Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Preserved words

Zhang Liao 張遼, supposedly known as the 'Butcher of Hefei' or 'Hero of Hefei', depending on which side of the Wei-Wu border someone was from. Zhang Liao is famous for his assault on the Wu forces at Hefei, where he and Li Dian charged out against 100,000 soldiers with a force of only 800 and still managed to make Sun Quan flee.


Zhang Liao was a descendant Nie Yi (聶壹), but changed his clan name to Zhang in order to avoid persecution.[n 2]When he was younger, he served as an official in Yanmen (雁門) commandery until the Inspector of Bing province Ding Yuan took notice of Liao's martial talents and recruited him for service. Liao was made an Assistant Officer and came to the capital. Liao was dispatched by He Jin to recruit soldiers from north of the Yellow river; he enlisted more than 1,000 men and returned.

The chaos surrounding the capital left the command structure in flux, and Zhang Liao shifted from master to master. With He Jin and Ding Yuan assassinated, he joined Dong Zhuo; when Dong Zhuo was assassinated, he joined Lü Bu, and was made Commandant of Cavalry; and when Li Jue chased Lü Bu from Chang'an, Zhang Liao followed him east.

Service to Lu Bu[]

Zhang Liao followed Lü Bu in his campaigns. Upon taking Xu province, Zhang Liao was appointed as Chancellor of Lu (魯) and Grand Administrator of Beide (北地)[n 3]. In 198 A.D., Lü Bu joined in alliance with Yuan Shu, he attacked Liu Bei and forced him from Xu province to Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Xiahou Dun returned to reclaim Xu, but Gao Shun and Zhang Liao routed the pair.[1]

Service to Cao Cao[]

In 198 A.D., Cao Cao defeated Lü Bu at Xiapi (下邳) and with his lord defeated, Zhang Liao brought his forces to surrender to Cao Cao.[n 4] Liao was given the rank of General of the Household and ennobled as a Secondary Marquis.

Straight away Zhang Liao began to prove his worth, he joined Xiahou Yuan in the suppression of Chang Xi in Donghai (東海) commandery[n 5]. The siege had continued for several months and the provisions were nearing exhaustion, many within the army wanted to withdraw. But Liao said to Yuan: "During the past few days, whenever I walk about the camp Chang Xi has looked at me very carefully, and there have not been many shots fired. This surely means that he is undecided and has no heart for the fight. I shall try to talk with him, and I may be able to win him over."[2] Thereupon, Liao sent envoys to Xi and asked to parley.

As Zhang Liao suspected, Chang Xi was willing to surrender and came to speak with Liao. Liao said to him: "Duke Cao has divine martial talent, and at a time where he spreads his virtuous heart in all directions, those who attach themselves to him first receive great favour." Thereupon, Xi decided to surrender. Alone, Liao entered the city; he climbed up Sangong (三公) hill and entered Xi's house to pay respect to his family. Xi was comforted and submitted to Cao Cao, who reappointed him to Donghai. Cao Cao was less impressed with Liao, and reproached his recklessness. To which Liao replied: "Due to Your Lordship's prestige and faith being known throughout the land, and myself obeying the Imperial Mandate, Chang Xi would certainly not dare harm me."

Through several battles, Zhang Liao achieved meritorious service, including the defeat of Yuan Shao's general Yan Liang at Baima (白馬), and was made a Major-General.[3] After Yuan Shao's defeat, Liao was given a separate command and sent to settle the various counties of Lu state.

Zhang Liao then followed Cao Cao on his campaign against the remaining Yuan clan. He fought Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang at Liyang (黎陽), where he was temporarily made Resolute General of the Centre for his exploits. Then he went with Yue Jin to seize Yin'an (陰安) and relocate those people south of the Yellow river to protect them from the Yuans. Liao then went to Zhao (趙) and Changshan (常山) commanderies where he defeated, then accepted the surrender of the Black Mountain bandit Sun Qing along with others from along the mountain. Finally, Liao went to Haibin (海濱) and defeated the Liaodong (遼東) commandery bandits led by Liu Yi. In 206 A.D., Zhang Liao returned to Ye city (鄴), where Cao Cao personally came out to meet him and memorialised the Emperor that Liao be promoted to General Who Terrifies Criminals.[4]

Zhang Liao then headed south to Jing province to settled the various counties of Jiangxia (江夏) commandery before camping at Linyang (臨潁). He was enfeoffed as Marquis of a Chief Village.

In 206 A.D., Zhang Liao then returned north to fight the Yuans with Cao Cao. At this time, Liu Bei had fled south and joined up with Liu Biao in Jing province. Liao was worried that, while preoccupied with the north, Liu Bei would take the opportunity to attack Cao Cao's rear, saying: "Today, the Son of Heaven is in Xuchang and Your Lordship far to the north fighting the Yuans. If Liu Biao dispatches Liu Bei to seize Xu, they can then spread their will in all directions, and Your Lordship's power will be gone." But Cao Cao didn't think Liu Biao had the necessary ambition to take such action so attacked Liucheng anyway.[5][n 6]

In the 8th month, Cao Cao had found his quarry, the remaining Yuans had allied themselves with the Wuhuan tribesmen in Liucheng (柳城). The enemy were practically innumerable, hundreds of thousands strong, yet Cao Cao saw they were disorderly and knew he could emerge victorious. Despite his earlier reservations about heading north, Zhang Liao was eager to do battle and Cao Cao, in admiration of his spirit, granted Liao the honour of taking his standard into battle. Liao led the vanguard alongside Zhang He[6] and heavily defeated the enemy, beheading the Wuhuan Shanyu Tadun and receiving the surrender of over 200,000 people.[7]

Considering Jing province was still unsettled, Cao Cao sent Zhang Liao back south to Changshe (長社) in Yingchuan (潁川) commandery. Just before setting off, there were those within Liao's camp plotting sedition. During the night, they started fires within the camp and incited chaos; the entire army was alarmed. Liao spoke to his attendants: "Do not move! This is not the whole camp in mutiny. It is just a few men making noise to throw others into panic."[8] Thereupon, Liao sent out a command that his men to sit quietly, as he led a dozen soldiers into the centre of his camp to observe. Once everything was settled down, Liao was immediately able to identify and execute those who incited chaos. Liao then headed to Changshe.

Pursuit of Chen Lan and Mei Cheng[]

Chen Lan and Mei Cheng incited the Di tribesmen of six counties to revolt.[n 7] Cao Cao had Zhang Liao oversee Zhang He and Niu Gai and deal with Lan, whilst Yu Jin and Zang Ba dealt with Cheng. Jin received the surrender of Cheng, but he went back on his word and fled to Lan. The rebels fled to the Qianshan (灊山) county, within the county, was Mt. Tianzhu (天柱山) which was almost 2 km tall and the few paths up it, steep and narrow, and there is where the rebels camped.[n 8]

Zhang Liao desired to climb the mountain, but his officers protested, saying: "We have few soldiers and the paths are treacherous; it will be difficult to penetrate deeply." Liao said to them: "This is a place for one-on-one combat, victory will favour the bold." Thereupon, Liao set his camp at the base of the mountain, Yu Jin secured supplies and Zang Ba fended off the Wu reinforcements. Liao led his men up the mountain paths, beheading Lan and Cheng, and securing the capture of their forces to the last man. When Cao Cao heard about the exploits, he said: "Surmounting Heaven's mountain and traversing treacherous paths to take Lan and Cheng, those are the exploits of the General Who Terrifies Criminals." Liao fief was increased and bestowed the Staff of Authority.[9][10]

Battle of Hefei[]

In the 8th month of 215 A.D., Sun Quan led 100,000 men to besiege Hefei (合肥). At that time, Cao Cao had led the majority of his forces west so Hefei was undermanned, there were only 7,000 soldiers stationed there under the command of Zhang Liao, Yue Jin, Li Dian and the Protector of the Army Xue Ti. Before Cao Cao had gone west, he left a letter with Xue Ti to be opened if the enemy showed up. With the Wu forces showing up, Cao Cao's instructions were opened, they said: "If Sun Quan comes, Generals Zhang and Li go out to fight, General Yue keeps guard, the Protector of the Army does not fight."[11]

Cao Cao's instructions left the generals understandably concerned, the sheer numerical advantage of the enemy forces seemed to prohibit an attack. But Zhang Liao said to them: "Our lord is on campaign far away, and by the time help comes the enemy will surely have destroyed us. This letter is to remind us that if we attack them before they have surrounded the city, we shall reduce their early strength and raise the morale of our own troops. Then we can hold out. Victory or defeat depend on this one battle. If you are all so hesitant, I shall settle it alone"[12]

Previously, when Zhang Liao was stationed at Changshe, Yue Jin and Yu Jin were stationed nearby, and the three of them did not get along. It had fallen to Zhao Yan to keep the peace between them.[13] Li Dian too did not get on with Liao particularly well[n 9], so Liao was worried that the other generals at Hefei would not follow his orders. But Li Dian stood in support of Liao's plan of action, saying: "This is a great affair of state. When I see you planning like this, how can I maintain a personal grudge and neglect the public good? I beg to follow you in the sortie."[14][15]

That night, Zhang Liao went about Hefei recruit valiant men willing to die in a potentially suicidal attack, obtaining 800 willing to brave death with him. He then offered a bull in sacrifice to rally his men. At daybreak, Zhang Liao donned his armour, grasped his halberd and led his men out the gates of Hefei straight into the enemy forces. Being fresh from the march had left the Wu forces tired, and their numerical advantage had made Sun Quan arrogant, as a result Zhang Liao cut straight through the Wu forces. He broke through the enemy's array, slaying dozen of soldiers, including two officers; shouting his own name, he burst through the enemy ramparts into Sun Quan's camp.

Sun Quan was shocked by the sudden onslaught and fled to higher ground, clutching a long halberd as his only defence; Liao shouted at Quan to come face him, but Quan dared not move. However, seeing how small Liao's forces were, Quan composed himself and ordered his men surround the small sortie several layers deep. Seeing the tide turning, Liao led his forces straight through the encirclement. Dozens of his men were able to get out but many more remained trapped by the sheer volume of enemies, they cried to Zhang Liao for help and he turned back into the enemy encirclement. He returned back into the melee, scattering the enemy before him and rescuing as many men as he could.

From dawn till midday they fought; the spirits of the Wu soldiers robbed, Zhang Liao retired to Hefei to shore up the defence. Within the city, the hearts of the men were calmed and the various generals all recognised Liao's plan. The demoralised Wu forces maintained a lacklustre siege for the next 10 days, but the city would not fall so they withdrew.[n 10] However, they would not get far before Liao struck them again.

Sun Quan's carelessness on arrival had not been remedied and he made an even more costly mistake on his withdraw; he had sent the bulk of his forces back to the boats while he remained in command of the rearguard with 1,000 odd bodyguards. Zhang Liao was awaiting an opportunity like that and suddenly attacked again just north of Xiaoyao Crossing (逍遙) on the Jin (津) river.[16] The Wu generals: Lü Meng, Gan Ning, Ling Tong, Xu Sheng, Chen Wu, Jiang Qin and Pan Zhang immediately came to their lord's aid, but as for the bulk of the forces, they had already retreated too far and could not be recalled.[17]

The Wu general Chen Wu was killed during the battle, and Song Qian and Xu Sheng had fled. It was thanks to Ling Tong's escort that Sun Quan managed to break free of Zhang Liao's forces and escape, but his lord's safety came at a heavy price as his entire command was wiped out by Zhang Liao.[18][19][20] Cao Cao heaped praise upon Zhang Liao's exploits, promoting him to General Who Subdues the East.

The following year, Cao Cao came to attack Sun Quan again. Upon arriving at Hefei, he went out to look at where Zhang Liao had fought; he sighed and stared across the battlefield for a long time. Zhang Liao's command was increased and he was stationed at Juchao (居巢) whilst Cao Cao's forces were at Hefei. When next they met, Cao Cao rode out in the imperial carriage to receive Liao.

