Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials

The Battle of Guandu was one of the most famous battles of the Three Kingdoms era. It was fought between the forces of Cao Cao against the forces of Yuan Shao. The battle took place near the Yellow River.

In 200 A.D. Cao Cao raided the poorly defended Wuchao, which was guarded by Chunyu Qiong, Han Juzhi and Sui Yuanjin and scored a major victory against Yuan Shao and took his full territory, which was the first establishment of Cao Wei.


In 199 A.D., General-in-Chief Yuan Shao had completed his campaign against the warlord Gongsun Zan 公孫瓚 and annexed his northern provinces. In control of four provinces and several hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Yuan Shao had become arrogant and he then wanted to turn his attention south, towards the seat of power of the Emperor, Xu city 許, which at that time, was under the control of Excellency of Works Cao Cao.

Yuan Shao picked out 100,000 elite soldiers from his territories and 10,000 cavaliers; Shen Pei 審配 and Pang Ji 逢紀 supervised army affairs; Tian Feng 田豐, Xun Ping 荀諶, and Xu You 許攸 served as counsellors; and Yan Liang 顏良 and Wen Chou 文醜 served as commanders of his forces, and Yuan Shao prepared to head south to Xu. Ju Shou 沮授 and Tian Feng thought it unwise to attack Cao Cao, so they admonished Yuan Shao:

"We have just come from punishing Gongsun Zan, the army has been in the field throughout the year; the common people are exhausted and worn-out, the granaries and storehouses are empty, and taxation and battles have been substantial, this is deeply concerning for the state. You should first dispatch an envoy to dedicate your triumph to the Emperor and devote your efforts to agriculture and give the men a break. If you are not allowed to communicate with the Emperor, thereupon memorialise that Cao Cao stands between us and the Emperor, thereafter advance and garrison Liyang 黎陽. Progressively make camps south of the Yellow River, build more boats, repair the equipment and weaponry, and send a detachment of elite cavalry to pillage Cao Cao's borders so that he has no security and we can take those that flee. Within three years, affairs can be settled at our leisure."

But Yuan Shao's other advisors were not of the same opinion, Shen Pei and Guo Tu 郭圖 spoke against Ju Shou, saying:

"The Art of War states that if you outnumber the enemy ten to one, surround them; of you outnumber the enemy five to one, attack them; if equally matched, offer battle.[n 1] Now, my perspicacious Lord, with you divine martial prowess stride across the Yellow River with your strong forces in order to destroy the Cao clan. It would be as simple as turning your hand. If you do not take this opportunity now it will cause difficulty later."

Ju Shou tried to further state his point, and said:

"Those who relieve disorder and punish the oppressive, they are called righteous soldiers; those that rely numbers and depend of force, they are called arrogant soldiers. The righteous have no match, and the arrogant are the first to be exterminated.[n 2] Cao Cao welcomed the Emperor and established his palace in Xu so if you now raise soldiers and go south, you go from righteousness to disloyalty. Furthermore, a far-sighted strategy[n 3] is not to compel the weak. Cao Cao's laws and regulations are well-established; his soldiers elite and experienced; this is not like Gongsun Zan who sat allowed us to surround him. If you now abandon this absolutely secure plan and raise soldiers without cause, then we dread what will happen, my Lord!"

But again Guo Tu and Shen Pei responded, saying:

"When King Wu destroyed King Zhou[n 4], he was not unrighteous; how much more so is it the case with Cao Cao, yet you say it is without cause! Furthermore, Lord, those around you are elite and valiant and with you commanding them they will think to exert themselves to the fullest, but if you do not set an example to your subjects and use your power, the officers and warrior will be indignant and furious, and the men will think to go their own way. Yet if you do not take this moment to settle this great enterprise, it is said 'If Heaven gives and you do not take it, you will instead be subject to Heaven's ire.' This was how Yue became hegemon and Wu was exterminated.[n 5] Supervisor of the Army Ju Shou's plan to too conservative, he does not see the opportunity and realise it is a crucial opportunity for change."

Yuan Shao heeded Guo Tu and Shen Pei, dismissing Ju Shou's position. Yuan Shao's advisors were particularly disharmonious and would sabotage one another in order to curry favour. Guo Tu then proceeded to slander Ju Shou, saying:

"Supervisor Ju Shou supervises everything, his majesty shakes the three armies. If he is bathed in such splendour, how can you control him?! My Lord, a subject and his lord should not be shown the same glory, or the lord and his subject will perish; the Pure Book of Master Yellow Stone says to avoid this. Furthermore, he who drives the forces outside, should not be aware of matters inside."

Having been convinced that Ju Shou might overshadow him, Yuan Shao split the position of Supervisor of the Army and made three Chief Controller positions, and he had Ju Shou, Guo Tu, and Chunyu Qiong each control one army.[n 6] Thereupon Yuan Shao led the army south.[1][2]

Hearing of Yuan Shao's preparations many of Cao Cao's officers were afraid, and didn't think they were a match for Yuan Shao's vast forces, but Cao Cao said to them:

"I know what kind of man Yuan Shao is. He has great aspirations yet little wisdom; his appearance is stern yet his courage meagre; he wishes to avoid being overcome yet has scant majesty; he has many soldiers yet his governing of political affairs is inconsistent. Although his territory is expansive and his provisions abundant, that simply makes it better for me to receive them."[3]

Privy Treasurer Kong Rong 孔融 asked Prefect of the Masters of Writing Xun Yu 荀彧:

"Yuan Shao's territory is expansive, his soldiers strong; he has the wise scholars like Tian Feng and Xu You to make his stratagems; absolutely loyal subjects like Shen Pei and Feng Ji to handle responsibility of his civil affairs; and valiant paragons like Yan Liang and Wen Chou supervising his soldiers. Won't they be difficult to overcome?"

