Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Chapter 12

The Prefect Tao Qian Thrice Offers His Charge Cao Cao Fights a Great Battle Against Lü Bu 陶恭祖三讓徐州 曹孟德大戰呂布

The last chapter closed with Cao Cao in great danger. However, help came. Xiahou Dun with a small body of soldiers found his chief, checked the pursuit, and fought with Lü Bu until dusk. Rain fell in torrents swamping everything and as the daylight waned they drew off and Cao Cao reached camp. He rewarded Dian Wei richly and advanced him in rank.

When Lü Bu reached his camp he called in his adviser Chen Gong. The latter proposed a new stratagem. He said, “In Puyang there is a rich family, Dian Wei by name, who number thousands, enough to populate a whole district in themselves. Make one of these people go to Cao Cao’s camp with a pretended secret letter about Lü Bu’s ferocity, and the hatred of the people, and their desire to be rid of him. End by saying that only Gao Shun is left to guard the city and they would help any one who would come to save them. Thus our enemy will be inveigled into the city and we will destroy him either by fire or ambush. His skill may be equal to encompassing the universe but he will not escape.”

Lü Bu thought this trick might be tried and they arranged for the Dian family letter to be sent. Coming soon after the defeat, when Cao Cao felt uncertain what step to take next, the secret letter was read with joy. It promised help and said the sign should be a white flag with the word “Rectitude” written thereon.

“Heaven is going to give me Puyang,” said Cao Cao joyfully. So he rewarded the messenger very liberally and began to prepare for the expedition.

Then came Liu Ye saying, “Lü Bu is no strategist but Chen Gong is full of guile; I fear treachery in this letter and you must be careful. If you will go, then enter with only one third your army leaving the others outside the city as a reserve.”

Cao Cao agreed to take this precaution. He went to Puyang, which he found gay with fluttering flags. Looking carefully he saw among them, at the west gate, the white flag with the looked-for inscription. His heart rejoiced.

That day, just about noon, the city gates opened and two bodies of soldiers appeared as if to fight. Cao Cao told off two of his captains to oppose them. Neither body, however, came on to engage but fell back into the city. By this move the assailants had been drawn close up to the drawbridge. From within the city several soldiers were seen taking any chance of confusion to escape and come outside. To Cao Cao they said they were clients of the Dian family and they gave him secret letters stating the signal would be given about watch setting by beating a gong. That would be the time to attack. The gates would be opened.

So the rescuers were stationed and four trusty captains told off to accompany Cao Cao into the city. One of these Li Dian, pressed upon his master the precaution of letting him go first. But Cao Cao bade him be silent. “If I do not go, who will advance?” And so at the time appointed he led the way. The moon had not yet arisen.

As he drew near the west gate they heard a crackling sound, then a loud shouting, and then torches moved hither and thither. Next the gates were thrown wide open and Cao Cao, whipping up his steed, galloped in.

But when he reached the residence he noticed the streets were quite deserted and then he knew he had been tricked. Wheeling round his horse he shouted to his followers to retire. This was the signal for another move. An explosion of a signal-bomb was heard close at hand and it was echoed from every side in a deafening roar. Gongs and drums beat all around with a roar like rivers rushing backward to their source and the ocean boiling up from its depths. From two sides came bodies of soldiers eager to attack.

Cao Cao dashed off toward the north only to find his way barred; he tried for the south gate, but met enemies led by Gao Shun and Hou Cheng. His trusty henchman Dian Wei, with fierce eyes and gritting teeth, at last burst through and got out, with the enemy close after him.

But when he reached the drawbridge he glanced behind him and missed his master. Immediately he turned back and cut his way inside. Just within he met Li Dian.

“Where is our lord?” cried he.

“I am looking for him.”

“Quick! get help from outside,” shouted Dian Wei. “I will seek him.”

So one hastened for aid and the other slashed his way in, looking on every side for Cao Cao. He was not to be found. Dashing out of the city Dian Wei ran up against Yu Jin, who asked where their lord was.

“I have entered the city twice in search of him, but cannot find him,” said Dian Wei.

“Let us go in together,” said Yu Jin.

