Yuan Shao

Yuan Shao (died June 28, 202) was a warlord during the late han dynasty period of Chinese history. He occupied the northern territories of China during the civil war that occurred towards the end of the han dynasty and the beginning of the three kingdoms era. He was also the older half-brother of Yuan Shu, a warlord who controlled the Huai River region, though the two were not on good terms with each other.

One of the most powerful warlords of his time, Yuan Shao spearheaded a coalition of warlords against Dong Zhuo, who held Emperor Xian hostage in the capital Luoyang, but failed due to internal disunity. In 200, he launched a campaign against his rival Cao Cao but was defeated at the Battle of Guandu. He died of illness two years later in Ye. His eventual failure despite his powerful family background and geographical advantages was commonly blamed on his indecisiveness and inability to heed the advice of his advisors.

Family background

A local of Ruyang County, Yuan Shao was born in a family with many members who had been in prominent positions in the civil bureaucracy of the han dynasty since the first century AD. Descended from Yuan An, who served during the reign of Emperor Zhang, Yuan Shao's exact parentage was the source of controversy and the major cause of dispute between him and Yuan Shu. Yuan Shao was a son of Yuan Feng (袁逢) and an older half-brother of Yuan Shu. Both Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu were great-grandsons of Yuan An, as recorded in Wang Chen (王沈)'s Book of Wei (魏書).

Yuan Shao's mother was originally a servant maid of Yuan Feng, and since Yuan Feng lacked male children, the birth of Yuan Shao elevated his mother's status from a maid to a concubine. Chen Shou's Records of three kingdoms claimed that Yuan Shao was an older cousin of Yuan Shu. The reason for this was that Yuan Feng's older brother also lacked male children, so Yuan Shao was adopted by Yuan Feng's older brother. The adoption infuriated Yuan Shu, because his mother had a higher status than Yuan Shao's mother, even though she was also a concubine of Yuan Feng. Yuan Shao's adoption by their uncle meant that Yuan Shao would become the eldest male child in their clan, and would enjoy more privileges than Yuan Shu. When Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu became involved in disputes later, Yuan Shu would use Yuan Shao's mother as an excuse to claim that Yuan Shao was not a true son of the Yuan family. As compared to Yuan Shu, Yuan Shao had a more serious appearance and he respected men of talent regardless of their background. As such, he was welcomed by many since his childhood, including Cao Cao and Zhang Miao.

Service under the han dynasty

When Yuan Shao was young, he participated in saving some of the "partisans" from death or other terrible fates during the second of the Disasters of Partisan Prohibitions. After he entered into government service, Yuan Shao initially served as an aide to General-in-Chief He Jin and was heavily trusted by the latter. After the death of Emperor Ling in 189, He Jin and Yuan Shao plotted to eliminate the eunuch faction, headed by the Ten Attendants, but Empress Dowager He was against their idea. He Jin then summoned Dong Zhuo to lead troops into the capital Luoyang to pressure the empress dowager. The eunuchs became fearful and they forged an edict in the empress dowager's name, summoning He Jin into the inner palace. Yuan cautioned He Jin, reminding him that he should order an attack on the eunuchs instead of entering the palace. After He Jin refused to accept his advice thrice, Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu led 200 elite troops to wait outside. Inside the palace, He Jin was ambushed and assassinated by the eunuchs, who tossed his severed head over the wall. He Jin's angered followers set fire to the palace and charged in, slaughtering every person (except females) without a moustache or beard; to the extreme that many young men without facial hair had to show their genitals to avoid being mistaken for eunuchs and killed. Over 2,000 people were killed in the massacre, while the young Emperor Shao and Prince of Chenliu (future Emperor Xian) escaped during the chaos. The resulting power vacuum provided Dong Zhuo, who found and rescued the emperor and prince, with an opportunity to seize control of the capital city when he arrived.

Dong then discussed with Yuan about his plan to depose Emperor Shao and replace him with the Prince of Chenliu, but Yuan disagreed. Relations between the two deteriorated and Yuan fled from Luoyang to Ji Province (present day southern Hebei ). At the time Yuan just got out of the city gate, Dong thought about sending men after him, but Zhou Bi, Wu Qiong and He Yong secretly helped Yuan by convincing Dong to let him go. As suggested by the three men, Dong appointed Yuan as Governor of Bohai Commandery (near present day Cangzhou, Hebei ) in a bid to appease the latter.

Sun Jian's advancement

By early 190, however, Yuan became openly hostile. A coalition of regional officials and commanders from the eastern provinces, including Cao Cao, Yuan Shu, Han Fu, Zhang Miao and Bao Xin, formed up behind him in a campaign to oust Dong Zhuo. Yuan Shao declared himself "General of Chariots and Cavalry" (車騎將軍) and camped at Henei (河內), near a ford on the Yellow River just north of Luoyang. Dong ordered the execution of all members of the Yuan clan in Luoyang, and sent out emissaries with imperial edict to order the regional officials to disband. However, members of the coalition listened to Yuan Shao, and had all the emissaries executed instead (except Han Rong). Dong then sent Hu Zhen, Lü Bu, and Hua Xiong to deter the coalition vanguard led by Sun Jian. Despite initial success, Sun was able to capitalize on the internal conflict between Hu and Lü, and had them defeated at Yangren. After that loss, Dong decided to move the capital to Chang'an, where his home base of Liang Province was nearby. A year later, Dong burned Luoyang to the ground and withdrew to the west with the mass of refugees. Although lacking a logistic base, Sun Jian and Cao Cao requested to pursue Dong's retreating force, but Yuan and other members largely disagreed with their opinion. Sun was ordered to rendezvous with Yuan Shu, so Cao led his own men to go on the pursuit alone, and was soundly defeated by Dong's subordinate, Xu Rong.


During this time, Yuan and Han Fu had intended to establish the legitimacy of the coalition by making Liu Yu, governor of You Province (present day northern Hebei ), the emperor. However, believing that it would be faithless to Emperor Xian for him to accept, Liu Yu declined the offer. When the scene of the ruined capital coming into their eyes, the disunited leaders of the coalition realized the han dynasty was coming to an end, and started planning on strengthening their position, and soon returned to their respective home base.

However, Yuan's army had had been joined by volunteer troops around the country, and Bohai Commandery would be far from sufficient to supply his army. Thus, his strategist, Pang Ji suggested him to form a secret alliance with the warlord Gongsun Zan and incite the latter to attack Han Fu's Ji Province. Facing an imminent attack from Gongsun, Han was terrified, and listened to Yuan's lobbyists, Gao Gan and Xun Chen, to give up the governorship to Yuan in order to drive the invader back. Yuan then began to build a warlord state from the capital city of Ji Province, Ye. In order to curtail Yuan Shu's sphere of influence, Yuan Shao formed an alliance with Cao Cao and Zhang Miao, and named his follower, Zhou Yu (周喁) as Inspector of Yu Province, a title to which Sun Jian had already been entitled, and sent him to attack Sun Jian's territories in Yu province while the latter was on his way back from Luoyang. In response, Yuan Shu allied with Gongsun and Tao Qian, and ordered Sun Jian to fight his half-brother. Although Zhou was able to defeat the forces of Gongsun in the Battle of Yangcheng, he was defeated by Sun Jian in the following battles. The first battles between the brothers ended in Yuan Shu's favour: he had engaged and defeated Yuan Shao's forces in both Yangcheng and Jiujiang, restored the position in Yingchuan Commandery under Sun, and eliminated Zhou as a threat once and for all although Jiujiang was not yet conquered. For Yuan Shao, on the other hand, the situation was extremely difficult: besides the failure in the south, he was also under threat from Gongsun Zan, who held Yuan Shao responsible for the death of his younger brother, Gongsun Yue, in battle and formally declared war against him, rejecting all of Yuan Shao's protestations of goodwill. This led to the clash between Yuan Shao and Gongsun in the Battle of Jieqiao. The Battle of Yangcheng, being the first moves in the struggle between the two Yuan, marked the beginning of a new stage in the confusion of wars which brought the end of the han dynasty, and confirmed the death of the alliance against Dong Zhuo as the warlords of the North China Plain started to battle each other for the ultimate dominion of China.

Unifying northern China

In order to focus on the conflicts with Gongsun Zan, Yuan Shao entered into a general alliance with Liu Biao against Yuan Shu. In the winter of that year, Yuan Shao defeated the cavalry forces of Gongsun at the Battle of Jieqiao with the use of massed crossbowmen. An imperial edict requiring Yuan and Gongsun to cease fire was sent, and to eradicate the Heishan bandits, Yuan returned to Ye with his army. With the short-term help from Lü Bu, Yuan Shao managed to defeat numerous units of the bandits, yet heavy casualties were incurred on both sides. Anyway, the threat the Heishan bandits posted to his western flank was drastically reduced. Despite warnings from his advisor Ju Shou that the move could sow seeds for future trouble, Yuan Shao insisted on sending his first-born Yuan Tan away to "govern" Qing Province (present day eastern Shandong ), while the Yuan forces only controlled the city of Pingyuan in the province.

In subsequent years, Yuan Shao achieved considerable success in consolidating his domain and his oldest son, Yuan Tan, was exceptionally successful on his expansion in Qing Province; in 195, Ju Shou suggested that he welcome Emperor Xian to his province so that he could effectively be in control of the imperial government, but the other strategists Guo Tu and Chunyu Qiong opposed — under the faulty logic that if he did, he would have to yield to Emperor Xian on key decisions. Yuan listened to Guo and Chunyu and gave up the opportunity to welcome the emperor to Cao Cao.

In 196 his prominent position in northern China was recognized by the imperial court, which was controlled by Cao Cao at the time, as the position of General-in-Chief and the title of Marquis of Ye were granted to him, but Yuan Shao turned them down. In 198 Yuan Shao advanced against Gongsun Zan and encircled his remaining force at Yijing (present day Xiongxian County, Hebei ). By early 199 Gongsun Zan had been defeated for good at the Battle of Yijing and Yuan Shao held absolute power over the four provinces north of the Yellow River. Then, after establishing alliance with the Wuhuan tribes on the northern frontier, Yuan Shao eventually turned his attention to Cao Cao, who had been consolidating his power south of the Yellow River.

Battle of Guandu

Both sides made preparations for a decisive battle, which would come to be known as the Battle of Guandu. Towards the end of 199 skirmishes were already being fought at Liyang (northwest of present-day Xun County, Henan ), a major crossing point of the Yellow River. Cao Cao prepared his defenses around Guandu (northeast of present day Zhongmu County, Henan ), slightly south of the river. When Liu Bei defected from Cao Cao in the first month of 200 and planted a foothold in Xu Province, Cao left his northern front exposed to Yuan and turned east to deal with Liu's rebellion. Tian Feng urged Yuan to attack Cao while he was away, but Yuan refused to launch an all-out offensive, instead he sent small detachments to harass his enemy, but was daunted by Yu Jin, the defender of Yan Ford (see Battle of Dushi Ford).

Shortly after Cao Cao returned to Guandu, Yuan had Chen Lin draft a document condemning Cao in what was essentially a declaration of war, and marched his main army toward the forward base of Liyang north of the river. At the time, Yuan's army boasted of numbers over 100,000. Heavily outnumbering Cao and holding large cavalry force, Yuan's initial attacks almost overwhelmed his enemy's positions. It is recorded in the Records of three kingdoms that Cao Cao on several occasions considered relinquishing his position, and consulted his chief strategist, Xun Yu on that decision, which Xun strongly opposed and further encouraged Cao to hold on. Following an unexpected defection of one of Yuan Shao's strategists and personal friends, Xu You, Cao Cao received confidential information on the whereabout of Yuan Shao's food storage. A strike led by Cao Cao and Yue Jin at Yuan's supply depot in Wuchao in late 200 burned down most of the grains available to Yuan Shao's army, thus brought the northern army to a collapse. Zhang He and Gao Lan immediately defected once they got wind of what happened in Wuchao, and many generals followed suit, Yuan Shao was unable to stop the trend and fled north across the Yellow River with only hundreds of loyaltists.

Yuan's first major defeat was also a decisive one. Thereafter, he lost the advantage over Cao Cao and never regained it. In 201, his force was again defeated by Cao, this time at the Battle of Cangting (in present day Yanggu County, Shandong ), and many cities formerly controlled by the Yuan family switched allegiance to Cao Cao.