But Xun Yu replied:

"Although Yuan Shao's soldiers are many, his laws are not orderly; Tian Feng is unyielding and insubordinate; Xu You is greedy and not upright; Shen Pei amasses authority but he has no strategy and Feng Ji only looks to his own affairs, these two men will be left in charge of affairs back home, if Xu You's family should violate the law, they will certainly not be spared, and when they are not spared, Xu You will certainly rebel[n 7]; and Yan Liang and Wen Chou have the bravery of ordinary men, in one battle they can be caught."[4][5]

Battle Preparations[]

In the 8th month[n 8], Cao Cao made the first move, he advanced his army north, across the Yellow River, to Liyang in order to make preparations for the coming. Cao Cao dispatched Zang Ba 臧霸 and others east into Qing Province to break Qi 齊, Beihai 北海 and Dongan 東安 and then occupied the eastern front to stop Yuan Shao from coming at his eastern flank.[6] Despite Yuan Shao's abundant forces, Yu Jin 于禁 volunteered to act as the first line of defence; Cao Cao was impressed by Yu Jin's bravery and chose 2,000 footmen and cavalry for Yu Jin and left him stationed at Liyang.[7] Cao Cao had a detachment defend Guandu 官渡 and then returned to Xu city[n 9].[8]

Yuan Shao was coming from the north but he also wanted to look for allies to fall upon Cao Cao's rear; he sent envoys to Jing Province to request assistance from Governor of Jing Province Liu Biao 劉表. Liu Biao promised help, but sent nothing; at the same time he did not help Cao Cao.[9] Yuan Shao also asked for assistance from General Who Establishes Loyalty Zhang Xiu 張繡. In the previous few years, Zhang Xiu had had a few encounters with Cao Cao; Zhang Xiu had initially surrendered to Cao Cao, but after Cao Cao seduced the wife of one of his clansmen, the two fell out. They went on to fight several times over the years and so when Yuan Shao offered an alliance against a mutual foe, Zhang Xiu was going to agree. However, Zhang Xiu's advisor, Jia Xu 賈詡, came in and said to Yuan Shao's envoy:

"Return to Yuan Shao with our apologies. If brothers are unable to tolerate one another, how can he tolerate great men of the empire?[n 10]"

Zhang Xiu was horrified and said to him:

"How did you arrive at this outcome?! If we do this, where should we turn?"

Jia Xu suggested instead that they follow Cao Cao. Zhang Xiu said to him:

"Yuan is strong and Cao is weak. Also, we have been feuding with Cao Cao. How can we follow him?"

Jia Xu said:

"These reasons are why you should follow Cao Cao. Cao Cao waits upon the Emperor in order to give orders to the whole empire; this is the first reason he should be followed. Yuan Shao is strong and prosperous, if we bring our meagre forces to him, he will certainly not see us as important. Cao Cao's forces and weak, if he obtains us he will certainly be pleased; this is the second reason he should be followed. When a man has aspirations of hegemony, he will surely let go of personal enmity in order to make his virtue clear in all directions; this is the third reason he should be followed. General, have no doubt!"

Zhang Xiu heeded his suggestion, and in the 11th month[n 11] led his forces to Cao Cao. As Jia Xu had predicted, Cao Cao showed them great favour and incorporated their forces with his own.[10][11]

Internal Strife[]

At this time the threat to Cao Cao didn't only come from Yuan Shao, there were those within Xu city plotting against him. Dong Cheng 董承, General of the Left Liu Bei 劉備, and others, had conspired together to kill Cao Cao. Cao Cao had dispatched Liu Bei to deal with Yuan Shao's cousin, Yuan Shu 袁術, and prevent him from uniting with Yuan Shao; Liu Bei had taken the opportunity of leaving the capital to betray him. Liu Bei went to Xiapi 下邳 and killed Inspector of Xu Province Che Zhou 車冑 and installed himself in his place; Liu Bei left his officer Guan Yu 關羽 at Xiapi while he went to Xiaopei 小沛. Meanwhile, the conspiracy was uncovered and Dong Cheng and his associates killed.

In response to Liu Bei's presence, Chang Xi 昌豨, and many of the counties in Xu revolted and joined him; their total forces numbered several tens of thousands. Liu Bei also dispatched Sun Qian 孫乾 to make an alliance with Yuan Shao. Cao Cao dispatched Liu Dai 劉岱 and Wang Zhong 王忠 to attack Liu Bei, but they were unable to overcome him. His subordinates having failed, Cao Cao himself decided to mobilise troops to attack the rebels. Many of Cao Cao's officers thought that it was unwise to attack Liu Bei when they should focus on the threat in front of them. They said:

"The person to contend with you for the whole empire is Yuan Shao. At this time Yuan Shao is coming and if he abandons the east and falls on your rear, what would you do then?"

But Cao Cao said:

"Liu Bei is a hero of hero, if he is not struck now he will certainly become a problem later. Altough Yuan Shao has high aims, yet is slow to see affairs, he will certainly not act."

Libationer to the Minister of Works Guo Jia 郭嘉 agreed with Cao Cao and encouraged him to attack Liu Bei, saying:

"Yuan Shao is slow and hesitant, if he comes it will certainly not be quickly. Liu Bei recently made his rebellion, his forces are not yet attached to him. If you urgently strike him, he will certainly be defeated. This is the crucial opportunity that will decide whether you survive or perish, you must not miss it."[12]

Cao Cao was convinced so he led his forces east to attack Liu Bei.[13][14]

Yuan Shao's advisor Tian Feng tried to persuade him to attack while Cao Cao was occupied, saying:

"Lord, he that contends with you for the whole empire is Cao Cao. At present, Cao Cao has gone east to strike Liu Bei and once his soldiers are entangled with Liu Bei he cannot untangled them. So you should raise the army now to raid his rear, in one move you can settle it."

But one of Yuan Shao's sons was sick so Yuan Shao said he could not attack at that time. Seeing the opportunity escaping them, Tian raised his staff and struck the ground, crying out:

"Alas, the chance has gone! My Lord is on the verge of disaster yet because of a child's illness he misses his opportunity. Alas!"

