Yuan Shao, styled Ben Chu, hailed from Ru Yang of Ru Nan prefecture. His great grandfather, Yuan An, was appointed as Si Tu (one of the 3 Dukes) of the Han Court. All the subsequent decedents of Yuan An were also given the appointment of one of the 3 Dukes, and the Yuan family had a powerful influence in China. Yuan Shao had a handsome face and he was able to mingle with his subordinates well. Cao Cao was one of those who befriended Yuan Shao. At that time, Yuan Shao was holding the appointment of Zhong Jun Xiao Wei (or something like the Captain of the Middle Army).
When Han Ling Di passed away, the brother of the Empress Dowager, He Jin (currently Da Jiang Jun, Great General, highest military rank in Han dynasty) and Yuan Shao plotted to kill all the eunuchs but the Empress Dowager rejected their proposal. Yuan Shao further advised He Jin to summon Dong Zhuo and the various warlords into the capital to threaten the Empress Dowager. On knowing that, the Chang Shi and Huang Men (appointments which were held by eunuchs during that time) sensed an impending threat to their life and both came to apologies to He Jin for their “misdeeds”. Yuan Shao advised He Jin to seize the opportunity to kill them but He Jin rejected his advice. Subsequently, He Jin appointed Yuan Shao to monitor the eunuchs in the capital and Yuan Shu to lead 200 tiger troops (Hu Ben) to guard the inner palace. However, not long after, Duan Gui (the eunuch holding the appointment of Zhong Chang Shi), together with some of the eunuchs lured He Jin to meet with them (by forging the Empress Dowager’s decree) and murdered him. As a result, the palace was thrown into disorder. Yuan Shu ordered his tiger troops to burn the Green Lock Gate (Qing Suo Men) of the Southern Jia De Palace in his bid to force Duan Gui and gang out of their hiding place. Instead of surrendering, Duan Gui kidnapped the Han Emperor (Shao Di) and King of Chen Liu (Liu Xie) and fled in the direction of Xiao Ping Jin. At the same time, Yuan Shao massacred the rest of the eunuchs in the capital (killing some 2,000 people according to the He Jin’s biography in the Book of Later Han, including those killed by mistake). He further sent his troops to pursue Duan Gui. Seeing that he was about to be captured, Duan Gui ended his life by throwing himself into the river. Thus, the Han Emperor returned to the palace.
Not long after, Dong Zhuo wanted to discuss with Yuan Shao regarding his plan to force Shao Di to abdicate in favor of the King of Chen Liu (Liu Xie). Yuan Shao was reluctant and gave the excuse that he needed to discuss the issue with his father, who was holding the highest appointment (Tai Fu) in the Han Court. When both of them could not see eye to eye for that matter, Yuan Shao left in a huff and fled to Yi Zhou (the northern province of China). At that time, the Captain of the City Gate (Cheng Men Xiao Wei), Wu Qiong, and some of the generals were actually trusted by Dong Zhuo. Unknown to Dong Zhuo, those people were in fact Yuan Shao’s sympathizers. They advised Dong Zhuo not to offend the Yuan’s family (for fear of its widespread influence) but instead, forgive Yuan Shao and conferred him a rank of a prefect. In this way, Yuan Shao would not be offended and there would be no trouble from him. Dong Zhuo believed their words and conferred Yuan Shao the prefect of Bo Hai.
