Guan Yu, styled Yunchang (originally Changsheng), was a Xie native from Hedong, and was once a fugitive on the run in the Zhuo commandery. Liu Bei was recruiting people in the village and Guan Yu and Zhang Fei then assisted him to fight against invasions. Liu Bei became the Chancellor of Pingyuan and Guan Yu and Zhang Fei majors to help govern the district. Liu Bei and the two of them shared the same bed and they were like brothers to one another. Guan Yu’s devotion to Liu Bei could be seen through many actions like when many were sitting, he would be standing close to Liu Bei to assist him, etc and he would faithfully follow Liu Bei through all the dangers and not escaping the difficulties (1). When Liu Bei killed Che Zhou, the governor of Xuzhou, he commanded Guan Yu to take care of the governing matters of Xiapi City, whilst he himself resided in Xiaopei (2).
1: Shu Ji (Records of Shu): When Lord Cao and Liu Bei surrounded Lu Bu at Xiapei, Guan Yu said to the Lord, “Lu Bu has sent Qin Yilu to go for help; I beg to have his wife in marriage.” The lord granted him. And right before defeating Lu, he asked the lord several more times. The lord then, suspecting that the woman was of exceptional beauty, had her fetched over first so he could have a look, and he kept her there. Guan Yu was troubled in his heart over that.—This is the same as what is said in “The Annuals of the Wei Family”.
2: Wei Shu: He had Guan Yu rule Xu province.
In the fifth year of JianAn (AD 200), Cao Cao attacked eastwards and Liu Bei seeked refuge at Yuan Shao’s governance. Cao Cao captured Guan Yu and kept him in his ranks and appointed him as Pian Jiangjun (Lieutenant General) and treated him with the great honor. Yuan Shao sent his general Yan Liang to attack the governor of the eastern commandery Liu Yan at Baima, and Cao Cao retaliated by sending Zhang Liao as vanguard. Guan Yu upon seeing Yan Liang’s commander’s canopy, charged his horse forward and killed Yan Liang in the mass of soldiers and returned with the decapitated head of Yan Liang; whilst the rest of the Yuan generals who could not withstand the battle ceased to surround the Baima area. Cao Cao promptly awarded Guan Yu with the rank of Hanshou Tinghou (Marquis of Hanshou).
At the beginning, Cao Cao was pleased with Guan Yu but later began to realise of the latter’s reluctance to stay on, thus ordered Zhang Liao, “Go and speak with him and probe about his feelings.” Thus, when Zhang Liao spoke with Guan Yu, the latter sighed and said, “I am in full knowledge of the honor and privilege Cao Cao had shown me, however, General Liu [Liu Bei] had treated me well also, hence I swear to die with him and I will never betray him. I will not be staying here forever, but I will contribute a [sizeable] exploit first to repay Cao Cao’s favor first before I take my leave”. Zhang Liao related his words to Cao Cao, and the latter was impressed by his honorable attitude (3). Seeing Guan Yu had killed Yan Liang, Cao Cao knew that he would surely take his leave soon, hence further showered him with rewards. Guan Yu did not accept any of the gifts and sealed all of them [a sign of rejection]; he also proceed with writing a letter to tender his resignation before leaving for Yuan Shao’s land where Liu Bei was situated. Some of Cao Cao’s subordinates wanted to chase after him but Cao Cao replied, “each for his own master; hence do not give chase” (4).
3: Fu Zi: Zhang Liao wanted to pass on the message to the Grand Progenitor (Cao Cao), but he was afraid that Cao Cao would kill Guan Yu. But if he did not pass the message on, that would be contrary to the right way of serving a lord. He sighed and said, “The lord is my ruler and my father; and Yu is just a brother.” Thus he told Cao Cao about it. Cao Cao said, “Serving a lord and not forgetting his origins—he is indeed a righteous man out of all men! When do you think he would depart?” Liao said, “Since Yu is receiving a favour for you, my lord, he would definitely do something to repay you before leaving.”
4: Pei Song Zhi: I, your humble servant, feel that Lord Cao perceived Guan Yu’s reluctance to stay but was impressed by Guan Yu’s aspirations in his heart; he did not send his men to pursue either, to allow Guan Yu fulfil his wish. Thus, if Cao Cao did not have the magnanimity of a king and conqueror, how could he act to such extent? Lord Cao’s gesture was good indeed.
Soon after, Liu Bei was with Liu Biao. When Liu Biao passed away, Cao Cao pacified Jingzhou, whereas Liu Bei was forced to escape southwards via crossing a river. Liu Bei specially ordered Guan Yu to take several hundreds of ships to meet him at Jiangling. Cao Cao gave chase till Changban at Dangyang. Liu Bei hereby crossed over to Hanjin and met Guan Yu’s fleet and together they moved to Xiakou (5). Sun Quan sent troops to assist Liu Bei to defend against Cao Cao, and Cao Cao led his troops to retreat. Liu Bei eventually pacified to various commanderies at the Jiangnan area; he then held a ceremony to honor the martyrs and appointed Guan Yu as the governor of Xiangyang and also the rank of Dangkou Jiangjun (General Who Terrifies Criminals) and stationed him to guard at the north of the river.
5: Shu Ji (Records of Shu): Earlier, Liu Bei and Cao Cao went on a hunting trip together in the capital. During the hunt when the mass was dispersed, Guan Yu advised Liu Bei to kill Lord Cao. Liu Bei did not heed. When they were at Xiakou, floating on the river waters, Guan Yu said furiously, “During the hunt in the previous occasion, if you had listened to my words, we would not have met the predicament today.” Liu Bei said, “At that point, it was for the country’s sake, if the Heaven’s Will aid the righteous ones, who knows if this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise?”
Pei Song Zhi: When Liu Bei plotted together with Dong Cheng and others thereafter (the hunt incident), their plan was leaked out and thus failed. If he had valued Cao Cao for the country’s sake, what did he imply by speaking thus? If Guan Yu had really persuaded Liu Bei but he did not heed the advice, it could be that Liu Bei had considered the fact that Cao Cao’s henchmen were numerous. Moreover, this idea was not planned out carefully enough thus he did not adopt the advice. Although it was possible to slay Cao Cao, but the murderer will definitely not escape alive, so Liu Bei decided to abort this plan. Where did it show that Liu Bei value Cao Cao? This past event was used as a means of justification (of why Liu Bei did not kill Cao Cao).
When Liu Bei pacified Yizhou, he appointed Guan Yu to take care of all the affairs in Jingzhou. Guan Yu got news of Ma Chao’s surrender and they were never acquaintances in the past, hence he wrote a letter to Zhuge Liang asking, “Who can rival against Ma Chao in terms of ability?” Zhuge Liang had to take into account of Guan Yu’s feelings, hence replied him, “Ma Chao is well versed in both literal and military affairs, more courageous and powerful than most men, a hero who can rival Qing or Peng and can be a worthy rival of Yide (Zhang Fei) but he is not someone who can rival the Beautiful Bearded One”. Guan Yu had a beautiful beard; hence Zhuge Liang addressed him thus. Upon finishing the letter, Guan Yu was overjoyed and showed the letter to the guests present.
Guan Yu was once hit by a stray arrow on his left arm and although the wound had healed, the bone would still hurt badly especially during a rainy day. The doctor told him that, “The arrow tip had poison on it, and the poison had entered the bone. The remedy would be to open the arm and scrape away the poison, lest it becomes too problematic in the future”. Guan Yu promptly stretched out his arm and bid the doctor to cure his arm. During the surgery, Guan Yu was eating and drinking with his fellow officers whilst the blood flowed from his arm into a basin below. Throughout the process of treatment, Guan Yu drank wine and conversed and laughed as usual.
During the twenty-fourth year of JianAn (AD 219), Liu Bei became the Prince of Hanzhong and he appointed Guan Yu as Qian Jiangjun (General of the Front). In the same year, Guan Yu led his army to attack Cao Ren at Fan. Cao Cao sent Yu Jin to assist Cao Ren. It was autumn then and there was heavy downpour leading to the overflowing of River Han. As a result, the seven armies commanded by Yu Jin all drowned. Yu Jin surrendered to Guan Yu, and Guan Yu executed General Pang De. The bandits of Liang, Jia and Lu were called to action by Guan Yu and assisted in the battle, thus Guan Yu’s named spread throughout China.
Cao Cao was discussing whether to move the capital to Xudu to avoid any encounters with Guan Yu’s strong forces. Sima Yi petitioned that Sun Quan would not be willing to allow Guan Yu to gain further victories, hence they could send an emissary to Sun Quan, requesting him to flank Guan Yu’s rear and Jiangnan would then be awarded to Sun Quan as spoils of war and also that the forces at Fan would then be dissolved. Cao Cao accepted his proposal. At first, Sun Quan sent an emissary to Guan Yu relating his wish for a marriage be arranged between his own son and Guan Yu’s daughter. Guan Yu insulted the emissary and rejected the marriage proposal (6). Sun Quan was furious. Besides this, Mi Fang, the governor of Nanjun at Jiangling and General Fu Shiren, who was serving at Gongan, felt that Guan Yu looked down on them. Ever since Guan Yu sent out his troops to war, Mi Fang and Fu Shiren were in charge of army supplies, but they did not assist in the battle. Guan Yu’s reply was to mete out the respective punishments once he returns. Upon hearing such words, Mi Fang and Fu Shiren were fearful. Sun Quan chanced upon their shaken loyalty and enticed them to surrender, of which they did and allowed the Wu army to enter the land. Cao Cao sent Xu Huang to assist Cao Ren (7); Guan Yu was unsuccessful in this conquest thus called for a retreat, but Sun Quan’s troops had already taken over Jiangling and held hostage the wives and children of Guan Yu’s army, leading to the dispersion of Guan Yu’s troops. Sun Quan sent out his generals to capture Guan Yu and later executed him and his son Guan Ping at Lingju (8).
6: Dian Lue: When Guan Yu surrounded Fan City, Sun Quan dispatched his messenger to offer help. He instructed the messenger not to approach in haste, but sent a high ranking civil officer (éÂïÎ) ahead first to Guan Yu. Guan Yu was angry with the slowness, moreover, he had personally captured Yu Jin, thus he rebuked, “If you little octopuses dare to attack Fan City, do you think I cannot destroy you?” When Sun Quan heard of this, he made out that Guan Yu belittled himself and wrote a false letter of appreciation to Guan Yu, which mentioned requesting Guan Yu free passage in the lands.
Pei Song Zhi: I, your humble servant, feels that although from the outside, Wu and Shu seemed to be in harmony, but internally, there was much suspicions between both parties as they guarded against each other’s intentions. This explains why Sun Quan had invaded Guan Yu and the attack was carried out in secret. According to the records in Lu Meng Zhuan (The Biography of Lu Meng) which says, “Crack troops were set to ambush in the gou lu (a type of large ship) and civilians were instructed to row the ships as they posed as merchants.” As such, Guan Yu did not appeal to Sun Quan for help and neither had Sun Quan the need to ask Guan Yu free passage into the lands. If there was any request for assistance, why was there the need to conceal the troops and their motives?
7: Shu Ji (The Records of Shu): Guan Yu and Xu Huang were close friends and they communicated with each other even though they were far apart. However, both men spoke only of mundane matters and never mentioned about military affairs. Immediately, Xu Huang dismounted and announced, “Whoever captures the head of Guan Yunchang will be awarded a thousand taels of gold!” Guan Yu was alarmed and asked Xu Huang, “Elder brother, why do you speak thus?!” Xu Huang replied, “This is the affairs of the state.”
8: Shu Ji (The Records of Shu): Sun Quan ordered his men to attack Guan Yu and in the process captured both Yu and his son Guan Ping. Sun Quan had desired for Guan Yu to be kept alive for the purpose of fending off Shu and Wei. However, his subordinates petitioned, “To rear the wolf’s cub will breed nothing but trouble in the future. Lord Cao did not kill him and resulted in bringing calamity to himself, to the point of having to decide whether to shift his capital or not. How can we let him live today?” Thus Guan Yu’s execution was ordered.
Pei Song Zhi: I, your humble servant, followed the writings in the Records of Wu (Wu Shu) which says that Sun Quan dispatched his general Pan Zhang to block off Guan Yu’s road and Guan Yu was executed immediately (at that area). The distance between Lin Ju and Jiang Ling is two to three hundred li apart, so how was it possible that Guan Yu was kept alive until the debate between Sun Quan and his officers whether to kill or free him? Also, the statement of ‘Sun Quan had desired for Guan Yu to be kept alive for the purpose of fending off Shu and Wei’ is flawed and merely a means to silence the wise. Wu Li (Chronology of Wu) says, “Sun Quan sent the head of Guan Yu to Lord Cao, while he and his officers held a funeral for the remainder of Guan Yu’s corpse.”
Guan Yu was given a posthumous title of Zhuangchou Hou (Marquis of Zhuangchou) (9). His son Guan Xing succeeded him (10). Guan Xing, styled Anguo, was one who seldom questioned commands, was very well favored by the Lieutenant Chancellor Zhuge Liang. Guan Xing was appointed as Shizhong (Palace Attendant) and Zhongjianjun (Superintendent of the Central Army) when his health failed. A few years later, he passed away. His son Guan Tong succeeded him and had a post of Huben Zhonglang Jiang (General of the Tiger Swiftness) and he died without a son.
9: Shu Ji (The Records of Shu): When Guan Yu initially set off to surround Fan City, he had a dream of a boar gnawing his foot. Yu Zi Ping commented, “You will meet your downfall this year, and will not return!”
Jiang Biao Zhuan: Guan Yu loved to read Zuo Shi Zhuan, and was able to recite many sarcastic verses from the text.
1: Shu Ji (The Records of Shu): Pang De’s son, Hui, followed Zhong Hui and Deng Ai’s army to conquer Shu. Upon entering Shu, he had the Guan family annihilated.
Chen Shou’s final thoughts on the Five Tiger Generals: Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, etc were known to be powerful generals who could fight ten thousand men and accredited to be among the best of their times. Guan Yu repaid Lord Cao’s favour, Zhang Fei’s releasing of Yan Yan out of righteousness were deeds held in high esteem in the country. However, Guan Yu was unyielding and overly self-respect, whereas Zhang Fei was hot-tempered and without kindness, their short-comings leading to their defeats. This is common logic indeed. Ma Chao betrayed the minority tribes and lacked courage; he was a disappointment for his people, what a pity! Having been able to rise from rags to riches, is this not better? Huang Zhong and Zhao Yun both strong and valiant were good subordinates of their lord, like the claws and teeth to a beast. Can they not compare to the likes of Guan Yin and Xiahou Yin?
Copyright © 2002–2004 Sonken
Translated from Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi with Pei Songzhi’s annotations