They rode up to the gate. But the noise of bombs from the gate tower frightened Yu Jin’s horse, so that it refused to pass. Wherefore Dian Wei alone went in, butting through the smoke and dashing through the flames. But he got in and searched on every side.

When Cao Cao saw his sturdy protector cut his way out and disappear leaving him surrounded, he again made an attempt to reach the north gate. On the way, sharply outlined against the glow, he saw the figure of Lü Bu coming toward him with his halberd ready to kill. Cao Cao covered his face with his hand, whipped up his steed and galloped past. But Lü Bu came galloping up behind him and tapping him on the helmet with the halberd cried, “Where is Cao Cao?”

Cao Cao turned and, pointing to a dun horse well ahead, cried, “There; on that dun! that’s he.”

Hearing this Lü Bu left pursuing Cao Cao to gallop after the rider of the dun.

Thus relieved Cao Cao set off for the east gate. Then he fell in with Dian Wei, who took him under his protection and fought through the press leaving a trail of death behind until they reached the gate. Here the fire was raging fiercely and burning beams were falling on all sides. The earth element seemed to have interchanged with the fire element. Dian Wei warded off the burning pieces of wood with his lance and rode into the smoke making a way for his lord. Just as they were passing through the gate a flaming beam fell from the gate tower. Cao Cao just warded it off with his arm but it struck his steed on the quarters and knocked him down. Cao Cao’s hand and arm were badly burned and his hair and beard singed.

Dian Wei turned back to his rescue. Luckily Xiahou Yuan came along just then and the two raised Cao Cao and set him on Xiahou Yuan’s horse. And thus they got him out of the burning city. But the fighting went on until daybreak.

Cao Cao returned to his camp. His officers crowded about his tent, anxious for news of his health. He soon recovered and laughed when he thought of his escape.

“I blundered into that fool’s trap, but I will have my revenge,” said he.

“Let us have a new plan soon,” said Guo Jia.

“I will turn his trick to my own use. I will spread the false report that I was burned in the fire and that I died at the fifth watch. He will come to attack as soon as the news gets abroad and I will have an ambush ready for him in Maling Hills. I will get him this time.”

“Really a fine stratagem!” said Guo.

So the soldiers were put into mourning and the report went everywhere that Cao Cao was dead. And soon Lü Bu heard it and he assembled his men at once to make a surprise attack, taking the road by the Maling Hills to his enemy’s camp.

As he was passing the hills he heard the drums beating for an advance and the ambushed soldiers leaped out all round him. Only by desperate fighting did he get out of the melee and with a sadly diminished force returned to his camp at Puyang. There he strengthened the fortifications and could not be tempted forth to battle.

This year locusts suddenly appeared and they consumed every green blade. There was a famine and in the east grain rose to fifty “strings” a bu (bushel). People even took to cannibalism. Cao Cao’s army suffered from want and he marched them to Juancheng. Lü Bu took his men to Shanyang. Perforce therefore the fighting ceased.

It is time to return to Xu province. Tao Qian, over sixty years of age, suddenly fell seriously ill and he summoned his confident, Mi Zhu, to his chamber to make arrangements for the future. As to the situation the adviser said, “Cao Cao abandoned his attack on this place because of his enemy’s seizure of Yan province and now they are both keeping the peace solely because of the famine. But Cao Cao will surely renew the attack in the spring. When Liu Xuande refused to allow you to vacate office in his favor you were in full vigor. Now you are ill and weak and you can make this a reason for retirement. He will not refuse again.”

So a message was sent to the little garrison town calling Liu Bei to a counsel on military affairs. This brought him with his brothers and a slender escort. He was at once called in to the sick man’s chamber. Quickly disposing of the inquiries about his health Tao Qian soon came to the real object of his call for Liu Bei.

“Sir, I asked you to come for the sole reason that I am dangerously ill and like to die at any time. I look to you, illustrious Sir, to consider the Hans and their Empire as more important than anything else, and so to take over the symbols of office of this district, the commission and the seal, that I may close my eyes in peace.”

“You have two sons, why not depute them to relieve you?” said Liu Bei.

“Both lack the requisite talents. I trust you will instruct them after I have gone, but do not let them have the guidance of affairs.”

“But I am unequal to so great a charge.”

“I will recommend to you one who could assist you. He is Sun Qian who could be appointed to some post.”

Turning to Mi Zhu he said, “The noble Liu here is the most prominent man of the time and you should serve him well.”

Still would Liu Bei have put from him such a post, but just then the Grand Administrator, pointing to his heart to indicate his sincerity, passed away.

When the ceremonial wailings of the officials were over, the insignia of office were brought to Liu Bei. But he would have none of them. The following days the inhabitants of the town and country around crowded into the residence bowing and with tears calling upon Liu Bei to receive the charge. “If you do not we cannot live in peace,” said they. To these requests his brothers added their persuasion, until at length he consented to assume the administrative duties. He forthwith appointed Sun Qian and Mi Zhu as his official advisers and Chen Deng his secretary. His guard came up from Xiapi and he put forth proclamations to reassure the people.

He also attended to the burial ceremonies, he and all his army dressing in mourning. After the fullest sacrifices and ceremonies a burial place for the late Grand Administrator was found close to the source of the Yellow River. The dead man’s testament was forwarded to Court.

The news of the events in Xu province duly reached the ears of Cao Cao, then in Juancheng county. Said he, angrily, “I have missed my revenge. This Liu Bei has simply stepped into command of the district without expending half an arrow; he sat still and attained his desire. But I will put him to death and then dig up Tao Qian’s corpse in revenge for the death of my noble father.”

Orders were issued for the army to prepare for a new campaign against Xu province. But an adviser, Xun Yu, remonstrated with Cao Cao saying, “When the founder of the Han dynasty secured Guanzhong and his illustrious successor on the throne, Guangwu, took Henei, they both first consolidated their position whereby they could command the whole Empire. Their whole progress was from success to success. Hence they accomplished their great designs in spite of difficulties. Illustrious Sir, your Guanzhong and your Henei are Yan province and the Yellow River, which you had first, which is of the utmost strategic value. If you undertake this expedition against Xu province leaving many men here, you will not accomplish your design; if you leave too few, Lü Bu will fall upon us. And finally if you lose this and fail to gain Xu province whither will you retire? That prefecture is not vacant. Although Tao Qian has gone, Liu Bei holds it, and since the people support him they will fight to the death for him. To abandon this place for that is to exchange the great for the small, to barter the trunk for the branches, to leave safety and run into danger. I would implore you to reflect well.”

Cao Cao replied, “It is not a good plan to keep soldiers idle here during such scarcity.”

“If that is so it would be more advantageous to attack the east and feed your army on their supplies. Some remnant of the Yellow Turbans are there with stores and treasures of all kinds that they have amassed by plundering wherever they could. Rebels of their stamp are easily broken. Break them, and you can feed your army with their grain. Moreover, both the Court and the common people will join in blessing you.”

This new design appealed strongly to Cao Cao and he quickly began his preparations to carry it out. He left Xiahou Dun and Cao Ren to guard Juancheng while his main body, under his own command, marched to seize the Chen area. This done they went on to Runan and Yingchuan.

Now when the Yellow Turbans knew that Cao Cao was approaching they came out in a great body to oppose him. They met at Goat Hill. Though the rebels were numerous, they were a poor lot, a mere pack of foxes and dogs without organization and lacking discipline. Cao Cao ordered his strong archers and vigorous crossbowmen to keep them in check.

Dian Wei was sent out to challenge. The rebel leader chose a second-rate champion for his side, who rode out and was vanquished in the third bout. Then Cao Cao’s army pushed forward and they made a camp at Goat Hill.

The following day the rebel Huang Shao himself led forth his army and made his battle array along a circle. A leader advanced on foot to offer combat. He wore a Yellow Turban on his head and a green robe. His weapon was an iron mace. He shouted, “I am He Man the Yakcha who shoots across the sky; who dare fight with me?”

Cao Hong uttered a great shout and jumped from the saddle to accept the challenge. Sword in hand he advanced on foot and the two engaged in fierce combat in the face of both armies. They exchanged some scores of blows, neither gaining the advantage. Then Cao Hong feigned defeat and ran away. He Man went after him. Just as he closed Hong tried a feint and then suddenly wheeling about, wounded his adversary. Another slash, and He Man lay dead.

