Zhang Song was taken to Liu Bei’s residence and offered a banquet, Liu Bei carefully avoided talk about Yizhou. Zhang Song noticed this and gently probed, discovering from Zhuge Liang and Pang Tong that Jingzhou was only temporary as Wu was demanding it back, Liu Bei disapproving of any suggestion of his ever taking land.

After three days of banquets, it was time for Zhang Song to go home, Liu Bei escorted him three miles but upon thanking Zhang Song and expressing regret that he did not know when they would ever meet again, Liu Bei tried to hide his tears. Zhang Song was overcome and tried to persuade Liu Bei to attack Shu, saying that Jingzhou was not a secure base but Yizhou was prosperous. Liu Bei expressed concern that the people would support Liu Zhang so make taking the land impossible but Zhang Song informed his host that Liu Zhang was weak and couldn’t use the capable. Xuande (5) was worried that by attacking his relative he would gain the peoples curses. Zhang Song persuaded him that he was not doing wrong if he attacked “When a hero finds himself in the world, his duty is to work out his destiny, to exert himself and perform his task as best as he can, to press forward among the foremost. At the moment the position is that, if you fail to seize this opportunity, some other will take possession of Yizhou, and you will regret when too late.”

5: Xuande is Liu Bei’s style name.

Zhang Song offered Liu Bei a map so Liu Bei would know the terrain and strategic points of the land should he decide to invade. Zhang Song told Liu Bei he would send two friends, Fa Zheng and Meng Da to help him conquer Yizhou. Liu Bei promised, “As the blue mountains grow not old and the green waters always remain, so shall I never forget. And when I shall have accomplished my task, you shall have no mean reward.”

Zhang Song met with Fa Zheng and Meng Da, both agreed that Liu Zhang had to be overthrown and that Liu Bei was the only man who should rule Yizhou. Zhang Song went to Liu Zhang and informed him that Cao Cao was planning to conquer Yizhou and advised allying with Liu Bei to defeat Zhang Lu and Cao Cao. Liu Zhang agreed and asked if Zhang Song had any suitable emissaries in mind, Fa Zheng and Meng Da where recommended. Huang Quan and Wang Lei both argued against this plan with Huang Quan accusing Zhang Song of plotting with Liu Bei but Liu Zhang pressed ahead.

When Liu Bei arrived in Shu, Huang Quan protested about Liu Zhang going to meet Liu Bei to which Zhang Song accused Huang Quan “His words are those of one who would sow discord in a family and encourage the power of the robbers who threaten you. Assuredly such action is to your detriment.” When Li Hui had protested and been thrust out, Zhang Song advised Liu Zhang “The officers of Shu regard the safety of their families and no longer render you service. The generals are arrogant, and each has some scheme of his own to further. If you do not get Liu Bei to oppose the enemy without and your own people oppose you within, surely you are on the road to ruin.”

Wang Lei, in desperation, hung himself upside down from the gate, begging Liu Zhang not to meet with Liu Bei but to turn him away and behead Zhang Song but his advice was rejected and Wang Lei plunged to his death. Zhang Song had written a secret letter to Fa Zheng recommending Liu Zhang be assassinated at the banquet but Pang Tong put it off. Liu Zhang, unaware of his vassal’s treachery, thanked Zhang Song in the banquet for his advice and gave Yongnain the green silken robe he wore. Pang Tong and Fa Zheng privately encouraged Liu Bei to kill his relative Liu Zhang but the advice was rejected. Even so Pang Tong did try Zhang Song’s idea but Liu Bei managed to stop it in time.

Relations soured between Liu Bei and Liu Zhang after Liu Bei request for troops supplies so he could return to Jing to aid Wu in fighting off Cao Cao was met with a paltry supply of grain and a mere four thousand worn out soldiers. Liu Bei decided to fake a return to Jingzhou but Zhang Song feared Liu Bei was really going to leave Shu and wrote a letter saying “What I said to you lately was not mere meaningless talk. Why, then, postpone action? The ancients valued the person who took by force and held by conciliation. If you act at once, the whole matter is in your hand. Why abandon all and return to Jingzhou? Surely I do not hear aright! When you get this letter, attack without a moment’s delay and remember that I am your ally on the inside. Above all, no delay!”

While looking for someone to take the letter to Liu Bei, he was interrupted by his brother Zhang Su. Zhang Song placed the letter up his sleeve but was clearly nervous and as he drank with his brother, the letter slipped to the floor where it was picked up by one of Zhang Su’s servants. When Zhang Su read it, he laid the matter before Liu Zhang who had Zhang Song and his household arrested and beheaded in the market place.

Zhang Song, such as he have been but few,
Little thought he that a letter would betray
When he plotted for another. But success he never knew,
For himself there opened out a gory way.

Copyright © 2006 Dong Zhou. All Rights Reserved.
Source: Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms