Ma Chao, styled Mengqi, was a Fufeng native from Maoling. His father Ma Teng, were colleagues with Bian Zhang and Han Sui at the Xizhou area during the later stages of Han Ling Di’s rule.
During the third year of ChuPing (AD 192), Han Sui and Ma Teng brought their followers on an official visit to Chang An (1). The Han courts appointed Han Sui as Zhen Xi Jiangjun (General Who Defends the West) and to be stationed at Jing Cheng; Ma Teng was appointed as Zheng Xi Jiangjun (General Who Conquers the West) and to be stationed at Tun Mei.
1: Dian Lue: Ma Teng, styled Shoucheng, was a descendent of Ma Yuan. During the reign of Emperor Huan, his father, who was styled Zishuo, was a colonel at Lan’gan at Tianshui. He lost his position later, and stayed behind in in West Long, living together with the Qiang peoples. His family was too poor to have a proper marriage, so he married a Qiang woman, who gave birth to Ma Teng. When Teng was young, he was poor and had no means of living, and so he would often chop firewood from Mount Zhang, and carry it to sell in the cities to support himself. Teng was over 8 chi tall, of a massive build and with an exceptional complexion and nose; he was a kind and generous man, though, and most people respected him. At the end of Emperor Ling’s reign, the Inspector of Liang province, Geng Pi, took to listening to corrupt officials, which caused the rebellion of the commoner Wang Guo along with the Di and Qiang tribes. The province recruited strong men from the commoners in order to quell the uprising, and Ma Teng was in the list. The provincial officials considered him extraordinary, and so they made him an officer in the army, and gave him a command of men.
When he obtained merit through defeating the rebels, he was made a major in the army, and later was promoted to lieutenant-general, and then to general of the west. He was often garrisoned between Qian and Long. During the Chuping years, he was made General who Conquers the East. At that time, Xizhou was short of grains, and so Ma Teng requested to move to Chiyang for the harvest, since his soldiers were in lack. Thus he was transferred to the shores of Changping. However, Wang Cheng, a general there, feared that Ma Teng was going to bring him harm, and so he attacked Ma Teng’s camp. Right then Ma Teng was out, and unprepared, and so he was defeated and fled westward. Since the Sanfu area was in chaos at that time, he did not come back east again, but became sworn brothers with Han Sui, General who Keeps the West, and were very close friends at first. However, some time later, due to fighting between their subordinates, they became enemies. Ma Teng attacked Han Sui, and Sui left the area, but regrouped his forces and returned to attack Teng and killed his wife and sons. The fighting between them could not be stopped. At the beginning of the Jian’an reign, the order of the country was disrupted, and so the court sent the Sili Xiaowei (an officer in charge of law and order in the capital), Zhong Yao, and governor of Liang Province, Wei Duan, to reconcile the two sides. Ma Teng was sent to return to his fort in Huaili, and promoted to be General of the Front, given a tiger tally, and made Marquis of Huaili. He guarded against the Hu marauders from the north, and the Bai riders from the east. He treated scholars well, and promoted the worthy. He was sympathetic to the plight of the commoners and sought to help them, and pacified and cared for Sanfu.
In the 15th year, Ma Teng was summoned to be the Commandant of the Palace Guard. Seeing that he was getting old, Ma Teng went in the Palace Guard. Formerly, when Lord Cao was the Prime Minister, he recommended Ma Teng’s firstborn, Ma Chao, to serve in office, but he declined. Later, Ma Chao became Sili Xiaowei Dujun Congshi (roughly means a subordinate military officer of Sili Xiaowei), and went to fight Guo Yuan. He was hit by an arrow (on the foot), and so he took a pouch, wrapped his foot in it, and continued fighting. He thus defeated Guo Yuan, and beheaded him. The court made him Inspector of Xu province, and then transferred him to be an Imperial Consultant. When Ma Teng went into the Capital, Ma Chao was made Lieutenant-General, and ordered to take over Ma Teng’s command. The court also made Chao’s younger brother Ma Xiu Chief Commandant of the Charioteers, and Xiu’s younger brother Ma Tie Colonel of the Cavalry. All their families were sent to Ye city, but Ma Chao stayed behind.
Following that, Ma Teng attacked Chang An but failed in the process and retreated back to the Province of Liang. Sili Xiaowei (Colonel Director of the Retainers) Zhong Yao who guarded Guanzhong, dispatched a letter to Han Sui and Ma Teng offering to help them through thick and thin. Ma Teng then dispatched Ma Chao to follow Zhong Yao to fight against Guo Yuan and Gao Gan at Ping Yang, during which Pang De, a subordinate of Ma Chao, personally executed Guo Yuan. After that, Ma Teng had some disagreements with Han Sui and subsequently petitioned for a position back in the capital instead. He was then appointed as Weiwei (Commandant of the Palace Guards) and Ma Chao was appointed as Bian Jiangjun (Lieutenant General) and also Marquis of Duting and put in charge of Ma Teng’s forces.
Ma Chao gathered all his forces and combined them with those of Han Sui and forged an alliance with Yang Qiu, Li Kan, and Cheng Yi etc to invade the Tong Pass. Cao Cao met up with Han Sui and Ma Chao on horseback for a discussion, and Ma Chao judging his own physical prowess was plotting to capture Cao Cao in a surprise move but since Cao Cao’s follower Xu Chu was glaring at him all this while, Ma Chao dared not make a false move. Cao Cao then used a strategy given to him by Jia Xu to create disharmony between Ma Chao and Han Sui and instigating them to suspect each other. As a result, the alliance of Ma Chao and Han Sui suffered a bitter defeat (2).
2: Tales of Duke Shanyang: Formerly, when Lord Cao’s army was at Puban, and getting ready to cross over the river to the west, Ma Chao said to Han Sui, “We should counter their troops north of the Wei river. In no more than 20 days, the supplies from east of the River would be exhausted and they would certainly retreat.” Han Sui said, “We should order our men to cross the river too, and attack them midstream—wouldn’t that be even better?” Thus Chao’s strategy was not employed. When Lord Cao heard of this, he said, “If the Ma kid does not die, I know not where I’d be buried.”
Ma Chao retreated with his people and Cao Cao chased after him till An Ding, whereby he turned back east to discuss military matters concerning the northern prefectures. Yang Fu claimed that Cao Cao made a statement that, “Ma Chao has the courage of the likes of Lü Bu and Han Xin, but he also has the heart of the Qiangs and the Huns. If he is to return with another army and there is inadequate defense, the various commanderies at Long Shang will definitely be lost.” As predicted, Ma Chao did return with his people to attack the commanderies and prefectures at Long Shang. Although Long Shang did put up defense against the invasion, nevertheless, Ma Chao still managed to kill the governor of Liang Province, Wei Kang, and he stationed himself at the City of Yi.
Ma Chao self-declared to be Zheng Xi Jiangjun (General Who Conquers the West) and be the governor of the Province of Bing and also in charge of the military affairs of the Province of Liang. Yang Fu, Jiang Yi, Liang Kuan and Zhao Qu, etc, the minor officers that used to served Wei Kang collaborated to defeat Ma Chao. Yang Fu and Jiang Yi approached Ma Chao’s forces from the City of Lu and Ma Chao attacked them there. Ma Chao was unable to defeat them. Liang Kuan and Zhao Qu then closed the gates of the City of Yi and Ma Chao was stranded in the middle with nowhere to go, and he was then forced to seek refuge at Zhang Lu’s place in Han Zhong. Zhang Lu was incapable in terms of helping Ma Chao in his expansionary plans, and Ma Chao was already taking interest in a commandery named Yi. When he heard that Liu Bei had Liu Zhang surrounded in Cheng Du, he secretly wrote a letter to him, expressing his interest in surrendering to his forces (3).
3: Dian Lue: In the 16th year of Jian’an, Ma Chao rebelled along with Hou Xuan, Cheng Yin, Li Kan, Zhang Heng, Liang Xing, Cheng Yi, Ma Wan, Yang Qiu, Han Sui, totalling 10 commands within the Passes. Their forces numbered one hundred thousand, and were encamped along their holdings on the Yellow River and the Tong area. That year, Lord Cao marched westward, and fought with Ma Chao and company where the Yellow River and the Wei River met, and Chao, defeated, fled. He fled to Anding, and escaped to the Liang province. (Lord Cao) had Chao’s family arrested and executed. Chao lost again upon the Long. After that, he fled to Hanzhong, where Zhang Lu gave him the rank of Du Jiang Ji Jiu (Officer in charge of Military Drills?), and wanted to give his daughter to him as wife. Some said to Zhang Lu, “If a man does not care for his family such as this, how can he care for others?” Thus Zhang did not carry out his plan.
Previously, before Ma Chao rebelled, his younger brother-in-law, Zhong, stayed at Sanfu. When Chao lost, Zhong entered Hanzhong ahead of him. On New Year’s day, Zhong went to wish Chao good health, and Chao, striking his breast and spitting blood, said, “Our family, totalling a hundred people, died in one day. And now would the two of us celebrate?” Afterwards he asked Zhang Lu several times for some troops to regain Liang province in the north. Lu sent him to do that, but nothing did he gain. Furthermore, a general in Zhang Lu’s command, Yang Bai, among others, were plotting evil against him and so Ma Chao escaped to the Di through Wudu, and then turned towards Shu. That year was the 19th of the Jian’an reign.
Liu Bei sent some followers to welcome Ma Chao and the latter led his men to the side of the Cheng Du city. There was great fear within the city and Liu Zhang immediately surrendered, upon the arrival of Ma Chao’s troops (4). Ma Chao was then appointed as Ping Xi Jiangjun (General Who Pacifies the West) and put in charge of the areas near Ju, and such a high post was appointed to him due to his previous position of Marquis of Duting awarded by the Han court (5). When Liu Bei became the Prince of Hanzhong, he gave Ma Chao the superficial title of Zuo Jiangjun (General of the Left). In the first year of ZhangWu (AD 221), Ma Chao was appointed as Biao Qi Jiangjun (General of the Agile Calvary, second ranking general), governor of the Province of Liang and also a noble title of Marquis of Li Xiang.
4: Dian Lue: When Liu Bei heard that Ma Chao was coming, he said gleefully, “I am going to get Yi province!” Thus he sent an envoy to greet Chao, and secretly supplied him with troops. When Chao arrived, Liu ordered him to garrison north of the city. Chengdu fell within ten days of Chao’s arrival.
5: Tales of Duke Shanyang: Ma Chao, seeing that Liu Bei treated him well, often addressed Liu Bei by his style name when they conversed. Guan Yu got angry over that, and requested to have him killed. Liu Bei said, “He came to me at a time of destitution. How can I show myself (as a magnanimous person) if I allow you to kill him out of anger, over his calling me by my style name?” Zhang Fei said, “If that is so, we should show him proper conduct.” They thus held a party the next day, and invited Ma Chao to attend. Guan and Zhang stood formally with the weapons in hand. Ma Chao glanced around at the seats, and saw that Guan and Zhang were not sitting but rather standing respectfully. Ma Chao was shocked, and never once after that addressed Liu Bei by his style. The day after the party, Ma Chao sighed and said, “I now know why I have lost. Just for calling a lord by his style, I was almost killed by Guan Yu and Zhang Fei!” After that, he treated Liu Bei with full respect.
Pei Song Zhi: I, your humble servant, believe that there is no reason for Chao to be so arrogant as to call Bei by his style, since Bei accepted his service when he was at the end of his means, and gave him a lordly position. Furthermore, when Liu Bei entered Shu, he left Guan Yu to guard Jing province, and Yu never set foot on the soil of Yi province. That was why, upon hearing Chao’s surrendering, (Yu) wrote to Zhuge Liang asking, “Who may Chao be compared to in terms of talents?” Thus, it cannot be as the document says, that Guan Yu and Zhang Fei stood together. Also, in general, when someone does something, he knows that he could do it; and if he knows that he could not do it, they would desist. Let’s say Chao thinks that it was reasonable for him to address Liu Bei by his style. He could not have overheard Yu’s request to kill him. So how is it that when he saw the two men standing in respect, he could come to the conclusion that he was almost killed by Guan and Zhang, for his calling Liu Bei’s style? This story is illogical and should be refuted. All those recorded by Yuan Wei, Yue Zi and such are crude, random, false and nonsensical as this. Things of this quality cannot be counted.
In a speech by Liu Bei, he said that, “I am not capable nor of virtue and I succeeded the highest honor laid down by my ancestors. Cao Cao and his son would be remembered and loathed by all for their sins and wrongdoings, within the borders of China or beyond recorded in major or minor histories of those of even the Di and Qiang people. You (Ma Chao) are in good esteem of the northerners and your valor is well-known there and they are willing to follow you to fight against the evil across thousands of miles. You are to integrate them into the Han culture and be fair in your task to reward the good and punish the wrongdoers.”
In the second year, Ma Chao passed away at the age of forty seven. Before his death, he petitioned, “I used to have some two hundred members in my household but they were mostly killed by Meng De (Cao Cao), except for my younger cousin and follower Ma Dai. He is the only person left to continue the family line, hence I sincerely place him in your (Liu Bei) care and I will have no regrets.” Ma Chao was given a posthumous title of Marquis of Yue Wei and his son Ma Cheng succeeded him. Ma Dai was given the position of Ping Bei Jiangjun (General Who Pacifies the North) and also a noble title of Marquis of Chen Cang. Ma Chao’s daughter was married to the Prince of Anping, Liu Li (6).
6: Dian Lue: When Ma Chao entered Shu, his secondary wife, Dong, and her son Qiu stayed behind with Zhang Lu. They were captured by Lord Cao upon Zhang Lu’s defeat. Cao thus gave Dong to Yan Fu, and Qiu to Zhang Lu, who killed him by his own hand.
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