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Yuan Shao

Yuan Shao (袁紹; style name: Benchu 本初) was a major warlord of northern China during the chaotic civil war leading up to the fall of the Han Dynasty. Originally a member of the regular Han military bureaucracy, Yuan used the power and prestige of his family to carve out his own warlord state. He rose to dominate much of north China in the 190s before suffering a dramatic defeat at the Battle of Guandu.

Early life and career

Yuan Shao was descended from the noble Yuan clan of Ru'nan, whose members were from the 1st century onwards prominent in Han civil bureaucracy. Descended from the great minister Yuan An, his exact parentage is controversial. Yuan Shao's official biographies in Sanguo Zhi and Hou Han Shu name as his father Yuan Cheng, an officer in the palace guards who died relatively young. There is some suggestion, however, that he may have been the biological son of Cheng's younger brother Feng and was taken to be Cheng's heir since he had produced none himself. Yuan Shu, a cousin of Shao's, is said to have called him a "family slave".

Yuan Shao was probably born in the 150s at the capital Luoyang. Both of his uncles held the highest positions at the Han court and the two men took on the role of his protectors. As a young man, Yuan Shao served at the imperial court as a Gentleman. Following the death of his mother, the young Shao left the capital for a number of years, possibly returning to his ancestral homeland of Ru'nan. He is said to have associated with notable knight-errants such as Zhang Miao and Cao Cao. One particular story from Shishuo Xinyu describes a lawless incident:

When Wu of Wei [i.e. Cao Cao] was young, he and Yuan Shao liked being travelling knight-errants. They saw someone's wedding and stole into the owner's garden. In the night they shouted, "There's a thief!" As those in the wedding chamber emerged to see what was happening, Wu of Wei entered, drew his blade to have his way with the bride, and then withdrew with Shao. They lost their way and became trapped in the hedges. Shao could not move. [Cao Cao] again shouted, "The thief is here!" Shao panicked but managed to extricate himself.

When finally Yuan Shao returned to Luoyang, he became known for his generosity and the number of retainers in his upkeep. In the 180s Yuan became the commander of a corps of the imperial guards and the chief of staff to General-in-chief He Jin. Upon the creation of the Western Army in 188, Yuan Shao was made one of its eight Colonels. His connections with the military forces at the capital and the influence of his family placed him in a prominent position when Emperor Ling died in 189.

Leader of the coalition

After the death of the Emperor, Yuan Shao was a chief ally of He Jin, who assumed leadership of the regular bureaucracy against the eunuch faction. He Jin had him promoted to become Colonel Director of Retainers in order to avoid a coup d'etat by the eunuchs. The post had judicial power over the territory surrounding the capital. When He Jin was assassinated at the Southern Palace on 22 September, Yuan Shao moved quickly with his uncle the Grand Tutor Yuan Wei to purge the supporters of the eunuchs. Then, with his troops and those of his cousin (or half-brother) Yuan Shu, he entered the imperial palaces and massacred 2000 eunuchs, causing widespread turmoil in the city of Luoyang. The arrival of the frontier commander Dong Zhuo and his army on the 25th complicated the political situation still further. Following a disagreement with Dong over the fate of the new Emperor, Yuan fled the capital for the eastern provinces. Dong Zhuo set up his candidate, the future Emperor Xian, on the throne and attempted overtures of peace to Yuan Shao, even making him Grand Administrator of Bohai.

By the beginning of 190, however, Yuan Shao was openly hostile. A coalition of regional officials and commanders from the eastern provinces elected him commander-in-chief and took up positions around Luoyang. Yuan Shao declared himself General of Chariots and Cavalry and camped at Henei, near a crossing point of the Yellow River just north of the capital. On 10 May, Dong Zhuo had Yuan Shao's relatives at the capital killed, including his uncle Yuan Wei and his cousin Yuan Ji, ending any chance of a reconciliation. Many members of the coalition against Dong Zhuo took up arms under the banner of avenging the Yuan family. Dong Zhuo had the emperor taken to Chang'an and a few months later, he burned Luoyang to the ground and himself withdrew to the west. The confrontation degenerated into a stalemate and the leaders of the coalition gradually lost interest in ousting Dong.

Warlord state

In 191, Yuan Shao took over administration of Ji province from the governor Han Fu and began building a warlord state from his headquarters at Ye 鄴. Soon afterward, he engaged in a general alliance with Liu Biao against other warlords - Yuan Shu and Gongsun Zan. In the winter of that year, he successively defended the integrity of his borders by defeating the cavalry forces of the northern warlord Gongsun Zan (公孫瓚) at the Battle of Jieqiao (界橋) with the use of massed crossbowmen. The next year he defeated Gongsun a second time, at Longcou (龍湊). Yuan Shao then turned southwest to destroy the Heishan bandits and remove the threat to his western flank. He advanced into their mountain strongholds along the Taihang Mountains and killed a number of their leaders. With the soldier of fortune Lü Bu on his side, Yuan also engaged with Zhang Yan and his non-Chinese allies.

In following years, Yuan Shao achieved considerable success in consolidating his domains and absorbing the smaller powers around him. In 196 his prominent in north China was recognized by Emperor Xian, who granted the position of General-in-chief and the title of Marquis of Ye 鄴侯. In 198 Yuan Shao advanced in force against Gongsun Zan and encircled his base at Yijing (易京). By early 199 Gongsun had been destroyed and Yuan held legitimate power over the four provinces north of the Yellow River. There were even suggestions by at least one of his lieutenants that he should take the throne for himself. Yuan Shao established alliances with the Wuhuan tribes of the northern frontier and turned his attention to Cao Cao, who had been consolidating his power in the south.

Both sides made preparations for a decisive battle and toward the end of 199 skirmishes were already being fought at Liyang, a major crossing point of the Yellow River. Cao Cao prepared his defenses around Guandu, slightly south of the river. Yuan Shao himself advanced in force in 200 and the resulting campaign is known as the Battle of Guandu. Heavily outnumbering Cao and holding large numbers of cavalry, Yuan's initial attacks almost overwhelmed Cao Cao's positions. A strike at Yuan Shao's supply lines later in the year however, brought the northern army to collapse. As his generals defected, Yuan fled across the Yellow River with his sons, leaving much of his baggage and men behind.

His first major defeat was also a decisive one. After Guandu, Yuan Shao lost the initiative and never regained it. In 202, he was again defeated, this time at Cangting , another crossing point on the Yellow River. He died soon after, on 28 June, 202, dejected and disappointed. His domains were left to his third son Yuan Shang , and the succession was a source of much antagonism. A rival faction under the eldest son Yuan Tan was openly hostile. Cao Cao was able to play them against each other and by 207 had destroyed the Yuans and conquered the north.

Last updated: 05-12-2005 13:27:36
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04