Cao Cao brought his own forces down upon Liu Bei and Liu Bei was quickly routed.[n 12]He fled north to Yuan Shao's son, Inspector of Qing Province Yuan Tan 袁譚. The entirety of Liu Bei's forces were captured by Cao Cao, including his officers like Xiahou Bo 夏侯博, and even Liu Bei's family was captured. Cao Cao then turned his attention towards one of Liu Bei's right-hand men, Guan Yu 關羽, at Xiapi, receiving his surrender, and also that of Chang Xi, before returning back to Guandu. Yuan Shao had indeed not taken advantage of the opportunity to move.[15][16]

Yuan Shao Advances on Xu[]

His son's illness presumedly passed, Yuan Shao began his advance on Xu city. Tian Feng felt that because Yuan Shao had missed his chance to hit Cao Cao's rear, it was not a good time to attack. He admonished Yuan Shao, saying:

"Since Cao Cao has defeated Liu Bei, the area below Xu is no longer empty. Furthermore, Cao Cao is adept in utilising soldiers, so although his forces are few, you cannot make light of him; it would be better to hold him for a long time. General, occupy the mountain and river strongholds and embrace the forces of your four provinces; outwardly make alliances with mighty heroes, and inwardly repair agricultural and military equipment. Thereafter, try to entice his elite, keen-spirited fighters; split your soldiers to attack where is not expected[n 13]; take advantage of where he is unguarded to alternately send forth soldier to harass those south of the Yellow River; if he relieves the left then strike his right, if he relieves the right then strike his left; cause the enemy to become fatigued by running back and forth and do not allow the populace security or business. Within two or three years, we would not be put to trouble while they are already distressed and we can overcome them at our leisure. But if you now let go of this far-sighted plan and attempt to decide success or failure in one decisive battle and find you are not equal to your aspirations. Then if you regret it it will be too late."

Yuan Shao did not heed him so Tian Feng vehemently admonished him again and so Yuan Shao was very furious. Yuan Shao was irritated when Tian Feng had admonished him earlier and believing Tian Feng to be disrupting morale he had him locked in chains. Yuan Shao published a proclamation listing Cao Cao's crimes and then advanced.[17]

As they were about to depart, Yuan Shao's advisor, Ju Shou, assembled his clan and disseminated his belongs among them. He said to them:

"If we should succeed, then there will be none who do not think us more prestigious; but if we should perish, then I will not even be able to guarantee my own life. Alas, what a pity!"

His younger brother, Ju Zong said:

"Cao Cao's warriors and horses are no match for ours, sir, why should you dread him?!"

Ju Shou replied:

"Because of Cao Cao's clear-sighted strategies and that he also wields the Emperor. Although we overcame Gongsun Zan, our forces are fatigued and weakened, while our officers are arrogant and our lord proud. Our army will surely be broken and defeated. Yang Xiong 揚雄 once said: "The six states were foolish and stupid, they weakened the Ji 姬 of Zhou 周 for the Ying 嬴 of Qin 秦."[n 14] Just like now."[18]

Siege of Baima[]

Yuan Shao then advanced his forces to Liyang while he had Yan Liang, Chunyu Qiong 淳于瓊, and Guo Tu serve as his advance guard to cross the Yellow River and strike Cao Cao's ally, Grand Administrator of Dong commandery 東郡 Liu Yan 劉延 at Baima 白馬 and establish a bridgehead so the main army could cross.[n 15] Yuan Shao's advisor Ju Shou went to admonish Yuan Shao, saying:

"Although Yan Liang is resolute and valiant, he is impatient and narrow-minded, he cannot be given sole responsibility."

But Yuan Shao paid him no mind. At this time, General Who Inspires Awe Cheng Yu 程昱 was garrisoned at Juancheng 鄄城 with a command of 700 soldiers. Cao Cao heard of the situation and sent men to inform him that he planned to send an additional 2,000 soldiers to reinforce him. Cheng Yu refused, saying:

"Yuan Shao possesses 100,000 men and because of this he believes nothing can stop his approach. At present, if he sees I have few soldiers he will certainly make light of me and not come to attack. But if you increase my command, then as he passes he cannot not attack me[n 16], and if he attacks he will certainly overcome me. Your action will have been to no avail and both of us will be injured. Lord, have no doubts."

Cao Cao heeded his advice and when Yuan Shao heard Cheng Yu's soldiers were few he indeed did not go.[19]

In the Summer during the 4th month[n 17], Cao Cao went north to rescue Liu Yan. With Yuan Shao on the north side of the river, any attack on Baima was potentially problematic for CaoCao; Master of the Army Xun You 荀攸 devised a plan to relieve the siege, saying:

"At present your soldiers are few and cannot match the enemy, but if you split his force then you could. Lord, go to Yan Crossing 延津[n 18] as if you plan to lead soldiers across the river to attack his rear. Yuan Shao will certainly go west in response to this, thereafter take light troops and assault Baima, surprise those unprepared and you could capture Yan Liang too."

Cao Cao followed Xun You's suggestion and went to ford the Yellow River at Yan Crossing. Yuan Shao heard of Cao Cao's crossing and immediately behaved exactly as Xun You predicted, leaving Liyang and heading west to intercept his forces. Cao Cao hastily led light troop back towards Baima. Cao Cao sent Major-General Zhang Liao 張遼 and the captured Guan Yu to serve as the vanguard and strike Yan Liang. Hearing the enemy was only 5 km away, Yan Liang was very alarmed and turned his forces from the siege to face Cao Cao. Guan Yu caught sight of Yan Liang's standard and canopy, he spurred his horse forward and assassinated Yan Liang within the myriad of forces, he took his head and returned. None of Yuan Shao's various officers could match him, thereupon the siege of Baima was allayed and the population was relocated west.[20][21]

Battle of Yan Crossing[]

Having been taken in by Cao Cao's feint across the river, Yuan Shao continued west towards Yan Crossing so that he could try and hit Cao Cao's forces before they withdrew to Guandu. As Yuan Shao was crossing, Ju Shou said to him:

"Victory or defeat is subject to change, we cannot know in advance. You should now remain camped at Yan Crossing and send a detachment to Guandu. If they should overcome and capture it, it will still not be too late to go; but supposing we have difficulty, then none of your forces will be able to return."