In spite of that, Yuan Shao began to raise his own army at Bo Hai with the intention of destroying Dong Zhuo. He appointed himself General of the Imperial Chariot (Che Qi Jiang Jun, one of the highest military rank at that time) and head of the alliance against Dong Zhuo. At the same time, together with the Protector of Yi Zhou, Han Fu, Yuan Shao decided to elect Liu Yu as the new Han Emperor. However, Liu Yu rejected their proposal. On the pretext of joining the alliance, Gong Sun Zan led his troops to Yi Zhou and his real intention was to attack Han Fu and capture Yi Zhou. On returning to Yan Jin after a fruitless expedition against Dong Zhuo and hearing that Gong Sun Zan had desires on Yi Zhou, Yuan Shao decided to adopt a ploy to coerce Han Fu into letting him occupy Yi Zhou. Yuan Shao sent Gao Gan and some other generals to convince Han Fu that the only way for him to save his skin was to let Yuan Shao’s army occupy Yi Zhou so as to help him in confronting Gong Sun Zan’s army. Han Fu was already scared out of his wits and succumbed to their proposal despite the vigorous objections of his subordinates. As a result, Han Fu transferred the appointment of Protector of Yi Zhou to Yuan Shao and Yi Zhou became Yuan Shao’s territory without shedding a single drop of blood.
Soon after, Ju Shou advised Yuan Shao to take the following steps in gaining hegemony over China:
Yuan Shao was overjoyed on hearing Ju Shou’s plan and memorialized Ju Shou to be the Inspector of the Army (Jian Jun), and Fen Wu Jiang Jun (The Courageous General). Following which, Dong Zhuo dispatched Wu Mu Ban (Zi Jing Wu, one of the 9 Officials or Jiu Qing of the Han court) and some officials on a diplomatic mission to Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao, however, ordered the prefect of He Nei, Wang Kuang, to kill them. In retaliation, Dong Zhuo killed Yuan Shao’s father (Tai Fu of the Han Court) who was in the capital. At that time, many of the warlords were aligning themselves to Yuan Shao and on knowing that Dong Zhuo killed Yuan Shao’s father, many of them responded actively with the intention of exacting revenge on Dong Zhuo. Now, Han Fu, who had given his title to Yuan Shao earlier, fled to Zhang Miao for fear of Yuan Shao (more details in Yuan Shao’s biography in the Book of Later Han). (Han Fu’s life was further threatened by one of the supporters of Yuan family, Liu Dai, as mentioned in the Book of Later Han with reference to Ying Xiong Ji). Subsequently, Yuan Shao dispatched a messenger to Zhang Miao to discuss some plans. At that time, Han Fu was also present. However, it was not known as to what he had overheard but it was stated both in SGZ and the Book of Later Han that Han Fu committed suicide in the toilet not long after.
During that time, Guo Tu (who hailed from Ying Chuan), advised Yuan Shao to receive the Han Emperor in the capital city of Yuan Shao’s northern empire, the city of Ye. However, Yuan Shao objected to it. Subsequently, Cao Cao received the Han Emperor at Xu Chang and acquired the area south of the River. It was then that Yuan Shao regretted for not listening to Guo Tu’s advice. Yuan Shao ordered Cao Cao to move the Han Emperor to the north but Cao Cao did not heed his order. Not long after that, Yuan Shao was conferred the rank of Tai Wei by the Han Emperor which was later changed to Da Jiang Jun and Duke of Ye. Yuan Shao rejected the Dukedom. Following these events, Yuan Shao defeated Gong Sun Zan at Yi Jing and absorbed the latter’s army into his own. Yuan Shao dispatched his eldest son to govern Qing Zhou despite the objection of Ju Shou. He also dispatched Yuan Xi to govern You Zhou, his son-in-law, Gao Gan, to govern Bing Zhou. In addition, Shen Pei, Feng Ji were tasked to take charge of military affairs while Tian Feng, Xu You were tasked to take the role of advisors. With Yan Liang and Wen Chou as the vanguards of 100,000 infantries and 10,000 cavalries, Yuan Shao began his advance southward, in the direction of Xu Chang.
At that time, Cao Cao sent Liu Bei to attack Yuan Shu. When Yuan Shu died, Liu Bei killed the Protector of Xu Zhou, Che Zhou and stationed his army at Xiao Pei. Yuan Shao dispatched some of his cavalry troops to assist Liu Bei against Cao Cao. With the loss of Xu Zhou, Cao Cao dispatched Wang Zhong and Liu Dai to attack Liu Bei but their efforts were in vain. In the 5th year of Jian An, Cao Cao personally led an eastern expedition against Liu Bei. Tian Feng advised Yuan Shao to take this opportunity to attack Cao Cao’s rear but Yuan Shao rejected his advice giving the excuse that his son was sick. Tian Feng was so frustrated that he lamented continuously for the lost of that golden opportunity. Not long after, Liu Bei was defeated by Cao Cao and turned to Yuan Shao for refuge.
Yuan Shao attacked Li Yang and ordered Yan Liang to attack Liu Yan at Bai Ma. Ju Shou advised Yuan Shao that Yan Liang was not capable enough to handle the task alone but his advice fell to deaf ears. Cao Cao led some troops to reinforce Liu Yan at Bai Ma and managed to kill Yan Liang (by Guan Yu) on engaging him at Bai Ma. Regardless of that, Yuan Shao continued to advance south and lead his army across the river. Yuan Shao dispatched Wen Chou and Liu Bei to challenge Cao Cao again but Wen Chou was killed in the engagement. As a result, the morale of Yuan Shao’s army was affected adversely to a large extent. Next came a battle leveraging on technologies of that time. Yuan Shao’s battle towers were defeated by Cao Cao’s catapults. Yuan Shao tried to tunnel into Cao Cao’s camp but his attempt was again foiled. Cao Cao sent some troops to ambush Yuan Shao’s food supply train and managed to defeat their guards and burnt the supplies. The battle between these two forces lasted for many days and the common folks became very weary. As a result, many of them defected to Yuan Shao’s camp and the food shortages problem became very acute. At that time, Yuan Shao dispatched Chun Yuqiong with 10,000 troops to secure the supply train from the north. Ju Shou advised Yuan Shao to send Jiang Qi as reinforcement in case of attack by Cao Cao but Yuan Shao rejected his advice again. On knowing that, Cao Cao left Cao Hong to guard the main camp while he personally led 5,000 infantries and cavalries to attack Chun Yuqiong at night. Cao Cao managed to defeat the reinforcements that were subsequently sent by Yuan Shao and also killed Chun Yuqiong. On returning to the main camp, Cao Cao got news that Yuan Shao’s generals, Zhang He and Gao Lan, were leading their troops to surrender to him. Not long after, Yuan Shao’s army was thoroughly routed and Yuan Shao was forced to flee across the river together with his son Yuan Tan while the rest of his army surrendered and were buried alive by Cao Cao. Cao Cao captured Ju Shou who reprimanded him, but he treated him with kindness and generosity. However, when Ju Shou tried to flee to the north and was captured again, he was executed.
During the beginning of Yuan Shao’s southern expedition, Tian Feng advised him against it due to various reasons such as Cao Cao’s military prowess, the weariness of the populace, etc. However, Yuan Shao was adamant about it and when Tian Feng repeatedly begged Yuan Shao to accept his advice, he was imprisoned by Yuan Shao on the account of disrupting the army’s morale. When Yuan Shao was subsequently defeated by Cao Cao at Guan Du, Tian Feng was told that he might be given greater recognition for correctly predicting the failure of the expedition. To this, Tian Feng objected and he said that had Yuan Shao returned in triumph, he might overlooked the past but now that Yuan Shao was soundly defeated, it was not likely that Yuan Shao would let him live. True enough, Yuan Shao ordered Tian Feng to be executed on returning north and this was one example showing how Yuan Shao’s supposed generosity was merely an act while deep inside him, he was in fact a very narrow-minded person.
Soon after that, there were a series of rebellions in Yi Zhou, which Yuan Shao managed to put down. However, after his defeat at Guan Du, Yuan Shao grew ill. He passed away unhappily in the 7th year of Jian An.
(1) Translator’s note: This is a translation of Yuan Shao’s biography taken from SGZ. Due to time constraints, I did not translate the portion of his biography describing events that followed his death. <return>
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Translated from Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi