Biography (SGZ): Gan Ning (Xingba)

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Gan Ning (Xingba)
甘寧 (興霸)

Sanguozhi Officer Biography
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Gan Ning, styled Xingba, is a native of Linjiang in the Ba commandery (1). As a strong young man of the roaming chivalric ideal, he gathered a group of idle youths and became their leader. The group followed him, carrying bells; when the commoners heard the bells they knew that it was Ning coming (2). Whenever someone met with him, from [commoner to] the senior scribes of the city, if they received Gan Ning well he would party along with them, and if not, he would unleash his followers to rob all their property. He went on like this, robbing and killing within the borders until he was 20-something years old. He stopped robbing and read quite a few works of the Masters. And so he went to seek Liu Biao’s patronage. As he was living in Nanyang, he was not introduced nor employed. After that he went to Huang Zu, but Zu also kept him as an ordinary man (3).

And thus he went to join Wu. Both Zhou Yu and Lü Meng recommended him, and Sun Quan treated him well, as if he were a long-time follower. Ning presented his advice to Quan as thus: “During these times, the rule of the Han diminishes by the day, while Cao Cao increases in his insolence, and eventually will steal the throne. The lands in southern Jing have hills of convenient formation, and rivers that link to each other – this is an appropriate place for the western border of the kingdom. I, Ning, have observed Liu Biao. His planning is not far-reaching and his sons are useless, and are definitely not ones to whom the estate can be passed on. My lord, you should consider this land soon, and do not fall behind Cao. The plan for obtaining this objective is best started by defeating Huang Zu. Zu is old now and quite senile. He lacks both money and grains, and cheats those around him for profit. He makes demands of his officers and causes them to begrudge him. All his boats and weaponry are defective but have gone unrepaired. He is negligent in farming, and his troops are without discipline. If my lord goes now, his defeat is a surety. Once you defeat Zu’s army, you can march on to the west, take the Chu Pass as a western holding, and then the strength of the expedition will grow and you would be able to consider the Ba-shu lands at last.” Quan approved of this speech. At that time, Zhang Zhao was present, and wishing to put Ning on the spot, asked, “The lands around Wu are still unsettled. If the army does march forth, I am afraid that chaos would ensue here.” Ning said to Zhao, “The affairs of the state are entrusted to you, sir, as it were to Xiao He. If you, sir, are to remain in charge here while fearing chaos all the while, how can you strive to imitate the ancients?” At that, Quan raised his cup of wine to Ning, saying, “Xingba, the expedition this year is like this cup here – I give them both to you. You just put effort into establishing good stratagems so that we can conquer Zu, and you would have earned your merit then. Do not take Chief Clerk Zhang’s words to heart!” And so Quan marched west, and really did capture Zu as well as taking all his soldiers prisoner. Thus he gave a military command to Ning, and ordered him to garrison at Dangkou (4).

Later on, Gan Ning followed Zhou Yu to defend against and to defeat Lord Cao at Wulin. Then he attacked Cao Ren at Nanjun. Before the city was taken, Ning suggested that he should first take a shortcut to attack Yiling. Yiling was taken immediately after his arrival, and so Ning entered to hold it. At that time he had several hundred soldiers under him, and even with the newly acquired troops, they merely numbered a thousand. And so Cao Ren sent five or six thousand to besiege Ning. Ning bore the attack for days. The enemy devised siege towers, from which they shot a fury of arrows into the city, causing all the defending soldiers to panic. Only Ning spoke and laughed as if nothing was happening. He dispatched a messenger to report the situation to Zhou Yu. Using Lü Meng’s plan, Zhou Yu led his men and lifted the siege.

After that, Gan Ning followed Lu Su to guard Yiyang and to defend against Guan Yu. Yu claimed to have 30,000 men; and, selecting 5,000 elite troops, he went to the shallows about 10 li upriver from the prefecture, ready to ford the river at night. Lu Su held council with his officers. At that time Ning had 300 men, and he said, “You could give me an additional 500 men, and I’ll go to confront Guan Yu. I guarantee that once Guan Yu hears me coming, he would not dare to ford the river. He could only ford the river if I am captured first.” At that Lu Su selected an additional 1,000 men for Ning, and Ning departed at night. When Guan Yu heard of this, he stopped his advance, and instead of fording the river he made camp there. Even now this place is called “Guan Yu’s Shallows”. Sun Quan praised Gan Ning for that, and made him Grand Administrator of Xiling, and gave him control over the prefectures of Yangxin and Xiazhi.

After that, he followed Sun Quan to attack Wan, and was in charge for taking the city walls. Ning, chains in hand, scaled the walls, going before the soldiers. And so the city was captured, and Zhu Guang (the prefect) was taken. According to the amount of merit, Lü Meng came first, and Ning was second. He was then given the title of “Rank-breaking General”.

After that, Lord Cao attacked from Ruxu, and Ning was inspector of the vanguard. He was ordered to break through the front camps of the enemy. Sun Quan sent them a special feast with grains and wine, and Ning gave it to the hundred-odd men under him to eat. After the meal, Ning took a silver bowl, filled it with wine, and after drinking two bowlfuls he poured a bowl for his chief controller. The chief controller knelt down and did not dare to take the bowl. So Ning drew his sword, placed it on his lap, and rebuked him, “You are responsible to the lord, and not to me? Even I, Gan Ning, do not seek to avoid death; why do you alone fear your death?” The chief controller saw that Ning was angry, and so he rose and took the wine ceremoniously, and had each soldier drink a bowl of wine from the silver bowl. When the time of the second watch came, they sneaked quietly to the enemy’s camp and attacked. The enemy was startled and retreated. After that, Ning became more and more honored, and his command increased by 2000 men (5).

Although Ning was rough and bloodthirsty, he was outright and had good ideas; he valued property lightly but respected talented men, and was able to kept his fighting men well. And in turn his fighting men were ready to give their lives for him. In the 20th year of Jian’an (AD 216), Gan Ning participated in the Hefei expedition. It chanced that there was an epidemic, and all the troops have retreated. Those who were still remaining were the thousand-odd brave warriors guarding Sun Quan’s chariot, as well as Lü Meng, Jiang Qin, Ling Tong, and Gan Ning. They were heading to the north of the Xiaoyao Fords along with Sun Quan. Zhang Liao, once he caught sight of them, rushed there, leading both mounted and unmounted troops. Gan Ning took his bow and shot at the enemy, and fought bravely alongside Ling Tong. When Gan Ning asked severely why the horns and drums were not sounded loudly, his spirits were high and his looks determined. Sun Quan praised him highly for that (6).

Once, a serving boy from Ning’s kitchen committed an offence, and running away he sought Lü Meng’s protection. Fearing that Ning would kill the boy, Meng did not return him right away. Later on, Gan Ning brought gifts to pay respect to Meng’s mother, and just when they were about to ascend to the main hall, [Meng] brought the kitchen boy out to return to Ning. Ning promised Meng that he would not kill him. However, when [Ning] left to go back to his boat, he tied the boy up to a mulberry tree, and taking a bow and arrow he killed him himself. After that, he boarded his boat, and ordered the sailors to lengthen the barge cables while he undressed and lay inside the ship to rest. Meng was greatly ired, and beating the drums, he gathered his troops together preparing to attack Ning on his boat. When Ning heard about it, he remained lying in his ship on purpose and did not rise. Meng’s mother ran out barefooted to admonish Meng, saying, “The lord treats you as if a part of his family, and entrusted great things to you. How can you bare a private grudge and go kill Gan Ning? On the day of Ning’s death, even though the lord may not inquire into it, you have already violated the principles of being a subject.” Lü Meng, being of the most filial nature, resolved his anger at the words of his mother. And so he went to Ning’s boat, and laughing, he called out to Ning, “Xingba, my mother is treating you to a meal. Come up quickly!” Ning wept and sighed, “I have disappointed you.” And so he and Meng went back together to see Meng’s mother, and feasted for the day.

When Ning died, Sun Quan grieved for him greatly. His son Huai was exiled to Kuaiji on the account of an offence, and died soon after.

(1) Wushu: Ning was originally a native of Nanyang, and first was a visitor in Ba Commandery. <return>

(2) Wushu: Ning took his chivalric code lightly and often killed people. He was infamous throughout the commandery for hiding in a house and committing murder there. When he went about, if he was on land he had rows of carriages and steeds, and if he was on water he had lines of light ships. His servants all wore embroidered silks that made the roads bright as they walked by. When he traveled, his quarters were often covered with woven silk, and when he left he would cut it all up and throw it away, as a demonstration of his extravagance. <return>

(3) Wushu: Ning led 800 of his servant boys and retainers to seek refuge at Liu Biao’s. Biao was a scholar and did not practice martial affairs. At that time all the heroes of the land were gathering forces, and looking at Biao’s situation, Ning thought that Biao would not accomplish anything at the end; and was afraid that once Biao’s power crumbles he would be affected as well and come to harm. Thus he wished to enter Wu in the east. Huang Zu was at Xiakou, and Ning’s troops could not pass. And so he stayed with Zu. For three years Zu did not treat him respectfully. When Zu was attacked by Sun Quan, he was defeated and had to fled. The pursuit was hot, and Ning, taking the rear as he was an adept archer, shot and killed Colonel Ling Cao [of Wu]. When Zu escaped, he led his men back to the camp, and treated Gan Ning just as before. Zu’s chief controller, Su Fei, had recommended Ning on several occasions, but Zu still did not employ him. Rather, Zu had someone trick Ning’s followers to leave him, and some of them did abandon him. Gan Ning wished to leave Huang Zu, but was afraid that he would not get permission, and so he was always unhappy and didn’t know what to do. Su Fei guessed at his mind, and so he invited Ning over for a feast, and said to him, “I have recommended you several times already, but the lord is unable to use you appropriately. Time flies by quickly, and life does not go on forever. You should seek afar for your fortunes and eventually you would meet someone who understands you.” After a long silence, Ning replied, “Although I have such thoughts, I do not know where to go.” Fei said, “I’m planning to recommend you to be chief of the Zhu prefecture, and when you get there you could cross the border and leave.” Ning said, “Thank you!” And so Fei asked Zu to send Ning to the prefecture. Ning, upon leaving, gathered up those who had left him as well as those who were willing to follow him, and had a following of several hundred people. <return>

(4) Wushu: Earlier on, when Quan defeated Zu, he first had two boxes made, in order to carry the heads of Zu and Su Fei. Fei sent someone to Ning to ask for help. Ning said, “Even if Fei were not to speak out, would I have forgotten about it?” And so when Sun Quan set a feast for all the generals, Ning left his seat and kowtowed before Quan, and amidst blood and tears he spoke thus to Quan, “Su Fei has done me a favor in the past. If I had not met Fei, I would have been dead already, my body abandoned in a ditch, and would not be serving under your banner today. Now, by his transgressions Fei ought to be slayed; however, I do ask you, o general, to let him keep his head.” Quan was moved by his words, and said, “If I do spare him for you today, and he escapes, then what?” Ning said, “If Fei is spared the fate of being beheaded, he owes you his life. Even if you expel him, he may not leave. Would he seek his own death? But if he does, I am willing to substitute my head for his in this box.” And so Sun Quan granted him amnesty. <return>

(5) Jiangbiao Zhuan: When Lord Cao marched from Ruxu, he claimed that he had foot soldiers and mounted soldiers 400,000 men strong, and set camp by the River. Sun Quan led 70,000 men there in response, and commanded Gan Ning to lead 3,000 men to be vanguard. Quan secretly ordered Ning to break into the Wei ranks at night. And so Ning selected a hundred-odd braves and went straight toward Lord Cao’s camp. He had them pull down the barricades. Leaping over the barriers, they entered the camp, and cut off scores of heads. The northern army was greatly startled and panicked, and torches were lit all around. But by that time Ning’s men had already returned to his own camp; they sounded the drums and horns, and yelled cries of victory. That night, Ning went back to report to Sun Quan. Quan was pleased, “That’s certainly enough to frighten the old man [Cao Cao]! That was a chance for me to see your valor.” And right then he gave him a thousand bolts of silk and a hundred swords. Quan said, “Mengde has Zhang Liao, and I have Xingba. We are matching in strength.” After stalling for a little over a month, the northern army retreated. <return>

(6) Wushu: Ling Tong had hated Gan Ning for having killed his father, Ling Cao, and so Ning generally avoided Tong and did not meet with him. Sun Quan also ordered Ling Tong against bearing a grudge against Ning. Once, at a party at Lü Meng’s house, after all were filled with wine, Ling Tong took his sword and started dancing. Gan Ning also rose and said, “I can do a double-spear dance.” Meng said, “Even if you could, you are not as skilled as I am at it.” At that, Meng took his sword and shield, and separated Ling Tong and Gan Ning from each other. After that, Sun Quan knew of Ling Tong’s mind, and he ordered Gan Ning to led his troops to go away to garrison at Banzhou. <return>

Copyright © 2002 - 2003
Translated from Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi