Zhang Fei, styled Yide, was a native of Zhuo commandery, and had dealings with Guan Yu and Liu Bei during his earlier days. Guan Yu was older than him by several years hence Zhang Fei treated him like an elder brother. Liu Bei served Cao Cao during the annexation of Lü Bu. During this time, Zhang Fei followed Liu Bei to Xu (Du), and Cao Cao appointed him as Zhonglang Jiang. Subsequently, Liu Bei went against Cao Cao to join Yuan Shao and Liu Biao.
When Liu Biao passed away, Cao Cao entered Jingzhou and Liu Bei had to flee to Jiangnan. Cao Cao pursued and within one day and night his army reached Changban of Dangyang. Upon hearing the arrival of Cao Cao’s troops, Liu Bei abandoned his wife and child and commanded Zhang Fei to lead 20 horsemen to guard the rear. Zhang Fei destroyed a bridge and guarding at the waters, he glared and pointed his spear saying, “I am Zhang Yide, and anyone can come and challenge me to fight to the death!” None of the enemies dared to venture near, hence a clashing of the armies was avoided.
After that, Liu Bei was able to secure Jiangnan and he appointed Zhang Fei as the governor of Yidu, Zhenglu Jiangjun (General Who Subdues the Caitiffs) and also the title of Marquis of Xinting, and subsequently he was transferred to Nanjun.
When Liu Bei entered Yizhou, and even invaded Liu Zhang, Zhang Fei, Zhuge Liang and the rest of the troops followed the flow of the river and in the process pacified the various prefectures and commanderies in the region. They reached Jiangzhou and conquered Liu Zhang’s general Yan Yan, governor of Ba Commandery, alive. Zhang Fei scolded Yan Yan, “The army is here and why do you not surrender, instead attempting to go against us?” Yan Yan replied, “You people have no reason to come and invade our lands. In our lands, there will only be headless generals and no surrendering generals.” Zhang Fei was wrathful and ordered his soldiers to behead him, but Yan Yan did not change his expression and retorted, “If you want to kill me, by all means do so, why lose your temper?” Zhang Fei was moved by his words and released him and treated him like an honorable guest (1).
1: Huayang Guo Zhi: Previously, when the Former Ruler (Liu Bei) entered Shu and arrived at Ba commandery, Yan Yan stroke his breast and sighed, “This is like what they said—sitting alone on an empty hill and set a tiger to protect oneself!”
Zhang Fei moved on in Yizhou winning all the battles and finally met up with Liu Bei’s troops in Chengdu. Yizhou was eventually pacified and Zhuge Liang, Fa Zheng, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu were each awarded 500 catties of gold, 1,000 catties of silver, 5,000 units of money and 1,000 bales of silk; the rest of the riches were distributed to the rest of the ranks. Zhang Fei was also appointed as the governor of Baxi in the process.
Cao Cao conquered Zhang Lu and stationed Xiahou Yuan and Zhang He to guard Hanchuan. Zhang He led some troops from the main army to go south to Baxi and attempted to relocate the civilians to Hanzhong. His army entered Dangqu, Dangshi and fought with Zhang Fei’s army for some fifty days. Zhang Fei led his ten thousand or so elite troops and ambushed Zhang He’s men from another direction. The mountain road was narrow and Zhang He’s army was unable to assist each other at both ends, thus Zhang Fei scored a victory against him. Zhang He was forced to abandon his horse and escape through the mountainous regions with only dozens of men. In the end, Zhang He led his army to retreat back to Nanzheng, thus the people of Ba reclaimed their peace.
When Liu Bei became the Prince of Hanzhong, he gave Zhang Fei the superficial title of You Jiangjun (General of the Left). During the first year of ZhangWu (AD 221), Zhang Fei was appointed as Cheqi Jiangjun (General of Chariots and Cavalry), Colonel Director of the Retainers and further given the title of Marquis of Xixiang. In the records of Liu Bei’s speech, it says that, “I [Liu Bei] act according to the will of heaven in a bid to eradicate the unrest in the country and bring order to the land. Presently, there are many caitiffs wreaking havoc, thus causing suffering among the people. Those who think of Han would be waiting anxiously for actions to be taken against the unrest. I myself am worried, as I sit restlessly and unable to sense the taste of food; as I gather the armies to listen to my promise [to heaven] and my desire to execute the will of heaven. I need your loyalty and I need to gather the talents of the land and may this mission be spread far and wide, to be made obvious to all, to alert those nobles holding positions in the capital. With the blessing of heaven, I will reward the virtuous and annihilate the wicked.”
In the beginning, Zhang Fei was deemed to be inferior to Guan Yu despite his strength and might, but Wei advisors like Cheng Yu claimed that Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were “capable of fighting ten thousand men”. Guan Yu was good to his subordinates but arrogant toward the rest of the officials, on the contrary, Zhang Fei was respectful toward the gentlemen but abusive toward his inferiors. Liu Bei often reminded him, “You [Zhang Fei] kill excessively and often whip your soldiers. Beware that one day you would be in trouble with your subordinates.” Zhang Fei was worried but he did not reform.
When Liu Bei had a campaign against Wu, Zhang Fei was put in charge of some tens of thousands of troops, and he was supposed to meet up at Jiangzhou from Langzhong. Before his arrival, his subordinates Zhang Da and Fan Qiang killed him and brought his decapitated head to surrender to Sun Quan. The Chief Controller in Zhang Fei’s camp reported the incident to Liu Bei and upon seeing the presence of the report from the Chief Controller, Liu Bei exclaimed, “Zhang Fei has died!” Zhang Fei was then given a posthumous title of Marquis of Yueheng. His eldest son Zhang Bao died early, whilst his second son Zhang Shao succeeded his father and was made a palace attendant and one of the imperial secretariats. Zhang Bao’s son Zhang Zun was also made an imperial secretariat and followed Zhuge Zhan to Mianzhu, whereby he was killed in a battle against Deng Ai.
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 © 2004 Sonken
Translated from Chen Shou’s Sanguozhi with Pei Songzhi’s annotations