Service to Cao Pi[]

When Cao Pi became King of Wei, Zhang Liao was bestowed 1,000 bolts of silk, 10,000 hu of grain and promoted to General of the Van.[21] His elder brother Zhang Fan (張汎) and son were both made Marquises. With the threat from the south ever present, Zhang Liao was then returned to Hefei and enfeoffed as a Marquis of a Chief Village. Liao's family was also shown great honour, Cao Pi gifted his mother a carriage[n 11] and had soldiers escort the family to the camp; and the various generals and officials all came to the roadside to pay homage to her. When Emperor Cao Pi acceded the imperial throne, Zhang Liao was made Marquis of Jinyang (晉陽) and his fief increased to 2,600 households.

In 222 A.D., Zhang Liao visited Luoyang (洛陽) palace. Emperor Cao Pi met with Liao and questioned him on the details of the battle of Hefei. Hearing of his exploits, Cao Pi sighed, turned to his attendants and said: "He is Shaohu of old!"[n 12] Cao Pi also had a special hall erected in honour of Liao's mother, and the soldiers who had followed Liao at the battle of Hefei were elevated to Rapid as Tigers.

Zhang Liao was stationed at Yongqiu (雍丘), but fell ill. Emperor Cao Pi dispatched Palace Attendant Liu Ye to accompany physicians and diagnosis Liao's illness, the Rapid as Tiger guards lined the road waiting for news of Liao's condition. The Emperor himself would have Liao ride in his carriage, he would bestow upon him imperial clothes and share his meals with him. Once his condition had improved slightly, Liao went back to his camp.

Realising that Wu would never stay loyal to Wei, Cao Pi attacked Wu. Although still sick, Zhang Liao participated in the attack on Dongkou (洞口), he headed by boat to Hanling (海陵) alongside Cao Xiu. Sun Quan was worried about Zhang Liao's participation, he sent out an edict saying: "Although Zhang Liao may be sick, he still has no equal. Be careful!"[n 13]


Unfortunately after the engagement at Dongkou, Zhang Liao's illness took a turn for the worse and he died at Jiangdu (江都). Zhang Liao was posthumously canonised as "Unyielding" (剛) Marquis of Jinyang.

In 226 A.D., Emperor Cao Pi was reminiscing about Zhang Liao and his exploits at Hefei. He sent out an edict saying: "At the Battle of Hefei, Zhang Liao and Li Dian had only 800 soldiers, yet they routed 100,000 rebels. Since time immemorial, there have not been generals capable of using soldiers like them. The moment the rebels arrived, they robbed them of spirit; it can be said that they are Wei's teeth and claws. 100 households will be split from Liao and Dian's fief for their sons, along with the rank of Secondary Marquis."



  • Nie Yi (聶壹) - Nie Yi, or Nie Wengyi, attempted to sow disinformation during the Battle of Mayi] in 133 B.C., but failed. As a result his disgrace was inherited by his descendants.


  • Zhang Fan (張汎) - Made a Marquis due to Zhang Liao's accomplishments at Hefei.


  • Zhang Hu (張虎) - Became a Lieutenant-General.
  • Unknown name - Made a Marquis due to Zhang Liao's accomplishments at Hefei.
  • Unknown name - Made a Secondary Marquis in 226 A.D..


  • Zhang Tong (張統) - Son of Zhang Hu.


  1. The SGZ reads: "Li Jue defeated [Lü] Bu (193 A.D.), [Zhang Liao] followed Bu east to Xuzhou (195 A.D.), Liao is appointed Chancellor of Lu, he was 28 years old at this time." Liao was most likely given his appointed by Bu, not Liu Bei (who at that time was Governor), which occurred in 196 A.D. And Liao's appointment occurred prior to Bu's death in 198 A.D., thus Liao's birth must have occurred between 169-171 A.D. The appointment would probably have either come in 196 A.D., when Bu seized the Governorship as a way to reward his men, or in 198 A.D., as a reward for when Zhang Liao and Gao Shun defeated Liu Bei and Xiahou Dun.
  2. Nie Yi, or Nie Wengyi, attempted to sow disinformation during the Battle of Mayi] in 133 B.C., but failed. As a result his disgrace was inherited by his descendants.
  3. The Grand Administrator post is not mentioned in Zhang Liao's SGZ.
  4. Zhang Liao was not trapped in the siege of Xiapi, so he must have been garrisoned elsewhere at the time, perhaps at his post as Chancellor of Lu, or simply trapped outside and with insufficient forces to relieve the siege.
  5. Zhang Liao's SGZ has this event recorded after Yuan Shao's defeat in 200 A.D., but I think it occurs straight after Lü Bu's defeat. Cao Cao's SGZ only mentions two events involving Chang Xi, one in 198 A.D., one in 200 A.D. Yu Jin's SGZ says he's responsible for the death of Chang Xi after Xi surrenders to him and Xiahou Yuan.
  6. Liu Bei in fact proposes to Liu Biao to take this course of action in 207 A.D. when Cao Cao is even farther north, and Liu Biao does not heed his advice. So Cao Cao is quite right not to be worried.
  7. This event occurs some time between 209 A.D. and 213 A.D. according to Zang Ba's SGZ.
  8. SGZ says 20+ li tall, but the height of the mountain is under 2 km. With 1 li equal 0.5 km, it can be assumed that its sheer size was exaggerated for effect.
  9. Hu Zhi's SGZ also states that Zhang Liao's Protector of the Army, Wu Zhou, did not get along with him either. Though there's nothing about it in his SGZ, Zhang Liao seems to have a fairly contentious personality due to the sheer number of people he does not get along with.
  10. Gan Ning's SGZ also mentions a sickness, but as it is not mentioned in any other accounts of the battle, it is unlikely to have been a serious affliction on the Wu forces as a whole. As such, it was not included here.
  11. Yúchē 輿車
  12. Shaohu (召虎) courtesy name of Duke Mu of Shao, he fought under King Xuan of Zhou and appeased the Huai Yi tribes. Not sure of the specifics of his exploits.
  13. Here the SGZ says, "Liao and the various generals defeated [Sun] Quan's general Lü Fan." This is not strictly accurate, the defeat of the Wu forces was more attributed to the violent weather rather then any action taken by Wei.

Fact vs. Fiction[]


  • ...Zhang Liao did not die from a arrow wound, but from an illness.


  1. SGZ: Records of Heroes and Champions in Biography of Liu Bei.
  2. de Crespigny. Chapter 64 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 6, section E
  3. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao.
  4. SGZ: Biography of Yue Jin.
  5. SGZ: Fu Xuan's annotations in SGZ Biography of Zhang Liao.
  6. SGZ: Biography of Zhang He.
  7. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao.
  8. de Crespigny. Chapter 65 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 13, section M
  9. SGZ: Biography of Yu Jin.
  10. SGZ: Biography of Zang Ba.
  11. de Crespigny. Chapter 67 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 20 section L
  12. de Crespigny. Chapter 67 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 20 section L
  13. SGZ: Biography of Zhao Yan.
  14. de Crespigny. Chapter 67 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 20 section L
  15. SGZ: Biography of Li Dian.
  16. SGZ: Biography of Gan Ning.
  17. SGZ: Biography of Ling Tong.
  18. SGZ: Biography of Chen Wu.
  19. SGZ: Biography of Pan Zhang.
  20. SGZ: Biography of Ling Tong.
  21. SGZ: Book of Wei quoted in Biography of Zhang Liao.


  • Chen Shou 陳壽 (233–297). Sanguo zhi 三國志 “Records of the Three Kingdoms”, with official commentary compiled by Pei Songzhi 裴松之 (372-451).
  • de Crespigny, Rafe. To Establish Peace. Vol. 1. Canberra: Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 1996. 2 vols.
  • de Crespigny, Rafe. To Establish Peace. Vol. 2. Canberra: Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 1996. 2 vols.