Cui Yan 崔琰 too remonstrated with him, saying:

"The Emperor is in Xu and the populace look up to those who assist and obey him. It would be better that you defend your borders and do your duty in order to give peace to the world."[22]

But Yuan Shao did not heed them. As Ju Shou was about to cross, he sighed and said:

"The master has excessive aspirations and his subordinates devote their efforts to their own achievements. Oh, lonely Yellow River, why do I not turn back?!"[23]

Thereupon he feigned illness to shirk responsibility. Yuan Shao resented this and therefore abolished his command and handed it to Guo Tu. Yuan Shao continued to move his forces across the river and establish fortifications on the southern shore. Meanwhile, Cao Cao had his men camped below the southern slope, he had his men climb the ramparts and observe Yuan Shao's movements. As hundreds of cavaliers and innumerable footmen came across, Cao Cao had his men unsaddle horses and release them; also, after withdrawing from Baima, Cao Cao had his baggage train follow the Yellow River west and at that time it was still on the road; many of the officers were afraid of the size of Yuan Shao's cavalry and urged Cao Cao that it would be better to withdraw and return to defend their fortifications. But Xun You said:

"All this is to lure in the enemy, as such how can we leave!"

Cao Cao simply looked at Xun You and laughed. Yuan Shao's commander of cavalry Wen Chou arrived with Liu Bei and 5-6,000 cavaliers in tow. The soldiers asked if it was time to attack, but Cao Cao held them back. A short while later, more cavalry drew up, they saw the abandoned baggage train and the riderless horses and assumed that the enemy had abandoned them and fled when they saw the sheer size of their forces; and they broke formation and rushed about trying to collect the horses and valuables. The disarray in the enemy ranks was just what Cao Cao was waiting for, he ordered his men to mount their horses, at that time he did not even have 600 cavaliers, and then he let loose his cavalry and footmen and they fell upon the enemy forces, crushing them and beheading their commander, Wen Chou. Cao Cao had captured Guan Yu with the intention of turning him to his side and so had shown him great favour, however Guan Yu's heart was set on returning to Liu Bei. Feeling that killing Yan Liang was enough to repay his debt to Cao Cao for sparing him, he departed. Yan Liang and Wen Chou had been Yuan Shao's two most prized commanders, yet in two consecutive battles they had both been killed sending shockwaves through Yuan Shao's forces.[24][25][26]

Battle of Guandu[]

In the 8th month[n 19], Cao Cao then withdrew his army to his fortifications are Guandu to await Yuan Shao, who in turn advanced to defend Yangwu 陽武.[n 20] Ju Shou once again tried to convince Yuan Shao to turn back, saying:

"Our northern soldiers are multitudinous, yet their zeal is inferior to those of the south; whereas the southerner's supplies are few and their resources are inferior to ours. The southerners will find advantage from a rapid battle, whereas we will find advantage from postponing combat. You should be patient and wage a protracted campaign, keeping them in the field for a few weeks."

But Yuan Shao still didn't want to listen to him. He repeatedly set up camps and gradually came forward towards Guandu, making use of some sand-dunes for his camp. His forces spread out east to west for more than 15 km, Cao Cao split his camps to try and match him. Cao Cao went out to try and fight him but high could not gain any advantage, so he returned to his fortifications. Both sides were arrayed against one another but Xu You tried to convince Yuan Shao not to fight at Guandu, he said:

"Cao Cao's soldiers are few and their entirety is here resisting us. Any remainder defending the area below Xu will surely be weak and undermanned. If you dispatch a light army to launch a surprise raid, Xu will be seized the Cao Cao can successfully be captured. But if he is not yet routed, you can order those around him to abandon him and his defeat will be a certainty."

But Yuan Shao was arrogant, he wanted to use his full forces to crush Cao Cao at Guandu and be seen doing it, so he ignored Xu You. And so Xu You was furious at him.[n 21][27][28][29][30]

At that time, Cao Cao's soldiers did not even number 10,000, and two or three were wounded for every 10 men.[n 22] Yuan Shao resumed his advance on Guandu, he had each of his men carry 72 cm of rope, so that if anyone actually managed to catch Cao Cao, they could tie him up.[31] He began to dig tunnels under Cao Cao's position and use the earth moved to create large earthern mounds, upon which he installed high watchtowers so his men could fire arrows into Cao Cao's camp.[n 23] In response, Cao Cao dug long moats within his camp in order to stymie Yuan Shao's sapping; and the arrows fell like rain, so Cao Cao's men had to cover themselves with pangpai 旁排 shields whenever they moved about; Cao Cao's forces were terrified. But Cao Cao also built catapults within his walls and used them to destroy all of Yuan Shao's towers; Yuan Shao's men called them 'thunderclap' cars.[32][33]

Although he had found victory in a few skirmishes, Cao Cao was still vastly outnumber and at that time his provisions were running out. He wrote to Xun Yu discussing his desire to return to Xu and lead Yuan Shao there for the final battle. Xun Yu wrote back:

"The entirety of Yuan Shao's forces have gathered at Guandu and he wants to decide who will succeed and who will fail there. You are matching great strength with great weakness, if you cannot control him, that will certainly be the place you fall, it is a critical opportunity for the whole empire. Furthermore, Yuan Shao has the grandeur of a commoner, he can gather men but cannot use them. My lord, you have divine martial prowess, perspicacity, and sagacity, yet still supplement this with great humility; how can you fail!
"At present, although your military provisions are few, it's not yet like that time with Chu and Han between Rongyang and Chenggao. At that time, neither Liu Bang nor Xiang Yu were willing to be the first to break off, because the first to break off would be the one to falter. Lord, your forces are one tenth of his, but you drew a line in the ground and defended it, and you've clutched his throat and not allowed him to advance for half a year. Obviously his momentum has been exhausted and there will certainly be some turn of events that you can use to launch an expected attack, you must not miss this chance."[34][35]

Cao Cao heeded his army and steadfastly stuck to his fortifications.

At that time, some former Yellow Turbans of Runan 汝南, Liu Pi 劉辟 and Zhu Bi 祝臂, revolted in response to Yuan Shao's presence. Due to the lack of forces in the area, they began pillaging the lands below Xu city. Yuan Shao also dispatched Liu Bei to plunder and annex the counties of Yinjiang 濦彊 and many raised forces and went to his side. From Xu city southwards, the officials and the populace were not secure and Cao Cao was worried. Grand Administrator of Guangyang 廣陽 Cao Ren 曹仁 said to him:

"The southern regions know that at this time the sight of your great army is fixed on the problem in front of them, in this situation they cannot expect rescue and of course they would turn their backs on you. Liu Bei has recently taken command of Yuan Shao's soldiers and is not yet able to make use of them. Strike him and he can be defeated."

Cao Cao liked his words and sent Cao Ren with Lieutenant-General Xu Huang 徐晃 and Counsellor Remonstrat Cao Hong 曹洪, along with a contingent of cavalry to strike them. Cao Ren struck Liu Bei's forces and put him to flight, then turned his attention to Liu Pi's camp, crushing that too, before recovering the various rebelling counties and returning.[36][37]

Liu Bei had returned to Yuan Shao's army, but secretly he wanted to leave, so he convinced Yuan Shao that he be allowed to go south and garner support from Liu Biao, who had initially promised to help earlier, though still nothing had come of it. Yuan Shao dispatched Liu Bei with his original soldiers and he again went to Runan. There, he joined with some other bandits under the command of Gong Du 龔都, their forces numbering several thousand men. Cao Cao dispatched Cai Yang 蔡陽 to try and deal with them, but Liu Bei killed him.[38]

As Cao Ren was returning to Guandu, he encountered one of Yuan Shao's officers, Han Xun 韓荀, who had been dispatched by Yuan Shao to pillage and sever the western road. Cao Ren struck him at Mt. Jiluo 雞洛山, destroying his forces. Due to this defeat, Yuan Shao did not dare send out further detachments.[39]

Battle at Wuchao[]

The main problem facing Cao Cao was that Yuan Shao controlled four provinces to Cao Cao's one and so Yuan Shao could outlast him in a protracted campaign. Cao Cao's supplies were already tight whereas Yuan Shao had several thousands carts of grain arriving. Xun You said to Cao Cao:

"Yuan Shao's transport carts arrive at dawn and dusk, his officer Han Meng 韓猛[n 24] is keen spirited but makes light of the enemy, strike him and you will break him."

Cao Cao asked who should be given responsibility and Xun You suggested Xu Huang. Cao Cao dispatched Xu Huang with Cao Ren and Shi Huan 史渙 to intercept Yuan Shao's supply carts at Gushi 故市 and they burnt every one of his wagons and every last scrap of grain, and put Han Meng to flight.[40][41]

It was now the 10th month of Jian'an[n 25] and Cao Cao and Yuan Shao had been facing off against one another for several months, and although Cao Cao had fared better in battle and beheaded many of Yuan Shao's officers, his forces were inferior in number, his provisions nearly exhausted, and his soldiers very fatigued from the long conflict and some of his men had grown dissatisfied and defected to Yuan Shao's side.

The supplies at Gushi had been burned but Yuan Shao had more supplies coming, he sent Chunyu Qiong, Commander Sui Yuanjin, Cavalry Commanders Han Juzi, Lü Weihuang, and Zhao Rui 20 km north to Wuchao 烏巢 with 10,000 men to escort the next grain shipment. Ju Shou tried to convince Yuan Shao to send Jiang Qi 蔣奇 to an intermediate position between Wuchao and Cao Cao's position in order to sever the roads and prevent Cao Cao from raiding Wuchao, but Yuan Shao still did not listen to him.[42][43][44][45]

Yuan Shao's counsellor, Xu You, covetted wealth and did not feel like Yuan Shao could satisfy his aspirations. Also at this time, Xu You's family back in Ye 鄴 city[n 26] had violated the law. As Shen Pei had authority in Ye due to Yuan Shao's absence, he had Xu You's family arrested. Xu You was angered by the situation and decided to defect to Cao Cao's side. Cao Cao was an old friend of Xu You's and when he heard of his arrival, he came out barefooted to greet him. Cao Cao took him by the hand and laughed, saying:

"Xu You, now that you've come, my affairs can be facilitated!"

They entered Cao Cao's tent to discuss current affairs, Xu You asked Cao Cao about his supply situation. Cao Cao tried to convince him that he had enough provisions to sustain him for a year, but Xu You knew he was trying to deceive him and eventually got Cao Cao to admit he onl had enough to sustain him for 1 month. Xu You said:

"Your solitary army faces him alone, outside there is no hope of rescue or assistance and your provisions have already been exhausted. This is a day of crisis. At present the Yuan clan has a baggage train of over 10,000 carts at Gushi and Wuchao, but the army garrisoned there are undisciplined and unprepared. Use light troops to raid them and catch them unawares, burn his stores and in no more than three days, the Yuan clan will certainly be defeated."

Cao Cao was very pleased, but many of Cao Cao's attendants were suspicious of Xu You and did not think he could be trusted, only Xun You and Jia Xu encouraged cao Cao to take the chance. Thereupon Cao Cao left Xun You and Cao Hong in charge of the camp while he chose 5,000 elite, keen-spirited footmen and cavalry and personally led them to attack Wuchao. They left by night, carrying standards and flags belonging to the Yuan army and the horses were gagged to keep them quiet.[n 27] The men carried bundles of firewood. Whenever they passed someone on the road who questioned their activities, they said:

"Lord Yuan is afraid Cao Cao will plunder and pillage the rearguard so he dispatched soldiers in order to reinforce it."