Futile effort to turn the tide and death

After the battle of Cangting, Cao Cao's troops were exhausted and returned south for a rest. Meanwhile, Yuan was able to reorganize his defeated armies to settle the rebellions in his own domain, soon reestablishing order and restored the status quo ante. Yuan Shao had three sons, and he favored his third son, Yuan Shang, due to his good look, and both Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang were his choice for succession. However, Yuan was never able to finalize on his decision regarding who should inherit his legacy before he died in the fifth lunar month of 202, leaving his domain to be contested by his sons and Cao Cao.

Immediately after Yuan Shao's death, Shen Pei and Pang Ji, two influential advisors, supported Yuan Shang and pushed for him to succeed Yuan Shao, despite opposition from Yuan Tan. Yuan Shao's wife, Lady Liu, supported Yuan Shang, and Yuan Tan could not do anything to change the outcome when he rushed back from Qing Province. Then, Lady Liu, having the power now, killed Yuan Shao's other five consorts out of jealousy and disfigured them. True to Ju Shou's previous warning, chaos ensued within Yuan's forces, and Cao Cao was able to manipulate this internal turmoil, and by 207 had defeated the remnants of Yuan's forces.

Cao Cao paid his respects at Yuan Shao's tomb after annexing the Yuan's headquarters in Ye in 204. Cao wept bitterly for his former friend in front of his followers and gave Yuan Shao's family consolatory gifts and a government pension.

Cause of Yuan Shao's downfall

Yuan Shao's defeat at the Battle of Guandu is cited as an excellent example of how superior tactics and strategy can be used to defeat much larger forces. By using feints, counterattacks and strategic withdrawals, Cao Cao managed to render Yuan Shao's vastly superior manpower useless. It can be said Yuan Shao was simply outsmarted by his former friend Cao Cao. According to some sources, however, his defeat can be attributed to his failure to listen to his advisor Tian Feng. It is said that he lost his chance to defeat Cao Cao early on when he refused to mobilise his army, claiming his son was ill with a toothache.

Some believe Yuan Shao's defeat was caused by senility. They argue that it would explain how a man who managed to become for a good period of time the dominant force in China could suddenly fail so completely. It is possible that it was a combination of senility, inability to listen to advice and his unfortunate luck in finding such a cunning foe that was Yuan Shao's downfall.

Cao Cao had once analyzed Yuan Shao before the Battle of Guandu. Cao Cao said: Yuan Shao will be defeated during the war.

1- He is arrogant, self-centered, and senile;

2- His advisers fight against each other;

3- His generals have brawn but no brain, Yan Liang and Wen Chou were valiant but unskilled in terms of using tactics;

4- His sons' rivalry: All three brothers appear to be disunited

5- He did not respect his followers or troops

Yuan Shao was defeated not long after this analysis.

Personal information


Yuan An, great-great-grandfather, served as Excellency over the Masses, and Excellency of Works

Yuan Jing (袁京), great-grandfather, served as Excellency of Works

Yuan Tang (袁湯), grandfather, served as Excellency over the Masses, Excellency of Works, and Grand Commandant


Yuan Feng (袁逢), served as Excellency of Works


Yuan Ji (袁基), older half-brother, served as Minister Coachman

Yuan Shu, younger half-brother, warlord, declared himself Emperor of Zhong later


Principal wife, bore Yuan Tan and Yuan Xi

Lady Liu (劉夫人), bore Yuan Shang

Five other concubines, all killed by Lady Liu


Yuan Tan, oldest son, waged war on Yuan Shang after his father's death, killed by Cao Cao

Yuan Xi, second son, moved to You Province after Yuan Shao's death, later fled to Liaodong with Yuan Shang, killed by Gongsun Kang

Yuan Shang, third son, Yuan Shao's successor, waged war on Yuan Tan after his father's death, fled to Liaodong with Yuan Xi, killed by Gongsun Kang

Yuan Mai (袁買)


Yuan Wei (袁隗), uncle, served as Excellency over the Masses, and Grand Tutor

Yuan Cheng (袁成), uncle

Yuan Yi, older cousin, served as Prefect of Chang'an, and Inspector of Yang Province

Yuan Xu (袁敘), younger cousin

Yuan Yin, younger cousin, served as Administrator of Danyang

Yuan Manlai (袁滿來), cousin

Yuan Yida (袁懿達), cousin

Yuan Renda (袁仁達), cousin

Gao Gan, nephew

Last update 31-05-2012

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