At once Li Dian dashed forward into the midst of the enemy and laid hands on the rebel chief whom he carried off captive. Cao Cao’s men then set on and scattered the rebels. The spoil of treasure and food was immense.

The other leader, He Yi, fled with a few horsemen toward Gebei.

While on their road thither there suddenly appeared a force led by a certain swashbuckler, who shall be nameless for the moment. This bravo was a shortish man, thickset and stout, with a waist ten span in girth. He used a long sword.

He barred the way of retreat. The rebel leader set his spear and rode toward him. But at the first encounter the bravo caught him under his arm and bore him off a prisoner. All his men were terror-stricken, dropped from their horses and allowed themselves to be bound. Then the victor drove them like cattle into an enclosure with high banks.

Presently Dian Wei, still pursuing the rebels, reached Gebei. The swashbuckler went out to meet him.

“Are you also a Yellow Turban?” said Dian Wei.

“I have some hundreds of them prisoners in an enclosure here.”

“Why not bring them out?” said Dian.

“I will if you win this sword from my hand.”

This annoyed Dian Wei who attacked him. They engaged and the combat lasted for two long hours and then was still undecided. Both rested a while. The swashbuckler was the first to recover and renewed the challenge. They fought until dusk and then, as their horses were quite spent, the combat was once more suspended.

In the meantime some of Dian Wei’s men had run off to tell the story of this wondrous fight to Cao Cao who hastened in amazement, followed by many officers to watch it and see the result.

Next day the unknown warrior rode out again and Cao Cao saw him. In his heart he rejoiced to see such a doughty hero and desired to gain his services for his own side. So he bade his champion feign defeat.

Dian Wei rode out in answer to the challenge and some score of bouts were fought. Then Dian Wei turned and fled toward his own side. The bravo followed and came quite close. But a flight of arrows drove him away.

Cao Cao hastily drew off his men for some distance and then secretly sent a certain number to dig a pitfall and sent hookmen to lie in ambush.

The following day Dian Wei was sent out with a small company of horse. His adversary nothing loathe came to meet him.

“Why does the defeated leader venture forth again?” cried he laughing.

The swashbuckler spurred forward to join battle but Dian Wei, after a faint show of fighting, turned his horse and rode away. His adversary intent upon capture, took no care and he and his followers all blundered into the pitfall. The hook-men took them all captive, bound them and carried them before their chief.

As soon as he saw the prisoners, Cao Cao advanced from his tent, sent away the soldiers and with his own hands loosened the leader’s bonds. Then he brought out clothing and dressed him, bade him be seated and asked who he was and whence he came.

“I am named Xu Chu, and by my near friends called Zhongkang. I am from Qiao county. When the rebellion broke out I and my relations built a stronghold within a rampart for protection. One day the robbers came but I had stones ready for them. I told my relatives to keep on bringing them up to me and I threw them, hitting somebody every time I threw. This drove off the robbers.”

“Another day they came and we were short of grain. So I agreed with them to an exchange of plow oxen against grain. They delivered the grain and were driving away the oxen when the beasts took fright and tore off to their pens. I seized two of them by the tail, one with each hand, and hauled them backwards a hundred or so paces. The robbers were so amazed that they thought no more about oxen but went their way. So they never troubled us again.”

“I have heard of your mighty exploits,” said Cao Cao. “Will you join my army?”

“That is my strongest desire,” said Xu Chu.

So he called up his clan, some hundreds in all, and they formally submitted to Cao Cao. The strong man received the rank of District Inspector and received ample rewards. The two rebel leaders were executed.

With the Runan-Yingchuan area returned to peace, Cao Cao withdrew his army. His lieutenants came out to welcome him and they told him that spies had reported Yan province to be left defenseless, all its garrison having given themselves up to plundering the surrounding country, and they wanted him to go against it without loss of time. “With these soldiers fresh from victory the city will fall at a tap of the drum,” said they.

So the army was marched to the city. An attack was quite unexpected but the two leaders, Xue Lan and Li Feng, hurried out their few soldiers to fight. Xu Chu, the latest recruit, said he wished to capture these two and he would make of them an introductory gift.

The task was given him and he rode forth. Li Feng with his halberd advanced to meet Xu Chu. The combat was brief as Li Feng fell in the second bout. His colleague retired with his men. He found the drawbridge had been seized so that he could not get shelter within the city. He led his men toward Juye. He was followed and slain. His soldiers scattered to the four winds. And thus Yan province was recaptured.

Next an expedition was prepared to take Puyang. The army moved out in perfect order with vanguard leaders, commanders of the flanks and rear guard. Cao Cao led the center; Dian Wei and Xu Chu were vanguard leaders. When they approached Puyang, Lü Bu wished to go out in person and alone to attack but his adviser protested, begging him to await the arrival of his officers.

“Whom do I fear?” said Lü Bu.

So he threw caution to the winds and went. He met his foes and he began to revile them. The redoubtable Xu Chu went to fight with him, but after a score of bouts neither combatant was any the worse.

“He is not the sort that one man can overcome,” said Cao Cao, and he sent Dian Wei to assist. Lü Bu stood the double onslaught. Soon after the flank commanders joined in and Lü Bu had six opponents. These proved really too many for him so he turned his horse and rode back to the city.

But when the members of the Tian family saw him coming back beaten they raised the drawbridge. Lü Bu shouted to open the gates, but the Tians said, “We have gone over to Cao Cao.” This was hard to hear and the beaten man abused them roundly before he left. The faithful Chen Gong got away through the east gate taking with him the general’s family.

Thus Puyang came into Cao Cao’s hands and for their present services the Tian family were pardoned their previous fault. However, Liu Ye said that savage Lü Bu left alive was a great danger and he should be hunted down. Wherefore Cao Cao determined to follow Lü Bu to Dingtao whither he had gone for refuge.

Lü Bu and many of his captains were assembled in the city, but certain of them were out foraging. Cao Cao’s army arrived but did not attack for many days and presently he withdrew a long way and made a stockade. It was the time of harvest and he set his men to cut the wheat for food. The spies having reported this to Lü Bu he came over to see, but when he saw that Cao Cao’s stockade lay near a thick wood he feared an ambush and retired. Cao Cao heard that he had come and gone and guessed the reason.

“He fears an ambush in the wood,” said he. “We will set up flags there and deceive him. There is a long embankment near the camp but behind it there is no water. There we will lay an ambush to fall upon Lü Bu when he comes to burn the wood.”

So he hid all his soldiers behind the embankment except half a hundred drummers, and he got together many peasants to loiter within the stockade as though it was empty.

Lü Bu rode back and told his adviser what he had seen. “This Cao Cao is very crafty and full of wiles,” said the adviser. “Great care in necessary.”

“I will use fire this time and burn out his ambush,” said Lü Bu.

Next morning he rode out and there he saw flags flying everywhere in the wood. He ordered his men forward to set fire on all sides. But to his surprise no one rushed out to make for the stockade. Still he heard the beating of drums and doubt filled his mind. Suddenly he saw a party of soldiers move out from the shelter of the stockade. He galloped over to see what it meant.

Then the signal-bombs exploded; out rushed the men and all their leaders dashed forward. Lü Bu was at a loss and fled into the open country. One of his captains was killed by an arrow. Two thirds of his men were lost and the beaten remainder went to tell Chen Gong what had come to pass.

“We had better leave” said he. “An empty city cannot be held.”

So he and Gao Shun, taking their chief’s family with them, abandoned Dingtao. When Cao Cao’s soldiers got into the city they met with no resistance, one leader burned himself to death, the other fled to Yuan Shu.

Thus the whole of Shandong fell under the power of Cao Cao.

How he tranquilized the people and rebuilt the cities will not be told here. But Lü Bu in his retreat fell in with his foragers and Chen Gong also rejoined him so that he was by no means broken.

“I have but few men,” said he, “but still enough to break Cao Cao.” And so he retook the backward road.

Thus does fortune alternate, victory, defeat,
The happy conqueror today, tomorrow, must retreat.

What was the fate of Lü Bu will appear later.