Those they talked to trusted their words and so no alarm was raised. Chunyu Qiong saw that Cao Cao's forces were few and arrayed his forces outside his gates to meet them. Cao Cao urgently struck them and Chunyu Qiong retreated back into his camp.[46][47][48][49]

Yuan Shao heard that Chunyu Qiong was under attack and said to his eldest son Yuan Tan 袁譚:

"As they are attacking Chunyu Qiong, I will attack his main camp, then those others will have nowhere to return!"

But General of the Gentlemen of the Household Who Gives Peace to the State Zhang He 張郃 remonstrated with him, saying:

"Cao Cao's soldiers are elite, if they've gone they will certainly defeat Chunyu Qiong et al. And if they are defeated, then your affairs are done, General."

But Guo Tu said:

"Zhang He's plan is wrong. It would be better that you attack his base camp, his forces will certainly return and thus you can allay Chunyu Qiong without going to rescue him."[n 28]

But Zhang He replied:

"Cao Cao's camp is solid, attack it and you will certainly not seize it; if Chunyu Qiong's forces are captured, then every last one of us will be prisoners."

But Zhang He's words fell on deaf ears and only light cavalry were sent to relieve Chunyu Qiong while Zhang He and Gao Lan 高覽 were given the bulk of the troops and sent to attack Cao Cao's main camp.[50][51]

Cao Cao was in the midst of attacking Chunyu Qiong at Wuchao, using the firewood his men had brought to prepare a fire attack, when his scouts reported that a contingent of cavalry was approaching his rear. His attendants said:

"The enemy cavalry is closing in, please split you soldiers to resist them."

Cao Cao furiously retorted:

"When the enemy is at our backs, only then report!"

Cao Cao set a great fire at Wuchao, those within Yuan Shao's camp were panicked and disorderly, with the enemy at their backs, Cao Cao's men fought desperately and crushed the forces at Wuchao. Chunyu Qiong and all of Yuan Shao's officers were beheaded and all their grain, treasure and goods were burned.[n 29][52][53][54]

Yuan Shao's main forces did not fare any better, Cao Cao's main camp was heavily fortified and did not fall. Guo Tu was ashamed that his plan had failed and thereupon slandered Zhang He, saying:

"Zhang He hastened the army's defeat and his words were immodest."

Zhang He got word of Guo Tu's words and was afraid, Yuan Shao was inclined to listen to slander and make rash decisions. Zhang He and Gao Lan burned their siege engines and came to surrender. Cao Hong still had command of the main camp and he doubted Zhang He's intentions and wouldn't accept him. But Xun You said to him:

"Zhang He's strategies were not used, so he was angry and came here. Why do you suspect him?"

So then Cao Hong accepted his surrender. Consequently, Yuan Shao's army was in chaos and a great rout soon followed. Yuan Shao and his son Yuan Tan fled north with an escort of 800 cavaliers, fording the Yellow River and arriving at Liyang, where they entrusted their safety to one of Yuan Shao's generals Jiang Yiqu 蔣義渠. Cao Cao attempted to pursue them, but it was already too late. Cao Cao collected the entirety of Yuan Shao's baggage train, his plans and maps, and his treasure. Some of Yuan Shao's forces feigned surrender and all of the were buried alive, from start to finish more than 70,000 men died.[n 30][55][56][57][58]

In the capturing of Yuan Shao's camp, Cao Cao had also collected personal letters, among those were some from men within Xu city and his own army, he burned them all, saying:

"In the presence of Yuan Shao's strength, I could not even guarantee my own safety. How much more is this true for my men!"[59]

One of Yuan Shao's advisors, Ju Shou, was unable to accompany his lord across the Yellow River. He was captured by Cao Cao's forces and he shouted:

"I am not surrendering, I was just captured by the army!"

Cao Cao was an old friend of his from way back, he said to Ju Shou:

"We have been separated under different mansions of the stars, and it is long since our paths have crossed. It is quite unexpected that we should have taken you today."[60]

Ju Shou then said:

"As a result of adopting his mistaken policies, Yuan Shao has fled north. Neither my wisdom nor power were sufficient so it was fitting I be captured."

To which Cao Cao replied:

"Yuan Shao is without strategy and he did not use your plans, sir. At present, mourning and disorder exceed record and the state is unsettled; you should join me and together we could seek to remedy it."

But Ju Shou knew that his defection which result in the punishment of his family back north, so he said to Cao Cao:

"My uncle, mother and younger brother are in counties commanded by the Yuan clan. If I were to receive your mercy with a quick death, that would be a blessing."

Cao Cao sighed and said:

"Had we found each other earlier, there would be nothing in the whole empire to worry me."[61]

Cao Cao tried to treat him with favour, but because Ju Shou invariably sought to return to Yuan Shao, Cao Cao had him killed. As for another of Yuan Shao's advisors, Tian Feng, who was still incarcerated up north; since Yuan Shao's army was defeated, someone said to him:

"Lord Yuan will certainly recognise your importance now, sir."

But Tian Feng said:

"Our Lord appears lenient but is inwardly envious, he will not admire my loyalty and I can already calculate what his words will be. If he was victorious he would be pleased and he would certainly pardon me; but in defeat he will be resentful, and not want to admit he was wrong and release me. If the army had gone out and found advantage, I would certainly remain whole; now, since he was defeated I do not expect to live."

Yuan Shao returned and spoke to his attendants, saying:

"I did not use Tian Feng's advice, surely he will laugh at me."

Thereupon Yuan Shao killed him.[62]

Cao Cao's Numbers[]

Pei Songzhi writes:

"Your servant, Pei Songzhi, believes that Wei Emperor Cao at the beginning raised 5,000 soldiers,[n 31] and after 100 battles and 100 victories, those defeated might number 2 or 3 in 10. Still, once he defeated the Yellow Turbans and received the surrender to over 300,000 men[n 32], plus there are those from places he annexed which have not been entirely recorded. Although he had campaigned and battled, and obviously men would be injured or killed, but that doesn't account for why there were so few here. He established camps to face off against Yuan Shao instead of his van being devastated in a decisive battle. The original record says: "Yuan Shao's forces were over 100,000 and camped east to west for dozens of li." Although Cao Cao's strategic brilliance was that seen only once in a generation, how was he able to use thousands of soldiers to stand up to those far in excess of his. It flies in the face of logic, yet that's what it says. It cannot be so.
"Yuan Shao made camps for dozens of li, and yet Cao Cao could split his camps to match him. This cannot be done with very few soldiers, this is the first point. If Yuan Shao had 10 times his forces then logically Cao Cao would need to use the entirety of his power to defend and those he sent out would not be able to re-enter. Yet Cao Cao sent Xu Huang et al. to strike Yuan Shao's transport carts, and Cao Cao himself also went out to strike Chunyu Qiong et al., he raised [Yuan Shao's] banners, went, and returned. Once he could not withstand him and understood Yuan Shao's power could not be controlled. They could not have been very few, this is the second point. Various books all say Cao Cao buried alive 80,000 men from Yuan Shao's forces, some say 70,000. My Lord, if 80,000 men flee and scatter, 8,000 men cannot put them in bonds, did Yuan Shao's great forces all join hands and merrily go to their death? By what power could they be controlled? Not by the very few, this is the third point.
"The narrators desired to give a sense of wonder to the victory by saying the few beat the many, but this is not a matter of fact. Check with Zhong Yao's biography, it says: "Cao Cao was locked in stalemate with Yuan Shao. Zhong Yao was serving as Colonel Director of Retainers so he delivered over 2,000 horses to furnish the army." The original record and the Shiyu simultaneously say Cao Cao had about 600 cavaliers at that time. So what happened to Zhong Yao's horses?[n 33]"[63]


  1. This is from the third chapter in Sun Zi's Art of War: Attack by Stratagem; the chapter describes stratagems in war. If you vastly outnumber the enemy, simply overwhelm him; if twice as numerous, hit him from two fronts; if equal, you can offer battle; if inferior in number, avoid the enemy; if vastly inferior, flee.
  2. The HHS commentary notes that this is a reference to an earlier literary record. The full text ranks the quality of soldiers; righteous soldiers, volunteers, those who fight in anger, those who fight for greed, and finally those who fight for pride.
  3. The HHS commentary notes that this is a reference to an earlier literary record. 'Miaosheng' 廟勝 is short for 'plans devised within ancestral temples can determine victories over 1000 li away.' de Crespigny explains this is because the decisions are blessed by the ancestors when they are informed of them and hence more likely to succeed.
  4. King Zhou was the last ruler of the Shang dynasty (17th-11th cent. B.C.), his cruelty resulted in the destruction of the Shang dynasty and the rise of the Zhou dynasty under King Wu (a.k.a. Ji Fa)
  5. In 496 B.C., the state of Yue was defeated by Wu. King Goujian of Yue was captured and, against remonstration, King Fucha of Wu let him live. For two years, Goujian resigned himself to a life of hardship and after that returned to his kingdom and began improving it so that it could later challenge and destroy Wu.
  6. A precident for manipulating Yuan Shao's insecurities had been set a few years prior with respect to the Emperor. Guo Tu (according to the HHS, although contradicted by the SGZ) counsels against bringing the Emperor to Yuan Shao's capital because it would overshadow his prestige, an argument Yuan Shao then accepted.
  7. This sentence about Xu You's family is not included in the HHS account, only in the SGZ version. The HHS account, at least, is meant to illustrate Xun Yu's foresight, which this sentence certainly does. It's one thing to know the character of the important ministers, but to extend that to Xu You's family seems dubious.
  8. Late September early October.
  9. Liyang was the primary crossing point for the Yellow River, Guandu was 100km southwest of Liyang and 90km north of Xu city.
  10. This presumedly refers to Yuan Shao's relationship with his cousin Yuan Shu. The two had fallen out a few years prior as both had ambitions to dominate the empire.
  11. December-January 200 A.D.
  12. The Wei shu quoted in Liu Bei's SGZ says that when Liu Bei did not think Cao Cao could extricate himself from Guandu, and when he saw Cao Cao approaching, he immediately abandoned his army and fled. de Crespigny notes that the Wei shu is biased towards Wei and this account may be inaccurate and intended to cast infamy on Liu Bei. That being said, there is not much on what actually happened; Liu Bei's SGZ says his entire force was captured, so there must have been a lot of people surrendering when they realised Cao Cao himself had deigned to come and the defeat happened so quickly that Liu Bei had to abandon his family, nor did Guan Yu have an opportunity to provide reinforcements from Xiapi. The Wei shu may contain a kernel of truth, if Liu Bei had believed Cao Cao unable to act because of Yuan Shao, he could have used that to motivate others to revolt and rally them to his side. When Cao Cao did come, they thought if better to surrender and hope for mercy than throw their lot in with Liu Bei who had been defeated previously.
  13. The HHS notes here that the character Qi 奇 is from Master Sun Wu's Art of War. Sun Wu writes about two types of attack: Qi and Zheng 正. Zheng is the attack that holds your enemy's attention (i.e. a feint or misdirect), Qi is the unexpected attack.
  14. Yang Xiong (53 B.C.-18 A.D.) was a philosopher and writer of the late former Han period. The quote comes from one of his works, the Yangzi fayan (Model works by Master Yang), chapter 10.9. It’s part of a response he gives to someone asking why the recent dynasties rose and fell so quickly and he explains how the Warring States period ended. Ying was the family name of the founder of the Qin dynasty. Ji was the family name of those in the Zhou dynasty.
  15. Baima was on the southern bank of the Yellow River, Liyang was to the north.
  16. Juancheng was about 50 km east of Baima, also on the southern bank of the Yellow River. From Juancheng potential attacks could be launched on Yuan Shao's rear or supply lines.
  17. May
  18. Yan Crossing was about 50 km southwest of Baima and Liyang.
  19. Approximately September.
  20. Guandu was in north of Zhongmou county in Henan commandery and Yangwu was to its north. There was a high terrace on which Cao Cao had set up his camp.
  21. Yuan Shao's HHS actually puts this account later but the annotation in Cao Cao's SGZ has this here. Both Yuan Shao's HHS and Xu You's biography (recorded in Cui Yan's) use this as one of the reasons for his later defection, which is why I think it is included later; but I think the conversation is much more pertinent to the current situation and have included it here.
  22. As to this number, Pei Songzhi is incredibly dubious of it, his analysis is recorded later.
  23. The note in the HHS says, the watchtowers had no roofs, so those inside were exposed from above. It also says the earthen mounds were north of the high terrace and Yuan Shao's main camp was situated to its east, so Yuan Shao was pressuring Cao Cao on two fronts.
  24. Also referred to as Han Ruo 韓若.
  25. Approximately November of 200 A.D.
  26. Ye was Yuan Shao's capital of operations.
  27. The account also says the men were gagged. Presumedly this is metaphorical, as there is no need to gag men to keep them quiet and just means they acted in stealth.
  28. As a side note, this strategy to compel a outside force to return a defend a position is later (sometime during Southern Qi dynasty) considered one of the 36 Stratagems of Ancient China: 'Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao', named so because of an incident during the Warring States Period (352 B.C.) where to rescue the besieged capital of Zhao, the king of Qi attacked the capital of Wei. That being said, it requires the target (e.g. Cao Cao's main camp) being unprepared for an attack.
  29. The exact events at Wuchao are not entirely clear. According to Yuan Shao's SGZ the reinforcements were defeated prior to the camp. Cao Cao's SGZ seems to suggest he was planning to deal with Wuchao prior to the reinforcements. The most detailed account is the Cao Man Zhuan, but it does not seem particularly reliable; it says that Cao Cao's men cut the noses from over 1,000 soldiers and the lips and tongues from cattle and horses in order to show Yuan Shao's reinforcements as a way to intimidate them, which is absurdly impractical as it would need to be done with enemy reinforcements barrelling down upon them and it would require some way to show them in the dark so that they would recognise the items. It also relies on the fact that the reinforcements would need to be intimidated by the display as opposed to outraged and fall upon the isolated force. From the speed of the attack it is probable that Wuchao fell prior to reinforcements arriving.
  30. Cao Cao's official report to the Emperor says 70,000, whereas the biography of Yuan Shao says 80,000. As to the reliability of this number it is discussed below.
  31. This was back in 189 A.D. when Cao Cao sold his families property in order to purchase troops to fight against Dong Zhuo 董卓.
  32. This was in 192 A.D. shortly after Cao Cao had been offered the position of Governor of Yan Province if he could defeat the Yellow Turbans plaguing the region. Although the text actually reads that Cao Cao received the surrender of 300,000 but he only chose the best men and from those he made a division called the 'Qing Province Troops'. Similarly, Yuan Shao had four provinces to levy troops from but he only used 110,000 of the best fighters. As for the Qing Province Troops they may or may not have remained under Cao Cao's auspices. In 196 A.D. at the Battle of Wan they had returned to their lives of banditry and had to been dealt with by Yu Jin.
  33. At the Battle of Yan Crossing Cao Cao is reputedly in command of less than 600 cavaliers (although there are also a handful of abandoned horses).

Fact vs. Fiction

  • Historically, Gao Lan only appears in Sanguo Yanyi, thus does not appear in The Battle of Guandu.



  1. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  2. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  3. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  4. SGZ: Biography of Xun Yu
  5. HHS: Biography of Xun Yu
  6. SGZ: Biography of Zang Ba
  7. SGZ: Biography of Yu Jin
  8. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  9. SGZ: Biography of Liu Biao
  10. SGZ: Biography of Zhang Xiu
  11. SGZ: Biography of Jia Xu
  12. SGZ: Fu Xuan's annotations quoted in the Biography of Guo Jia
  13. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  14. SGZ: Biography of Liu Bei
  15. SGZ: Biography of Liu Bei
  16. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  17. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  18. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  19. SGZ: Biography of Cheng Yu
  20. SGZ: Biography of Guan Yu
  21. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  22. SGZ: Biography of Cui Yan
  23. SGZ: Biography of Emperor Xian quoted in the SGZ Biography of Yuan Shao
  24. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  25. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  26. SGZ: Biography of Xun You
  27. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  28. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  29. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  30. SGZ: Biography of Xu You quoted in the Wei lüe in the Biography of Cui Yan
  31. HHS: Biography of Emperor Xian quoted in the HHS Biography of Yuan Shao
  32. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  33. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  34. SGZ: Biography of Xun Yu
  35. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  36. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  37. SGZ: Biography of Xu Huang
  38. SGZ: Biography of Liu Bei
  39. SGZ: Biography of Cao Ren
  40. SGZ: Biography of Xu Huang
  41. SGZ: Biography of Cao Ren
  42. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  43. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  44. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  45. SGZ: Biography of Cao Man as quoted in the Biography of Cao Cao
  46. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  47. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  48. SGZ: Biography of Xun You
  49. SGZ: Biography of Cao Man as quoted in the Biography of Cao Cao
  50. SGZ: Biography of Zhang He
  51. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  52. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  53. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao
  54. SGZ: Biography of Cao Man as quoted in the Biography of Cao Cao
  55. SGZ: Biography of Xun You
  56. SGZ: Biography of Zhang He
  57. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao
  58. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  59. SGZ: Chronicles of the Wei Clan quoted in the Biography of Cao Cao
  60. de Crespigny. Chapter 63 in To Establish Peace Vol 1, Jian'an 5, section BB
  61. SGZ: Biography of Emperor Xian quoted in the SGZ Biography of Yuan Shao
  62. HHS: Biography of Yuan Shao
  63. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao